Wednesday 31 January 2018

Kate Chisholm's 'Wits and Wives' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

The Dr Johnson Reading Circle once again gathered in what was (probably) Johnson’s bedroom to discuss his relationship with women. We were amply aided by Kate Chisholm, Spectator radio critic, Burney society member, biographer and the writer of ‘Wits and Wives: Dr Johnson in the Company of Women.’

The purpose of the book is to show more sides to Johnson than the clubbable man’s man of Boswell’s biography as well as to showcase some of the fascinating women who mixed and mingled with him. Picking the book up, I was concerned that it might be too close to the similarly intentioned ‘Johnson’s Women’ by Norma Clarke. (A title that sounds far more more scabrous then it is). My worries were ill-founded. ‘Wits and Wives’ is a more approachable book with a welcoming tone and a habit of finding different interpretations and new facts.

The evening’s discussion naturally revolved around three areas; Johnson’s relationship with women, the women themselves and the different ways women adapted to the eighteenth century public sphere in ways that either helped or hindered their talents.

My favourite chapters were the first two, one about Johnson’s mother and the other about his wife, Tetty. Most biographies are cruel to Sarah Johnson, John Wain blames her for most of the mental distress Johnson suffered throughout his life. His fierce vitriol towards Johnson’s mother seems more revealing about his own, but Chisholm highlights the lengths she went to. How she travelled to London whilst pregnant to heal Samuel’s scrofula. The reader is also reminded that it was Sarah who taught him to read, challenged his memory with collects of the day and formed his mind for the future.

Similarly, the chapter on Tetty sought to challenge the given view of her as a gin-swilling, useless woman with too much makeup. The book reminded us that Johnson was productive during his marriage to Tetty, never once succumbing to the black dog. We discussed what a strange relationship they had, with a twenty year age gap and their regular periods of (amicable?) separation. Most strangely, we learned that Johnson and Tetty’s wedding is recreated once a year in Derby. 

But what about the other women?

Probably most famous in her connection to Johnson was Hester Thrale. Our conversation mostly centred on what a quiet tragedy her life was - saddled with yearly pregnancy, losing many of those children and living in a loveless marriage. We wondered how much her horrible life could be used to excuse the way she dropped her children (and Johnson) after her marriage to Piozzi. Kate Chisholm told us how she read Hester’s letters to daughter Queeney from Italy, that they were extraordinary and deserved publishing. Something I’d definitely love to see.

One of the interesting points brought out was how freeing the press could be for a woman, if she adopted techniques to survive. Elizabeth Carter and Hannah Moore spent time hustling in London, proving themselves to be popular with the public before retiring to small towns and put their talents to moral uses. 

Charlotte Lennox was a different matter - she was an assertively versatile writer who pioneered the serialised novel as well as essays, a female version of the Spectator and plays. She never had the financial comfort to ever settle down, stop writing or do good words - but she shares in the bravery and industry which characterises the best of the Grub Street hacks. 

One of the sadder stories was that of Frances Reynolds. The older sister of Joshua. She kept his house for him and ran his dinner parties. She was famously bad at this, and there was never enough of anything needed at those parties, though that was more than made up in good conversation. Whether Frances was a better painter than Joshua was something we couldn’t decide, though she certainly seems a more frank and honest portraitist than him, as her portrait of the ghostly deathly Johnson shows. 

Not really surprising that he was to die in a few months. This portrait was started after Johnson reconciled the siblings after falling out. The fact is, that where Elizabeth Carter (and to a lesser extent, Hannah Moore) could use likeability to further their writing, Frances seems to prickly a character. Also, unlike Lennox, she never fully committed and just did it. Famously indecisive and trapped with her more sociable, famous (less talented?) brother, she was condemned to not have the success that many of the other women in the book had. We also reflected how it was possible for a deadline-shy grump like Johnson, or a foot-in-mouth buffoon like Goldsmith to have success with questionable social skills - but women like Frances Reynolds less so.

One of the greatest joys with having an author at the meeting is asking them what difficulties they had in creating the book. In the case of this group biography, it was all the excisions that needed to be made for clarity, chronology and narrative. Two women who didn’t make the book were Anna Seward and Elizabeth Montagu - for the very honest reason that their writing (especially letters) simply didn’t engage the author. 

Kate Chisholm said that if she could, she would spend her whole life rooting through the letters of people she admires, that the concentration and the thrill of handling something that belongs to that very moment of creation is something special. A hum of appreciation went up throughout the room - it’s that kind of group.

Aside from being an enjoyable and informative read, I recommend ‘Wits and Wives’ for having a very entertaining set of notes.

Next time we'll be reading Johnson himself with some of his lives of the poets.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Review: 'Yr. Obedient Servant, Samuel Johnson’

Long time readers of this blog (ie: myself) may very well know the fondness I have for analysing stage, screen and novelised Johnsons. 

One of my favourites was Ian Redford’s rendition of him in one of my earliest encounters with Dr Johnson’s House, a performance of ‘A Dish of Tea with Samuel Johnson’. Recently the house invited another stage Johnson to potter and chat and be his entertaining self in a stage reading of 'Yr. Obedient Servant, Samuel Johnson’ by Kay Eldredge. 

I had booked this play months ago, without really seeing what it was. It was only this morning when I looked at it closely that I realised my Samuel Johnson for the night would be Matthew Kelly. I was a little surprised. My main memories of him are as an obliging host on ‘Stars in their Eyes’, congratulating a man (who wasn’t Chris de Burgh) on being almost Chris de Burgh. I was expecting a surreal evening.

Turns out, I was wrong about Matthew Kelly. He played a nuanced, multifaceted Johnson in a broad Midlands accent, visibly ageing as the performance progressed. The Johnson presented is a Johnson of zingers, not always reaching for the obvious choices (some of them come from Boswell’s Journal, the Rambler Essays and 'Taxation no Tyranny') but with plenty warm and quotable lines. 

There were many funny lines, which, given smart comic timing, were amusing even to those who knew them already. The comedy was often mixed with tragedy. There were times when Johnsons jokes soured into sadness before bouncing back into humour again. 

There was one particular quote which shocked me. A woman claims to be consistently happy, and Johnson say he finds impossible because "the woman is ugly and sickly, and foolish and poor; and would it not make a man hang himself to hear such a creature say it was happy?” The line starts humorously but Johnson goes too far with it and becomes nasty. This nastiness was only a small element to the performance, but it was there and it was interesting.

 It’s also interesting that how the spines of the play were Johnson’s relationships with his wife, Tetty and with Hester Thrale. Reading ‘Wits and Wives’ by Kate Chisholm, I have been rethinking Johnson’s relationships with these women, and the one with Tetty is presented as warmly irascible - and it made sense that Kelly’s Johnson had a deep and abiding grief for her. 

Samuel Johnson as presented in 'Yr. Obedient Servant, Samuel Johnson’ is a much more sexual being than expected. He pines for Tetty’s sex as she gets sicker, and misses her for that when she is gone. He finds he can’t go back stage because the half-naked actresses excite him too much. I have read about his sex drive, many of his contemporaries made fleeting comment to it, but to have those elements put in the spotlight was a surprise.

Imaginary Boswell, Tetty, Garrick, Earl of Chesterfield all turn up but I was missing my pal Oliver Goldsmith. He was alluded to, Johnson speaks one of Goldy’s lines as his own. Kit Smart is also alluded to, but again Johnson gets to attribute the line to himself. Even Hodge turned up with a nice little bit of mime that almost made me see the cat… we also got the lovely bit where he told us that Hodge was not his favourite cat, but adds that he's lovely moggy nonetheless - so that he didn't hurt Hodge's feelings.

I’d have liked a little more variety - the lines were put together to create a slightly repetitive rhythm, a problem the Staffordshire accent which its rising cadences did not help. 

It was less a blockbusting performance than ‘A Dish of Tea with Samuel Johnson’, and Ian Redford’s Johnson is still my favourite of all the screen, stage and novel Johnsons, but 'Yr. Obedient Servant, Samuel Johnson’ was a good evening’s entertainment and Matthew Kelly’s Johnson a good one to put in the memory bank.

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Under the Glass...Nine: Benefits of Reading

I’ve been reading ‘Wits and Wives’ by Kate Chisholm and was struck by a piece of advice Samuel Johnson gave to Hester Thrale’s oldest daughter, Queeney.

“Those who do not read can have little to think and nothing to say.”

In some ways, I dislike the elitist element of the phrase. I understand that Samuel Johnson was writing to someone who could read, in a time when literacy was in no way universal. Yet in an age like now, when almost everyone can read and so many don’t, I think there is validity to this quote.

The children where I work are often surprised at my reading. There was one that used to come up to me and say with disbelief, “why do you read… books?” I can only ask what I should be doing instead. 

One of the things I have noticed about the children in my care, is that they are getting more boring. Kids have always let trends wash over them, I remember quoting bits of old tango adverts and TV catchphrases, but everything the children know and do now, comes from the internet. If one kid knows all the words to Big Shaq’s ‘Man’s not hot’ or even the rip off/response ‘Man’s not cold’ - then they all know it. I can increasingly guess pretty much what a child is going to say because they all say the same thing.

Now - there are some children that don’t follow that trend. Those children read.

What’s more, what about those adults who don’t read?

I find that many teachers are astonishing in how little they read. I know they are busy people and some of them have children but many teachers barely read at all. It does mean that it’s hard to talk to some of them about anything other than work. 

I know it makes me sound proud, I’m not declaring myself a fascinating person (one of my over-riding interests is 18th century literature after all) but I could contribute to all sorts of conversations. I said in one of the previous ‘Under the glass’ segments that it was good enough to be thinking about cucumbers than nothing - but reading does seem a way to extending the range beyond them.

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Dick Turpin Review 3: The Champion

This time, Dick Turpin falls into a number of boxing shenanigans - so of course there's a Rocky flavour to this video.

Wednesday 3 January 2018

My Favourite Book of the Year (Part Two)

The Second part of last year’s top ten.

Check out this booklist to see what I’ve read this year in total, and which books would be your favourites. 

With little ado…

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Another famous book I’ve never before gotten around to, and enjoyed very much.

The  best thing about the book ‘Jane Eyre’ is the character Jane Eyre. It helps that we meet her as a child and she is not perfect, she is angry - perhaps righteously so, but also vindictively. As she grows up, she keeps that anger in check but she never properly loses it. I can now sympathise with her as a flawed human being rather than a perfect thing.

I found her always relatable but strong. She is a person of strong feelings, in her love as well as hate, but she unites her heart, her head and her morals to decide what to do next without compromising her own self respect.

I wasn’t so keen on the men in her life. 

I sort of liked grumpy Rochester and when we find his secret, his moods make a lot of sense. Seeing a TV version of the story, I wondered how Rochester appeals to Jane because he is so moody. It turns out, that Jane is comforted by his gruffness as that is what she is used to and anything more polite would have turned her off. Also, I was surprised he is not asattractive in the book as portrayed elsewhere.

He is, however, a creepy lover. He says such gems as “I like my name pronounced by your lips” and becomes horribly saccharine and possessive. What I loved was that Jane notices his creepy/sticky attempts at romance and so needles him on purpose to keep him pleasantly spiky. While I think she could have handled healthy Rochester but it’s very clear she has control of the relationship at the end of the book.

As for St John Rivers, I found him fascinating. He’s not a hypocrite, he knows what sort of cold-hearted man he is but he also knows he can plug both his virtues and faults into service to Christ and become something both important and (in his eyes) useful. 

As a modern consumer of texts, I am used to a three act structure, so the part at Morton seemed superfluous, but I found St John so interesting, I forgot. He’d be worth exploring in a book to himself, one where he and Jane have married and are in India living their holy/abusive life. It’d be painful and fascinating.

It’s a book that has made me think about a lot. Especially the idea of admitting to faults. The men in the book think that merely admitting is enough, it is the women in the book who always have to pay for them. I’m not sure things are so different now.

Jane Eyre the character makes Jane Eyre the book unmissable.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

My picking up a Penelope Fitzgerald novel compilation in a charity shop was the beginning of this year’s great books. 

This year I read; ’The Bookshop’, ‘The Gate of Angels’, ‘The Blue Flower’, ‘Offshore’, ‘Human Voices’ and ‘The Beginning of Spring’. I love her tight tales that manage to say more in a hundred or so pages then other books manage in four times as many (and I’ve read a few of those types this year). I also love her rug-pulling manner of ending a book.

‘Offshore’ was probably my favourite of her books so far, but I have picked ‘The Bookshop’ because it was the first I read, and indeed I read wrapped in furs, sitting on one of the North Downs, toasting cheese on a bonfire and swigging single malt out of a bottle - all alone but for the book. Possibly the best way to read a great book.

What about the book itself?

This book is like a small, well-cut stone, perfectly formed and of surprising substance, it manages to fit an awful lot in a hundred pages. Penelope Fitzgerald published her first book at the age of sixty. Such a meticulous work of miniature seems only to be possible for an older person. That said, it’s never a nice book, there are many prickles and thorns in the writing.

Florence Green has a certain naivety and courage. She makes a bookshop as a way of proving her own agency to herself and everyone else. Everything would have been fine if she had not picked the Old House for her shop. Mrs Gamart has plans for the building and does not wish for those plans to be thwarted. 

The village of Hardborough is well drawn in its cold, damp and salt-rotten stagnancy. The Old House is home of a ‘rapper’ a poltergeist as reluctant to change as the rest of the small town. From the patronising bank manager, to the busybody society matron (with an MP for a nephew) and the genial but useless Milo - Florence has a lot to work against. These people show the insidious benefits of class and power, the same benefits that are denied the precise and clever Christine Gipping after she fails her eleven plus. 

Florence is not alone in her endeavours, aided by the more solid and sensible characters, such as  shut-in Mr Brundish and the odd-job man Raven, but resilience and sensibleness are not enough and everything ends in penury, defeat and shame.

There’s a film of it coming soon, I’ll be there.

Small, not sweet but sort of sublime.

Rebecca by Daphne De Maurier

I was unsure at first… the first line is justly famous but the following chapter is vague in the way that irritates me. It’s a tease, nudging and prodding and whispering ‘guess what’s happening’. What’s more, the first chapter is a diversion, a dream that is being had by the narrator after all the events of the book.

It leads to a second chapter which forms a frame that we never return to. This annoyed me greatly - but finishing the book, I find it a stroke of genius because when the book ends, it ends utterly abruptly - the end of the story is actually at the beginning of the book, in the second and first chapters. This makes those chapters unsatisfying on initial read but fascinating in reflection.

Also… Daphne Du Maurier uses the word ‘quest’ in strange ways.

Once we were off, I was utterly gripped, biting my nails and flicking the pages feverishly. I was reading the book at an Indian takeaway when I came across the big twist and I audibly gasped. I had to put the book down and look around to remind myself of real life. I was expecting a twist which I guessed, what took my breath away was how much the twist changed everything else. 

I also realised that I had been utterly manipulated… and I have to say that I enjoyed it. 

Having finished the book, I realised that I had been rooting for a very bad man and the spineless, puppy-dog who is prepared to cover for him. The only sources for Rebecca’s supposed ‘evilness’ was from Maxim and the un-named narrator, who has her own agenda. Why was I prepared to take their side? Good writing I suppose.

A gripping novel that leaves the reader complicit.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Another writer I've got very into. I read this book as well as ‘Hangover Square’ and the ‘Twenty-thousand Streets Under the Sky’ trilogy.

‘The Slaves of Solitude’ was my favourite though.

London has been compared to a great monster many times before. Usually it is a voracious eater, plundering the local countryside and resources but this book described it’s main function as respiration. It breathes in people from the surroundings and at the end of the day breathes them out, following bus and train lines like oxygen in the bloodstream. It was striking. It was sombre. It was utterly gripping.

It is narrated by Miss Roach (nearly all the people in this are Mr, Mrs and Miss). She is a spinster, approaching forty with a failed teaching career and a minor job in publishing. It’s 1943 and she’s been bombed out of the city and lives in a dreary converted tearooms in a lightly fictionalised version of Henley on Thames. These lodgings are ruled over by the odious Mr Thwaites so she escapes for coffee visits with her friend Vicki, a german ex-pat who wants to live in the same building; and Lieutenant Lummis, an American who is taking advantage of being away from home.

It seems strange that this is the third novel of Hamilton's (of the four I have read) narrated by a woman. Especially strange considering a lot of his work seems to have a deeply ambivalent attitude to women and he is so good at creating female monsters. Roach, for all her quiet unexcitingness, is a character who is easy to warm to. Part of this is due to the reader siding with her against the nasty characters.

Mr Thwaites is a total bully. His main object of abuse is the English language. He often lapses into a jokey 'olde-English' manner of talking when he is in a good mood. The protagonist describes this as 'trothing' and she (and we) find it excruciatingly embarrassing and irritating. For example, he describes a pretty woman by saying “The damsel doth not offend the organs of optical vision.” He constantly torments Roach in subtle ways and makes all life at the house revolve around him. He was the very best depiction of an over-opinionated bore I have ever read.

The main plot of the book concerns Roach and Lummis and their strange kind of relationship. He once asked her to marry him but has never brought it up since. Mainly he spends his time away somewhere or drunk. The other is about Vicki, a German who seems very nice at first but becomes Roach’s archenemy/ arch-frenemy, especially in her attempts to muscle in on Lummis. Roach has to realise she doesn’t really care for Lummis, isn’t threatened by Vicki and can overcome Thwaites in order to relinquish her slavery, go back to London and start to live again.

That said, it’s not really about plot, it’s about mood and tone. There’s a dry dinginess to the whole thing that is really resonating with the time of year I read it. I frequently laughed at this book, especially when Thwaites was at his most awful and I was liberated and delighted by the ending. 

I also happened to see a play of the book at the Hampstead Theatre. I was disappointed. There was too much sympathy given to Vicki and Mr Thwaites so that, rather than liberating herself from bullies, she seems more of a bully herself. I didn’t like it at all.

A warm, and ultimately triumphant, slice of small life.

Finally, at Number One, no surprise here….

Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth

Again, I have a bigger review here.

What can I say that I haven’t? I love this book.

Next year promises more of the same but will inevitably have more surprises.. we shall see.