Wednesday 30 December 2020

Countdown of 2020s top ten books (10-6)

 It’s been a tough year, yadda yadda, we all know and are frankly fed up with being told. One of the benefits of lockdown and general limiting of entertainment is that there was lots of time to read. On the down side, I found it harder to concentrate than usual.

Despite that, I got through a great many books this year, most of them were very good and some moved me a great deal. If you want to check if you’ve read any of the things I did, click here.

Also, books were something of a comfort buy - I have a list of shame of books I acquired this year also, to see what I shouldn’t have got, click here.

Special mention should go to Savage Girls and Wild Boys by Michael Newton and Genie: A Scientific Tragedy by Russ Rymer which were both wonderful books but too sad to be a favourite exactly. Another special mention to The Tennant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bront├ź, which would have been much higher up this list hadn’t all the Christmas tiers not been announced when I was halfway through, taking my attention away.

Finally, before I go on to the books that placed 10-6, to The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, the worst book of this year and one of the worst books I’ve ever read.

10) Impostures by Al Hariri and Michael Cooperson

In a year full of peculiar and ingenious books, this is one the most peculiar and ingenious. I was so intrigued I pre-ordered it, sight un-seen and I was not disappointed. 

I wrote in full about it here, but in short, this is a collection of 10th century Arabic stories, which all follow a similar pattern. The narrator sees someone using an impressive display of language to manipulate other people, he recognises that person from previous encounters, the two go their separate directions. The aim of the book is to showcase the flexibility and joy of language, an aim which has proved an almost impossible one to translate.

The solution Cooperson chooses is a very clever one. He decides the aspect of English to celebrate is its range and so each one of these fifty stories are told in a different style, whether geographical, historical or class. There’s a lot of effort put into making each style as accurate as possible, using only words found in one author’s body of work or hiring native speakers of different dialects to double-check authenticity.

What raises this book even higher, are the little essays at the end of each story where the translator provides details about the story he’s translating, the style he’s translating it into and the decisions he’s made. This transparency about the translation process, and this way of involving the reader in the decisions he made along the way, really engage the reader in the process as a whole as well as this book in particular.

9) Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth by Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer

Wolkstein brings the skills of storyteller and poet, Kramer his lifelong research on the Sumerian period and culture and together, the two produce a book unlike any other I have ever read. The basic texts are religious in nature, there are parts of the Bible (especially Psalms and Song of Songs) that have their influence in these texts. However, the Bible never sounded quite like this.

The first section has Enki, the God of Wisdom battling the forces of the Underworld and Ereshkigal while a young woman called Inanna finds the Huluppu tree, brings it to her sacred garden in Uruk and longs to make a great throne and bed. She’s hampered by evil creatures colonising the tree but is later helped by Gilgamesh who uses his big chopper to cut the tree down and make the throne and bed. - It’s an odd beginning, our Goddess is at one of her weakest positions but she knows what she wants, power and sex.

The second is my favourite. Now established in Uruk, Inanna takes her miraculous boat of heaven to Enki, the God of Wisdom’s abode of Enlil. There she gets him drunk on beer (both bread and beer being considered feminine in Sumerian culture) and tricks him into offering her 79 Mes, and it’s this concept I love. A Me is an important cultural lesson, represented by an object and having the Me is essentially to become the God of the skill. The ones Inanna steals include priesthood, kingship and beer, but also coloured cloth and black cloth. When Enki sobers up, he realises what he does and sets monsters on Inanna, but her servant Ninshibur beats them up as she steers them safe into port. The notion of Me are fascinating but there’s something I find extremely enticing about a Goddess that simply takes the building blocks of civilisation, like a brazen female Prometheus.

The next section deals with Inanna thinking of her wondrous vulva. Initially she thinks the farmer will satisfy her but realises that actually it is Dumuzi the Shepherd King who can ‘plow my vulva’, ‘fill my lap with cream’ and ‘be my honey man’. Following the initial sensuality, he is made King through his relationship with Inanna (the same relationship Gilgamesh rejects in the Epic of Gilgamesh) and has sort of moved beyond Inanna in some way.

Inanna, being a little superfluous, decides to have a trip to her sister, Ereshkigal’s abode in the Underworld. She dresses in her nine finest and most symbolic bits of bling which she strips to get in. Once there she is killed and hung on hooks like a dead animal. Luckily, she has a backup, comes back to life and rises from the underworld. She can’t be stopped - she’s Inanna, bitch - but neither can she stop the demons from following her. She decides to set them on Dumuzi, because he’s been undervaluing her recently.  The next section is Dumuzi trying to avoid the demons and failing and the next is Inanna actually feeling pretty bad about her actions and making a deal that he’ll spend half the year in the Underworld and those shall be the infertile months, essentially he becomes the Sumerian Persephone.

The next section is a bunch of hymns saying how great Inanna is and the pack half puts it all into context and discusses what we’ve read. 

The poetry in this book isn’t always as exciting as it could be, the repetition begins to grate, there aren’t big spaces of blank page to emphasise loss or loneliness, but this was all redeemed by the way the stories build on Inanna’s character, make her terrifying and endearing, a figure of power but also a trickster on the human’s side.

Forget all these Wispy Wiccans, we need some Inanna worshippers in full, lusty, fresh-limbed wonder.

8) The Journey to the Mayflower by Stephen Tomkins

I borrowed this book from my Dad because I thought the topic of non-conformist churches and the lead up to the Mayflower voyage sounded fairly interesting, I read it because I wanted to clear my desk of borrowed books, I did not expect it to be a well told, action-packed rollercoaster. A book on church history thrilled me.

The tone is set by the first paragraph which introduces a Bishop being called to pay a fine “but everyone knew the truth: the Queen wanted him burned alive.” There then follows a description of Bishop Hooper’s imprisonment, torture and the an absolutely graphic extract from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs depicting his botched execution. (On a side-note, why isn’t there a proper edition of that book available?)

We move on to an explanation behind the Marian burnings of protestants as more than mad zeal. That religion, to a Tudor mind, was more than just a part of society, it was society itself and that it had to include everyone whether they wanted or not. It also shocked me by reminding me that Britain had been Catholic for over a thousand years and that protestantism was the foreign invader from Germany - a notion so obvious but so obliterated by growing up in a nominally protestant UK, that I was surprised.

The first few chapters of this book could be as easily in the action genre as the history, there are people escaping down the Thames and using their shoes as paddles. There was a man called John Bolton who was locked in prison with ‘a marvellous evil smell’ and where his captors sometimes threw in fireworks.There was also dreams and visions, one man called Symson who dreamt of a glowing man saying ‘ha’ at him ‘which he apparently found a great comfort’.

Come the reign of Elizabeth I and things should have improved for the protestants. However, they had been radicalised and greatly engaged by the experience of persecution and expected more reform from her than they got. The Act of Uniformity, which instituted a very mild form of protestantism, was expected to be a temporary measure. This is either because Elizabeth was expected to marry and power go to her husband, or because she wasn’t expected to rule without being deposed for very long. As it was, she ruled for over forty years and what was expected to be a placeholder reform, became the basis of the Church of England as it is now.

Those who had suffered under Mary’s persecution wanted a far more rigorous form of protestantism, and they wanted it to be enforced on the country. “As much as they accepted being tolerated for now, tolerance is not what they wanted.” The first fight was about vestments. These ‘Popish’ robes needed to go as they were un-Biblical, there were struggles between clergy who didn’t wear them and the authorities who required them.

Eventually, some of those who thought the CoE didn’t go far enough set up their own private congregations. I have to say I felt very sorry for Grindal, the Bishop of London, whose sympathies were with those who thought the church needed more vigour but was forced by his position to oppress those who refused to agree with the state church. 

We are introduced to Cartwright, a Cambridge professor so engaging, they took the glass out of the windows when he was lecturing so more people outside could hear. He argued that people shouldn’t separate from the Church of England but that it needed reforming, especially the functions of Bishops, which aren’t mentioned in the Bible. setting up a presbytery instead. 

We are also introduced to Browne, who argued that people couldn’t automatically belong to a church, but voluntarily signed up to a covenant and have the congregation rule itself as a body of believers, separate from the state. Many later separatists were known as Browneists. We also get the interesting titbit that Browne was from Rutland and his grandfather had been given a special dispensation to wear a hat in the presence of Henry VIII, though wasn’t told why. Browne later also tried to convince people to set up Stamford as a rival to Oxford, which never happened.. poor Stamford, always the bridesmaid. Browne as a whole seems impossible to work with, seeing himself as too holy to compromise with anyone else, this will prove an issue with subsequent churches.

It’s at this point the book becomes filled with so many different independent church leaders and congregations that the book is hard to summarise. Needless to say, it is all very well explained and coherent in the book.

Particular favourites included William Hackett, a man who bit off and ate up a schoolmaster’s nose in a fight, claimed he’d wrestled lions and won, said a Catholic set a witch on him, planned to overthrow everyone and become the King of Europe, and believed he was Christ - only to be arrested in Billingsgate, hanged, drawn and quartered. 

I also enjoyed Martin Marprelate who jokingly wrote to ‘his Canterburiness’ and summarised a particularly turgid tome as light enough to transport ‘if you have a strong horse’. Martin Marprelated was of course refuted by Mar-Martin, who was in turn refuted by Mar-Mar-Martin.

There was also a man called Barrow who managed to write an enormous body of work illegally whilst in prison, including a who full-length book written in the margins of, and responding to, another book.

Oh.. and references to the Church of England’s torturers, now known as a praise band.

To escape increasing persecution, some separatists moved to Holland. The trouble is, separatists got to separate and from one church (which called itself the Ancient Church because it was twenty years old) there became five or six. On church became the Baptists, who split into four, one of which consisted of one member and another of which tried to join a group of Dutch anabaptists but weren’t let in. 

In the end, it was the most welcoming of the churches, led by a man called Robinson, who decided to sailed on the Mayflower (thought Robinson didn’t go as he was too old to make the voyage). Unlike the myth I’ve heard from US media, it wasn’t that they were escaping persecution, as they weren’t being persecuted in Holland, indeed the Robinson congregation was growing in respect in Leyden. It was more the Biblical pull to create a promised land - and they royally screwed it up most steps along the way.

There was much wrangling to be allowed to go in the first place, almost destroyed by a man called William Brewster, who published anti-monarchist books in his small Dutch press. (Incidentally, he boarded the Mayflower with his wife and two of his sons called Love and Wrestling, I love Puritan names). Then they spent loads of money for two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. The Speedwell was in such bad condition it almost sank, they had to return to London to fix it, then it almost sank again so they ditched it. The book ends with a group of people with no knowledge on how to run a colony getting lost and finding themselves on Plymouth Rock… the rest is history.

I really enjoyed The Journey to the Mayflower, it was exciting, funny, surprising and delighted me far more than a book about a bunch of argumentative God-botherers ought to.

7) Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row has a wonderfully bucolic, nostalgic tone, which is odd because it reaches its second suicide by page eighteen, and that one with an icepick. Early on, the reader gets to see a metaphor of the book while looking into a rock pool. It’s a lush description of the creatures living their lives ‘tranquil and lovely and murderous’. 

It’s the solid shard of ice imbedded in the story, found in the suicides, the floating body, the casual references to spousal abuse and rape, that ensure that the book doesn’t become just a nostalgic look at character-filled poverty. Without that, it’d be like a chocolate box cover with picturesque poor people and their quirky lives. The book has the power to shock as much as it has the power to charm.

It is, however, a very charming book and, oddly, reminds me of nothing more than Cranford. Like that book, it appears to be a collection of short stories about a colourful cast of characters in a small location which becomes a celebration of the quiet heroic qualities of human niceness. In Cranford it’s Miss Matty but in Cannery Row, it’s Doc. 

Doc runs a marine biology lab, where he preserves sea creatures he has captured and sends them to university, school and industry laboratories. He invites young women over and plays them records of Benedictine monk chanting, he nightly visits Lee Chong’s shop to buy beer and he’s the a source of kindness and wisdom to everyone on the street. A group of very casual workers, live in an old warehouse just the road led by a man called Mack. The broad plot of the book is about Mack and the boy’s attempts to throw a successful party for Doc.

There are some wonderful sequences; the guys catching frogs, the woman who invites cats for a tea party, the couple living in a boiler who rent out pipes to people, the tour to catch octopuses where Doc eats brie with pineapple pies and a beer milkshake. There are also some wonderful sentences; like the one about the man going to a reform school where he was supposed to be taught violence but didn’t listen or the kid who couldn’t measure crayfish because ‘size relations just didn’t get through to him’. As someone with issues with size relations myself, I knew how the kid felt. 

I really loved this book and really enjoyed spending time with the characters, yet I felt the book was telling me something, by dappling the violence in with the charm, about the texture of life.

6) Charlotte by Katherine Shevelow 

Another book I’ve talked about before. I really regret not having read this sooner because Charlotte Charke’s life was a fascinating one, full of elements I really enjoy. Any story that involves cross-dressing, theatrical shenanigans and a resourceful, cheerful and independent main character, is likely to draw me in.

Written with the verve of a novel but all the notes and bibliography to make it trustworthy, I thoroughly recommend it.

Next week we'll count down to one.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Video: But What About.. Pamela?


I tend to make these videos come Christmastime, I think it's the multiple A Christmas Carols that does it. This is the first one I've ever made without a cold - ironically there is sickness everywhere, it's got the country in a grip and I don't have a cold for once. 

Have a as good a Christmas as you can, and I hope for a better new year.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Casanova by Ian Kelly at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

 Ian Kelly came to the Dr Johnson House to meet the Reading Circle in December 2018 for a conversation about his book Mr Foote’s Other Leg. It being 2020, he needed to join us online this time to talk about Casanova.

We started with a question from Ian: having finished the book, what did we make of Casanova himself? Some were surprised at how much more there was to him than his reputation suggested; others felt disappointed that he lived his life in a permanent state of adolescence and that it was almost a shame had had to live so after his glory days. Some thought he was a vile parasite; others that he was a creature of his time. Almost certainly a good dinner guest. All of these reactions can easily be justified by the text and by a life so dense with event that it boggles the mind.

Casanova wrote about own life, of course, in the twelve volume Histoire de ma vie, started on recommendations of his doctor to combat his melancholy. This ‘Dance to the Music of Time meets l’Encyclop├ędie,’ as Kelly described it, was written for itself rather than for publication and is a relentless accumulation of people, places, schemes and adventures. The impressiveness of Ian Kelly’s biography is that it manages to wrestle this unwieldy beast together with historical commentary and context into a fast-paced and absorbing 400 pages.

The book is structured into five acts, with an intermezzo between each. It’s in these intermezzi that we meet Casanova the food writer, his sensuality (and memory) for food matching the energy he puts into other bodily reminiscences. Oysters in the eighteenth century were a cheap street food (remember Johnson buying them for his cat Hodge?). It may be thanks to Casanova that they became known as potent aphrodisiacs. We also learnt that people in Venice often had their pasta with sugar and cinnamon, that it was possible to get macaroni in St Petersburg, and that it was important to travel with a stove. Another intermezzo deals with Casanova the traveller, who as well as a stove, took with him coffee, Italian herbs and a pot to piss in. The memoirs mention twenty different types of vehicle and the various irritations and intimacies possible in each. There’s another intermezzo about the Cabbala in which Casanova had a great interest. But Kelly said he’d mainly included this section at the insistence of his publisher, Madonna being into Cabbala at the time. This section, he mentioned modestly, can be skipped.

An unskippable intermezzo is the one about sex, a subject that can’t be ignored in any work about Casanova. While not exactly chaste, Casanova is relatively restrained considering his name is now synonymous with libertinism. The memoirs catalogue 120 different sexual partners, far fewer, Ian pointed out than Byron’s sexual encounters in his two years in Venice. One of the differences between Casanova’s handling in the subject is that he was nakedly honest, and frequently honestly naked. He shares the distinction of being one of few writers of the period to mention premature ejaculation and erectile disfunction. He also has to be one of the few writers to have ever talked about a faked male ejaculation. In part, his reputation for sex is derived from the way his memoirs leaked out into the world, as abridged selections on the most erotic passages for private consumption at a time where his other adventures and achievements had been forgotten.

But what of the five Acts of the biography? We have Casanova as the son of an actress in an intrinsically theatrical city, learning which masks to wear when. We see him gain confidence, lose innocence, win friends and lovers and get arrested by the Venetian Inquisition, far more invested in enforcing class- than religious orthodoxy. Then we have Casanova go to France, become one of the drivers behind the French lottery, as well as in-house wizard to a wealthy French widow. He takes up spying duties and when things wobble in France, goes to London, Brunswick, St Petersburg, Lisbon - each time making new friends, involving himself in elaborate love affairs and trying to set up further lotteries. When he was allowed to return to Venice, it finally looked like he was settling down. But his sharp pen had him needing to run away and his breathless life of travel restarted, until he found himself in old age, trapped in the weary town of Dux as librarian. Here he wrote a number of works, including his memoirs and a sci-fi novel and here it was he died aged 73 in 1798.

Casanova met many people over the course of his roving life. His memoirs offer pen-portraits of Catherine the Great and Voltaire. But did he really meet Dr Johnson in London, the Reading Circle wanted to know? It’s possible: Casanova briefly notes meeting him near St Paul’s Cathedral and talking about the word ‘committee’. But there’s no reference to this in the Life of Johnson. And in his private journals, Boswell only once notes meeting Casanova. It was 1764, the year after he’d met Johnson, and Boswell is distinctly dismissive of the man whose name he renders in German: ‘I dined at Rufin's, where Nehaus, an Italian, wanted to shine as a great philosopher, and accordingly doubted of his existence and of everything else. I thought him a blockhead.’

Having read Boswell’s London Journey together we could see some definite links between Boswell and Casanova, from their accumulation of famous encounters (both, for example, met Voltaire) to their notorious sexual appetites. Boswell, however, usually felt ashamed of his sexual encounters, whereas Casanova implies most of his were delightfully pleasant affairs: he remained good friends with many former lovers. It’s also interesting that one of the men would obtain literary immortality with a book about himself, while the other found it with a book about a friend.

We talked long after our allotted time. We were intrigued to hear that 12% of the population of Casanova’s Venice were courtesans and the possibility that Casanova touched up Da Ponte’s libretto of Don Giovanni.  Finally, we wanted to know whether Ian Kelly felt he had done with his subject when the book has ended: well, Casanova certainly hadn’t done with him. An exhibition about him was inspired directly by the book, although it needed modification in America in the light of Me Too: the original title Casanova: The Seduction of Europe had to be changed to Casanova’s Europe: Art, Pleasure and Power in the 18th Century. Some of Ian’s revelations inadvertently led to shocked Italian headlines. And beyond this, he even found himself persuaded to write a scenario for Northern Ballet’s 2017 Casanova

Both the evening and the book were very enjoyable, crammed full of ideas and a fair bit of laughter. A comment by a book festival attendee could have applied to us: we were all ‘titivated’.

Wednesday 9 December 2020

Under the Glass: The March of the Guards to Finchley

 On the 4th December 1745, the Jacobite Army reached the city of Derby, as far south as it would reach. Armies. London fielded its finest soldiers, ready to defend it from the foe, mustering in the nearby village of Finchley.

Five years later, Hogarth took the opportunity to create an artwork of this moment, filling it with character and movement, planning it as a gift for King George II. He famously declared that he “hated poetry, and painting too,” and spurned the gift for its burlesque nature. Insulted, Hogarth reassigned it to Frederick, the King of Prussia who liked the painting more than George had but also declined to keep the painting. In the end, Hogarth decided to use the painting as a prize in a raffle for the Foundling Hospital, of which he was an ardent supporter. However, even this raffle wasn’t the success Hogarth had hoped for and he petulantly gave most of the tickets to the Hospital who duly won it and keep it to this day.

The painting us famously full of event and detail, from Mother Douglas’s brothel, transposed to the Tottenham Court road, the many dolled up women waving to their leaving sweethearts. If Jeoffry: the Poet’s Cat is correct, then even the young Jeoffry is cavorting on the top of the building. Drunken soldiers weave, hat’s askew, some fallen on the ground having more gin poured down their throats. Other soldiers one last grope, wearily leave behind the pregnant women and women with babies fighting over them. Possibly the only sober soldier is a young fife player, adding to the tumult.

..Yet, there may be more to this famously full picture.

Jeremy Bell, a freemason and historian of freemasons is also a keen Hogarth fan and has put his interests together in the form of a number of books. My favourite titled has to be The Fine Art of Dickpics and Selfies, yet the one that concerns us most is William Hogarth – A Freemasons Harlot. Here he uses his knowledge of free-masonary, ten years research and a very keen eye to find even more in Hogarth’s paintings than have been seen before.

He has found, within the painting, pictures of both Charles James Stuart, The Young Pretender, and Cumberland, now passed down into history as the butcher of Culloden. A young man is seeing off his pregnant wife while being attacked by a woman in almost nun-like robes and, in the print made of this picture, a pro-Jacobite newspaper. Through a trick of perspective, it seems like the newspaper impales a burly man in the back. This man, particularly in the print version, looks a lot like the equally burly Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, George II’s youngest son who led the Hanoverian troops against the Jacobites.

But, even the Bonnie Prince may be found in this painting. After the battle, he famously escaped to Skye disguised as a maid and his slight, wispy figure may have helped him in this ruse (though he showed too much of his legs under his dress). This figure, standing ‘straight as a lance’ as the Prince was known to do, stares north towards the Jacobite army. Also in that direction is an oak tree - the oak being a symbol of the Stuart house after the future King Charles II famously his up one. The oak is bare, to show the ultimate failure of his venture. He also stands among a set of people stealing from each other, as he planned to ‘steal’ the British Throne. Incidentally, this is a big year for him, the 31st of December will be his 300th birthday.

Although King George II turned down the painting, largely for its burlesqueries on the English army, it may be that the hidden message is more supportive of the Hanoverian cause than it first appears.

If such speculation, intrigue and plain, good, fun interest you, it may be worth checking out the website and seeing what other fascinating things may be found in your favourite Hogarth pictures.

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Review: On Murder as Considered one of the Fine Arts by Thomas de Quincey

 I first read De Quincey in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, finding him the quintessence of every drug bore I’ve ever met and was happily prepared to spend no more time with him. However, I had been very intrigued by this essay, it having been mentioned in a documentary about murder literature and featuring very prominently in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Finding a copy of it for free in a book-swap and needing to stand in a very long breadline with nothing else to read, I started this.

At first, I was glad I did. I very much enjoyed the introduction to this ‘lecture’ about the aesthetics of murder. I liked the image of Samuel Taylor Coleridge setting out to ‘enjoy’ a good fire and the gags about his weight. I was also charmed by the idea of the doctor who can declare ulcers ‘beautiful’ but still makes war against them ‘without suffering himself to be seduced by their charms’.

Then the lecture itself starts. The idea is solid, that there could be a dispassionate way to view and rate murder and so id the humourous potential of people who saw it such being tempted to create their own ‘art’ but it doesn’t much land. He doesn’t particularly lean into the two interesting ideas in the essay. He sounds like a cut price Montaigne, lots of anecdotal classical detail to illustrate a point that has rather got lost somewhere.

The run about philosophers nearly getting killed was almost funny, but having a BA in philosophy, I thought it sad that the philosophers weren’t quite dead enough.

Oh, and I liked the gag about cat murder.

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

Tuesday 10th November 2020 was a big day for Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It not only was it the day on which was unveiled a statue erected to commemorate her at Newington Green, but more importantly, it was the day was appointed for Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle to discuss the most popular of her works, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. William Godwin, her future husband, would say of it, ‘If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.’ Would it charm the grizzled online attendees of Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle?

Located very late in ‘our’ period, Mary Wollstonecraft has one foot firmly in the earlier ‘rational’ culture but another in the brewing maelstrom of Romanticism and this ambivalence is reflected in the book. It combines passages, some arguably purple, about the beauty of the Scandinavian landscapes with thoughtful assessment of land-use and its practical impact on the societies she travels through. 

Like Johnson exploring the Western Isles of Scotland, Wollstonecraft was travelling a landscape without an established travel itinerary. But unlike him, she was not travelling with a sociable native. She was either entirely alone, or had only her two-year-old daughter and her nursemaid for company. Nor did she know anything of Scandinavian languages. As Johnson travelled further away from Edinburgh, it was through a country perceived as still rising from barbarism. Similarly, Wollstonecraft traced a route from the relatively civilized to the still barbarous as she travelled from Sweden into Norway, furthest away from ruling Denmark. However, where a lack of trees prompted Johnson’s snark about the value of wood and a range of practical ideas on how to encourage tree growth, the stark rocks of Norway impact Wollstonecraft in a different way. Her response is an strongly emotional one, particularly when she arrives at a claustrophobic town penned in by looming cliffs: to her it seemed like a prison. When she travels further inland and into a forest, she too reflects on the usefulness of wood as a commodity and on the encroachments and improvements of farming. But unlike Johnson, she also reflects on the beauty of the light through the leaves and the calming effect of nature on her soul.

These passages show a deep emotional engagement with the natural world where she notes that the ‘rocks aspiring towards the heaven’ succeed in ‘shutting our sorrow’ and allow peace to ‘steal along the lake to calm my bosom.’ Later Mary Shelley, her younger daughter, when touring Switzerland, would read aloud from the book to her husband, Percy Shelley. Wollstonecraft’s book inspired other Romantics. Surely her description of a huge waterfall inspired Coleridge’s ‘chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething’ in ‘Kubla Khan’? Another of Coleridge’s poems, ‘Frost at Midnight’, seems to draw strongly on Wollstonecraft’s vision in depicting the poet as parent, lost in ‘abstruser musings’ by the fireside on a wintry night. Wollstonecraft had described a similar night in Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark in which she ‘contemplated, fearless of idle questions, a night such as which I had never before seen or felt to charm the senses or to calm the heart.’ In Coleridge’s poem, he too is soothed by the peaceful presence of child sleeping in a cot beside him, and on the peaceful calm outside:

‘… at my side 

My cradled infant slumbers peacefully. 

'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs 

And vexes meditation with its strange 

And extreme silentness.’

However, Wollstonecraft’s travels engage her analytical mind as much as her sentiments. She had been caught in the whirlwind of the French Revolution. This book finds her at a moment balanced finely between hope and fear. She frequently speaks of her hopes for the future, her belief that the world is improvable and improving, yet she finds greater freedoms in the places further removed from these improvements. When she contemplates Copenhagen, not looking its best after a terrible fire, she sees a decayed society ready for revolution and deplores the selfish nature of those trying to save their own houses from being pulled down and letting the fire rage out of control. At the end of her journey, when she travels to Hamburg, she finds a city where the deposed aristocracy of France are attempting to build businesses among the already established merchants of the city. What should be a place where ideas trade as freely as commodities, she finds a narrow-minded, money-grubbing smallness of vision where a love of wealth displaces a love of people. 

There’s also a vulnerability about Wollstonecraft that is exposed by her recently becoming a mother. She had strongly advocated female education in Vindication of the Rights of Women, arguing that if women were weaker it was only because they had been trained to be so. Now a mother herself, she doubts her ability to raise and educate her daughter. But it is less self-doubt, but a questioning of whether the world is ready to accommodate a woman equipped with an education that would allow her to show her full talents. Yet as she fears for the world her daughter will inherit, she maintains a hope that the world can be made better.

The book, for all its beauty and hope is followed by a dark shadow. Wollstonecraft did not make the trip as a mere jolly: she went to contract business for her lover, the father of her daughter, Gilbert Imlay. The relationship, kindled in revolutionary Paris, had begun to disintegrate: mere weeks before she left on the journey, she had tried to kill herself with laudanum. Shortly after returning, she was to make another attempt at ending her life, throwing herself off Putney Bridge. There are times in Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark where she admits to a profound melancholy. The word itself appears many times in the book and suggests a suffering that is in some way beautiful. But her private letters to Imlay (when she tends to talk of depression rather than melancholy) betray a far bleaker sense of hopelessness and despair. Yet the book isn’t weighted down by this sadness, there’s a notion of healing through nature. This seems strangely apt for us reading the book in yet another period of lockdown, when walking through parks is one of few permitted recreations. There are moments of peace, joy and hope for the future which burst out of the book, all the more powerful for the dark place they spring from.

Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark inspired a lot of conversation in the group. Among other subjects we discussed methodism and wondered if Lutheranism, with its happy Sundays, was a comparatively less dour form of Protestantism. We also considered the shades of meaning covered by the word ‘tolerable’ and the ever-so-slightly different etymologies of ‘innoxious’ and ‘innocuous’ (broadly with the same meaning but the second starting life in zoology). 

There was also discussion of the new statue.

The Mary on the Green campaign has campaigned and raised money for a statue dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green for the past decade. In 2018, the two shortlisted designs were announced: a traditional depiction of Mary in bonnet and frock with a pile of books and a quill to be cast in bronze by Martin Jennings, and Maggi Hambling’s silvered naked woman emerging from a wave of feminine forms, described as a statue for Mary, not of her. Hambling’s design was chosen, and perhaps unsurprisingly has provoked instant controversy: some of us remember the early reactions to ‘The Scallop’ on Aldeburgh beach, her commemoration of Benjamin Britten, now much loved. The general mood of the group, none of us having yet gone to see it, was that if the statue was striking, controversial and deserving of comment and debate, which would seem to make it fit Mary Wollstonecraft quite admirably.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Review: Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft

Todays post is about my initial thoughts about this book, next weeks shall be my report of the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle reading.

 In 1796, Mary Wollstonecraft went to Norway to transact business for Gilbert Imlay, common-law husband and father of her daughter, who she took with her. The relationship was already in terminal decline and the week before she left on her journey she’d already tried to commit suicide with Laudanum. Already the author of Vindication of the Rights of Men and Vindication of the Rights of Women and a novel, so she decided to make a little money with a travel book.

…And it’s a wonderful example of the genre. Wollstonecraft has an ability to describe the sublime and the beautiful in a way that evokes memories of similar feelings I’ve had and, what is more amazing, doesn’t bore the shit of of me. How many travelogues and novels have tried to describe dramatic landscapes and raise my flagging sensibilities but succeeded in putting me to sleep? As well as all this, the descriptions are mixed with interesting readings of social and political life and some genuinely interesting reveries. The book shows a keen mind married to depth of feeling with  the ability to actually craft meaningful prose out of it.

I warmed to the book on the first page, where she is in a boat in peril off the Swedish coast and remarks that in England, there’d be a rash of lifeboats out to save them, though this isn’t due to any special English benevolence but because they’d be paid per rescue. 

The journey itself involved travelling into Sweden, where her two year old daughter, Fanny and her nurse were left behind while she went into Norway to set about the legal wrangling she’s been sent to sort out. Coming back, she then meets up with her baby, travels through Denmark and into Germany where she took a boat back to England from Hamburg. 

Sweden she finds a worn down, with lots of people merely existing, an impression that strengthens after she returns from Norway, which she finds to be more independent. Worse that Sweden is Denmark, especially Copenhagen, which had burnt down months before and was not looking its best but, for Wollstonecraft, the worst place she visits is Hamburg. It’s a town where the nouveaux riche and the fallen French aristos mix, though that’s not the problem, it’s the money-grabbing narrow-mindedness of the place. I found it funny read of Wollstonecraft talking about the Scandinavian countries as places on their way out of barbarism as they’re now ofte considered as models of statehood.

She mixes with people, very few of which she can properly communicate with and spends as much time as she can outside by herself, admiring a field “enamelled with the sweetest wild flowers” and a great many impressive rocks. She finds it hard to be social, not only can she speak none of the languages, she doesn’t enjoy the forms of entertainment her hosts have for her, eating very large dinners in stuffy, closed rooms accompanied by lots of booze and smoking. She also takes up rowing, which gives her plenty of fresh air and time to think, “my train of thinking kept time, as it were, with the oars.”

Many of her thoughts are about, “my favourite subject of contemplation, the future improvement of the world.” She has a really interesting view of progress, in general it was extremely positive, convinced that ‘civilisation is a blessing.’ She even says that  “The increasing population of the earth must necessarily tend to its improvement, as the means of existence are multiplied by improvements.” She sees this is particularly true in the case of women, where she sees greater cultural and social capital having a trickle-down effect and raising the possibilities for women above mere domestic drudges. 

She’s also worried about progress, she lambasts the avariciousness of early capitalism and the way it can narrow minds to anything but money. At one point she worries about the future when humans have used up all resources and even moved into the wildernesses of Norway. She admits it’s a silly thing to worry about that may not come to pass for thousands of years, something which was very uncomfortable to this reader two-hundred and twenty years later living in a time where her fear could take place in the next eighty years.

As she says, “common minds rarely break through general rules,” and Mary Wollstonecraft clearly has no common mind. She dismisses the notion of national characteristics, especially the notion of them being formed by weather or landscape but shaped by social systems. She also sees this simplification of complex systems to be an easy cop-out for writers who should do better. 

     “The most essential service, I presume that authors could render to society, would be to promote enquiry and discussion, instead of making those dogmatical assertions which only appear calculated to gird the human mind round with imaginary circles.”

Of course, one of her big interests is the life of women in the countries she visits, apologising for, “still harping on the same subject you will exclaim- How can I avoid it when most of the struggles of my eventful life have been occasioned by the oppressed state of my sex.”

One of the other interesting little ideas is one she has about how “the preservation of the species, not the individual, that is the design of the Deity,” - a very interesting notion that points to Darwin.

The thing that makes the book really spark, is the sense of vulnerability. There are many luminous, numinous moments in the book but there’s always a sense that they’re moments of joy that bring light in a bedrock of distress. She’s so aware of her own passions, declaring that she “must love and admire with warmth, or I sink into sadness,” and that she has to “catch pleasure pleasure on the wing - I may be melancholy tomorrow.” This is an author who’d tried to kill herself mere weeks before writing the book, and would try again shortly after.

   “How frequently has melancholy and even misanthropy taken possession of me, when the world has disgusted me, and friends have proved unkind. O have then considered myself as a particle broken off from the grand mass of mankind; - I was alone, till some involuntary sympathetic emotion, like the attraction of adhesion, made me feel that I was still a part of a mighty whole, from which I could not sever myself.”

The Oxford World’s Classics edition of this book also has excerpts of the genuine letters she wrote to Gilbert Imlay as the trip progressed. From these letters it’s clear that the journey was much harder and Wollstonecraft’s emotional pain much stronger than the published book shows. It’s clear that Imlay is not answering letters and if he is, he’s replying in simple business terms. She spends many of these letters describing her pain and demanding that Imlay either properly commits to her and his daughter, or makes a certain decision to leave them which he doesn’t seem to do. She goes through the pain of breakup, sometimes excusing Imlay, 

“my imagination is perpetually shading your defects,” and other times relishing his being out of her life as, “this heart is worthy of the bliss its feelings anticipate.” Those real letters are a difficult read, showing genuine pain that does enter into the published work but in a way that elevates that book beyond ordinary travelogue.

The title may not suggest much but the book is certainly worth a read.

Wednesday 11 November 2020

Review: Jeoffry, the Poet's Cat by Oliver Soden

One of the troubles with being a Christopher Smart fan is that there’s a limit on how much there is to read so I was extremely excited when something Kit Smart related popped up on my Twitter feed, I was even more excited when I saw the unusual nature of this project.

Jeoffry the Poet’s Cat is the biography of a cat. Namely the one which Smart praised in Jubilate Agno, a section of the book which is now so widely anthologised I can easily lay may hands on a copy at the primary school I work in. As there’s no more information about Jeoffry than appears in the poem, there’s a fair bit of poetic licence, creating a wonderfully indefinable book presented in language that is both wonderfully simple yet detailed. 

Our imagined backstory for Jeoffry has him born in a cattery, or brothel, because of course he is, not just for pun related reasons but to let Jeoffry (and the reader) explore the world of eighteenth century sex for sale and Covent Garden in general. He spends his kittenhood “underneath the bed” while his owner, a prostitute called Nancy spends her time “underneath a cavalry officer.” His early pranks involve scattering venereal disease pills and his favourite toys are the re-washable condoms, his claws probably making them even less useful than they were anyway. We also briefly meet a lord who likes to be treated like a baby.

As Jeoffry gets older, he starts to explore more and we get a cat’s-eye view of the variety and life of Covent Garden, from the market stalls with their rotting vegetables, so a glimpse of the king outside Drury Lane theatre. He becomes a favourite of the doormen at the opera as well as the theatre, is stroked by an actor with a pleasing voice and jostles with strange cats.

    “Of dogs, and his encounters with their noxious enthusiasm or salivating rage, we shall not speak.”

Alas, even brothels as well-connected as Mother Douglas’s are raided at times and in the confusion, Jeoffry finds himself with a young volunteer constable. Oliver Soden has a very skilful way of telling parts of the story from Jeoffry’s perspective, getting right down among the legs and shoes of the other characters, feeling his fear and injury as the raid happens as well as his lack of understanding, but then pulling back to giving the historical and character context. This is done so smoothly that the changes of point-of-view never jar. 

The scene where Christopher Smart and Jeoffry are introduced is beautifully done. Each is wary of the other, nursing a distrust but also a longing to connect. Their meeting is a delicate wordless series of actions, tentatively done after which the book admits that an accurate portrayal of the moment can’t be described. Then the reader is taken back to find out a little more about Smart as he is, though a supporting player, is a major one.

The book gives a really good overview of Smart as a person and a writer. That he was from an upper servant class, that he became a sizar in Cambridge where he worked hard to become a fellow. That his sense of fun and his poetic gifts took him to London where he entered the Grub Street pattern of ‘conveyor-belt churn-out and genuine inspiration’ and that he married the step-daughter of Newbery, the publisher. I’d have included the transvestite revue shows in there but I can see they complicate things a little. The exact timeframe of the next events are a little unsure and Soden does well to turn them into a coherent narrative; Smart gets sick and upon his recovery decides to take instructions from the Bible to pray at all times literally, where he stops traffic in St James’s Park. The book admits that the exact cause (and extent) of Smart’s madness is unclear and has been debated about; with no-one certain whether it was a manipulation by his father-in-law, whether it was bi-polar disorder hinted at by Smart’s admission that he has ‘a greater compass for mirth and melancholy’ than other people, or whether it was stress deepened by an alcoholism that was notable even in those alcoholic times. 

For whichever reason, or combination of reasons, Christopher Smart ended up in a private madhouse, where he started writing Jubilate Agno, a poem built on a Hebrew model that involved call and response lines. In this case the call lines starting with ‘let’ and the responses with ‘for’. There’s the suggestion in the book that sometimes Smart wrote ‘let’ lines without their corresponding ‘for’ and vice versa, though I am more inclined to think that corresponding lines have simply been lost in the manuscripts many journeys. However, the book is very accurate in how Jubilate Agno stopped being a just a poem and also became a way of marking time, of recording his thoughts and feelings and trails off into an almost mechanical act.

One of the fascinating elements to how this part of the story is told is again the viewpoint of Jeoffry. Both the poet and the cat find themselves in the prime of their lives but locked in a small room with access to a little garden. As such imprisonment for Smart is also imprisonment for Jeoffry and this diminishes the cat just as it did the man. However, there are moments of company and ‘Jeoffry made occasional contact with distinguished legs’, including Johnson, Burney, Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith. Now, I love Goldsmith almost as much as Smart and he so rarely makes an appearance in things that I treasure him whenever he does. Now, it makes sense, Goldsmith was a closer friend to Smart than Johnson, sharing a publisher and a circle of friends that included lesser poets like Samuel Derrick. However, Goldsmith is portrayed reading out his novel in progress, doing the character’s voices and making Smart laugh. While I don’t doubt Goldsmith would make him laugh (and I love the image) I can’t imagine him reading from a work in progress, but that could just be me.

The peculiar ease with which Smart was broken out of the mad house is well done, leading to (perhaps) the sadder part of his life, as a hack with his reputation shattered and no luck at all. Jeoffry makes the most of freedom to again explore, where of course he meets Samuel Johnson’s cat, Hodge. We follow Hodge back to Johnson’s living room to hear most of the Samuel Johnson ‘bits’ about being as happy to pray with Smart as anyone else. Though we don’t get Johnson’s assessment of Smart’s poetry, where upon being asked who was better, Smart or Derrick, he replied, ‘Sir , there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea’.

From Jeoffry’s point of view, this is a particularly sad time, as Smart’s need to churn out words and lack of money ground Smart down bit by bit. The man who had elevated his cat with poetry and viewed him as a natural worshipper of God, now had little time for the animal and his ‘reek of despair was unmistakeable’. We get a beautiful rendering of Smart’s friend John Kempe playing his flute for him, ‘the notes hit the panelled walls and died instantly, falling to the floor to lie at Smart’s swollen feet like faded rose petals’. I do have a quibble with this section though, as many of Smart’s writings from this time have a fragile yet definite hopefulness, this is when he wrote the words ‘we never are deserted quite’ and found himself helping other people with money he’d been given for himself. I don’t think Smart ever gave up hope as he does in this book.

The last part is with Jeoffry as an old cat, living in the countryside and gradually losing his faculties until he lies down for one last sleep. ‘Nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.’ It’s a fitting choice for a last sentence, leaving poor old Jeoffry with the dignity he deserved.

In many ways, this is a book crafted of bits, many of them from other books and all of those bits are ones I’ve encountered before, this being possibly the only book I’ve encountered where I’ve already read the entire bibliography. What makes is brilliant is that the author has clearly read their own bibliography (unlike Catherine Arnold in her Bedlam book) and the way those bits are put together and presented. They tell an entire story, taking in many interesting aspects of the eighteenth century, the shadowy interplay of brothels, theatres and authors to Smart in his private madhouse in a way that is both melancholy and dignified. 

While enjoyable to a fan of Christopher Smart and the eighteenth century, this would be an even better present to someone to introduce them to the world and characters and let them dip their toes in (and would make a really good half-hour animation, I think).