Wednesday, 15 March 2023

Penelope Corfield's 'The Georgians' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

 The Dr Johnson Reading Circle met at the house on the 7th of March to discuss Penelope Corfield’s The Georgians, a broad sweep through the long eighteenth century, taking in literature, politics, economics and a whole host of other disciplines.

There was a little joking at the length of this eighteenth-century, which sometimes went back as far as the 1660s and as far forward as the 1840s but Corfield noted that her desire in the book was to follow themes throughout the period, examining the constant tension between continuity and change. In taking this step back, the book seeks to ask questions about the nature of the society that produced such a distinctive moment in British (and world) history. There was also an interest in comparing what people now make of the Georgians to what they made of themselves with one of the starting places of the book being a collection of statements people living at the time made about what was happening around them. 

The responses of the Georgians picked up on a number of different themes, from Johnson talking of ‘an age of innovation’ to the personal letters of private people talking about ‘an age of politeness’. However, all these ‘ages’ can be broadly categorised as optimist or pessimist. Corfield comes right out and declares her optimism and did so again in the meeting, possibly a brave thing to say in an age of doomscrolling but one backed up by the fact that certain advancements of the Georgian era, from increased literacy to widening forms of democracy are still with us today. 

Fitting for a book which draws a picture of trends, the discussion of literacy involved lots of different areas. We spoke about the habits of reading out-loud as a public good, with workshops delegating someone to read to people as they were working, not too dissimilar to many modern uses of audiobooks. We also discussed the role Britain’s protestant and mercantile traditions in creating a desire for literacy from the bottom up, a state pushed literacy not being in place until 1870 (and too late for even this book’s reach). Corfield even includes a section on the less discussed rise in numeracy, pointing out the fiendish mathematical puzzles posed in The Lady magazine, answered in following weeks by skilled amateur mathematicians.

The Georgians is a refreshingly democratic piece of history, while it happily uses comment and anecdote from famous names, its conception of change (and continuity) are treated as broad, sociological functions. There’s a striking chapter about the change in lower-class consciousness, from being ‘the poor’ to ‘the working class’ and a discussion of the formation of early trade unions called combinations. As such, it’s a history that includes everybody without apportioning blame or glory.

We had a spirited discussion on social mobility, talking how people like the son of a penniless bookseller could become a leading intellectual figure. With a growth in urbanisation, wider platforms of discussion and a decline in court favour could lead to plutocrats sitting at the same tables of aristocrats. This could also lead to those who felt they hadn’t received their own fair shares, with characters like Richard Savage believing his (alleged) noble birth and his (pretty genuine) talents should have given him a better deal. This is not to say the Georgian era was a meritocracy (and is any age?) but there was a notion that talent and merit could bring a person further in life than ever before. 

The book, and the evening, started with Corfield saying that what drew her towards the eighteenth-century is that it was terra incognita, barely touched by a-level or even undergraduate history. This means it’s still an era with lots to give and lots to say and where fledgling academics still have space to make a name. She told us an anecdote about one of her students who was searching the letters captured from Spanish ships and held, often unopened, in British archives. This student not only got to open many of these letters for the first time but discovered the earliest written records of the Basque language - a discovery that made him something of an academic celebrity in his home town. 

A distinctive feature of The Georgians are the elements at the end of each chapter called ‘Time Shifts’. These take a theme from the chapter and pull it forward into the modern day, either encouraging the reader to visit a museum or landmark, read a particular short text or watch a film. Corfield conceived of these as a teaching-aid, bringing the time up to date.

There are times where The Georgians could be described as a comprehensive skim through the era, with many intriguing aspects which want filling out a little. It’s very possible these were filled out in the original draft of the book, which had been twice as long. Fuelled by enjoyment and a surfeit of material, she had handed in a whopper of a manuscript and was told to cut it in half or void the contract - whether this feeds into the potential sequel, is yet to be decided.

After a dense conversation that could probably have lasted twice as long, the meeting was called to an end, with the now traditional wander for some pizza. There Penelope Corfield asked us all if we were optimists ourselves… much like the book itself, it was a good prompt for discussion.

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

Review: Moonraker by Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse

Moonraker is an adventure novel written by an author with the wonderful name of Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse. Published in 1927 it wished to capture the same spirit as Treasure Island and the similarly named Moonfleet. It’s a short novel that covers a lot of material, from pirates, to women’s liberation and the betrayal of Toussaint L’Overture. 

It’s framed as a yarn being told by an old salt, with the first few chapters being a peculiar mix of purple prose and seaman’s slang. Our hero, Jacky Jacka, not only has a girl’s name but is often described as being particularly feminine in his beauty with his long golden hair, rosy cheeks and ‘eyes of the greenish-blue of the deep water near the rocks.’ Not much is done with his prettiness, which is surprising given the twist towards the end of the book. He’s also sensitive and saves a witch from being stoned. She lets him glimpse his future and he sees images he’ll then encounter in the course of the book.

He sets sail on the Picksie, a ship whose captain has a deep relationship with. The ship is attacked by pirates on board the Moonraker, and rather than build up any tension, the ship is attacked and exploded within a paragraph. Jacky is then forced to live among the pirates where he develops a fixation with their captain, Lovel. He is also sick to the stomach to now be a pirate, though when the pirate attacks a French ship, he ‘could not but enjoy it’, which is described as ‘a thing not to be wondered at’. They capture a young French man called Raoul, whose presence changes Captain Lovel and sets them on a course to Santa Domingo and not the nearby island of Tortuga, where the pirates planned to search for Kidd’s treasure. 

Santa Domingo is in a place of relative peace, having fought a number of slave uprisings and slave-owner backlashes, the country is now stable under Toussaint L’Overture and even building forward-looking architecture celebrating the now free island. However, Napoleon has sent a fleet with the instructions to lure and capture the ‘rebel’ leaders and bring the country back under the thumb of the French.

The next part of the book follows Jacky as he follows L’Overture in his last fights. He’s doing well but his generals are lured over to the French and he is eventually tricked into captivity. The events themselves, the military to-ing and fro-ing, the ambushes and battles, are all rushed through as quickly as possible in order to spend time with Jacky’s point of view of L’Overture and his struggle. He’s portrayed as the wisest and most authentic man Jacky has ever met, yet Jacky is constantly surprised to be admiring a black man. He regards L’Overture as ugly, brutish and compares him to an ape yet also recognises wells of humanity, goodness and even a shadow of divinity in him. It’s a strange mix and reads oddly ninety-odd years after the novel was published. A modern reader finds themself wondering if the surprise and recognising a ‘great’ person who is also black is supposed to be one encountered by the 1790s figure of Jacky, or if it’s a surprise expected in the 1920’s reader. Suffice to say there are also n-words thrown about the text by both characters and narrator.

There’s a lot of potential in the Toussaint L’Overture section, as there was in the forced piracy section but the book moves too quickly to properly develop them, a fault with much of the book. There are some wonderful sections, particularly when L’Overture compares Raoul’s political and idealistic conception with freedom with the genuine struggle for bodily freedom he has had to fight. It’s a good point and well made, but a slower, more fleshed out version of this book could have developed those points and differences far better (though maybe to the detriment of the book’s nippiness).

Raoul’s original plan was to evacuate L’Overture and his fancy-bit on the Moonraker and take them to America but with L’Overture captured, it’s just Jacky, Raoul, fancy-bit and fancy-bit’s friend who board the ship. Captain Lovel is acting even stranger, refusing to attack legitimate targets and seeming to risk everyone’s life on board the ship to take Raoul back to France. In a tense dinner scene, the captain invites the main characters to a dinner where Jacky is the waiter. The Captain enters wearing an elaborate frock and fancy-bit thinks he’s having a laugh and cross-dressing, declaring that as handsome a man as he is, he’s a really ugly woman. This is when it’s revealed that Captain Lovel is actually a woman called Sophy. 

It’s a really striking scene, because Sophy/Lovel had picked the dress as the prettiest they’d ever seen and was hoping it could be a wedding dress - in a wedding with Raoul. There’s something so cruel in the description of her ugliness in it, the opposite of a romantic movie glow-up. Then the crew mutiny and all see the truth of their captain. She fights, bare-breasted, the dress stripped down to the waist, skewering numerous mutinous pirates. When a stale-mate ensures, she loads the named characters on a longboat and explodes the Moonraker…

…Jacky lives his life, becomes a captain himself and marries but he’s always haunted by the two realest people he’s ever known, Toussaint L’Overture and Sophy Lovel, who make his wife seem as insubstantial as smoke in comparison. When he feels this, he kisses his wife, who’s pleased by the act of affection but doesn’t understand why. It’s a surprisingly moving and sombre ending to an oddly perfunctory story. 

I couldn’t help but wonder if this book would have been better if it had been expanded and deepened, there were so many interesting stories of freedom vs constraint in the lives of Jacky, Sophy and L’Overture that could have been compared. There was the whole element of Jacky’s prettiness, how he as a born male would have passed as a woman better than Sophy could. There was the whole tragedy of L’Overture and his betrayal, as well as the hidden love of Sophy for Raoul. If the book was bulked out, it would have lost its adventure story bracket, and perhaps Tennyson Jesse wrote it for a quick buck, but I couldn’t help but feel that this book could have been more. It was good, but there are seeds of great in it.

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Review: Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert

Zoe Gilbert’s Folk was one of my favourite books of a few years ago, I loved how she took folk and fairytales and plaited them together to create the island of Neverness. I also loved how textured the world was, with plenty of description of smell, taste and touch. My only disconnect with the book was how the non-existent Scottish island felt walled off and detached from the real world. In Mischief Acts, Gilbert spins a similar web of folktale and myth but grounds it more fully into a real place and shows it affected by time. Even more fun for me, it’s a place a know fairly well.

Mischief Acts is the story of Herne the Hunter. A mythological man of the forest with a crown of stag antlers, he was first mentioned by Shakespeare but later written about by arrange of other authors including one of my favourites, William Harrison Ainsworth, who did his thing and rejuvenated the myth for a few more years. Gilbert creates an origin story, Herne is the king’s favoured hunter but that causes envy among the other courtiers. They wish harm on him and he is killed when a stag rushes for the king and he steps in the way. The wizard Bearman brings him back to life by placing the antlers on his head but also taking away his hunting skill. Ostracised from his peers, he hangs himself but returns as the spirit of The Great North Wood.

The book then tracks the fate of this wood and it’s guardian spirit through the course of history and into the future. Often there is a form of Bearman, existing as his antagonist. Herne’s form, name and presence changes as the forest does but whenever he does appear, some form of mischief will follow. As such, the mischief is tied into the unpredictability of nature and is compared to the desire for order and control inherent in man (in these stories a variation of Bearman). 

One of the best elements of this book is how the tone, genre and structure of the book completely fit the theme. Each story is set in a specific time period and the species of writing matches it. The origin story is told as a ballad/prose poem, there’s a renaissance set story which takes advantage of the eras dabbling in dryads, nymphs and other Arcadian visions, there’s a gardener’s almanac, a scientist’s notebook, a modern relationship drama. The stories set in the future try and evoke futuristic slang, probably the closest element to a misfire, but I loved the intent.

As nature is understood and the wood is built on, Herne himself becomes implied rather then seen. He becomes a concussion vision, an acid trip vision and the last thoughts of a dying (and decomposing) man. I loved how, as the enchantment of nature diminished in popular understanding, so the enchantment of the book is diminished - I also loved the positive notions of the ending, where a re-wilding and re-enchantment can take place. The book argues how a connection with the mischief of mother nature is also a connection with magic and our natural, animalistic selves. This magic is also threaded through the books by the songs between each story and the charms immediately before them.

What’s more, these are good stories. I loved the sweetness and strangeness of the lesbian acid-trip story where the word nymph plays two roles. I enjoyed the farce of the scientist’s story, balloon-trip accident and all. As a child who grew up among trees downed by the 1987 hurricane, I loved how it was described as Herne’s howl of pain and anger. I also enjoyed the use of historical personages and events, from Edward Alleyn to the scandalous eighteenth century actress Ann Catley. Did you know it was Herne who burnt down the Crystal Palace? I’m glad he left the dinosaurs though.

While I loved Folk, Mischief Acts is a definite improvement, tying the myths into the landscape and more importantly into how the landscape changed over time (and the guess at what might happen to it next). Herne himself is never particularly knowable as a character, he exists as a force but the characters he does affect are well developed. The threads that link the stories stop the book feeling fractured but the different tones and genres re-engage each time. I really loved this book and am eager to see what Zoe Gilbert writes next.

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Review: The Young Pretender by Michael Arditti

 William Betty first came as one of the side-stories in Andrew McConnell Stott’s The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi. At the turn of the 18th century, both society and theatre was extremely chaotic, leading to all sorts of fads. There were fads for ‘aqua-dramas’, which took place on flooded stages, a rise in speciality acts, a number of celebrity dogs - and there was Bettymania.

Rather like Beatlemania, Bettymania created huge crowds but unlike Beatlemania, people died in Betty’s crowds. There were duels, not even about whether Betty was a good actor, but about which role he fulfilled best. For just over a year, the whole of the UK were obsessed with one actor, someone who played all the main roles in Shakespeare and beyond, playing Hamlet and Macbeth in the same year, and was only 12 years old.

When I picked up The Young Pretender, I thought, for a moment, that I was picking up a biography but this is a novel. Set a few years after his heyday, the now 21 year old William Betty has decided to make a comeback. He navigates the difficulties of returning to the theatrical world but also comes face-to-face with the memories of his former life as a supposed prodigy. 

Betty is a very engaging character, trying to hang on to his dignity, having to remind everyone he meets that he is ‘Mister’ now, not ‘Master’. He has very little arrogance about his former dominance, hyper-aware that he is meeting fellow actors at a far more even level than he was in his superstar years. He hopes that his maturity will have improved him as an actor and is not blind to the idea that he was never a great actor so much as a fad. True, it hurts him if other people tell him these things, but they are not new ideas to him. He also holds a truly sweet and naive hope that, with work, he may become the actor he was previously hyped up to be. It’s charming how he amuses his little sister, tries to connect with old friends and just tries to be a decent professional, without becoming despondent by the increasingly clear ambivalence that audiences have to him as an adult. He also weathers a number of comments about his increased weight with aplomb. 

There’s a lovely scene where he meets up with Dora Jordan, ditched by her royal partner. The two reminisce, not about life on stage but about the time she took an exhausted Betty and let him recuperate at the family home. There’s also a very good scene where Betty decides to be ‘a man’ and sleep with a prostitute. It just so happens that the one he picks up saw him on stage a few years earlier and she remembers it as one of the high-points of her life. Not wanting to ruin her memories, he gives her the money and leaves with the deed undone. 

The biggest problem with the novel is the matter of amnesia. Whether it’s because of suppression, or the drugged up haze a lot of his acting career was performed in, but Betty has almost no actual memories of his time in the spotlight. These memories leak in as the book progresses, with Betty and the reader discovering them at the same time. The trouble is, this element of the book tests disbelief too hard. There is no way Betty wouldn’t be able to remember whether his tutor, Gough, sexually abused him or not. Nor is there anyway he couldn’t remember a certain ‘fan’ certainly tried to until the end of the book. Betty’s access to his own memory is plot-convenient in a way which breaks realism too much.

Were I to write a book about William Betty, I’d have been tempted to write a farce. The notion of a boy taking the central male roles in popular plays and playing them against adult casts (indeed, adult love interests and antagonists) and it being phenomenally successful, is a farce. Michael Arditti has chosen to write a drama, however. This is probably fairer to Betty, who ended his own life following a second unsuccessful comeback but it does mean the book is a fairly drab affair, full of disappointment, hazy memories of parental abuse and possible child abuse. What’s more, the character of adult Betty is so passively accepting of what has happened to him, his realisations are met calmly, until at the end he decides to kill himself (an attempt which failed, incidentally).

As such, Arditti probably respects the historical Betty more in his dour telling but didn’t give me all that much joy.

Wednesday, 15 February 2023

Review: Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais

 I’d long wanted to read Gargantua and Pantagruel because of its influence on comic literature, particularly Tristram Shandy, which I plan to re-read later. After reading Anatomy of Laughter, my desire to read the book piqued even further so I picked it up.

The first book (written second) tells the adventures of Gargantua, an intelligent and convivial giant. The second book (written first) is about his son, Pantagruel, his all-worthy son. The third book is about finding the answer to a conundrum posed by Pantagruel’s friend, Panurge and the last two books are about a travel round the world to find an oracle to answer that question. 

Most of that is beside the point, this is not a novel, it’s a piece of freewheeling prose fiction. Rabelais doesn’t want to tell a psychologically complex, long story; he wants to tell anecdotes, to prod thoughts and tickle laughter. Gargantua and Pantagruel is a waste of time and it’s supposed to be.

The most common technique in the book is to bring everything back to the body. That human beings have bodies and that those bodies shit, puke, piss, cum, queef, vomit, fart and burp is of great amusement to Rabelais. Even funnier is when the main characters are giants and their bodily functions are exponentially bigger. Norman Inkpen admits to finding Gargantua and Pantagruel too big a jobbie in his genre-defining Shit Jokes- a study of Scatological Humour and following his sad demise will never be able to read his Rabelais-based follow-up, Gargantuan Turds.

Rabelais also makes great effect of mixing bodily functions with more intellectual elements. It may be the developing arts of the index and concordance to produce a list of different kind of bollocks or fool. He may use classic, university style chopped logic to discuss the likelihood of being cuckolded or modern humanist understanding to explore the same. Rabelais also loves lists. Many of these come in the form of overenthusiastic synonyms but some are actually formatted as such. The book consists of a list of types of ball-bag and also types of fool. There’s also a scripted dialogue at one point. Rabelais (or the translator) also loves semi-plausible nonsense words, people are philogrobolized in the brain and monks go on circumbilvaginations. 


I particularly enjoyed the prologues to each book, where Rabelais insulted his audience in a jocular manner, made extravagant claims about the success of his work and hopes for how they’ll be received. At one point he says he hopes everyone is so taken by his book that they’ll forget to do anything else but read them and civilisation will fall apart. This won’t be so bad though, as everyone will have memorised his works and will all be laughing nonetheless.

The first two books are pretty similar. They both tell the story of a giant’s birth and childhood, how they went to Paris to be educated and how they returned to their homeland to defend it from invaders. Both drown those invaders in piss at one point. 

The first giant, Gargantua is poorly served by his education at first. He starts of a natural genius, using experimentation to discover the best bum wiper (and settling on the downy neck of a live goose) but being destroyed into uselessness by his tutoring. He’s turned around by a good tutor though and is ready to recapture his country with the aid of Fr John, a drunken, violent monk and Gymnaste, who vaults actual horses. 

The second giant, Pantagruel is better served by his education, becoming a genuine renaissance man. He meets Panurge, a character who has numerous ways to gain money but even more numerous to lose it. Panurge initially responds in a melee of languages, begging for food and drink, before he gets it and becomes part of the team. There’s a wonderfully ludicrous chapter where Panurge argues a thesis with a British academic only in the form of mime. The book describes all their strange movements but has no commentary on what is actually being discussed.

The third book takes a turn. Not only is it the first where Rabelais names himself as author, he also describes himself as being among the characters. This is where Panurge becomes the focus and Pantagruel steps back. Panurge wants to get married but is worried he might be beaten, robbed and cuckolded by his wife. The gang ask numerous experts, soothsayers and quacks and each give the same answer - that everything Panurge fears will come true but he’s stubborn and keeps asking more people. I quite liked this running joke and it gave the third book more of a shape. 

The fourth and fifth book depict a voyage halfway across the world to visit the ultimate oracle and ask it Panurge’s question. It’s a real proto-Gulliver, with each world having a different satiric purpose. There’s the land of The Belly, a ‘Ventipotent God’, an island of clergyman birds, one of cat-lawyers (known as ‘clawyers’) and another of people who worship Papal Bulls to an extreme degree. Fr John and Panurge bicker a lot throughout these books, with the formally brave Panurge now a reluctant coward against the bluff clergyman. One odd element is the setting off of the voyage contained six chapters describing a magical weed they bring with them, which isn’t ever mentioned on the voyage itself.

It’s debated whether the fifth book is fully Rabelais, or whether it’s built from bits, pieces and notes. I didn’t find it to be a significant drop-off in quality and actually enjoyed the descriptions of the Temple of the Bottle. There was even a slightly grand moment when Panurge receives his wisdom, a big fat yes. Yes to everything, to the joys of marriage, to the pitfalls, to life in general. Yes.

This is the ‘point’ of the whole book though. Embrace life. Be big. Be magnanimous, generous, giving, curious. Enjoy life. Enjoy being alive right now, in a messy, hungry, thirsty body. Embrace everything that life throws at you or thrusts upon you. The small, petty, pedantic and blinkered are the opposite of this - don’t be them (or you might drown in piss). It’s an oddly enlivening book with a surprisingly positive message. Though the misogyny of the book can’t be denied, nor can the spitefulness of the main characters sometimes (especially Panurge). It does lessen the book, it can’t be so magnanimous as to include women - this is a book written by the blinkered vision of a (twice-former) monk in the 1500s. Yet the intended spirit of the book comes through, making it oddly more enjoyable in the abstract than the specific. There were times I was bored reading this (despite the.. ehem gargantuan efforts to entertain) and there were times Rabelais’s limits to include women in his vision were off-putting but thinking of the overall message, this is a great and positive work.

Aside from anything else, I find it hard to walk into the classroom I work in after lunchtime and not feel that I am being “pickled in farts” and if I ever get the chance to call an old friend, “my velvety ball bag”, I’ll be a very happy person.

Wednesday, 8 February 2023

The Rivals by Richard Brinsley-Sheridan at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle (Part Two)

 Having been pleasantly surprised by how funny the first part was, the Dr Johnson Reading Circle settled once again online to perform the rest of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals.

Act 3, Scene 4 starts with the country squire, Bob Acres admiring his new ‘city’ look. His servant, David, declares him as a ‘Devon monkeyrony’, so spruced up is appearance that at home the cook, Mrs Pickle would cry ‘Lard preserve us’… (I think it’s a good little joke, anyway). Sir Lucius O’Trigger comes round to encourage him to challenge the mysterious Ensign Beverly to a duel, stoking his bloodlust so Bob ‘catches courage’ from him. Despite the best efforts of David, Bob is committed to the idea of duelling and sends for Captain Absolute to send the challenge and talk up his prowess as ‘Fighting Bob’. Absolute, knowing there is no Ensign Beverly is happy to take the letter. 

As he’s coming out of Bob’s lodgings, he’s cornered by his father and dragged to the most awkward of meetings, where he must reveal to Lydia that he was not Beverly, but Absolute all along. He tries to put it off, relying on her looking the wrong way and trying to put on a rough voice but the damage is done and Lydia never wants to see him again. His father is not-so-secretly pleased that his son is a trickster and lover but Captain Absolute is despondent, putting him in a particularly fatalistic mood when Sir Lucius O’Trigger calls him to a duel for a perceived slight.

The rest of the play involves various characters preparing for, trying to stop, or gleefully anticipating the duels between O’Trigger, Fighting Bob and Captain Absolute. There’s a pause to catch up with Faulkland, who is still moping. He lies to Julia, saying that he needs to escape town and asking if she could join him in poverty as a fugitive. When she accepts, he reveals that it was a lie and it’s this that finally breaks their relationship - there were fist pumps of happiness for her at this moment.

When the characters all converge at the duelling spot, there’s some fun at Bob’s courage oozing from him at the thought of being buried in Bath Abbey but the jokes largely cease for the characters to quickly clear up their confusions, introspect and pair up. Lydia realises she does love Captain Absolute, even if she has to forfeit the romance of an elopement and the two reunite. Unfortunately for us, Julia and Faulkland also patch up their differences and he promises to be less of a selfish weirdo - I’m not sure I believe him. Bob is single but happy for his lucky escape and Sir Lucius finds out his epistolary paramour was actually Mrs Malaprop, who he declines, leaving her cursing men.

There’s something rushed about the second half of The Rivals. Lucy, the trickster maid, disappears completely and the other characters seem to charge ahead to the tidy dénouement, rushing scenes that could have produced more laughs. Thinking of Shakespeare’s false duel in Twelfth Night, the characters are trying to run away and being stirred up at the same time but these duelists have a polite conversation and clear everything up before they’ve even measured out the field of combat.

What’s more, the romantic pairings don’t feel like great triumphs. The relationship between Captain Absolute and Lydia Languish seems too shallow to really celebrate. A modern audience would be actively against Julia being shackled to the insufferable Faulkland and Bob and Sir Lucius are left with nobody. Also left alone is Anthony Absolute, the bluff father, who could have at least landed tricksy Lucy as a mistress, and Mrs Malaprop, who definitely deserved a happy ending for all the mean things people said about her. For a play that started so strongly, it ends a little whimperingly but it was still fun to perform and be performed to and I like forward to see what play we may try next.

Wednesday, 1 February 2023

The Rivals by Richard Brinsley-Sheridan at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle (Part One)

 The temperature below zero, the wind whipping around outside and the Dr Johnson Reading Circle stayed tucked up in their cosy homes to perform Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals over video call. 

His first play, written in 1775, The Rivals is one of relatively few eighteenth-century plays to be performed, read and studied today. Most of us had dimly remembered run-ins with the text, some nonsense about lovers and being forced into pretending Mrs Malaprop’s wrong word choices were amusing. However, in performing the play for each other, we discovered that it was far funnier than we remembered and the humour came from characters we had not expected.

The action takes place in Bath. Captain Absolute is pretending to be a poor ensign in order to woo Lydia Languish, a woman who has enough money to ‘pay the national debt as I would my washer woman’. She’s very aware of the attraction of this money and so is determined to run away without her aunt’s approval and forfeit the fortune. She is also being unsuccessfully pursued by Bob Acres (who likes his swears to match the subject) and an Irish peer called Lucius O’Trigger. Unfortunately for Trigger, Lucy, Lydia’s unscrupulous maid has been giving his letters to Lucy’s aunt, Mrs Malaprop, who thinks he’s courting her. To add complications (of course) the Captain’s overbearing father has arranged a marriage between him and Lucy, something which should be ideal if it wasn’t for Lydia’s distaste for ‘humdrum marriage’. Then there’s Lydia’s friend Julia who is trying to manage the emotions of her overwrought lover, Faulkland.

It’s strange that this play has a reputation for being something of a Mrs Malaprop show, as every character has a clear personality and funny lines. Particularly funny were the servants, the only people who really know what’s what in this play, but they enjoy the spectacle too much to clear anything up. The coachman at the beginning goes into a vigorous defence of the fading practice of wearing wigs. The servant Fag complains about how unfair it is for his master to take his anger out on him, before mercilessly beating an errand boy. The maid Lucy gets many funny moments, whether it’s totting up how much money she is getting to deliver love letters and her joy of misdelivering them; or a conversation with Lucius O’Trigger, in which she excites his amorousness to kissing in the street - or into the camera in the case of our Zoom meeting. Those lips will haunt our dreams for some time.

This is a play where none of the scenes drag and each one stands out in its own way. Even two characters talking about books becomes a funny takedown of careless library users, a Lady Slattern-Lounger has ‘a most observing thumb’ and she dog-ears pages. These books, all of them real and many from authors we have read, including Smollett and Elizabeth and Richard Griffith, were then hidden in the covers of more sober works, many of which had been used as curl papers. 

This reading is a clear danger as far as Sir Anthony Absolute, the Captain’s father, is concerned. He’s a Squire Western-esque figure of loud, enthusiastic praise which can quickly be turned into wild, enthusiastic abuse as he is ‘compliance itself when I’m not thwarted’. He discusses reading with Mrs Malaprop ‘the old she-dragon’ as they set up the marriage between the Captain and Lydia. Mrs Malaprop (famously) thinks she is something of an intellect although she often gets the wrong word - when has Captain Absolute read her a letter he has (unbeknownst to her) written, it’s the nasturtiums cast on her learning that upsets her more than being called an old she-dragon.

Then there’s Faulkland… oh Faulkland. He’s a man of feeling and nothing will stop him being so. First he’s deeply upset that his beloved, Julia may have been ill or upset without him. Then he’s in pieces because she’s been jolly in his absence. There is no winning with him, his love keeps him in permanent misery and he’ll twist everything to maintain this misery. There’s a wonderful detail where Julia walks out on her and he sits, listening at the door, thinking that he hears her returning, then not, then returning again, then not.

A play really does come to life with performance and The Rivals is very willing to give lots of pleasure and laughs. With some in hydrostatics, this was one of the funniest evenings of the Reading Circle and there’s another evening to go.

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Review: An Anatomy of Laughter by Richard Boston

 I picked up An Anatomy of Laughter by Richard Boston from the cheapie section of my favourite bookshop because I like the ‘anatomy’ approach, using lot of different sources to tug and pull at a subject. When I looked at the book closer and saw there were whole chapters about Laurence Sterne and Samuel Johnson, I was very glad I had.

The book was written in the 1970s by an eccentric journalist who launched Britain’s first eco-magazine and was also a large part of the campaign for real ale, despite the fact he preferred gin. Looking up his obituary before reading this book, an ex wife said he was always laughing and was the only person she had ever known who’d woken himself up with his own laughter. The sources and attitudes in the book are a little white guy with a classics education but are livened by the genial, generous attitude of the writer.

He starts off with a chapter where he describes how the current era (the 1970s) has a rather queasy laugh and how some have declared it the end of humour and comedy. To be fair, though some sitcoms from the 70s still hold up okay, there is much of 70s humour, such as the club comedians, which have not aged well at all. In contrast, now (in the 2020s) comedy is in rude health, at least if that health can be judged by the swarming multitude of stand-ups I’ve never heard of on panel shows. Boston plays a switch on the reader though, discovering similar write-ups on the ‘death of comedy’ going back for years and years. Rather like music, it seems that many individual’s taste for comedy deteriorates as they grow older and each generation feels like things aren’t as funny as they used to be.

The next chapter is about the physical expression of laughter, mostly using early-modern medical textbooks as Boston seems to enjoy watching people of the past groping towards more accurate physical knowledge. One theory is that the lungs act as bellows, blowing the spirit of life through the body in laughter.

Then there’s a chapter on theories of laughter. These are mostly pretty grim. Plato thought that laughter was caused by the sudden feeling of superiority over another person, whilst Hobbes agreed and included the notion of feeling superior over a past self. A man called Bergson said that laughter policed the lines of conformity, when a person crosses that line they are laughed back into submission. These are all laughter as a form of attack and control which Boston says misses another aspect of laughter, the one based in the joy of play and pretend. There’s the laughter at pure inventiveness, silliness, fun - even the more attack-based laughter of a stand-up comic bantering with an audience is aggression that takes place in a suspension of real life, a kind of pretend. He concludes that the things that make us laugh involve aggression, obscenity or playfulness, often in combination.

The book then looks at different ways of making people laugh. There’s a chapter on mediaeval fools (which I read a few books about in 2019), one about slapstick and the silent comedians (he’s a Buster Keaton fan more than Chaplin, as he thinks the sentiment disables the laughter). There’s a chapter dividing wit (which yokes two dissimilar ideas together in a persuasive way) and humour (which involves the comic observations on the frailties of the human species). Incidentally, France tends to pride itself on wit and Britain on humour, though both have had examples of each. None of what is said is particularly original, I’ve heard that comment about Chaplin many times, but they are nicely put.

The book also has a great time in finding examples of wit, humour and such to give to the reader. Some of these I had heard of, like Spooner telling the student he’d ‘tasted the whole worm’ or the very funny textbook English as She is Spoke. Others were new to me, like the witty vicar, Sidney Smith, who could dissolve a room into tears of laughter, or Daisy Ashford, the nine-year-old author of a grown-up society novel, The Young Visiters.

Then came the case studies. The first was Rabelais, whose work I was planning to read this year anyway. It gave me a good grounding in Pantagruelism, ‘jollity of mind, pickled in the scorn of fortune’ and made me rush the book right up in my reading plans. Another was about Shandeism, emphasising how Tristram Shandy has not lost it’s power to tickle, antagonise and amuse readers - I’ve read it before but I’m reading it with my book group in April.

Another case study was Samuel Johnson, who seems like an unusual choice for a book about laughter to the uninitiated, though when Johnsonians get together and talk about him, there’s often laughter. Unfortunately, the chapter doesn’t really talk about how funny a writer he can be, it’s not about Johnson as a comic but as a laugher. Many accounts of him describe how his long, insistent laughter was quick to arrive, long to stay and could cause other people to laugh even if they didn’t know what he was laughing at. I was reminded of the Tom Davies quote that he laughed ‘like a rhinoceros’. Boston also made the point that Johnson often laughed at very small things, whether it was the rats line in Grainger’s Sugar-Cane, or a friend making his will. Johnson’s huge laughter was equal to his huge depression, a vital boost in his battle against his own melancholy feelings.

The next chapter ran with this idea, talked a lot about Byron and talked about a book called The Savage God by by Al Álvarez, mostly about Sylvia Plath but also about a Romantic obsession with suicide. He slices that idea right down, emphasising the laughter among the Romantics, saying that the doomed Byron is the least interesting, and not very accurate. 

   “Johnson and Byron experienced life as something disorderly and irrational, that needed the disorder and irrationality of laughter to make it bearable.” 

This book, while in many ways a scrapbook of quotes and (slightly worn) anecdotes does manage to be a fairly enlightening look at laughter from physical, emotional and cultural perspectives. It is also frequently funny, Boston having a good turn of phrase himself, and good at bringing the reader to other funny things. Ultimately it proves the point he quotes from Scottish poet, Norman Cameron, that laughter is ‘the sunlight in the cucumber’.

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Review: Coelebs in Search of a Wife by Hannah More

 I read Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife for something of a dare. The Dr Johnson Reading Circle took a literary tour around Bath and I’d sampled a little something from most of the stops except Hannah Moore’s. We were told of her only novel, an interminably boring tale of a man looking for his perfect wife and, as a single man, was at the receiving end of a number of jokes that it might hold useful information. I decided to read it, just so I could say I had.

One of the biggest problems of the book is that Coelebs isn’t really in search of a wife. Not only has he been raised in such a way that most women wouldn’t fulfil his peculiar and exacting standards, he’s been raised in a way that only one woman can. This woman has herself been raised to be the perfect wife for him - a plan cooked up by both their fathers when the children were born. What’s more, Coelebs has been told to hold off his decision until he meets this woman, so when he’s meeting others, he already has that in the back of his mind. He hardly talks to any of the prospective candidates and actual spends far more time thinking about their mothers.

This is another problem with the book, Coelebs is weird. His ideal woman in the prelapsarian Eve as depicted in Paradise Lost. He particularly cites a moment when an angel pops down to see them and Eve can easily knock up a scrumptious meal and then doesn’t join in the conversation because the men are talking big talk. He doesn’t have any opinions that don’t come from his own father or from a rigid selection of books. When one woman says she enjoys literature, he starts a conversation her about Latin poetry and is very disappointed that she can’t read Latin. (When it turns out Lucilla, his made-to-order bride does read Latin, it’s treated as something of a dirty secret.) Coelebs is far more interested in the parents and educational theories that have shaped the potential wives, than the women themselves, having long conversations about how the woman was disciplined as a child and such. He’s a weirdo.

Most of the potential wives are barely characters, very few of them having dialogue, with far more attention paid to their mothers’ failings. Lucilla is allowed to speak for herself a little. She’s not an unpleasant person but so cowed under by her upbringing that she regards complements as dangerous to her spiritual welfare. She’s been educated to be knowledgable about music, literature and art but has been utterly discouraged to think of herself as a musician, writer or artist - what would women have to say in these mediums after all? (Says the female author…) Her sister Phoebe shows a little more life but that’s being ground out of her by maths lessons.

Lucilla’s father, Mr Stanley is presented as the ideal Christian. He is naturally kind and charitable but these acts are motivated by his deep faith. Many of the other characters in the book don’t quite reach his saintliness as they have all the right faith but none of the right actions, or all the right actions but none of the faith. He’s the worst. He hogs conversations, assuming that everyone wants to hear his opinions. He has been training his children in carefully manipulative ways, and training one of them to specifically be a perfect wife to Coelebs. He looks down on most people but if complemented says that he is just the same as other people with dark urges - we never find out what these are. He might not be outright abusive but his wife and children have been badgered and bothered and brainwashed into agreeing with everything he says.

The worst thing about this novel is that is is 400 pages long and dull. Even the potentially interesting notion of a search for a wife is squandered. There are no twists, turns or events in the book and there’s almost no dialogue, just monologues in succession. Despite being written by a woman, it reads like boring old man with nasty, narrow views opining on the world after a glass of port. It’s not a good book.

Wednesday, 11 January 2023

Review: Hermsprong by Robert Bage

 Marketed as satire, Hermsprong should be sold as an out-and-out comedy, it’s a very funny book written in a deft, playfully ironic tone similar to the one I love in Fielding. 

I expected the book to start in the third person, telling the birth and childhood of the young Hermsprong amongst the natives of America. Then I expected him to get into some misunderstanding or romantic disappointment which sent him travelling into England, arguing with various representatives of the status quo. I thought the narration would be pretty straight-forward and a little flat, the highlights being the caricatures of stuffy English types. Instead, the book starts in the first person, told by the wonderfully ridiculous and ham-fisted Gregory Glen, who decides to settle down in the quaint village of Grondale. Then we are introduced to the key characters in Grondale, their quirks and flaws, before Hermsprong turns up and stirs the pot. As such, it’s structured a little more like a sitcom and rather than being tied to the slightly-dull Hermsprong, we spend more time seeing how he effects the other far more interesting characters. 

I think the key to this book’s humour and pleasure is Gregory, the narrator. First, it unsettles the reader, learning of his own birth as a bastard and how he was paid to stay as far away from his noble father as possible, so he settles in Grondale with enough money to mooch about - he’s a sap and not the person the reader expects to meet first. When he is mildly unlucky in love, he plans to throw himself in the sea like Sappho but faints before he gets the chance, instead of this being treated sentimentally (or even mock-heroically) it’s treated ridiculously - the reader learns that this isn’t going to be a romance full of sighs and tears. 

What’s more, Gregory’s tone is so wonderful. Early on, he has a go as a poets and, “produced some poetry which I though sublime. I could not bring the booksellers to coincide with this opinion.” - If that’s not an accurate description of being an unsuccessful writer, I don’t know what is. The zingers keep coming, whether it’s describing “the agreeable garrulousness of a fretful woman” or a young man “with a sweet, pretty face and two well-enough shaped legs” which then goes on for a page describing how that young man’s sense of self is built on those legs.

Gregory also has Shandean moments where imaginary interlocutors from the readership mock and question him. Once pesters him to get on with the story itself, there’s a small digression about digressions and, when he actually enters the story as a character, he awkwardly explains that he’s going to refer to himself in the third person and he actually does. I loved him as narrator.

My other favourite character was Miss Fluart. She’s the female protagonist’s funny, outrageous best friend - and she is. Indeed, she’s a little too vivacious and sometimes puts the meeker, more sensible female protagonist in the shadow. She’s an orphan taken in by the eccentric Mr Sumelin and his less eccentric family. She has personal wealth and doesn’t have the pressure of carrying on a family name, or marrying for stability, as such she is free to play and have fun. Her name sounds like ‘flirt’ and she does but not to climb social ladders or advance herself. She flirts to distract unwanted men away from her friend and to have fun. Never lost for a witty remark, she even manages to lead Lord Grondale on, without ever promising anything (even getting a peek into his pornovallion), as she also distracts the odious Lord Chestrum. She and Hermsprong have a fun, teasing relationship and it’s her that gets him to loosen up the most.

Lord Grondale makes a great villain, he’s vain, conceited and expects respect and love because of his wealth and titles. He’s a blustering, noisy baddie, yet there is a little sadness for him at the end of the book even as he brings the comeuppance on himself. He’s joined by the slimily upward mobile priest, Doctor Blixen and helped by the lawyer, Corrow. At one point this lawyer gives a speech where he tries to make Hermsprong look bad in court and so magnifies somesome small inconsistencies about him. Corrow’s speech starts, “At a time when the nation is so greatly, excessively, alarmingly alarmed, agitated and convulsed” and goes on in that thesauristical vein for two pages.

Another inconvenience is Lord Chestrum, a weak, mummy’s boy who applies to Lord Grondale to be his daughter’s husband. His daughter is Miss Campinet, who loves Hermsprong but is too dutiful to her father to marry without his permission. The chapter where Chestrum chats her up for the first time but is so ham-handed about it that she doesn’t realise is very funny. Though Miss Campinet isn’t as lively as Miss Fluart, she’s not a total wilting lettuce and she gets some good lines in against Chestrum. When he declares that he’d die if he can’t marry her, she replies that she’d die if she did and if one of them must die, she’d rather it was Chestrum than herself.

But what about Hermsprong, the title character himself? He’s intended to be the ‘natural’ man, honest to a fault, full of benevolence and free of selfishness and vice - he’s rather dull. It’s a real merit to the book that his main role is to pop in and out, causing problems for our bad characters and benefits to our good ones. His playful, unserious flirting with Miss Fluart is fun though and he readily admits that his private wealth make things easier for him, “One lives well everywhere if one has money, and ill, if one does not.” (Is this a famous quote? I’m sure I’ve heard it before.) There’s also the interesting sting in the tail that Hermsprong wasn’t as impartial and disinterested as he made out.

All in all, this book was far more engaging and enjoyable than I expected and deserves to be better known.

Wednesday, 4 January 2023

Top Ten Books of 2022 (5-1)

 Last week I counted down my  books of the year 10-6. 

If you want to see if you’ve read what I’ve read, here’s the list.

I’ve also been naughty and bought too many books and here’s that list.

In at Number 5

The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi - Andrew McConnell Stott (also What Blest Genius?)

I’m starting with a cheat. I read two Andrew McConnell Stott books and they were both great fun. He has a real skill at telling a fun story, emphasising the most fun parts and finding supplementary fun stories that don’t feel like filler.

I wrote about What Blest Genius here and The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi here. I think Joseph Grimaldi edges it slightly. While the central story of Jubilee plays far more into my interests, the sheer range and lunacy of the side stories in Grimaldi were too fun to ignore. A book that includes a craze for a ten-year-old playing Hamlet, a clown sailing a ship through a storm and a trained dog called Moustache, is one that has to be in a top ten somewhere. 

Number 4

Moonfleet - J. Meade Falkner

I wrote about Moonfleet here. It’s hard to say any more about it, this book is exciting, well constructed with clear and interesting characters going on exciting journeys. The set pieces are put together extremely well and the whole book wraps up movingly and satisfyingly.

Number 3

The Color Purple - Alice Walker

This is very unfair, because I’d always assumed The Color Purple by Alice Walker was boring because it was made into a prestige film that won Oscars (a film I’ve never seen). However, when I saw it at a local book-swap I gave it a look because I recognised the name. The copy I picked up had the name anglicised into ‘colour’ and had been published by The Coventry Evening Telegraph as the third in a series of ‘Great Family Reads’. I read the first page and was utterly shocked, while it seemed like a great read, it is certainly not a good choice for a family bed time.

The first page features a paedophilic-incest-rape, performed and described terribly matter-of-factly. Shortly afterwards the baby conceived by that act is taken away. Not only were the events terribly shocking but the tone of normality made them more so. Celie lives in a society where, as a poor, Black woman, she is utterly disregarded, mounted by men as they please and passed off to another family because she can keep a household fed and clean. Her world is so narrow and her place in it so low that she barely registers or questions it at first.

I was amazed at how expressive the telegrammatic style could be. When she says, ‘Not much funny to me.’ She sums up how little in her life has been something she could laugh at - there were many other incidences of this throughout.

What made the book truly wonderful was how, despite being ‘nothing at all’, she does grow. First she asserts, ‘I am here,’ and from there she even finds family, purpose, talents and hope. The first key to this is Shug, a blues singer with a tarnished reputation. It’s her admiration and love of Shug that starts her progression. Shug even shows her how to love her body. But Shug isn’t the only one. She accumulates all sorts of broken, wonky people into her found family, even finding space for the husband foisted on her who abused her so. That’s what I loved about the book, every person in it developed and changed and they did it because of the impact of the other characters around them. That we reach a happy ending at all is because of the resilience of the community that Celie builds around her.

Which is to say nothing of the sub-plot about Celie’s sister, finding her own family. The discussions of God that both women have, their refashioning of God into an ‘it’ that can be found anywhere rather than another male with a fragile ego. There’s some very interesting discussions on white people, how the characters in the book almost see them like dogs, they may seem friendly and wag their tails but you should always be wary of their bite. There’s interesting talk about sexuality, about how many of the male characters try to project strength by beating down before discovering joy in something more community.

It’s a short book but it says a lot.

Number 2

The Monk - Matthew Lewis

I wrote about The Monk here. Did I use the phrase ‘ne plus ultra’? If not, I should have, It’s the that of Gothic books. Everything Gothic books has been working towards at that point is accomplished by The Monk in fine, entertaining and grandstanding style. The book even manages to award the stiffness that afflicts later Gothic works. It’s bonkers, it’s genuinely disturbing at times and it’s very memorable.

Number 1

The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is a genuine classic, a masterful blend of tight plotting, varied and interesting narrative voices and characters that burst out of the page.

It starts with a sly joke about how the book has been created because the legal system needs too much ‘lubricating by the oil of gold’ to be the proper place to lay out the story and set the record straight. It then warns the reader that the book will be told in a number of different voices, much like witnesses in a trial. These voices are one of the main triumphs of the book. The first is Walter Hartright, he essentially takes the part of prosecutor and his is the most neutral. There’s also the diaries of Marian Halcombe, packed with her forthrightness, bravery and intelligence. There are the voices of various accountants, lawyers and functionaries that show their understanding of their positions. Then there’s Fairlie’s account, a whiny, petulant piece full of complaint and blame. Finally, there’s the narrative of Count Fosco, as amoral, grandiloquent and strangely appealing as the character himself. Victoria novels, especially these serialised ones, sometimes get a bad reputation for eking out a story in long, needless prose but the switching of voices in this book not only adds a range of flavours to the book but show Collins’s skill at ventriloquism. Although I love his friend and mentor, Charles Dickens, the Inimitable could not have put himself in so many roles.

As for the plot, it starts proper with Walter Hartright walking down the Finchley Road at one in the morning and meeting a woman who seems a little ‘off’ though not dangerous, so he helps her out. As someone who lives a little away from that road, I have often met such people whilst coming home late at night, though none have embroiled me in a labyrinthine plot of abduction, identity theft and false imprisonment. The reader is given the pieces of the main plot fairly early on but because the villains themselves are concocting the plot as the book goes on, the reader can’t predict ahead too far as the villains haven’t got there yet. It walks that beautiful tightrope of being feasible whilst being outlandish and has a particular spiciness because one of the villains is fiendish but stupid and the other is too clever to cause harm where it’s not necessary.

There are some huge coincidences in the book and it’s a weak and slightly peculiar conceit of getting Hartright to go on a barely explored Patagonian adventure with disease, cannibals and shipwrecks - but the big things land right and comeuppances are as sad as they are satisfying. A big, driving element of the plot is the keeping of Sir Percival Glyde’s Secret. While The Secret doesn’t seem worth all the energy and heartache it took to keep, it ties in with the theme of how flimsy such things as identity, position, wealth and sanity really are. 

If the book soars above many others, it’s because of the characters. Walter Hartright is a decent-enough hero character and his love interest, and the centre of shenanigans, Lucy isn’t an awful example of that Victorian ideal child-woman. The fact that some of her experiences actually reduce her as a person and make her more pathetic than before is actually quite moving and show her relative agency before.

Marian Halcombe, her half-sister is a different prospect. She’s initially described as a butterface with a moustache but such ‘deficiencies’ allow the writer to treat her as a proper agent in the story. She’s smart, sneaky when needed, strong and loyal. She speaks her mind and reads a room. She makes plans and acts them out. She’s great. Unfortunately, she does get relegated to her sister’s keeper but her strength in the first half, and the respect she gets from Fosco keeps her flame alive in the second.

Fosco is a brilliant character. He’s undeniably evil, utterly amoral and goal orientated but he does have a sense of kindness (if principally to small, cute animals) and his intelligence dictates that he doesn’t cause suffering he doesn’t deem absolutely necessary. Marian says she is won over by him despite herself, and I, as a reader, found myself won over by him too. The biggest suggestion of his darkest side, the utter devotion of his wife, he attributes simply to that, devotion. I’m not convinced there isn’t a far nastier backstory there somewhere. 

I also loved Anne, the woman in white, an utterly unreliable witness but deeply intriguing. I also has a huge soft spot for the wimp, Fairlie, he’s so deliciously, selfishly pathetic. 

It may be no surprise, seeing as I have gushed over this book, but I thought it wonderful and would easily recommend it.