Sunday 25 August 2013

Review: Christopher Smart - Clown of God by Chris Mounsey

A fascinating biography that starts with the supposition that Smart wasn't mad at any point in his life, the problem in telling the life being that he then has to explain what Smart was doing in a madhouse for seven years.

This is done by putting Smart's writings, religious and political feelings in context to show where such views could have come from. Mounsey is brilliant at analysing his works and teasing out the myriad of details, connections and layers within them and to show in action Smart's vision of writing as 'punching meanings' into words. His reading of 'Jubilate Agno' is the most interesting, in depth and dense accounts of a endlessly engaging work.

Mounsey's claim is that Smart was put in and maintained in the madhouse by his step-father-in-law and publisher, John Newbery. He explains in detail how this could have been done, using Smart's alcoholism as a way in. He also talks about how Newbery created the public opinion of 'Mad Kitty Smart' to tarnish is name and reputation and to dissuade people from helping him.

What I could not find was a really good reason why. Mounsey points to Smart's abandonment of his wife and children, a step-daughter who Newbery was not all that fond of and he also points to Smart's dangerous writing in 'The Midwife' and in the shows 'Mary Midnight's Oratory' to show that it was dangerous for Newbery to let Smart run amuck. This is done by looking at The Midwife to reveal the dangerous satirical opinions within.

This last part seems to me the weakness of the book. Having read an edition of volume one of the collected Midwife magazines, they didn't seem particularly more dangerous or subversive then the Grub Street Journal or other C18th magazines I have read. Mounsey says that this is because the dangerous satire is alluded to throughout each edition of the magazine and only when the fragments are put together and interpreted, the full force of the satire is shown.

This fits very well with the style of writing in 'Jubilate Agno' and 'A Song of David' where one word is a placeholder for many different ideas and the ideas can be assembled and re-assembled to create many different meanings but even if Smart did use this complex device to smuggle satire deep within the text, the satire doesn't seem to say anything more dangerous then 'I don't trust the government'; a point made with impunity and far clearer by other people at the time.

Finally, I am deeply suspicious when a writer tries to modernise or energise a mostly forgotten writer by claiming that what we actually thought was pastoral comedy, or sentimental comedy or knockabout comedy is actually very vicious and telling satire. Nokes did it in his John Gay biography, Hopkins in 'The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith' and now Mounsey in this. 

All these quibbles aside, it truly is a great biography, very meticulously researched and scholarly (though at times tentatively) written. While I am not convinced with the whole story presented here, it produces a much rounder and more interesting picture of Christopher Smart though I think is valuable more for the questions it asks then the answers it gives.

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