Wednesday 25 September 2013

Looking at some old books.

In the 30s and 40s, Harvard Unversity Press seemed to bring out a series of books about the eighteenth century and so far I haven't read a dud one. Two already discussed were The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith, The Grub Street Journal, The Unspeakable Curll, and Passionate Intelligence (the title of which has provided me with a really useful way of looking at my own actions as well as reading Johnson's work). Here I shall talk a little about another two, Tom Brown of Facetious Memory and The Clubs of Augustin London.

The Tom Brown book is the closest to a dud so far in the series. The author begins by describing Tom Brown as 'small beer' and then proceeds from there. The whole book has the inescapable quality of a slightly disappointed headteacher who expected so much better for their pupil but will have to grudgingly make do with what they have.

Despite this, it is the fullest available life of Tom Brown, a man who was from a middle class family outside of London but who joined the literary scrum and played the game extremely well. While the writer mourns Tom Brown's lack of a masterpiece, he does show how well a writer needed to hustle in the very early days of print culture and the skill needed to stay afloat. Although I can't say I felt sad to leave Tom behind at the end of the biogaphy, I did feel a certain pride for him.

Clubs of Augustin London is one of those painfully precise works that have you wondering whether it really is that important if such and such club included such and such members and was really started in April and not in May but then you realise that it does matter. There is something to say about clear and meticulous scholarship and the pickyness of the book becomes one of it's key merits. I also wrote down more little jottings about this book then any in a long time. Normally I jot down interesting phrases or little facts I may want to incoporate into something but in this book, I was mainly noting down the names of clubs that interested me and I wanted to find more about.

I was fascinated with the idea of toasting, especially in the more political clubs like the Kit Kat, where poems about beautiful women were engraved onto their glasses with diamond points to be the toast of the club for a year. Poems and toasts seem to be the main trade in most of these clubs but the book also extended it's gaze beyond the political clubs to club dedicated to irreligion, to whiskers and to idleness. I particularly liked the clubs which celebrated the lazy.

I really enjoyed the discriptions of the different meeting places and coffee houses, their clienteles and the way they ran socially. I was able to include these ideas into my book and they enliven a few of the scenes and even give some social embaressment and jepordy to poor Sidney, who doesn't understand the rules.

As well as a discussion of these clubs, the book also talked about clubs in fiction and the use of a club to enliven a static debate. The Athenum Club were a fictional club that consisted of a series of experts who answered notes and queries for the readers. This club was originally used to give authority to the three or four people who actually ran the magazine. Later, people like Addison used fictional families and finally the fictional club of Mr Spectator to give texture and movement to their writings.

The last club talked about was a very small one, where the members wrote under one name, Martinus Scriblerus. This description of the short time that Pope, Arbuthnott, Gay, Swift and Parnell spent together was wonderfully evocative of the friendship they shared and how it permeated their writings. I'm going to a lecture about the eighteenth century ideas on friendship, in particular the Scribleran and Turk's Head clubs tomorrow and I will say how that went another time.

Till then.

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