Wednesday 27 June 2018

The Vicar of Wakefield at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

I can’t believe I’ve yet to review this book on here. It was one of the first eighteenth century books I read and I even reviewed it on the website I had prior to Grubstlodger. It’s time has come…

17 Gough Square was full of laughter as the Dr Johnson Reading Circle gathered around wine in Johnson’s former parlour.  Both regular and new members assembled to discuss Oliver Goldsmith’s only novel and there was a lot to talk about.

The Vicar of Wakefield is a wonderfully slippery work. The first question of the night was, “is the book supposed to be funny?” A question we never completely answered and kept returning to. 

Having been sold to quickly affray debt, the text was passed around publishers who didn’t have the confidence to release it. The novel was then released in the slipstream of a successful poem to very little acclaim. People at the time were perplexed by the work; Johnson was rather dismissive and even Goldsmith could hardly be bothered to redraft for the second edition. 

It was with the rise of the sentimental novel that The Vicar of Wakefield started to become popular, becoming one of the bestsellers of the nineteenth century. One of our members, who had worked for the past three years in Joel Chandler Harris House in Atlanta, noted that this book was one of the main inspirations for his writing. It was also Charles Dickens’ favourite book, his pen-name ‘Boz’ comes from Moses, Primrose’s second son in the novel.

Today, The Vicar of Wakefield is a book that many of us thought we have read, and all those coming to it for the first time found it far more entertaining then they expected. 

This is a novel that could be seen as a story of sentiment, a proto-Man of Feeling, full of moments designed to elicit sympathy and tears from his audience. Another reader could read the book as an early satire against the ludicrous nature of such books. The titular vicar, Primrose can be seen as a blundering, foolish man early in the book but later on, he is a noble figure when preaching to prisoners whilst imprisoned himself. 

Having written a few novels, The Vicar of Wakefield reminded me of my own early drafts. The tone shifts and slides back in a way that implies that Goldsmith hasn’t decided on it. It would be usual to redraft the book and make the book more consistent. Others disagreed, seeing the shifting layers as too controlled to be a result of accident. (John Hopkins would agree, having argued in his The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith that he is a satirist of equal skill with Swift).

Some of this effect comes from the use of the first person. How much does Primrose actually see? How much influence does he have on the action? None of the other characters listen to him, although he feels that they do. When he starts to make a point, he is frequently interrupted by tragedy or farce. We compared Primrose to Charles Pooter in the Diary of a Nobody. He is the source of the pompous know-it-all that we both love and hate, the line runs from him to Captain Mainwaring … Primrose does, however, have a chance to shine in the prison.

There is definitely intentional comedy in the book. The detail of Primrose making a picture of his wife’s future epitaph on the wall to remind her of her duty is obviously comic in tone. So is the chapter when he goes to town proud of his worldliness and is promptly swindled. 

But there are also scenes which are hard to define. The family are having a bucolic picnic in the park and our dear narrator is telling us that it is impossible to ever be unhappy. He is promptly told his daughter has run off with a strange man and within a paragraph of being unshakeably happy says,
   “Go, my children, go and be miserable for we never shall enjoy one hour more.” Though after a little back and forth with his wife, the family are happy again.

I think it is this talent for happiness that is a characteristic of most of the Primrose family which destabilises the book. No matter what terrible thing happens to them, no matter how angry or distressed they become in the middle of a chapter, they end the chapter with contentment for their lot. For this reason, it’s impossible to really shake up their lives enough to make the emotion of the story stick, so it often becomes ludicrous… and charming.

This means that the end of the novel essentially puts the family where they were at the beginning. None of them have particularly learnt anything from their experiences except to stick to the belief that they can survive whatever is thrown at them and wait for providence to shine again. I also think it’s one of the reasons the book has survived (besides Goldsmith being a wonderfully easy writer to read). The reader comes to the end of this book with a similar feeling of hope and a trust that things may well turn out for the best.

Besides the book's pre-occupation with the importance of hope, it is very possible to tell that Goldsmith was under Johnson’s influence. There are variations of Johnson’s, ‘moving from hope to hope’ and my personal favourite of ‘the sole aim of a writer is to help the reader to enjoy or endure life’. It’s a fun book to search for Johnson quotes (if you have the time).

There is much more that could be said about The Vicar of Wakefield, it is a text that seems almost uniquely interpretable by any reader. It is also an eighteenth century book that I think could be picked up and read without much exposure to the time as it is so smoothly written.

We at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle enjoyed the book as our light summer read and it does work as such. The next time we meet will be on a trip to that most exotic of cities, the place with more canals then Venice - Birmingham.

Wednesday 20 June 2018

Review: The Dunciad Variorum by Alexander Pope

Strap yourselves in dear reader - this one’s a beast.

Not with less glory mighty Dulness crown’d,
Shall take thro’ Grubstreet her triumphant round,
And Her Parnassus glancing o’er at once,
Behold a hundred sons, and each one a Dunce.

Me included, I suppose.

It could be said that The Dunciad is the third in the Scriblerus Trilogy; which also include the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus and Peri Bathous - but then, a lot could be said about The Dunciad.

For a start, how do you know when you’ve read it? There’s the original anonymous Dunciad, the Dunciad Variorum and the later four volume Dunciad in which the King of the Dunces is no longer Tibbald but Colley Cibber. I expect the confusion is part of the point. Pope was very calculating in what he released to the public and how. In this case, he released the first Dunciad so he could gather attacks and responses in which to include in the Dunciad Variorum. 

It was that version I decided to read, and was instantly presented with a problem. Notes. Chuck Zerby in The Devil’s Details: A History of the Footnote (which I really need to review on here at some point) estimated that the 358 lines of poetry is swallowed by roughly 7,000 lines of notes. It is near impossible to sit and read the poem, as it's so swamped in various other kinds of textual analysis. Which again, is probably the point.

Many of the notes are included by the fictional Martinus Scriblerus, meaning that this is another satire on bad learning. In this case, it’s particularly the fledgling art of textual analysis that is under fire - and more particular of all, a certain Lewis Theobald. Called Tibbald in the poem, he had tried his hand at most forms of writing with moderate success until he tried his hand at Shakespeare scholarship. This book was Shakespeare Restored, in which he highlighted, commented and fixed the many problems with Pope’s own (rather slapdash) edition of the national playwright. So Scriblerus’ swamping the poem with petty and pedantic notes are Pope’s comment on the petty and pedantic nature of Theobald (and scholars like him).

Pope also uses the chance to kick the people he doesn’t like - and to just keep sticking that boot in. It’s vicious.

Beginning with an advertisement and a letter to the publisher, the kicks start quickly. 
   ‘The first objection I have heard made to the Poem is, that the persons are too obscure for Satyre.’ That’s nasty, and it’s a theme developed throughout this letter. Pope claims that he is doing the Dunces a service in attacking them, ‘it is only in this monument that they must expect to survive’ - a prediction mostly proved correct by time. He says another objection may be that it is unsporting that he, as a rich man, attacks ones who are poor. His response is that these writers might not be so poor had they written better. Finally, he says that he is not being cruel because of their obscurity or poverty, but for their Folly and Dulness. Besides, Pope says, they were mean to him first.

  The next part are a collection of testimonials. At first these are from established and well regarded people who praise both Pope and his works. Then they are from the Dunces praising Pope in other works, and then quote the Dunces condemning Pope for the same things they formerly praised him for (such as his smooth lines). It would take a more careful read and (heaven forfend) more notes to properly get the ins and outs - but the gist is that the Dunces don’t really know what constitutes as good or not.

Then finally, after some Homeric ‘arguments’, we get to the poem. It’s easy to forget there’s a poem in this poem.

And this is where I got stuck for two days.

It’s... a poem. 

Written in Pope’s favoured heroic couplets, the first part describes the Goddess Dulness, whose great champion Elkanah Settle had died.(This fantastically named not-Dickens character was a playwright and Dunstable native who nearly had a Wetherspoons named after him until they remembered Gary Cooper went to school there and named it after him instead.) Dulness has to emerge from her cave of poverty and poetry and descend on “th’ imperial seat of fools”(London) to find a new king. She settles on Tibbald because of his “motley Images” and “Mob of Metaphors”.

To be fair to the poem, it does sound grand and elevated. Were you not to listen to the words, it would seem a mighty deity and her champion were being described but on closer inspection it is pure piss-take. Pope varies his rhythms with some lovely alliteration such as the Dulness being “Laborious, heavy, busy, bold and blind’. 

The second section, which is the best, is the Olympic style competitions and parades to celebrate the new coronation. There’s a race in which two booksellers Curll (who we’ve dealt with here before) and Lintot chase a poet to catch his works, which are literally shitting out of him. Although Lintot ignores ‘the brown dishonours of his face’, it is Curll who catches him. 

Curll then engages in a literal pissing contest with another bookseller, Chetham. The latter bookseller's stream “flies in his own face” whereas Curll’s arcs in a great ‘smoaking’ ‘burning’ arc - a lovely venereal disease reference there. Then there’s the tickling race, where the authors tickle and flatter potential investors. Then there’s a game for the critics where they have to prove the loudness of their asinine braying over good works - Richard Blackmore wins that.

Next comes the most famous bit, the part where gazette (read newspaper) writers dive into the Fleet ditch, London’s most notorious open sewer that “rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames”. (The Dr Johnson Reading Circle habitually eat pizza in a place built over the still flowing, though less repulsive, Fleet). John Dennis in ‘naked Majesty’ dives in but goes missing. Smedly dives in and also disappears. Welsted dives in, arms a-flailing and seems to win until with a thunder-crack Smedly reappears ‘in majesty of mud’ with a story of how he swam down to Hell itself. He wins the prize of being Dulness’s priest.

Finally, Richard Blackmore and Orator Henley have a bore-off, and everyone falls asleep.

The third section is probably the densest. Tibbald, in his boredom inspired sleep, drifts to the underworld where he is chosen as the Messiah of Dulness by previous incumbent, Elkanah Settle. Here he sees visions of how Dulness has increased in the world. He is shown the burning of Alexandra’s Library, the invasions of Goths and Vandals and the Mongols over the Great Wall of China. 

Then he is shown visions of the future, where the new Mount Parnassus will be established in Grub Street. He is shown future Dunces like Theo Cibber before looking at the present. In this time, scholars are creating useless books ‘never to be read’ and tubthumping preachers like Henley preach nonsense. He views current theatre owners like Colley Cibber (King in a future version) and Jonathan Rich, who create nonsense where ‘whales sport in woods and dolphins in the skies’ and the human race hatch from one egg.

Finally, he is shown the future apocalypse of Dulness where ‘universal darkness covers all’. From which Tibbald wakes with joy and the poem is over.

But the Dunciad isn’t.

There are still the Errata, where Pope corrects his mistakes in petty ways. For example, in the poem he derides Ned Ward for owning a pub in the City but corrects his error - the pub is actually just outside the City. 

Then he includes an earlier introduction, just as belittling as the first.

Then he includes an indexed list of all the publications that have attacked Pope - a collection Pope owned and read, so he could get his revenge on such people.

Then a version of Caxton’s introduction to Virgil (why?), then some stuff in Latin I can’t read, then a nearly twenty year old article where the author complains that Pope’s pastorals aren’t rustic or dumb enough.

Next come comparisons between insults made of (recognised great poet) Dryden and the same insults made of Pope - so that Pope looks like the next Dryden. 

And finally comes an official list of Pope’s works and a signed affidavit that Pope wrote the Dunciad.

And I haven’t even gone into the footnotes yet.

The notes are a joke in themselves, but also frequently explain the jokes in the poem itself. They also contain their own put downs and jokes. For example, Dennis is described as having public schemes that have been ‘kept private’ - AKA, not good enough to use. Tibbald is described as being the author of many works, and even more letters praising those works. Even poor Eusden, the poet Laureate, is described as having works that rarely offend “but by their length and multitude.”

If anyone took a jackhammer to crack a nut, it was Alexander Pope.

Of course, Norman Inkpen in his Shit Jokes - A Study of Scatological Humour’ has a lot to say about this poem. Pope revels in the bodily fluids, he also seems to revel in the people he hates. From his folder of targets, to the sheer weight of insult and cruelty he throws at his Dunces, he is clearly inspired by them. 

The Dunciad is obviously unfair to its targets. Included for ridicule are people like Daniel Defoe and Eliza Haywood who developed the novel, people like Ned Ward who captured the voice of the age, even critics like Dennis and poor Tibbald (or Lewis Theobald to give him his real name) , who pioneered modern techniques of criticism and close reading. In many ways, Pope is on the wrong side of history. What he calls Dulness, we call modernity and what he calls Chaos, we call relativism, and a more nuanced way of analysing. Despite this, Pope manages to argue from that wrong side with more savage brio and panache than many have ever been able to on the right side. What would he say of today?..

See Dan Brown hide clues that shine bright as day
 And EL James dissolve in Shades of Grey
Spawn of dark world where vampires glitter
Celebrity bards dive in the shitter.

If anyone wants to read more about the Dunciad, there’s a brilliant, insightful and far shorter article by John Mullen where he describes the poem as ‘a bestiary for Pope’s enemies’.

Wednesday 13 June 2018

Review/Trip: Hogarth's Peregrinations (and my own)

On Friday the 26th of May 1732, the thirty-four year old Hogarth went to the pub with four friends. They had such a good night out that they decided to carry it on, ending up on a five day romp around Kent. When they returned, they compiled a little document to remember it by.

On Sunday, the 27th of May 2018, the thirty-two year old me went on a three day romp with three friends around Devon. I took with me the little document of Hogarth’s and also created one of my own.

The original manuscript was twenty pages long, written by Ebenezer Forrest, illustrated by Hogarth and Samuel Scott. His brother-in-law, John Thornhill provided a map of the journey and William Tothill presents the accounts.

Being an impromptu jolly, the boys only stopped to collect their cash and clothes before jumping on a boat from Billingsgate. There they drank some more and Hogarth posted a caricature of a porter on the wall. Then, at 1AM they took a boat to Gravesend. They had breakfast and walked to Rochester, stopping for a paltry three beers. 

Having drunk and walked, they decided to have one of those large eighteenth century meals consisting of, "A Dish of Soles & Flounders with Crab Sauce, a Calves heart Stuff'd And Roasted ye Liver Fry'd and the other appurtenances Minc'd, a Leg of Mutton Roasted, and Some Green pease, all Very Good and well Dress'd, with Good Small beer and excellent Port.” 

The next few days were filled with sightseeing, drawing (with Hogarth acquiring crowds to watch him) and quite a few play fights. These fights often involve sticks and dung - one of which started when Hogarth had a shit on a grave and the others, thinking this wasn’t respectful, spanked him with nettles.

Samuel Scott was probably the most prickly. After hiding from a rain shower in a slimy bush, he was not happy to have to clean his coat and panicked to find he’d nearly lost his wife’s handkerchief.

The odd grump aside, the friends piled back to London and into The Bedford Arms in Covent Garden “in the same Good Humour wee left it to Set out in this Very Pleasant Expedition.” The five remained friends ever after, Forrest keeping the book and occasionally pulling it out and reminiscing together. 

A little later, when Hogarth and other members had died, William Gostling borrowed the original copy of the peregrinations and turned it into (fairly shaky) Hudibrastic verse. To be fair, it doesn’t add much to the original prose account.

The copy I had included these and all the illustrations, which are a great part of the whole thing. Included at the end, was a picture by Hogarth of ‘no-body’ a man all head an no body, clutching tools and booze. Here it is…

As for my peregrination - four of us traveled to the small town of Crediton, birthplace of St Boniface where we stayed with one of our friend’s parents. 

On that first day we had a few gentle pints and explored the town. Crediton had been Devon’s chief town before Exeter overcame it and so contains an 800 year old cathedral that was later de-cathedral-ised. A big, musty building, it contained the tomb of Sir John de Sully. He was a knight with the most amazing career ever. Dying at the age of 106 in 1387, he had fought at Bannockburn and went into the 100 years war, including Crecy, Poiters and, at the age of 79 still fought alongside the Black Prince in Rheims. 

The next day was the main one. We travelled to Barnstable and from there, traveled to Exeter along the Tarka Line and drank 12 pints from 12 pubs. Our trip also included outside shits, little moments of grumpiness, lots of singing (mainly Pogues), some darts, some pool and all sorts of hi-jinks.

I also turned the event into a poem - and I may slip that poem in this article at some point.

Alas, none of us were Hogarth, but photos were taken and memories had. We also returned to London, tired but (oddly) not hungover, having had a lovely peregrination of our own.

Wednesday 6 June 2018

Review: No Surrender by Constance Maud

There was a documentary on the suffragettes on the BBC a few days ago and with it being 100 years from the granting of (limited) women’s suffrage, it seemed appropriate to break out of the eighteenth century a moment and post this. No Surrender is one of very few novels written by a participant of the movement.

I was worried at first - the initial chapter is set in a fictional Lancashire town with a group of characters talking in a stagey Lancashire dialogue. I’m not a fan of complaining northerners at the best of times, but the twenty pages of ‘oop gan em on t’mill’ felt interminable. Luckily, the action moves down south.

Although it is a polemical work, it also managed to be comic at times and harrowing at others. I watched the 2015 film ‘Suffragette’ immediately after finishing the book and although No Surrender and that film shared a sense of women joining as part of a cause, this book highlighted a sense of joy and playfulness. Constance Maud was chiefly a novelist of farce, and this plays best in scenes where suffragettes sit in a church in suffragette colours and freak out a group of cabinet ministers, or when they crash a posh dinner party.

It was fascinating hearing the arguments of the suffragettes and the anti-suffragettes. It was also interesting to learn about the suffragists, who were the less radical wing of the ‘votes-for-women’ brigade. It was clear that those against the votes were worried about women as an unknown quality - and that the women thought the vote would be the key to solving all women’s oppression. From a period, just over a hundred years later, when women have received the vote but not solved the inequality - there’s both a hope and sadness that comes from the desires of the women in their cause together.

The earlier scenes in prison were unpleasant, and the later ones more unpleasant still, yet the fire of purpose and the community of fellow sufferers raises those horrible scenes. Yes, the women are humiliated, strapped down and fed Bovril through their nose - but the last chapter, where the women march past together, makes it seem that they endure for a reason.

Those dreams are not fully realised a hundred years later, but I think Constance Maud would look at the world with a much needed jolt of positivity.