Wednesday 31 July 2019

Review: His Last Fire by Alix Nathan

I often read the book reviews on The Guardian website because they aren’t hidden behind a pay wall. On the same day they had a very intriguing novel set in The Panacean Society in Bedford (review coming soon) and a novel called ‘The Warlow Experiment’. This second book seemed very interesting because it was essentially about an experiment on an ornamental hermit. The review also said the novel was a little flabby and the story was told better as a short story in ‘His Last Fire’ - so I got that instead.

All of the stories are set at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. They mostly revolve around the ideas swirling in this age of revolution, whether they be scientific, political or sociological. It’s a patchwork quilt of unrest. Pretty much every character has a copy of ‘The Rights of Man’ nestled in a coat pocket or tucked on a bookshelf. The themes of liberty against order are prominent in many of the stories, whether its children torn from parents after rioting, plotting to kill the king, or accidentally crippling a man in a riot.

I do have some trouble with short stories, I find they end just when I am getting into them and I found that the case in this collection. Many of the stories and many of the paragraphs begin with the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’, it can be up to a page in a five page story till the reader discovers who this ‘he’ or ‘she’ is. By the time the story had introduced who the story was about, I found it was almost time to read the next one.

One of the reason for this plethora of pronouns is the fondness for reoccurring characters. I think the idea is that there’s a little delay in introducing the character so that I, as a reader, feel a little jolt of pleasure when someone from a previous story is revealed to be the protagonist of this one. The trouble is, the book is so coy about introducing its characters, that remembering who’s who takes a fair bit of work.

One of the stories that runs through the collection is the tragedy of Ellen and her son John. Following repercussions after the Gordon Riots, Ellen dresses as a tinker to escape the authorities. Her husband also runs and their son John is left behind. There’s a story where the aged ‘tinker’ Ellen is taken in and cared for by Nancy (who appears or is mentioned in other stories). There’s another story where John takes part in the Spithead Mutiny and later goes in search of the woman he loves who he narrowly misses. Mother, son, lover and all sorts of other characters keep missing each other. We get a picture of a world in mess and disorder with no happy endings for certain.

Nancy also appears in a story about Hadfield, who once tried to assassinate George III at a theatre and was deemed lunatic and sent to Bedlam. In this story, he feigns madness after his plot fails due to some badly cast bullets. His comrades in arms also have stories about them. We also meet Hadfield in another story about a man being sent to a lunatic asylum (in which Hadfield is an inmate). The man is an eccentric peer with a mania for collecting who we were introduced to in a story where he falls in love with two Lapp women he brought back as ‘souvenirs’ from a tour of Lapland. His experience in the lunatic asylum sends him into full madness. 

The interweaving of the stories is both interesting and exhausting, there is simply not enough room to assimilate all the people and plots. I’m not surprised that two of Alix Nathan’s full novels are expansions of characters from this collection, there are hints at a whole career in this book which would be exhilarating if any of it had room to breathe. 

The two stories that inspired ‘The Warlow Experiment’ were probably my favourite. I could relax because they didn’t link in to any of the other stories and I found the subject fascinating. A man called Powyss creates an experiment which reminded me a little of Thomas Day’s attempt to create a perfect wife. This experiment is to isolate a man called Warlow in a suite of rooms under his house and to study human resilience. Warlow is a volunteer and his family are paid well for his participation and there are some really interesting questions raised about how much he can be said to volunteer given the poverty that forces him to accept.

What I found most interesting is that Warlow was essentially an un-ornamental hermit. He has to stay for the standard seven years, can’t cut his hair or nails, is given food and books and left alone. Though literate, he’s not literate enough to understand the books he has been left and essentially is trapped in a windowless room with nothing but his own memories of sun and soil. It’s chilling and well explored.

The title story was probably my least favourite. A man with a love of fire makes a living by torching rich houses, stealing what he can and then rescuing the inhabitants for possible reward. This is a really interesting set-up. He then falls in love with a maid and, when he goes to rescue her, she realises that he started the fire. Telling her that no-one will believe her and that she’ll be out on her own, he blackmails her into marrying him. He justifies it to himself that her marrying him will save him from his arsonist ways - we never learn what happens next.

All in all, this is a very interesting collection and Alix Nathan is an author I will seek out again, if just to see what she can do with the room to develop all the intriguing ideas and characters that feel so rushed and garbled as they are presented here.

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Review: Amelia by Henry Fielding

‘Amelia’ was a book written by Henry Fielding only two years after the publication of ‘Tom Jones’ but it’s so very different in tone and purpose that it could seem to be from a different author. The book started a paper war which included people like Christopher Smart, Tobias Smollett and John Hill. It’s also a novel which hasn’t had the life of fame of Fielding’s other books. I was a little nervous of this novel, hearing of its grim and dour tone. I also had experience with this book, having tried it twice and not managed to get past the second book (of twelve).

Where the main takeaway from this book tends to be the dramatic shift in tone so shortly after ‘Tom Jones’, what is most interesting are the many experiments that Fielding tries in the novel, the first of which was the reason I had so much difficulty reading the book on my first two attempts. Despite the title, the first book doesn’t feature Amelia at all but introduces us to William Booth, his incarceration in Newgate and his meeting with Miss Matthews, a former lover. The second and third books consist of Booth telling the story of how he met and married Amelia and the people who helped and hindered them on the way. 

The fact is, that these three books consist of one-hundred-and-fifty pages of almost constant telling. Lacking the comic subject matter, the telling is fairly average eighteenth-century storytelling and rather lacklustre compared to the joy that is ‘Tom Jones’. However, in the next few books, we meet the characters we had been told about in Booth’s story and they are not exactly as described. Booth described Amelia as full of emotion but with an inner strength whereas, when she comes ‘on stage’ is a fluttering, flustered and emotional mess; Booth’s best friend is rather more creepy and uncertain than he first appears, and Dr Harrison, the noble advisor, is rather pricklier and more censorious then pictured. Those first pages were not just simple telling but a very interesting form of showing, the reader is being shown how Booth’s ability to read the characters around him is deeply flawed.

From then on, the reader spends the rest of the book in the knowledge that nobody is quite what they seem. We were aware that the book had ideas in this direction from the beginning, as Booth is let into Newgate, the characters inside were equally duplicitous but now we are on the alert for such behaviour outside Newgate as well. Those early chapters in Newgate were really well written as well, the short pen-sketches of the inmates have a vivacity that points to Dickens, it’s such a pity Fielding doesn’t get his Dickens pen out for any of the main characters.

…And that’s the key flaw of the book. Fielding is a comic writer to his very marrow but his worldview has changed so much, and the intention for the novel is so different that he can’t play to his strengths. There is the usual intrusive narrator but it doesn’t intrude enough, and those intrusions don’t have any of the playfulness, bombast or sly wit that they do in Fielding’s other works. An intrusive narrator without those things serves more as a hinderance to the book and serve to drag it down.

The book works better when it is dealing in facades and masks. Fielding is very good at showing a character who seems to have the best intentions but then showing the little slips that reveal something more. Miss Matthews, at the beginning is clearly not following Booth’s story the way he intends it to be heard, Sir James (Booth’s ‘great’ friend) lets slip moments of his selfishness and lasciviousness, the kindly landlady, Mrs Ellinson acts suspiciously erratically - and the reader is trained to watch out for these slips of masks.

What doesn’t work as well are the characters who are supposed to be sincere. Aside from the fact that almost no-one in this world is, the people who are, are mostly uninteresting. Amelia was based on Fielding’s wife Charlotte, just as Sophia in Tom Jones was but Sophia was opinionated and took action whereas Amelia is a sappy, dull swoon machine. Booth is a little more interesting, and I could imagine Tom Jones growing up to be him but like Tom, he’s so very stupid and fails to spot the most obvious traps which makes him hard to root for also.

There are some good little moments; the writer in the sponging house who is lazy because he sometimes only writes for five hours a day (and is also near illiterate), the very surprising praise for dancing masters who teach people who not to make their limbs a burden and Mrs Ellinson’s comment that “I would rather leave out the first two syllables of ‘gentleman’ than the last”. I was amused that Raneleigh was a terrible place of debauch but Vauxhall was almost heaven on Earth - because Fielding was friends with Vauxhall’s owner. I also enjoyed the overtly comic wrap-up informing us what happened to everyone, even if it didn’t fit the overall tone of the book.

In trying to branch out into a serious tale of social issues (and almost universal depravity), Fielding made a bold experiment which didn’t quite come off. Had he lived, this book may be seen as an important transitioning work to a darker, deeper set of novels which made the genre a more complex and flexible form. As he wrote relatively little and died shortly after, this novel only shows a great writer not quite hitting his mark.

Wednesday 17 July 2019

PC, Politeness, Panaceans and Goldsmith’s ‘Enquiry’.

I might have been dismissive of Goldsmith’s analysis in his ‘An Enquiry Concerning into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe’. To be fair I am dismissive of most grand, overarching theories. I once wrote an essay for my degree in which I ridiculed Hegel, coming up with three different, and increasingly ridiculous ways to explain the changes in tragedy that he explained through his big theory.
Yet, Goldsmith’s notion of an age of poets, philosophers, then critics can (I think) be applied to the eighteenth century notion of politeness. The original idea was that people are like rocks with sharp edges and their rubbing up against each other in polite conversation would smooth them, helping individuals and society.
By the time we meet the Panacean Society and their politeness-based road to heaven, those ideals had been codified into strict and peculiar rules about not scraping forks on plates, avoiding noisy toast-munching and putting lots of cherries in cakes. The aim of this was to be ‘comfortable to live with’, a very similar aim to that espoused by the original enthusiasts of politeness but the rule-makers had come in and sprinkled their magic. For the Panaceans, adhering to the very letter of the laws was vitally important, a key component in the process of Overcoming, the act of self-improvement which would lead to God’s kingdom on Earth.
Political correctness seems to be a renaissance in the original notions of politeness. The aim towards careful thinking about speech to oil the gears and smooth the paths of an increasingly varied and multicultural society seems a necessity in the modern age. Like the increased urbanisation and population density required something like politeness, so globalisation requires something like political correctness. 
But have we reached its critic age? The original poets and philosophers who originated the notions in the seventies and eighties are either dying out or falling foul of the ideas they originated. Are we at the pinkie-out, covering-table-leg stage of political correctness? I have no idea but if it follows the pattern of politeness, that stage is certainly on the way.
One of Goldsmith’s biggest gripes is the effect of critics and rule-bringers on the realm of comedy. From the beginning of his career in the ‘Enquiry’ to the end with ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ he maintained a belief that comedy had been ruined by politeness and the key weapon the critic had against comedy was that it was ‘low’.’By the power of one monosyllable’ any attempt to poke fun at the absurdities and pretensions of life is quashed.
Something similar could be said about the word ‘problematic’. In an earlier age of political correctness, when the desire is to communicate without needless offence and unthinking smallness of vision, then something outside that could indeed be a problem; but in an age of rules, then something problematic is simply outside of those rules. With that simple quadrisyllable a person can be no-platformed.

Goldsmith’s signs of an apocalypse include lengthening books (and I would add to this, lengthening films - does it really take three hours to tell of superheroes twatting each other in the face?) The other signs were the evil tripartite of dictionaries, commentaries and compilations. How many websites, blogs and video series (including this one) consist of these three things? A great many I would say… I think Goldsmith would be very nervous for us.

Wednesday 10 July 2019

Review: ‘An Enquiry Into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe’ by Oliver Goldsmith

‘An Enquiry Into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe’ was Oliver Goldsmith’s first large original work. He’d been serialising Voltaire and writing a few bits and pieces for magazines whilst trying to establish a medical practice (which failed) and working as a teaching assistant (he hated it). 

The book came out to a couple of snide reviews and very little public response. He would later claim that audiences actively made an effort not to know when he had something out. Even today, modern Goldsmith writers tend not to focus on this work and even flag-wavers for him like Robert Hopkins (who wrote a book about his secret genius) don’t have much to say about it. Not the most enticing of books then.

First off, I must say that I didn’t find it as dull as the title makes it sound. The first line kicks off with something true and fun; 
“It has been so long the practice of representing literature as declining, that every renewal of this complaint now come with diminished influence.”

Isn’t that just the truth? I see the democratisation on the internet as pretty analogue to the explosion of print culture in the early-mid eighteenth century. For the first time, many who wouldn’t have had the opportunity to write can make themselves heard, with much of it being absolute rubbish, some of it being absolute gold and the old guard distressed about all of it. Goldsmith is a little disingenuous here though, as he represents himself as that old guard even though he is nothing of the sort.

He goes on to say that while he agrees that there is a lot of bad writing around, invective and diatribe are not going to help as much as reasoned and decent analysis. Again, he’s not being completely honest, this is very much invective and diatribe cunningly(ish) described as analysis. So much emphasis has been put on Goldsmith’s easy readability that I think readers have often missed the little shards of irony that he imbeds in most of his work, including this one.

His ‘analysis’ is that great literature starts at a general stage by people he calls ‘poets’. These people are original thinkers, they obtain their ideas from nature, from the observation of people and the world and they put them down in ways that feel natural to them. 

The next stage features people he calls ‘philosophers’, they systematise the works of poets, develop nascent ideas, expand, expound and generally focus the work of the people before them. 

The third stage is that of the ‘critics’. They take the work of poets and philosophers, split them up, grind them down and turn them into arbitrary rules. An age of critics is one of decline.

He sees the late scholastic period as one of critics, as the bright poets and philosophers of the classical era are chopped up and systematised. He feels that true literature is led by feeling and observation of the real world and that all the rules imposed by critics diluted the original vision. Genius must be allowed to break rules and follow its own inclination.

“The ignorance of the age was not owing to a dislike of knowledge but a false standard of taste was erected”

It’s not that there aren’t geniuses in these declining ages but that their genius is pushed into stale tracks. Ways to spot an age of decline included lengthening books (“Were angels to write books, they would not write folios"), and the evil tripartite of dictionaries, commentaries and compilations. He didn’t yet know Samuel Johnson (who had finished his dictionary four years before) nor did he then know he would spend most of his career writing compilations.

Following his ‘analysis’, he then goes on to cursorily summarise the learning in various European countries, which I will summarise even more cursorily. 

Italy: Not good, and Dante is overrated.
Germany: Keen, but into the wrong stuff. “If criticism could have improved a people, the Germans would have been the most polite nation alive.”
Holland: Copies everyone else.
Spain: Useless.
Sweden: Nothing good yet but maybe soon.
Denmark: One man does all the good work there.
France: Doing well. The French are too arrogant to care too deeply about criticism. They treat writers well, neither starving them or overfeeding them and making them fat and useless. They write wittily with a lot of style but most that only pretties up ugly thinking - he compares it to make-up on a corpse.
The United Kingdom: At the moment, it could go either way. They starve writers when they are unknown but fatten them up to much once they find success. Besides, what writers really need to work best is praise and attention and they (or more particularly, Goldsmith) is not getting enough of that at the moment.

Critics, that sign of the armageddon, are breeding in the United Kingdom, they’ve already killed comedy, declaring comic subjects as ‘low’ and so not worthy of attention. Goldsmith argues that comedy and humour are all about the low, as the chief cause of laughter is recognising where someone is beneath us. That is not to say we should punch down, laughing at something that could happen to anybody is not funny, but seeing how a person lowers themselves through ridiculous behaviour is. His peculiar example is that a man with no nose is not funny (as we could all lose a nose) but a man with no nose who buys an elaborate snuff-box is (as why would a man with no nose want a snuff-box?). Interestingly, this passionate fondness for laughing comedy would last right through his career.

Finally, Goldsmith’s thoughts on theatre - it’d be fine if it wasn’t for actors, audiences and theatres. (To be fair, there was a tradition of reading plays for pleasure that doesn’t really exist anymore).

This isn’t a work of in-depth analysis, though it does have some killer lines and spark some interesting ideas. His view of the purpose of writing, ‘to be either amusing or useful’ is very close to Johnson’s, ‘to enable readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it.” There’s another sentence which caught my eye and I will use for a future ‘Under the Glass’.

Finally, there is one of the best advice I can think of for writers, “Let us, instead of writing finely, try to write naturally.”

Wednesday 3 July 2019

'She Stoops to Conquer' by Oliver Goldsmith at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

The heat was scorching and the wine moved into the reading room - it was script time at Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle. Our last script had been ‘School for Scandal’, which had to be finished in the pizza place between bites, so we got immediately underway to finish the play in the allotted time. The clock was ticking.

The original plan had been to cut parts of the script but the play turned out to be so tightly written that the only thing that could be removed without changing the plot was a short song. However, this tightness also meant that we could clip along at a decent pace, would that be enough?

Last time, we had been cast against type, this time the actors were typecast. Mr Hardcastle and Sir Charles Marlow were played by a number of statesmanlike performers, a proper actor took the lead, Kate and Constance ran rings around the men and I got to play a red-faced oik. It was a part I found myself more suited to as glasses of red wine slipped down.

Goldsmith wrote ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ as a laughing comedy, hoping to throw off the shackles of the polite, sentimental comedy that had been ruling the stage. I think he succeeded. There were chuckles throughout, but the first big laughs happened in the scene where Mr Hardcastle attempted to train his rural servants in their proper duties. The lines are quick and funny, a trait exacerbated by the fact that the servants hadn’t been cast and people jumped in with their best yokel voices. 

The play starts at pace and accelerates throughout. The actors, fresh to the text, sight reading for their lives managed to prance along, even with their tongues loosened by wine. As the characters talked at cross purposes, and lines piled on lines even eyeballs sweated at the effort. 

The plot is a classic (i.e largely plagiarised) tale of deception and confusion. Two young men, Marlow and Hastings, travel to the countryside so that Hastings can spirit away his beloved Constance and so Marlow can woo Kate, a task he does not relish in the least. Marlow has a problem, he is free to play and joke with women of a class beneath him but becomes acutely self-conscious when talking to a woman of his own class. This leads to an extremely funny scene where stammers and burbles out turgid nothings to Kate as she teases him by constantly pulling him back into the conversation.

The two men arrive at the stolid Mr Hardcastle’s house on the misapprehension that it’s an inn. They proceed to treat the old man terribly, throwing their weight around and muttering about the old boor of an ‘innkeeper’ who insists on following them around telling them dull stories about the Duke of Marlborough. This mistake also means that Marlow mistakes Kate (who is wearing a different dress from before) as a barmaid and manages a far freer conversation. The task remains for Kate to encourage Marlow to be free with her real self, for Hastings to steal away with Constance (and her jewels) and for no-one to get punched in the process. 

Goldsmith toiled on the play in a rural retreat in Islington, remarking on what a serious expression he had wandering the fields and coming up with jokes. While many of the jokes landed, of particular note is Mr Hardcastle’s view on politics, which is just as true today as then;
“There was a time, indeed, I fretted myself about the mistakes of government, like other people; but finding myself every day grow more angry, and the government growing no better, I left it to mend itself.”

According to his sister, part of the plot was inspired by an incident in the young Goldsmith’s life. As a schoolboy he had obtained a guinea and determined to make the most of it, he’d gone into town and asked for ‘the best house’. Either through confusion or waggery, he’d been pointed to a well-to-do family rather than an inn and had proceeded to treat them with the same insolence portrayed in the play. He only found out the next morning when he asked to pay his bill. Like many stories about Goldsmith, it’s a good-un but can’t be completely relied on.

Goldsmith can be relied on for a good tale though and we were joyfully carried along by the play.
Some of the members had studied the ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ in school and were apprehensive about it, remembering tedious hours raking the text for jokes. However, with friendly company and a game cast, the jokes kept popping up and we got to the end thoroughly satisfied, we even finished on time.

So the year ended pleasantly with a lot of laughs. Our theatrical endeavours continue in August with a trip to Stratford Upon Avon and the regular session begin again in October to talk about Henry Fielding’s ‘Joseph Andrews’. Everyone is welcome.