Wednesday 27 July 2022

Review: The Art of Ingeniously Tormenting by Jane Collier

I’ve read Jane Collier’s An Essay on Ingeniously Tormenting a number of times but never reviewed it, so I thought I’d read it again and see what I have to say. it’s a brilliant idea, putting a satirical spin on two of the most popular genres for eighteenth-century, middle-class readers, the morally improving book and the ‘art of…’ format of ‘how to’ books. It’s a more subtle work than a simple ‘how to be nasty’ kind of work, it’s the art of ‘ingeniously tormenting’ and it is rather ingenious. 

My copy includes the ‘advertisement to the reader’ from the second edition which explains there not being many additions to the work because the author was taught “if you have nothing to say, don’t say it”, a maxim I wish more writers would adhere to. it also explains that she is not going to pad out the beginning with complementary letters she’s received, it’s not that she hasn’t received them, it’s that people are so full of “good nature and universal benevolence” that they’d assume the letters were made up. To be fair, such letters often were. 

The book then goes through numerous relationships, explaining how to torment best within them. it’s interesting to note that until the chapter on friends at the end, those relationships all have unbalanced power structures and the tormentor is always the powerful one. As much as I’d have liked a sequel about how the less empowered could torment those above them, it’s fitting that this book aims only at those with power already, as it’s really an attack on domestic abuse of power.

Tormenting isn’t about causing great harm, it’s not a deep jab with a knife but gently prodding the victim to “waste by degrees”. An ingenious tormentor starts of nicely, sets themselves up as friend or kindly employer before wearing the victim down. Raised expectations of kindness not only create more pain when they are let down, but mask the tormenting as it begins. Kindness exists in the book’s conception of the world but it is a rare commodity to be spent frugally and for specific purposes.

Examples of this include nursing a sick servant through bad health so that the tormentor can use that debt of gratitude at every moment after. Not that it matters so much when a servant is bullied into leaving, they are a commodity that can be easily replaced. If the tormentor has taken in a poor woman out of charity, there are two ways to go. The pretty ones can be teased about their looks and stupidity, infantilised, talked down to and treated as a pretty little pet. The smart, ugly ones can be given the “usual” insults given to smart women, make sure to call her a “wit” often.

Children are great. Not only can they be tormented, and actually have less legal recourse than anyone else in society, but they can be raised to torment others and even themselves. “Breed them up properly, to be a torment to themselves if they live, and a plague to all your acquaintance.” The key to this is doting neglect, let the children do anything and have anything they want. Only punish them about inconsequential things, like getting muddy or losing a bow and only hit them when you’re angry. There’s a whole section in the book about how to ‘accidentally’ kill unwanted children without losing a kindly reputation or being executed for murder - it’s essentially to let children do all the risky/stupid things that come into their minds without stopping them. It’s most important to quash any signs of intelligence in children, “unless you can in some way to turn it to your profit”.

Lovers only get a paragraph, they torment each other with the same instinct they have “to perform the act of respiration.”

As for friends, the most equal relationship in the book, it’s all about picking the right ones. Many people may seem to be natural tormentees, talking of benevolence and friendship but they can’t be trusted. It’s when a friend is actually seen performing a good act that it’s clear they are tormentable. There are many ways to torment them; feign illness and ruin parties, tell others their secrets as if by accident, be alternately clingy and pushy - the right friend will take everything and come back for more.

This book gives many practical ways to torment those around and even includes an exemplar of a long weekend and how to ruin it for everyone. The best thing is how it ventriloquises the tormentors, giving specific insults to use and excuses to make. There’s a real sense that every piece of nastiness in the book has been observed by Jane Collier, whether to her or to someone else and she is loving every minute of playing the role of tormentor rather than victim. 

A fable at the end of the book recontextualises the whole book, taking away any feeling that the author is actually a nasty person and leaving a thoughtful sting. It’s about a poem signed with an L that perfectly encapsulates the moment a prey animal is savaged. Some thing the lion wrote it, or the leopard - but it’s actually the lamb, as only the prey can really understand the process of savaging. In this way it becomes clear that Jane Collier herself has been tormentee rather than tormentor and that this book is her revenge.

It’s a shame Jane Collier died so young, this is a really funny and confident work. Her only other piece was written with Sarah Fielding and called The Cry, which I’d absolutely love to read. She died the year after, having planned a sequel called The Laugh. I’d love to have more from her but she died when she was 40. It’s a real shame.

Wednesday 20 July 2022

My Month of Non-Fiction Books (About Parts of Books)

 In June I focused my reading on non-fiction books about aspects of the book (and also Gilbert White’s biography and book). Three of the books dealt with particular aspects of organisation within books, one about alphabetical order, another about indexes and another about footnotes. 

A Place for Everything by Judith Flanders is a history of alphabetical order.

What I found most interesting was how the slow adoption of alphabet order showed shifts in perspective. The early literate people in the Christian world were clergy, who believed in ‘the word’. The word ‘Deus’ wasn’t just a word meaning God but was a linguistic representation of God, so putting it in an alphabetical list where it comes after ‘Angels’ simply didn’t make sense, everyone knows God comes first. There needed to be a shift into viewing the words as simply words, consisting of letters that can be ordered. This shift of conception was aided by the technology of the printing press, whereas a word would be scribed, it was now constructed by moveable type.

Another interesting element was the development in specialised equipment that aids alphabetical ordering. You’d be surprised how interesting and complex the development of the card index or the filing cabinet are, not to mention the invention of the ring binder and shortly after, the hole punch. (Also as a complete aside, the Bodleian used to use the Vatican’s prohibited book list as a shopping list, knowing it’d turn up spicy stuff).

Where I disagree with the book is its insistence that alphabetical ordering is the most modern and best way of ordering information. It scorns mediaeval libraries arranged by topic and authoritative hierarchy (from Bible, to Church founders to later interpretation) despite the fact those libraries had, at most, fifty books and were arranged by the principals important to the library users. My own collection of books, far in excess of fifty, is organised by a complicated system of genre, chronology and my own personal intention for the books, whether I use them for reference, plan to read them soon, have read them recently &c. While alphabetical order is a useful way to organise data, it isn’t the only way and not necessarily the best way for every purpose. The book itself is not arranged alphabetically but chronologically with a thin veneer of the alphabet on top with chapters, A B C D E F G H I Y. Some of the alphabet is missed out there.

Index, a History of the, by Dennis Duncan is a book with a near perfect title. it covers many of Everything in its Place, a book about alphabetical order, it does so in a more conversational style. 

Both books talk about Grosseteste, the originator of the first (alphabetically ordered) index, but Duncan gives more of a biography and spends more time setting him in context beforehand. This means that the book, while more digressive than the alphabetical order one, is a more entertaining read.

There’s a pleasure in the bookish geekdom displayed in this book; whether that’s laughing at a monk called Hugh of Croydon, or experiencing ‘Stendhal syndrome’ (the awe of standing near something historic) from a book containing the first printed page number, it revels in it’s nerdiness. There were many fun details, like the manuscript perfectly copied, index and all, but the index doesn’t work because the paper size was different and none of the numbers led to the right page. Even funnier, some annoyed reader came along later, scraped the old numbers off and added new ones on. It also explains his awe at printed page numbers, an index wouldn’t really work until books were more standardised.

For an eighteenth-century nut, there were a lot of pleasures. There was a quote from the Grub St Journal, the century’s equivalent to Private Eye magazine. There was the introduction of indexes designed to mock a book, drawing attention to its sillier aspects, such as the one of the Transactions of the Royal Society which described the psychedelic after-effects of feeding his family ‘poppy pye’. There’s the wonderful old hack, Oldmixon, who was paid to index a history and used his position to undercut all the arguments in the history. There was also John Gay, who used the index in his poem Trivia to add jokes and clarifications, an idea that never really took off. Then there was the story about how Richardson (the dweeb), rather than writing a fourth novel, indexed the moral lessons in his other three, a work that he thought was greater than the novels himself. It was also revealed that Johnson, when quoting Richardson in his dictionary used the index rather than the novels themselves, judging by discrepancies between quotes in index and novel. Finally, there was the nineteenth century writer, Macauley, who made an index of all the tears in Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling. The index is described in this book as ‘more of a drinking game’ than an actual index but it has been reproduced in every copy since.

There’s a running theme in the book about the fears people had about indexes, that they were a cheater’s way to the knowledge of a book, that they’d make people stupider, that people would read indexes rather than the book itself. This arguments are now being used about computer search engines (which work more as a superfast concordance than an index itself) but it was interesting to see how such fears haven’t died.

The Devil’s Details by Chuck Zerby was the most entertaining of the books about the features of books I have read this month, though it’s probably the scantiest in information. Zerby is a partisan in favour of footnotes and he charts and celebrates their use while going off on various entertaining tangents.

It makes sense the book frequently digresses, as the author sees the pleasure and purpose of footnotes to be a pleasing interruption to a text. He gives a number of examples, including one where a heavy philosophical subject is enlivened by a metaphor in a footnote, he also talks about a man called Marcus who was stung to death by bees. Such a book looks pretty peculiar in my notes, there’s a cluster of stuff about a man called Bentley, who showed up in a satirical index war in Dennis Duncan’s Index, a history of the, in my notes Bentley is calling a colleague ‘an old shoe’ and shooting bullets into the study of another - I’m not sure if he was a big player in the actual footnote story though or just a source of funny stories in another footnote. (Another figure in both the index and footnote books is Norman Mailer, who is the victim of an index-based prank in one book and feeds a horse vodka in this one).

A large part of the book dramatises the invention of the first footnote, which is found in The Book of Job in the Bishop’s Bible of 1568, though he says (in a footnote) that he’ll give a slap-up meal to anyone who finds an earlier one, and include them in a footnote in a new edition. When I say it dramatises the invention, it goes whole hog. Zerby has read one book about criminal life in Elizabethan London and a few about printer’s houses and goes full reconstruction - then it includes a footnote to explain how some historical writers hate all the dramatising stuff but it’s his book and he wanted to do it. Essentially, footnotes weren’t useful in days of marginalia but now they’re a tidy way of adding extra details.

He talks about three heroes of the footnote; Bayle, who uses them as an ‘underworld’ to place the really interesting stuff, Gibbon, who made footnotes respectable but still digressive and Ranke, who made them boring citations and little more.

This author is very opinionated about his footnotes. They should add to the text, put different spins on it and give authority - they aren’t merely for citations. Even poems can be improved with them, as Aphra Behn did, using a footnote to contextualise a religious seeming poem into one about syphilis. Alexander Pope, however, used his footnotes wrong, using them to browbeat the text and make footnotes look bad. 

He is very passionate.

Don’t even get him started on modern publishing’s preference for endnotes.

In some ways this book reminded me of the ‘angry x reviewer’ characters on youtube a few years ago, an exaggerated take on the real writer and his fondness for footnotes, though maybe he is really like this. Who knows?

Wednesday 13 July 2022

Capybaras (and Goldsmith's History of the Natural World)

 My sister suggested this post to me while we were queuing for the Tomb Blaster ride in Chessington Word of Adventures. 

That morning we’d turned up to Chessington at eight in the morning, two hours before the park opened to feed some capybaras. We met our handlers and were taken through the empty park to the capybara enclosure to meet Victor, Timmy and Chesney. They share this enclosure with two tortoises who they cuddle up with at night, capybaras being very sociable creatures. They are pack animals though and poor old Chesney was the lowest ranked, probably because he had the silliest names.

We put on our plastic gloves, or at least, I tried to. Not only did I struggle into them but as I tried to force my sausage fingers into their proper position in the glove, the palm snapped. Then we took a bucket of carrots, sweet potatoes, normal potatoes and large cabbage leaves. The capybaras sidled up to us, with Victor picking me as his designated feeder. To hear the chomping, see the muscles in their mouths work, feel the sensitive whiskers on your hands and look into their narrow, blissed out eyes was really calming. Chesney-bullying notwithstanding, they had such a chill vibe it was impossible not to relax with them. I even got Victor and Timmy on the same cabbage leaf and watched them nibble into a Lady and the Tramp sort of situation. Our last job was to scatter remaining food for them to snaffle up as the day went on, then we left them to a relaxing day in the sunshine before we went to breakfast ourselves. Later, when the park opened, we saw more animals and rode rides, which brings us back to the queue for Tomb Blaster.

Faye asked me if anyone suitable for the blog had written about capybaras. Of course there are no mentions of them in mediaeval bestiaries as they hadn’t been discovered yet. The earliest European depiction of them was published in 1698 under the name capivard by Francis Folger. (Incidentally, the name capybara means ‘grass-master’, while their Latin name Hydrochoerus means water hog).

Johnson never mentioned the capybara (though he did do a spirited kangaroo impression) and Christopher Smart doesn’t mention them in Jubilate Agno (Let Adam Worship with the Capybaras, for they balance bliss and dignity.) However, Goldsmith did write about them.

Goldsmith spent much of his career writing compilations, popularisations and condensations of information aimed at a middle-class audience wishing to increase their knowledge. One of these was his History of the Natural World, which I managed to pick up at a school fair for 5p. Goldsmith was certainly no naturalist, his skill in the book is representing other people’s work in a readable and entertaining way. The book is most fun when he includes his own feelings and prejudices, whether it’s getting annoyed at do-gooding dolphins or devoting pages to the loyalty of dogs and a mere paragraph about the cat.

The capybara is in there, though it’s not the easiest to find, being listed in ‘animals of the hog kind’ rather then as a rodent. It’s clear that he’s never seen one but his description is a pretty straight parroting of other descriptions he’s read. He does notice though that, with its pointed snout, the capybara’s face is more like a rabbit or hare. He also calls attention to the feet, which are partially webbed.

Goldsmith then goes on to talk about its habits. That capybaras sometimes bray like donkeys but mainly snuffle and snort, that they love wallowing in water and will use deep pools as places to hide from predators and hunters. He says that they live in packs, rarely going alone and that even in the wild, they are ‘of a gentle nature’ and can be tamed from youth. Tame capybaras can come and go on command and show attachment to their keepers.

The biggest mistake he makes is about the capybaras diet. They are completely herbivorous but he describes their skill at fishing, using their mouths and ‘hooves’ to take fish to the sides of lakes and ‘devour them and its ease’. 

Then comes the part of Goldsmith’s write-ups that are the most surprising, what the animal tastes like. According to him (or the information he’s read) capybaras are “fat and tender” with a “fishy taste”. Apparently the tastiest part of a capybara is its head. Capybaras are still eaten in Venezuela, especially during Lent because the Vatican declared them as officially fish (or at least, fishy enough). Apparently they do taste a little fishy, but because of the water grass they munch on. Most capybara meat is dried, salted and shredded and most like salted pork. I can’t say I’ll be trying it.

The capybara entry into Goldsmith’s History of the Natural World isn’t one of the flashiest entries, he clearly had no experience of the creature himself and could only synthesise what he’d read in his researches. However, it is a really interesting snapshot of what Europeans knew about Earth’s largest rodent seventy years after hearing about it.

Anyway, that’s this week’s post. A heatwave is on and I’m going to lounge like a capybara.

Wednesday 6 July 2022

Gilbert White by Richard Mabey at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


The Dr Johnson Reading Circle met for the last session of this academic year in Johnson’s own parlour, where we tried our best to behave and not spill any red wine. The book under discussion was Richard Mabey’s Gilbert White, a biography on the author of The Natural History of Selborne. 

We began by discussing the surprising longevity of White’s own book, an oddly structured description of the parish he lived in and the various plant, animal and mineral life that called it home. The key seems to be White’s skills of close observation linked with an evocative style of writing. Whether it’s describing a martin smoothing a nest with its chin, field mice scurrying in corn or recognising different birds by the way they fly, White captures the animals clearly. What’s more, in focusing on the eternal drama of animal life, the book manages to be timeless. The experience of watching the wheeling, screeching and gambolling of swifts is the same now as it was when White observed them.  

Gilbert White led a very simple life, never progressing very far in his chosen career in the clergy, remaining a bachelor throughout and spending twenty years working very slowly on his one book. This makes him an easy person to project onto and he has been sentimentalised over the years as the archetypical hobbyist-naturalist, wandering the fields looking for plants and bugs. The biography adds a little more complexity to this image, painting him as both tied to his place but slightly rootless, innocently open to experience but also a hard-working perfectionist who constantly tinkered with his book. 

One of the big sources behind the biography is White’s college friend John Mulso. Gilbert did not deserve a friend like John; always supportive, always lightly joshing, always keeping up correspondence and visits, even as White was slow to reciprocate. One of the reasons he didn’t travel far was that he got coach sick. At one point his personal expenses note that he gave a woman a soup tureen to pay back a coach fare and Richard Mabey makes the supposition that it was a joke about his vomiting.

It’s clear that White didn’t like the politicking that went into gaining a decent Living in the church, nor did he grasp romantic opportunities. He seems to have simply enjoyed himself, becoming an uncle to nearly 60 nephews and nieces, making his home in Selborne a treasured holiday destination for them. The most exciting thing in his life seems to have been melon farming, which is described in this book as nail-biting drama. 

One of his other fascinations was the migration of birds, particularly the class of birds called hirundines, such as swifts, swallows and house martins. We now know that they migrate great distances, something he has a suspicion of at first, supposing swifts being able to eat, sleep and even mate on the wing. It’s actually his observations, particularly the brief and irregular appearance of birds for a few sunny days but not on colder ones, that lead him to conclude that they probably hibernated. Sweetly, part of the reason for this is that he felt so attached to ‘his’ birds, he didn’t recognise that what he was actually seeing was a stream of the birds going through Selborne. It’s actually an easy mistake to make; I’d always assumed that blackbirds didn’t migrate as I see them all year round but actually, summer blackbirds have migrated from the south and winter ones come down from the north. 

Talking about Gilbert White brought the naturalist out in all the group and we all found ourselves sharing stories about the birds and animals we’ve seen, the wonder they evoke and the places near London to go listen for cuckoos. The evening ended with a special presentation of a card and flowers for Jane Darcey; who set the Reading Circle up seven years ago, put together the reading lists, ran the sessions, invited the guests and even kept it going through lockdown. Stepping down from her role running the group, everyone wishes her the best, buon viaggio in her trips abroad and looks forward to seeing her again in Dr Johnson’s House.

Our next event is a trip to Bath, with personalised tours, a cavalcade of eighteenth century stars.. and possibly a bun if we’re lucky.