Wednesday 26 April 2023

Review: An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor

 Iona McGregor was recommended to me by one of my favourite authors, Leon Garfield, in his collection of stories, The Baker’s Dozen. He describes her as “a new writer - and fresh as a daisy” whose works are “as sharp at witty as one could wish.” Her story in the actual collection, Macfadyen’s Shirts wasn’t one of the standout stories but was a fun little thing about a conwoman who steals shirts drying on the bushes outside Edinburgh. It looks like she was set to become a name in children’s literature but her work becomes a succession of study guides.

According to Wikipedia, her career as children’s teacher and writer were hampered by her sexuality and after she quit teaching, she put more of her energies into LGBT advocacy, as well as being able to write a few books with explicit gay content. She wrote study guides because they paid well, lectured for the University of the Third Age and helped form a group called AD - officially called Anno Domini but for those in the know, actually called Aged Dykes. 

I decided to read An Edinburgh Reel because the anniversary of Culloden is coming up and I have a number of Jacobitey books I wanted to get round to.

Set in Edinburgh in 1751, Christine Murray is approaching adulthood and looking forward to a happier future. Her Father, the brother of a Laird, fought in the ’45, escaped to France and has spent six years as a soldier in the court in exile. Having received a pardon, he’s returned to Scotland with the hope of winning his old land back. She hasn’t seen him since she was nine and the cross, bitter old man is not the father she remembers. It turns out that he hadn’t merely escaped after Culloden but had been betrayed by somebody and spent a year in a hulk-prison, before escaping that. He has scores to settle and is obsessed with discovering the identity of his betrayer.

The relationship between father and daughter is really well drawn. It’s clear that they were the apples of each other’s eye before the ’45 but the younger daughter has worked through the trauma and poverty of defeat and is ready to make her way in the new burgeoning Scotland (represented by her fancybit, an idealistic law student). Her Father is stuck in the old ways, convinced that the only work for a gentleman is farming or inn-keeping and also convinced that he is still a gentleman. His bitterness and lingering resentment also serve to pull the man down whenever it looks like he may adjust. He is baffled by her acceptance of the new normal just as she is frustrated by his inability to accept how things are. Even better, these characters aren’t trapped within these world views, she begins to understand how her father must face his past just as he begins to be more flexible and even enjoys making use of his language skills as a clerk. 

Their distant cousin, Lord Balmuir serves as the symbol of the new, Whiggish Scotland. He has a Robert Adams house which “looks as bizarre as if Lord Balmuir had erected a Hindu Temple in his fields.” He also does the signaturely Whiggish thing of growing new trees on his estate, and most English of all, turnips. He has no time for crofters, only wishing to have long-term tenants who’ll farm in the modern, scientific method. He’s also heavily into the linen trade, wishing to grow it on Scottish shores. Remarkably, he’s not the baddy. He offers Christine and her father all the help he can and, when he has very good reasons to punish them, continues to help.

The plot involves a shady agent, who wishes to rope Christine’s father into using Balmuir’s linen contacts as a Jacobite postal service. It also concern’s Christine’s romance with the law student, which is hampered by the subterfuges she must give to protect her father. Finally, it’s about finding the person who betrayed her father, with the main clue being a snuff-box which once belonged to him. The twist is pretty obvious and could be guessed from even this loose recount.

What makes the book great is the depiction of certain things I’ve not seen in other eighteenth century historical fiction. There’s the tense build up and release of a theatre riot, an amateur cockfight, a depiction of the genteel but cramped highlife of an Edinburgh tenement and a game of golf in the snow. (I found the position of the caddy really interesting, similar to the London Porter but hireable for any kind of odd job - including following people in this book). I also loved how the book highlighted what a cultural shift has happened between 1745 and ’51, with a real sense of that earlier conflict being less about English and Scottish, but old ways and new ways - with the new ways clearly in the ascendence.

The book also used a lot of Scottishisms, my favourites being; weesht, tauchle, camsteerie, gey, tirl, fash, quaich, smeddum and (best of all) clishmaclaver. 

A short novel, ostensibly for children, An Edinburgh Reel managed to fit some interesting looks at eighteenth century life and a discussion of the new ‘enlightenment’ Scotland with a group of interesting characters (and one scene-stealing pig). The plot is a little rushed and the twist obvious but it’s exciting and memorable anyway - especially for its length and intended audience.

Wednesday 19 April 2023

My thoughts on re-reading Tristram Shandy

When I saw that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was one of the books on the Dr Johnson Reading Circle list, I rubbed my hands gleefully. I’ve read the book before, even covered it on this site but it’s been a long time and I’ve read a lot since then.

Specifically, I’ve read a lot of the books that influenced Sterne. From Locke’s An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, which he mainly used as a framework to joke from, to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Montaigne’s Essays and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. Did any of those books help me reread Tristram Shandy? No. But they did help me understand where he was coming from. 

Locke and Burton are examples of two completely different kinds of knowledge. Burton follows the humanist/scholastic tradition of knowledge by authority. Someone at the Reading Circle explained it best when they said it was knowledge that worked like legal precedent, a thing is true because it can be cited in a former text that is drawn from previous ones. The Slawkenburgis book about noses is just a nasal version of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, a compendium of all the things previously said, synthesised and interpreted by a wise (and frequently funny) curator of knowledge. Locke is the opposite, reasoning some things out from principles but chiefly desiring to observe and test, a version of psychology with a greater empirical emphasis that Burton. 

What Sterne does is expose the flaws in both approaches to knowledge and psychology. He partly does this for the fun to be had but he is not saying that all knowledge is impossible, only that knowledge is limited by out human flaws. Flaws Sterne uses in the book to amuse, but also draw our sympathies.

There’s hardly a kindlier character than Uncle Toby, the man who would literally not hurt a fly despite his obsession with military fortifications (though as Tristram says, Toby is obsessed with the defensive, protective aspects of war, not the aggressive or attacking). He’s so kind that even the genuinely belligerent and insufferably argumentative Walter Shandy can’t help feeling for him. In re-reading, I found Toby’s relationship with Trim to be well-developed and sweet. I liked Trim more in general, how he is no-nonsense and all-nonsense at the same time. How quick he is to cry when he thinks of his brother Tom or the poor soldier Le Fever. When he cries, he asks Toby what’s wrong with him? Toby replies it’s “nothing in the world…but thou art a good natured fellow”. Sometimes Trim and Toby lose a story between them, like the one about the King of Bohemia but they are not only brothers in arms but brothers in spirit and it’s a relationship that heals them both. What’s more, in characters like Toby and Trim that we see Sterne using the flaws, idiocies and limitations of the characters to love them. 

In the Reading Circle, there was an argument that Tristram Shandy is a nihilistic, heartless book, which I found very surprising as to me the book seems to be full of heart. Every character in the book is broken, every action or communication is liable to fall apart or be lost in the gulfs between the character’s interior lives - but this isn’t a source of cruelty. If anything, the message of Tristram Shandy is that the thing that binds us humans together is that we are all broken and lost and flailing. We live small lives full of knots and rusty door hinges and miscommunication and that is what makes us loveable. 

Another accusation that was levelled at Tristram Shandy is that it had a limited view of life, that people should aspire to more than the petty dramas depicted in the book. I’m not sure what’s so wrong with a normal life - it’s not that easy to do, things go wrong, best-laid plans gang aft a-gley, I agree with one of Sterne’s influences, Montaigne, when he said “Life is its own objective” and declared the simple act of living as “not only the basic of employments” but also “the most glorious”. I’d say that Sterne does the same with his group of misfits in Shandy Hall.

What most struck me about re-reading Tristram Shandy is how quickly it moves forward. I know that sounds ridiculous, the book is famously digressive but as Sterne puts it they are ‘progressive digressions’. Yes, a simple linear plot doesn’t really happen but the book is always moving forward, there’s always something new happening or some new silliness to untangle. What’s more, the digressiveness of the book is deeply baked into the meaning of the book. In the first page, Tristram’s ‘animal spirits’ are dispersed - and so Tristram’s nature is one of dispersal, which is reflected in his life and opinions. Each digression shows us the kind of person that Tristram is, someone whose thoughts go down highways and byways - and as someone who often thinks like that myself, I’m happy to get a little representation. What’s more, the teasing at the end of every second volume, the promises of future stories that are always fulfilled, though not always in the most obvious ways and the many callbacks to earlier books in the last one create the feeling of a book which is under control but a dispersed, digressive sort of control. As Sterne asks his reader in the first volume, “only keep your temper”. He knows exactly what he’s doing and what kind of book he wishes to write.

Wednesday 12 April 2023

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


The Dr Johnson Reading Circle met to discuss Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It’s a book which caused heated debate and discussion in 1759 and continued to do so in 2023.

Some members picked beloved copies off the shelves for a cosy re-read, others clutched fresh, new copies and others finally finished the copy they’d bought for a pound and abandoned sometime in the last millennium. Initial reactions were largely split between people who held it as one of their favourite books and people who found it an unfunny slog, finished out of a sense of duty.

Tristram Shandy purports to be the life story of the title character, who frequently finds himself distracted from his stated purpose by his love of digression. The character is conceived in the first chapter but not born until the second book (of nine). Most commonly, he is drawn from his straight and narrow path by the quibbling of his overbearing father, Walter or the good-natured bumbling of his Uncle Toby. He’s also taken away from his story by legal debates, old curses and creaky compendiums of knowledge about noses. Anything that can lead Tristram away from a topic at hand does so. 

There was discussion over whether the book ever moves forward or not. Some readers found it a static, stuttering book that was determined to waste its reader’s time. Others agreed with Tristram that his were ‘progressive digressions’ which allowed the reader to understand the narrator and his world in ways that would be denied in a more straight-forward narrative. The book is obsessed with minutiae, with tiny items like lead window weights and a creaky door hinge given huge importance. These details that may never have been noticed in an ordinary book, yet in Tristram Shandy they are devoted whole chapters. 

Each (male) character in Tristram Shandy is given a hobbyhorse, an overriding obsession which colours their worldview. One of the clearest is given to Uncle Toby, an injured soldier who has becomes obsessed with the subject of fortification. As such, he frequently finds himself daydreaming and lost in the pseudo-intellectual conversation of his brother until he says a certain word related to fortification, which pulls Toby back in. Discussions of the bridge of a nose will remind him of fortified bridges in European towns or a Doctor’s description of a woman’s anatomy will bring various dykes and culverts to mind. He’s boxed into his own limited understanding, besieged in his own mind. This acts a source of farce and comedy but also irritation - expressed by both the other characters and the reader.

The book is very interested in conversation and communication. Some of the Reading Circle felt the book presents a nihilistic view of connection, with all characters imprisoned by the inadequacies of language and forced into solipsistic cycles where communication is impossible. Others felt that while the book portrays difficulties to connect, there are frequent moments where characters do, despite all the blocks and limitations. There was a big discussion about whether Tristram Shandy uses laughter to cover its bleak view of human life, or is a celebration of those moments when we touch each other across the gulf of our inner lives.

Of course not all communication is verbal and many of the most successful connections in the book are non-verbal. Corporal Trim, a man who likes to hear his own voice, is most effecting when he drops his hat on the floor to symbolise the shortness of life, or waggles his cane to show the difficulties of married life. The brothers communicate by their posture and body language as much (probably more) than the words they use. The book itself mixes verbal conversation, including direct address to imagined readers, with a succession of non-verbal queues, from the frequent dashes and asterisks, to blank and black pages.

One of those pages is a marbled one, which was originally unique in every copy. We reflected on the loss, in a mass produced age, of these individual pages and reflected further on how older books were produced from rag-paper, with each page containing clothes that formally travelled from lords to beggars before becoming a book. It was a suitable digression for a conversation about Tristram Shandy.

The biggest divide about the book was not whether the teasing nature of it’s telling is fun (or even readable) or not, but about whether Tristram Shandy is a heartless book, whistling Lillibullero in the face of a cruel and pointless life, or whether it’s a celebration of the complexity of even small lives. It seems a heavy conversation for a seemingly light book but is a good indication of Tristram Shandy’s unique power that it prompted such discussion. As to an answer of that question, it’s best for the dear reader to decide.

Wednesday 5 April 2023

Christopher Smart, drag and 'Mrs Midnight's Oratory'.


I’ve been thinking about drag a lot recently. Part of this was sparked by the recent death of Paul O’Grady, every granny’s favourite drag queen but also due to a protest recently held outside a drag story-time event.

First of all, they weren’t actually holding a drag story-time event at the time of protest, it was merely a venue that has held such events in the past. Secondly, we must be importing our outrage if it’s seriously suggested that England has a problem with drag.

England loves drag. Most small theatres in this country only survive because every year they put on a show for children where a man in drag in one of the main attractions. A good Dame can make or break a panto. (Not to mention the tradition where the main male ‘hero’ row is played by a woman). English comedies thrive on drag, from Monty Python and The Two Ronnies to the drag festooned stage of the Music Hall where acts like Dan Leno ruled supreme.

What’s more English men are renowned for donning a dress at any opportunity. In 1666, Samuel Pepys turned a party into a hyper-party by swapping clothes with his wife and singing until four in the morning. Mary Seacole records the first action of soldiers entering the town of Sevastopol after an eleven month siege was to raid wardrobes, frock it up and frolic.

One friend of this site with a place in drag history is Christopher Smart, whose female alter-ego, Mary Midnight came off the pages of a magazine and onto the stage. He’d started The Midwife in 1751, it came out once a month, was about thirty pages long and Smart was the sole author. The fictional editor, Mary Midnight was an elderly midwife and the central joke was that her ‘old woman’s knowledge’ was sharper and more incisive than the standard sources of media. The magazine was also crammed with other voices, with Smart taking names such as Ebenezer Pentweazle (and indeed, the whole Pentweazle clan). There were machines to grind old people young, societies of antiquities that fished in sewers and a round-up of the international news that pointed out the inconsistencies of reporting in other publications. 

In January of 1752, Smart launched a new venture, a stage show based on the magazine. Previously, as a lecturer in Cambridge University, he’d put on a comic play with the students and he always showed an interest in theatre. Following the harsh licensing laws put in place after proposed play called The Golden Rump (which depicted politicians lining up to kiss a giant golden arse) there were only two licensed theatres. As a result the performance was held in the Castle Tavern, where the gimmick was that the audience were paying for a cup of tea and just happened to receive a night’s entertainment at the same time.

This method of narrowly avoiding the law had been pioneered by Samuel Foote, impressionist and comic who had run successful ‘tea parties’. The show was initially called Mrs Midnight’s Oratory, playing on the popularity of the Mrs Midnight character but also referencing Henley’s Oratory. Henley was a tubthumping preacher, literally tub thumping as he preached from a large tub - I have a biography of him but haven’t got around to it yet. As the show moved venues, at times being held in the Little Theatre in Haymarket, and even touring the south of England it had a number of names, including; Mrs Midnight’s Grand Concert, Mrs Midnight’s New Carnival Concert, The British Roratory, and Sack Posset.

The show was a revue, helmed by Christopher Smart in drag as Mary Midnight. She’d give a comic speech and introduce acts, most of them musical and given silly names. Performers included Signor Bombasto, Signora Spoonatissima, Signor Piantafugocalo, Mynheer Puffupandyke and Mademoiselle Rompereu. It sounds like a noisy night with many of the instruments being salt shakers and other household items.

Smart must have passed pretty well as he once met David Garrick ‘dressed as an ancient lady of the last age’ and fooled him. This is doubly surprising as Garrick would have known Smart through a number of acquaintances, including Samuel Johnson who didn’t rate Smart much as a poet but found him a good chat. Smart’s daughter Elizabeth said his short stature and dainty hands helped. 

There are a number of reviews for the show. Horace Walpole declared it the ‘lowest buffoonery in the world, even to me’ after seeing a performance in may 1752. Hester Thrale Piozzi agreed that it was ‘low buffoonery’ but said ‘it pretended to be nothing better, and it was wondrous droll and what the wags call funny.’ Newbery, Smart’s publisher and father-in-law declared in a puff for the Reading Mercury that Mrs Midnight’s Oratory was “conducted with the Utmost Decency and received with the most Extraordinary Applause.”

There was some controversy. At one point Smart booked a wooden-legged dancer called Monsieur Timbertoes and there was outrage that he’d be employing a Frenchman in a time of war. Smart had to explain that Monsieur Timbertoes was so called because he danced the French-clog and was actually an English man who’d lost his foot whilst serving in the English Navy against the French.

Orator Henley, who inspired the original show’s name, tried to stir outrage by declaring that Mrs Midnight was nothing but a man in a dress and tried to expose the true author of The Midwife magazine. Smart responded by saying that he was only jealous of Mary Midnight, as he was also an old woman but not as pretty. Henley hit back by calling Smart a Molly - slang for a man who attended Molly Houses, a secret underground of gay/trans hangouts where men would dress as women, have sex and even perform fake marriages and births. 

Chris Mounsey, in his biography Christopher Smart: Clown of God, goes further. He claims that Smart’s show was performed in Molly houses and that Smart had been seen wearing women’s clothes off the stage. He sites people calling him Kitty Smart, the feminine form of his nickname, Kit. That he was seen frequenting gay hookups with Samuel Foote, who had come in to play Mary’s daughter Dorothy and who was later accused of forcibly buggering a footman. (The one-legged Foote declared “buggery: I can’t stand for it” - which he possibly couldn’t).

Newbery also published a book called A Collection of Pretty Poems for Children Six Feet High, featuring a frontispiece that Mounsey declares is Smart, looking very camp and including poems that could be interpreted to ‘out’ Smart and castigate him for cheating on his wife, Newbery’s adopted daughter. Mounsey uses this to build a case to argue that Newbery engineered the sane Smart’s incarceration in a madhouse as revenge against his cheating on his wife, and also to distance himself from the increasingly politically dangerous things Smart was saying in his Midwife magazine and during the live performances. I’ve never been wholly convinced of Mounsey’s argument, I personally think Smart probably had a form of bi-polar disorder and his family had become concerned for him after he forced people to pray with him during a manic episode.

Certainly, Smart found himself in a bad place. The Midwife had been slowing down as a magazine as the live show kicked off, with 68 performances in its first year. He’d been ill, whether his asthma, the fever he memories in Hymn to the Supreme Being or a depressive part of his bi-polar cycle. People such as Foote stepped in when he wasn’t available and the show became a selection of animal acts and the drag revue element dropped off. Smart himself was incarcerated in 1757 but the Mary Midnight shows carried on a little while after.

Much critical and biographical focus ends up talking about Smart in his incarceration, where he created The Song to David, and Jubilate Agno - two very different masterpieces, but I think it is worth thinking of Smart in his theatrical heyday, dressed as an old woman, laughing, joking and having a good time. Nothing controversial about that is there?