Saturday, October 24, 2015

Charles Dickens: A Child’s History of England (1851-53)

It would be sensible to read nothing of Dickens but his novels, which are all-sufficient. But since much of the material of A Child’s History is now outside the common knowledge of adult readers, it has become a more interesting book. The most satisfactory part, probably, is the earlier phase up to the sixteenth century, when Dickens is competently summarising the national epic, mixing lively narration with a very faint colouring of Dickensian satire, rhetoric, and romance. Mainly satire, since the epic is concerned with the actions of kings and queens, and Dickens is temperamentally hostile to this sort of company.

Within a week or two after Harold’s return to England, the dreary old Confessor was found to be dying. After wandering in his mind like a very weak old man, he died. As he had put himself entirely in the hands of the monks when he was alive, they praised him lustily when he was dead. They had gone so far, already, as to persuade him that he could work miracles; and had brought people affected with a bad disorder of the skin, to him, to be touched and cured. This was called “touching for the King’s Evil,” which afterwards became a royal custom. You know, however, Who really touched the sick, and healed them; and you know His sacred name is not among the dusty line of human kings.

This is a quotation, not to sell the Child’s History to you, but to give you a fair idea of what it is like. Most of the things that can be criticized are exemplified here: tendentiousness, condescension, opinionatedness, a basic lack of sympathy with his materials, and even with the business of history itself. At the same time we are undoubtedly learning something about Edward the Confessor – and so, though I really don’t want to sell the book, it strikes me as perfect for someone who wants to read some history but whose tastes don’t lead them towards ordinary historians.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

oil sands

He was hungry; he was ready with strike-through.
exposed to the wind; an apple-tree barking.
A destiny propels the ark, its console finisher isn't free.
Rich; with a horror of poverty, or a single assassin, locked to small arms and airports.
He watched his father intelligently, while he spat Patsey's flesh.
Outside the house, the topiary of willow-leaved pear, his wife shaped with clippers.
You cannot come in here like that, he tried to say firmly,
with the elements of fortune and ours.

I shall keep this separate from my other wealth.

[Sort sort of flat-topped Japanese cherry (I'm guessing 'Shirotae', but I won't know till next year), with numerous holes in the leaves, illuminated by a pub spotlight.  N. Swindon 19:37 on 9th October 2015.]

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Charles Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41)

The Old Curiosity Shop and King Lear

“The old gentleman again!” he would exclaim, “a very prepossessing old gentleman, Mr. Richard – charming countenance, sir – extremely calm – benevolence in every feature, sir. He quite realises my idea of King Lear, as he appeared when in possession of his kingdom, Mr. Richard – the same good humour, the same white hair and partial baldness, the same liability to be imposed upon. Ah! A sweet subject for contemplation, sir, very sweet!” (Ch. LVII)

This is Sampson Brass speaking to Dick Swiveller. Sampson is at a very early and tentative – indeed nervous – stage in complying with Quilp’s instructions to dispose of Kit. Old Mr Garland as Lear is the same kind of gloriously not-quite-right rhapsody that, soon afterwards, has him saying of the pony “He literally looks as if he had been varnished all over”. Sampson's speech also exemplifies something rather frequent in The Old Curiosity Shop; words that seem to have one intention about one thing but really and semi-ambiguously are concerned with a different matter altogether. For obvious examples one might note nearly everything that the parties say to each other during, and on the day after, the trip to Astley’s: especially Barbara. Or the narrator’s refusal to tell us in plain words that Nell’s health is failing when that's just what he is insistently suggesting. We describe the nature of this duplicitous talk in various ways according to the circumstances: delicacy, embarrassment, coyness, euphemism, playing with our emotions, cruelty, evasiveness, fraud, etc.  But it’s when we don’t have a label ready to hand that things are most interesting.

Memories of Lear do huddle in the shadows of The Old Curiosity Shop. When the Victorian public sent agonized letters to the author imploring him to spare Little Nell, they were registering something like Samuel Johnson’s shocked reaction to the death of Cordelia, the scene he could not endure to re-read until he edited the play. The long pages in which the author whispers to us of Nell’s decline (LII-LV) have seemed to most later readers as dull a succession of chapters as you can easily find in Dickens; these were the pages, however, that troubled generous hearts and drove up the circulation figures. (Edgar Allen Poe’s review [] gives a good idea of their impact on contemporary readers. For him the outstanding figures in the book were Nell, her grandfather, the man by the furnace, and the sexton.)

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers (1836-37)

Pickwick in the barrow, by Phiz

Charles Dickens (Una Pope-Hennessy, 1945)

Forster, Johnson, Kaplan... the Lives of Dickens aren’t inspiring, and this is surely something to do with the man himself. No-one who read a biography of Dickens without knowing his books (impossible supposition) would suspect him of having written anything worthwhile. He emerges as frivolous, dandyish, conventional, an energetic businessman; on the whole, unamiable. His friends are not astounding (just think of Scott’s...) - he scarcely reads, is a philistine in art, drifts rather helplessly through married life and divorce, takes his notions from Carlyle of all people, is driven by motives it is hard to understand, constantly takes on too much, muddles through, lets people down. His unastounding friends patronize him even when they are overwhelmed by him, and we see their point of view. If Scott tends to underrate his own significance, he at least sees his art in recognizable terms. Dickens airily alludes to himself as “the Inimitable”, and that seems to be that. The features of his work that he openly discusses are trivia - he hopes to have “a great effect” with little Paul, or The Chimes... That’s something like the way you suppose Desmond Wheatley or Frederick Forsyth would put it.

Presumably all this is an essential aspect of (one can hardly call it an insight into) the unusual kind of greatness we encounter in Bleak House, Little Dorrit... in all his novels to some extent, for even the worst of them (let’s say, Tale of Two Cities) has a uniqueness, a fire about it that becomes apparent when we try to place it in the same universe as other books. Dickens, more than any other writer, permitted his imagination to cut loose from his own conscious life and opinions. Who else could do so? No-one who was not so naïve, so unintrospective, so ill-educated, so insensitive, so buoyed up by early success that he never had time to anxiously plan for.

And perhaps this peculiar situation does give some clue to why, though his greatness exceeds any other English novelist, it is not entirely happy. What I mean is that, although Little Dorrit is our greatest novel and Bleak House the most stupendous imaginative creation that is a novel, we always assert Dickens’ claim with a dissatisfied sense of paradox - his failures and limitations are peculiarly gross, he doesn’t happily supersede his competitors in every way (thus we have come to think of Shakespeare), or even in most ways. Just in a few ways, but in those, beyond argument.

And still, in those few are infinities. In all that line of big books our chief sense is of prodigal wealth - of how little we are wearied by repetition or perfunctory narrative. When, as occasionally in Hardy or Kipling or Conrad, we catch someone trying out a Dickensian sentence, we are embarrassed by their lack of confidence - into this sea of creation they will never plunge. I thought how unlike Mr Pickwick is to his author - and then I realized that all Dickens’ characters are quite unlike the Dickens of the biography - he seems never to have met himself. I suppose he never kept a journal - I can’t imagine its voice.
[*I since learnt that he tried keeping one for about a week, but couldn't get excited about it. On the other hand he was a very enthusiastic letter-writer.]

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Sir Walter Scott: The Talisman (1825)

[I don't know anything about the provenance of this illustration. The artist has transformed the shallow and histrionic Queen Berengaria into the undisputed heroine of the picture, which I suppose goes far to explain her confidence in all dealings with her husband. King Richard looks stupefied. And the book's intended heroine Edith is presented in the chilliest manner, lurking in the background.]

Image source:]

Kudos to Lizzie Driver for her excellent solo reading of The Talisman on Librivox.


The Talisman was published in June 1825 along with The Betrothed,  as "Tales of the Crusades". But its more interesting connection is with Ivanhoe (1820).  

Defining that connection in a word is not easy. Whatever the imagined chronology, it doesn't feel quite right to call The Talisman either a prequel to Ivanhoe or a sequel to it (the former would seem the historical sequence, but the latter seems a better fit to changes in Richard's nature).

Yet Richard Coeur-de-Lion is a major character in both novels. Thomas of Gilsland, little more than a name in Ivanhoe, now steps forth in a significant role. The Knights Templar, unsympathetic in Ivanhoe, are positively villainous here. Most significantly, the interest in an exotic multiculturalism, first developed in the Jewish characters of Ivanhoe, is now pursued in the Muslim characters of The Talisman. That makes a difference, but not because Scott knew either culture very well.  In Ivanhoe Scott had to grapple with deeply-rooted anti-Semitism, especially about Jews in Britain. In The Talisman, the first of his novels to be located (as he was acutely aware*) in a place he had never visited, he was freer to be much more simply enthusiastic about his Muslim characters. Ethically they have the best of it all through the book, and make a powerful commentary on the extremely imperfect behaviour that characterizes the Christians.

At least, nearly. There's also Saladin's sudden decapitation of the Grand Master, which casts such a deep chill over the subsequent dinner. Saladin explains that this instant punishment was required because if Giles had tasted the sherbet then Saladin would be bound by laws of hospitality. The implication of the chill is that Scott allows his Christian readers to admire and be fascinated by Muslim culture, but only in a picture-book, only from a distance.  When Edith reacts with horror to the idea of being married to a Muslim prince, Scott probably intends us to feel that her horror is a right and proper emotion. (Even if it conceals her own prior interest in Sir Kenneth.) Richard's own bluff indifference to whether she marries a Christian or a Muslim is supposed to indicate a soldier's insensibility.

For much of the book the positions of normative and Other are to some extent reversed. Though we are in Palestine, we are in the Crusader camp and see the somewhat exotic behaviour of the Age of Chivalry through the unillusioned eyes of Adonbec el Kakim (Saladin).

But there's a double-twist here, because Scott takes it for granted that readers will understand, even if they smile at, the excesses of the chivalric age. All Saladin's wisdom cannot shake the book's certainty that he and his world are necessarily beyond the pale of the culture that inherits and understands chivalry from within.

The Talisman is the last of Scott's novels to be completed before his own world was re-shaped by multiple griefs. It isn't a masterpiece but it does have sustained interest.

* The 1832 preface, where Scott admits his lack of direct contact with the East, is a mess; Scott was by then in no condition to write even a Preface. He begins by giving cogent reasons why he should not have attempted to write a book set in Palestine. He then says that he felt, nevertheless, that he could contribute something of his own to the genre; presumably he means his portrayal of Richard, but at this point the argument flickers and gutters out. (The poetic illustrations of the medieval tradition of Richard's cannibalism are, however, appallingly interesting. )


Giles Amaury (The Grand Master of the Templars) is a made-up name. Scott may have based him vaguely on Roger de Sablé.  though it was his predecessor Gerard de Ridefort who was, in fact, beheaded by Saladin. Richard had good relations with both.

"Conrade of Montserrat" is given a villainous role. As Scott admits, this is entirely made up. The historical Conrad of Montferrat was indeed a rival of Richard; in fact Richard was accused of having him murdered. [It seems that Scott was already thinking about The Talisman at the same time he was writing St Ronan's Well (1824). The earlier novel refers more than once to twelfth-century Palestine, and even to  a confrontation between Conrade of Montserrat and Richard.]

Saladin negotiated for a marriage between Richard's widowed sister Joan and Saladin's brother Al-Adil. She refused. Richard's views are unknown. When Conrad turned over his Muslim hostages to Richard, he had them all killed.   (Richard may bear responsibility for the anti-Jewish violence at the time of his coronation, also.)

So the chivalrous conception of Richard, and his broad-minded attitude to Islamic and other cultures, is very much Scott's own vision.

Masses of the slimy and sulphurous substance called naphtha, which floated idly on the sluggish and sullen waves, supplied those rolling clouds with new vapours... (Chapter I, description of the Dead Sea)

More strictly, Asphaltum. In Edward Turner's Elements of Chemistry (1833) he says:

Naphtha occurs in some parts of Italy, and on the banks of the Caspian Sea. ...  Asphaltum is found on the surface and on the banks of the Dead Sea ....
(p. 808)

But, as Turner realized, the two inflammable substances were closely related.

I notice that on my bottle of Redex for diesel engines, one of the ingredients is "Naphtha (petroleum)".


In the final chapter, it's revealed that Sir Kenneth of the Leopard is, in fact, Prince David of Scotland.

On the whole, there were already too many royals in disguise. (The two principal Muslim characters, it turns out, are both Saladin.) Shakespeare's Henry V may lie behind it (or ancient folk motifs, maybe). In Scott, the motif began with Ivanhoe (1820), where it was done really well (relevant to theme and well motivated), and it became seriously annoying in Quentin Durward (1823) which shares a lot of The Talisman's less admirable features.

Anyway, now it turns out that even our hero is royal.

Of course that resolves the issue of Sir Kenneth's social inferiority to Lady Edith very conveniently. But the "lost heir" plot of Tom Jones etc only works if the heir is genuinely lost. Kenneth wasn't a lost heir but a disguised heir: he knew all the time that he had royal blood. And this means that the most affecting scenes in the earlier part of the book, surrounding Kenneth's sense of unworthiness before his lady and his shame at being lured from his post for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do her some service, are in retrospect almost nonsense. (Indeed so attached are we to our former reading that we're inclined to treat this late revelation as not to be taken seriously.)

Yet it's evident that the revelation is no afterthought. There are multiple subtle hints, as early as the opening chapter, that Kenneth is in disguise and is probably someone pretty notable. And a careful reading of those middle chapters reveals that though Kenneth is entirely sincere in his chivalric abasement, yet he feels no social inferiority to Edith or even to Richard.

Too many monarchs altogether. The crusade brings together a rabble of them, all with different aims. Meanwhile the royal enemies Saladin and Richard cultivate a chivalrous regard that is almost lover-like.

There is a kind of point to this. At the multicultural borderline, there is a collapse of the hierarchic social structures of monoculture.  The foreigner affects us much the same whether they're an untouchable or a king. The romancer is apt to elevate the picturesque other to a kind of sovereignty, a sovereignty of the mysterious sphere to which he belongs and in whose ways the outsider is so inept. In this novel, even those few who are not kings (the hermit of Engadi, or Thomas of Gilsland) have something king-like about their distinctness. Nectabanus certainly thinks that he does.

Nevertheless, The Talisman almost expires for lack of common people.   

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Tuesday, October 06, 2015

three songs


I drove the Stagecoach, the 55 to Calne
But I lost my way one evening and bounced it off a barn
A lady in the back she said I was asleep
And the Stagecoach inspectors agreed.
Well nobody died
They mostly just cried
But baby I’m feeling it now.

If I could meet my sister then I would say to her
“I wanted to come with you out to Australia
Where I could ride horses, take the boys to the sea,
Get to know my own family.”
I can’t really say
It would’ve turned out that way
But baby I’m feeling it now.

If I could make a pile, like those I lost before
Then I would buy a bottle and drink it by the shore
In the Palace of Fortune I’d stand there all day
And I’d watch my money dribble away
And I sit in a taxi to the far side of town
And I’d burn that barn to the ground.
What other people feel
Never seems real
But baby I’m feeling it now.

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