Thursday, May 12, 2022

Books in The Paris Library

Janet Skeslien Charles' The Paris Library (2021) is a novel that leads us through Paris under occupation, mainly narrated by Odile, a book-loving French girl (her father is a police inspector) who gets a job, in early 1939, at the American Library in Paris. 

It's thick with the titles of Odile's beloved books. Jane Eyre, As You Like It, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald.... But there's also many that I didn't know much about, or had forgotten about. (We also get some of  Lily's favourite books in her part of the novel, set in Montana from 1983.)

p. 4 Isak Dinesen  aka Karen Blixen. Her Out of Africa was published in 1937. 

p. 6 Zora Neale Hurston "my favourite living author". Harlem Renaissance novelist, best known for Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). See also p. 63, p. 82, p. 98, p. 185, p. 212, p. 322, p. 405. (Odile's favourite dead author is Dostoevsky.) 

p. 31 A Season in Hell. Rimbaud's extended poem in prose (1873).

p. 56 Clara de Chambrun, Playing with Souls. Novel published in 1922. [She is one of the historical characters in this novel, too.]

p. 62 Belinda, by Maria Edgeworth (1801); famous for depicting an inter-racial marriage. The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, by Olaudah Equiano, former slave and abolitionist (1789). My Ántonia, novel by Willa Cather (1918), one of her best-known (see also. p. 393).

p. 68 Dorothy Whipple, The Priory (novel, 1939) (see also p. 75 and p. 270 ff.). Popular author between the wars, born in Blackburn. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: 1938 novel by Winifred Watson. 

p. 74 The Death of the Heart. 1938 novel by Elizabeth Bowen. 

p. 75 Miss Maisy: untraced, apparently a children's story. 

p. 119. The Little Prince, novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, published in USA in 1943, and in France after liberation. 

p. 134. Voyage in the Dark, 1934 novel by Jean Rhys. See also p. 367.

p. 139 Good Morning, Midnight, 1939 novel by Jean Rhys. (See also p. 299-300, p. 340.)

p. 145 All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque. 

p. 155. Nevada, 1928 novel by Zane Grey.

p. 178 Refers to the attack on Mers-el-Kébir (3/7/1940) in which the British scuttled French ships and killed over a 1,000 French sailors. 

p. 185. The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1940), a semi-autobiographical children's book (see also p. 197, Odile reads it when just published). A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943 bestseller by Betty Smith. 

p. 193 Bridge to Terebithia, 1977 children's novel by Katherine Paterson. Also p. 393. 

p. 212 Greenbanks. Another novel by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1932. 

p. 228 The Age of Innocence, 1920 novel by Edith Wharton.

p. 241 And Then There Were None. by Agatha Christie. The US title (1940); published in the UK as Ten Little Niggers (1939). 

p. 242 "Hope is the thing with feathers", poem by Emily Dickinson. 

p. 259. "I want today, now. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nancy Mitford, Langston Hughes." (Mr Pryce-Jones). Nancy Mitford published three novels before the war, though her better-known ones come later. Langston Hughes, another member of the Harlem Renaissance. His first novel was published in 1930, first short story collection in 1934. 

p. 267. Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie. Two of Nancy Mitford's novels, from 1932 and 1940 respectively. 

p. 269 Bella the Goat and Homer the Cat. Untraced children's books. 

p. 318. Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka, published 1915. English translation published in 1937.

p. 327 The Silence of the Sea. Le Silence de la mer, secretly published in occupied Paris in early 1942. By Jean Bruller under the pseudonym "Vercors". 

p. 385 Forever, 1975 young-adult novel by Judy Blume, controversial for detailed descriptions of sex and birth control. 

p. 393 Roots, 1976 novel by Alex Haley. 


Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The Gustafssons

My Sundsvall grandparents were Klas and Sigrid Gulliksson.

This post focusses on the family of my maternal grandmother (mormor). She was born Sigrid Gustafsson on 26 June 1906.

It's a companion to an earlier post which focusses on my grandfather's side of the family, the Gullikssons:

Sigrid was the youngest sibling.

Karl Gustafsson (1868 - 1937)  m.  Amanda (1872 - 1927)


Anna  (1898 - 1976)    

Ida (died in childhood)  

A boy (Signe? died in childhood)  

Greta  (1901 - 1988)

Sigrid   (1906 - 1997)

One of  the surviving nuggets of family history is the coincidence that the birthdays of Karl, Ida and Greta all fell on the same day, 24 August. 

Karl's name was also spelled "Carl", e.g on his Kungliga Patriotiska Sällskap medal. 

Inscription on a pewter vase, a birthday present to Karl from his children in 1929. 

Karl Gustafsson

Karl once owned the Belgian pinfire pistol that I remember from my dad's gun collection. Dad used to say it was so flimsily made that it was more likely to injure the user than an assailant. 

Karl came from Uppsala. He travelled long distance between Uppsala and Sundsvall with the brewery's casks of alcohol. There was some danger of being robbed on the way. His forebears had been Belgian; Huguenots who brought iron-mining expertise to Sweden.

(But I feel there's a chronological mismatch in the idea that the pistol has anything to do with his Belgian ancestry. Karl's pistol was modern. But with a surname like Gustafsson, Karl must have been at least two generations removed from any Belgian connection.)

Amanda Gustafsson

Amanda was from Sundsvall. When Karl and Amanda married they lived near the river in Sundsvall (Selångersån). Karl worked for the brewery in Sundsvall. 

Amanda died when Sigrid was about 21. By the time of Sigrid's marriage Karl was elderly and not very well. His feet had been frozen on those Uppsala-Sundsvall trips so he had bad circulation. 

His house was Albäcksgatan 4. This was also Klas and Sigrid's first home. They lived there to take care of him. He died when Eva was about one year old, and they left Albäcksgatan when she was two or three. 

She could already talk. Both her memorable phrases are cellar-related. She used to say "Är de jåttar, mamma?" (Is it rats?) and "Kas eldar!" (Klas is lighting the stove!) He had to do this once a day. Banked up, the stove in the cellar would stay alight and provide warmth for the next twenty-four hours. 


Sigrid was fourteen years younger than her husband Klas. I don't know when they got married but Eva (my mum) was born on 7 September 1936. Sigrid was 30 and Klas was 44. 

Anna never married. When I knew her she lived in Falköping. Greta did marry (Erik Andersson; they lived in Stockholm), but they did not have any children. My mum was an only child and an only grandchild, on both sides of her family. 

I knew Mormor and her sisters Anna and Greta far better than I ever knew Morfar or his relatives. (In her later years, after Erik's death, Greta lived much of the time with Sigrid.) I knew them all as beloved presences, as kindly and loving relations. 

But as a child I lived only in the present: their nice homes and generosity and food and laughter. Because of the language barrier, I never knew much about them. 

And generally I still know less about the Gustafsson side of the family than the Gullikssons. Maybe one factor is that Eva herself never knew either of her Gustafsson grandparents.  

Two of the Gustafsson girls. Anna and Greta, I think.

Eva with her doll

Eva with Michael

Klas and Sigrid with Michael

Eva, Greta and Sigrid

Min mormor

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Sunday, May 08, 2022

George Peele: David and Bethsabe (early 1590s)


The servants of Absalom killing Amnon, 1540 engraving by Heinrich Aldegrever

[Image source: .]

George Peele's David and Bethsabe is one of just two surviving plays from Shakespeare's time with a biblical subject. However, we can see from the titles of lost plays that biblical subjects became popular in the early 1590s. (The other surviving play is A Looking Glass for London and England by Lodge and Greene, which is based on the book of Jonah.) 

David and Bethsabe recounts scenes from the history of David's reign: basically 2 Samuel 11-19. And what history! If you haven't read 2 Samuel recently, suffice it to say that there's places where even Peele tones it down a bit. On the whole, though, it was exactly his kind of thing: David's power-grab of  Bathsheba, his elimination of her husband Uriah, his son Amnon's rape of his half-sister Tamar, Absalom's revenge, insurrection and eventual death by multiple stabbings while dangling from a tree, to name a few highlights.  

[From now on I'll be using the names that appear in the play: Bethsabe, Urias, Thamar, Absalon...]

David and Bethsabe was entered in the Stationers' Register in May 1594. Various hypothetical composition dates have been thrown around but, so far as I can see, this is the only hard evidence. There appear to be borrowings from Tamburlaine (1587?) and from Book I of the Faerie Queene (1590). So "early 1590s" is likely. Irritatingly, that's not enough to determine if it antedates or postdates any of Peele's other plays of that period, i.e The Battle of AlcazarEdward IThe Old Wives' Tale and his part of Titus Andronicus

The surviving text is rather a mess, and there are indications that some scenes are missing. Possibly Peele revised the play to make a reading text, adding the Du Bartas borrowings in the first and last scenes.

Nevertheless the play is more impressive and coherent than you might gather from its reputation. 

Earlier scholars had tended to accuse Peele, here as elsewhere, of poor plot structure. But as far as David and Bethsabe was concerned, Inga-Stina Ewbank surely put an end to those accusations in 1965 (details below).

The section Peele picked out of the book of Samuel is what biblical source critics call the "court history" or "succession narrative". It's unified by a focus on David's ill deeds and his subsequent troubles.

Peele made the focus more explicit than the bible does. He begins with the most notorious of David's offences, and proceeds to show him suffering the death of three of his sons (the infant son of Bethsabe, Amnon, Absalon) before ending with the education of Solomon, the son who will be his true successor. David, Nathan, and Semei all interpret the family turmoil as punishment for David's sin. The bible frames only the infant's death in that way, but Peele was unconsciously in line with a strand of Jewish commentary that understands David's "fourfold" retribution (2 Samuel 12:6) as realized in his infant son, Amnon, Tamar, and Absalon. 

In the bible the events of the play take place over a considerable stretch of years. Peele eliminates these time lapses, and interleaves the stories. Sometimes this leads to strange effects, e.g. when David, having just heard of Amnon's crimes through Absalon, doesn't seem to think there's anything odd about Absalon wanting Amnon to come to his sheep-shearing feast (Scene 5). But the time-compression can also work really well, as here:

Bethsabe. One medicine cannot heal our different harms;
But rather make both rankle at the bone:
Then let the king be cunning in his cure,
Lest flattering both, both perish in his hand.

David.  Leave it to me, my dearest Bethsabe,
Whose skill is cónversant in deeper cures. −
And, Cusay, haste thou to my servant Joab,
Commanding him to send Urias home
With all the speed can possibly be used.

(Scene 1)

Bethsabe is still resisting David's move on her, but with "let the king be cunning" there's a hint that her uncompromising chastity is turning into resignation. David, at any rate, takes it that way, and immediately sets about about bringing Urias home from the wars. In the bible this plan arises from Bathsheba's pregnancy (2 Samuel 11:5-6); the idea is apparently to ensure that Urias sleeps with his wife as soon as possible, so he will believe that David's child is his own. Peele, tolerating no time gaps, brings the decision forward to the seduction scene. That is, his David already anticipates making Bethsabe pregnant, and sets about covering his tracks. 

The biblical narrative is quite tight-lipped about what's going on here, and Peele is more so. (Evidently, he relied on his audience knowing the story well.) But the absence of spelt-out motives makes for compelling drama. 

In Scene 5 it takes a comic turn, with David practically begging Urias to take a night off, then resorting  to making Urias so drunk that he might at least not remember whether he slept with Bethsabe or not. Here's the carouse in full swing:

Urias.  Cusay, I pledge thee all with all my heart. −
Give me some drink, ye servants of the king
Give me my drink.
David.  Well done, my good Urias! drink thy fill,
That in thy fulness David may rejoice.
Urias.  I will, my lord.
Abs.  Now, Lord Urias, one carouse to me.
Urias.  No, sir, I’ll drink to the king;
Your father is a better man than you.
David.  Do so, Urias; I will pledge thee straight.
Urias.  I will indeed, my lord and sovereign;
I’ll once in my days be so bold.
David.  Fill him his glass.
Urias.  Fill me my glass
[He gives him the glass.]
David.  Quickly, I say.

Despite abundant signs of growing intoxication, Urias is resolute in not going home to his wife, like the proud soldier he is. It's time for David to roll out Plan C. 

The drinking scene is all the funnier because we understand that it holds Urias' life in the balance. (It shows that Peele had learnt from Kyd's stagecraft  as well as Marlowe's.) 

In passing, the drunk Urias even intuits Absalon's longing to outshine his father, a theme that still lies in the future. 

It's a small example of how Peele brings his stories to life by interlacing them. Larger examples are  Amnon's story getting under way (in Scenes 3 - 4) while Urias is still on the way back to base, and David being told of Amnon's death at the very moment he's crowing over his victory at Rabbah (Scene 9). 

At such moments we recognize the kinship of David and Bethsabe with the history plays of the same period. Here (as in Shakespeare's Henry plays) foreign war is succeeded by civil war, and the ultimate cause of national turmoil is a monarch's sin.  


This post was inevitably going to happen, following on from my post on Tom Raworth's "West Wind", which unexpectedly quotes from the superb parasol song that begins David and Bethsabe.

Hot sun, cool fire, tempered with sweet air,
Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair:
Shine, sun; burn, fire; breathe, air, and ease me;
Black shade, fair nurse; shroud me, and please me:
Shadow, my sweet nurse, keep me from burning,
Make not my glad cause cause of mourning.
Let not my beauty's fire
Inflame unstaid desire,
Nor pierce any bright eye
That wandereth lightly.

Elsewhere Peele writes a ringing, regular iambic pentameter, with few feminine endings or inversions, mainly end-stopped. It's ornamented with copious alliteration and gorgeous imagery, but it has better things to offer than a monotony of riches. 

[David.] Bright Bethsabe gives earth to my desires ...

(Scene 1)

[Amnon to Thamar.
Hence from my bed, whose sight offends my soul
As doth the parbreak of disgorgèd bears!   

(Scene 4)

[Nathan to David.
Urias thou hast killèd with the sword;
Yea, with the sword of the uncircumcised
Thou hast him slain: wherefore, from this day forth,
The sword shall never go from thee and thine ...

(Scene 7)

[Cusay to Absalon's council of war.] 
... To gather men from Dan to Bersabe,
That they may march in number like sea-sands,
That nestle close in one another's neck ... 

(Scene 11. Dan and Bersabe (=Beersheba) describe the northern and southern limits of David's kingdom)

[Achitophel, about to commit suicide.
Let all the sighs I breathed for this disgrace,
Hang on my hedges like eternal mists,
As mourning garments for their master's death. 

(Scene 13)

[Joab to Absalon.
Hold, Absalon, Joab's pity is in this;
In this, proud Absalon, is Joab's love.
        [Stabs him again.]  

(Scene 15)

Doubtless Absalon was suspended from a stage arbour, like the one in the 1623 illustration showing the hanged body of Horatio in Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. The same property (looking like a fire-screen with painted branchwork) would also have been e.g. what Benedick and Beatrice eavesdropped behind. 


We are very lucky to have Peele's plays online, with copious annotation; they (and many others) are on the site, a labour of love by Peter Lukacs:

(If you just want to read the play, choose the un-annotated text.)


Inga-Stina Ewbank, "The House of David in Renaissance Drama: A Comparative Study". Renaissance Drama vol 8 (1965), pp. 3-40.

Defence of the structure of Peele's play (saying most of what I said above, but better); with numerous analogues from European sources. 

She also wrote an earlier note (not online):

Inga-Stina Ekeblad (later Ewbank), ‘The Love of King David and Fair Bethsabe: A Note on George Peele’s Biblical Drama’, English Studies 39 (1958), 57-62 (57).

Annaliese Connolly, "Peele's David and Bethsabe: Reconsidering Biblical Drama of the Long 1590s". Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 16 (October, 2007) 9.1-20.

This essay gives a lot of useful background. Connolly argues that biblical history was a speciality brand of the Admiral's Men, and that David was just the kind of role in which Edward Alleyn excelled. But it's odd that it's totally absent from Henslowe's Diary, unless connected with the payment for "poleyes & worckmanshipp for to hang absolome" in October 1602. (The 1599 quarto claims that it had been frequently performed.) 

Peter AugerBritish Responses to Du Bartas’ Semaines, 1584-1641 (D. Phil. Thesis, 2012 (Merton College, Oxford)). 

Provides a detailed account of how Peele uses Du Bartas in David and Bethsabe. See especially pp. 189 - 197. 

Complete list of posts on Shakespeare and his contemporaries


Wednesday, May 04, 2022

“don’t say, now, you don’t know me—if I have not got a white parasol!”

This post is about Henry James' novel The American (1877). Spoilers will follow immediately!

Matthew Modine as Christopher Newman

[Image source: . From the TV Movie The American (1998), directed by Paul Unwin. Matthew Modine looks fantastic, but the adaptation defuses the story into genre fluff. You can watch it on YouTube.]

To give due credit, the TV movie was funded by ExxonMobil.  

It's impossible now, I think, to read The American without feeling that the book is as much about the good-natured hero's economic aggressiveness as about the sinister emptiness of the old culture figured by the Bellegardes. The latter, so to speak, can only destroy each other. Christopher Newman can destroy the planet. 

The title pitches it in nationalistic terms. But then James himself rather complicates things by making his Bellegardes both French and English. In fact they aren't an expression of a single nation's essence; the ruling class has always been international in its marriages, connections and transactions. The novel confronts, not so much nations with each other, as an old ruling class with a new ruling class. The Bellegardes, it turns out, can't bring themselves to extend their international connection to merge with the new power that Newman has acquired. Newman finds it ridiculously easy to see all that is wrong with the Bellegardes, and he feels it strongly, as a desperate waste of life and potential; that is, as an offence against economy or productivity. At his own position, however, he doesn't look too closely or ask too many questions. That kind of self-consciousness would be a handicap in business. And his success, with clean hands so far as criminality is concerned, may feel as if it sanctifies him. To have started from so little and been so conspicuously prosperous. Doesn't that economic triumph sound like it has a kind of moral aspect, too? Compared e.g. with those whose wealth hasn't been worked so hard for?

“Since you ask me,” said Newman, “I will say frankly that I want extremely to marry. It is time, to begin with: before I know it I shall be forty. And then I’m lonely and helpless and dull. But if I marry now, so long as I didn’t do it in hot haste when I was twenty, I must do it with my eyes open. I want to do the thing in handsome style. I do not only want to make no mistakes, but I want to make a great hit. I want to take my pick. My wife must be a magnificent woman.”

Voilà ce qui s’appelle parler!” cried Mrs. Tristram.

“Oh, I have thought an immense deal about it.”

“Perhaps you think too much. The best thing is simply to fall in love.”

“When I find the woman who pleases me, I shall love her enough. My wife shall be very comfortable.”


“Present me to a woman who comes up to my notions,” said Newman, “and I will marry her tomorrow.”

“You have a strange tone about it, and I don’t quite understand you. I didn’t suppose you would be so coldblooded and calculating.”

Newman was silent a while. “Well,” he said, at last, “I want a great woman. I stick to that. That’s one thing I can treat myself to, and if it is to be had I mean to have it. What else have I toiled and struggled for, all these years? I have succeeded, and now what am I to do with my success? To make it perfect, as I see it, there must be a beautiful woman perched on the pile, like a statue on a monument. She must be as good as she is beautiful, and as clever as she is good. I can give my wife a good deal, so I am not afraid to ask a good deal myself. She shall have everything a woman can desire; I shall not even object to her being too good for me; she may be cleverer and wiser than I can understand, and I shall only be the better pleased. I want to possess, in a word, the best article in the market.” ...

 “ ... I made up my mind tolerably early in life that a beautiful wife was the thing best worth having, here below. It is the greatest victory over circumstances. When I say beautiful, I mean beautiful in mind and in manners, as well as in person. It is a thing every man has an equal right to; he may get it if he can. He doesn’t have to be born with certain faculties, on purpose; he needs only to be a man. Then he needs only to use his will, and such wits as he has, and to try.”

“It strikes me that your marriage is to be rather a matter of vanity.”

“Well, it is certain,” said Newman, “that if people notice my wife and admire her, I shall be mightily tickled.”

“And you have seen nothing that satisfied you?”

“No,” said Newman, half reluctantly, “I am bound to say in honesty that I have seen nothing that really satisfied me.”


“She is perfect! I won’t say more than that. When you are praising a person to another who is to know her, it is bad policy to go into details. I won’t exaggerate. I simply recommend her. Among all women I have known she stands alone; she is of a different clay.”

“I should like to see her,” said Newman, simply.


(from The American, Chapter III)

The reader is evidently to understand in what ways Newman is not cold or calculating or driven by vanity. 

But at any rate he is quite explicit about marrying "with my eyes open". Not in the blindness of love that discovers new values. Here the substantive value comes first, and then "I shall love her enough".

I suppose the expression "trophy-wife" didn't exist in those days. But after all, the trophy idea is embedded deep in Newman's outlook. He applies it, for instance, to the business of choosing lodgings; or rather, of allowing someone else to choose his lodgings.

He had a relish for luxury and splendor, but it was satisfied by rather gross contrivances. He scarcely knew a hard chair from a soft one, and he possessed a talent for stretching his legs which quite dispensed with adventitious facilities. His idea of comfort was to inhabit very large rooms, have a great many of them, and be conscious of their possessing a number of patented mechanical devices—half of which he should never have occasion to use. The apartments should be light and brilliant and lofty; he had once said that he liked rooms in which you wanted to keep your hat on. For the rest, he was satisfied with the assurance of any respectable person that everything was “handsome.” Tristram accordingly secured for him an apartment to which this epithet might be lavishly applied. It was situated on the Boulevard Haussmann, on the first floor, and consisted of a series of rooms, gilded from floor to ceiling a foot thick, draped in various light shades of satin, and chiefly furnished with mirrors and clocks. Newman thought them magnificent, thanked Tristram heartily, immediately took possession, and had one of his trunks standing for three months in his drawing-room.

(from Chapter VI)

When it comes to a wife Newman is choosy: "I have seen nothing that really satisfied me". 

And in Chapter V, on his travels, he makes "a point of looking" at women as well as churches, and reports to Mrs Tristram: "I am more than ever in the state of mind I told you about that evening; I want a first-class wife. I have kept an eye on all the pretty girls I have come across this summer, but none of them came up to my notion, or anywhere near it."

And a little later, to Valentin:

" . . . If I get hold of a woman that comes up to my standard, I shall think nothing too good for her. I have been a long time looking, and I find such women are rare. To combine the qualities I require seems to be difficult, but when the difficulty is vanquished it deserves a reward. My wife shall have a good position, and I’m not afraid to say that I shall be a good husband.”

“And these qualities that you require—what are they?”

“Goodness, beauty, intelligence, a fine education, personal elegance—everything, in a word, that makes a splendid woman.”

“And noble birth, evidently,” said Bellegarde.

“Oh, throw that in, by all means, if it’s there. The more the better!”

(The American, Chapter VIII)

Well, why is Newman so choosy?  Given his own history and its inspiring evidence of the potential in ordinary human beings, why not find an ordinary woman, uneducated as he is perhaps, why is her potential not good enough? 

Unlike all those others that Newman rejects, there is value attached to Claire de Cintré, not in his own eyes but (more objectively, from his point of view) in the eyes of others. Mrs Tristram identifies her as "of a different clay". Newman trusts that endorsement more than he trusts his own heart. It's enough to start his imagination spinning romantic ideas around her. That Mme. de Cintré is also difficult to obtain adds another incentive. That she is also "of noble birth" is, we sense, much more than something merely "thrown in". Newman likes a challenge. His own sense of honour, that of an outstanding businessman who gets what he wants, is provoked into play. It's different from Valentin's idea of honour, but only extrinsically. 

The thought that Claire is a trophy is enhanced by the book's striking occlusion of this heroine and her relations with its hero, our lack of a sense of the couple getting to know each other, of whether Newman does in fact love her and of what there might be, in Claire's own personality, that he might love. Our increased acquaintance with her, anticipated since Chapter IV, is endlessly deferred. At first there are appreciable reasons, the barriers put up by her family and so on. But eventually those explanations are no longer adequate. There's a void here, most obtrusive (as James admits in his 1907 Preface) straight after the engagement when we meet the hero, not spending time with his intended, but attending the opera on his own. Reading the book without knowing the story in advance, I found the thought crossing my mind that he might back out; for what lay behind his stated commitment other than a demonstration of good business conduct? 

 James wrote:

I have been stupefied, in so thoroughly revising the book, to find, on turning a page, that the light in which he is presented immediately after Madame de Bellegarde has conspicuously introduced him to all her circle as her daughter's husband-to-be is that of an evening at the opera quite alone; as if he would n't surely spend his leisure, and especially those hours of it, with his intended. Instinctively, from that moment, one would have seen them intimately and, for one's interest, beautifully together; with some illustration of the beauty incumbent on the author. The truth was that at this point the author, all gracelessly, could but hold his breath and pass; lingering was too difficult—he had made for himself a crushing complication. Since Madame de Cintré was after all to "back out" every touch in the picture of her apparent loyalty would add to her eventual shame. She had acted in clear good faith, but how could I give the detail of an attitude, on her part, of which the foundation was yet so weak? I preferred, as the minor evil, to shirk the attempt—at the cost evidently of a signal loss of "charm"; and with this lady, altogether, I recognise, a light plank, too light a plank, is laid for the reader over a dark "psychological" abyss. 

(1907 Preface)

But isn't there a dark psychological abyss, too, in a man who so "knows his own mind"? Perhaps a more intimate portrait of their relationship would necessarily expose not just the lady but the gentleman too to the "shame" of, well, being rather less than impeccable?  But in The American James was, as he felt in retrospect, engaged in writing a kind of romance; a cutting of the balloon cable holding his vision to reality, more or less subtly managed. It was essential to his conception that Newman was understood to have been thoroughly wronged, but that judgement, on the part of the reader, might have been complicated by too much of the real. 


In Brussels (Chapter V)

He stood for half an hour in the crowded square before this edifice, in imminent danger from carriage-wheels, listening to a toothless old cicerone mumble in broken English the touching history of Counts Egmont and Horn; and he wrote the names of these gentlemen—for reasons best known to himself—on the back of an old letter.

We can make a guess at those reasons, though. The history does not redound to the credit of the Catholic church. It's also an important preliminary to the founding of the Dutch Republic, the world's first real democracy and as such an honoured forerunner of America. Two things we know about Newman, by the end, are that he is proud of being an American and that he doesn't like the Catholic church. Until the end, however, this latter view is well concealed, perhaps even from himself. 

For instance, during his first visit to Mme de Cintré:

“Your house is of a very curious style of architecture,” he said.

“Are you interested in architecture?” asked the young man at the chimney-piece.

“Well, I took the trouble, this summer,” said Newman, “to examine—as well as I can calculate—some four hundred and seventy churches. Do you call that interested?”

“Perhaps you are interested in theology,” said the young man.

“Not particularly. Are you a Roman Catholic, madam?” And he turned to Madame de Cintré.

“Yes, sir,” she answered, gravely.

Newman was struck with the gravity of her tone; he threw back his head and began to look round the room again. 

(from Chapter VI)

Newman begins the novel by trying to buy a copy of a Madonna. He doesn't seem to have felt that his church inspections entailed a question about the faith that built them. Babcock was troubled by his lack of seriousness on such matters. Nor, it seems, is Newman dismayed that the woman he wants to know is a Catholic. He finds it surprising that she should be grave about it. 
He had never let the fact of her Catholicism trouble him; Catholicism to him was nothing but a name, and to express a mistrust of the form in which her religious feelings had moulded themselves would have seemed to him on his own part a rather pretentious affectation of Protestant zeal. If such superb white flowers as that could bloom in Catholic soil, the soil was not insalubrious. But it was one thing to be a Catholic, and another to turn nun ....

(from Chapter XXI)

When Newman is baulked from his trophy, he sees that this cultural relativism has gone quite far enough.


In a strange way The American is an early prefiguration of one of James' obsessions: not marrying. ("The Lesson of the Master", The Ambassadors, "The Beast in the Jungle" . . .). It becomes a great and prescient theme: these non-marrying individuals and their inability to form the kind of open personality that can admit someone else on equal and permanent terms. 

In Newman's case the conscious will is there, the passion is there (he says so, anyway), but his conception of marriage is too like a business transaction, and his pursuit of the most unobtainable bride has something perverse about it. His egotism is not so far from John Marcher's, in the end; both men are over-committed to a story about themselves. 


In the 1907 Preface James reflects on this romance that, at the time, he did not even know he was writing. "I must decidedly have supposed, all the while, that I was acutely observing—and with a blest absence of wonder at its being so easy." 

As he points out, writing romantically or realistically is often not a conscious choice:

Of the men of largest responding imagination before the human scene, of Scott, of Balzac, even of the coarse, comprehensive, prodigious Zola, we feel, I think, that the deflexion toward either quarter has never taken place; that neither the nature of the man's faculty nor the nature of his experience has ever quite determined it. His current remains therefore extraordinarily rich and mixed, washing us successively with the warm wave of the near and familiar and the tonic shock, as may be, of the far and strange. 

As someone who is far more simply a fan of Scott and Balzac and Zola than I am of James, I must say I warmed to The American. I thoroughly enjoyed the very un-Jamesian experience of finding myself whisked off to Switzerland to attend the outcome of a fatal duel, or hearing dark secrets in a ruined chapel. 

But such-like things are only trappings of the romantic. Its essence, James thought,

is the fact of the kind of experience with which it deals—experience liberated, so to speak; experience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered, exempt from the conditions that we usually know to attach to it and, if we wish so to put the matter, drag upon it, and operating in a medium which relieves it, in a particular interest, of the inconvenience of a related, a measurable state, a state subject to all our vulgar communities.

Newman, we remember, is abroad and has no family. His wealth is a more double-edged thing. After all, there are many romances in which the disengagement from community arises from being poor, or apparently so (e.g. "lost heir" plots). But there certainly is a strong economic element in all the authors that James refers to. The American feels particularly close to the Scott model, not only in its exposure of different cultures to each other but also in its central consciousness; I'm thinking especially of Frank Osbaldistone (in Rob Roy), another hero of the new ruling-class.

Diana Rigg as Madame de Bellegarde (Claire's implacable mother)

[Image source: . From the TV Movie The American (1998), directed by Paul Unwin.]

The American, 1877 version:
The American: James' revised 1907 text and his interesting Preface. 

Stanley Tick. "Henry James's The American: Voyons", Studies in the Novel Vol 2 No 3 (Fall 1970), pp. 276-291.
"The theme of the novel is pressed in epistemological rather than ethical forms." It concerns Newman's difficulty with seeing, that is, discerning. In a note, Tick points out that Newman's self-knowledge is less than perfect; for instance, he never admits his own sexual attraction to Noémie Nioche. 

"The American (1877): Life and Form", a chapter in Jeanne Delbaere-Garant, Henry James: The Vision of France, Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970.
A chapter from an excellent book about James' tussle with the problem of French culture through his career. The American represents one pole, The Ambassadors another.

Enrico Brotta. "The Wavering Ruins of The American", in Henry James's Europe: Heritage and Transfer, ed. Dennis Tredy, Annick Duperray and Adrian Harding (2011), pp. 113-120. .
"the idea of ruins -- which oscillates throughout the novel between the emblem of an artistic and cultural past to be achieved, and the tragic witness of the decline of Western civilisation --"


Wednesday, April 27, 2022

leaves wrestle


Erman's Birch (Betula ermanii) maybe. Midsomer Norton, 23 April 2022.

the right to work                   
the rest not
just supposin’
gibbets ahead
sweet rocket
rubbed lemon balm
a snake
thoughtless as a bird
thud rolled hibiscus bloom
onto a plastic cover
water violets duck
into water
into fire
into air
no longer
able to focus
the match flame
adoring its blue
my sweet nurse
keep me from burning’
george peele
had bethsabe say
educated in empire
internal colonialism
by a foreign power
does the government affect?
colossal heartburn
don’t confuse
not feeling able to go
with wanting to stay
now live in space
we place them so
our shell is thicker
“what is that?”
“that is a dancing girl”
“is it killed
with, or by, now?”

[from Tom Raworth's "West Wind", written 1982-1983.]

Prunus 'Ukon'. Frome, 1 April 2022.

Yes, I know, "West Wind" is a somewhat obvious Tom Raworth poem to focus on. But suitable for Raworth novices, which is exactly what I am. 

For one thing, "West Wind" is unusually accessible. It appeared as the final poem of Tottering State: New and Selected Poems, 1963-1983 (1984). It's in the Collected Poems (2003) of course. It's also the most substantial piece in Miles Champion's selection As When (2015), which otherwise consists mostly of short poems. (That's where I read it.) It's also available online: 

"West Wind" is accessible in another way, too. There are parts of the poem that comment angrily on political events of the time. (Margaret Thatcher appears as "a handbag".) Another section relates to visiting his mother in hospital before her death in 1983, and her memory loss. These are just the kind of topics we expect modern poems to be about. But not poems by Tom Raworth. 

The glimpses of emotion and autobiography light up pathways through the dense text; it's astonishing to discover how much life subsists within these telegraphic lines of one or two words, predominantly nouns. 

Perhaps as a result, "West Wind" has received more commentary than most other Raworth poems (see end of post for examples).

Prunus 'Ukon'. Bath, 8 April 2022.

The extract came from section XI, the last and longest. (They are not actually numbered.)

Here it is once more, with notes:

the right to work

[Slogan used by protesters against high unemployment.

the rest not                                 
just supposin’   
[1980 Status Quo album, with a cruise missile on the sleeve.

[Sheep. Also "boss" as used by black Africans to white colonials (King Solomon's Mines; Time of the Butcherbird).

gibbets ahead
sweet rocket

[Another name for Dame's Violet (Hesperis matronalis).


[A herb; sorrow, regret, repentance and (a major theme of "West Wind") remembrance.

rubbed lemon balm
a snake
thoughtless as a bird
thud rolled hibiscus bloom  
onto a plastic cover

[Hibiscus flower has a snake-like appearance. Motif on beachwear fabrics etc.

water violets duck   
[Water Violet: Hottonia palustris.

into water
into fire
into air

[The four elements...

no longer
able to focus
the match flame 
adoring its blue 

[Cf. "a city's blue glow spikes / from shadows fanned" (Section I), "matchsticks" (Section VI).                   
my sweet nurse
keep me from burning’
george peele
had bethsabe say

[Sc. 1 of David and Bethsabe (c. 1594). Bethsabe's bathing song and subsequent speech connect three elements: fire, air and water. (The air is Zephyr, the West Wind.) But as Raworth notes, the real matter of her enjoyment and David's lust is the unspoken element, earth.

educated in empire
internal colonialism
by a foreign power

[The Falklands, April 1982. But internally we too are occupied by a foreign power (Westminster). 

does the government affect?
colossal heartburn
don’t confuse
not feeling able to go
with wanting to stay 
now live in space

[Satellites, since 1957. The vast majority are American. Ronald  Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative in March 1983.

we place them so
our shell is thicker

[Cf. "armour", "carapaces", elsewhere in the poem.

“what is that?”
“that is a dancing girl”
“is it killed               
with, or by, now?”

[Moral agency of machines.

Pear blossom (Pyrus communis). Frome, 12 April 2022.

Other notes:

from Section VI:

the      w     particle      

[Predicted in the 1960s, detected in 1983. Important in radioactive decay. 

shadowed by sunset
slid right
leaving an ocean           
flattened by the moon  

[The moon's gravity stretches the ocean (towards the sublunar point) and thus flattens it. In this scene the poet looks southward over the sea (English Channel? Brighton?). Sunset is on the right and a rising full moon on the left. The poet is looking ahead but thinking behind: into his own head: "nothing in their heads / but a sense of distance / between their ears" and behind him "i feel / behind me / examining my hair / friend / lifeless rock". (The question of what's alive and what isn't alive keeps coming up in the poem, e.g. in connection with technology -- computers, missiles.)

Reproduction of the graphic at the end of Section VI of "West Wind"

This was fun. I was trying to work out how Raworth's graphic was made. As you can see from the colours, most of the pattern can be drawn with just three lines. There are then seven accretions, mostly on the right (from TULIP downwards), and an isolated one at the bottom (STOAT). 

Some of the words are split up: O / SIP  (e.g. Mandelstam) ; MA / JORCA . 

ARGUS : Operation Argus was a 1958 US nuclear test to see if high altitude nuclear detonations produced "phenomena of potentially significant military importance by interfering with communications and weapons performance".

The graphic relates in a very general way to the introspective end of Section VI; the poet's uneasy thinking, fear of the pointlessness of language, and desire to believe in its solidity and solace:

the noise 
of mind
leaves wrestle
stalks green
descriptive words
spherical geometry
the comfort of nouns

Honesty (Lunaria annua). Frome, 12 April 2022.

from Section VII:

down to france
computer city

[One of the earliest home computers, the Timex/Sinclair 1000 (US version of the Sinclair ZX-81) went on sale in 1981. It cost $99.

richard seebright (?)    
fruit painter

[Richard Sebright (1868-1951) at Royal Worcester.

Common Mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum). Bratton hill fort, 15 April 2022.

from Section VIII:

cement works
by the medway

[There are several between Snodland and Rochester. The poet is on his way to visit his mother in hospital. By train, most likely, as in Section X.

faint dots
apple green
through stiff orchards
thirties white concrete
glass shattered
in rusted frames
my mother sits 

[From the description this sounds like the original building of the Kent and Canterbury Hospital, opened in 1937 and then noted for its gleaming white walls. 

The hospital campus was much expanded in the 1960s, which might explain "the doctor / is at the other hospital" (Section IX). 

English Elm (Ulmus procera). Frome, 16 April 2022.

from Section IX:

god made me
my parents made me
a protection
and an ornament
new money
says in Latin
a motto
my father notes
recommended to charles

[John Evelyn's motto for the Royal Society: Nullius in verba. Based on Horace and meaning "Swearing allegiance to no master", i.e. Don't take somebody else's word for it (Aristotle's, say). 

Unfortunately the same principle of sturdy independence from authority doesn't extend to deciding what to research, or who purchases the results. In practice, science is an instrument for the exploitation of others. That, of course, is my opinion, not Tom Raworth's. As one of the earliest survivors of open heart surgery, he might reflect that his adult life was made by science, as well as by his parents.

by an alliance party broadcast

[The grieving poet thinks it's "lucky" his mother is missing the party political broadcast by the SDP-Liberal Alliance (in the lead-up to the general election of June 1983). 

Greater Pond-sedge (Carex riparia). Biss Meadows (Trowbridge), 20 April 2022.

from Section X:

what distance
between the double orange lines
in a roman wall? 

[As on the Roman wall at Silchester, where double lines of tile alternate with flint and stone. Maybe there's something like that in the Roman parts of Canterbury's city walls? 

Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata). Frome, 21 April 2022.

from Section XI:

five days ago
i saw a ring
around the evening sun
radius tip of thumb
to little finger
of my stretched right arm
brown to purple
edged by a rainbow
lacking red and orange
clouds almost clear
streamed from the horizon
bent at the colour
as smoke in a wind tunnel

[That's more than enough information to identify the ring as a 22 degree halo, the most common solar halo. 

A nice sighting to be told about, not exactly commonplace. But surely what stands out, in the context of a Raworth poem, is a lucidity that verges on chattiness; lines that distinctly lack compression or consequence or rapidity.

What's going on here? I think the underlying topic must be the poet's own unusual approach in this particular poem. He's, as it were, commenting ironically on it and wondering just how much of this kind of thing he wants to do. Not much at all, as it proved.

Apetalous form of Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus). Frome, 21 April 2022.

Some pieces about Tom Raworth that I've enjoyed reading: 

Iain Sinclair, "The poet steamed". An LRB review of the Collected Poems and Removed for Further Study (essays about Raworth edited by Nate Dorward).

Brian M. Reed, 'Carry on, England: Tom Raworth's "West Wind," Intuition, and Neo-Avant-Garde Poetics", Contemporary Literature Vol. 47, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 170-206.

Mandy Bloomfield, '"A fluctuating relationship with nature": Tom Raworth’s ecopoetics,' Critical Quarterly Vol 59 No 2 (2017), pp. 65-82:

I've also read "What Was To One Side or Not Real:The Poetry of Tom Raworth 1970–1991", a chapter in Robert Sheppard's The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and its Discontents 1950-2000 (2005). The full text is available online, but I doubt if the download is legal, so I'm not giving the link.

White form of Honesty (Lunaria annua). Yate, 22 April 2022.

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Sunday, April 24, 2022

Five more Preludes


Prelude No 6 in A:

Prelude No 7 in Eb minor:

Prelude No 8 in G# minor:

Prelude No 9 in E:

Prelude No 10 in G minor:

Five more preludes, numbers 6 - 10.  There will be 24, eventually.

Here are the first five:


Sunday, April 17, 2022

La Compagnie des Indes

Symposium at Port Louis

Drifting ashore on a salt-cracked book-box,
Buoyed up with Byron and Shakespeare,
Once again we ship Coles' Notes
To Newcastle. No home these days
For obsolete litterateurs,
Only temporary anchorage
Deep in the southern hemisphere.
Safe for now in the cyclone's eye,
With scribbled notes on a borrowed page
And winging it like Hannay, 
It seems our task is to discover whether
Concordia et Progressio can
Ever be more than contraries
Yoked by violence together.   ...

The beginning of a poem from Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book (2007), a poem both formidable and annoying, and these two responses can't be separated, they are both part of the poem's meaning. 

It's a highly literary fabric. Those opening lines brush against John Masefield's "Cargoes", like neighbouring boats in a harbour.  (It's a poem that's mentioned later; its celebration of the glory days of empire and colonialism was already a little clouded in 1903).  

Port Louis is the capital city of Mauritius. It was named in 1736, in honour of Louis XV. This was when Mauritius was named l'Isle de France ("l'Île" in modern spelling). When the island became British in 1814, the orginal Dutch name was restored. 

The motto of the city is Concordia et Progressio (Harmony and Progress). The motto reminds the visiting litterateur of discordia concors in Johnson's divagation on the wit of the metaphysical poets, and hence of "The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions..." . But after all it helps him to frame the poem's question; about the symposium, and about Port Louis too. 

(I have no idea why or which Hannay appears here.)

If the poem laughs at the author's own ridiculous position in showing up at a Mauritius symposium, it casts the same disrespectful eye at the Mauritian end too. There's a "centenarian entrepreneur" who still sees EngLit in terms of Chesterton and Masefield. Shakuntala Hawoldar (b. 1944) is "Mrs Hawoldar": not so much a fellow poet as an exotic ceremonial presence (she was President of the Mauritian Writers Association):

Till Mrs Hawoldar decides
To fire the sunset gun and bring
Proceedings to a close.

And immediately afterwards, there are those funny French names picked out of the list of Mayors of Port Louis:

The names of former mayors
Are allegorical in spades:
Monsieur Charon, Messrs Forget,
Tranquille and Martial.  ...

It's a drop-in visitor's private amusement at sights he's rapidly passing by, people he'll never meet again.  But that inevitable cultural mismatch is part of what the poem is about.

And as the allegorical names hint, the cultural isolation keeps pulling him towards thoughts of death; a melancholy but somehow entrancing kind of death, in whose light the complications of history and multiculturalism can be set aside as irrelevant. The poem at the end is no longer laughing or snidy or uncomfortable, but beautiful:

Let poison run back up the leaf,
The will resume its inoocence, and all
Before they go join hands downstage
To take the sea's applause and look
Once more at how the waves come in
As ever, faithful to the shore
And yet asleep
As soundly as the drowned men in the deeps
Beyond the coral shelf,
To whom the upper world
Is sealed, as firmly
As the mind of God himself. 


I'm reading "Symposium at Port Louis" as (in part) a poem about the hopeless inadequacy of poetry. 

As it happens that theme is also sounded in my sample poem by Shakuntala Hawoldar:

Birth of Bangladesh

I can only stand
And watch the profiles of grief pass by,
Having known just greasepaint and glycerine tears,
I cannot pretend to the agony twisting in her groins against her will,
Having known only the sweets of self-surrender;
I cannot play the child who scrapes the bin for grains
from leftovers of leftovers,
I cannot be the mother collecting remnants
Of what had once churned in her womb --
Or simulate the naked face of want
Staring from rich pools of misery;
My posturing and my words
Are mere celluloid projections
Of the raw corpses littered beneath the Bangla Sun,
And my silence a betrayal of my kind. 

[Source: "Three Poets: Thwaite, Hawoldar, Pernia", India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 3 (July 1979), pp. 237-251. . The poem is about the 1971 Bangladesh genocide. Lines 4-5 refer to the genocidal rapes carried out by soldiers.]


That restorative vision at the end of "Symposium at Port Louis" arose from the island setting recalling The Tempest. (A few lines earlier we had A Midsummer Night's Dream, too.)

One literary work that doesn't get alluded to in "Symposium at Port Louis", so far as I know, is Paul et Virginie, the 1788 bestseller by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737 - 1814). The story takes place in a paradisal Mauritian valley, close to Port Louis.

Paul at length descended from the tree, overcome with fatigue and vexation. He looked around in order to make some arrangement for passing the night in that desert; but he could find neither fountain, nor palm-tree, nor even a branch of dry wood fit for kindling a fire. He was then impressed, by experience, with the sense of his own weakness, and began to weep. Virginia said to him,—"Do not weep, my dear brother, or I shall be overwhelmed with grief. I am the cause of all your sorrow, and of all that our mothers are suffering at this moment. I find we ought to do nothing, not even good, without consulting our parents. Oh, I have been very imprudent!"—and she began to shed tears. "Let us pray to God, my dear brother," she again said, "and he will hear us." They had scarcely finished their prayer, when they heard the barking of a dog. "It must be the dog of some hunter," said Paul, "who comes here at night, to lie in wait for the deer." Soon after, the dog began barking again with increased violence. "Surely," said Virginia, "it is Fidele, our own dog: yes,—now I know his bark. Are we then so near home?—at the foot of our own mountain?" A moment after, Fidele was at their feet, barking, howling, moaning, and devouring them with his caresses. Before they could recover from their surprise, they saw Domingo running towards them. At the sight of the good old negro, who wept for joy, they began to weep too, but had not the power to utter a syllable. When Domingo had recovered himself a little,—"Oh, my dear children," said he, "how miserable have you made your mothers! How astonished they were when they returned with me from mass, on not finding you at home. Mary, who was at work at a little distance, could not tell us where you were gone. I ran backwards and forwards in the plantation, not knowing where to look for you. At last I took some of your old clothes, and showing them to Fidele, the poor animal, as if he understood me, immediately began to scent your path; and conducted me, wagging his tail all the while, to the Black River. I there saw a planter, who told me you had brought back a Maroon negro woman, his slave, and that he had pardoned her at your request. But what a pardon! he showed her to me with her feet chained to a block of wood, and an iron collar with three hooks fastened round her neck! After that, Fidele, still on the scent, led me up the steep bank of the Black River, where he again stopped, and barked with all his might. This was on the brink of a spring, near which was a fallen palm-tree, and a fire, still smoking. At last he led me to this very spot. We are now at the foot of the mountain of the Three Breasts, and still a good four leagues from home. Come, eat, and recover your strength." Domingo then presented them with a cake, some fruit, and a large gourd, full of beverage composed of wine, water, lemon-juice, sugar, and nutmeg, which their mothers had prepared to invigorate and refresh them. Virginia sighed at the recollection of the poor slave, and at the uneasiness they had given their mothers. She repeated several times—"Oh, how difficult it is to do good!" While she and Paul were taking refreshment, it being already night, Domingo kindled a fire: and having found among the rocks a particular kind of twisted wood, called bois de ronde, which burns when quite green, and throws out a great blaze, he made a torch of it, which he lighted. But when they prepared to continue their journey, a new difficulty occurred; Paul and Virginia could no longer walk, their feet being violently swollen and inflamed. Domingo knew not what to do; whether to leave them and go in search of help, or remain and pass the night with them on that spot. "There was a time," said he, "when I could carry you both together in my arms! But now you are grown big, and I am grown old." When he was in this perplexity, a troop of Maroon negroes appeared at a short distance from them. The chief of the band, approaching Paul and Virginia, said to them,—"Good little white people, do not be afraid. We saw you pass this morning, with a negro woman of the Black River. You went to ask pardon for her of her wicked master; and we, in return for this, will carry you home upon our shoulders." He then made a sign, and four of the strongest negroes immediately formed a sort of litter with the branches of trees and lianas, and having seated Paul and Virginia on it, carried them upon their shoulders. Domingo marched in front with his lighted torch, and they proceeded amidst the rejoicings of the whole troop, who overwhelmed them with their benedictions. Virginia, affected by this scene, said to Paul, with emotion,—"Oh, my dear brother! God never leaves a good action unrewarded."

[Source: Paul and Virginia, translation by Sarah Jones (I think). .]


Paul et Virginie suffers the ironic fate of books that actually changed our thinking. Seeing it through the wrong end of the telescope we're less likely to be struck by its condemnation of human cruelty than to feel uneasy about its message on slavery falling short. (Compare the way we see Scott's portrayal of Jews in Ivanhoe.) It was a passionate denunciation of western civilisation, an assertion of nature over culture. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, frustrated, stubborn, morose, tender-hearted, a devotee of solitude and nature, stood in the line of Rousseau and Senancour. This is the aspect of the book that influenced the last part of George Sand's Indiana. But as the nineteenth century wore on, Paul et Virginie survived only as a sentimental tale. 


Isle de France was part of the colonial enterprise administered by La Compagnie des Indes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (I'm simplifying. There had been various trading companies with different names. The Compagnie des Indes was wound up in 1769, though trade continued until the revolution.)

Its base, in S. Brittany (Morbihan) where it was safely out of the way of hostilities with the Dutch and English, was at Lorient, founded in 1664. Across the roadstead was the slightly older Citadelle de Port-Louis. It was built by the Spanish in the 1590s originally, then reconstructed and renamed in 1618-1621. In this case the name referenced Louis XIII. Port-Louis in Guadeloupe (mid 17th century): Louis XIV. Port Louis on East Falkland (1764):  Louis XV. In one way or another all the entries in this particular Wikipedia disambiguation were connected with La Compagnie des Indes. Their biggest trade was with India: muslin, cotton, silk, pepper, coffee, and cowries (for use as currency in Guinea). From China: silk, tea, porcelain, dyes and medicinal plants. From West Africa gold, ivory, spices, gum arabic, and above all slaves, considered indispensable for working in tropical plantations and mines. 

Isle de France/Mauritius was a useful stop for replenishment on the immense sea journeys to Pondichery and Canton, but the island could also be productive in its own right. Sugar plantations, worked by slaves, proved the most profitable industry.  

[Images are from the 1997 guide to the Musée de la Compagnie des Indes, now located within the Citadelle de Port-Louis.]


Jean-Marie Gustave (J.M.G.) le Clézio (b. 1940) is a French-Mauritian author (he also has ancestral connections with Morbihan). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008. Here's an extract from Désert (1980), translated by C. Dickson (2009).

When she enters the room used as a workshop, Lalla hears the sound of weaving looms.  There are twenty of them, maybe more, lined up one behind the other in the milky half-light of the large room where three neon tubes are flickering. In front of the looms, little girls are squatting or sitting on stools.  They work rapidly, pushing the shuttle between the warp threads, taking the small steel scissors, cutting the pile, packing the wool down on the weft.  The oldest must be about fourteen; the youngest is probably not eight.  They aren’t talking, they don’t even look at Lalla when she comes into the workshop with Aamma and the merchant woman.  The merchant’s name is Zora; she is a tall woman dressed in black who always holds a flexible switch in her hands to whip the little girls on the legs and shoulders when they don’t work fast enough or when they talk to their workmates.

‘Has she ever worked?’ she asks, without even glancing at Lalla.

Aama says she’s shown her how people used to weave in the old days.  Zora nods her head.  She seems very pale, maybe because of the black dress, or else because she never leaves the shop.  She walks slowly over to a free loom, upon which there is a large dark red carpet with white spots.

‘She can finish this one,’ she says.

Lalla sits down and starts to work.  She works in the large dim room for several hours, making mechanical gestures with her hands.  At first she has to stop, because her hands get tired, but she can feel the eyes of the tall pale lady on her and starts working again right away.  She knows the pale woman won’t whip her because she is older than the other girls working there.  When their eyes meet, Lalla feels something like a shock deep inside, and a glint of anger flares in her eyes.  But the fat woman dressed in black takes it out on the smaller girls, the skinny ones who cower like she-dogs, daughters of beggars, abandoned girls who live at Zora’s house year-round and who have no money.  The minute their work slows down, or if they exchange a few words in a whisper, the fat pale woman descends on them with surprising agility and lashes their backs with her switch.  But the little girls never cry.  All you can hear is the whistling of the whip and the dull whack on their backs.  Lalla clenches her teeth; she looks down at the ground because she too would like to shout and lash out at Zora.  But she doesn’t say anything because of the money she’s supposed to bring back to the house for Aamma.  To get even, she just ties a few knots the wrong way round in the red carpet.

Still, the following day Lalla just can’t stand it anymore.  When the fat pale woman resumes whipping Minna – a puny, thin little girl of barely ten –  with the switch because she broke a shuttle, Lalla stands up and says coldly, ‘Stop beating her!’

A very comprehensive interview with J.M.G. le Clézio by Maya Jaggi (2010):

Here's an extract:

Back in Nice [from Nigeria] aged 10, Le Clézio "knew nothing about school rules or shoes". His parents were first cousins, and "very closed in on themselves. I grew up in a Mauritian bubble in France . . . I had the feeling of not belonging, but still living with French culture. That gave me this awkwardness that's not solved till now." While his father loved English literature, "my grandmother hated the English, a tradition with the old French Mauritians. I couldn't choose sides." His forebears belonged to the sugar plantocracy, but lost their estate in a family feud and scattered, becoming judges or doctors. The Prospector (1985), which Atlantic will publish in the UK next year, depicts such a family loss in 1890s Mauritius as an expulsion from Eden, yet incorporates myths of the colonial encounter, from Robinson Crusoe to Shaka Zulu. Its tale of a dispossessed son, who finds his idyll with a woman descended from maroons (runaway slaves), links the quest for gold, and the crushing of canecutters' revolts, to the Somme and the war engulfing Europe. Le Clézio's descent from slave-holders shaped his scepticism towards the Enlightenment. "I can understand better than most the contradiction between the idealistic civilisation and religious morals of Europe and what they did with the slaves, because the root of the evil is only two generations away from me," he says. "Maybe this has fed my need to fight against the abuses of modern civilisation. Maybe it's inspired my novels – it's present in my mind."

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