First of all, I had the delightful experience of meeting another blogger today, whose bookish words I often read – Geranium Cat and I had a lovely coffee in Oxford, that was sadly brief.
Secondly – Pencillings by J. Middleton Murry, better known as Mr. Katherine Mansfield. This was the gift I was given by my friend Lucy, for completing January without buying any books, and I’ve been reading it steadily over the past few weeks – and loving, savouring, adoring it. Subtitled ‘Little Essays on Literature’, this collection mostly appeared in The Times in 1922. Oh, that we lived in a world where The Times would expect perusers to have heard of half the references Murry makes! I certainly hadn’t, and I blame my education… similarly, I had to skip the odd Latin quotation or Greek allusion.
This is all making JMM’s Pencillings sound dry, so I’ll start again. Each of these little essays tackles an aspect of literature or literariness, and then chats about it in a manner which can wander from abstract to serious to downright hilarious – and offer it all up for a few moment’s thought, or launch a month of pensive contemplation. His topics are wide-ranging – literature vs. science (“The sceptre of science may be the more majestic. Beside its massy steel the rod of literature may appear slight and slender. We do not expect a magician’s wand to look otherwise.”); an amusingly poetic book about herbs; oratory and literature; the use of the word ‘genius’ in reviews; Dickens’ enduring popularity; madness in fact and fiction; why poets write; grammar; Winston Churchill…
These essays are very short, but JMM tackles them with an enthusiasm, wit and intelligence that make Pencillings one of my favourite books of the year so far – as a bedside book, it is a joy. A bit like Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, a bit like a well-edited literary blog. A joy from cover to cover, and a lovely snapshot of literary discussion circa 1922. If you live in the US, there are a few cheap copies available from www.abe.com… if you live in the UK etc., keep an eye out.
I’m going to include almost all of ‘Disraeli on Love’, as an example – it is JMM at his most playful, teasing the novel writing of English Prime Minister Disraeli. As I say, JMM moves from the witty to the wise, so no single essay could be representative of the whole – but if you enjoy this, you’ll value Pencillings.
‘Disraeli on Love’
Mr. Walkley’s recent praise of Disraeli as the novelist of love at first sight moved me, as it doubtless moved many others, to hunt out Henrietta Temple. Frankly, I was sceptical. Doubly scpetical, for there were two reasons for doubt. First, because love at first sight is a thing almost impossible for a writer to bring off. Hardly any one since Shakespeare has managed it convincingly, or succeeded in giving us the glamour without falling into extravagance … My misgivings were justified. Not that I did not enjoy dipping into Henrietta Temple. I enjoyed it exceedingly. But not at all in the way I was intended, by Disraeli if not by Mr. Walkley, to enjoy it. The love-making between Ferdinand and Henrietta struck me as extraordinary, irresistibly funny … It is hard to believe in Henrietta at all. She had “a lofty and pellucid brow,” at which for some reason I begin to smile, and the smile becomes a laugh when I read that “Language cannot describe the startling symmetry of her superb figure.” But Henrietta, in any case, is a mere nothing compared to Ferdinand, “as, pale and trembling, he withdrew a few paces from the overwhelming spectacle and leant against a tree in a chaos of emotion.” Can it be that modern lovers are a degenerate race? Or will the things that happen to them in books seem just as queer to our great-grandchildren as the things that happen to Ferdinand do to us. The poor man suffered terribly. “Silent he was, indeed, for he was speechless; though the big drop that quivered on his brow and the slight foam that played upon his lip proved the difficult triumph of passion over expression.” That slight foam would terrify a modern Henrietta. Perhaps it would have frightened this one if she had been looking. Luckily, she was not. “She had gathered a flower and was examining its beauty.”
However, Ferdinand pulled himself together when Henrietta’s father, “of an appearance remarkably prepossessing,” turned up. “Let me be your guide,” said Ferdinand, advancing. Papa was decently grateful, but Henrietta was something more. “His beautiful companion rewarded Ferdinand with a smile like a sunbeam that played about her countenance” – how much nicer than the foam that had played about Ferdinand’s! – “till it finally settled into two exquisite dimples, and revealed to him teeth that, for a moment, he believed to be even the most beautiful feature of that surpassing visage.” Surpassing visage, like mobled queen, is good.
Certainly Ferdinand had enough to go on with. But more was to come. He was to discover that “from her lips stole forth a perfume sweeter than the whole conservatory.” Surpassing lips! A little overpowering also. No wonder that “from the conservatory they stepped forth into the garden.” There is nothing like a little fresh air. “The vespers of the birds were faintly dying away, the last low of the returning kine sounded over the lea, the tinkle of the sheep-bell was heard no more” – Disraeli knew his Gray… – “the thin white moon began to gleam, and Hesperus glittered in the faded sky. It was the twilight hour!” It was indeed, and Ferdinand played up to it like a man. Bending his head, he murmured to her: “Most beautiful, I love thee!… Beautiful, beloved Henrietta, I can no longer repress the emotions that since first beheld you have vanquished my existence.” And, to do him justice, he did not repress them. In fact, as Henry James would have said, he abounded in that sense. And Henrietta, though verbally less eloquent, rewarded him adequately.
For my own part, I like it all immensely, but nothing could persuade me to take it seriously. Love at first sight is one thing, and that is another. Love at first sight is shy; Disraeli’s account of it is like an explanation of a circus performance through a megaphone. “Amid the gloom and travail of existence suddenly to behold a beautiful being and as instantaneously to feel an overwhelming conviction that with that fair form for ever our destiny must be entwined…” Jane Austen had read all about it when she wrote Love and Freindship. Laura felt the same about Talbot. “No sooner did I behold him first than I felt that on him the Happiness or Misery of my future life must depend.” But Ferdinand is so extreme that Laura does not sound like a caricature beside him. On the contrary he makes her appear a completely rational being. Not to Laura’s Edward, but to Henrietta’s Ferdinand, ought his father have addressed the crushing question: “Where, Edward, in the name of wonder, did you pick up this unmeaning gibberish? You have been studying Novels, I suspect.”
We also suspect that Disraeli had been “studying Novels” with a view to giving his public what it wanted hot and strong., just as he had studied the Elegy in a Country Churchyard in order to make his description of the twilight hour duly poetical. And his picture of love bears about as close a relation to any human reality as his paraphrase of the Elegy does to poetry. On any showing Disraeli was a remarkable man, but if he did not write the love scenes of Henrietta Temple with his tongue in his cheek – and I rather believe he did not – he was a far more remarkable man than the most enthusiastic Primrose Leaguer has ever imagined.