The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

The Old Wive's TaleIt’s not long since I read my first book by Arnold Bennett – his detailed advice about how to acquire literary taste – and all of a sudden I’ve read two. I’ve voracious right now.

Actually, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) – which I have been erroneously calling The Old Wife’s Tale since forever – was the choice of somebody at my book group. I was quite enthusiastic to read a Bennett novel because of what a significant name he was in the early 20th century, and only a little less enthusiastic when I saw that it was over 600 pages of quite small font. And, boy, does he fill those pages. (In a great way, for the most part.)

Bennett’s thing is detail. I kind of knew that in advance, from Virginia Woolf’s famous essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown‘ – which I can’t now resist quoting, because it does set you up for the level that Bennett goes to:

He, indeed, would observe every detail with immense care. He would notice the advertisements; the pictures of Swanage and Portsmouth; the way in which the cushion bulged between the buttons; how Mrs. Brown wore a brooch which had cost three‐and‐ten‐three at Whitworth’s bazaar; and had mended both gloves—indeed the thumb of the left‐hand glove had been replaced. And he would observe, at length, how this was the non‐stop train from Windsor which calls at Richmond for the convenience of middle‐class residents, who can afford to go to the theatre but have not reached the social rank which can afford motor‐cars, though it is true, there are occasions (he would tell us what), when they hire them from a company (he would tell us which).

Now, Woolf was being rather snide about this. With her impressionistic style, it was inevitable that she would look down on this sort of Edwardian writing; she was of the generation that would break away from it. Fine. But I actually found I rather loved being immersed in this detail. The focus of it is two ordinary women: sisters, Constance and Sophia. They live in a house adjoining a shop run by their father, on a square in an ordinary Staffordshire town. During this upbringing, their whole lives are in these rooms and this town. They know everybody; everybody knows them. It is emphatically a novel of English life (at least at this juncture), and Bennett spares not the pen in writing about it:

Constance and Sophia, busy with the intense preoccupations of youth, recked not of such matters. They were surrounded by the county. On every side the fields and moors of Staffordshire, intersected by roads and lanes, railways, watercourses and telegraph-lines, patterned by hedges, ornamented and made respectable by halls and genteel parks, enlivened by villages at the intersections, and warmly surveyed by the sun, spread out undulating. And trains were rushing round curves in deep cuttings, and carts and waggons trotting and jingling on the yellow roads, and long, narrow boats passing in a leisure majestic and infinite over the surface of the stolid canals; the rivers had only themselves to support, for Staffordshire rivers have remained virgin of keels to this day. One could imagine the messages concerning prices, sudden death, and horses, in their flight through the wires under the feet of birds.

In this world, Bennett describes every detail of their life. Such detail that it seems impossible to summarise, and also someone seems impossible that it could be fiction. Were we only to hear about (say) the death of their father, their marriages, their turmoils and victories, then it would feel plotted. As it is, we hear about the way in which they walk from room to room, the customers whom the assistants respect and those for whom they will not stand up, the manner of the tea tray and the teacups. Everything is here; every moment.

There are, however, a few moments of major event in the novel – even of sensation. Somehow this doesn’t feel ill-measured alongside the tone of Bennett’s writing, though by rights it should – perhaps the occasional extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary is simply another element of realism. One I shan’t mention, but is very interestingly used. The first such moment is Sophia absconding.

She runs off with a local charmer – and leaves the pages of the novel maybe only a sixth of the way through (so I thought). We are left to watch Constance grow older, marry, have a son, and continue to live next to the shop. It was a beautifully told story – the emotions Bennett describes of mother, daughter, sister, and wife seem (to one who is admittedly none of these things) to be perfectly judged and very effectively portrayed. All of it feels real.

Bennett – I did not realise beforehand – is very amusing. In the hands of Hardy, The Old Wives’ Tale would be gut-wrenching. This is not a comic novel, but without the levity of his style, it would have become a tragedy. Constance and Sophia both suffer a fair amount, and yet Bennett doesn’t leave the reader miserable. And, of course, I forgot to note down any examples. He doesn’t go for bon mots or witticisms, per se, but takes an authorial step back to tease or raise an eyebrow at his characters. It’s wonderful, and made me laugh out loud a few times – the only instance I can find isn’t the finest, but it made me laugh. Mr Povey is shop manager, and his way with labels is not to be underestimated: ‘It is not too much to say that Mr Povey, to whom heaven had granted a minimum share of imagination, had nevertheless discovered his little parcel of imagination in the recesses of being, and brought it effectively to bear on tickets’.

I have said little of the second half of the novel. And that is because I would have advised to Bennett that he cut it altogether. Around the halfway mark, we are flung back to the moment Sophia departed the novel – and we follow her instead. We abandon the ageing Constance in favour of the once-again-young Sophia, and see her life in Paris. As a separate novel, it would be quite interesting – and the contrast between the sisters’ destinies is doubtless well orchestrated – but I should have much preferred it to be summarised in a page or two. I don’t think I have much patience with novels which cover the same timespan more than once, and I certainly prefer a short novel to a long one – had The Old Wive’s Tale *actually* been The Old Wife’s Tale and only looked at Constance’s life, I should have liked it all the more. (But I will concede that this opinion was not shared by anybody at book group, and thus I may well be in the minority.)

So, I shall certainly return to Bennett when I’m in the mood for this level of expert detail. That won’t be every week, nor yet every month, but it might be every year. I’m glad to have finally made the acquaintance of one of the most notable names of 20th-century writing – and to have realised something of his worth away from the unjustly negative reputation he might have been lumbered with.

Literary Taste (how to form it) by Arnold Bennett

I love that this sort of book was once published – and not only published but, as my copy suggests, owned by the 23rd Hartlepools Troop of Scouts. I do hope they enjoyed it. Who knows what journey it then went on before I picked it up in Edinburgh?

Literary Taste

Literary Taste: how to form it was published in 1909, though there was later a revised edition by Frank Swinnerton in the 1930s, according to Wikipedia. My copy is undated but is evidently from around 1909 – because it doesn’t have the extra section Swinnerton added (more on that later), and, well, because the book is obviously from that period. One of my specialist talents now is being able to date an early 20th-century hardback to within a few years. It doesn’t come in handy all that often.

Bennett had only been publishing novels for about a decade when this book came out, but they included big-hitters and his name was already at the forefront of literary reputation – though it would take a tumble later, when he became more or less synonymous with the stale Edwardians (thanks partly to Virginia Woolf’s influential essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’). I’ve yet to read any of his fiction, though my book group is doing The Old Wive’s Tale next month, but I’ve read quite a bit of his reviewing and journalism. He’s certainly got a passion for books, and the sort of determined I’m-just-like-you persona that is rivalled only by Jennifer Lawrence.

This book is addressed to the person who enjoys reading and wants to be well-read, but doesn’t quite know where to start. Bennett is almost absurdly precise in where you should start (it is, apparently, the essays of Charles Lamb), but before this he says things about literature that echo down the decades to get a rousing ‘amen!’ from all of us.

Literature, instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living. I am extremely anxious to avoid rhetorical exaggerations. I do not think I am guilty of one in asserting that he who has not been ‘presented the freedom’ of literature has not wakened up out of his prenatal sleep. He is merely not born. He can’t see; he can’t hear; he can’t feel, in any full sense. He can only eat his dinner.

Love it.

The aim of literary study is not to amuse the hours of leisure; it is to awake oneself, it i to be alive, to intensify one’s capacity for pleasure, for sympathy, and for comprehension. It is not to affect one hour, but twenty-four hours. It is to change utterly one’s relations with the world.

Preach, Bennett!

Well, having said that, I think it can also just be to amuse the hours of leisure. I don’t think Bennett would think much of me, literature-wise. For one thing, he’s no big fan of the academic study of literature. For another, he’s not very impressed by people who don’t start with 16th-century literature – and, I’ll be honest, it’s been quite a while since I grabbed a copy of anything from before the first world war. Well, except Literary Taste, of course.

Bennett writes very interestingly about why a classic is a classic, who decides it, and how choices in reading can make or break one’s literary education. All of it feels fresh today, and are debates that still rage. But Bennett isn’t just talking hypotheticals: he wants to get down to brass tacks about actual books to read. Not only Charles Lamb (though emphatically him) – Bennett compiles a list of essential books, and prices them out as well. It’s nice that he is aware of financial limitations, and deliberately omits some authors whose works are not available in good, reasonable editions in 1909. It’s also so unexpected to see these sorts of balance sheets in a popular literary text.

This was apparently pretty influential. Wikipedia has kindly put them all in a list, which you can examine closely; it also includes books from the post-1909 period of literature that Swinnerton added in his 1937 revision. I am more comfortable ground in this years, of course, and it’s nice to see people like A.A. Milne included – and unexpected to see Stella Benson’s The Little World, which I haven’t heard of despite being (I suspect) one of relatively few people today to have read more than one book by Stella Benson. And there’s a Compton Mackenzie recommendation to follow up after my recent review of Poor Relations.

I’ll admit, Bennett’s choices leave me feeling like I have very little literary taste – and also wondering how he’d time to read all these authors and books by the time he was 42. As he concludes the list (which includes brilliantly sassy moments like ‘Names such as those of Charlotte Yonge and Dinah Craik are omitted intentionally’):

When you have read, wholly or in part, a majority of these three hundred and thirty-five volumes, with enjoyment, you may begin to whisper to yourself that your literary taste is formed; and you may pronounce judgment on modern works which come before the bar of your opinion in the calm assurance that, though to err is human, you do at any rate know what you are talking about.

Well, not yet, Arnold. And probably never. Somehow I find it more fascinating to read books from 1909 about how people formed literary taste – and this was certainly a great, interesting, unusual read.

Oxford by Edward Thomas

I think most book bloggers will identify with this situation: THE book we read and never got around to reviewing.  Of course, there are dozens that would fit that category, but I imagine we all have one in particular which we wish we’d reviewed at the time – either because it was so good, or because we’ve wanted to link back to it on many occasions.  But the memory of reading it has simply faded. That book, for me, is Oxford by Jan Morris, given to me by my father when I came up to Oxford – and read about five years later, which isn’t bad going for my reading schedule.  It’s absolutely fantastic, that much I remember – but not much else.

In order for it to avoid a similar fate, I shall now write about Oxford (1903) by Edward Thomas.  Imaginative titles, these fans of Oxford come up with, no?  This was a gift from my friend Daphne, although I can’t remember quite when.  Being published in 1903, perhaps I should have saved it for a tricky year when I do A Century of Books again in 2014 (this is still the plan!) but instead it’s come under Reading Presently (I’ll give you a proper update in due course.)

All I knew about Edward Thomas before reading this came from Helen Thomas’s excellent biographies/autobiographies, and having read one or two of his poems (i.e. ‘Adelstrop’, twice).  Well, Oxford didn’t teach me a lot about him either, as – understandably – he doesn’t write very much about himself.  But his sensibilities are in every line.  Supposedly he writes about Oxford past and present, through the lenses of the students, the dons, and the servants – but really he is writing prose-poetry.  There are anecdotes and portraits, true, but he is clearly a poet rather than an historian or chronicler, still less the creator of a guide book (although he would later write some).

Would any of those professions give space for this description of a college garden?Old and stories as it is, the garden has a whole volume of subtleties by which it avails itself of the tricks of the elements.  Nothing could be more romantic than its grouping and contrasted lights when a great, tawny September moon leans – as if pensively at watch – upon the garden wall.  No garden is so fortunate in retaining its splendour when summer brusquely departs, or so rich in the idiom or green leaves when the dewy charities of the south wind are at last accepted.
It’s lovely, and accordingly I love it (as mentioned before, I am much more at home with poetic prose than poetry) – but you will understand why I shan’t try to give a factual précis of the material Thomas covers, because the writing is everything here.  I read Oxford very slowly, over the course of a few months, and I think that’s the best way to read it.  It certainly shouldn’t be taken out on the High Street if you want to find the bus station, not least because the book is over a hundred years old.

I have lived in Oxford for nine years, but there was very little in here that I recognised as being here today – perhaps the fields in Grandpont, and the view over Port Meadow (for now…), but not the rest.  The people have changed, the environment is no longer the way Thomas saw it.  Things change more slowly in Oxford than elsewhere, perhaps, but the ignorant rich no longer have access to Oxford (whatever the tabloid press might suggest.)  Legions of servants who know each undergraduate by time are similarly products of a bygone era.

Having said that, his portraits of personality types in ‘undergraduates of the present and past’ did hit home.  Once the trappings of the 1900s were tidied away, there still exist, in outline, the figures he depicts.  The mediocre student who does a bit of sport, a bit of studying, a bit of everything… the arrogant ‘intellectual’ who becomes disillusioned by the ignorance of his tutor… the man who speaks at the Oxford Union, ‘There and at afternoon teas with ladies he is known for the lucidity of his commonplaces and the length of his quotations’.  I wonder which of Thomas’s portraits was I… This section of the book was probably my favourite.  Not as poetic as the rest, but the only section where his aim was humour – and very amusing it was.

So, for a guide to Oxford, Oxford is hopeless.  Even as an historic record, it is hugely flawed.  But as a beautiful book, occasionally funny and always luxuriously written, it is a huge success, and I heartily recommend it.  For a more cogent and calm history, with writing beautiful in a very different way, make sure you also pick up Jan Morris’s Oxford.

Two Classic Children’s Books

A Century of Books has led to me reading more children’s books than usual in 2012.  The debate about whether or not adults ought to read YA fiction (a phrase I hate) is probably best left for another day – but I think most of us understand the call towards unashamed classic children’s fiction, which doesn’t have the slightest pretence to being adults’ literature.

First, very speedily, a suggestion Claire mentioned when I was struggling to fill in 1909Ann Veronica went back on the shelf for another day (next to Rebecca West, amusingly enough) and Beatrix Potter came off instead.  Well, actually, since I don’t have a copy of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, I downloaded the free ebook from Project Gutenberg, and read it on my Kindle for PC.  It’s lovely – of course it is.  Peter Rabbit’s sister Flopsy and her wife Benjamin have quite a few children – ‘They had a large family, and they were very improvident and cheerful.’  (Which picture book writer today would use the word ‘improvident’?  Or ‘soporific’?  Love you, Beatrix.)

You probably know the story.  Wicked Mr. Macgregor is back, and does his best to kidnap the Flopsy Bunnies… will he manage it?  Can you guess?  (By the way, this cartoon is an amusing counterpart to Beatrix Potter’s bunny stories.)  It feels a bit like I’m cheating with 1909 – but I suppose Potter is more influential than most of the other authors featured in A Century of Books.  And it was delightful!

*  *  *

A whistle sounds, a flag is waved.  The train pulls itself together, strains, jerks, and starts.”I don’t understand,” says Gerald, alone in his third-class carriage, “how railway trains and magic can go on at the same time.”And yet they do.
This seems like a very apt quotation from E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle (1907), because she is best known (at least in our household) as the author of The Railway Children.  Her own writing, then, successfully combined the possible – if unlikely – story of children living near a railway, and this novel where all manner of extraordinary things happen.  But it is, perhaps, the possible events threaded through the novel which made it most effective, in my eyes.

Everything starts off believably.  Siblings Jerry, Jimmy, and Kathleen are bored during their summer holidays, spent with one of those eternal Mademoiselles of children’s fiction from this period.  Only this one is not cantankerous or hysterical, and is quite happy to let them go off to explore.  On their exploits, they discover (as one does) a beautiful castle, with grounds replete with marble statues, etc.  And – look! – a sleeping princess!  She awakes, after Jimmy (somewhat reluctantly) kisses her – and she takes them through to see her jewels.  One of these is a magic ring, she confides, which can make the wearer invisible.  Only they have to close their eyes for a bit whilst it works.  And, yes, it works!

But the princess is rather surprised.  It turns out she is, in fact, Mabel – the housekeeper’s niece – and wasn’t expecting the ring actually to turn her invisible.  And thus their adventures begin…

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs for ever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real.  And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets, and the like, anything may happen.
And anything does happen.  Invisibility, expanding, swimming statues, ghosts…  I prefer my novels’ fantastic elements to be rather more restrained, with parameters neatly set.  This all felt a bit scattergun, but I suppose Five Children and It is similar and that doesn’t bother me, but that’s probably because I grew up reading Five Children and It, and this is my first reading of The Enchanted Castle.  I have a feeling that this would feel a much more coherent book for those who loved it as a child.  As for me, sometimes it seemed like dear E. Nesbit was making it up as she went along.

What saved it completely, though, was her delightful tone.  I wrote, in my post on The Railway Children, that I’d no idea E. Nesbit was so witty – and that continues here.  There are plenty of asides and sly nudges to the reader – a wit that was probably put in for the parent, but could well be appreciated by the child too.  Alongside the amusing style, my favourite aspect were the non-fantastic relationships – between siblings, between the children and Mademoiselle, between Eliza the maid and her young man, and between… no, the last two I shall leave you to find out for yourself.

It was all good fun.  And yet I’m going to throw my copy away.  Because it looks like this now…

Ooops!  TV tie-in paperbacks from the 1970s weren’t built to last, were they?

Two lovely children’s books to round off 2012.  Just one book left for A Century of Books… a biography for 1970.  Any guesses?

Three Men on the Bummel – Jerome K. Jerome

Jerome K. Jerome has been on my radar recently, since Catherine at Victorian Secrets sent me a new biography of him – Below the Fairy City: A Life of Jerome K. Jerome by Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton – which I hope to read soon.  More on that from the publisher’s website here.  But before I got Catherine’s message, and subsequently the book, I was already thinking about Jerome – because I’ve recently finished Three Men on the Bummel, the sequel to his very well-known novel Three Men on a Boat, which I reviewed here.  It also takes the coveted 1900 place on my Century of Books.

George and Harris rejoin Jerome (our narrator) as they go off on the bummel.  What is a bummel, you ask?  Well, Jerome answers the question for us, but not until the final page.  I’m going to save you the mystery:

“A ‘Bummel’,” I explained, “I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.”
Theirs takes the form of cycling through Germany, and commenting on the things that happen there.  Cycling holidays were rather the craze, and travel guides for Europe were equally popular, but the narrator is keen to correct the reader who might have picked up the book for the wrong reason:

I wish to be equally frank with the reader of this book.  I wish here conscientiously to let forth its shortcomings.  I wish no one to read this book under a misapprehension. 

There will be no useful information in this book. 

Anyone who should think that with the aid of this book he would be able to make a tour through Germany and the Black Forest would probably lose himself before he got to the Nore.  That, at all events, would be the best thing that could happen to him.  The farther away from home he got, the greater only would be his difficulties. 

I do not regard the conveyance of useful information as my forte.  This belief was not inborn with me; it has been driven home upon me by experience.
Well, he’s not wrong there!  If you thought Three Men on a Boat went off on a lot of tangents, then you’d have to psyche yourself up to read this – there isn’t really anything but tangents.  They’d cycle for a bit (well, it took some time to get even as far as the holiday itself) and something would remind the narrator of a past event, or he’d wander off on a pages-long anecdote about something that happened earlier in the week, etc. etc.  It was often difficult to work out what was past and what was present, so tenuous was any attempt at linear narrative.  But did that matter?  No, of course not.  Not in the slightest.  Jerome K. Jerome is a hilarious writer, and that is the point of Three Men on the Bummel.

The anecdotes interweave and overlap, and are so long, that it’s difficult to give you a flavour of his writing – but I did find one excerpt which was short enough to type out and shows you how funny Jerome can be:

He handed me a small book bound in red cloth.  It was a travel guide to English conversation for the use of German travellers.  It commenced “On a Steamboat,” and terminated “At the Doctor’s”; its longest chapter being devoted to conversation in a railway carriage, among, apparently, a compartment load full of quarrelsome and ill-mannered lunatics: “Can you not get further away from me, sir?” – “It is impossible, madam; my neighbour, here, is very stout” – “Shall we not endeavour to arrange our legs?” – “Please have the goodness to keep your elbows down” – “Pray do not inconvenience yourself, madam, if my shoulder is of any accommodation to you,” whether intended to be said sarcastically or not, there was nothing to indicate – “I really must request you to move a little, madam, I can hardly breathe,” the author’s idea being, presumably, that by this time the whole party was mixed up together on the floor.  The chapter concluded with the phrase, “Here we are at our destination, God be thanked!” (Gott sei dank!)” a pious exclamation, which under the circumstances must have taken the form of a chorus.
Quite a lot of the novel’s humour comes from the stereotype that Germanic cultures are organised, regimented, and orderly.  Any humour depending on national archetypes is apt to make us feel a little uncomfortable, but hopefully that wouldn’t ruin the book for you.  The narrator is, any how, greatly admiring of this trait – and if we were to ignore any British novel which cast Germany in a negative light, it would wipe out most of the first half of the 20th century.  I’m sure most of us are willing to accept a book as being from the time it was written.

Three Men on the Bummel was read while I was myself ‘on the bummel’ – through the Lake District – and I was able to smile wryly at the humorous misadventures the heroes experienced at the hands of transport and weather, and was only too grateful that I haven’t ridden a bicycle since I was 14.  It’s been so long since I read Three Men on a Boat that I’d be hard pressed to compare them minutely, or choose a favourite, but this certainly isn’t a poor relation – it’s very, very funny and one of the silliest books I’ve read in years.

A.A. Milne’s first book

I seem to be having a little spate of reading author’s first books (look out for Agatha Christie’s coming up soon!) and I decided a good way to tackle one of the remaining years of A Century of Books would be a re-read of A.A. Milne’s first – Lovers in London (1905).  I wrote a little about it back here, in January 2010, but that was mostly about the topic of print-on-demand books.  Lovers in London is one of the very few POD books I own, and it isn’t very attractive – but it’s impossible to find a non-POD edition anywhere, mostly because Milne disowned the book and bought back the copyright to prevent anyone reprinting it. 

That will probably make you assume that it is appalling, and it isn’t at all.  It might only be for Milne completists, but it is nonetheless interesting to see where and how he started.  As you might expect, it is about young lovers – only at the beginning they haven’t met.  Edward (or Teddy) is the narrator in the mould Milne wrote so well at the beginning of his career – the jovial, cricket-loving, occasionally-writing-for-Punch sort of upper-middle-class man; Amelia is his godfather’s daughter, travelling to England from her native America.  We’re early let into the obvious secret – that by chp.24 (and there are only 125 pages; these are not long chapters) Amelia and Edward will be betrothed.

It’s all very cheery and insouciant and very AAM in his sketch-writing days.  If you’ve had the pleasure and privilege of reading The Day’s Play, The Sunny Side, The Holiday Round or things like that (and if you haven’t, you should) then you’ll recognise the sort of fun they have:

As we went under the bridge to get to the elephant-house Amelia insisted on buying buns for the rhinoceros.
“But they don’t eat buns,” I objected.
“He will if I offer it to him,” said Amelia confidently.
“My dear Amelia,” I said, “it is a matter of common knowledge that the rhinoceros, belonging as it does to the odd-toed set of ungulates, has a gnarled skin, thickened so as to form massive plates, which are united by thinner portions forming flexible joints.  Further, the animal in question, though fierce and savage when roused, is a vegetable feeder.  In fact, he may be said to be herbivorous.”
“I don’t care,” said Amelia defiantly; “all animals in the Zoo eat buns.”
“I can tell you three that don’t.”
“I bet a shilling you can’t – not straight off.”

 I instanced the electric eel, the ceciopian silk moth, and the coconut crab.  So Amelia paid for our teas.  But in the elephant-house the rhinoceros took his bun with verve – not to say aplomb.
The most successful sections are such as these – when Amelia and Teddy wander around and indulge in frivolous conversation.  It’s witty – not the structured, repeatable sort of wit we meet in Wilde, but the variety that puts a happy smile on one’s face.

Some chapters were less well done, to my mind, and these tended to be where Milne’s imagination got the better of him – particularly one where action wandered (in Teddy’s mind) to a desert island.  A little too fanciful, and a little too silly.  But for the most part, it is all very entertaining and jolly.  What Teddy writes about himself could equally be said of Milne:

I am a harmless, mild-mannered person.  There is nothing “strong” about my work; nothing that calls for any violent display of emotion on the part of my puppets.  I doubt if there could be an illegitimate canary (even) in my stories…
I can’t see quite why Milne took so against Lovers in London.  If it is not up to the standard of his next few books, it isn’t so far behind them as to make it embarrassing.  If it were available in bookshops across the land, I wouldn’t hesitate in telling you to get a copy to enjoy on a rainy Sunday afternoon – as it is, in pricey POD editions, you’d be much better off hunting for the much cheaper, much more attractive editions of slightly later books by AAM.

The Railway Children – E. Nesbit

I’m still having trouble filling up the first twenty years of 20th century, so decided to take recourse to a reliable candidate for 1906.  When I started this project there were a list of authors I thought would come in handy for the decades I know less about.  Some I’ve read this year (Muriel Spark, Paul Gallico), some I haven’t yet (Milan Kundera, Penelope Fitzgerald) but E. Nesbit was always on that list, and likely to appear at least once before the end of 2012.  I haven’t read The Railway Children since I was about eleven, and I thought (given how often I’ve seen the film) that it was about time for a revisit!

Well, what on earth can I say about The Railway Children?  Surely – surely – you’ve all read it, or at least seen the film?  No?  Someone at the back hasn’t?  I’ll whip through the basics of the plot quickly, and then give you my 2012 response in bullet points.  M’kay?

Bobbie (Roberta), Peter, and Phil (Phyllis) are three young siblings who, when their father leaves mysteriously, must move with their mother to the countryside and ‘play at being poor’.  While she scrapes together money by writing stories, the children grow to know and love the railway and station.  It becomes the focus of their lives, and their various exploits and adventures are connected with it – whether rescuing an injured boy playing paperchase, preparing a party for the station master, or ripping off petticoats to stop a train derailing in a landslide.

Here’s how I responded to it in 2012…

It all happens so much more quickly than I remembered!  I suppose I’m used to the pacing of the film, and of course perception of time changes over the years, but I was amazed at how speedily E. Nesbit dashes through the events.

E. Nesbit is funny!  There’s an arch, dry humour that I hadn’t spotted the first time around.  It first crops up on the opening page, where Phyllis is described simply as ‘Phyllis, who meant extremely well.’  I’m not going to say that The Railway Children is a raucous knockabout, but this humour prevents Nesbit stumbling into over-earnest territory.

Lordy, she’s sexist.  Par for the course in 1906, I daresay, but she doesn’t seem to be using irony when the doctor says “You know men have to do the work of the world and not be afraid of anything – so they have to be hardy and brave.  But women have to take care of their babies and cuddle them and nurse them and be very patient and kind.”  *Shudder*

However, there is such a lovely feel to reading this book.  A mixture of the qualities inherent in the story, characters, setting – but also, of course, a little journey back to my own childhood.  Not only did I read and watch The Railway Children, but I grew up next to a railway.  No station, and no steam trains of course, but the noise of trains still takes me back.

Er, yes… yes, I did cry at the end.

Man and Superman – George Bernard Shaw

One of the weirder tangents my thesis has taken me on is the depiction of Satan in 20th-century literature… not a topic I feel entirely at ease with, but needs must, and it has led me in the direction of some intriguing texts.  Most entertaining was George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903) – which helpfully ticks off one of the tricky years at the beginning of A Century of Books.

Although I’ve read a few Shaw plays, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one performed.  This one would be great fun to watch, although it is apparently rarely performed in its entirety.  There are four acts – Acts 1, 2, and 4 are set in upper-class society with Shauvian topics of marriage and left-wing morals.  Act 3, normally excised, is… set in hell.  As you do.  But I won’t jump the gun – let’s rewind back to Act 1.

Ann has recently lost her father, and is waiting to hear whom her father appointed her guardian (for, although her mother is still alive, she seems fairly useless).  Most likely candidate is Roebuck Ramsden, a no-nonsense, traditional sort of chap, whose chief horror is the spectre of Socialism.  Said spectre is represented by Tanner, something of a pessimist but rather a wordy, witty one.  To Ramsden’s horror, Tanner and he have been chosen to be co-guardians.  Tanner sees through Ann’s guise of unworldly innocence, to the determined young woman inside:

She’ll commit every crime a respectable woman can; and she’ll justify every one of them by saying that it was the wish of her guardians. She’ll put everything on us; and we shall have no more control over her than a couple of mice over a cat.

A man who certainly does not see through this guise is poor hapless Octavius.  He’s very sweet, but utterly besotted with Ann and incapable of seeing her faults, even when Tanner points them out to him.  Especially then.  And we’re all set up for a lovely comedy of manners, with some handy dichotomies thrown in: right-wing/left-wing, conventional/’advanced’, romantic/cynical, serious/playful.  Being Shaw, it’s not quite as insouciantly blithe as it would be in the hands of some playwrights.  He gets his politics in – gently, in the first two acts, in the linguistic tussles of Ramsden and Tanner, which are great fun.

The big moral quandary comes in with Ann’s sister Violet, who (we find out) is pregnant.  Ramsden and Octavius are horrified, while Tanner congratulates her on her progressive nature.  All is not quite what it seems, and it’s a rather clever bit of playing with a common early-20th century dilemma.

Then Act 3.  Which is set in Hell, and features Don Juan, a statue, and the Devil (amongst others).  This act is almost invariably omitted from productions of Man and Superman, and one can see why.  Shaw intends to draw parallels between these characters and those of the play proper – indeed, the play started in response to the challenge to write one in the tradition of Don Juan – but it’s all a little heavy-handed (as Shaw can be) and probably rather costly to stage.  The Devil is not an unsympathetic character, and has very advanced views on warfare, considering this is pre-WW1:

In a battle two bodies of men shoot at one another with bullets and
explosive shells until one boy runs away, when the others chase the
fugitives on horseback and cut them to pieces as they fly.  And this,
the chronicle concludes, shews the greatness and majesty of empires, and
the littleness of the vanquished. Over such battles the people run
about the streets yelling with delight, and egg their governments on to
spend hundreds of millions of money in the slaughter, whilst the
strongest Ministers dare not spend an extra penny in the pound against
poverty and pestilence through which they themselves daily walk.

On and on this act goes, until eventually – with an intellectually improved audience, I daresay, but also a rather bored and confused one – we return to the characters we know and love, and witty wordplay becomes, once more, the order of the way.

And Shaw is witty!  He doesn’t specialise in those twisty, meaningless bon mots of Oscar Wilde, which are so clever and a little wearing (except in the incomparable Importance of Being Earnest) but a more extended pattern to his writing.  Wilde relies on the epigrammatic individual line; Shaw’s paragraphs flow, with ingenious pacing and regulated logic, and produce humour that way.  Just as an example, here are Tanner’s thoughts on marriage:

Marriage is to me apostasy, profanation of the sanctuary of my soul, violation of my manhood, sale of my birthright, shameful surrender, ignominious capitulation, acceptance of defeat. I shall decay like a thing that has served its purpose and is done with; I shall change from a man with a future to a man with a past; I shall see in the greasy eyes of all the other husbands their relief at the arrival of a new prisoner to share their ignominy.

Man and Superman ended up not being useful for my chapter, but it was great fun to read.  I think I might return to Shaw’s plays in December, if the 1900s and 1910s are still proving tricky years to fill…

And what happened to Ramsden, Ann, Violet, Tanner, Octavius and all?  I bet you can guess at least one outcome…

The Spinster Book – Myrtle Reed

Image source, and online text

There has been a bit of a theme on SiaB this year, hasn’t there?  Lots of books for, and about, unmarried women – because of the research I’ve been doing.  You’ll be hearing more about metamorphosis and talking animals later in the year, so get ready for that… Anyway, The Spinster Book by Myrtle Reed is the earliest of the books I’ve read this year – published, as it was, in 1901.  Myrtle Reed was only my age (26) which is perhaps too young to be penning anything with ‘spinster’ in the title – and, indeed, she never became an old spinster, or an old anything, as she committed suicide when she was 36.  I learnt all this after reading the book; it would, perhaps, have coloured my view of what is a witty and exuberant examination of men, women, and marriage.

Quite why it is called The Spinster Book I’m not sure, unless it is intended to act as a guide for the uninitiated.  It certainly doesn’t linger on the single state for long – instead, leaping headfirst into a discussion about men.  This was perhaps the most openly satirical chapter – if I had read some of the others first, I might have thought Reed serious (if misguided) for 1901 is a long time ago, and her ‘advice’ might well have been current.  I couldn’t tell whether the beautiful lay-out of the book, with bordered margins and notes at the side to tell you the main topic of the page (none of which, I note, is available in the free ebook edition – just sayin’) was itself part of the satire, or simply a throwback to design which was not, in 1901, particularly distant.  But nobody could read this and imagine Reed’s tongue to be anywhere but in her cheek:

How shall a girl acquire her knowledge of the phenomena of affection, if men are not willing to be questioned on the subject?  What is more natural than to seek wisdom from the man a girl has just refused to marry?  Why should she not ask if he has ever loved before, how long he has loved her, if he were not surprised when he found it out, and how he feels in her presence? 

Yet a sensitive spinster is repeatedly astonished at finding her lover transformed into a friend, without other provocation than this.  He accuses her of being “a heartless coquette,” of having “led him on,” – whatever that may mean, – and he does not care to have her for his sister, or even for his friend.
The Spinster Book is something akin to a satirical exploration of men, women, and love – not really in the style of an advisory guide, but closer to natural history.  Reed writes of men and women as though she were neither, and merely watching them at an amused, or concerned, distance.  She is full of sage, simple advice:

In order to be happy, a woman needs only a good digestion, a satisfatory complexion, and a lover.  The first requirement being met, the second is not hard to obtain, and the third follows as a matter of course.

And who can blame her if the contemplation of mankind in the throes of romance makes her somewhat cynical?

The average love letter is sufficient to make a sensitive spinster weep, unless she herself is in love and the letter be addressed to her.  The first stage of the tender passion renders a man careless as to his punctuation, the second seriously affects his spelling, and in the last period of the malady, his grammar develops locomotor ataxia.  The single blessedness of school-teachers is largely to be attributed to this cause.

Although Reed is being tongue-in-cheek throughout, The Spinster Book is still interesting as a window on society in the early 1900s.  True, affections and engagements were probably not bestowed and withdrawn quite in the manner Reed suggests, but it is taken as read that a man will barely know a woman before he proposes, and that a woman ought to turn down a few men before she settles upon one (in contrast to the post-WW1 supposed mentality of grabbing any man one can.)  Cynicism about marriage is a trope of comic writing which has been around since Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, and doubtless before, but through this cynicism one can always discern a portrait of contemporaneous marriage and relationships – through a glass darkly, but it’s there.  Failing that, The Spinster Book – though not satire at its most sophisticated or thorough – is still good for a giggle.

(As usual, clicking on the sketch will give you a larger, more readable, image… enjoy!)

The Spinster Book
Lesson No.1: Get lots of cats.
Lesson No.2: errr…