Boors carousing

van Heemskerck II, Egbert, 1634/1635-1704; Boors Carousing and Playing Cards

(Egbert van Heemskerck II, Boors Carousing and Playing Cards: The Bowes Museum)

‘It takes reckless resolution now, to admit that one has known a more civilised age than the present’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to Ian Parsons at Chatto and Windus, sympathising with the ‘inadequacy of the reviews’ of their recent Letters of Marcel Proust, translated and edited by Mina Curtiss. ‘It is painful to admit it to oneself, and apparently shameful to mention it to others.’ She went on: ‘At the time when we first knew each other there were the usual number of fools about, I think—but at least those fools did not feel it incumbent on them to be boors too.’[1]

Boor: a rough and bad-mannered person, my concise dictionary says, a bit thinly. Try another: a countryman, a peasant; a Dutch colonial in South Africa; a coarse or awkward person. Derived from the Dutch, boer, ‘perhaps partly from Old English, būr, gebūr, farmer.’ Better. Surely ‘rough’ together with ‘a countryman or peasant’ will serve for all those paintings, almost exclusively Dutch genre pictures of the seventeenth century, entitled Boors Carousing, occasionally preceded by ‘Interior with’ or followed by ‘and Playing Cards’.

In Warner’s case, of course, this use of the word is nicely placed midway between her short story, ‘Boors Carousing’, included in her 1947 collection, The Museum Of Cheats, and her 1954 novel, The Flint Anchor. In that novel’s early pages, the fourth generation of the Barnard family in Loseby has a thriving business; Joseph Barnard has married his second wife, bought Anchor House and ‘laid down a cellar of port wine, for he intended to get more than daughters in his second match.’ Then: ‘One cannot manage a business without becoming literate, one cannot become literate without exposing oneself to the culture of one’s day. Joseph Barnard read Burke on the Sublime, bought a Dutch canvas of Boors Carousing, installed Rumford grates, and sent his elder son to Harrow and Cambridge.’[2]

Dorset-Stories

The story, ‘Boors Carousing’, concerns Kinloch, a writer—‘“studied from myself”, according to Sylvia’, her biographer notes[3]—who has the house to himself for a while and has, apparently, ‘found it almost impossible to get on with the novel’ while his sister and her children have been staying; he has, rather, ‘written short stories, a prey to human nature – which is poison and dram-drinking to the serious artist.’ Choosing to put off writing a little longer, he is reading in his library half an hour later while the rain pours down when there is an unwelcome knock at the door. It is Miss Metcalf, daughter of the late rector, who had, Kinloch reflects, ‘drunk himself and his fortune out of existence’. She is asking for help to lift a rabbit hutch on to an outside table since the river is rising. He takes a strong liking to her house: ‘a charming place to live, if one did not object to being flooded from time to time’. The view from the Metcalf house ‘was better than his own; for one thing it included his house, and at exactly the right distance to be seen at its best.’ Then too, ‘No one was likely to come knocking at her door.’

Invited inside for a drink, he finds himself drinking pre-war whisky, ‘strong and smooth as silk’, then another, ‘to keep the cold out’. Miss Metcalf has poured herself ‘a little one too, to keep him company.’ He imagines himself here, where one could be ‘uncommonly cosy’, a house totally unrestored but which, with modest expenditure, could be made a very desirable property. And then, ‘No one would come to stay in such a house as this. They could not. He would turn the second bedroom into a bathroom.’ Miss Metcalf ‘also was keeping the cold out, and it had greatly improved her.’ She draws his attention to a picture above the mantelpiece: ‘It was a large steel-plate engraving, Luridly brilliant. Kermesse, perhaps, or possibly Boors Carousing.’ She informs him that it’s ‘a very fine specimen. And very valuable.’ She’s sometimes thought of taking it down but doesn’t know what she’d put in its place. And, if there were nothing, the patch on the wallpaper would always be there to remind her. True, Kinloch thinks. ‘Absent or present, the boors would always be carousing.’ Reminding her of her father, who had left her ‘stupefied and penniless. Absent or present, it would taunt her with an inherited alcoholism, a desperate maidenly desire for strong drink.’

Walking home, he imagines possible futures, imagines her brief obituary, then himself as attentive neighbour, taking her the odd bottle, sitting in her father’s chair and tippling with her. ‘What a story she would make!’ And, of course, he is already writing it, has already written it. Returned to his house, he enters the library and commences to write it down.[4]

These characters are not boors; nor do they actually carouse—‘to drink freely and noisily’. Yet the picture with that title (perhaps with that title), even if removed from the wall, will remind Miss Metcalf of what her life has become and how it came to be so, and how it has shaped what her life will continues to be; Kinloch is reminded, should he need reminding, that such figures as those in the painting, enjoying themselves, are also the source of enjoyment and satisfaction in others: observed, interpreted, recalled, presented.

‘“You to the life!” he said aloud. “Do nothing for her, but put her into a story.” The admission released him.’ He will, he does, he has, put her into a story. And the ‘admission’, that he will not, in fact, be that attentive neighbour, with cheering visits and bottles to share, does release him, does free him from that merely human response, enabling the artistic one, which always requires a little distance, a touch of iron in the soul, a sliver of glass in the heart.

So Kinloch to Miss Metcalf; so Warner to Kinloch; so the reader to Warner, a fruitful and extended line.

 
Notes

[1] Sylvia Townsend Warner to Ian Parsons, 26 December 1950: Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 124.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Flint Anchor (London: Chatto & Windus, 1954), 9.

[3] Claire Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1989), 214.

[4] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Dorset Stories, illustrations by Reynolds Stone (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2006), 191-200.

 

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