‘A gathering web of insinuations’: Henry Green

B0KGC2  Loving_Henry_Green

(Henry Green via the TLS; jacket of first edition, Loving)

‘This writer is unique’, Sebastian Faulks remarked. ‘No fiction has ever thrilled me as the great moments in Living and Loving; I have been moved by Tolstoy, Lawrence, Proust and others, perhaps more so, but not in the same way.’[1]

Faulks is writing here about Henry Green, whose admirers have included John Updike, W. H. Auden,  Elizabeth Bowen, Kingsley Amis, Rebecca West, Anthony Burgess, V. S. Pritchett, Angus Wilson, Olivia Manning, L. P. Hartley and Julian Maclaren-Ross.[2] Edmund White apparently rereads Green’s 1950 novel Nothing every year.[3]

Green – real name Henry Yorke – worked in his family’s engineering firm, after Eton and Oxford, eventually becoming its managing director. His second novel, Living (1929), set in a Birmingham iron foundry, cast a cold eye on the definite article and focused closely on the rhythms of its characters’ speech and behaviour.

‘Lily Gates and Jim Dale, who was Mr Craigan’s young man in iron foundry, stood in queue outside cinema on Friday night. They said nothing to each other. Later they got in and found seats. Light rain had been falling, so when these two acting on screen walked by summer night down leafy lane, hair over ears left wet on his cheek as she leant head, when they on screen stopped and looked at each other. [ . . . ] Later her head was leaning on his shoulder again, like hanging clouds against hills every head in this theatre tumbled without hats against another, leaning everywhere.’[4]

Written during the war, when Green served in the Auxiliary Fire Service, his fifth novel—exactly midway in that sequence of nine, spread over twenty-seven years—was Loving, set in an Irish country house, staffed by English servants, during the Second World War. Those circumstances are conveyed early in the book with great economy, as the old butler lies dying: ‘The pointed windows of Mr Eldon’s room were naked glass with no blinds or curtains. For this was in Eire where there is no blackout.’[5]

Green memorably recalled his novel’s genesis—it certainly stuck in my mind anyway—in a 1958 Paris Review interview with Terry Southern:

‘I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.’[6]

Loving’s central character is Charley Raunce, the footman promoted to butler after Eldon’s demise—or rather, one of the central characters, since the novel concerns in large part the coming together of Raunce and Edith, beautiful and sweet-natured, one of the two under-housemaids, who, when we first encounter her, has ‘stuck a peacock’s feather above her lovely head, in her dark-folded hair’ (19). The Tennants’ two hundred peacocks play a recurring part in this novel, as practical elements in the story as much as in symbolic force. Green’s working-class characters are sometimes untruthful or dishonest or selfish or conniving—fully human, that is to say—but they tend to come off immeasurably better than their social ‘superiors’ who, though of Green’s own class, are often mercilessly anatomised to reveal their shallowness, amorality and hypocrisy. Green denied any socio-political programme in his work: with Living, he said, ‘I just wrote what I heard and saw’. A group of workers at the factory put in a penny each and bought a copy. ‘And as I was going round the iron-foundry one day, a loam-moulder said to me: “I read your book, Henry.” “And did you like it?” I asked, rightly apprehensive. He replied: “I didn’t think much of it, Henry.” Too awful.’

Burne-Jones, Edward, 1833-1898; A Peacock

(Edward Burne-Jones, A Peacock: Victoria and Albert Museum)

I’ve always been drawn to Green in part because he seems unlike any other writer (though Ivy Compton-Burnett is sometimes cited: the social class of many characters and the dominance of dialogue); and critics seem not to know where to put him, if they put him anywhere. His first novel appeared in 1926, just four years after Ulysses; his second in 1929, the year of The Sound and the Fury—and, though Green said he hadn’t read Ulysses until after he’d completed Living, he did profess great admiration for Faulkner. So, as a novelist, he was a contemporary of Joyce, Ford, Faulkner, Wyndham Lewis, Woolf—but rarely crops up in discussions of ‘modernism’.[7] In the Paris Review interview, Southern commented on the difficulty of tracing Green’s work to sources of influence, noting that V. S. Pritchett had tried to place it ‘in the tradition of Sterne, Carroll, Firbank, and Virginia Woolf’, while Philip Toynbee had gone for ‘Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, and Henry Miller’. When the question of influence was put directly to him, Green answered rather splendidly: ‘I really don’t know. As far as I’m consciously aware I forget everything I read at once including my own stuff.’ (He then admitted to ‘a tremendous admiration for Céline.’)[8]

Here are Edith and her fellow-maidservant Kate, discovered by Charley dancing in the ballroom, in a part of the great house now closed: ‘They were wheeling wheeling in each other’s arms heedless at the far end where they had drawn up one of the white blinds. Above from a rather low ceiling five great chandeliers swept one after the other almost to the waxed parquet floor reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single sparkle of distant day, again and again red velvet panelled walls, and two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplied to eternity in these trembling pears of glass’ (65).

Green-Pack-My-Bag

There are many moments of startling beauty and poignancy in Green’s books – and innumerable moments of comedy. There are, too, tiny, distinctive touches such as Raunce’s regular letters to his mother in Peterborough, first written in pencil—as is the envelope—then carefully inked in (and the money order added).

‘Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go’, Green wrote in his ‘mid-term autobiography’. ‘Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone, and feelings are not bounded by the associations common to place names or to persons with whom the reader is unexpectedly familiar.’[9]

‘A long intimacy between strangers’ sounds about right—and pretty characteristic of its author too. A touch enigmatic and paradoxical, with that hint of contradiction which seems to dissolve on closer inspection.
Notes

[1] Sebastian Faulks, introduction to Henry Green, Loving, Living, Party Going (London: Vintage, 2005), 13.

[2] Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Bitten by the Tarantula and other writing (London: Black Spring Press, 2005), includes both his essay on Green ‘A Poet of Fear’ (291-297) and his parody of him (481-484).

[3] Rachel Cooke, review of The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jul/02/the-unpunished-vice-life-reading-edmund-white-review

[4] Henry Green, Living, 216-217.

[5] Henry Green, Loving, 13.

[6] The interview is reprinted in Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green, edited by Matthew Yorke, introduction by John Updike (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992), 234-250. A headnote quotes a letter from Southern: ‘No, there is no real trouble over our interview. There is some vague and preliminary dissension among the staff over the use of the word “cunty”, but nothing concrete.’ A little later, this exchange occurs: INTERVIEWER: And have you ever heard of an actual case of an Irish household being staffed with English servants? MR GREEN: Not that comes quickly to mind, no. (249).

[7] Although James Wood stated that Lawrence, Woolf and Green ‘were the last great English novelists, the last true magi of language, the last serious European modernists’; see ‘Martin Amis: The English imprisonment’, in The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), 186.

[8] Surviving, 236, 243.

[9] Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; The Hogarth Press, 1992), 84.

[10] Henry Green, Nothing (1950), in Nothing, Doting, Blindness (London: Vintage 2008), 60.

[11] Henry Green, Loving, 109.

August: fevers, agues, life

Arnos-3 .  Arnos-2

Right on schedule, August arrives, the month in which ‘Choler and Melancholy much increase, from whence proceeds long lasting Fevers and Agues not easily cured. Avoid immoderate exercise this month’, dear me, ‘especially the recreations of Venus.’[1]

Literary folk are celebrating two hundred years of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, or, The Whale, who wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne in November 1851, ‘A sense of unspeakable security is in me at this moment on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.’[2]

Against a couple of centuries, I look back fondly just a few weeks, to the period I might term BB—before backache—but for the confusion it might cause to those of a certain age and predilection, for whom the initials will always conjure Brigitte Bardot; or certain literary historians who will bring to mind only the poet Basil Bunting. And there was also the author of The Little Grey Men: A story for the young in heart, Carnegie winner in 1942, ‘the greatest book about gnomes in the English language’, as the website dedicated to him has it:

https://www.bbsociety.co.uk/bb-the-author.php

This was the author and illustrator Denys Watkins-Pitchford, his book published under the pseudonym ‘BB’, though he illustrated it under his real name. The Little Grey Men clearly owed a good deal to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, though it ‘makes a better use of the god Pan’ than Grahame did, Victor Watson writes in The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English, while adding that the author’s ‘messages about the environment were mixed, rooted in a conservative hunting-and-fishing ethos that many contemporary young environmentally-aware readers would find unacceptable.’[3]

Still, definitely now in recovery mode, on a dry, slightly cooler and breezier day, I take time off from communing with the literary dead to walk and, perhaps, commune with the dead in another setting: Arnos Vale, the local Victorian Garden cemetery covering some 45 acres. I might even commune with the living – though careful not to overdo it.

Moby-Dick-Rockwell-Kent

En route to the cemetery, I cut through Perrett’s Park, generously populated by women with small children and a wide selection of dog walkers, one of whom exchanges greetings with me on the straight path above the slopes and terraces running down to the natural amphitheatre with the playground in the far corner. On the near slope, a man is lying on his back; his companion leans above him, her slow fingers stroking his face with extravagant tenderness.

At Arnos Vale, there are so many paths to choose from that, should another walker be glimpsed, fifty yards off, ducking under outspread branches, there are always reliable means of avoidance close at hand. In fact, the flickering instability of the sunlight breaking often through dense foliage, the briefly seen figures who duck and veer as you yourself do, the long avenues colliding with sudden turns and side-lines, conjure up sequences in a film version of Alice in Wonderland—probably Jonathan Miller’s.

Returning via the park, I find even more children, and even more dogs, the couple on the near slope now rearranged, she sitting in front with head leant back, he with his arms wrapped around her. The last of the cloud burned off, the view across the city stands up and out like a tourist brochure.

‘For there is no faith, and no stoicism, and no philosophy, that a mortal man can possibly evoke, which will stand the final test of a real impassioned onset of Life and Passion upon him’, Melville wrote. ‘Then all the fair philosophic or Faith-phantoms that he raised from the mist, slide away and disappear as ghosts at cock-crow. For Faith and philosophy are air, but events are brass. Amidst his gray philosophizing, Life breaks upon a man like a morning.’[4]

 

 

References

[1] Richard Saunders, Apollo Anglicanus, The English Apollo, quoted by Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 315.

[2] The Portable Melville, edited by Jay Leyda (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), 453.

[3] Victor Watson, editor, The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 432.

[4] Melville, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852; New York: Signet 1964), 327.

 

Uncooperative circumstances

PGW-Ethel-Paris-Review    Tolstoy-1897-Wiki

(P. G. Wodehouse and his wife Ethel via Paris Review; Leo Tolstoy via Wikipedia)

‘Unfortunately, however, if there was one thing circumstances weren’t, it was different from what they were’, Bertie Wooster reflects with his usual keen insight into the nature of things, as he bowls along with Jeeves in the old two-seater on the way to Totleigh Towers.[1] There is too a warning from Tolstoy in Kutuzov’s reflection that, ‘With his sixty years’ experience he knew how much dependence to put upon hearsay, knew how apt people are when they want anything to arrange all the evidence so that it appears to confirm what they desire, and how ready they are in such circumstances to overlook anything that makes for the contrary.’[2]

So this is where we are. ‘We find ourselves in a fantastical place: deep in the mire of post-Brexit politics before Brexit has happened’, James Meek writes. ‘Brexit used to be about leaving the European Union. The contest for the Tory leadership [ . . . ] has been a glaring signal that quitting the EU may not be the referendum’s gravest outcome.’ And he adds that ‘the true winners in a Johnson victory are the insurgents who have worked inside and outside Parliament to make their version of the ideas propelling the Brexit cause into a ruling ethos for the nation.’[3]

Simon Heffer, noting that Amber Rudd, ‘apparently desperate to retain her cabinet seat, suddenly became reconciled to a no-deal Brexit’, comments: ‘Many former Remainers did a Rudd some time ago and decided to support Johnson, their ambition trumping anything that might hitherto have impersonated a principle.’[4] And certainly such phrases as ‘the public interest’ and ‘servants of the people’ are looking pretty outmoded these days.

We have had, today, Dominic Raab—now Foreign Secretary, it seems—claiming on the BBC that negotiating a good trade deal with the EU could be ‘much easier’ after a no deal Brexit. I’ve tried reading that slowly, quickly and upside down – but nothing really helps. (He is also busily talking up the fiction that the EU’s ‘intransigence’ has been the real obstacle to those fabled sunlit uplands, something already gleefully embraced by our sycophantic and xenophobic press.) We have, then, Monsieur Johnson lumbering towards the no-deal Brexit that his richest and most influential backers so desire. We can expect the pretence at negotiation, carefully scuppered in advance, the pained recognition that we can’t negotiate with these people, then the general election to secure a mandate to cut us free from that awful European Union, which has held us captive for so long.

This, Martin Kettle opined recently, ‘is a hard Brexit coup dressed up as politics as usual.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/25/power-brexit-boris-johnson-radical-conservative-party

‘To call this a coup is wrong’, suggests Matthew d’Ancona, on the basis that, apparently, no rules have been broken. ‘But it is certainly a hostile takeover.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/29/boris-johnson-vote-leave-eu-exit

Well, the significant number of people who have, from the beginning, seen the whole Brexit business as a right-wing coup are unlikely to have been shaken in that belief by recent events, not least the make-up of Johnson’s cabinet and some of the other figures implicated in The Project. Still, the mystery remains. There was, unnecessarily and unwisely, a referendum on staying in the European Union or leaving it. It was an advisory and non-binding referendum, narrowly won in crude numbers by those voting to leave, that total representing just over one-third of the electorate, while two of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU. The vast majority of those who voted (and those who didn’t) knew nothing whatsoever about the European Union (surely including the majority of British MPs) and never gave it a moment’s thought from one month’s end to the next. (I gauge this by remembering just how little I myself knew – and I follow politics and have been known to study history.) Yet, three years on, it has consumed people’s lives: many Conservative Party members would willingly suffer financial damage, the loss to the union of Northern Ireland and Scotland, the destruction of their party to secure this separation. Individuals in streets and pubs and markets, microphones thrust in their faces, declare that the most important thing of all is that we should leave the EU by 31st October.

Rob-Ryan-poster

(Rob Ryan poster: https://shop.robryanstudio.com/ )

The most important thing. Not the climate crisis, the millions in deep poverty, the crises in health care, social care, education, transport, housing and the rest, the relationships with the United States, Russia, Iran but – leaving the European Union.

‘With the spectacle of madness before one’s eyes’, Lawrence Durrell once wrote, ‘one feels the odds shorten. The eclipse of reason seems such an easy affair, the grasp on sanity so provisional and insecure.’ And the conservative thinker Allan Bloom observed: ‘It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.’[5]

I take some comfort from the fact that it doesn’t seem normal to me just yet.

 
References

[1] P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters (1937), in The Jeeves Omnibus: 1 (London: Hutchinson, 1990), 217.

[2] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Rosemary Edmonds (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 1214.

[3] ‘The Two Jacobs’: James Meek on Post-Brexit Britain, in London Review of Books, 41, 15 (1 August 2019), 13-16.

[4] Simon Heffer, ‘A great betrayal’, New Statesman (26 July – 1 August 2019), 29-31.

[5] Lawrence Durrell, Monsieur: or, The Prince of Darkness (1974), in Avignon Quintet, one-volume edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), 25; Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 75.

 

Listening to Cassandra

Sandys, Frederick, 1829-1904; Cassandra

(Frederick Sandys, Cassandra; Ulster Museum)

Voting ends today in the Conservative leadership contest, ‘a curious spectator sport’, William Davies wrote recently, ‘(save for the 160,000 electors with Conservative Party membership cards) in which the first contestant to accept reality is the loser.’[1]

Neither candidate had many brushes with reality but it was hardly to be expected that they would. Their more febrile supporters are not interested in that kind of thing. For the rest of us, since the depressing facts about the overwhelming favourite—a proven liar who squandered grotesquely large sums of public money, whose views change in accordance with what his audience wishes to hear and whose only loyalty seems to be to himself—are widely known and rarely disputed, the real point of interest is how he can still command so much support and what are the real motives of those supporting him? As for what comes next – there are, there have been, many incisive and compelling pieces but their only audience, I suspect, has been among those already thinking along similar lines, who ‘follow politics’ and know something of the relevant history. And beyond that? The name ‘Cassandra’ comes to mind.

Cassandra was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba. The god Apollo offered her the gift of prophecy in return for her sexual favour, an arrangement which she agreed to – but she evaded him once he had bestowed it. Apollo supposedly then spat in her mouth, rendering the gift useless, since her predictions would never be believed. So she foresaw the fall of Troy, the fatal role of Paris, the disastrous entry of the wooden horse into the city and more – but nobody listened. Abducted by Ajax, she fell as prize to Agamemnon, bore him twins and, when taken back to Mycenae, was murdered by Clytemnestra – along with Agamemnon.

Cassandra

(Aimee-Ffion Edwards as Cassandra in the BBC series Troy: Fall of a City)

So a good many commentators may have read the runes correctly, diagnosed the sickness correctly and, in all probability, predicted the results correctly – but another god has spat in their mouths and termed them part of ‘Project Fear’.

As for the original Cassandra: there are several versions of her too – but try a taste of Anne Carson’s:

‘Bear me witness:
I know that smell. Evils. Evils long ago.
A chorus of singers broods upon this house,
they never leave,
their tune is bad, they drink cocktails of
human blood and party through the rooms.
You will not get them out.’[2]

I think she may be on to something there. Best listen to Cassandra.

 

Notes

[1] See his ‘Short Cuts’, London Review of Books, 41, 14 (18 July 2019), 9-14.
[2] Aeschylus, Agamemnon, in An Oresteia, translated by Anne Carson (New York: Faber and Faber, 2009), 54.

 

Back, Green, Rose

Green-Back

Still wincing and grunting whenever I move, I think ‘back’ is my personal word of the month. But also being a reluctant believer in the God of the Three Occurrences, should such a deity exist, I remember listing among the authors I planned to reread this year Henry Green, whose nine brilliant and often baffling novels include one called Back. Published in 1946, it’s about the return to England in the summer of 1945 of a young man who was three years a prisoner of war after sustaining a wound which resulted in his losing a leg. Rose, the woman he loved, was married to another man and has since died. Charley Summers then meets a woman, Nancy, Rose’s half-sister, who exactly and disturbingly resembles Rose and whom he comes to believe is her.

In the graveyard at the opening of the novel, Charley ‘ran his eye with caution over cypresses and between gravestones. He might have been watching for a trap, who had lost his leg in France for not noticing the gun beneath a rose.’ Green continues: ‘For, climbing around and up these trees of mourning, was rose after rose after rose’. That may stir memories of Gertrude Stein—‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’—and John Ruskin weaving the name of his beloved and—after 1875—dead Rose La Touche into the pages of Fors Clavigera.

Hazzard-Transit-of-Venus    Hazzard-Great-Fire

I recently reread the two marvellous late novels by Shirley Hazzard, the second of which, The Great Fire (published more than twenty years after The Transit of Venus) concerns itself with a world soon after the Second World War in which the ‘victors’ also are hugely damaged. Quite late in the book, the protagonist Aldred Leith, returned to England in 1948 from work in China and Japan, is given a present by Aurora, a former lover of both his own and his father’s, which he doesn’t open at the time. ‘In the hotel room, he unwrapped Aurora’s package. The book, a fresh work by a writer he enjoyed, was called Back. He finished it that night, and fell asleep near dawn.’

All three present and correct then: reading list; wincing and grunting; Shirley Hazzard. I know how to take a hint.

‘Domestic detail come alive’

Vuillard, Jean Edouard, 1868-1940; Interior with Madame Hessel and Her Dog

(Jean-Édouard Vuillard, Interior with Madame Hessel and Her Dog, 1910: Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives)

‘What would you like to do on your birthday?’

The time before last that I lunched with the Librarian, she steered me to the excellent Sotiris Bakery for spanakopita and a Greek coffee (and some halva and cakes to take away), after which I drifted into the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery to visit a few favourites, including Vuillard’s portrait of Lucie Hessel and her dog.

Lucie Hessel—friend, muse, lover of Vuillard—was the wife of the art dealer Joss Hessel: they remained close friends for many years with Vuillard, to whom they offered constant hospitality in their Rue de Rivoli apartment or the Chateau de la Claye near Versailles. Vuillard lived mainly with his mother until her death: he was then sixty.

In 1955, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Randall Jarrell, thanking him for his review of Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring: he had written that her work was ‘as unmistakable as the first few notes of a Mahler song, the first few patches of a Vuillard interior. (The poems are like Vuillard or Vermeer.)’[1] Bishop wrote that ‘it has been one of my dreams that someday someone would think of Vermeer, without my saying it first, so now I think I can die in a fairly peaceful frame of mind, any old time, having struck the best critic of poetry going that way. . . ’ She continued: ‘Something else rather funny too—I’ve been working on a long poem about an aunt of mine, and when I don’t write on the poem I’ve been trying to use all the same material for either a long story or a short play—and in both of them Vuillard was the person I had in mind for the exact effect I wanted to produce. In fact, in the beginning of the play version I’d already written (in the stage directions) that it was to look like a Vuillard, before I received your clippings. —Well, communication is an undependable but sometimes marvelous thing.’[2]

Vuillard-Seamstresses

(Édouard Vuillard, Deux ouvrières dans l’atelier de couture (Two Seamstresses in the Workroom), 1893, © National Gallery of Scotland / Photo: Antonia Reeve)

And so say most of us. Paris in 1968 was pretty busy with demonstrations, strikes, student occupations of universities, workers’ occupations of factories, running battles with the police and the like; but a little later in the year, Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris were able to indulge in ‘an orgy of paintings and food’, White noted, mentioning ‘[a] marvellous exhibition of Vuillard’. David Marr’s biography quotes another letter of that time: ‘The great joy of Paris was an orgy of paintings, especially little intimate Vuillards “of people sitting over the remains of a meal, women sewing, and nursemaids looking after children in parks. Although he is so very French he is also related to the best 19th century Russian writers in his ability to make domestic detail come alive.”’[3]

What more natural, then, in answer to the Librarian’s question as to what I’d like to do on my birthday than say lunch in Bath, followed by the Vuillard exhibition at the Holburne Museum (Édouard Vuillard: The Poetry of the Everyday, until 15 September)? Alas. Ten minutes before we left I stooped a little to put a book back on a shelf and yelled loudly—not from delight or exultation but because I must have twisted my upper body when shelving it, just enough anyway to wreck my—previously wrecked—back again. Instead of looking at paintings by Vuillard, then, I shouted, winced, clutched at walls and door handles, climbed the stairs on all fours and subsequently spent at least ten minutes getting out of bed, cursing and howling, with the aid of the Librarian and a bemused stare from the cat.

A trip deferred for now. À bientôt, Monsieur Vuillard.

 
Notes

[1] See Randall Jarrell, Kipling, Auden & Co. Essays and Review 1935-1964 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 245.

[2] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 312.

[3] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 329; David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 483.

 

Getting rid of her annoyance: Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘The Golden Child’

LA_Egyptian_life_304

(Detail from a wall-painting in the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt, late 18th Dynasty, around 1350 BC: British Museum)

‘I’ll send you a copy of my poor British Museum mystery when it comes out in paperback’, Penelope Fitzgerald wrote to her friend Mary Lago (E. M. Forster scholar and also author of books on Rabindranath Tagore, William Rothenstein, Max Beerbohm and others), ‘although it’s scarcely worth reading’.[1]

The Golden Child was Fitzgerald’s third published book and her first novel. It appeared in 1977, a year after the death of her husband: the book had been written, Fitzgerald said, ‘to entertain him’.[2] She gave other versions of what had prompted its writing: ‘I did write this mystery story, largely to get rid of my annoyance: 1. about the Tutankhamen Exhib: as I’m certain everything in it was a forgery, and : 2. about someone who struck me as particularly unpleasant when I was obliged to go to a lot of museums & c. to find out about Burne-Jones’.[3]

tutankhamun

Set in the British Museum (not explicitly so), it creates, as Frank Kermode remarked, ‘the impression that the author was at least as familiar with the workings of that institution as its Director could possibly be.’[4] Nevertheless, it’s often viewed as standing apart from Fitzgerald’s other fiction, partly because of its generic character, seeming to fall into the category of ‘detective fiction’, and partly because, not least due to Fitzgerald’s own dismissive or self-deprecating comments, it’s seen as somehow unachieved, a trial run, a dead end quickly perceived and thereafter avoided. One other factor is the extensive cuts made to the novel, earlier called ‘The Golden Opinion’, by its publisher. Duckworth: some original materials, in Fitzgerald’s notebooks, are included in the archive of her work now held by the British Library:
https://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2019/07/penelope-fitzgeralds-archive-a-human-connection.html

A common response in such circumstances is to stress that the interest in the book under discussion is that it connects with so much else in the life and work of its author. And there are certainly connections that can be and have been traced: Fitzgerald’s enduring interest in closed institutions, with their peculiarities of structure and habit (the British Museum, the BBC, a drama school); cryptography, language games, mysteries; suspicion of authority and distrust of hierarchies; an affection for outsiders, those conventionally perceived as ‘failures’ or simply ‘ordinary’.

Golden-Child

(Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Child)

As Hermione Lee in particular has shown, there are a great many links between the novel and the research into her own family that Fitzgerald was conducting at the time she was writing it: ‘Her head was full of the characters of the four brothers, now all dead, whom she had known as odd, unworldly, formidably clever older men, with the enigmas of their lives cocooned in layers inside them. Unravelling their secrets was like following a thread from the present back into the underworld.’[5]

Her uncle Dillwyn’s involvement in cryptography in both World Wars and his work on ancient Greek texts, particularly the mimes of Herondas, are pertinent here, while the inability of Waring Smith to tell a lie, even to avoid distressing his wife,[6] recalls another Knox uncle, Wilfred, who ‘never told a lie in his entire life – he never saw the necessity’.[7]

Wilfred-Knox-via-Wikipedia

(Wilfred Knox via Wikipedia)

Then, although this was her first published novel, there were earlier fictional efforts, one of them, ‘A Letter from Tisshara’, dating back to 1951, when she was editing the World Review with her husband. This is probably the clearest forerunner of much of The Golden Child.[8]

The Golden Child uses the occasion of an extraordinary exhibition at a major museum to set in motion an exploration of the uses and misuses of power and the ways in which human types come together or damage those around them. When the possibility of fakery arises, the Director will not consult Sir William—the obvious candidate to settle the question of authenticity—in case of disclosure. ‘The Director’s voice trembled with the pride and bitter jealousy which is the poetry of museum-keeping’ (85). Of the novel’s ‘three musketeers’,[9] the significantly-named Professor Untermensch is an Austrian or German Jew, who hasn’t seen his wife since 1935 and whose skill in clearing up the floor of the Exhibition Hall at the end of the novel is traced back to 1937 when Nazis forced him to ‘do the street-sweeping in Vienna’ (256). Len Coker is self-educated, actively devoted to left-wing causes, a craftsman. Waring Smith is a junior exhibition officer, ‘not an exceptional young man’ (29). Their collective strength and the combination of their separate talents and qualities will suffice to solve the mystery and force the confession of the murderer. Its ‘villains’ are those with their own agendas and priorities: the Museum, though ‘nominally a place of dignity and order’, is experienced by those who work there as ‘a free-for-all struggle of the crudest kind’, marked by ‘the ferocious efforts of the highly cultured staff trying to ascend the narrow ladder of promotion’ (13). The class division is strongly marked.

Penelope_Fitzgerald_A_Life

In retrospect, noting the elements of the book that dated it—Russian villains, French structuralists—Fitzgerald added: ‘But I think of The Golden Child as a historical novel. All novels, in fact, are historical.’[10] That point had been made by Ford Madox Ford’s prefatory letter (addressed to the publisher William Bird) in No More Parades, the second volume of his Parade’s End tetralogy. Ford wrote there, ‘All novels are historical, but all novels do not deal with such events as get on to the pages of history.’[11] It has been made by others since. Marguerite Yourcenar wrote, ‘Those who put the historical novel in a category apart are forgetting that what every novelist does is only to interpret, by means of the techniques which his period affords, a certain number of past events; his memories, whether consciously or unconsciously recalled, whether personal or impersonal, are all woven of the same stuff as History itself. The work of Proust is a reconstruction of a lost past quite as much as is War and Peace.’[12]

Marguerite_Yourcenar-Bailleul-1982

(Bernhard De Grendel, Marguerite Yourcenar, 1982)

One noticeable feature of The Golden Child is the obvious extent to which the author is enjoying herself, not only in the more farcical elements of the plot, nor even the satirical sharpness with which art historians and cultural aristocrats are drawn but also on a smaller scale, in the whimsical humour of the Garamantian pictographs (188, 192-194) or sly literary jokes such as Sir William Simpkin’s enquiry as to the whereabouts of Waring Smith, elegantly sidestepping Browning’s poem to ask ‘What’s become of Smith?’ (28).[13] The investigating police officer is an Inspector Mace—the Egyptologist Arthur Cruttenden Mace was a member of Howard Carter’s excavation team, and died from arsenic poisoning six years after the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb—and Fitzgerald also enjoys puns, Mace’s assistant, Sergeant Riddell and the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company among them. Telling the story of Waring Smith’s marriage to Haggie, she comments, ‘They went out once a week to see films by leading French and Italian directors about the difficulties of making a film’ (29), while the restaurant close to the Museum, to which Waring takes Dousha at Sir William’s request, ‘having been formerly called the Bloomsbury Group, Lytton Strachey Slept Here, the Cook Inn, Munchers, and Bistro Solzhenitsyn, now bore the name of the Crisis’ (63).

Carter-1925-via-Guardian

(Howard Carter with the sarcophagus of Tutankhamen, c. 1925, via The Guardian)

One of Fitzgerald’s critics writes of The Golden Child leaving us ‘with the sense that this first novel raises questions of a “supernatural” order that would also characterize Fitzgerald’s later fiction, to the degree that it might be said that all of her fiction can be viewed as a form of detective fiction, if by this we understand that there is a mystery – spiritual in nature – that challenges us and does not readily admit of solution.’[14]

Yes. As Le Mesurier says to Voss in Patrick White’s novel: ‘“The mystery of life is not solved by success, which is an end in itself, but in failure, in perpetual struggle, in becoming.”’[15]

 

 

Notes

[1] Letter of 9 July [1994], in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 319.

[2] Several instances of this statement noted by Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 458 n.44.

[3] To Richard Garnett, 16 September 1977, So I Have Thought of You, 240. Her biography of Edward Burne-Jones was published in 1975.

[4] Frank Kermode, ‘Introduction’ to the Everyman’s Library edition of three Fitzgerald novels: The Bookshop; The Gate of Angels; The Blue Flower (London: Everyman, 2001), ix.

[5] Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald, 239; The Knox Brothers, Fitzgerald’s study of her father and his three brothers, also appeared in 1977.

[6] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Child (1977; London: Harper Collins, 2004), 199: page numbers of this edition given hereafter.

[7] See Penelope Fitzgerald, A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 470.

[8] See Dean Flower and Linda Henchey
, ‘Penelope Fitzgerald’s Unknown Fiction’
, The Hudson Review, 61, 1 (Spring, 2008), 53-55.

[9] Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald, 243.

[10] Penelope Fitzgerald, Independent Books (24 September 1994).

[11] Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 3.

[12] Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick, with Yourcenar (1951; London: Penguin Books, 2000), 275-276.

[13] Robert Browning’s ‘Waring’ begins: ‘What’s become of Waring/ Since he gave us all the slip’. Fitzgerald’s 1995 review of Peter Levi’s Edward Lear: A Life, ends by asking, in response to his highlighting of Tennyson and Hardy, ‘What’s become of Browning?’ See A House of Air, 90.

[14] Christopher J. Knight, ‘Penelope Fitzgerald’s Beginnings: The Golden Child and Fitzgerald’s Anxious Relation to Detective Fiction’, Cambridge Quarterly, 41, 3 (September 2012), 364.

[15] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 289.