An Agreeable Rattle

Sassoon

(Siegfried Sassoon)

In the Spring of 1921, Siegfried Sassoon made an entry in his diary about Mary Marjorie, his oldest friend, and the effect she had on him, making him become ‘quite an agreeable rattle!’[1]

It’s an odd and striking phrase – and one to make a close reader of Ford Madox Ford sit up and rub her hands. In Some Do Not. . ., the first volume of Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy, Mark Tietjens, Christopher’s elder brother, has been made to realise that a man called Ruggles, with whom he has shared ‘a floor of a large and rather gloomy building in Mayfair’ for some twenty years, has been spreading malicious and untrue gossip about Christopher. ‘Of Ruggles he thought little or nothing. He had once heard the phrase “agreeable rattle,” and he regarded Ruggles as an agreeable rattle, though he did not know what the phrase meant.’ Max Saunders’ footnote reads: ‘A person who talks incessantly in a lively or inane manner; a constant chatterer’: OED. The dictionary cites Rose Macaulay’s Orphan Island, also of 1924: ‘xiii. 143, I think he must have been a rather agreeable rattle’.[2]

VH_FMF_Selsey

(Ford and Violet at Selsey)

A few more Fordian connections occur to me. Firstly, Violet Hunt, whose affair with Ford began in 1909, continued into the war years and foundered definitively when he encountered Stella Bowen. In Hunt’s novel, The Last Ditch, there is a markedly Fordian character named Audely: ‘“Call me an agreeable rattle at once!” he said.’[3]

Twenty years later, here is Caroline Gordon writing to Ford from Tennessee, assuring him that social intercourse would be available when he visited, given the proximity of the University of the South (Sewanee): ‘We have stayed out of this social spate, knowing it was too swift for us, and have permitted ourselves only one University friend, an agreeable rattle who comes once or twice a week and tells us tales that would curl our hair if we hadn’t already read it in Trollope or Cranford.’[4]

caroline-gordon

(Caroline Gordon)

Then a contemporary of Ford, though not, apparently, either friend or acquaintance, C. E. Montague, in whose story, ‘Ted’s Leave’, Ted ‘must have become the crowned wit of some little set of dull men, the sort of Agreeable Rattle to whom his world looks to keep the ball rolling in some second-rate bar.’[5]

One hundred and fifty years earlier, Act III of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer has Marlow explaining to Miss Hardcastle that, ‘At the Ladies’ Club in town I’m called their agreeable Rattle. Rattle, child, is not my real name, but one I’m known by.’ Just a few years before that, the young James Boswell had commented of Charles Crookshanks, Lord Eglinton’s steward in England: ‘He is a spirited fellow, has read a good deal, and is much of a gentleman, but has at the same time much of what is called a rattle.’ Boswell then added, ‘I must observe that we are not affected by the complaints of a genteel agreeable man against life.’ Boswell’s editor has earlier remarked of the Duke of York, heir presumptive to the throne when Boswell met him in 1760, that, ‘He was a violinist of some distinction, a rake, and what the eighteenth century called a “rattle.”’[6]

Woolf.2

(Virginia Woolf)

‘Rattle’—rattlers, rattletrap, rattling mumper—has an extensive history. But it strikes me now that ‘agreeable’ has almost vanished from common usage. Less than a hundred years ago, R. H. Mottram wrote of his character Skene’s ‘sure movements, straight glance, and agreeable carelessness’, and Virginia Woolf referred to becoming ‘part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room.’[7]

Just what is the problem with ‘agreeable’? Too bland, too unemphatic for these shouty times? Is it just too—Henry James? I recall now that his Portrait of a Lady begins, ‘Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’ Pleasant, pleasing, my dictionary says. No, that really won’t do. Too restrained, too moderate, altogether too reasonable for these times. Good riddance, surely.

References

[1] Siegfried Sassoon, Diaries 1920-1922, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 64.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 250 and fn.

[3] Violet Hunt, The Last Ditch (London: Stanley Paul, 1918), 305.

[4] Brita Lindbergh-Seyersted, editor, A Literary Friendship: Correspondence Between Caroline Gordon & Ford Madox Ford (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 97. The Editor’s note suggests that the ‘friend’ was ‘Probably Samuel Monk, a member of the English department.’

[5] C. E. Montague, Action (1928; Phoenix Library, 1936), 196.

[6] Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1950), 195-196; 53fn.

[7] R. H. Mottram, The Spanish Farm Trilogy (London: Chatto and Windus, 1927), 141; . Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’, in Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 177.

 

 

‘Depressed by the world but better in ourselves’.

Letters-LM

In a letter of 3 November 1961, Louis MacNeice wrote to Allen Tate and his wife Isabella: ‘We get more & more depressed by the world but better in ourselves.’[1]

(I could write that to any number of people right now: so half of it is optimistic, no?)

MacNeice had recently moved to a half-time contract with the BBC. He’d begun an affair with Mary Wimbush the previous year and, shortly after he and Mary were involved in a car crash that autumn, MacNeice asked his wife Hedli for a divorce. She refused, supposedly on the advice of ‘their mutual friend’, Allen Tate, who had told Hedli that his wife wouldn’t give him a divorce for five years and he was ‘so grateful to her!’[2]

Tate divorced Isabella Gardiner in 1966 and married Helen Heinz, who survived him (he died in 1979); MacNeice died in 1963. So Tate’s extensive experience of marriage and divorce in late 1961 derived from his relationship with the novelist Caroline Gordon. They married in May 1925, divorced in 1945, remarried the next year and finally divorced again in 1959.

caroline-gordon

(Caroline Gordon via http://porterbriggs.com/)

Gordon’s early mentor was Ford Madox Ford, whom she worked for as secretary in New York in the mid-1920s and remained friends with, in Paris, Provence and Tennessee, for the rest of his life. ‘A few days later Ford heaved a sigh and asked me if I had done any writing. I told him that I had started a novel but that I was going to have to throw it away. He heaved another sigh and said, “You had better let me see it.” I brought him the manuscript a few days later. He read the manuscript through, then said: “Why has nobody told me about this? What were you going to say next?” I recited the sentence. He said, “That is a beautiful sentence. I will write it down.” This procedure was repeated several times. It ended with Ford taking my dictation for three weeks. The result was a novel called Penhally.’[3] Or, as she wrote to her friend Sally Wood, a little nearer to the time: ‘Ford took me by the scruff of the neck about three weeks before I left, set me down in his apartment every morning at eleven o’clock and forced me to dictate at least five thousand words, not all in one morning, of my novel to him. If I complained that it was hard to work with everything so hurried and Christmas presents to buy he observed “You have no passion for your art. It is unfortunate” in such a sinister way that I would reel forth sentences in a sort of panic. Never did I see such a passion for the novel as that man has.’[4]

Ford-Gordon-Biala-Tate

Caroline Gordon; Janice Biala; Ford Madox Ford; Allen Tate: Summer 1937, via Cornell University Library: https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:550910

Gordon would publish eight more novels, as well as several volumes of short stories and criticism, including A Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford, based on a lecture she gave at the University of California, Davis, in which, recalling her first reading of Ford’s 1913 historical romance, The Young Lovell, she remarked: ‘I have since come to feel that this novel, which is almost unobtainable and has been read by comparatively few people, is the key to Ford’s life work.’[5]

Gordon_Coll_Stories

I find this, in my current reading: ‘We impose connections in a futile attempt to find meaning in a maelstrom of possibilities.’[6]

True enough. Last word for MacNeice, then: with such an embarrassment of riches to choose from, try this, which I only came across the other day and have a liking for, ‘Prologue (to The Character of Ireland)’:

‘Facts have their place of course but should learn to keep it. The feel
Of a body is more than body. That we met
Her, not her, is a chance; that we were born
Here, not there, is a chance but a chance we took
And would not have it otherwise.’[7]

 

 

References

[1] Letters of Louis MacNeice, edited by Jonathan Allison (London: Faber, 2010), 687.

[2] Jon Stallworthy, Louis MacNeice (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 457.

[3] ‘Caroline Gordon’, in Sondra Stang, editor, The Presence of Ford Madox Ford (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 200; see also Brita Lindbergh-Seyersted, A Literary Friendship: Correspondence Between Caroline Gordon & Ford Madox Ford (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999).

[4] Sally Wood, editor, The Southern Mandarins: Letters of Caroline Gordon to Sally Wood, 1924-1937 (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), 51.

[5] Caroline Gordon, The Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford (Davis: University of California Library, 1963), 19.

[6] Iain Sinclair, The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City (London: Oneworld, 2017), 18.

[7] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 781.