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.

 

As easy as pie – sometimes

Basil

‘Basil returned with the two pies. He was wearing the expression of a man who has laid hands on a symbol of his boyhood: it made him look somewhat ponderous.’[1] This seems a pretty straightforward example of a symbol (pie = boyhood), though the passive construction of those verbs (‘He was wearing’ and ‘it made him look’) must be seen a little warily in the context of ‘Basil’ being the ‘great actor’, Sir Basil Hunter, come back from England to Australia to ease his dying mother into an old folks’ home, secure as much of the loot as he can, and play whatever roles are required.

EyeOfTheStorm.jpg

In the opening paragraph of her second novel, Penelope Fitzgerald writes of her central character, Florence Green: ‘She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.’ Bracketing this description, there are passages of studied ambiguity: it is one of the nights when Florence is ‘not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not’; and ‘Florence felt that if she hadn’t slept at all – and people often say this when they mean nothing of the kind – she must have been kept awake by thinking of the heron.’

A little later, we read that, ‘The weather was curious, and reminded her of the day she saw the flying heron trying to swallow the eel.’ One more reference, a dozen pages further on, seems to emphasise dreaming rather than thinking in that first instance: ‘Completely tired out by the time she went to bed, she no longer dreamed of the heron and the eel, or, so far as she knew, of anything else.’[2]

Some fifteen years later, in an essay on the voices of fictional characters, Fitzgerald quoted from that opening and commented, ‘I now think this was a mistake, because dreams in fiction are just as tedious as people’s dreams in real life.’[3] True enough: but the reference to the form rather than the content seems a little disingenuous – or am I oversimplifying by seeing the heron and the eel as a symbolic conjunction relevant to Fitzgerald’s entire corpus? One of her critics, enlarging on this ‘remarkable, predatory image’, remarks that, ‘As if borrowed from the sphere of sleep’s hauntings, the image, Darwinian and predacious, will be recalled more than once in the course of the novel, and it sets up, right at the start, the theme of survival—and the challenges that make survival, especially for the less fit and self-assertive, a chancy matter.’[4]

Blue-Heron-via-Telegraph

(Blue heron, via The Telegraph)

Yes, just before the second reference to the heron and eel, we find: ‘She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.’ And elsewhere, reflecting on V. S. Pritchett’s warning against writing one’s life away, Fitzgerald wrote: ‘This is a warning that has to be taken seriously. I can only say that however close I’ve come, by this time, to nothingness, I have remained true to my deepest convictions – I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as a comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?’[5]

The heron and the eel—together—comprise then an image, and surely a symbol, of the battle that life entails for a certain kind of person, with that particular balance of courage and confidence, who will never triumph yet will never quite give up either. How conscious, how deliberate must the use of a symbol be to qualify as a symbol? It seems absurdly patronising to suggest that so accomplished a writer wouldn’t have been perfectly aware of what she was doing. Nevertheless, I wonder if some writers—having produced such images, or symbols, capable of such strong and varied interpretations—hold them at a distance, play down their ownership with its implied rights of sustained control, concerned to allow those images room to breathe, to expand and flower in their readers’ minds.

‘I think you are playing a dangerous game,’ Patrick White wrote to Manfred Mackenzie in 1963, ‘fascinating to the player, no doubt – in all this symbol-chasing. Most of the time, I’m afraid, it leads up the wrong tree!’ He added, ‘I am sorry not to be able to confess to most of the influences you suggest. I may have arrived at certain conclusions via other writers who had read those you mention. Otherwise I suppose symbols can pop out of the collective unconscious.’ Two years earlier, replying to James Stern’s queries about his religious development, White replied: ‘Certainly in my own case I did not return to orthodox Anglicanism, but the Anglican church is a feeble organisation compared with the Jewish faith. I made the attempt, found that Churches destroy the mystery of God, and had to evolve symbols of my own through which to worship.’[6]

White did sometimes use symbols quite deliberately, often foregrounding them, as with the mandala that becomes part of the title of one of his novels, though circles and other figures of wholeness are everywhere in his books (as are roses). Linked to this, a sense of the wholeness of the world, certainly the artist’s world, perhaps not rationally apprehended but felt, sensed, known, is conveyed by the figure of the dance: Arthur Brown dancing the mandala for Mrs Poulter, or the young musician when she first enters Hurtle Duffield’s house: ‘As she continued turning within the conservatory’s narrow limits, she began also to hum. A golden tinsel of light hung around her lithe, mackerel body; while out of the dislodged tiles and shambles of broken glass her shuffling feet produced discordancies, but appropriate ones: Kathy Volkov would probably never teeter over into sweetness.’[7] William Butler Yeats, mindful of the interconnectedness of every part of both a tree and a work of art, famously asked at the end of ‘Among School Children’, ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’[8] And the novelist Richard Hughes, in his introduction to an edition of a William Faulkner novel, mentioned the story told of ‘a celebrated Russian dancer, who was asked by someone what she meant by a certain dance. She answered with some exasperation, “If I could say it in so many words, do you think I should take the very great trouble of dancing it?”’[9] It occurs to me that the title of Poussin’s painting that Anthony Powell adopted for his novel-sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, could hardly have comprised three terms more mysterious and more difficult to grasp with confidence and conviction.

Dance_to_the_music_of_time

(Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time: Wallace Collection)

The gap that uncertainty—as to whether a literary image or motif is deliberately designed to perform a more substantial symbolic function—allows can carry a good deal of force. I’ve reflected more than once on Ford Madox Ford’s multiple references to cooking and gardening. They are almost always, in the first instance, actual cooking and actual gardening—both arts that Ford practised and regarded as hugely important. But, of course, they also offer extraordinary scope for symbolic interpretation. Ford uses more explicitly symbolic images too, which occur less often but with a more focused aim. So Christopher Tietjens characterises his wife and his lover thus: ‘If you wanted something killed you’d go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it: emotion: hope: ideal: kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you’d go to Valentine: she’d find something to do for it . . . The two types of mind: remorseless enemy: sure screen: dagger . . . sheath!’ Later, the suffragette and pacifist Valentine Wannop will acknowledge her ‘automatic feeling that all manly men were lust-filled devils, desiring nothing better than to stride over battlefields, stabbing the wounded with long daggers in frenzies of sadism.’[10]

For literary critics, psychoanalysts and many others, the world is a seething mass of symbols—in the index to my Penguin edition of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, ‘symbol’ runs into three columns, offering no end of joyous examples: asparagus, burglar, nail-file, zeppelin—but they would probably be the first to agree that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a pipe a pipe, a rose a rose. And surely sometimes a pie is just a pie.

 

 

References

[1] Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 452.

[2] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978; London: Everyman, 2001), 5, 29, 40.

[3] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Hearing Them Speak’ (1993), in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 499-500.

[4] Christopher J. Knight, ‘The Second Saddest Story: Despair, Belief, and Moral Perseverance in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop’, Journal of Narrative Theory, 42, 1 (Spring 2012), 70, 71.

[5] Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air, 480.

[6] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 216, 217, 196.

[7] See Patrick White, The Solid Mandala ( Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 265-267; The Vivisector (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 443-444.

[8] W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems, second edition (London: Macmillan, 1950), 245.

[9] Hughes, ‘Introduction’ to William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (London: Chatto and Windus, 1966), vii.

[10] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 160, 284. Related images occur in many of Ford’s other works.

Foxes, Graces, Fatal Flowers

Maitland, Paul Fordyce, 1863-1909; Boats Moored on the Thames

(Paul Fordyce Maitland, Boats Moored on the Thames: York Museums Trust)

On a cold and blue and almost cloudless day, I pass through the park, between the bobbing magpies. Once you recognise the sight and sound of them, they’re everywhere. In our small garden yesterday, I watched a magpie take into its beak three, four, five suet pellets, and was put in mind of the fox.

Six or seven years ago, looking out of the window of my mother’s first-floor flat in Sutton, I would sometimes see foxes jogging along beside the railway line, about fifty metres away. At the end of the short garden was a garage with a flat roof and the downstairs neighbour used to throw food up onto it. One morning a fox appeared there – the roof was accessible from a low wall nearby. It took up items of food into its long jaws, meat and vegetables, five, six, seven pieces and, at the last, added a whole egg. Then it made its way down off the roof and emerged at the side of the track, all the food still apparently in place, undamaged, before padding off in the direction of home where, presumably, its cubs were waiting.

There are times when something occupying our minds or strongly present for a while—and it might be anything, from a car, a song or a woman’s name to a painting, a terrace of houses or a body of writing—exerts a powerful centripetal force. Details of things seen or heard fly to it and stick like burrs. Sounds and sights, images, phrases, connect with an audible click.

Since I’m reading or, mostly, rereading Penelope Fitzgerald’s books at present, when I walked in the park yesterday and heard the skirl of bagpipes launching into ‘Amazing Grace’, it was enough to recall the novel I’d just finished. Offshore, which won the Booker Prize in 1979, is set on the barges moored on Chelsea Reach and is dedicated ‘To Grace and all who sailed in her’. Grace is the name of the central character Nenna James’s barge, as it was the name of Fitzgerald’s, ‘a battered, patched, caulked, tar-blackened hulk’. The ‘great consolation was that a Thames barge, because of the camber of the deck, never sinks completely.’ On this point, Fitzgerald remarked, she could ‘give evidence, because we went down twice, and on both occasions the deck stayed just above water’, although Grace was finally ‘towed away to the Essex marshes to be broken up.’[1] After one of those disasters, Fitzgerald ‘went back to her teaching the next day, looking more than usually dishevelled, and said to her class: “I’m sorry I’m late, but my house sank.”’[2]

Bavarian-Gentian

Similarly, thoughts of that fox recalled Fitzgerald’s letter in response to Frank Kermode’s review of her final novel, The Blue Flower, which centres on the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, who wrote as ‘Novalis’. ‘I hope you won’t mind me writing to thank you for your review of The Blue Flower. I started from D. H. Lawrence’s “fatal flower of happiness” at the end of The Fox, having always wondered how DHL knew it was blue, and never quite managed to find out all I wanted to, partly because Novalis’ letters to Sophie have disappeared, buried in her grave I daresay.’[3]

Kermode had written of Fitzgerald: ‘She has the gift of knowing, or seeming to know, everything necessary, and as it were knowing it from the inside, conveying it by gleams and fractions, leaving those who feel so disposed to make it explicit.’ And, of the object of Fritz’s quest, ‘The visionary blue flower dominates his imagination, but in the waking life of Fritz von Hardenberg the part of the flower was played by Sophie von Kühn’.[4]

Sophie was the twelve-year-old girl with whom the poet fell in love. They became engaged on her thirteenth birthday but she died of tuberculosis just two years later. Novalis himself died before reaching thirty.

The end of ‘The Fox’ has ‘poor March’ musing on how, ‘The more you reached after the fatal flower of happiness, which trembles so blue and lovely in a crevice just beyond your grasp, the more fearfully you became aware of the ghastly and awful gulf of the precipice below you, into which you will inevitably plunge, as into the bottomless pit, if you reach any further. You pluck flower after flower – it is never the flower.’[5]

And the ending of Offshore? The two weakest characters, drunk and more than usually incapable, drift off in the storm, when the anchor comes clear and the mooring-ropes pull free under the strain. ‘It was in this way that Maurice, with the two of them clinging on for dear life, put out on the tide.’[6]

A craft that should be firmly linked to those of its close neighbours becoming unmoored and drifting off into the open sea because of intoxicated incompetence. Not a fable for our time, obviously.

References

[1] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 477-478.

[2] Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 158.

[3] Penelope Fitzgerald to Frank Kermode, 3 October [1995], in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 453.

[4] Frank Kermode, ‘Dark Fates’, review of The Blue Flower, London Review of Books, 17, 19 (5 October, 1995), 7.

[5] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Fox’, in The Complete Short Novels, edited by Keith Sagar and Melissa Partridge (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 203.

[6] Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore (1979; London: Everyman, 2003), 131.

 

Manning the pump, manning the ship

Collins, William, 1788-1847; The Caves of Ulysses at Sorrento, Naples

(William Collins, The Caves of Ulysses at Sorrento, Naples, 1843
Photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum)

There’s a moment in Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald when, discussing the long period of Fitzgerald’s teaching, she mentions that ‘Her copies of Joyce and Beckett are full of little jokes to herself, as when the citizen in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses goes out “to the back of the yard to pumpship”, and she notes: “Has to pee just like Bloom. We’re all human.”’[1] By ‘the citizen’ is meant—or should be meant—not ‘the Citizen’, that violent and foul-mouthed Polyphemus figure but the unidentified narrator of the ‘Cyclops’ episode. ‘So I just went round to the back of the yard to pumpship’.[2]

Pumpship – or pump ship. Yes, perhaps inevitably there comes a time in a man’s life when his thoughts alight and pause on slang terms for urination. Might women be content to be left out of this general discussion? On the basis of my (admittedly very limited) survey, it would seem so. . . .

Don Gifford’s authoritative Ulysses Annotated didn’t find the term worth elucidating, though R. W. Dent’s Colloquial Language in Ulysses has an entry (which basically reproduces Eric Partridge’s).[3] Joyce’s friend Frank Budgen doesn’t enlarge on it either, merely commenting that ‘I’, or ‘the Nameless One’, as he also refers to the narrator, ‘goes out into the yard to pumpship’. But then Budgen, in earlier life, had spent six years at sea.[4]

Bloomsbury-Pie

All this put me in mind of the account in Regina Marler’s Bloomsbury Pie of the discussions between Joanne Trautmann Banks and Nigel Nicolson, the editors of Virginia Woolf’s letters, on the level of annotation to be used there:

‘Having decided, too, that the annotation should insult neither English nor American readers, the editors sometimes battled over what should be explained. The Adirondacks, for instance, were judged too basic. But what about “pumping ship,” or as Virginia used the phrase, in reference to T. S. Eliot’s extreme reserve: “It’s on a par with not pump shipping in front of your wife.” “What’s that?” Trautmann asked, certain they would have to annotate it. “Pumping ship means urinating,” Nicolson told her. “Every Englishman knows that.” Trautmann decided to test his assumption:

So the typists, the cook, and the nanny were asked. Nigel’s children were asked, as was every guest at Nigel’s next dinner party….Only one man knew, a physician, as it happens. I say “as it happens,” because Nigel determined that it was not the doctor’s profession that led to this particular genito-urinary information, but his age and schooling. “Only Old Etonians over 50 know about pumping ship,” Nigel announced. We annotated it.[5]

They did. The note reads ‘Virginia misconstructed this now obsolescent term for urinating.’[6] With a markedly worse misconstruction, E. M. Forster, floundering badly and unappealingly, writes in letters of having ‘pump shitted’ and of ‘pump shitting’.[7]

‘P.S.’, Rupert Brooke wrote in a 1912 letter to James Strachey, ‘When I pump ship, it’s bright green. What does that portend?’[8]  A portentous question.

PF-BlondeB-Slate

(Penelope Knox, ‘the blonde bombshell’, via Slate Magazine )

Penelope Fitzgerald, anyway, seems untroubled by the word ‘pumpship’. To be sure, she wasn’t an Old Etonian over fifty, but two of her uncles had been (though Dillwyn died in 1943, aged only fifty-eight). Back in mid-1930s Oxford, where men at the university outnumbered women by six to one, ‘the blonde bombshell’ then at Somerville College—‘No one was surprised when she got a First after a “congratulatory viva”, at which the candidate is praised rather than quizzed’—surely met a good many Old Etonians (and Harrovians and Rugbeians).[9]

But then a Dubliner, educated at O’Connell, Clongowes and Belvedere, also seems quite untroubled about it, as does ‘the Nameless One’, as fluent in speech as in relieving himself—and admiring too (if grudgingly) of Leopold Bloom’s own fluency:

And of course Bloom had to have his say too about if a fellow had a rower’s heart violent exercise was bad. I declare to my antimacassar if you took up a straw from the bloody floor and if you said to Bloom: Look at, Bloom. Do you see that straw? That’s a straw. Declare to my aunt he’d talk about it for an hour so he would and talk steady.[10]

References

[1] Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 199.

[2] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 435.

[3] Don Gifford, with Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses, revised and expanded edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); R. W. Dent, Colloquial Language in Ulysses: A Reference Guide (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994), 145; Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Paul Beale, 8th edition (London: Routledge, 1991), 933: nautical slang, late 18th century to c.1870, given there as two words.

[4] Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’ and other writings, enlarged edition (1934; London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 165.

[5] Regina Marler, Bloomsbury Pie: The Story of the Bloomsbury Revival (London: Virago, 1997), 158. She quotes from Trautmann’s piece in Charleston Magazine, 13 (1996), 12. See also Joanna Trautmann Banks, ‘The Editor as Ethicist’, in Virginia Woolf: Interpreting the Modernist Text, edited by James M. Haule and J. H. Stape (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 29.

[6] Virginia Woolf, The Question of Things Happening: Collected Letters II, 1912-1922 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1980), 572, n1.

[7] Selected Letters of E. M. Forster, Volume One: 1879-1920, edited by Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank (London: Collins, 1983), 95, 238. His editors note, of the letter of 19 October 1908, ‘“Pump shitted”: EMF’s misspelling of “pumpshipped”’ (96, n.3).

[8] Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, 1905-1914, edited by Keith Hale (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 253. A footnote mentions ‘semen’, so poet and editor appear to have something else in mind here.

[9] Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald, 57. In the 1970s, Fitzgerald became friends with Mary Lago, one of the editors of E. M. Forster’s letters (quoted above)—on which she was probably then working.

[10] Joyce, Ulysses, 410.

Noises off, spell checkers on

Burne-Jones, Edward, 1833-1898; Love Among the Ruins

(Edward Burne-Jones, Love Among the Ruins
National Trust, Wightwick Manor: photo credit National Trust)

A few days ago, I could hear a frequent but unidentifiable noise: upstairs as well as downstairs. Washing-machine? Sewing-machine? Drill? Just at the edge of the range of my hearing, so that I couldn’t identify the source of it either. Surely from one of the neighbouring houses but which one? Mechanical or electrical; varying duration; it had stopped; no, it hadn’t, it kept on happening. I finally decided that it was workmen taking down the scaffolding from a house thirty or forty metres along the road. But the salient point was that, once aware of the sound, even though it was barely audible, I couldn’t ignore it: the fact of it had lodged in my head and wouldn’t be shifted.

Now an impressive commotion at the door heralds the arrival of a copy of the 1975 edition of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Edward Burne-Jones: A Biography, supplied with promptness and efficiency by G. & J. Chesters of Tamworth. After finishing, The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald’s remarkable group biography of her father and three uncles, the only one of her books that I’d not read was Edward Burne-Jones: I’d dipped into it but never read it through properly. Having determined to reread all her fiction—which I’d thought wonderful the first time around even while I was convinced that I’d missed at least half of what there was to see—I added the biographies, intending to start at the beginning.

Penelope_Fitzgerald_A_Life

I had the paperback edition, published by Sutton in 2003, with a brief preface by Christopher Wood. By the time I reached page twenty-five, which mentioned the French city of ‘Chatres’, I was so aware of the errors in the text that it had become as serious a distraction as bolt-removing workmen. But was it just a case of errors carried forward from the original publication? I found a limited preview of that on Google Books and checked a couple of examples. No, these were all Sutton’s own work, so I placed an order for the first edition. Just after I’d done so, I found an endnote in Hermione Lee’s superb biography of Fitzgerald, which mentioned the publishing history of her life of Burne-Jones: it had ‘two reissues, by Hamish Hamilton in 1989, and by Sutton Publishing in 2003, a bad edition full of misprints.’[1] Ah yes.

Long before I did any editorial work, I was a freelance proof-reader for a few years, always desperate for a little extra money. If you take to proofreading and sub-editing, and you have the type of eye and mind that lock on to errors of that sort, it’s impossible to shake the habit off (sometimes tiresome, no doubt, to those not afflicted in the same way). I was once moved to write to the American publisher of an edition of William Faulkner’s Collected Stories that I was reading, pointing out the appalling state of the text; on another occasion, I wrote to John Calder about a Wyndham Lewis novel, suggesting that Lewis’s writing was quite challenging enough without  the addition of occasional gibberish because the proof-reader (if there was one) had nodded off or had recourse to the bottle. In neither case did I hear back. Years later, when I read Pursuit, subtitled ‘The Uncensored Memoirs of John Calder’, I thought ‘unedited too: you should have let me—or, at least, somebody—proofread this, Mr Calder.’[2]

Spalding-Piper

Most recently dispiriting was the case of Frances Spalding’s joint biography of John and Myfanwy Piper, published by Oxford University Press.[3] It’s a beautiful book, six hundred pages long, with an extensive range of illustrations, both in colour and in black and white, well-designed and produced (although, despite my care, several of the colour plates were working themselves loose by the time I’d finished the book). A successful and highly-regarded biographer and art historian; an eminent university press; yet, in the first three pages, I read of a ‘Librian’ (this may be something vaguely astrological but it isn’t a keeper of books and manuscripts) and a sentence that started: ‘After this begun book was begun’, which seemed overgenerous with beginnings. Subsequently, among other delights, there was an antiquarian named William Stukley (referred to again, correctly spelt, within a few lines), an institution called the Royal Collage and a novelist named Henry Greene. Indefinite articles were missed out several times, there was an unsettling reference to Piper’s ‘panting’, Keynsham was shunted into another county and a village named Layock, near Melksham, was  invented for the occasion.

All of which, once again, only served to distract this reader from the text. It is, I know, an open secret that, while publishers generally used to see to this sort of thing, a great many now. . . don’t. Perhaps there’s some uncertainty as to where the burden of responsibility ultimately lies, which makes it all very twenty-first century—but there, I feel a bit of politics coming on. Perhaps better not. . .

References

[1] Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 457, n.25.

[2] Looking back now, I note Michael Horowitz’s comment, when reviewing the book in The Telegraph (18 March 2002): ‘Calder’s unimpeachable commitment to the defence of literature is heavily sabotaged by misspellings and glaring errors of fact, grammar, punctuation and attribution throughout the memoirs.’ I see that a paperback edition came out at the end of 2016, perhaps proofread for the occasion.

[3] Frances Spalding, John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).