Four-posted

Barber, Alfred R., 1841-1925; Four Rabbits

Rabbit Quartet
(Alfred Barber, Four Rabbits: Stockport Heritage Services)

Glancing over the titles I’d borrowed from the university library—on my infrequent visits, I tend to range widely and sometimes incoherently—I was struck by a quite unintended recurrence: Four archetypes, The fourth imagist, The letters of D. H. Lawrence: Volume 4, W. H. Auden’s Prose: Volume 4, 1956-1962. Four fours. (There was, in fact, a trickster: a fifth title, by Patrick White, although—fittingly enough—it was called Three uneasy pieces).

 Four-square. The sign of four. In August 1889, less than two years after the debut of Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle had dinner at the Langham Hotel with Joseph Marshall Stoddart, the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Thomas Patrick Gill, former editor and M.P—and friend of Charles Stuart Parnell—and Oscar Wilde. The dinner resulted in two short novels appearing in Lippincott’s: Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (its magazine title added a second definite article: ‘The Sign of the Four; or, The Problem of the Sholtos’).

Doyle-Sign-of-Four

The story begins with the famous scene of Holmes injecting himself with cocaine (‘a seven-per-cent solution’)—and ends with him reaching up for the cocaine-bottle—touches on Watson’s publication of A Study in Scarlet and Holmes’s own published works (on types of tobacco ash, the tracing of footsteps, the influence of a trade upon the form of a hand), demonstrates the difference between observation and deduction, and introduces the Baker Street Irregulars, the tracker dog Toby and the woman who will become Watson’s wife, Miss Mary Morstan (‘I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature’, the doctor decides). All this as well as tales of the Indian Mutiny and a narrative excursion to the Andaman Islands. Conan Doyle also acknowledged the part played by the Langham Hotel: it is from here that Captain Morstan has so mysteriously disappeared.[1]

The Earth may be round but much of it’s quadriform –‘the four corners of the earth’ is familiar enough. Four elements, four seasons (for some of us); also dimensions, estates and (coming up fast on the inside) horsemen of the apocalypse. Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed four fundamental freedoms, though Harry Truman fooled around with them, replacing freedom from want and freedom from fear with ‘a promise of “freedom of enterprise”.’[2] According to Fernand Braudel, the world population doubled in four centuries (the fifteenth to the eighteenth); it does so now in more like four decades.[3] Ovid had described four ages of man; Thomas Love Peacock wrote of four ages of poetry: iron, gold, silver and brass. Modern poetry too had its ages and ‘that egregious confraternity of rhymesters’—the Lake Poets, primarily Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey—were guilty of ‘conjuring up a herd of desperate imitators’, who had in turn ‘brought the age of brass prematurely to its dotage’.[4]

Four-ages-of-man

‘The four ages of man’, Bartholomaeus Anglicus (Royal 17 E III, f. 80): © The British Library

‘The grand object of travelling’, Samuel Johnson declared, ‘is to see the shores of the Mediterranean. On those shores were the four great Empires of the world; the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman.—All our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages, has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean.’[5] Other fours that spring or schlep to mind include Ronald Duncan, ‘I have always needed the assistance of at least four women—and thought they were happy if they were too busy to complain’,[6] and Hugh Kenner’s discussion of Ezra Pound mulling over the opening of the Cantos, pondering ‘a chord that should comprise four of history’s beginnings: the earliest English (“Seafarer” rhythms and diction), the earliest Greek (the Nekuia), the beginnings of the 20th-century Vortex, and the origins of the Vortex we call the Renaissance, when once before it had seemed pertinent to reaffirm Homer’s perpetual freshness.’[7] And there is Lawrence Durrell’s epigraph to Justine, the first volume of The Alexandria s Quartet, a quotation from Freud (a letter to Wilhelm Fliess in 1899): ‘I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four persons are involved. We shall have a lot to discuss about that.’ Unsurprisingly, I’d say.

My own record on quartets and tetralogies is distinctly patchy. Brass, wind, string? Not many, a very superficial acquaintance given the range of choice. But Durrell, yes, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, yes. Updike’s Rabbit books, almost there, Michael Moorcock’s The Cornelius Quartet, ditto, Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility, a bit. Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, not at all, pretty close once or twice but never quite seized the moment; and the same goes for L. H. Myers, The Near and the Far.

On the other hand, when we come to Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End – I’d say I’m more than covered. ‘Bridge was his only passion; a fortnight every year was what, in his worn-out life, he got of it. On his holiday he rose at ten. At eleven it was: “A four for the Father.” From two to four they walked in the forest. At five it was: “A four for the Father.” [ . . . ] The other four played on solemnly.’

Fordian fours. No Enemy is not part of a tetralogy but the temptation’s there; and, after all, if I were to throw in Ford’s other immediate postwar writings (the ones that remained unpublished), ‘True Love & a G. C. M.’, ‘Mr Croyd’ plus one of the two other typescripts intimately related to it—‘That Same Poor Man’ and ‘The Wheels of the Plough’—I have a foursome.[8]

‘So Gringoire had four landscapes, which represent four moments in four years when, for very short intervals, the strain of the war lifted itself from the mind. They were, those intermissions of the spirit, exactly like gazing through rifts in a mist.’

Bring on those intermissions of the spirit, those rifts in the mist.

 
References

[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four, in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2006), 209-381.

[2] Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 285-286.

[3] Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th – 18th Century. Volume I: The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, translated from the French; revised by Sîan Reynolds (London: Fontana Books 1985), 31.

[4] Peacock, The Four Ages of Poetry, quoted in Stephen Prickett, ‘Romantic Literature’, The Romantics, edited by Prickett (London: Routledge, 2016), 243.

[5] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 742.

[6] Ronald Duncan, All Men Are Islands: An Autobiography (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964), 187.

[7] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 349.

[8] The apparent confidence with which I list these is, of course, entirely based on the second volume of Max Saunders’ Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Paying respects

Angels

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright—so it was, and is. Passing the open front door of a house along our street, cement sacks propped against the wall, the whole building masked by scaffolding—one of several at the moment—I’m struck by how many workers in the building trade believe they can sing – I mean sing well, of course. The song that’s spilling from the radio is almost drowned out by their own near-miss whoops and roars. But then my standards have been skewed since work on the back of our house transformed them. For months, along with the drilling and hammering downstairs, I could hear Mark singing along with the radio. Not only could he sing in tune – and hold a tune – but he seemed to know the words and the melody of every song that came over the airwaves. More, he could sing every part and, frankly, anyone who can do all that and harmonise with himself, has earned respect, certainly mine.

That’s a word that detains me from time to time. ‘Respect’ – for the person, for the achievement, for the office. The last of these has fallen out of favour of late, tangled up with ‘the end of deference’, ‘deference’ being one of those trigger words that creates a certain restlessness in the room. In many countries, of course, respect continues to be accorded a particular office even if the holder is manifestly wholly unfitted for it and may even have brought the office itself into disrepute.

My own position is that, while respect has to be earned, so too does disrespect. Neither praising nor dispraising until the one or the other is warranted, by word or action; and, in the meantime, walk on by. Browsing in dictionaries, I’m fine with ‘a feeling of deep admiration for someone elicited by their qualities or achievements’, so too ‘due regard for the feelings or rights of others’: that’s ‘due regard’.

Vansittart

On the matter of balance between respect for the person and for the position held by that person, I like this from Peter Vansittart: ‘Classics, of course, have no monopoly of pertinent stories, and any age can learn from a French provincial governor, François de Montmain, replying to King Charles IX: “Sire, I have received an order from Your Majesty directing me to kill all Protestants in my province. I respect Your Majesty too much to believe that this order is genuine. But if, which God forbid, it should indeed be, I respect Your Majesty too greatly to feel it in my power to obey it.” Courage, dignity, wit and humanity in a handful of words.’[1]

Bridging the gap – Catholic to Protestant; king to commoner; invader to ‘native’. In his introduction to Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail, David Levin noted that ‘unlike Melville’s narrator, Parkman never learns to respect the people whose life he observes.’ He added: ‘He cannot transcend the invaders’ point of view.’ Indeed, for Parkman, the Native Americans he encountered and whose lands he ranged over, could only be ‘savages’: at one point, he writes, ‘No civilized eye but mine had ever looked upon that virgin waste.’[2]

In our time, it is the politicians who have most visibly and undeniably lost respect – which is hardly surprising, given current and recent events in the United Kingdom, the United States, Hungary, Italy, Brazil, Turkey, Yemen and Saudi Arabia—among many others. There seems no real likelihood of this changing any time soon.

There used to be a common phrase, less common now, I think, ‘paying respects’, a visit of a semi-formal or at least polite kind, while ‘paying one’s last respects’ expresses those sentiments through attending a person’s funeral—or, perhaps, visiting their graves. ‘During a quarter century of poetic folly’, Jonathan Williams muses, ‘I have become more and more goliardic, peripatetic, and simply bizarre.’ Poet, publisher and photographer, he carefully recorded his funerary pilgrimages: ‘I must have by now 300 slides of the resting places of human beings I much revere and whose works and persons nourish me.’[3]

Tait, Robert Scott, c.1816-1897; 'A Chelsea Interior' (The Carlyles at Home with Their Dog, 'Nero')

Robert Scott Tait, A Chelsea Interior (the Carlyles’ house)
© National Trust images

‘Never speaking ill of the dead’ is often used to enforce silence about failings, or used to be. Victorian ‘lives and letters’ were notoriously eulogistic if not sycophantic, one reason why J. A. Froude’s life of Carlyle was so controversial, with its revelation of what Froude viewed as Carlyle’s abrasive character and Jane Carlyle’s unhappiness. But, as Adam Sisman wrote of Samuel Johnson, ‘If biography was to teach men and women how to live, it followed that it should be realistic. Johnson did not share the general belief that respect for the dead required that their faults should be suppressed or glossed over.’[4]

Still, if you’re embarking on a biography, it’s surely advisable to harbour positive feelings—even respect—for your subject. Penelope Fitzgerald, biographer of Edward Burne-Jones, Charlotte Mew and her own extraordinary family, remarked in a letter to her American publisher Chris Carduff: ‘I also write novels (on the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken)’.[5]

beachandjoyce-newyorker

(Sylvia Beach and James Joyce via The New Yorker)

Not that respect is, or need be, focused always on persons. It might be a text: Sylvia Beach recalled that Sergei Eisenstein was ‘an ardent admirer of Joyce. He would have liked to make a film from Ulysses but he had too much respect for the text, he told me, to sacrifice it for the sake of the picture.’[6] It might be something more mundane: ‘Whether religious or not (that was something she would not have breathed about, not even to Mrs Hunter asleep) Sister de Santis admitted to a belief in common objects. If you depend on something to any extent, you might as well learn to respect it; so she never kicked the furniture or threw the crockery about.’[7]

Lately, even given the profound and relentless provocation afforded me by the world’s destroyers and their useful idiots, I’ve managed to leave the crockery alone.

 
References

[1] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 3.

[2] Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1849; edited by David Levin, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 18, 21, 321.

[3] Jonathan Williams, ‘Paying Respects’ (1976), in Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photographs (New York: Turtle Point Press, 2000), 11, 12.

[4] Adam Sisman, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000), 165.

[5] Letter of 7 December 1987: So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 490.

[6] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company (1959; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 109.

[7] Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 165.

 

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.