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.