Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Review: The Sufferings/Sorrows of Young Werther



[I read the Corngold translation, which uses the word ‘sufferings’ rather than ‘sorrows’. I found it an easy to read, an unobtrusive translation with useful notes and appendices.]


I was trying to write this review in the style of an alt-right numbnuts, something along the line of; ’special-snowflake and general over-emotional cuck shoots himself’ but I couldn’t get the hang of the language and tone and I think it would have become tiring very quickly.
My imaginary alt-right reviewer does have a point though, Young Werther is a particularly irritating blend of ego and fragility that makes him difficult company. He frequently talks about his own exceptional nature; how he feels deeper then other people, how he appreciates the natural world more then most, how he might be derided as a drunkard or a madman but that was always the fate of special people in this cruel world. He declares at the beginning that he is too happy to draw and as he gets sadder he seeks out thunder-storms, crags and other sublime places to mooch. He marvels at his own notions and thoughts, even if they are as hackneyed as the notion that life sometimes feels like a dream. What’s more, he actively dislikes most other people, deriding them as ordinary, boring and conformist. He’s the kind of person who would nowadays refer to other people as ‘sheeple’.
In other words, he’s a twat.
And yet…
Compare him to the similarly emotional character of Harley from Henry Mackenzie’s ‘Man of Feeling’. Harley is also very emotional but he frequently poured his soul (and his unending vat of tears) in pity for someone else. Harley eventually dies of self-pity but for most of the book, he is driven by a too-deep involvement in everyone else whereas Werther only has a deep involvement in himself. Werther is nastier, bitchier and constantly drawing everything back to his own specialness - essentially he’s me at university. I’m sure he is many people at university, no wonder this took off with young people. Werther may be a twat but it’s a twattishness many of us have shared, and hopefully grown out of. He’s light years ahead of Harley when it comes to being relatable.
I find comparing ‘The Sufferings/Sorrows of Young Werther’ and ‘The Man of Feeling’ interesting. Mackenzie wrote his novel first, creating a sensitive, emotional man whose story is revealed by scrips and scraps saved by an editor who had been using it for gun-wadding. Goethe also wrote his novel using the frame device of an editor, most of the book being told in scraps of letters Werther writes (but never any of the replies) and a last section where the editor has been asking witnesses to put the story together. In the first book, the frame serves to distance us from the main story but the editor of Werther brings it to real and plausible life. It makes it more real. 
Similarly, the plot. Harley spends most of his adventure collecting examples of other people’s problems in order to  exercise his sentiments on before he is turned down by his love, shrinks away and dies. Whereas, Werther meets Lotte and instantly starts obsessing even though he knows she is taken. He tries to be a useful person but he feels like a phoney, finds himself back in Lotte’s town where she is now married. When he kisses her and she finally tells him that it’s enough; he methodically settles his debts, writes a letter designed to make Lotte feel guilty, dresses in an outfit with emotional significance and then shoots himself. No fading away for Werther, he dies in a passive-aggressive orgy of ‘I bet you’ll be sad when I’m dead’. This is not a sentimental novel like ‘The Man of Feeling’, it’s sturm und drang, storm and stress - there’s blood as well as tears.
What I find remarkable about Werther’s suicide is the clinical detail the editor goes into. We learn that he shot himself whilst sitting down, that someone had heard the noise and seen the flash but dismissed it and that he was still alive the next morning where he is found bleeding, with a bit of his brain hanging out. Werther is still alive, twitching and paralysed for several hours before dying. It’s horrific - and it’s all true.
The details of Werther’s suicide. From the witness of the noise; his position when he shot himself, the lengthy and slow death, what books were on the table were all from a letter Goethe received describing the suicide of his friend Jerusalem. Almost all of the details, including the yellow waistcoat and blue frockcoat ensemble that was to become the de-facto uniform of young late-eighteenth century men, were taken from the real incident. This means Goethe would later seed the outfit into the novel so that Werther could wear what his friend wore and for a reason.
Even more remarkable is that the letter about the suicide was given to Werther by his friend, Johann Christian Kestner, a man who had a young wife called Lotte, who Goethe was in love with. The core love story of the book is also basically true. Werther (Goethe) fell in love with Lotte (Lotte) who married Albert (Kestner) - although, in real life, the three managed to become a tight friendship unit. Goethe even met Lotte when he was taking someone else to a ball, just as Werther met his Lotte. Lotte even had dark eyes like her fictional counterpart. 
The main thing Goethe did when writing the book was link his love for Lotte and his friend’s suicide and supply suitable histrionics to link the two.
Which is where we go back to the beginning of the review - Werther may be a twat but he is a real twat, because he is essentially young Goethe. It feels true because so much in the book was true, and it resonated so well with dispossessed eighteenth-century young people because it managed to be utterly real and grounded while it still reaches up to grasp the beauty and the danger of the sublime. Werther’s love is both ludicrous and magnificent, his sufferings both ego-centric idiocy and intensely painful and his suicide is both glorious and sordid. It is sentimental stretched to the sublime.
I found the book a memorable experience, but like the sand that Lotte kept slipping into her letters, not without irritation.





Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Review: The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster


I don’t think we’ve ever focused our attention over the pond before, but this is a (late) eighteenth century novel written in the newly formed United States of America. Written by Hannah Webster Foster, an early journalist for Boston papers who wrote two novels; this and ‘The Boarding School’ (which is not dissimilar to Sarah Fielding’s ‘The Governess’). She was not revealed to be the author of ‘The Coquette’ until after her death. The subject matter was a little… sensitive.
The novel tells the story of Eliza Wharton, a young woman who dallies with a young man, runs away to have the child stillborn in a far away tavern before dying herself - so far, so Richardson - but the novel was heavily based on a real woman, and one Hannah Webster Foster knew. It’s hard to know if the anonymity was for using the death of an acquaintance for novel-fodder, or if it’s because the novel is sympathetic to her.
We start with a bang. Her fiancĂ© has died and Eliza is delighted. It was dull tending his sickbed and he wasn’t really her choice but her parents’. Now she can have a bit of fun before she settles down.
She goes to the house of her happily married cousin, Mrs RIchman. There she meets the Reverend Boyer and Major Sandford - and here with have the conflict for the first half of the book. Boyer is a nice, respectable man who will probably prove to be a good husband, but he’s a little staid. Sandford is a charming swaggerer who entertains “a poor solitary being, who needs some amusement beyond what I can supply myself.” The two men try and out-compete for Eliza in their own manners.
At first she finds the boys fighting over her as a bit of a chore. She includes a humblebrag that could almost be said Count D’Elmont in ‘Love in Excess’, “These bewitching charms of mine have a tendency to keep my mind in a state of perturbation.” Though, in a world where the slightest mis-step in communication between the sexes can cause real problems, I suppose it is a genuine problem to have bewitching charms.
As the novel progresses, it seems very clear that Bowyer would be steady and kind. He expresses his respect for Eliza and his fondness for her. It’s also clear that he doesn’t really know her nor listen to her. He is surprised at her jollyness when in jolly company, finding her smiling and mild flirting to be unseemly. Although Eliza’s friends and family all like him, and he isn’t a terrible person, I really grew to dislike him for his arrogance and smugness.
Sandford on the other hand is a cad of the Lovelace school. He is looking around for a quick shag or a rich fortune but Eliza is too careful for the first and too poor for the second. However, as the book goes on, it does seem like he loves her, or at the very least thinks he loves her despite not listening to her. Although I couldn’t like him, he at least had passion for Eliza, and if it wasn’t for the need for money, he could have grown a decent man.
And this for me is what made the first half of the book such entertaining reading. Eliza has a simply crap choice. The book is called ‘The Coquette’ and as much as she scolds herself for her coquettish tendencies she never actually seems to have any. Eliza is a pretty straight shooter, she tells both men that she wants a time away from relationships and that she just wants to laugh and have fun for a bit before settling down - but neither man listens to her. It’s so frustrating. Bowyer is not prepared to wait for her or join in with the fun, and Sandford is always trying to dive into her genitals. 
The first half, with letters from Eliza, Bowyer and Sandford to their respective friends is enormously entertaining. Webster-Foster is very good at retelling the same events from different perspectives in ways that are both interesting and revealing. She also does a brilliant job of showing Eliza’s innate reasonableness and how grossly all of her intentions are misunderstood and misrepresented by the two dense men in her life.
In the second half, Bowyer goes off with disgust at her enjoying Sandford’s company and Sandford gets married to a decent, pleasant and rich woman who he feels very sorry for cheating on. It is revealed that Eliza has run away, pregnant with Sandford’s baby and she dies after giving birth to a stillborn child as the real woman did.
The second half doesn’t work as well. Eliza spends the last third of the book in abject fits of melancholy and the tone of the book starts to turn and blame her for her misfortunes. Also, the Eliza of the first half of the book was fun-loving but sensible and the transition into someone who would get pregnant with Sandford’s baby behind his new wife’s back is simply not shown.
That said, this is an engaging book which presents a really interesting character in Eliza, who is a free-spirit that nobody listens to or takes all that seriously who rubs against and finally is destroyed by the rigidness of her society.
Also - it contains the Holy Grail of Epistolary fiction, a letter that actually reads like a letter someone might send someone else and for that, it’s worth a few hours of anyone’s time. 





Thursday, 6 April 2017

Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity - at the National Maritime Museum



As a child, I went to two exhibitions at the National Maritime Museums in Greenwich that changed my life a little. The first was 1992’s ‘Pirates: Fact or Fiction’ that launched me into a lifelong obsession with the salt-soaked ne’er-do-wells and the legends and myths that have grown around them. 1994’s ‘Wreck of the Titanic’ was the first big exhibition of recovered artefacts, and I was quite driven by Titanic-Mania until the 1997 film shook me out of it.
Last year I went to the ‘Pepys: Fire and Revolution’ exhibit, which was interesting but a little weak-sauce considering that my Pepys-fancying was really some way gone then - and last week, I went to see ‘Emma Hamilton: Seduction & Celebrity’. If you are reading this before the 17th of April, can go an see it and haven’t - do.
I was a little aware of her story outside of Nelson but this exhibition told it so well, supported by a wealth of pictures and letters that brought me through on a surprisingly emotional journey.
We start in London in the late 1770s and the 13 year old Emy Lyon is a servant to a musical family. By the time she is 15, she is out on the streets - possibly lodging with bawd Mrs Kelly and possibly working with Quack, William Humphrey in his Temple of Health with the renowned ‘Celestial Bed’. This section is amply illustrated with cartoons, a beautifully detailed painting of Covent Garden, the semi naked picture of Lydia by Matthew William Peters (with come-to-bed-eyes) and a copy of the Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies. 
Emma was taken up by one keeper, until she became pregnant and was passed over to another. To avoid destitution she had to give her baby up, change her name to Emma Hart and live a sober and chaste life. In this room there are her account books and some letters and we get the first sounds of her voice. This is also the Romney room.
While under the protection of Greville, she sat for a portrait with Romney. He was quite taken. The room is full of pictures of Emma. I overheard another visitor commenting that he’d never seen so many pictures of one person in the same room. The effect is striking. Both artist and model work together to create images that are warm, expressive and very alluring. I was a little taken myself.
Then Greville had to marry and Emma was passed to his widowed uncle Hamilton, who lived in Naples. He described her in a little as his ‘delightful object’. Having grown attached to Greville, she was deeply unhappy and felt very betrayed but her move to Naples is the beginning of a golden era.
Because Emma was not an idiot, she may have been uneducated but she proved a that she had an unsurpassed appetite for learning - gaining French as well as the correct Italian dialect - she also studied the classics, Hamilton’s great interest, and the two of them studied the finds coming out of Herculaneum and Pompeii with delight. It wasn’t long before Hamilton was praising her for her knowledge as well as her beauty.
In this time she created her ‘Attitudes’, a series of poses and postures inspired by classical and biblical art. These poses were then transitioned by graceful movements of her shawl, those movements accentuated by her loose dress. Where she had been a model to be painted, now she brought those paintings into a kind of living sculpture - it was a big hit. As well as lots of different drawings and descriptions of the postures, there is a projected performance based on them. It’s a eerie experience watching. 
Emma married and became Lady Hamilton, projecting her into orbit of the Queen of Naples (and sister of Marie Antoinette). Her friendship with the Queen, her easy command of languages and her careful treatment of people meant that Emma had great influence in the court. So much so, that she arranged Nelson’s fitting out there and organised the celebrations when he returned from the Nile. When the French attacked, it was Emma who organised the Royal flight on Nelson’s ships. She also sent those ships to bring food to Malta and was the first woman to gain the cross of Malta in the process. She was also involved in the brutal repercussions against the French when they gained control of Naples again.
By this time, she had fallen for Nelson but also with Hamilton and when the three came back to England, it was this scandal that followed her home, rather than triumph.  She set up a home in ‘Paradise Merton’ for her and Nelson, as well as Horatia, the daughter that neither could publicly acknowledge as theirs. This part of the exhibition has a lovely set of letters that Emma and Nelson wrote to each other as he was at sea for two years. She writes him poems and he writes phrases like, ‘I have been the world around and never saw your equal’.
Scandal floated around them, a comic picture has Nelson boasting that he could put ‘such a broadside’ into her - but Emma concentrated on making a comfortable house that boasted of their joint achievements. The china was full of victories and there was a bit of French warship by the front door. People still flocked to her, she had Princes and the Prince Regent round for tea (though Nelson warned Emma to watch out for ol’Prinny).
Emma’s downfall started with Nelson’s death. Hours beforehand, he wrote a codicil to his will (displayed in the exhibition) pleading to the country who’s fight he was to fight, that they look after Emma. We are also shown his ponytail, cut off on his deathbed and given to her. The government was very happy to give Nelson’s brother and estranged wife a pension but they were never going to give anything to a mistress.
Emma tried to keep in society but that cost money and soon she had to sell Paradise Merton and treasured keepsakes of Nelson and her successes until she was thrown into the King’s Bench prison - they have her entry ‘Dame Emma Hamilton’ in the log book. 
Broken and bitter, she fled to Calais and died aged 49 of amoebic dysentery.

And that’s the story. Emma managed to gain herself an education, carve out an artistic identity, negotiate in world-level politics and in all ways excel as much as she could - but she was a woman and that left her on shaky foundations that were eventually to topple her.
It is a wonderful exhibition and a great story (and if you can’t go, the book that goes with the exhibition is a gorgeous thing - full of glorious pictures).




…On a side note, I also went to the Queen’s House in Greenwich. It’s a beautiful building, created by Inigo Jones with classical form in mind, has a perfectly cubed hallway and a stunning set of stairs. Now it’s mainly being used as a gallery. Not much that grabbed me except the latter portrait of fat Pepys and a Hogarth I’d not seen before that features Trump the pug wearing a gentleman’s wig. It’s free though, and I recommend you go just to see that hallway.







Thursday, 23 March 2017

Boswell's London Journal at the Dr Johnson Book Club


One of the great pleasures in reading a diary is that it is possible to look up what the diarist was doing on the same day. 254 years before the Dr Johnson Reading Group discussed Boswell’s London Journal; Boswell was frantically writing it deep into the night, accidentally snuffing his candle and wandering around, trying to find a light and fighting his deep fear of the dark. (The candle is thankfully ‘relumed’ by a passing watchman calling out the third hour.)

‘The London Journal’ is a bit of a surprise to someone who has mainly met with Boswell through his ‘Life of Johnson’. This Boswell is 22, feckless and desperately self-conscious. He is as eager to please as he is in the ‘Life’ but there he has the Johnsonian goodies and a lifetime of experience, here, he is a wide-eyed boy on the make. 

This is his second London trip. Having gadded about Scotland, got a woman pregnant and generally been a nuisance, he managed to convince his disapproving father to give him a small allowance to go to London with the aim of getting in the guards - a career he chooses because he would get to wear a nice coat and mostly hang about London being dashing. This is his record of his time negotiating that position, enjoying his time in London and trying to meet a few famous people on the way.

Young Boswell is acutely aware of his own self, especially when it comes to the different social characters he can put on. We are constantly reminded that this is the age of politeness and that Boswell would like to see himself as a rational gentleman of sophistication and poise. We are also reminded that Boswell himself is a puppyish young man who seems to cycle rapidly between mania and depression.

He is deeply divided: Not only between his light and dark sides, but between his desire for spiritual sustenance and his desire for bodily expression. He is divided between duty to his family and his duty to his own inclinations and he is divided between England and Scotland. Only 20 years after the ’45, some of his friends had property confiscated after the rebellion and Scotland is still seen by the English as a foreign pest. Johnson’s jabs seem mainly in a spirit of good fun but the heckling of Highland Officers at the theatre show the Scottish to be something like foreigners in the city. Like many immigrants, the Scots seem to club together, many of Boswell’s daily routine is spent with groups of Scottish people, whom he seems to both enjoy the company of but also deride as ‘mameish’ and ‘hamely’. 

So, what does a young man with little to do enjoy in London?

We have the theatre. Nearly all the people Boswell talks to have an opinion of the stage. Boswell and his two mates Dempster and Erskine (as opposed to his friends, Temple and Johnston) write a book where they tear apart a play because they don’t like the author. They also attend the play on the first night to boo it, but can’t get the audience on their side. Boswell also almost gets a chance to write a prologue for a play, and is miffed when it is not used. He gets to eat with Garrick, the most famous actor on the stage and he also dates an actress, Louisa.

The courtship takes a month. An actress is not the same as a trull, she can’t be picked up from the streets and Boswell would rather not spend the money. However, she is not a noble lady either and will ‘put out’ with the correct procedures. After elaborate arrangements involving rented rooms and pseudonyms, Boswell finally has his night of passion with Louisa. He then finds himself going off her, even more so when he contracts gonorrhoea where he writes a truly ugly letter to her, demanding a loan of money back - and proceeds to complement himself on being full of the ‘milk of human kindness’.

It is this sexual side of Boswell that put some of us off. His role playing extends to his sex life and he pretends to be various people - it is when he pretends to be a ‘blackguard’ when he loses sympathy - using the role as an excuse to force himself on women and, at one point, to gather a crowd to shame a prostitute who wouldn’t go with him. 


And here we have the final divide in him; a charming and amusing companion who knows he shall be great if he can only just work out what at - and a pestering, thoughtless craver of sexual pleasure. Can we excuse his youth? The age he lives in? Perhaps… but perhaps being allowed into the real life of Boswell may cost the reader a little more then they bargain for. 


Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Review: Dinarbas by Ellis Cornelia Knight


It was while I was looking for a slimmer, more pocket-comfy version of Rasselas for the Samuel Johnson bookclub that I found an edition that paired it with this book. Imagine my delight when I discovered that it was a sequel written forty years later by a woman Johnson had known as a little girl.
I’d have thought Rasselas was an impossible novel to write a sequel to, aside from the fact that it’s barely a novel, the conclusion in which nothing is concluded is a brilliant way to conclude it. Imagine my surprise when, in the notes, it explained that a sequel to Rasselas was actually Johnson’s intention. What’s more, that he actually planned for a happy ending! Typically, Johnson never finished his own sequel - partly because no booksellers paid him in advance for it, and partly because he couldn’t properly conceive of a truly happy ending - so Ellis Cornelia Knight decided to give it a go instead.
In this sequel, Rasselas, Nekayah, Pekuah, Imlac and the astronomer all go to Abyssinia where they are holed up in a castle run by Amalphis, his daughter Zilia and son Dinarbas. There are shenanigans involving invading Arabs, Rasselas’s brothers breaking out of the Happy Valley and enacting a coup on the Emperor, and a naughty Sultan. At the end, Rasselas becomes Emperor of Abyssinia and marries Zilia. Dinarbas becomes Client-King of Serbia and marries Nekayah… I’m not sure why the book is named after Dinarbas either.
This is a book that is more interesting to think about then it is to read. Knight writes a sequel that never meets the original on the same page. Johnson’s was a slightly ponderous, plot-deficient examination of different modes of life, with the conclusion that none of them can ever be utterly satisfying - Knight’s is a sentimental tale of brave men and patient women which ends off with everyone paired off and happy. At the end, Rasselas wants to warn people against seeing the world as ‘a scene of inevitable misery’, all ills can be borne with a clear conscience and a good spirit and happiness is possible.
I found this the parts that showed that Knight had read and taken in Rasselas, and had disagreed with it most interesting. The characters re-visit their dreams from the previous book. They understand that those dreams will not bring uncomplicated happiness but decided to pursue anyway - only Rasselas achieves his dream (and that through the death of his Father and three brothers). Nekayah and Pekuah declare their former dreams to teach as childish and are very happy with being a wife/Queen of Sebia and her maidservant. 
Knight also criticises Johnson’s inability to talk at a person’s level. At one point, Rasselas is captured by Arabs and as a prisoner finds himself in the company of young men that he upbraided in the first book as well as some shepherds (which Johnson had used to put two barrels through the pastoral dream). 

Rasselas learns that he can’t just bellow people into goodness, nor can he reason them into it but he needs to look at things from their perspective, learn a little kindness and tact - advice Johnson may needed to have heard, (Though to be fair to the man, he was aware he could come off as a little brusque and did make some efforts to fix it, not necessarily with success, but with good intention).
My favourite objection was directed deep into the very heart of Johnson’s project. Rasselas the book is all about ‘The Choice of Life’ where Rasselas the character gets to explore different types of life. Knight sticks it straight in the middle of that, most people don’t have a choice of life, most people are simply plonked into life and have to make the best of it. As Amalphis says, ‘I am amazed how you should have ever imagined that happiness depended on any particular station in life’. 

I have to admit that I found Dinarbas a rather dull book to read. The plot, though tight, is not particularly surprising and the writing style is rather stiff and faux-archaic. I can’t tell whether the stiff writing is supposed to be in imitation of Johnson but if it is, it doesn’t really work. However, I find some of the objections to Rasselas’s lessons to be valid and there is a thrill in having some of Johnson’s assumptions taken to task. I will maintain, however, that the conclusion in which nothing is concluded - is still not concluded.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Review: The Virtue of this Jest by James Stuart Montgomery

“Come Gentle and simple, come, high born and low,
Come see, Mother London, her great raree show.
In lame beggar’s mile round about Temple Bar
I promise more wonders and marvels by far
Than ever you’d see in a year and a day
In Prester John’s Kingdom or fabled Cathay,
And there’s never a penny, a penny to pay.”
- Chaunting Nick Swyane (Aka James S Montgomery)



I was expecting this review to either be of Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ or a late eighteenth century sequel to ‘Rasselas’ called ‘Dinarbas’. Instead, I shall look at a completely unknown book from 1929 called ‘The Virtue of this Jest’.
I picked this up at the book-swap at Willesden Green Tube station. I was attracted by the title, then the map of (eighteenth-century) London on the endplates. I was sold on the book where the blurb described itself as ‘second to none in the literature of rascality’. 
The book also features one of my favourite ever dedications;
   ‘To Millie, who said, “If you publish this book, I shall lose all of my respectable friend. Go ahead.” ’  - a finer example of its type, I doubt can be found.
We then get started. 
The book tells the story of ‘Chaunting Nick Swayne’, a fictional Grub Street poet of the grubbiest kind. Nick has three fathers and two mothers, the second of these is Mother London and she teaches him all her little ways. We follow Nick through all his underground haunts, his company of beggars, his tricks and connivances and we meet Mab, the love of his life. 
Nick is good company, he’s a naive, good-natured poet with the confidence to trick people but no willingness to actually do harm. He is tempted by the beggar’s life, as described by the beggar-philosopher, Tom Steptoe but is pulled by a burning ambition within him to do something with his life. 
This something (and the main ‘plot’ part of our novelistic experience) turns up in the last third of the book where a chance encounter with a not quite highwayman leads him to lend his poetic talents to the service of Bonnie Prince Charlie. First he creates various anonymous Grub Street swipes at the Whigs and the so-called Tories who sing songs for the Stuarts but doesn’t actually do anything. Then he concocts an ingenious plan to gather the beggars together into an army in the name of beggar-emperor Cock Lorrel. The intention being that the beggar army will take and hold London for the Stuarts when the time is right.
Things go array and Nick and his co-conspirators are caught. We are given a brilliant chapter where his friend Blueskin (no relation to Jonathan Wilde’s enemy) goes to the gallows. This chapter doesn’t do what ‘Slammerkin’ did and try and makes us sorry for Blueskin, instead it follows ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ track where, “The youth on the cart hath the air of a Lord, and we cry, there dies an Adonis’. It ramps up the party atmosphere, the notion that a proper hanging day, complete with self-aggrandising ballad, is the apotheosis of the criminal career - not the sad swinging out of this world but an ascension into criminal legend… a fate Nick doesn’t share as he is snuck out of Newgate on the last page.
The plot is light; the first two thirds give us a series of cons and colourful characters for Nick to interact with before the ’45 stuff gets going - but the characters are great. From Tom Steptoe, a Buddah of a beggar, to Listening Jem the bar man, to Mab, to Nick himself, we are always in good company.
Also, it makes up the lack of plot by being very, very entertainingly written. Almost every page has at least one quotable sentence that delights in its sly wit, irony, or playfulness. Where ‘Golden Hill’ used a canting dictionary to bludgeon some eighteenth-century into the book, this book uses it as a ribbon to decorate and float and tie the thing together. 
James S Montgomery was a poet and the comic poems are fun and well written but it’s his narrative voice that wins the most. I can’t find any other novel written by him, but I’d love to see one. He nails the slippery, ‘say-what-is-not’, playful approach that my favourite eighteenth century writers approached the page and the world, and it is wonderful.

 - On a side note, it was a very instructive book for me, having written my own novel in an eighteenth century style about a naive poet getting sucked into London’s criminal underworld. I shall definitely read this again before I go redrafting through ‘Odes to the Big City’.


Friday, 17 February 2017

Review: Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue


Slammerkin is a novel published in 2000 by Emma Donoghue, who has since found fame for writing Room. Unlike last week’s Golden Hill, the novel is not written in a (supposedly) eighteenth century style. When I bought the book, I thought it would be the story of Mrs Slammerkin from The Beggar’s Opera, but it turned out to be inspired by various fragments of eighteenth century court cases

In many ways it follows the traditional eighteenth-century prostitute narrative, a young, innocent maid is seduced and finds herself on the streets of London, where she has to sell he body to survive. This tends to continue until the poor woman is hanged, dies of disease or (if it’s a happy story) marries into wealth and happiness. 

What is strange about this book, is that instead of being born in the country and running away to London, Mary Saunders is born in London and finds herself in the country.  She loses her maidenhead for a ribbon, she then lives the life of a slammerkin, or trull with new-found friend, Doll Higgins. When Doll dies and Mary finds herself at the attentions of a knife-happy pimp, so she runs to the countryside to her mother’s childhood home of Monmouth.

Mary is dismayed by Monmouth; it’s smallness, its drabness and the excess of crows (the original title was ‘A Complaint of Crows’ – a more accurate title, Mary complains a lot). There, she enters service with her mother’s old friend, struggling with the constraints of a maidservant’s life but enjoying the warmth and safety of a family.

Here in the book, the point-of-view shatters somewhat. Where we have been following Mary and her alone; we now spend a little time in the heads of the whole household; Mr and Mrs Jones, Mrs Ash the nanny, apprentice Daffy and black maid-of-all work Abi. I won’t reveal the ending, but Mary’s old ways, spurred by her longing for applause and finery, cannot be held down and they erupt.

This is very much a book of two parts, it would seem the first 152 pages are little more than backstory, with the real story is the one that takes place in Monmouth. Looking at her website, it seems that the editor at Virago insisted on ‘lots more London’, so it would seem to be their fault that the novel feels a little… wonky somehow. 

Not that the London stuff is bad, it’s well researched and properly evokes the world of the bunters - the streetwalkers, those with less stake in society’s respectable life then even Fanny Hill. The world is sweaty and clammy and horrid (the world ‘greasy’ is used countless times). Doll Higgin is an enjoyable, if unoriginal ‘whore’ character and Mary Saunders’ rapidly hardening worldview is well portrayed. However, the London scenes were pretty generic with a number of nudge-nudge wink-wink references to Scratching Fanny, the Cock Lane Ghost and a cameo from Samuel Johnson.

 However, it’s the Monmouth stuff that is the real meat of the story – from the suggestions of the website, it would seem that this was the novel originally. The relationship between Mary and Mrs Jones is very well done. Mrs Jones is the loving, kind mother that Mary longed for but also a representative of the narrow, blinkered world of the Welsh Marches. There’s a genuinely layered relationship between them; a lonely woman and her surrogate daughter who is also her social inferior. The household also includes Abi, a Barbadian former-slave, who is officially no longer a slave but can’t convince the Jones family to actually pay her. At the end of the novel, she is stranded in London, having run away and looking forward to her new life, hopefully her life will pan out better then Mary Saunders. 


Ultimately, I enjoyed Slammerkin, I felt that I would probably have enjoyed A Complaint of Crows more, before publisher intervention unbalanced the book and changed it from the slightly dour tone of the original title to the ‘ho-ho-ho’ of Slammerkin. I’m all for an underworldly, rambunctious take on the eighteenth-century (I’ve written my own) but there is also a need for the gritty, the greasy and the dour - and Emma Donoghue should have been allowed to do just that.


Monday, 6 February 2017

Review: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford


Golden Hill presents me with an unusual problem. This book came out last year and has recently been hitting the two-for-one table in bookshops, having just won the Costa award for first novel. Most of the books I review on here have been published for a few centuries so I don’t usually feel a warning on spoilers is needed - in this case it is.



I was so excited about this book; it’s not often a writer I know and like creates an eighteenth century style novel set in pre-revolutionary New York. Described on the title page as ‘the best eighteenth century novel since the eighteenth century,' the style was the element of the book I was most looking forward to. 

Unfortunately, this was one of the weakest parts. It’s simply not written in any eighteenth century style I recognise. True, the book is front-loaded with criminal slang drawn from any canting dictionary and there are three moments where the narrator intrudes to make excuses for not being able to describe something properly - but there wasn’t the full on heavy irony of Fielding, the whizz of Smollett, the extravagance of Sterne, the plainness of Defoe - nor any real feeling that this was anything other than a modern-sounding novel with a few old phrases lobbed in. It’s rather like a Tesco curry sauce, this book has a notion of eighteenth century flavour but none of the piquancy.

That said, there are some completely brilliant set-pieces and turns of phrase within the book. There’s a discussion about whether being hanged in the morning really does concentrate the mind - for our protagonist Smith, it really doesn’t. I also thought a fever, with its strange, intense, tiring dreams was described better in this book then in any novel I have read. There were a number of very striking similes, I liked one about someone’s expression being like a mask where the eye holes were not lined up right. I’m not saying the book is badly written at all, once I accepted that it wasn’t going to be a Fielding-(Henry and Sarah)-esque romp, I enjoyed the writing immensely.

As good as the writing was, the noveling was incredibly poor. Smith turns up in New York with a cheque for a thousand pounds which may, or may not, be an elaborate scam. What's odder is that he never confirms nor denies whether he is pulling a fast one or not. Odder still, the narration follows Smith, delving into his head, where his internal monologue seems to say, 'oh, how mysterious I am,  I hope I am not uncovered, I must complete my mission'. It is the most irritatingly un-knowledable omniscient narrator and there were many times I felt the book had flat out cheated me rather then pleasingly tricked me.

There was a fairly engaging combative love story that goes nowhere, the story of the scheme ends in anti-climax. The political story about the argument between governor and assembly has a number of events but no real conclusion (except perhaps its nod to the coming revolutionary war). 

We also didn’t see if Smith’s scheme really worked, because the narrator could only narrate about him in New York. This is discovered in the epilogue, where it turns out Smiths non/love interest has written the novel - which completely takes away any last vestige of the Fielding-esque romp, as the interruptions were not from a narrator who is ironically detached but from one of the participants. Also, if she was narrating it; how did she know what Smith felt all the times she wasn’t there? How did she find out the secrets other characters told him, or the threats they made to him if he hadn’t told her about it? Why does she paint herself as so unknowable in her own narrative? …essentially, the last chapter undid any narrative good that had happened in most of the rest of the book and even parts I had enjoyed at the time began to sour in retrospect.



I was really quite disappointed with this book, perhaps I was hoping for too much from it or perhaps I'm just too proud of my own eighteenth century novel to appreciate someone else's.



Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Rasselas by Samuel Johnson - at the Dr Johnson Bookclub


This week at the Dr Johnson bookclub, we read Rasselas. I’ve read and talked about it before but there was something special about talking with interesting and informed people about it. This was the first time the Johnson reading group had read some Johnson (as opposed to many books about him). As a special treat, the Dr Johnson house let us see (and touch, and generally fawn over) their first edition copy of Rasselas and their edition of Samuel Johnson’s first ever book - his translation of Lobo’s translation of travels in Abyssinia - which he mostly wrote laying down.

The plot is simple: Rasselas is an Abyssinian prince who lives in the Happy Valley, an oppressively satisfying place to keep royalty until they are needed. Fed up with happiness, he escapes with the help of the philosopher Imlac, his sister Pekuah and her lady-in-waiting Nekayah. The Abyssinian nobility travel to Egypt where they explore different ways to be happy and find each wanting.

Is it a great plot? Not particularly, but it does the job and I feel there is a novelistic progress to the problems the characters must face. Are the characters any good?.. well… Johnson is not one of the world’s greatest ventriloquists, in Goldsmith’s words, his little fish sound like whales. William Haley said, ‘I hardly ever hear a sentence uttered by the Princess or the Lady Pekuah, but I see the enormous Johnson in petticoats.’ (What an image, an enormous Johnson in petticoats.)

We were impressed by the female characters. They may have had a Johnsonian tone, but they really step up in terms of agency. They learn throughout the story, they use their compliance to control and at the very end, they manage to bring the mad astronomer back to his senses.

 In an evening of interesting questions, the first was ‘how Abyssinian/Ethiopian is Rasselas?’ Tradition does include a happy valley. It also includes a traditional location of the Garden of Eden. Were the ideas influenced by Abyssinian thought? Could the book be claimed African? 

Also, what is the use of water? The Nile has its spring in Abyssinia in the book. The characters travel to Egypt and during a Nile inundation they decided their fate. Should we commit to life’s current or shall we stagnate?

And what does it teach us about happiness?
 -Happiness relies on on realistic understanding of the limitations of life.
 - Happiness may well only be found in distractions from our life quests - Rasselas is happiest when he has a goal he is vaguely working towards and slightly distracted from.
 - There needs to be social and familiar connection to be happy; solitude drives hermits sad, astronomers mad and princes megalomaniacal.


We were happy afterwards; we had good company, nice chat, some wine and later bites to eat. Maybe, the key to happiness is wandering around to historic houses and chat about old books. My kind of night at any rate.