My Literary Life, by Mrs. Elizabeth Lynn Linton (1899)

Eliza Lynn Linton, scanning the horizons for another victim
Eliza Lynn Linton, scanning the horizons for another victim
Between John Sutherland’s wonderful encyclopedia, The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction, and the Internet Archive, I can lose hours wandering through the three-volumed forest of English 19th century fiction, particularly in the last year that written by women. It can be soul-leeching, though. There is something relentlessly earnest and deliberate in so much English fiction after Amelia Opie. There aren’t many female counterparts to Thomas Love Peacock, Thackeray, Dickens or Wilde to lighten things up.

I thought I’d stumbled across a hidden gem when I started reading Amy Dillwyn’s 1884 novel, Jill, in which our heroine, making her own way through the world, is not above padding her travel claims or pocketing a precious object her employers clearly failed to appreciate adequately. And then I found that Jill was reissued by the Honno Press a few years ago as part of its Welsh Women’s Classics series.

And then I came across the following sentence in an essay about George Eliot: “She held her hands and arms kangaroo fashion; was badly dressed; had an unwashed, unbrushed, unkempt look altogether; and she assumed a tone of superiority over me which I was not then aware was warranted by her undoubted leadership.” It was attributed to Eliza Lynn Linton, a minor Victorian novelist and essayist, and a brief memoir that was published after her death in 1898. Such undisguised nastiness, so uncharacteristic of memoirists before Frank Harris and Beverly Nichols made it acceptable to add a hearty shake of bitters into the mix, deserved further investigation.

And the good old Internet Archive didn’t let me down. I quickly located an electronic copy of Mrs. Linton’s My Literary Life and proceeded to read the whole thing online (it’s a short book).

You know you’re in for some splenetic prose when the book opens with a warning — in this case from Mrs. Linton’s friend, another neglected late Victorian novelist, Beatrice Harraden (Ships that Pass in the Night — Anyone? Anyone?): “It is to be regretted also that she is not here herself to tone down some of her more pungent remarks and criticisms, hastily thrown off in bitter moments such as come to us all.” “Mrs. Linton’s pen was ever harsher than her speech,” Harraden offers in excuse, but My Literary Life rages on while Mrs. Linton’s dulcet tones have been silenced for more than a century. “It has been thought,” her publisher writes in introduction, that the incomplete sketches she was able to write before her death “possess an independent value which justifies republication.” Perhaps the same value upheld on a weekly basis by the National Enquirer.

Linton opens with a quick series of sketches of “My First London Friends,” who included the painter, Samuel Laurence, George Henry Lewes (not yet involved with Mary Ann Evans), and the poet Walter Savage Landor. Laurence, we learn, “by his experiments in glazes, grounds, and varnishes, some of his oil paintings were soon ruined by peeling off in broad patches, or by sinking into the canvas.” And was married to “a tall, fine, handsome woman, who overtopped him in height and I should say surpassed him in weight.” Lewes, she tells us, “would discourse on the most delicate matters of physiology with no more perception that he was transgressing the bounds of propriety than if he had been a learned savage.” And Landor, who is otherwise portrayed by Linton as a man of great kindness and learning, was a bit challenged in the haberdashery department:

He was dressed in brown, and his whole style was one of noticeable negligence. His clothes were unbrushed and shabby; his shirt-front was coarse and plain, like a nightshirt ; a frayed and not over-clean blue necktie, carelessly knotted, was awry; his shoes were full of bumps and bosses like an apple pie….

Linton goes on to discuss Thackeray and Dickens, contrasted the two men in both character and literary style for pages before adding the caveat, “I did not know either man intimately, but if not the rose itself, I knew those who stood near.” For their sakes, we can be grateful, since she quickly adds, with ominous tone, “Many secret confidences were passed on to me, which, of course, I have kept sacred; and both men would have been surprised had they known how much I knew of things uncatalogued and unpublished.”

She concludes with a chapter on “A First Meeting with George Eliot” in which she offers her timeliness comparison of the great author to a kangaroo. But not before polishing off a sampling of the women writers from the generation before hers — or, as Linton describes them, “remnants of a palaeozoic age.” These include Jane Porter, once celebrated for her historical tales such as The Scottish Chiefs, but in Linton’s eyes, “a kid of ghost from the tomb — a living monolith of pre-historic times.” Sadly, Linton confesses that “Charlotte Bronte I never saw; nor Harriet Martineau….” Lucky ladies. Linton only met Mrs. Norton only once, but that was enough to slip a quick knife in (it was “in later years, when her beauty was more a memory than a possession”).

Needless to say, the reader learns nothing of importance about George Eliot and far too much about Mrs. Linton’s squinted perspective on her contemporaries, and with her judgment that Eliot’s relationship with Lewes was nothing more than a house of cards, closes the cover on this short, brutish, and nasty book. Utterly forgettable and more than justly neglected, of course.

But after a long and heavy meal of Victorian seriousness, a palate cleanser nonetheless.


My Literary Life, by Mrs. Lynn Linton
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1899

Gems from the Internet Archives: Women’s Autobiographies

Not having access to a major library, I often indulge my love of browsing in the Internet Archive. I’ll admit that it often requires much sifting through extraneous material to locate the occasional gem, but even after ten years I’m surprised at what I manage to find. Here, for example, is a selection of some exceptional autobiographical works by women, mostly published between the 1920 and 1960.

modelingmylife

Modeling My Life, by Janet Scudder (1926)

Born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, Janet Scudder was one of the first American women to make a name and career for herself as a sculptor. Passionate about art from childhood, she studied drawing and sculpture and then moved to Chicago, where she worked carving decorative features on furniture before being hired by Lorado Taft as one of his White Rabbits, a remarkable team of women sculptors who created dozens of statues and decorative friezes for buildings in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. She then traveled to Paris, where she studied under Frederick MacMonnies. She writes of the experience, “I’m sure, if I had known it when I was studying in MacMonnies’ Paris studio, the only woman among a number of men who were working from nude models, I should have seen the ghosts of the whole congregation of missionaries rising up in their wrath to denounce me.” She found Paris liberating, but hardly the sinpot it was considered in America: “Zulh Taft ([Lorado’s sister] and I were there quite alone, unchaperoned; she was studying painting in a studio, while I worked away at sculpture; we ate about in restaurants, we were thrown with all sorts of people who were responsible only to themselves, we had no one watching us and no one to whom we were accountable, we went to life classes in the evening and tramped home from school late at night and we felt as protected and safe from harm as though we had been living in the heart of a family in the Middle West.” She went on to Florence, where she began to create the classically-inspired fountains that became her specialty. Returning to the U. S., she struggled, but eventually managed to establish a reputation and a steady stream of clients. Modeling My Life ends with an account her return to France as part of a YWCA mission that helped care for and entertain troops with the American Expeditionary Force.

The Stone Wall: An Autobiography, by Mary Casals (1930)

The Stone Wall is something of a landmark in American LGBT history, perhaps the first autobiography in which the author openly acknowledges her attraction to another woman and their long and happy partnership. Born and raised on a New England farm to family with deep Puritan roots, Casal recalls having to defend herself from sexual assault from hired hands and other men while still a teen. She began to realize her feelings towards women early on, and had her first physical contact (kisses and hugs) with another woman while in college. She felt great pressure to conform to conventions, and even married a man, an entirely unsatisfying experience that ended in divorce after she gave birth to a stillborn child and, in her grief, fled to New York City. There, she came to peace with her feelings for the first time: “My city contact had caused me to look at myself less and less as a sexual monstrosity.” She writes candidly of the practical difficulties of finding ways to spend time with another woman in public, given the rigid social customs of the time, let alone taking the risk to express her feelings. It was not until she was in her thirties that she met her long-term lover, Juno, and they set up house together in an apartment in Greenwich Village. Today’s reader will probably cringe at a few aspects that date the book (she refers to homosexuals as “inverts”), but it’s a window into how one gay woman managed to make a life for herself in a time of considerable intolerance.

Louise Baker, playing tennis (press photo from 1955)
Louise Baker, playing tennis (press photo from 1955)
Out on a Limb, by Louise Baker (1946)

Reviewing Out on a Limb in the Saturday Review, Grace Frank quipped that Louise Baker could have easily called her book “The Leg and I,” in imitation of Betty Macdonald’s best-seller of the same period. The two books certainly share the same comic outlook, with every character an eccentric and every episode retold with tongue in cheek. While still a girl, Louise Baker was struck down by a passing automobile and had to have her right leg amputated. “When I regained consciousness ten days later in a white hospital bed, with the blankets propped over me like a canopy, I had one foot in the grave.” Such are the sort of puns with which Baker fills her book. Baker’s parents insisted that she make every effort to get along with her bi-pedal friends, and she soon developed a spirit of independence that led her, in the course of time, to learn to ski, skate, and play tennis (she was encouraged to write the book to provide inspiration to the many disabled veterans just returned from World War Two). She preferred using crutches to wearing an artificial leg, and accumulated a considerable “crutch wardrobe”: “Crutches don’t come in gay colors but any good enamel works the enhancing transformation. I am now just as likely to complain, ‘I haven’t got a crutch I’d wear to a dog fight,’ as I am to say, ‘I haven’t got a decent dress to my name.'” Baker also wrote a comic novel, Party Line, about the 43-year career of switchboard operator Elmira Johnson in the small town of Mayfield, California, and a humorous account of her time working in a boy’s boarding school in Arizona, Snips and Snails, which was made into a gawdawful movie, Her Twelve Men (1954).

Journey Down a Blind Alley, by Mary Borden (1946)

Published the same year as Out on a Limb, Borden’s book is its polar opposite in tone. The book recounts Borden’s experiences in organizing and leading the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit throughout much of the Second World War, beginning in France in February 1940 and then, after evacuating to England and regrouping, in Syria and Egypt, and finally, in France again after D-Day. This was Borden’s second experience of battlefield nursing: she wrote of her time in field hospitals on the Western Front in The Forbidden Zone (1929). Borden, an American heiress and novelist (I featured her ambitious 1927 novel, Flamingo, here in 2009), was married to Brigadier General Edward Spears, who was Churchill’s military liaison with the French government up to its defeat and then with DeGaulle’s Free French forces. Much of Journey Down a Blind Alley is colored by a bitterness towards DeGaulle that stems in part from his at times petty treatment of Spears and in part from the many egos and attitudes among the French military with whom Borden had to deal, since the ambulance unit spent most of its time assigned to support Free French forces. She does admit that much of the difficulties had their roots in the complexity of interests among the French: “Looking back I realized now that the confusion and discord in the hospital reflected what was happening throughout France. Was not France herself in the winter of 1945 a medley of discordant elements with her F.F.I. and F.T.P., her heroic resistance and her bogus resistance, her Petainists and her milice and her armies from overseas who were straining their strength to the utmost limit of endurance so that France should not be said to have been liberated by strangers?” Journey Down a Blind Alley offers a sobering antidote to anyone still harboring an inclination to view the Second World War in simple good-and-bad terms.

lilliansmithjourney

The Journey, by Lillian Smith (1956)

“I went on this journey to find an image of the human being that I could feel proud of,” Lillian Smith writes at the start of The Journey. Smith, whose 1944 best-seller, Strange Fruit, was one of the first books to openly deal with segregation and racism in the South, finds herself reconsidering memories from her childhood and decides to travel along the coastal roads of South Carolina and George, “trying to recover the feel of the country where my family once
lived.” Along the way, she encounters people with varying views of life, race, and faith, including a motel owner whose ideas of progress, she realizes, come from a very different place than hers:

The manager of the motor court came to my door to offer a television set. He was of the swamp country, I saw now, as he stood there. He had the look that is left on a face when hookworm and malaria and malnutrition have done their destructive work early in life. And in his speech were the old accents which were natural to the wire grass and swamp people who found schooling as hard to come by in the old days as shelter and food. People who, in my childhood, were almost as remote from books and learning and science and art and comforts as are the peasants of China and India.

Now he operated a motor court, looked at television, drove a Buick, took a trip in a plane each fall (so he told me) to the World Series, and read a newspaper.

As I made use of the conveniences with which our scientific age has filled this motor court, set close to the swamp — old and mysterious and deep-rooted in time as our human past — I kept thinking of this man.

“Everything in the place is modrun,” he proudly told me, as he flung open the door to show me the mauve-colored lavatory and the mauve-colored toilet and mauve-colored toilet paper. And as I stared at the splendor I knew that his sanitary facilities as a child had been limited to a wash pan, a lean-to privy and the ancient corncob. No wonder he was proud of participating in these modern times.

As with many books, the best parts of The Journey are those that deal with the specific, the individual. As Orville Prescott wrote in his New York Times review, when Smith “writes about people she has known — quoting their conversation and telling their stories — she does so with sure skill and considerable emotional power.” However, “When she writes about abstract ideas she occasionally lapses into spasms of embarrassingly lush rhetoric and passages where her generous feeling is obvious, but where her precise meaning is lost….”

Dickey Chapell, 1959
Dickey Chapell, 1959
What’s a Woman Doing Here?, by Dickey Chapelle (1962)

Dickey Chapelle rarely followed a conventional path in her life. At age sixteen, she was studying aeronautical engineering on a scholarship to M. I. T.. Though she flunked out after two years, her love of airplanes and flying remained, and she earned her pilot’s license, paying for lessons with articles she sold to aviation magazines. When her husband was stationed to an Army unit in Panama after Pearl Harbor and she was told that wives could not accompany the men, she figured out that she could follow as an accredited journalist, and her career as a war correspondent began. Chapelle worked as both reporter and photographer. Her first combat assignment took her to Iwo Jima a week after the first landings. There she had a sudden wake-up call when encountering a wounded Marine whose “story probably is one of the reasons I’ve kept on being a chronicler of wars”:

After I took his picture, while the chaplain administered the last rites as the corpsman began transfusing him, he came back to consciousness for a moment. His eyes rested on me. He said, “Hey, who you spyin’ for?”

“The folks back home, Marine.”

“The folks-back home-huh? Well-fuck the folks back home,” he rasped. Then he closed his eyes. I didn’t see where his stretcher was carried.

After we had ceased loading for the day, his voice haunted me. What lay behind that raw reflex answer? What dear-John-I-know-you-understand letter? What other betrayal?

I remembered his wound. A piece of a giant mortar shell had sliced across his stomach. So I went down into the abdominal ward with my notebook in my hand. There were no names in it yet because I wasn’t willing to hold up moving stretchers while I spelled out names. But I had copied the dogtag numbers of each man as I made his picture. The nurses’ clipboard listed the serial numbers of the men being treated. The number I wanted wasn’t there. I thought perhaps I had been mistaken about the kind of wound he had, so I tried to find him in the other wards, the other decks, even those of the officers. I couldn’t find his number.

There was only one more set of papers aboard. This showed the dogtag numbers of the men who had died on deck. The number for which I was looking was near the top of the list.

So I think I was the last person to whom he was able to talk. And I had heard him die cursing what I thought he had died to defend.

It was my first and most terrible encounter with the barrier between men who fight, and those for whom the poets and the powers say they fight.

Chapelle went on to report on the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, on the U. S. Marine intervention in Lebanon, on Castro’s war against Batista in Cuba, and on the civil war in Algeria. She was captured by the Russians while accompanying a group of Hungarian resistance fighters along the border with Austria in 1956 and spent seven years in a Budapest jail. She had strong anti-Communist views and, with her husband Tony Chapelle, formed a relief organization, AVISO (American Voluntary Information Services Overseas), that provided food and information support on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the years following the Second World War. She was killed in Vietnam on November 4, 1965 while on patrol with a Marine platoon near Chu Lai. She was the first female American war correspondent killed in action. A selection of Chapelle’s photographs was published on the Washington Post website in December 2015 and over 500 of her pictures are available online at the Wisconsin Historical Society website.

The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell, by Storm Jameson (1945)

maryherveyrussell
I found this intriguing book on the Internet Archive (link), started reading it, and kept on and on, wondering where its meandering and, at times, mirage-like thread would lead. By the time I realized that it didn’t fully qualify as neglected (it’s been reissued, along with over a dozen other titles by Storm Jameson, as an e-book by Bloomsbury Publishing), it was too late.

Although Jameson presents it as the journal of the fictional Mary Hervey Russell, daughter of the domineering Sylvia (portrayed with both empathy and acidity in The Captain’s Wife) and her husband, captain of various small freighters, the intersections between the fictional Mary and the real-life Storm Jameson are too many to mistake this as anything but Jameson’s own journal, lightly disguised. It’s also not always a journal, as it includes a short play featuring Odysseus and a conversation about contemporary English poetry conducted by the corpses of several British soldiers killed during the German invasion of France in 1940.

Many of the entries are undated, but one can safely say that the journal covers the period between the Sudetenland crisis of 1938 and early 1943. Much of the first half of the book deals with the fears and trials of European intellectuals that Russell/Jameson encounters and assists in her role as president of the British branch of PEN, and the second half with her experiences during the first years of World War Two, including the Blitz and rationing. While I initially thought Jameson’s reflections on these contemporary events would be the most interesting parts of the book, there is often such a relentless seriousness that too much of it becomes tedious. (Or ridiculous: “Turning her back on us, France is bequeathing us a summer. Very kind. It would be kinder still if she sent us her Fleet.”)

Instead, perhaps the strongest connecting thread in the book is that of Russell/Jameson’s memories and emotions about her family. Her mother was imperious, selfish, unloving, and dismissive of her husband and children. Though seen from a distance of thirty years or more, her actions and words left wounds still raw. Jameson mourns the loss of her brother, a pilot killed in the First World War and then, just at the end, of her sister, killed in a German bombing raid. And she reflects upon the parallels between her family’s small dramas and the great changes she has witnessed in her lifetime:

Mine is the last generation brought up to know a great many hymns. And the last which remembers, as a thing felt, the Victorian certainties, hollow as these were, wormed inside, in 1900. Isolated, sarcastically indifferent to the rest of England, our Victorianism was almost of 1840. I rebelled against it, but it had formed and deformed me; even my revolt was filial. My deepest self, when I am conscious — you won’t expect me to answer for any sleeping or disinterested self — is patient, stubborn, a little cracked in its dislike of being told what to do. Anything which is repeated a great many times, a chair, a sentiment, words, repels it.

The lyricism of some of Russell/Jameson’s recollections are almost Proustian in their intensity, and I will have to excerpt one later to illustrate this.

While some parts of The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell are abstruce, dated, histrionic, or simply tedious, there are also some wonderful passages:

My landlady, a woman about forty, was in her room on the ground floor, the door open, while her hair was waved. Looking in the glass she could watch it as well as note who came in and out. In a monotonous voice she was telling the hairdresser that her husband had spent the night “with those women”, and was asleep in his room. “First thing when he wakes he’ll ask me to give him a clean shirt, and then what money I have in the drawer. What disillusion!”

The lines of her mouth formed a single word, of surprise and bitterness.

The streets here, behind their mask, unsmiling, of sunlight, are grey and hard with age. The life going on continuously, every inch occupied by it, in every room someone coughing, working, bartering, baking, or pressing offal into a cheap pate, ironing, giving birth, dying, was self-supported and self-devouring, completely cut off, by a hard membrane, from the soil.

This was the eighth book Jameson published during the war, and over the course of a sixty-year career, she published well over five dozen books. As with Ethel Mannin, Phyllis Bottome, and a number of her other contemporaries, Jameson’s work was a remarkable combination of the prolific, the popular, the psychological, and the political. It’s hard to imagine all of these qualities coexisting in a successful writer today.


The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell, by Storm Jameson
London: Macmillan, 1945

Nancy Shippen: Her Journal Book, edited by Ethel Armes (1935) – reviewed by Agnes Repplier

nancyshippen

[Editor’s note: Nancy Shippen: Her Journal Book, subtitled, “The International Romance of a Young Lady of Fashion of Colonial Philadelphia with Letters to Her and About Her,” compiled and edited by Ethel Armes, was published in 1935 and is available free on the Internet Archive: Link.

The following review, written by the remarkable Philadelphia essayist, Agnes Repplier, appeared in the March 1936 issue of The American Mercury and is available online at unz.org: Link.]

The Masculine Era

“Surrounded by lovers, I could at first see you without great danger,” wrote M. Louis Guillaume Otto, afterwards Compte de Mosloy, to Miss Nancy Shippen, aged sixteen; and, reading his words, we are irresistibly reminded of Lydia Bennet, aged fifteen, “tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.” The close of the eighteenth century, whether it was closing in England or her colonies, saw little to fill a girl’s mind but costumes and lovers, followed in the course of time by marriage and domesticity. “I was formed for the world, and educated to live in it,” said Nancy a few years later, when her world was shrinking and darkening, and when the three hours consumed in dressing for a “bride’s visit” seemed no longer worth the while.

And what did it mean to be educated for the world in I779? Miss Shippen at fifteen could play a little on the harpsichord, sing a little “with timidity”, speak a little French, dance creditably, and embroider very well. While still at school she worked a set of ruffles for General Washington, no easy task as, in the absence of lace, the threads had to be drawn to give them a filmy look. She does not appear to have been very intelligent, but she was good tempered and docile, and she married the wealthy man who was her father’s choice rather than the agreeable young attaché to the French Legation who was her own.

Generally speaking this was a course to be commended. Fathers have longer sight and clearer vision than do girls under twenty. But in this particular case, prudence failed to justify itself. Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston had everything to recommend him save the kind of character and disposition which would have enabled a wife to live comfortably by his side. Nancy was not long suffering. After two years of profound discomfort, she took herself and her baby daughter back to her father’s home in Philadelphia, thus starting the endless complications which, in that staid and conventional era, beset the defiant wife. For Colonial America was a man-made world. Unmarried women had far more liberty, according to French visitors, than was good for them; but, once married, they fell into line, content to reign absolutely in their own domain, and to assume the responsibilities thus entailed:

To take the burden, and have the power,
And seem like the well-protected flower.

There was a great deal of chivalrous speech (it was the fashion of the time); and behind it a hard masculine sense that had nothing in common with the deep sentimentality of our day.

Nancy Shippen Livingston was to find this out to her cost. Her husband made no great effort to compel her return to him; but insisted firmly that the child should be placed under the care of his mother, Margaret Beekman Livingston, the only person in the confused narrative who commands our unfaltering respect. It is a relief to turn from unreason and emotionalism to Gilbert Stuart’s masterly portrait of this unpretentiously great lady; to the firm mouth, the amused eyes, the serene repose of a woman who understood life, and conquered it. Her generous support of her daughter-in-law is the best assurance that the unhappy young woman deserved more sympathy than she got.

To seek a divorce was so unusual a proceeding in 1789 that Nancy’s uncle, Mr. Arthur Lee, considered her desire for freedom as a joke; a joke in very bad taste, he admitted, but none the less absurd. That mysterious crime, mental cruelty, which has today been stretched to cover any action which an ordinarily human husband might perform in the course of twenty-four hours, was still a hundred years off. It would have provoked ribald laughter from a hard-headed eighteenth-century legislature. Henry Livingston was as safe then (he did not deserve safety) as he would be defenseless today. It is indicative of the decency of Colonial America that the word alimony was never mentioned by his supporters or by his wife’s.

The rest of the Journal Book, which is the raison d’etre of Miss Armes’ massive volume, is filled with pictures of social and domestic life in the days which charm us by their seeming serenity, but which must often have been empty and dull. Dull certainly for young Mrs. Livingston who loved frivolity and could not get enough of it; who hated the country which grew “more disagreeable” to her every day she lived in it; who tried hard to read Blair’s “excellent sermons”; and who wept copiously over The Sorrows of Young Werther. “There is luxury in some kinds of grief,” she remarks with unwonted sapience. Always in the offing is the good-looking Compte de Mosloy who would gladly have espoused his early love had she been free; but who filled up his time by marrying two other women, who made him reasonably happy.

We have no doubt that life today is too crowded, too noisy, too assertive, too pretentious in matters of the intellect, too combative about material things. Standards are lowered year by year to meet the demands of mediocrity. Yet out of this welter emerges clear and plain an effort to aid the uneasy human beings who know only that things go wrong. We are all pushing harder than is seemly, but perhaps we push to some purpose. The Sorrows of Young Werther echoed “the dim-rooted pain of thinking men” — hard to heal, but comparatively easy to forget.


Nancy Shippen: Her Journal Book, compiled and edited by Ethel Armes
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1935

Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness (1958)

doubleexposureYou don’t read Double Exposure, the dual-narrated memoir of identical twins and society dames Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and Thelma Morgan, Lady (later Viscountess) Furness as literature, but as a combination of specimen and spectacle. And as the latter, it offers more nooks and crevices than a Mandelbrot set.

For those into abnormal psychology, there is their half-Irish, half-Chilean and 100% drama-queen mother, Laura Delphine Kilpatrick Morgan. Nora Ephron once wrote that, “If you give your kids a choice, your mother in the next room on the verge of suicide versus your mother in Hawaii in ecstasy, they’d choose suicide in the next room.” If you asked Gloria and Thelma, they’d go for the Hawaii option: anything to get away from that woman. Their daddy, on the other hand, the fine, dignified and long-suffering diplomat, Harry Hays Morgan (Senior), could do no wrong. Is it any wonder that both girls pretty much marry the first men who show any interest in them and who shared the outstanding attribute of being about the age of their father when they were born?

No matter, for each is quickly disposed with. Thelma’s first husband, Jimmy Vail Converse, grandson of AT&T co-founder Theodore Vail, turns out to be an abusive and bankrupt alcoholic. A quick trip to California produces a divorce, followed in about a year by marriage to Marmaduke Furness, British shipping magnate and member of the House of Lords … and also over twenty years her senior. His good manners and huge fortune could not hold a candle to the likes of Edward Prince of Wales, and Divorce Number Two followed within eight years of Divorce Number One. Sadly, Thelma lost out to another American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, and had to drown her sorrows in a quick fling with Prince Aly Khan (later husband to Rita Hayworth). She managed somehow to overlook the fact that, for once, she was the older one.

Meanwhile, Gloria fell for and married Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, heir to the fortune established by “Commodore” Vanderbilt. Gloria and Reggie got along famously (sorry), but sadly, Reggie had to go and ruin things by choking to death on his own blood due to a mysterious throat hemorrhage medical condition he had kept secret from her. A man whose chief accomplishment, according to his Wikipedia entry, was that, “He was the founder and president of many equestrian organizations,” Reggie left his widow and daughter (the Gloria Vanderbilt of fashion fame) comfortably off. Unfortunately, he and his lawyers left open a legal loophole through which his sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (yes, those Whitneys, swooped a few years later, making off with daughter Gloria and most of (mother) Gloria’s money. Nothing for it but a few more affairs. Oh, and a few years after that, daughter Gloria and lawyers swooped again, took mother Gloria’s annual allowance, and donated it to a charity for the blind. Had the expression been invented back then, one imagines (daughter) Gloria’s lawyers shouting, “BOO-YAH!”

But wait–there’s more! There are the rare and elusive Vanderbilt siblings–three of them. You have to keep a sharp eye out for them, though: no sooner than you spot one and it’s off into the mists for another decade or two. There are more transatlantic steamship trips than there are Washington-New York shuttle flights. There are their many close, intimate acquaintances–humble folk “such as Peggy Stout, who married dashing Lawrence Copley Thaw and later divorced him; Jimmy and Dorothy Fargo, whose name is associated with Pony Express fame; the two daughters of Mrs. Richard T. Wilson, Marion and Louise; Juan Trippe, now president of Pan-American Airways; the two Jimmys, Leary and O’Gorman; and Margaret Power, who had introduced us to Margaret Hennessy. They were both from Montana; their families at one time jointly owned the Anaconda copper mines.” And you: who do you watch polo with? Thought so.

Kirkus Reviews praised the twin authors for “sparing no detail no matter how unorthodox,” but half the fun of this book are the details they left out. Like, say, a moral and ethical framework. As Thelma is falling in love with Prince Edward, she and “Duke” Furness head off to Africa for a spot of safari and shooting. Lying in her tent one night, Thelma wails, “Why did I have to be the big white hunter?” A short ellipsis later, and she totes up her toll: “I shot an elephant, a lion, a rhino, and a water buffalo.” Even in those days, scruples were so passé. If you ever needed proof positive that the very rich are different from you and I, take a stroll through Double Exposure. For us proles, it’s available for free on the Internet Archive (Link).


from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness
New York: David McKay and Company, 1958

Out! damn crumbs, from Notes from Sick Rooms, by Mrs. Leslie Stephen (1883)

crumbs

Among the number of small evils which haunt illness, the greatest, in the misery which it can cause, though the smallest in size, is crumbs. The origin of most things has been decided on, but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer. I will forbear to give my own explanation, which would be neither scientific nor orthodox, and will merely beg that their evil existence may be recognized and, as far as human nature allows, guarded against. The torment of crumbs should be stamped out of the sick bed as if it were the Colorado beetle in a potato field. Anyone who has been ill will at once take her precautions, feeble though they will prove. She will have a napkin under her chin, stretch her neck out of bed, eat in the most uncomfortable way, and watch that no crumbs get into the folds of her nightdress or jacket. When she lies back in bed, in the vain hope that she may have baffled the enemy, he is before her: a sharp crumb is buried in her back, and grains of sand seem sticking to her toes. If the patient is able to get up and have her bed made, when she returns to it she will find the crumbs are waiting for her. The housemaid will protest that the sheets were shaken, and the nurse that she swept out the crumbs, but there they are, and there they will remain unless the nurse determines to conquer them. To do this she must first believe in them, and there are few assertions that, are met with such incredulity as the one — I have crumbs in my bed. After every meal the nurse should put her hand into the bed and feel for the crumbs. When the bed is made, the nurse and housemaid must not content themselves with shaking or sweeping. The tiny crumbs stick in the sheets, and the nurse must patiently take each crumb out; if there are many very small ones, she must even wet her fingers, and get the crumbs to stick to them. The patient’s night-clothes must be searched; crumbs lurk in each tiny fold or frill. They go up the sleeve of the night-gown, and if the patient is in bed when the search is going on, her arms should hang out of bed, so that the crumbs which are certain to be there may be induced to fall down.

Mrs. Leslie Stephen, born Julia Prinsep Duckworth, is better remembered today as the mother of Virginia Woolf. She published this little book about a year after Virginia’s birth, with the simple aim of sharing “things which have come under my actual observation, either as giving relief, or causing discomfort to the sufferer.” Notes from Sick Rooms, which has been reissued recently by Paris Press to accompany Virginia’s essay, “On Being Ill,” is also available on its own from the Internet Archive (link).

It’s a short book brimming with common sense and a certain measure of humor. “I have often wondered,” she writes at the start, “why it is considered a proof of virtue in anyone to become a nurse. The ordinary relations between the sick and the well are far easier and pleasanter than between the well and the well.” Of course, relations between care-giver and cared-for are often not easy or pleasant, but her point is well-taken: overall, the odds of both parties being accommodating are better.

When Notes from Sick Rooms was reissued back in the early 1980s, Penelope Lively wrote of it in the London Review of Books:

It is as though Mrs Ramsay had stepped out of the pages of To the Lighthouse – cool, kind, sensible and meticulous – and set out to tell us, with the minimum of fuss, how to wash an invalid, make the bed, comb the hair, give an enema, arrange the bedside lighting. The tone has that combination of humanity and practicality that ought to pervade the medical profession and so frequently does not. It makes one yearn to collapse at once between linen sheets smoothed by Mrs Stephen and give oneself up in gratitude to the calm, unhurried, reassuring presence, the therapeutic rubbings and the beef tea. The section on the removal of crumbs from the bed is a masterpiece. This is the voice of a woman for whom the unsentimental alleviation of distress in others is a way of life; hearing it, you know this is someone whose advice would always have been equally precise, rational and wise – the sort of person you would want to meet in a hospital consulting-room, or at the scene of a disaster. And you think also of the frequently-reproduced photograph of Julia Stephen – a face of unforgettable beauty. And of Mrs Ramsay: ‘Was it wisdom? Was it knowledge? Was it, once more, the deceptiveness of beauty, so that all one’s perceptions, half-way to truth, were tangled in a golden mesh? or did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all?’


Notes from Sick Rooms, by Mrs. Leslie Stephen
London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1883

The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks

oldindispensablesI’ve been saving this one up for a rainy day. So, as I watch the grey drizzle blanketing our neighborhood, I have to share one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years: The Old Indispensables–not a romance, but a wonderful comedy of bureaucracy raised to the nth power.

Set in the Circumvention Branch of the Circumlocution Office, The Old Indispensables is a farce in which no one–not the reader and certainly not any of the characters–quite knows what’s going on. Working in dogged earnest in commandeered hotel rooms sometime toward the end of the first year of the World War One, the staff of the Circumvention Branch–a mix of veterans of the civil service wars, well-meaning but clueless young men down from university, and bright-eyed young women continually being sent off with great stacks of papers–labors away on a constant flow of requests of uncertain intent.

All they ever seem to do with these requests is to allow them to age in their in-baskets for a few days, after which they scribble down a brief note and send the package off to another part of the vast machine of the wartime government. And there is such a variety of offices to choose from: Derogation of Crown Appanages Office; the Controller of Tombstones; the Director of Delays and Evasions; the Divagation Commission; the Board of Interference.

The primary focus of the Branch’s civil servants is on advancement of their own careers–as long as it involves the minimal amount of effort. Mr Evans, for example, somewhat self-conscious of having taken his degree from the little-known University of Llangollen, constantly mulls over his chances:

His bath that morning had been disagreeably chilly; and, as he had stepped into it, he had reflected that he was nearly thirty-four and that he would be due for compulsory retirement at the age of sixty. This gave him only twenty-six years in which to reach the summit of his desires and he fancied that he had lost ground rather during the last three weeks. All through the day dark thoughts filled his mind and oppressed him with sinister suggestions. Perhaps he would never be Permanent Under-Secretary, never a K.C.B., perhaps not even a C.B.; and when his good angel whispered to him that the C.M.G. and the I.S.O. still existed, the mocking demons of melancholy arose and extinguished even this gleam of hope.

Meanwhile, the senior bureaucrats battles with rival departments to gain ever-larger numbers of staff–and then to evade the dreaded Towle Committee, which is busily rooting out examples of over-staffing in the government.

A junior member of the Branch, sent off with the vague instruction to “get some facts,” learns that another distant branch of the bureaucracy, the Manx Office, has managed to ensure its existence by disappearing almost entirely:

Here were no machine-guns in sight, no detachments of troops. There were not even any plain-clothes men loitering purposefully about, for, when the grocer had completed his mission by mbarking the empties, and had driven rapidly away, the street was quite empty. Cyril proceeded down it, looking for a brass plate; and at length on the railings outside a small and respectable house, in no other way distinguished from the rest, he saw a brass plate plainly inscribed with the words, “Manx Office.” He paused a moment, finding the appearance of the closed door a trifle unfamiliar in a Government department. At last he went up the steps and pushed at the door. It was locked; and another brass plate requested the visitor not to ring unless he required an answer.

Cyril therefore rang and waited. After several minutes, feeling his desire for an answer still undiminished, he rang again. A prodigious interval went by; and then he heard an uncertain shuffle of feet approaching the door from the inside. There followed the sound of bolts being pushed back and chains undone, mixed with the heavy groans of a lethargic person stirred to uncongenial activity. At last the door fell open and Cyril beheld an elderly man in shirt-sleeves, with no collar, who stood rubbing his eyes and blinking, presumably at the unaccustomed light.

“Is Mr. Choop in?” Cyril asked politely.

“Mr. Choop?” the porter repeated. “Mr. Choop? Is ‘e in? I’ll go and see. Just you wait there.” Cyril advanced into the semi-darkness of the hall and waited, while the porter lumbered into the complete darkness of the stairs and was lost to sight, though not to hearing. After several minutes he returned and said in a dull voice:

“Yes, Mr. Choop, ‘e’s in.” After this he seemed to expect that Cyril would go away.

He does finally get escorted up to the dark alcove from which Mr. Choop presides, and is warmly welcomed. After offering a cigarette and going into great detail about the many fine points of his new lighter, Mr. Choop then rises, saying, “Well, I’m sorry you must go,” and sends the young man off without disclosing a single fact about the Manx Office or its purpose.

In the end, the Circumvention Branch manages to earn a favorable report from the Towle Committee and various staff members earn various sorts of honors. The Armistice is signed–although whether with or without the contributions of the Branch remains a mystery.

For anyone who’s a fan of Yes, Minister, I heartily recommend taking a look at The Old Indispensables

Edward Shanks served on the Western Front until wounded in 1915 and went on to write over a dozen books of poetry and fiction, including the dystopian SF novel, The People of the Ruins. He received the very first Hawthornden Prize in 1919 for his book, The Queen of China and Other Poems.

The Old Indispensables is available online at the Internet Archive (link).


The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks
London: Martin Secker, 1919

Ginx’s Baby and Little Hodges, by Edward Jenkins

Son of a missionary and minister who took his family to India, Canada and the U.S. and who was ordained in three different churches–Wesleyan, Methodist, and Presbyterian–Edward Jenkins had stronger Protestant and anti-imperialist roots than perhaps any other Victorian radical, which is why he might be considered 19th Century England’s closest counterpart to Jonathan Swift. And like Swift, he used the infant as the instrument for his most savage satires.

edwardjenkinsJenkins’ first book, Ginx’s Baby: His Birth and Other Misforuntes (1871), used its title character–the thirteenth child both to Mr. and Mrs. Ginx, a London navvy and his wife–to mock the pretensions of religious charities and high-minded reformers, who claimed to serve the poor but more often used them to serve their own interests. Ginx, his wife, and all their children manage to fit into one tiny room filled mostly with on “thirteenth-hand” bed:

When Ginx, who was a stout navvy, and Mrs. Ginx, who was, you may conceive, a matronly woman, were in it, there was little vacant space about them. Yet, as they were forced to find resting-places for all the children, it not seldom happened that at least one infant was perilously wedged between the parental bodies; and latterly they had been so pressed for room in the household that two younglings were nestled at the foot of the bed. Without foot-board or pillows, the lodgment of these infants was precarious, since any fatuous movement of Ginx’s legs was likely to expel them head-first. However they were safe, for they were sure to fall on one or other of their brothers or sisters.

Although the Ginxes, like good Victorian subjects, take their lot in life for granted (“They regarded disease with the apathy of creatures who felt it to be inseparable from humanity”), the latest Ginx is one too many, and Mr. Ginx considers drowning the newborn in the Thames as a solution. A crowd gathers, and a debate erupts among them as to where the responsibility for the situation lies. One man blames Ginx and his wife for having children when they couldn’t afford them and another wonders why “Parlyment” doesn’t provide better care for the poor. Finally, a nun intervenes and persuades a policeman to let her take the baby back to “the Sisters of Misery.”

There, the nuns consult with the Church authorities and soon little Ginx–now named Ambrosius–becomes the centerpiece of a campaign to encourage procreation as a means for creating more Catholics. This draws the wrath of Protestant churches, and an “Evangelical Alliance” forms to rescue him. They “favor of teaching him at once to hate idolatry, music, crosses, masses, nuns, priests, bishops, and cardinals,” and form a Committee of the Protestant Detectoral Union on Ginx’s Baby to determine the correct approach to the infant’s religious education. Unfortunately, after holding twenty-three meetings and releasing countless announcements, the Committee is forced to disband for lack of funds.

In the meantime, Mr. Ginx resorts to abandoning the baby on a shopkeeper’s doorstep, which then leads to his being placed in one poorhouse and then another. Now near death, the child is rescued by a visiting doctor and his case becomes a cause celebre in the press. The respective guardians of the two poorhouses go to court to determine which is at fault. The baby is returned to the Ginxes, who have given up any hope of surviving in England and decided to emigrate to Australia, and once again Mr. Ginx abandons him, this time on the doorstep of a political club in Pall Mall.

Here he comes to the service of the Radicals, who attempt to launch a debate in the House of Commons on the plight of the poor. However, the Minister for the Accidental Accompaniments of the Empire takes them by surprise by launching his own debate in the House of Lords. Though “he never seen the Baby, and knew nothing or very little about him,” this does not prevent him from delivering “an elaborate speech in which he asked for aristocratic sympathy on his behalf” and proposes a practical solution: send the child to Australia. Unfortunately, this motion runs afoul of the great economic authority, Lord Munibagge, who protests, “Ginx’s Baby could not starve in a country like this. He (Lord Munnibagge) had never heard of a case of a baby starving.” The Lords conclude that “there was no necessity for the interference of Government in the case of Ginx’s Baby or any other babies or persons.”

In the end, passed along from charity to charity, Ginx’s baby grows into a young and still hungry delinquent and decides one night to resort to his father’s first solution: he quietly jumps off Vauxhall Bridge and drowns himself in the Thames.

littlehodgeSeveral years after publishing Ginx’s Baby, Jenkins took another satirical stab at the inertia and hypocrisy of Victorian society through the instrument of a baby–this time in the form of the world’s tiniest baby, known as Little Hodge (1878). Weighing just over three pounds at birth, Little Hodges’ fame soon spreads: “Many visitors came to the workhouse — physicians, surgeons, comparative anatomists, and one or two social science philosophers.” They all come to the same conclusion: “that he was very small,” and “that he could not live.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Hodges, a farm laborer with eight other children, he does live, and, with his mother dead from childbirth, he needs to eat. Hodges turns to his landlord, then to his parson, then to his local poorhouse, and so on, finding all of them greatly concerned and utterly unable to help. When he tries to forage and poach to find some free food for his family, he’s brought up on charges. His plight inspires some of his fellow farm workers to form a union and revolt against the landowners, but this movement also fails to provide solution to the immediate problem of getting enough to eat. Hodge dies one night, probably murdered by his landlord, and his children are taken off to America by a Yankee philanthropist.

Like many other attempts to rework a fictional formula, the tone of Little Hodges seem tired and bitter compared to the gusto with which Jenkins skewered English society high and low in Ginx’s Baby. Where in Ginx’s Baby Jenkins pumped up his targets to exaggerated proportions before bursting them with quick jabs, in Little Hodges, mockery too often gives way to anger and sermonizing. One could trace a line from Swift to Kafka’s The Trial that passes through Ginx’s Baby; Little Hodges, though, is closer to Ten Nights in a Bar-room than anything in the way of lasting satirical literature.

Both Ginx’s Baby and Little Hodges are available at the Internet Archive.


Ginx’s Baby: His Birth and Other Misfortunes, by Edward Jenkins
London: Strachan & Company, 1871

The Conquest of Rome, by Matilde Serao

If I were looking for an Amazon review headline for The Conquest of Rome, Mathilde Serao’s 1885 novel, I’d probably opt for “Zola Does the Italian Parliament.” For, like a number of Zola’s novels, such as The Belly of Paris, Money, or The Ladies’ Paradise, the story is really just the author’s excuse for a long, leisurely and meticulously detailed description of the workings of the behind-the-scenes world of some enterprise most people would have taken for granted.

conquestofromeIn this case, it’s the world of the Montecitorio, the Italian Parliament, as seen through the eyes of Francesco Sangiorgio, the newly-elected deputy from a remote rural area of Basilicata, one of the poorest parts of southern Italy. Intensely driven, with great ambition despite deep insecurity for his poverty and humble status, Sangiorgio has fought his way from school teacher to country lawyer to district advocate, and now heads to Rome to launch his political career.

A man with little in the way of personality, Sangiorgio soon learns how low is the position of an unknown deputy from a backward district in a parliament as large as the U. S. House of Representatives. Taking a cheap room in a dank and dirty boarding house, he makes almost no acquaintances until he is befriended by Tullio Giustini, a hunchbacked deputy from Tuscany. Shunned for his physical defects, Giustini uses his position as an outsider to act as an acerbic critic of the Montecitorio and its social strata.

“Why should it be concerned with you,” he asks Sangiorgio, “an infinitesimal atom, passing across the scene so quickly? It is indifferent; it is the great cosmopolitan city which has this universal character, which knows everything because it has seen everything.” To conquer Rome, he advises, one must have “a heart of brass, an inflexible, rigid will; he must be young, healthy, robust, and bold, without ties and without weaknesses; he must apply himself profoundly, intensely to that one idea of victory.” It’s obvious that Giustini considers this a fool’s goal, but instead, Sangiorgio is inspired and vows to become the next conqueror.

With no money and no social connections, Sangiorgio has little chance of being noticed, but Giustini takes him along to a reception hosted by Countess Fiammanti, whose salon is one of the true centers of power. Sangiorgio’s looks are nothing to speak of, but the Countess is attracted by his passion for political success, and spins an idle web to see if she can instigate an affair between him and Donna Angelica Vargas, the wife of a Cabinet member.

Although Donna Angelica never puts her position at risk, she encourages Sangiorgio just enough to fill him with a dangerous blend of romantic and political passion, supercharged by his utter naivety. He rushes headlong into a session of Parliament, at which Donna Angelica’s husband is giving a long and dull speech introducing the new budget. It is a predictable matter, and after droning on for an hour, the Minister concludes and begins accepting the congratulations of his colleagues when another speaker is announced: “Honourable colleagues, I beg for silence. The Honourable Sangiorgio has the floor.”

“‘Who ? Who ?’ was the universal inquiry.”

Taking advantage of the suprised silence, Sangiorgio plays the moment for its full dramatic value.

Hereupon the curious eyes of the members sought out that colleague of theirs, whom scarcely anyone knew. … No one thought him insignificant. And then divers speculations grew rife in the Chamber. Would this new deputy speak for or against the Minister? Was he one of those flatterers who, scarcely arrived, hastened to make a show of loyalty to the Government? Or was he some little impudent nobody who would stammer through a feeble attack before the House, and be suppressed by the ironical murmurs of the assembly? He was a Southerner and a lawyer — only that was known about him. Therefore he would deliver an oration, the usual rhetoric which the Piedmontese detested, the Milanese derided, and the Tuscans despised.

Instead, the Honourable Sangiorgio began to talk deliberately, but with such a resonant, commanding voice that it filled the hall and made the audience give a sigh of relief. The ladies, whom the warmth had half lulled to sleep, revived, and the press gallery, empty since the conclusion of the Minister’s discourse, began to refill with reporters, returning to their places.

Sangiorgio delivers a riveting speech that condemns the Government for its neglect of the very peasantry that elected him, and gains the attention of the press, opposition, and a few members of the Government.

matildeseraoIt is, however, just a flash in the pan. Sangiorgio’s only real agenda is to be accepted, and when Donna Angelica begins to take him a little more seriously, he quickly loses all interest in anything aside from having her accept him as a lover. He neglects the affairs of his electorate. He spends money he doesn’t have to create an elegant love nest to entice her. He succeeds only in annoying a better-placed would-be suitor, and the two end up fighting a duel. Sangiorgio wins, but in a manner that merely further alienates him from the people he would engratiate himself with. And so he climbs aboard the train back to the Basilicata, Rome having never really noticed his existence.

It’s a fairly predictable story pattern, one that could be found in dozens of other novels about an ambitious young man from the sticks trying to make it in the big city, and on its own would provide little incentive to read The Conquest of Rome.

What the book really is, though, is a rich and carefully observed journey through Rome as it existed in the 1880s. Serao started as a journalist, and The Conquest of Rome is probably more successful as descriptive rather than artistic work. Here, for example, is Serao’s sketch of the room in which constituents wait for hours on end in hope of an audience with their deputy:

It might have been the anteroom of a celebrated physician, where invalids came, one after another, waiting their turn, looking about with the indifferent gaze of people who have lost all interest in everything else, their thoughts for ever occupied with their malady. And as in such a lugubrious anteroom, which he who has once been there on his own behalf or for one dear to him can never forget, as in such a room are assembled people with all the infirmities that torment our poor, mortal body — the consumptive, with narrow, stooping shoulders, with lean neck, his eyes swimming with a noxious fluid; the victim of heart disease, with pallid face, large veins, yellowish, swollen hands; the anaemic, with violet lips and white gums; the neurotically affected, with protuberant jaws, bulging cheekbones, emaciated frame; and the sufferers from all other diseases, hideous or pitiful, which draw the lines of the face tight, which make the mouth twitch, and impart an unwelcome glow to the hand, that glow that terrifies the healthy — thus, in such a room, did the possessors of all the moral ills unite, oblivious of all complaints but their own. … Every one of those people has a grievance in his soul, an unfulfilled desire, an active, torturing delusion, a secret sorrow, a fierce ambition, a discontent. And in their faces may be seen a corresponding spasmodic twitching, a contraction of angry lips, a dilation of nostrils trembling with nervousness, a knitting of the brows which clouds the whole countenance, hands convulsively doubled in overcoat pockets, a melancholy furrow in the women’s smile, which deepens with every new disillusion. But all of them are completely self-centred, entirely oblivious of foreign interests, indulging in a single thought, a fixed idea, because of which they watch, meet, and conflict with one another, although seeming neither to hear nor to see each other.

There are several dozen such set-pieces in the book–the galleries in the Montecitorio, the grimy quarters of the poorer deputies, the teeming life in the slums along the banks of the Tiber. Like Zola, Serao sometimes forgets to come up for air when she dives into the details, but you just have to slip a page or so further to avoid suffocation. But if you appreciate the chance to step back into a world from 100-plus years ago and soak up the sights and sounds and smells, I can recommend taking a trip through Matilde Serao’s The Conquest of Rome.

You can find electronic editions of The Conquest of Rome on the Internet Archive (Link).


The Conquest of Rome, by Matilde Serao
New York City: Harpers, 1902
First published as La conquista di Roma, 1885

https://archive.org/details/conquestrome00seragoog

Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth

Artistic failures are often more interesting than masterpieces–or more accessible, at least. Hayden Carruth’s first and only novel, Appendix A (1963), is a good example of this. “I did the novel in the first place because that was the only way I could get my first book of poems published,” he admitted years later, in an interview published in American Poetry Review.

“I had already written a long story, which I didn’t know what to do with, about a kid in France during World War II, who had been orphaned and adopted as a sort of a mascot by a German unit,” he told the interviewer, Anthony Robbins. “So when Emile [Emile Capouya, his editor at Macmillan] said he had to have a novel, I said I’ll expand the story into a novel, and basically that’s what I did. I added three other sections to the book, making it cover a longer period.”

appendixaThis ad hoc structure is quite evident in the book. Carruth incorporated the story of the French orphan by transporting him to post-war Chicago, giving him the American nickname Charley, and making him the cuckold of an affair between the narrator, known only as E., and Charley’s wife, Alex. The first section shows the affair in midstream, centered around a sweltering July weekend. The second half is set about a month or so later, as Alex decides to leave E.–and Charley–over the course of long and boozy day and night. Framing these three parts is one set ten years later, as E. reflects back on the experience from an asylum somewhere in upstate New York.

It’s an awkward collage. The Charley/Gaston story is a crude graft, a pointless excursion from the main thread of the novel. And Carruth never provides a convincing explanation of what drove E. to isolate himself in a cottage in the Connecticut woods to write his account of the affair ten years later, or how this led to his being sent to the asylum.

Yet Appendix A remains an intriguing book, particularly when you know a little about Carruth’s life. E. is very much based on Carruth. Like Carruth, he served with the U. S. Army in Italy during the war. Like Carruth, he becomes the youngest editor of a prestigious and amply-endowed literary journal (E.’s Pegasus is Carruth’s Poetry). Whether Carruth had an affair similar to E.’s, he certainly did spend a time in an asylum, and spent some time after that in the care of a psychiatrist (Peter Laderman, to whom the novel is dedicated). The book’s second half revolves around a comical account of a reception, attended by the “poetocracy” and a set of ridiculous donors, for an English poet whom Carruth later identified in Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays as a fictional version of Stephen Spender: “… [B]ut I remember almost nothing of it now. I was no doubt drunk.”

As Carruth told Anthony Robbins, “It was a very anxious experience for me because I didn’t really think I knew anything about writing novels. In fact I didn’t.” Inexperience led him into a fair amount of experimentation in the book. A publisher’s note at the beginning states that the book is “part of a subdepartmental dossier in the files of a state bureau of public health.” One chapter is simply a dialogue between E. and Charley about an M. G. sportscar they co-own. Another contains a series of excerpts from such disparate sources as John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, the censure of Samuel Gorton, an early Colonial dissenter, and The Voyage of the Rattletrap, a comic Midwest novel written by an earlier Hayden Carruth. He omits Chapter 26 entirely: “if I left it in it would give the whole show away.” E. even refers to the book as a “levon”: “a feeble invention, but let it pass.”

Carruth considered the book “over-written in places.” And there are some pretty awful sentences, such as: “We are the principles of love, Linda and I, and so you need not remember us; indeed, you cannot — you can discover us only within yourselves, in which event we shall have different names and faces.” But there is something about a book being set in Chicago that guarantees an occasional punch of muscular prose:

Traffic thickened as we left St. Joseph, and would continue to thicken all the way to Chicago as more and more people heading home from points along the Indiana shore joined the stream. The concrete highway was a steady rolling formation of cars, like a railroad train a hundred miles long. At first the pace was quick, but then it slowed, cars jammed up, sometimes there would be a crescendo of aphonic squeals as drivers, one after another, jumped on their brakes; for a mile ahead in the late afternoon light you could see red glowing taillights, and the air would turn blue and acrid with exhaust fumes from idling motors.

I had almost forgotten what it was like to come back into town on a hot Sunday afternoon back in the days before freeways, but reading this sent me right back to the rear seat of my father’s Rambler, stuck with sweat to the vinyl as we inched past mile after mile of drugstores and used car lots.

And there are wonderful observations: “the momentary shame men feel upon seeing their own nakedness exposed before the elegance and subtlety of a woman.” “Chicagoans are as well schooled as most people and have studied their geography lessons in childhood, yet in their hearts they don’t know what lies beyond: space, distance, the incredible vectors and tangents of the nebulae themselves.” And this priceless comment on what we can never experience:

Instantly four poems came to my mind, four celebrations of that tender arrangement of loved flesh, four poems that should have been written by Skelton, Wyatt, Ben Jonson, and perhaps Sackville or Waller; but they didn’t write them, and neither did I. People who complain — with some justice — about the number of poems that are published, should think of the number, including some superb examples, that are never written.

None of which argues that anyone should rush to reissue Appendix A and proclaim it a lost masterpiece. Carruth may not have known much about how to write a novel, but that didn’t stop a fair amount of good writing, combined with astute and sometimes acerbic insights, from shining through the awkward seams and sometimes unchecked verbosity.

Fortunately, there is no need for a reissue, anyway: you can find electronic versions, for free, on the Internet Archive (link).


Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth
New York City: Macmillan, 1963

At the Green Goose, by D. B. Wyndham Lewis

greengooseAt the Green Goose, by D. B Wyndham Lewis (“not to be confused with the novelist Wyndham Lewis,” as nearly every biographical sketch notes), is an utterly throw-away book that you will either love or wonder why anyone would have published it.

It’s nothing more than a collections of absurd philosophico-academic monologues–or rather, monologues with occasional interruptions–by one Professor Silas Plodsnitch, “great poet, philosopher, and neo-Pantagruelist.” The professor walks into the Green Goose, orders a coffee, lights up his pipe, and begins to talk. His subject may be bees and bee-keepers, celebrity, matrimony, the works of Ethel Biggs Delaney (writer of stories for women’s magazines) or the Sitwells (Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell), but he veers off into other topics, carries on erratically, and then exits, usually without reaching a point.

“For three pence you can buy the index to the Estimates for Civil Services for the year ending March 31, which I have been looking through with some interest,” starts one of his lectures:

I calculate, after reading under the index letter I that every third man in these islands is an inspector of something or other–agriculture, aliens, alkali works, ancient monuments, audits, bankruptcy, canal boats, explosives, fisheries, inebriates, milk, mines, prisons, town planning–heaven knows what beside! This does not include, I suppose, the hordes of sub-inspectors, assistant inspectors, and pupil-inspectors (at present taking a correspondence course), nor yet the Inspector of Inspectors and his staff.

This leads to an imagined dialogue between a harried Inspector of Bankruptcy and an Inspector of Ancient Monuments, whose schedule is considerably more relaxed, which ends in one biting the other on the leg. Then he cuts abruptly into a meditation on the various ways of pronouncing the line, “Bring in the body,” which he’s recently read in a contemporary poem, and the various meanings one might take from them. After detours into a couple of more topics, he breaks off abruptly and marches out of the pub.

These pieces came from Lewis’ humorous column, Beachcomber, which he started writing for the Daily Express starting in 1919. Equally worth finding, if not quite so anarchic in style, are two collections of Lewis’ “Blue Moon” pieces from the column he wrote after switching over to the Daily Mail: (At the Sign of the Blue Moon (1924) and At the Blue Moon Again (1925)). They are, arguably, the funniest and most surreal things to have been printed in a major newspaper until the Irish Times started publishing Flann O’Brien’s amazing Cruiskeen Lawn column.

If you’re a fan of shaggy-dog tales, Tristram Shandy, Professor Irwin Corey, or Monty Python, you’ll find At the Green Goose well worth a read. If, however, you prefer to get from Point A to Point B by the shortest path, keep moving. Nothing to see here.

At the Green Goose is available on the Internet Archive.


At the Sign of the Green Goose, by D. B. W. Lewis
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923

The Big Drag, by Mel Heimer

broadway
“Life along the Big Drag is a pinwheel, a rollercoaster, a fast-motion movie; everything is stepped up twenty times in tempo, and the Broadwayite, whether for better or worse, has at thirty-five lived four times as many lives as the Kansan at seventy.” That sentence tells you everything you need to know about Mel Heimer’s 1947 ode to Broadway, The Big Drag. Yeah, it’s a bucket-full of eyewash and a crystalline gem of the Big Apple myth. “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere”: you know how the number goes before you’ve finished the first line.

melheimerHeimer’s New York City is “a town full of thieves, touts, fanatics, pigeon-lovers, pigeon-haters, dreamers, schemers, professional bums, dancers, refugees and knife-throwers.” His man wears slacks with a razor-sharp crease–even if the seat is shiny with wear–and loud neckties: “Riotous colors, weird designs, lush batik prints, paintings of horses or ducks or geese the Broadway boy goes for them all.” His Broadway is “a winding path full of shooting galleries,
movie houses, shirt shops, pineapple juice stands and cafeterias.” His list of celebrities includes the still-remembered (Milton Berle, the somewhat-remembered (Tallulah Bankhead), and the hardly-remembered (Rags Ragland, Richard Maney, and Renee Carroll, the hat-check girl from Sardi’s who was once enough of a name in her own right to publish a book about her experiences in the club (In Your Hat (1933)).

This book is an express ticket to “Guys and Dolls” land:

Nine out of every ten guys along Broadway are betting men; they were when they came to the main stem, and if they weren’t, they soon were converted. They will bet on everything and anything on the respective speed of two raindrops skidding down a restaurant window, on the poker hands involved in automobile license-plate numbers, on which horse will finish last in a given race, on whether the next batter will walk or strike out.

In other words, if you’re a sucker for the New York you’ll never see again, except on a movie screen, The Big Drag is like a big bag of potato chips: empty calories that are utterly irresistible. If Damon Runyon’s work now rates being packaged as a Penguin Classic, then Mel Heimer’s The Big Drag rates at least an honorable mention as its postwar counterpart.

You can find The Big Drag in electronic format for free on the
Internet Archive (link).


The Big Drag, by Mel Heimer
New York City: Whittlesey House, 1947

Ira Wallach, parodist

Humor is a bit like wine: a lot of it doesn’t age well, and depending on your taste, it might not even young well. And unlike other forms of literature, for which there’s a chance that the right teacher or critic might help you appreciate what first turned you off or left no impression at all, it’s pretty hard to make something funny by persuasion.

Cover of 'Hopalong Freud Rides Again'Given that, I caveat all that follows by saying that while I found Ira Wallach’s four collections of parodies–How to be Deliriously Happy (1950); Hopalong-Freud and Other Modern Literary Characters (1951); Hopalong-Freud Rides Again: Another Literary Ambush (1952); and Gutenberg’s Folly: the Literary Debris of Mitchel Hackney–funny, they may strike you as stale as sixty year-old bread. Or, as they say on the Internet, your mileage may vary.

If you Google “Ira Wallach,” you’re more likely to find pages about the millionaire philanthropist than about the novelist, Hollywood screenwriter, playwright and, back in the early 1950s, industrious writer of parodies. Even the bios of Ira Wallach the writer focus on his work for Hollywood and the stage. Frankly, unless you’re S. J. Perelman, writing parodies is unlike to earn you a significant spot in literary history. Parodies rank pretty low on the totem pole, just slightly above “How To” books.

Actually, “How To” books have a better chance of surviving in the eyes of the reading public. Dale Carnegie still sells thousands of copies a year, while no one cares about How to be Deliriously Happy, Wallach’s send-up of the blithely optimistic Carnegian school of self-help books.

Wallach, who turned to satire after his first book, The Horn and the Roses (1947), had better luck with Hopalong-Freud and Other Modern Literary Characters, which not only went into five printings but spawned a sequel, Hopalong-Freud Rides Again.

Both Hopalong-Freud books collect parodies of a wide variety of then-current writers and styles. Fortunately for today’s reader, most of Wallach’s targets have since earned a lasting place in the literary canon, so one can easily appreciate his success or failure in exaggerating their quirks and flaws. Hopalong-Freud, for example, is a take-off of T. S. Eliot’s 1949 play, The Cocktail Party, which was his greatest popular success. Freud, Wallach’s twist on Eliot’s psychiatrist-comme-priest, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, offers up such weighty pronouncements as,

No, no, one never knows the Glutzes.
One may have the glimmer of the Glutzes
Or feel the shadow of the Glutzes as they pass,
But to know the Glutzes is to know oneself,
And to know oneself is more than
It is given to man to know.

Of course, shooting at Eliot as his most solemn is a bit like shooting at a balloon: it’s already laden with enough gas to be on the verge of bursting. The same goes for “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Soup,” which blasts Hemingway with a mortar–rather as Wallach’s protagonist does a duck (along with “one sparrow, one caneton, and a B-36″) in the story’s opening scene.

A couple of Wallach’s pieces no longer have a solid point of reference to stand up against. How many will recognize Lin Yutang’s somewhat dated bits of Chinese wisdom, let alone Wallach’s pastiche (which naturally involves large quantities of tea). On the other hand, while Bob Hope’s ghostwriters have long since put down their pens, the best-seller lists are still full of routines by stand-up comedians recycled as books. Wallach’s “Modern Joe Miller” is a wonderful example, taking the following story and running it through the wringer several times in a row:

Walter Hampden told this to Eddie Cantor when they were visiting Eleonora Duse at George Bernard Shaw’s house shortly after they had all been guests of the Prince of Wales at the Ascot Races. Seems the late Czar of Russia once met a familiar figure walking down the streets of Moscow. Seizing him by the shoulders, the Czar exclaimed, “Rasputin, how you’ve changed! You used to be tall. Now you’re short. You used to have a beard. Now you’re clean-shaven. You used to be stoop-shouldered. Now you stand erect.”

The Czar’s friend stopped him. “Your Majesty,” he said, “my name’s not Rasputin. It’s Kerensky.”

“Oho!” cried the Czar. “So you’ve changed your name, too!”

Cover of 'Gutenberg's Folly'The best of the four books, for me, is Gutenberg’s Folly, which provides a sampler of the works of the late Mitchel Hackney, a contemporary of Hemingway, who tried his hand at most of the major literary styles and genres of the 1930s to 1950s, along with a selection of critical commentaries. This device allows Wallach to play upon the worst aspects of Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, William Saroyan, William Faulkner, and others.

I particularly liked “The Pilgrimage of Bixie Davis,” Hackney’s attempt to trump Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Having recently tried to listen to an audiobook version of another Bellow novel, I was ready to appreciate Wallach’s spot-on version of Bellow’s style, which always seems hell-bent on tossing another ingredient into an already-overloaded prose stew:

Uncle Gordon who lived with us had a stand where he sold rubber goods, razor blades, sundries, and life insurance. His face was clear of wens but he had blebs, straggling hairs anchored at the top of his head, the whites of his eyes green, and above the eyes two eyebrows, one black, one red, condor-nose horning a Roland-call for breakfast. Which was oatmeal and tea. He was a Tenth Avenue Marco Polo and he Cathayed the years away, Gordon, until he parlayed a fortune into three more, Midas-fingered, gilding his daughter into the arms of Bolo Snider, the bookie.

Bolo gave me my first job taking the phone and keeping book behind the cigar store, buttering the cops and dunning the deadbeats while the ponies dug hooves into Belmont. A two-buck-across-the-board life. In general Bolo was a good man but constricted, a frog in the mouth of a snake, bug-eyed, face wenned and warted, full of blebs, long hairs dropping from his nose to his chin, one ear quartered, the other halved–O judgment of Solomon!–nose straight, Praxiteletic, from having been knocked to one side in a fight and knocked back in another. Well, “le présent est chargé du passé, et gros de l’avenir.” Or if you wish, dolce far niente. What the hell!

After publishing Gutenberg’s Folly, Wallach headed Hollyward, where he wrote a few novels and a lot more screenplays. His 1959 novel, Muscle Beach, a typical satire of Los Angeles life, was eventually filmed as “Don’t Make Waves” (1967). His 1960 novel, The Absence of a Cello, was recently remembered by one of the tweeters responding to a request by the Guardian’s Hannah Freeman for “the best and most obscure book you have read?”: “Wonderful slice of late 50s US middle-class angst.”

Wallach returned to the East Coast, where he lived, mostly writing for Broadway, until he died of pneumonia in 1995 at the age of 82.

If you’re interested in sampling Wallach’s work as a parodist, you can find electronic versions of Hopalong-Freud: and Other Modern Literary Characters on the Internet Archive: Link.

Agnes Repplier, Essayist

Agnes Repplier“If the unresponsive gods, so often invoked, so seldom complaisant, would grant me one sweet boon, I should ask of them that I might join that little band of authors, who, unknown to the wide careless world, remain from generation to generation the friends of a few fortunate readers.” This was Agnes Repplier’s introduction to Epistolae Ho-Elianae, a two-volume collection of the familiar letters of James Howell a 17th Century English bureaucrat and man of letters.

At the time, Repplier was one of the better-known American writers, and it was Howell she was referring to as unknown. Today, the statement could well be considered her literary epitaph. About four years ago, the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute released a collection of her essays titled, American Austen: The Forgotten Writing of Agnes Repplier, with an introductory essay by John Lukacs taken from his 1981 book, Philadelphia, Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950.

If ISI intended this quite misleading title to attract more attention than, say, “Selected Essays by Agnes Repplier,” it succeeded, garnering at least a few reviews in the major press. Michael Dirda covered it in the Washington Post. Titled “A Woman of Masterful Persuasion,” the review included Dirda’s admission that, as a lifelong scourer of bookstore shelves, he’d seen used copies of Repplier’s books hundreds of times, but that,”in appearance they all seemed mere period pieces, ladylike albums revealing a sensitive soul’s adventures among the masterpieces.” It was, however, “An understandable mistake. After all, there were so many similar litterateurs of that era–Augustine Birrell, Edmund Gosse, Alice Meynell, Robert Lynd, Logan Pearsall Smith.”

The main reason ISI’s title is misleading is not that Repplier was in no way a contemporary of Austen’s (she was born 38 years after Austen died, and lived to the ripe age of 95–twice as long as Austen). It’s that Repplier wasn’t even a novelist. After publishing a dozen or so short stories, she abandoned fiction almost entirely. Repplier was an essayist.

The literary canon seems to allot each century an average of one or two essayists for remembrance. Born in 1855 and still writing until 1937, Agnes Repplier didn’t make the cut for either of her centuries.

Not that she would have lost any sleep over it. She was pretty sanguine about her place in literature: “My niche is small,” she said, “but I made it myself.” She gave up fiction in favor of essays at the advice of her first editor, Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Catholic World magazine. “‘I fancy,'” he said, ‘that you know more about books than you do about life, that you are more of a reader than an observer.'” He suggested she write a piece about her favorite author, John Ruskin. “And make it brief,” he added.

“That essay turned my feet into the path which I have trodden laboriously ever since,” she wrote. Her choice of genre was entirely pragmatic, however. Her father, a coal broker, lost his fortune in a failed iron foundry south of Philadelphia, and it fell to Agnes to be the main breadwinner, caring for her father, sister, and a feeble-minded brother who lived to the age of eighty. “The imperious necessities of life have driven me, in common with other workers, to seek the best market I could find for my wares.” “I have been a mere laborer in the trenches, with no nobler motive underlying my daily toil than the desire to be self-supporting in a clean and reputable fashion,” she wrote in a 1909 essay, “Catholicism and Authorship.”

The piece on Ruskin was published in 1884. Within a year of that, her work was appearing in almost every issue of the Catholic World. Her great ambition, though, was to be published in the Atlantic Monthly, the leading American literary and cultural magazine of the time. It took two years, but in 1886, her essay, “Children, Past and Present,” was accepted and appeared in the April issue.

The piece is a classic of the compare-and-contrast school. She cites numerous examples of child-rearing in the past, ranging from abuse to “Spare the rod and spoil the child” to simply leaving the child to fend for itself. Then she discusses contemporary views, influenced by a mix of romanticism (“the innocent babes”) and early professional educators. As is often the case in her essays prior to the First World War, Repplier sees merits and demerits on both sides. She acknowledges the charm of children brought up with “relaxed discipline,” but maintains that “The faculty of sitting still without fidgeting, of walking without rushing, and of speaking without screaming can be acquired only under tuition.”

While “Children, Past and Present” isn’t a good place to start if you’re interested in experiencing the pleasures of Repplier’s best work, it does display one of her greatest strengths: a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of literature, from the great classics to obscure books and writers. Among the names she mentions or quotes from in just the first half of the essay are Maria Edgeworth, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, Giacomo Leopardi, Jehan le Cuvelier, Madame de Rochefoucauld, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, Edgar Quinet, Sir Francis Doyle, Adam Smith, and her favorite, John Ruskin.

“What Children Read,” which appeared in the January 1887 issue, is a better example of Repplier’s voice and viewpoint. In it, she mourns for the passing of a time when there were few books actually written for children, and what many young readers had to choose from were books intended for an adult audience: “Those were not days when over-indulgence and a multiplicity of books robbed reading of its healthy zest.” By the time Repplier was writing, no end of “Ripping Yarns” and tales of stalwart young heroes and heroines ala Horatio Alger were flooding the book market, substituting a safe world full of moral models for one in which an unsuspecting child might pick up “A Tale of a Tub,” “The Faerie Queen,” or The Three Musketeers.

Repplier convinced Houghton, Mifflin to publish a collection of seven of her early essays in her first book, Books and Men (1888). As Geore Stewart Stokes puts it in his 1949 biography, Agnes Repplier: Lady Of Letters (available on the Internet Archive), “she had become convinced that a book is a necessary form of advertisement for a periodical writer.” As it was, she had to subsidize the book, and the publisher “made it painfully clear that she was very probably throwing her money away.” Instead, it sold well enough to lead to three more printings, and Repplier went on to publish nineteen more collections of essays over the next fifty years.

At her best, Repplier is pragmatic, cuttingly insightful, and funny. Take her piece, “Lectures,” from her 1894 book, In the Dozy Hours: “Now, is it industry or a love of sport which makes us sit in long and solemn rows in an oppressively hot room, blinking at glaring lights, breathing a vitiated air, wriggling on straight and narrow chairs, and listening, as well as heat and fatigue and discomfort will permit, to a lecture which might just as well have been read peacefully by our own firesides?” (Remember, this was at the height of the Chatauqua movement). She remarks that, “The necessity of knowing a little about a great many things is the most grievous burden of our day”–an observation still true today. Or take her comment in “How the Quaker City Spent Its Money,” from Philadelphia, the Place and the People (1912), about a Quaker preacher: “He came to make a dull world duller.” This is an echo of the statement in one of her most famous pieces, “The Mission of Humor,” from Americans and Others (1904), that ” A man destitute of humour … is often to be respected, sometimes to be feared, and always–if possible–to be avoided.”

Something muddled her thinking and writing around the time of the start of the First World War. She developed a deep hatred of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Prussian militarism, and the German Empire. In his review of American Austen, Michael Dirda writes, “Repplier isn’t really squishy in the least; she regularly delivers sentences and similes of epigrammatic sharpness,” and he cites a passage from “The Cheerful Clan,” published in Points of Friction (1920):

Things are as they are, and no amount of self-deception makes them otherwise. The friend who is incapable of depression depresses us as surely as the friend who is incapable of boredom bores us. Somewhere in our hearts is a strong, though dimly understood, desire to face realities, and to measure consequences, to have done with the fatigue of pretending. It is not optimism to enjoy the view when one is treed by a bull; it is philosophy. The optimist would say that being treed was a valuable experience. The disciple of gladness would say it was a pleasurable sensation. The Christian Scientist would say there was no bull, though remaining–if he were wise–on the tree-top. The philosopher would make the best of a bad job, and seek what compensation he could find.

These are some wonderful lines. But one has to overlook these lines, which come a few pages earlier in the same essay:

Germany cannot–for some time to come –spring at our throat. If we fail to readjust our industries on a paying basis, we shall of course go under, and lose the leadership of the world. But we won’t be kicked under by the Prussian boot.

Her bitterness towards Germany may have just been part of an increasingly acerbic view of the world. The last essay in Points of Friction is titled “Cruelty and Humor,” and in it, she offers a contrarian view of the Reader’s Digest adage of “Laughter is the Best Medicine”:

We hear so much about the sanitary qualities of laughter, we have been taught so seriously the gospel of amusement, that any writer, preacher, or lecturer, whose smile is broad enough to be infectious, finds himself a prophet in the market-place. Laughter, we are told, freshens our exhausted spirits and disposes us to good-will–which is true. It is also true that laughter quiets our uneasy scruples and disposes us to simple savagery. Whatever we laugh at, we condone, and the echo of man’s malicious merriment rings pitilessly through the centuries. Humour which
has no scorn, wit which has no sting, jests which have no victim, these are not the pleasantries which have provoked mirth, or fed the comic sense of a conventionalized rather than a civilized world.

Repplier got to be a tough old gal in her later years. In the introduction to his biography, Stokes recalls their first meeting, when “We sat and talked that afternoon in October in the Victorian parlor of Miss Repplier’s Clinton Street apartment, her Grandmother Shorb’s tea set spread on a little table between us, its cups serving as a series of convenient ash trays.” She grew less and less patient with interruptions and unwanted visitors. There is a perhaps apochryphal story of a young admirer who came to call and then kept dithering about as she began to leave. “There was something I meant to say, but I’ve forgotten what it was,” she confessed. “Perhaps, my dear, it was ‘Good-bye,'” Repplier replied.

Repplier died in 1950, thirteen years after publishing her last book–a collection of essays titled Eight Decades (1937). All of her books up to Points of Friction are available in electronic form on the Internet Archive.

Hizzoner the Mayor, by Joel Sayre

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Hizzoner the Mayor'Zumphmeeeabmeeab!

Joel Sayre’s 1933 satire of machine politics, Hizzoner the Mayor, opens with the sound of a pesky mosquito attacking the big toe of John Norris (Jolly John) Holtsapple, four times Mayor of the Greater City of Malta, as he awakens from another wild night of drinking with the boys. “Barrelled again,” he thinks, and swears to get back on the wagon until his election is over.

In Hizzoner the Mayor, Sayre–who went on to work as a writer on such classic films of the 1930s as Gunga Din–revels in cariacatures and wise cracks every bit as much as his subject does in booze and babes. The City of Malta is obviously a stand-in for New York City and Jolly John a cartoonish take on James John (“Gentleman Jimmy”) Walker, who charmed the proles, indulged in all his favorite vices, and openly condoned bootlegging and other rackets.

Like Gentleman Jimmy, Jolly John considers himself quite the ladies’ man:

“Ladies,” the Mayor resumed, “I’m deligh’ed see you. I’m always deligh’ed to see a lady. Thass me alla time. I doan care if she’s white or black, Democrat or Repub’ican. It ain’t the race with me, friends, it’s the lady. I doan care if she’s Protes’ant or Cath’lic, I doan care if she’s a Jew or Gentile, I doan care if she’s Chinaman or Jap, I doan care if she’s rich or poor, I doan care if she’s drunk or sober. Just so long she’s 100 per cent American and a lady.”

Like Walker, Jolly John is more of an entertainer than a politician. He’s more than happy to shake hands, kiss babies, cut ribbons, and even wrestle with Waldo, the Wrassling Bear, while leaving the business of running the city to the operators of the Malta Democratic Club and gangsters like Jerry Gozo. With Holtsapple’s help, Gozo manages to rack up a total of 241 arrests and only two convictions:

… a suspended sentence (when he was twelve years of age) for possessing burglar’s tools and thirty days in the County Jail for getting behind in his alimony (imposed by a woman magistrate in Family Court). The other charges, all unsubstantiated, had run the gamut from disorderly conduct (61 times) and horse-poisoning (17 times) through carrying concealed weapons (54 times) and violation of the Eighteenth Amendment (83 times) to kidnapping (10 times) and murder (11 times). The remaining items were distributed pretty evenly over such offenses as felonious assault, grand larceny, arson, extortion and public nuisance (playing a radio after 11 p.m.).

Unfortunately for both of them, Gozo is discovered dead that morning, sitting in a men’s room stall with the imprint of a horseshoe on his forehead. And over the course of the following weeks, other notorious Malta figures and Holtsapple supporters suffer the same fate.

At the same time, a crusading reformer, Phillip Dorsey, is organizing a campaign to unseat Jolly John. Hizzoner the Mayor is the tale of the battle between virtue and corruption. The themes of the infiltration of unions, manipulation of black voters, contract fraud, and abuse of city construction projects will be familiar to anyone who has read Robert Caro’s classic, The Power Broker.

Sadly for Dorsey, however, Sayre’s heart is clearly on the side of the rogues. It’s hard to argue with his choice: the rogues are painted in brash, lurid colors and speak in pure Noo Yawk slang when the reformers dress and speak in proper Yankee grey. And the fun in Hizzoner the Mayor is all in the language:

What Al Smith christened “boloney pictures” the previous summer were posed for in profusion: the Mayor on one knee at the finals in the State-wide Marble Shooting Championship; Satchells in a Boy Scout hat being sworn as a Tenderfoot into Troop 16; the Mayor in the cab of the largest B. & O. engine at the Grand Union Depot with the far too small cap of the engineer on his great head; Satchells with his arm around the skinny shoulders of Micajah Hudgins, Malta’s oldest voter, who had first marched to the polls for William Henry Harrison. . . In every conceivable position the two were snapped: kissing babies, dandling gluey-mouthed children, laying wreathes, baking bread, tanning hides, throwing baseballs, kicking footballs, riding gang plows, shooting, swimming, waving at people. The Divine Cal himself had no more versatile a repertoire.

Both sides sent out their dirt-squirters, each carefully instructed never to squirt before more than one person at a time. The Mayor held a long conference over just what squirted on Satchells would do him the most harm. Mike Raffigan told him about Inge.

“Who is she?”

“She’s a massooze, John.”

“A what?”

“You know, she gives massadge to the society dames. Got a big jernt of her own on Federal
Street.”

“Good Gawd,” said the Mayor, “do you want to elect the guy? Lay off that dame stuff or the people are li’ble to think it’s swell and vote for him!”

Hizzoner the Mayor was Sayre’s second novel. His first, Rackety Rax, was a similarly over-the-top satire, in this case of the intrusion of gambling interests in college sports–a topic that still comes up on a regular basis in the news. Rackety Rax gave Sayre his first screenwriting job, as he was hired by Fox to turn it into a 1932 film starring Victor McLagen. He published two more books in the 1940s: Persian Gulf Command (1945), a collection of his New Yorker articles on military operations in that region during the Second World War, and The House Without a Roof (1948), a novel about the experiences of an ordinary German family under Hitler. His daughter, Nora Sayre, was a writer and long-time film critic for The New York Times. He died in 1979.

Copies of Hizzoner the Mayor are rare and go for prices of $250 and up. Luckily, however, you can enjoy this delightful period piece for free thanks to the Internet Archive: Hizzoner the Mayor.


Hizzoner the Mayor, by Joel Sayre
New York: John Day Company, 1933

Kingdom on Earth, by Anne Brooks

In his story, “Just One More Time,” John Cheever portrayed the Beers, a couple hanging tenuously onto respectability, a pair of “pathetic grasshoppers of some gorgeous economic summer” who nevertheless possessed some enduring charm, the power “to remind one of good things–good places, games, food, and company.” Anne Brooks’ 1941 novel, Kingdom On Earth, we come to know the Randolfs, a family equally charming but whose parasitic nature is revealed when their fortunes collapse.

The book–Brooks’ first novel–takes place in seven snapshots between mid-1938 and Labor Day 1940. In the midst of a relaxing summer break at their Connecticut country home, the Randolfs’ banker arrives to break the news to the mother, Elaine, that what little capital her late husband had left the family has evaporated in the stock market. She has to sell off their heavily mortgaged country home and Manhattan apartment and move into a cheaper apartment with her two daughters and son-in-law, soon to be joined by her son Joel and his new wife, Harriet.

We watch the story unfold through Harriet’s eyes. The only daughter of an introverted and widowed professor, she is dazzled by the Randolf’s effortless grace. She confides to her brother-in-law, “We think they live life more completely, they feel things physically, because they act by instinct. We think they’re complete naturals. That charms us; they have more fun, we think, than the thoughtful people.” Harriet feels sorry about their plight only because “it wasn’t fair that people like the Randolfs should have to worry and think about money.”

At first, they take it in as a momentary inconvenience. Living on the remnants of their fortune is a comic bit of “roughing it,” the cramped apartment “a sort of camping place.” As time wears on and the money continues to evaporate, however, their charm wears as thin as the elbows in Joel’s old jackets. He gets a job with an advertising firm but his good looks and ingratiating manner fail to compensate for his utter incompetence. He loses the job and starts drinking earlier and earlier in the day. One daughter, Kit, gets a job in a fine department store and soon learns to get ahead through pure ruthlessness masked by a thin veneer of style. Pris, the youngest, is incapable of doing anything but attracting clueless men with her beauty.

And Elaine, utterly useless, does little but pine for her comfortable past. “The trouble with Elaine was that she was really stupid,” Harriet comes to realize. Her only assets were “a lovely, sensitive face, and excellent taste in dressing herself and arranging her home.”

Of all the family, it is Harriet who proves the most resourceful. She not only does all the cooking and housekeeping for the lot, but she teaches herself typing and gets a job when Joel gives up any pretence of looking for work. And the Randolfs appreciate it–in the way that a wealthy family might appreciate the work of a particularly good maid or butler. “You’re good at this sort of thing, aren’t you, Harriet?,” remarks Pris.

“This sort of thing” is a phrase that recurs throughout the book. It always refers to accommodation to the practical necessities of life–something the Randolfs seem to regard as either onerous or unthinkable. As Joel and Elaine grow more helpless and dependent, Harriet discovers her own strength and independence.

In the end, however, the Randolfs, like the Beers in Cheever’s story, manage to survive through a series of decisions that defy Harriet’s conventional reason:

The resilience of this family was almost immoral, she thought. In the books, weakness and irresponsibility fall when the props are taken away just as the Randolfs had fallen. But in the books weakness never picks itself up again, and here were the Randolfs bright as day and just as charming as ever. All because Pris has kidnaped a rich man into marrying her, Kit has booted out a poor husband and relentlessly cut a few throats, and Elaine is sponging off her son-in-law.

Although Kingdom On Earth was written when Brooks was just twenty-five, it displays a remarkably mature and well-rounded perspective. While showing the Randolfs with all their flaws, she is sympathetic rather than caustic, understanding rather than mocking.

Anne Brooks published a second novel, Hang My Heart, a year after Kingdom On Earth. The story of an ambitious woman starting her career in the magazine business, it received even better reviews, and Brooks was described as one of the more promising young American novelists. From that point on, however, she seems to have disappeared, at least from the world of publishing. I would be interested in finding out the rest of her story.

Although several direct-to-print publishers offer copies of Kingdom On Earth, you can download it for free from the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/details/kingdomonearth001098mbp.

The Court of Charles IV, by Benito Pérez Galdós

The Court of Charles IV was the second of the forty-six historical novels, referred to as Episodios Nacionales, written by the great Spanish novelist, Benito Pérez Galdós, whose masterpiece, Fortunata and Jacinta, was the first title featured on this site in 2012. It’s a considerably lighter work–less than a fifth the length of Fortunata and Jacinta and told in first person by young Gabriel Araceli, a poor but amibitious lad whose backstage adventures in both the theaters and court of Madrid around the year 1807 make up the book.

Gabriel, son of a poor Cadiz fisherman, was first introduced in Trafalgar, Galdós first Episodios Nacionales novel, which depicted Nelson’s great victory from the eyes of a bystander on the losing side. Gabriel has made his way to Madrid and is now in the service of Pepita Gonzalez, one of the most successful actresses of her time. Among his duties, which he itemizes at the book’s start, are to hiss performances of “The Maiden’s Yes,” a play by Leandro Fernández de Moratín, whose work she despises.

Which leads to the first of several delightful set-pieces that are the book’s real highlights. In the company of a failed poet, Gabriel attends the play to make his obligatory interjections. Galdós weaves together Gabriel’s mocking account of the performance, his observations of the antics of the theatre’s audience, which is as busy talking and fighting among themselves as watching the play, and the poet’s non-stop commentary on the flaws of the writing and references to superior elements of his own work.

Indeed, the whole of The Court of Charles IV is something of a weaving demonstration by Galdós, with the threads of love, sex and politics as the raw materials. Gabriel’s mistress Pepita is in love with and insanely jealous of her director and leading man, Isidoro Maiquez–a real-life character from the time. Isidoro, in turn, is madly in love with Lesbia, the beautiful niece of a minor member of the Spanish nobility. And Lesbia, in her turn, is being watched and manipulated by Amarantha, another duchess with whom Gabriel becomes enthralled.

Gabriel’s experiences form the backing material against which Galdós winds and twists his fictional and historical characters. Some back the King, Charles (Carlos) IV; others support a coup by his son, Ferdinand, who favors the British. All despise the prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, known as “The Prince of Peace.” As the various intrigues of court and stage are being played out, the figure of Napoleon looms in the distance, utterly misinterpreted and misunderstood by all. Within a few months after the novel’s ending, he will invade Spain and drive them all into exile.

Typical of the clueness nobles is Lesbia’s uncle, a marquis and one-time diplomat, who has perfected obscurity as a tool for appearing to be all-knowing: “He always took care to maintain a studied reserve and utter himself in half-sentences, never expressing himself clearly on any subject, so that his hearers in their doubt and darkness should question him and insist on his being more explicit.” “What will Russia do?,” he often wonders aloud, to the perplexity of his listeners.

Gabriel is a Huck Finn-like character who maintains a healthy dose of skepticism about all he sees around him. Gabriel observes of the nobility at one point, “For my part, these typical specimens of human vanity have always been a delight to me as being beyond dispute those who amuse and teach us most.” One hears the voice of Galdós in these words. Though Lady Amarantha manages to lure him into acting as a spy, he wisens up before things get out of hand and lights out from the palace of El Escorial rather as Huck lit out from Widow Douglas’ house.

Galdós wraps up his story with a last bravura set-piece, in which the different love triangles come crashing together during a private performance of Othello–or rather, of Teodoro de la Calle’s translation of Othello, which was itself based on a French translation by Jean-François Ducis. And Gabriel manages to turn the tables on Lady Amarantha with a bit of dirty linen from her own past, allowing him to exit stage right with dignity intact and another boost up the ladder of success.

Overall, a fast and enjoyable tale–nothing too deep and certainly not a book that Galdós meant to be anything more than a historical entertainment, something like a precursor of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.

The Court of Charles IV was translated into English by Clara Bell (who also translated Ossip Schubin’s fine comedy, Our Own Set, another neglected gem) and published by W. S. Gottsberger in 1888. You can find electronic copies of this translation, full of usual OCR errors, on the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/details/courtcharlesiva00galdgoog.

Gems from the Internet Archives, courtesy of the University of Florida

From time to time, I go panning in the ever-widening stream of electronic texts in the Internet Archive. It takes a certain amount of strategy, as there are probably a hundred or a thousand more statistical reports (The Fats and Oils Situation for November 1945, anyone?), court reports, NASA test reports, government reports (e.g., Annual Report Of The Archaeological Survey Of India 1924-1925), and texts in languages I’ll never learn to read (警世通言(十三) might be terrific–what could I be missing?) for every book possibly worth considering.

Sometimes, though, I manage to stumble onto a vein of high-quality material. Today’s find was a collection of several hundred books from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s scanned and uploaded to the archive courtesy of the George A. Smathers Libraries of the University of Florida, with the help of Lyrasis and the Sloan Foundation. I’ve had to accept that I will never manage to read everything I’ve discovered so far, let alone what remains to be found, so I can only offer the following as possibilities for others to try:

Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand (1954)

Now this one I actually own and have sampled from. It’s a collection of short stories and non-fiction articles Marquand published after becoming a professional writer in the 1920s. For me, the most interesting material can be found in the middle section, “The Wars: Men and Places,” which contains both stories and articles drawing on Marquand’s experiences of serving in the Army during World War One and of traveling as a reporter to the Pacific theater during World War Two. The Smathers Libraries have also uploaded Marquand’s Melville Goodwin, U. S. A. and H. M. Pulham, Esq.–the latter, in my opinion, his best novel.

More in Sorrow, by Wolcott Gibbs (1958)

Another collection, this one from a contemporary of Marquand’s. Gibbs was a member of the New Yorker staff for thirty years, contributing more words to the magazine than any other writer during that time. As Thomas Vinciguerra, who edited Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker put it in an article for the Weekly Standard, Gibbs “turned out trenchant fact pieces, cutting yet perceptive criticism, finely wrought short stories, and hilarious vignettes.” More in Sorrow opens with his most famous piece, “Time … Fortune … Life … Luce,” which appeared in 1936 and parodied the awkward prose style favored in Henry Luce’s magazines. Vinciguerra took his title from the line, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which appears in the piece.

Touch of Nutmeg, and More Unlikely Stories, by John Collier (1943)

Collier keeps being rediscovered every twenty years or so. His stories combine horror, black comedy, and pure eccentricity in a way that no one, aside from Roald Dahl, has managed to equal. Many of these stories can be found in Fancies and Goodnights, which was reissued as a New York Review Classic, with an introduction by the late Ray Bradbury, back in 2003. If you’re debating buying that volume, I encourage you to try this free sampler. I warn you, though: it’s like taking just one potato chip.

The Boat, by L. P. Hartley

Hartley is sometimes described as Henry James’ closest successor–a writer of fine-grained and subtle psychological observations. His Eustace and Hilda trilogy goes in and out of print–and is back now, again thanks to the New York Review Classics. But The Boat, which deals with the experiences of an English writer forced by the outbreak of World War Two to return to rural England after years of living in Venice, was his personal favorite. One critic has called it “the nearest thing to a great novel I can discern in the post-war years.”

The Big Laugh, by John O’Hara

This was O’Hara’s big Hollywood novel, and, as with any of his novels, a big step down from his stories. It’s too long, too loud, and too melodramatic–but you can also count of plenty of great dialogue (O’Hara is one of the great dialogue writers of all time). This was good enough to be one of the last books reissued by Ecco Press before they were taken over by Harper Collins in 1999, so it can’t be all bad.

Get away from me with those Christmas gifts, and other reactions, by Sylvia Wright

From a quick glance, this collection of satiric pieces from the mid-1950s looks a bit like Erma Bombeck channelling Dorothy Parker. Kirkus Reviews described it as, “salty and astringent observations on Life’s little lunacies.” For soccer moms with a taste for dry martinis, perhaps.

Eye in the Sky, by Louis Grudin

A readable collection of pieces combining prose and poetry, recounting the life of Manhattan in the course of a winter somewhere in the 1950s. Looks pretty interesting if, like me, you’re a fan of New York books. Grudin’s style is lively and spiced with street chatter, as in this, from “Another Beggar,” where a man recalls running into a street character he can’t stand:

On Broadway in the forties, all dressed up like Monsieur in a temps perdu. Was he cherchezing on that honkytonk street, that island of ginmills for the sailor boys? What was he doing there when he popped out of the darkness as Myrtle and I turned into the wind, hurrying from the show? Still following me! (as we edged away and walked on) and hurled that parting insult.

The Armchair Esquire, Esquire’s First Sports Reader, and Esquire’s Second Sports Reader

Three anthologies taken from the pages of Esquire, which in its day was a bit like Playboy without the photo spreads–the magazine for the midcentury metrosexual. The first is a best-of sampler from the 1930s through the 1950s; the second is a collection of non-fiction sports articles; and the third a collection of short stories on sporting themes. Lots of well-known names such as James T. Farrell, Steinbeck, Bellow, Waugh, Algren. The first includes Arthur Miller’s story, “The Misfits,” which was later made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable that is probably better remembered for its making than its merits.

A Name for Evil, The Velvet Horn, and A Novel, A Novella and Four Stories, by Andrew Lytle

Lytle was one of the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers that included Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. They fought against the prevailing prejudices that stereotyped the South as a place of backwardness and cultural stagnation. The Velvet Horn was nominated for the National Book Award in 1957 and is considered his best novel. It’s out of print now, even though several others he wrote are still available in J. S. Sanders’ Southern Classic Series.

The Sin of the Prophet, by Truman Nelson

According to the Kirkus Review, this novel is, “A handsomely panoplied, fictionalized reconstruction of one of the most sensational fugitive slave trials in which the Massachusetts Abolitionists were involved before the Civil War, and a full-blooded, shade-more-than-life-size portrait of the thunderous Boston clergyman, Theodore Parker.” Nelson was a life-long liberal advocate whose books often dealt with the issue of race in American history. A later novel, The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, was reissued a few years ago by Haymarket Press.

The Fly and the Fly-Bottle, by Ved Mehta (1962)

A collection of pieces–also from a long-time New Yorker contributor–about contemporary (as in 1962) British intellectuals. I must confess that I read this years ago, when I was on a Wittgenstein streak inspired by Ray Monk’s superb biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. (I must digress for a moment to quote a line from Monk’s book that I often think sums up my own predicament. Discussing an acquaintance named Barry Pink, Wittgenstein remarked, “Pink wants to sit on six stools at one, but he only has one arse”). The Fly and the Fly-Bottle takes its title from a statement in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “What is your aim in Philosophy?” “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” I found the book–as well as a succeeding collection, The New Theologian (1965), fascinating, but I suspect it may sit in a disrespected no-man’s land–neither a work of philosopher nor a purely entertaining collection of profiles. But if you’re the type who enjoys TED talks, I’d give it a try.

Hour, by Bernard de Voto

This short book, a light-hearted review of the place of alcohol in American history and in any civilized life, was recently reissued with an added subtitle as The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto with a preface by Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket).

Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay

Cover of 1968 reissue of "Personal Pleasures"
Forty-some years before Ian Dury recorded his shopping-list song, “Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3,”, listing fifty-some sources of everyday delights–from “some of Buddy Holly” to “saying ‘Okey-dokey'”–Rose Macaulay came up with her own list. Roughly equal in number, but a little longer (well, at 395 pages, quite a bit longer) in explication, Personal Pleasures is, like Dury’s tune, a wonderful reason to be cheerful on its own.

Just a glance at the table of contents will prove it: “Arm-Chair” is the third entry, followed two later by “Bakery in the Night,” and two more by “Bed,” which is further broken down into “1. Getting into it” and “2. Not getting out of it.”

Now this is a woman who had her priorities straight.

“The great and recurrent question about Abroad is, is it worth the trouble of getting there?” she observes at the start of the first piece in the book. “Do tickets, passports, money, traveller’s cheques, packing, reservations, boat trains, inns, crouch and snarl before you like those surly dragons that guard enchanted lands?” To which today’s traveler can add, “Security checks, airline seats, airline food, and featherweight plastic cups instead of proper glasses in the hotel bathroom.”

Dame (Emilie) Rose Macaulay, copy by Elliott & Fry,  - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, LondonOf course, Macaulay answers. All it take, she–a fine product of a Victorian childhood–advises, is “A little firmness, a nice mingling of industry, negligence and guile.”

Some of the pleasures are very much of a particular time and place. “Candlemas” and “Turtles in Hyde Park” may be a bit too dated to register with today’s readers. And will anyone ever again list “Flying” as a pleasure? Well, to be fair, Macaulay’s flying was as the passenger in a Klemm two-seater, helmeted and goggled against the elements in an open cockpit, which is something few of us will have a chance to experience but most would agree would have been a thrill. “Driving a Car” was also more of an adventure in the days before freeways and traffic lights.

Most of her choices, however, are timeless. If there comes a day when there is nothing to enjoy about “Eating and Drinking,” “Hot Bath,” “Listening In,” or”Taking Umbrage,” then I suspect it’ll be because books like Personal Pleasures are being hauled off the shelves and tossed onto bonfires again.

One could almost argue that Personal Pleasures is almost a textbook on how to enjoy life. Who knew that “Departure of Visitors” hid within itself a little goldmine of delight?

The easy chair spreads wide arms of welcome; the sofa stretches, guest-free; the books gleam, brown and golden, buff and blue and maroon, from their shelves; they may strew the floor, the chairs, the couch, once more, lying ready to the hand. “I am afraid the room is rather littered….” The echo of the foolish words lingers on the air, is brushed away, dies forgotten, the air closes behind it. A heavy volume is heaved from its shelf to the sofa. Silence drops like falling blossoms over the recovered kingdom from which pretenders have taken their leave.

Personal Pleasures has been in and out of print several times over the decades. It is currently out of print, but Bloomsbury Publishing will be releasing a Kindle edition this month. And it’s certainly one book worth having just the touch of a button away, as you’re more likely to dip into it from time to time than to read it straight from cover to cover–which would be a bit like eating nothing but cake for a week.

And as a good child of Victoria, Macaulay is quick to caution that all pleasures exist only when there is something against which they can be measured:

But how true it is that every pleasure has also its reverse side, in brief, its pain. Or, if not wholly true, how nearly so. Therefore, I have added to most of my pleasures the little flavour of bitterness, the flaw in their perfection, the canker in the damask, the worm at the root, the fear of loss, or of satiety, the fearful risks involved in their very existence, which tang their sweetness, and mind us of their mortality and of our own, and that nothing in this world is perfect.

Or, to paraphrase Mary Poppins: a spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down.

Macaulay wrote most of these essays as she was assembling The Minor Pleasures of Life, a compilation of poems, essays, and assorted bits of prose by other writers on many of the same pleasures and more. Quite a bit more, in fact, over 300 pages more. Most of the pieces are less than a page long, which makes Minor Pleasures a perfect bathroom book, if such things have any appeal for you. And no matter where you happen to keep your copy, it’s nice to know you can dip into it and find little gems like Henry More’s remarks on the pleasure of having “A Coach to One’s Self”:

I hired a whole Coache to my selfe which cost me, but it was the best bestowed money . . . that ever I layd out, for the ayre being cool and fresh, and the coach to be opened before as well as on the sydes, I quaff’ d off whole coachfulls of fresh ayr, without the pollution or the interruption of the talk of any person.

And, if you prefer the electronic version, you can find Minor Pleasures available for free downloading at the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/minorpleasuresof029963mbp.


Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay
London: The Macmillan Company, 1936

A Sunset Touch, by Moira Pearce

Cover of US paperback edition of 'A Sunset Touch'I found A Sunset Touch in the Internet Archive, which is interesting, as the book was published in 1960 by Scribner’s, so you’d think its copyright would have been renewed. A cursory check of the online U. S. copyright catalog failed to locate any registrations for Moira Pearce or this book in particular, however, so it seems legit. It’s one of dozens entered into the archive from the collections of Osmania University in Hyderabad, India. These include titles such as Sinclair Lewis’s late novel, Cass Timberlane and John Hersey’s 1960 novel, The Child Buyer that certainly are still under copyright.

In any case, legal or not, here is a perfect example of a forgotten book. A Sunset Touch was published by a major mainstream house, earned favorable, if not exceptional, reviews in Kirkus Reviews and a few other national publications, and was reissued as a mass market paperback. Now, the paperback publisher, Macfadden Books, has also since become forgotten, but at the time it was putting out best sellers such as Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Pearce published one other novel, Upstairs at the Bull Run, in 1971. Kirkus placed this book “in Josephine Lawrence country” (no doubt comparing it to Remember When We Had a Doorman?) and was equally positive in its assessment. But her second book earned no paperback release and appears to have marked the end of her publishing career. Since then, if anyone took any note of her work in print, I’ve been unable to find it.

I probably wouldn’t have given A Sunset Touch a second look had the book’s first paragraph not seemed too likeable and eccentric to pass up:

The church in Leicester wasn’t an old one, having been built in the 1920s after the original had burnt down. Designed by an architect who soon afterwards turned to farming, it was constructed inexpensively out of the local stone, which, happening to be marble, lent it a certain dignity. Neither inside nor outside had it much beauty or grace. On this breathless July day the presence in a coffin of Medusa Nash gave the church a certain interest macabre perhaps it didn’t otherwise have.

Medusa’s friends note the contrast between the body in the open casket and the woman they had known, the result of the handiwork of Mrs. Greef, the undertaker’s wife and self-taught beautician:

…[T]he thick, wildly curling hair that was responsible for her name and that Medusa during her lifetime had seldom, if ever, submitted to a hairdresser, preferring the more individual look she achieved herself with a pair of nail scissors, this hair was now pressed flat to her skull and set with an iron in
tight, formal waves. She had been vain of her long eyelashes and customarily coated them heavily with mascara, outlining the lids with black pencil, but since the idea of eye makeup had never impinged on Mrs, Greeff’s consciousness Medusa’s face now appeared for the first and last time in public without it.

In the course of Medusa’s service and funeral, we are introduced to most of the major characters in the book. They are a mix of wealthy and middle-class–but all middle-aged–residents of an area of rural Massachussetts popular with weekend visitors and escapees from Boston. Together, they indulge in a heavy amount of drinking, a moderate amount of commentary on the local yokels, and an occasional venture into adultery.

In the course of two hundred-some pages, not much really happens. There is a weak attempt at an affair, and several attempts by Medusa’s sister-in-law to dump her brother, the surviving spouse and a partially-disabled stroke victim, on one of the group. And there are several parties where the idiosyncracies of the various friends are displayed:

Cora, though she loved all her dogs passionately, did not believe in ruining their figures by providing them with more than one sketchy meal a day, that is, if someone remembered to set it out. Aristocratically lean in the haunches they would sit at your feet and watch you gloomily as you ate canapes. Occasionally,
summoning up a burst of energy, one would slap a grimy paw onto your knee and pant up at you in a desperate plea for a handout before lapsing back into its anemia-induced torpor.

In one way or another, most of them spend some time contemplating what lies ahead on their lives’ downhill slopes. Throughout the book, there is a grim, grey backdrop to its otherwise lightly comic tone:

Where another woman might call on the vet for assistance in putting down the excess animal population, she took matters into her own hands. “After all,” she’d tell you briskly in her flute-like accents, “animals have no souls, what is the use of getting sentimental about them?” Also, the vet, with his fancy gas chambers and humanitarian injections, ran into money. So every so often Cora got out a certain sack,
filled it with puppies or kittens and descended, cheerfully humming a hymn tune, to finish them off in the brook below the house.

In the end, no one is much changed or much the wiser, and the story just sort of fades out.

So is this a justly or unjustly neglected book? I guess it depends on whether one decides based on literary merit or reading pleasure. On the first criterion, A Sunset Touch is certainly no milestone in the development of the novel. Aside from a certain post-Peyton Place relaxation of morals, it could have been written twenty or thirty years earlier. There are no stylistic risks taken and the omniscient narrator’s perspective is essentially the same as that taken by Tolstoy a hundred years earlier. And the book is weak from a structural standpoint, as Pearce constructs a promising opening around Medusa’s funeral and then dissipates its potential in following the various characters down a series of paths that lead nowhere in particular.

On the basis of reading pleasure, however, A Sunset Touch represents about four hours’ worth of intelligent, amusing observations of people and all their minor flaws and foibles. On the comic spectrum, it sits to the right of Wodehouse and to the left of Jane Austen–not quite ridiculous, not quite elegant. And perhaps its moderation is the reason A Sunset Touch has been forgotten.

After all, the economics of book-buying and book-reading hinge on perceptions of relative value. It’s rarely a question of, “To read or not to read?” Instead, it’s a question of “Do I read this or do I read that?” And mildly amusing and mildly thought-provoking books are just too easy to pass over. Moira Pearce had no prior work on which to base a reputation, as as the paperback cover above demonstrates, even her publishers didn’t know how to pitch this book. Had she written it thirty years before, she might have at least gained the critical support that the Saturday Review and other journals put behind the works of Humphrey Pakington (who?)–another writer of mildly comic novels I plan to feature sometime soon.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, then you’ve probably had enough of a taste of A Sunset Touch to make your own relative judgment. For my part, I can say that I enjoyed finding out just what kind of a book it was, and I will be happy to pick up a copy of Upstairs at the Bull Run if I ever stumble across one. On the other hand, I won’t just go right to Amazon and order it, as I have a great stack of other books that appear to have equal or higher relative value. But I’m sure that I’m not the only one who won’t regret setting aside a few hours to discover this fine but forgotten book.


A Sunset Touch, by Moira Pearce

New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960