I will admit guilt for committing an occasional theft. Once in a while, I find a book that cries out, “Please take me home with you.” These are always, naturally, neglected books. I usually find them in hotels or vacation rentals, in those little libraries of books that previous guests have left behind–perhaps in hopes that someone else would find them interesting, perhaps simply because they weren’t interesting enough to be worth carrying home.
The scene of my last crime was a small hotel in Luxembourg, a pretty forgettable place where I stayed one night while on a business trip. Taking up part of the landing on the staircase up to the rooms was a tall, narrow bookcase with a mix of French, German, and Dutch paperbacks–Dan Brown, John Grisham, and their Euro counterparts. But one book was definitely not new, not a bestseller, and in English. It was a thick, old (1955), and somewhat unusually-sized paperback (halfway between a pocket book and a trade paperback): The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles. Although clearly in English, the book’s publisher, Panther Books, had an address in Leipzig, which was in the German Democratic Republic at the time. Other Panther titles listed inside the back cover included English classics such as Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter, but also a few I didn’t recognize: The Volunteers, by Steve Nelson, and Goldsborough, by Stefan Heym. Nelson turned out to have been an activist, volunteer in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and member of the American Communist Party. Heym was a German writer who emigrated to the U.S. to escape Hitler, fought for the Allies during the war, wrote and organized for left causes after the war, and moved to East Germany in the early 1950s.
A little more digging confirmed that Panther Books mutated into Seven Seas Books, which was run by Heym’s American wife, Gertrude Gelbin, and continued to publish English-language books, mostly novels and mostly on leftist subjects by such writers as Ring Lardner, Jr., Alvah Bessie, and Dorothy Hewett, as well as many of Heym’s own books and those of fellow East German writers such as Anna Seghers and Christa Wolf.
I had, of course, slipped the book into my duffel bag before checking this aspect of the book’s back story, and I started to read at home the next evening. Giles takes her title from a line from Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes: “Let the gentle bush dig its root deep and spread upward to split one boulder.” Her story is set in bayou Louisiana at the turn of the 20th century, among the many members of the Durels, a family in slow decline from the grand beginnings made by their grandfather, who established a large plantation before the Civil War.
The only Durel still thriving financially is Agricole, who is looked down upon by his kinsmen: “Everyone knew that Agricole’s father, the first Agricole, had not married cette femme in New Orleans until his son was at least ten years old.” This doesn’t prevent Agricole (junior) from attempting to insinuate himself (and his three children) back in the family’s good grades. And from that point forward, the story is one big race to decay: will the poor but upright Durels decline into penury before wealthy Agricole (junior) loses his last shred of decency in his pursuit of filthy lucre?
I can’t say that I stuck with the story. I quickly lost track of Durels, what with Tante Abelle, Michel, Nicole, Auguste, Alcee, Amelie, Leonie, Lizette, and a good dozen more, along with the many other characters in the neighborhood of Bayou Teche. The 500-plus dense pages of The Gentle Bush require more commitment that I had in me.
And Giles was looking for readers with commitment. A frequent contributor to The New Masses, she seems to have taken her inspiration from a odd duo: Karl Marx and Taylor Caldwell. Particularly Caldwell’s saga about a family of American arms manufacturers, The Dynasty of Death, The Eagles Gather, and The Final Hour. She captures the energy of a successful entrepreneur but favors the poor but honest and down-trodden, the working whites and serving blacks, who seem to shine with a uniformly stalwart glow. Even as evil triumphs, we know that ultimately the workers of the world will unite and seize control of the means of production, or something like that.
The Gentle Bush was generally well-received when it was first published–by a mainstream publisher, Harcourt, Brace and Company–in 1947. The chill winds of the Red Scare were picking up, but it was still possible for activist writers such as Giles, Alexander Saxton, and Cedric Belfrage to get published by the big firms. A year later, The New Masses closed its doors. Giles continued to maintain her Communist Party membership even after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, only leaving in the mid-1960s when she felt it had become irrelevant. Giles never published another book.
The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947
A few weeks after my post on Anne Goodwin Winslow’s 1949 novel, The Springs, I came across the following, from American Panorama (1957), edited by Eric Larrabee, a collection of essays on the 350 books chosen by the Carnegie Corporation as “most descriptive of life in the U.S.A.”:
Mrs. Winslow’s reputation as a novelist is based on an exquisite specialization. She writes about the Southern gentry at the turn of the present century. This might well prove trivial or suffocating if it were not for the author’s astonishing power to make life pulse vigorously in the constricted places, situations, and people that she chooses. Her outlook is perhaps best expressed in the contrast between the title of one of her other novels—— A Quiet Neighborhood (1947)——and the violent events, the passions leading to murder, which inform the work.
Mrs. Winslow belongs to no school, for although some of her perceptions are akin to William Faulkner’s and her technique is in the tradition of William Dean Howells, her temperament, style, and biography set her in a world apart. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, which is to say a “border state” in the great North-and-South struggle of the past century, Mrs. Winslow married a Northern army engineer and spent many years in New England and abroad. She has returned to live in her home state and it is the distillation of her childhood memories through her traveled mind—emotions recollected in tranquillity — that she gives us in her novels and tales.
The Springs is a study of character which by its subdued atmosphere makes one think of Henry James’s The Europeans. But the “culture” in which the characters evolve is markedly different, as is the fact that Mrs. Winslow’s interest in household detail lends a peculiar vividness, almost a pathos, to the scene. It is as if, suddenly transplanted to those quiet old days we sometimes long for, we discovered their slow terror, which not even conventional happiness could allay.
Barzun’s last sentence captures the unique quality of Winslow’s writing that I probably haven’t done justice to: it’s delicate, subtle, and somewhat nostalgic, but there is an underlying potential for same anger, pain, and violence that percolates much closer to the surface in Faulkner. And if we had forgotten that this potential is apparently an ineluctable element of the American character, the events of the last year have done much to remind us.
To mark the last day of what has been an ugly and troubling election campaign, let me note a fine neglected book about the toxic cocktail that results when you mix family dynamics, political ambition, and relentless media coverage: Janet Burroway’s 1969 novel, The Buzzards.
The Buzzards centers on Arizona Republican senator Alex Cofer, running for President and finding it forcing him to make uncomfortable choices between his ambition and his family.
It shouldn’t take much to guess which wins out in the end.
Cofer is, at the start, a relatively decent if clueless man, safely conservative but not unpalatably rabid, with stereotypical politician’s good looks — silver hair, blue eyes, chiseled features. His wife, Claudia, is already bitter from years of his neglect. Their elder daughter is a frustrated housewife finding her life being drained away by the demands of three kids. Orin, their son, has given up on America and take refuge in Paris. Only Evie, a teenager with all-American girl good looks — isn’t loaded down with psychological baggage, and even Evie becomes a bit of a problem when she acquires a boyfriend who’s a little … well, brown.
And as the campaign progresses, Alex finds himself becoming more strident in his statements and positions, just to put himself in contrast to his more liberal opponent: “Every man who takes an oath of office in this country, implicitly declares himself ready to use force as he deems it necessary for the preservation of a peaceful and lawful union. He declares himself ready to place in jeopardy the lives of those nearest to him in spirit….”
You can imagine how well the family bonds bear up when doused with the battery acid of months of campaigning and media coverage. Raised in Arizona, it’s not surprising that more than one of the Cofers compares the press to a flock of buzzards, constantly circling, waiting to dive down and feast on the victims.
I’ve read that The Buzzards was a finalist for the 1970 Pulitzer, but can’t confirm from the Pulitzer site. Though an interesting read in any election year and full of points ready-made to make one reflect on today’s equivalents, I found it awfully full of fictional devices for the sake of … well, because Burroway could. Multiple narrators, stump speeches, a diary, stream-of-consciousness, news reports — ample evidence that she was well qualified to write the book she’s best known for, the standard of college courses everywhere: Writing Fiction. Still, if you feel the need to remind yourself of the soul-grinding spectacle of the last umpteen months in American politics, you can do far worse than to pick up a copy of The Buzzards.
The Buzzards, by Janet Burroway Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown, 1969
Whenever I think about Anne Goodwin Winslow, I tend to pair her up with Isa Glenn (whose work was discussed in my interview with Veronica Makowsky). They were both true Southern belles, daughters of wealthy and powerful men, who married Army officers, followed them to exotic assignments, and then, as widows, turned to writing (for a few years) and then faded into obscurity.
Whatever the similarity in their lives, however, their approaches to writing were strikingly different. Glenn, who settled in Manhattan after her husband’s death and started publishing in the 1920s, was usually satirical and looked back upon the South in which she grew up without an ounce of nostalgia. Winslow, on the other hand, retired to her family home, Goodwinslow, outside Memphis and portrayed the South in light strokes and subtle tones. This is not to suggest that she saw her past as a better time — simply that she was a sketcher, while Glenn was an etcher.
Winslow’s delicacy of style may be her greatest handicap in appealing with today’s reader. As I wrote in my post on her final novel, It Was Like This (1949), “Winslow spent most of her time paring away her prose, taking away inessential details, replacing the direct with the indirect, until what was left was timeless in its simplicity and perfection.” It seems like so little happens in her books that it’s easy to miss what does.
Not that there isn’t drama in her third, and best-regarded, novel, The Springs. A jealous husband arrives one night and murders the handsome local boy with whom his wife has become infatuated, leaving the body lying beside the springs of the title and calmly walked away, knowing his money and influence would keep him from any punishment. From the moment Mr. Dupree had arrived from New Orleans to deposit his wife and children at the hotel, people had smelled trouble. Stocky and arrogant, his capacity for violence was palpable, and Mrs. Dupree was quickly seen to be a stupid and foolish woman unable to admit her age.
But what I’ve just written is crude and obvious compared to how Winslow tells the story. And it isn’t even the central story in The Springs. In fact, I somewhat suspect that Winslow included the Dupree’s re-enactment of Othello to enhance the contrast between the coarse lines of their drama and the almost imperceptible filaments of the triangle that forms around Alice, the seventeen year-old girl through whose memory the story is filtered.
Mr. Mason, a man from Charleston, South Carolina sent to work in Memphis in the cotton business, falls for Alice at first sight. But though he spends hours walking and talking with her, often telling her of his family’s once-grand plantation, he feels himself encumbered by a commitment to help restore his parents to their former status in Charleston society. When Mason introduces Alice to Brian Howard, a rich and handsome young Englishman (“They really do seem to be surprisingly like they are in the books they write about themselves,” he observes), he consciously puts Brian forward as a more suitable candidate for her hand.
Though Alice seems oblivious to the maneuver, when Brian falls for her and returns the next year with his family’s approval, she accepts his proposal. Mason has gracefully exited stage right, and when he comes back later, she is somewhat perplexed, feeling that it was Mason who had failed her. To her, Mason is the poetic soul and Brian just the rugged outdoorsman, best seen with shotgun in hand and brace of pheasants hanging from his belt. The fine, the beautiful, the romantic thing to do would be to flee with Mason to his doomed plantation by the sea.
But the real story Winslow is telling in The Springs is not about passion or romance but about perspective. The perspective than transforms experience into memory.
Once when they were going through the woods and the others had gone on ahead, she and Mr. Mason stopped under the tree where they used to spend so much time talking, and it made her feel a little strange. In spite of all you could do, and no matter how happy you were, things were always slipping. You never could hold on to them; you just had something else instead.
“It seems so long ago, doesn’t it?” she said.
He had taken off his hat and stood looking up into the tree, but now he looked at her. “How can it, when you’ve never been in any long ago? That’s a place you are never going with me. I’ve told you that.”
“Do you mean you can really hold on to things — in your mind — so that you don’t feel sad about them?”
“Maybe they hold on to me.”
“This place, for instance?”
“This place. But I have had you here with everything green around you. Stand over there and let me put the colors in. Without your hat.”
She stood quite still, helping him to get the picture he wanted to keep; then he let her go and they walked on.
“You mustn’t ever worry about the past, Miss Alice,” he said. “It hardly ever lets you down. As a rule we like it better and better as we go along, or we can keep working on it until we do.”
Mason sees Alice from the distance of a man twenty years her elder. Alice recalls this time from a distance of forty years and another continent. Winslow, who was 74 when The Springs was published, had the perspective of even greater distance, and was able to show — subtly — delicately — indirectly — how each separation from experience loses something in intensity but gains something in proportion.
Winslow never suggested it, but from a few bits of information, one can determine that there was a strongly autobiographical element to The Springs. The home where she grew up, Goodwinslow, butted up against the edge of Raleigh Springs, a resort that was set up in the late 1800s to take advantage of the supposed medicinal benefits of the local natural springs, somewhat of a Deep South competitor to the Greenbrier and Saratoga. Like the Springs in Goodwin’s novel, the Raleigh Inn eventually lost its prestige and was turned into a girls’ school. Winslow kept up Goodwinslow, however, dying there in 1959, and it remains one of the fine Southern mansions gracing the outskirts of Memphis.
The Springs, by Anne Goodwin Winslow New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949
In Modern Chivalry, Silver Fork novelist skewers an easy target, the idle man of sufficient status in Victorian society to live “the life of those the business of whose day is digestion.” In this case, the man is Frederick Howardson, sometimes known as Howardson of Greystoke (his family estate) or Howardson of Sentinel (a race horse he briefly owned). Gore tells us in her introduction that she set out to sketch a stereotype of a “Man of No Feelings,” a consumate egoist, and she succeeds superbly.
With tongue firmly in cheek, Gore tries to characterize Howardson’s efforts to remain exactly in the mean, comfortably set with an income sufficient to keep a house in town, a reputation sufficient to earn him a place in the right clubs, and no talent exceptional enough to arouse anyone’s jealousy as a constant and courageous struggle. She compares it to the struggle of Waterton, the naturalist, who “asserts that whenever he encountered an alligator tete-a-tete in the wilderness, he used to leap on its back and ride the beast to death.” “Just so are we situated with regard to the world,” she argues:
Either we must leap upon its back, strike our spur into its panting sides, and in spite of its scaly defences compel it to obey our glowing will, or the animal will mangle us with its ferocious jaws, and pursue its way towards its refuge in the cool waters, leaving us expiring in the dust. Either the world or the individual must obtain the upper hand.
At the start of the story, Howardson has mastered the alligator. “Everybody was glad when he came, — everybody was sorry when he went.” He had not “that inconvenient appendage, a confidential friend — otherwise, an intimate enemy, who becomes the depositary of your secrets for the good of the public.” Instead, he had so many friends that none of them had any claims upon his confidence and rarely did any of them entrust him with theirs. He enjoyed, as Gore puts it, that “smooth, level, unmeaning mediocrity [that] affords a wider and sublimer view of the distant horizon.”
He even has the good fortune to have a beautiful and gracious woman of good reputation, Lady Rachel Lawrence, whose company he can enjoy as he needs of an evening, located just next door. Indeed, “her chief attraction in his eyes consisted in being a next door neighbour, who relieved him from the trouble of getting rid of his leisure hours, and ordering out his cab in rainy weather.” Being married to a Lord well-rooted to his own estate, Lady Rachel has the further advantage of presenting no risk of matrimonial entanglements.
Because Howardson’s chief quandary is that of making the absolutely perfect match. Which means a woman of substantial fortune unencumbered by a meddlesome family; a woman of admirable beauty and sophistication but not so much as to compete with him in social circles; a woman who will dote upon him whenever he needs tea and sympathy yet leave him alone for the many hours he would prefer to spend by himself or at the club; a woman of purest virtue yet sufficiently refined to ride with the changing waves of social mores. Each woman he considers has something not quite perfect about her, and so he moves on to another. In other words, he’s caught in the same dilemma as the man in Seinfeld’s “Gas — Food — Lodging” joke:
I think that for some reason when a man is driving down that freeway of love, the woman he’s with is like an exit, but he doesn’t want to get off there. He wants to keep driving. And the woman is like, “Look, gas, food, lodging, that’s our exit, that’s everything we need to be happy… Get off here, now!” But the man is focusing on sign underneath that says, “Next exit 27 miles,” and he thinks, “I can make it.”
In Howardson’s case, he ends up driving past all the exits and winds up in a sad old hotel in Paris, with “grey hair and crowsfeet within, as without; and his soul was bald with a baldness that set Macassar oil at defiance.”
Modern Chivalry is as insubstantial and irresistable as a potato chip. Howardson is one of the great egoists, a precursor of George Meredith’s The Egoist and a whole lot more fun. By the way, Modern Chivalry is attributed in American editions to William Harrison Ainsworth, but the “CFG” credited in the original English edition is most definitely Catherine F. Gore.
Modern Chivalry; or A New Orlando Furioso, by Mrs. Catherine Gore London: John Mortimer, 1843
A few months ago, Kate Macdonald, Visiting Fellow at the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading, and I had a long dialogue on the subject of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which both of us had — coincidentally — just read and written about. That pleasant experience led to suggestions of other books to read and discuss, and we settled on Clemence Dane’s Broome Stages a 700-page saga that follows a family of English actors from the mid-18th century to the 1920s. I’d read very enthusiastic reviews several years ago and thought it might be a long, rich, and entertaining read.
Kate: When you suggested this novel I was keen because I enjoy reading novels about the theatre, and have long had Clemence Dane on my radar as an author I ought to know more about. I hadn’t realised that she wrote novels as well as plays (over 30 plays and 16 novels, and the Wikipedia entry suggests that she was also a painter and a sculptor). Now that I’ve read this novel (which is more like three or four), I’d rate her at the same level as J. B. Priestley: highly competent, excellent with character and dialogue, but not convincing as a literary stylist. She is a quintessential English middlebrow author, I think, but (in this novel) doesn’t give more than an absorbing family saga with lots of domestic drama. She’s vague about historical detail (especially shaky in the early, Regency part), but I think that’s because she’s writing as a playwright. All her characters are actors and her sets are stage sets. So much dialogue, and characters that draw the audience’s attention by being outrageous, or by saying arresting things. I found almost all them objectionable: selfish, obsessive, unkind, bullying and unreasonable, which is probably what makes them good dramatic subjects.
Brad: I’d have to concur with your assessment. Let’s face it, this novel is an order of magnitude lower than Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which we last discussed.
I was primarily interested in reading it because the reviews (both UK and US) when Broome Stages first came out were gushingly enthusiastic: “No lover of good fiction or of the theatre can afford to leave Broome Stages unread,” and that sort of thing. The Saturday Review (US) reprinted a long excerpt from it and the universal assessment seemed to be that it was a big, rich book studded with memorable characters large and small, and irresistibly readable. Personally, I found it all too resistable to read, at least in the first third or so.
In those early chapters, Dane uses a rather arch style that attempts, I guess, to mimic the tone of a Fielding but comes off (now, at least) stale and irritating. And I found it quite difficult to form a sustainable sense of many of the main characters. A sum of mannerisms and vices usually isn’t enough to turn a character from a name to a persona. The style, at least, grows a little more limpid as the story nears (Dane’s) present day, but the characters–well, I would certainly fail if you gave me a test of matching Broome names with their respective generations and actions now, a month-plus after reading it.
It did pick up momentum–a bit–but I felt that Dane didn’t some much end the story as stop it: as if she just ran out of ideas. There was one intriguing element toward the end. There is a fairly pointed hint at one point that youngest of the last Broome generation, John, is engaged in homosexual relationships at boarding school and then another, even more obvious, that he has a male partner–which his mother simple takes in stride, happy that her son is happy. Dane herself was gay and involved in a long-term relationship with a writer of children’s books, Olwen Bowen, so it might have been a way of asserting as normal and unexceptional something that was, at the time, considered acceptable only if covert.
Priestley is a good comparison. I thought of a huge best-seller in America around the same time–Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse, which was a 1,000-plus page historical novel intended to invoke the spirit of Sir Walter Scott and maybe even Tolstoy, but which is now considered more as a curiosity than a work of any serious literary merit. Such doorstop wonders seem to pop up every generation.
Kate: Looking at my notes I see that from the last generation of the Broomes it’s Richard who is gay, Henry dies in the war, Gerry is a lazy waster, and John is a mercurial playwright destined for greatness and to be the next Broome of the stage. But I need the notes to remember, you’re right about the personalitiesthemselves being forgettable. Hilaret, Lettice, Elinor, and Domina are the only named women characters I can recall. There was also Lionel’s illegitimate daughter who married into a Viennese Jewish family in the 1880s (very G. B. Stern, that), went to Brazil and brought forth another daughter who ended up in England to help Elinor elope scandalously with Lewis. Dane could absolutely create dramatic and entertaining storylines, but I agree, character definition was not her strong point.
Considering (now that you mention it) that Dane was herself gay, and presumably interested in women and their relationships, its odd that she create hordes of male characters, but only five women across three centuries of Broome breeding. They are all dominant, but stand out like illustrations of ‘the female condition in this century’ rather than working participants in the plot.
The staginess of the novel is quite attractive. I can visualise it working as a film or a TV series in the style of Dallas or Dynasty, endless sweepings on and off in big hats after huge rows and passionate arguments between men and women, and men who don’t behave as men are supposed to behave. The characters’ obsession with the continuance of the Broome legacy is typical of that genre. And, of course, after writing that I go to IMDB to check, and yes! It was made as a TV mini-series in 1966, starring many actors who don’t now have photographs by their names so they’re no longer working, or remembered. Only one series, though, and no pictures from it floating around on Google.
Brad: I think you hit the nail on the head: the staginess of this novel of the stage may weaken its merit as a work of literature but make it perfect material for adaptation to the screen. There have been plenty of great movies made from bad novels and bad movies made from great novels. And just think how a good screenwriter and a cast of expert scenery-chewing actors could turn the nastiness of many of the Broome characters into delicious viewing. Some of the best television of the last 10-15 years has been based on the ability to seduce viewers into sympathizing with some very bad people (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Francis Urquhart/Underwood). And 1966 is fifty years ago–more than enough time to justify a remake.
Shall we contact the BBC? Surely pitching a concept to some show-biz types is on one of our bucket lists.
Kate: The 1966 miniseries began with the Lewis Whybrow elopement and used up the remainder of the novel, which I think was wise. I can’t think of a TV series that crosses so many historical periods as this book does. The Pallisers, The Forsyte Saga, The Onedin Line, Poldark, all the British TV series of the 1970s that my mum was addicted to, and I took one look at, uncomprehending: they’re intense family sagas set in a discrete period, following the life of one individual and perhaps of their offspring as well. Perhaps that’s why Broome Stages is ultimately disappointing. Dane isn’t interested in people, she’s interested in creating a sweep of history, the rise and fall of a dynasty over centuries rather than generations. She loses the human focus, which is why her characters are unsatisfying. They have their moments of concentrated attention at crisis points, but years and decades go by in the turning of a page, which isn’t how one tells a story about people’s daily struggles.
Brad: True: any adaptation would have to focus on one period, at least in the case of Broome Stages. There have been a few examples of series that were able to successfully span several different time frames, but they required more narrative ingenuity than was demonstrated by Dane. As others have pointed out, she structured the generations and personalities of Broome Stages on the Plantagenets–which might be helpful for a reader familiar with that slice of English history but was utterly useless to a colonial such as I. In fact, one could hold up Broome Stages as a good illustration of why writing a novel around an arbitrary structure will rarely produce a work of the same merit as one building upon a strong story or interesting characters.
Which pretty much exhausts what I have to say about Broome Stages. I was hoping for better, but I’m afraid I will have to place it into my “Justly Neglected” file.
Kate: I never realised until I started reading up on the book afterwards that the Plantagnets were her framework. So that worked well, obviously ….. as you say, an arbitrary structure with more than a touch of staginess to it. So, goodbye Broome Stages. If I come across any other Clemence Dane novels I’ll read ’em, but I’m not expecting wonders.
Broome Stages, by Clemence Dane London: Heinemann, 1931
I’ve had Catherine Gore on my list long before I started focusing on the works of women writers in the last two years. Gore was perhaps the most prolific authors of Regency and early Victorian era genre known as the silver fork or “fashionable” novel. As Tamara Wagner describes the silver fork novel on Victorianweb.org, “it was at once escapist in describing former elegance and glitter, anticipating the genre of the Regency Romance, and censorious in judging the frivolities and often supercilious emphasis on the aesthetic rather than the moral that characterised aristocratic high society.” At the time, these books sold like hot-cakes. By many estimates, one of the most representative silver fork novels, Bulwer-Lytton’sPelham , was the single biggest bestseller of 19th century England. They indulged the fascination of a large share of the British reading public with the details of what the rich wore and ate, of the interiors and exteriors of their city houses and country estates, and of their manners and affairs.
Although the “silver fork” label is usually applied to works from this period, some consider it a genre that’s never gone out of style. As recently as 2008, Diane Johnson opened a New York Times review of Alex Witchel’s novel, The Spare Wife by asking the question, “Is it a ‘silver fork’ novel?” Silver fork novels, she argued, were “a subgenre that has been around almost as long as novels themselves, affording the reader the double pleasures of following the lives of the aristocracy and scorning its mindless snobbery, triviality and malice.” They allow us to peek in on “a world most of us can only participate in vicariously.” In other words, the literary equivalent of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or Keeping Up with the Kardashians–or, what comedian Jim Gaffigan calls “McDonald’s of the soul”: “Momentary pleasure followed by incredible guilt eventually leading to cancer.”
But my theory was that somewhere in Catherine Gore’s 60-plus pile of silver fork trash there must be a pony. And so I’ve carried a half-dozen of her books, none of which are now in print (I refuse to include the crap that comes from Kessingers and other print on demand recyclers of public domain material), on my Kindle for a couple of years, waiting for an opportune time to dive in. That time came recently, on a long flight from Frankfurt to Seattle, and so I launched into Men of Capital (1846) with an open mind, leaving it up to Gore to win me over.
“Few will deny that the age we live in is the age of Money-worship,” she writes in her preface, clearly declaring the moral tone she would be taking. While she credits the spirit of capitalism “constitutes a fertile source of national greatness,” she also identifies as one of its most corrupting elements a practice dating back to the Middle Ages: “One of the chief causes which render this pursuit a bitterer as well as more pardonable struggle in England than on the Continent, is the unequal and capricious distribution of family property.” She’s referring to primogeniture, the automatic inheritance by the first son of the entire estate — leaving any succeeding children to fend for themselves on a small annual income or the charity of their elder brother.
In “Man of Capital,” the first of the two novels that comprise Men of Capital“>Men of Capital, Gore illustrates the effects — good and bad — of primogeniture on the younger sons. It opens by introducing us to Bartholomew (Barty) Brookes, a daredevil younger son. Though he follows his older brother to Eton, their paths diverge from that point on. Sir Robert Brookes goes on to Oxford and becomes master of Wrenhurst Park, their father having died when they were still boys. Barty learns early on “that a man must square his elbows who has to push his way through the crowd; while his elder understood the wisdom of standing still, that his way might be pushed for him.”
Barty secures a commission in a Guards regiment through a family connection but quickly discovers that in the high-spending world of hunts, balls, and card-games in London clubs, five hundred pounds a year doesn’t go very far. At this point, he meets Percy, a fellow younger son in his regiment. It is Percy who narrates the story, which soon becomes as much about him as about Barty. Barty is easily the most popular lieutenant around, charming his way into invitations to country house weekends while Percy remains in barracks, reading about nature and taking long walks in the countryside. Percy confesses — in a passage that only a woman could have written — that,
Men by themselves, and in numbers, are the greatest beasts on earth. Like trees, they require thinning out from the plantation, to acquire anything like dignity of proportion ; and it is only by associating with women that the higher qualities of their nature are developed. The earthly particles require too much preponderance when fed with nothing but cigars, brandy-and-water, and the unlicensed gossip of bachelorhood.
But the two share their misery as paupers in a unit full of lords and baronets. They also share secret passions for beautiful but poor young women: Barty for Emma, orphan ward of his guardian, Justinian Broadham, M. P., and Percy for Barty’s own sister, Harriet. The two sets of lovers pledge their respective troths to wait for a day when they can wed and live on in humble happiness. But when Barty learns that his brother has up and married Emma, something cracks within him, and he sets his aim on finding the quickest route to a fortune he can. When Juckeson, a millionaire from the spice trade, acquires a grand estate near the regiment’s garrison outside Windsor, Barty begins stalking Juckeson’s daughter, Sabina.
The true heart of the story, though, is less about Barty than about the narrator himself. Walking in the Windsor Forest one day, he meets Mr. Stanley, an elderly gentleman, as they shelter together from a sudden rainstorm. Stanley invites him home for dinner, where Percy meets the very beautiful (and much younger) Mrs. Stanley. He hears that his friend Barty has been a regular visitor, and eventually realizes that Stanley had been wandering about the forest in hopes of catching Barty en route to a rendezvous with Mrs. Stanley.
Mr. Stanley and Percy soon become close friends, but a few months later, while on leave, Percy reads a death notice for Mr. Stanley. When he returns to Windsor, he learns that Stanley died from despair. And when he sees Mrs. Stanley again, he realizes why. Mrs. Stanley is … well … with child.
Percy proves himself a good Christian and sticks with Mrs. Stanley through her difficulties, shielding from her the fact that her husband took his revenge upon her infidelity in his will, leaving her to become destitute upon the birth of the child. And twisted the knife by dictating that the child be taken from her and sent to a guardian in London. The bad things continue to snowball until both child and mother are dead and Percy is left to pick up the pieces.
The dramatic twists don’t end there, though. The last thirty pages of “The Man of Capital” is chock full of plot turns, and the story ends in a lovely but tragic scene as the wheels of Percy’s coach roll through his beloved Harriet’s village, crushing the flowers from her wedding into the dirt, as he moves on to a new life as a “Man of Capital” like his former friend, Barty.
The second novel, “Old Families and New,” is longer and less effective than its predecessor. Gore contrasts the haughty Squire Cromer, a man of old blood, with Mordaunt, a man of new wealth from his Manchester cotton mills and his shares in the regional railroad. Gore writes cynically of Cromer that,
Of modern improvements in rural economy he knew nothing, and took care not to improve his knowledge either by reading or observation; while, as to refurnishing or remodelling his house, nothing short of a fire would have driven him to so dire an extremity. It was an article of religion with him that every thing should remain in the state in which, at the marriage of his father, sixty years before, Cromer Hall had been fitted up in honour of the bride.
She also reaches back to an old plot warhorse, the romance between the children of two feuding families. Squire Cromer vehemently opposes his daughter’s marriage to Mordaunt’s son, declaring, “I would as soon have my blood mix with that of the hangman, as with that of a Manchester cotton-spinner.” Like “A Man of Capital,” the story ends with a wedding — but a happy one this time around. Which, of course, is why you know it’s a bit of a let-down after the juicy drama and hanky-wringing tragedy of “A Man of Capital.”
An anonymous reviewer, assessing one of Catherine Gore’s novels for the Westminster Review, once wrote, “We do not deny the smartness, and occasionally, the shrewdness, of Mrs. Gore’s views of manners and life, but still we are far from tracing even a remote resemblance between the labours of the two ladies. Miss Austin’s [sic] novels are histories of the human heart, and in the more occasional parts, wonderfully exact analyses of character and disposition: whereas, in Mrs. Gore’s books, we can see little more than a series of brilliant sketches, bordering occasionally on the caricature.” Which, as April Kendra put it, is a little like Lloyd Bentsen’s retort to Dan Quayle, “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
But honestly, isn’t any attempt to equate the work of two writers a bit of a slap in the face to one or both of them? Catherine Gore spent most of her life writing at a frantic pace to bring in enough cash to keep an unemployed husband and a house full of children (she bore ten, only two of whom survived to adulthood), so it’s not surprising that the average artistic quality level of her output might come in a few notches below Jane Austen’s. What should matter for a reader is whether the reading experience of a book proves worth the time invested. For me, “A Man of Capital” was more entertaining and more interesting than any movie Lufthansa had to offer, while “Old Families and New” tested my commitment to get through at least one of Catherine Gore’s books. “A Man of Capital” would make a terrific little show on BBC or Masterpiece Theatre. it moves, has a core cast of well-rounded characters, and plenty of plot twists to keep the momentum rolling. Its companion piece, “Old Families and New,” on the other hand, does come off a bit too stale and predictable to recommend to any but a Gore absolutist — and I suspect there aren’t any of them still walking the planet.
Men of Capital is available on the Internet Archive in the original 1846 three-volume edition (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol. 3) and in a one-volume edition from 1857 (link).
Men of Capital, by Catherine Gore London: Henry Colburn, 1846
“Joyce Elbert had just turned thirty and divorced her second husband when she wrote this astonishing first novel … a daring story of a single woman’s frantic search for love in a loose living, free-wheeling world,” blares the cover of the Bantam paperback original of A Martini on the Other Table. I think I’ve seen about three hundred copies of this and other Elbert novels (Crazy Ladies, Drunk in Madrid) in used bookstores and thrift shops over the years and never paid the slightest attention to it, but when I spotted it in a discard box a few months ago, I thought, “Well, I’m focusing on women writers this year — why not?”
Looking for something quick, light, and a little newer after devoting a month to Dorothy Richardson’s weighty (in both length and substance) Pilgrimage, I fished A Martini on the Other Table out on the stack of cheap paperbacks perched precariously in front of a double row of other cheap paperbacks crammed into one of the bookcases in the basement.
I am something of an eternal optimist when it comes to cheap paperbacks. Experience has shown me that there is always a possibility that some remarkable and hitherto neglected gem lies behind a cover cleverly disguised to look like all the other junk that sat in a revolving wire book rack in front of the cigarette stand or the drugstore check-out. A slim possibility, but then you don’t maintain a site like this unless you’re willing to trust in outliers.
A Martini on the Other Table proved to be neither gem nor junk. A lost classic it ain’t, but it was something of a satisfying nostalgia trip for a kid who remembers spying on cocktail parties as I crouched in the hallway in my Dr. Dentons. Set in New York City, it’s narrated by Judy, just separated from her husband, a novelist enjoying his first wave of critical acclaim, and making her way writing superficial pieces for women’s magazines. No longer starry-eyed about love or fame, she makes the rounds of parties and gallery openings, having decided to post her picture next to the definition of blasé in the dictionary. She drinks too much and finds herself in bed with strange men on a regular basis. I half expected one of them to be Don Draper.
Most of the book is taken up with a intricately woven tangle of relationships, as a struggling artist and his socialite girlfriend befriend, and then bed (in turn) Judy, as a wealthy gallery owner watches her husband fall for a good-looking would-be actor, as Judy herself falls for a director of “industrial films” who turns out to be married (but not any more — or is he? — or isn’t he?). It’s all very complicated and utterly uninteresting, since none of these characters is anything but a name, hair color, facial expression, and personality quirk.
How much of Judy’s story is based on Joyce Elbert’s is anyone’s guess. Elbert is quoted on the back cover as saying, “The greatest thing that happened to me was when I turned thirty and divorced my second husband…. Fitzgerald was all wet. Freshness and youth don’t stand a chance alongside anxiety and dissipation.”
If you squint hard enough, that line almost looks like something from Dorothy Parker. There are more than a few echoes of it in A Martini on the Other Table. When Judy and the film director take in a play, she says she’s “glad that Ed and I had not driven in from the suburbs after a rushed supper and anxiety over the new baby sitter…. If a man is going to cut out on his wife I would much rather be the girl friend than the wife, who usually gets him back in the long run. Uncertainty beats the A&P-on-Saturday syndrome any time.”
But Elbert’s rebel act rings a little hollow. A lot of people go to a lot of parties in this book, and none of them seems to have any fun. Judy spends far more time brooding about men and relationships than about independence and sexual freedom. “The only person I ever really cheated was myself,” she confesses just after the director proposes to her. It’s hard not to believe there’s an A&P lurking on a Saturday not too far in her future.
The opening chapter of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, Pointed Roofs (Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, Amazon) immediately launches into Miriam Henderson’s long voyage of self-discovery. Like Richardson, she has been forced by her father’s bankruptcy into finding paying work through one of the very limited set of choices available to a well-bred, somewhat schooled, middle-class young woman in the England of 1890s. And like Richardson, what she obtains is a placement as an English teacher in a small private girl’s school in Germany.
As she travels with her father from England through Holland to Germany, Miriam swings back and forth between eager anticipation at the novelty and adventure of her first time in foreign countries and grave doubts about whether she is up to the challenge. Her willingness to go it on her own is helped along to some extent by her irritation at her father’s attempts to glorify the situation:
He was standing near her with the Dutchman who had helped her off the boat and looked after her luggage. The Dutchman was listening, deferentially. Miriam saw the strong dark blue beam of his eyes.
“Very good, very good,” she heard him say, “fine education in German schools.”
Both men were smoking cigars.
She wanted to draw herself upright and shake out her clothes.
“Select,” she heard, “excellent staff of masters… daughters of gentlemen.”
“Pater is trying to make the Dutchman think I am being taken as a pupil to a finishing school in Germany.” She thought of her lonely pilgrimage to the West End agency, of her humiliating interview, of her heart-sinking acceptance of the post, the excitements and misgivings she had had, of her sudden challenge of them all that evening after dinner, and their dismay and remonstrance and reproaches–of her fear and determination in insisting and carrying her point and making them begin to be interested in her plan.
After a long train ride through Holland and northern Germany, they arrive in Hanover, where her father leaves Miriam at a school run by Fräulein Lily Pfaff in a large house near the old part of town (whose medieval half-timbered houses and roofs inspired the title of this chapter). The school had about a dozen boarding students, a mix of German and English girls between the ages of 8 and 14 — barely younger than Miriam/Dorothy herself, who was just 17 when she came to the school. Typical of the educational approach for such girls at the time, Fräulein Pfaff’s curriculum is a mix of language instruction (German, French, English), singing and piano lessons, sewing, and religious training by a Lutheran pastor, with many idle hours and occasional outings. Perfect preparation, in other words, for a life as the well cared-for and placid wife of a comfortably rich man.
I am indebted–and will be throughout the rest of these posts on Pilgrimage–on George H. Thomson’s A Reader’s Guide to Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage (1996) and his Notes on Pilgrimage: Dorothy Richardson Annotated (1999). The former provides a detailed chronology of the narrative events, the latter identifies and explains the many otherwise cryptic references in the text and reveals the depth to which his research took Thomson into such esoterica as card games, popular songs, railway routes and fares, and London shops of the period (1893-1915) covered by the books. In addition, Gloria Fromm’s Dorothy Richardson: A Biography (1977) is invaluable in providing a key to the ways in which characters, places, and events in Miriam Henderson’s life do — and do not — mirror those of Richardson’s.
With the help of Thomson and Fromm, for example, we can identify that Fräulein Pfaff’s real-life counterpart was Fräulein Lily Pabst, who ran the school at 13 Meterstrasse (Google Maps) in Hanover at which Richardson taught in the first half of 1891 (two years earlier than Miriam). According to Fromm’s biography, Richardson did not realize until halfway through writing the book that she had been using the real names of her characters, when she changed Pabst to Pfaff. In some cases, she never did come up with fictional alternatives.
As one might expect for a girl barely out of school herself and with no formal training or preparation to teach, Miriam is filled with doubts. Even before she leaves home, she dreams of being rejected by her students: “They came and stood and looked at her, and saw her as she was, without courage, without funds or good clothes or beauty, without charm or interest, without even the skill to play a part. They looked at her with loathing.” Riding through Germany, she looks out at the night as anxious thoughts run through her mind:
It was a fool’s errand . . . to undertake to go to the German school and teach . . . to be going there . . . with nothing to give. The moment would come when there would be a class sitting round a table waiting for her to speak. . . . How was English taught? How did you begin? English grammar . . . in German? Her heart beat in her throat. She had never thought of that . . . the rules of English grammar? Parsing and analysis…. Anglo-Saxon prefixes and suffixes … gerundial infinitive…. It was too late to look anything up.
And while she never does lose those doubts, Miriam manages to charm her girls with her youth and enthusiasm for the experience. However, she also quickly realizes that she is temperamentally incapable of going along quietly with a curriculum designed to produce passive and unquestioning helpmates. She seethes inside as the girls have a simplistic Lutheran dogma drilled into their heads and are led off to spend hours at services at the local church. She begins to realize how exceptional — if still imperfect — was her own schooling, which encouraged girls to think beyond marriage as a future: “the artistic vice-principal — who was a connection by marriage of Holman Hunt’s and had met Ruskin, Miriam knew, several times — had gone from girl to girl round the collected fifth and sixth forms asking them each what they would best like to do in life.” Tellingly, Miriam’s prompt response was, that she wanted to “write a book.”
Pointed Roofs introduces us to two themes that will remain constant throughout Pilgrimage: the role of music and clothes in Miriam’s world. For Miriam and her sisters (like Richardson, she has two older and one younger sister), music is an essential part of their lives. A piano and a rich collection of sheet music is the centerpiece of the family’s living room, and they all spend hours playing and singing, by themselves, with family, and for parties. Musical references account for a considerable share of Thomson’s annotations. In just the first 100 pages, Miriam thinks of, plays, or hears The Mikado, “Abide with Me,” Don Giovanni, Lohengrin, Chopin nocturnes, Beethoven sonatas, Mendelsohn’s Spring Song, and songs from the period like “Beauty’s Eyes,” “Venetian Song,” and “In Old Madrid.”
And there are her clothes. Miriam is lucky enough to have avoided the worst of the days of corsets and stays, but the awkwardness of women’s clothing of the time and the shabbiness, age, and poor quality of her own is an irritation never too far from her mind. Walking out in the chill of one of her first days in Hanover, she catalogs the shortcomings of her English clothes:
She hated, too, the discomfort of walking thus at this pace through streets along pavements in her winter clothes. They hampered her horribly. Her heavy three-quarter length coat made her too warm and bumped against her as she hurried along–the little fur pelerine which redeemed its plainness tickled her neck and she felt the outline of her stiff hat like a board against her uneasy forehead. Her inflexible boots soon tired her.
Her family’s effort to supplement her wardrobe don’t help, either: “‘We are sending you out two blouses. Don’t you think you’re lucky?’ Miriam glanced out at the young chestnut leaves drooping in tight pleats from black twigs … ‘real grand proper blouses the first you’ve ever had, and a skirt to wear them with … won’t you be within an inch of your life!'” As Pilgrimage progresses, Miriam’s struggles to deal with cheap shoes, dowdy blouses, and skirts that show all the stains and marks of daily wear in a working world are reminders of the meager circumstances to which her poorly-paid jobs condemn her, and the fine dresses and hats she sees other women in are symbols of a power and privilege she can never aspire to.
Miriam’s enthusiam for her German adventure carries her through the worst days, but she unwittingly earns Fräulein Pfaff’s criticism: “You have a most unfortunate manner,” the school mistress tells her. “If you should fail to become more genial, more simple and natural as to your bearing, you will neither make yourself understood nor will you be loved by your pupils.” Though Miriam would like to stay on at the school, she runs into a simple financial predicament when they arrive at the summer holiday period. Two of the girls invite her to join them and their families at the North Sea, but she simply lacks the money to cover the expense of her lodging and food. And Fräulein Pfaff makes little effort to encourage her to stay. Just five months after coming to Hanover, Miriam boards a train to return to England, knowing she may never come back to Germany again.
Pointed Roofs superbly introduces us to Richardson’s style, viewpoint, and journey. Miriam is still awakening, still naïve, and still tentative in her engagements with the adult world, but she already has a strong sense of an inner drive that will not easily accept the conventions of her day. In its very first paragraph, Richardson tells us that contemplation is as essential to Miriam’s being as breathing: “There was no one about. It would be quiet in her room. She could sit by the fire and be quiet and think things over….” As Walter Allen wrote in his introduction to the 1967 J. M. Dent collected edition, the first complete edition of the novel, “Pilgrimage shows us, uniquely, what it felt like to be a young woman, ardent, aspiring, fiercely independent, determined to live her own life in the profoundest sense….” Having just passed the halfway point through Pilgrimage, I think it may represent the high point so far in my year-plus exploration of the world as seen through the eyes of women writers.
Pointed Roofs, by Dorothy Richardson London: Duckworth, 1915
Reading All That Seemed Final, I was often reminded of another multi-player London novel I’ve listened to as audiobooks in the last year–John Lanchester’s Capital. Both books interweave the stories of a cast of characters over the space of roughly one year, switching from one to another from chapter to chapter, and drawing many links between the “Big H” history going around them and the immediate facts and issues of their own lives. And, as with Capital, throughout All That Seemed Final, I kept asking myself: “This is wonderfully entertaining, but is it more than that?”
I was perhaps jaded from having read several reviews that criticized Lanchester’s book for being somewhat superficial, for playing tried-and-true cards like death and bankruptcy for easy emotions. After listening to the book, however, I have to disagree, if only on by the simple litmus test of how much I still recall so much of its story and mood nearly a year later. And–with the exception of a few lightweight characters–I think I will be able to say the same of All That Seemed Final a year from now.
The story opens in the Spring of 1939, just as the flowers in St. James’ Park are beginning to bud and Hitler is invading Czechoslovakia. Colebrook introduces her cast in midstream–hosting a party for charity, heading home on a crowded bus, wondering whether to end an affair or a marriage. Quite a few are on the margins of society–a minor art critic, a shell-shocked veteran clerking in a tobacco firm. If they take note of the headlines about the possibility of war, it is, of course, only to wonder what inconveniences it might bring. “Will they intern my wonderful cook for being Austrian?” frets an aging femme fatale. Those most have memories of the last war, they are (the former soldier aside) as something fought “over there,” leading them to assume the next will also be somewhat distant from their own lives.
Colebrook takes her title from Proust: “Thus the face of things in life changes, the center of empires, the register of fortunes, the chart of positions, all that seemed final, are perpetually remoulded, and during his lifetime a man can witness the completest changes just where those seemed to him the least possible.” And, to the credit of her originality, not all of the changes that come to Colebrook’s characters result simply from the outbreak of war. While the slick and successful painter finds substance and moral fiber within when he joins the Army, the adulterous wife is forced to a decision for reasons quite apart from the events around her. Although all feel themselves to be in a sort of limbo, for some the uncertainty contains more promise than dread. But Colebrook also shows, with great skill, the crushing fear of pain and destruction felt by a few for whom the waiting is the worst ordeal of all.
All That Seemed Final received positive reviews went it came out in the fall of 1941. Writing in The New York Times, Marianne Hauser called it “a fine, clever book, well written and thoroughly convincing.” But timing was against its success: English readers were already caught up in the war and American readers soon had problems of their own to worry about. The book has never been reissued.
Colebrook, who was born and raised in Australia, emigrated to England in the mid-1930s, and felt moved to write the book in frustration with “this callous and rather hopeless disregard of the obvious fact that Europe was again drifting toward open conflict.” It was not until she moved to America in late 1940, however, that she was able to finish the novel. She wrote just one other work of fiction, The Northerner (1948), which was set in rural Australia. She worked as a journalist and, on occasion, as a social worker, in New York City. She published three works of nonfiction, including The Cross of Lassitude (1967), a study of juvenile delinquency. She died in 1991 at the age of 80.
All That Seemed Final, by Joan Colebrook Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company