Thursday, 8 February 2018

The Necessary Angel: C.K. Stead and the literary life

For the past few weeks I’ve been carrying around a cutting from the Guardian: a review by John Banville of the American writer Elizabeth Hardwick’s Collected Essays. The review is headlined ‘Pitch-perfect prose and prescient opinions from a golden age in literary criticism.’ Banville begins by recalling the ‘palmy days between, say, the end of the second world war and the late 1970s’. Why palmy? Because, Banville explains,  ‘Fiction and poetry mattered then, not as subjects for jaded gossip or to be wagered on to win a prize, but as works of art to delight and quicken the mind, and as some sort of indication of the health or otherwise of the culture in general.’

Just after I’d cut out this review, I was sent from New Zealand the new novel by C.K. Stead, The Necessary Angel. It’s a novel I admire very much and it too has a lot to say about literary criticism and the literary life. However, far from harking back to Banville’s palmy days on East Coast America, Karl Stead has located his story in Paris, beginning on midsummer’s day 2014, and ending with the  ‘Je Suis Charlie’ protest march in Paris, six months later.

The central character of the novel is a New Zealander in his mid-40s, Max Jackson, professor of Comparative Literature at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. He is fluent in French – he has a French wife and two bilingual children – but he does not feel wholly at ease with the language; sometimes he feels homesick for English. Not homesick for England, however, and it irks him that his French colleagues blithely assume that to come from New Zealand is, essentially, to be English.

His wife Louise is part of the problem. She has exiled him from the family apartment to a small flat a couple of floors below, ostensibly because she needs to be able to work undisturbed, completing her latest book – a scholarly critical edition of Flaubert’s L’Éducation Sentimentale – so, as Max himself says, he’s now simply ‘the foreigner – downstairs with the dog’. It is symptomatic of the difference between them that whereas Louise is working on what will be the crowning project of her literary and academic career, the definitive edition of a major work by one of France’s most celebrated authors, Max is trying to write a short book comparing two Anglophone writers, Doris Lessing and V.S. Naipaul, both of whom had cut themselves off from their native homes. In the last lecture of term, he discusses Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel by a Russian exile set in America but begun in Paris.

One thing Max and Louise still share, however, is their mutual appreciation of each other’s work.  When she picks up a page he has just written, she ‘read a few sentences, and then had to read it all. It was elegant, concise …. That was Max: not a literary theorist at all – theory didn’t interest him – but a critic, lucid and persuasive, who could give you the feel of the book he was writing about.’  Louise herself shares the same literary critical outlook. She argues in the introduction to her edition that it was the writers who succeeded Flaubert, not Flaubert himself, who had made a fetish of art for art’s sake. ‘Against Barthes and his kind, Louise spoke up for precision, for style, for Flaubert’ – what he had achieved, she demonstrates, was ‘clarity, intelligibility, elegance’. And Max doesn’t hesitate to tell her what he thinks: ‘I’m full of admiration – and envy, Louise. It’s brilliant.’

Another writer whose presence is strongly felt in The Necessary Angel is Martin Amis. Exponent of close reading that he is, Max is encountered ‘reading and rereading’ the opening section of The Zone of Interest, Amis’s controversial and sometimes comic novel about Auschwitz, just published in 2014. He is interested in why Amis (‘often acknowledged as the major talent of his generation’) is so disliked, and why he has never won a major literary award – not even the Booker, never mind the Nobel Prize for Literature. Max concludes:

It was something about the style of the man, and his refusal to hide the light of his genius under a bushel of green tea. As some writers emanated moral merit, Amis put talent on display. This was what the literary life taught.

The literary life: in their different ways, all Stead’s protagonists in The Necessary Angel are trying to lead the literary life, though there are times when Max has to call its value into question. 2014 is both a year of gathering political crisis and the centenary of the start of the First World War. Max’s contribution to this is to plan a study day on poets of the Great War, but he has to admit that his seminar seems somehow an inadequate response:

It meant literature, which meant almost nothing in the bigger picture, and almost everything to those oddballs for whom life was meaningless and ugly without it.

Later in the year, on Armistice Day, November 11th, Max finds himself confronted by an abusive homeless woman. He feels guilty after locking the courtyard gate in her face to keep her out, and the encounter leaves him ‘divided against himself – a weightless person, academic, literary, disconnected from reality’. It is only at the end of the book that, reunited with his wife and children, he regains both a sense of his self-worth and of the worth of ‘the big world of books’.

What unites Louise and Max intellectually is a shared sense of the importance of intelligibility and style in writing. When Patrick Modiano wins the 2014 Nobel Prize, Louise is delighted, seeing the award as a vote for the ‘limpidity, transparency for which French literature had always been celebrated’. Finally, indeed, Max, Louise (and C.K. Stead) – are in good company:  in the cutting I’ve kept, John Banville too ends by praising Elizabeth Hardwick’s essays for vindicating her ‘old-fashioned requirement of a good, clear prose style’.

Adrian Barlow

The Necessary Angel in published in the UK by Allen & Unwin.: ISBN 978-1760631154

I have not attempted here to write a review of The Necesssary Angel, though I hope I have expressed my enthusiasm for this novel. The first UK review was by David Grylls for the Sunday Times, (28.1.18) and can be accessed here.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

‘So Teach us to Number our Days’: diaries & diarists

At the year’s end it’s always a pleasure to read the latest excerpts from Alan Bennett’s dairy, published annually in the London Review of Books. There are things one always looks out for – name dropping, for instance. 2017 is a vintage year: Bennett begins with ‘Tony Snowden and Princess Margaret’ and ends with ‘the (much missed) Debo, Duchess of Devonshire’.  In between come Gielgud and Guinness, Derek Jarman and Patrick Garland, Cecil Beaton and Coral Browne – a veritable dramatis personae.

Bennett is surely the Eeyore of modern letters. He notes with equal resignation and pleasure that The Oldie has called him ‘trademark lugubrious’, but at the same time he can be endearingly funny. Reading in bed one night he contrives to fall asleep ‘with a very uncomfortable bunch of keys in my pyjama pocket’, the consequences of this left to the reader’s wincing imagination.

I enjoy spotting Bennett’s other trademark: his habit of ending sentences with an added, abbreviated, comment – abbreviated because the author has left out the verb one would expect to find there. Here are two examples from 2017:

(9th June, about Theresa May): Notable that she keeps referring to ‘our country’ whereas an ordinary person as distinct from a politician would say ‘this country’ – ‘our’ paradoxically not an inclusive term.’

(29th August, in Paris): ‘We go into a creperie opposite the St Germain covered market hoping for some tea, in the window a solitary piece of cake.’

What is missing from these examples is the active voice. I used to assume that this was just a form of diarist’s shorthand, thoughts and observations tagged on rather than incorporated into the sentence. But it crops up in different contexts too – in The History Boys (2004) for instance – where Hector is arguing with his VIth Form students about how to write an Oxbridge entrance essay on the Holocaust. ‘Why can’t you simply condemn the camps outright as an unprecedented horror?’ he asks. Lockwood cockily replies:

‘No point, sir. Everybody will do that. That’s the stock answer, sir …  the camps an event unlike any other, the evil unprecedented, etc., etc.’

Here Lockwood uses the Bennett ellipsis quite appropriately, as if reeling off headings for an essay. But Hector replies:

‘No. Can’t you see that even to say etcetera is monstrous? Etcetera is what the Nazis would have said, the dead reduced to a mere verbal abbreviation.’

‘Mere verbal abbreviation’ defines Bennett’s literary mannerism precisely, if inadvertently. But it’s when this ellipsis finds its way into the speech of other characters – albeit one such as Hector, in many ways a mouthpiece for Bennett himself – that I start to ask whether what began as diarist’s shorthand isn’t showing signs of repetitive strain. Might Hector’s denunciation not have been stronger if he’d actively condemned the Nazis for reducing the dead to an etcetera?

I have spent a lot of time with diaries recently. While writing my book on Charles Eamer Kempe* I have had access to the diary of Wyndham Hughes, a fine but forgotten artist, who was Kempe’s leading draughtsman during the 1870s. Hughes was a lifelong diarist, each volume prefaced with ‘The record of our days and years’ or ‘So teach us to number our days: that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom’ (Psalm 90). For me, his diary has been invaluable, describing his friendship with Kempe, listing many of his key commissions (previously unidentified) and sometimes containing precious ephemera slipped between the pages – this 1876 letter, for instance:

My dear Hughes
Thanks for the drawing which I hope, (& think it aught) will pass the Royal Critic. I think I should take with me in the morning the former drawing (charcoal) to remind H.R.H. of the architect[ural] background &c as well as to show the changes in the figure. The Child is very successful now. Could you bring me the old drawing by 9.15. I have to be at the Palace by 10.
 Yours, C.E.K

This never-before-seen letter refers to the most significant commission Hughes ever undertook for Kempe: a memorial window for Queen Victoria’s grandson. The window established a friendship between Kempe and the Royal Family, his reputation thereby greatly enhanced. To find such a letter, in such a diary, is one of a biographer’s rewards.

The other diary I’ve been reading recently is my grandfather’s. Edward Barlow, a Baptist minister, was not a diarist by habit; however, in 1917 he went to France as a YMCA padre and kept a diary of the two most remarkable years of his life. Working in a transit camp near Rouen, he met and recorded conversations with ordinary soldiers on their way to the Front. Here is one such encounter, from 100 years ago today: 1st January 1918:

A draft of men from the Camp for Base missed their train by 30 mins. & consequently had a long wait in our Hut. One spoke to me in great trouble about his home in a colliery village (Northumberland). He showed me a letter from his wife’s mother which he received last Friday saying that his wife was going out with another man & cared no more for him than she did for her. The children had for a time been with her mother but now they were taken off by a black woman. His wife had gone to the dogs & was a disgrace to them. She hadn’t got any money but wasted it on dressing herself like a fairy & going with the man in the evenings to picture houses and the theatre.

The man was greatly upset & said he would try to get home without anyone knowing it & catch his wife with the man. It would pay the man to keep out of his way & he would get his wife, who was in munitions, out of the town. She was 29.

My grandfather never revealed that he had kept this diary; my father found it among his papers after his death, and I have it now.

Adrian Barlow

* Kempe: the life, art and legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe will be published by Lutterworth Press in Summer 2018. Further details to follow in due course.

Prince Friedrich (Frittie) von Hessen-Darmstadt (1870-1873) was the second son of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Alice, wife of the Grand Duke of Darmstadt and Hesse. A haemophiliac, Frittie was the first of Victoria’s grandchildren to die. He was buried in the Neues Mausoleum at Rosenhöhe, on the outskirts of Darmstadt, and it was for the window in the mausoleum that Kempe was commissioned to produce the stained glass designed by Wyndham Hughes. The commission was brokered by Alice’s brother, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and he is the ‘Royal Critic’ referred to by Kempe in his letter to Hughes.

Illustrations] (i) Alan Bennett (National Theatre); (ii) Window (1877), designed by Wyndham Hope Hughes for the Royal Mausoleum in Darmstadt. The image of the child is a likeness of Prince Friedrich. (iii) Edward Barlow’s Diary for 1918, while serving with the YMCA at No. 11 Convalescent Depot, Buchy (Nr. Rouen).   Photos (ii) and (iii) © author

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Henry James and the Spoils of Old Place

Old Place, Lindfield in Sussex, was the home of stained glass designer Charles Eamer Kempe. He restored this Jacobean manor house, enlarging and enlarging it again, to create a stately pleasure dome that dazzled visitors and led Country Life to write about it no fewer than four times in as many years. Variously described as a House Beautiful and as a Palace of Art, its contents and its gardens reflected Kempe’s taste, his passion for art and for the past. One dazzled visitor was the sculptor and writer, Lord Ronald Gower, who wrote in his Diary for 27th September 1889:

'I paid Mr Kempe (the great artist of coloured glass) a short visit at his delightful home, Old Place, at Lindfield. This is truly a ‘house beautiful’, every room in it, even the bedrooms with their quaint old ‘four posters’, their tapestries, and stained glass windows, artistic studies one and all. [….] The outside of Old Place is as beautiful as the interior, the effect of crimson from the Virginia Creeper on the grey stone walls, crowned by picturesque gables, harmonizes with the wealth of colour within doors.'

Lord Ronald (doyen of the Aesthetic Movement’s demi-monde, model for Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey) became a frequent visitor to Old Place, his name appearing often in Kempe’s Visitors Book. In July 1893, when the new East wing had just been completed, he noted that ‘Old Place is now one of the prettiest places I have ever seen,’ but added  – as if reluctantly – ‘Perhaps if one could find a fault with this almost perfect house it would be that it is a little over-decorated. The new drawing room is a blaze of carved roses in scarlet and gold, with superb oak carving on the walls.’

Another visitor in the 1890s was Henry James, to whom Kempe had been introduced through his friends Field Marshal Viscount and Lady Wolseley, near neighbours in Sussex. James signed his name in the Visitors Book for the first time on 8th March 1897, and it’s tempting to think he might have had Old Place in mind when he wrote The Spoils of Poynton, his novel about a widowed lady, Mrs Gereth, who lived in an ‘exquisite old house’ full of ‘the things’, antiques collected from all over Europe with which Poynton ‘overflowed’. While writing this novel, James had provisionally titled it The House Beautiful, the same phrase Gower had borrowed for Old Place from Pilgrim’s Progess. Clearly, Lord Ronald had thought Old Place overflowed; he would also have agreed with James’s description of the house as ‘early Jacobean, supreme in every part, a provocation, an inspiration, the matchless canvas for a picture’.

Kempe’s friends would have had no difficulty in recognizing what James meant when he said that Poynton was

the record of a life. It was written in great syllables of colour and form, the tongues of other countries and the hands of rare artists. It was all France and Italy, with their ages composed to rest. For England you looked out of old windows – it was England that was the wide embrace.

The windows of Old Place too offered a vision of England – and explicitly of early 17th century England: rose garden, yew walks, sundials.  When in 1885 he held a grand garden party, Kempe opened the gates ‘to all who would see the England of their forefathers’, he and his friends dressing up in period costume to add to the atmosphere. A photograph taken on the occasion shows them sitting, rather self-consciously, as if for an amateur production of Twelfth Night.

Surely, then, Old Place must have been the model for Poynton? Much as I’d like to say so, I cannot be sure, for the novel was actually written between 1895 and early 1896, and I have as yet no proof that James visited Old Place before 1897. In any case, James preferred to work from a ‘germ’, a single fleeting idea taking root in his imagination and lying dormant until he was ready to let it develop. He did not want to be burdened with too many external facts as he planned his stories. I think it likely that he’d heard about Old Place, probably from the Wolseleys, but deliberately abstained from going there until the book was written. Poynton, as he describes it, is simply James’s idea of a House Beautiful stuffed with ‘things’, not Kempe’s.

I’ve been writing about Old Place myself, for my book on Kempe. I can’t help feeling, though, that it belongs more to the world of fiction than biography. And I’m not the first to have thought this.  In Kempe’s lifetime Hugh Benson, the Roman Catholic convert son of Archbishop Benson of Canterbury, wrote By What Authority? (1904) an historical novel partly set in a house directly modelled on Old Place. More recently, David Smith’s Love in Lindfield (2016) updates The Spoils of Poynton, setting the whole story in and around Kempe’s home.

The BBC once serialised James’s novel; in Smith’s story one of the central characters is scouting for locations for another BBC adaptation. Smith is careful not to imply that Old Place was Poynton, but he makes great play with the idea that since Henry James had been friendly with a number of Kempe’s friends who were avid collectors themselves, one of them could have been the model for Mrs Gereth. This is especially true of Viscountess Wolseley; Smith correctly points out that some of her ‘things’ had been literally spoils of war, brought back from distant corners of the Empire by her husband, the Field Marshal (Garnet Wolseley, lampooned by Gilbert & Sullivan as ‘the very model of a modern major general’). 

Kempe isn’t a character in the novel, but he is a haunting, ambiguous presence in it. Appropriate, you might say, for someone who slipped effortlessly between the 17th and the 19th centuries, and who, shortly before his death, even had himself photographed as the Ghost of Old Place.

[Illustrations: (i) Old Place, the East Wing (1891); (ii) the gardens and sundial of Old Place - a glass transparency (c.1908) (iii) C.E. Kempe photographed as a ghost (1907). 

All photos © copyright The Kempe Trust 2017. 

  • Old Place is now divided into three private houses, with no public access.
  • My forthcoming book, Kempe: the Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe, is due to be published by Lutterworth Press in 2018.

Monday, 10 April 2017

'Bad shoving and deep water’: writers on the Thames

This photograph has puzzled me for some time. A  country church on a steep little hill, with a river beside it; a service of some kind taking place in the open air, conducted by a bishop in front of what looks like a new war memorial near the church porch; the choir lined up on steps leading from the little lychgate. Apart from the clutch of local dignitaries around the bishop and one family at the bottom of the slope but within the churchyard, all the remaining villagers are gathered in the open space outside the wall. Women and children greatly outnumber men. The women, all with hats, are wearing what may be their Sunday best, and the girls have clean aprons. A few boys stand on the grass near the gate, watching proceedings; are those Eton collars round their necks? One of them trails a cricket bat, though this is winter: the trees are bare, the adults all wear coats and hats (of course) and someone is putting up an umbrella. The date can be pinpointed precisely, for written below the photograph are these details: ‘Feb[ruar]y, 26th 1909, Aldenham’.

Edwardian England, in the year my father was born.  It’s not a posed picture nobody is looking at the camera but in its way it is a portrait of a community.  I had assumed that this must be Aldenham in Hertfordshire, but Aldenham Herts. is a small town and it’s not on a wide river. The Colne, which sidles past, is little more than a brook. Ah, the power of the internet! Within hours of my picture being posted on Twitter, I had learned where this was: not Aldenham at all but Clifton Hampden, a village on the Oxfordshire bank of the Thames. It has doubled in size since the photograph was taken, but still has fewer than 700 inhabitants.

Once upon a time I was fascinated by punts and punting: I collected pictures and books, and took a punt out whenever I could. Forty years ago this year, I even began to keep a punting diary, recording all my outings. It is beside me as I write – and so are some of my most prized punting books. In these, Clifton Hampden features frequently.

The Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map of the River Thames from The Source to London Bridge (London: Edward Stanford Ltd.) is a seven-foot long, linen-backed, fold-out map of the river. My 1927 edition combines a Thameside gazeteer with detailed, if rather condensed, notes on how to punt each stretch of the river from Cricklad Cricklade (Glos.) to  Putney. Thus its entry for Clifton Hampden reads:

Clifton Hampden Br. Station: Culham, G.W.R., 1¼ m. Inn: The Barley Mow on Berks side of bridge. Boatyard: Casey, at Bridge Toll House, will look after boats, and has a few to let.
From Clifton Bridge keep right bank, but to left of reed beds and islands at Burcott: then bad shoving and deep water to lock.

The artist George Dunlop Leslie, whose book Our River (1881) is one long paean to punting on the Thames, knew all about the problems of shoving on this stretch of the river: ‘The punting here is peculiar,’ he declared; ‘mud is a bad thing, but there is such a thing as too hard a bottom, for here the pole rings with a clunk as it strikes the ground, and slips aside without any hold.’ But he admired the view:

At Clifton Hampden, as if to make up for its dullness, the river suddenly comes out in quite a novel aspect. For a short distance it runs over a bed of hard sandstone; the little cliff on the Oxfordshire side, from which the village is named, is of this stone, and quite unlike anything else on the river. With its ivy bushes and small church perched on the top, it resembles some of Bewick’s vignettes very strikingly.

Jerome K Jerome, in Three Men in a Boat (1891) describes Clifton Hampden as ‘a wonderfully pretty village, old-fashioned, peaceful, and dainty with flowers’. He doesn’t mention the church; he’s more interested in the local pub, The Barley Mow, whose ‘low pitched gables and thatched roof and latticed windows give it quite a story-book appearance, while inside it is even still more  once-upon-a-timeyfied.’ Such quaintness comes at a cost, however:

It would not be a good place for the heroine of a modern novel to stay at. The heroine of a modern novel is always ‘divinely tall’, and she is ever ‘drawing herself up to her full height.’ At the ‘Barley Mow’ she would bump her head against the ceiling every time she did this.

John Ruskin visited Clifton Hampden, and if he climbed up to the church he was no doubt horrified by the make-over given it by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Ruskin’s views on church restoration were uncompromising: ‘Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end … It is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.’ But Ruskin was more interested Clifton Hampden’s old bridge (originally Tudor, but also – as it happens – restored by Gilbert Scott. Local people kept their punts moored under its arches.)  Elizabeth Robbins Pennell, in The Stream of Pleasure (1891) tells the story of how Ruskin, watching the sunset reflected in the river, was distracted by a small boy he saw suddenly

run from one side of the bridge to the other, and lean far over the parapet with eyes fixed upon the current beneath. Of what was he thinking, this little boy? Was it the hurry of the water, of the beauty of the evening, or had this speed and loveliness already awakened him to higher and holier thoughts? And as Ruskin wondered, a boat drifted from under the arches into the light, and the little boy, leaning still lower, spat upon the oarsman, and dodged quickly and ran away, and Ruskin went home a sadder, if a wiser, man.

I intend to visit Clifton Hampden this summer. I may even call in at the Barley Mow. But I shall definitely climb up to the church, and pay my respects at the memorial to Lord Aldenham, designed by Walter Ernest Tower and unveiled by the Bishop of Oxford on 26th February, 1909.  If  you want to know why I’m interested, you’ll find the answer in my forthcoming book, Kempe: the life, art and legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe, due to be published by the Lutterworth Press in 2018.

Adrian Barlow

[Illustrations: (i) Clifton Hampden Church, 26th February 1909 (Kempe Trust Archives)
(ii) A stretch of the Thames from the Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map of the Thames.
(iii) G.D. Leslie, ’The Author’s Punt' from Our River, 1881