Some time ago in Penguin New Writing John Lehmann asked for funny stories to print. He also suggested that both women and men would be leaping to their desks at the end of war to write the fiction they’d been bottling up during the war years. None of this is showing in what he’s publishing in Penguin New Writing. There is no humour at all, and several male authors are becoming regular, repeat contributors, while the women authors published so far can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In his Foreword for this first issue of 1948 Lehmann rails against National Service, and the impossible hoops that authors have to jump through to gain exemption. Given that only male authors feature in this issue, and only men were conscripted in peacetime, it’s pretty obvious that Lehmann doesn’t consider post-war women as authors, or have much interest in publishing what they might write. With editors like him, who needs enemies?
However, with authors like P H Newby, the woman’s perspective is not wholly ignored. ‘Crowning Glory’ is about the cutting off of a teenage girl’s long hair, at her mother’s instructions, against her father’s wishes. The barber’s hands are delicately intrusive, and the gypsy’s warning comes true. Newby is one of the few authors that Lehmann publishes who writes about women as fully and perceptively as he does about men.
A short story by the well-known literary critic Lionel Trilling — ‘Of This Time, Of This Place’— was unexpected but jolly good, positing the question of what an American professor can do when presented with madness in the classroom. How to grade incomprehensible brilliance, and how to suppress uncomprehending entitlement?
I was cautious about the critical essays, the last few issues having produced very little that was readable, but this issue has A D B Sylvester’s ‘A Chapter of Revelations’, a splendid report on the fuss and outrage caused by the National Gallery’s move to clean some of its paintings. Their account of conservation techniques, the physics of colour, pigment weirdness and the revealing huffery of eminent critics of the day is seriously entertaining.
Pause here to admire the emotion shared by Alec Guinness’s Richard II and Harry Andrews as Gaveston, in the Old Vic’s 1947 production.
The magazine’s enforced black and white reproductions of paintings don’t do much for the smudgier, blotchier styles, but John Minton’s Corsican landscapes come across beautifully. Crisp and solid.
In lengthy succession we have Andre Gide’s essay on Paul Valéry and Lehmann himself on James Joyce. Both are undoubtedly important but I could not summon the interest to read them. Penguin New Writing seems to have a tediously instructive element which is beginning to annoy me. However, William Sansom’s essay on Edgar Allen Poe explains much about his alarmingly gothic fiction that we’ve read in earlier issues: this was worth ploughing through.
This issue ends with reportage, so much more enjoyable and interesting to read than pompous criticism. Alan Ross’s ‘From a Corsican Notebook’ offers pretty much what it says on the tin: bar scenes, girls glimpsed sunbathing, traditional male fierceness, and buses with steering wheels on both sides. Keith B Poole’s ‘The Gift’ is an expertly crafted snippet of memoir from the war, shaped to fit a story’s outline and its tensions, but presented as fact. Which makes the box of severed human ears, presented to a squaddie as a gift at the end, all the more unnerving.
I heard an episode of the Double X Gabfest podcast the other day in which Noreen Malone of New York Magazine claimed that superhero movies were only made for teenage boys, or nerdy men, and that women didn’t go to see them. (Even though she lives in Brooklyn! That just seems improbable.) Superhero movies are for everyone, and I for one have never stopped loving them.
On the other hand, I’ve lost touch with superhero comics, because the flood of titles is too bewildering to make sense of in a crowded basement comic-book shop full of teenage boys and aggravating booming-voiced hipster idiots bent on impressing their rolling-eyes female companion with their dudey-frood bearded sneery nonsense about ‘all that Wonder Woman shit’ (I paraphrase). I visit Forbidden Planet periodically to browse the shelves but rarely buy comics, because most of their cover art all looks much as it did when I sold the things in Aberdeen’s first comic-book shop in the 1980s.
I’m also put off by the incessantly pneumatic mammary glands that have been de rigueur for comic book cover art since the 1950s, when the Marvel artists saw Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell on screen and thought, ‘that’ll bring the boys in’. In that respect, yes; most comic-books are drawn for those attracted by flimsily-covered bouncing female secondary sexual characteristics. The rest of us: BORED. Look at the old 1972 Spider-Woman costume, which is basically a naked woman in body paint. It makes me irritated, especially as it was drawn by a woman, whose brief must have been ‘breasts’, not ‘action hero’. Don’t these artists realise how much cantilevering these female superhero costumes must need to support so much weight? And how impossible it must be to run, swing, thwack, rebound, and leap with a double weight of monstrously outsized cannon-balls suspended from the chest by straining muscles and spandex? Asking for logic in a superhero world feels pointless, like wondering how Banner finds his trousers again when the green guy disappears.
So, if the cover art doesn’t pull me in, the story doesn’t stand a chance. I look for the clear-line style that Hergé invented, which continued all the way to the Hernandez Brothers with Love and Rockets, and in the new Spider-Woman series. I love what Javier Rodriguez and Veronica Fish do with the new(ish) Spider-Woman universe to make it clean, frightening, compelling and focused. I also love Spider-Woman’s new look, originally designed by Kris Anka: neat, practical, washable, undistracting, and unsexualised. Obviously she fills it with curves, but they’re in proportion, there’s nothing to get in the way of vigorous, physical crime-fighting activities, or swinging from skyscrapers.
The uniform also comes in a maternity version, because Jessica Drew – for it is she – is a single mother crime-fighting superhero. I’ve written about her here and here on Vulpes Libris. Go take a look. And then write to Kevin Feige and ask him when Spider-Woman can join the Avengers on screen.
New Writing, John Lehmann’s influential British literary magazine, first appeared in 1936, and fostered politically Left writers and artists. It stopped publication in 1950, with issue 40, just as Tennessee Williams and John Wain (for example) joined the contributors. I found issues 27 to 40 in an Oxfam shop, and bought them for a fiver. I’ll be reviewing each issue each week.
Issue 27 was the first issue to be published after the Second World War. The design was changed: new format, new typography, new paper, new picture-cover, new colour inset. Lehmann wrote a short but exuberant Foreword celebrating the magazine’s survival, and welcoming old and new contributors and readers. He is particularly nice about contributors’ patience, reliability and loyalty, and he is grateful to the readers who write to tell him what they liked and didn’t like. And there is a joyous outpouring of snark:
A special bouquet must go to the military gentleman (retired) who burnt us in his back garden in 1941 as German propaganda; to the German censor who refused us entry into the POW camps as Bolshevist propaganda; and to the unknown gentleman on the ‘bus who said we were the best British propaganda. Nor can we omit Mr James Agate, who obliges so unfailingly by finding us too highbrow for him, or Miss Olivia Manning of Jerusalem , who, like our little spaniel bitch Carlotta, gets her teeth into us whenever she finds us lying about.
James Agate had been a leading literary and theatrical critic for the daily and weekly press since the 1920s, so was a fixture on the scene that Lehmann couldn’t do anything about. I admire tremendously (but do not condone) the way Lehmann innocently puts ‘bitch’ and ‘Miss Olivia Manning’ into the same sentence, almost the same line.
You can see from the contents page that a great deal of the material was published in New Writing for the first time in the UK. Some were absolute standouts for me.
‘How Claeys died’, William Sansom’s dark story of an oblivious Belgian civilian touring post-war Germany, showing off his language skills. One of the many pieces in this issue that dwell on the aftermath of the war as a test of endurance, and festering tension.
‘Second-Lieutenant Lewis’, J Maclaren-Ross’s account of meeting Alun Lewis in camp, and how they maintained their friendship as writers and civilised men despite the military apparatus that regarded them with deep suspicion, since they continually broke the rules on inter-rank fraternisation.
‘Life Line’, by Jim Phelan – a remarkable Irish writer who lived a nomadic ‘tramping’ life – is a compelling but slight story, ostensibly about turf-cutting in an Irish peat bog, but is also about paternal expectations, the options for an adolescent’s escape, and the difference one child can make to a family’s economic survival.
‘Radio Critic’ reviews recent radio and media gossip from the past 6 months, and is an excellent corollary to other contemporary radio criticism, in The Listener and in Time and Tide, for example, if you’re interested in such things.
Osbert Sitwell’s long essay on Wilfred Owen is tremendous, and very Sitwellian: a rare resource for Owen scholars that apparently isn’t easy to find. I can send a pdf scan if you want it.
Roger Furse’s drawings, of ‘Newcastle Geordie’ in a sailor’s uniform, and ‘The Admiral’s Walk HMS Agincourt’: the detail of the crazy twisted staircase, the massive anchor chain and the lifeboat suspended from spindly metal arms remind me of illustrations by Mervyn Peake (Titus Groan was also published in 1946).
Sculptures by Gordon Herickx. On looking him up I see that he taught at Walsall School of Art, destroyed any of his work he considered imperfect, died the day after the opening of his first solo show, and that he was put into a poem by Louis MacNeice. There’s a LOT of scope for a thoroughly dreary masculine middlebrow novel there.
John Melville’s portrait of Henry Reed, one of the very few British poets of the war to be regularly anthologised. His ‘The naming of parts’ from Lessons of the War is a superb satire on military education and killing.
John Hampson’s Movements in the Underground 1: this is the first of a two part study on books and authors that your mother wouldn’t like, from Oscar Wilde onwards. Hampson was the author of Saturday Night at the Greyhound (1931), one of a group of Birmingham artists and writers (see also Melville and Herickx) who depicted working-class life. This survey is revealing evidence of what was considered socially and morally contentious in the 1940s, and why. Many interesting titles for the curious to research in the privacy of their own browser.
‘My right leg was Germany’ by Bernard Evslin is a compelling short story from a hospital ward full of amputees. It’s an early extract from a novel then in progress by this American author, who is now best known as a playwright and screenwriter, largely told in dialogue or first-person narrative. I see Emmet hitch himself out of bed and hump toward the latrine. He always manages to get out of the ward when Carruthers’ dressing is to be changed.
‘All this is ended’ by Norman Swallow is his first short story, an account of the obliteration of the battalion, told with a shocking combination of immediacy and neutrality, moving in an unsettling way from personal stories to impersonal reportage. Swallow became a leading documentary film-maker and editor for the BBC.
There isn’t much representation of women in this issue (I didn’t like the Farjeon story so didn’t mention it), so I’ll be keeping an eye on that, as well as looking for how the war maintained a presence in the magazine as it drew further away in time.
I found these four short novels with a squeal of triumph in an Aberdeen second-hand bookshop, and bought them for £3. That’s right: the four books that are one of Garner’s greatest creative accomplishments, in a pristine box set, for barely more than they cost the original buyer in the late 1970s. I could barely contain my excitement, and gobbled all four stories over the next two evenings.
The Stone Book, Tom Fobble’s Day, Granny Reardun and The Aimer Gate were originally sold as children’s books. I know I read Granny Reardun as a child because I never forgot the image of the mother scrubbing the floor, moving backwards on her knees towards the door for the last time, where the rest of the family were waiting in their loaded cart to move somewhere they didn’t want to go. Trouble is, I couldn’t remember the title, and wondered for years where that story had come from. It came from Cheshire, Alan Garner’s ancestral county, and the Allman family were put out of their cottage because it was built of the last dimension stone in the county, and the vicar’s wife wanted it for her garden wall. This cruelty and injustice is a mere detail in the novel, since the main plot is about Joseph deciding that he does not want to be a stonemason like his grandfather, and how he is drawn to the forge as if he belongs there instead. Mark Edmonds wrote about Granny Reardun in an essay in the Alan Garner festschrift First Light: ‘It is only when [Joseph] sees their connection, in chisel mark and weathercock, that he fully understands. Metal is not asking him to turn his back; it just wants him to know where and how he fits’ (76).
Joseph is Mary’s son, and she is the stout-hearted daughter of Robert, the stone mason of The Stone Book. She climbs a ladder all the way to the top of Saint Philip’s steeple, carrying her father’s baggin in a knotted cloth between her teeth. Once she’s got over the dizziness she’s quite happy, and climbs the weathercock to be whizzed round and round by her delighted father. She wants to learn to read, but the squire doesn’t like his kitchen-maids to read, so Robert tools and knaps her a prayer-book from green flint, with a fossil fern on the back. There is also one more wonder in the story, that only Mary can see: she’s the bravest of all the characters in this quartet.
Joseph comes back in Tom Fobble’s Day, when his grandson William is learning how to stand up to the bullying Allman boy over the loan of his sledge. Joseph builds a sledge that carries William from the top of the top field past the dangerous rough ground near the gate, right through to the bottom field, well past the sledge graveyard where all the smashed ruins of homemade sledges end up. William’s sledge, much better than the shrapnel that rains from the sky as German bombers pass overhead, unregarded, is Joseph’s best and last job. Edmonds again: ‘The frame and rails are a composite of the forge that Joseph had stepped back from, and the loom used by William’s namesake many years before’ (78).
We go back in time to uncover that awkward bit between the fields, in The Aimer Gate, in which young Robert is put to work to move the stones and rubble by his uncle Charlie, back from France on leave in the First World War. Charlie is a sniper, his leave nearly up, and he has the shadow of death around him. Faddock Allman is the legless Boer War veteran now breaking stones in the road, sitting in his trolley. Charlie treats Faddock kindly, and with respect, one soldier to another. Faddock was the boy who threw stones through his own cottage window when he was working for the team who broke it up for the vicar’s wife’s garden wall, which is why Robert’s father William won’t speak to him. The ruins of the Allmans’ cottage make the ridge in the field boundary that smashes the unwary sledges, and will blunt the scythes of Charlie and the Leah brothers if young Robert doesn’t clear it out. Charlie’s last job is to shoot the rabbits and other creatures escaping from the field portion ever shrinking beneath the scythes. His sniping skill is his route out of farming, and stonework, and metal crafting, but his own plans may include something more drastic than that.
There’s a photograph of the Garners in First Light, with Joseph and Charlie and Mary and old Robert. We don’t really need to know that all the stories are true, or near enough. They are marvellous. Harry Lupton, again in First Light, said it best: ‘They are of such a distilled precision, they are so layered, so finely observed, so pregnant with what lies under their surfaces’. They wear like stone, with stories in every layer.
This time in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up I’m in the fourteenth century, immersed in a muddy Norfolk field at the medieval nunnery of Oby. The Corner That Held Them (1948) is a most peculiar and very readable novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of the immortal Lolly Willowes.The Corner That Held Them is a fictionalisation of history, with no heroes and no heroines, and the protagonists jog slowly past our field of vision as we move from the twelfth century through the thirteenth, into the fourteenth. We meet five prioresses, four bishops, one custos (or convent business manager, in modern parlance), and one priest with a rather important secret that has become a nunnery tall tale since he revealed it inadvertently in the throes of a fever, thinking he was dying. Naturally none of the nuns believe him.
The plot, such as it is, begins with how this nunnery was founded. It was built in the memory of Alianor, the dead wife of Brian de Retteville, whom we first meet in bed, just before her lover is killed by her husband. After this rather big life event she has some children and then dies, and – most inexplicably – her angry and resentful husband is full of grief, and decides to build a nunnery, into which he can put their two sickly and uninteresting daughters. The nuns are installed, and get on with praying for the souls of the de Rettevilles, and inhabit the land for the glory of God. Their lives consist of small beer and minor irritations which Warner passes through so smoothly, telling the passing of the years where nothing much happens. There’s a murder, and much political second-guessing in the elections for the next prioress. Nuns have to wait for each other to die before they can change their office to be given work that is more congenial, or less awful. Small acts of kindness are rare, and the acts of ignorance and stupidity are many: this was not an educated period for anyone in England, so actions taken through lack of knowledge and understanding are very influential.
This is such an engrossing novel because it reads as if history is just unrolling in front of you. In my day job I’ve been using a very good recent study of the historical novel as a genre, by Jerome De Groot, that makes several observations very helpful for thinking about this novel. The first one is that the historical novel consciously hoodwinks the reader, we have to agree to be bamboozled into thinking that all this really happened, when really the author is making all of the story up. She’s not making up the history parts, we’re happy to believe the background details as fact. But weaving the fiction of what one character said to another and what they felt about that thing happening: that’s the fiction to blend seamlessly into the history. The reader thinks that the total invention presented as history is real because the fiction slides into our consciousness under the guarantee of the history; it’s a covert act against our rational understanding that we allow.
Another thing he talks about is the growth of the historical romance. The Corner That Held Them is not a historical romance, since there is no romance, no fantastical quest, no romantic love story, no urgent need for emotional satisfaction carried over for hundreds of pages to end in a tidy conclusive ending a few lines before the typing stops. The Corner That Held Them is about how history happens and what the nuns think about the bits of history happening that they notice. They notice rents not being paid so much, and don’t really know what to do about this. They are terrified, with good reason, of the fourteenth-century bands of robbers that prey on isolated monasteries, so they send off their valuable altar vessels for the bailiff to bury, which he does, and then he dies. In one of the most magical parts of the narrative (it’s really not a story), the convent’s custos Henry Yellowlees stays the night at a leper hospital, on an errand for the nuns. The chaplain shows him some remarkable new music, Ars Nova, which is the new polyphony, multivocal music that twines and winds the voices around each other: listen to this by Thomas Tallis and you’ll get the idea. Polyphony was banished from the Catholic Liturgy by Pope John XII in 1322, but fifty years later is being sung with rapture by a priest, a clerk and a leper, in this novel.
In another episode of unexpected emotional pleasure, Sir Ralph the priest goes in search of a hawk (since all medieval priests may fly a hawk as a symbol of their gentility). He meets the recently widowed Dame of Brocton who wants to read him the Lay of Mamillion, which her young husband, recently dead, had composed. This is Sir Ralph’s first encounter with medieval literature, and from the snatches Warner invents for our entertainment it seems to be very like Gawain and the Green Knight, thought to have been written around this time. Thus important developments in English art are connected to the history of this nunnery, but the nuns themselves, being enclosed and very wary of change, don’t know anything about them.
The story (which it isn’t) leaves loose ends dangling like a fraying skirt hem. Dame Adela runs away from the nunnery, and goes to sea with Annis the prostitute: what has happened to the valuable new altar embroidery? We don’t see what is important and what is not important. Take this example: Sir Ralph leaves his room, and (I quote) ‘a brimstone butterfly fluttered into the room’. I had that butterfly at the back of my mind for most of the rest of the novel, but nothing seemed to happen to make it important, so I forgot it. But, in her introduction to the Virago reprint of the novel, Claire Harman points out that simply by making us notice that a butterfly came into the room, and then doing nothing with it, Warner was teasing the readers by pointing out that this was one convention of tidy story-telling that she was not going to obey. Nowadays, officious editors will point out to the anxious author that the butterfly has to be tidied up and made important, please, otherwise why mention it? Things happen and aren’t necessarily important, because, what is important in a life? That’s what this novel is about. For the joy of invention, for the pleasure of leaving an untidy ending. To show that no-one really notices butterflies in real life.
In a way, The Corner That Held Them is more like the ‘naturalist realism’ of the nineteenth-century historical novel, which was as plain and historically accountable as it could be, to be real, and natural. Warner’s interjections and abrupt summaries of a year – ‘In 1208 came the Interdict. In 1223 lightning set fire to the granary’ – sound very like proper medieval chronicles, when there wasn’t very much to remember, or nothing much happened that was important enough to write, on calfskin vellum, which was expensive. The same thing happens to the nuns’ collective memory. They can only work out when the daylight owl began to hoot by thinking back to other events: when the pear-tree blossomed, when the refectory was whitewashed, when Dame Amy had a whitlow. They know about Sundays, but every other day flows past in a nameless stream. This vagueness anchored with memorable events is a familiar habit, we all think of our own personal histories like this. But when history goes into a written narrative, it can do two things. It can become the kind of historical fiction called the ‘felt past’, in which the emotions of characters are up front and palpable, the history illustrating their story of love, or adventure, or revenge.
The Corner That Held Them is not one of those. It’s a historical novel in the school of the ‘recovered past’, when the past is the subject, and history is more important than story. It’s also a women’s view of history, a new way of thinking about how history was written that was developed in the early twentieth century, according to Diana Wallace who studies the historical novel. Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of many women writers who redirected the attention of the readers of historical novels to what ordinary lives and ordinary women might have seen, felt, thought or done. Nineteenth-century historical fiction was full of action, drama, high romance, epic adventure, all tough, showy, strong manly stuff, and always fighting. If women appeared in those novels, they were the prizes, or hostages, or useful cleaners and cooks and moppers-up of the heroic blood, backstage. Women’s historical fiction was about the lives of women in history, which could certainly be vague and nameless and undistinguished, just as their lives could be magnificent and heroic and devious and brutal. All of these appear in characters in The Corner That Held Them. It’s a wonderful novel, and a wonderful dip into the unknown muddy stream we call the twelfth, and thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, somewhere in the east of England.
This week’s Really Like This Book’s podcast script catch-up is on Geoffrey Trease’s The Crown of Violet (1952), which is set in Ancient Greece, in about 400 BC. Trease should not be confused with Henry Treece, the other English historical novelist of his period filed near him on the shelf. Trease wrote for what we now call Young Adults, Treece wrote for adults, and the differences in their writing put me off reading Treece for decades. There’s a line in Trease’s obituary (he died in 1998) that reports his popularity for generations of British children. ‘There must be many readers whose interest in history was originally fired by reading Trease, and some whose knowledge of Garibaldi or King Alfred comes entirely from reading Follow My Black Plume or Mist over Athelney 30 or 40 years ago.’ That’s me: I was that reader with the Children’s Library ticket who learned about history through historical novels, and happily absorbed all the social and political messages they delivered along with the facts. I only own about six Trease novels, but it wasn’t till I was researching him that I realised that he wrote over 100. That’s a formidable reading challenge.
Geoffrey Trease is famous for having been the first British novelist to write children’s fiction from the points of view of the servants, the working-classes, and the people who had to make their own living. Dawn of the Unread calls him a soft Marxist, and I think that’s about right: gentle socialist instruction, nothing too dialectical. His socialist views were mediated through the stories, but my recollection is that they still endorsed existing hierarchical political and patriarchal systems while allowing the dispossessed to have some agency. Naomi Mitchison, another socialist, did the same for adult historical fiction. Even if powerless teenagers and servants are the protagonists, the power still stays with the powerful. History can’t be changed, but suggesting other options might change the future.
Alexis lives in Athens, and has just left school. He has two years to wait until he can do his military service, so he takes lessons in oratory, he hangs around with the group of young men who listen to that irritating know-it-all street philosopher Socrates, and he starts noticing whispers about a plot to install a dictator in the democratic city-state of Athens. He is also writing a play, but he can’t tell anyone this because boys don’t do this (they’re too inexperienced), and people of his class certainly don’t get involved with the theatre. Once Alexis realises that there is a plot, and that someone has to do something fast to stop it, he puts the plot into his play, to deliver its message that the real enemies of Athens are not the peaceful philosophers, but the stuffy ideas and conservative minds of the men who rule and won’t listen to change. So the novel and the play are both about the young and untried challenging the old and established, using the subversive methods of Greek comedy to reveal the imagined danger as fear, and to satirise, and thus neutralise, the real threats to democracy.
There is also a certain amount of feminism in the plot that attracted me when I first read this novel, in my teens, because Alexis makes friends with Corinna, a girl he met in the woods, who seems refreshingly unencumbered by the social rules that pin his own sister down. When Trease was writing it was rare to find girls and women taking an active role in historical adventure novels. Trease was one of the very few historical novelists who would allow a girl and a boy to risk the same dangers and be equally useful in resolving the problem. Since most of history has not allowed girls and women to act like this, his special ingenuity was in finding a way for a girl to have agency without messing around with historical accuracy.
While Alexis is a freeborn Athenian, Corinna is the daughter of a Syracusan inn-keeper and cook. This gives her the freedom to move around the city that Alexis’s sister Nico is denied, but it also means she is fair game for any young blood whose eye she catches. But young readers wouldn’t have noticed that. Trease did a lot to gloss over the sexual economy of Athens that adult readers would have known. Corinna goes out as a flute girl to a party at a mansion that she and Alexis need to infiltrate. Children (myself included) would have thought that this was fairly daring, but safe from detection (the only danger we would have thought about), since Corinna can play the flute very well. But adult readers can see other dangers, for instance in why she refused to wear the transparent gauze dresses that the dancers wear, and why the young lord Hippias particularly wants Corinna to sit on his couch. In another episode, Corinna models for a sculptor as Artemis wearing a short belted tunic. Nothing much is made of this in the story, but the episode raises questions about what she was paid, how much, and what else she did to earn a living outside the inn.
There is also the boys’ relationship. Alexis is best friends with Lucian, although they have a bit of a jealousy spat over Corinna, since Lucian objects to her low origins, and objects to Alexis spending time with anyone else. Their friendship is perfectly straightforward in the 1950s terms that Trease uses, but anyone who had studied Greek and Greek history would known – had Alexis and Lucian been real people – that their friendship would almost certainly have been homophilic, if not homosexual, and that they would both have been being courted around this time by older men. Since homosexuality in Britain was still illegal in the 1950s, Trease was very careful not to mention these aspects of Greek history in this novel.
I was puzzled about Trease’s historical accuracy: if Corinna and her mother have only just arrived from Syracuse, why would they have been allowed into Athens, since Athens and Syracuse appear to have been at war for the whole of Socrates’s life? I was also wondering about the population of Athens at the time, and Alexis’s sense that Athens is the centre of the world. These were the years of the Peloponnesian Wars, there had been a great plague in Athens near the period of the novel that simply isn’t mentioned, and military security ought to have been a major element in their society. Well, it is, up to a point. The plot that Alexis and Corinna discover is a destabilising one, and the leaders are the right types who threatened Athens in history. But Trease skirts around the details because, for Alexis’s story, they’re not important.
What I found more peculiar – I still really like this novel, by the way, but I am also really enjoying the questions it makes me ask about historical fiction – is the imperative in Alexis’s story that his information about a political plot would have to be believed first by an influential adult who trusted the boy’s veracity, and then automatically sent up to higher authorities who would act on it without checking any of the details. The novel needs dramatic action, so this immediate, unquestioning trust by adults in a boy’s story has to happen to bring about the dramatic climax. But as a civics lesson, even a politicised one, it isn’t remotely realistic. So where does that leave the role of the children’s historical novel: pure entertainment, a scrupulous revisiting of history as we know it, or serving a didactic purpose by changing the details to ignore some things and stress others?
The military aspects of Athenian society are mentioned vaguely, as are the political and the athletic details. But these merely give atmosphere. The real interest of this novel is in the writing of Alexis’s play, what it is for, how Alexis creates it in his head, and how he gets it written down, how it is submitted to the committee for the Spring Festival, accepted under the guise of it being written by his eccentric great-uncle – also an Alexis, son of Leon – and produced by professional actors. Great-uncle Alexis is an expert painter of redware and blackware pots, the kind with the fighting, drinking and running figures going round and round the jar – these were invented at around this time. Alexis loves watching and reading Euripides’ plays, and his own play is up against one by Aristophanes (possibly one of his less good ones). Those parts of cultural history are completely absorbing, to me and probably to Trease. Writing about writing came easily to this storyteller, I think. The details of how the play was put together on stage, how the choruses move in and out of the action, and how comedy has to include witty, topical speeches to keep the audience laughing: I believed every word of it. I can’t read Greek and I’ve only read Greek tragedy in translation, Greek comedies have rather passed me by. Perhaps I should try them again. And now, of course, I want to read the sequel, The Hills of Varna, about the finding of Alexis’s play in a medieval monastery: one I somehow missed in my childhood.
Today’s novel from the Really Like This Book’s podcast scripts catch-up is about art: buying it, faking it, selling it, advising on it, collecting it, and valuing your life by what you say about it. Rose Macaulay’s novel The Lee Shore really is completely forgotten, but is a fascinating read. It’s one of a clutch of Macaulay’s pre-war novels that she herself didn’t want to be reprinted once she had become successful in the 1920s, and which have largely avoided being rediscovered by modern publishers. (You can get it as a free ebook download if you shop around between apps.) But in its day it was a triumph. It won a fabulous prize of £1000 from Hodder & Stoughton (about £50,000 in today’s money), which enabled Macaulay to leave home and set herself up in literary London an author.
In the Edwardian period Macaulay wrote a lot about the danger of slipping out of your class if you were upper class, and the importance of maintaining your personal honour and integrity, even if this meant abandoning or being abandoned by your class and all that you had been brought up to expect to have as your life. The way she combines these two contra-indicators makes The Lee Shore a serious investigation of modern and traditional mores.
She uses what we in the trade call the free indirect voice, which is when the reader not only sees the action of the story from one or more characters’ perspectives, but is shown their point of view, their feelings, by having parts of the narrative told in their own words, as if their thoughts had taken over the narration. It’s a hugely effective way to reveal, for example, underlying nastiness or hypocrisy in a character, by having their unpleasantness emerge in how they say what they say. In the case of this novel, all the characters are painfully concerned with their class position, and what they ought to be doing, wearing and saying, because of their birth and status. The tensions caused by the inevitable have-nots clashing with the haves produce disasters. The focus of the novel is the nicest character of all, a kind and helpful and honest young man called Peter Margerison. His free indirect voice is used as the narrative to show us, despite the awful things that happen to him, how he manages to maintain cheerfulness and hope.
We first meet Peter when he is being carried off injured from the football field by the god of his public school, Denis Urquhart. Denis is captain of rugby, and is slightly related to Peter in the sense that Peter’s widowed mother was once married to Denis’s father. Denis inherits money and property and a very comfortable life, while Peter has to struggle to keep up with the class into which he has been born. But he himself isn’t very interested in class status, it’s the standards that his class insist on that drive his life.
Peter makes his living by advising the wealthy and ignorant what art to buy, how to decorate their homes, and tries to educate their taste. He is such an honourable person that he takes great pains to work with his clients’ taste, and to steer them away from the hideous in favour of the beautiful. All this goes very well, and Peter builds up good relationships with his distant Urquhart relations. Until one day he and his main client travel to Venice, and come across a terribly pretentious and possibly fraudulent local art newspaper which advises its readers to buy things that Peter knows are fakes, or impossible to acquire at the prices quoted. To his horror, he finds that the editor of this nasty little newspaper is his own half-brother Hilary.
Hilary is the elder of the brothers by a good ten years or more. He makes sure that Peter feels obliged to follow his lead, and to defer to him as the de facto head of the Margerison family. He is a masterful portrait of petulant entitlement, he is quite the most horrible character in this novel, and it is against him and his shoddy values and slippery standards that Peter has to struggle. But which come first: family solidarity and blood ties, or the abstract values of integrity and honour? Peter chooses honour, in the sense that his honour will not allow him to see his brother fail and go under, and he also chooses honour by refusing to let Hilary dabble any longer in fake art dealing, or to take bribes from the art fakers of Venice. Hilary’s feckless but heroic wife Peggy has too much to do in bringing up their too many children, and she tries to run boarding houses to make a living. Her family spends the entire novel slithering slowly but inexorably into poverty, to Hilary’s fury, because it is never his fault. And Peter, naturally, goes down too, despite the hopes he has, and the good deeds he does, and the social credit and goodwill he still has with his rich friends and the Urquhart family.
The free indirect voice narration, because it brings us so close to Peter’s thoughts but still keeps us at a distance, produces a powerful impression of fragility. Peter’s decent acts and honourable behaviour seem to bring him nothing but trouble, and the worst thing he does, as well as one of the best, is to marry Rhoda, a stray girl who finds herself abandoned in Peggy’s boarding house, to protect her from inevitable degradation at the hands of the villainous dandy Vivian. Rhoda is not of Peter’s class, though she tries hard to keep up with his talk and his standards, and he tries very hard to make her happy and give her security. They have a baby boy, lovely baby Thomas who is the delight of Peter’s heart, and who gives him something to live for when the worst happens and Peter thinks that nothing else can possibly make his world any more awful. He tries for happiness again with his cousin Lucy, whom he has always loved, but who has – inexplicably – married Denis Urquhart.
At the last minute they change their minds, and Peter runs away without Lucy, taking Thomas with him, and finds happiness in a simple vagabond life in a cart pulled by a donkey wandering around the coast of Italy in the summer sunshine. Peter earns money by selling his embroidery – this was a period when embroidery by an artistic young man was considered a little odd but quite reasonable as an aesthetic choice of activity – and they find rest and safety on the lee shore of life, sheltered from the rough winds of the world.
Peter turns into a modernised version of the Victorian scholar-gypsy, though he must take responsibility for feeding his child and the donkey. More Victorian elements poke through the Edwardian setting with the incessant sermonising. Those rich and well-off Urquharts and related peers keep summoning Peter to interviews and offer to lend him money, asked or unasked, and he always refuses. The novel seems to act out a strange, warped version of the code of honourable conduct derived from public schools which we are expected to admire, since Peter sticks to it so assiduously, even though he is made to suffer almost all the way through the plot. In that respect he’s very like Hugh Walpole’s Peter Westcott from Fortitude. He too has his life bound up tightly with the friends he made at school, both the faithful and the cads.
Macaulay, who had grown up in Italy, was perfectly conversant with how English gentlemen could live there without losing caste. Her earlier novels The Furnace (1907) and Views and Vagabonds (1912) have a good look at the danger to the English character that will ensue if certain standards are not upheld when living abroad, though she is generally, though not always, on the side of the vagabonds. She always depicted the freedom of Italian living as a beautiful, desirable, perfect existence, but also an impossible one if an English gentleman was to fulfil his national and class destiny. Living like an Italian would be like going native, and a gentleman must never do that. Somehow, Macaulay does try to get around this for Peter, to find a way he can retain his integrity while still living in freedom, and in a rather unrealistic way, she does manage this. But I can’t help thinking, what was going to happen to baby Thomas when he caught cold in the winter, and there were no more tourists to buy his father’s embroideries, and they needed a doctor, and new boots, and so on? And what about school? Would Peter have been content to send his son to an Italian village school? How would he bridge the gap between the public school of an English gentleman’s son, and the total lack of income or savings that his life of freedom brought him?
The Lee Shore is about the essential question of choices in living, and how to live with them. An excellent novel, very good for a long train ride.