Thursday, 23 March 2017

Boswell's London Journal at the Dr Johnson Book Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Review: Dinarbas by Ellis Cornelia Knight

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

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

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

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Review: The Virtue of this Jest by James Stuart Montgomery

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

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

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

Friday, 17 February 2017

Review: Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 6 February 2017

Review: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Rasselas by Samuel Johnson - at the Dr Johnson Bookclub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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