About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 30 August 2019

"Morvern Callar" by Alan Warner

One day, Morvern, a 21 year old girl in a Scottish port town, finds her boyfriend dead. Suicided, it would seem, wrist half hacked off by a meat cleaver, throat cut, note on the computer. She ought to report him dead but somehow instead she goes to work and then, it being Christmas Eve, to a wild party where she has sex with two boys and her best girl friend, and then ...

It is written in Scottish dialect (it took me a while to remember that 'greeting' means wailing). It is powerful and bleak. It reminded me of Eros Island by Tony Hanania in the wonderful use of language and the nihilistic and sybaritic lifestyle of the young people, although it is told in linear chronology and is therefore rather easier to understand.

It is one of those books that, as I read it, seemed to skim off me but I think that there will be aspects of Morvern's desperate seeking after pleasure in the face of brutal reality that I will remember time and time again. This is definitely a book to revisit.

Great lines included:

  • The hidden fact of our world is that theres no point in having desire unless youve money. Every desire is transformed into sour dreams. You get told if you work hard you get money but most work hard and end up with nothing. ... Theres no freedom, no liberty; theres just money. That's the world we've made ... We live off each other's necessities and fancy names for bare faced robbery.” (Punctuation as in the book.)
  • "I'd forgot to get something for diluting the voddy and of course the fridge was bare so I opened this bottle of sweet wine and used that to dilute it.”
  • There was a strip of this queer volcanic rock, small pools of water and roundish nodules of stone. It was like the coast had melted then gone hard again.”

August 2019; 229 pages

Written in 1995. Morvern also appears in These Demented Lands (1997) and The Sopranos (1998), also by Alan Warner.

Made into a movie in 2002

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

"Religion for atheists" by Alain de Botton

This wonderful book ends with the statement that: “The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.” (10.iii.3) It proposes that the secular world learns how religions pass on their message, which is, after all, a message intended to support the fragile human psyche through its many times of troubles, in order to enable such support without the use of the supernatural. He asserts that religions are fundamentally false (“No one intent on starting a new religion from scratch in the modern era would dream of proposing anything as hoary and improbable as the rituals and precepts bequeathed to us by our ancestors.”; 10.ii.1), that they were invented, but he then suggests that: “We invented religions to serve two central needs ... first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and too our decay and demise.” (1.2) Given that these needs still exist, we need to develop secular systems which will promote social harmony and support vulnerable individuals without the mumbo-jumbo.

Then, in eloquent writing which sometimes reaches the heights of lyrical beauty, he proposes how this can be done.
One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community. We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighbourliness which has been replaced by ruthless anonymity.” (2.i.1) He recognises that this is partly due to overcrowding: “Whereas the Bedouin whose tent surveys a hundred kilometres of desolate sand has the psychological wherewithal to offer each stranger a warm welcome, his urban contemporaries, though at heart no less well meaning or generous, must - in order to preserve a modicum of inner serenity - give no sign of even noticing the millions of humans eating, sleeping, arguing, copulating and dying only centimetres away from them all sides.” (2.i.2)  But churches are places where strangers from all walks of life meet. Often they are beautiful places. People are instructed to move together: when to kneel, when to stand or sit, when to sing together, when to listen. Importantly, the weakest are welcomed as well as the strongest. And he points out that the Christian mass began as a meal: “Sitting down at a table with a group of strangers has the incomparable and off benefit of making it a little more difficult to hate them with impunity. Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction. However the proximity required by a meal ... disrupts our ability to cling to the belief that the outsiders who wear unusual clothes and speak in distinctive accents deserve to be sent home or assaulted.” (2.i.6) 

AdB suggests that we institutionalize apologies, as with the Jewish Day of Atonement or the Catholic Confession. He suggests that we are all nasty in some ways to other people and this causes two lots of suffering:
  • As victims of hurt, we frequently don't bring up what ails us, because so many wounds look absurd in the light of day. It appals our reason to face up to how much we suffer from the missing invitation or the unanswered letter, how many hours of torment we've given to the unkind remark.” (2.ii.2)
  • If we have offended we may “feel intolerably guilty” so that we “run away from our victims and act with strange rudeness towards them” so making them suffer twice. (2.ii.2)
One problem is that we don't like being told we are naughty by someone else. It provokes the 'who do you think you are' response and one of the flaws of religions is that often the priest is promoted as Mr Perfect Pants. “Among religions’ more unpalatable features is the tendency of their clergies to speak to people as if they, and they alone, were in possession of maturity and moral authority.” (3.i.7) AdB argues that the concept of Original Sin is that we are all flawed. “The doctrine of original sin encourages us to inch towards moral improvement by understanding the faults we despise in ourselves are inevitable features of the species. We can therefore admit to them candidly and attempt to rectify them in the light of day. The doctrine knows that shame is not a helpful emotion for us to be weighed down with as we work towards having a little less to be ashamed about.”. (3.i.7)

He then proposes that in order to get the message across we need to institutionalize the secular church. He shows how institutions have vastly more wealth, and power, and influence than even the greatest individual thinker. He contrasts the cottage industry of wellness gurus with the brand recognition of the church. He suggests we advertise our secular beliefs by beautiful paintings, for example, and by beautiful architecture. (I take issue with his idea that beauty somehow equates with goodness: there is sufficient cult today of beautiful people and the downside of beauty = goodness is to suggest that the ugly should be shunned; besides, his two pictures contrasting a protestant chapel with a Roman Catholic chapel are presumably intended to suggested that the lush ornamentation of the RC ceiling is preferable whereas I personally prefer the elegance of the protestant building; beauty is even more individual perhaps than ethics.)

He considers the universities should have the duty to teach courses in eg How to have a successful marriage, and How to Die, and that these courses should be illustrated with extracts from great literature but he sees that the present universities have missed their way by considering literature as texts to be studied rather than improving moral works: “We are by no means lacking in material which we might call into service to replace the holy texts; we are simply treating that material in the wrong way. We are unwilling to consider secular culture ... as a source of guidance.” (4.i.4) “The redesigned universities of the future would draw upon the same rich catalogue of culture treated by their traditional counterparts ... but they would teach this material with a view to illuminating students lives ... Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary would that be assigned in a course on understanding the tensions of marriage ... Epicurus and Seneca would appear in a syllabus for a course about dying.” (4.i.7)

He also suggests that universities, by relying on a single method of transmission, the (often boring) lecture, have missed the goal. 
  • Christianity pictures the mind as a sluggish and fickle organ ... the central issue for education is not so much how to counteract ignorance as how we can combat our reluctance to act upon ideas which we have already fully understood at a theoretical level. It follows the Greek sophists in insisting that all lessons should appeal to both reason (logos) and emotion (pathos)” (4.ii.1) 
  • Ever since Plato attacked the Greek sophists for being more concerned with speaking well than thinking honestly, Western intellectuals have been intransigently suspicious of eloquence.” (4.ii.2)
  • Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.” (4.ii.3)
Finally he proposes that we lack perspective, being insufficiently pessimistic about our powerlessness in the face of the cosmos. This is interesting given that others suggest that it was the Coperbnican revolution that displaced mankind and the earth from its position of centrality in the Universe. But de Botton states:
  •  “Our secular world ... surreptitiously invites us to think of the present moment as the summit of history” (7.2)
  • Being put in our place by something larger, older, greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as a relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives.” (7.3) 

Other important ideas
  • In the past, we got to know others because we have no option but to ask them for help” because there were no social safety nets. “We are from a purely financial point of view greatly more generous than our ancestors ever were, surrendering up to half of that income for the common good” but this is through taxation which tends to leave us resentful imagining that “our money is being used to support unnecessary bureaucracies” rather than considering “those less fortunate members of the policy for whom our taxes also buy clean sheets, soup, shelter or a daily dose of insulin.” (2.i.2)
  • We get our ideas of strangers from the media so we think “that all strangers will be murderers, swindlers or paedophiles” although when disasters strike and we are actually vulnerable “we tend to marvel that our fellow citizens have shown surprisingly little interest in slicing us in half or molesting our children and may even be surprisingly good-natured and ready to help.” (2.i.2)
  • The flaws whose exposure we so dread, the indiscretions we know we would be mocked for, the secrets that keep our conversations with our so-called friends superficial and inert - all of these emerge as simply part of the human condition.” (2.i.3)
  • It is hard to attend most wedding parties without realising that these celebrations are at some level also marking a sorrow, the entombment of sexual liberty and individual curiosity for the sake of children and social stability, with compensation from the community being delivered through gifts and speeches.” (2.iii.3)
  • Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together.” 
  • Freedom has become our supreme political virtue ...the state should harbour no aspirations to tinker with the inner well-being or outward manners of its members.” (3.i.1)
  • Heady romantic longings are fragile materials with which to construct a relationship. We grow thoughtless and mendacious towards each other. We surprise ourselves with our rudeness. We become deceitful and vindictive.” (3.i.5)
  • It seems clear that the origins of religious ethics lay in the pragmatic need of the earliest communities to control their members’ tendencies towards violence, and to foster in them contrary habits of harmony and forgiveness. Religious codes began as cautionary precepts, which were then projected into the sky and reflected back to earth in disembodied and majestic forms ... But if we can now own up to spiritualising our ethical laws, we have no cause to do away with the laws themselves. ... We no longer have to be brought into line by the threat of hell or the promise of paradise; we merely have to be reminded that it is we ourselves ... who want to live the sort of life which we want imagine supernatural beings demanded of us.” (3.i.6)
  • We will never discover cast-iron rules of good conduct which will answer every question that might arise about how human beings can live peacefully and well together.” (3.1.8)
  • We would be advised to focus our attention on relatively small scale, undramatic kinds of misconduct. ... Rudeness and emotional humiliation maybe just as corrosive to a well-functioning society as robbery and murder.” (3.1.8)
  • Consider ... how belatedly and how bluntly the modern state enters into our lives ... It intervenes when it is already far too late, after we have picked up the gun.” (3.i.8)
  • Literature, previously dismissed as being worthy of study only by adolescent girls and convalescents, was recognised as a serious subject ... The newfound prestige of novels and poems was based on the realization that these forms, much like the Gospels, could deliver complex moral messages embedded within emotionally charged narratives, and therefore prompt affective identification and self-examination.” (4.i.4)
  • There is in truth no maturity without an adequate negotiation with the infantile and no such thing as a grown-up who does not regularly yearn to be comforted like a child.” (5.3)
  • If there is a problem with Christianity’s approach, it is that ... the need for comfort has come to be overly identified with a need for Mary herself, instead of being seen for what it really is: an eternal appetite which began long before the Gospels, originating at the very moment when the first child was picked up by his or her mother and soothed amid the darkness and cold of the first underground cave.” (5.4)
  • The signal danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation. When God is dead, human beings ... are at risk of taking psychological centre stage. They imagine themselves to be commanders of their own destinies, they trample upon nature, forget the rhythms of the earth, deny death and shy away from valuing and honouring all that slips through their grasp, until at last they must collide catastrophically with the sharp edges of reality.” (7.2)
  • Tourists making their way around some of the world's great museums ... appear to want to be transformed by art, but the lightning bolts they are waiting for seem never to strike. They resemble the disappointed participants in a failed seance.” (8.2)
  • Art ...is a medium to remind us about what matters. It exists to guide us to what we should worship and revile if we wish to be sane, good people in possession of well-ordered souls.” (8.3)
  • The unsympathetic assessments we make of others are usually the result of nothing more sinister than our habit of looking at them in the wrong way, through lenses clouded by distraction, exhaustion and fear, which blind us to the fact that they are really, despite a thousand differences, just altered versions of ourselves: fellow fragile, uncertain, flawed beings likewise craving love and in urgent need of forgiveness.” (8.5)
  • If our bodies were immune to pain or decay, we would be monsters.” (8.5)
  • There are places which by virtue of their remoteness, solitude, beauty or cultural richness retain an ability to salve the wounded parts of us.” (9.3)
  • Romanticism has taught us to mock the ponderousness and strictures of institutions, their tendencies to corruption and the tolerance of mediocrity. The ideal of the intellectual has been that of a free spirit living beyond the confines of any system, disdainful of money, and cut off from practical affairs.” (10.i.1)
  • Why should only phones and shampoos benefit from coherent retail identities?” (10.i.3)
  • Because we are embodied creatures - sensory animals as well as rational beings - we stand to be lastingly influenced by concepts only when they come at us through a variety of channels ... in what we wear, eat, sing, decorate our houses with and bathe in.” (10.i.4)

An incredibly thought-provoking (and timely) book. Beautifully written, both easy to read and lyrical, and with many illustrations who, together with their captions, add a considerable amount to the text,

Alain de Botton has also written How Proust can change your life

August 2019; 312

Sunday, 25 August 2019

"The Spinning Heart" by Donal Ryan

This book was longlisted for the Booker and the Guardian First Book Award in 2013; it won Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2012.

Eire following the financial crisis. One moment houses were being built all over the place, the next no one wants to buy them. Pokey Burke's building firm has gone bust, leaving a whole community full of unemployed men who hadn't realised Pokey wasn't paying their stamps or their tax and a ghost estate with just two inhabited houses.

This is a tale told by many different people. It starts with Bobby Mahon, Pokey's foreman and all round good guy except that he hates his father. It encompasses Pokey's father, who gave the building firm to his son when he retired, and Pokey's lesbian sister. It includes the town whore who sent her son to law school. It includes Realtin, the young girl living in one of the two houses with her son, Dylan, and Dylan's father, local lothario Seanie Shaper. It includes the corner and cost-cutting owner of the day care nursery which Dylan attends, and the male Montessori-qualified teacher who gets a job at the nursery, and his computer-game addicted friend. It ends with Bobby's wife.

Almost half way through Bobby's father is murdered and Dylan is kidnapped. Of course we want to know whodunnit, and is the kid OK? But these plot-chasing urges are secondary to the joy of listening to these tangled testimonies from a close-knit town whose ideas of what is right and what is wrong are being challenged by the shock of the recession.

Beautiful writing.

Some of my favourite moments:
  • My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead. Every day he lets me down. He hasn't yet missed a day of letting me down. He smiles at me; that terrible smile. He knows I'm coming to check is he dead.” (Bobby)
  • There are many ways, you know, to kill a man, especially an old, frail man, which wouldn't look like murder. It wouldn't be murder anyway, just putting the skids under nature.” (Bobby)
  • They loved him, or loved the thought of him, what they thought he was: a man who could easily have had a good life who chose instead their life: spite and bitterness and age-fogged glasses of watery whiskey in dark, cobwebbed country bars, shit-smeared toilets, blood-streaked piss, and early death. He could have helped it but didn't. They couldn't help it and loved him for being worse than them. He was the king of the wasters. He bought drink for men he didn't like and listen to their yarns and their sodden stories.” (Bobby)
  • Sober, he was a watcher, a horror of a man who missed nothing and commented on everything.” (Bobby)
  • "Here am I, like an orphaned child, bereft, filling up with the fear like a boat filling with water.” (Bobby)
  • Isn't it a secret duty, to rear your children? I got that all turned around in my head, of course. I confused providing for them with rearing them. I got a fixation on work and having enough money that waxed and waned for my whole adult life, but was always there.” (Josie)
  • Pokey ...had a ledger inside his head in which every single move I made was entered, and it never, ever balanced in his favour.” (Josie)
  • She thought I couldn't understand. She was right and wrong: I didn't know the words, just their meaning.” (Vasya)
  • The Irish men would look at me in mock astonishment and then look at each other and roar with laughter ... I would feel happy, and then remember to be ashamed of myself for being a clown to please other men.” (Vasya)
  • It kills Daddy not to be able to talk to him about hurling and cars and machinery and whatever men do be fascinated by when they're not ruining women's lives.” (Realtin)
  • We're all afraid of our lives of upsetting our parents. Why is it at all? Why have we to be bound by this fear of the feelings of others?” (Brian)
  • Schizophrenia is splitting in two and then falling to pieces.” (Trevor)
  • I know I shouldn't think these things over and over again but you may as well ask a bee to leave the flowers alone.” (Bridie)
  • “I still believe I did good work at the convent with those unfortunate young ladies. I made them feel good about themselves and showed them how to give a handjob without rupturing a man's helmet.That's a valuable lifeskill.” (Seanie)
  • I'd say your man just wanted a job where he wouldn't have to be near manly men, spitting and farting talking about their balls and making each other feel like shit about themselves. Why do fellas do that? They’re always slagging each other and calling each other queer and trying to outdo each other like fools.” (Kate)
  • Sweat is fine when it's fresh, on lovely hard muscle, but when it's dripping off a big flabby man-boob or dried into a filthy T-shirt it's a different thing altogether.” (Kate)
  • “What would Jesus have done? ... How would I know what Jesus would have done?That fella was a mass of contradictions as far as I can see. One minute he says to turn the other cheek, the next minute he's having a big strop and kicking over lads’ market stalls. He says blessed are the meek and he goes round shouting and roaring the odds to everyone. He rises from the dead and then shags off a few weeks later and leaves his buddies in the shit.” (Rory)
  • Leaving the herd isn’t safe. You’re the loose gazelle that the lion will chase.” (Mags)
  • There’s no man on this earth can even be assured he'll have a next day.” (Frank)
  • He spent a whole day with his bony arse in the air as he chipped and hacked and sanded, an acute angle of unnatural adolescent concentration.” (Triona)
  • Some people, like Bobby, take on the troubles of others and others can't see anything past their own.” (Triona)
  • "Jesus, the sweet scandal, it must have been almost too rich for their pill-thinned blood." (Triona)
August 2019; 156 pages

Other Irish fiction recently reviewed:

Saturday, 24 August 2019

"Last Post" by Ford Madox Ford

This is the final part of the Parade’s End tetralogy, written, apparently, in response to fans who wanted FMF to wrap up some of the looser ends in the tangled mess of family relationships that had been explored previously in Some Do Not, No More Parades, and A Man Could Stand Up

This book, set in a single place and on a single afternoon, has all the surviving major players are gathered in one place. It is a country cottage owned by Christopher Tietjens; outside on this hill under a thatched roof lies his brother Mark, owner of Groby, who is speechless either through wilfulness or as a result of a stroke he may have suffered on Armistice Day. Around this sickbed are Gunning, a servant of the family and Marie Leonie, Mark’s long time mistress and more recently his wife. To disturb him two visitors arrive: an American woman who has leased the ancestral home, Groby, and who is ostensibly seeking permission to cut down the Great Tree of Groby which is supposedly the tallest cedar in England, and the heir to Groby, Christopher’s son (although he might be the son of another man) who calls himself Mark in the family tradition although his mother, Christopher’s estranged wife Sylvia, calls him Michael. The first part of this story is told through the inner monologues of these characters.

Events start to move in the second part when Sylvia arrives with General Campion who tells her that he will not marry her and make an honest woman of her (he can’t at the moment anyway since she has so far resolutely refused to divorce Christopher and he believes a man must never divorce a woman). Sylvia attempts to go into the house where she encounters Valentine, Christopher’s mistress.

It may sound convoluted but these tensions have built up over three previous books. But FMF doesn’t have make a meal of each character going over everything again. The only one who doesn’t get a say is Christopher himself, who is away from home and only returns right at the end.

So this is a highly formal book, set over an afternoon, full of interior monologue and a little dialogue, with very little action and endless rumination in which we see the convoluted family dynamics from nearly every point of view. It isn’t a page turned unless you have so bought in to these characters that you are desperate to know what will happen next. It is supposed to resolve the family saga which it does to the satisfaction of one of the characters but perhaps not in terms of any of the others.

There are some great lines:
  • Thet cider was arder than a miser’s art or’n ole maid’s tongue. Body it ad. Strength it ad. Stans to reason. Ten year cider. Not a drop was drunk in Lordship’s ouse under ten years in cask.” (B1C1)
  • Her mind, in fact, was like a cupboard, stuffed, packed with the most incongruous materials, tools, vessels and debris. Once the door was opened you never knew what would tumble out or be followed by what.” (B1C1)
  • "He was a man and it is the nature of men to treat women with treachery, lust and meanness.” (B1C1)
  • When the Sovereign died what did the Heir, his concubines, courtiers and sycophants do to the Maintenon of the day? What precautions ought she not to be taking against that wrath to come?” (B1C2)
  • The rich are noted for hardness of heart, and brother will prey upon brother’s widow sooner than on another.” (B1C2)
  • English people of good class do not dress for dinner on Sundays. That is a politeness to God, because theoretically you attend evening service and you do not go to church in the country in evening dress. As a matter of fact you never go to evening service—but it is complimentary to suggest by your dress that you might be visited by the impulse.” (B1C2)
  • “Queer things the Gentry can do to you still if they notice you. It is all very well to say this is a land fit for whatever the word is that stands for simple folk. They have the police and the keepers in their hands and your cottages and livings.” (B1C3)
  • He could not imagine why anyone should dislike Marie Antoinette. Yet very likely she was dislikeable. The French, who were sensible people, had cut her head off, so they presumably disliked her.” (B1C4)
  • No doubt, twenty years of listening to the almost ceaseless but never disagreeable conversation of Marie Léonie had been a liberal education.” (B1C4)
  • days so degenerate that even the young of tom-tits could not restrain their chirpings in face of their appetites." (B1C4)
  • Christ was a sort of an Englishman, and Englishmen did not, as a rule, refuse to do their jobs.” (B1C5)
  • Marriage, if you do not regard it as a sacrament—as, no doubt, it ought to be regarded—was nothing more than a token that a couple intended to stick to each other. Nowadays people—the right people—bothered precious little about anything but that. A constant change of partners was a social nuisance; you could not tell whether you could or couldn’t invite a couple together to a tea—fight. And society existed for social functions. That was why promiscuity was no good. For social functions you had to have an equal number of men and women, or someone got left out of conversations, and so you had to know who, officially in the social sense, went with whom.”(B1C5)
  • Beauty and truth have a way of appearing to be akin” (B2C1)
  • It was as if a man should have jumped out of a frying-pan into—a duckpond.” (B2C1)
  • God is probably—and very rightly—on the side of the stuffy domesticities. Otherwise the world could not continue—the children would not be healthy. And certainly God desired the production of large crops of healthy children.” (B2C2)

August 2019

Ford Madox Ford also wrote The Good Soldier, a superb novel.

Friday, 23 August 2019

"Kipps" by H G Wells

The story of Arthur Kipps, draper's apprentice, was the book behind the musical Half A Sixpence, starring Tommy Steele. It was written by H G Wells, best known for his science fiction such as The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine but also the author of The History of Mr Polly, Tono-Bungay and Love and Mr Lewisham. A decent biography of this remarkable man is H G Wells by Lovat Dickson.

Arthur Kipps is a "norphan" living with his aunt and uncle; he goes to school and is then sent away to be a draper's assistance in Folkestone. The misery of his servitude is chronicled until he is knocked down by a bicycle ridden by an actor with whom he gets drunk, stays out all night and is sacked from his job. It is at the depths of his misery that he is suddenly made rich and required to join posh society: his struggles to fit in and his social clangers form a great deal of the humour of this book. He becomes engaged to a posh lady but his heart still remains with the sister of his best friend when he was a boy. Veering between savage social commentary and farcical humour this delightful book chronicles the ups and downs of Kipps' life.

Kipps is explicitly a  three act drama:
The First Book (about 35% of the text) is entitled “The Making of Kipps” and charts his childhood, his education, and his apprenticeship in The Emporium. This is written quite angrily and there is some cutting social comment.

The Second Book (the next 47% of the text) shows how the Innocent (and possibly Holy) Fool Kipps is inducted into society. Other people clearly want to take advantage of his wealth. Kipps spends all his time making mistakes; he tries to fit in but every time it goes wrong. This section climaxes in an escape to London where there are scenes of farce as he tips everyone in the hotel and manages to cause an uproar with his food in the posh restaurant.

The Third Book (crammed into the last 18% of the text are some very swift turning points) follows Kipps after he and Anne have got married and how they adjust to a humbler life.

But the turning points (spoiler alert for this section) don't necessarily match these book boundaries.
  • The ‘half a sixpence’ lover’s token with Anne; this incidence ends his childhood and K goes to become an apprentice: 6%
  • Kipps starts the wood-carving class with Miss Walsingham: 14%
  • Chitterlow the actor runs into Kipps: 19%
  • Kipps gets the sack: 25%
  • Kipps comes into money: 29%
  • Kipps becomes engaged: 47%
  • Kipps meets Anne again ... and doesn’t tell her that he is engaged: 59%
  • Kipps runs away to London: 65%; he meets the socialist
  • The farcical scene in the restaurant of The Grand Hotel: 71%
  • Kipps encounters Ann at the Anagram Tea ... and runs away again: 74%; This follows almost immediately on from the farce.
  • Kipps is reconciled with Anne and proposes: 79%
  • Kipps and Anne row about the Callers: 92%
  • Kipps loses all his money: 93%
  • Their child is born: 97%
  • Their fortunes are restored by Chitterlow: 98%
The key character is Kipps. He is the only one who is rounded, the only one to develop, the only one to have anything like a character arc. The others are mostly Dickensian-style caricatures:
  • The Aunt and Uncle with their limited horizons and their stereotypical concerns: “His aunt and uncle were already high on the hill of life when first he came to them. They had married for comfort in the evening or, at any rate, in the late afternoon of their days.”
  • The evil boss Mr Shalford
  • The flamboyant actor Mr Chitterlow
  • The cool love interest Helen Walsingham
  • The childhood sweetheart Anne
  • The best mate Sid

There is some lovely foreshadowing:
  • ‘There's lots of young noblemen'll be glad to 'eng on to you,’ said old Kipps. ‘You mark my words. And borry your money. And then good-day to ye.’ ‘I got to be precious careful,’ said Kipps. ‘Mr Bean said that.’ ‘And you got to be precious careful of this old Bean,’ said old Kipps. ‘We may be out of the world in Noo Romney, but I've ’eard a bit about solicitors for all that. You keep your eye on old Bean me b'y. ‘’Ow do we know what 'e's up to, with your money, even now?’ said old Kipps, pursuing this uncomfortable topic. ‘’ E looked very respectable,’ said Kipps.
One of the techniques is to describe settings by listing details as here, for example:
  • The memories Kipps carried from that school into after-life were set in an atmosphere of stuffiness and mental muddle, and included countless pictures of sitting on creaking forms bored and idle; of blot licking and the taste of ink; of torn books with covers that set one's teeth on edge; of the slimy surface of the laboured slates; of furtive marble-playing, whispered storytelling, and of pinches, blows, and a thousand such petty annoyances being perpetually ‘passed on’ according to the custom of the place; of standing up in class and being hit suddenly and unreasonably for imaginary misbehaviour; of Mr Woodrow's raving days, when a scarcely sane injustice prevailed; of the cold vacuity of the hour of preparation before the bread-and-butter breakfast; and of horrible headaches and queer, unprecedented internal feelings, resulting from Mrs Woodrow's motherly rather than intelligent cookery.
Wells also understands about word order in sentences: “Once, just once, there was a chemistry lesson – a lesson of indescribable excitement – glass things of the strangest shape, a smell like bad eggs, something bubbling in something, a smash and stench, and Mr Woodrow saying quite distinctly – they threshed it out in the dormitory afterwards – ‘Damn!’” This last sentence is an authorial masterpiece drawing attention not just to the word order with the key word being placed at the very end of the sentence but also using that interrupt to delay the single word climax.

There were laugh out loud moments. The scene in which Kipps, alone in London, causes havoc in the restaurant of the Grand Hotel is a scene of classic farce.

Wells is scornful of the school to which Kipps goes:
  • In a glass cupboard in the passage were several shillingsworth of test-tubes and chemicals, a tripod, a glass retort, and a damaged Bunsen burner, manifesting that the ‘Scientific laboratory’ mentioned in the prospectus was no idle boast.
  • there was much furtive foul language
  • ‘Sundays are our happiest days,’ was one of Woodrow's formulae with the inquiring parent, but Kipps was not called in evidence. They were to him terrible gaps of inanity, no work, no play – a drear expanse of time with the mystery of church twice and plum-duff 18 once in the middle. The afternoon was given up to furtive relaxations, among which ‘Torture Chamber’ games with the less agreeable weaker boys figured. ... It was from the difference between this day and common days that Kipps derived his first definite conceptions of the nature of God and heaven. His instinct was to evade any closer acquaintance as long as he could.

There is some very anti-capitalist rhetoric. This is placed into the mouths of two characters, one a fellow apprentice with Kipps and one a consumptive old man living with Sid. This second, which is extensive, is immediately followed by the farcical scene in the Grand Hotel which itself is immediately followed by the crisis in Kipps' love life. So although Wells allows himself some pages to rant he is aware that he must return pretty swiftly to his story.
  • ‘When you get too old to work they chuck you away ... we're in a blessed drain-pipe, and we've got to crawl along it till we die.’
  • This was to be his life until his days should end. No adventures, no glory, no change, no freedom. Neither – though force of that came home to him later–might he dream of effectual love and marriage.
  • Night after night he would resolve to enlist, to run away to sea, to set fire to the warehouse or drown himself, and morning after morning he rose up and hurried downstairs in fear of a sixpenny fine.
  • money, like everything else – is a deception and a disappointment.
  • people think there is a class or order somewhere just above them or just below them, or a country or place somewhere that is really safe and happy… . The fact is, Society is one body, and it is either well or ill.
  • we're going to have a pretty acute attack of universal confusion. Universal confusion. Like one of those crushes when men are killed and maimed for no reason at all, going into a meeting or crowding for a train. Commercial and Industrial Stresses. Political Exploitation. Tariff Wars. Revolutions. All the bloodshed that will come of some fools calling half the white world yellow. These things alter the attitude of everybody to everybody. Everybody's going to feel 'em. Every fool in the world panting and shoving. We're all going to be as happy and comfortable as a household during a removal.
  • To-day ... the world is ruled by rich men; they may do almost anything they like with the world. And what are they doing? Laying it waste!
  • They grudge us our schools, they grudge us a gleam of light and air, they cheat us, and then seek to forget us.”
  • Our multitudes of poverty increase, and this crew of rulers makes no provision, foresees nothing, anticipates nothing!
  • I found myself at thirteen being forced into a factory like a rabbit into a chloroformed box. Thirteen! – when their children are babies. But even a child of that age could see what it meant, that Hell of a factory! Monotony and toil and contempt and dishonour! And then death.

There is a lot of stuff about behaving in polite society ... and the perils of failure:
  • “It was clear his only chance of concealing his bottomless baseness was to hold his tongue
  • “It had not yet come to Kipps to acknowledge any man as his better in his heart of hearts. When one does that the game is played, and one grows old indeed.
  • The rug, the fender, the mantel and mirror, conspired with great success to make him look a trivial and intrusive little creature amidst their commonplace hauteur, and his own shadow on the opposite wall seemed to think everything a great lark, and mocked and made tremendous fun of him…
  • Kipps was unprepared for the unpleasant truth – that the path of social advancement is, and must be, strewn with broken friendships.
  • Outwardly calm, or at most a little flushed and ruffled, inwardly Kipps was a horrible, tormented battleground of scruples, doubts, shames, and self-assertions
  • “At his departure Kipps, with a hot face, convulsive gestures, and an embittered heart, tipped everyone who did not promptly and actively resist, including an absent-minded South African diamond merchant who was waiting in the hall for his wife.
  • ‘You ain't comfortable, my gel, in this world, not if you don't live up to your position,’
Some great lines:
  • At meals ... one had to say one's ‘grace,’ hold one's spoon and fork in mad, unnatural ways called ‘properly,’ and refrain from eating even nice sweet things ‘too fast.’
  • Once his aunt gave him a trumpet if he would promise faithfully not to blow it, and afterwards took it away again.
  • “Rye and Winchelsea perched like dream-cities on their little hills.
  • They had not kissed, but all the guilt of kissing was between them.
  • By the nature of his training he was indistinct in his speech, confused in his mind, and retreating in his manners.”
  • His conception of a satisfactory municipal life was to ‘keep down the rates.’”
  • He had developed a sort of idea that going to church had a tendency to alleviate life.
  • Certain things remained quite clearly, and as it is a matter of common knowledge that intoxicated people forget what happens to them, it follows that he was not intoxicated.
  • He felt that telling was the thing to make this business real.
  • Everybody walked about backward at court he knew, when not actually on their knees.
  • Turning over the pages of the Physiology again, he came upon a striking plate, in which a youth of agreeable profile displayed his interior in an unstinted manner to the startled eye. It was a new view of humanity altogether for Kipps, and it arrested his mind. ‘Chubes,’ he whispered. ‘Chubes!’
  • Whenever he thought of any extensive change in a play he was writing, he always took a day off. In the end it saved time to do so. It prevented his starting rashly upon work that might have to be re-written. There was no good in doing work when you might have to do it over again, none whatever.
  • No doubt this was seeing life, but had he particularly wanted to see life that day?
  • ‘You'd hardly believe,’ Coote said, ‘how much you can get out of books. Provided you avoid trashy reading, that is. You ought to make a rule, Kipps, and read one Serious Book a week. Of course we can Learn even from Novels, Nace Novels that is, but it isn't the same thing as serious reading. I made a rule, One Serious Book and One Novel – no more.
  • Kipps descended to tea in that state of nervous apprehension at the difficulties of eating and drinking that his Aunt's knuckle rappings had implanted in him for ever.”
  • Room to swing a cat, it seemed, was absolutely essential. It was an infrequent but indispensable operation.
  • He loved Helen, he revered Helen. He was also beginning to hate her with some intensity.
  • He knew that wherever you were, so soon as you were thoroughly lost, you said ‘Hi!’ to a cab, and then ‘Royal Grend Hotel.’ Day and night these trusty conveyances are returning the strayed Londoner back to his point of departure, and were it not for their activity, in a little while the whole population, so vast and incomprehensible is the intricate complexity of this great city, would be hopelessly lost for ever.
  • His soul looked out upon life in general as a very small nestling might peep out of its nest. What an extraordinary thing life was to be sure, and what a remarkable variety of people there were in it!
  • He found that a fork in his inexperienced hand was an instrument of chase rather than capture.
  • They meditated upon replicas of classical statuary without excessive comment. Kipps said, at large, it must have been a queer world then; but Ann very properly doubted if they really went about like that.
  • ‘I wonder 'ow all these old antediluvium animals got extinct,’ he asked. ‘No one couldn't possibly 'ave killed 'em.’ ‘Why, I know that!’ said Ann. ‘They was overtook by the Flood… .’ Kipps meditated for a while. ‘But I thought they had to take two of everything there was—’ ‘Within reason they 'ad,'
  • ‘Why do I never get anything right?’ Kipps asked of a bright implacable universe.

This is a story with some moments of anger, some very funny sections, and some parts where you feel so sorry for poor old Arthur Kipps, the Holy Fool. It is also a story with a lot of ups and downs and full of incident.

August 2019

Thursday, 22 August 2019

"The Mill on the Floss" by George Eliot

This is a classic work by the author of Middlemarch, Romola, Adam Bede, and Silas Marner. It traces the relationship of brother and sister Tom and Maggie Tulliver

Eliot is remarkably good at an unsentimental depiction of children. The pair fight and quarrel, Maggie does daft things because she is impetuous and Tom does daft things because he is inflexible. But they're kids. Of course, you could blame their parents. Mr Tulliver is impetuous and inflexible and as a result is repeatedly going to law to protect his rights as mill-owner. In the end this proves his downfall and he becomes bankrupt, managing the mill for new owner Mr Wakem, the lawyer who defeated him, who becomes the family's bete-noire. But Philip Wakem, hunch-backed son of the lawyer, was friends with Tom at school and has fallen in love with Maggie. As the children grow into adulthood can Maggie and Philip overcome the Capulet and Montague emnity of their families? And then other problems arise as Maggie becomes entangled with Stephen, heir to the rich Guest family and boyfriend of Maggie's favourite cousin Lucy.

It is a classic Victorian novel, around the perennial Victorian theme of "the shifting relation between passion and duty”: the adult Tom more or less represents duty and Maggie more or less represents passion although much of the battle between these forces happens within Maggie herself. At one point she says to herself: “Love is natural; but surely pity and faithfulness and memory are natural too.” There is the ever present Victorian theme of disgrace: the disgrace of 'failure' when Mr Tulliver becomes bankrupt and the threat of disgrace is a girl spends time alone with a boy. These are difficult to translate in all their awfulness to the modern mind. Also difficult are the passages in which lovers declare their passions in grand language and then are swept away into passionate religious experiences of renunciation. This sometimes tips the novel into melodrama.

Eliot draws some wonderful characters.

Tom is possibly dyslexic: “He isn’t not to say stupid; he's got a notion ‘ things out o’ door, an’ a sort o’ common sense, as he’d lay hold o’ things by the right handle. But he's slow with his tongue, you see, and he reads but poorly, and can’t abide the books, and spells all wrong, they tell me.”
He is also shy: “He stood looking at nothing in particular, with the blushing, awkward air and semi-smile which are common to shy boys when in company—very much as if they had come into the world by mistake, and found it in a degree of undress that was quite embarrassing.
But his principal characteristic, at least once he has grown, is his determination to hold to whatever course he has fixed. This is already shown in his childhood quarrel with Bob in which, reluctantly, he forfeits the joys of hunting rats because Bob has tried to cheat him. Tom is resolute duty. This trait stays with him through life: “If Tom had told his strongest feeling at that moment, he would have said, ‘I’d do just the same again.’ That was his usual mode of viewing his past actions; whereas Maggie was always wishing she had done something different.
Tom was not fond of quarrelling, unless it could soon be put an end to by a fair stand-up fight with an adversary whom he had every chance of thrashing
Tom, like every one of us, was imprisoned within the limits of his own nature, and his education had simply glided over him, leaving a slight deposit of polish: if you are inclined to be severe on his severity, remember that the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision.
I think many people look on the adult Tom and see him as an antagonist but I think GE understands his strengths and weaknesses and, with Maggie I suspect, forgives Tom for his later behaviour.

Maggie is impulsive. When the aunts praise pretty Lucy and criticise Maggie's untameable hair she goes upstairs and cuts her hair off: “She didn’t want her hair to look pretty—that was out of the question—she only wanted people to think her a clever little girl, and not to find fault with her.” Then, too late, she regrets it: “She could see clearly enough, now the thing was done, that it was very foolish, and that she should have to hear and think more about her hair than ever; for Maggie rushed to her deeds with passionate impulse, and then saw not only their consequences, but what would have happened if they had not been done, with all the detail and exaggerated circumstance of an active imagination.
Maggie is, perhaps, better than Tom because she knows when she has done wrong but he doesn't: “Sometimes when I have done wrong, it has been because I have feelings that you would be the better for, if you had them.
If you had done anything very wrong, I should be sorry for the pain it brought you; I should not want punishment to be heaped on you. But you have always enjoyed punishing me—you have always been hard and cruel to me: even when I was a little girl.
Tom says about Maggie that he can “never feel certain about anything with you. At one time you take pleasure in a sort of perverse self-denial, and at another you have not resolution to resist a thing that you know to be wrong.
GE has Maggie think: “It seemed as if he held a glass before her to show her her own folly and weakness—as if he were a prophetic voice predicting her future fallings—and yet, all the while, she judged him in return: she said inwardly that he was narrow and unjust” and then say: “you ought not to treat me with hard contempt on the ground of faults that I have not committed yet.

Philip Wakem, hunchbacked son of the Lawyer, is sensitive and intelligent and a perfect mate for Maggie. But he can be angry and his anger is often triggered by references to his deformity, a sadness which haunts his whole life:
Philip felt indifference as a child of the south feels the chill air of a northern spring.
Philip had only lived fifteen years, but those years had, most of them, been steeped in the sense of a lot irremediably hard.
Like all persons who have passed through life with little expectation of sympathy, he seldom lost his self-control and shrank with the most sensitive pride from any noticeable betrayal of emotion.
Philip is a renaissance man, though he sees himself as no more than a dilettante: “I think of too many things—sow all sorts of seeds, and get no great harvest from any one of them. I’m cursed with susceptibility in every direction, and effective faculty in none. I care for painting and music; I care for classic literature, and mediæval literature, and modern literature: I flutter all ways, and fly in none.
One of Philip's roles is to argue that Maggie should be what we would now call 'true to herself'; he does this from the point of view of one who must accept the limitations on his life which his deformity has engenedered but bitterly refuses to allow himself to be so limited: “You are shutting yourself up in a narrow self-delusive fanaticism, which is only a way of escaping pain by starving into dullness all the highest powers of your nature. Joy and peace are not resignation: resignation is the willing endurance of a pain that is not allayed—that you don’t expect to be allayed. Stupefaction is not resignation: and it is stupefaction to remain in ignorance—to shut up all the avenues by which the life of your fellow-men might become known to you. I am not resigned: I am not sure that life is long enough to learn that lesson. You are not resigned: you are only trying to stupefy yourself.
Later he tells her: “You want to find out a mode of renunciation that will be an escape from pain. I tell you again, there is no such escape possible except by perverting or mutilating one’s nature. What would become of me, if I tried to escape from pain? Scorn and cynicism would be my only opium; unless I could fall into some kind of conceited madness, and fancy myself a favourite of Heaven because I am not a favourite with men.

Mrs Tulliver is a meek and mild woman: “Mrs Tulliver never went the length of quarrelling with her, any more than a waterfowl that puts out its leg in a deprecating manner can be said to quarrel with a boy who throws stones.
She is most affected by her husband's bankruptcy (she spends years ineffectually warning him against going to law but he always ignores her) by the loss of her 'best' household linen and her silver teapot; a very property-based understanding of tragedy.

Mr Tulliver contains the impetuosity of Maggie with the determination of Tom. It is his insistence that he will go to law that brings on the family's bankruptcy; it is his feud with Lawyer Wakem that brings on Mr T's apoplectic death.
Mr T holds grudges. Some of his actions are done deliberately as a way of spiting his enemy. For example, when he is told that Lawyer Wakem's son is to go to the same tutor as Tom it makes him more determined to send Tom: “if Wakem thinks o’ sending his son to a clergyman, depend on it I shall make no mistake i’ sending Tom to one. Wakem’s as big a scoundrel as Old Harry ever made, but he knows the length of every man’s foot he’s got to deal with. Ay, ay, tell me who’s Wakem’s butcher, and I’ll tell you where to get your meat.
He has a row with Aunt Glegg which leads to him refusing to continue borrowing money from her (which leads to the financial pressures which lead to his downfall).
‘O, I say nothing,’ said Mrs Glegg, sarcastically. ‘My advice has never been asked, and I don’t give it.’
‘It’ll be the first time, then,’ said Mr Tulliver. ‘It’s the only thing you’re over-ready at giving.’
‘I’ve been over-ready at lending, then, if I haven’t been over-ready at giving,’ said Mrs Glegg. ‘There’s folks I’ve lent money to, as perhaps I shall repent o’ lending money to kin.’”
Law was a sort of cock-fight, in which it was the business of injured honesty to get a game bird with the best pluck and the strongest spurs.
Mr Tulliver has, perhaps, one of the saddest character arcs when he is transformed from the fighting cock into the defeated failure:
To save something towards the repayment of those creditors was the object towards which he was now bending all his thoughts and efforts; and under the influence of this all-compelling demand of his nature, the somewhat profuse man, who hated to be stinted or to stint any one else in his own house, was gradually metamorphosed into the keen-eyed grudger of morsels.
Mr Tulliver did not want spiritual consolation—he wanted to shake off the degradation of debt, and to have his revenge.”

The Aunts
There is a large cast of important supporting characters offering perfect cameo roles for character actors. These are mostly Mrs Tulliver's sisters and their husbands. These 'aunts' are comically conceived but also represent the forces of public opinion in all its shades:
  • When one of the family was in trouble or sickness, all the rest went to visit the unfortunate member, usually at the same time, and did not shrink from uttering the most disagreeable truths that correct family feeling dictated: if the illness or trouble was the sufferer’s own fault, it was not in the practice of the Dodson family to shrink from saying so.
  • There was a general family sense that a judgment had fallen on Mr Tulliver, which it would be an impiety to counteract by too much kindness.
Mrs Glegg is the childless aunt and is therefore most expected to be a source of a legacy for Tom and Maggie some day but she is also the one who stands most on the dignity of the Dodsons (Mrs T’s maiden name) and sees kin as a wall dividing those who matter from those who don’t. She always accuses her husband Mr G if keeping her in the dark and doing whatever it is she still needs persuading to do. Both of them are very cautious with their money, of which they have quite a lot; Mrs G cloaks her refusal to give anyone any charity in a cloak of the morality of people should stand on their own two feet; this will become particularly poignant when Mr T becomes bankrupt and the Aunts refuse to help.
  • She despised the advantages of costume, for though, as she often observed, no woman had better clothes, it was not her way to wear her new things out before her old ones.
  • "To look out on the weekday world from under a crisp and glossy front, would be to introduce a most dreamlike and unpleasant confusion between the sacred and the secular.
  • Mrs Glegg held her large gold watch in her hand with the many-doubled chain round her fingers, and observed to Mrs Tulliver, who had just returned from a visit to the kitchen, that whatever it might be by other people’s clocks and watches, it was gone half-past twelve by hers.”
  • "It’s right as somebody should talk to ’em, and let ’em know their condition i’ life, and what they’re come down to, and make ’em feel as they’ve got to suffer for their father’s faults.
Mr Glegg is wonderfully hen-pecked but he has some character of his own:
  • Mr Glegg, having retired from active business as a wool-stapler, for the purpose of enjoying himself through the rest of his life, had found this last occupation so much more severe than his business, that he had been driven into amateur hard labour as a dissipation, and habitually relaxed by doing the work of two ordinary gardeners.
  • There was no humbug or hypocrisy about Mr Glegg: his eyes would have watered with true feeling over the sale of a widow’s furniture, which a five-pound note from his side-pocket would have prevented; but a donation of five pounds to a person ‘in a small way of life’ would have seemed to him a mad kind of lavishness rather than ‘charity,’
Mrs Deane has a lovely daughter Lucy who always looks so beautiful (in comparison with Maggie whose beauty lies in her wildness rather than her ability to look good in beautiful clothes).

Mr Deane has worked his way up into a partnership with one of the bigger firms in the locality.
  • Mr Deane’s box had been given him by the superior partners in the firm to which he belonged, at the same time that they gave him a share in the business, in acknowledgment of his valuable services as manager. No man was thought more highly of in St Ogg’s than Mr Deane.
Mrs Pullet is always convinced that she is about to die and is always reminded of her mortality by an excessive interest in the illnesses of others. Mr Pullet is rich and they have their own carriage.
  • Mrs Pullet had married a gentleman farmer, and had leisure and money to carry her crying and everything else to the highest pitch of respectability.
One of the most important other characters is Bob, the lower class boy Tom befriends as a child, who grows up to become a trickster with a heart of gold.

  • If I wasn’t to take a fool in now and then, he’d niver get any wiser.”
  • He doesn’t mind a bit o’ cheating, when it’s them skinflint women, as haggle an’ haggle, an’ ’ud like to get their flannel for nothing, an’ ’ud niver ask theirselves how I got my dinner out on’t. I niver cheat anybody as doesn’t want to cheat me”
  • There is a wonderful scene in which Bob chats and charms Aunt Glegg into buying some cloth and investing in a scheme for Tom; it is a mini comic masterpiece of the servant conning the master.
Social matters
For a book about the middle class, Eliot is also very understanding of the poor:

  • We live from hand to mouth, most of us, with a small family of immediate desires; we do little else than snatch a morsel to satisfy the hungry brood, rarely thinking of seed corn or the next year's crop.
  • The human faces had no sunshine in them, but rather the leaden, blank-eyed gaze of unexpectant want.
  • The pride and obstinacy of millers and other insignificant people, whom you pass unnoticingly on the road every day, have their tragedy too; but it is of that unwept, hidden sort, that goes on from generation to generation, and leaves no record.
  • "Human life—very much of it—is a narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate, but rather tends to exhibit in all its bare vulgarity of conception
  • Good society ... is of very expensive production; requiring nothing less than a wide and arduous national life condensed in unfragrant deafening factories, cramping itself in mines, sweating at furnaces, grinding, hammering, weaving under more or less oppression of carbonic acid.
  • Some of the poor seek to escape but the others seek ways to bear their yoke: “Some have an emphatic belief in alcohol ... but the rest require ... something that will give patience and feed human love when the limbs ache with weariness, and human looks are hard upon us—something, clearly, that lies outside personal desires, that includes resignation for ourselves and active love for what is not ourselves.” Is this the opiate of the people?
Eliot also makes some savagely ironic comments about male attitudes to women:

  • "An over ‘cute woman’s no better than a long-tailed sheep: she’ll fetch none the bigger price for that.”
  • What is the proper function of women, if it is not to make reasons for husbands to stay at home, and still stronger reasons for bachelors to go out.
  • We don’t ask what a woman does—we ask whom she belongs to.


  • Mr S’s main method of teaching is to assume that if the pupil hasn’t understood the first time they must repeat the lesson until they do “it turned out as uncomfortably for Tom Tulliver as if he had been plied with cheese in order to remedy a gastric weakness which prevented him from digesting it.
  • Tom wonders why people ever bother with Latin. “It would have taken a long while to make conceivable to him that there ever existed a people who bought and sold sheep and oxen, and transacted the everyday affairs of life, through the medium of this language, and still longer to make him understand why he should be called upon to learn it, when its connexion with those affairs had become entirely latent.
  • Education was almost entirely a matter of luck—usually of ill-luck—in those distant days.
  • All boys with any capacity could learn what it was the only regular thing to teach: if they were slow, the thumb-screw must be tightened.
  • Though he had never really applied his mind to any one of his lessons, the lessons had left a deposit of vague, fragmentary, ineffectual notions.

  • Public opinion (which is often represented by the Aunts):
  • To live respected, and have the proper bearers at your funeral, was an achievement of the ends of existence that would be entirely nullified if, on the reading of your will, you sank in the opinion of your fellow-men, either by turning out to be poorer than they expected”
  • The ladies of St Ogg’s were not beguiled by any wide speculative conceptions; but they had their favourite abstraction, called Society, which served to make their consciences perfectly easy in doing what satisfied their own egoism—thinking and speaking the worst of Maggie Tulliver, and turning their backs upon her.” 

Writing techniques:
There is one heck of a lot of foreshadowing. Most of it involves water:

  • Where's the use o my telling you to keep away from the water? You’ll tumble in and be drownded someday, and then you'll be sorry you didn't do as your mother told you.
  • The idea of Maggie sitting alone by the pond, roused an habitual fear in Mrs Tulliver’s mind, and she mounted the horse-block to satisfy herself by a sight of that fatal child ... ‘They’re such children for the water, mine are,’ she said aloud, without reflecting that there was no one to hear her; ‘they’ll be brought in dead and drownded some day. I wish that river was far enough.’”
  • At the start of book two we are told the legend of St Ogg who was a ferryman (aka Charon?). The local legend has him ferrying a woman across the who blessed him suggesting that those who went in his boat would always be safe: “from henceforth whoso steps into thy boat shall be in no peril from the storm; and whenever it puts forth to the rescue, it shall save the lives both of men and beasts.” Then, the story continues, “when the floods came, many were saved by reason of that blessing on the boat. But when Ogg the son of Beorl died, behold, in the parting of his soul, the boat loosed itself from its moorings, and was floated with the ebbing tide in great swiftness to the ocean, and was seen no more. Yet it was witnessed in the floods of aftertime, that at the coming on of eventide, Ogg the son of Beorl was always seen with his boat upon the wide-spreading waters, and the Blessed Virgin sat in the prow"
  • “There’s a story as when the mill changes hands, the river’s angry”
  • Journeying down the Rhone on a summer’s day, you have perhaps felt the sunshine made dreary by those ruined villages which stud the banks in certain parts of its course, telling how the swift river once rose, like an angry, destroying god, sweeping down the feeble generations whose breath is in their nostrils,* and making their dwellings a desolation.
  • And here are the dreams of two of the characters:
    • He fancied Maggie was slipping down a glistening, green, slimy channel of a waterfall, and he was looking on helpless, till he was awakened by what seemed a sudden, awful crash.
    • She was in a boat on the wide water with Stephen, and in the gathering darkness something like a star appeared, that grew and grew till they saw it was the Virgin seated in St Ogg’s boat, and it came nearer and nearer, till they saw the Virgin was Lucy and the boatman was Philip—no, not Philip, but her brother, who rowed past without looking at her; and she rose to stretch out her arms and call to him, and their own boat turned over with the movement,
  • "she will be selling her soul to that ghostly boatman who haunts the Floss—only for the sake of being drifted in a boat for ever.’
  • Getting into a boat is a disaster for Maggie, twice! It could be argued that the first disaster foreshadows what will happen in the second.

But there is also a lovely bit of foreshadowing when Mr T, wanting to recover a £300 loan to his sister who has married a poor farmer and has a large family, realises he can't get his money with ruining his sister. He decides that brothers must always look after sisters which will resonate with the Maggie Tom relationship:
They mustn’t look to hanging on their brothers.’
‘No; but I hope their brothers ’ull love the poor things, and remember they came o’ one father and mother’

‘I hope and pray he won’t go to law,’ said Mrs Moss, ‘for there’s never any knowing where that’ll end. And the right doesn’t allays win. This Mr Pivart’s a rich man, by what I can make out, and the rich mostly get things their own way.’

But, brilliantly, GE can avoid foreshadowing at critical moments. In the death-bed scene GE avoids the cliche that the father extorts from the daughter the promise to give up Wakem ... instead putting the burden on Tom to look after Maggie: “You must take care of her, Tom …. don’t you fret, my wench …. there’ll come somebody as’ll love you and take your part …. and you must be good to her, my lad. I was good to my sister.

Pathetic fallacy:
It is also attended by a beautiful bit of pathetic fallacy in which a baby has its rattle taken and squawks even when the rattle is returned: “was not to be appeased even by the restoration of the rattle, feeling apparently that the original wrong of having it taken from her remained in all its force.

Turning points

  • The moment when Maggie tells Tom that there father is bankrupt and has had a stroke.
  • Tom, he will lose the mill and the land, and everything; he will have nothing left.
  • The moment when Tom discovers that Maggie and Philip have been meeting in secret. Tom, self-righteous in his sense of his dignity threatened, is insulting and horrid to Philip, particularly because of Philip’s deformity. Philip fights back: “You have dragged your sister here, I suppose, that she may stand by while you threaten and insult me. These naturally seemed to you the right means to influence me. But you are mistaken. Let your sister speak. If she says she is bound to give me up, I shall abide by her wishes to the slightest word.” After the confrontation, Maggie is furious with Tom: “Don’t suppose that I think you are right, Tom, or that I bow to your will. I despise the feelings you have shown in speaking to Philip: I detest your insulting unmanly allusions to his deformity. You have been reproaching other people all your life—you have been always sure you yourself are right: it is because you have not a mind large enough to see that there is anything better than your own conduct and your own petty aims.

Key Incidents and Turning points: a 'timeline' of the novel:

There is a lot of incident. I have picked what seemed to me to stand out and tried to estimate where they come in the text:
9%: Tom quarrels with Bob; the pocket knife (B1C6)
12%: Maggie cuts her hair, demonstrating her impetuosity (B1C7)
13%: Mr T quarrels with Aunt G (B1C7)
16%: Mr T goes to his sister demonstrating that brothers must look after their sisters (B1C8)
20%: Maggie runs off to the gypsies (B1C11) which again, I suppose, demonstrates her impetuosity but seemed a bit far-fetched and unnecessary
22%: The legend of St Ogg (B1C12)
25%: Tom goes to school (B1C1)
34%: Tom hurts himself with the sword (B1C5)
35%: Maggie kisses Philip (B1C6)
36%: TP: Maggie tells Tom that they have lost their money (B1C7)
41%: Tom stands up to the Aunts (B3C3) In a character sense this is the making of Tom: his stubborn determination to restore the family’s good name will never waver from this point
47%: Mrs T persuades Waken to keep Mr T at the mill (B3C7)
55%: Maggie goes into a self-denying phase because of Thomas a Kempis (B4C3)
57%: Philip meets Maggie in the copse (B5C1)
59%: Bob starts Tom in business (B5C2)
62%: Philip rages against Maggie’s self-denial (B5C3): this is the theme of the book, the great Victorian theme of passion versus duty. It comes immediately after the great comic scene of Bob and Aunt Glegg.
66%: TP: Tom finds out about Philip and Maggie; there is a grand scene (B5C5)
67%: TP: Tom pays off his father’s debts (B5C6)
68%: Mr T thrashes lawyer Wakem (B5C7)
68%: Mr T dies (B5C6)
Following this disaster we move on a few years and have a sweet drawing room scene with sweet Lucy and her friends. In plot terms this is a bit like Shakespeare's two citizens who meet in a street and narrate what has been happening over the ensuing gap. In style terms we have moved from a moment of high drama, four key incidents crammed into a few pages, into a much more relaxing interlude.
72%: Stephen falls in love with Maggie while teaching her to row (B6C2)
74%: Tom and Maggie row again about Philip (B6C3)
76%: Tom is offered a share in the business but asks for the Mill instead (B6C5)
81%: Philip comes clean to his dad and persuades his father to sell Tom the Mill ... so that Philip can marry Maggie (B6C8)
89%: TP: Maggie goes for a row with Stephen, they pass their point; her reputation is besmirched (B6C14)
99%: The flood (B7C5)

It is interesting how the turning points are grouped together:
35%: Maggie kisses Philip (B1C6)
36%: Maggie tells Tom that they have lost their money (B1C7)
In terms of chronology these two incidents are spearated by a couple of years, in terms of pages they are almost adjacent. GE is moving from a delightful love moment into instant disaster.

66%: Tom finds out about Philip and Maggie; there is a grand scene (B5C5)
67%: Tom pays off his father’s debts (B5C6)
68%: Mr T thrashes lawyer Wakem (B5C7)
68%: Mr T dies (B5C6)
Thus, in a few pages, GE roller coasters from Tom's anger to Tom's triumph to Mr T's death. It is as if GE is saying that the personality of Mr T warps the triumph of repayment into an instant disaster. I understand this but might not the excitement have been spread out a bit to emphasise that very point?

89%: Maggie goes for a row with Stephen, they pass their landing point; her reputation is besmirched (B6C14)
Jane Smiley, in Thirteen ways of looking at a novel, says that the climax of a book comes at the 90% mark. This would mean that the climax of this book comes at the climax of a sub-plot only introduced at the start of Book 6. I mean, it is the climax of the theme of Maggie's impetuousity, and the immediate aftermath is an apparently irreconcilable breach between Tom and Maggie, but in terms of climax the death of Mr T would be it for me.

99%: The flood (B7C5)

Other great lines:

  • It's foolish work ... tearing things to pieces to sew ‘em together again.
  • I have often wondered whether those early Madonnas of Raphael, with the blond faces and somewhat stupid expression, kept their placidity undisturbed when their strong-limbed, strong-willed boys got a little too old to do without clothing.
  • He'd be expectin’ to take to the mill an’ the land, an’ a-hinting at me as it was time for me to lay by an’ think o’ my latter end. Nay, nay; I've seen enough o’ that wi’ sons. I’ll niver pull my coat off before I go to bed.
  •  “That's what brings folk to the gallows - knowin’ everything but what they’n got to get their bread by. An’ they’re mostly lies, I think, what’s printed i’ the books.”
  • What is life without a pocket-knife to him who has once tasted a higher existence?
  • For getting a strong impression that a skein is tangled, there is nothing like snatching hastily at a single thread.”
  • There’s folks as things ’ull allays go awk’ard with: empty sacks ’ull never stand upright.
  • The one point of interest to him in his toilette—he had transferred all the contents of his everyday pockets to those actually in wear.
  • The present time was like the level plain where men lose their belief in volcanoes and earthquakes, thinking to-morrow will be as yesterday, and the giant forces that used to shake the earth are for ever laid to sleep.
  • A time when cheap periodicals were not, and when country surgeons never thought of asking their female patients if they were fond of reading, but simply took it for granted that they preferred gossip; a time when ladies in rich silk gowns wore large pockets, in which they carried a mutton-bone to secure them against cramp.
  • People who seem to enjoy their ill-temper have a way of keeping it in fine condition by inflicting privations on themselves.
  • “‘You’re like a tipsy man as thinks everybody’s had too much but himself.’”
  • Mr Tulliver did not willingly write a letter, and found the relation between spoken and written language, briefly known as spelling, one of the most puzzling”
  • Having been married little more than two years, his leisure time had been much occupied with attentions to Mrs Stelling.
  • Snow lay on the croft and river-bank in undulations softer than the limbs of infancy
  • The plum-pudding was of the same handsome roundness as ever, and came in with the symbolic blue flames around it, as if it had been heroically snatched from the nether fires into which it had been thrown by dyspeptic Puritans”
  • Water’s a very particular thing—you can’t pick it up with a pitchfork.
  • For a river’s a river.
  • If boys and men are to be welded together in the glow of transient feeling, they must be made of metal that will mix, else they inevitably fall asunder when the heat dies out.
  • Void as promises made in Eden before the seasons were divided,
  • To haggard men among the icebergs the mere presence of an ordinary comrade stirs the deep fountains of affection.
  • What with illness and bad luck, I’ve been nothing but cumber all my life.
  • With poor Tulliver death was not to be a leap: it was to be a long descent under thickening shadows.
  • Why should people give away their money plentifully to those who had not taken care of their own money?
  • It would be well to put a tax upon Latin, as a luxury much run upon by the higher classes
  • The world isn’t made of pen, ink, and paper, and if you’re to get on in the world, young man, you must know what the world’s made of.
  • There is no hopelessness so sad as that of early youth, when the soul is made up of wants, and has no long memories
  • Hev a dog, Miss!—they’re better friends nor any Christian,”’
  • Ugly and deformed people have great need of unusual virtues, because they are likely to be extremely uncomfortable without them: but the theory that unusual virtues spring by a direct consequence out of personal disadvantages, as animals get thicker wool in severe climates, is perhaps a little overstrained."
  • I’m determined to read no more books where the blond-haired women carry away all the happiness. I should begin to have a prejudice against them. If you could give me some story, now, where the dark woman triumphs, it would restore the balance.”
  • I’ve never any pity for conceited people, because I think they carry their comfort about with them.
  • She didn’t see why women were to be told with a simper that they were beautiful, any more than old men were to be told that they were venerable
  • There isn’t many sorts o’ goods as I can’t over-praise when I set my tongue to’t.
  • Everything was on a lower scale, sir—in point of expenditure, I mean. It’s this steam, you see, that has made a difference: it drives on every wheel double pace
  • If the population is to get thicker upon the ground, as it’s doing, the world must use its wits at inventions of one sort or other.
  • A state of hideous doubt mingled with wretched certainty.
  • The persons who are the most incapable of a conscientious struggle such as yours, are precisely those who will be likely to shrink from you; because they will not believe in your struggle.
  • The mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy.
  • “Conscientious people are apt to see their duty in that which is the most painful course
  • Nature repairs her ravages—but not all.

This is a masterpiece of Victorian literature.

August 2019; 

Sunday, 18 August 2019

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel" by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres which updated King Lear and transported it to Iowa. In this book she reads a hundred novels, written over a thousand years, and tries to distil from her reading ideas of what makes a novel.

Are there 13 ways? I rather lost count. There are thirteen chapters but they include the Introduction and an explanation of how she set about her three year readathon. The clock that she imagines in chapter 9, the Circle of the Novel, lists 12 aspects of a novel. My notes on her ideas combine rather more than thirteen ideas. I must have missed the tabulation.

But some of her ideas are fascinating and inspiring to one who, like myself. aspires to write a novel (and to write worthwhile critiques of the novels I have read in this blog).

However, I would sound a note of caution. In the final analysis, Smiley appears to believe that the novel is fundamentally individualistic and stands up for the rights of the individual against the conformity-seeking group. For example, in her chapter on the art of the novel she asserts that “The novel is always about freedom” and argues that “societies have only a few basic categories of work, and four of them are government, religion, daily survival, and nurturing the next generation. Each of these functions requires group effort, and in each it is essential that the individual subordinate himself or herself to the discipline of the group. A fifth category, apparently present in almost every human society, is the making of art (including the telling of stories). In this category, idiosyncrasy is prized, in part because art is perceived as play and is supposed to be ... fun.” Her arguments are persuasive; her examples all suggest that this is so. I just wondered whether Smiley would have been quite so certain of this thesis if she hadn't been brought up in the USA with its emphasis on the individual and freedom and the rights of the individual against the state, and was brought up instead in a society such as China and Japan where the needs of the group may be paramount. The history of western literature may support Smiley, and of course she could define the novel as quintessentially an artistic work within the canon of western literature, but perhaps there is another way of looking at extended prose fictions outside of that particular box.

She starts by defining the novel as “a (1) lengthy, (2) written, (3) prose, (4) narrative with a (5) protagonist.” Each of these aspects affects what novels are and what they can do. For example, prose becomes possible because the novel is written; lengthy oral traditions such as epic require poetry as an aid to memory. Prose, she says later, "is for exploring what is unique about situations and characters - we might say that prose is ‘Aristotelian’. Poetry is for exploring what incidents and persons typify - it is ‘Platonic’.” The length also enables in-depth studies of characters within contexts.

She identifies twelves styles of discourse that a novel may contain, and she suggests that the great novels contain many of these styles: Travel, History, Biography, Tale, Joke, Gossip, Diary or letter, Confession, Polemic, Essay, Epic, and Romance.

Plots, she says, come in four bits:
  • Exposition in the first 10%
  • Rising action during which “Something that seems implausible at the time of the exposition - the climax - is being prepared for. ... The novel becomes more and more different from life.”
  • Climax (at the 90% point). This is where, for example, Tom Jones is about to be hanged and Madame Bovary poisons herself
  • Denouement.
But she also points out that (and here she is very precise) “Almost every novel gathers itself at the 62% 
mark, changes strategy, and freshens. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Bob Ewell lies on the stand about seeing Tom and his daughter having sex. ... In Madame Bovary Emma ... goes to see her first opera ... which quickens her romantic yearnings.

It is interesting to compare these ideas with, for example, The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, Inside Story by Dara Marks, and Into the Woods by John Yorke which borrow from film the idea of a three-act structure in which the turning points come at the 25%, 50% and 75% points.

This is a fascinating and thought-provoking book about novels.

Some great lines:

  • My philosophical stance was one of not knowing any answers and not believing that there were any answers.” (Introduction)
  • It was like dating someone new who was nice enough but not nearly as exciting as the old boyfriend who had moved to Europe.” (Introduction)
  • The historian is required to give up dramatic interest in the pursuit of accuracy, but a novelist must give up accuracy in the pursuit of narrative drive and emotional impact.” (What is a novel?)
  • The novel integrates several forms of human intelligence - verbal intelligence (for the style), psychological intelligence (for the characters), logical intelligence (for the plot), spatial intelligence (for the symbolic and metaphorical content as well as the setting), and even musical intelligence (for pacing and rhythm).” (Who is a novelist?)
  • A novel is a hypothesis. A novelist shares with a scientist the wish to observe. The novelist also shares with the scientist a partial and imperfect knowledge of the phenomenon he wishes to observe. And so both novelist and scientist say ‘what if?’” (Who is a novelist?)
  • The novel ... is a theory of being. A novel proposes that the world has a certain mode of existing. It doesn't propose this by asserting it explicitly, but by depicting it implicitly.” (Who is a novelist?)
  • The novelist has many pleasures to offer - the unusual pleasure of the exotic, the intellectual pleasure of historical understanding, the humane pleasure of psychological insight into one or more characters, the simple pleasure of entertainment and suspense, the exuberant pleasure of laughter and trickery, the guilty pleasure of gossip, the tempting pleasure of secrecy and intimacy, the confessional pleasure of acknowledged sin and attempted redemption, the polemical pleasure of indignation, the rigorous pleasure of intellectual analysis, the reassuring pleasure of identification with one's nation or people, and the vicarious pleasure of romance.” (The psychology of the novel)
  • Heathcliff is rude by choice. Since charm is one of the qualities that keeps readers reading, Heathcliff's rudeness has to be compensated for, and it never is.” (Morality and the novel)
  • "When the literary culture at large tries to impose an answer by insisting that ‘authenticity’ resides in the sex or the ethnic or national origin or biographical experience of the author, it kills the very thing that makes the literary culture vibrant, which is the sense of freedom, vitality, and power the author feels while he is creating his work.” (The art of the novel)
  • The underlying assertion of almost every novel is that meaning exists and can be understood because it can be arranged in a sequence that then takes on some sort of logic.” (The novel and history)
  • We seem to live in a world now where all thoughts are focused on the idea of prevailing, of imposing one's beliefs on others, and no thoughts, no thoughts are given to the costs of prevailing, or even what it means. Have these people never read Moby-Dick? well, no, they haven’t.” (The novel and history)
  • Those who don't read novels are condemned to repeat the oldest mistakes in literature - the mistake of hubris, a Greek mistake, and the mistake of attributing one's own emotions to God, a Judeo-Christian-Islamic mistake.” (The novel and history)
  • If the novel has died for the bureaucrats who run our country, then they are more likely not to pause before engaging in arrogant, narcissistic, and foolish policies.” (The novel and history)
  • Freud maintained that the two great human endeavours are love and work. ... In many novels work exists more as furniture than motivation.” (The circle of the novel)
  • Ignorance is a self-generating state of mind; one of its characteristics is that it doesn't recognize itself as ignorance.” (A novel of your own (I))

August 2019; 570 pages

Saturday, 17 August 2019

"Whose Body" by Dorothy L Sayers

A classic murder mystery, the first in the series of novels written by DLS starring her aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey.

Although it is more or less obvious from a very early stage whodunnit, and the character of Wimsey is extraordinary, this is a tale told with such panache that I could enjoy every moment.

There is instant development of Lord Peter, a shell-shocked ex-Major who had experienced both trench warfare and intelligence work during the First World War, and his devoted manservant Bunter, who had looked after his lordship in the trenches, and whose contributions to the sleuthing process combined photography and the ability to go downstairs and gossip with the servants. Scotland Yard policeman Parker also makes an appearance as does Peter's brother Gerald.

Some great lines:

  • "On the dead face the handsome pair of gold pince-nez mocked death with grotesque elegance." (C 1)
  • "Lord Peter had a funny way of talking about books ... as if the author had confided in him beforehand, and told him how the story was put together, and which bit was written first." (C 10)

August 2019; 214 pages

I have set myself the task of reading all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels (mostly again) in order. The ones I have read and reviewed in this blog so far include:

There are also Wimsey books written since the death of DLS by Jill Paton Walsh. These include:

  • The Attenbury Emeralds in which Lord Peter, in 1951, recalls the circumstances of his first case, the Attenbury Emeralds, which have gone missing again.
  • The Late Scholar: in which Wimsey returns to Oxford

Friday, 16 August 2019

"Marlborough" by Richard Holmes

A fascinating biography of the British general who betrayed his friend, his monarch and the father of his sister's children during the Glorious Revolution and went on to win battle after battle during the War of Spanish Succession.

Full of fascinating glimpses of a bygone age:
  • A guinea was worth thirty shillings prior to the recoinage in 1696 and twenty-one shillings thereafter.
  • In 1703 five dragoon broadswords cost £24 Scots, but just £2 Sterling.
  • Louis XIV refused Prince Eugène a commission because “there were rumours that Eugène had been too fond of other pages at court; his mother, caught up in accusations of witchcraft, was someone the king now regarded with horror, and in any case the lad was shockingly ugly.
  • High temper rarely makes a successful contribution to labour relations on a building site.
  • ‘Captain’ Peter Drake served in the Spanish, Dutch, English and hahaFrench armies, often joining one without having completed the tiresome formalities which might properly have accompanied his discharge from another.
  • As a young man M enjoyed the favours of the by then aging and experienced Barbara Castlemaine who had been (and potentially still was) one of the mistresses of Charles II. She gave him a handsome £5000 present (possibly because of his gallantry in leaving her bedroom via the window when the King came to call) and a daughter (who later became a nun who had a child by James Douglas, Earl of Arran). Her other lovers included the playwright William Wycherley, and property developer Henry Jermyn. (C 1)
  • The mother of Sarah Jennings, who became the wife of Marlborough, was accused of witchcraft: “She was certainly evil-tempered, may actually have been unhinged, and some suggested that she dabbled in the black arts and the procurement of that commodity most sought after by the court, pretty girls.” (C 2)
  • When Queen Mary reminded Catherine Sedley that she had been one of the mistresses of James II, Catherine replied: “If I broke one of the commandments with your father, you have broken another against him.” (C 2)
  • We may doubt whether a tiny village like Westonzoyland actually contained sufficient alcohol to induce widespread drunkenness, even if the royal army was unfamiliar with the foot-tangling attributes of the local cider.” (C 2)
  • When Anne succeeded William III she immediately sacked William’s chief minister Lord Romsey “though the broad arrow from his coat of arms long survived as an emblem of government property.” (C 4)
  • The military ‘tattoo’ was originally a drum-beat designed to call soldiers back to camp from the local villages “its name derived from the Dutch doe ten tap toe ... ‘turn off the tap’ of the wine or beer barrel.” (C 4)
  • When captured French general Marshal Tallard was a prisoner in Nottingham he grew celery, introducing it to England. (C 5)
  • Q Anne sat either on her throne in Parliament or, when it was cold, on a bench by the fire. (C 6)
  • There is a hoary old tale of a bear-keeper who, hoping to administer physic to the creature, placed the potion in a piece of rolled-up paper, inserted one end into the bear’s mouth and the other into his own, and prepared to blow. The bear, alas, blew first.” (C 6)
  • Marlborough’s daughter Henrietta, who became 2nd Duchess after his death, probably had a child by poet William Congreve after visiting Bath whose waters had “a wonderful influence on barren ladies, who often prove with child, even in their husbands’ absence.” (C 8)

August 2017; 482 pages

Richard Holmes has also written:

Another book of military history set in the same era (and also including the Battle of Sedgemoor) is All the King's Men by Saul David.