For whom the book tolls…

Life being inconvenient, as it so often is, I’ve been trying not to dwell upon the fact that I’ve slipped behind in my review writing again. But no matter where I turn – or at least, no matter to which book I turn – I find an uncomfortable reminder of my unmet obligations. 

Outside the goalposts, I’ve been reading John Buchan’s Leithen Stories, a series of five novels connected by the presence of the character of Sir Edward Leithen. In the second volume, John Macnab, published in 1925, an aspiring politician is asked to make his first public appearance, and after freezing and forgetting every word of his conned speech, he blunders into an emotional and unrehearsed declaration of his feelings about things in general and England in particular:

It was a strange, inconsequent speech, but it had a curious appeal in it–the appeal of youth and candour and courage.  It was philosophy rather than politics, and ragged but arresting philosophy. He began by confessing that the war had left the world in a muddle, a muddle which affected his own mind.  The only cure was to be honest with oneself, and to refuse to accept specious nonsense and conventional jargon.  He told the story from Andersen of the Emperor’s New Suit.  “Our opponents call us Tories,” he said; “they can call us anything they jolly well please.  I am proud to be called a Tory.  I understand that the name was first given by Titus Oates to those who disbelieved in his Popish Plot. What we want to-day is Toryism–the courage to give the lie to impudent rogues.”

That was a bolt from the blue.

However, this passage was merely a teaser compared to the full-on assault on my guilt complex offered by Hugh Walpole’s Judith Paris, the second volume in his “Herries Chronicles”, which is less like a hint that I should be catching up my blog reviews than it is a bizarre kind of family reunion.

Published in 1931 and set from 1774 – 1820, this novel is amazingly literary, if we use that word in its broadest sense. It teems with readers, and there are any number of references to hot-off-the-press works of non-fiction such as Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Paine’s Age Of Reason, Burke’s Reflections On The Revolution In France and Rousseau’s Contrat Social. One character writes for the Gentleman’s Magazine; another has his life changed by the The Life Of John Wesley; while the appearance of a professional actress gives us a whirlwind tour of the English stage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But ultimately, novels and poetry predominate. A fit of righteous rage is described in the words of Ann Radcliffe: To speak in the terms of The Italian, he was ‘cold fury nobly seething’. Mrs Radcliffe wins a second mention when the heroine wakes from a strange dream with her mind in a bookish jumble: With confused notions of Mrs Radcliffe, a novel that the night before she had been reading, The Last Step; or The History Of Mrs Brudenal, Rousseau’s Confessions, and Isabella; or The Rewards Of Good Nature

We are introduced to the young John Herries, who at the age of fourteen…could read tales and poetry to himself by the hour. He would sit curled up in a corner somewhere and pray he would not be noticed. He had always detested Mangnall’s Questions, and Butler’s Guide To Useful Knowledge—for such things he had no use whatever, but Goldsmith’s History Of England he devoured in all its four volumes because of the thrilling detail in it. Then there was Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts In Prose And Verse, then Marmion, The Lay, the Waverleys, The Parents’ Assistant, The Fairchild Family and, secretly, obtained from some of the Forresters who lived in Bassenthwaite, many volumes of the Minerva Press, The Mysterious Hand, The Demon Of Society and the rest…

That’s my boy.

We also meet John’s mother, Jennifer, who keeps her children’s grotesquely unqualified tutor around because, among other reasons, he’s willing to entertain her by reading Minerva Press novels to her.

All sorts of literary figures flit across the pages of this novel. Robert Southey and Walter Scott appear in person, as do Sarah and Hartley Coleridge, although not their husband and father; while there are mentions of Wordsworth and Shelley and Byron. Francis Herries, while trying to support himself as a writer, becomes acquainted with Charles Lamb and Samuel Rogers; and it is the latter who introduces Francis to a young man destined to make his mark in the world:

    “This is Mr Macaulay, who is at Cambridge and will soon be having the world at his feet. Come, come, Macaulay. You know you will. You are as confident of it as I am.”
    The thick-set untidy youth raised a pair of very remarkable piercing eyes and began to talk with great eloquence and volubility. It was clear that he did not suffer from shyness… The loquacious youth had already forgotten him and was talking eagerly to Sumner about a book he held in his hand…

We are not made privy to the volume that has won the enthusiasm of the future Lord Macaulay, but I just know it was one of Mary Meeke’s novels…

But the crowning moment comes when Judith Paris calls upon some friends of hers, a tacitly lesbian middle-aged couple. She finds one of them sewing while the other reads a novel out loud:

    She knocked on the door, was admitted by their little maid Betty, and found them by the fire in the parlour, Miss West reading to Miss Pennyfeather from one of the novels of Mrs Cuthbertson.
    They were enchanted to see Judith.
    Miss West threw Mrs Cuthbertson on to the floor, crying in a deep bass voice: “This is Stuff!”

Oh, hey!!

So where did Hugh Walpole learn about the novels of Kitty Cuthbertson, which were long out of print by 1931? Possibly he found some old volumes in his family’s library—although all things considered, my best guess would be that he’d been reading The Life And Letters Of Macaulay, and thus learned about Cuthbertson – and Meeke – exactly the same way that we did.

Or, I suppose, he could have been reading Jane Austen’s letters

So there you have it: a sign from the ether that the universe is Not Best Pleased with my slackness, that I should be knuckling down to my exceedingly overdue review of Mary Meeke’s 1797 novel, Palmira And Ermance – and that it intends to keep pestering me until I do.

And furthermore that, having done so, I will be able to move on to the next novel in line for Authors In Depth—Kitty Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano; or, The Young Protector.

Footnote:  The Mysterious Hand; or, Subterreanean Horrours!: A Romance by Augustus Jacob Crandolph and The Fairchild Family by Martha Sherwood were already on The List; but of The Demon Of Society, The Last Step and Isabella I can, alas, find no sign.

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4 Responses to “For whom the book tolls…”

  1. The mere existence of a title like Subterranean Horrours! A Romance proves that there were People Like Us back then.

  2. Certainly there were People Like Us – Jane Austen knew that (she was probably one of them):

    “…but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
    “Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.”

    And on that subject, I’m impressed that Walpole went to the trouble of finding a new title, rather than just taking the soft option of citing one of the “Northanger Novels”.

  3. Quite horrid indeed. I get from some of the Gothics – overblown as they often are – the same mild thrill that I think one is supposed to get from horror films, but which I usually don’t.

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