Some of you with extremely long memories for trivia may remember that I once did a short post referencing Hugh Walpole’s historical romance, Judith Paris. This is the second book in Walpole’s “Herries Chronicles”, a family saga stretching from Georgian times to contemporary England (Walpole was writing in the 20s and 30s), and is interesting for the way it tends to present English history away from the “big events” that dominate historical fiction: much of the third volume, The Fortress, for instance, is set during that most-neglected period between the Regency and the ascension of Victoria.
Another attraction of this series is its amusing use of literature—using the term “literature” a bit lightly. Walpole not only introduces various literary figures as characters, but his people tend to be readers of the more eclectic type.
The One of the highlights for me of Judith Paris was a short scene in which two minor characters are reading a novel by my homegirl, Kitty Cuthbertson. (They didn’t like it, which only proves there’s no accounting for bad taste.)
I was delighted to discover that Walpole kept up his game of literary allusions in The Fortress—where yet again we meet a raft of characters who feel they should be reading poetry and other such serious works, but would rather curl up with a novel…
In Judith Paris, we were introduced to an incompetent tutor who kept his position by reading Minerva Press novels out loud to his employer, the foolish Jennifer Herries; here, the far shrewder Judith picks a better qualified man for her own son:
His passion was for Homer, and Adam owed that at at least—that the Iliad and the Odyssey were to be ever friendly companions to him because of Roger Rackstraw. He had a pretty sense too of the virtues of Virgil, Horace, Thucydides and the Greek dramatists, and could make them live under his fingers. He had a poor opinion of contemporary English Letters, although he said a good word for the Waverley romances and told everyone that there was a young poet, John Keats, who would be remembered. For Mr Wordsworth he had more praise than was locally considered reasonable, but when alone with a friend confessed that he thought Southey’s poetry ‘fustian’…
Possibly the reason that Roger “had a poor opinion of contemporary English Letters” is that he was living during the literary black hole which occurred between the death of Jane Austen and the arrival on the scene of William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens: a time when the void was chiefly filled by amusing but trivial Silver-Fork Novels. Judith sees this second-rate writing as the expression of a general malaise:
She saw that she was in a society where nothing was real, where nobody believed in anything at all, where everyone feared what the morrow would bring. The ‘Silver Fork’ novels of fashionable life, just then beginning to be popular, were symptomatic of the falsehood and sham, while cruel and malicious sheets like the Age and the John Bull of Theodore Hook showed where the rottenness was hidden…
(Hmm… She was in a society where nothing was real, where nobody believed in anything at all, where everyone feared what the morrow would bring— Is that why we have so many terrible movies at the moment?)
The young Uhland Herries has a crippled leg, and lives withdrawn from his family. Most people are frightened of Uhland (with good reason, as we shall learn), and even his father, Walter, who almost worships him, does not understand him—least of all his passion for reading:
Uhland was reading Ivanhoe.
“What a silly book, Papa!” he said. “I am certain that people never talked like that.”
Walter placed his great bulk on the bed and put his arm round his son. Under Uhland’s nightdress there was a sharp rigid spine-bone that seemed to protest against the caressing warmth of Walter’s hand.
“Why not, my boy?” said Walter, who had never read Ivanhoe. “Sir Walter Scott is a very great man.”
“Have you ever read a book called Frankenstein, Papa?”
“No, my boy.”
“That’s better than this stuff. Frankenstein creates a Monster and cannot escape it. There is too much fine writing, however…”
(This is the earliest instance I know of, of a fictional character identifying with Frankenstein’s Creature, as I prefer to call him. As a grown man, Uhland will give in to the blackest side of his nature and persecute his cousin, John Herries, exactly as the Creature persecutes Frankenstein, for far less cogent but psychologically similar reasons.)
As a young woman, Uhland’s sister Elizabeth finds a post as governess, but discovers that (as with the incompetent tutor) she is also expected to entertain her pupils’ mother:
Mrs Golightly enjoyed entertaining her friends in the evening…but perhaps more than anything else she enjoyed sitting with her toes in front of the fire of an evening and listening to Elizabeth’s reading of a novel. The original inquiry at the Agency about the Poets had been genuine enough, but when it came actually to reading—well, the novel was the thing! Elizabeth had a beautiful, quiet, cultivated voice, as Mrs Golightly told all her friends. It was a pleasure indeed to listen to her. So Elizabeth read, night after night, from the works of Bulwer, Ainsworth, that delightful new writer Charles Dickens, Theodore Hook, Mrs Gore, Miss Austen (“a little dull, my love—not enough Event”) and even some of the old Minerva Press’ romances—Mandroni, Ronaldo Rinaldini and The Beggar Girl And Her Benefactors, the last in seven volumes…
Meanwhile, Adam Paris grows up to be first a literary critic, and then an author of fantasy stories:
“There are two sorts of writers, Mother, just as there are two sorts of Herries. One sort believes in facts, the other sort believes in things behind the facts.”
“The books I like best,” she answered, “are those that have both sorts in them.”
“Jane is reading me a very amusing story called Under Two Flags. It’s silly, of course—not like real life at all—but most enjoyable. And then there’s Alice In Wonderland. And then there’s Mr Huxley’s Man’s Place In Nature.”
Adam laughed. “Mother, what a ridiculous mixture!”
“They all come to the same thing in the end.”
“The world is made up both of fantasy and reality, I suppose…”
As these passages illustrate, Walpole uses his characters’ reading not only to reveal their natures – here, the many contradictions of Judith – but to mark the passage of time and the changing of society: the events of The Fortress covering the years between 1822 and 1870 and climaxing with Judith reaching her 100th birthday.
But there’s one more literary passage in The Fortress that I must highlight, and—well, let’s just say that my man Hugh didn’t let me down:
They had never been to Uldale before on a visit, and this was a great adventure. ‘Madame’ was a ‘character’ through the whole countryside, and it was wonderful to be entertained in her parlour. Or was it Mrs Herries’ parlour? People said that she was mad and walked about the country singing songs to herself—mad, poor thing, because her husband had discovered her with her lover and he had killed himself. Very shocking, but how romantic! And then her son John was so handsome, the best-looking young man in the North, a little sad and pensive as a good-looking young man ought to be. For they adored Thaddeus Of Warsaw and Mrs Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano and Mrs Meeke’s Midnight Weddings…