Tag Archives: English Literature

‘Weymouth Sands’ Quote by John Cowper Powys

Jerry had indeed something in him that went beyond Rabelaisianism, in that he not only could get an ecstasy of curious satisfaction from the most drab, ordinary, homely, realistic aspects of what might be called the excremental under-tides of existence but he could slough off his loathing for humanity in this contemplation and grow gay, child-like, guileless.

I wish I’d used ‘The Excremental Under-tides of Existence‘ as my Blog name.

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‘The Shrimp and the Anemone’ by L. P. Hartley

Eustace and Hilda by L. P. Hartley is a single-volume edition of three novels: The Shrimp and the Anemone (pub. 1944), The Sixth Heaven (1946) and Eustace and Hilda (1947). This collection also includes and additional forty page story called Hilda’s Letter which, as far as I can ascertain, was first published in this collected edition in 1958. My copy is a Faber and Faber edition published in 1979 with a cover showing the two young actors from a BBC adaption of the whole trilogy. As far as I can tell this edition is out of print in the U.K. but there is an attractive looking U.S. edition (NYRB) available. The single volume edition of The Shrimp and the Anemone may also still be relatively easy to obtain.

The Shrimp and the Anemone begins with Eustace and Hilda playing on a Norfolk beach; Eustace is a rather sickly (he has a weak heart) ten-year old boy, who is afraid of almost everything, whilst Hilda, his fourteen year-old sister, is completely different—she has almost taken over the role of their mother who died whilst giving birth to their younger sister, Barbara. Hilda is more sure of herself and used to being in control. She also likes bossing Eustace about and sometimes takes a sort of sadistic pleasure in watching him squirm. However there is a strong bond between the two siblings and they both love each other very much. The book begins with Eustace calling his sister over to a rockpool, in which Eustace can see a sea anemone in the process of eating a shrimp. Eustace, who is concerned for the shrimp, convinces his sister to try to save it. She manages to pull the shrimp away from the anemone but not in time to save the shrimp and also results in disembowelling the anemone, thereby saving neither. The sensitive Eustace sobs whilst Hilda is less concerned. As the novel proceeds we can see that the two children’s relationship is similar to that of the shrimp and the anemone with Eustace as the shrimp and Hilda as the anemone. Eustace often feels subservient to his sister, as if he has no will of his own. When he does exert his will he feels guilty and becomes sick. In the novel a couple of events occur which result in Eustace and Hilda being separated and both experience this separation as painful and like a death.

L. P. Hartley portrays the children brilliantly, both their manners of speech and their thought processes. Although the concentration is on Eustace we also get to see things occasionally from Hilda’s point of view. Eustace is meek and is overly concerned with pleasing others. He is also scared of trying anything new. Eustace has been told that if he meets Miss Fothergill, an elderly wheelchair-bound rheumatic lady who is often to be seen on the footpaths near the beach, then he must speak to her but Eustace is utterly scared of her. Here’s a bit of dialogue between Eustace and Hilda as Hilda spots Miss Fothergill approaching on a footpath.

Someone was walking alongside it [the cliff edge], perhaps two people. But Hilda had better eyes than he and cried at once, “There’s Miss Fothergill and her companion.”
   “Oh!” cried Eustace; “let’s turn back.”
   But the light of battle was in Hilda’s eye.
   “Why should we turn back? It’s just the opportunity we’ve been looking for.”
   “Perhaps you have,” said Eustace. “I haven’t.”
   He had already turned away from the approaching bath-chair and was tugging at Hilda’s hand.
   “The Bible says, ‘Sick and in prison and I visited you’,” Hilda quoted with considerable effect. “You’ve always been naughty about this, Eustace: it’s the chief failing I’ve never been able to cure you of.”
   “But she’s so ugly,” protested Eustace.
   “What difference does that make?”
   “And she frightens me.”
   “A big boy like you!”
   “Her face is all crooked.”
   “You haven’t seen it—you always run away.”
   “And her hands are all black.”
   “Silly, that’s only her gloves.”
   “Yes, but they aren’t proper hands, that’s why she wears gloves. Annie told me.”
   Annie was the Cherrington’s daily ‘help’.

Eustace’s protestations continue whilst Hilda makes sure he doesn’t escape. Eustace ends up talking to Miss Fothergill and then, as he gets more bold, pushing her in her bath-chair. Although some of his fear has abated it returns when Miss Fothergill asks Eustace and Hilda to tea. This fear of visiting Miss Fothergill grows over the next few days, especially when Hilda reveals that she won’t be accompanying him so he’ll have to go on his own. Meanwhile Eustace is asked by Nancy, a girl he is besotted with, to go on a paper-chase on the day of the tea invitation. Uncharacteristically he exerts his own will, disobeys his parents, and goes on the paper-chase with Nancy—but he pays the price as he gets caught in a thunderstorm, falls ill, and is in bed for weeks. Eustace eventually has tea with Miss Fothergill and once he gets to know her, and gets used to her ‘deformities’, he becomes a regular visitor.

That afternoon marked more than one change in Eustace’s attitude towards life. Physical ugliness ceased to repel him and conversely physical beauty lost some of its appeal.

There is not much of a plot to The Shrimp and the Anemone, instead it is an exquisitely executed character study of the two children—how they interact with each other, with other children, with adults and how they change over time. There is however an event that happens which changes the course of their lives and as I will reveal details of this event below, you may wish to skip to the last two paragraph if you are planning to read this book. During one of Eustace’s visits Miss Fothergill dies and later it is revealed that she bequeathed a large sum of money to Eustace which will enable him to attend a public school and then university. Eustace is not told of this but he soon notices that his father and aunt, and others, have begun to treat him differently. The differences are subtle, but they now show him more respect, ask his views and defer to his wishes on occasions. His father makes plans for Eustace to attend a good school but when Eustace is told by a local coach-driver that he will soon be ‘going away’ he assumes, because of his weak heart, that he is about to die. Over the following days he becomes morose and listless and talks to Hilda of writing his will. Whilst playing on the beach Eustace tries to tell Hilda of his fears and when she realises what he means she explodes in anger and fear. She feels that he’s trying to escape from them. Part of Hilda’s identity is in taking care of Eustace and she feels threatened and rejected with his talk of dying.

“How dare you talk like that? I see how it is—you want to go away—you want to leave us! You tried before, the time of the paper-chase, but you had to come back. You had to come back from Miss Fothergill too. You think you’ll be with someone who loves you more than we do—that’s why you talk about dying! But I won’t allow it! I’ll stop you! I’ll see you don’t slip away!”

It is a highly charged scene which is then quickly defused when some friends arrive congratulating Eustace on his inheritance and praising him for his foresight in getting to know Miss Fothergill. Left alone again, Eustace and Hilda discuss the money without really understanding the importance of it and then run back home care-free.

I originally read The Shrimp and the Anemone for the 1944 Club last year but didn’t have time to write anything about it—Harriet Devine and Simon (Stuck in a Book) did post reviews though. It is an astonishingly good book and I’m impressed with Hartley’s lucid writing style and sensitive portrayal of all the characters in it. The children’s dialogue, their thoughts and fears is amazingly realistic. I had originally planned to continue with the other volumes shortly after but have only got round to doing so now—I decided to re-read The Shrimp and the Anemone before the other volumes and feel that it’s a book that I could re-read many more times. I am currently on the last volume, Eustace and Hilda, and hope to post reviews of the other two volumes as well.

My beaten-up, well-worn, well-read, secondhand copy is a joy to read and hold; its heft is reassuring and the clear white (o.k. they’re yellowing very slightly) pages make it even more enjoyable to read—these things shouldn’t make a difference, but they do.

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‘From a View to a Death’ by Anthony Powell

From a View to a Death, which was published in 1933, is another one of Anthony Powell’s pre-war, pre-Dance novels. I’m hoping to read more of his non-Dance novels as the ones I’ve read so far have been enjoyable. In From a View to a Death Powell takes us outside of London to an unnamed town in the country; the characters are typical Powellian characters—artists, misfits, lesser gentry, retired Majors, unmarried young women etc. The main character is a young artist called Arthur Zouch who has been invited to stay at the country house of the Passengers. He has been invited by Mary Passenger who is trying to decide whether she likes him or not and to see how well he fits in with her family. Zouch feels that he is above all this as he sees himself as a Nietzschian Übermensch who does not need to obey the rules that others have to. He also has a beard. This is a bit of a running joke throughout the book as everyone comments on his beard and everyone, except Zouch, thinks it looks silly or strange.

Zouch was a superman. A fair English equivalent of the Teutonic ideal of the Übermensch. No one knew this yet except himself. That was because he had not been one long enough for people to find out. They would learn all in good time; and to their cost.

As with Powell’s other novels we get to meet loads of characters and we eavesdrop on lots of witty dialogue. Powell flits between the characters with ease and we get to discover what they’re thinking as well as what they’re saying and doing. I like this way of dealing with characters where we get to feel that nothing is held back or hidden from us.

Zouch is immediately pressed into appearing in a pageant that is being organised—even a Superman can’t get out of that. To give him something to do during his stay he embarks on painting a portrait of Mary as well as her young, chatty niece, Bianca. Meanwhile Mary’s father, Vernon Passenger, is trying to resolve an ongoing dispute over some land with one of his tenants, Major Fosdick. Major Fosdick is a typical retired Major; he’s full of bluster, he’s used to getting his own way and he loves his guns.

Major Fosdick was cleaning his guns in the drawing-room because it was the most comfortable room in the house. While he did this he brooded. He enjoyed cleaning his guns and he enjoyed brooding so that the afternoon was passing pleasantly enough and its charm was disturbed only by the presence of his wife, who sat opposite him, mending a flannel undergarment and making disjointed conversation about subjects in which he was not interested.

And there is nothing that he finds more relaxing after lunch than slipping in to a black sequin evening dress and wearing a large picture-hat whilst smoking his pipe—hence the book cover.

One of the Major’s sons, Torquil, whom everyone thinks is odd, is besotted with Joanna Brandon. Joanna however does not particularly like Torquil. She lives with her mother, a woman who never leaves the house. When Zouch meets Joanna he decides to make a conquest of her. As always with Powell we get some wonderful dialogue. Here we have a delightfully vague conversation between Mary and Zouch about Torquil.

   “Torquil Fosdick is a funny boy, isn’t he?”
   “He certainly is.”
   “I should think he was—well, at least I mean, you know—at least I should think anyone would think so, wouldn’t you?”
   “Oh yes, I should think so. If they took the trouble to think about him, I mean.”

There are many more minor characters in the book such as the Orphans, three buskers that seem to be everywhere; Mrs Brandon’s housekeeper, Mrs Dadds, who likes to talk about her chilblains and a group of hikers headed by Fischbein who ‘had a grey face, full of folds and swellings of loose flesh, like a piece of bad realistic sculpture.’

For me the real fun comes from the characters, the witty descriptive writing and dialogue but Powell doesn’t completely forget the plot and he wraps the book up neatly within a few pages; this may annoy some readers but I quite liked it. I won’t reveal how the novel ends other than to say that Zouch turns out to be less of a Superman than he thought. Everything seems to work in Vernon Passenger’s favour by the end, partly from his own initiative but mostly from luck.

As this was such a fun read I shall continue to read more of Powell’s books; I am in luck as most of them are available from my library; Venusberg will probably be my next one.

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‘Afternoon Men’ by Anthony Powell

Afternoon Men was Anthony Powell’s first novel and was published in 1931 when Powell was only 26 years old. I found this copy in a secondhand bookshop when I was reading his twelve-volume series of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s a fun book and will certainly be of interest to anyone that has read Dance as the style and structure of the book is so similar to his later work. The book has little plot and instead concentrates on characters and the dialogue between the many characters, who are all from the same jaded semi-aristocratic, intellectual milieu as in Dance.

The main character is William Atwater who has an unsatisfying job at a museum. The book opens with Atwater in a bar discussing with his friend, Pringle, Pringle’s current medication regime. We are then introduced to several other characters who enter the bar and are known to Atwater. As is typical with Powell we get to know the characters from dialogue and short little character descriptions. Here, for example, is his description of Atwater early on in the book.

He was a weedy-looking young man with straw-coloured hair and rather long legs, who had failed twice for the Foreign Office. He sometimes wore tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles to correct a slight squint, and through influence he had recently got a job in a museum. His father was a retired civil servant who lived in Essex, where he and his wife kept a chicken farm.

The group from the bar decide to go to a party where we are introduced to even more characters. Powell does a great job of showing a party in full swing with random conversations with random people, the constant flux of partygoers and the general chaos involved with people getting drunk, some passing out in the bathroom, drinks getting spilt and so on. Atwater meets a girl, called Lola (‘She had the look of a gnome or prematurely vicious child.’) whom he unsuccessfully tries to get to go home with him, that is until he is obviously entranced with the appearance of the beautiful Susan Nunnery, then Lola is eager to get Atwater away from the party.

Although most of the humour is in the dialogue and the character descriptions Powell occasionally gives us a bit of slapstick. Mr. Scheigan is an American publisher who was with Atwater at the party; he was drunk at the bar and then fell asleep on the floor at the party. When they decide to leave they try to get Scheigan home in a taxi.

   They all went downstairs and lent a hand in getting Mr. Scheigan into his taxi. He got out once, but they put him back in again, and as the taxi drove off they saw him leaning through the window talking to the driver. The taxi door came open as it turned the corner at the end of the street, but as long as the vehicle remained in sight Mr. Scheigan had still not fallen out. Barlow said:
   “He seemed quite unused to getting into taxis.”

The first section also contains a chapter where we see Atwater at work in the museum. He’s visited by an annoying member of the public called Dr. Crutch who tries to get private access to some of the exhibits, presumably exhibits of a sexual nature. There’s also an amusing paragraph where Atwater lists all the things he could, and should, do but instead he ‘sat and thought about existence and its difficulties.’

We get to eavesdrop on more lunches, parties and chance meetings; the characters develop more as we find out more background information and gossip. As Atwater pursues Susan, Lola pursues Atwater. Powell describes Atwater’s seduction of Lola as ‘mechanical’ and can only lead to an anti-climax but he appears to be making progress with Susan.

   Susan poured herself out some more wine. She said:
   “You’re nice. You must come and see me some time. I live miles away from anywhere with my father. You’ll like him.”
   “Tell me about him.”
   “He’s a curious little man with a walrus moustache.”
   “What does he do?”
   “He’s a failure.”
   “Where does he fail?”
   “Oh, he doesn’t any longer,” she said. “He’s a retired failure, you see. You must meet him.”
   “I’d like to.”

Atwater takes Susan to see some boxing but she warns him that she won’t fall in love with him, and she doesn’t, instead she plans to go away from London for an unspecified period of time.

In the final third of the book Atwater visits his friend, Pringle, in the country with some of his other friends. Just when we think the novel is not going to go anywhere Powell threatens to give us a bit of drama, only to pull back at the final moment—it works really well and is quite amusing. And there’s some more great dialogue, such as this:

   The barman came to the other side of the counter.
   “Time please,” he said.
   Harriet said: “You mustn’t hurry a lady drinking a pint of beer. The effects might be fatal.”

As a side note I was watching the BBC documentary on John Betjeman, which was originally broadcast in 2014, called Return to Betjemanland when the presenter, A.N. Wilson, quoted an Anthony ‘Pole’ making a comment about Betjeman. From the context I guess he meant Powell and just assumed that it sounded a bit odd because of the plum in Wilson’s mouth. But it turns out that that is how Powell’s name should be pronounced: ‘Pole’, not ‘Pow-all’ – see this article by Anthony Powell’s granddaughter on the family name. Was everyone else aware of the correct pronunciation of his name?

A new biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling, who wrote the Handbook to A Dance to the Music of Time, is coming out in October—see here.

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‘Sleep It Off Lady’ by Jean Rhys

jeanrhysreadingweek-bannerI hadn’t read anything by Jean Rhys before reading this book, not even her most famous work Wide Sargasso Sea, so it may seem strange starting with this one; but I like short stories and it can sometimes be interesting taking a different route through an author’s work than others. So, Sleep It Off Lady is a collection of short stories, published in 1976, and I believe was Rhys’s last work to be published in her lifetime…but please correct me if I’m wrong about this. Months before her death she had started on her autobiography, Smile Please, which I assume was her project following this collection of stories and is one which would seem very natural as this collection of stories almost reads like a collection of autobiographical stories presented chronologically from her childhood in Dominica, her move to London and Paris, attempts at making a living as an actress and on to her life as an ageing outsider in the provinces. My knowledge of Rhys’s life consists mainly of the Wikipedia entry and whatever I’ve gleaned from other posts I’ve read in the Rhys Reading Week but I think it’s justifiable to say that the stories in this collection, although fictional, draw heavily upon her own life. Marina @ findingtimetowrite has also mentioned the similarities of subject and style with the two books.

rhys-sleep-it-off-lady_fcx-700pxThe first few stories are set in the Caribbean at the turn of the 20th century. The first story, Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers, was a good one to start the collection; it begins with two young girls discussing the other inhabitants of the town and the narrative soon turns to the ‘nasty beastly horrible Ramage’, a handsome man, who had appeared a few years before and got married to a coloured girl, who couldn’t even be described as a ‘nice coloured girl’. Rumours about the goings-on at the Ramages’ house attracts the locals’ interest and ends rather badly. This story prepares us for the others in the collection as they concentrate on the outsider status of individuals in society, whether it’s Ramage in this story or the other Rhys-like characters in England.

The last of the ‘Caribbean stories’ is Fishy Waters, which begins as an epistolary story which introduces the case of Jimmy Longa, another outsider, who was on trial for trying to saw a young girl in half. Longa had claimed that it was just a drunken joke but the girl had been traumatised by the event. The story also concentrates on how these events affect Matthew Penrice, who discovered Longa in the act and who had to give evidence at court. In the end it’s not Longa’s story, the little girl’s story or Penrice’s story that claims centre-ground, instead it’s the whole society and the sense of alienation that they all feel.

But the alienation really kicks in with the subsequent stories as we encounter young girls at school and at work in England, recently arrived from the Caribbean. Not only do they have to encounter the cold weather but also a strange and bewildering social etiquette. Although Rhys’s style is quite sparse, she occasionally treats us to some great descriptive prose; here we have a description of a maid at a school from the story, Overtures and Beginners Please:

The maid came in to light up and soon it would be time to go upstairs and change for dinner. I thought this woman one of the most fascinating I had ever seen. She had a long thin face, dead white, or powdered dead white. Her hair was black and lively under her cap, her eyes so small that the first time I saw her I thought she was blind. But wide open, they were the most astonishing blue, cornflower blue, no, more like sparks of blue fire. Then she would drop her eyelids and her face would go dead and lifeless again. I never tired of watching this transformation.

And here is an excellent quote from one of the shorter stories that I feel sums up the feeling of most of the characters in these stories:

I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had a few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.

Some of the othere stories are set in France, such as The Chevalier of the Place Blanche where the Chevalier is in need of money to pay off a debt but when he is offered the money from a young girl on the condition that he accompanies her to Madrid he cannot accept. Neither he nor the girl are particularly surprised and each goes their separate way.

Particlar favourites of mine are in the last third of the collection, such as Rapunzel, Rapunzel and the title story. Rapunzel, Rapunzel is a story about a stay in hospital followed by a period at a convalescent home. The narrator has to endure boredom, other patients and melancholy but another patient’s encounter with a visiting barber is possibly even worse.

Sleep It Off Lady begins with the elderly Miss Verney talking about death, which has been on her mind recently. She has a mission to get rid of a shed on her property, only it’s difficult to get anyone interested in the project.

Left alone, Miss Verney felt so old, lonely and helpless that she began to cry. No builder would tackle that shed, not for any price she could afford. But crying relieved her and she soon felt quite cheerful again. It was ridiculous to brood, she told herself.

Being elderly and living alone is problematic as there are rats on her property, though no-one believes her, and there is always the problem of putting the rubbish out. This is a rather sombre tale but it’s probably my favourite in the collection and is a fitting conclusion to those that preceeded it as it’s about ageing, loneliness, alienation, helplessness and decay…with a bit of indifference thrown in for good measure.

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