Saturday, 28 May 2016

Other people's authors

Do the names James and Leo Walmsley mean anything to you? Don’t worry if they don’t; you’re in good company.  Representatives of the Walmsley Society (who were present in numbers at the Alliance of Literary Societies recent conference) are well used to having to explain who they were and what they did, just as I am in the case of Barbara Pym. It doesn’t mean that other people are ignorant, simply that they haven’t as yet been fortunate enough to have come across the work of these writers.  Those that do know them, however, may feel privileged to belong to an elite group.

I should think anyone who has been to Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire is likely to have come across the watercolours executed in the early 20th century by James Ulric Walmsley.  Originally an architect by profession, he lived in the area for sixty years but did not hit the big time until nearly the end of his life, when one of his paintings was exhibited at the Royal Academy.  It is his son Leo, however, who interests me more.  A near-contemporary of Sassoon, Leo was two when his family moved to Robin Hood's Bay in 1894. During the First World War he joined the Royal Flying Corps and, like Sassoon, was awarded the Military Cross for his service in East Africa.

Leo was the literary half of the father-and-son partnership.  In the 1930s he began his popular "Bramblewick" series, and produced many more books, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as an autobiography and a play. His books were popular with the general public and were read far beyond his home area. The Walmsley Society was launched in 1985, nearly twenty years after Leo's death - he did not live nearly as long a life as his father.  This makes it twice the age of the SSF, and its continued existence gives me great hope for the future.

Yes, the world is full of unknown authors who should be more famous.  There is no shame in not having heard of most of them (except, perhaps, in the case of a work colleague of mine who had never heard of the Bronte sisters and was only familiar with “Wuthering Heights” through Kate Bush’s song – and he didn’t even know the tune.  But he won’t be reading this blog.)  How many delights are lost to us through not having enough time to pick up every book in the library!  And how many great novels do we read purely by chance, even though their authors never become household names?  I can think of many I’ve picked up over the years, thinking, “I probably won’t like this, but I’ll give it a go”. We love to share our recommendations, don’t we? 

Sadly, the Charles Williams Society was not represented at this year's ALS conference, and I hear it is about to be wound up, which seems a terrible shame after so many years.  Williams was one of the Inklings (oops, nearly referred to them as the Inkspots, quite a different bunch of folk!)  The society now hopes to amalgamate with the thriving Oxford C S Lewis Society, which proclaims that it "is interested not as much in Lewis as a man as in the world he inhabited and the intellectual and spiritual colleagues he knew and admired", a statement which intrigues me more than somewhat.  If ever there was another writer whose connections make his life a window on his times, it is Siegfried Sassoon, and I've always thought that is a great advantage in attracting new members. 

The fact is, however, that C S Lewis has more than one society in his name.  California and New York each have their own, and then there is the "C S Lewis Society" - called simply that - which was founded at Princeton University in 1975, not to mention the C S Lewis Foundation, an educational charity.  A writer like Lewis, or Dickens, or Tolkien, or Jane Austen, can so dominate as to have thousands of members in his/her literary society while others go from year to year with a small core of loyal members. The Richard Jefferies Society, for example, has an international but still relatively small membership, yet it has been going since 1950, and appears not to be in any danger of meeting the same fate as the Charles Williams Society.

Victorian novelist Charlotte M Yonge also has an enduring presence in the world of literary societies, despite all the author's works being out of print. They still manage to hold two meetings a year and issue a newsletter. Other somewhat obscure authors with their own societies include 19th century Dorset poet, William Barnes (an influence on the much more famous Thomas Hardy), 20th century journalist and farmer Adrian Bell, 18th century poet Robert Bloomfield, travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, Elizabethan dramatist Fulke Greville, and Moonfleet author John Meade Falkner.  Put them all together and what have you got? An alliance to end all alliances, one which promises to outlive all conflict.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Bronte Country

If there is one novelist from the UK that everyone has heard of, it is probably Charlotte Brontë.  At least as famous as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, Charlotte was welcomed into London literary circles by Dickens himself, Mrs Gaskell, Thackeray and others, though she was notoriously shy and once spent an hour or so hiding from unexpected visitors behind a curtain in the Gaskell drawing room.  And if there is one thing everyone knows about Charlotte Brontë, it is that she had two sisters who were also writers and died young.  In fact, she had another two sisters who died as children – probably due to the lack of care given them by the Clergy Daughters' School where four of the five girls were sent. There was also a brother who drank himself to death, with the complication of various addictions.

It is a gloomy story by anyone’s standards, and Charlotte would compound the felony by dying in childbirth aged 38, when she was just embarking on a happy married life. Put them all together, however, and the Brontë sisters are an incredible phenomenon.  It is hard to think of another literary family who achieved so much in such a short period.  One of my favourite books as a child was Pauline Clarke’s Carnegie Medal-winning novel, The Twelve and the Genii, in which an 8-year-old boy stumbles across the Brontës’ box of toy soldiers, around which they wove fantasies that proved a catalyst for their careers as writers of fiction.  The "Genii" of the title are of course the Brontë children, of whom the soldiers have a distant memory.

Whatever the reason for their fame, the Brontë sisters have become almost synonymous with English literature and with the county of Yorkshire, where I have just been attending the annual conference of the Alliance of Literary Societies (which the SSF and WOA will be jointly hosting next year).  Haworth Parsonage was their family home, though it was not the sisters’ birthplace; they moved there from the village of Thornton (now subsumed by the metropolitan borough of Bradford) when Charlotte was aged about four.  In recognition of the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth, the 2016 conference was hosted by the Brontë Society, about which there have been a number of unsympathetic media stories in recent times.  Is there such a thing as bad publicity for a literary society?  I don’t know but I would not like the SSF to suffer in the same way at the hands of the newspapers. 

On the other hand, it seems that the Brontë Society’s worst crime has been losing touch with the locals.  Apparently residents of Haworth do not feel a close connection with the Society’s aims and activities.  Here I can thoroughly sympathise, after experiences at Heytesbury and Matfield, where most of the locals welcomed the SSF with open arms but others seemed to see us as interlopers.  (Thinks: Why, oh why didn't I just leave it to them to start a literary society in honour of Sassoon?)  I can understand why it might appear so; to have strangers turning up who know little about your town or village except that a famous writer was born or died there could be annoying.  In the case of a place like Stratford-upon-Avon or Haworth, thronging with tourists throughout the summer months, there might be additional inconvenience involved, such as increased traffic, parking difficulties, noise, and the sheer congestion in the narrow streets. Matfield and Heytesbury would be very different places if they had the same cachet.
The "Bronte Village" at Haworth

Haworth as a community has changed considerably over the centuries.  Thanks largely to Mrs Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, and perhaps also to the plot of Wuthering Heights, we have come to think of it as a remote village in a “wild” and “bleak” landscape, whereas in fact, by the time the family moved there, it was a thriving industrial town, with a larger population than it now has. It cannot be denied that the Yorkshire moors are a strange (though beautiful) landscape, in which one could easily lose one bearings and, failing modern communications, could end up like the toddler who followed his father out of the house during a snowstorm and whose death became the subject of a melodramatic contemporary poem. This was one of many literary efforts pouring forth from Haworth during the mid-19th century that were enumerated by afternoon speaker Ian Dewhirst.

Some members of the Gaskell Society felt that Juliet Barker, in her excellent opening talk, was unjust to the Gaskell biography.  I don’t; she made it clear that she thinks it a wonderful book, and was not slow to point out that Gaskell had never written a biography before, which excuses some of the flights of fancy that affect its reputation but at the same time make it far more readable than most literary biographies. The proof of the pudding must be that, despite the sometimes uncomplimentary portrait of them painted by Gaskell, both the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Charlotte’s husband Arthur Bell Nichols went on to thank her unreservedly for the work she had done in rescuing Charlotte’s memory from popular misconceptions.

As usual, the dinner – held at the White Lion - was another opportunity for individual societies to advertise the wares of their respective authors by reading passages from their works.  So many wanted to do so that the ALS Chair, Linda Curry, was forced to draw names out of a hat in case we ran out of time. On this occasion, I eschewed the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in favour of an extract from Sassoon’s 1936 letter to Max Beerbohm, describing events at Heytesbury during the abdication crisis.  I sensed that some of the references in this very funny passage were going over many people’s heads - but at least no one appeared to be asleep.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me about the ALS is how many of its member societies are for authors I've never heard of - and I think of myself as well-read.  I intend to follow up on this comment in the next post.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Small Latin and Less Greek

While watching one of the many recent television programmes about the Bard of Avon, I was amused to hear a historian mention how the BBC had celebrated the “tercentenary” of Shakespeare’s birth.  The BBC is a venerable institution, but would have to be a lot older than it is to have been able to do that, since the tercentenary occurred in 1864.  What she was talking about was the “quatercentenary”, which I remember quite well myself, purely because I found the word rather troubling; surely, I thought, it should have another “r” in it?  I was only eight years old then, and had not learned any Latin.

The historian’s inability to cope with long words that are virtually never used nowadays reflected her youth.  She presumably did not study Latin at school, or she would certainly have been able to make an educated guess at the meaning of “tercentenary”, even if she had never come across the word before.  Shakespeare himself would, of course, have learned Latin at grammar school, and we even know the name of his teacher – Thomas Jenkins, a Welshman. 

It seems, though, that Shakespeare was not much of a Latin scholar.  He certainly used Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives as the basis of his play Julius Caesar.   Latin was not essential for reading most of the works from which he drew the plots of his plays.  His friend Ben Jonson wrote that he had “small Latin and less Greek”, and in Julius Caesar we find the first-ever published use of the phrase “it was Greek to me”. Had he been a more accomplished classical scholar, Shakespeare might have been drawn into using classical dramatic conventions in the manner of a Racine or Corneille long before he finally observed the unities of time and place in one of his last plays, The Tempest.  

Shakespeare belongs firmly in the world of the Elizabethan actor, an itinerant worker with no practical skills to his name. His companions were men like Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert, John Heminges and Will Kempe. They came from lower and middle-class backgrounds and would have been moderately well-educated but had not been to university.  They were usually well-travelled. If they were in the service of the monarch or another important person, they might also be well-paid.  Some of the playwrights of the age were better educated: Christopher Marlowe was a Cambridge graduate (though it did not mean quite the same as it does now) and Ben Jonson himself, though from humble beginnings, won a scholarship to the prestigious Westminster School. 

Shakespeare’s lack of Latin, as evinced by his preference for alternative sources for the plays he wrote, indicates that he did not belong to the nobility, but I will avoid getting into the Shakespeare authorship “question” (if there really is a question).  Latin continued to be the language of choice for serious writers for centuries to come, Isaac Newton famously using it for his scientific treatises.  Others who wrote mainly in Latin included the philosophers René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes. Even poetry and drama continued to be written in Latin, partly with the intention of it reaching an international audience.

By the early twentieth century, most public schoolboys and even grammar school boys had a good grounding in the Classics and it influenced their writing.  We've discussed this before, so we need not go into the details here. What is interesting about Siegfried Sassoon is that he, like Shakespeare, wrote his most effective poetry when he found the level of the average person, like the soldiers he found under his command in the First World War.  You could almost say that he "dumbed down" his writing to suit them.  In the sixteenth century, that would be considered no bad thing.  Medieval writers had a duty to appeal to the lowest common denominator because this enabled them to spread their work amongst the largest possible number of people, in the days before printing found its way to Britain and when illiteracy was still commonplace.  It did not do Shakespeare's work any harm. His "universality" is the thing we most admire about him, and I think that is also true of Sassoon.