The History of Mr. Polly

H. G. Wells

1910

(A man of precisely 37.5 years of age can’t seem to find success or happiness in life… perhaps he has to do something drastic.)

 John Mills stars in the 1949 film version of the History of Mr Polly.John Mills as Alfred Polly in the 1949 Anthony Pelissier film.  Mills’ expression seems to capture Polly’s listless anomie.  This still was also chosen to head the description of the novel for The Guardian‘s list of the 100 Greatest Novels (Robert McCrum named it #39– but meant it to represent all of H. G. Wells’ work).  This photograph is in the Ronald Grant Archive

 

“HOLE!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “ ‘Ole!”  He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”

Thus begins an entertaining fictional biography of a man who really needs a whack upside the head– one of several greats in that odd subgenre– Tom Jones, Babbitt, and Updike’s Rabbit series, for examples. (H. G. Wells writing fictional biography? In a contemporary setting? This might surprise those of us, such as myself, who had equated him with science fiction and socialist nonfiction. But anyway…) Our protagonist is an endearing and vivid, if frustrating character, who hides his depression with funny one-liners and his poor education with deliberate mispronunciations. And, as with many colorful characters in real life, beneath the wit cowers a man who hasn’t a clue where he’s going. His path through life is that of a flat boat with untethered sails– he might as easily plummet to his death over a waterfall as drift into a homely port.  Or, to use Alfred Polly’s own metaphor, he’s in a hole.  And no amount of quaint phrasing and amusing epithet, no ability to make women giggle, and no success as a shopkeeper is going to hoist him out of it.

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The Mayor of Casterbridge

Thomas Hardy

1886

(The fortunes of a strong-willed hay-trusser prove to be as volatile as he is.)

HardyCasterbridgeHenchardAndSusan“Hay-trussing–?” said the turnip-hoer, who had already begun shaking his head. “O no.”  The first of Robert Barnes’s 20 illustrations for The Mayor of Casterbridge in the 1886 weekly magazine The Graphic, where the novel appeared between January-May 1886.  Here the protagonist, Michael Henchard, is asking whether there is local work available.  All 20 illustrations can be seen on The Victoria Web.

 

Michael Henchard is an unemployed field laborer who, under the influence of rum at a fair, impulsively starts to auction off his wife and baby daughter, to much laughter.  His wife stands.  A hush falls as a sailor actually puts five guineas on the table.

“Now,” said the woman, breaking the silence, so that her low dry voice sounded quite loud, “before you go further, Michael, listen to me. If you touch that money, I and this girl go with the man. Mind, it is a joke no longer.”

But Henchard will not be shamed or threatened.  When he says something he means it!  And so minutes later he sits there blinking away his disbelief as Susan, with little Elizabeth-Jane, walks away with a stranger.  Thus begins The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character.  Here we see how a person’s destiny is shaped by the interaction of external forces and internal qualities– the world and the self.  Take one part circumstance, add one part decision, repeat continually towards success or failure.

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early poems

Matthew Arnold

1840-1849

(A man of intellect and of spiritual sensitivity contemplates the purpose of life and its struggles.)

MunchMelancholyCrop of Melancholy (1894), by Edvard Munch.  This painting is in The Rasmus Meyer Collection at The Bergen Art Museum (now part of the KODE museum group in Bergen, Norway).

 

“Unwelcome shroud of the forgotten dead,/ Oblivion’s dreary fountain, where art thou”.  What a dark way to begin one’s poetical efforts, at 18 years of age!  And we need read no further to suspect (correctly) that in Matthew Arnold we are in for something very different from the Romantics, and quite different also from his Victorian contemporaries Browning and Tennyson.  The essence of the distinction is in his preoccupation with the meaning of life, and by extension death and the loss of faith.  This spiritual decline that disturbed him so much, often called the maladie du siècle or the “sickness of the century”, had been treated more seriously on the continent, while in England Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were grasping at Nature or the humanism of the Greeks for their spiritual anchor.  Arnold was a more melancholic, more skeptical poet, and doubted that the sickness could ever be cured, although he certainly loved the ancients (many of his early poems have classical subjects), and he also did look to nature for inspiration.  Even as a teen he presaged the Existentialists, and indeed much of the spirit of the twentieth century, in trying to devise a way to preserve our spirituality and sense of wonder while being brutally honest about our mortality and the fleeting nature of all human endeavor.  Matthew Arnold was a great poet not mainly because he was imaginative, spiritual, morally sensitive, and wonderstruck, nor on the other hand because he was freethinking, scholarly, and skeptical; he was great because he was somehow both of these sorts of people at once.  If his poetry could be said to have a single goal, it was to merge these two halves of his consciousness, the spiritual and the intellectual.

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Songs and Sonets

John Donne

d. 1631

(An earthy, imaginative, thoughtful soul reveals his view of love, steeped in metaphor and emotion.)

WilliamDyce_FrancescaDaRimini_1845Crop of Francesca da Rimini with her lover Paoloby the Scottish painter William Dyce (1837).  This painting can be seen in the National Galleries of Scotland. Though not quite as scandalous as Paolo, who is here courting his brother’s wife, John Donne snuck around with his master’s daughter against his will, eventually marrying her.

 

Donne is a master of love poetry– some say the best of them all– because he combines rich experience with deep and varied thought.  The whole person is writing here, his intellect and his heart in a powerfully effective, if strained, cooperation.  He is at once philosophical and romantic, a learned dreamer, an impassioned thinker.  On one hand these poems are often acutely emotional and physical, full of sweat and tears. Love and death are often intimately associated, by virtue of heartbreak as well as the sheer weight of true love itself. But at the same time the poems are bursting with erudite imagination, especially loose analogy and illustration (“conceits”) from physical science, alchemy, astronomy, and ancient and medieval philosophical and theological ideas. Donne sees no problem in linking his love to events and bodies of astronomic or even divine proportions. He employs so many characteristic devices, has so many surprising and intriguing perspectives, that his poems can be enjoyed just for these, even if we knew nothing of love.  But of course, love is the main thing on his mind… really the only thing on his mind.  Everything else is playing a supporting role. For those who think of Donne as the Reverend Doctor, the dean, the spiritual teacher… you will see that person here mainly in his cleverness, his breadth of education, a few metaphors, and of course his deep affinity for things spiritual.  Otherwise, here our Donne is a much more earthy bloke– here he is Jack Donne, the lover.  Then again, perhaps there is more to the continuity. The man who is first fascinated by women and drama and then later by God and church, is a man of fierce and fervent heart, seeking a worthy object of devotion.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel

Baroness Emmuska Orczy

1905

(A master of disguise rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine and drops them safely into London society—until a sly French inspector tracks him down.)

ScarletPimpernel_IanMcKellenIan McKellen as the French inspector Chauvelin in the 1982 London Films production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which also starred Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour.  This and other stills can be found at the blog Of Trims and Frills and Furbelows.  

 

Don’t let the title’s reference to a dainty flower and the femininity of the author fool you.  This is no Austen or Brontë novel.  It is a hearty adventure, more along the lines of the father of adventure stories Sir Walter Scott, or Dumas, or Stevenson.  What a treat to have a woman join these illustrious ranks!  Rugged oaths and swordfights may be lacking, but stories stocked with those can easily be found elsewhere.  Instead Orczy proficiently places a “caped avenger”-style suspense drama (a genre some say she invented) against a backdrop of fashionable London society.  The high manners, the social competition, the gossip, the dress, the flamboyant events… Orczy was a baroness herself, and this is undoubtedly part of the reason why she was able to present these ingredients with such freshness and authenticity.  But all this is ancillary to the mystery and excitement that lend this tale its permanent appeal.

Lyrical Ballads, and other early poems

William Wordsworth

1785-1799

(A poetic sage takes lessons on goodness and beauty from nature.)

WilliamHavellTinternAbbeyCrop of Tintern Abbey (1804), by William Havell.  Hikers laze above the abbey in the Wye Valley, just as Wordsworth did with his sister before composing his most famous poem.  This painting is at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford.

 

A man of wisdom, a poet of nature, is Wordsworth.  These are the goals to which he aspires, goals that are discernable in his work from a very early age.  He wrote many of his greatest poems in the years covered here, before he reached 30.  Wisdom, or more specifically a yearning for and contemplation of goodness and beauty, suffuses his poetry.  Thus he is keen to deliver moral advice, and almost seems to teach or prophesy rather than reflect.  But it is the deepest and most profitable kind of reflection, I can almost hear him replying, whose results teach the reflector something.  And since he insists in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads that he writes each poem with a purpose, and with the intent of delivering objective truths rather than ideas that one may take or leave as a matter of preference, we must prepare for a slight didactic or pedagogical flavor now and then.  For Wordsworth, though firmly against elitism in poetry, is aware of his own wisdom, and is driven to share it with others.  The topics range from attitudes towards people (as in “Matthew”), to attitudes towards nature (as in “Lines Written in Early Spring”), to a straightforward exhortation to be good (as in “Goody Blake and Harry Gill”).  He imparts his values on social matters as well, regarding for instance the evil of slavery (at the end of “Descriptive Sketches”), the necessity of legislated charity (at the beginning of “The Old Cumberland Beggar”), and thoughts on education (e.g. “Expostulation and Reply”).

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Tom Jones

Henry Fielding

1749

(Tom really wants to be good for the sake of his love Sophia, but his nature keeps getting in the way!)

TomJonesMovie1963Albert Finney as Tom Jones, and Susannah York as Sophia Western, in Tony Richardson’s 1963 film adaptation. Courtesy of the British Film Institute.

 

It is prudent to be morally pure– there can be weighty unseen consequences to any moral failure.  Fielding’s signature novel has this ponderous theme, and yet manages not to be at all heavy-handed but funny, colloquial, at times bawdy, ironic, rollicking.  The theme is kicked here and there and tossed around like a ball, but it is pervasive nonetheless– throughout this History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, from his birth to the point at which he finally comes to the beginning of what promises to be a good and happy life with Sophia, all of Tom’s sundry dilemmas and anguishes are a result of his own moral weakness.  Although an otherwise upstanding and honorable individual, poor Tom cannot seem to surmount two kinds of temptation: to lust and to folly.  He repeatedly places himself into compromising situations with women that– even if Fielding’s presentation of them makes us smirk– only prove disastrous to him through his family or his beloved.  Also, to achieve his goals he often resorts to schemes that involve some deceit, and that always backfire on him in the worst way imaginable.  We see Tom, and rightly so, as a victim of Fortune throughout the book; but he lays himself open to Fortune’s whims by his actions, and so he has lured his own fate.  No elements of the plot of this book are foreign to this theme.

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Great Expectations

Charles Dickens

1860-1861

(Pip tells us of his lifelong love, the unexpected rise and fall of his fortune, and the lessons he learned about what makes a gentleman.)

MissHavisham&PipDetail from an 1860s illustration by John McLenan, “‘Who is it?’ said the lady at the table. ‘Pip, ma’am.'” Courtesy of The Victorian Web

 

In describing a novel, everyone, myself included, seems to have as the central focus an explanation of what the book is about, whether plotwise or themewise. So it has always been a curiosity to me that such a description rarely lures me to a novel, or, if I have already read it, rarely captures what I loved about it. Tell me that Great Expectations is Pip’s life story where such and such happens, and I will probably not care too much. Tell me that it is a story of foolish desires and their detriment to our good and healthy existence, or of the confusion we often suffer between our expectations and reality, or of the functions and effects of guilt or love or human sympathy– tell me that the book is about these things and I am likely to nod in agreement, but I’ll not be for the sake of those things very much impassioned to read the novel. It is not because I do not care about these things. In fact, I loved the novel and these are precisely what the novel is about, and I loved it at least partially because of them. But I suspect that there are situations where our experience of reading the novel results in our loving the novel for what it is, as distinct from what it is about. I think Dickens is one of those authors for whom this is regularly the case. Another orphan novel? the uninitiated might ask, having read David Copperfield. And we would have to say “Yes, Dickens is returning to theme of our human condition being one in which we are as orphans, trying to find our way through a world filled with few safe people and places but many threatening people and places. We must learn life’s lessons for ourselves, for our parents are not here to help us.” Now, as true and interesting as this is, does this statement shake the cynic from his negativity towards Dickens? Or, for the person who has read Great Expectations, does it nail down what is so endearing about the book? Probably not.

 

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Pearl

The West Midlands Poet

14th century

(A father struggles to recover faith and peace after losing his baby daughter.)

 PearlIllustration2Illustration of the vision of the narrator of the Pearl poem, from its only manuscript: Cotton Nero A.x.  Courtesy of the Cotton Nero A.x. Project at the University of Calgary

 

Diversity of structure is one of the wonders of poetry.  Today’s poets often celebrate freedom from structure, which has its own beauty.  The medieval mind cherished a different kind of beauty, one that is neither extinct nor obsolete today, just overlooked.  It is the elegant euphony of placing what one wishes to convey into a strict, unifying framework.  Rather than delivering a point casually or even haphazardly as we may do in everyday life, the medieval poet would conform ideas to a predetermined scheme of alliteration, rhyme, stress, mid-line breaks (caesurae), and a multilevel organization of lines into stanzas and groups of stanzas, interconnected by strands of repetition.  Surely it is a handicap to expression—but this is part of its charm!  The skill required to create a meaningful poem that has a detailed or complicated structure is so great that its demands separate the geniuses from the dabblers.  Modern poetic sensibilities may balk at this comment, but in this age where much art and poetry is still very polarized into distinct “high” and “low” forms, I think these sensibilities are a little hypocritical.  It seems in fashion today both to create art that only a fraction of society can understand, and at the same time to repudiate notions of hierarchy, including hierarchy of understanding, wherever they appear.  Generally the medieval mind, cultivated within the feudal economic and political system and a strongly hierarchical Church, was more candid about social stratification.  Medievals did not tend to preach egalitarianism except under God, which would be realized only in another world.  This perspective characterized their art as well as society.  Thus, I would argue that the structured medieval poem’s handicap to expression is in itself, aside from its resulting euphony or atmosphere, a badge of excellence.

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Whose Body?

Dorothy L. Sayers

1923

(A financier goes missing and a lookalike is found dead in a bathtub.  The easygoing Lord Peter Wimsey searches for the connection.)

wimseyIan Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, from the 1970s BBC miniseries (www.popmatters.com)

 

As troubling as murder is in our society, more of them happen on bookstore shelves than anywhere else, and millions of apparently peaceful people pay plenty of money to read about them, as if it were a pity that they don’t happen more often.  I have casually wondered why.  Probably it is an example of entertainment by extremity: if conflict is the heart of any good story, surely lots of people will go for people killing each other, since you can’t get more conflictual than that.  This doesn’t really answer the question, though—it just passes the buck from fascination with murder to fascination with conflict in general.  But of course we humans are inherently scenario-building, personality-scrutinizing, lie-detecting social beings.  Human success has always depended on figuring other people out.  The fact that one of the characters in such stories is likely to be the murderer is probably a large part of the draw.  Trying to solve a murder mystery flexes the same mental muscles that we use for everyday social problem-solving and monitoring.  And a murder is, again, more likely to catch our attention than any other breach of social mores.  The authors make the stakes so high to ensure our attention.  Not everyone goes in for these books, of course, which is simply because our society provides us with a variety of different ways to address basic human concerns.  Take an EEG of a video gamer, sports follower, or romance reader at their respective hobbies.  I suspect they are scratching the same itches in different ways.

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