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The Return of the Edwardian Wit!

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More by Max Beerbohm

My first encounter with Max Beerbohm was last year, when I read his collection “Works” (kindly provided by publisher Michael Walmer, who produced a lovely new edition of the work). Now Mike has brought out Beerbohm’s second collection of pieces entitled simply “More” and he’s once again kindly sent a review copy.

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As I said in my review of “Works”, Author Max Beerbohm is probably best known nowadays for his novel “Zuleika Dobson”, a satirical story of life in undergraduate Oxford, although Wikipedia reminds us that he was “an English essayist, parodist, and caricaturist”. I still haven’t managed to read the copy of that novel, which is lurking on Mount TBR, though Simon had an interesting take on it here! However, I do love Beerbohm’s short works so I was looking forward to more (literally!).

Max’s second collection contains 20 short and witty pieces on a wide range of topics, covering everything from Madame Tussaud’s to bicycles. As with “Works” his subjects and attitudes are remarkably modern; Beerbohm is often at his best when on the subject of celebrity, which frankly seems to have changed very little since his time. His observations of the transient and fickle nature of fashions and crazes, and the public’s obsession with the latest celeb’s personal life are pithy and spot on. At other times, he was a little wide of the mark – the fashion essay did decry women on bicycles – but mostly his observations still resonate and he’s always an entertaining read.

The author looking dapper!

I can do little more than give you a couple of quotes so you get a flavour of his writing, in the hope that you’ll feel inclined to check out his books. Once again, Mike Walmer has produced a lovely looking little volume that matches the earlier one beautifully – if you like your wit Oscar or Saki-style, this is definitely for you!

It is because actors, in pursuit of their art, display themselves, that the public takes a keen interest in all their circumstances. You must blame, not the actors, but the public. Even supposing (which is foolish) that these “personal paragraphs”are generally inspired by their subject, they would not be printed unless the public wished to read them. As a matter of fact, actors are no more desirous of irrelevant fame than are any other artists. It is the public which wishes quite naturally, to know all about them. The journalists, quite naturally, seek to gratify the public.

For what is ours by natural right we care nothing. In our code possession is nine tenths of ennui, and we delight only in things alien to us. Our young men ape the wisdom and weariness of eld, whilst eld would fain dance, with stiff limbs, to the joyous and silly tunes of adolescence. What we have not, we simulate; and of what we have, we are heartily ashamed. We pull long faces to hide our mirth, and grin when we are most wretched. We are all of us, always, in everything, straining after contraries.

Truly, human nature doesn’t seem to change very much…

War, and the Decline of the Aristocracy

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A Share of the World by Hugo Charteris

As anyone reading this blog might have guessed, I’m a bit of a sucker for forgotten and neglected novelist. So one of my ideal publishers is Michael Walmer, and he’s rediscovered a cracker in the form of Hugo Charteris, whose first novel “A Share of the World” has just been reissued by the imprint. Coming with an interesting introduction by the author’s daughter, it seems a good place to begin!

Charteris is a charismatic-sounding man; of aristocratic lineage (he was the grandson of the 11th Earl of Wemyss), he led a peripatetic life, moving through Eton, Oxford, Malaya, Java, Sutherland, finally ending up in Yorkshire where he died at the age of 48 in 1970.

During his life he wrote constantly alongside a military career, a period in PR and much journalism. Probably nowadays he would be best remembered for his TV work, including the series “Take Three Girls”, and his novels seem to have very much disappeared from the scene – which is a shame, judging from this, his first.

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“A Share of the World” tells the story of John Grant, who narrates; based, I’m sure, on Charteris himself, Grant is an office in the middle of the Italian campaign of the second world war. From an upper-class background, he would obviously be part of the officer class but he seems singularly ill-equipped to deal with his role.

Throughout part one of the book, the elliptical, poetic prose slips between Grant’s present (planning and carrying out a patrol to check on the presence of Germans) and various incidents in his past (nightmares and visions as a child; trials at schools; falling in love with a 14-year-old). And the common thread is that at any point of importance in his life he seems to experience a kind of paralysis, having to force himself to take action.

The nature of the fear felt in nightmares is hard to describe by relating it to other things and hard to remember except by chance. It is akin to hysteria, vertigo, impotence, and for those people like John who sometimes used the word Evil with a capital E, as though it existed outside the mind of man, it is akin to Evil. It seldom breaks through into waking life except in the elusive and transitory taste of a sudden association. In the natural world the commonest similar experience seems to be in the eyes of a rabbit fixed by a stoat, screaming with good reason before it’s hurt, but not able to move easily away as it could.

This paralysis seems strongest when in the company of one of his men, Bright; the latter is an unpleasant, dishonest person and he serves in the story almost as a kind of demon pursuing Grant, who feels trapped in the web of his own existence, unable to act and almost an unreal person.

The patrol, of course, goes horribly wrong, and Grant’s war is over. The second part of the book deals with his life post-war. The old certainties have gone, the aristocracy is crumbling and John Grant has no place in the world, feeling like some kind of un-person. He becomes fixated with Jane Matlock, daughter of Sir Wilfred and Lady ‘Neenie’, and sister of Christopher Matlock, who Grant knows slightly. John is convinced that if he marries Jane he will become a ‘real man’, a person with an existence instead of a kind of ghost presence. However, Christopher, who has been much affected by the war and has taken to drink, believes that Jane is so locked into her role as a kind of Lady Bountiful that she doesn’t exist as a real person either. So John’s attempts to ground himself in the modern world seem doomed to disaster, as he and Jane are at cross-purposes most of the time. Meanwhile, the ancient order continues to collapse, John spends a bizarre Christmas with the Matlocks, and Christopher is refusing to take over the family home, Edgeby.

We have only one life as far as we know. One third sleep. Why make another third even more negative than sleep? ‘Doing something in which we cannot express ourselves, deepens ourselves before death.’

Charteris’ writing is really rather wonderful and individual. The prose is fluid, shifting from one perspective to another in a way that’s almost dream-like. He portrays a man with a tenuous grip on reality who seems unable to take any kind of decisive action at all. I presume that the paralysis he reflects here is meant to be symptomatic of a decaying aristocracy, and certainly the less aristocratic members of the cast are much more capable of deeds than Grant – particularly the devious and malevolent Bright, whose influence runs through the book like a constant and nasty thread, and who turns up most alarmingly when least expected with a very unpleasant smile on his face!

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I enjoyed my first experience of reading Hugo Charteris very much; his individual style of prose, his rather dreamy and troubled characters and the wonderful way he had of conjuring up atmosphere made this a compelling book. So well done to Michael Walmer for re-issuing the title, and I’ll look forward to exploring more of Charteris’ work in future.

The Return of the Edwardian Wit

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Reginald in Russia by Saki

Saki, the pseudonym of H.H. Munro, is an author I first discovered back in 2012, when I read a little collection of his short pieces put out by Hesperus, and also his first volume of stories under the title “Reginald”. Now Michael Walmer has put out the second Saki selection called, titled “Reginald in Russia” in one of his lovely new editions and has kindly provided a copy for review.

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Although Saki’s regular character Reginald is referenced in the title, it’s in fact only the first story in the collection in which he features. And there’s no shortage of the usual wit which is on show while Reginald exchanges bon mots with Princess Olga. Other stories are equally witty, covering subjects as wide-ranging as strange encounters in woods, ghost stories and a short and funny play. There are some really wonderful twists; one of my favourites being in the story “The Reticence of Lady Anne”, about a domestic dispute which has a completely unexpected ending.

“I hate posterity – it’s so fond of having the last word.”

In some ways, Saki reminds me a little of Ronald Firbank (also published by Michael Walmer); the two writers share a love of funny phrases and witty exchanges, although of the two it has to be said that Saki is a lot more comprehensible – and often screamingly funny! It’s a tribute to his skill that he can take something really quite dark (Gabriel-Ernest) and turn into something entertaining but unsettling.

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Saki often covers unexpectedly deep subject matter but always in a witty, clever way. Alas, he died young, a victim of the horrors of the First World War which robbed the world of many talented artists. But at least we’ve been left with the laughter and levity of his works which still entertain today. If you love Wodehouse, Wilde and wit, “Reginald in Russia” is most definitely for you!

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I think my love of Hesperus may have confused some of my commenters, but I should remind readers that the book has been published by Michael Walmer, who has a lovely catalogue of books – his site is most definitely worth a visit!

Recent Reads: Inclinations by Ronald Firbank

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“I’m glad I can still sometimes drug my senses with a book,” Lady Dorinda exclaimed.

You know the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous”? Well, Proust’s prose is definitely sublime, and Ronald Firbank’s characters are wonderfully ridiculous, so it certainly applies here! And you couldn’t get two more different books than these – the deep and lyrical “Swann’s Way” and the short, snappy, witty “Inclinations”! It’s quite surprising, actually, how far apart these authors are – actually at opposite ends of the spectrum – particularly as they were almost contemporaries.

I reviewed Firbank’s “Vainglory” here, and published Michael Walmer has been kind enough to supply a copy of his second novel, “Inclinations”. I can see that Michael has a fondness for Firbank, and it’s easy to see why, as he’s such a quirky and witty writer! This is the third Firbank I’ve read (the first being Valmouth, many years ago) and he just gets better and better…

inclinations“Inclinations” is notionally about the experiences of young and bored Mabel Collins, who is whisked off to Greece by the famous biographer Geraldine O’Brookomore. The latter, often referred to as Gerald throughout the book, is on the trail of her latest subject, the female traveller Kitty Kettler, and Mabel comes along as a companion. Mabel, however, is soon being wooed by the dashing Count Pastorelli, and eyed up by the newly married Mr. Arbanel (much to the chagrin of his young wife). Needless to say, Mabel and Gerald encounter all kinds of eccentric characters, prone to spouting strange and witty dialogue, before events reach a crisis (well, actually, several!) – there are Professor and Mrs. Cowsend, the actress Miss Arne, Miss Clint (queen of the ladies’ maids) and the Australian Miss Dawkins. The second section of the book finds Mabel back at home – although many things have changed in her life…

Like “Vainglory”, this book was a real hoot! Firbank’s sharp conversations and constant repartee is quite breathtaking, and it’s amazing how something which is basically woven together strips of dialogue can be so funny and actually be understood; in fact, one short chapter consists of the world “Mabel!” repeated eight times and makes perfect sense in context, and because of what has gone before!

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Firbank obviously made an art of telling a story in as few sentences as possible, at least in this early part of his career. However, there is a fascinating part of the book which reveals how change would come, and that’s chapter IV of the second section. This particular edition contains an alternative version of that chapter, written much later, and it’s noticeably and strikingly different from his early style: there are paragraphs of description; completely new characters; they are given proper introductions; and the prose feels expanded, altogether different from the early way Firbank tells his tale. However, even in this early work, Firbank can do description with the best of them:

“In the grey cedar crests, from the blue fir-trees of the Kronian hill, the wols flapped gabbling; among the fields of mournful olives the cicadas called; over the fragments of fallen marble, crushing the wild thyme, the fire-flies flashed; and on the verandah of the Hotel de France, the scintillation of her diamonds harmonising equally with the heavens as with the earth, Dorinda, Lady Gaiheart, was finishing a tale.”

“Inclinations” is a worth addition to Michael Walmer’s catalogue. Although slim, it’s as witty and funny as the other Firbanks; and this edition once again features a lovely Aubrey Beardsley cover drawing. Highly recommended for anyone who likes camp repartee and whimsical humour!

Recent Reads: Lavinia by George Sand

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When I was in my late teens/early twenties, and during my first flush of feminism, I came across a book that was to be pivotal in my development as a reader – “Literary Women” by Ellen Moers, a chunky blue volume published by The Women’s Press. The book was an eye-opener to an avid reader, full of information about a huge range of women writers I’d never heard of. At the back was a long checklist of writers and their books, which I credit with sending me off to read Virginia Woolf, Colette et al, and giving me a life-long love of those wonderful women. However, one of the writers covered was George Sand, a pioneering women from the past, and although I was keen to read her, the books just weren’t accessible at the time. So somehow I never got round to reading Sand – until now! One of her novellas, “Lavinia”, has just been published by Michael Walmer, who was kind enough to provide a review copy.

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Wikipedia tells us: “Amantine (also “Amandine”) Lucile Aurore Dupin  (1 July 1804 – 8 June 1876), best known by her pseudonym George Sand, was a French novelist and memoirist. She is also equally well-known for her much publicized romantic affairs with a number of celebrities including Frédéric Chopin and Alfred de Musset.”

Sand’s life was somewhat scandalous – in her taste for dressing in men’s clothing and reported lesbian affairs, she might be seen as a precursor of Colette – but I wanted to approach her work without preconceptions. I had always had the impression that her books were dense doorstops, so the fact that “Lavinia” is a novella of some 70 pages meant that it was probably the ideal volume to help me find my way into her work!

The Lavinia of the title is a well-bred Portuguese beauty, loved in her early youth by Sir Lionel Bridgemont, a wealthy young English rake. However, Lionel abandoned her ten years ago, and after a period travelling Europe and generally enjoying life, he has decided to settle down and is engaged to Margaret Ellis, a beautiful Englishwoman with a dowry. When Lavinia, having heard of his impending marriage, offers to meet with him so that they can return each other’s letters, Lionel cautiously agreed. Postponing an outing with Margaret, he heads off with his chatterbox friend Sir Henry to meet up with Lavinia for one final time. But how will their reunion go, and who will be the most emotionally affected?

For such a short book, “Lavinia” certainly delivers plenty of food for thought! This is a portrait of society people, living in a world where status is all and there are strict rules and regulations dictating conduct. As Lavinia was abandoned, she has never quite recovered her standing in society, despite an advantageous marriage to the older Lord Blake (now deceased). Despite her fortune, her title and her circle of admirers, there is still a stigma attached to her because of Lionel’s behaviour. He returns to her expecting emotion, expecting to be the dominant one of the pair, but he is shocked and surprised – Lavinia has matured, learned how to play the society game and control her emotions. It is Lionel who begins to behave in an irrational and unacceptable way, much to the alarm of Henry!

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This is a remarkably clever novella; Sand seems to delight in turning the tables on the arrogant Lionel, having him meet his match in the new Lavinia and being prepared to fall at her feet. However, Sand is a wise enough writer not to opt for the happy ending; she seems to celebrate passion and real emotions, recognising that Lavinia has had to crush her natural feelings so much to fit in that she can no longer love – and certainly not Lionel.

So my first George Sand book turned out to be a really enjoyable, thought-provoking read – Lavinia was a lovely, feisty heroine and if this is any guide to Sand’s writing, I want to read more!

Recent Reads: The Works of Max Beerbohm

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Author Max Beerbohm is probably best known nowadays for his novel “Zuleika Dobson”, a satirical story of life in undergraduate Oxford, although Wikipedia reminds us that he was  “an English essayist, parodist, and caricaturist”. “Zuleika” has been sitting on Mount TBR, in the form of a nice old Penguin, for quite some time, so I was pleased to be offered a review copy of “The Works of Max Beerbohm” by the independent publisher, Michael Walmer (whose edition of “Vainglory” by Ronald Firbank I reviewed here).

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Beerbohm had a long and illustrious career and yet “The Works” was his first published book, a collection of essays previously appearing in various publications. There are seven of these, ranging in topic from dandies such as Beau Brummell, via a reconsideration of the life and character of King George IV through to one of his most famous, “The Perversion of Rouge” – the latter covering the resurgence of the use of cosmetics, an essay which was reputed to have moved Oscar Wilde to tears!

Stylistically, Beerbohm’s writing is ornate and very enjoyable. It takes a little adjusting to if you’re used to more prosaic modern writing, but once you get into the flow of it you find yourself reading surprisingly rapidly. MB certainly has a way with words and his prose really is a joy to read. Although the subject matter is not people or ideas that present-day readers would necessarily be familiar with, in many ways that doesn’t matter – there’s always the Internet to let you look up the history of, say, Robert Coates (whose terrible acting career is covered in the essay “Poor Romeo!”) – and in any event these essays are worth reading for the wonderful language alone.

“Most women are not as young as they are painted… Cosmetics are not going to be a mere prosaic remedy for age or plainness, but all ladies and girls will come to love them…the season of the unsophisticated is gone by, and the young girl’s final extinction beneath the rising tides of cosmetics will leave no gap in life and will rob art of nothing… Artifice, sweetest exile, is come into her kingdom.”

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Beerbohm is a very clever writer, skilled at using language to play tricks and make the reader think completely the opposite to the obvious. In fact, the only trouble I had with this book was sometimes being unsure when Max was parodying or not! For example, his piece on King George IV actually came across as a genuine attempt to reappraise the man’s life and character; whereas “A Good Prince” very cleverly twists your expectations on the first page with revelations on the final fifth page which make you realise you aren’t reading about quite the sort of person you thought! And “The Perversion of Rouge” seems to me very definitely a cry out against the plastering on of so much make-up that the real person has completely disappeared – which is a surprisingly modern and relevant way of thinking, when confronted with today’s fashions of dying, primping, injecting and plasticising oneself so as to be as unlike the original as possible. Beerbohm’s Dandies are not that far removed from today’s fancy dressers, removing all trace of body hair, wearing fake tans (and fake everything elses!), spending fortunes on clothes and ointments – plus ca change, as they say! As MB points out, sun-tan make-up was being used by “countless gentlemen who walk about town in the time of its desertion from August to October, artificially bronzed, as though they were fresh from the moors or the Solent. This, I conceive, is done for purely social reasons.” How modern of them!!

These sparkling little essays were a real delight to read, and with surprising depth and relevance. The book itself is a nice little volume with stripey yellow covers and comes with a bibliography of the essays and their previous appearances. On the evidence of The Works, Max Beerbohm should certainly be remembered for more than “Zuleika Dobson”!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher – thank you!)

Recent Reads: Vainglory by Ronald Firbank

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Wow! I certainly followed up Verne with a completely different book, didn’t I? I don’t think two books could be less alike than “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and “Vainglory”!

According to Wikipedia, Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank (17 January 1886 – 21 May 1926) was an innovative British novelist. His eight short novels, partly inspired by the London aesthetes of the 1890s, especially Oscar Wilde, consist largely of dialogue, with references to religion, social-climbing, and sexuality.

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I actually have a little bit of history reading Firbank – I have somewhere in the stacks a very old-style Wordsworth Classic of “Valmouth” which I know I read (the bookmark is still in the book at the end of that story) but I can remember absolutely nothing about it, apart from that I enjoyed it! This would probably be at least 15 years ago, so maybe that’s not surprising – but I do wonder I would have made of it at the time, knowing nothing much about Firbank and not having any context in which to put him. Maybe a revisit is due.

But on to “Vainglory”, a volume kindly provided by Michael Walmer, an independent publisher I’m happy to support. According to Michael, Firbank is considered a “difficult” writer, but I don’t think he’s difficult – just different! The story here revolves around the desire of the wonderfully-named Mrs. Shamefoot to have a stained glass window built in her honour. She fixes on Ashringford cathedral and much of the action is set there, while she tries to persuade all and sundry that the window would be a good idea. Around Mrs. Shamefoot circle a huge array of wonderfully-named characters, just a few of whom are Mira Thumbler, Julia Compostella, Winsome Brookes, Dr. Pantry, Mrs. Henedge, Mrs. and Miss Wookie, and the three Chalfont sisters, never seen apart and constantly laughing madly about something – laughter that becomes dangerous….

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However, as Wikipedia astutely points out, “the plot is of minor importance and the interest, as with all Firbank’s work, lies in the dialogue.” And what dialogue it is! I think this is where the accusations of difficulty will come from, because it *is* sometimes not obvious whom the dialogue is coming from or what the character is talking about. The best way to think of it, really, is as if you’re eavesdropping on some wonderfully scandalous, gossipy, witty conversations – you’re not always sure straight away who is being discussed or why, but if you just go with the flow all becomes clear!

And the prose *is* witty and sparkling and very unexpected – Firbank juxtaposes words in his descriptions you wouldn’t expect; his comparisons are often outlandish but surprisingly effective, painting vivid pictures of the rarefied society he’s writing about. Take the picture he paints of Mira Thumbler:

“Mira Thumbler was a mediaeval-looking little thing, with peculiar pale ways, like a creature escaped through the border of violets and wild strawberries of a tapestry panel.”

And then a simple description of the preparations for a soiree contains this:

“In the centre of the room, a number of fragile gilt chairs had been waiting patiently all day to be placed, heedless, happily, of the lamentations of Therese, who, whilst rolling her eyes, kept exclaiming, “Such wild herds of chairs; such herds of wild chairs!”

The risk here is that I’ll pull out so many quotes that it will dazzle you – but just a couple more:

“The world is disgracefully managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain.”

and

“Although there were moments even still in the grey glint of morning when the room had the agitated, stricken appearance of a person who had changed his creed a thousand times, sighed, stretched himself, turned a complete somersault, sat up, smiled, lay down, turned up his toes and died of doubts. But this aspect was reserved exclusively for the housemaids and the translucent threads of dawn.”

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If Firbank is a forgotten novelist at all, it’s a shame. His wit and cleverness should put him up with the Sakis and the Wildes of this world; and his use of so much dialogue does make me think of Ivy Compton-Burnett! I *did* love this book, and I shall return to “Valmouth” with new eyes. This is a lovely new edition of “Vainglory” by Michael Walmer, and I’d highly recommend Firbank to anyone who loves witty dialogue!

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