Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Of moment

Living began as an orderly promise,
contingent on doing, now and then on changing,
feeling a little, rightly not too keenly,
amid unrelated regretted confusions.

Went on into the dark,
prone to trusting; such new jangles eased
by unrulier patterns of nervous engrossment.
A tentative nature snarled up in black thatch.

Till life, like some off-road half-roofless frereche,
demanding in general ways itemised things,
requiring no less than to be kept up somehow
whether or not calmly, seemed navigable.

Perhaps ship-shape - but hard to narrate;
until I knew the meaning of his livelong moment,
that mad unsparing patron of unsteady truth -
Moments - more than a breeze, freshening cold informants

Of the coming of death, and the time when that matters:
No hour of despair, after all; happiness is called that;
Just the line where things happen to inch you along -

where the mind is pressed and that old, dense fog
turns out to be water, to be drunk and swum. 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Furies

with thanks, tribute and admiration unending to Arabella Currie

I know nine guests, nearer than muses
(yes, a hostage does well to keep playing the host),
languid their pallets, sanguine our wakings, a languini of scallops and losses,
trails come with the dew, flaked skulls gleam, bright moultings,
heady that stew in the air where I've hacked at their licence,

cannot know which or who was the first I caught slouching,
folded away in some grand-mother's pocket,
fending away some slow cousin's advances,
her clear eyes myopic with grit and leftovers and warm itchy nothings.
What was the moment that might have been left there is something I do not care, try, to remember

- unintriguing sins. They are kind to me
who will always come back, if in flight, if misguided, if staring away
to the old Hunter's Tryst where the fewmets are sweetbread.
Purification, high-soundingly Doric
once the figment I fed on myself, I now offer

more than half forgotten, less than barely persuaded,
a pattern of feints and hastily musked covers,
to the Aesir, my patrons, who yet say they love me
in similar steps, waver to resignation,
for they know the signs of the prey of the things they usurped that we might hope for honour by day.

But how can a lover who turned to light opera
not take out that debt at the court of the Night
never to be paid nor repudiated
what to that is thElectoral roll?
I think I have sometimes conceived of a passage, alone, without luggage,

then I pass the stairs where my guest-friends lie,
and sometimes writhe up to revolve spare black tongues,
and their strokes, rendered, feel emollient as stupors,
and their mocking and semblance of singleton's outlines
are gentle and gamey, see off all known faces.

The courts of the morning left for laughing matter
In the shrieks of mendaciously canny red kites
Indifferent to beauty, contemptuous of less;
Their song serving or seeming to scratch out all our tracts
I let myself into whichever the lodgings today's tizzy fixed for the letting of love.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Diary, Hugh Trevor-Roper Centenary Conference

(see also Review 31)

The Oxford Examination Schools see a lot of action beside their official purpose. Here Christopher Ricks has displayed his agility and Geoffrey Hill his ferocity, during their respective reigns as Professor of Poetry. More recently the admirers of Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre of Glanton and onetime Regius Professor of History, gathered here too, on a chilly January morning a few days before the centenary of his birth. Trevor-Roper’s literary executor, Blair Worden, welcomed the company – enough to fill the South School’s broad expanse – and said he believed ‘Hugh would be pleased, and indeed surprised.’ He also congratulated us on our range of ages. This range was technically rather than visibly wide; the glossy manes of a few young Prize Fellows of All Souls peeked out from the silver sea.

The idea that Hugh Trevor-Roper has come back, that he is now retro-chic, is a seductive one for his many but disparate readers. Few grandees of the historical art have been so fiercely present in their day; none suffered so dramatic a reverse at that day’s end. One of the most promising young experts on 17th-century Anglicanism before the Second World War, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reputation was transformed in scale by both his good luck and his undeniable skill in the war’s aftermath. An insubordinate but effective counter-intelligence agent during the war, Trevor-Roper was afterwards selected by his superiors to prove the Allied version of Hitler’s suicide to the satisfaction of a fascinated world. With the publication in 1947 of The Last Days of Hitler, he became the most famous and Janus-faced historian in the country. He embraced both public prominence and academic influence; he never shirked, and rarely lost, a battle in either field. But when he mistakenly authenticated Hitler’s diaries in 1983, his reputation was destroyed and he became a laughing-stock. As Professor Very-Ropey, he was one of Private Eye’s favourite targets for decades. Even at his old college, Christ Church, undergraduates were introduced to him by rote as ‘the once eminent but now discredited Lord Dacre’. Trevor-Roper’s trajectory echoes the oldest of morality tales. Yet he was not silenced by nemesis — and after his death he is, if anything, less silent than ever before.

The first paper of the Centenary Conference belonged to Sir John Elliott, a successor of Trevor-Roper in the Regius Chair. Elliott was a serious proposition, rake-thin, stern of voice and countenance. He spoke on one of the most viciously edged exchanges of all Trevor-Roper’s turbulent record, the ‘Gentry Controversy’ – a bitter argument among 17th-century experts of the 1950s, over the state of the class who rose to challenge the Crown in the civil wars. Elliott had, it transpired, edited one of Trevor-Roper’s broadsides in this conflict; he treated neither essay nor author with false reverence. Yet the evidential slipperiness to which Trevor-Roper could resort was, in this speaker’s view, redeemed at least in part by style. ‘At a parochial time in British history, Hugh Trevor-Roper looked across the channel and thought comparatively.’

Even so, Elliott expressed the fear that his essays on the gentry do not ‘stand the test of time’. It was a strange caveat for a centenary conference, but it was not to be the only one of its kind. Next came Blair Worden, the originator of the whole assembly. He wore a wise, cautious expression as he approached an uncomfortable but inevitable subject: Trevor-Roper’s failure to produce a ‘big book’. It has become a well-circulated joke among Dacromanes — wheeled out later on in the conference by Colin Kidd — that Hugh Trevor-Roper’s works have got bigger, and more frequent, since Professor Worden began to write them. When he died in 2003, Trevor-Roper left nine works unfinished; since then, Worden has acted as midwife to three of them. He reminded us of Trevor-Roper’s ‘dizzying’ level of activity — journalistic, historical, political, literary — in and out of Oxford, and described his old friend’s industry in subtle terms: Trevor-Roper ‘did not work hastily’, but neither did he expend ‘cerebral perspiration’. Worden did not evade the frank and disillusioning truth: in the extant, incomplete sections of Trevor-Roper’s great projected work on the Puritan Revolution, he is ‘not at his most incisive’. Elliott and Sir Michael Howard (another of Trevor-Roper’s successors to the Regius Chair, and also present at the conference) had both been privy to the book’s draft, and had expressed reservations to Trevor-Roper after reading it. To Elliott the chapters were ‘overwritten’, to Howard of such a shapeless, or shapeshifting nature that they ‘made me feel increasingly Whiggish’. ‘The master of literary control,’ Worden mourned, ‘had at last lost it.’ For what was surely the most concentrated retinue of Trevor-Roper fanciers to be found in the world, the conference was surprisingly sobering so far in its conclusions about its subject.

All the same, the conference had been organised partly with a view to celebrating the abundant testimony to Trevor-Roper’s powers to be found in One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper. This newly released collection is edited by Adam Sisman (Trevor-Roper’s biographer), and Richard Davenport-Hines (previously the compiler and exegete of his letters to Bernard Berenson and various others, and his Wartime Journals). These two scholarly writers from outside the academy have fought in the vanguard of the campaign to reintroduce Trevor-Roper to a profession that was previously in danger of forgetting or airbrushing him from its ranks. Their sensitive, detailed handling of his life and correspondence must also greatly have increased Trevor-Roper’s general readership in the present day. Before reading Sisman’s compelling, coherent and comprehensive life, I was only familiar with Trevor-Roper as a faint shadow at the back of passé donnish anecdotes.

The new selection contains, among its other treasures, Trevor-Roper’s ‘Ten Commandments’ on good prose. Originally scribbled on the back of his step-son’s thesis, Trevor-Roper’s Decalogue is reproduced in a 1988 letter to the art historian Edward Chaney. Its drift overlaps with George Orwell’s rules of good writing, although in practice Trevor-Roper’s style is quite different: more comical, less definite, less declarative; more, in the 17th-century sense of the word, metaphysical. Though Trevor-Roper might consider himself a materialist in religious matters, when it came to writing he could never resist a grand, ethereal conceit. But his extravagance was kept decorous by its intellectual clarity and consistency. The Commandments themselves, written in cod-Authorised Version English, are nothing if not consistent in their defence of a purer, truer language. ‘Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it… Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinated… Thou shalt not despise the subjunctive mood, a useful, subtle and graceful mood…’ Trevor-Roper’s real similarity to Orwell was one of morality rather than style. He believed at his core that truth and dignity of language were necessary in order to uphold civilised conduct; that words and actions tended to decay together. ‘Slipshod language, opaque meaningless metaphors,’ he wrote to the anthropological historian Alan Macfarlane in 1967, ‘not only excuse the mind from the rigours of thought, they protect the conscience from the sense of responsibility.’

The paper which most nearly approached the Decalogue’s standards was Sir Noel Malcolm’s, on ecumenism and the Church of England between 1560 and 1640. That respectable theme turned out to have its origin in a characteristic piece of mischief. Lecturing in Belfast, Trevor-Roper had settled on this same topic both as an intrinsically interesting one and as a means of goading the more rigid sectarians among his hosts. Malcolm’s demeanour and voice are modest, somehow more avian than mammalian, and the glinting acuity of his content completed the effect of a well-trained eagle owl charming an audience by unwonted daylight. He remembered the vanity of Geoffrey Elton, who flattered Trevor-Roper over claret and denigrated him over cereal. As he moved from personal reminiscence to historical method, he made virtues of what had in previous papers appeared as Trevor-Roper’s flaws. Trevor-Roper was at his least convincing, his most susceptible to generalisation, in his central threads, his grand theses. Was it not in a sense a blessing that his powers were concentrated in the essay form, but distractible beyond it? The big book existed in essence, Malcolm consoled us, even if it seemed scattered over dozens of lesser works. He also bore witness to the quality of Trevor-Roper’s character, which attracts as much scrutiny and scepticism as his achievements, sometimes on similar grounds. ‘He was thoughtful and generous spirited, interested in other people, above all, tremendously entertaining.’

With a good paper come good questions, and one of the more fundamental divisions emerged in the wake of all this ecumenical reconciliation: whether Trevor-Roper had been, at heart, a Whig or a Tory. Though a little more inclined, left to himself, to embrace the term Whig with pride, Trevor-Roper might be called with more accuracy either chivalrous, or perverse. His only constant foe was smug consensus. Among his near-Francoist enemies at Peterhouse, the Cambridge college of which for seven unhappy years he was head, he of course displayed his most whiggish sympathies. But he had small time for the deep, almost religious self-satisfaction of Whig teleology. In a 1988 letter to Chaney he expresses a qualified distaste for Macaulay:
Do you know that passage about the Highlands of Scotland in the 17th century – their primitive, anarchic social system, so different from today when a gentleman can travel speedily and comfortably in a first-class railway carriage from his London club to his Highland grouse moor? There is something insufferable (to me) about [Macaulay’s] identification with that imaginary gentleman…

Even his Scotophobia, as this passage reveals, could be restrained into historical empathy by his powers of reason and imagination. Trevor-Roper was a scourge of the clergy, mocking Catholicism, as ‘sinister unintelligible babble’, adhering to a wholly social Anglicanism, and in 1985 deriding without mercy an unfortunate bishop who had attempted to rule on the literal truth and the metaphorical significance of the Resurrection. But he remained unwilling to wed himself to any opposite cause that would merely replace, rather than mock, the old tyranny and monopoly of religion. As he wrote to Alastair Palmer, a young friend met in old age on the Cambridge train –

I will not join you as a ‘solid atheist’…Who are we, …sitting in academic insulation, with security of tenure and three meals a day, to despise the consolatory fantasies of suffering humanity, especially when those fantasies have produced heroic poetry, towering cathedrals, real saints, great conquests and memorable crimes, while we can only pick holes in each others’ theses. No, I find ‘solid atheism’ too mean and cold a system with which to challenge the wonderful organisation of the world.

After a few lunch-time sandwiches which would not, I thought, have come up to our subject’s culinary standards (Alastair Palmer recalls Trevor-Roper whipping up a ‘passable cheese omelette’ with surprising address), the papers began to deal with Hitler and Nazism, the the topic that brought Trevor-Roper first lasting fame and then even more indelible notoriety. By the time he authenticated the fraudulent Hitler diaries, Trevor-Roper was a familiar journalistic figure to an enormous lay public. In the eyes of this public, his mistake – in large part thrust upon him by Rupert Murdoch – transformed him from a chilly, brilliant authority to a broken idol, at once a lesson in hubris and a joke. The link-passage in the new anthology that describes his attempt to stand for the Chancellorship of Oxford only four years after his great error is a poignant study in self-delusion.

It was, at least, encouraging to hear from Professor Richard Overy, of the University of Exeter, that Trevor-Roper himself had managed to retain a sense of humour about the disaster. ‘Aren’t there some Goering diaries?’ he quipped to an alarmed Overy, who had briefly thought him in earnest. Gina Thomas offered what was the most Trevor-Roperian paper in terms of impishness and sheer oddness: a discussion of Himmler’s ‘mystic masseur’, Felix Kersten, on whose behalf Trevor-Roper faced down half the academic world and the Swedish royal family, while privately finding him a personally repulsive fantasist. Trevor-Roper established that Kersten had used his position to save thousands of Jewish lives – and that the Swedish prince Count Bernadotte had stolen most of the credit, partly to cover up his own anti-Semitic influence on Sweden’s policy of neutrality. This was yet another example of Trevor-Roper’s quixotic preference for defending the unlikeliest of causes (the new letters remind us that he long encouraged a conspiratorial reading of the assassination of John F Kennedy). Eberhard Jäckel, Professor Emeritus at the University of Stuttgart, provided one of the most wistful moments of the conference. His paper, which possessed all the taut structure of a tragedy, recalled how he was almost, but not quite, in a position to save Trevor-Roper from himself, when he dined with him not long before Trevor-Roper’s involvement. Professor Jäckel had intended to warn Trevor-Roper about the fakes, but the subject never quite arose.

The performance which I, and I suspect much of the audience, awaited with most excitement was that of John Banville. A welcome and humane non-specialist voice, Banville was nonetheless, as another master of English prose, treated as someone closer to Trevor-Roper than anyone else present. Presumably he had qualified himself for this role by his unqualified praise for the Wartime Journals in the New York Review of Books, where he called Trevor-Roper ‘one of the greatest prose stylists in the English language’. It was strange, if in its own way spell-binding, to hear the novelist’s beautiful brogue reading out Trevor-Roper’s pellucid sentences, or venturing boldly into anecdotes most listeners could have recited back, and, if necessary, backwards. I thought of a candid remark Banville made to the Guardian a couple of years ago: ‘Irish charm, as we all know, is entirely fake.’

Fake or not, Banville’s sprite-like air was a fitting prelude to a more infernal summoning. In the first comment of the concluding panel’s session, Noel Malcolm, after apologising to anyone who thought he might be ‘invoking a bad fairy’, brought up Maurice Cowling. The intake of breath throughout the South School was only the latest piece of evidence about the unusual anthropology of this audience: loyal, emotionally engaged and steeped in donnish gossip — while venerating a man who confesses, as Trevor-Roper does in one of his letters, that he ‘just does not like dons very much.’ Perhaps only in such a circle could Maurice Cowling have this universal and ritual significance. Cowling is to Dacromanes what Trevor-Roper is to laymen: a pantomime hybrid of don, dame and villain. Matthew Walther has recently written a piece of Cowling appreciation for the American Conservative that elucidates what can otherwise be a rather dense and incestuous picture. Cowling arranged Trevor-Roper’s election to the headship of Peterhouse, but on finding that they shared almost no political, personal or intellectual sympathies, he led an insurrection both frontal and guerrilla against the new Master. The whole affair weirdly post-dated, but outdid, Tom Sharpe’s satirical farce on modernisation in Cambridge, Porterhouse Blue.

Malcolm’s memory of a Cowling aside to him constituted, in any case, a remarkably fitting tribute from this selectively infamous demi-devil:

It’s extraordinary that Hugh Trevor-Roper is such a great historian when there are so many things he doesn’t want history to be based on… economics, philosophy, sociology, religion, psychology… what he wants history to be is literature.

More courteously, perhaps, than convincingly, Malcolm seconded Cowling – ‘with this single proviso, that Hugh didn’t actually want to make it up.’ Brian Young – who is, as Christ Church’s most recognisable History tutor, in a sense more entirely Trevor-Roper’s successor even than the Regius Professors – added a memory of his own that was more unexpected, and yet rang true, especially in the light of the newly released letters to his step-son, James Howard-Johnston. When Dr Young was in the early stages of his career at Christ Church, he showed Trevor-Roper an article he was about to publish on Gibbon. Trevor-Roper, though approving in the main, pointed out that Young had omitted Gibbon’s most important virtue — ‘his total hatred of cruelty.’

Madden's Parallel Lives I: Sir Anthony Standen

It is a fallacy of inestimable use to the commonplace historian, that in certain particular individuals may be delineated their times, every imprint of every compromise and confusion to be endured, read straight off like sap in a tree ring. But it is not only usefulness, nor convenience, nor even deep laziness that allows this false notion to thrive. The will comes into it more steadily and with greater power. Body and mind find such narratives hard to resist now, and we may, I propose, be sure it was as hard or more so in the past. Many human beings genuinely worthy of memory, true potential fulcra of study, who may indeed provide the keys to unexpected questions, remain, as it were, shrouded in their seeming suitability to their period. Thus the picturesque illustration of legend, accretion, assumption, overlays the evidence from which rightly conducted history derives her fatal substance.

This is what that consummate poser of lies and insomniac confessor of truths, Marshal Lermontov, meant when, condemning his Tsar to the rope, he smilingly called him ‘a hero of our time.’ Just such a hero, in his way, was, I propose, Sir Anthony Standen, secretary of state, ambassador extraordinary, most skilful, and least loyal, of the servants of Mary, Queen of Scots and of England. Skirted about by a typicality he exploited throughout his flexible, but finite career, he was in fact more idiosyncratic in his personal qualities and significance than any of his colleagues or adversaries had the wit to guess.

Standen – if we are to believe the hagiographies of his lifelong enemy, St Francis Walsingham – was born, in 1547, on the same day that saw Tyburn bespattered with the blood of that too-faithful Regent, the assiduous and ambitious Prince of the Church, the true founder of my sometime University, Royal Ipswich; Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. The Standens were a family of petty gentry who, indeed, grew up not far from the heart of Wolsey’s influence, living as they did in Molesey, the very sight of their eyes shadowed by the proximity of Hampton Court. Edmund Standen, esquire, was an equable soul indeed, never credited with any deed good or bad in his life, only with the acquisition of four sons, four daughters, and, presumably, the woman necessary for their generation. The little clan had never been anything but what they were, never learnt or worked or been heard of at any trade, accomplishment or activity whatsoever. Insofar as we trace them at all since the First Crusade took Glastonbury, it is as sensible, uncourageous mediators, and witnesses to the quarrels of their less predictable social superiors. The word ‘Surrey’ itself leadens the eyelid. The Standens of Surrey, until Anthony, brought eyelashes down like rusty portcullises.

Anthony was the first son, and it is one of the few insights that the conscientious historian possesses into the character and intellect of his father that one of his younger brothers was called Anthony, also, the other two, remaining still closer to the paternal Genius, being named Edmund. The four daughters’names do not come down to us in reliable forms, instead asserting their birthright to their mother’s and their ancestresses’ absolute obscurity; though it is not possible to disprove, either, the supposition that one might have been the ‘Bell Standing’ who made a cuckold of the Squire of Ditton in the 1580s. The first of the many poetic conveniences that both assist and strangely blur Anthony Standen’s memorability, is that both Edmunds remained in Molesey, just as both Anthonies sought wages, favour and fame on the wider stage of the state.

Mary, Queen of Scots had come into the inheritance of her cousin and namesake in 1558, at the age of sixteen, when the Standens were both unknown young country boys. By the time the two Anthonies entered the service of her cousin and favourite, young Lord Darnley, she had reigned from Westminster for some seven years, exercising a domestic policy distinguished by religious toleration and patronage of the arts, and a foreign policy that veered about drastically, depending on the disposition of her marriages. Her first husband, passed on with the rest of the kingdom by her defunct cousin, the previous Queen Mary, was King Ferdinand II of Spain; he had produced two sons, before succumbing to the bullet of a Protestant assassin. Alongside her second consort, Lord Leicester, Mary officially favoured the reformed religion, but she still liked the company of Catholic gentlemen about her, purporting to consider their conversation more amusing. Thus were made the careers of Darnley and the Standen brothers, all lissom Papist youths not yet in their twenties. The elder Anthony was named as Darnley’s esquire, the younger his cupbearer.

Robert Fleetwood, an older court figure who disapproved of the direction affairs were taking under Lord Leicester’s influence, wrote a secret report in October, 1566, to the chancellery of France, which gives us a brief impression of the elder Anthony’s importance to and influence over young Darnley:

His Lordship’s head is quite hollowed out, as it might be the shell of a peascod, though its outer habiliments indeed possess such a sheen as to beguile forth a Queen’s gentleness. Yet withal, this Darnley is too poor a figure to play even, with over much success, the soldier; all the same, he would be taken for a master of poesie, a lutanist, a philosophical antiquarie, and I know not how much else. In all this does the elder Ant. Standen, a quick and serpentine intelligencer, stand his fast and indisseverable accomplice; so that, perchance, if he and the said Standen are some day at bowls, and the Queen’s coming is heard abroad, hie will they from her path, and this Standen doth strum and swither upon the virginall or suchlike instruments. ‘What lists thou there,’ asks the Queen, and ‘ho,’ say her ladies, with never a glance astray, ‘that is your fair cousin, Your Majesty, young Lord Darnley labouring as ever on your pleasure.’ And the Queen smiles as though well pleased; only to my lords Leicester and Lethington might she murmur, ‘I know very well it is indeed this Anthony, and not young Caesar, who so plaieth at my heart.’ For the Queen so dubs young Darnley, never forgetting how near he bideth to her blood and throne.

Fleetwood exaggerates both the Queen’s suspicion of her cousin and her admiration for his servant, to please his French paymasters; but there seems little doubt that the elder Anthony was widely considered as a luminous ‘man of parts’, esteemed as that rare thing, a reliable wit.

Of the younger Anthony, the stories were rarely as creditable. The playwright Edmund Campion may have had him in mind as the figure of Ganymede, in his 1570s pageant The Joviall Feaste Daye, and St Francis Walsingham – as we have already seen, no unprejudiced source – calls him outright the catamite of Darnley. For our, or at any rate my, purposes, the young Standen figures chiefly as a wearying encumbrance to the interpretation of his more able elder brother’s fiscal obligations. Anthony the younger’s death is recorded without unanimity as to time or cause, but universally placed at ‘The Ravenscote’, an inn on the Southbank usually regarded as an insalubrious and ambiguous erotic resort.

For all the elder brother’s talents and rising fame, Standen’s career at court was soon to go awry for reasons quite out of his power to predict or evade. His master Lord Darnley grew up, unexpectedly, as an increasing partisan of Leicester, who might have been expected to regard him as an amatory threat, but instead wisely made of the self-regarding lordling a pet and a toy. It was by Leicester’s hand that Standen was knighted, so that he might have sufficient rank to bear an ultimatum to the governor of Spanish Ireland in 1575. But while he was still at sea news reached him that the Queen had divorced Lord Leicester, hurling into bastardy their little son Prince Ambrose, in order to marry her husband’s nephew, Sir Philip Sidney. When in short order word followed that Lord Darnley had been found hanged in circumstances beyond comprehension or even decent consideration, Standen thought it wisest to find a pretext to stay abroad. He sought and received a commission to find a husband for Queen Mary’s eldest son among the princes of Italy.

Matters are again complicated by the fact that the younger Standen, his inglorious nemesis still some years ahead of him, seems to have visited Venice for a brief but very extravagant period at about this time, judging by certain outraged statements in the Vendramin Correspondence. This has misled some authorities into confecting an idea that the elder Standen was ambassador to Venice, which cannot have been so given his known movements on the mainland of Italy. As I have discussed elsewhere, Sir Anthony, as he now was, must have landed at Pisa, and progressed in leisurely steps to the court of the Medici, at Fiesole.

To this itinerary, I do not hesitate to state even if I cannot in all mundanity prove, we owe the most exquisite material and visual legacy Sir Anthony left behind him in all his many travels, Bronzino’s Portrait of a Briton in a Green Doublet, which I was lately the first, and indeed am still the only authority to attach to Standen’s name and journeying. I have, however, achieved my object in offering this suggestion, which was in fact to demonstrate the combination of verbal prolixity and logical paucity which tends to infect any of my colleagues when faced with the novel. Give us documents, they say, give us ledgers, lie columns of figures at the steel-shod toes of the great goddess Provenance. Well, why should I, when a severer force and motive is my employer and spur? What is Mentor, when opposed to Moira? Look at the long face, the crooked angle of Bronzino’s Briton, the sunburn that resembles a light wound bleeding beyond expectation. Look at the small eyes and the anxious lunge after fashion, for all the penance of sweat; and recall, if you will, that to wear green at court was an ancient perquisite of the Squires of Molesey.

Standen had presence of mind that never deserted him, and he was now besides at the pinnacle of his solvency, repute, and, the Bronzino taken as read, somewhat unconventional but undoubted physical charm. Yet his mission, to find a bride for young Charles of Hapsburg, Prince of Wales and Scotland, was foiled almost at once, by an unforeseen but ineluctable form of sabotage. She was a form with a name, one that had snared a great magnate in its time – Barbara von Blomberg, who had once been the ‘handfast wife’ of the Emperor Philip the Grim. Exhausted by that worthy but oppressive monarch’s religiose determination – which did not quite extend to domestic matters – Barbara, originally a mezzo-soprano singer from Regensburg, had determined to enjoy more varied fruits throughout her briefly lamented late protector’s dominions. She was thus a kind of aunt-out-of-marriage of the young prince whose prospects were under discussion; and she was determined to bring them to ruin. Besides, like many of his acquaintance before and afterward, she seems to have a taken a real liking to Standen.

These atavistically simple relations were, however, not a little entangled by the unfortunate coincidence that Farinata de’ Medici, Prince of Fiesole, also aspired to the enchanting Barbara’s bed. It should be noted in a spirit of proportionate admiration that Frau von Blomberg was at this point almost fifty years of age. However it may be, Prince Farinata and his wife Ginevra were declared to be dead at the hand of an unknown poisoner on the same day. Ginevra then recovered long enough to place the sole blame on the Prince, who, shocked out of his own stupor, blamed Blomberg. Standen’s name went unmentioned during the scandal, but in point of fact he and Blomberg had both departed long since, bound back for the familiar disputed territory of Spanish Ireland. The predominant emotions provoked by the whole unedifying story must, surely, be surprise and regret that Bronzino never depicted Blomberg.

Not that la Blomberg, however, passed her eventful days altogether unimmortalised, if my suspicions, and their foundations, whether empirical, circumstantial, or esoteric, may be trusted. It is my contention that the eighth shorter sonnet sequence of John Knox, which is often acknowledged to include a certain amount of spurious material, also contains one verse of a standard equal to the great Scotch Bard’s, but in quite a distinct strain. Following several intimations within (and behind) the text itself, I propose that this remarkable little poem is that very scarce treasure, a lyric in English at a court of the Rinascimento.

                        Stay, fatal empress, for that all thy fame
                        Dearer than spikenard’s breath or honour’s self
                        Firmer in sway and hardier in health
                        Embanners thee, e’en so, belay thy game
                        Of Catilines and catkins of the same
                        What cares the Panther for the corse’s pelf
                        Who suck and nourishes gore unto health
                        And martiall Destinie accords the lame?

Catiline, of course, is a reference to the Consul and Triumvir of that name, murderer of the philosopher Cicero and generally disdained in poetic tradition, who won his greatest victory at Fiesole. The author addresses a lady as ‘empress’ with such wheedling insistence that a definite impression is conveyed that she is not truly of such, or any similar, rank, but that regal and imperial titles nevertheless have some meaning in her past, or milieu. Furthermore, the final lines seem to indicate an amoral, but not unimpressive personal credo that favours homicide above conventional inheritance, and considers the victim’s plight superior to the dependant position of the comfortable invalid. We may note, at this point, that Prince Farinata, like many Medici, was rendered almost immobile by rickets.

                        Such limbes as thou has cast over this board,
                        Such as commingle with black art and eyes,
                        Of travail, more than trusting, I forethought,
                        And likewise did forswear the em’rald sward
                        Steeled, for fresh the path, but fell the rise
                        All that thy woundings and thy gait have taught.

The sonnet has, of course, been commonly read as a rather stilted and literal account of the famous moment when John Knox abandoned his minister’s calling and entered the service of Queen Mary, smitten, as a surprising number of eyewitnesses avouch, by her sheer physical immaculacy. But I would counter that the muse of this poem is no immaculate, not the sort of woman who would extract the tribute of fawning hyperbole from even a renegade priest. On the contrary, she appears, unashamedly, to be a conscious bad lot, committed to a perilous course and only attractive – irresistible, even? – to a particular sort of worldly, self-deceived man of affairs. Beside the Catiline reference, I maintain that this is quite sufficient a pedestal on which to erect those unusually matched inammorati, Sir Anthony Standen and Frau Barbara von Blomberg.

The new governor of Spanish Ireland was Don John, son of la Blomberg and the Emperor Philip, who had been named to the position as banishment rather than reward, to punish him for his disastrous defeat by the Turks at Lepanto. His mother thus expected a kindly reception in Dublin for both herself and her new attachment. The journey took them, however, at first overland, through Spain, where Standen posed as a dealer in pictures, adopting the whimsical name of Pompeio Pellegrini. The Duchess of Medina Sidonia attests in her recollections that the disguise was a thin one, for ‘Signora Pellegrini’ much resented remaining incognita in a land where she had once been received with almost imperial honours.

It was, however, shortly before the Pellegrini pair were to set sail for Cork from Cadiz that Standen succeeded in passing to a Scots agent, Buchanan (no relation of the poet and grammarian), a letter admitting his true identity and assuring Lord Lethington, Queen Mary’s Secretary of State, of his continuing allegiance and loyalty, despite ‘any outward apparition or appurtenance of obeisance to any potentate of Spayne or of Erse partes’. This communication was a well-proportioned example of Standen’s deviousness and ingenuity, for it was itself concealed in a ‘Pompeio Pellegrini’ missive purporting to offer the Queen first refusal on certain items in the estate of Giorgione, the supreme Venetian painter who had just perished at a great age.

A gap then settles, itself indicative of Standen’s rigorously adaptable temperament, for Sir Anthony is next heard of in 1588, on the staff of the victorious Earl of Essex. Essex had just routed Don John and the Spanish from Ireland after showing himself to be remarkably familiar with the disposition of their forces. Barbara von Blomberg, a survivor out-survived, vanishes from any subsequent record; and it seems to me regrettably certain that Standen only returned to his royal mistress after definitively ridding himself of his quasi-imperial one.

The Queen had, during Sir Anthony’s adventures abroad, outlasted Sidney and two subsequent husbands, the Earl of Oxford and Sir Walter Raleigh. It seems that Lethington now counselled her to pre-empt any threat from her victorious commander Essex’s popularity, by adding him to this roll of honour; and the sudden rise of Standen upon the Queen’s sixth and, as it would turn out, final marriage leaves us in little doubt that his operations were among those that greased the progress of the match. 1589 saw his appointment to the delicate but lucrative Embassy Extraordinary to Paris; his first duty was to ensure the continued enmity of France towards Spain, and vice versa. It is, then, another scarcely – but unavoidably – credible instance of his complex character, that a Venetian ambassador informed his government that, three months into the Paris post, Sir Anthony covertly but personally involved himself in yoking the Dauphin to an Infanta. This intrigue could have no other name than treason, and yet it was to redound to the greater glory and security of Britain’s government, and, more immediately, enable the further ascent of Standen himself.

For it was not the Ambassador Extraordinary who seemed to most to bear the blame for this fatal combination of enemies, not the Queen, nor her new husband, but the longest-lasting genius of her council, her Secretary of State, the faithful Lethington. His execution led to his protégé Standen’s immediate recall, not for a reprimand, but for a promotion into his master’s boots. Francis Bacon in discreet company quipped ‘that Sir Anthony had enjoyed an untroubled crossing indeed, upon the fair wind of his Friend’s last Breaths.’

The hostile powers of the continent still threatened a time of dire and unavoidable war, but to the fertile invention of Standen, and the unscrupulous resolve of his new patron Essex, the solution was ready to hand. At home the noise was all of pipe and drums and martial footfall; and in a bitter war to the end, Essex and Standen’s men suggested, who was the better monarch, a lecherous old woman or a virile, proven young warrior? Abroad, their agents dripped speeches of syrup, and dangled an irresistible, if humiliating gift – the total reversal of the Protestant Reformation which had been so close to the hearts of both Queen Maries.

So it was that Queen Mary of Scotland and England, six times a wife and six a mother, fosterer of her country’s Golden Age of letters, muse of Shakspere and Spencer and Knox and many another, spent the last thirteen years of her too long reign confined in the Tower of Westminster, while the Regent Essex closed her graceful, humane age, and inaugurated the iron successes of his country in naval warfare. Standen did not last long enough to see his bloody crop’s whole harvest. He died before his fiftieth year, in 1594, of an excessive bleeding of his own, induced by his physicians. He had given every appearance of fashioning his age, but it instead has crafted him, a quick-footed, bright eyed, empty doublet, in green velvet despite the perpetual hot season. Sir Anthony left no definite issue, though the Chancellery was forced at intervals to buy the discretion of purported Blomberg bastards. His funeral was well attended, and commemorated in one of Tallis’s more forgettable compositions, an unwise collaboration with Greene.

Tentative intro to Disappointing Sons

Consider two great twentieth century poets, Yeats and Larkin, on a theme that has long preoccupied their art: heredity. In the aftermath of an Oxford college gaudy – half-tedious, half-voyeuristic events, floating between one of poetry’s driving forces, nostalgia, and a mundane, institutionalised form of social embarrassment – Larkin contemplates a contemporary’s reduplication, and his own sudden sense of fin de race. His disbelief is all the sharper for being sleepily expressed:

…To have no son, no wife,   
No house or land still seemed quite natural.   
Only a numbness registered the shock   
Of finding out how much had gone of life,   
How widely from the others. Dockery, now:   
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of ... No, that’s not the difference: rather, how

Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.

Part of the poet’s uneasy surprise relates to his feeling of being outflanked by Dockery, a father at a drastically young age, according to a piece of mental arithmetic roughly applied, but, as the poem proceeds, increasingly accepted. Then there’s the way in which Larkin implies he has associated Dockery, younger than the poet as he may have been, with an older, decadent class. Without ever stooping to that hoary adjective ‘callow’, he leaves it as Dockery’s lasting impression; there is a touch of the elegiac Raymond Asquith myth about the sparse, deliberately uncertain single descriptive query:

                                                                …Was he that withdrawn

High-collared public-schoolboy, sharing rooms
With Cartwright who was killed?

It is a question mark more terse than true. The reader feels that Larkin remembers Dockery more specifically than he is entirely willing to admit. The sartorial detail lends an impressionistic touch of visual reality; further, it combines with the class indicator to let us imagine the relationship between Larkin and this ‘junior’ contemporary pretty fully. Clothes are revealing; Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time never escapes his ill-fitted lapels. But this high collar is an object not so much of ridicule as of suspicion, and something approaching envy. There is a reason why the Dean of the College has brought up Dockery, a vague association, to this middle-aged visitor he hardly, and discreditably, recalls. Larkin’s most notable encounters with the Dean have, it seems, been disciplinary:

…Or remember how   
Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight   
We used to stand before that desk, to give   
‘Our version’ of ‘these incidents last night’?   

Dockery, on the other hand, well-born, heeled, and behaved, was likely a favourite even back in the day, and now he is a respected Old Member, father of an undergraduate the Dean can call to mind and perhaps has called to tea, quite possibly a donor to the college.
Who, by contrast, is Larkin? As he himself now realises, in the Dean’s eyes and his own, a mere composite of negatives, ‘no son, no wife, / No house or land’. What he has is ‘nothing with all a harsh son’s patronage’: including the patronage of Dockery’s son, which perpetuates a previous generation’s de haut en bas victory over Larkin. Dockery’s son is boasted about to passing graduates; Larkin’s departure is unsung (‘I catch my train, ignored’). The poem sounds the note of resentment against undergraduate toffs fresh from ‘Lamprey College’ that we hear throughout Larkin’s first novel, Jill. But it is a wiser and a sadder work. It tells us about Larkin’s automatic attitude to the tragedy he sought, notoriously, to sidestep,

                        Get out as quickly as you can
                        And don’t have any kids yourself.

- that of parenthood. More honestly, it reveals the steps by which the poet comes to regret this barren strategy of damage limitation – and to envy the unanticipated success of his societal nemesis, Dockery. The first syllable after Larkin hears of Dockery the younger’s existence is a translucent slice of his thought – ‘death’. He is prepared by more than funeral costume to enter a sombre mood. Reflections pass in the imperfect tense – ‘we used to stand’ ‘where I used to live’. Thoughts of death and the British railway’s motion drive him to escape in sleep, but as he wakes for the change of trains, his bafflement has begun to shift to mourning.
Larkin makes a remarkable debating point now: what made Dockery so sure he was perpetuating himself, not robbing it? ‘To me it was dilution.’ His defensive fear of reproduction is unusually frankly put, sincerely felt. This is not without its relationship, as we shall see, to the views on the same subject of an unlikely, mid-to-late-life father, Yeats (the paternal influence, pleasingly, behind Larkin’s early poems). Reproduction, and implicitly sex, as a sap on literary power makes us think of atavistic superstition, clerical celibacy, succubi. Dockery, whose function is to carry on dynasties, pass on lands, endow colleges, but certainly not to write poems, can have no such scruples. Larkin begins to wonder if the high-collared public-schoolboy was right. Did he, Larkin, squeamishly adhere too closely to some undergraduate reaction – cast aside a life for a pose?

…Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what   
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style   
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got

And how we got it…

The defensiveness continues in that ‘we’; Dockery’s reproduction, the poet says, is quite as irrational, habitual and therefore accidental, as his own lack of it. But this equivalency fails to account for the difference between a positive and a negative. ‘Got’, unexpectedly repeated line to line, stanza to stanza, comes to suggest its archaic meaning,

                        And now you shall be as your mother was
                        When your sweet self was got.
                        (Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well, IV.ii)

and so the poem arrives at its final dichotomy: ‘For Dockery a son, for me nothing.’ A son, not a child; childless Larkin may be, childless he remained, but the voice he uses here, the antithesis and also the unsuccessful shadow of Dockery, thinks in, and secretly yearns for, patriarchal and almost feudal forms of contented settlement and succession – house, land, wife, son.
            For Yeats, on the other hand, in the fourth section of Meditations in time of Civil War, dynastic duty has entailed – to use that word advisedly – producing genetic tribute of both genders –

Having inherited a vigorous mind
From my old fathers, I must nourish dreams
And leave a woman and a man behind
As vigorous of mind…

Perhaps the kindly, encouraging, and ineffectual talent of Jack Yeats has meant that his son at the outset perceives his own gift in more generous terms than Larkin’s fear of ‘dilution’. While Larkin toys with the idea that it is not so much the poet’s responsibility as his right not to reproduce, hoarding a power inexplicable in its origin and elusive in its retention, Yeats acknowledges a time-honoured debt. This must be paid not merely in ‘a son’ – that is, a singular copy, subjectively related, and a repeat of one’s own gender – but in ‘a woman and a man’, two generic human beings objectively if immodestly up to scratch (‘As vigorous of mind’), and, in some instinctual, incestuous and, probably, eugenic manner, of opposite genders, constituting a breeding population. But the debt is not, in fact, just to John Butler Yeats the artist. The plural of ‘fathers’ reaches to a recurring concern of Yeats’s, both individual and impersonal – dynasty and domain. This is the same patch of associations, perhaps, as Larkin’s son, wife, house, and land, but whereas Larkin imagines this field bemusedly and belatedly, Yeats takes it seriously and consistently. He would certainly have included in his ‘fathers’ – perhaps primarily – his mother’s family, the Pollexfens, richer than the Yeats, less Bohemian, more rural and Anglo-Irish, simply more landed. But it is not only his own blood that sirs him to think of descent and obligation. To Yeats any place is bound to families that hold it, or once did. Architecture stimulates him most when doused in blood. Here is the beginning of Blood and the Moon

Blessed be this place,
More blessed still this tower;
A bloody, arrogant power
Rose out of the race
Uttering, mastering it,
Rose like these walls from these
Storm-beaten cottages…

Building and breeding seem to have become of necessity entwined for Yeats. Had he written An Arundel Tomb, it would have been a celebratory affair fading into genetic dark, not an ironic meditation with an artistic redemption at the end. His art was subordinated in his mind to the stuff that made him.
            So far, then, divorced from his fellow ‘Last Romantic’, Yeats goes on in the My Descendants section to betray a distinct but related terror to Larkin’s twin fears, of dilution and extinction. In fact, Yeats is troubled by an inverted variant on Larkin’s contempt for ‘high-collared, withdrawn’ Dockery – he worries his children might become Dockerys, unworthy of the collective legacy he has transmitted:

And what if my descendants lose the flower
Through natural declension of the soul,
Through too much business with the passing hour,
Through too much play, or marriage with a fool?

‘Marriage with a fool’ is a phrase with particular bite, which Yeats would recycle by 1936, expressing his equivocal feelings about another descendant of his generation – Iseult Gonne:

            A girl that knew all Dante once
Live to bear children to a dunce.

Yeats had proposed to Iseult in 1916, directly after a courteous and partly symbolic proposal to and rejection by her mother, Maud. His feelings about Iseult were in appearance and in fact distinctly mixed; the girl lived as Maud’s niece, was in truth her daughter, and may have represented to Yeats the daughter he and Maud could have had. This is after all a common fancy in the aftermath of writerly and unrequited passion; see Charles Lamb, Dream Children: A Reverie:

We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all. The children of Alice called Bartrum father. We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence, and a name.

Whatever wistfully filial emotions Yeats entertained for Iseult, he was quick to transmute them into enough romantic fervour to propose to her; and indeed to remain preoccupied by her days into a honeymoon with another woman. Such vicarious love for the daughter of a muse is as well known a syndrome as vicarious fatherhood. David Garnett succumbed to the sentiment at about the same time as Yeats, with his immediate reaction to the child of his lover Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell: ‘I think of marrying it. When she is 20, I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?’ (He did and it was.) The lovers of Lorna Garman, Laurie Lee and Lucien Freud, less directly married her nieces. At any rate, to marry or seek to marry the descendant, even collateral, of a lost love expresses a faith in genetics that verges upon the religious. Yeats, in considering his son or daughter’s union to an unknown and unworthy future in-law, and Iseult’s to the lightweight journalist Francis Stuart in 1920, automatically equates ‘marriage’ with the act ‘to bear children.’ The concern is entirely scientific and not sacramental, but for all that, under Yeats’s handling, it appears no less superstitious. What is that unadorned ‘flower’ in danger of loss? Something, obviously, that can be squandered simply by ‘bearing children’ to the wrong stock; and yet, the previous stanza’s syntax would seem to equate it with Yeats’s own ‘vigorous mind’; all of his own poet’s power, that is, and all the (albeit somewhat notional) aristocratic power of his ancestors. Yeats’s whole self, and more than that self – the aboriginal past to which he maintains it owes its being – is staked, not even on his own, but on his children’s prospect of successful heredity.
            Yeats is superstitious, too, or rather, occult, in his curse in the event of that heredity’s failure:

May this laborious stair and this stark tower
Become a roofless ruin that the owl
May build in the cracked masonry and cry
Her desolation to the desolate sky.

Indeed, when we think of Larkin’s malaise induced by his childless state, it begins to seem that the later poet somehow fell under the very curse the earlier one pronounced. For both, the presence of children relates to the solidity of property and architecture. But Yeats gives a visible, even stagey incarnation to what becomes Larkin’s empty, broken litany, ‘To have no son, no wife, / No house or land’. The most important difference is that Larkin’s bleak void is the result of no descendants, while Yeats’s almost lush Gothic fantasy of disrepair, the owl borrowed from Christabel and the atmosphere from Macbeth, is a vision designed to punish descendants because they have existed and failed. But the sense of insult Yeats feels towards these hypothetical wastrel offshoots, personal and artistic, and at the same time familial and conventional, is not, perhaps, so far from the powerful negative motive, fear of ‘dilution’, that keeps Larkin out of the shooting-match altogether until what he feels is too late.
            If My Descendants was a genuinely freestanding poem, instead of a nuanced movement within the more complicated shape of all Meditations in a Time of Civil War, then the final stanza would, as a conclusion, ring false. Larkin, on the other hand, through Dockery & Son gropes closer towards frank admission of regret.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Fair Helen (for review 31)

The title page of Andrew Greig’s latest novel Fair Helen announces that we have to deal with ‘a veritable account of “Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea”, scrieved by Harry Langton’. This may seem of a piece with the unpretentious gorgeousness of the dust-jacket and the faintly Tolkienian map of ‘the Borderlands’. But Harry Langton is a necessary as well as an enjoyable creation. Without him, Greig might find himself exposed in this intimidating territory, a retelling of one of the most famous Border ballads collected by Sir Walter Scott. Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’s qualities of simplicity, melody and drama have, indeed, set it in better stead today than most of Scott’s novels. To sing a ballad as it was meant to be sung is a clear, if not necessarily an easy, task; to expand upon its themes in fiction is more dangerous. Greig risks affronting both the shade of Scott and the tradition Sir Walter purported to preserve. Harry Langton, ‘scrivener, spy, side-kick, lover, betrayer’, is the mask behind whom Greig can conceal the audacity of his grave-robbery.

But if Langton were only a mask, he would be worn to little purpose. His language, his location, his physicality and mortality conspire to deliver him as a peculiarly incarnate presence. ‘Ane doolie sessoun…’,[1] the first chapter heading murmurs, quoting Henrysoun - a poet consigned to the glorious past even within the past of the novel itself, clinging on amid Langton’s mental lumber. The scattered inflections of Langton’s Lallans convey his period and atmosphere with style, tact, and a playful glossary; but above all, they act as an engine of characterisation. Here is an educated old man, tetchy, adrift, retained as ‘a relic of lang syne’, a professional nostalgic catering to the romantic sensibility of his cultivated, modern patron.

That patron is William Drummond of Hawthornden, whose castle still offers shelter to writers today, but whose poetry is now, as Langton continually and snidely predicts, largely forgotten. It is Langton, Drummond’s picturesque old librarian, as stubbornly loyal to the ethos of Lucretius and Montaigne in his mind as to the language of Henrysoun on his tongue, who seems to us the more far-seeing. By dangling his narrator so neatly between two Scots poets – Henrysoun, indigenous, demotic, vital; Drummond, cosmopolitan, courtly, mannered – Greig makes his own sympathies clear. But he also avoids making Langton a mere spokesperson, a man ahead of and therefore alien to his own time.

Although (to over-simplify) a middle-class bisexual atheist at odds with his age, Langton is made so for detailed and convincing reasons; his mother was a gentlewoman married into ‘Embra’ city folk, while his university education deepens his ambiguities of rank and habit. He is stuck in a life he finds demeaning and a country estranged, ‘now the Kingdoms are united and the Court gone south’. ‘My breath puffs clouds as I scrape clear the garret window, ice slivers melt under yellowed fingernails…What remains of my right hand is warm in wool, as are my feet and scrawny thrapple.’ This is not a narrator cribbing his appearance to the reader over his shoulder, but a done man, counting his faculties.

‘I had not seen Adam Fleming since his mother’s wedding. He had been silent and inward then, remote across the crowded hall. Tall, slim, and agile, in his black cloak of grieving for his father…dagger in embroidered pouch…’ We too have met young Fleming before, though in our world, as CS Lewis says of Aslan, he has another name. What Greig does with Hamlet in Fair Helen is at first disorienting; at worst we might even suspect the arrival of historical fiction’s hackney carriage, neither ordered nor intended. The blurb should set us right, though: ‘The legend often called the Scottish Romeo & Juliet…brilliantly re-presented as the source of an equally famed, more complex drama’. So that’s all right, then: but, as with the ghost of Henrysoun and the loom of Drummond, there is more at work here than arch allusion. Adam the Dane, or Hamlet Fleming, will eventually lead us to one of the best bookish jokes in a novel full of them. But at first, he invites an assumption. Langton and Fleming, his ‘dearest friend’, were fellow undergraduates at Edinburgh, ‘the city, the courts, the college where we had once disputed fine points with words and argument, not the finer point of dagger and short sword’. ‘He had been effortlessly good with racquet, rapier and small pipes, while I was a dogged trier.’ Greig seems to have chosen – as Hamlet did before him – Horatio as his narrator.

But in this Hamlet we are treated to scenes in Wittenberg, or ‘Embra’, alma mater of Langton, Fleming, and Greig himself. Evoked at first in shared jokes, French tags and kestrel cries, the memory of university days becomes, more and more, the key to the novel’s central relationship (one that easily eclipses that of Fleming and the titular damsel). Edinburgh University in the latter 16th century is an arena where the otherness and drama of history, high politics and the High Renaissance can mingle with knowing, familiar accounts of undergraduate existence, flirting with anachronism without tainting the whole. Fleming and Langton, languid gentleman and infatuated swot, are not wholly free of Sebastian and Charles, but this does them no harm. The pair’s dreams of travel and adventure as they climb the hills above the city at night could come from any time – ‘We could rent a house by the Tiber, live by translation and scrivening! We would gather news and gossip, live on a retainer from the King. He said I would make an excellent spy.’ Yet these half-baked small hours schemes are historically specific – the King is donnish young ‘Jamie Saxt (but six years our elder)’ – and come to have proleptic impact on the plot. Hamlet had more than one schoolfellow, and Langton, seemingly Fleming’s loyal Horatio, is actually more of a Rosencrantz, manoeuvred by the hidden, powerful hand that feeds him. ‘I was not quite the free man my friend imagined.’

The identity of Langton’s paymaster is another of Greig’s post-modern, Early Modern jokes – it is Sir Walter Scott. Not quite, indeed, the baronet of the ballad, but his collateral ancestor, Scott of Buccleuch and Branxholme, a notorious reiver who adapted superbly to the Union of the Crowns, became the King’s proxy in the Borders, and founded a ducal dynasty. If Fair Helen were Wolf Hall, this Scott would be its hero; seen instead from outwith himself, he casts a pall of pleasing noir. ‘Among these hot-headed, impulsive, unbridled warrior lairds, he seemed cool as a well-run pantry.’ Langton is particularly fluent on the subject of Scott’s eyes – ‘pale and shining as a coulter blade’. ‘I felt myself a mouse running before them, twisting and turning from their edge…I felt a grue pass through me like a chill wind shaking a field of grain. He had seen too well where I was going.’

No traditional interpretation links Sir Walter Scott, 1st Lord Scott of Buccleuch, to the story of Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea, but Greig’s leap here is, geographically and politically speaking, as plausible as it is devious. The Annandale scene, as Langton observes, is tiny: ‘Embra apart, one could ride to any of the principal locations…within the hour. Aristotle would approve.’ The events that inspired the ballad are bald and visceral – the heir of Fleming met the heir of Bell, in a duel over the heiress of Irvine; she fatally threw herself in the way of Bell’s bullet, whereupon Fleming killed Bell, indeed according to the ballad ‘hacked him in pieces sma’’. The contentions of land in this story are as obvious as those of love. In history, while Fleming, Bell and the rest of the reiving clans declined, Scott alone flourished. Of course, in this masterly cui bono prosecution, Greig is not a wholly disinterested party. By emphasising Lord Scott’s role as Machiavellian victor, the tamer of the Borders’ heroic lawlessness, the re-teller slyly suggests that Langton’s tale is the suppressed truth behind the delicate ballad handed down by Scott’s famous descendant: a sort of literary counterpart to Andy Wightman’s searing indictment of Scotland’s landed classes, The Poor Had No Lawyers.

Yet Greig must be careful not to push this intimation to the point of explicit churlishness towards his great predecessor; after all, he acknowledges in his novel’s epigraph, in the words of Montaigne, one of Langton’s heroes, ‘I have gathered a garland of other men’s flowers, and nothing is mine but the cord that bines them’. He quotes the ballad in full before the novel opens, in snatches throughout – always, of course, in a version he owes to Scott, the version Scott himself called ‘an imperfect state’. To take Scott to task for the contents of that version is to risk inaccuracy as well as ingratitude. As ever Greig’s ingenious solution involves Langton - personally concerned in, not to mention responsible for, the whole incident, and understandably irked by the bowdlerisation of ‘the ballad-mongers’:

Fair Helen, chaste Helen…Tastes and times have changed to favour the respectable and douce, and rendered those days of quick-blooded men and women into something noble, picturesque and sexless. They do her a disservice. She was much more than fair and chaste.

Thus Langton rebukes both Drummond and his Caroline gentlemen, and Scott and his Romantic readers; but Greig’s own guiding spirit is more generous to Scott. In the stables of Crichton Castle and the corner of an inn in Southwark, Langton encounters the same theatrical ‘senior man’, ‘balding’, ‘quiet’, with ‘lustrous eyes’.

Something about him made one want to tell all, like a confession but without any judgement made at the end…His listening reminded me of Buccleuch, except that I sensed it was not earthly power that this man sought. Nor did he seem especially bent on heaven.

Speaking of heaven, Borges has a story about this same man once he got there:

…he found himself before God and he said: “I, who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man: myself.” The voice of God replied from a whirlwind: “Neither am I one self; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the shapes of my dream are you, who, like me, are many persons—and none.”

For Scott to be placed, even obliquely, even ancestrally, even unfavourably in such a comparison is an elegant enough tribute from Greig to offset Harry Langton’s cavils.

[1] ‘A dismal season’, as Langton reluctantly renders it, before exclaiming ‘Ah, Robert Henrysoun, what a falling off is here!’

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Unsuccessful application for cataloguer post at Peter Harrington

I have grown up aware of unusual and beautiful books, and spent most of my life reading them. Françoise Sagan remarks that general conversation with strangers is unnecessary, next to the more important questions, ‘Whom do you love? What are you reading?’ How convenient, then, if the answers to both coincide. I have never interpreted the adjective bookish as anything less than a high honour.

I like my reading, whether for pleasure or study, to be directed both by happy accident and specific curiosity. I am particularly interested – by now professionally so – in biographical questions; when I read English at Oxford, I did my best to evade academic theory, preferring the antiquarian pursuit of immersing myself in the lives and historical periods of writers, their friends, issue, relations, acquaintances, commercial, personal, political and amatory rivals, and other connections. These things seem to me both interesting in themselves and a prerequisite for developing an accurate ear for the language and idiom of particular authors. My postgraduate degree included courses in palaeography and bibliography – in particular, as it turned out, examining manuscripts by the courtier and verse translator Sir John Harington, the playwright Thomas Middleton, the Jacobite Bishop of Rochester, Francis Atterbury, and early editions of Shakespeare, Spenser, Ariosto and Tasso. I would value the opportunity to develop these skills by putting them to more practical use. I am used to concentrated work, absorbing and distilling large quantities of information. I have an eye for detail, and set great store by accuracy. I would have much to learn about the specifics of the book trade, but I am quick to master a new idiom and have had some cognate work experience assisting the cataloguers in the Old Masters department of Christies.

I am drawn to the Latin languages and can read and write French and Italian and speak them communicably. My spoken and written Spanish is much more basic, but I can read it. I developed a love of the classical languages and literature at school, and can still (with a little persistence) translate poetry, inscriptions, and tags in Latin and Greek. My amateur but intense emotional attachment to medieval literature and history, as well as some of my university work, gives me a foundation in Old and Middle French and English. I am also interested in historical and dialect Italian, and fairly conversant with the vernacular of Dante.

My historical and biographical interests are miscellaneous and have become, if anything, more so during and since university. Over the last two years I have been working on a life of the learned but popular medieval historian Sir Steven Runciman, a man famous for his ‘ability to ignore the conventional limits of time and space’, as one obituarist put it, and I stand by this catholic approach to the past: history as the true study of human beings, that should not be artificially simplified into movements and neat periods. Partly with this principle in mind, and partly for pleasure, I have found myself absorbing information from many different eras with little or no fixed, utilitarian objective in mind, but I would hope that working as a cataloguer for Peter Harrington would be a serendipitous way to put this magpie temperament to practical purpose.

My historiography is, academically speaking, adrift in a state prior to the Annales, but I am confident with the basics: Roman emperors and popes, Guelphs and Ghibellines, the names, dates, and wives of the Kings of France, England, and Scotland, the pronunciation of Wriothesley, the Civil War and who backed whom, the Dutch usurpation and its pragmatic, mercantilist aftermath. From the eighteenth century the past often seems to me more vividly resurrected via letters memoirs and the higher gossip: outstanding examples being Walpole, Creevey, and Greville. My attachment to and affinity for these genres extends in the twentieth century to wide reading and familiarity with the novels, memoirs, and letters of Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Powell, Cyril Connolly, Barbara Skelton, Simon Raven, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Mary McCarthy, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and so on in a quasi-Petrine succession, whose best contemporary representative is, I think, the novelist and historian James Buchan. While assisting the new OUP variorum edition of Evelyn Waugh, I found several unpublished Waugh letters in college archives, and am still engaged in similar, if more ambitious, work for my book on Steven Runciman. However, these recherché tastes do not by any means preclude a vigorous interest in current political debate and journalism: I keep up with the broadsheets and weekly periodicals and am au fait with current intellectual controversies.

Whenever chance has taken me in the direction of your bookshop – fortunately, of late, more and more – I have found a lot of pleasure and excitement there. I imagine you will have many more professionally qualified applications for your post, but if you are interested in taking a chance on someone who is hungry to learn and has a real appetite for the material, I hope that I would not disappoint you.