Monday, October 14, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE RETURN OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE” by Hugh Kingsmill (first published 1929)

            I am going to do something very silly. I am going to talk about a book of which you have never heard and which you will probably never read. You have probably never heard of the author either, so I might as well introduce him to you.

Hugh Kingsmill (1889-1949) was an essayist, journalist, humourist, satirist and controversialist who wrote the occasional novel. In other words, a jobbing writer working the upper end of the magazine market. His full name was Hugh Kingsmill Lunn, but he dropped the “Lunn” because he had two brothers (Arnold Lunn and Brian Lunn) who were also controversialists, critics, essayists etc. and he didn’t want to overuse the family name in print.

Every so often you’ll come across an article, written by people like Michael Holroyd, telling you that Kingsmill, whose sharp wit could be crushing, is one of the most unjustly “neglected” English writers of the 20th century. Kingsmill influenced a couple of generations of literary wits, including his older biographer friend Hesketh Pearson and his younger journalist friend (and sometime editor of Punch) Malcolm Muggeridge. He is also greatly admired by Richard Ingrams, editor of the Tory-anarchist satire magazine Private Eye. Ingrams wrote a good book about the friendship of Kingsmill, Pearson and Muggeridge called God’s Apology (the title comes from Kingsmill’s aphorism that “Friends are God’s apology for relations.”). If you go on the internet, you’ll easily find Clive James’ positive review of Ingrams’ book.

Okay. Enough on the author. You’ve now got Kingsmill in context – an English intellectual satirist, floreat especially 1920s and 1930s.

Now for the book you’ve never heard of.

The Return of William Shakespeare is a slim (about 200 pages) jeu d’esprit. It has only occasionally been reprinted since its first publication in 1929, so it’s now probably quite hard to access. The edition that sits on my shelf is in a battered omnibus book, published in the late 1940s, where The Return of William Shakespeare is printed together with others of Kingsmill’s work.

The story (supposedly pieced together from surviving papers in the distant future year of 1953) goes like this: An eccentric inventor called Alfred Butt finds a way to “reintegrate” people from the past. He can resurrect them at any age they would have been in the course of their lives. So he “reintegrates” William Shakespeare as he would have been in 1607, towards the end of his writing life. Butt’s researches can happen only because of the financial support of two dodgy characters, the con-man Gustavus Melmoth and his friend Guy Porter. Once Shakespeare is revivified, their main aim is to see how they can profit commercially from him. The catch is that Shakespeare’s resuscitation can last only a short time before he dies once again. So Porter convincingly disguises himself as Shakespeare in order to meet journalists, be feted and appear at paying events.

This means The Return of William Shakespeare has a real Shakespeare and a false Shakespeare in it.

The first part of the book is a jolly jape, ridiculing publicists, rival newspapers vying for exclusives (a big things in 1929 when circulation wars were the habitual state of British newspapers) and how the wide world reacts to the whole notion of bringing back the dead. I enjoyed particularly the narrator’s own reflections on this last matter, with its suggestions (at once lyrical and sly) of how unsettling it would be to actually meet the illustrious dead and have to revise one’s comforting notions of the past:

My thoughts wandered apprehensively into the future. It was all so unsettling. Why couldn’t science leave things as they were? Hard enough, even at present, to settle down comfortably to life. The next war, with its poison gas, would extinguish London in half-an-hour – detestable! Still, one might be dead first, or living in Shropshire. Besides, the future had a right to be alarming and unexpected. But if the great dead were to be resurrected in rotation, the past would afflict our nerves even more than the future. The founders of great religions – no Church could be expected to welcome their return…. Nor could one blame the Churches. A kind of mild vaccine against all fanaticism, religious or social – that was their function. Why disturb it? Humanity in the mass was but faintly discontented with this world, and needed, for the most part, only faint assuagements; a building made solemn by association, an ancient and familiar ritual. What had a grey Norman church in the English countryside to do with a sublime resolution to renew all things, taken two thousand years ago in Palestine? Elms and homing rooks, the church bell tolling for evensong, cattle in the near fields, a light western sky. Dusk, and within the church a girl singing a hymn, worshipped by a small boy in an adjacent pew – who would gladly die for her but she must never know. Aged folk, sad, soothed. ‘Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.’ Ah, yes! Soon be at rest with the others out there. Blessed resurrection? Surely, surely. Life has been so full of trouble.
Why shatter this gentle relation to the mystery of things, so finely adapted by long usage to the faint powers and uncertain longings of ordinary men and women?” (Part One, Chapter 3)

There are also, in the first part of The Return of William Shakespeare, vigorous digs at scholarly fads at the time Kingsmill was writing. In 1929, there were still buffoons who wanted to argue that Francis Bacon really wrote the plays of Shakespeare. In the novel, various worthy scholars pass up the opportunity to meet Shakespeare. The narrator notes:
Why? There were several possible explanations. Melmoth put forward two, the first that ninety per cent of the bunch were stone-cold about Shakespeare and all his works, and the second that the remaining ten per cent believed Shakespeare to have been written by Bacon. A round of visits to the more affluent Baconians convinced Melmoth that the skeleton in their particular cupboard was a suspicion, amounting almost to a certainty, that Shakespeare was written by Shakespeare. None of them showed the slightest eagerness to gibbet the Stratford clown. Well, then, Melmoth at last desperately suggested, why not put up the money to resuscitate Bacon on his own merits? But none of the Baconians were interested in Bacon on his own merits.” (Part One, Chapter 2)

In the third part of the novel, Melmoth’s and Porter’s schemes to make money unravel when Porter-disguised-as-Shakespeare is exposed as a fraud and it is therefore believed that Shakespeare has not been revived and that the whole story of his resurrection was a hoax. Those who know the truth, however, wait until the real Shakespeare is dead and then destroy all Alfred Butt’s research notes and equipment; and spirit the inventor away so that nobody ever thinks of repeating his feat.

Be it noted that much of the jollity in both the first and third part of this short novel is very time-and-place specific, with lots of topical pokes at specific public figures who are now mainly forgotten. It gives you a jolt when there’s a debate in parliament about the legality of resuscitation, and Oswald Mosley is given as the leading speaker for the Labour Party (which he was at the time). There’s also a report of a newspaper magnate, who adopts in his columns the attitude that it is better not to resuscitate the dead. To the chortles of antiquarians like me, the narrator comments:

 To this policy he adhered, with one lapse, a whole page article by Mr.H.G.Wells, the sense of which, according to an ungenerous critic in the Morning Courier, was that if Mr.Wells were duplicated often enough, and all persons of whom Mr.Wells disapproved were prohibited by law from enjoying even a single duplication, an earthly Paradise of applied science and rational sex-relationship might confidently be expected within a couple of centuries. ‘We think it more probable,’ the critic concluded, ‘that if Mr.Wells were indefinitely protracted through the ages, the world would eventually consist of a collection of Utopias, each embodying a different idea of Mr.Wells’s, and all on such bad terms with each other, that the ensuing Armageddon would come as a pleasant relief.” (Part Three, Chapter 1)

(Alright! Alright! It’s funny if you get the references.)

Now you’ll note that I’ve mentioned the novel’s first and third parts, but I haven’t mentioned the second part.

There’s method in my madness.

The fact is, the second part of The Return of William Shakespeare is its whole raison d’etre, and the silly-billy bookends are really just the setting. (To the rage, I have noted, of one or two sci-fi freaks on the ‘net who are disappointed that the book isn’t serious speculative fiction and who can’t recognise a big leg-pull when they see it.)

The second part of the novel consists of the real William Shakespeare’s confessions (which he tells in the third person) about his life and plays. What Hugh Kingsmill is really up to is providing an account of Shakespeare’s creative life as an alternative to the most popular ones that were available in his day. These included the sober “biography” of Shakespeare by Sir Sidney Lee; and the slangy “life” of Shakespeare written by the charlatan (and later pornographer) Frank Harris, for whom Hugh Kingsmill had once worked before he became thoroughly disillusioned with Harris.

Kingsmill’s Shakespeare is the young man, resentful of his lowly birth and eager to rise up the social scale, who at first courts and flatters aristocratic patrons before discovering their vacuity and the hollowness of the fashionable world. He continues to seek social status and comfort, and become a wealthy property owner in his native Stratford, but he also sees through the shams of high society. It is this tension, in Kingsmill’s version, which creates Shakespeare’s mature vision of society. The pivotal character in his plays is Falstaff.

The novel’s Shakespeare, speaking of himself in the third person, notes:

The qualities admired by society were also admired by Shakespeare, and he never ceased to be concerned with his own social position, which he improved to the furthest extent possible within the limits imposed on him by his profession. But, by the date of Falstaff, much of the poetic illusion in which his desire for social position was rooted had been worn away. The conceit of the aristocracy was beginning to jar not only on his vanity, but on his love of life for its own sake, without reference to personal distinction and advancement. He still retained, and never, except for brief periods in his worst days, lost, his enthusiasm for the heroic element in life. But he wished now, not quite consciously, at any rate at first, to place, heroism, which is usually self-centred, and always impoverished of every element in human nature not subservient to its purpose, in proper perspective. Against the absorption of the hero in his conflict with others he wished to set the enjoyment of life by the senses, and the delight in life of the imagination.” (Part Two, Chapter 2)

As regards Shakespeare’s private life, the novel assumes that the “Dark Lady” of the sonnets was the courtier Mary Fitton and that Shakespeare’s aristocratic patron was the Earl of Pembroke (ideas that were still orthodox in 1929). The novel’s Shakespeare speaks of the sonnets thus:

The growing melancholy of these years is expressed in the Sonnets. How far they are autobiographical and, if autobiographical, what exactly is the story they contain, appears to be a problem which no writer on Shakespeare has ever been persuaded to solve except in a way that suits his own preconception of Shakespeare’s character; some holding that Shakespeare loved the young man ideally, some that he loved him passionately, some that he played up to him out of snobbish or interested motives, some that he invented him as a peg to hang his poetry on. The other person in the Sonnets has also, I find, been approached from a number of angles, some believing her to be merely a convention of a competent Elizabethan sonneteer, some regarding her as the original of the sensual and faithless women in the later plays, Cressida, Goneril and Cleopatra, some resenting her as a vexatious though trivial interruption of Shakespeare’s relations with the young man. To me it seems that the youth and the woman together embody the sum of Shakespeare’s desires in the years when vanity and sensuality drove him forward, and an obscure expectation that the ideal could be made real, and perfect love attained in the mutual love of imperfect human beings.” …”a yearning towards Pembroke as the embodiment of what he would have wished himself to be. No doubt he also expected some practical advantages from their friendship; but I do not find and trace of physical desire in his attachment, in spite of what has been urged to the contrary by persons anxious to have their tastes supported by Shakespeare’s example, and unable to understand the excesses of the imagination.” (Part Two, Chapter 3)

Much of this is still perfectly sound common sense as regards the sonnets – especially the part that says they are “a problem which no writer on Shakespeare has ever been persuaded to solve except in a way that suits his own preconception of Shakespeare’s character”. Nowadays, however, some might be offended that Kingsmill so neatly clears Shakespeare of the possibility of being homosexual.

Kingsmill’s Shakespeare sees the failure of the Essex revolt as a key moment in the playwright’s life, and a point at which he became disillusioned with the “capricious old tyrant” Elizabeth 1. Only when Shakespeare was purged of the desire for nobility and aristocratic friends was he ready to write his mature tragedies, in which there is always a dichotomy between the main character’s public play-acting and his private despair. The duality is at its most extreme in Othello where:

The function of Iago is to force this unqualified idealist to see his life from the opposite standpoint, which explains every action in terms of lust or self-interest; and he so far succeeds that, while the agony of Othello is not the mere rage of sensual jealousy, neither is it to be characterised as simply, in Coleridge’s phrase, ‘the solemn agony’ of a disillusioned idealist, but as a medley of both these passions which Shakespeare had himself experienced.” (Part Two, Chapter 4)

As for the tragedy of King Lear, it is Shakespeare the mature man’s realization that self-interest rules most people and that therefore we are all guilty of neglecting the needy.

I could continue at greater length to show how the satirist Kingsmill relates Shakespeare’s life experience to his work. But at this point you, growing weary of my exposition, will ask why I have resuscitated this forgotten little book in the first place.

Anyone who has read C.J.Sissons’ classic essay “The Mythical Sorrows of Shakespeare” (first published in 1934) will know the arguments against trying to piece together Shakespeare’s life through his plays. Shakespeare was a playwright, not an autobiographer, and he dealt imaginatively with fictitious and historical characters – not with the specifics of his own life. Even so, it is always tempting to consider how much the man is reflected in the plays. I read The Return of William Shakespeare and compare it with more recent attempts at sober biography of Shakespeare, such as Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare – The Biography (2005) or even Harold Bloom’s critical compendium Shakespeare – The Invention of the Human (1999). And I conclude that, even if some of his terms of reference are dated, Kingsmill’s playful attempt to reconstruct Shakespeare’s life is no less plausible than their’s, and no more dependent upon imaginative speculation.

If you have the happy chance to dig out The Return of William Shakespeare from some second-hand bookshop, savour its wit, but also note that it has an underpinning of intelligent scholarship and critical awareness.

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