Monday, February 10, 2014

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 YOUNG HAVE SECRETS” by James Courage (first published 1954)

            60 years ago, in 1954, there were two significant cultural events related to Christchurch. One was when, in a Christchurch park, two deluded schoolgirls smashed in a woman’s head with a brick, and set off a small industry of comments on, justifications for, and dramatisations of the murder. The other was the publication of James Courage’s novel The Young Have Secrets, which has a Christchurch setting, even if the New Zealand-born author wrote it in faraway England.
            Have you ever had the experience of liking and sympathising with a novel, even if you can easily take out your little critical airgun and shoot holes in its many and obvious defects? That is how I feel about the very imperfect and yet very engaging novel that is The Young Have Secrets. For the moment, let me shun any comment on the novel’s background, and just tell you about the novel as I found it, before I looked up what the few commentaries had to say.
The Young Have Secrets is very specifically set in 1914, with war looming in distant Europe and actually breaking out about halfway through the novel. It is odd to consider that this was only 40 years before the time this 60-year-old novel was written. 1914 was still within living memory in 1954, even if it is ancient history to us.
10-year-old Walter Blakiston, son of a sheep-farming family, has been sent to board with the family of Mr Garnett, the principal of the small preparatory school that Walter attends in Christchurch. The Garnetts live in the seaside settlement of Sumner, so every school day Mr Garnett and young Walter ride the tram between Sumner and Christchurch, although they make sure they don’t sit together. In the Garnett household there lives, together with Mr and Mrs Garnett, their unmarried daughter Muriel. Just up the hill lives the Garnetts’ married daughter Hilda, whose husband is the young Scots architect Geoff Macaulay. But there is also talk of another unmarried daughter, Rose.
In part the novel concerns Walter’s time at the small preparatory school, where he plays schoolboy games, feels typically homesick and passes notes under the desk to chums, as he observes the dry-old-stick Mr Garnett at work. In part, it concerns his larking around with Jimmy Nelson, half-Maori son of the gossipy working-class Mrs Nelson, who lives near the more genteel middle-class Garnetts. But it mainly concerns what goes on in the Garnett household and how it affects young Walter.
It is clear that, when he was single, Geoff Macaulay was more in love with Rose Garnett than with Hilda Garnett, whom he married. It is clear that Muriel Garnett did something to halt Geoff’s original courtship of Rose. But (while Mr and Mrs Garnett are not aware of it), it is also clear that Geoff and Rose are still in love, even now that Hilda is pregnant with Geoff’s child. Unbeknown to her family, Rose has come back to Christchurch and Geoff has begun to see her. 10-year-old Walter, the boarder, is given confusing confidences about all this by various of the adult characters – notably Muriel, Geoff and Rose – but only dimly understands what is going on. He is frequently told not to tell other people what he has heard. He is often pumped for information (especially by the garrulous Mrs Nelson) and he is occasionally asked to carry messages.
I offer no spoilers here. We, as adult readers, pick all this up well before the novel’s midway point. But it is only about halfway through – before he takes a holiday with his grandparents – that comprehension of the situation begins to dawn on Walter.
So (as in a better-known New Zealand novel, Ian Cross’s The God Boy) the core of this novel is a child seeing, but not fully understanding, what passes between adults. It is an adult novel with an in-built quality of dramatic irony.  The Young Have Secrets is written in the third-person-limited voice, with Walter as its centre of consciousness. We see only what Walter sees. This means that some of the more melodramatic events of the novel’s latter half are kept offstage and reported only.
Reading this novel, I found much to like. There is the vivid, if overtly symbolic, opening, where the tram on which Walter and Mr Garnett are travelling hits and kills a dog. The man and the little boy react in completely different ways, foretasting their relationship throughout the novel. The accident also jolts Walter out of his escapist reading of an English school story, bringing him back to the world that is really around him. (The effect reminded me of the opening of the film Once Were Warriors, where the first image is a idealised tourist poster of New Zealand, from which the camera slowly pans to the slummy reality of South Auckland). Throughout the novel, slabs of Walter’s escapist reading are contrasted with the reality of his experiences. And – like Mr Garnett’s pedagogy – they are among the novel’s many reminders of the fervently Anglophile culture of New Zealand (and perhaps especially of Christchurch) a century ago. 
Related to this, I liked James Courage’s handling of period detail. There are some rather contrived passages like the following (from Part 1 Chapter 3, or pp.25-26 in the first edition I’ve been reading) where Mr Garnett mutters: “This colonial mutton… not like the English Southdown… it wants consistency…One would think in this land of sheep, the famers might breed sheep of a closer texture.” Obviously such words are designed to tell (perhaps English) readers some basic facts about colonial New Zealand. But in the main, Courage keeps his period detail relevant to dramatic situations - Geoff Macaulay literally lights the headlamps on his car. In prep school the assistant teacher Miss Threplow gets the class to recite Kipling’s description of New Zealand as “last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart”. There is a rusty penny-farthing bicycle, already out-dated, found in a shed and made a plaything by Walter Blakiston and Jimmy Nelson. And so on.
Among the most poignant period details are the boys’ school games. They swap the cards that come with chocolate bars. They love stamp collecting. They wonder why stamps still have Edward VII on them, when George V is king. And of course, once it starts, they make very little-boy-ish speculations on the war in Europe. The misery of a poor little boy trying to do his homework when he has a head cold (Part 1, Chapter 11) is painfully convincing.
The novelist shows an awareness of social class (even if Walter doesn’t). In the working class home, Mrs Nelson smokes and beer is drunk and Jimmy doesn’t have to go to Sunday school (the way Walter does). There are some nice points of subtlety, as when the dry old stick Mr Garnett, usually a schoolmasterly disciplinarian, is so caught up in his own nostalgia that he forgives Walter and Jimmy for taking and trying to ride his rusty, disused penny-farthing. The late introduction of the adult son of the Garnett family, the lighthouse-keeper Mark Garnett, is a little clumsy, but he is a welcome figure; and despite the intervening melodrama, the final fate of Geoff Macaulay is quite probable for the novel’s setting.
But it is at this point that I have to take out my little airgun of criticism and politely shoot some holes in The Young Have Secrets.
We are meant to see subtleties in dialogue that little Walter doesn’t see, or that he misinterprets.  This works up to a point, but the problem is that the dialogue between adults is too often both so arch and so specific that, in effect, it spells out things in a way that even a 10-year-old could readily grasp.
There is a fearful implausibility to many of the confidences Walter is given. Look, for example, at Part 3, Chapter 9 (pp.224-226) where Rose gives a totally improbable confession to Walter of what has just happened to Hilda. In Part 3, Chapter 10 (pp.230-231), Geoff Macaulay explains his problems to Walter thus:
You wouldn’t know the tangle a decent educated man can get into over so simple a bunch of trouble as his own instincts…. Don’t ask the women – any woman – to accept you for what you are, with your own life – oh no, they shove you up on a pedestal, want you to be something like a god, a father, or even a brother. They’ll draw the soul out of you to satisfy some illusion of love that never existed” etc. etc.
Ask yourself if even a distressed man would blurt this out to a 10-year-old child. Regrettably, such passages are far from rare in the novel.
There are many inept attempts in the novel to justify the copious “adult” information Walter receives. They include episodes of lengthy eavesdropping and overhearing and moments where adults use phrases (familiar from old Hollywood films) such as “I don’t know why I’m telling you this” or “Perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you this” or Rose’s lament “And now I’ve told you, a child” at Part 1, Chapter 18  (p.141)
Aside from the implausibilities, much of dialogue is alarmingly self-expository. Part 1, Chapter 8 (p.48) opens thus:
‘What I don’t understand, father dear’, said Hilda Macaulay, ‘is why you don’t sell the school and retire. Instead of which you go so far as to take on a boarder – this child, Walter – to add to your burdens. He even stayed here through last holidays….’
Again, this sounds like the contrivance of an old Hollywood film.
If the novel often clumps along in terms of style, I might also suggest that sometimes the author, as well as dramatizing the prejudices of an earlier age, seems to share them. There is a slightly racist tone to the way Walter’s kindly grandparents talk about Maori when Walter visits them. This may be no more than accurate reportage of the (Pakeha) values of that time. But later in novel we are given what is virtually a racial caricature of the estranged Maori husband whom Mrs Nelson calls her “smooging randy savage” (Part 3, Chapter 6, p.205).
So I weighed up the pluses and minuses of The Young Have Secrets, and found myself nevertheless drawn into the child’s uncomfortable position and absorbed in reading the novel. I was also tempted to see myself as very clever. A child not exactly mistreated, but to a certain degree exploited by adults, as he becomes privy to illicit adult sexual behaviour? I knew what novel this immediately reminded me of, L.P.Hartley’s The Go-Between, which I read as a set text in my last year at secondary school. I also enjoyed the famous Joseph Losey film version (scripted by Harold Pinter) when it first came out in 1971. I knew nothing of the writing of The Young Have Secrets, but I did know that The Go-Between was first published in 1953, a year before The Young Have Secrets was published. Was (England-based) James Courage influenced by Hartley’s novel?
I now find that I wasn’t as clever as all that. Going on-line after reading the novel, I see that Victoria University of Wellington’s NZETC entry on The Young Have Secrets makes the connection not only with The Go-Between, but also with Henry James’ novel of a child at the centre of adult sexual conflict, What Maisie Knew. (And for good measure, the Vic entry also remarks on the improbability that “adults would so frequently confide their woes to childish ears”, much as I have commented here.)
There is also the other matter, which I knew before I read the novel but which I have left for the end.
James Courage (1903-1963) had a social background exactly the same as that of Walter Blakiston – sheep-farmer father, Christchurch prep school. He then went to Christ’s College in Christchurch and Oxford University, spending nearly all of the rest of his life in England. Like Walter, he would have been 10 in 1914, so his reconstruction of pre-First World War Christchurch is autobiographical. More important to some commentators is the fact that Courage was homosexual and is now part of the New Zealand gay canon. His 1959 novel A Way of Love, although discreet, tactful and with absolutely no sex scenes, is often hailed as the first openly gay novel by a New Zealand writer. (It was virtually banned in New Zealand on its first appearance.)
 So how much is Courage’s sexuality reflected in The Young Have Secrets, which has no overtly homosexual elements?
Knowing something of Courage’s life before I read the novel (the penalty of reading too many “surveys” of NZ Lit.), I did think that having a prepubescent child as his focus allowed Courage to look with an outsider’s eyes on heterosexual complications. (Note, by the way, that L.P.Hartley and - probably – Henry James were also discreet homosexuals.) I was alert to any comments that might have suggested a delicate subversion of sexual norms, as when (Part 1 Chapter 16, Pg.127) Walter asks innocently why a man can’t marry two women at one time. Very late in the novel, once he has been returned home, Walter’s mother says that his father wanted to send him away from her so that he was “not tied to my apron strings”; and there is the very, very subtle suggestion that Walter’s father does not consider Walter “manly” enough to be his son. Then there is the solitary, unmarried lighthouse keeper Mark Garnett, who has removed himself from the domestic and heterosexual battleground. Could all these things be the novelist’s technique for talking about himself without revealing too much? Possibly. I have now read an essay by Christopher Bourke, which analyses the novel exclusively in terms of its critique of the conventional nuclear family.
Or is this being too clever by half? Courage’s biography notwithstanding, the little boy at the centre of the story is prepubescent, and is still puzzling out why men and women are as they are, the way little boys who later develop into any orientation do. There may be intentional subtexts here. Knowing something about James Courage may add to our interpretation of the novel. But it was the representative child’s mystification by adults that most held me as a reader, despite the often clumsy way it is presented.

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