Monday, July 28, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago.
“MEMOIRS OF A MIDGET” by Walter de la Mare (first published 1921)
I have a very strict creed and I am going to stick with it. The creed says that if an author has written even a few memorable things, then that author deserves to be esteemed. It is hard enough to write even the averagely good, but to write the truly memorable takes great talent – maybe even genius. So I do esteem the Edwardian and Georgian poet, short-story writer and novelist Walter de la Mare (1873-1956). Yes, I know he is a back number, and in the severer histories of Eng Lit he is seen as the type of chap who wrote fey and often whimsical escapist poetry, until the Modernists came along and showed up him and others as antiques. But much of his work is too good to be dismissed that easily. When I was a child, de la Mare’s poetry was often taught in junior classrooms or given to children to learn off for elocution contests. (At least that is what happened to me in primary school – I had to learn “Five Eyes” and still remember “Jekkel and Jessup and one-eyed Jill”). When I was a child, I also loved the poems in de la Mare’s collection Peacock Pie – especially the edition illustrated with Edward Ardizzone’s haunting line drawings. Then there were poems like The Listeners (it first appeared in an earlier collection than Peacock Pie), which have justifiably become classics.
De la Mare captured perfectly that moon-dizzy moment in childhood and earlyadolescence when you are half in love with the night and half scared of it. I have found his ghost-ridden short stories for adults, like the much-anthologised Seaton’s Aunt, more laboured and less sympathetic (too much table-rapping and struggling for effect). But I regard his The Three Royal Monkeys (originally published in 1910 under the title The Three Mulla-Mulgars) as one of the most underrated and neglected of children’s books. I read it twice to various selections of my children when they were young, and we followed with great pleasure the trek of Thumb, Thimble and Nod through a fantasticated version of Africa.
Now this tale of esteeming a writer for his good stuff must, unfortunately, intersect with another story that I have often told on this blog. That is the story of for years intending to read a book that sat on one’s shelves, and then eventually discovering, when one at last got around to reading it, that the book was nothing like what one had hoped and expected it would be.
Walter de la Mare’s novel Memoirs of a Midget (written for adults – not children) was first published in 1921 and won a prestigious literary prize. I own a battered Faber and Faber hardback edition of it, printed in the 1940s. Cued by my prior knowledge of de la Mare’s moon-struck, ghost–haunted, exotic-landscaped poetry for children, I expected some sort of fantasy, but that was not quite what I got.
In a vaguely-defined Victorian setting “Miss M.”, a midget, tells her own story in the first person.
After the death of both her parents, Miss M. goes to live with a Mrs Bowater. She has an intense friendship with Mrs Bowater’s shrewish, minx-like, beautiful daughter Fanny Bowater. The local curate, Mr Harold Crimble, commits suicide when he is turned down by Fanny. Miss M meets a dwarf, “the Stranger”, later called “Mr Anon”, and quite a different type of human being from a midget. She is not as attracted to him as he appears to be to her. She goes to live with the snobbish Mrs Monnerie, who likes to show her off at dinner parties. She feels intensely friendly with Mrs Monnerie’s daughter Susan Monnerie, but she is mocked and teased by the facetious Percy Maudlen. Beautiful cruel Fanny Bowater (who calls Miss M “Midgetina”) comes back into the story. Eventually, cruel Fanny marries facetious, mocking Percy, which serves them both right.
For a while, Miss M allows herself to become a fairground and circus attraction. The dwarf “Mr Anon” joins her and is keen on her company. But the midget is not so eager for the dwarf. Mr Anon is (I think) killed in a circus accident. So (I think) Miss M, living alone at the end of the novel, has indirectly been responsible for somebody else’s death, just as Fanny Bowater was when the curate committed suicide. And (I think) this is meant to show some sort of symmetry or moral relativism. The beautiful minx and the forbearing and patient midget are as different as chalk and cheese, but to some extent their effect upon others has been the same.
There are, I have to admit, good reasons for the “I thinks” I have inserted into my plot summary above. I confess that I am uncertain of some things that happen in the novel because my attention kept drifting as I read it. Sometimes, indeed, my eyes wandered over pages without taking much in. For the hard fact is that, as a novel, much of Memoirs of a Midget is dull, dull, dull. In terms of their psychology, the characters are so poorly differentiated that it is hard to tell one from another. I was never sure why Miss M changed her address four or five times. Things happen, but motivation (that is, “plot”) is unclear.
Having a midget tell the story could, I thought, have allowed some Swiftian savagery in the telling, when “normal” human traits are magnified and made grotesque (as in Tod Browning’s classic horror film Freaks). But such is not the case. The narration is restrained, ladylike, almost twee. The title and my prior encounters with the author’s work held the promise of a colourful, roguish circus tale. Again, echec! There is little passion here, but only the bloodless rattling of teacups. The book I had imagined before reading it evaporated as I read.
I copied a number of passages into my reading notebook, but looking at them now they are mainly stand-alone descriptions of wind, the moon and the stars as seen by the midget. An unsympathetic reader might even call them purple prose. At the very least, they do show de la Mare straining to produce the type of visual effects he handled better in his poetry. A late passage in the novel (Chapter 41) has the midget sitting in a church and reflecting that this place does not represent her conception of God, Who is found better in the wild outdoors. This could relate to de la Mare’s own dabbling in spiritualism, interest in ghosts and ambiguous attitude towards Christianity. Apart from this aside, there are two scenes only that reverberate in the memory after the book is closed. One, very early in the piece, is where Miss M brushes past an over-inquisitive cat, which is almost as big as she is. The daunting prospect of a lethal puss does produce a certain frisson. There is also something to be said for a much later scene where Miss M creeps out at night to sit in a tree and watch her favourite constellations.
Yet there is one aspect of the novel that may give it resonance for some readers. To the best of my knowledge, de la Mare was heterosexual, married and with four children (one of whom, working for Faber and Faber, saw many of his father’s works through the press). Yet by her very nature, the midget is a paradigm of the outsider, and this could easily be read as the sexual outsider. A virginal lady to the end, Miss M lavishes her love on other women. She gives loving descriptions of beautiful, heartless Fanny Bowater, Susan Monnerie and others.
At first I saw this as authorial incompetence on de la Mare’s part. As a male writer, he hadn’t “thought himself into” the first-person voice of a woman, and so was describing other women as a man would describe them. But on second thoughts I’m not so sure. After all, it is Fanny and Susan whom Miss M loves, so what we seem to have here is genteel, virginal, late Victorian lesbianism. Perhaps de la Mare really was consciously presenting Miss M’s sexual status in symbolic terms. Consider a passage like the following (from Chapter 16) where Miss M recalls her anguished feelings for Fanny Bowater:
“I have read somewhere that love is a disease. Or is it that Life piles up the fuel, a chance stranger darts the spark, and the whole world goes up in smoke? Was I happier in that fever than I am in this literary calm? Why did love for things without jealousy or envy fill me with delight, pour happiness into me, and love for Fanny parch me up, suck every other interest from my mind, and all but blind my eyes? Is that true? I cannot be sure: for to remember her ravages is as difficult as to reassemble the dismal phantoms that flock into a delirious brain. And still to be honest – there’s another chance: Was she to blame? Would my mind have been at peace even in its solitary woe if she had dealt truly with me? Would anyone believe it? – it never occurred to me to remind myself that it might be a question merely of size. Simply because I loved, I deemed myself lovable….”
“If she had dealt truly with me”????
I doubt if de la Mare was unaware of all the meanings of what he was writing, and I have to give him much credit for irony in both this passage and others. But this does not mean Memoirs of a Midget is somehow a challenging or boundary-breaking novel. I put it back on the shelf with the conviction that it was a respectably highbrow novel of a former age, now long past, with its refined and restrained style rendering it now dead as mutton. And, no, my mind is not changed by the fact that Alison Lurie enthusiastically recommends it on the cover of a recent reprint.