Monday, October 20, 2014

Something Old

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. 

“MR PERRIN AND MR TRAILL” by Hugh Walpole (first published 1911)

As you are probably already aware, when I get into one of my more facetious moods, I like to write about bestsellers from long ago that I have read. If I am dealing with the likes of George Du Maurier’s Trilby, or W. Somerset Maugham’s Christmas Holiday or John Buchan’s The Three Hostages or Stephen McKenna’s Sonia [look them all up on the index at right], then I have the perfect excuse to lecture you yet again on how bestsellers pander to the fashions and prejudices of their age, and how sometimes, despite their trashiness, they often tell us more about the ethos of the past than more reputable works of literature do.
When, however, I choose to comment on the antique bestseller, Hugh Walpole’s Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, I hesitate to put it through this routine. The fact is, a recent re-reading of it tells me that it’s quite a good novel on its own terms, even if its tone is old-fashioned; and while its conclusion is marred by melodrama, it presents a soulscape much bleaker than that offered by the average bestseller.
In his day, Hugh Walpole (1884-1951) was a huge bestseller. He had a New Zealand connection, which was once loudly trumpeted here but which, like Walpole himself, is now largely forgotten. He was born in Auckland to a high-ranking Anglican clergyman father. But as he returned to England in childhood, the New Zealand connection meant nothing to him. For the best part of forty years, and writing at great speed, he churned out novels (a total of 36 of them), longed to be considered a serious literary figure like some of the big names he rubbed shoulders with, but never made the grade. He did, however, sell in the millions, become very rich and wangled a knighthood.
As a very active, if discreet, homosexual, Walpole spent much of his leisure time haunting London bath-houses and picking up casual male sexual partners. Of course this was unknown to any but his closest friends and was certainly unknown to his hordes of public-lending library admirers in the 1920s and 1930s. Walpole was the man to deliver solid but harmless tales, unchallenging, decorated with fine writing, and often patriotic in their exaltation of Olde England and cathedral towns. I’m making these broad generalisations partly on the memory of attempting his Rogue Herries series of historical novels when I was a teenager but mainly, let me admit, on what other people have said about him.
But notoriously, Walpole made an enemy of the equally middlebrow and equally homosexual W. Somerset Maugham. While Walpole’s general effect could be described as twee and tending to the camp, Maugham was bitter and sardonic (and, for all his very many faults, a bit more grown-up). In 1930, Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale concerned a social-climbing, talentless, bestselling, self-promoting novelist very clearly based on Walpole. Everybody recognised that it was Walpole, and from that point on his reputation began to plummet, never to recover. Walpole is now exclusively a back number, somebody who lives in the stacks and not on the shelves, a footnote in cultural histories.
And yet… and yet. As I said at the beginning of this outpouring, his first big success, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, published in 1911 when Walpole was 27, is really not a bad novel at all. Was it Walpole’s youth and desire to please his highbrow literary friends at the time (like Henry James) that made him craft it so well? Or was it the fact hat he put much more of himself into it than he did in his later and more fanciful efforts?
             Mr Perrin and Mr Traill is the story of a prolonged rivalry between two schoolmasters in a shabby, second-rate public school in Cornwall. (Called Moffatt’s, the school is apparently based closely on the minor English public school Epsom College where Walpole had unsuccessfully tried his hand at teaching.)
Mr Vincent Perrin is in his mid-40s, unsuccessful, unmarried, pompous and not popular with the boys. He has his eye on Isabel Desart, but has not yet plucked up the courage to approach her, let alone to propose to her.
Mr Archie Traill is in his early twenties and is just down from university. Perrin at first tries to be Traill’s mentor, presuming to show him how the school functions and patronising him. But Traill rapidly grows beyond him. Effortlessly, Traill achieves what Perrin has never achieved – popularity with both staff and boys. Gradually, and largely because of Perrin’s tactlessness, they have a series of differences over trivial matters, climaxing in a knock-down fight in the staffroom when Traill inadvertently and without permission tales Perrin’s umbrella. The staff takes sides, and while some old codgers see things Perrin’s way, it is Traill with whom most of the staff sympathise.
More devastatingly for Perrin, Traill woos Isabel Desart successfully. They announce their engagement.
At which point Perrin in effect has a nervous breakdown.
He determines to kill Traill, but he lacks the courage to carry his plan through. In the melodramatic finale, he follows Traill down to the seashore and Traill falls over a cliff and is injured when Perrin brandishes a knife at him. Immediately overcome with remorse, Perrin puts the unconscious and injured Traill where is body will be seen and rescued. Then Perrin swims out to sea and drowns himself.
The finale has Isabel Desart and the injured Archie Traill leaving for a life outside schoolteaching, while a schoolboy who has been rude to Mr Perrin waits around to make his apologies to a teacher who will never return.
The ending is, frankly, a bit of a mess, which is one reason (apart from the novel’s antiquity) that I have not hesitated to give it away to you. Walpole’s language can relapse into the terribly twee, especially when he is dealing with women. Isabel Desart is strictly one-dimensional. Nevertheless, this is a good popular novel. It does capture the hopeless grind of schoolteaching and the bitcheries of the staffroom, especially in a single-sex school where half the staff insist on kidding themselves that they are going to escape to other jobs (they never do), while the other half have succumbed to desperation. Perhaps it implies, rather than really dramatizes, the really difficult part of schoolteaching – which is what goes on in the classroom.
Even so, Walpole succeeds in showing how things trivial in themselves can take on monstrous proportions in the psychological lives of people who have misdirected their energy towards a career they do not really believe in. Here is how he introduces the crucial scuffle over Mr Perrin’s umbrella:
This Battle of the Umbrella stands for more, for far more, than its immediate contest. Here is the whole protest and appeal of all these crowded, stifled souls buried of their own original free-will beneath fantastic piles of scribbled paper, cursing their fate, but unable to escape from it, seeing their old age as a broken, hurried scrambling to a no-man’s grave, with no dignity nor suavity, but no temper nor discipline, with nerves jangling like the broken wires of a shattered harp – so that there is no comfort or hope in the future, nothing but disappointment and insult in the past, and the dry, bitter knowledge of failure in the present – this is the Battle of the Umbrella.” (Chapter 7)
Stifled souls buried….beneath fantastic piles of scribbled paper”. A perfect description of teachers in many schools in many countries of the present day, even if many of the cultural markers of Mr Perrin and Mr Traill belong specifically to England of the period before the First World War.

Inevitable cinematic footnote: For the record, nearly forty years after it was published, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill was still popular enough to be filmed, in 1948. I have not seen this film, which appears to be of no particular distinction, but reviews I have accessed imply that the story had been updated to 1948, which may indicate how little England’s public schools had changed over those forty years. Another connection suggests itself to me. The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan (another discreet homosexual) is a play that also involves an embittered and spectacularly unpopular schoolmaster. I have seen both film versions of The Browning Version (the 1951 original starring Michael Redgrave and the awful 1994 remake starring Albert Finney). The scene in the 1951 film in which the unpopular Crocker-Harris is contrasted with the popular and younger cricket-coaching teacher strikes me as reflecting exactly the same sort of relationship as that between Perrin and Traill. I wonder if Rattigan knew the earlier work?

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