Monday, August 24, 2015
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.
“THE PRIVATE PAPERS OF HENRY RYCROFT” by George Gissing (first published in 1903)
If you look up George Gissing, you will find that previously on this blog I have dealt with three of the late-Victorian’s social realist novels – New Grub Street (1891), Born in Exile (1892) and the posthumously-published Will Warburton (1905). On the whole, the novels of Gissing (1857-1903) are grim and unforgiving. Though often embraced by Marxist and left-wing critics for his accounts of oppressed working-class and lower-middle-class lives, Gissing was no socialist. Indeed, more than once in his novels there is a sense of disgust that he has had to spend much of his life rubbing shoulders with the lower orders. And – because of specific events in his own formation – there is often a strong mood of frustration that he, a man with a university education, has never been able to claim his true place in the world as an academic intellectual. Gissing was mired in the real New Grub Street of having to crank out three-decker novels on demand for publishers.
But, like so many struggling literary people, Gissing had a fantasy life. In it, he was a gentleman of leisure, living in pleasant bucolic surroundings, with nothing to do but take country walks, re-read his favourite books and keep a reflective diary.
It is this fantasy that is the basis of The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. First published in the year of Gissing’s death, it was once his most popular book. The first copy of The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft that I owned was printed in 1914. I gave it away to a bibliophile brother. The copy that now sits on my shelf was printed in 1915. The back of the title page informs me that it had already gone through seventeen re-printings in the 13 years since its first publication. Because of its dated attitudes – and perhaps because of its artificiality - The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft has sunk in public esteem since then. (New Grub Street and The Nether World now tend to be regarded as Gissing’s best work). Even so, book lovers still like it for its pithy observations on literature in general and the love of books in particular. I remember the late craft-printer Ronald Holloway often pulling out a copy, when I visited him, to read out favourite passages. He was particularly enamoured of the section (“Spring” Parts XII-XIV) in which Gissing speaks of the joy of finding old books, smelling their particular odours and so forth.
The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft was written when Gissing was in his mid-forties. Henry Ryecroft – transparently a projection of Gissing himself – is a retired and widowed literary gentleman in his mid-fifties, living on an annuity in a country cottage in Devon. The book, divided neatly into the four seasons, gives his reflections over one year as he takes his walks, observes the country flora and fauna, remembers his youth, boastfully drops in the odd Greek or Latin tag and reflects on his favourite books. It would all seem very smug if the memories of garret-living city poverty in London did not seem so genuine. This reflective man has earned his rest.
Even so, much of this book is irredeemably of its age. Gissing’s “Ryecroft” will, for example, deplore English cookery, the degeneration of English inns and of English sexual morality, with a “decline of conventional religion, free discussion of the old moral standards; therewith, a growth of materialism which favours every anarchic tendency.” (“Winter” Part XXI). But at the same time Ryecroft drops sufficient comments to suggest that English food is the best in Europe and English civilization the only criterion by which to measure other lands.
He will say that English farm labourers and working men have sterling qualities; but also advise us repeatedly that he is not “democratic” and can see nothing genuinely creative in the lower orders. “Agriculture is one of the most exhausting forms of toil, and, in itself, by no means conducive to spiritual development”, he remarks. (“Autumn” Part XVII). [This observation reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s comment on farming, in The Blithedate Romance, that “intellectual activity is incompatible with any large amount of bodily exercise.”] Ryecroft, after all, has known the labouring poor at close quarters and they are not thinking creatures like “us”.
He will speak with broad disparagement of mysticism and spiritualism, suggest that Positivism might at least wipe out the religious impulse – and yet still tells us how much he loathes and fears “science”. The book’s initial huge popularity in England is fully understandable, as parts of it so closely reflect the feelings and prejudices of its early 20th century English middle-class readers.
At its heart there seems a dreadful sadness – I would almost call it hollowness. Ryecroft’s life is so solitary. All his reflections relate to himself. Nobody shares his house but a complacent housekeeper and he congratulates himself at one stage for the tranquillity he has found. Surely it is the tranquillity of disengagement. Repeatedly he implies that his soothing impressions of the countryside, or of the re-reading of his favourite books by the fireside, are his only hopes before death claims him.
As a New Zealander who has made only a few visits to England – and then not to Devon – I can’t help finding alien much of the landscape that Ryecroft describes. I simply do not “get” many of the prose-pictures he paints of English vegetation and foliage, whose names are merely names to me. On the other hand, there is a certain poignancy in reading a book published a decade before the First World War which speaks so angrily against conscription and predicts that science will create bigger and bloodier wars.
In the end, like so many books of reflections, this one can best be mined for its individual self-revelations.
Here is a typical piece of Ryecroft-ian anti-democracy:
“Nothing is more rooted in my mind than the vast distinction between the individual and the class. Take a man by himself and there is generally some reason to be found in him, some disposition for good; mass him with his fellows in the social organism, and ten to one he becomes a blatant creature, without a thought of his own, ready for any evil to which contagion prompts him. It is because nations tend to baseness and stupidity that mankind moves so slowly; it is because individuals have a capacity for better things that it moves at all.” (“Spring” Part XVI).
However, when he refers to the real reading public as a small elite, I find myself agreeing with him. Sad though it may be to contemplate them, perhaps the following words should be remembered amidst the current agonising over how few New Zealanders actually read New Zealand fiction:
“….the public which reads in any sense of the word worth considering, is very, very small; the public which would feel no lack if all book-printing ceased tomorrow is enormous.” (“Spring” Part XXII)
Ryecroft can sometimes turn out a nice aphorism, as in:
“Persistent prophecy is a familiar way of assuring the event.” (“Summer” Part VII).
“…. there is a rare beauty in the structure of trees ungarmented.” (“Winter” Part XII)
He makes a very sad, but probably true, observation on the solipsistic universe:
“…it is the mind which creates the world around us, and, even though we stand side by side in the same meadow, my eyes will never see what is beheld by yours, my heart will never stir with the emotions with which yours is touched.” (“Summer” Part X)
Even so, this does not make him a complete rationalist in the Cartesian sense, as he is fully aware that much of what his mind observes is beyond his control; and besides, his mind inhabits a body, which is easily influenced even by the small physical things that impinge on it:
“Even in its normal condition (if I can determine what that is) my mind is obviously the slave of trivial accidents; I eat something that disagrees with me, and of a sudden the whole aspect of life is changed; this impulse has lost its force, and another which before I should not for a moment have entertained, is all-powerful over me. In short, I know just as little about myself as I do about the Eternal essence; and I have a haunting suspicion that I may be a mere automaton, my every thought and act due to some power which uses and deceives me.” (“Autumn” Part XIV).
He therefore adopts a robustly sceptical view of ideas of human knowledge:
“So far am I from feeling satisfied with any explanation, scientific or other, of myself and of the world about me, that not a day goes by but I fall a-marvelling before the mystery of the universe. To trumpet the triumph of human knowledge seems to me worse than childishness; now, as of old, we know but one thing – that we know nothing.” (“Autumn” Part IX).
There are moments when he rejoices in advertising his prejudices and tastes, as when, deriding vegetarianism, he cries:
“I hate with a bitter hatred the names of lentils and haricots – those pretentious cheats of the appetite, those tabulated humbugs, those certificated aridities calling themselves human food.” (“Winter” Part IX)
Yet prejudices, solipsism and scepticism about human knowledge ride on the back of one certainty, which informs this book’s sense of place:
“There can be no home without the sense of permanence, and without home there is no civilization – as England will discover when the greater part of her population have become flat-inhabiting nomads.” (“Winter” Part XXI).
And perhaps as New Zealand is now discovering.