Monday, December 18, 2017

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ALLEN CURNOW – SIMPLY BY SAILING IN A NEW DIRECTION: A BIOGRAPHY” by Terry Sturm (Edited by Linda Cassells) (Auckland University Press, $59:99)

In 2004, when I was living in Wellington for a year, I happened to meet Professor Terry Sturm who was doing some research in the National Library. He told me he was writing the biography of Allen Curnow (Thomas Allen Munro Curnow, 1911-2001) and said he was always on the lookout for any interesting anecdotes and memories of the man. I went home and typed out a little Curnow anecdote, something fairly trivial and amusing from the early 1970s, when I was an undergradute in Auckland and Curnow was one of my lecturers. I delivered it to Terry Sturm the following day and he received it with a cheerful laugh. As it happens, the anecdote hasn’t made its way into Allen Curnow – Simply by Sailing in a New Direction: A Biography, but then I’m aware that a huge part of Sturm’s research material could not be used without swelling this biography to an unmanageable length. Terry Sturm (1941-2009) died before Simply by Sailing in a New Direction had taken its final shape. Rumour has it (and I am willing to be corrected on this point) that what Sturm left was over twice the length of the nearly 700 pages of closely-printed text that we now have. The task of editing it scrupulously was undertaken by Linda Cassells, and was apparently quite a job. Hence the eight years between Sturm’s death and the book’s appearance.
I’ll say at once the things that publishers like to reproduce on blurbs, but that in this case are completely true. Simply by Sailing in a New Direction is a great piece of scholarship and quite unlikely to be superseded as the standard life of Curnow. All future Curnow scholars or biographers will have to refer to it. It is primarily a “literary biography”. Curnow’s life is displayed chronologically, from Anglican vicar’s infant son to nonagenarian poet loaded with honours. But the focus is on the man’s work, so the chronicle of the life is kept in harness with a close analysis of the poems and plays. Not yet having a copy of the new Collected Poems of Allen Curnow (edited by Terry Sturm and Elizabeth Caffin), I read Simply by Sailing in a New Direction with my copies of Curnow’s Early Days Yet, Four Plays and various anthologies within easy reach so that I could check Sturm’s analyses against Curnow’s texts. Making one want to re-read admired work is one of the main things “literary biographies” are supposed to do. This one does.
Sturm (or his editor?) is very good in showing how Curnow’s poetic preoccupations, indeed how his “poetics”, developed over the years. He notes that,  as a young man in the mid-1930s, “Curnow… makes numerous comments that might be read… as the beginnings of a poetics which remained with him for the rest of his life: that poems are first and foremost acts of self-exploration, aimed at ‘digging deep’ into personal experience to discover a substratum of ‘common human need’ which links the poet (and the poems, if they are good enough) to his fellow beings.” (p.89) He deals intelligently with Curnow’s gradual rejection, in the mid-1940s, of poems that made over-arching comments on time and history and his embrace of poems which encoded landscape or recalled sensual experience and childhood in philosophical terms. Towards the end of his life, says Sturm, there was “Curnow’s epistemological scepticism, hinting throughout at the partial, contingent, speculative character of all knowledge of the past.” (pp.602-603)
Many of the analyses of individual poems are illuminating. I was delighted to find Sturm preaching the essentiality of the sonnet “Sailing or Drowning” to Curnow’s earlier work (p.165) – its idea of the uncertainty of “causality” in history is one with which I have frequently confronted classes. The analysis of “A Small Room with Large Windows” (pp.316-319) led me to read the poem more closely than I had previously done, and find things I had not expected. I could create a very long list of other interesting textual exegeses available here.
Another great merit of Sturm’s approach is to consider carefully Curnow’s alter ego Whim Wham, the satirical newspaper rhymster. As he first took up this role in the 1930s, young Curnow wrote : “I now enjoy a sort of nightmare local notoriety as a writer of funny verse: seem to have inherited the family curse of triviality in serious matters & great profundity in the trivial. Perhaps I shouldn’t blame my ancestry – it’s a very common Anglican trait.” (p.133)  For over five decades (1937 to 1988, to be precise), Whim Wham verses appeared first in the Christchurch Press and later in Auckland’s New Zealand Herald. Curnow could be very prickly with researchers and interviewers who asked him about Whim Wham, preferring to be discussed in terms of his “serious” poetry. But as Sturm appears to realise, the Whim Wham verses are often a better guide than the “serious” poems are, to how Curnow felt about topical and political issues at the time they arose.
Some other major matters in Curnow’s biography were news to me.
Despite the later memoir of one fellow student (Elsie Locke) at Auckland University College,  the young Curnow “was wholly serious in preparing himself for the prospect of a church career during [a] full-time year at [the Anglican seminary] St John’s.” (p.69) The view is given in Chapter 4 of this biography that it was the social complacency of the church during the Depression, rather than theological doubts over doctrine, that forced young Curnow to write a pseudonymous article attacking the church. Indeed, after he wrote the article, he returned to Christchurch still fully expecting to become a deacon. Some commentators assumed that Curnow’s shift to agnosticism came earlier in part because, for a much later edition of his earliest published poems, Curnow re-worded some of what he had originally written.
The fifteen-or-so years that Curnow supported himself as a journalist were also news to me. Beginning with a post-school job as a copyholder on a Christchurch newspaper, he worked after 1934 (when he had given up on being a clergyman) on the Press as cables editor and, in effect, arranger of foreign news. (Sturm gives an intriguing sidelight on how, during the Second World War,  New Zealand newspaper “cable” news was often manufactured out of short-wave BBC broadcasts.) It is also interesting to discover how stifled Curnow eventually came to feel in the parochial air of Christchurch. By the late 1940s, says Sturm, there was  “his increasing sense of frustration and entrapment in a Christchurch cultural scene in which everyone knew everyone else, and in which conversation, debate, tastes had become entirely predictable.” (pp.229-230) Hence his greater willingness to shift to Auckland. Perhaps this reflects the late 1940s disintegration of the Bloomsbury South (reviewed on this blog) about which Peter Simpson wrote.
Have I so far made it clear that this is a book with much to commend it?
Very well.
Now I’m afraid we hit some problems.
It is interesting to build a narrative of the poet’s life around the poems upon which he was working at any given time. But there is a problem in reconstructing elements of his childhood out of the poems he wrote many years later. As Sturm remarks, in the 1980s the much-older Curnow increasingly took “an interest in the possibilities of a new kind of autobiographical lyric: memory-based, reaching back to formative childhood and familial experiences, revisiting history not through large-scale abstractions but through densely textured small-scale, locally-focused observations of the social, political, geographical and domestic contexts in which it occurred.” (p.572) [Dare one say this comes close to an old man babbling o’ green fields?] But these were poems in which an old man reflected – and doubtless often distorted – things that had happened to him in his vicarage childhood and then his adolescence in Lyttelton. Simply by Sailing in a New Direction is sometimes in danger of treating these reconstructions as documentary facts.
One would also have to note that this is a very partisan book. The author is biased in favour of his subject – understandably – and therefore often puts the best possible construction on Curnow’s demeanour or behaviour, and takes his side in any public dispute (usually on literary matters) in which he was involved.
Sturm notes that in an argument with an elderly critic in the mid-1930s, young Curnow showed “his delight in tenacious disputation on matters of small detail.” (p.108). He later remarks that in the same decade “although Curnow enjoyed the social world in which [he] moved, his detachment, usually masked by well-lubricated talk and argumentativeness at social gatherings, was often interpreted as arrogance.” (p.158) The harder fact is that many people were rubbed up the wrong way by Curnow and saw him casting himself as the visionary who understood New Zealand more clearly than anybody else. The arrogance was real. There was also the mandarin  attitude towards the perceived philistines. In Chapter 11, Sturm tells us that Curnow feared he had condescended to “popular comprehensibility” in his collaboration with Douglas Lilburn, the performance poetry cycle “Landfall in Unknown Seas”. (Is comprehensibility really something to sniff at?). Chapter 20 provides a long defence of Curnow’s never-published play “Moon Section”, attributing its failure to hostile newspaper reviews. The reality appears to be that it flopped even with discerning audiences.
With regard to New Zealand “literary nationalism” of the 1930s and 1940s, with which Curnow is often identified, Sturm avoids the revisionist criticisms of the movement that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed he is rather anxious to refute the notion that Curnow embraced any sort of nationalism at all. He sometimes takes to scolding readers for not interpreting poems correctly. Sturm writes of Curnow’s much-anthlogised sonnet  “The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch”: “Commentators on this poem have almost invariably read it as Curnow’s definitive statement about New Zealand identity in the 1940s. It isn’t…” (p.182) Of Curnow’s introduction to his 1940s Caxton anthology of New Zealand poetry, Sturm writes: “Although the introduction was later read as a manifesto of literary nationalism, offering prescriptions for how New Zealand poetry should be written, it was considerably more subtle than that, though – perhaps more than anything Curnow had written up to this time – it claimed to identify distinctive imaginative preoccupations emerging in New Zealand poetry, which made it different from poetry written up to this time.” (p.195) This seems to be a concession to the fact that there was a “nationalist” preoccupation for young and early-middle-aged Curnow. Inevitably Sturm takes Curnow’s side in the pseudo-controversy in the 1950s about his supposed “South Island myth”.
On the matter of Curnow’s “nationalism”, I find myself agreeing with C.K.Stead’s comment on the earlier Curnow It is hard to look at the work of that period from this distance and not see in it the ghostly face of the colonial child weeping for Mother England” (quoted from Stead’s “Allen Curnow – ‘Poet Laureate’?” in Shelf Life [reviewed on this blog], AUP 2016 pp.385-386). In effect, Stead is saying that Curnow’s impulses were those of a displaced “colonial” whose background and upbringing still made him think of England as “Home”. Something I note about Simply by Sailing in a New Direction is the intense name-dropping in the sections where Sturm chronicles Curnow’s travels overseas, and Curnow’s boyish delight in seeing the English things he had so often dreamed of. The colonial had come Home. By the final chapters we are aware of the great pleasure he took in overseas recognition, New Zealand being too small for him. The last chapter of the book is crammed with overseas festivals and conferences attended, trips taken, awards given, fellow poets met, which is all dutiful and comme il faut but makes for the dullest chapters in the biography.
On other matters Sturm champions Curnow’s version of things, such as his relationship with Dylan Thomas. The biography’s own account (pp.255-259) shows that, while Thomas and Curnow got on very well with each other, their acquaintance was brief – Curnow stayed in Wales with the Thomases for four days and also encountered Thomas a few times in the USA. But after Thomas’s death by booze, Curnow was determined to refute the view of the Welsh poet as a drunken, fornicating, bohemian boyo, and was particularly anxious to refute John Malcolm Brinnin’s (admittedly somewhat sensationalised) book Dylan Thomas in America. Curnow made comments that implied a longer acquaintance with Thomas than he had actually had, such as “He [Thomas] was kind, and thoughtful for friends. I always found him so.” (quoted p.262) Alas, the boozing bard really was a truer image of Thomas than Curnow’s courteous version. [I make this claim based on Paul Ferris’s biography of Thomas, Caitlin Thomas’s two books Leftover Life to Kill and A Warring Absence, and other Thomas-ania sitting on my shelves within reach as I write this review.]
Of course Sturm sees Curnow as the innocent victim of other poets’ carping in the (late 1950s) hold-ups to the publication of Curnow’s Penguin anthology of New Zealand poetry. Louis Johnson, James K. Baxter and Alistair Campbell made objections to Curnow’s proposed anthology, and threatened to refuse permission for their poems to be included in it. This had much to do with rivalries between Auckland and Wellington poets, generational differences and other matters that have been discussed in numerous literary articles. Sturm remarks of Curnow “he seems to have been entirely unaware of the personal animus that some poets felt towards him, and it was at this time that the myth of Curnow as eminence grise, a malign behind-the-scenes controller of poetic reputations, had its origins.” (p.334) Sturm does quote from the review Baxter wrote of the anthology, “The Kiwi and Mr Curnow”. But I think readers of this biography would get a more balanced view of this spat if they read the whole of Baxter’s review – which makes many good points. It can be found in Volume 1 (pp.438-442) of Baxter’s Complete Prose (reviewed on this blog). On the same controversy even better (and funnier) is Baxter’s (never previously published) “A Vegetable Bouquet to Mr Curnow” (Vol.1 pp.459-466 Complete Prose), in which Baxter quotes specific paragraphs from Curnow’s introduction to the Penguin anthology and notes, with heavy irony, what a distorted view of New Zealand they give. This does not prove that Baxter was right on every point – and, in public utterances, Curnow was certainly a more temperate writer than Baxter often was. Even so, this matter involved more real issues than Sturm’s biography suggests.
Then we come to the matter of Curnow’s controversial poem “Dichtung und Wahrheit”. Frankly Sturm’s diplomatic account of it fudges the controversy. Sturm says Curnow “anticipated that some amongst those local readers who recognised [M.K.] Joseph’s novel behind the poem’s savage reduction of its narrator’s ‘literariness’ to the crude and violent obscenity of the events themselves might read it as an unfair and gratuitous insult to a colleague widely respected as a gentle, humane scholar…. However, he did not identify either the novel or its author in the poem… it enabled him to explore ‘the aspect of homicidal violence as entertainment’.”  (pp.526-527). [Emphasis added.] One immediately has to ask whether Curnow really expected readers to be so stupid as not to identify the novel and its author. Also one can reasonably ask why Curnow couldn’t criticise “homicidal violence as entertainment” by using any one of the thousands of literary (and cinematic) examples that were available to him. Long story short, this vindictive poem really is an “unfair and gratuitous” attack on a colleague, despite ingenious academic attempts (yes, I’ve read many of them) to justify it as consonant with a volume considering the “incorrigible music” of human violence in history. (For my own take on this poem, you may find on this blog Dichtung und Selbstbefriedigung, which is almost as bilious as Curnow’s version.)
So much for Sturm’s partisanship and diplomacy. I am bound to add that in one matter, his tact is fully justified. This is the matter of the disintegration of Curnow’s first marriage. Curnow married Betty Le Cren (with his vicar father officiating) in 1936. By the mid-1940s, it was clear that the marriage was already in trouble. In 1944 “Despite the pleasure he took in his children, his anxieties about his capacity to support his enlarged family, and about his imagined inadequacies as a father, clearly emerge in Curnow’s correspondence during the course of the year.” (p.197) Sturm tactfully suggests (without spelling it out) that Curnow might have had an affair with another woman (Vie Lee) when he was visiting Britain in 1949-50. In 1955, Curnow left his wife of 19 years, the mother of his three children, for the much younger Jenifer Tole (he was 43, she was 23), but he was still officially married to Betty until they were divorced in the early 1960s. Curnow’s uncharacteristically heavy drinking at this time is noted. (p.365)  He did not marry Jenifer Tole until 1965. Sturm shows awareness of the strains placed on the three (teenage) children at the time the divorce was pending, when Curnow chose not to contact any of them until a legal settlement had been made (p.390); but he does note that all Curnow’s offspring (perhaps especially his academic son Wystan) got on well with their father in later life. Sturm is usually diligent in connecting the events of Curnow’s life to his works, but in this matter his tact spreads to his textual analysis. Nowhere does he mention how Curnow’s play The Duke’s Miracle (analysed at pp.413-415) could legitimately be related to Curnow’s marital issues at the time.
Just as a side issue, there are four generous sections of photos in this big biography, and both of Curnow’s wives are properly represented. But I was a little disappointed that Rita Angus’s iconic portrait of Betty (Le Cren) Curnow was not used [even if, at p.158, Sturm reports that Rita Angus herself became annoyed by this painting’s popularity].
Spending days reading this long book brought many issues to my mind. I couldn’t help reflecting how small and interconnected New Zealand’s literary community was at the time of Curnow’s birth (he was a cousin of Arnold Wall and a distant cousin of A.R.D.Fairburn).  I thought much how more limited than now opportunities to travel were for New Zealanders in the early 20th century – Curnow was 19 before first ventured outside his home province of Canterbury (and came to Auckland to study theology); he was 38 before he first went overseas (to England and America) and was in his 60s before went to continental Europe. I wondered if Curnow’s first verse play The Axe would ever get off the ground now, its dramatis personae all being Polynesian characters who were all played (in its first production in 1948) by Pakeha actors. Nowadays it would be condemned smartly for its “cultural appropriation”. I was also interested (and in a way heartened) by the rhythm of Curnow’s poetic production. After a creative burst between 1940 and 1943, Curnow went three years without writing a poem. Sturm says “his poetic career had always been marked by sudden bursts of activity followed by longish periods in which little or nothing was published.” (pp.433-434)
If I seem to have carped at some of the things Curnow did and wrote, I would also like to note the many occasions in reading this book when I heartily approved of his utterances. Curnow was quite right to complain, when he returned to New Zealand in 1950, of the over-interest international publishing showed in  “new volumes of criticism and interpretation”, noting “there were dangers as well as advantages to poetry in having many teachers, many critics, and not enough readers.” (p.288) Exactly so. Curnow seems to have assessed correctly the character and temperament of Frank Sargeson, being aware of Sargeson’s “mischievous delight in conspiracy theories”. Curnow and Sargeson disliked each other, possibly in part because Sargeson resented Curnow’s becoming an academic. (p.297) Curnow was no homophobe, however  - Bill Pearson was one of his closest confidants in his years as an academic in Auckland. Pearson was also best man at his second wedding. Curnow’s long and enduring friendships with Denis Glover, A.R.D. Fairburn and Douglas Lilburn show a man with a strong sense of loyalty, even if it must have sometimes been put under strain by Glover’s boozing (a matter upon which Sturm never touches). It was refreshing to read, in Chapter 22, of Curnow’s intelligent refutation of C.P.Snow’s once-popular “two cultures” argument. It was doubly refreshing to read, in Chapter 30, of how he stood against “open form” poetry. He is much to be admired for his stand (in the 1980s and 1990s) against “theory” as prescriptive for poetry, when (like any real poet) he understood that all theory is ex post facto. I applaud, too, his rejection of the postmodern “death of the author” and “lack of agency” of the author fantasies proposed by Derrida and the gang. (p.622)
I am being very complimentary here, aren’t I?
Now I’m going to ruin it, and possibly invite snarls, by commenting on one final aspect of Curnow.
Agnostic humanist or not, many of Curnow’s instincts remained, lifelong, Anglican ones, from his strong and affectionate connection with his Anglican vicar father Tremayne Curnow to the Biblical and religious allusions and implied Christian frame of reference in Island and Time (p.144) to his final instructions on how he should be buried, despite not having been a worshipper in a church for decades. “Curnow had long let it be known that his preference was for the ritual of a formal Anglican funeral service (using the Authorised Version of the Bible) rather than the sometimes awkward and disorganised informalities of various secular services he had encountered….” (p.670) Hence his funeral service in Auckland’s Anglican cathedral. While he was preparing a “Collected Poems” (in 1973), Curnow said he was “the same animal gnawing at the same bone” as the young man who had written his first poems (quoted p.468). The same went for his feelings about religion, regardless of what his brain was saying.
Part and parcel of the Anglican heritage in New Zealand is an annoyance with, or haughty contempt for, Catholics. (It dates from 1838 when the arrival of Catholic missionaries sent Anglican and Wesleyan missionaries into a panic about papists intruding on “their” missionary territory.) Am I going beyond reasonable speculation to note that some of Curnow’s worst contentions were with Catholics?
When, in the mid-1940s, he applied for a lectureship in English at Auckland University College, he was “overlooked in favour of [the Catholic] M.K.Joseph”. (p.204) Curnow had many grudges about his rank in the pecking order of the Auckland English department. Even when he was near retirement in 1975, he was still irritated at not having a full professorship (p.500). I can’t help but see “Dichtung und Wahrheit” as related to a long-standing animus towards Joseph.
When he put together both his Caxton and his Penguin anthologies of New Zealand poetry, Curnow was at odds with the Catholic poet Eileen Duggan, who thought he had written slightingly of her work and wouldn’t give him permission to include her poetry. Curnow had a hard time getting a travel grant in the late 1940s. Sturm comments “there was still a degree of residual hostility and resentment towards Curnow for his critical treatment of the older literary establishment, especially figures like Eileen Duggan – and difficult to escape the conclusion that a politically well-connected, Catholic-based, Wellington literary mafia deeply resented Curnow as an outsider.” (p.241) [Emphasis added.]
Curnow had almost completed the compilation of his first Caxton anthology when he discovered the work of the teenage poet James K.Baxter, was very enthusiastic about it, and included Baxter in his anthology. Later, his opinion of Baxter became much more negative. There were many reasons for this. (An analysis of Curnow’s “A Refusal to Read Poems of James K.Baxter at a Performance to Honour his Memory in Cranmer Square, Christchurch” is given by Sturm at pp.473-474.) But at least one must have been his annoyance that Baxter had decided to convert to Catholicism. (Mind you, he wasn’t as forthright in stating this publicly as his friend Denis Glover, who spoke of Baxter’s “innate devious jesuitry”.)
Curnow and his wife Jeny, in their later years, enjoyed holidaying in Italy. Like many non-Catholic poets before him (Robert Browning et al.), Curnow loved Italian art and culture but wasn’t so happy about the Catholic church. Of course he hated the sight of St Peter’s basilica (see p.488). Hence his poetry sequence “In the Duomo” which puts historical violence in the context of Catholic ritual. His poem “Magnificat”, about a large statue of the Virgin Mary, (analysed at pp.449-450 and pp.456-457), reads as more quizzical than contemptuous, though one does wonder what persuaded Curnow to take on the topic at all.
Having said all this, I balance it against the fact that Curnow’s second wife came from a Catholic family and (at least as far as Sturm’s biography says), he seems to have got on well with his Catholic in-laws. Also, according to three brief references, his relationship with one of his Catholic colleagues at the University of Auckland was cordial. This was (my father) J.C.Reid. Sturm refers to Reid as “a trusted friend” of Curnow, acting as an intermediary in trying to get Eileen Duggan to allow her poems to appear in Curnow’s Penguin anthology. (p.323). I’m not sure that “trusted friend” is quite the term here. “Trusted colleague” might be better.
By this stage you are appalled at my lack of balance in devoting seven paragraphs to this matter – but I do think it was an essential part of who Curnow was. Anglican ordinand with some religious doubts growing into sceptical agnostic humanist, but maintaining a lot of the same habits of thought.
I think this compendious biography has told me (nearly) all I need know about the life of Allen Curnow. It remains only for me to plunge back into reading all his poetry. I must get hold of that new Collected Poems.

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.

“LITTLE DORRIT” by Charles Dickens (first published in monthly parts December 1855 – June 1857; first published in book form 1857)

            Back in February 2012, when I gave a public lecture in the Auckland Central Library to mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, I stated that I had over the years read all of Dickens’ novels with the sole exception of Little Dorrit. Later I realized that this wasn’t quite true, as I had not read Barnaby Rudge either; so Barnaby Rudge is waiting for me to conquer some other day. But recently, recuperating from an illness that had me hospitalised for a month, and having much time on my hands, I at last got around to reading Little Dorrit.
            What a wonderful and what an infuriating experience it was! Little Dorrit renewed my acquaintance with some of the things I love about Dickens and many of the things that irritate me. Written between 1855 and 1857, it came in Dickens’ work after Bleak House (his second greatest novel) and before Great Expectations (his masterpiece). Apparently it was immensely popular on its first appearance. In fact its monthly parts sold in much greater numbers than the monthly parts of David Copperfield. But nowadays, I believe, “the common reader” (i.e. everybody except academics and specialists) tends to rank Little Dorrit, with Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend as one of Dickens’ heavier, gloomier and more challenging novels – and hence to be avoided when you have the option of frolicking or melodramatising with Vincent Crummles or the Artful Dodger or Quilp or Mrs Leo Hunter or Sidney Carton or Betsy Trotwood instead. Little Dorrit is also one of Dickens’ longest novels (800 pages in the Penguin edition and nearly 1200 pages in the larger-print Complete Works of Dickens, both on my shelves).
            As always, let me orient you with the briefest of plot summaries.
Although Dickens drew on more recent events for some of his inspiration, the novel is set in the late 1820s, thirty years before Dickens was writing, at a time when large numbers of people (including Dickens’ father) were still being incarcerated for debt. The practice had largely died out by the 1850s and the Marshalsea debtors’ prison had been decommissioned.
            After 20 years working in India, Arthur Clennam, in his early 40s, returns to England with a heavy sense of family guilt. Before his late father died, he said some things which suggested that the Clennam family may have been responsible for the financial ruin of the Dorrit family. But when, back in London, Arthur Clennam asks his vindictive, puritanical, widowed mother about this, she angrily denies any knowledge of the matter. Nevertheless, the Dorrits are imprisoned in the Marshalsea. The old widower William Dorrit has been there for over 23 years, and so is known as “the Father of the Marshalsea”. He lives in prison with his older children “Tip” (Edward) and Fanny, and with his younger daughter Amy, aged 22, who was born in the prison and is known through most of the novel as Little Dorrit. Arthur Clennam socialises with the Dorrits, tries to alleviate their circumstances and tries to find out how their fortunes can be restored. It is soon evident to the reader (but apparently not to Arthur) that Little Dorrit is in love with Arthur. At the end of the first of the novel’s two long parts, entitled “Poverty”, William Dorrit’s wealth is suddenly restored to him and he and his family leave the prison.
            In the second part, entitled “Riches”, old William Dorrit is now immensely wealthy and, with his family, does the Grand Tour of the Continent. Arthur Clennam for some time has his eye on another woman (and is sometimes pestered by a woman in whom he is not interested). But in Little Dorrit’s long absence, Arthur begins vaguely to realise how much he values her and how emotionally attached he has become to her. The crisis comes very late in the novel. Arthur Clennam himself is financially ruined, and ends up in the Marshalsea prison. Little Dorrit visits him there and becomes his loving nurse when he falls sick. After first testing his integrity (he is not interested in her for her money), she declares her love openly and he declares his. Dickens rewards them, of course, by having them marry.
            It turns out that, as Arthur suspected, his vindictive mother was involved in some very shady business, but it was not what Arthur thought it was. (The denouement of the novel which reveals this is very complicated. At the end of the 1967 Penguin edition which he edited, John Holloway feels compelled to add an appendix explaining to readers, who haven’t understood the text, what Mrs Clennam has been hiding.)
            As far as “plot” goes, Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit are the core of this novel. But anybody who has read Little Dorrit will realise what a travesty my synopsis so far has been.
            In the first place, in terms of the novel’s ideas and morality, old Wiliam Dorrit is at least as important as Arthur or Amy. In jail, in poverty, “the Father of the Marshalsea” still has absurd pretensions to gentility and nobility. He regards himself as a gentleman and the other inmates of the Marshalsea as his social inferiors. When they charitably help him by giving him money, he pretends that this is his due as “Testimonials” to his superior character and social class. He refuses to recognise that his two daughters really support him by going out to work – Fanny by going on the stage and Amy by being a seamstress. (His son “Tip” is a nitwit who cannot stick to any job.) In Old Dorrit, Dickens is attacking the false-genteel and the life-long delusions class distinctions bring; for once he is out of jail Old Dorrit absurdly pretends that he has never been so degraded as to be a prisoner, and he loses his temper with one member of his circle who mentions his imprisonment. Yet he cannot escape from what has formed him. Just before Old Dorrit dies, in one of Dickens’ great coups de theatre, the old man’s mind breaks down in front of the assembled guests at a banquet and he addresses them as if they are his fellow prisoners in the Marshalsea. His mind is still imprisoned. Indeed, by its lust for money and status, and by its pretensions, conventions and falsity, all of society is depicted as one large prison in this novel. As I opined in my comments on this blog about Our Mutual Friend, the imagery of fog in Bleak House and the imagery of the river and the dust heaps in Our Mutual Friend are not carried through consistently in those novels. But in Little Dorrit the imagery of prisons and imprisonment is as insistent as a drum beat. The novel opens in a prison in Marseilles. Mrs Clennam is an invalid and speaks of her condition as an imprisonment. The Marshalsea dominates much of the action. When the Dorrit party visit a monastery on their Grand Tour, some interpret it as a prison. And in the second part of the novel, Little Dorrit repeatedly sees the sights of Europe as being less “real” than memories of the Marshalsea. Many scholars have pointed out that, before he began writing this novel, Dickens planned out carefully every turn of the plot and every relationship between characters. “Society-as-prison” was an intentional part of this plan.
            Apart from Old Dorrit and the imprisonment motif, the other reason not to reduce this novel to Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit is the obvious fact that it has a large cast of characters and many, many subplots. There is Arthur’s entanglement with the Meagles family and his partnership with the inventor Daniel Doyce. There are the malign schemes of the French criminal Rigaud (who often goes by the alias Blandois) and the innocence of his sometime companion, the Italian Giovanni Battista Cavalletto. There is the Casby family which includes the widow Flora Finching. There is Miss Wade and her odd relationship with the Meagles’ ward Harriet (nicknamed “Tattycoram”). There is the  millionaire financier Merdle and his circle. And of course there is a host of comic or grotesque supporting characters, typical of this author, such as young John Chivery, son of the turnkey at the Marshalsea, who is hopelessly in love with Little Dorrit; or Mrs Clennam’s scoundrelly and scheming servant Flintwinch. It is also typical of Dickens to include a feeble-minded “holy innocent” in the form of Little Dorrit’s companion Maggy, a grown woman with the mind of a ten-year-old. (For other such lovable innocents, think of Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, Mr Dick in David Copperfeld, or, I understand, Barnaby Rudge himself.)
Dickens had a habit or reducing his minor characters to one particular tic or peculiarity. This habit is well on display in Little Dorrit. Pancks, the rent-collector for Mr Casby, is always introduced puffing and moving determinedly forward like a tug-boat. “Mr F’s Aunt” speaks in non-sequiturs and furious outbursts (“There’s milestones on the road to Dover.”). Mrs Merdle’s parrot ironically interrupts her conversations. Affery, evil Flintwinch’s long-suffering wife, “dreams” things rather than witnessing them. The criminal Rigaud is rarely mentioned without some reference to his moustache becoming entangled in his nose.
There is one major character in this novel who seems more like the full-blown comic caricatures of Dickens’ earlier novels than the more sombre leading characters he produces here. This is Flora Finching. She is the woman with whom Arthur Clennam thought he was in love when they were both in their early twenties, and before he went to India. When he meets her (she now widowed) twenty years later, she is eager to resume their attachment. But he finds the charming and beautiful young woman of his memories has become a fat and foolish middle-aged woman still trying to woo Arthur as if she were a coquettish teenager. Analyse the humour of the Flora Finching scenes, and you will find that it is essentially very cruel. After all, seen objectively and without Dickens’ caricature, Flora’s only fault is to have grown older and to no longer match Arthur’s nostalgic memories. (All biographers now point out that Flora Finching was based on Maria Beadnell, an old flame of Dickens’ youth whom he met years later and judged to be a fluttering, twittering fool.) Yet, cruel or not, Dickens’ humour is very funny. Flora speaks in endless stream-of-consciousness sentences which are probably the most inventive monologues in the Dickens canon since Mr Jingle’s verbless utterances in The Pickwick Papers. [Note of interest – the role of Flora Finching was played in Christine Edzard’s 1987 film of Little Dorrit by the formidable British actress Miriam Margolyes. As a feminist, Margolyes said this character would have made her very angry if she were not laughing so hard – so infectious is Dickens’ humour even when he is being cruel.]
I said near the beginning of this overlong notice that Little Dorrit renewed my acquaintance with some of the things I love about Dickens and many of the things that irritate me.
It is now time for me to draw up my balance sheet.
When he does it well, Dickens’ descriptions of place are still dazzling. To give one example from early in the novel, when Arthur Clennam (in Part One, Chapter 3) comes back to his mother’s home after twenty years, Dickens sets the scene on a grim, cheerless English Sunday (strictly ruled by observance of the Sabbath, unlike Continental Sundays). It is almost Kafkaesque in its menace and certainly foreboding.
When Dickens lets rip with direct satire, his observations are as fresh as if they were penned yeaterday. His great invention in Little Dorrit is the Circumlocution Office, a huge government department run by incompetent career civil servants, whose main function is to oppose and hold up any progressive or humane measure by finding ways “how not to do it”. As I read the Circumlocution Office passages, I couldn’t help wondering if it had been studied by the writers of the 1980s British sitcom “Yes, Minister”, in which the main function of civil servants is to block whatever elected government ministers want to do. In the characters of Mr Merdle and his arriviste followers,  Dickens makes a savage attack on those who fawn on millionaires simply because they are rich through sharp investments, regardless of whether they have contributed anything to the public good. As often as not, such plutocrats turn out to be swindlers and frauds, as Merdle does. Apparently Dickens based this character on a contemporary case, but one can think of modern parallels in our neoliberal age. Then there is Mr Casby, the type of a man who pretends to be a benefactor of the poor, but whose main aim is to squeeze poor people for their rents.
One of Dickens’ best pieces of social criticism in this novel is his attack on Calvinist hellfire morality, in the person of horrible Mrs Clennam, whose fervent religion seems to consist mainly of her calling the wrath of God down upon her enemies. This is balanced in the novel by Little Dorrit who, in the closing chapters, quite specifically reveals that her sense of charity and public service is based on adherence to the forgiving Jesus, as opposed to the perversion of Christianity which Mrs Clennam represents. Dickens, who often satirised fervent Evangelicals and who had no major attachment to organised religion, never came closer to articulating an underlying Christian morality.
Another major element which I admire in this novel is the more nuanced characterisation of the major characters than is evident in many of Dickens’ earlier novels. Here there is a subtlety and a roundedness to the chief characters, the best of whom are allowed to have their faults and the worst of whom have their redeeming features. To give some brief and inadequate examples: Arthur Clennam is a decent, admirable man, but Dickens has the insight to see that much of his romantic interest in Meagles’ daughter “Pet” (Minnie) is fuelled by his jealousy of “Pet’s” successful suitor, the charlatan artist Henry Gowan. Meagles himself seems set up in the opening chapters to be the type of a foreigner-hating English chauvinist. Yet, despite bowing to convention and fashion on occasions, he is essentially a decent and well-intentioned man.
Most interesting to me is the character of Miss Wade. If we read Part Two, Chapter 21 carefully, we find Dickens coming as close as a Victorian author could to implying that she is a lesbian. Dickens frames her as a sinister figure, in the way she encourages the Meagles’ discontented ward Harriet (“Tattycoram”) to run away from the Meagles, and then takes control of the girl. Yet when Miss Wade confronts Mr Meagles in Part One, Chapter 27, we can’t help noticing how right she is when she points out that the Meagles have patronised Harriet, belittled her and made her feel a slavey. Later, Dickens inserts a chapter of self-confession by Miss Wade, allowing us to understand how she has become the person she is.
            Yet, for me, there is the debit side of this novel.
As in all Dickens’ long, serially-published novels, no matter how well-planned in advance they may have been, there are times when the author seems to be dragging matters out simply to keep readers hooked for the next instalment. In Little Dorrit he titillates readers by showing us loaded guns which aren’t fired until we have ploughed through what would now be the length of an ordinary novel – so there are long and wearisome waits for the payoff. For example, the evil Rigaud is introduced in the very opening chapter, but we do not hear of him again until Chapter 11, and it is an even longer wait to discover what he has to do with any other major character in the novel. Similarly, the relationship of Miss Wade and “Tattycoram” is introduced in the novel’s second chapter, but it does not surface again until Chapter 27.
            Dickens does not here perpetrate on readers the narrative trick that infects the main plot of Our Mutual Friend, but there is an element of what I would call “evasion” in this novel. Important things are simply not explained. In a thoughtful long essay on Dickens which he wrote in 1939, George Orwell praised Little Dorrit for introducing Dickens’ most credible, non-caricatured working-class family (the family of the jobbing plasterer Plornish). But he also pointed out that Dickens’ real knowledge of industry and technical processes was very limited. So in Little Dorrit we have a big issue made of Daniel Doyce’s great invention, the development of which is held up by the obfuscating Circumlocution Office. Apparently the invention is so novel  that it will change the nature of industry, and Arthur Clennam goes into partnership with Doyce to advance it. Yet we are never told what exactly this invention is. And if it seems unfair to accuse a novelist of not being able to come up with a new technical invention, it has to be noted that it is never even made clear in what general area of industry this invention would be useful. Just as “evasive” is the sudden reversal of fortune near the end of Part One (Chapter 35), where the good Pancks proves that Old Dorrit is heir to great wealth. How is it that, over the 23 years of Old Dorrit’s imprisonment, nobody ever discovered this obvious fact before, or that Old Dorrit wasn’t aware of it himself – or at least got somebody to investigate the possibility? It simply suits Dickens’ plot that this improbability happens when it does. It is to me as irksome as the convenient (but highly symbolic) accidental death of the criminal Rigaud in the final chapters, when Mrs Clennam’s house collapses on him. It has been shown that Dickens carefully prepared for this event by consistently throughout the novel describing Mrs Clennam’s house as unstable, creaky and decaying. Even so, it is too neat a way to polish off a villain.
            What I find most alienating in this novel, however, brings me back to the matter of Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit themselves. I understand that Little Dorrit is meant to represent the charity, altruism and goodness that contrast with a corrupt, imprisoning, money-driven society. I understand the concept of the “meta-novel” working by symbols rather than strict realism. But, to put it crudely, Little Dorrit is too good to be true – and her goodness is of a sort which may have appealed greatly to Victorians but which is much harder for us to swallow. I find myself agreeing with the critic George Wing, who spoke of her “naïve sanctity”. On one level, the youngest of three siblings who cares for her aged (and deluded) father is reminiscent of Cordelia looking after, and ultimately forgiving, King Lear. But then the whole point about Cordelia was that, in the very opening scene, she told her father forthrightly the truth about himself – that he was relying foolishly on flattery. Little Dorrit cares devotedly for her aged father, but she never tells him the truth. Indeed she participates in the fiction that he is not being supported by his daughters’ work, and thus sustains his class delusions. There is about her a dire submissiveness. Of course the left hand should not know what the right is doing. Of course Little Dorrit should be modest enough not to boast of her acts of charity. But this submissiveness really serves only to perpetuate her father’s snobbery and self-importance. I grant that I am making a 21st century judgement here, but there were times when I wished (anachronistically) that she could be more assertive, more frank, less of a symbol than a real person.
            And then there is that matter of her relationship with Arthur Clennam. Remember Arthur (the same Arthur who ridicules another woman for having grown to his own age) is in his 40s – as was Dickens when he wrote this novel – and Amy Dorrit is in her early 20s, thus half his age. I am not decrying May and September love, but Arthur Clennam’s attraction to Amy plays to the image of the strong, protective older man and the younger, fragile child-woman whom he protects. There are for me too many details such as the following (from Part One, Chapter 32): “He saw her trembling little form and her downcast face, and the eyes that drooped the moment they were raised to him….” Yes, the trembling little form (for her littleness is always emphasised) of a silent-movie heroine. Typically, Amy swoons and is carried out of the prison by Arthur Clennam when she learns that her father has had his fortune restored. In Book Two there is some mitigation of this fragile image when Dickens gives us a few chapters consisting of the letters Amy writes to Clennam from Europe, and we get to see a more mature mind revealed. Even so, my crude and evil-thinking mind sees reflected in all this the middle-aged Charles Dickens deserting his middle-aged wife (who had borne him ten children) and setting up a teenaged actress as his mistress. Little Dorrit is an older man’s idolisation of his lost youth.
            Oops! I’ve crossed a line here, haven’t I? I’ve started passing judgements on the author rather than on the book, which is a very naughty thing to do. I plead that I was driven to it by the fact that I am as repelled from the figure of Little Dorrit as I am impressed by the figure of Lizzie Hexam in that much less satisfactory novel Our Mutual Friend. Back in the 1950s, Lionel Trilling said that Little Dorrit was “one of the most profound of Dickens’ novels and one of the most significant works of the nineteenth century.” On thematic grounds there might be reason to agree with this verdict. But on aesthetic grounds it does not reach the heights and the eponymous character is unbelievable.

Cinematic footnote: For many reasons, Little Dorrit is one of the least-filmed of Dickens’ novels. Basic research tells me there were three film adaptations way back in the silent era, and there was a German film adaptation in 1934. BBC television has serialised it only once or twice (most recently in 2008). Apart from this, the only film adaptation for the big screen was Christine Edzard’s 1987 film which I saw on its first release. It was organised as two separate three-hour parts, Edzard’s inventive idea being that one part told the story from Arthur Clennam’s point of view, and the other part covered the same events from Little Dorrit’s point of view. It had a very large cast of familiar British actors (Derek Jacobi as Clennam; Alec Guinness as Old Dorrit etc.) Now that I have read the novel, however, I realise that even its six hours were not enough to include all of Dicken’s subplots. The important plot concerning Rigaud and the plot concerning Miss Wade and “Tattycoram” were completely absent.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

At their very best, words are a very lame means of conveying experience, physical reality and mental states. This is certainly true when the words are wielded by people like you and me. But it is true even when words are wielded by the likes of Dante, Goethe, Emily Dickinson or Baudelaire.
How trite even the best chosen words sound before reality – the thing itself. Or how bombastic. Or how inappropriate.
But more than anything, how inadequate.
The toothache is throbbing, destroying your soul, nagging, making your jaw feverish, making you incapable of thinking of anything else, absorbing your whole being. “Oh God, it hurts”, you say, inadequately, before moving to a more authentic response – the howl of an animal. “Ow! Ow! Ow!”
The sun is an hour up, the day is fine and there is a beautiful cloudless sky to the horizon, clear and pale and blue as a silk robe. You try to find words that will convey that sense of the sublime, but all that come out are the fustian truisms of old Romantic poetry or phrases rendered trite by overuse in publicity campaigns. Sublime? Awesome? Divine? Curse it – there is no word to convey this experience that elevates your heart, for all have been claimed for frequent trivialising usage.
And now try to find the right words for love or sexual experience or both. You will be stumped into cliché. Perhaps because before something intense and meaningful, the best response is silence.
I trudge through yet another volume of modern poetry, filled with self-referencing irony, ostentatious references to trashy pop culture, and a clever-dick sort of game-playing whereby the poet tries to persuade us that he is above anything as trite as having real feelings. Why this common malaise in modern poetry? Is it an extreme sense of the inadequacy of language, and the fear of lapsing into cliché when dealing with the essential and serious things of life, and real feelings?
Words are inadequate.
Words are inadequate.
Words are inadequate.
I see something intense and beautiful, three weeks before you have a chance to read this. My daughter embracing her newborn son, two hours after he left the womb. I have no words adequate to the image itself. It is beyond words.