Sunday, January 23, 2022

Journey Westward - William Ellis

There is a great deal of enjoyment in reading old books about wanderings in Britain. There is, to begin, the interest in how they did things differently then. Then, there are usually unexpected sidelights on history and folklore, sometimes with customs and traditions otherwise unrecorded. We might hope for evocations of landscape, in all weathers, with an atmosphere sometimes like that found at the outset of ghost stories or supernatural thrillers.

The essence of the approach in this kind of book is that it is rambling and ruminatory. Such books don’t really have a useful descriptive term of their own. They are, to be sure, often found in the travel and topography shelves of second-hand bookshops, but here they also mingle with the brisker and more practical sort of guide book. Though they might sometimes even be presented as guides of a sort, they are not at all the same kind of thing. A sure sign is that the author has to keep recalling themselves to their supposed task of providing useful information, after wandering off both literally from their route and metaphorically from mere fact-giving into remoter regions of thought.

A fine example came to me, suitably enough, by a winding path. In a catalogue at the back of a book by H A Vachell, there was an announcement of a new 1930 novel by William Ellis, Ascetic. The descriptions of titles at the back of books are frequently diverting: some go into so much detail you feel you no longer need to read the book; others are vapid and vague; some provoke hilarity by their very incongruity.

William Ellis’ first novel, Beloved River (1930), this note said, was regarded as full of promise, not least for the ‘exquisite writing’, and Ascetic, the new one, added to this ‘beauty and deep sincerity’. The phrases were alluring enough, so I looked into him. Ellis proved to have issued six books in all, in the period 1930-1940. There were four novels, a translation, and a travel book. As it turned out, I couldn’t at first get any of the novels, but I did find Journey Westward, The Record of a Tour in the Welsh Marches—and Beyond (1940), his last known book.

This is about a motor tour of the Welsh border lands from South to North, with his wife, taking their chances at wayside inns and small-town hotels. It takes place just before and just after the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, and has a somewhat valedictory air, as if the country is being seen at a particular moment that will never be the same again.

At Caerleon he is shown the Tennyson Room, where the great poet quartered while researching the Arthurian legends for his ‘Idylls of the King’ (as Arthur Machen also recalled). At Llanthony Abbey he remembers how he came this way many years ago when he crossed the Black Mountains on a walking tour aged 17. Seeking shelter in a storm, he found an old man and a boy in a shack, and shared a windfall of apples in his knapsack with them. In return, seeing he is a scholar, they give him a big black book (in fact rather a nuisance to carry), which turns out to be a breeches Bible. But now, he finds, the Abbey hotel is full of suave, sporty individuals in sleek cars.

Visiting the village of Newcastle, he knows already of folklore associated with the place: a fairy oak and a holy well, but finds that these are now of no interest to the inhabitants. The young people he meets want the pictures, dance bands on the wireless, cocktails, the older ones obsess over the football pools.

However, he is still diverted by curiosities found on the way: the story of John of Kent, Franciscan friar and magician, who was not from Kent, but from these parts; the elephant stabled in winter quarters at the inn in Bishop’s Castle and fed buns by the local schoolchildren; the old bassoon preserved in Montgomery church; the tame jackdaw in Rhayader ‘that was the biggest thief in Wales and might well have outdone his fellow in Rheims if only he could have found a chronicler.’ Alas, he finds ‘from the few inquiries I made, it appears that he is gone and his exploits forgotten.’

At the sequestered village of Clun, Shropshire, Ellis was once told by the girl in the sweet-shop of two taboos he must observe as he crosses the bridge over the river: he must not utter a word and he must look straight ahead and not to either side. These so impressed him that he decided he must write a novel called The Bridge of Clun. But his publishers did not like it; so he rewrote the second half; and they still didn’t like it, so he rewrote the first, and in the end it was issued under a pseudonym, and by then not much of the bridge at Clun was left in it. This must be, I suppose, his Farewell to Poaching, as by William Cumming (Selwyn & Blount, 1933).

On some occasions he seems to stray into idyllic country. ‘If anything that I should write persuades anyone to travel this way, I pray them not to ignore the narrow lane to Cwmyoy,’ he writes, ‘but to visit this church and discover its quaintness and beauty for themselves.’ This little village, in the far Northern tip of Monmouthshire, the ancient kingdom of Gwent, remains remote today. The church is  noted for its crooked tower. Later he writes of ‘the quietest, greenest valley that a man could find. Lost in the centre of it is the hamlet of Dulas . . . As for Dulas itself, it is one of those villages which really isn’t there . . .as quiet and dreamy a spot as any.’

This sort of country wins his heart but as he approaches the final Northern part of his tour he decides not to continue, finding the landscape too busy, too plain. He tells us: ‘Of Wrexham I have a particular horror since the afternoon when I addressed a meeting in a Church hall under the auspices of the True Law party, to which I was acting as organising secretary.’ The booked speaker had not come, so he was obliged to fill in. Whether Ellis worked for them in a purely professional capacity or from conviction is not clear.  

What was this party, unknown to Parliament or to electoral history? It seems to have been the creation of one David Hamshere of London, calling for a politics guided by biblical precepts and seeking to build a ‘Holy British Empire’. Hamshere published a 221pp book, We Need Mosaic Law Now (T Werner Laurie, 1935): and a 36pp pamphlet entitled The True Law Party was issued from London in 1936; and then silence.

And what became of William Ellis after he wrote this book I do not know. There is an oblique allusion that may suggest he had some sort of illness, and in any case by the time his book ends the clouds of war are massing on the horizon. But he is a zestful, piquant and companionable writer, with some of the same love of the quaint and curious and old traditions found in Arthur Machen’s essays and autobiographies.

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Cwmyoy church, from the Brecon Beacons National Park website

Friday, January 14, 2022

An Interview with R B Russell - Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography

Tartarus Press have just announced the publication of R B Russell’s Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, the first full biography of this enigmatic author. Aickman’s character is in many ways as cryptic as his stories, and this fascinating study offers a lucid and even-handed assessments of his achievements, his idiosyncrasies, his aesthetics, his politics, his romances and his writing. We are pleased to present an interview with R B Russell about the book.

What was the most unexpected thing you found in researching the biography?

I don’t think there was any one particular surprise. Like Aickman’s stories, there was an accumulation of information that was often quite odd and unexpected, but which resonated with Aickman’s world view (“philosophy” is not quite the right word). He believed that art and aesthetics were of primary importance, and that the modern world had lost its way and was irrecoverable. If I was surprised by one thing, it was how strongly he held and expressed these views, but how he was not particularly successful in explaining or defending them. When called to do so, he relied on rhetoric and emotion, and often seemed to be simply finding excuses for his personal prejudices. Aickman usually cultivated those who were sympathetic to his outlook (which is quite natural), but was surprisingly content to shun those who might have challenged it.

I was very pleased, though, to answer some questions that had been bothering me for many years, such as was he really a Conscientious Objector in the Second World War, and what argument could he have possibly made to a Tribunal? . . . And while I loved his volumes of autobiography, I was never sure how much of them I could believe.  

Did you find that some details of Aickman’s life cast new light on his strange stories?

It was interesting to discover some of the places, people and situations that provided inspiration for his fiction. Usually this was just “colour”, or the starting point for a story, although, for example, ‘Sub Rosa’ was firmly based on a personal episode that he was happy to exploit. Aickman was rarely on firm ground when attempting to explain his views of the world in non-fiction, but in fiction he found a very persuasive vehicle for his romantic, idealistic, often reactionary way of looking at the world.

If Aickman gave an elevated place to art and the appreciation of beauty, do you see him mainly as an aesthete, in a similar tradition to those of the Eighteen Nineties?

He would have embraced the idea wholeheartedly! It is easy to see his love of beauty in his dedication to opera, the theatre, classical music, art and literature. But it also informed his view of the waterways of Britain. His reaction to them was almost entirely aesthetic, which is what put him at odds with many in the Inland Waterways Association, including his co-founder. L.T.C. Rolt’s prime aim was to make the waterways viable for the people who had traditionally worked on them. Aickman had a completely personal vision for the restoration of the waterways which was so idiosyncratic that he failed even to convey it to many of his supporters.

Contrastingly, you also show that Aickman saw himself as a capable leader and administrator, as shown in the inland waterways campaign. Do you think he ever quite resolved these two roles (aesthete/administrator)?

In some ways he did resolve them. He may have caused arguments and schisms, but he genuinely inspired many people who were happy to put long hours of often back-breaking work into helping him realise his aesthetic vision. It is a very unglamorous thing to say, but Aickman was himself capable of putting in a great deal of hard work in an attempt to realise his vision.

One of the themes that certainly resounds throughout your book is Aickman’s great capacity for friendship, particularly with women. And yet there is still, ultimately, an impression of melancholy, of loneliness. Was he really, do you think, an outsider?

In some ways he was a self-imposed outsider. His claims to a lonely childhood in The Attempted Rescue are overdone—he always had friends, and enjoyed company, but, presumably, he felt that few friends understood him properly. As for women, he had such unrealistic and ambitious expectations, while being a confirmed pessimist, that he could not have a satisfactory romantic relationship for long. (His time with Elizabeth Jane Howard was an ideal, but she could not put up with the demands he made on her.)

To widen the scope of your question, Aickman enjoyed being an outsider when it suited him. For example, he liked causing trouble to successive governments over the waterways because he had little time for politicians or democracy. He felt that he could most effectively agitate for change from the outside. But, in contrast, he was a confirmed snob and adored aristocracy and royalty. He would never have wanted to be a member of the House of Commons, but he would have happily accepted a peerage and joined the House of Lords.  

Some biographers end up appreciating their subject more, others come to dislike or even loathe them. Where have you ended up with Aickman?

I was aware that Aickman’s politics and reactionary way of looking at the world was the opposite to my own, but I admired his writing, and was impressed by what he had achieved with the I.W.A. The more I have learned about him, the more I disagree with many of his views, but my admiration for his undoubted achievements is undiminished. One thing that I have come to realise is that his pessimism must have caused him a great deal of pain. His sincere belief that the past was not just a different country, but a superior one, spoilt any capacity for happiness in the present. Through his writing and his work for the inland waterways he was striving to achieve a very personal utopia that he knew was impossible. He was such a pessimist that he must have taken some pleasure from knowing that he could never succeed in changing the world to his satisfaction.

(Mark Valentine)

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Taking Out another Story from the Fitz-James O'Brien Canon

Neil Cornwell, in his collected essays Vladimir Odoevsky and the Romantic Poetics (1998), makes it quite clear that he thinks that "Seeing the World" by Fitz-James O'Brien is a plagiarism of a story by the Russian writer Vladimir Odoevsky (1804-1869). But there are some complications in the scenario that Cornwell doesn't consider. 

The story is "Improvizator" ("The Improvisor" or "The Improvvisatore")--one of several stories in a narrative framework, in the style of Tieck's Phantasus (3 volumes, 1812-1816) and Hoffmann's The Serapion Brethren (1818), under the title Russkie nochi (Russian Nights*), originally published by Odoevsky in 1844. Cornwell traces the plagiarism not from the Russian but from a French edition of seven stories by Odoevsky in Le décameron russe (1855), translated by Pierre-Paul Douhaire. O'Brien is reported to have known French well. And "Seeing the World" is without question a translation of Odoevsky's tale.  But where does the guilt of O'Brien enter in?

"Seeing the World" was first published anonymously in Harper's New Monthly Magazine for September 1857. This was at a time when O'Brien was a frequent contributor to the magazine. "Seeing the World" is apparently attributed to O'Brien in the Index to Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volumes I to L: From June, 1850, to May 1875 (1875). I have not examined this 1875 version, but I have seen the updated version,  Index to Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volumes I to LX Inclusive: From June 1850 to June 1880 (1881), where "Seeing the World" is indeed attributed to O'Brien. Unfortunately this bibliography doesn't give the reasons why any piece is attributed to any author. So how accurate might it be, for a compilation made a few decades after the publication of the story in question, and more than a decade after O'Brien's death in 1862? There are certainly reasons to question its accuracy. For example, the story discussed previously "A Dead Secret" is (correctly) not credited to O'Brien in the Index, but neither is it credited to the now-known author George Augustus Sala. The information in the Index is clearly dependent on the quality of its sources of information, which remain unknown. 

Francis Wolle in his Fitz-James O'Brien: A Literary Bohemian of the Eighteen-Fifties (1944) accepted the attribution of the Index, and "Seeing the World" has subsequently appeared as an O'Brien story ever since. But what happened before that attribution?  

I see three possible scenarios here. 

1) That the case is exactly as Cornwell suggested--that O'Brien plagiarized Odoevsky's story. 

2) That O'Brien might have translated the story for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, intending no deception. Anyone researching magazines of the eighteenth-century will know that translations into English of stories from foreign languages rarely have the author named, and rarely have the translator credited. And even in such respected modern resources like The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals 1824-1900 (1979), with attributions for originally uncredited works frequently based on publisher's archived records, there can still be serious problems, as exemplified in the writings of Henry Ferris, collected in A Night with Mephistopheles (1997), where at least two of the pieces included are translations of foreign works. The archives had listed Ferris as the contributor because he translated the works, not because he wrote them, as was mistakenly assumed by the volume's editor. 

3) That O'Brien had nothing to do with "Seeing the World" and the attribution to him is an error by the Index's original compilers.

If either scenario 2 or 3 is true, then O'Brien should not be called a plagiarist. But if the first scenario is true, then he certainly was one. Unfortunately, from the perspective of one hundred and sixty five years after the publication, we have no evidence to decide amongst the three scenarios.

In any case, "Seeing the World" should be removed from the oeuvre of Fitz-James O'Brien.

* Russian Nights was first translated into English in 1965. It was reprinted in paperback in 1997.