150+ essays on literary topics
Mark Rutherford was a Victorian novelist unknown to me until a book called The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane caught my eye in a second-hand bookshop. The name turns out to have been a pseudonym. He used two in his first book, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, Dissenting Minister, edited by his friend Reuben Shapcott. Hidden behind both false identities was William Hale White, a civil servant in the Admiralty. He was fifty then and, in the next thirty-two years wrote another eight books as Mark Rutherford, the last of them published posthumously in 1915.
The reasons for his subsequent neglect may be inferred from his contemporary admirers, in particular Matthew Arnold, D.H.Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and André Gide, none of whom could be expected to admire a writer for qualities likely to make him popular. For Gide it was his style, for Arnold his religious sensibility, for Conrad his political sensibility, for Lawrence his views on marriage.
The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is written with a disregard for the conventions of the popular novel as they had developed during the nineteenth century that sets it apart from other writers. The world of the imagination, which most novels inhabit, does not here take the place of the real world or in any way alter it. The reason is given in the first chapter, which introduces the central character, Zachariah Coleman, as a bystander at an event which took place in London on 20th April 1814, when Louis XVIII was greeted by the Prince Regent and cheered by the crowds.
‘There are two factors,’ we are told, ‘in all human bliss – an object and the subject. The object may be a trifle, but the condition of the subject is most important. Turn a man out with his digestion in perfect order, with the spring in the air and in his veins, and he will cheer anything.’
Mark Rutherford remains focused on the object of his writing, leaving the subjects or readers to deal with reality, blissful or otherwise, unaided by any of the usual tricks that writers play. There are no chapters that end where they do for the sake of narrative structure, to create tension or keep the reader guessing. The narrative follows its own course, as life does, not as the novelist chooses. When the setting changes halfway through the book from urban to rural, it is because that is where events have driven Zachariah and that is where the writer must follow him. The alter ego, Mark Rutherford, goes where William Hale White, the ego, tells him to go. Rutherford is employed, as a ghost writer might be, to turn White’s experience of life into a book.
All White knows is that he has something to say about how individual happiness is marred by social inequality, by being married to the wrong person and by the consequences of trying to do something about both of those things in nineteenth century England. Rutherford has a hard task making this into a novel, forbidden as he is by White from changing the facts for the sake of the story. With its cast of dissenting ministers, revolutionaries, emigrés, working men and capitalists, George Eliot could have made it into another Felix Holt if White (who worked with her in the Admiralty when she was still Marian Evans) had offered it to her. But even she would have balked at White’s refusal to let his story be dramatised.
‘Ophelia dies,’ he says, ‘Juliet dies, and we fancy that their fate, although terrible, is more enviable than that of a pauper who drops undramatically on London stones.’ It is a line that, if you didn’t know, you might think came from Jude the Obscure. The undramatic reality is all that interests White, all that he himself has experienced, and that is where the Rutherford style comes from, a style described by Gide as ‘d’une transparence exquise, d’une scintillante pureté’.
The refusal to dramatise gives us, in the end, Waiting for Godot, but along the way it gave us what might be called an undercurrent in English literature, written by an underclass in English society. We might think of Robert Tressell and Walter Greenwood, with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Love on the Dole respectively, as his successors. But how many are there of whom we have never heard and how many more who could not even find a publisher for their plain, unadorned accounts of individual lives blighted by an uncaring society?
Thomas Hardy had his battles with publishers and in the end gave up writing novels altogether. William Hale White would never have started if it had not been for his unhappy marriage. In a letter to his second wife (he was nearly eighty and she was thirty-four) he wrote: ‘I wish I had never written stories. They are somewhat of a degradation. If I had been given you as a wife when I was thirty I would never have let the public hear a syllable from me.’
The next post on 17 September will be A Poem by Charles Causley.
My next Reader’s Diary will be posted on 24 September.