Neil Rathmell

A collection of 100+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 17 December 2014

The Boat, one of L.P.Hartley’s less well-known novels, is set in war-time England, but has little to do with the war. Indeed, that is the point. The setting is a fictional village called Upton-on-Swirrel. The author leaves it to one of his characters to get things started.

‘This is a quiet little hole,’ said the cook.

The story continues to be told in large part by the characters rather than the narrator, making use of all the means of communication then available, telephone, telegram, letters delivered by the Royal Mail, letters delivered by hand and old-fashioned conversation. The impact of the war on the characters’ lives is limited to the shortages and delays to which it gives rise. The central character, a writer in late middle age called Timothy Casson, is wholly consumed by his passion for rowing and briefly by his passion for a young woman who turns out to be a Communist agent-provocateur. Renting a house in the village when the war forces his return from Venice, where he has lived for several years, he finds himself in conflict with the local gentry, who regard the Swirrel as a fishing river, not a boating river. This conflict and the various passions that swirl around it are what the book is about.

L.P.Hartley tells the story by letting it tell itself. His prose is exquisite, his impartiality so absolute that the reader’s sympathies (this reader’s anyway) are held permanently in abeyance. Timothy Casson himself, Hamlet-like, can never quite make his mind up whose side he is on or who his friends are. When two of those friends die as a result of his actions, he is quite unable to see that he is in any way responsible. When two of his friends suggest that the best thing for him to do is to leave, he does so at once, as if neither passion had ever existed. He gets into the car, his servants see him off and that’s it. The narrator’s last words tell us what we should have known all along.

He was asleep.

It is the author’s quiet verdict, if not on England in wartime, then on that part of it which is represented by Timothy Casson.

Musicians should be as wary of words as actors are advised to be of children and animals. The truth of this was brought home to me by an evening of music and words on the theme of Christmas given by the Birmingham-based choir, Ex Cathedra, at a church in Shrewsbury. Only one of the nine readings had what seems to me to be the one thing that words as part of a musical performance must have: musicality. Words are not usually spoken to a tune, which leaves us with rhythm. Anything from the King James Bible meets that criterion. Anything else needs to be chosen very carefully. There were two bible readings in Christmas By Candlelight, but only one of them, Luke ii 1-8, was the one written in Jacobean English. The other, Corinthians 13, was from a modern version, which meant we had love instead of charity and looked into a dusty mirror instead of seeing through a glass darkly. I can’t remember now exactly how it ended, but it had none of the musical rhythm of ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’ The other readings, by excellent writers such as Carol Ann Duffy, Jeannette Winterson, U.A.Fanthorpe and Thomas Hardy, could not stand up to the music. They were also, most of them, too long, longer in at least one case, than any of the pieces sung by the choir. It took me a long time to recover from that. Eight short verses from Luke, on the other hand, ending with ‘And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night’, made the transition from words to music, a setting of the next verse, ‘And lo, the angel of the Lord’, by James MacMillan, as easy and delightful as it could possibly be.

Delightful is as good a word as any to describe an American novel which Willa Cather considered to be one of only three which had ‘the possibility of a long, long life’. The other two were The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn. She was right about those, but not so far about The Country of the Pointed Firs. I am sure I am not alone, at least among English students of English literature, in never having heard of it or its author, Sarah Orne Jewett. Out of print in this country, it is set in a fictional fishing village in the real state of Maine around the turn of the nineteenth century and consists of a series of loosely connected stories about some of its inhabitants. The English counterpart that comes to mind is Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford, though writers such as Mary Webb and Constance Holme are closer to it in the way they have been categorised as ‘provincial’. The American category to which Sarah Jewett belongs is known, I believe, as ‘local color’.

Willa Cather’s introduction to my 1927 Traveller’s Library edition is followed by a quote from an American critic writing in 1904:

I always think of her as of one who, hearing New England accused of being a bleak land without beauty, passes confidently over the snow, and by the grey rock, and past the dark fir tree, to a southern bank, and there, brushing away the decayed leaves, triumphantly shows to the fault-finder a spray of the trailing arbutus. And I should like, for my own part, to add this: that the fragrant, retiring, exquisite flower, which I think she would say is the symbol of New England virtue, is the symbol also of her own modest and delightful art.

The literary counterpart perhaps to New England quilting. Folk art always means more to folk than to critics who, even when they praise it, do so in terms that put it quietly but firmly in its place.

l p hartley 02

L.P.Hartley

Instead of the usual literary essay, my next post will be a ghost story for Christmas, Rough Sleepers, with illustrations by Maria Hayes.

Back to normal after that with my Reader’s Diary for 31 December.

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