Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow - at the Dr Johnson Bookclub

On the 4th of October, the Dr Johnson Bookclub met again after their summer break. There was much happy helloing, how-you-doing and what’ve-you-been-up-to-ing. We’d met up to discuss ‘The Lunar Men’ by Jenny Uglow. Many members had been on the trip in July to Lichfield to visit Johnson’s hometown and birthplace but also to explore Erasmus Darwin’s house and museum. (I’d visited it earlier in the year and can read my write up here). This recent visit meant that some of the locations in the book were fresh in our minds and informed our discussions.

The praises for this book were effusive. Not everyone had got through it, and all agreed it was a much longer, denser book then they first imagined. It tells a joint biography of seven or so men who met in each others houses to discuss whatever was on their minds, usually topics of a scientific bent and who thus found themselves at the forefront of pretty much every forward-looking and modern discovery of the late eighteenth century.

To list some of the achievements of the Lunar Society is something which is almost unbelievable; canal building, efficient steam engines, huge leaps in carriage technology; theories of tectonic plates, hot and cold weather fronts, evolution and technological standardisation - the pottery of Wedgewood, machines that spoke, the discovery of oxygen as well as huge experiments in social organisation, education, freedom of knowledge and knowledge of freedom. The book has to be recommended purely for the sheer amount of exploration and ingenuity the group had some major role in furthering.

Add to that, Jenny Uglow had the ability to explain all of the technical and scientific information in ways that had a room full of arts students feeling that they could understand it. Rarely has a book allowed a group of old-book nerds talk with relative authority on the theories of de-phlogisticated air. For an evening, we all became natural philosophers if not actually scientists. As George Elliot said about science in Middlemarch, ‘It leads to everything; you can let nothing alone’.

This was partly because of the clarity of the book, but partly because of the style of the Lunar Men themselves. They saw no knowledge as barred to them, they allowed their curiosity to wander over every spectrum, often blurring art, science and industry into one gigantic exploration. There was much lamenting over the compartmentalisation of knowledge in modern academic and research centres which may have impeded the serendipitous acquisition of knowledge because the focus is always so narrow.

We discussed if groups such as the Lunar Society could ever happen today. Whether it is possible to have that cross fertilisation of knowledge, whether you need a Darwin figure spinning ideas out to the rest of the group, a Dr Small healing the fractures. We also revelled in the Not-London element of it all. How these men, many of them dissenters and outside of the Oxbridge system, created an intellectual haven away from the strictures of London life. There was something gleeful in celebrating Birmingham and Derby, Glasgow and Truro - a reminder that not everything that happened in the eighteenth century took place under the sound of Bow Bells.

There was also a fondness for the warmth of the book. We did not merely have cold scientists and industrialists, we has people. There was optimistic Boulton in partnership with pessimistic Watt; careful experimentalist Wedgwood and haphazard Priestley, inventive Darwin and conservative Withering - with Edgeworth and Day circling round and providing strange anecdotes and hundreds of children.

We also thrilled in the book to see the Lunar Men grow up, marry some Lunar Women and have Lunar babies. We grew to know the families, see them study together, play together and at times, die in each other’s company.  We had the daft details as well as the big story - whether that be outdoing each other in ludicrous carriages, keeping sheds of skinned horses, dealing with a man who had a bed made of iron or wading in the garden pond to catch gas but catching a cold instead.

We also wondered why a group of men could get canals built in under ten years with their own money, PR skills and charm but Westminster can’t complete HS2 until the forever future.

It was an excited and breathless discussion, with voices pinging from all sides of the room, many fighting to join in - and that has to be the sign of a provocative and informative book.

As often happens, I was more enlivened by the discussion then the book, which tilted a little too much on the industrial/technical side for my taste - but a very good book which told me a little more than I wanted to know about some extraordinary people.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Review: Love in Excess by Eliza Haywood

Love in Excess was one of the best-selling novels of the first half of the eighteenth century, going through several editions in four years and mentioned in the same breath as ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (though it may not have sold as well as first thought). It’s not a book much read anymore and I decided to look at it to see if it’s still worth reading and why its reputation has dwindled.

I particularly don’t want to spoil the plot of this one, as much of the pleasure I had in reading it was from the enjoyable ludicrous twists of plot so I shall leave the synopsis a little vague. In the first part, Count D’elmont, a handsome and successful soldier comes back to Paris and is caught between two women who love him…or at least love the idea of him. The first is Alovisa, who is rich and scheming, the other is Amena, who is innocent. The second part deals with a love pentagon and the third deals with a love…nonagon. Each love tangle is resolved by the end of the part, for better or worse, only for it to get more ridiculous in the next. However, the dafter it gets, the better it gets. The book revels in its excess and is all the better for it.

Had the novel ended after the first part, I’d have been fairly dismissive of the book. D’elmont is himself not in love in this part and is flattered to have the women fighting over him and is really a passive dupe for the schemes and passions of the women that surround him. The excess of the language at this point seemed histrionic rather than romantic, neither woman in love with him as much as she is the notion of who she could be with him as a husband.

Had the novel ended after the second part, I’d have been a little more enthusiastic. D’elmont falls in love himself, and it’s not with his wife. He is lead to be more angry, more desperate, more underhand then before, which makes him more interesting. This part also brings in some of the noteworthy writing, Haywood is very good at describing natural, unforced beauty;
    ‘…she had but newly come from bathing, and her hair unbraided, hung down her shoulders with a negligence more beautiful than all the aids of art could form…’ It is development of these sensuous descriptions that are one of the chief pleasures of the third part.

The third part of the novel is where things really hit their stride. D’elmont has become self aware, his mishaps in the previous parts of the book has lead him to the realisation that he is truly irresistible to women, this is not a boast but a real problem for him. He exiles himself to Rome and swears off women but to his great annoyance they can’t help falling in love with him, throwing themselves at him and creating all sorts of problems and schemes to snare him in their clutches. He is also trying to help a friend with love troubles and having women fling themselves at his person does not make it any easier. While passive D’elmont was dull, passionate D’elmont was dumb, D’elmont trying to politely unentangle himself from almost every woman he meets is extremely entertaining.

There’s also a definite sense of Haywood really beginning to enjoy her excesses, the book is at it’s best when it is rapturous or full of grief, when passions are high and sentences are breathless. At her best, she is too long to quote, but I found a lovely bit about kissing’
‘A while their lips were cemented! rivetted together with kisses, such kisses! as collecting every sence in one, exhale the very soul, and mingle spirits!’
This joy and pleasure in language becomes noticeable all over the third part, one of my favourite non-kissy ones was the description of a shocked man ‘wildly throwing his eyes’ over a spectacle.

The novel ends, as this things should, with a set of marriages. However, just before the marriages a very likeable character dies an extremely pathetic (in the sad/pitiful sense) death - a death that occurs in the same paragraph as the weddings. I was left with a sad lump in my throat, a happy smile on my face and a critical faculty reeling with the exuberant, silly, tonal whiplash of it all.   I’ve never left a book feeling quite the same mix of emotions and for that, I am very glad I read this book.

If the book is hard to read now, the formatting is a large part of it. My copy was a very generously annotated one from Broadview but the run-on sentences, long paragraphs, lack of chapters and creative spelling can be a chore for the eyes. There were moments of deep passion where I found my vision passing over the text but very little being understood. In re-reading, I’d sometimes also find that not much had happened. If the modern reader can get through these hiccoughs, then the book is very entertaining and becomes more so as it goes on, so why has it fallen out of favour?

It can’t have helped the book that its author was female, those compiling the usual canon of British novels in the 19th and 20th centuries did certainly favour male authors but I don’t think Eliza Haywood’s gender is the only thing to blame for the book being lost to history. Those early (pre-Pamela) eighteenth century novels and pseudo-novels that survived into the 19th century seem to have done so as children’s fiction. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ became a ‘boy’s own’ adventure story and ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ were read as fantastical journeys but ‘Love in Excess’ can’t be sent to the nursery, it is too tied up with sexuality, particularly female sexuality to be bowdlerised or infantilised and so couldn’t keep up with changing tastes in the same way. It doesn’t deserve to have been left behind, find a copy and give it a go.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Review: Vic Gatrell, 'The First Bohemians'

I’m a big Vic Gatrell fan, ‘The Hanging Tree’ was a fascinating book about the change of opinion regarding public hanging (useful before I hanged some characters), ‘City of Laughter’ was a funny book about visual satire and now we have ‘The First Bohemians’ about Covent Garden and the art it produced.

One of my favourite elements of his writing is how partisan he is. If he prefers something, he tells it. His delight in the eighteenth century habit of writing  ‘niftily to the point’ as opposed to the nineteenth century’s ‘windy tosh’ is always a delight to me, as I have those same prejudices.

The book is divided into two parts, ‘Covent Garden’ and ‘Artists’. 

The first section took us through the history of how Covent Garden became the place it was in the eighteenth century. It tells us about the types of people who mixed, the kinds of places they lived and the sort of lives and jobs they had - all reflected through different kinds of art. We have architectural art, caricature and satire and the ‘low’, ‘Dutch’ real life art of people like Hogarth.

We then had some chapters about the loose, hand-to-mouth life of artists, the prominently male focus of the art world. This then went into a struggle between Joshua Reynolds and the Royal Academy’s neo-classical focus against the real world focus on people like Hogarth. Next is a chapter on Hogarth’s struggles against his own genius of depicting real people, another re-appraising Rowlandson as an important artist of real life, a chapter about the Gordon riots (which he argues pushed artists out of the area) and a finale about the very Victorian Ruskin’s inability to understand JMW Turner’s upbringing in the Covent Garden Hodge-podge. 

I most enjoyed the first section, it was the fullest and most evocative picture of Covent Garden I have ever read and the pictures helped a lot. I very much enjoyed it, and will use a lot of it when I re-draft my ‘Odes to the Big City’.

 I also enjoyed the chapters that furthered this and focussed on the artists, though I’m still not convinced we can call the people of Covent Garden Bohemian. Even following his definition; ‘an attitude of dissent, from the prevailing attitudes of the middle class’ as most of the people in Covent Garden were the middle class, as he went to pains to explain in the earlier parts of the book. Also, people like Hogarth were desperate to be of a higher social status and the writers wrote for money - I just don’t think there is the anti-middle class element to call them Bohemian.

In my first reaction to the book, I didn’t feel that the later chapters grew very organically out of the earlier ones. It felt a little like one of those books made out of previously published essays that have been lightly re-written and put together. But the more I think about it, the Rowlandson chapter (for example) may have seemed a little removed from the overall Covent Garden subject matter, he served as a case study for how the kind of art that emerged from the mess and mix of the place influenced him. I can’t tell if the book ran out of puff or if I did.

That said, it was a very interesting book, enjoyably written, with a good eye for the telling detail as well as the big picture and I recommend it as a wonderful evocation and celebration of a certain time and place.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Review: A Visit to The Foundling Museum

This visit to the Foundling Museum almost seems like a companion piece to my visit to the Bedlam Museum of the Mind. Both are long-running institutions that are still running, both have opened a museum/art gallery and both have been refurbished recently.

The Foundling Hospital, now the Coram Institute, was founded by Thomas Coram, a retired sea captain who was shocked by the child poverty of the city he had returned to, viewing the child poverty as both inhuman suffering and also a waste of potential human resources. 

He took twelve years petitioning and gaining influential supporters before building a large semi-rural home for unwanted girls and boys where he would train them to become maids and sailors. To keep the enterprise afloat, he would have visiting days (much like Bedlam) where the wealthy could pay to see the children.

He was also supported by artists and musicians. Hogarth painted a number if pictures for the hospital and encouraged other artists to do the same. The Foundling Hospital was at one point the closest thing London had to an art gallery. Handel also performed ‘Messiah’ in the chapel after it had flopped in the Covent Garden Theatre. The piece was a success in the chapel and the piece has become linked to the Foundling Hospital ever since.

The museum tells this story very quickly. Where the Bedlam Museum of the Mind had a through narrative that asked very interesting questions about whether mental health diagnosis and care has really evolved in time, the Foundling Museum just arranges a few objects together and plonks them there.

Some of these objects are really interesting. There was Thomas Coram’s notebook where he registered the various titled people he had asked help from, interesting to note that he targeted women. There is also the registration notes and keepsakes that came with the children. Children left at the Hospital were registered with some cloth or an object so that if the parents’ fortunes changed they could pick their child up by describing it. Very few children were ever picked up and it is very moving seeing all the odds and ends, from beer labels and gaming chips, to broaches and comfort blankets. It’s also interesting seeing these items of everyday 18th Century life. 

Children entering the Hospital had their names changed and their are many early names of children on the wall. I looked at these a long time, I wished I had written them down because they are gold. Some are named after famous people (there’s a William Hogarth) some have bits of famous names (Fredrick Wilkes) and some have names from an 18th Century novel (Nathaniel Clusterbucket). 

Then there’s a bit with some talking heads describing what it was like being a foundling in the later stages, it would appear it was full of sunshine and roses. And that’s it.. that’s the history. No interesting questions about how social services acts now compares to then, no introspection about the huge death rate of the early hospital or the abuses people made in the name of the hospital (I recommend anyone to read ‘Coram Boy’ to read about those) - that’s the history done.

All that’s left is art. My favourite was Hogarth’s ‘March to Finchley’, it’s a busy painting of soldiers going off to muster against the Jacobites in the ’45 and is full of life and detail. I was even more pleased with how the Hospital received it. Hogarth had put out a lottery to win the painting but so few people bought tickets to for it that he dumped over a hundred with the hospital so they won it.

Hogarth’s portrait of Thomas Coram was as warm and human as I had been informed, his painting of Moses was as constipated as I had expected and the other portraits were a mushy, slushy, faded Reynolds type.

The boardroom was a green, grand affair with mouldings that would not have looked out of place at Strawberry Hill, it also included paintings of other charitable London institutions, including Bedlam. I was interested to be told that the entire building had been further in the field and had been taken apart and carefully reconstructed where it now stands, that’s interesting.

The art project/exhibition that they were holding was called ‘Found’, it consisted of found art. I don’t get art very well; I like a story being told and I’m fond of impressionistic effects of air and light but some magazines Jarvis Cocker found in Romania or a stick someone used to sit paint doesn’t wake my sensibilities much. I looked at reviews, apparently it was pretty special but it takes someone of a more visual (and less verbal) bent to appreciate it.

Finally, there is the Handel room. Four comfortable chairs with speakers in it play bits of Handel on request (without a volume adjuster) and the cases have Handel’s bits and bobs, including his will and some of his book collection. If there was something I could take with me it would probably be ‘The March to Finchley’ but Handel’s books would have been a second.

I had been planning on going to the Foundling Hospital for several years but was put off by the £10 price tag. I would say that if I were to recommend an institution based museum I would definitely recommend the Bedlam Museum of the Mind over the Foundling, it was far more incisive and confrontational in the way it told its story - but the Foundling was a good afternoon nonetheless.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

List Challenge

I had great trouble sleeping one night, so I went through this blog, trawled through all the different references to different books and created one of those list challenges. 

Have a go and see how many books from this site you've read.

(Even I hadn't read all the books I mentioned.)

The Grub Street Lodger List

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Mini-Review: Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub

Swift re-read this book years later and sighed that he was ‘a genius then’. Samuel Johnson thought it so good that he didn’t believe Swift had written it - but the thing has not aged very well.

Part allegory of religion, part satire on modern forms and attitudes to writing and criticism, it delves deeply into hot topics and comic goldmines which do not run very true for me as a modern reader.

While I could enjoy Smart’s satirical writing because of it’s silliness, Fielding’s controlled use of tone, even Tom Brown’s eye for specific language and detail - there is nothing in the very dense Swiftian writing that really gave me nuggets of pleasure to pull me through.

That said, there were some brilliant ideas in it that might work well now, the essential pitch - a self satisfied modern writer laden with all the new fashionable concepts tries to sum up all of modern learning, might work very well for a book now. Maybe one laughing at all the divides and isms, that gets ludicrously tied up in post-post-post-modernism, and does it all in a baroque manner - could still pull in the punters. 

Swift puts it best, ‘If we look into primitive records we shall find that no revolutions have been so great, or so frequent, as those of human ears’. My ears, though fairly well attuned to eighteenth century registers, did not pick up the tune Swift sang.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Review: Brothers of the Quill by Norma Clarke

I’m not sure how many books I have with a cover featuring Hogarth’s ‘The Distressed Poet’ but now I have another one; ‘Brothers of the Quill’ by Norma Clarke.

It’s a book that focuses on Oliver Goldsmith but it’s not a biography exactly. Primarily, it tries to put him and his writing into a new context. Instead of seeing Goldsmith as the jester of Johnson’s court; a strange, vain little man who knows nothing but writes with a simplicity, purity and warmth of an angel - we seem him as an Irish hack writer, grubbing the same grubby trade as the rest of Grub Street.

It’s impossible to tell how close the portrait of Goldsmith is to the real man, but this is the only book about him I have ever read where he felt like one. It justifies his skills and talents, teases out the craft of his writing and the depth of his satire without going to the ludicrous lengths of ‘The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith’, where Goldsmith is described as being a genius of a softer satire. 

Instead, Goldsmith is presented as a writer, whose primary need is food and (if possible) enough gold to not look like a hack. In his works, he tries on different costumes to poke at the English in a way that satisfies their warm regard for themselves and to do it in a style that is crisp, clear and precise. 

The discussion of ‘Citizen of the World’ was an interesting one, talking about how Goldsmith transferred his lower status otherness as an Irishman into the elevated otherness of a Chinese man. The one on ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ makes brilliant points about how the novel could be read as an allegory for Irish/English relations, with the kind but gullible Primrose Family representing the Irish. The best thing about this book is that these points are not pressed too hard. Clarke doesn’t insist that they are the only interpretation of the work but that considering them brings to light new humour and new commentary that might otherwise be overlooked.

Clarke also talks about the life of other Irish writers that Goldsmith mingled with, like Samuel Derrick; breathless poet, secret porn cataloguer and the successor to the Little King of Bath, Beau Nash. We also spend time with John Pilkington, the son of the subject of previous Norma Clarke book, Laetitia Pilkington and we meet James Grainger. 

I found his the most interesting story apart from Goldsmith’s. I knew him as the author of the Sugar Cane, a West Indies Georgic that may or may not have had the immortal line, “Now, my muse, let us sing of rats’. I had assumed he was a typical plantation dilettante like Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates, an atrocious actor who managed to get on stage by brute bribing then any talent.  It turned out Grainger was, like Goldsmith, a medical man who had gone to the Indies (much as Goldsmith once planned to do) as a doctor and had married well. The discussion of the thorny issue of slavery, that Grainger was a man for liberty and was used to English colonial oppression as an Irishman, but turned an almost blind eye to slaving because it gave him a security he could never hope for without it.

There was also some measure of security given to Goldsmith by his ‘sort-of’ patron, Robert Nugent, MP for Bristol, Lord Clare of Ireland and, judging by his bastard son’s depiction of him, a hard and harsh man. There was a parallel to Grainger, with Goldsmith accepting the assistance of a man who had many facets he disliked but requiring the safety, and enjoying his company also. It was a great reminder of how life is not a straight battle between good and bad and that levels of necessity and company can bleach the darkest stains - especially for someone living a life as fragile as the writing life.

And so Goldsmith is shown, not as an idiot or a genius but a man scrabbling around as best he can in a world that regards him with very little regard.

I love a bit of Norma Clarke, I recommend her ‘Rise and Fall of the Women of Letters’ and her ‘Dr Johnson’s Women’, I’ve yet to read the Pilkington book. ‘Brothers of the Quill’, a book about Goldsmith in Grub Street, was almost calculated for my personal enjoyment.

The blurb promises that the book shall make the reader, ‘laugh and cry at the absurdities of the writing life’.I did laugh and some ‘beamy moisture’ may have wet my eyes.

 It did exactly what it set out to do.