The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler

12 Books of Boyhood. #4

The Way of All Flesh (1903) is a searing indictment of Victorian (era) thought and parenting. Apparently. Which had to wait until after the author’s death to be published. I say apparently because it is hard for us at this distance to understand what a profound effect Darwin’s The Origin of the Species (1859), in particular, had on Church of England orthodoxy, though maybe not so hard for those living in America’s bible belt.

Commenting on her own blog recently, Melanie (Grab the Lapels) wrote “if I look at a character like Mrs. Jellyby [Dickens, Bleak House], I might assume all Victorian parents were horrible, neglectful religious zealots.” If you read The Way of All Flesh, you would be certain of it.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902), the freethinking Victorian whom George Bernard Shaw deemed “the greatest writer of the latter half of the nineteenth century” was … the son of an Anglican clergyman … In 1858 he earned a degree in classics from St John’s College, Cambridge, but after a crisis of faith, he refused ordination in the ministry … Following a bitter quarrel with his father … he immigrated to New Zealand and soon prospered as a sheep rancher … During this period his study of The Origin of the Species caused him to further question the tenets of Christianity.

introductory bio.

Butler returned to England in 1864, studied without great success to be a painter, then “in 1872 published Erewhon, a Utopian satire on Victorian society that EM Forster later called a work of genius”, but which led to him being banned from his parents’ home. “About this time he began writing The Way of All Flesh, a thinly disguised account of his own upbringing aimed at exposing the self-righteous hypocrisy underlying Victorian family life and its bourgeois values.”

He wrote no other fiction, rather concentrating on a series of works on the implications of Darwinism.

I read The Way of All Flesh for my matric, at a time when my relations with my ambitious, remote father were frosty to say the least, and it reinforced everything I felt.

The central character of the novel is Ernest Pontifex born in 1835, the same year as the author. But the author sets up the story by having the narrator, Edward Overton, b.1802, grow up, the vicar’s son, in the same village as Ernest’s great-grandfather, John Pontifex, an old man by the time Overton remembers him. John Pontifex, a carpenter, had prospered and become a land owner. His son, George, had been sent to be apprenticed to a publisher of religious works, had inherited the business, and he too had prospered. So that George’s children, all around Overton’s age, and whom he knew from their infrequent visits to the older Pontifexes, felt themselves to be rather above their grandparents.

George’s wife dies early on and his children – Eliza, Maria, John, Theobald and Althea – have only a remote relationship with their father who all their lives holds over them the threat of censure and disinheritance. Eventually John is taken into the business and Theobald goes up to Cambridge to become a clergyman. Eliza and Maria become spinsters and in old age are quite poor. Althea is loved by Overton, but she insists on being ‘just friends’. She doesn’t marry, but is well off.

So Butler’s first step is to build up a picture of Theobald – who will eventually be our hero, Ernest’s, father – as brought up without a mother, by a stern and effectively, unloving parent; sent off to a boy’s boarding school and then Cambridge; and knowing little of either affection or women; “… he had come to dislike women, as mysterious beings whose ways were not his ways, nor their thoughts as his thoughts.” Which was pretty well the conclusion I had reached about both the author and his narrator by the end of the book.

Theobald, after a number of years of being engaged to Christina, the daughter of another vicar, is finally brought to the altar. He takes a living, and Christina bears him three children – Ernest, Joseph and Charlotte. And so, from pages 60-200, we deal with Ernest’s unhappy childhood and school days. (Studying for the clergy at university takes another 50 pages, and the remaining 180 or so take us through the first decade of his adulthood).

Until he was old enough to go away to school, Ernest was taught by his father, who made rules in the expectation and hope that they would be broken and who rewarded all infractions with whipping (I assume the author means caning).

Christina did not remonstrate with Theobald concerning the severity of the tasks imposed upon their boy, nor yet as to the continual whippings that were found necessary at lesson times. Indeed, when during any absence of Theobald’s the lessons were entrusted to her, she found to her sorrow that it was the only thing to do, and she did it no less effectually than Theobald himself; nevertheless she was fond of her boy, which Theobald never was, and it was long before she could destroy all affection for herself in the mind of her first-born. But she persevered.

My case wasn’t so bad, but reading this you could weep for the author.

Christina is pictured as silly and sly, getting on Ernest’s good side only to betray him to his father. Ernest goes away to school and isn’t popular. Many pages later Overton says, “I may spare the reader more details about my hero’s school days” and I will too.

At university Ernest starts off with the Evangelicals and ends up with the High Church. The arguments that go with this no doubt reflect Butler’s own at the same time, but the secular reader will find them hard going. Ernest is ordained, and chooses to live in the slums in the parish (in London) where he is one of two curates. He is fleeced of the money he had from his father; feeling his oats and coming belatedly to understand that the young women in the rooms above him in his boarding house are prostitutes, he propositions/assaults a young women who isn’t; is sent to jail; and emerges to find that he is destitute.

He has more to bear, quite a bit of which is driven by Butler’s dislike of women it seems to me; but eventually Ernest finds his way through; comes into an inheritance and settles to a life of bachelorhood writing on science and philosophy.

Stuck as I was at 17 with a distant and autocratic father, and looking for a way out of the Church of England which religion my father preached but rarely practiced (he was a lay preacher), I can why The Way of All Flesh appealed so strongly, but I can’t see that its relevance has extended into the twenty first century.


Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, first pub. 1903. My ed. The Modern Library/Random House, New York, 1998. 430pp.

Book #5, to be reviewed at the end of May will be: Jack London, The Iron Heel

For future months I will select from:
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Ubervilles
Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate
Leslie Charteris, Enter the Saint
Georges Simenon, Act of Passion
Jane Grant, Come Hither Nurse (jointly with Doctor in the House?)
Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse
Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
Robert Heinlein, I Will Fear No Evil
William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Obsolete Communism: the Left-Wing Alternative

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

It seems to me that many of the commentators on Cold Comfort Farm (1932) missed the Note at the beginning: “The action of the story takes place in the near future”.

One set of notes for students says “The events described in the novel take place over a five-month period from February through June. Given the book’s publication date, the reader can assume that the year is 1931”, ignoring that one character is mentioned as having fought in a war in 1946.

What made me go back and check though was when Flora, our protagonist, phones a friend in London from a phone box in the wilds of Sussex, he is able to observe her on his television screen, talking and fidgeting. Could I write a review of Cold Comfort Farm as Science Fiction? I thought about it but it was beyond me.

By being set in 1946 or 7, Gibbons’ failure to predict WWII leaves a hole, which of course most readers, ignoring that it’s set in the future, don’t notice. But there is also the absence of the Depression, which I and many readers know best through Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London set at about the time this was being written. Not that conditions at the eponymous farm are much above Depression-level!

It’s possible also that Gibbons saw her use of aeroplanes for personal transport as futuristic, though she doesn’t really describe anything that was not possible at the time of writing.

Gibbons, born in 1902, was a poet and journalist, London born and bred, bought up amongst the comfortable middle classes. Cold Comfort Farm is a parody not just of rural dramas, which were popular at the time, but of authors as notable as Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence, and I imagine Gibbons writing it from the comfort of home, making up plants, farm implements and regional dialect as she goes.

The story is that Flora Poste at age 19 loses both her parents and finds that the £100/year left to her is rather less than she expected, and so she must impose herself on distant relatives, settling on the Stackadders at Cold Comfort Farm in the wilds of Sussex, near the village of Howling; although hardly remote by any other than English standards, the nearest station, Beershorn, being 4½ hours by slow train from London Bridge (Google Maps says 50-60 miles).

**Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.

The farm was crouched on a bleak hillside, whence its fields, fanged with flints, dropped steeply to the village at Howling, a mile away. Its stables and outhouses were built in the shape of a rough octangle surrounding the farmhouse itself… The outhouses were built of roughcast stone, with thatched roofs …

That para, beginning **, is the first of quite a number spread through the book, never explained that I can see, but looking like insertions from Flora’s writing journal. A page further on, “Under the ominous bowl of the sky a man was ploughing the sloping field immediately below the farm” with what appears to be a single furrow plough drawn by two beasts, horses or oxen, Gibbons doesn’t say. “Every now and again, when he came to a corner of the field and was forced to tilt the scranlet of his plough almost on to its axle to make the turn, he glanced up at the farm where it squatted on the gaunt shoulder of the hill.”

Scranlet is a made-up word, one of a number. Searching the internet you can see the puzzlement of readers coming across them. The best known is “sukebind”, a weed whose voluptuous flowering is symbolic of the reign of the family’s reclusive matriarch, Ada Doom.

There are a number of generations of Stackadders at the farm, forbidden to ever leave by Ada Doom who has been deranged since seeing something nasty in the woodshed as a child; various servants, farm labourers, and as it turns out, secret wives.

Flora is met at Beershorn station by 90 year old Adam, in a horse and buggy; arrives to find the great rambling house in the final stages of dirt and disorder, but has been granted her own bedroom and parlour, perhaps to right the ever unnamed wrong done her father (ignoring the fact that it was her mother who was connected to the Stackadders); and promptly sets about insinuating herself into the running of the property.

The people of the farm are as dark and moody as the farm itself. Amos, the elder under Ada, is a hellfire and damnation preacher; his son Rueben, has ambitions for the farm which he is prevented from carrying out by Ada’s tight control of the purse strings; there is a young maidservant living in a shack in the fields, barely able to work she is so constantly pregnant; Adam the yardman is responsible both for the four cows – who are constantly losing bits: legs, hoofs, horns – and for the dishes from which he cletters dried porridge with a thorn twig; Seth, who must beat off women with a stick, “off a-mollocking in the village”, an activity which results in pregnancies, when he would rather be watching movies; Elfine, 17, a fine beauty ” wild and shy as a Pharisee of the woods”.

The expectations I had at this point, early on, were for a farce, a series of rural disasters, as indeed there might have been as various animals and workers are lost down wells, and the farm itself seemingly operating under one or more curses; but I was overlooking the opening epigram, from Mansfield Park, “Let others dwell on guilt and misery.”

Flora glides through all opposition, not least from Ada Doom and the fear she engenders in all her family, to arrive at not one but half a dozen happy endings.

Cold Comfort Farm would have been a wonderful book to have grown up with and to have become more familiar and more loved with each re-reading but I have, sadly, come to it only in old age. Ms 10 will be 11 in October and this must be her present.

Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm, first pub. 1932. 233pp

The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham

12 Books of Boyhood. #3

John Wyndham (1903-1969) is the one Science Fiction writer most of us have read. I was probably introduced to him by having to read The Kraken Wakes in fifth form. I can’t say when I first read The Midwich Cuckoos but the edition I have now, with the cover above, is a 1976 reprint.

Mainstream SF begins, I think, in US, and specifically New York, pulp magazines after WWII. We were wondering where Wyndham, who is of course English, fitted in with this: if he was part of that mainstream or a side track carrying on after HG Wells (1866-1946). But there is more of a crossover than you might think (than I thought, anyway). So Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) for instance, was serialized in magazines in both England and the US in 1897. And Wyndham also was published initially in US pulps.

‘Worlds to Barter’, Wyndham’s first story, 1931

[Wyndham] first started writing short stories, intended for sale, in 1925. From 1930 till 1939 he wrote stories of various kinds under different names, almost exclusively for American publications…. In 1946 [after War service] he went back to writing stories for publication in the USA and decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as ‘science fiction’. (Penguin bio.)

The Day of the Triffids (1951)
The Kraken Wakes (1953)
The Chrysalids (1955)
The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
The Seeds of Time (1956) short stories
The Outward Urge (1959) with Lucas Parkes
Trouble with Lichen (1960)
Consider Her Ways and Others (1961) short stories
Chocky (1968)
were all subsequently published by Penguin.

Two further novels were published posthumously, Web (1979) and Plan for Chaos (2009) (Wiki)

Despite his publication in the US, Wyndham writes a very English story, set in English villages with English upper middle class, male heroes.

The English village of fiction consists of a pub, a church, houses and surrounding farms. The lower classes – the tradesmen, farmworkers, shopkeepers, farmers, all their wives – are rarely named, forming a bucolic background for the people that matter: the squire, the vicar, two or three genteel spinsters, a writer maybe, bankers and other city chaps commuting to the city, and of course their wives and older daughters. And so it is with Midwich, though, as it has no access to a railway, instead of city chaps there is a nearby research establishment in a converted Victorian mansion, the Grange.

Richard, our narrator, and his wife return from a trip to London to discover a police road block preventing them from reaching home. They can see ahead of them on the road a pile up of a bus and a few cars. When they attempt to walk home, cross country, first the wife collapses, then Richard. Eventually a policeman with a canary in a cage determines that there is a perfectly circular boundary around Midwich which may not be crossed by man or beast without the man or beast dropping to the ground unconscious, and on retrieval, unharmed. And it is further determined this boundary is almost certainly a dome, a hemisphere.

The airforce is called in, and photograph, at the centre of this containment zone, a large egg. A day later, the egg and the containment zone are gone. Most of the inhabitants awake unharmed, though one family has died in a house fire and five or six others having collapsed outside have died of the cold. One man has died in the garden of a woman whose husband was away, and she cops a beating for her trouble.

It is some weeks before the realization sets in that every woman of the appropriate age in Midwich, 65 in total, is pregnant. (In passing I am pleased that Wyndham made the lower limit of this appropriate age 16 or 17). Of course quite a number of especially the single women and girls are suicidal (and that wife cops another beating).

Richard is asked by his friend Bernard, who is in one of those ministries covered by the Official Secrets Act, to act as the ministry’s eyes and ears. The squire, Zellaby, is a philosopher of some note and the three, with sometimes the Vicar and sometimes their various wives, when they are not off making tea, attempt to nut out what is going on.

The vicar’s wife and the squire’s wife call a meeting of all the women, explain the situation as best they can and they all undertake to support each other. When the children are born, the squire’s wife, Angela, has an ordinary son but all the rest of the children, or as they become, the Children, are identical – 30 boys and 28 girls (there’s a couple of deaths) – with large golden eyes.

It slowly becomes apparent that the Children are able to exert control over first, their mothers, then, over anyone nearby. The wifebeater’s child is discovered with a bruise to his cheek and the wifebeater nearby having apparently beaten himself half to death. As the children get older, growing at twice the rate of normal children, the Ministry converts the research establishment to a residential school and all the Children move there.

When a Child’s life is threatened and one of the villagers dies, Zellaby deduces that the Children are thinking as one – or rather, as two: all the boys and all the girls.

I won’t spoil the novel for you. Wyndham utilizes Zellaby to do a great deal of philosphizing about the nature of Evolution, the unsatisfactoryness of ‘missing links’ and whether or not the Children represent the next step up, a replacement for Homo Sapiens. It becomes clear Bernard hasn’t been telling Richard and Zellaby everything that the Ministry knows. It all comes to a climax very quickly.

I’m still not clear whether I’ve read this before, but it takes the reader back a long way, to those few brief years after WWII when Britain thought it was still the centre of the world. What the Americans thought of it I can’t imagine.


John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos, Michael Joseph/Penguin, London, 1957. 220pp,

Love, Elizabeth von Arnim

Whispering Gums in particular has written of/reviewed von Arnim a number of times, and although I think it a bit of a stretch to consider her Australian, my interest was sufficiently piqued for me to buy Love when I came across it on Audible. And during the trip just completed it made its way onto my listening schedule.

I messaged Sue (WG) that I was and she responded that it wasn’t a von Arnim that she had read, and having looked it up, added the quote: “The engaging humour of this autobiographical novel blunts the bitter edge of irony in the hypocrisy of 1920s society.”

The main theme of the novel is love between men and women of greatly different ages, though I think if I had access to the text I could make the case that the author was also interrogating the nature of love in general. Unfortunately, Love (1925) and around the twentieth of her 24 or so works, is not one of the many available on Proj. Gutenberg.

After doing some looking up of my own, I thought it might be worthwhile to set out the relevant aspects of von Arnim’s biography. She was born in Sydney, in 1866, where her father Henry Beauchamp was a wealthy shipping merchant. NZ writer Katherine Mansfield was also a Beauchamp and the two later lived near each other in Switzerland. Mansfield apparently satarized von Arnim in her short story ‘A Cup of Tea’.

The Beauchamps moved to Europe in 1869, where they lived variously in England and Switzerland. Elizabeth, then 25 married the 40 year old Count blah blah blah von Arnim in 1891. They lived on his estate in Germany (now Poland) for a number of years -where the children’s tutors included EM Forster and Hugh Walpole – before Elizabeth moved back to London. On the count’s death in 1910 she built herself an estate, Chalet Soleil in Switzerland, and was for three years the mistress of HG Wells. In 1916 she married Bertrand Russell’s older brother, and got herself another title. In 1920, then 54, she became the mistress of 28 year old Alexander Frere, later chairman of publishers Heinemann. This lasted several years, and when Frere married someone else, she became godmother to his daughter who was named in her honour. She moved to the US at the outbreak of WWII and died there in 1941.

Elizabeth von Arnim’s career as a writer began with Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898), published anonymously, the first of several novels based on aspects of her own life. And she was for some years, like Walter Scott, known publicly only as ‘The author of ..’

When Sue messaged me, I wondered in what way could this story be ‘autobiographical’, but her relationship with Frere, commencing just a few years earlier, is clearly the basis.

In what follows you will have to rely on my occasionally faulty recollection. The two protagonists of ‘Love’ are Christopher, 28 and Catherine, 48. Catherine, a widow, has a two bedroom flat in Mayfair and a fixed income of £500 per year.

The first time they met, though they didn’t know it, for they were unconscious of each other, was at the The Immortal Hour, then playing to almost empty houses away at King’s Cross; but they both went so often, and the audience at that time was so conspicuous because there was so little of it and so much room to put it in, that quite soon people who went frequently got to know each other by sight, and felt friendly and inclined to nod and smile, and this happened too to Christopher and Catherine.

opening lines

She was small, very pretty, though rounder than the fashionably flat girls of those times, and he was “a great, loosely built young man with flame coloured hair”. Over the course of a number of evenings he sits nearer to her, then by her, and introduces himself. She is friendly, but eventually he can only think to advance their ‘relationship’ by appearing at her house unannounced. And of course she is out. He waits. She arrives, and shortly after, Stephen arrives.

Who is this damned Stephen. A clergyman up from the country to preach at St Pauls. Eventually he may be disposed of, he’s married to Virginia. Stephen is slightly older than Catherine and Virginia just 19, but as Christopher presses his suit with Catherine, Stephen feels it his duty to point out how inappropriate is their age difference.

I can’t say much more in case my friends should accuse me of giving away the plot, which turns on an accident, the appearance that Christopher and Catherine may have spent a night together, and Stephen’s hypocrisy, one of the elements of which is that as a country curate and then rector in the living belonging to Catherine’s late husband he has had the pastoral care of this Virginia since she was 8 or 10, and already over thirty at the beginning of this time, he has effectively groomed her for a decade to be his wife.

The novel might have been called ‘Christopher Pushes On’. He does and with some success. But don’t imagine Catherine/Elizabeth is the victim; she derives a great deal of pleasure and happiness from the process. Spring of course doesn’t last for ever, but when it ends Christopher deals with that too, and better than we might have expected.

At times flowery, definitely old-fashioned – you wouldn’t read von Arnim if there was a Virginia Woolf or Vita Sackville-West handy – sometimes farce and sometimes tragedy, this is nevertheless an interesting take on an age-old subject.


Elizabeth von Arnim, Love, first pub. 1925. Now available from Virago. 408pp. Audible version read by Eleanor Bron, 2013. 11 hrs. The cover I have chosen is from Google Books and the artist is Egon Schiele (1890-1918). I can’t determine the name of the painting.

The Immortal Hour is an opera, by English composer Rutland Boughton, which ran in London for 216 consecutive performances in 1922, and for a further 160 the following year.

Beau Ideal, PC Wren

12 Books of Boyhood. #1

No, I’m not fortunate enough to have this dustjacket, this is the first edition cover, though I have a similar cover, with the legionnaire seated, for my copy of PC Wren’s The Wages of Virtue (first pub. 1916. 25th reprint 1942). My copy of Beau Ideal is a first reprint of the first edition, 1928, in which year it was a Xmas present “from George”. And for which I paid 10c, probably in 1967 (at which date it was not as old as, for instance Monkey Grip is today, which is an odd thought).

Percival Christopher Wren (1875-1941) was of the lower middle class, a school teacher, the son of a school teacher, who worked to put himself through university, getting an MA from St Catherine’s Society, Oxford University, a non-collegiate institution for poorer students. He taught in England and in India.

Wren enlisted for WWI in India but saw no service (he was 40) and may have enlisted after the War in the French Foreign Legion, or may just have knocked around North Africa for a bit. Note that The Wages of Virtue, which was his first collection of stories about the Foreign Legion, was published well before he had any opportunity to be a legionnaire himself.

Beau Ideal was the third of the trilogy, Beau Geste (1924), Beau Sabreur (1926) and Beau Ideal (1928) which sought to highlight the British upper middle class, Boys Own ideals of honour and sacrifice, held firm in a seething cauldron (don’t all cauldrons seethe?) of underclass foreigners, sand and Arabs – Bedouin and Touareg.

Spoilers: I’m going to have to give away some of the ‘surprise’ elements in the stories here, otherwise you won’t make sense of what is going on, not that I remember everything anyway. Let us start at Brandon Abbas, a fine home in rural England. Living there are Lady (Patricia) Brandon, her nephews/wards twins Michael (Beau) and Digby Geste, their younger brother John, Claudia who may be Lady B’s illegitimate daughter, and Isobel (why she lives there, I don’t remember and I haven’t started re-reading at this stage). And maybe also a priest.

At a dinner party the lights go out. When they come back on the Brandon jewels are found to be missing and so also is Beau. Digby disappears soon after. John assumes they have gone to join the French Foreign Legion and goes after them.

They have various adventures in North Africa. Beau dies. Digby, John and two Americans, Hank and Buddy, escape into the desert. Digby dies. John comes home, returns, is imprisoned as a mutineer, abandoned in a grain silo with half a dozen others.

Hank and Buddy are rescued by Bedouin, pretend to be mute, learn Arabic, and end up rulers of their tribe, of all the surrounding tribes.

Mary, an American tourist, is caught up in a Muslim uprising, is rescued by a fakir who turns out to be a French officer in disguise – the “beau sabreur”. They, and Mary’s maid, escape into the desert, meet up with Hank and Buddy’s lot. And it turns out Hank is her brother.

And so we get to Beau Ideal. The scene in the prison/silo, a dying John being saved by a well-spoken American, forms the Prologue. And then we go back a few years (I’ve always assumed the Beau Geste stories were set pre-WWI, but I’m still not sure)

A nice American boy, Otis, is visiting rellos in rural England. Brandon Abbas is just over the hill. The Gestes are still children. He makes friends with them, falls hopelessly in love with Isabel.

Oh, to be seventeen again! Seventeen, on a most glorious English spring day, the day on which you have first encountered the very loveliest thing in all the world ..

We go on for some chapters in this vein. I find it less compelling than I did 55 years ago! Interestingly, Wren’s ideas on men retaining their ‘purity’ are very similar to those of his contemporary, Miles Franklin, though Wren is much more likely to at least mention unmarried sex and illegitimate children.

Otis makes a couple more (brief) trips to England while he’s at Harvard; discovers Isabel and John were engaged, secretly, the day before John took off after Beau and Digby; breaks with his domineering father as his older brother, Noel, had before him; comes into money; travels around Europe with his sister; they’re invited by a Colonel in the Spahis to visit him in North Africa …

As with most boys adventure stories in the time of empire, you have to put up with a lot of racism.

I have no views to offer on the subject of the ethics of the “peaceful penetration” of an uncivilized country by a civilized one. But nobody could travel southward from Bouzen, contrasting the Desert with the Sown, without perceiving that the penetration was for the greatest good of the greatest number, and ultimately for the whole world’s good, inasmuch as cultivation and production succeeded fallow waste; order and peace succeeded lawlessness and war; and the blessings of civilization succeeded the curses of savagery.

He’s talking about North Africa for chrissake the cradle of European civilization, who had maths and literature when the English had animal skins and woad! And of course all Arabs are oily and untrustworthy, town Arabs especially. Desert Arabs, if savage are at least sometimes noble. [The place names Bouzen and Zaguig, in either Algeria or Morocco, are apparently fictional].

A jihad breaks out while Otis is in Zaguig – I am reminded of how familiar Western commentary felt after 9/11, our illegal invasion of Iraq, and the rise of ISIS – and he fears for his life: “The loathsome indignity of it – a white man struggling impotent in the hands of blacks – his clothes torn from his body ..” Otis is wounded, unconscious under piles of Arab bodies; the French garrison falls. He winds up in Kent. in a sanatorium, where also is Isabel.

John has seen his brothers die, escaped, come home, married Isabel. But Buddy and Hank are still in the desert and he must find them. He has returned to Africa, been arrested by the French, and consigned to the penal battalions. Isabel begs Otis to find him, bring him home. So of course he too joins the Legion, is consigned to the penal battalions. And at the very last minute, finds John. But they are delivered into the hands of villains, are rescued by a half English, half Arab dancing girl whom Otis in desperation promises to marry, and so the adventures continue …

Why is all this so important (to me)? Firstly, I was bought up on a diet almost exclusively Boys Own fiction. Indeed, I had a subscription to Boys Own, or a magazine very similar, in primary school. Boys lived in posh houses, went to boarding school, their mothers had at least a cook and a maid, girls were ok, but were to be treated with respect and care, young women were to be adored from afar. And despite the fact I never saw a servant in my life – well, Granddad had a farmhand when I was really young – I bought into all that.

I may well have had Beau Ideal earlier than 1967, because I remember trying out some of Wren’s Foreign Legion French in French essays in third form (1965). I was in the Western District then and the squattocracy really did live in manor houses. I would spend weekends at Moyne Falls station, where my mate’s father was manager, which had a main house with 20 bedrooms, a tennis court, an airstrip, half a dozen subsidiary houses for staff, 12,000 acres of prime grazing, and so on.

And then, I have always had a girl that I was “in love with” for as a long as I could remember. Sometimes they knew, and sometimes they didn’t. The thing was that doing great deeds for a hopeless passion seemed perfectly natural.

By the time I was 16 or 17 and became aware that kids, some kids, the rough ones, around me were having sex, I was both horrified and fascinated. Boy-girl relations were on a pedestal, and I didn’t have any framework that included “bad girls”. I went part of the way, third base!, but never really believed that I might go all the way. Until of course, I did. But that’s another story

You will see that dynamic again, when we get to A Difficult Young Man, which I read for my matric, and which influenced me in the same way. As I remember, The Way of All Flesh, another matric text, was different, but equally important, in that its principal story was the rebellion of son against father (as was this, partly). They’ll be my next two reads, for February and March.


PC Wren, Beau Ideal, John Murray, London, 1928. 348pp

Potential read-alongers, I started on The Cardboard Crown (# 1 in the Langton tetralogy) last night, and will proceed to #2 A Difficult Young Man asap in order to write it up for Feb. I don’t have 3 & 4, Outbreak of Love and When Blackbirds Sing and I guess I’m unlikely to come across them.

Beautiful World Where Are You, Sally Rooney

Yes, that’s a very undistinguished cover. Will it affect sales? No, of course not. But look at me! Slips of paper marking passages to quote. Not me at all since uni days.

On Friday I had to buy books for birthdays so I was always going to pick up the new Sally Rooney. Unfortunately, Saturday I had work. A quick trip to Geraldton (440 km), load four pieces of roadworking machinery, home the same day. Good theory! At 6am the truck wouldn’t start, phoned my usual mechanics, no answer; phoned Volvo, they finally picked up at 7.00, long weekend, busy etc., maybe they could come out the week after next; phoned my mate Kevin whose paddock I park in, he got up and came out and offered to swap out the starter motor. 10am I was on my way.

Got to Geraldton where the roadworks were in a residential beachside subdivision, made my way through streets and tiny roundabouts with two trailers (not three, thank goodness); the road crew had all gone home the night before but had left me the keys, they said; two problems, where were the keys, certainly not where they said they would be, and this was machinery I had never driven before in my life. By the time I found the keys it was getting on for dusk. I dropped my trailers, found a motel which wasn’t booked out for the long weekend, settled down in front of a TV and the Grand Final (AFL football); and after, made a start on Rooney.

Next morning, Sunday, I set up my trailers, drove the bobcat and three road rollers very slowly up the ramps, steel rollers slipping and sliding even with rubber mats to provide friction; strapped and chained them all down. Five hours! Too many tourists at the three or four stops on the highway home for me to bother queuing for dried out chips for lunch. Home in the evening, well Millie’s, but she was having meat pasties (smelt lovely) so I made do with toast and cheese.

Today, Monday’s a public holiday. I never have any idea when WA is having a public holiday, let alone what for, I think the Queen has already had her birthday. I should be using the time to do truck stuff. You know, crawl around underneath and look industrious, but I put that off and read Rooney instead.

She is undoubtedly the best writer in English since DH Lawrence.

The story is of a writer, Alice, thirtyish, a brilliant success on the back of her first two novels, living in a big house in Galway after a breakdown; her best friend since college, Eileen, a poorly paid editor with a literary magazine in Dublin; Simon, five or so years older, a back-room, presumably left of centre politician, loving/friends with Eileen since she was 15; and Felix, a thirtyish guy, warehouse worker, who in the first chapter meets Alice on a Tinder date. She takes him home, they don’t hit it off, but as they live in the same small coastal town, they must inevitably meet again.

The story is carried forward by marvellously distant third person prose with no internality at all;

On the platform of a train station, late morning, early June: two women embracing after a separation of several months. Behind them, a tall fair-haired man alighting from the train carrying two suitcases [Alice, Eileen, Simon]. The two women unspeaking, their eyes closed tight … for a second, two seconds, three.

by chapters which are entirely one email from Alice to Elaine or from Elaine to Alice; and by their speech, their (infrequent) phone calls, their texts and the exchange of photographs, just as you might expect in 2019-20, the year before and then, in the final chapters, the year of, the plague.

The emails in particular consisting of the deepest introspection and philosphising, hence the comparison with Lawrence. On sex, for instance –

To me it’s normal to meet people and think of them in a sexual way without actually having sex with them – or, more to the point, without even imagining having sex with them, without even thinking about imagining it. This suggests that sexuality has some ‘other’ content which is not about the act of sex. And maybe even a majority of our sexual experiences are mostly this ‘other’… Our ways of thinking and speaking about sexuality seem so limited, compared to the exhausting and debilitating power of sexuality as we experience it in our real lives.

And also, on God. But no quotes! Simon is both a good person and a Roman Catholic. The others are not. There are discussions on the possibility of Good and Evil without God. Alice comes round to thinking there must be ‘something’. There are hints that the Beautiful World of the title, the possibility of Goodness, is hidden, “concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality”.

The plot itself is straightforward and unimportant, perhaps at the end a little trite even. Couples come together, misunderstand each other, step apart etc., etc. Rooney writes feelingly about the burden of success. But the writing, the exploration of character, of what it means to be thirty and on your way or not on your way, of relationships, of ideas, is brilliant.


Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, Faber, London, 2021. 337pp.

The Italian, Ann Radcliffe

Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was most famously the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and she was if not the founder then the popularizer of the sensationalist school of writing known as Gothic Fiction. Udolpho was the fourth of her six novels and The Italian (1797) was her fifth. It is notable that as a teenager Jane Austen was making fun of Gothic Fiction as early as 1794 (Love and Freindship) and more particularly in Northanger Abbey (1818) which was first sold (as ‘Susan‘), though not published, in 1796. This may have been directed at Radcliffe, though I suspect there was a body of Gothic fiction out there before Radcliffe began writing at the end of the 1780s.

Walter Scott, in his first Introduction to Waverley (1814) was more specific, stating that the reader would find in his work neither Udolpho, nor “mysterious associations of Rosycrucians and Illuminati”.

My Oxford University Press World’s Classics edition (1968) has an Introduction by Frederick Garber in which he states –

[With] the sensationally successful Mysteries of Udolpho Mrs Radcliffe established for herself a position which few other novelists, Gothic or otherwise, could seriously challenge until the appearance of the Waverley novels..

Some of her popularity, and certainly much of her genius, rested in her ability to blend various themes and modes of eighteenth century literature into a distinctive style. It would be a mistake to think of her books primarily as terror fiction, though they have a good deal of the potentially ghastly in them. More accurately, they are basically novels of sensibility with heroes and heroines straight out of the tradition of Richardson, Prévost, and especially Rousseau… Mrs Radcliffe’s novels demonstrate her wide reading in the popular literature of the eighteenth century, not only in sentimental fiction but in the novels of terror like Walpole’s, the poetry of landscape like Thomson’s, and a wide variety of melancholics like Young and the elegaic Gray. Most of all though, she read Shakespeare.

Some notes following on from Garber:
Walpole. Horace Walpole (1717-1797) wrote what is generally accepted as the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764)
Richardson. Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) wrote three epistolary novels including Jane Austen’s favourite, The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753).
Prévost. Antoine Francois Prévost d’Exiles (1697-1763) was a French monk and writer who spent some time in England and wrote a number of works, including translations into French of Richardson’s three novels.
Rousseau. Presumably Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778) French philosopher and inventor of the autobiography. He wrote at least one novel, the sentimental/romantic Julie, or the New Heloise (1761).

I am really, really trying to get a handle on the novel pre-Austen and Scott. The more I look the more I see the C18th stuffed with significant, and not so significant, writers and now I’m being directed towards French fiction as well!

The Italian is set in Naples and in the heavily wooded mountains behind Naples and to the south. I see no evidence that Radcliffe was ever there, or ever left England, but I’m sure she had plenty of accounts of grand tours to draw on. The story is that a young man, Vivaldi while wandering above Naples hears a young woman singing from her balcony (of course!) and falls in love with her. The young woman, Ellena is poor but of gentle birth and lives with her aged aunt. Vivaldi and his faithful servant Paulo (I think here of Don Quixote, first published in English in 1612-1620) in making their way up the road to hear Elena, are stopped in a darkened doorway by a shadowy figure and warned not to proceed. They pursue the figure, who continually eludes them, and one night lures them into a dungeon where they are seemingly trapped.

Vivaldi’s parents, the Marchese and Marchesa, are opposed to Vivaldi marrying a woman without a fortune. Vivaldi however, wins over Ellena’s aunt and she persuades her niece to follow her heart and accept Vivaldi’s suit.

Vincentio di Vilvaldi was the only son of the Marchese di Vivaldi, a nobleman of one of the most ancient families of the kingdom of Naples, a favourite possessing an uncommon share of influence at Court, and a man still higher in power than in rank. His pride in birth was equal to either, but it was mingled with the justifiable pride of a principled mind …

The mother of Vivaldi, descended from a family as ancient as that of his father, was equally jealous of her importance; but her pride was that of birth and distinction, without extending to morals. She was of violent passions, haughty, vindictive, yet crafty and deceitful …

The villain of the piece, and by some accounts the central character, is Schedoni, the Marchesa’s confessor, with whom she conspires to prevent the young couple marrying.

We then go on with all the heartstopping ups and downs for which Gothic is famous. The aunt dies mysteriously. Ellena is kidnapped by monks and carried off to a nunnery before Vivaldi can rescue her. He spends weeks in torment until he receives accounts of a mysterious carriage leaving town that night. Ellena is offered the choice of becoming a nun or perpetual imprisonment. Vivaldi and Paulo insinuate themselves into a group of pilgrims, make their way to the nunnery, and with inside assistance and miles of gloomy underground passages spirit Ellena to safety.

Without a chaperone to be seen, Ellena is taken down the mountains and through the woods to a lakeside convent where she should be safe. Vivaldi resides nearby and attempts to break down her resistance to marrying him when his parents are so violently opposed.

Ellena immediately admitted the sacredness of the promise which she had formerly given, and assured Vivaldi that she considered herself as indissolubly bound to wed him as if it had been given at the altar; but she objected to confirmation of it, till his family should seem willing to receive her for their daughter; when, forgetting the injuries she had received from them, she would no longer refuse their alliance.

Nevertheless, Vivaldi wears her down. But, at the very altar, the young couple are arrested by the Inquisition …

And so it goes on. You can see, the obscurity of the language is impossible, but the sense of adventure is palpable. Radcliffe builds the tension very well and it is clear why she was so popular. The animus towards the Catholic church is harder to explain. England had been officially Protestant for more than a century but Catholics, I think, still made a convenient ‘other’ and racism towards Catholics was prevalent in the Anglosphere until the 1950s (partly of course as something to beat the Irish with).

Should you read it? No! Did I enjoy it? The story was fun but the language was too much work, so no. Does it have a happy ending? I’m not letting on.


Ann Radcliffe, The Italian: Or the Confessional of the Black Penitents, A Romance, first pub. 1797. My edition Oxford University Press World’s Classics, 1968, with Introduction by Frederick Garber, Professor of English at the State University of New York, Binghampton

How We Are Translated, Jessica Gaitán Johannesson

Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) is hard work! Each infintessimal advance in the plot takes soo many words. I needed a break. Grandson Dingo needed books for his first birthday. And once inside the bookshop I couldn’t really not check out new releases. So now I own How We Are Translated and John Kinsella’s short story collection, Pushing Back.

Johannesson “grew up speaking Spanish and Swedish and currently lives primarily in English”. She lives in Bath and the book is set in Edinburgh, about which she writes as though she had lived there too.

I was attracted to the book because it seemed to be in the first place a book about words, about language, about languages, about playing with the way words and meanings change as they slip from one language to another. It is turning out to be a very difficult work to write about, so I will start by answering Melanie’s question up front. Did I like it? Yes I did, Very much.

My question, Is it Literature? is more difficult to answer. At one level, How We Are Translated is ‘just’ a whimsical novel about a bi-lingual young woman dealing with her boyfriend/partner (no one says de facto anymore, though that is the relationship they are in. Is that maybe because ‘living together’ is no longer intended/expected to be permanent?) and with her (odd) job. But at another level the author clearly expects us to look at her writing as well as at her story. In particular the way she counterposes Swedish and English. So, yes, Literature.

After reading the whole book I find I don’t know the protagonists’ names. The author/narrator refers to them as I and you. She I think is Kirsten or Kristin, a Swede five years in Edinburgh, who found her odd employment to see her through uni, but is now two years graduated and still in the same job. He is Brazillian, brown, adopted young by a Scotswoman, who in the last couple of years has trained as a nurse and works for the council as a carer, visiting old people. They live in a flat, on the second or third floor. I see much/all of this in the text, but it bothers me that I look out for it because of the blurb I necessarily read to make the purchase. I hate blurbs. They spoil the reading experience. But how else can you choose?

As the book begins, they have not so much stopped talking, as stopped communicating. It is a difficult time, The Project has commenced, and ‘he’ has responded by insisting on communicating only in Swedish, which he has only just begun to learn. The Project? An unplanned and as yet unconfirmed pregnancy which they may or may not terminate, and about which, the pregnancy and the termination, they both speak obliquely, fearing to bring it out into the open.

I’m looking for quotes. The word Ciarin pops up from time to time. I’ve been ignoring it but perhaps it’s ‘his’ name. I wonder if I’d thought that earlier, some passages would have made more/different sense.

You said you wanted to ‘immerse’ yourself in ‘my language’ to ‘prepare’. ‘For both our sakes,’ you said, which is NOT an answer to why you’re JUST NOT HERE ANYMORE…

By the way, Swedish isn’t going to help you much if your future is within the NHS. And anyway, didn’t you say there was no future?

‘Jag är ledsen,’ you said.

This means ‘I am sad’, though he means it as ‘I am sorry’ which, as we Australians already know from (former Prime Minister) John Howard’s refusal to say ‘I am sorry’ to Aboriginal Australians, can express both sorrow and an acceptance of guilt.

Her ‘odd’ employment is as a Norse woman, Solveig, in an ongoing historical diorama about immigrants to Scotland, in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle. There are 3 or 4 ‘Norse’ – Ida, Solveig’s mother in law played by an Icelandic woman, and Sigurd/Niklas, a Norweigan. At work, they may only speak their ‘home’ language, so Solveig and Ida must communicate via Sigurd who luckily understands both Swedish and Icelandic. Their supervisor, and each ethnic group has a bureaucrat to enforce the rules and advance their interests over the others, Joanne Tarbuck, speaks only English (and schoolgirl French it later transpires) so must communicate with them by gestures, or hold them back for meetings after work.

The other ethnic groups are Lithuanian coal miners, farmers waylaid on their way to America, and Irish dock workers. Towards the end I may have noticed some emigrés from the French Revolution.

The elements of the plot are that the Lithuanians are plotting a rebellion and K won’t go to the doctor to confirm her pregnancy, but increasingly stays up all night worrying and walking the streets. ‘She’ ignores ‘his’ texts, in increasingly good Swedish, but wallows in the emails from their early days.

Mitt nya favoritord:



My new favourite word:



K does this quite often, As he tries out a new word she looks at its literal meaning. [I’ve used ‘columns’ for the first time – Emma, how do you do it? – but the Swedish and English won’t line up and I’ve had to switch to Classic block to trick the columns into ending].

The truth of the matter is that you haven’t told me what you think is the right thing to do either, and you think I haven’t noticed that you’re as far from knowing what you want as I am.

From that point of view it’s a touching story, and it comes to a head, sort of, as the Lithuanians mount their rebellion. There are other elements, the use of language of course, K’s relationship with Joanne Tarbuck is a mild satire on bureaucratism, and there’s ‘his’ status as an overseas adoptee which she is more interested than he is, or than he is willing to talk about.

Give it a try. It’s an innovative work, not quite but nearly up to the standard of Normal People, and I hope it features in next year’s awards.


Jessica Gaitán Johannesson, How We Are Translated, Scribe, London/Melbourne, 2021. 229pp

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Until I read or re-read Jane Eyre last year all my memories were from the 1943 Orson Welles movie with a young Elizabeth Taylor (above right) as Helen Burns. I didn’t write a review straight away because I was going to discuss it with my family who all seemed to be holding strong views. But then, Covid.

So, I’ve been listening to it again. Unfortunately when my last trip ended I was only up to Jane lying starving at the door of Moor House. But I’ve made some notes, which my family can discuss at our various do’s over the next two weekends – which of course have now passed if you’re reading this.

If you’re reading this, isn’t that a famous way to begin. If you’re reading this, they’ve come to get me, as a concerned friend wrote privately to warn me after I expressed the wish that Kirribili House be bombed. I didn’t mean with the Prime Minister’s family in it, but just as a reaction when I learned it was Scotty from Marketing’s official residence though we pay him to live in and govern from Canberra. I really must learn to be more temperate (in the last few years left to me).

So as I was saying before I chose to interrupt myself, if you’re reading this then Gee, Milly, I and anyone else who joined in, have if not reached a conclusion, then at least have had a say. Here are my notes:

Jane Eyre is apparently the first novel ever to follow the consciousness of a first-person protagonist.

My interest is in the way that Brontë regards employment for young middle class women as natural, and posits that they may prefer to be employed than to be married, or may continue their employment after marriage (see also, The Professor).

Gateshead Hall

JE aged 5-10 is bullied by her 14 yo old cousin John and by her Aunt Reed, whose daughters, Eliza and Georgiana, about Jane’s age, generally follow her (their mother’s) lead. I got the feeling, though it was never anywhere stated, that the danger from John would soon be sexual, and that she was well out of there.

Bessie the nursemaid is short tempered and this obscures from Jane the real affection Bessie has for her.

Jane demonstrates her inner strength (and surprising command of language) by speaking out to her aunt about the unfairness of the way she has been treated.

Lowood Institution

Brocklehurst, the head of Lowood, is a bully and a misogynist (eg. his hatred of curled hair which inflames his lust, which otherwise seems to have had little outlet if he has been restricted to just two offspring, now grown). But after two years at Lowood, he is the last bully Jane has to contend with.

Jane is loved by Helen Burns and by the Superintendent, Miss Temple, although they both leave her. But over the next 8 years, lightly passed over, 6 as star pupil and 2 as teacher, she seems to have gained a healthy (ie. normal) self esteem. Jane already has another friend by the time Helen Burns dies and we may therefore assume she had friends throughout her time at school; but it is still good that Bessie calls on her before she leaves to remind her that she has friends in the wider world.

Thornfield Hall

Jane slots in easily to her role as governess to Adele; and slowly falls in love with her master, Edward Rochester. Brontë the vicar’s daughter seems quite comfortable writing about Rochester’s mistress, the mistress’s various lovers, and Rochester’s subsequent mistresses.

A theme comes to its head here which draws comparison with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and that is Jane’s susceptibility to ghost stories. The shrieks which she assigns to Grace Poole in the room above hers of course don’t help.

Gateshead Hall

Jane comfortably deals with her cousins as their equal, indeed their superior in intellect and moral development. The spoilt and selfish Georgiana goes on to a socially successful marriage (Brontë doesn’t bother drawing a moral from her behaviour); Eliza eschews marriage for the nunnery and a life of contemplation and there too Brontë comments on neither the ‘goodness’ nor the sterility of her choice.

What I am trying to say is that Jane is growing into a self-assured young woman, and that the comparisons with Georgiana and Eliza demonstrate she is probably taking the path that suits her best.

Thornfield Hall

Rochester proposes, Jane accepts, and the marriage is aborted at the altar by the revelation of Rochester’s youthful marriage to the mad Bertha.

There are elements of racism here, in references to Bertha’s mother being ‘Creole’ and also in an earlier instance where Jane unnecessarily refers to ‘Jewish usury’. The madness is portrayed as a moral and perhaps even a racial failing and not as an illness.

Interestingly, Brontë has Jane give serious consideration to becoming Rochester’s mistress and then has her feeling guilty about the pain she is causing R by fleeing.

Spoilers. As I said, my trip ended with Jane prostrate at the door of Moor House. Leaving aside the ‘Gothic’ coincidence of the occupants of the house being her cousins, and this is to some extent a gothic novel, this chapter of Jane’s life is characterised by her ability to support herself as a teacher, and the pressure her cousin St John Rivers puts her under to accompany him to India as his wife and assistant (more bullying?). But Brontë clearly doesn’t intend Jane to be a martyr. She inherits and shares with her cousins a fortune (which as she was a minor, should have been impossible) and returns to Thornfield Hall.

Gee wrote back as soon as she had my notes to say that she thought Brontë lost her nerve in this final section, that Jane Eyre was a potentially great Independent Woman brought down by an inconstant author:

The idea that a young poor friendless woman would be enough for a rich handsome man, simply because he likes her personality is unacceptable to the writer.

My own first thoughts were to compare Brontë and Jane Austen. Snippy Elizabeth Bennet was never going to be other than a rich man’s wife, whereas Jane Eyre, like JA (and almost Ch. Brontë) may well have stayed unmarried. The best comparison for Jane Eyre is Uncle Gardiner. They are both plain, reliable and self-sufficient. Jane is slightly above him in birth and he of course is well above her in wealth.

I am not so unhappy as Gee that Jane chose marriage – I’m a sucker for love stories – though I agree it was unnecessary to make her and Rochester more equal. I envisage Jane going on to a productive life improving the villages around Thornfield and of course, funding and supervising schools.


Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, first pub. 1847.

As you can see, none of us, over the course of two long weekends, looked up from our food and drink long enough to engage in bookish discussions.

The Professor, Charlotte Brontë

In 1846 and 1854 respectively, two women, both aged about 30, one, English, from Yorkshire, and one, Australian, from Scotland, submitted their first novels for publication. The former, an immature work, was rejected and was only published, posthumously, a decade later. The latter was published immediately and was for a long time regarded as the finest work written in Australia. The two novels, both portraits of and by young, educated women, without money or family support, forced to seek positions abroad as teachers, and which I just happen to be reading simultaneously, are The Professor and Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morrison.

Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre a year after The Professor was rejected and has been famous ever since. Spence was a fine writer, tireless reformer, the mother of Suffragism in Australia, and a champion of women’s rights throughout the Anglosphere, but her writing, being Australian, remains in obscurity.

I implied otherwise above, but Brontë’s protagonist is a young man, William Crimsworth. Though when this novel is later re-written as Villette (1853), the protagonist, a teacher at an academy for young ladies in fictional Villette (Brussels), is once more a woman, Lucy Snowe.

The Professor begins with a letter from Crimsworth to a former Eton schoolmate, never subsequently mentioned, setting the scene for what follows. Basically, Crimsworth is parentless, in the care of two upper class uncles, who offer him, one, a living (that is as a clergyman) and the other, “one of my six cousins, his daughters, all of whom I greatly dislike. I declined both the Church and matrimony.”

Instead he takes a position with his older brother Edward, a wealthy mill-owner, as a clerk, in order to learn about Trade, in the town of X— in —-shire (which is annoying enough to read, but far worse to have repeatedly read to you). The brothers don’t get on; another mill owner, Hunsden takes an interest in William; basically gets him the sack; and recommends that he seek employment in Brussels where he, Hunsden often has business.

The date is nowhere specified except as before railways –

This is Belgium, reader. Look! don’t call the picture a flat or a dull one–it was neither flat nor dull to me when I first beheld it. When I left Ostend on a mild February morning, and found myself on the road to Brussels, nothing could look vapid to me…

I gazed often, and always with delight, from the window of the diligence (these, be it remembered, were not the days of trains and railroads).

Charlotte and Emily Brontë, then aged 26 and 24, went to Brussels as teachers in 1842. Going by what railway history I can discover, Charlotte’s novel must be set in the 1820s. I’m guessing she did this so that she could take her protagonist through a decade or two without ending up in the future.

William Crimsworth, then aged about 20, is recommended to a live-in position in a boys school by a friend of Hunsden’s, and after some months is offered an extra couple of hours teaching per day at the girls school next door. And so, finally, Charlotte can begin to write from her own experience.

..shone on by the full light of the large window, were the occupants of the benches just before me, of whom some were girls of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, some young women from eighteen (as it appeared to me) up to twenty; the most modest attire, the simplest fashion of wearing the hair, were apparent in all; and good features, ruddy, blooming complexions, large and brilliant eyes, forms full, even to solidity, seemed to abound. I did not bear the first view like a stoic; I was dazzled, my eyes fell, and in a voice somewhat too low I murmured, “Prenez vos cahiers de dictee, mesdemoiselles.”

The principal of the girls school, Mlle Reuter, a good looking woman maybe 10 years older than Crimsworth, begins to pay him a lot of attention and he finds himself falling under her spell, a spell which is broken when he overhears her discussing with the principal of the boys school, M. Pelet, their planned marriage. Until he gets on his high horse with Pelet, and he gets on his high horse with nearly everyone eventually, he really is a very immature boy, Crimsworth is often teased by Pelet about Mlle Reuter and asked to compare her attractions with those of the young women in his classes. In fact the author spends a great deal of time (or ink) on the appearance of the girls, while the boys school is quite forgotten.

Crimsworth doesn’t mix much with the female teachers, but is one day asked by Mlle Reuter to include as a pupil in his English classes a young Swiss woman, Mlle Henri, well educated but who due to poverty is forced to teach lace mending – a situation quite analogous as it happens to that of Clara Morison. From this point Mlle Henri gradually takes over the novel. Crimsworth begins to take an interest in her. The aunt who is her only support dies. She’s fired and it is some months before Crimsworth can locate her again. And so we have made our way over the course of a year to Chapter XXV, the last.

Frances Henri is of course likeable, but more importantly she is independent. Charlotte Brontë was 38 before she consented to marry her father’s curate and within 10 months was dead, of complications arising out of her pregnancy. On her return from Brussels she had attempted to open a school with her sisters, but it failed to attract any pupils.

In this last chapter Mlle Henri and Crimsworth marry. They both continue to teach. He earns rather more than she, through his private pupils, so she determines to open a school. With his support. It is successful. After three years she delivers him a son, but just one. And she continues to teach and run the school! Brontë is upending every stereotype of Victorian-era women. Eventually they sell up and return to England and live happily ever after in a big house in —shire, 30 miles from X— and within walking distance of the estate of their good friend Hunsden.

I have Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, which I will try and read this year, and also I will listen to Jane Eyre again and carry out my plan for a family review – a sort of symposium I guess – which Milly and the kids were keen to do before Covid-19 intervened.


Charlotte Brontë, The Professor, first pub. 1857. My version: Isis, 2019, read by David Thorpe. 10 hrs 40 min.