The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: June, 2012

On First Looking into Allingham’s Diary

William Allingham (1824-1889) was a County Donegal protestant who spent most of his adult life in London, a successful man of letters. I picked up his diary in a second-hand bookshop, knowing he was an intimate of Thomas Carlyle. Indeed, along with Tennyson, Carlyle features heavily in the diary. Allingham himself remains a shadowy figure, a reflector through which Carlyle, et al. are filtered, but rarely an agent in his own right.

William Allingham

The diaries are prefaced by Allingham’s own account of his childhood in Donegal, which was to be the opening of his autobiography, never completed. Here he makes one remarkable admission:

In these first years I do not remember to have felt any emotion of affection either for my parents or for anybody else.

This is not to say he remembers an unhappy childhood, just that his parents were not affectionate towards him, and he in turn never felt affection for anybody: “The persons around me were personae merely”.

Another recollection of Allingham’s reminds me of a childhood preoccupation of my own:

A terrible thought of Eternity sometimes came, weighing upon me like a nightmare,- on and on and on, always beginning and never ending, never ending at all, for ever and ever and ever,- till the mind, fatigued, fell into a doze as it were and forgot.

The thought of space, its apparent endlessness, and the conceptual impossibility but simultaneous inevitability of such endlessness, was one that occasionally came upon me in my youngest years with a dazzling force, and I once asked my father, “What’s at the end of space?” He answered, “Bog”. I persisted: “What’s after that?” He said, “More bog”. This answer was unsatisfactory, and bore a clear bias towards envisioning infinite space in the image of the local landscape. It took me much longer to find an acceptable answer to this conundrum, but eventually I stumbled upon Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time. I didn’t get very far in that dense tome, but within the first few pages I was introduced to the woman who interrupted a scientist lecturing on astronomy with a cry of “Rubbish! The world is a flat plate standing on the back of a giant turtle.” “What,” the scientist asked, “is the turtle standing on?” The woman replied, “You’re very clever, young man, but it’s turtles all the way down.” [quote from memory not verbatim]. I had my answer, and their was no need to read any further. Alas, Allingham did not live long enough to receive such satisfaction.

Not part of the diary is the famous quote said to have been made by Carlyle to Allingham. Allingham was discoursing on something or other, when Carlyle suddenly turned to him and said “Mon, have a care, have a care, for ye have a tur-r-ruble faculty for developing into a bore”. It turns out, James McNeill Whistler is the source for this, one of my favourite Carlyle quotes, having been allegedly told it by Allingham himself. In any case, I will continue reading Allingham’s diary with interest, for it is a good source of information and anecdote and character insight into Carlyle, Tennyson and various other personages of the period 1850-1889. And, I should add, in so far as his diary is a testament, Allingham was by no means a bore, but a great observer and recorder of character, and a curiously and interestingly reserved presence in his own diary.

21st-century Sage: Niall Ferguson and the Western Malaise

Niall Ferguson wrote a book in 2000 entitled The Cash Nexus, the phrase derived from Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843), and it seems the influence of the prototypical Victorian Sage is strong in the right-wing historian/ economist. In his article “Rue Britannia: Debt used to make us Great” in the Sunday Times of last week (17 June 2012), he was in full neo-sage mode as he identified the “malaise” at the heart of western society, and issued dire warnings for the consequences of our current recklessness.

                            Niall Ferguson

Thomas Carlyle                                                                  Niall Ferguson

The sage approach is characterized by first referencing a current social issue: for example, worker unrest in Chartism; for Ferguson, the issue is, of course, the economic difficulties engulfing various western states. Then, he makes the classic sage move: considering the problem not in itself, but as a symptom of a society rotten to the core. Financial problems are “nothing more than symptoms of an underlying instittutional malaise”. Like Carlyle, Ferguson harks back to a time when society was well-ordered: for Carlyle, it was feudalism; for Ferguson, it seems to be any time between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the dusk of the British Empire. This was a time of “legislating for economic development” and when “even war became an increasingly profitable activity […] There was no default. There was no inflation. And Britannia bestrode the globe”. But now, Ferguson repeats, we have arguments over austerity and stimulus as “a consequence of a more profound malaise”.

But the sage must not only condemn, he must also make clear the dangers of our path. For Carlyle, that lay in class antagonisms, which would end in revolution and anarchy if not appeased by the prophesied “Aristocracy of Talent”. For Ferguson, the fear is that the west is on the way to being overtaken by China. He informs us that the average American was 20 times richer than his Chinese counterpart in 1978, but is now only 5 times richer. Truly a sobering statistic. The dangers of Chinese economic power are not expressly identified, but that it is not desirable is clear (he has been more explicit on this elsewhere).

There is always blame that must be apportioned by the sage. Carlyle lambasted the Idle Aristocracy, characterized as “Sir Jabesh Windbag”. This class had  abdicated its responsibility to lead, and had to be overthrown, for the real aristocracy to take over, or mob-rule and another French Revolution would be the outcome. For Ferguson, the blame also falls on the acting aristocracy of our time, the governments and financial decision-makers who have broken the covenant between the generations and are in the process of leaving the coming generations in financial ruin.

There is one desirable way out for Ferguson: “a heroic effort of leadership”, one that would persuade “not only the young but also a significant proportion of the parents and grandparents to vote for a more responsible fiscal policy”. That word, heroic, how evocative it is in a Carlylean context! (See On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (clue’s in the title), or pretty much anything else he wrote). Who Ferguson is talking about is not quite clear, though he does at one point observe: “If young Americans knew what was good for them, they would all be in the Tea Party.” They’re not, though, rather they are still in thrall to the cash nexus, but perhaps, even still, they are only holding out for a hero, and when such a person appears above the political horizon, the western world will bends its collective knee before him and pay due homage. Carlyle would certainly have liked to think so.

In summation, this post has simply tried to pick up on some similar rhetorical devices in use in Ferguson and Carlyle, as part of our ongoing attempts to trace Carlyle’s influence, such as it is, from the 1830s to the present day. In his appeal to national pride and his idealization of the British national past, his appeal to morality (implied in his description of “the present system” as “fraudulent”), his diagnosis of a sickness in our present condition, his apparent nostalgia for warfare and his investment in the idea of heroic leadership, he gives us ample reason to believe that there is at least one neo-Carlylean amongst the celebrated intellects of our time.

Bounderby vs. Four Yorkshiremen

Charles Dickens’ comic sensibility is perhaps somewhat underappreciated in the 21th century: like the readers of the 19th century, we like his books, but profer very different rationales for this predilection. In certain respects, though, Dickens’ humour hasn’t dated at all. This struck me yesterday, when I was watching the 1977 Granada serial adaptation of Hard Times for the first time. I realized that the speech of Josiah Bounderby, played here by Timothy West, closely anticipates the classic At Last the 1948 Show/ Monty Python sketch, “The Four Yorkshiremen”. The series’ scriptwriter, Arthur Hopcroft, does an excellent job pruning Bounderby’s dialogue and bringing his best lines together in a couple of effective scenes. The raw material, though, is all Dickens’s – and, being Dickens, it may require pruning, but no embellishment.

“When it was paving-stones and attics and warehouses for me, it was the opera and Mayfair and Lords and honourables and white satin and jewels for you… WASN’T IT!?” –   Timothy West as Bounderby in Hard Times (1977)

In two early scenes in the serial adaptation, Bounderby, eating gluttonously all the while, gives out a great deal of information about his young life: he spent his tenth birthday in a ditch – not a dry ditch, either, there was a foot of water in it; his mother bolted, and he was cared for by his drunken grandmother, who kept him in an eggbox; he learned his letters from a cripple in St. Giles; a paving-stone was his bed – in short, he concludes with relish, he comes “from the scum of the earth”.

Later, when he admonishes young Tom Bounderby for arriving late to dinner, and Tom retorts that when he (Bounderby) was young he didn’t have to dress for dinner, Bounderby responds:

Dress! Dress! Dress for dinner! No dinner to dress for in my house! No house to have dinner in!

That line could have come directly from Four Yorkshiremen:

-I was happier then and I had nothin’. We used to live in this tiny old house with great big holes in the roof.

-House! You were lucky to live in a house! We used to live in one room, all twenty-six of us, no furniture, ‘alf the floor was missing, and we were all ‘uddled together in one corner for fear of falling.

The similarities throughout are rather striking, enough to make one wonder if Cleese, Chapman, Brooke-Taylor and Feldman (the authors of the sketch) did Hard Times in school. In recent years, HT has been the scourge of many a young student, but it’s interesting to note just how close Dickens’s humour is to a more contemporary style, if not, indeed, a direct influence. In support of the contention that it’s the latter, I cite the name of one of the Four Yorkshiremen, mentioned at the very beginning of the sketch: Josiah. Even the first name is the same as Bounderby’s! Therefore it appears we must give Dickens some credit for one of the truly classic comedy sketches of its era.

Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre and David Lean

Further to my last post about Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, I wish to speak about the opening scene in the film. Moira Buffini’s script rearranges Bronte’s story considerably, bringing Jane’s flight from Thornfield into the beginning, and presenting all the earlier stuff as flashback, interspersed with the scenes from the Rivers household from after the flight, and all this becomes the NOW in the film. In the book, it’s all flashback, as Jane is reciting it all from a “Reader, I married him” vantage point far in the future, and so the NOW isn’t part of the narrative, it just provides a distanced point from which to view everything.

So, anyway, the first shot is of Jane throwing open the doors of Thornfield and rushing out. I was reminded here of that shot at the end of David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) where Pip (John Mills) throws open the windows at Miss Havisham’s, letting in the light, and Estella is thereby magically transfigured and they walk off hand in hand.

First Shot of Jane Eyre, she opens the doors of Thornfield

Pip opens up the windows of Satis House

Then Jane goes out and walks hurriedly away from the house; we see her face for the first time, and her eyes are brimming with tears. There’s a shot of her standing at a crossroads, irresolute, then she sets off walking again. It cuts to her out on the moors, and this is where it begins to recall Lean’s other great Dickens adaptation, Oliver Twist. The weather turns nasty, and we’ve got the same set-up as Lean’s memorable opening scene from Twist (a scene that I have already discussed on this blog), a slight young woman battling against the elements. She is dwarfed by her surroundings, and buffetted by the wind and rain, as she trudges on, viewed in relief against the lowering sky. Then she sees a light in the distance and makes for it, while the rain and wind try to beat her back till, at the end of her strength, she makes it to her destination: in Oliver Twist, this place is the workhouse where the woman gives birth to her son and dies; in Jane Eyre it’s the Rivers house, where Jane is to be reborn.

Agnes’s first appearance.

Jane on the moors.

Lean’s is a great opening sequence, though plot-wise it doesn’t do anything. There’s no exposition. It’s not setting up character, because the woman dies straight afterwards. And, for several minutes at the start of Oliver Twist, there’s no dialogue at all. It’s all about the cinematicity, the visuals: great shots of the sky, the water rippling as the wind rises, the moon coming out from behind a cloud, the bare branches silhouetted against the sky, the briars quivering in the wind, etc.  It’s just a metaphor for the struggle Oliver is to go through in his quest to make a life for himself. Jane Eyre tries the same thing: the complete absence of dialogue, and the evocations of a natural power that in this case is maybe an analogy for Jane’s inner turmoil, the storm raging inside, as it were.

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre, against the elements

Josephine Stuart as Agnes in Oliver Twist.

Ultimately, whatever metaphor one wishes to read into it, the scenario seems to have a suggestive power that has caused the scene to live on, and has caused Fukunaga to revisit it and place it in a different context. This blog post is not the place to go into theorizing the scene, but its recurrence is interesting. The opening of Jane Eyre also goes to demonstrate the pervasive influence of Lean’s Dickens adaptations on the field of 19th century adaptations. I’ve already devoted two posts to Lean’s Oliver Twist’s great influence on subsequent adaptations of that novel, but it even goes beyond that, to adaptations of other novels of similar vintage. Lean is the Shakespeare of the period adaptation, the great precursor who can neither be avoided nor overcome, and his adaptations continue to be mined for inspiration by the “ephebes” of our generation, as Harold Bloom would call them.

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