PAW 26 – Barchester Towers (1180) by Anthony Trollope

The Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope; Penguin Paperback 1180; 1959 edition

The Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope; Penguin Paperback 1180; 1959 edition

Seeing as I my first Penguin A Week post was Trollope’s The Warden, I thought it would be nice to review its sequel, Barchester Towers, at roughly the halfway mark.

As delightful as The Warden was, I found Barchester Towers to be even more so, if only for the reason that it is a longer book, and therefore there is more to delight in. By the standards of most Victorian novels (at least the ones that are still popularly read), The Warden is a novella. Barchester Towers has more of the length and plot development that we would expect when looking at it in context of its contemporaries, such as works by Dickens or Thackery — or even Dumas, Hugo, Tolstoy, etc.

Perversely, I suspect that one of the reasons that Trollope often comes in last when spoken of alongside the authors I just mentioned, is because his work is so much more accessible to the general public, and therefore less appealing to academicians. He is much more relaxed and less abstracted than Dickens and Thackeray. He has a point of view, but he does not seem to care whether the reader shares that or not. He draws attention to himself in the narrative without ostentation, just as someone who is relating a story, informally, after a meal, and who breaks away to explain a point that might hinder understanding or enjoyment later on. Whatever the aims of Victorian Literature may have been, Trollope’s express interest is simply in having you, the reader, enjoy the story, and if it is not enjoyed, then Trollope is obviously happy for you to find amusement elsewhere, and will carry on with his tales with those who are still present for it. (One of my favourite asides occurs in Chapter 6, where Trollope himself, without even using a mouthpiece character, launches into an invective against the modern church sermon

This is a very refreshing aspect for anyone who has read and enjoyed a lot of Victorian fiction. And as with The Warden, the cast of characters is rich and well-developed. Trollope comes close to creating villains in this work in the form of the pious Proudies and the oleaginous Mr Slope. There are also the Stanhopes adding a great deal of conflict into the quiet Barsetshire community with their total indifference towards the problems that they create. Trollope very wittily describes them thus:

The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness (provided it was not contagious), would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal, and then hear of your death or recovery with an equally indifferent composure.

The Grantlys and the Hardings in this book, as in the last, stand at the centre, fighting the good fight against modernism, progressivism, and reform. And so it makes the reading of it rather bittersweet, for the England they fought for is now long gone. But the feeling and intelligence of that age is luckily preserved for us in this and the rest of the Barset novels.


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PAW 25 – The Flying Inn (1338) by G. K. Chesterton

The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 1338; 1958 edition

The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 1338; 1958 edition

The Flying Inn is one of Chesterton’s non-detective fictions. Running in similar a vein to Manalive, the action is less plot-based than character. There is a distinct situation that is created at the start of the story, which is that in the near future, the UK votes for prohibition and so the entire country becomes dry. The two main characters of the book, Humphrey Pump and Captain Patrick Dalroy, decide to take to the road with a wheel of cheese and a cask of wine, becoming outlaws, intending to set up their ‘flying inn’ by the roadsides.

The plot, like much speculative fiction, was more outlandish at the time than it might seem now. Chesterton preceded the adoption of prohibition in the US by three years. And although the book has a serious point to make about life and humanity — chiefly that you cannot legislate morality, and that austerity is very far away from piety — the book is also very much a comedic romp. Unlike any of Chesterton’s other novels, it incorporates poetry into the narrative, many of which have become very popular like The Rolling English Road, which begins

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

The poems in this The Flying Inn were so popular they were collected into an entirely different book called Wine, Water, and Song. My personal favourite is The Song of Right and Wrong.

This book also contains one of my favourite chapters ever written, which I have already discussed at length in this blog.


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PAW 24 – The Confidential Agent (1895) by Graham Greene

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene; Penguin Paperback (1895); 1963 edition; cover by Paul Hogarth

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene; Penguin Paperback (1895); 1963 edition; cover by Paul Hogarth

The Confidential Agent is an early Graham Greene book, written in 1939 when he was still on the rise. Like The Comforters by Muriel Spark, it was written under the influence of mild psychoactives, in this case Benzedrine. Greene wrote it at the same time that he wrote The Power and The Glory, which he was finding very hard work. After taking a tablet of Benzedrine in the morning, he would write 2,000 words of The Confidential Agent, and then return back to P&G in the afternoon. The book was finished in six weeks.

As such, Greene never really felt it was a book that he actually wrote, and in fact it was one of his own books that he actually reread later on in life. When it was written, he petitioned to have it published under a pseudonym, not so much because he was ashamed, but because he felt it belonged to someone else (although it’s possible he didn’t want to confuse his readership. Throughout his career he was very particular about designating certain books ‘entertainments’, as distinct from his more serious fiction).

All of that said, The Confidential Agent is, through and through, Greene, and could never have been written by anyone else except Greene. The story has to do with a secret, or ‘confidential’, agent who has come to England from the European mainland (although this is never mentioned, it is fairly obviously Spain) in order to buy coal for his country’s revolutionary war effort. As is usual with Greene (who can easily be seen as a precursor to writers like LeCarre), he completely undercuts the genre from any of the drama and set action scenarios that other spy story practitioners would — even in one of his own entertainments, he couldn’t bring himself to create anything less than a three-dimensional, internally flawed and morally ambiguous character.

A wonderfully delightful book, it certainly does not measure short when taking its place among the rest of Greene’s cannon.


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PAW 23 – Selected Cautionary Verses (1349) by Hilaire Belloc

Selected Cautionary Verses by Hillaire Belloc; Penguin Paperback 1349; 1958 edition

Selected Cautionary Verses by Hillaire Belloc; Penguin Paperback 1349; 1958 edition

Selected Cautionary Verses is a collection of verses pulled from Belloc’s books of humorous poetry, Cautionary Tales for Children, New Cautionary Tales, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, More Beasts for Worse Children (my vote for best sequel title of the 20th Century), More Peers, and Ladies and Gentlemen. The book is illustrated by Nicolas Bentley and ‘B. T. B.’, or Basil Temple Blackwood. Bentley was the son of Edmund Clerihew Bentley, a friend of Belloc’s, and G. K. Chesterton. And of particular interest to Penguin Paperback collectors, this is a rare (unique?) work that was first published as a Puffin Story Book (PS67) in 1950 before being reissued as a Penguin in 1958.

The first poem, titled ‘Jim (Who Ran Away From His Nurse, And Was Eaten By A Lion)’  is still fairly well known, and is always a joy to read. The rest of the poems, sadly, do not age well. I think that a lot of the original humour is predicated on the over-moralising of Victorian Children’s poetry, which we simply aren’t familiar with anymore, thank God.

As it stands, it is a satire on something that we don’t recognise and so it cuts a strange shape. The verses themselves are not so accomplished – the line metres are occasionally fudged, to poor effect. Some of them (including the pictures) would now be considered racist. There aren’t a lot of poems in the collection, and sometimes the layout interferes with the flow.

That said, these are intended as light verses, so maybe we shouldn’t give them so much weight.


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PAW 22 – Zuleika Dobson (895) by Max Beerbohm

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm; Penguin Paperback 895; 1950 edition

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm; Penguin Paperback 895; 1950 edition

Zuleika Dobson is a book that caught me slightly wrong-footed, and I’m not certain that I ever really recovered through my reading of it. I’m not sure if I could classify this book as ‘magical realism’ since I’ve always avoided that genre, which is not really a genre, but is really just a method of writing which pretends to be imaginative but is only just pretentious and needlessly abstruse. It is written for, and presumably by, people who turn their noses up at SF and Fantasy but still find their souls lacking of it. It is the small beer, the alco-pop of genre fiction.

If I haven’t lost you with that last paragraph, I will say that Zuleika Dobson is undoubtedly clever and well written. But still, that cleverness smacks of pretension and it may just be that I don’t know enough about, or sufficiently appreciate, Classic Greek drama, that I could only pick up small clues and inferences to ancient tragedy that would have made more sense of the whole matter. As it was, the plot, characterizations, and resolution were all lost on me. The only thing that wasn’t lost on me were the descriptions and impressionism of Oxford, which was comfortingly faithful even through the lens of one hundred years.

The plot deals with the beautiful and much-famed Zuleika Dobson arriving at Oxford to visit her rather estranged uncle. She lived as an orphan and found world fame through being a stage magician, which is odd because Beerbohm often stresses that she is not more beautiful than any other character, her act is practically infantile and was stolen from someone who bought it as a kit. And yet all the youths of Oxford are willing to die for her. The other main character, the Duke of Dorset, has more to recommend him as a person, but he allows himself to be wholly commanded by the fates, or non-specific Grecian gods, or Beerbohm himself, and so has very little will or agency in the plot.

There is also a strong misogyny running through the book. The Duke is strong, faithful, stoic, passionate, and is the pattern of manhood which all others judge themselves against. Zuleika is mercurial, mischievous, fickle, proud, and demanding of sacrifice and attention.

Overall impression: amusing in parts, ultimately disappointing.


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