Posts tagged England
The poet Rosemary Tonks, who has died aged 85, famously “disappeared” in the 1970s. The author of two poetry collections and six published novels, she turned her back on the literary world after a series of personal tragedies and medical crises which made her question the value of literature and embark on a restless, self-torturing spiritual quest.
[…]Living for the next four decades as the reclusive Mrs Lightband in an anonymous-looking old house tucked away behind Bournemouth seafront, she cut herself off from her former life, refusing to see relatives, old friends, or publishers like me who hoped she might change her mind and allow her poetry to be reissued. As far as the literary world was concerned, she “evaporated into air like the Cheshire cat”, as Brian Patten put it in a BBC Lost Voices half-hour feature, The Poet Who Vanished, broadcast on Radio 4 in 2009.
Moving into the Bournemouth house in 1980, she completed the obliteration of the person she had been, consigning an unpublished novel to the garden incinerator…
From The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas via:
On my bad days (and I’m being broken
At this very moment) I speak of my ambitions…and he
Becomes intensely gloomy, with the look of something jugged,
Morose, sour, mouldering away, with lockjaw….
I grow coarser: and more modern (I, who am driven mad
By my ideas; who go nowhere;
Who dare not leave my front door, lest an idea…)
All right. I admit everything, everything!
Oh yes, the opera (Ah, but the cinema)
He particularly enjoys it, enjoys it horribly, when someone’s ill
At the last minute; and they specially fly in
A new, gigantic, Dutch soprano. He wants to help her
With her arias. Old goat! Blasphemer!
He wants to help her with her arias!
No, I…go to the cinema,
I particularly like it when the fog is thick, the street
Is like a hole in an old coat, and the light is brown as laudanum…
Photo: “Rosemary Tonks in the 1960s…Photograph: Jane Bown”
A newly acquired book by Virginia Woolf’s mother shares practical nursing and care-giving advice.
No one reads Julia Stephen.
Stephen’s little book is not a nursing manual but rather a collection of practical advice on tending the sick (this task would have been an inescapable part of life for every Victorian). The text is not without a sly, allusive wit worthy of Woolf: “The origin of most things has been decided on, but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer.”
Bookseller Callum James discusses a writer no one reads and scans some rare work by illustrator Alberto Martini:
Perceval Landon (1869-1927) was a lawyer, journalist and author and was best known in his day as a war correspondent during the Boer War. Raw Edges was his only collection of stories that verged into the supernatural but this rare 1908 publication contains one of the best ghost stories ever written which has been regularly anthologised since this first appearance, “Thurnley Abbey”. The book is further distinguished, however, by its illustrations. Alberto Martini provides four intense black and white designs which meld his own proto-surrealist style with the dark edges of Landon’s prose and create something rather striking and memorable. [more]
Mark Valentine writes about another work by Landon:
In 1903 he published a book (dated 1904) of sundial mottoes which purported to be from an old volume Englished in the early 17th century by one John Parmenter, Clerk of Wingham in the County of Kent. Landon claimed to be simply the editor. The British Library catalogue, however, is not convinced: it notes the book is “edited [or rather written]” by Landon. In other words, the entire book is an amiable hoax, and Landon himself is the creator of Parmenter and all the sundial mottoes.
A guest post by Dan Visel of With Hidden Noise:
There will, perhaps, never be a more apposite time than the present to read the works of Frederick Rolfe. Rolfe lived a difficult life, full of perceived injustices; but none might be so unjust as his having died before Pope Benedict XVI abdicated. The man the Vatican needs right now has been dead a century.
Frederick Rolfe was born in 1860 in London to a middle-class family; after attending Oxford, he decided to convert to Catholicism, and that is where the trouble started. Becoming Catholic made things harder for him. He strongly believed that he had a vocation for the priesthood, though this belief was not shared by the Catholic hierarchy, who seem to have been afraid of his convert’s zeal. His failure to become a priest only made Rolfe more creative; he began abbreviating his name as the ambiguous Fr. Rolfe. He moved to Italy; he acquired, or assumed, the title Baron Corvo. His life was hard, and he seems to have fallen out with everyone he ever knew; he died in poverty in Venice in 1913.
His writing, however, remains, as strange as when it appeared. Hadrian the Seventh, his best-known novel, was published in 1904. The novel starts out semi-autobiographically: George Arthur Rose lives in poverty with only his cat for company, having been unjustly denied the priesthood he desired. And then everything changes: a bishop and a cardinal appear, who explain that a terrible mistake has been made. Rose is made a priest; they go to the Vatican, where a papal conclave is deadlocked. Against all odds, Rose is elected Pope, taking the name Hadrian VII after the previous British pope. He institutes sweeping changes, which anger many, and redresses past wrongs against him. After a brief reign, he is assassinated by a deranged socialist.
Hadrian VII sounds funny, and it is. But it’s not the rollicking satire that the summarized plot implies: rather than being presented as a ridiculous figure, Rose is simply right, and he deserves to be Pope in a just world. The book that Rolfe thought he was writing is a different one than any reader who is not Rolfe reads; Rolfe’s world-view is utterly and uniquely his own.
Some of his later novels continue this autobiographical streak, most notably The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, written near the end of his life; Nicholas Crabbe, the protagonist, has written very similar books and lived a life similar to Rolfe’s:
Beside, he had published a book of personal experiments with priests, Peter of England, an awful audacious book which flayed whom it did not scald; and his mood was not to compete for reprisals. ‘It is not I who have lost the Athenians; it is the Athenians who have lost me,’ he superbly said. So, when priests slank up to him, he civilly warned them off: if they merited kindness and persisted, he gave them double: but, never any more would he admit them beyond the barbican of his lifted drawbridge, never any more would he go beyond parleys from the height of his impregnable battlements – unless they should come, at high noon, with a flag of truce and suitable gages – never any more would he on any account seek them, but to serve him as ministers of grace. (pp. 60–61)
Fiction, however, allows him the last laugh, as when a character strongly reminiscent of one of Rolfe’s former friends – there were many! – is described:
The Reverend Bobugo Bonsen was a stuttering little Chrysostom of a priest, with the Cambridge manners of a Vaughan’s Dove, the face of the Mad Hatter out of Alice in Wonderland, and the figure of an Etonian who insanely neglects to take any pains at all with his temple of the Holy Ghost, but wears paper collars and a black straw hat. (p. 36)
"Bobugo Bonsen" is presumably the mostly forgotten Catholic novelist Robert Hugh Benson; here, Rolfe is settling scores with Benson for his 1906 novel The Sentimentalists, which contains a none-too-flattering portrayal of Rolfe.
The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole has a plot past biographical recounting, though it’s so strange that it’s hard to know what to make of it. Crabbe, sailing on the Adriatic Sea, rescues a girl, Zilda, from an earthquake that has destroyed her village; but propriety says that an unmarried man and woman shouldn’t be on a boat together. Crabbe gets around this by declaring that Zilda is actually Zildo and everything is fine; his companion is accommodating. After several plot twists, Zildo becomes Gilda and she marries Crabbe, bringing the novel to a confusing ending.
Rolfe’s diction goes well past baroque into the rococo; it’s one of the great pleasures of his prose. Don Renato: An Ideal Consort, a medieval fantasia, might be his most extreme work. Ostensibly the notebook of a monk engaged in horrifying experiments on his prisoners, the book is written using a macaronic language of Italian, Greek, and Latin of Rolfe’s own concoction; helpfully, a glossary is provided so that the dedicated reader might decipher what Don Renato is saying. From it, we learn that a progymnast is a “slave who performs gymnastics with (but preceding) his master”, proterve is an adjective meaning “violent, wanton,” a pube is “one arrived at puberty,” and something that is pudibundis “modest”. The result is something like this:
This day of Venus, at Nemi, in the ilicet, an immense number of little serpents were disturbed in the termination of their torpor; and, having returned to this munimental city, palatial and ducal puerice has adsisted at vespers with a still torpid serpent on each head, in the similitude of the anguicomous Gorgon, in order to secure immunity from snake-bite. And the said serpents, decapitated, are dejected in the river. (p. 215)
Don Renato predictably had trouble making its way into print; it was rejected numerous times, Rolfe wrote in a letter, because “the work errs on the side of extreme distinction.” One can’t argue with that.
It should be noted that it’s not entirely fair to call Rolfe a writer that no one reads; Hadrian the Seventh and A. J. A. Symons’s 1934 biography, The Quest for Corvo, are both in print in nice editions from New York Review Books. (The latter is a good place to start with Rolfe, though not without its flaws: Symons stays well away from Rolfe’s homosexuality, both in life and fiction.) For the strangeness of his life and prose, Rolfe is a particular favorite of book collectors. Several of his books can be found online, though caution should be used: the text of the online Don Renato, for example, is badly mangled. And finally, a syndrome has been named after him, though it has not yet attained the legitimacy of Wikipedia. Perhaps that’s what he would have wanted.
No one reads the “storm goddess” Mary Butts (1890-1937), a woman who “more often sought out what was curious than what was virtuous.” Admired by her contemporaries Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and Marianne Moore, Butts’ writing (where it gathers any light at all) tends to be overshadowed by her notorious escapades, which included practicing black magic with Aleister Crowley, smoking enormous amounts of opium, and abandoning her only child.
Possessing legendary vitality, Butts was not always unread: in the 1920s, she published pieces in The Little Review, which was not then a forgotten periodical, and her novels, especially Armed With Madness and Death of Felicity Taverner (collected and published by McPherson & Co. as The Taverner Novels) were praised and scorned by the more renowned—and remembered—of the modernists. With a more than a hint of panic, Virginia Woolf called the former work, with its relentless questioning of values, “indecent.” This is perhaps not surprising given Butts’ natural predilection for the outlandish.
More generous in his assessment is Paul West, who compares Butts to Clarice Lispector and writes that her
most conspicuous originality consisted in her resolve to depict worst things, or things at their worst, with a view to transforming them, which means assimilating into one’s being a sense of Creation’s massive, impersonal onslaught.
Written as an inverse of Eliot’s desolate Waste Land, Armed With Madness is Butts’ finest work, an ecstatic, allegorical quest for meaning in a world shattered by war and nihilism. Set in a remote corner of Cornwall, Armed With Madness chronicles the discovery, by a close-knit group of young men and women, of what may be the Holy Grail. It is a book ripe with strangeness, madness, love, and violence. It is also the most perfect embodiment of Butts’ odd, bewitching prose:
They went in. Pine-needles are not easy to walk on, like a floor of red glass. It is not cool under them, a black scented life, full of ants, who work furiously and make no sound. Something ached in Carston, a regret for the cool brilliance of the wood they had left, the other side of the hills, on the edge of the sea. This one was full of harp-noises from a wind when there was none outside. He saw Picus ahead, a shadow shifting between trunk and trunk. Some kind of woodcraft he supposed, and said so to Felix who said sleepily: “Somebody’s blunt-faced bees, dipping under the thyme-spray”; a sentence which made things start living again. Would they never have enough of what they called life? There was no kind of track over the split vegetable grass. A place that made you wonder what sort of nothing went on there, year in year out.
Mary Butts’ wild life caught up to her in 1937, when she died of a perforated ulcer.
(Portrait by Cedric Morris)
[Writers No One Reads is on Facebook.]
“You may be familiar with Robert Bridges, who served as England’s Poet Laureate. But chances are, you are unfamiliar with the work of Digby Mackworth Dolben, a school friend of Bridges’s who died at only nineteen. An eccentric and a zealous Anglo-Catholic, long after his death Dolben continued to exercise a compelling hold over his circle, which included Gerard Manley Hopkins.”
Random sighting of a writer no one reads (Frederic W. H. Myers):
If Breton tired of Hélène Smith, he could always turn to the writings of Frederic W. H. Myers. The son of the perpetual curate of Saint John’s, Keswick, Myers was renowned for swimming the river beneath Niagara Falls, for his study of hallucinations, and for his crusade for women’s rights in his native England.
Found in The Surrealist Parade by Wayne Andrews aka Montagu O’Reilly, author of the first book published by New Directions: Pianos of Sympathy (1936). Now I’ll start working on posts on O’Reilly and Hélène Smith.
Thank you so much for this submission, Book Storey!
No one reads Brigid Brophy (1929 – 1995) who was a writer, activist, opera enthusiast and animal lover. Fastidious with grammar, she was also an advocate of the Shavian alphabet, most notably in her spelling of show as shew. Her personal life was also unconventional: not only was she bisexual; but she also had an open marriage with Michael Levey, director of The National Gallery between 1963-1987, whom she married in 1954.
Brophy’s love of Mozart figures prominently in her writing. In 1964 she published the nonfictional work Mozart the Dramatist: A New View of Mozart, His Operas and His Age. In the same year she published what is arguably her masterpiece, The Snow Ball, which attempts to answer the question she poses in her nonfiction work: “whether, when the opera opens, Don Giovanni has just seduced or has just failed to seduce Donna Anna.”
In between writing, she also somehow found time to champion many causes. An article that appeared in the Sunday Times in 1965 credits her with having triggered the animal rights movement in England. Her most lasting legacy is her campaigning for Public Lending Rights (which gives writers a small sum each time their book is borrowed from a British Public Library) which led to the PLR Act being passed in parliament in March 1979. Tragically, just a few months later, Brophy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and her output soon after dwindled.
Have you found it possible to make a living by writing the sort of thing you want to, without other work? Do you think there is a place in our current economic system and climate for literature as a profession?
Making a living by my writing? No! I have a job, and the writing I do is a sideline, a hobby. I use this belittling word on purpose. My literary endeavours bring in no more than pocket money… In some ways, I deserve to be mocked, not because I carry on writing literature without understand its posthumousness, but because I go on regardless of the very real material proof of its posthumousness!
There is something glorious about Kafka’s night-time writing in his room in his parents’ flat. Something wonderful about his obscurity, about the fact that he published so little when his friends published so much. We can read his diaries and letters and think: there’s a man of integrity! That’s what it means, really means, to be a writer! But our impression is dependent on Kafka’s eventual success, and on a culture, his culture, where there was a potential audience for his work all along.
There is, by contrast, something pathetic about my obscurity. The blog, Writers No One Reads, celebrates forgotten writers whose work is barely known in the English-speaking world. But I’m already a Writer No One Reads, whose work didn’t register sufficiently in general culture to be forgotten. I say this without self-pity, rather with a certain amusement. Nevertheless, it is pitiful in some strong sense. I really am wasting my time... Why bother?, I ask myself. But the challenge is to pose that question in the work itself.
As an addendum to the “October Special,” here’s an interview with writer and book collector Mark Valentine.
For now I want to include de la Mare in the “October special" feature on masters of the macabre. I wrote about his story "Seaton’s Aunt" for a feature on horror at The Second Pass. (I had no idea John Crowley would also be part of that feature!)
Image: actual cigarette card via nypl digital.
(Note: I work for Paul Dry Books, who publish reprints of Memoirs of a Midget and de la Mare’s Desert Islands. Hence I sadly speak from a position of authority—brooding over sales figures—when I claim him to be a Writer No One Reads.)
Writing about John Metcalfe (1891–1965) in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, T. E. D. Klein said that the author’s work “is marked by a rare artistry, wit, and intelligence—and by a restraint too often lacking in the genre”… E.F. Bleiler, in his Guide to Supernatural Fiction, refers to them as “tense, cryptic stories of brooding supernaturalism” which are now “unjustly forgotten.”
John Metcalfe's tales of the macabre and the supernatural are amongst the finest in the genre, and are comparable to the stories of such authors as Walter de la Mare, L. P. Hartley, and Robert Aickman. The horrors in his stories are insidious and unnerving, frightening by stealth rather than violence as they intrude into the quiet lives of ordinary people, who find their worlds shaken by forces they can neither understand nor control. Like the best horror tales of Poe and Le Fanu, Metcalfe's narratives are often disturbing accounts of excursions into the “bad lands” of the subconscious mind.
This volume collects seventeen stories, a biography, and an afterword by Maldoror translator, novelist (no one reads?), and Jean Rhys-chronicler Alexis Lykiard (Metcalfe’s wife Evelyn Scott was among Jean’s earliest supporters). Grimness from his afterword:
The sparse details of this singular author’s sad decline are as grim and affecting as anything he himself wrote. Widowed and virtually helpless, he collapsed, was committed to a New York mental hospital and, through friends’ efforts, finally discharged and repatriated to England. Alcohol, tranquilizers, and a fall down the stairs of a shabby London boarding-house saw him out. It was not long before Metcalfe’s books and papers too were disposed of piecemeal. This occurred when his drinking crony and, alas, literary executor, John Gawsworth, met an even more destitute alcoholic end.
Image: cover by Douglas Walters for Nightmare Jack and Other Tales
[I must have bought this when it came out. It’s already going for big bucks, sorry to say. Eventually the napster of books will spread it around.]
Ramsey Campbell actually included an entire novel—The Hole of the Pit—in his 1992 anthology of supernatural fiction, Uncanny Banquet. He tells why:
Adrian Ross was the pseudonym of Arthur Reed Ropes (1859–1933), a Cambridge don. In 1891 he began a new career by writing the libretto of an opera in the Savoy vein, Joan of Arc. In the next thirty years he wrote over two thousand lyrics and produced almost sixty musical plays and farces. None of this prepares us for what appears to have been his only work of fiction, The Hole of the Pit, published as a novel in 1914 by Edward Arnold and never reprinted until now. While it is dedicated to the author’s friend and colleague M. R. James, it owes at least as much to William Hope Hodgson, but it is its own book. Only its extreme rarity has prevented it from being acknowledged as one of the first masterpieces of the novel of supernatural terror.