Tuesday, 30th August, 2011

This summer’s reading has provided some unexpected bedfellows; books mainly read for a variety of university courses I’m teaching next semester, have brought up unlikely pairings – observations that are amusing me, but are unlikely ever to see the light of day either in class discussion or in print. There’s a massive knot of thought I want to pursue about Balzac and furniture, for instance, but which I fear might turn into a lifetime’s (somewhat unnecessary) work.

So, I’m going to use this blog for the moment to jot down some of these half-formed, rather straggly ideas, and in all probability never return to them. I don’t know if there’ll be anything here of interest to anyone else.

Crabbe, it is clear, was a pretty avid reader of Frances Burney, and there’s much to be made of the connections between tales such as ‘The Frank Courtship’, ‘Clelia’ and novels such as Evelina. Mr. Villars’s warnings of prudence at the start of the novel:

A youthful mind is seldom totally free from ambition; to curb that, is the first step to contentment, since to diminish expectation, is to increase enjoyment.

has that same sense of censorial behaviour that Crabbe both parodies (in the dangers of playing cards and ribbons) and yet, one feels, also heartily believes. For Crabbe, there’s a sense that one is an innocent until the age (off hand, I’d need to check for certainty) of twenty-two – that no great sin can be undertaken before that point, that one remains the blank slate until adulthood. In the case of Grimes, that’s a particularly interesting view, as we see the character’s youthful behaviour, but it seems likely that Crabbe still felt this was a formative stage, that his accountability would only come once he was an adult.

I find, with some degree of shame and inexperience, that I’m much fonder of children in literature than in life. There’s a strain of book-child that I’m fairly certain does not exist in the real world, but which I feel would ultimately improve the human race if it did. It’s the somewhat serious, somewhat sad child; the all-to-knowing child. Iris Murdoch paints them rather well, though I think my favourite of this kind appears in Bede’s Life of Saint Cuthbert – not Cuthbert himself who is depicted as sporting, and very much a typically boisterous kid, but a three-year-old who solemnly watches him play before bursting into tears, imbued with, and certain of, the knowledge that the older boy is to become a great holy man.

There is a sense of this in Balzac’s Cousin Bette with children able to control the hearts of men entering their old age. In Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, children function in a very different way, their unknowingness being a foil to the candour of adult and university life. Daphne at the start is innocent witness to events beyond her knowledge – an erect penis mistaken for a cigar case seems pronounced in this new age peopled more by innocents than psychoanalysts. But later in the novel, her own child becomes witness to an event – the death of an adult – that he is given no framework to understand. The death seems to paralyse Wilfred in a childlike state for the rest of his life, his mother still exerting Villars-like influence upon his ambitions when he is well into his 50s.

The event of the child discovering an old, dead lady is a stark motif – itself somewhat Murdochian (I’m thinking the old man recalling killing a dog in The Nice and the Good – the stark transition between innocence and knowledge), though for me recalling a line by Alan Bennett which throughout my own childhood I rather perversely kept close to my heart–– and which now, even more perversely, I don’t seem to be able to find to quote it correctly, but which runs something like:

A: Have you ever seen a dead body before?
B: Only once. At school.

Which weirdly brings me back to Crabbe and images of dead children – in ‘Grimes’; in ‘The Voluntary Insane’, and of course, in his own wardrobe.

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