The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
In all of these stories, varying as they do in excellence, I find nothing false or labored, no diffusion of interest, no wavering of mood—the approach is direct and simple in method, though the themes and moods are anything but simple, and there is even in the smallest story a sense of power in reserve which makes me believe firmly that, splendid beginning that this is, it is only the beginning.
The Wingèd Skull
This is Lorence:
A Narrative of the Reverend Laurence Sterne, by Lodwick Hartley.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1943.
DID the chaise break down under the broiling sun in a treeless waste near Toulouse, as Sterne wrote in a letter to his banker, or was it much earlier and more amusing, near Lyons, as he says in Tristram Shandy, or were there two accidents? And why did he say in that book he decided to dash to France so suddenly it never entered his mind that England and France were at war, when plainly he had planned it long before, and had to get leave from his Bishop and ask for a safe conduct from Mr. Pitt? To say nothing of a twenty-pound loan from Mr. David Garrick. Did he really get into bed with that long procession of shadowy ladies, from Catherine Fourmentelle early to Eliza Draper late, or did he just think and talk and write about it and make a great display of sentiment and then back out more or less gracefully at the right, or wrong, moment? Exactly how diabolic were those nightlong frolics at Skelton Castle with his old friend Hall-Stevenson and the other demoniacs, squires and parsons as they mostly were? Were they imitating feebly the goings-on of the Medmenham Monks, from which now and then John Wilkes strayed over to Skelton? Did he actually leave his mother to die in the workhouse (Byron thought so, and many before him and since), or did he care for her last days? Was his wife’s belief, for a time, that she was the Queen of Bohemia due to his neglect and infidelities, or was it a strain of paranoia in that ill-starred mind? Was his mother really low Irish as he said, or member of a respectable Lancashire family? Just how deeply in love is a man who writes, through the years, substantially the same letters to a series of women, sometimes keeping copies for himself? Just where does truth end and fiction begin in Sterne’s account of himself in Tristram Shandy and The Sentimental Journey?
Mr. Hartley wrestles manfully with these and a hundred other trivial or dubious or off-color questions of Laurence Sterne’s career with a discretion and strait regard for the records that might surprise his subject, who, being a novelist, was hampered by no such scruples. An immense amount of devoted study and trained research appears to have gone into this fairly short book, which handles with ease a baffling complexity of detail and carries the story along swiftly and with concentration on several planes at once. It is only the tone I find a little troublesome at times; such a balancing of the evidence for and against, such a leveling down of both the good and the evil in the history of Sterne, almost succeeds in smoothing the man away. There is a smack of prudishness at times, small biased hints of moral disapproval dragged in by the ears as if under some compulsion not the author’s own. Mr. Hartley confesses that one of his aims was to make the book palatable to the lay, or general, reader in the hope that this mysterious being may be encouraged to seek out Tristram Shandy and read it for himself. I never saw a general reader, but I am convinced he exists, so many books are written for him. It is a mistake, just the same; general reader should not be pampered in any such way; Laurence Sterne should not be arranged to advantage or disadvantage for his view; he should be made to take his chances along with the rest of us, not only with the available truths of life but also with the very best work the author can do. For this book, in spite of its placating foreword, will be a stiff introduction indeed to a reader who does not already know something of the period.
For one who knows Tristram Shandy, This Is Lorence may bring to mind again how melancholy a cloud lies over all the recorded life of Laurence Sterne, even his triumphs and frolics, and how clear and merry the light shed by Tristram Shandy. That book contains more living, breathing people you can see and hear, whose garments have texture between your finger and thumb, whose flesh is knit firmly to their bones, who walk about their affairs with audible footsteps, than any other one novel in the world, I do believe. Uncle Toby, Corporal Trim, Yorick and Mrs. Yorick, the Widow Wadman, Bridget, Dr. Slop, Susannah, Obadiah, the infant Tristram hovering between breeches and tunics, all live in one house with floorboards under their boot soles, a roof over their heads, the fires burning and giving off real smoke, cooking smells coming from the kitchen, real weather outside and air blowing through the windows. When Dr. Slop cuts his thumb real blood issues from it, and everybody has a navel and his proper distribution of vital organs. One hangs around the place like an enchanted ghost, all eyes and ears for fear of missing something. The story roams apparently at random all over creation, following the living thoughts of these human beings in their infinitely varied experiences, memories, points of view. Sparks of association flash in showers at the slightest collision of temperaments. Every word spoken gets its instant response in the hearer; they are all intensely interested in each other and everything else under heaven all the time. Little clashes of wills lead to the most complicated roundabouts of personal history, anecdotes, opinion; a mere gesture is enough to set up a whole new train of thought and deed in these people, who live and go about their affairs every instant, not just at moments chosen by the author when it suits his convenience. Meanwhile, steadily, like time passing visibly before your eyes, Uncle Toby’s unbroken devoted occupation with his campaigns, and the building of his fortified town, go on, accompanied by the most remarkable theories of military strategy and a running comment on the science of warfare, full of deep and sly satire. The celebrated comic improprieties go on too, a running fire of double talk punctuated by episodes such as that of the hot chestnut, the Abbess and the Novice who divided the sinful words which move a balky mule, the courtship of the Widow Wadman, the accidental circumcision of the newly born Tristram. It all has the most illusive air of having been dropped upon the paper by a flying pen which never stopped long enough for the author to read what he had written. Sterne drew on a page a few little graphs of his progress in Tristram Shandy; they are amusing but also accurate. That lightness was achieved with the intensity and painstakingness of a spider spinning its web, during those twenty obscure years as parson, along with the farming, and the philandering, and the wife driven distracted with jealousy, and the breaking blood vessels in his lungs, and the rows among his large family connection, and the local politics and the jollifications at Skelton Hall and the hunting and the August racing season at York.
Then his life work was published, a book or so at a time, and he went up modestly to London in the wake of Squire Crofts, a local worthy who paid the expenses of the trip, and there found scandalous fashionable success and enjoyed it enormously. Dr. Johnson thought his sermons “froth,” Oliver Goldsmith found him dull, the Bishop of Gloucester called him “an irrecoverable scoundrel,” but Sir Joshua Reynolds painted his portrait, David Garrick carried him into the orbit of the theater, the extremely mixed society around the Duke of York found him fascinating, for there was nothing they liked better than the cloven hoof peeping from beneath a cassock; he was in the dear tradition of the worldly abbé, and could write it all down, besides. Religion in any formal sense, and I greatly doubt any sense at all, he had not, and with some relief he ceased to feign it. He took some pains to be cultivated by respectable society, but what he loved best among even that was the fringe of wealthy young rakehells and their desperate sports. The rest is flight from death and pursuit of fame and pleasure: he “met” most of the great of his time, but his happiest days seem to have been a few weeks (when he had already the look of a dancing skeleton) of rioting around Paris with John Wilkes, interrupted, alas, by another blood vessel breaking at the height of the fun. As for women, to whom he gave so much attention, and who responded infallibly in their various ways, there is no fathoming his feel
Mr. Hartley makes all the ladies rather duller than they may have been, even, but his wife must be admitted as a total loss. She was a homely woman whose husband made cruel caricatures of her, and wrote to a friend that he grew more sick and tired of her every day. She loved pleasure too, and had had a dull dog’s life of it for years. She was delighted to get to France, and her ruses, and stratagems to be allowed to stay on there, with her daughter and without her husband, would have been pitiable if they had not succeeded. But they did. Sterne died in lodgings in London with the nurse and landlady present, and a footman sent to inquire after him by John Crauford of Errol, who was giving a dinner to Garrick, Lord Ossory, David Hume, the Earl of March, Lord Roxburgh, the Duke of Grafton, and Mr. James, husband of Anne—the gay and good-hearted, who visited Sterne almost constantly in his last days. The footman reported to the waiting guests: “He was just a-dying. . . he said: now it is come. He put up his hand as if to stop a blow, and died in a minute.”
His friends were saddened, but went on with their dinner. His wife and daughter and Eliza Draper were severally bitterly inconvenienced by his death. This and much more is in the book, but where is the real Laurence Sterne, the one who wrote Tristram Shandy? That wingèd skull seems to have made his getaway again, taking his main secret with him.
On a Criticism of Thomas Hardy
THE Bishop of Wakefield, after reading Thomas Hardy’s latest (and as it proved, his last) novel, Jude the Obscure, threw it in the fire, or said he did. It was a warm midsummer, and Hardy suggested that the bishop may have been speaking figuratively, heresy and bonfires being traditionally associated in his mind, or that he may have gone to the kitchen stove. The bishop wrote to the papers that he had burned the book, in any case, and he wrote also to a local M.P. who caused the horrid work to be withdrawn from the public library, promising besides to examine any other novels by Mr. Hardy carefully before allowing them to circulate among the bishop’s flock. It was a good day’s work, added to the protests of the reviewers for the press, and twenty-five years of snubbing and nagging from the professional moralists of his time; Thomas Hardy resigned as novelist for good. As in the case of the criticism presently to be noted, the attack on his book included also an attack on his personal character, and the bishop’s action wounded Thomas Hardy. He seems to have remarked in effect “that if the bishop could have known him as he was, he would have found a man whose personal conduct, views of morality, and of vital facts of religion, hardly differed from his own.”
This is an indirect quotation by his second wife, devoted apologist and biographer, and it exposes almost to the point of pathos the basic, unteachable charity of Hardy’s mind. Of all evil emotions generated in the snake-pit of human nature, theological hatred is perhaps the most savage, being based on intellectual concepts and disguised in the highest spiritual motives. And what could rouse this hatred in a theologian like the sight of a moral, virtuous, well-conducted man who presumed to agree with him in the “vital facts of religion,” at the same time refusing to sign the articles of faith? It was long ago agreed among the Inquisitors that these are the dangerous men.
The bishop threw the book in the fire in 1896. In 1928, Mrs. Hardy was happy to record that another “eminent clergyman of the church” had advised any priest preparing to become a village rector to make first a good retreat and then a careful study of Thomas Hardy’s novels. “From Thomas Hardy,” concluded this amiable man, “he would learn the essential dignity of country people and what deep and passionate interest belongs to every individual life. You cannot treat them in the mass: each single soul is to be the object of your special and peculiar prayer.”
Aside from the marginal note on the social point of view which made it necessary thus to warn prospective rectors that country people were also human entities, each possessed of a soul important, however rural, to God, and the extraordinary fact that an agnostic novelist could teach them what the church and their own hearts could not, it is worth noting again that churchmen differ even as the laymen on questions of morality, and can preach opposing doctrine from the same text. The history of these differences, indeed, is largely the calamitous history of institutional religion. In 1934, a layman turned preacher almost like a character in a Hardy novel, runs true to his later form by siding with the bishop. Since his spectacular conversion to the theology and politics of the Church of England, Mr. T. S. Eliot’s great gifts as a critic have been deflected into channels where they do not flow with their old splendor and depth. More and more his literary judgments have assumed the tone of lay sermons by a parochial visitor, and his newer style is perhaps at its most typical in his criticism of Thomas Hardy:
The work of the late Thomas Hardy represents an interesting example of a powerful personality uncurbed by any institutional attachment or by submission to any objective beliefs; unhampered by any ideas, or even by what sometimes acts as a partial restraint upon inferior writers, the desire to please a large public. He seems to me to have written as nearly for the sake of “self-expression” as a man well can, and the self which he had to express does not strike me as a particularly wholesome or edifying matter of communication. He was indifferent even to the prescripts of good writing: he wrote sometimes overpoweringly well, but always very carelessly; at times his style touches sublimity without ever having passed through the stage of being good. In consequence of his self-absorption, he makes a great deal of landscape; for landscape is a passive creature which lends itself to an author’s mood. Landscape is fitted, too, for the purpose of an author who is interested not at all in men’s minds, but only in their emotions, and perhaps only in men as vehicles for emotions.
After some useful general reflections on the moral undesirability of extreme emotionalism, meant as a rebuke to Hardy and to which we shall return briefly later, Mr. Eliot proceeds:
I was [in a previous lecture]. . . concerned with illustrating the limiting and crippling effect of a separation from tradition and orthodoxy upon certain writers whom I nevertheless hold up for admiration for what they have attempted against great obstacles. Here I am concerned with the intrusion of the diabolic into modern literature in consequence of the same lamentable state of affairs. . . . I am afraid that even if you can entertain the notion of a positive power for evil working through human agency, you may still have a very inaccurate notion of what Evil is, and will find it difficult to believe that it may operate through men of genius of the most excellent character. I doubt whether what I am saying can convey very much to anyone for whom the doctrine of Original Sin is not a very real and tremendous thing.
Granting the premises with extreme reservations, Thomas Hardy was a visible proof of the validity of this disturbing doctrine. He had received early religious training in the Established Church, and by precept and example in a household of the most sincere piety, and of the most aggressive respectability. He remarked once, that of all the names he had been called, such as agnostic (which tag he adopted later, ruefully), atheist, immoralist, pessimist, and so on, a properly fitting one had been overlooked altogether: “churchy.” He had once meant to be a parson. His relations with the church of his childhood had been of the homely, intimate, almost filial sort. His grandfather, his father, his uncle, all apt in music, had been for forty years the mainstay of the village choir. He felt at home in the place, as to its customs, feasts, services. He had a great love for the ancient churches, and as a young architect his aesthetic sense was outraged by the fashionable and silly “restorations” amounting to systematic destruction which overtook some of the loveliest examples of medieval church architecture in England durin