Sunday, 28 February 2010

Just not that into her ... and Kipling attribution

It's usually interesting to track aphorisms down to their original context; quite often the original has a very different spin from the conventional interpretation. I just ran into a couple.

"A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke". This is frequently portrayed as an aphoristic opinion of Kipling, but it's actually a line from The Betrothed, one of Kipling's poems from his 1886 Departmental Ditties. These generally satirical poems were written when Kipling was moving in colonial society during his years in India, many referring to real people. The dedication to this poem refers to a "breach of promise case, circa 1885" where the lady said, "You must choose between me and your cigar".

Open the old cigar-box, get me a Cuba stout,
For things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out.

We quarrelled about Havanas — we fought o'er a good cheroot,
And I know she is exacting, and she says I am a brute.

Open the old cigar-box — let me consider a space;
In the soft blue veil of the vapour musing on Maggie's face.

Maggie is pretty to look at — Maggie's a loving lass,
But the prettiest cheeks must wrinkle, the truest of loves must pass.

There's peace in a Larranaga, there's calm in a Henry Clay;
But the best cigar in an hour is finished and thrown away —

Thrown away for another as perfect and ripe and brown —
But I could not throw away Maggie for fear o' the talk o' the town!

Maggie, my wife at fifty — grey and dour and old —
With never another Maggie to purchase for love or gold!

And the light of Days that have Been the dark of the Days that Are,
And Love's torch stinking and stale, like the butt of a dead cigar —

The butt of a dead cigar you are bound to keep in your pocket —
With never a new one to light tho' it's charred and black to the socket!

Open the old cigar-box — let me consider a while.
Here is a mild Manila — there is a wifely smile.

Which is the better portion — bondage bought with a ring,
Or a harem of dusky beauties, fifty tied in a string?

Counsellors cunning and silent — comforters true and tried,
And never a one of the fifty to sneer at a rival bride?

Thought in the early morning, solace in time of woes,
Peace in the hush of the twilight, balm ere my eyelids close,

This will the fifty give me, asking nought in return,
With only a Suttee's passion — to do their duty and burn.

This will the fifty give me. When they are spent and dead,
Five times other fifties shall be my servants instead.

The furrows of far-off Java, the isles of the Spanish Main,
When they hear my harem is empty will send me my brides again.

I will take no heed to their raiment, nor food for their mouths withal,
So long as the gulls are nesting, so long as the showers fall.

I will scent 'em with best vanilla, with tea will I temper their hides,
And the Moor and the Mormon shall envy who read of the tale of my brides.

For Maggie has written a letter to give me my choice between
The wee little whimpering Love and the great god Nick o' Teen.

And I have been servant of Love for barely a twelvemonth clear,
But I have been Priest of Cabanas a matter of seven year;

And the gloom of my bachelor days is flecked with the cheery light
Of stums that I burned to Friendship and Pleasure and Work and Fight.

And I turn my eyes to the future that Maggie and I must prove,
But the only light on the marshes is the Will-o'-the-Wisp of Love.

Will it see me safe through my journey or leave me bogged in the mire?
Since a puff of tobacco can cloud it, shall I follow the fitful fire?

Open the old cigar-box — let me consider anew —
Old friends, and who is Maggie that I should abandon you?

A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke;
And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.

Light me another Cuba — I hold to my first-sworn vows.
If Maggie will have no rival, I'll have no Maggie for Spouse!

See Wikisource for the full text of Departmental Ditties; and The New Readers' Guide to the works of Rudyard Kipling, a superb collection of texts and concordance on the works of Kipling.

Another interesting Kipling quotation from the same collection is:

The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes.
The butterfly upon the road
Preaches contentment to that toad.

It's a very dark commentary on those who comment on suffering without engaging directly. The toad and harrow is an ancient metaphor, dating at least as far back as the fables of Odo of Cheriton (see The Harrow and the Road). Kipling's poem, however, is a more specific dig at the Pagett, M.P. of the title, who thinks the climate of India is an "Asian Solar Myth" until he experiences it. The commentary on the Kipling story The Enlightenments of Pagett, M.P. gives some suggestions as to the identity of Pagett.

It's interesting to see, pre-Internet, how rapidly attribution could be lost and become extremely difficult to trace. With this poem from an 1886 collection, as soon as July 1907 Notes & Queries featured a question from a John Pickford of Newbourne Rectory, Woodridge, asking about the origin of the toad-and-harrow quatrain, which had appeared in uncredited in an article by "A Looker-On", The White Man and the British Empire, in Macmillan's Magazine for February 1907. Similarly, The American Missionary, v. 68 - 1914, reproduced it credited as "Old Song". At times I wonder which is more hassle: pre-Internet when attribution could take years to trace; or post-Internet when attribution is easy to find, but buried in a mass of misattribution?

"Literature, from the very beginning, has had a single enemy, and that is the restriction of the expressed idea. It turns out, however, that freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea, because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors, and the voice of truth becomes drowned out in an ungodly din? When that voice, though freely resounding, cannot be heard, because the technologies of information have led to a situation in which one can receive best the message of him who shouts the loudest, even when the most falsely?"

That one's not Kipling, but Stanislaw Lem, His Master's Voice.
- Ray

Friday, 26 February 2010

More from Hell

In December 2007 - see Dante's World - I mentioned enjoying Niven and Pournelle's Inferno, a modern retelling of the Hell section of Dante's Divine Comedy. I just finished (considerably faster than I did The Lair of the White Worm) reading the 2009 sequel, Escape from Hell (Tor Books, February 2009, ISBN-10: 0765316323).

A bit of necessary preamble: in Inferno, the science fiction writer Carpenter falls from a window during a drinking stunt and wakes up in what resembles the Vestibule of Hell as depicted by Dante. Initially sceptical, he dubs the place Infernoland, and struggles to rationalise it in SF terms. But finally, convinced by physical impossibilities such as regeneration from mortal injuries, he accepts its reality as Dante's Hell. Although puzzled by some aspects (for instance, how he mostly meets Americans, just as Dante mostly met Italians) he concludes that Hell is a kind of theological last chance. Hell is escapable, but only for those with the resolve to journey to its centre. He undertakes this quest, guided by a reformed Benito Mussolini in a Virgil-like role, and accompanied by Jerome Corbett, a pilot who died in a Space Shuttle accident, and William Bonney (i.e. Billy the Kid). Hell's geography is more or less as described by Dante, but with elaborations due to new forms of sin, such as industrial pollution, overtaking archaic ones such as simony.

Escape from Hell initally finds Carpenter despondent in the Wood of Suicides, telling his story to the tree that is Sylvia Plath. Near the centre of Hell, he had been seized by a bearded man who exploded, and found himself reconstituted back in the Vestibule, where undecided souls chase banners for eternity. Adopting Mussolini's role as a guide, he persuaded a lawyer, Rosemary Bennett, to follow him in retracing the journey to escape, but now he has lost her.

Carpenter finds Hell considerably more complex than he had understood at the end of Inferno. He is not alone among damned souls allowed to wander free in Hell - a role gained, it seems, by virtuous acts and altruism such as freeing trapped souls - and Hell itself is changing. Because Hell must mirror Catholic doctrine, Vatican II has changed the status of many past sinners, and Hell's bureaucracy is struggling to keep up. Hence another way of gaining leniency, and even power, is to be recruited to Hell's infrastructure (whether as simple guards, or in helping to computerise records in Dis, Hell's adminsitrative centre).

Norman Spinrad described Inferno as "the ultimate Sam Peckinpah movie with all the matter-of-fact solidity of a Hal Clement novel ... lunacy of a transcendent order". Escape from Hell came across as less striking and slower-paced, now that I know the scenario, but it makes up in general character-building and historical interest. Niven and Pournelle focus, for instance, on the Hughes-Plath relationship, the motivation of Robert Oppenheimer, and indictment of various forms of US political corruption relating to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. The focus on US contemporary persons makes for a slight impediment to reading - I needed to keep a bookmark at the glossary of names - but it was overall a very enjoyable sequel.

On the subject of Dante, reviews are coming out for the Dante's Inferno videogame. There seems general agreement that it's spectacular. But as The Independent said - see Hit & Run: Abandon all hope, it's Dante's Inferno: the game - Dante was an intellectual type not really fitted to the genre:

Dante has been beefed up into a blood-hungry crusader, and the date has been rewound by 100 years. The problem for the developers is that Dante paints himself as a man constantly on the verge of passing out in fear of what confronts him. He doesn't, at least in the version I studied, kick open the gates of Hell and invite the evil dead to bring it on. Yet the poet painted a vast and terrifying landscape in the Divine Comedy, with miserable souls facing punishments that still sear the imagination. And the developers have realised this terrain with great relish – it's hard not to be swept up by the sheer scale and gory glory of the game.

I'm not terribly into that style of game (I wouldn't know an Xbox 360 if it bit me) but its polish and detail - many Dante characters are featured - is certainly an indication of the enduring power of Dante's vision. See the official site. Perhaps, as Inferno did, it'll spark a further renewal of interest in the original.

See also: 1935 ante's Inferno.

- Ray

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Steampunk continues a folk meme

From the Independent on Sunday: A new age of steam (Kate Youde, February 2010 - "Steampunk, a modern mix of Victorian technology and sci-fi, is becoming a major influence in books, fashion and on the big screen"). There seem to have been a lot of media references lately; possibly in connection with the recent exhibition of Steampunk art at Oxford's Museum of the History of Science. The article focuses on Katie MacAlister's Steamed: A Steampunk Romance, which looks rather fun, and mentions groups such as the Victorian Steampunk Society and the UK Steampunk Network website. It's a genre I rather like, as you might guess from the continuing references to Charles Babbage here at JSBlog.

Quite by coincidence, during a meander through YouTube, I ran into Abney Park, a steampunk/gothic band: see their exquisitely-designed website. Their songs are framed by the persona of aerial pirates in a steampunk world (it reminds me of that in Kipling's 1905 story "With The Night Mail", in which the world is governed by a consortium running an airship cargo network). I can't say I like all of Abney Park's work, but it includes a number of very good folk-industrial fusion pieces such as this gripping and hard-edged version of I Am Stretched On Your Grave (Abney Park, BTW, get their name from the overgrown and atmospheric Abney Park, a non-denominational cemetery in London).

Rather like "Patrick Flemming was a Vallient Soldier" - see Immortality through song previously - the song I am Stretched on Your Grave is a highly durable meme, originally an anonymous 17th century Irish poem, Táim sínte ar do thuama (From the Cold Sod That's O'er You in Walsh's 1847 Irish Popular Songs) - thematically similar to The Unquiet Grave. It has since been through a great many covers; the Sinead O'Connor one is well-known, although I like Kate Rusby's straight folk version better.
- Ray

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The Lair of the White Worm

I just finished Bram Stoker's The Lair of the White Worm, which I started on the train to Portsmouth on January 31st. It was dire, and I want back the time I expended reading it. So that you won't have to endure it, here's a synopsis (apologies for the racist parts).

The story concerns Adam Salton, the heir to a Peak District estate, who finds himself in conflict with a mixed collection of villains: primarily Lady Arabella March, who is in league with the monstrous White Worm; but also with Edgar Caswall, a Mesmerism-obsessed landowner, and his sinister African servant Oolanga. By chapter:

It's 1860, and Adam Salton, a young and successful Australian rancher and businessman, arrives in England at the invitation of his grand-uncle Richard Salton, who wants to make him his heir.

En route to his Peak District home, Lesser Hill, Mr Salton fills in Adam on local history, and when they arrive introduces Adam to his historian friend Sir Nathaniel de Salis, who tells him more; they both mention the general scariness of the local major landowners, the Caswall family.

Sir Nathaniel lays more local history on Adam, showing him the landscape including the Castle and the wooded hilltop known as Diana's Grove.

Sir Nathaniel takes Adam to Liverpool meet the Castle's new tenant, Mr Caswall, who is returning from Africa. En route they run into Lady Arabella March, whose carriage has broken down. While Adam mends it, he notices snakes hanging around, and also notices that Lady Arabella is weird:

She wore a close-fitting cap of some fine fur of dazzling white. Coiled round her white throat was a large necklace of emeralds, whose profusion of colour dazzled when the sun shone on them. Her voice was peculiar, very low and sweet, and so soft that the dominant note was of sibilation. Her hands, too, were peculiar--long, flexible, white, with a strange movement as of waving gently to and fro.

She invites him to visit Diana's Grove, where she lives. Once she's away, Sir Nathaniel tells Adam that it's generally known she's after Caswall for his money. They all arrive at Liverpool, and Adam is struck by Caswall's appearance...

so hard, so ruthless, so selfish, so dominant

and that of his African servant Oolanga

unreformed, unsoftened savage, and inherent in it were all the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp--the lowest of all created things that could be regarded as in some form ostensibly human

While in Liverpool, Adam buys a mongoose to deal with the snakes he saw. They go back to the Castle for Caswall's homecoming fete, where Adam meets the granddaughters of the local farmer Michael Watford, Lilli and Mimi. He's especially taken with the half-Burmese Mimi.

Once home at Lesser Hill, Adam, evenidently protective toward both sisters, gets angry at the way Mr Caswall was looking in a rather predatory way at Lilla. Changing the subject, Sir Nathaniel lays yet more local history on him, telling him the legend of the White Worm, a monstrous serpent under Diana's Grove.

Adam, having been out snake-killing with his mongoose, comes home annoyed. Having visited Mercy Farm, where Lilli and Mimi Watford live, he reports how Caswall had visited too, and had been staring at them in a very odd way. Adam says he's getting Very Bad Vibes.

Sir Nathaniel, privately, asks Adam for more details of the staring incident, advising him of the extreme dangerousness of Oolanga. Adam goes off mongoosing again; in the woods, he meets Lady Arabella, whom his mongoose tries to attack. She shoots it, a lot.

Adam and Sir Nathaniel discuss the mongoose-shooting over breakfast, and via more local history and stories of local attacks and murders, come to the conclusion that Lady Arabella is under the control of the White Worm.

Adams gets two replacement mongooses; and borrows Ooolanga, who has some kind of voodoo powers, to look for vibes of death at various locations. Adam meets Lady Arabella, who pets one of his mongooses, which apparently runs off. He goes home, where Sir Nathaniel tells him one of Caswall's ancestors was a student of Mesmer. Adam then finds the missing mongoose strangled in its box.

Sir Nathaniel tells Adam of a frightening encounter at Mercy Farm: a kind of intense psychic staring match between Mr Caswall, Lady Arabella and Oolanga versus Mimi and Lilla. Finally Mimi wins:

Her face suddenly flamed, as if some divine light shone through it. Her form expanded till it stood out majestically. Lifting her right hand, she stepped forward towards Caswall, and with a bold sweep of her arm seemed to drive some strange force towards him. Again and again was the gesture repeated, the man falling back from her at each movement. Towards the door he retreated, she following. There was a sound as of the cooing sob of doves, which seemed to multiply and intensify with each second. The sound from the unseen source rose and rose as he retreated, till finally it swelled out in a triumphant peal, as she with a fierce sweep of her arm, seemed to hurl something at her foe, and he, moving his hands blindly before his face, appeared to be swept through the doorway and out into the open sunlight.

Suddenly then the sky is filled with birds. Caswall orders a huge kite, which his servants fly day and night to frighten the birds from the crops.

Caswall becomes obsessed with the kite, as well as with the varied curios stored in the Castle. He's especially interested in a chest with no visible means of opening; his servant Old Simon is very scared of it, having seen the contents once.

Caswall has a strange dream of carrying the chest upstairs and opening it. He wakes up and finds that he has. Inside there are various glass devices. He continues his experiments with the kite.

Oolanga spots Lady Arabella sneaking in and out of the Castle. Suspicious that she is after the treasure he thinks is in the chest, he follows her and confronts her, offering her his love. She rejects him on largely racist grounds, drawing a revolver, so he threatens blackmail (evidently with a confused idea of the English legal process):

He warned her that he knew she had tried to steal his master's treasure, and that he had caught her in the act. But if she would be his, he would share the treasure with her, and they could live in luxury in the African forests. But if she refused, he would tell his master, who would flog and torture her and then give her to the police, who would kill her.

Lady Arabella invited Caswall to join her at Mercy Farm for another try at the psychic staring match. Again, Mimi wins, causing another manifestation of birds, which cause the collapse of Caswall's kite. Caswall goes home and mends the kite, before pressing Old Simon on what had scared him in the chest; Old Simon drops dead.

Lady Arabella sees Old Simon's death as an opoportunity to get to know Caswall better; followed by Oolanga, she goes to the Castle.

Lady Arabella visits Caswall, offers her sympathies, and tells Caswall about her encounter with Oolanga. He advises her to think nothing of it:

"If you have the slightest fault to find with that infernal nigger, shoot him at sight. A swelled-headed nigger, with a bee in his bonnet, is one of the worst difficulties in the world to deal with. So better make a clean job of it, and wipe him out at once!"

Sir Nathaniel tells Adam about Lady Arabella's house, mentioning a mysterious and foul-smelling well in one room.

Adam decides to explore Diana's Grove, where he sees Oolanga bringing Lady Arabella the mongoose box, and arranging a meeting with her there that evening.

Adam follows Lady Arabella and warns her not to trust Ooolanga. He goes with her to the well room in her house and hides when Oolanga arrives. Oolanga, however, notices him and after ineffectually exchanging pistol fire, they grapple at the edge of the well. As Lady Arabella is about to join the fight to help Adam, his final surviving mongoose breaks loose and attacks her. She tears it in half and grabs Oolanga, pulling them both down into the well. Adams hears horrible screams and sees a baleful green light from the well, but when he leaves the room, he sees Lady Arabella is back out of the well and calmly following him.

Adam goes home and sleeps on matters. The next morning he gets a courteous letter from Lady Arabella telling an entirely different story of events: that Oolanga had been after her emerald collar (hence the green glow) and had fallen into the well while grasping for it. Over breakfast, Adam reveals that he is in love with Mimi and wants to protect her from Lady Arabella.

Adam and Sir Nathaniel discuss Adam's account and the letter in detail, concluding that Mimi needs immediate protection and Lady Arabella must be destroyed.

The plan proceeds: Adam secretly marries Mimi and they go away to the Isle of Man. On their return, Sir Nathaniel reveals that the White Worm seems to know the secret; drawing the curtain, he shows Adam the sinister green glow from Diana's grove.

Adam and Sir Nathaniel investigate the glow, finally seeing the White Worm - revealed as a vast snake - in the woods. They run.

The Saltons and Sir Nathaniel receive an invitation to tea at Lady Arabella's house. Cautious but hoping to gain some information, they go. Attempts are made to trap them, first by filling the room with smoke, then putting out the lights, but they escape.

Adam gets a strange letter from Lady Arabella asking for his help in selling her house. He decides to buy it himself, Sir Nathaniel having deduced that the White Worm is white through burrowing through valuable china clay deposits. His purchase is immediately expedited through lawyers, and Adam and Sir Nathaniel make plans to destroy the Worm by blocking the tunnels with sand so that it can't escape, then dynamiting it.

As the sand-and-dynamite setup is prepared, Adam has a chat with Lady Arabella, who asks if he cuuriosity can be satisfied as to the depth of the well. Adam gets a reel of piano wire to sound it. At Mercy Farm, Lilla is alone, and Caswall visits; he arrives and recommences the psychic staring. Mimi turns up in time to drive him away, just as Lilla collapses.

Mimi finds Lilla is dead. She goes to the Castle to confront Caswall, who warns her against such accusations, so she goes home. Later she follows Lady Arabella to the Castle.

Not knowing where Lady Arabella is hiding, Mimi arrives at the Castle to find Caswall staring at the growing thunderstorm. He asks her to accompany her to the roof, where he is experimenting with his kite. He reveals himsef as totally barking:

"Come to me! You shall see now what you are despising, what you are warring against. All that you see is mine--the darkness as well as the light. I tell you that I am greater than any other who is, or was, or shall be. When the Master of Evil took Christ up on a high place and showed Him all the kingdoms of the earth, he was doing what he thought no other could do. He was wrong--he forgot _Me_. I shall send you light, up to the very ramparts of heaven. A light so great that it shall dissipate those black clouds that are rushing up and piling around us. Look! Look! At the very touch of my hand that light springs into being and mounts up--and up--and up!"

Lady Arabella, hiding nearby, decides that she'll kill him. She unhooks the reel carrying the kite wire, and unravels it behind her as she goes back to Diana's Grove, knowing he will follow it. There she awaits him:

She tore off her clothes, with feverish fingers, and in full enjoyment of her natural freedom, stretched her slim figure in animal delight. Then she lay down on the sofa--to await her victim! Edgar Caswall's life blood would more than satisfy her for some time to come.

Mimi escapes from the tower roof by shooting the gate lock. She runs home to tell Adam and Sir Nathaniel, who notice the wire leading to Diana's Grove. Suddenly there's a huge explosion: lightning has struck the kite, destroying the Castle and presumably killing Caswell, conducting along the wire and setting off the dynamite under Diana's Grove. They go there to find the house destroyed and the remains of the White Worm and Lady Arabella amid the ruins. All is well, and Sir Nathaniel says:

"We know, my boy," he said, "that the unfortunate Lady Arabella is dead, and that the foul carcase of the Worm has been torn to pieces--pray God that its evil soul will never more escape from the nethermost hell."

Old Mr Salton recommends that Adam and Mimi go on a well-earned honeymoon.

Where to start? As is obvious and well-known, it's based on the Lambton Worm legend, and that's the chief point of interest. The book is full of "information dumps" of back-story, especially from Sir Nathaniel. Richard Salton plays so little part that you wonder why he's even in the novel and why Stoker didn't just conflate his character with Sir Nathaniel. The motivations of the villains are confused. The heroes are geeky, and there's a kind of Buffy/anime flavour to the story: amid horrific life-and-death struggles, the characters persist in having normal polite dealings with each other when not fighting. The book is thoroughly racist in its assumptions and language: Mimi is feisty from being half-Burmese, Caswall is dominant through being of Roman stock, and Oolanga is the scum of the earth for being African. There are strong resonances with Dracula: the psychic dominance of Caswell like Dracula, the knowledgeable mentor like Van Helsing; the heroine's expendable sidekick like Lucy; the marriage like that of Harker and Mina.

See Lair of the White Worm – From Novel to Film at Cinefantastique for a good summary and critique of the many plot weaknesses - not the least being how Adam continues to have polite dealings with Lady Arabella after she has shot one of his mongooses, probably strangled the second, and torn in half the third.

I persisted with the book because I liked Dracula and The Jewel of the Seven Stars and was expecting equal quality. But it was Stoker's last book, and I strongly suspect his valves were sticking. He wrote it in March-June 1911 when in poor financial circumstances and failing health from Bright's disease (he died in April 1912). Bram Stoker and the man who was Dracula (Barbara Belford, Da Capo Press, 2002) mentions that in February 1911 he applied for, and received, a grant from the Royal Literary Fund. He cited the aftermath of a paralytic stroke in 1906 and a breakdown from overwork in 1910. This all probably explains the book's incoherence. However, in a strange way it's pathologically interesting.

There's an excellent paper online, Objectifying Anxieties: Scientific Ideologies in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Lair of the White Worm (Diane Long Hoeveler, Érudit, Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 44, November 2006), that explores the Victorian "weird science" and social anxieties floating around in The Lair of the White Worm: "racial theories, physiognomy, criminology, brain science, and sexology":

For Stoker, the real threat of devolutionary power is clearly represented in the separate creation of the monstrous female, an immortal lamia who feeds on the whole bodies of her victims, not just their blood. Consider how Sir Nathaniel describes Lady Arabella March: "a woman, with all a woman’s wisdom and wit, combined with the heartlessness of a cocotte and the want of principle of a suffragette" but with the "reserved strength and impregnability of a diplodocus". Apparently, the woman demanding equality was an evolutionary aberration, a freak of nature, so monstrous that she could only be represented by a sickeningly immortal white worm who swallows her victims whole.

Another paper, Tropical Ovaries: Gynecological Degeneration and Lady Arabella's "Female Difficulties" in Bram Stoker's The Lair of the White Worm (Piya Pal-Lapinski, in Women's Experience of Modernity, 1875-1945, Leslie W. Lewis, Ann L. Ardis, JHU Press, 2003), similarly makes a strong case for the imagery of the book reflecting a variety of anxieties about race, health and female degeneration current when Stoker wrote it.

While it probably wouldn't have been what Stoker wanted, I think Ken Russell's 1988 comedy horror adaptation was the best thing to do with the material, and a deal of the undercurrents of the book - particularly its mix of horror and sexuality - make it into the film. It's seldom on TV, but I think it's much under-rated; for critical analysis, see page 278 onward in Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films (Joseph Lanza, Chicago Review Press, 2007). One of the film's many internal allusions is the D'Ampton Worm song (video unfortunately not embeddable) which is a variant on CM Leumane's Lambton Worm folk song.

Out of interest, the lyrics to Lair of the White Worm, by the Dutch metal group God Dethroned, are quite an accurate synopsis of the book. See Bram Stoker Online, Project Gutenberg for other Stoker works.

PS: a minor puzzle. Did Stoker have any particular location in mind for The Lair of the White Worm? Sir Nathaniel's description at the beginning of Chapter III - here - along with other clues such as the arrival via Stafford, the easy access to Liverpool, and Mr Salton's comment...

My old friend, Sir Nathaniel de Salis, who, like myself, is a free-holder near Castra Regis--his estate, Doom Tower, is over the border of Derbyshire, on the Peak

put it somewhere on the eastern or north-eastern border of Derbyshire. But though it doesn't fit geographically, much of the location description ties in nicely with the Castleton / Great Ridge area, with its multiple peaks, Peveril Castle and Iron Age fort.

PPS Holly Voley's Pamela Colman Smith site has the illustrations for the 1911 edition; I love the somewhat naive style.
- Ray

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A pure hand...

It's peculiar how out-of-context quotations mutate into aphorisms. I just ran into one I remember from way back: "A pure hand needs no glove to cover it". It comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

The next day, however, being the Sabbath, he preached a discourse which was held to be the richest and most powerful, and the most replete with heavenly influences, that had ever proceeded from his lips. Souls, it is said, more souls than one, were brought to the truth by the efficacy of that sermon, and vowed within themselves to cherish a holy gratitude towards Mr. Dimmesdale throughout the long hereafter. But, as he came down the pulpit-steps, the gray-bearded sexton met him, holding up a black glove, which the minister recognized as his own.

"It was found," said the sexton, "this morning, on the scaffold, where evil-doers are set up to public shame. Satan dropped it there, I take it, intending a scurrilous jest against your reverence. But, indeed, he was blind and foolish, as he ever and always is. A pure hand needs no glove to cover it!"

"Thank you, my good friend," said the minister gravely, but startled at heart; for, so confused was his remembrance, that he had almost brought himself to look at the events of the past night as visionary. "Yes, it seems to be my glove, indeed!"

But I've never been able to take the line seriously since reading Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor - see Underground London previously - whose descriptions of trades include the pure-finders. These collected "pure" (dog dung, so called for "its cleansing and purifying properties" in the production of leather) for the use of tanneries. It could be lucrative work for the better-connected ones who cut a deal to clean out kennels, but most of the finders just worked the streets. As Mayhew reports:

The pure-finders always carry a handle basket, generally with a cover, to hide the contents, and have their right hand covered with a black leather glove; many of them, however, dispense with the glove, as they say it is much easier to wash their hands than to keep the glove fit for use.

"A pure hand needs no glove to cover it", it seems.

- Ray

Monday, 15 February 2010

Snowclones are born, not made

I've enthused before about the power of the Internet, Google Books in particular, at making available a vast corpus of text that enables linguistic searches to be conducted in a moment that would have taken decades of research in pre-Internet days. It's possible, for instance, to rapidly verify dates for the existence of a word: very handy when you run into "recency illusion", the term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky for the mistaken belief that words or expressions are new. The easy searchability of online texts has given rise to the creation and study of whole new classes of linguistic observations, such as the "snowclone", a term coined by Glen Whitman on January 15, 2004 and rapidly adopted in linguistics circles. The snowclone is a boilerplate cliché, alluding to a classic example "If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z", consisting of a template that appears repeatedly with various different words slotted in. See The Snowclones Database for many examples.

I spotted a snowclone yesterday in relation to an enquiry on Yahoo! Answers about the origin of the expression "Leaders are born, not made". It turned out the expression had no clear origin, and appeared instead to be one variant of a snowclone that dates back at least to the 1700s.

The story seems to have started with the aphorism "Poets ... are born, not made ...". This example is by Aphra Behn, 1714, but she's only one citer of this particular form of the aphorism expressed in Latin as Poeta nascitur non fit. Despite being frequently attributed to Horace or Cicero, it doesn't appear in any classical text. See Poeta Nascitur Non Fit: Some Notes on the History of an Aphorism, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Oct., 1941). This was the prototype and the predominant version in the 1700s; but then it snowballs. The snowclone started out as "Xs, like poets, are born, not made" and then the comparison to poets was gradually dropped in favour of "Xs are born, not made". Let's see some historical sightings.
  • "Thou hast a Genius, and a Swinger; Thou'rt Born, not Made a Ballad-singer" The Athenian Oracle, 1709
  • "Actors, like poets, must be born, not made" Mrs Griffiths, 1775
  • "... the historian, like the poet and the orator, must be born, not made" Tobias Smollett, 1783
  • "Like poets, historians are born, not made." Francois Xavier Martin, 1827
  • "Religions are born, not made" Alonzo Hill, 1831
  • "what is said of the poet is also thought of the philosopher — that he is born, not made" Willian Greer, 1832
  • "painters .. are born, not made" Unknown, The American Monthly Magazine, 1834
  • "rope-dancers — they are born, not made" Henry Junius Nott, 1834
  • "Still that which is accounted true of poets holds equally good of pickpockets—who are born, not made;" White & Meadows, 1838 1
  • "Genius: born not made" Thomas W Dorr, 1841
  • "the true orator is 'born, not made'" Sydney Smith, 1841
  • "Whigs, like Poets, are born, not made" Unknown, 1845
  • "A thoroughly vulgar person is — like the poet — born, not made", Chambers Edinburgh Journal, 1846
  • "The number, however, of those who are capable of discovering scientific principles is comparatively small; like the poet, they are 'born, not made'" Professor Henry, 1848
  • "A gentleman is like a poet — he is born, not made" Thomas Hood, 1848
  • "Colorist, the, is born, not made such" Osborn & Bouvier, 1849
  • "an editor must be 'born, not made'" Anon., 1850
  • "republicans are born, not made" William Starbuck Mayo, 1850
  • "A good housewife, like a good poet, is "'born, not made'" Eliza Cook, 1852
  • "a wit is born, not made" Yale Literary Magazine, 1857
  • "grooms, like poets, are born, not made" George Borrow, 1857
  • "The highest military genius, as the highest poetical genius, is born not made." Dublin University Magazine, 1857
  • "Housekeepers, like editors and poets, are born, not made", 'Hester', 1858
  • "angler must he be born, not made" P.P., 1860
  • "commanders are born, not made." Mr Fessenden, 1861
  • "Teachers are born, not made" Professor Wickersham, 1862
  • "Really good talkers are born, not made" The Continental Monthly, 1862
  • "true kings, like true poets, are born, not made." London Quarterly Review, 1862
  • "To make my position — that botanists must be born, not made — doubly sure" Botanical Society of Edinburgh, 1863
  • "but the true chopper, like the true poet, is 'born, not made.'" Journal of Horticulture and Gardening, 1865
  • "It is a mistake to think good servants, like poets, are born, not made" Cornhill Magazine, 1866
  • "Leaders are born, not made" Freewill Baptist Quarterly, 1867
  • "Now, real educators are born, not made" Liberty magazine, 1867
  • "The architect, as an artist, is born, not made" William Laxton, 1867
  • "mannerly people, like poets, are born, not made," Rhoda Broughton, 1868
  • "Wardens are 'born, not made'" The Methodist Review, 1868
  • "A good cook is born, not made, but he needs an immense deal of polishing" Putnam's Magazine, 1869
  • "Good bread makers, male or female, are born, not made" The Overland Monthly, 1869
  • "a dog-driver, like a poet, is born, not made" George Kennan, 1871
  • "the great mechanic, like the great poet, is born, not made" Samuel Smiles, 1884
  • "The Christian in short, like the poet, is born not made" Henry Drummond, 1887
  • "The genuine secretary is born, not made" Grant Allen, 1889
  • "snobs are born — not made" Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood, 1897
Bored now. Yes, it seems anybody with any kind of talent or distinctiveness is... And that's not exhaustive, nor even using up 19th century examples; a nice example of a snowclone that has persisted for around three centuries.

1. I wonder about the White & Meadows comment on pickpockets. Dashiell Hammett, in his 1923 From the Memoirs of a Private Detective, said of it: "Pocket-picking is the easiest to master of all the criminal trades. Anyone who is not crippled can become adept in a day".

PS: Thanks, kalebeul: cool. Indeed.

- Ray

Out-takes: copyright and crime

I've been getting into a daft habit of carefully making a note of news relevant to JSBlog, then forgetting to upload it. Purged from my organiser:

Men at Work plagiarised 'Down Under' riff ("Flute melody taken from 1935 'Kookaburra' children's song, Australian court rules", Kathy Marks, The Independent, 5 February 2010). This means Men at Work potentially owe millions to the copyright owners, Larrikin Music. See the previous Kookaburra fossil exposed for background. Personally I think the result stinks, and that the quotation in question, a tiny riff between verses, was nothing more than a nice homage to a tune that had become de facto public domain due to its obscure copyright status. Quoted in The Age, the founder of Larrikin Records and original owner of Larrikin Music, Warren Fahey, says exactly this:
He recommends the copyright owner, Larrikin Music, should "gift" the song to Australia, arguing that most Australians believe they already have public domain ownership of the song anyway.

"The past week has seen thousands of emails, letters to the editor, radio commentary and internet forums criticising the judgment," says Fahey, who sold Larrikin Music to Music Sales Corporation in 1988 and whose folk band is called the Larrikins.

"Many of these incorrectly criticise Larrikin Records and myself as the protagonist, asking, 'How could someone so dedicated to Australian music do such a thing?' The Larrikin brand has certainly been tarnished by what many see as opportunistic greed on behalf of Larrikin Music/Music Sales."
A "larrikin" is, incidentally, one who subscribes to Australia's folk tradition of anti-authoritarianism - see Larrikinism - and the opposite of a "wowser".

Harry Potter and the great Google onslaught ("The bunfight over Google's library project only serves to remind us that intellectual property battles are nothing new", Robert McCrum, The Observer, Sunday 14 February 2010): the always interesting McCrum writes about great intellectual property battles in history such as the first recognition of literary "piracy" in the 1660s, arguing in effect that these didn't kill literature in the past, so the disputed Google Library Project may have innovative effects we can't predict. See preview of Adrian John's book Piracy.

Forget 'serious' novels, I've turned to a life of crime ("Murder mysteries, once looked down on, are now fit for the literary elite", Stephanie Merritt, The Observer, 14 February 2010). Merritt argues the ... er ... merit of the crime genre as historical fiction. I thoroughly agree; one of the best historical novels I know is Peter Lovesey's murder mystery Wobble to Death, with its fascinating background in Victorian endurance races and their attendant corruption and strychnine-doping (see Strychnine - a lesser-known past).

This artwork was made by a killer. It is no less valid for that (Deborah Orr, The Independent, 11 April 2009): concerning the difficult issue of what we should feel about art made by murderers. In the literary field, she mentions the well-known case of William Chester Minor, a schizophrenic murderer who made thousands of contributions to the OED from his cell in Broadmoor. The excellent and prolific historical crime novelist Anne Perry, creator of the William Monk series, also springs to mind.

- Ray

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Devil's Footprints

A few days ago saw the anniversary of a curious episode in Devon history very close to here, the "Devil's Footprints" of February 8th 1855. After heavy snowfall overnight, there was widepread reportage of strange footprints over a large area on either side of the River Exe, the story even reaching The Times.

EXTRAORDINARY OCCURRENCE - Considerable sensation has been caused in the towns of, Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth and Dawlish in the south of Devon, in the consequence of the discovery of a large number of foot-tracks of a most strange and mysterious description. The superstitious go as far as to believe they are the marks of Satan himself, and that great excitement has been produced among all classes may be judged from the fact that the subject has been descanted from the pulpit. It appears on Thursday night last there was a heavy fall of snow in the neighbourhood of Exeter and the south of Devon. On the following morning the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the foot marks of some strange and mysterious animal, endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the footprints were seen in all kinds of unaccountable places - on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards, enclosed by high walls and pailings as well as in open fields. There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where these footprints where not observable. The track appeared more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps generally eight inches in advance of each other. The impression of the foot closely resembled that of a donkey’s shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) two and a half across. Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in generality of the steps the shoe was continuous, and, from the snow in the centre remaining entire, merely showing the outer crest of the foot, it must have been concave. The creature seems to have approached several houses, and then to have retreated, but no one has been able to discover the standing or resting point of this mysterious visitor. On Sunday last the Rev Mr Musgrave alluded to the subject in his sermon, and suggested the possibility of the foot prints being those of a kangaroo, but this could have scarcely been the case, as they were found on both sides of the estuary of the Exe. At present it remains a mystery, and many superstitious people in the above towns are afraid to go outside their doors at night.
- The Times, February 16, 1855

It was documented in Chapter 28 of Charles Hoy Fort's The Book of the Damned, and has become a classic unexplained phenomenon (though for reasons I can't fathom, people in Topsham historical circles always have seemed to change the subject when I've mentioned it).

Probably the best source on the whole topic is the author and historian Mike Dash. His paper "The Devil's Hoofmarks", first published in Fortean Studies 1 (1994) and Fortean Studies 3 (1996), reinvestigates the available accounts with a historian's rigour and "explodes several popular myths concerning the Hoofmarks: the prints were not uniform in size, were not laid in the course of a single night, and did not run in a straight line across the county of Devon". One of the most crucial features of the story he shows is how it was widely copied, recopied and embroidered, creating details that are omnipresent in popular retellings, but absent from the handful of primary eyewitness accounts. He ultimately comes to no conclusion, but it's an excellent analysis of an 1850s media-driven scare. Here's the PDF: The Devil's Hoofmarks.
- Ray

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Red House and the Sewells

While in Newport over the weekend for my Uncle Ken's funeral, I had a chance en route to add to the Maxwell Gray portfolio with a picture of the "Red House". This features in Gray's 1889 novel The Reproach of Annesley as the residence of Paul Annesley on the High Street of "Medington" (a fictionalised Newport) and it's described when his cousin Edward comes to visit:
He stopped before a large red-brick house, draped with graceful hangings of Virginia creeper, now a mass of bare brown branches rattling drily in the wind; a house which withdrew itself, as if in aristocratic exclusiveness, some yards back from the line of houses rising flush with the street, and was fenced from intruders by a high iron railing, behind which a few evergreens grew, half-stifled by the thick coating of dust upon their shining leaves. There were three doors, one on each side, and one approached by a flight of Steps in the middle; on one of the side doors the word "Surgery," was painted, and upon the railings was a brass plate, with "Paul Annesley, Surgeon, &c.," engraved upon it.
The creeper and evergreens are gone (or perhaps even fictitious, like the surgeon's nameplate) but the house is still very recognisable. In reality, as described in Charles John Arnell's 1933 Poets of the Wight, it was the home of the Sewells, the extremely high-achieving family of the solicitor Thomas Sewell and his wife Jane. Their twelve children included the novelist and educator Elizabeth Missing Sewell; Henry Sewell (the first premier of New Zealand); James Edwards Sewell (warden of New College, Oxford); Richard Clarke Sewell (author, and reader in law to the University of Melbourne); and William Sewell (clergyman and author). Of these, Elizabeth kept the most continuing ties to the Isle of Wight, settling in Bonchurch; she was a friend of a number of literary figures including Tennyson, the young Swinburne and the Brownings. Apart from a number of works - with a distinctly traditionalist slant - about education for young women, she wrote literary criticism, journals and novels such as The Experience of Life, Katherine Ashton and Ursula. See the Internet Archive for her works online, and the Victorian Web sub-site for a detailed biographical account.

I wasn't quite clear where to look for the house, but Mountague Charles Owen's 1906 The Sewells of the Isle of Wight, with an account of some of the families connected with them by marriage said that at the time of writing
This house is still standing in the High Street, Newport, and was occupied until his death by Mr. Harbottle Estcourt, Deputy-Governor of the Isle of Wight
A glance in the 1880 Kelly's Directory shows Estcourt's address to be 98 High Street: easily findable nowadays, and the recessed three-door frontage matches the description in The Reproach of Annesley. The building is now subdivided, and occupied (as of January 2010) by an alternative therapy spa and a firm of solicitors.

- Ray