Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Betty Stogs

Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog, in an article about the largely forgotten Cornish folklorist William Bottrell - see William Bottrell and the Strangest Funeral Procession in the World - just quoted a wonderful uncredited obituary imagining a funeral cortège for Bottrell consisting of a throng of characters and entities (most of whom/which I'd never heard of) from Cornish folklore.

One not there, who ought to be, is Betty Stogs. The earliest account I can find of her is in Robert Hunt's 1865 Popular romances of the west of England; or, The drolls, traditions, and superstitions of old Cornwall (here's a 1908 reprint in the Internet Archive: ID popularromanceso00huntuoft). It's an extremely interesting book.

The story Betty Stogs and Jan the Mounster, which has a bit of a social engineering subtext, tells of Betty, a scruffy, lazy woman given to "courseying" (wandering house-to-house to gossip); in the version collected by Hunt, she allegedly lived near Towednack. She never darns her stockings, but just lets them sag to hide the worn heels. She finds an equally scruffy partner, Jan the Mounster (i.e. monster) who gets her pregnant but refuses to marry her until her father comes up with a dowry. They don't get on because Betty has in addition got a gin habit, can't cook, and tries to wash his watch in dirty dishwater. She's extremely neglectful to her baby, which gets as dirty as its parents. But at a year old, he disappears. After a search, he's found in a thicket, on a bed of moss, wrapped in clean clothing and sprinkled with flowers, spick and span from having been cleansed in the morning dew. The fairies had planned to take him as a changeling, but had taken so long to clean him up that dawn had broken, and they had to leave him behind. Betty and Jan are chastened by the experience, and mend their ways (or at least somewhat). Here's the story, starting page 103, or you can read the 1865 edition at Google Books.

Betty Stogs beer pump logo
Beer drinkers will recognise Betty from her incarnation as Skinner's Brewery's' "Queen of Cornish Beer"; their flagship beer is named after her. I didn't realise until Googling her name last week that she was based on a folklore character. Skinner's  has adopted her in both her original scruffy incarnation with wrinkled socks, and in her cleaned-up version in which she has become something of a force of nature, represented by the brewery at festivals and charity fundraisers in true mumming / folk custom fashion as a burly man - former Cornish-style wrestling champion Fred Thomas - in drag.

Skinner's promotional poster
I especially like the style of the new promotional poster by by Nick Berringer and Stuart Thorn, "intended to emphasise the ale’s origins as Betty remains devoutly Cornish while exploring the big wide world", in which the now-slightly-genteel Betty goes to a posh restaurant, but still has beer and a giant Cornish pasty. They promise more. See the Skinner's events page for details.

- Ray

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Haslehust Mystery Painting #2

Three years ago - see EW Haslehust ... and artfight! - I mentioned the work of Ernest William Haslehust (1855-1949), a watercolourist who specialised in slightly prettified, but nevertheless skilful and evocative, paintings of English landscapes and townscapes. His work was a mainstay of Blackie & Sons' classic Beautiful England series.

Holly Daniel has just sent me an image  of a 16" by 48" painting acquired at a Californian junk store, signed EW Haslehust. She asks if anyone has any thoughts on where it might be.

As you can see, it depicts a tidal estuary with hills. Haslehust usually painted southern English scenes, but not invariably; he also went to Cumbria and Scotland on occasion. I don't known enough about boats, but the sail shape might give a clue, and also (in this detail) the style of the lady's hat.

click to enlarge
Anyhow, here's the full picture:

raw image - click to enlarge
I had a go at correcting the image for the known aspect ratio and the general fading:

click to enlarge
I have to say that I don't rule out the possibility of this being painted by someone else, with a bogus signature; the skill and precision don't seem up to Haslehust's familiar works from the Beautiful England series. Then again, this is an oil painting, and he normally worked in watercolours - perhaps it was a very early work, and/or he was just less adept in this medium.

If you haven't already, you might also like to look at an earlier post, Haslehust mystery painting, which puts up another unknown Haslehust painting - that one of an English cottage - for identification.

- Ray

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Flooding by the Clyst

View Larger Map

On the great scale of things - hurricanes, tsunamis - this isn't much to complain about, but over the last couple of days the English Westcountry has had significant rainfall leading to flooding. The local manifestation has been flooding of the fields on the lower flood plain of the River Clyst between Topsham and Dart's Farm (see Google Maps above) and closure of the Exmouth Road (A376) that crosses it. A few photos: sorry about the dismal cast, but it was getting toward dusk on a very overcast day.

Some twit thought they could get through ...

And this is why we don't build on flood plains unless we're stupid.

There's wider coverage on various news sites, including that of the Exeter Express & Echo: Disruption and transport problems in Devon as wind batters region. As I said, effects here aren't exactly devastating, but it's certainly out of the ordinary.

- Ray

Monday, 19 November 2012

Alexander Herzen in Ventnor

I apologise for this being a thoroughly second-hand post, but following blog references led in a pleasant direction.

Sydney Padua's always excellent 2D Googles just cited an 1840 letter by Thomas Carlyle to his younger brother John Aitken Carlyle, containing a complimentary description of the Isle of Wight as place to spend the winter months.
Your Weymouth Letter reached me yesterday. If you accomplished your purpose for Sunday, getting to Lymington as you proposed, you must have ample means to be in Ryde at your journey's end before this reach you. I fancy you to be there perhaps even now. It gives me no little satisfaction to consider that your wandering is now over, and has settled you for a space of rest in a corner so near me. I imagine Wight to be the elegiblest of all places for passing these dim months;—not enveloped in fog, drizzle, and glar [mud], as we here; but with a fresh sea round you, with glimpses of blue sky, and some constant evidence that this Earth and her Seasons still exist.
- TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE, Chelsea, Tuesday, 24 Novr / 1840— The Carlyle Letters Online
Googling around this took me serendipitously to a blog post In Herzen’s footsteps: a visit to Ventnor by Sarah J Young, a lecturer in Russian at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. It concerns the author's visit to Ventnor in the process of researching the mid-1850s stay in Ventnor of Alexander Ivanovich Herzen ("a Russian pro-Western writer and thinker known as the father of Russian socialism and one of the main fathers of agrarian populism" - Wikipedia). The whole account is rather cool, not least for the inclusion of sketches of Ventnor by one of the Herzen entourage, Malwida von Meysenbug.

One shows St Augustine Villa, where Herzen stayed (my photo for comparison) ...

St Augustine Villa, Ventnor, 1855, Malwida von Meysenbug
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative works 2.0
England and Wales License
Ventnor, October 2010, Ray Girvan, public domain image

Ventnor, Chalet Hotel, 1954 - scan of postcard: click to enlarge

... and the other shows the coastline looking eastward toward Ventnor (again, I found a photo of my own, this one from May 2012):

Coast near Ventnor, by Malwida von Meysenbug, 1855
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative works 2.0
England and Wales License

Coast near Ventnor, Ray Girvan, May 2012, public domain image
- Ray

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Just chatting

Clare, who's researching World War One topics, just drew my attention to this article: Of Lice and Men: Trench Fever and Trench Life in the A.I.F. by Dr. M. Geoffrey Miller.

It's a good article in itself, but one that also leads into a wealth of superb material. Up one level, and you get to The Medical Front, a compendium of texts on "all medical aspects, military and civilian, of the Great War". And this is just part of the GWDPA: the Great War Primary Document Archive, whose intention is "to present in one location both primary and relevant secondary documents between 1890-1930".

However, returning to Of Lice and Men, one point of interest was the reference to "chats" and "chatting" ...
There are three varieties of lice; head lice, or 'nits', (pediculus capitis), pubic lice, or 'crabs', (Phthirius pubis), and body lice, or 'chats' (pediculus corporis)
Accordingly the soldiers had to attempt to remove the lice as best they could. This removal, a procedure known as "chatting up" was usually by hand, picking out the lice from the clothes, or with the flame from lighted candles run up and down the seams of the clothes. (This was the origin of the verb "to chat" as the soldiers made the removal of their lice into a social event).
... and part of this rang etymological alarm bells with us both.

"Chat" for "louse" is fine. I suspected it might be Anglo-Indian, but it turns out not:
1699 B. E. New Dict. Canting Crew, Chatts, lice.
1725 in New Canting Dict.
1819 J. H. Vaux New Vocab. Flash Lang. in Mem., Chats, lice.
- Oxford English Dictionary
"Chatting up" checks out likewise, as a couple of contemporary references show:
Then they gave us hot water and soap and a clean towel, and told us to go to it. This was an advancing signal-corps company that was chatting up after the retreating Boche.
- The Literary Digest, Volume 59, page 42, 1918
"Chatting-up," searching for " them " by divesting oneself of tunic, shirt and even breeches. This informal parade used to take place frequently among the men in the trenches during the summer months.
- The Athenaeum, 1919 
But the statement that this is the origin of the verb "to chat" is completely untrue. "Chat" goes back to Middle English in a couple of similar obsolete senses, but even the modern sense dates back to the 1500s.
3. intr. To talk in a light and informal manner; to converse familiarly and pleasantly.
1551 R. Robinson tr. T. More Vtopia sig. ✠viiv, I muste commen with my wife, chatte with my chyldren, and talke wyth my seruantes.
- Oxford English Dictionary
"Chatting up" in the delousing sense, by the way, has no connection with the modern sense of "flirting with". The OED's first citation for this sense is much later, and seems to be a modern development, first cited to the 1960s, on an obsolete meaning of "chat" equivalent to "chat up".
1916  C. J. Dennis, Songs Sentimental Bloke 19, I tried to chat 'er, like you'd make a start Wiv any tart.
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Ray

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment

I just had to share this. The night before last, I was feeling pretty fretful in the small hours with joint pains from the chemotherapy, so eventually gave in and took a couple of co-codamols (what they call "Tylenol 1" in the USA). They clearly worked, because I woke up around 3pm - but with vague recollections of an interminable dream of being at a pub quiz for hours on end. I remember two of the questions:
  • In what sport is the Leaping Grand Cheval tackle permitted?
  • On what classical symphony is the song "The Elephant's Covered in Skin" based?
Not exactly Coleridge. I think I'll stick to ibuprofen in future ...

- Ray

PS  Cautiously good news in respect of all this. See the 14th November 2012 update to It ain't that kind.

Monday, 12 November 2012

A Chartreuse mystery

I love the way the Internet often brings to the surface dimly-remembered things. I remember from around 1970 coveting a very pretty book about optics in the school library. I can remember nothing about it except that it had interesting colour plates, and a reference to unusual colour properties of Green Chartreuse liqueur.

Google finally traced it: Colours and how we see them (Hamilton Hartridge, Bell & Sons, London, 1949). There are some scans at Chris Mullen's The Visual Telling of Stories website (which has a wealth of material on colour, and more) and one of the plates - shown above - illustrates the Chartreuse as red in the bottle, green in the glass. The actual book - a write-up of Hartridge's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 1946-47 - looks readily findable, but I was more interested in having traced the detail I remembered, which refers to this optical phenomenon called dichroism (a material having different colours under different lighting conditions):
This change of colour with thickness of solution is known as the 'Chartreuse Effect', because it was first noticed in connection with the famous liqueur which was manufactured by the Carthusian monks. When in the flagon the liqueur is a deep ruby red; when poured out into the glass it is a brilliant emerald green. Nothing could be better than to actually use the liqueur itself for demonstration purposes, but this may not be easy.
It easn't easy, and is actually a bit of a mystery, because I'm familiar with Chartreuse liqueur (you can readily find images online) and I've never seen any sign of it displaying this red-green dichroic effect. It's green in both the bottle and glass.

Nor do there appear to be any references to this "Chartreuse effect" except in Hartridge and a handful of later optics books - such as Frederick W Clulow's 1972 Colour: its principles and their applications - that I'd bet money just recycled the factoid from Hartridge. Have the Carthusians changed the recipe since he wrote about it? Was he simply mistaken? Or could he even have invented the observation? I raise this option becase his 1976 obituary in the British Journal of Opthalmology mentions his work as:
"Director of the Vision Research Unit ... set up to give Hartridge a chance to test the polychromatic theory of colour vision which he had promulgated with few real experiments but many publications ... From this point of view, the venture was a predictable disaster"
So, can anyone shed any light on this claimed property of Chartreuse?

So we know what we're talking about, here's a household example: a Fairy detergent liquitab, whose content shows a very nice dichroism, from green by transmitted light, changing to deep blue by reflected light.

A more celebrated example is the Lycurgus Cup, a late Roman glass goblet which, due to the presence of colloidal gold and silver, is olive-green when viewed under normal circumstances by reflected light, but wine-red by transmitted light. See The Lycurgus Cup - A Roman Nanotechnology (Freestone, Meeks, Sax and Higgitt, Gold Bulletin, 4, 4, London, World Gold Council, 2007).

Lycurgus Cup - images from Wikipedia
Addendum, 7th Oct 2013. A few days back, the quiz and general knowledge programme QI mentioned this effect. It featured an experiment, credited to Dr Alice Bowen, showing the creation of a cocktail comprising equal parts of the liqueur Blue Curaçao, clear cranberry juice, and lemonade. It displayed a strong red-blue dichroism. This'll probably be online soon.

- Ray

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Bournemouth in fiction

It may be of interest to some readers if I elaborate on the references in the previous post to pre-1915 novels mentioning Bournemouth (not necessarily as a central setting). Apart from a couple of major players like Thomas Hardy, it's a catalogue of little-known and forgotten authors and works.
... Tess of the D'Urbervilles contains one of the most picturesque and accurate descriptions of Bournemouth. It is perhaps most fully depicted in Adrian Savage by Lucas Malet, and is visited and described in Allward by E.S. Stevens, Sinister Street by Compton Mackenzie, The Seamy Side by Besant and Rice, Jill-all-Alone by Rita, and in Tracked Down by Headon Hill. It is further seen in W. B. Maxwell's war-time romance A Man and his Lesson. Among other recent novels in which Bournemouth appears are: The Race Before Us, Guy Thorne; Zitta Sees Herself (Boscombe), E. M. Delafield; The Sins Ye Do, Emmeline Morrison; A Bit of Blue Stone, Maxwell Gray; Tyranny, Holloway Horn; Ring Up the Curtain, J.C. Nevill; Barbara Justice, Diana Patrick; Blinkers, H.A. Vachell; Mr. Justice Maxell, Edgar Wallace.
- A Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to Bournemouth, Poole, Christchurch, Avon Valley, Salisbury, Winchester and The New Forest Covering the Years 1914/15, Ward Locke guide
  • Bournemouth appears in Hardy's 1893 Tess of the D'Urbervilles as the fashionable Sandbourne, where Tess takes up residence as Alec's mistress, and cuts his throat.
  • Lucas Malet was the pseudonym of the novelist Mary St Leger Kingsley, Charles Kingsley's daughter; her 1911 Adrian Savage takes place in  Paris and Bournemouth (as Stourmouth).
  • Bournemouth (as Bournesmouth) and the Christchurch area feature as the setting of ES (Ethel Stefana) Stevens' 1915 Allward: A Story of Gypsy Life.
  • The 1913 Sinister Street (Volume 1 / Volume 2) is Sir Compton Mackenzie's bildungsroman about the coming of age of two illegimate siblings born of rich parents.  
  • The Seamy Side (1889? by Walter Besant and James Rice) portrays a Bournemouth created as "a colony of invalids"
They were not "mere brick-and-mortar speculators" who built Bournemouth ; no, rather they were sickness-and-mortality speculators, and the result of their speculations is pictured for us in The Seamy Side, by Besant and Rice
Seaside England, Ruth Manning-Sanders - 1951
  • Jill-all-Alone by "Rita" (Mrs W. Desmond Humphreys, née" Eliza M. J. Gollan) I have little about:
Jill grew up alone in the woods a free spirit, then the squire desires her. He is foiled, but Jill dies.
- Novels in English by women, 1891-1920: a preliminary checklist, 1981
  • Tracked Down is a 1902 crime novel by the novelist clergyman Francis Grainger (aka Headon Hill).
  • The 1919 A Man and his Lesson is by William Babington Maxwell, novelist son of Mary Elizabeth Braddon.; it concerns a successful dramatist and barrister, who learns a lesson about life from being torn between love for two women. 
  • Guy Thorne's 1910 The Race Before Us is a polemical novel attacking the degeneracy of the aristocratic classes; it begins with the murder of a nobleman by high-frequency current in a Bournemouth quack hydropathic clinic.
  • The 1917 Zella Sees Herself (out of interest, written in Exeter) was the strongly autobiographical first novel by Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood (aka EM Delafield), best known for her Devon-set Diary of a Provincial Lady.
  • I haven't been able to find anything much about Emmeline Morrison's 1923 The Sins Ye Do, except that it was a romance adapted for film in 1924.
  • Holloway Horn's 1922 Tyranny is a male-written polemical melodrama of Catholic angst, concerning a young Irish woman called Gwenda, who despite having had many lovers via her job as a stenographer and chauffeuse, finds her Catholic upbringing makes it impossible for her to marry the one who really does it for her, a divorced man.
  • Ring Up the Curtain (1920) by John Craunston Nevill was described by The Spectator as " a very entertaining theatrical novel of the type more or less originated by Mr. Compton Mackenzie".
  • The plot of the 1921 Blinkers: A Romance Of The Preconceived Idea by Horace Annesley Vachell, is described by the 1921 American Library Association catalogue as "The heroine has been brought up to see life honestly instead of through 'blinkers; and this honesty brings her safely through disillusionment to ultimate happiness".

- Ray

A Bit of Blue Stone

Bournemouth, the Square and Gardens from Mount Dore
EM Haslehust, 1915. Wikimedia Commons
A bit of a milestone; further to the previous two posts, I just finished Maxwell Gray's final published work, the title story of her 1923 collection A Bit of Blue Stone.

The story A Bit of Blue Stone (dated 1922) is set largely in Bournemouth in the closing years of World War One, a romance between two people whose lives have been blighted by the war.

In a warm September, Lancelot Hughes, a young serviceman on leave from the front, largely recovered from a wound and shell-shock, is visiting Bournemouth to see his mother herself convalescent from overwork as a VAD nurse, and his more seriously traumatised brother George, permanently discharged after the loss of an eye and severe shell-shock. Lancelot and his mother's conversations turn to an idyllic time they remember, a family outing to Alum Bay, Isle of Wight, where Lancelot was attracted to a girl called Violet Kendal who they'd helped when she dislocated her ankle.

To Lancelot's surprise and pleasure, he encounters the now older Violet, who is staying with her Aunt Maria and cousin Rose. The two families become acquainted, and conversation turns to George, whose doctor considers to have a delusion of being jilted due to his disfigurement. Rose reacts strangely to this - evidently she did he a friendship with George - and the receipt of a letter reveals the truth: that George's jealous officer In France, a failed suitor of Rose, had withheld the correspondence between the two. Rose and George are reunited. Lancelot and Violet also find themselves in love; but Lancelot has to return to the front, and leaves with Violet his "mascot", a chunk of blue stone given him by another soldier whose life he saved, for safe keeping.

Lancelot eventually returns to Bournemouth a year after the end of the war, but after initial delight at being reunited, it appears increasingly that his feelings toward Violet have cooled. This turns out not to be the case; the problem is that Violet's father, Colonel Kendal, has forbidden their marriage due to Lancelot's circumstances. His medical history - shell-shock and "heart strain" - is limiting his job prospects, and coupled with a general decline in family fortunes (including the need to help George and Rose) his only option is a job overseas, which is bound to be detrimental to his health. Regretfully, he says marriage is not an option.

After Lancelot leaves, Violet becomes curious about the "mascot" Lancelot still has left with her. It's wrapped in a sheet of paper saying "Try Sparkes" (a London jeweller) and as she's in the process of helping Mrs Hughes sell some jewellery to bankroll Lancelot's travel overseas to his job, she suggests to him that it might be an asset worth selling. He agrees. Rose goes to the Charing Cross shop, and rapidly finds that the "bit of blue stone" is a large uncut diamond from the Kimberley mines, and an American customer at Sparkes, Josiah P Goldridge, is prepared to buy it for thousands of pounds.

This alters everything. Lancelot needn't go overseas. He can afford to complete his interrupted Oxford studies and have enough left over to provide a starting income; Colonel Kendal retracts his objections. Violet and Lancelot meet again in Bournemouth, and sail off into the sunset, presumably to the Isle of Wight. Mrs Hughes, watching them depart, says, "They are going to the Land of Heart's Desire."

View Larger Map - Bournemouth front as described by MG: pan left and zoom for the
Isle of Wight (in distance), pan right for Purbeck Hills.

To some extent, A Bit of Blue Stone is predictable. The blue stone's titular presence makes it pretty certain to have some plot significance, which ultimately amounted to a deus ex machina that bailed the main characters out of all their problems. But it is a very nice evocation of the landscape of Bournemouth, with its chines and its views of Purbeck and the Isle of Wight, in a distinctive era when it was a significant centre for wartime convalescence: see, for instance, Bournemouth Town Hall (formerly the Mont Dore Hotel). It's also rather nice to see an upbeat ending to Maxwell Gray's works, which toward toward the end of her life had become at best wistful, and at worst embittered and reactionary.

Check out the 1915 Blackie guide Bournemouth, Poole & Christchurch (Sidney Heath, illust. EM Haslehust, Internet Archive ID bournemouthpoole00heatrich) for a nice illustrated account of Bournemouth at the time of A Bit of Blue Stone.

I don't know if MG had visited Bournemouth at the time - as an invalid, she well could have. But it's well possible she could have consulted the Ward Locke guide A Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to Bournemouth, Poole, Christchurch, Avon Valley, Salisbury, Winchester and The New Forest Covering the Years 1914/15. It's not online, but I was interested to recover a snippet suggesting it to be a popular location for authors at the time, many of the titles suggesting that (like pre-war Brighton in Brighton Rock) that it had a considerably seamy side:
... Tess of the D'Urbervilles contains one of the most picturesque and accurate descriptions of Bournemouth. It is perhaps most fully depicted in Adrian Savage by Lucas Malet, and is visited and described in Allward by E.S. Stevens, Sinister Street by Compton Mackenzie, The Seamy Side by Besant and Rice, Jill-all-Alone by Rita, and in Tracked Down by Headon Hill. It is further seen in W. B. Maxwell's war-time romance A Man and his Lesson. Among other recent novels in which Bournemouth appears are: The Race Before Us, Guy Thorne; Zitta Sees Herself (Boscombe), E. M. Delafield; The Sins Ye Do, Emmeline Morrison; A Bit of Blue Stone, Maxwell Gray; Tyranny, Holloway Horn; Ring Up the Curtain, J.C. Nevill; Barbara Justice, Diana Patrick; Blinkers, H.A. Vachell; Mr. Justice Maxell, Edgar Wallace.
For me, it's not the end of the Maxwell Gray story. I've finished the planned task of reading her major book works chronologically. But she was not just a novelist; there are many more articles and poems in magazines and journals. The project continues...


Sunday, 4 November 2012

Muriel ... and After the Crash

 Further to the previous Sweet Water Grapes, I just read the two shorter middle stories - Muriel and After the Crash - in Maxwell Gray's 1923 collection A Bit of Blue Stone.

Muriel (dated 1923, which makes it probably the author's final work) is rather a static mood piece, repeating the theme of Sweet Water Grapes: disillusionment softened by the promise of continuity. As he sits watching the sunset in a harbour town, a successful politician, Edward Grantham, meditates on his failure to connect emotionally with his daughter Muriel, who has just married. A cold man who has buried in work all his sadness at bereavement, and farmed off the upbringing of his children to his sister-in-law, he regrets the loss of both children: his son William to World War One, and Muriel, who has departed to India with her Civil Service husband.

A colleague, Jack Bennett, tries to talk Grantham out of this mood by telling them that there can be positive outcomes. He tells the story of a young English soldier who escaped from prison camp, made his way to America, and started a new life there. This soldier, like Grantham, was bereaved, but has come back to England with his child. The biographical details mount up - the soldier had a hard father, and was brought up in a rectory by his aunt - until the reader, if not Grantham, knows exactly who it's going to be, and it is. The long-lost William introduces himself, and father and son are reconciled. He hands his baby daughter, who is also called Muriel, to Grantham:
"And the world is still full of beauty," he replied, taking the little figure presented to him with embarrassment mixed with terror and a throb of deep joy.
I'll move on rapidly to After the Crash. In September 2010 - Maxwell Gray .... where London stood - I mentioned having seen a brief Times Literary Supplement review that mentioned A Bit of Blue Stone having a post-apocalyptic story. The story is footnoted "Written about 1908 or 1901, mislaid, and forgotten till now".

After the Crash tells of the visit of Brother Bernard, a pilgrim who has come from The Holy One of Canterbury, and before that from Australia, to seek a tribal leader called the Ancient of Kingston "to gather knowledge of England, and more particularly of those golden days before the Great Trouble that had preceded the downfall of the European civilization".

Arriving, Bernard sees scenery that makes it clear we're in a "where London stood" story:
Far off in the clear and smokeless air a dull blue dome rising above dull grey masses of broken masonry, partly overgrown by bush and creeper, was traced upon the sky. Here and there among the masonry were trees and woods, and towards the east "four grey walls with four grey towers" * stood, as they had already stood after a thousand years before this, unbroken. West of the dome, the grey towers of the abbey, its walls and windows beached and broken here and there, still watched the waters' never-ending flow from behind the battered and half-ruined palace of Westminster that had seen an empire's rise and fall and survived the crash of civilisation.
"And this," mused the pilgrim, contemplating the waste of crumbled brick and mortar and shattered spire, "was London, the London of Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth and Tennyson."

* MG's quotes, an allusion to Tennyon's The Lady of Shalott.
Bernard first meets a savage who "grunts jerkily in a clipped degraded dialect that had some far-off resemblance to Cockney English". After Bernard placates him with a crucifix and "Peace be with you", he directs Bernard to the encampment of the Ancient of Kingston. The Ancient, like Bernard, knows "the beautiful old tongue, the written English", and the two converse. After discussing the church's efforts to bring back civilisation, the Ancient, who is 108, tells how he met in his boyhood a man of 90 who had been born in the Famine following the "Downfall", and who told him of its cause.
"The downfall of Western civilisation was, indeed, caused by socialisms, democracy pushed to a logical conclusion, and its sequence, materialism ... So absorbed were [the ancient English] in money-making they refused to defend their country against invasion ... Moreover the Great Trouble, the anarchy of democracy, was far more acute on the continent than here. State-fed men refused to work or to fight, except among themselves."
Bernard asks the cause of the subsequent international collapse and breakdown of trade and food production.
"They of the century, Brother Bernard, had destroyed authority. They had forgotten God and the needs of the spirit ... The sum of human enjoyment had grown so immense in consequence of innumerable mechanical inventions and scientific discoveries and the enormous amount of wealth and bodily gratification developed by them, the civilised mankind sought its heaven on earth, and ever-growing democracies, grudging that any one man should enjoy more than any other, goaded the craving of material luxury to madness ... Democracy forbade the imposing of religious texts on teachers, or definite religious teaching in schools, people of any religion and no religion being equal. Democracy ... in its revolt against authority and discipline, it threw away every restraint of morality and religion. For pure democracy is the disintegration of humanity, the dissolution of society, the destruction of the atomic cohesion of the race. If you are versed in the science of the Golden Age, you will know that unless atom clings to atom the mass disappears; hence the explosion of society; the vanishing of civilisation."
Bernard, after hearing news of how "John of Kent" is retaking London, including the Tower, from the savages that occupy it, settles to banquet with the clan of the Ancient. He hears how books are being rediscovered; how the chief lady of the clan knows by heart Tennyson's Morte d'Arthur and portions of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron and Shelley; and how the clan are to reinstall as king a young man who is the last descendant of the "Great Empress Queen".

Bernard assures the Ancient in return that "English hearts are beating still" in the old colonial lands, if not so much in England, and on that hopeful note settles down to sleep, thinking "Had the English been prepared, they might have saved a civilisation".

This is an extraordinary story for Maxwell Gray having made such a radical experiment in genre writing, but it is overtly polemical. As I've said before, in the preceding couple of decades, MG's works had been giving away signs of her becoming increasingly grumpy and reactionary ...
"Now Art is god, and Pleasure, and the Beautiful is master
Of soul and sense and life; let us worship these!" we cried;
But the old bright gods are dead, as the Christ, so our disaster
Is that nought is left to paint but our hearts unsatisfied.
"Ourselves are gods," we laughed—" are gods in might and glory;
The universe asks vainly for something that is higher
Or holier than the human in nature or in story;
So man himself is god, and his good fulfilled desire."
- The Cry of the Nineteenth Century, 1890 (poem)

this very enlightened, hypercivilised day at the close of the century, a day so perfectly informed, so thoroughly schooled, as to have lost faith in virtue, honour, and truth; in decency, authority, and government; so surfeited with fairy tales of science, and rich in the long result of time, as to believe in nothing—save only steam, bacteria, natural selection, natural appetites, money and ghosts.
- The House of Hidden Treasure, 1899
... and After the Crash turns the tap full on.

Even if the story were not killed by this overload of authoritarian anti-modern polemic, After the Crash is not very good science fiction. A plus point is the plausibility of the Church as a uniting factor and preserver of knowledge; this at least has a Canticle of Leibowitz flavour. But the language is faux-mediaeval (there are expressions such as "Nay, brother" and "Not so, Lord"), as is the culture; this isn't a believable post-apocalyptic society derived from early-1900s Londoners. OK, I wouldn't expect Riddley Walker or A Scientific Romance, from Maxwell Gray, but the characters' lack of relict cultural fixtures, after less than two centuries, is a sign of the author not exploring the scenario in any historically or linguistically realistic way. There's no sign even that the narrator is Australian.

It's interesting to see a long-established mainstream author try her hand at SF; and I'm always interested in stories where Macaulay's "New Zealander" makes an appearance, of which this is a late example. After the Crash is also a good example of apocalyptic imaginings as a mirror of the author's own anxieties and dissatisfactions with the world. As such, it's a powerful expression of MG's fears about the collapse of civilisation through war and the rise of socialism. But the idea of the its recovery taking the form of an idealised feudal English court is a bit, and the story for me was very disappointing overall, and not a creditable late work for Maxwell Gray.

The Times Literary Supplement for May 24th 1923 mentioned the story briefly, noting the central problem: that the collapse of civilisation, portrayed as starting in the very early years of the 20th century, hadn't actually happened.
"The Crash" ... looks far into the future and pictures England sunk again in primitive existence as the result of a terrible revolution; "the battered and half-ruined Palace of Westminster" is almost the only relic of today. It is a careful short study, but scarcely carries conviction, for its gloom is at variance with the facts of history.
Addendum 29th July 2013: I've posted a scan at After the Crash (1923).

- Ray

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Sweet Water Grapes

As part of my project to read the complete works of Maxwell Gray, I just started on her final book, the 1923 short story collection A Bit of Blue Stone and other stories, starting with the lead story, the novelette Sweet Water Grapes (dated 1921).

Sweet Water Grapes begins with an "Epilogue", painting an idyllic scene in 1878 on an upper-class country estate, Roxall Court, as the young Lady Alice Burgoyne and her family await the return of her husband, Sir Arthur Burgoyne, from a business trip in Australia. The "sweet water grapes" refers to a vine planted at Roxall by Sir Arthur, who harbours an ambition to set up an English vineyard. It is all perfection, and a visitor comments, "There is no tragedy in the Burgoyne book.".

There soon is. The viewpoint switches to the 30-year-old Sir Arthur Burgoyne, en route home on a sailing ship crossing the Pacific. During a storm, the ship founders, and he and another passenger, Redmayne, are cast ashore on an uninhabited tropical island. Able to rescue tools and provisions from the wreck, they set up home there, and remain unrescued for thirty years. Redmayne dies of a heart attack, and Burgoyne suffers a mental breakdown, after which he is picked up by a merchant ship, only to spend another decade as an indentured farm labourer in Mexico. Finally, the sight of a young mother and some grapes triggers a dormant memory, and he regains sufficient sanity to make his way back to England - in November 1918.

The now-elderly Burgoyne suffers total culture shock. He has never seen an aeroplane or motor car, and is shocked by the shabbiness of a post-war London with no horses and unisex clothing. His only pleasure is the thought of returning to Roxall to be reunited with his family.

He gets to Roxall village to see bunting out for a celebration, overhearing that it's to commemorate the return of the master of the house. He wonders how this was known, but when he gets to Roxall Court, he finds it's actually for the return of Sir Gerald Burgoyne, his grandson, from the war. He makes himself known - and is immediately assumed to be an impostor, particularly by the new Lady Burgoyne, Arthur's late son's widow. His wife Lady Alice is long dead, as are two of his sons and most of his friends; his two surviving children, Cecil and Alice, are away.

He is temporarily accepted as an eccentric, possibly harmlessly insane, house guest pending further investigations. All his knowledge of the family is treated with suspicion, as is his inability to say much about Mexico. The only person immediately convinced of the truth of his story is the aged sexton of Roxall. As time passes, however, more and more people are convinced, notably Lord Orpington, a university friend, and a Mrs Gervase, who was Redmayne's fiancé. Lady Burgoyne remains hostile, however, and controversy continues to be rife in the village.

Burgoyne has a major shock when he visits Roxall graveyard and finds that his Alice remarried. Feeling betrayed, and generally dismayed at the complications his return has caused (for instance, the problem of the ownership of the Roxall estate) he decides to leave. He borrows £100 and goes to London, where he tries to commit suicide by exposure, trudging the streets in the rain until he collapses with pneumonia.

He wakes from a coma to find that he has been finally acknowledged as the long-lost Sir Arthur. His son Cecil, now a top politician in Australia, is at his bedside, and takes him back to Roxall Court, where he meets his daughter Alice, who has been recovering in a nursing home after crashing from overwork as a VAD in the war. As his health improves, he is gratified to be offered a glass of Roxall Chablis; although his vine never took off in England, Cecil hybridised it, and now produces from its descendant an excellent Australian wine named in honour of its origin.

Recovered and reinstated, Sir Arthur lives out productive last years, setting up a semi-temperance pub in Roxall village. Although still disappointed at the ongoing changes in England, he finds solace in his family, and gets to see his baby great-grandson before dying peacefully while talking to his daughter.

The Times Literary Supplement said of the story:
The author has laid her opening scene in an English country house of the Victorian age and touched in the essential details delicately. The character of Burgoyne, a man of wealth and ardent ideas, is well conceived. But when, after his pitiful experiences, he returns to a changed world, he himself seems to have suffered some transformation too—to be no longer a human being, but a shadow, so that his subsequent adventures have little power to stir sympathy, especially as now and again an uneasy suspicion arises that the contrast between the two ages is being forced for the reader's good.
- TLS, May 24, 1923
It's hard not to agree with the conclusion. The device of being marooned for decades is essentially a time machine, and the story is, at heart, an elegy for the Victorian age. As I've said before, MG became increasingly reactionary as she aged, and gave away her many dislikes about the social and technological changes at the close of the 19th century a number of times, both in her fiction and as polemic, notably the 1902 "A Plea for the Silence of the Novelist". Nevertheless, the story has an interesting premise, with strong allusions to that of the return of Odysseus.

For some reason - probably because I'm not a wine aficionado - I'd never come across the term "sweet water grape". I find it's an older name - one of a vast number of synonyms - for the classic aromatic wine grape variety Chasselas.

It's always tempting to try to identify the setting of Maxwell Gray works. Sweet Water Grapes is set largely on the English rural south coast, and while some of the details don't fit (Arthur takes a direct train to London), it looks inspired by the southern Isle of Wight. The name"Roxall" naturally recalls Wroxall (in fact "Roxall" is an old spelling of the name), and the motif of Sir Arthur's experiments in viniculture very much resembles the story of Sir Richard Worsley, who attempted to establish a vineyard at St Lawrence at the end of the 18th century (for a contemporary account, see Section XXI of General view of the agriculture of Hampshire, including the Isle of Wight, by Charles Vancouver, Board of Agriculture).

Since the 1960s, Isle of Wight wine has become a well-established industry, though not using Chasselas grapes; the well-known Adgestone Vineyard, for instance, uses Müller-Thurgau, Rondo, Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner, all hybrids that are more comfortable in cooler climates than Chasselas.

- Ray