Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Four Feathers by AEW Mason

I'd never heard of this book until a month or two back, when browsing Goodreads I saw it recommended as a classic adventure novel. Then, too, it's set during the Mahdist uprising in 1880s Sudan, when Gordon held Khartoum.

The story follows Harry Feversham, a young officer who resigns from his regiment when he learns that war has broken out in Sudan. All but three of his old comrades-in-arms believe that his resignation is because of his engagement to Ethne Eustace--but three discover the truth: that Harry Feversham is afraid of something. The three officers who know Feversham's secret send him three white feathers as accusations of cowardice, to which Ethne, when she hears of it, adds a fourth and breaks off the engagement. Broken-hearted, Harry vows to travel to the Sudan, prove his courage to each of the givers of the feathers, and restore the honour of his family name.

This was quite a good book. But it was not really an adventure story. It is much too quiet and introspective for that, and the majority of the plot stays with Ethne in England. There is practically no historical information on the Mahdist war and Harry's adventures in the Sudan are mostly window-dressing to the real substance of the story, which is the emotional and psychological fallout of the breaking of Ethne's engagement, and her subsequent relationship with Durrance, a friend of Feversham's.

This was a little maddening. I wanted to hear about the Sudan--which Mason seemed to have thoroughly researched, and could write grippingly about--and was instead left to bore myself with Ethne and Durrance. Mason was a good writer, and his characters are subtle and complex. But I lost sympathy for this pair very early on. Durrance loves Ethne, and she loves Feversham, but she agrees to marry Durrance anyway (for reasons that struck me as being supremely fatuous) and Durrance, who discovers that she loves Feversham, decides that Ethne would be happiest until Feversham returns in an engagement to him, and we are forced to watch these characters angst and suffer through this very artificial situation for most of the book while Harry Feversham is off in the Sudan getting his fingernails pulled out by villainous Emirs and what-not.

And that would have made an excellent book. I was continually struck by the seriousness and realism of the book. In a time when authors were prone to depicting the British Empire as a big happy playground for grown-up schoolboys (not that I mind, mark you--there's a place for GA Henty and his ilk), Mason's Sudan is a dangerous, arid place where danger and despair can make a man unrecognisable. The book is ostensibly about cowardice and courage, and it had the weight and darkness that could have made it a really gripping, informative, and edifying adventure story.

But instead Mason chose to spend the majority of his story on the limp and unconvincing Ethne/Durrance plotline, and missed his opportunity to write something great. The result is not terribly bad as books go, but its insight is marred by silliness and the adventure could have been far more satisfying.

The Four Feathers was loosely adapted into a film in 2002 starring Heath Ledger as Feversham. I haven't seen it, but Peter Hammond, who knows the history, has a bone to pick with its version of the historical events.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Happy Dispatches by AB "Banjo" Paterson

In honour of Australian poet and journalist Banjo Paterson's 150th birthday earlier this week, I posted one of his comic poems, Mulga Bill's Bicycle. While saying a few words about Paterson in that post, I suddenly remembered how much I liked his prose, and how I had never gotten around to reading the selections from his war diaries included in our big Best of Banjo Paterson book. To cut a long story short, I spent the next few evenings laughing out loud over these articles, and then discovered that they all came from a book originally published in 1934, toward the end of Paterson's life, available on Project Gutenberg Australia and titled Happy Dispatches. Reading the whole thing was irresistible.

It's an odd sort of book, a patchwork of diary entries meandering through war and travel--Paterson worked as a journalist in the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion, then as an ambulance driver for a hospital on the Western Front of World War I and finally as a remount officer for the Australian Light Horse in Egypt. Paterson made his reputation as the English-speaking world's second-favourite poet after Rudyard Kipling (with whom he went to stay in England at one point) as a student of human and horsy nature. Happy Dispatches has relatively little to say about the wars and rebellions Paterson went through, or the dangers and excitements glimpsed around the borders of his anecdotes. It saves all its attention for humans and horses.

Thus the first few chapters are dedicated to great personalities of the Boer War--Roberts, Milner, French, Haig, and Winston Churchill (of whom he says, "Churchill was the most curious combination of ability and swagger....[he] had such a strong personality that even in those early days, when he was quite a young man, the army were prepared to bet that he would either get into jail or become Prime Minister.") There is a curiously sketchy account of French's relief of Kimberly, which Paterson memorialised with much more historical detail in his poem With French to Kimberly.

This is followed by a few chapters following Paterson across the South Pacific from Australia to China for two equally important events--the Boxer Rebellion and the Chefoo Races. Then there are some accounts of London celebrities, including Rudyard Kipling, of whom Paterson said, "In private life he was just a hard-working, commonsense, level-headed man, without any redeeming vices that I could discover." Paterson respected Kipling's work ethic, observational skills, and insistence on accuracy in everything he wrote, as well as his prescience of the possibility of a Great War:
Kipling stalked through the land of little men, as Gulliver stalked through the land of the Lilliputians. He would never have made a political leader, for he was less of a quack, less of a showman, and less of a time-server than any public man I ever met. Had he been a spectacular person like Gabriel d'Annunzio he might have led a great Imperialist movement. But he had no gift of speech, and his nature abhorred anything in the way of theatricalism. He wrote of things as he saw them, bearing in his own way the white man's burden and expecting no fee or reward.
Finally there are two fascinating chapters on the Western Front at the beginning of the Great War, and three in Egypt with General Allenby, the Light Horse and "that weird branch of the army, the Remount service".

You will find very little consistent information on any one topic in this book, for Paterson flits from one anecdote to another, from horses and socialites to generals and charges in the blink of an eye, with little warning. What you do get is a sort of back-door view of everything: great men, armies, wars, horse races, and a whole eighteen years or so of world history. How people talked and acted when they weren't speaking to journalists or recording their thoughts for posterity; what the ordinary man's attitude was toward the outbreak of World War I; Kipling and Paterson in a room talking shop about poetry. It is uniformly fascinating.

And funny! Paterson spends very little of the book talking about himself, but he comes across as an entertaining man whom it might not, perhaps, have been so pleasant to know, for he is cynical and witty and dry, perhaps feeling more in common with the Tommies than the generals and duchesses. For he laughs at the generals, and with the unrefined and occasionally profane Tommies. The one man he seems to have respected most is Kipling. I said in my last post that Paterson reminds me of John Buchan stylistically, and now I am not so sure. There are some similarities, but while Buchan was very much a Scots-English gentleman, Paterson is firmly in the irreverent Aussie larrikin class, with an insatiable appetite to be in the thick of action. Here is his description of the Duke of Marlborough, Winston Churchill's wealthier and less interesting cousin:
Marlborough, by the way, was just as retiring as Churchill was aggressive. He could not get much higher than the House of Lords, so he had no necessity to advertise himself; but he was a duke, so he had to act up to it when under public observation. He was riding one day on the flank of an Australian patrol, when it was found that the Boer bullets, fired at extreme range, were just about able to reach the patrol. The common or garden Australians swerved hurriedly out of danger; but the Duke rode on impassively, while the bullets whipped up the sand in front of and behind his horse. Said an Australian trooper:

"If I had that bloke's job, I wouldn't do that."
If you are at all interested in the personalities and history of the early 1900s--or Australiana--or horses--I highly recommend finding a copy of Happy Dispatches. Funny, irreverent, and irrelevant, it is a vivid snapshot of a time and a culture that has mostly vanished.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Mulga Bill's Bicycle by Banjo Paterson

Today is a special occasion--the 150th birthday of Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson.

Australia can be a disappointing place to live for a bibliophile with a taste for medieval and renaissance literature. It's a sad fact that no Australians were writing epic poems or classic plays back in the day when Shakespeare and Spenser were showing the rest of the world how it's done. By the time Australia was founded, in 1788, the French Revolution was around the corner and all that kind of thing was old-fashioned.

There haven't been many great Australian authors. The competition isn't stiff. But for my money, the best of them all is Banjo Paterson.

Paterson was a lot of things in his long life, which demonstrates the truth that good writers are almost never just good writers--they tend to be good, bad, or indifferent other things. The other things that Paterson was included a farmer, a lawyer, a journalist, a jockey, and a soldier. As a journalist, he covered the Boer War in South Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. As a soldier in World War I, he served in France and Egypt. Born on a failing sheep-station in New South Wales, he farmed in Victoria on and off for most of his life.

Paterson wrote poetry, novels, short stories and essays--often but not exclusively comical. At the height of his fame as a poet, only Rudyard Kipling was better loved in the English-speaking world. Of course, the literary critics these days prefer Paterson's contemporary, Henry Lawson, who they say is less romantic and more realist. And, if you ask my very unbiased and incorruptibly neutral opinion, a bit of a bore.

Paterson and the Man From Snowy River on our $10 note
Banjo Paterson's poetry has become famous--even if you aren't Australian, you've probably heard of Waltzing Matilda or The Man From Snowy River (the last of which was even made into a rather mediocre movie containing the most thrilling horsemanship yet committed to film). Other poems, like Clancy of the Overflow or The Geebung Polo Club are still famous in Australia, and get recited any time Australians do any reciting. It's Paterson's prose that I enjoy the most, though. It's beautifully clear and elegant, very similar to John Buchan.We spent happy hours in earliest youth laughing over classics such as The Cast-Iron Canvasser, The Merino Sheep, or The Amateur Gardener (collected in Three Elephant Power, which you can get from Project Gutenberg). One day I shall go back and read some of his correspondence from the Boer War, which is full of pungent character sketches, and his commentary on Rudyard Kipling, which introduced me to that marvellous poem The Ballad of East and West. But, because I have not posted a poem in a while, let me find a classic...

Mulga Bill's Bicycle
by Banjo Paterson

'Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;
He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;
He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen;
He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine;
And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of lordly pride,
The grinning shop assistant said, 'Excuse me, can you ride?'

 'See, here, young man,' said Mulga Bill, 'from Walgett to the sea,
From Conroy's Gap to Castlereagh, there's none can ride like me.
I'm good all round at everything, as everybody knows,
Although I'm not the one to talk — I hate a man that blows.
But riding is my special gift, my chiefest, sole delight;
Just ask a wild duck can it swim, a wild cat can it fight.
There's nothing clothed in hair or hide, or built of flesh or steel,
There's nothing walks or jumps, or runs, on axle, hoof, or wheel,
But what I'll sit, while hide will hold and girths and straps are tight:
I'll ride this here two-wheeled concern right straight away at sight.'

 'Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that sought his own abode,
That perched above the Dead Man's Creek, beside the mountain road.
He turned the cycle down the hill and mounted for the fray,
But ere he'd gone a dozen yards it bolted clean away.
It left the track, and through the trees, just like a silver streak,
It whistled down the awful slope, towards the Dead Man's Creek.

It shaved a stump by half an inch, it dodged a big white-box:
The very wallaroos in fright went scrambling up the rocks,
The wombats hiding in their caves dug deeper underground,
As Mulga Bill, as white as chalk, sat tight to every bound.
It struck a stone and gave a spring that cleared a fallen tree,
It raced beside a precipice as close as close could be;
And then as Mulga Bill let out one last despairing shriek
It made a leap of twenty feet into the Dead Man's Creek.

 'Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that slowly swam ashore:
He said, 'I've had some narrer shaves and lively rides before;
I've rode a wild bull round a yard to win a five pound bet,
But this was the most awful ride that I've encountered yet.
I'll give that two-wheeled outlaw best; it's shaken all my nerve
 To feel it whistle through the air and plunge and buck and swerve.
A horse's back is good enough henceforth for Mulga Bill.'

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Cosmic Trilogy 3: That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis

This is the one you've been waiting for!

The third book of CS Lewis's amazingly original science fiction trilogy is the most ambitious, the most philosophically dense--and the most prophetic. It's as unlike Perelandra, the previous book, as Perelandra is unlike Out of the Silent Planet. It takes place entirely on Earth, and there are no more than mentions of the bizarrely beautiful world of Perelandra. Instead of space travel, wild worlds of unthought-of beauty, and races that are alien to us in every way, That Hideous Strength is a political thriller crossed with a Charles Williams book, based on a treatise on modernist education. The result is strange and even uncomfortable (it was one of those books I disliked at a first reading, but loved the second time around). After all, one does not expect such a blood-spattered ending from the author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Still, if there's one CS Lewis book I highly recommend everyone to read, it would be this one (perhaps even above Till We Have Faces). That Hideous Strength is, admittedly, an odd book. But it may be Lewis's most relevant. It's a book about statism, revolution, perversion, bureaucracy, modern education, scientific materialism, and transhumanism pitted against what one hapless character comes to call "the Straight": Christianity, beauty, freedom, morality, law.

Mark and Jane Studdock have been married six months when Mark, a sociologist at a small university, finds himself (almost by mistake, but driven by an insatiable desire to join the In Crowd) recruited by the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or NICE for short, a kind of nationalised scientific research body--or so they claim. To Mark's puzzlement, he finds himself doing very little sociological research, but a good deal of fraudulent journalism intended to sway public opinion in favour of this almost all-powerful entity. And oh, the first thing on its program, right after "murder the respectable scientist who tries to leave the Institute" and "subject honest criminals to endless programs of horrifyingly 'humane' remedial treatment", happens to be "plunge the local town into anarchy and seize control with the Institute's private police".

Meanwhile, Jane Studdock is haunted by inexplicable dreams. A man with shiny glasses studying her while she sleeps. A murderer in a French prison. A body waking out of its grave. Jane flees to a rural manor-house where an apparently immortal man who claims to have travelled to Mars and Venus offers her--not help, but a chance to fight on the right side. While Mark is drawn deeper into a conspiracy of ultimate evil, Jane finds herself increasingly drawn into an equally terrifying and powerful goodness. Will either of them survive the NICE or its opponents, the godlike powers from Deep Heaven?

As with Perelandra, I can do little more than assure you that this book is worth every minute, so full of good things that no review will ever do it justice. You simply must read it. Let me attempt to explain why.

That Hideous Strength is a forward look at modernity. Its claim that statism, bureaucratism, perversion, and scientific materialism is at heart infernally inspired may make even many Christians squirm, but if so then they need to be made to squirm. This thriller pits angels against demons, and while both sides work through the agency of men, there is no doubt that something more is going on than what is visible on the surface.

Even beyond its clearsighted acknowledgement of deeper spiritual realities, That Hideous Strength is that rare creature, a futuristic book that has unfolded into reality. It depicts a Britain overtaken by statism, through a program of nationalised education and pseudoscience. I had just read Theodore Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom when I went to re-read That Hideous Strength. There are surprising parallels. But one thing Dalrymple does not tell us, is that right now in 2010s modernist England there is a very unironically-named NICE. Ben Merkle says,
The United Kingdom’s Department of Health and Safety has given power to local council workers to inspect English homes with the goal of ensuring that parents are providing a safe home environment for English children. Inspectors will be able to check that the smoke detectors are functional, that stairs have gates at the top, that the hot water heaters don’t get too hot, etc. . . The organization tasked with penning the guidelines for these inspectors will be, and I am really not making this up, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence – abbreviated as the NICE.
If any of the English are looking at their country, trying to figure out what on earth went wrong, they should try reading That Hideous Strength. It should answer a lot.

I mentioned that That Hideous Strength is based upon CS Lewis's educational treatise, The Abolition of Man. Allow me to take a moment to say that this treatise may be the most important piece of non-fiction Lewis ever wrote. In it, Lewis argued that modern education produced "men without chests"--people who had been trained to do a job well, but who were unable to think or to feel rightly. With untrained affections, these men could not tell between the beautiful and the ugly, the noble and the shameful, or the honourable and the dishonourable. Lewis insisted that education should consist of training in what he called "Stock Responses": to be told what to feel in response to certain things. To be thoroughly trained to love and trust virtue and to hate evil. This theme crops up across all Lewis's works (for one example, it is a Stock Response that makes the Pevensie children trust the robin in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. And Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a product of modern education, lacks the ability to function in a real adventure). In That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock represents the "man without a chest". One of the NICE's representatives--Dick Devine, one of Ransom's kidnappers from Out of the Silent Planet--tells Mark:
By real education I mean one that makes the patient do what it wants infallibly: whatever he or his parents try to do about it. Of course, it'll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we'll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain.
The point of the "man without a chest"'s education is to render him a good worker, easily swayed, incapable of telling the different between right and wrong because his affections have been so thoroughly undermined. It was part of Lewis's prescient warning that this kind of education would turn to "biochemical conditioning". In fact, in prisons and schools (but I repeat myself), drugs have been used as part of the educational program. And the "remedial treatment" given by the NICE to the criminals it gets its hands on in the book closely echoes the terminology of "corrections" which criminology and government departments now use in the place of words like "punishment". Lewis points out, of course, that "humane remedial treatment" is worse than any punishment. Go to Port Arthur, reader, and ask them why the lunatic asylum and the model prison were built so close together.

As the unfortunate recipient of a model modernist education, Mark is an easy tool for the NICE to use. Weak, ambitious, and morally clueless, Mark never developed the character either to avoid evil or to escape it when it seizes him:
It must be remembered that in Mark's mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical--merely "Modern". The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers), and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.
If Mark's storyline chronicles his slow education in good and evil, the other major theme in That Hideous Strength has to do with Jane Studdock's voyage out of feminism and egalitarianism, together with many meditations on marriage. This is also a deep theme: Jane's rather understated conversion to Christianity hinges upon realising that she was not made for herself--or even, on the deepest level, for Mark--but for Someone Else. Jane has all the prejudices of the modern woman against submission; when she does at last begin to feel it, it is a twisted thing that pulls her, not towards her maker or her husband, but towards Ransom, the one who first speaks to her of obedience:
"You do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but have lost love because you never attempted obedience. [...] They never warned you. No one has ever told you that obedience--humility--is an erotic necessity."
When she understands, this concept slowly begins to change Jane's attitude not just to Mark, but also to God:
Supposing one were a thing after all--a thing designed and invented by Someone Else and valued for qualities quite different from what one had decided to regard as one's true self? Supposing all those people who, from the bachelor uncles down to Mark and Mother Dimble, had infuriatingly found her sweet and fresh when she wanted them to find her also interesting and important, had all along been simply right and perceived the sort of thing she was? Supposing [God] on this subject agreed with them and not with her?
One of the most obvious differences between the NICE and Ransom's group of reformers at the manor at St Anne's, in fact, is their view of the sexes. The last chapter is titled Venus at St Anne's, when the influence of Perelandra prompts quite a lot of pairing up. An earlier chapter is titled Moonlight at Belbury. Belbury is the headquarters of the NICE; in Lewis's fictional cosmology, the Moon is half inhabited by an ancient and evil civilisation marked by hubristic scientism: "on this side the womb is barren and the marriages cold....Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place." The NICE find the sterile civilisation of Sulva thoroughly inspiring for their own work. Their head men and women have diseased or sterile names like Wither, Frost, Feverstone, and Hardcastle. Miss Hardcastle is implied to be a lesbian, and even the almost human scientist Filostrato interjects into one conversation, "What have I do to with men's wives? The whole subject disgusts me." If healthy marriages characterise almost every relationship at St Anne's, the NICE is given over to the sanctions of Romans 1:18-25: their appetites are either stunted or deranged.

These are only the two major themes of the book. There are many others. McPhee, St Anne's resident skeptic, delightfully objects that "It may have occurred to you to wonder how any man thinks we're going to defeat a conspiracy by growing winter vegetables and training performing bears"--clearly he fails to understand the distinction between revolution and reformation. Mark, trying (for the first time in his life) to resist temptation, realises that you cannot be tempted to do something good, for temptation relies on evil for its strength: "Nothing that lacked the tang of horror would have been quite strong enough to satisfy the delirious excitement which now set his temples hammering." And there is Dr Dimble's famous speech on eschatology:
"If you dip into any college, or school, or parish--anything you like--at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow-room and contrasts weren't so sharp; and that there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad getting worse: the possibilities of neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder."
That Hideous Strength is one of the deepest works of fiction you will ever read--and one of the most profitable. It spans the genres from science fiction to Arthurian fantasy, from political thriller to philosophical literary fiction and even, by the end, gore-spattered horror (in a good way). Not for young children, of course (don't let "By the Author of the Chronicles of Narnia" confuse you). But I highly commend it to all the rest of you.

Review of Book 1, Out of the Silent Planet
Review of Book 2, Perelandra

For more resources on That Hideous Strength, I highly recommend the following:

Quotations and Allusions in That Hideous Strength
"A Confession"--poem by CS Lewis on Stock Responses
And of course, do read The Abolition of Man.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

New: Review Index

Just a public service announcement--for all your vintage novel needs, I now have a shiny new Review Index, with all book reviews on this blog arranged alphabetically by author. I hope this makes Vintage Novels easier to browse :)


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