This Christmas in the Midlands, I visit Sunnycroft in Shropshire, one of the few National Trust properties in the area I haven’t been to.A redbrick Victorian villa lead up by an avenue of Redwoods, the interior combines occasional Art Nouveau touches with traditional Victorian decoration. The most impressive aspect is a red painted hallway with a staircase leading up to an upper floor light through a stained glass ceiling. A Christmas tree completes the scene. The Christmas trees at nearby Attingham Park are also something very special. In the hallway, a model train runs round and round the base of one such tree, while in the gallery a flight of origami birds flies around another. Lastly, in the dining room, a teapot sat atop another tree pours out a cascade of fairy lights. Squirrels are everywhere in the grounds, frenziedly digging up and devouring nuts. The following day I go for a walk at Calke Abbey, watching the red deer in the park and a nuthatch on one of its feeders. Lastly, I visit Shugborough where a group of friendly Tamworth pigs are paying a suspicious amount of attention to the workings of the locks on their pens…
Back down south, I visit the V&A’s new photography centre. Covering works by Atkins, Talbot, Atget, Brassai, Muybridge, Many Ray, Langdon-Coburn and Cameron it depicts the history of photography alongside contemporary work. The main thing I love are the stereoscopes, from which you can see fights between 19th century Samuari, Lady Clementina Hawarden’s portrait subjects and the interior of the Crystal Palace.
I’ve read several books this year describing war from the perspective of the women who could not fight in it – West’s Return of the Solider, Brittain’s Testament of Youth and both Fortunes of War (comprising The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy) by Olivia Manning. For both Brittain and Manning, much of this is bound up with how women become aware of their independence. In Manning’s novels, the war itself is elsewhere and it instead depicts its impact on lives and societies at its periphery; Jews living in Romania as it falls to fascism, Egyptians filled with resentment at British colonial rule or just ordinary lives destroyed by it, like Yakimov in the Balkan Trilogy and Aidan and Pinkrose in The Levant Trilogy. It is not until the Levant Trilogy that any of the characters, in this case Simon, have any contact with battle at all. Most of the novels are, if anything, as domestic as an Austen novel, dealing with Harriet’s sense of purposelessness next to her husband’s ceaseless work that excludes her. Harriet and Guy are the only constants in the series, with a huge cast revolving and changing around them.
The Philosopher’s Pupil by Iris Murdoch is an oddity. The novel is narrated by a character called N who only expressly appears in one scene but otherwise serves the same purpose as an omniscient narrator in a 19th century novel. Referring to describing events he did not see, he simply refers cryptically to the help of a lady, in a rather postmodern fashion. Much of the book rather resembles a 19th century novel in its detailed depiction of an imaginary town but there is also an animistic aspect to the realist narration. Foxes appear throughout and are referred to as evil spirits. Characters see portents in nature throughout. Water, whether in the scene where Zed drowns or in the scenes where Rozanov commits suicide in the baths, is an important metaphor. So, too is the underground as with Tom’s descent beneath the baths, with his re-emergence to save Harriet either being like Orpheus or Dante visiting Beatrice, the Dantean injunction to ‘beware all who enter here’ being emblazoned above the entrance at one point. This animism is reflected in Bernard’s final turn to the mystical where “nothing exists except god… and when one has understood that, one knows that there is no god.” The realness and nowness of the sea waves is where the spiritual and material meet. Bernard opposes this to “the impossibility of metaphysics by the intrusion of mortality into the moment by moment conduct of ordinary life.”
The novel demonstrates this in Rozanov’s failure to complete his work, and the undermining of his attempts to orchestrate the lives of those around him. Both Rozanov and his pupil George toy with the Nietzchean idea that after some acts morality becomes unreal and all is permitted; a man then becomes the demon that is god. Throughout, Murdoch portrays philosophy in Buddhist terms as a form of curse; George’s violence is only lifted when he is stripped of such longings for knowledge.
The last book I read in 2018 was Zola’s Doctor Pascal. It’s an odd book in a lot of ways, resembling gothic ficton as much as the naturalist idiom. Pascal develops a rejuvenating injection made from nerve tissue,which rather recalls Shelley and Conan Doyle, while the demise of one character is attributed to spontaneous combustion. It’s also somewhat postmodern in acting as a commentary on the rest of the Rougon-Macquart series; no other character in any of the books is as aware as Pascal of the effects of heredity and the environment on their existence. Pascal embodies many of the central dilemmas in Zola’s fiction. He believes in progress but much of his research is intended to establish that heredity passes the diseased traits of his own family down through the generations; “..races degenerate. There is here a veritable exhaustion, rapid deterioration, as if our family, in their fury of enjoyment, in the gluttonous satisfaction of their appetites, had consumed themselves too quickly.” Pascal constantly struggles to match theory to reality, seeing instead a Darwinian process in which the weak infallibly perish. With Clotilde, Pascal creates a successful experiment to see of the effects of heredity can be overruled by a change in the environment, but his assumption that he is immune from the traits of his own family is disabused by events.
The ending of the novel is equally ambiguous. The destruction of Pascal’s research notes by Felicite is a huge setback for progress (albeit one perversely set off by her establishment of an asylum) and the question of whether Pascal and Clotilde’s child will inherit their worse traits; ” Then, with secret uneasiness, she sought a resemblance to the others, the terrible ancestors, all those whose names were there inscribed on the tree, unfolding its growth of hereditary leaves. Was it this one, or this, or yet this other, whom he would resemble? “