#48: THE MEN OF PROPERTY. One of the peculiar corners of English fiction is what I call the property novel: about the eponymous estate or country house whose evocation, atmosphere and inheritance become central to the story. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is the earliest one I can think of—Austen, with her amused and caustic sense of what property can do for and to a person—but bless me if I can think of a major European novel of this type. (After I post this I imagine I’ll receive mortifying reminders.) Four of this type of fiction are among the novels that have made lasting impressions on me, and typify their authors’ different sensibilities.
After his venomously funny early novels, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was seen as his bid at writing serious, ambitious fiction. It was, pointedly, his Catholic novel—a loaded topic which he treats with cunning and stellar indelicacy. (Of a pious young girl, her brother remarks, “She made a novena for her pig.”) And the sting is certainly still there—the pages in which Anthony Blanche practices conversational vivisection on the Flyte family are some of the best vicious gossip in literature. But the tone and style were a departure, both in its sensuous detailing of luxury and in its voluptuously plaintive mood. The storyline and the prose—of a young middle class artist who gets entangled in the tragedies of an aristocratic Catholic family—were derided by some as snobbish and vulgar, and there’s a good deal of truth in both charges. And Brideshead doesn’t cohere—I’m never sure that the book ends up meaning what Waugh wanted it to mean. But there’s a livid surcharge of emotion in the book—of the delight of privileged youth, which one can certainly still smell around Oxford, and of the embittering wounds of loss, as friendship, love and the hope of belonging go slowly, gangrenously wrong. And it has a great, surreal cast of characters. As for the theme of property, I cannot pick up Brideshead without remembering an autumnal walk onto the grounds of Castle Howard in Yorkshire (the model for Brideshead), with its great gates like trumpet voluntaries, the noble dome of its crypt—and getting a harrowing whiff of how the prospect of owning such a property could throw a life out of its proper orbit.
“One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.” These first words—of E. M. Forster’s Howards End—hit that right, quizzical note. The first chapters of the book—a misunderstanding over words uttered a bit too soon, actions taken a bit too quickly—are the story in miniature, in which the slightest of actions—intentions misread, situations misread, circumstances nudged to one’s own advantage—multiply and solidify, with disgrace, emotional failure, a death, and a final topping irony all in their wake. Forster can be a prim granny at times, and he’s inclined to tell you what the novel means, but he gives the remarkable moral complexities of the tale an almost easygoing clarity. Howards End goes along on an entirely lower emotional temperature than Brideshead, so it’s surprising when the characters, the relationships, their odd tangles do not evaporate after the book ends—that these polite creatures have a stubborn memorableness, and that the remembering may be so moving.
Charles Dickens’s Bleak House—quite possibly the best of his novels, I think—figures in this company by ironic contrast, as Dickens was always the great poet of the unpropertied. And the controlling estate here is not the house of the title but the Chancery suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, tied up in court for decades, for the decision of which its victims wait and wait and wait, like Beckett’s Lucky and Pozzo. No one but Dickens could have made so dramatic a book out of legal paralysis—as the case affects and stymies an ever-growing cast of characters, Dickens brings each of the characters to brilliant and unruly life. Being Dickens, of course, he misses sometimes: pathos slides into bathos, drama into melodrama, a joke gets its long scrawny neck wrung again and again; the major flaw of the book is Esther Summerson, a heroine so teary-eyed and runny-nosed that she hovers near the top of the list of those Dresden-virtued females who regularly disfigure Dickens’s novels. But you don’t go to Dickens for perfection; if you have to skim, skip or roll your eyes occasionally, so what. In Bleak House you get not just the ghostly Chancery drama but Mrs. Jellyby, Harold Skimpole, my Lord and Lady Dedlock, Mr. Guppy, Messrs. Krook and Smallweed, the terrifying and detestable Tulkinghorn, Jo the Sweep, Mr. Vholes, Boythorn, the legal firm of Kenge and Carboys—a whole rumbling universe of Shakespearean vividness. Institutions in Dickens’s novels are conspiratorial, self-serving blights on people’s lives, and only personal loyalty and goodness can save the day. Some of the virtuous characters here survive—not all of them do—but true to the way of the property novel, Bleak House traces many a ruination and even death; this great mid-career novel of Dickens is like a juicy vicious lawyer joke which takes on the nightmare grip of a moral horror story.
Leaving the country mansions, we come to a sunless, ramshackle farmhouse—where all the men live under the burden of terrible passions, where the curses on the land have sealed their lips in gloom, where their lives are the elemental lives almost of beasts, and who live under the ruinous ruling hand of a crazed old woman, whose daily litany is ever, ever the same: “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.” We are, of course, at Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons’s unequalled, richly-loamed burlesque of the “earthy” melodramatic novels of her day. Gibbons’s heroine is Flora Poste, expensively educated and recently orphaned, who views the doom-shadowed farm, with its squalor, its whispered secrets, its family dysfunction on a Chekovian scale, as a project for a little Springtime spiffing up. Flora likes things “tidy and pleasant and comfortable,” and her vade mecum is a copy of The Higher Common Sense, by Abbe Fausee-Maigre. The comic surprise of the indomitable Flora’s success makes Cold Comfort Farm not only a note-perfect anti-Gothic parody but a reversal of Jane Austen’s Emma, in which the overconfident young woman receives her gentle correction. Cold Comfort gets an enormous kick out of dispelling its doomy shadows and becomes a laughing valentine to the British penchant for the tidy, the pleasant and the comfortable. John Schlesinger, of all people, ended his directorial career of hectoring and tragedizing with a wonderful BBC film version in 1995, with Kate Beckinsale as Flora Poste and, memorably, Ian McKellen as the gospel-preaching brother Amos (“There’ll be no butter in hell!”). Splendor in the sukebind.