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April 2022

Why Didn't They Ask Evans?

The title belongs to an Agatha Christie novel and to a three-part television adaption of it which recently became available on BritBox, and which I strongly recommend to anyone who likes This Sort of Thing.

The sort of thing is a murder mystery featuring: an English village in the early 20th century; much beautiful photography of the village, the countryside, and great houses; a beautiful, witty, and brave heroine; a handsome and brave hero; the village church and its vicar; sinister aristocrats; a sinister doctor; names like "Bassington-ffrench"; a highly improbable story with a satisfactory resolution. And a light touch throughout.

I haven't read the book, but the series strikes me as being just about perfect as a Christie adaptation. It doesn't involve Poirot or Miss Marple, but rather two young people, Bobby Jones and Lady Frances ("Frankie") Derwent, the hero and heroine mentioned above. It's directed by Hugh Laurie, who also appears as the sinister doctor. Apart from Laurie, the only name I recognized among the cast was Emma Thompson, but they are all excellent. 

I found it completely delightful, as did my wife. The only falling-off from this near-perfection is one utterly incongruous use of the f-word. I suspect that in the book it's "bloody" or something of that sort that was pretty strong language in Christie's time, and that the writer(s) or Laurie thought it needed updating to something at least mildly offensive to 21st century ears, as the character who says it immediately apologizes. Or maybe there is a formal requirement in England that every program must include at least one instance of this word. Anyway it seems impossible that Christie would have used it.

There was one other small thing that struck me as slightly off: Bobby's friend "Knocker" Beadon is played by an actor who seems to be Jamaican (or some other formerly British West Indies place). That seems unlikely given the time and place, but I suppose it was not impossible, and in any case the character fits in very well. 

Here's the trailer. I had not seen it before watching the series, but it would certainly have made me do so. I cannot abide most trailers these days, which give you only a series of jerky quick cuts showing sensational moments which add up to nothing more than a rough impression. This one, in contrast, gives you a complete little scene, and a real sense of the characters.

There must be something about the book that makes it seem suited to dramatization, as this is the third one, fourth if you count one episode of a French TV show. One, from 2011, is reworked to include Miss Marple. That was unnecessary. Bobby and Frankie are just fine.

Johanna's House of Glamour: Farewell Street

I have a soft spot, a very soft spot, for minor and neglected artists. There is a great deal of overlap in the two categories. The minor artist--meaning one who has some significant accomplishments, but smaller in number and/or scope than those of the artist acknowledged to be "great" or "major"--is often neglected. And the neglected artist is almost by definition minor, as I don't think it very likely that there are any great artists who are little known. For some reason these lesser lights are very appealing to me; I'm excited when I find them, and enjoy telling people about them. Perhaps it's just a certain sympathy for the underdog, for the person who's good at something but always in the shadow of those who are better, and who strikes me as deserving more. Perhaps it's in part because the genius of really great artists, the ones on the level of Bach, Shakespeare, and a fairly limited number of others, seems beyond human, beyond anything that I at least can really imagine being able to do. The minor artist seems more like the rest of us; or, more pertinently, like me. I can't imagine being able to write Shakespeare's plays. I can imagine writing a handful of poems worth preserving.

This album is one of those minor but exciting finds. I came across it in the cutout bin of a record store quite a few years ago, most likely before the turn of the century. It had been released in 1990 and presumably run whatever commercial course it achieved when I discovered it. The name of the band, the title of the album, and the cover intrigued me. I may also have noticed and been intrigued by the name of the record company, C'est La Mort.  It seemed nice and gloomy and was cheap enough to be worth a try. I may have paid a dollar for it, probably not more than two. And I liked it right off. As it turned out, the first track, "Losing Ground," is my favorite:

I love that desperate, anxious vocal. As this track suggests, if you want to label the band and the album, "goth" would be the appropriate tag But really no more than about half the songs fit there. The second track, "Now," is strikingly different:

"When I Loved You" sounds like it fell off some album of the late '60s, perhaps a pretty little song inserted between the long jams of a prog band. It reminds me of something but I can't quite place it. And one track, "Blue U," is not a song at all, but an aimless sort of jam with some chatter in the background. I speculate that the range of styles might have hurt the album's commercial potential.

The band may never have become really famous, but it hasn't been totally ignored, either. As you can see some of this album at least is on YouTube, and AllMusic has an entry for them, and rates this album and its follow-up, Style Monsters, very highly (four-and-a-half and four stars, respectively). The AllMusic reviewer compares the group and this album to the work of This Mortal Coil. That is very high praise, and apt. It doesn't sound like any particular TMC track, but the general vibe and aesthetic are similar. But TMC, which was basically a studio project run by a record label, 4AD in its heyday, had the benefit of a wide area of brilliant songs to cover, or rather rework, and brilliant singers to sing them. So while Farewell Street is more limited and not as good as, say, Filigree and Shadow, it does have several five-star tracks, and a number of very good ones.

Here is AMG's review of Farewell Street, and here the review of Style Monsters. I have not heard the latter but I plan to do so in the near future. Both appear to be out of print, but are readily and reasonably available (see Discogs). And you can buy it on MP3 from Bandcamp. I just bought Farewell Street from there, in fact, and paid more than the listed price in appreciation of the pleasure I've received from my $1-2 purchase, which got the band nothing. Apparently there are two more albums, but I can't find any information on them. 

Because it has fifteen tracks that run almost seventy minutes, I assumed that Farewell Street was only issued on CD. So I was surprised to see on Discogs that it was issued on vinyl. Those were the dying days of vinyl, or so it seemed at the time, and I think it was still pretty frequent for new music to appear in both formats (and cassette as well). The LP is four tracks shorter. Its cover is monochrome, not having that purple-pink overlay that the CD cover does, and I think it's better that way.

Johanna's House of Glamour-Farewell Street-LP

Seán Ó'Faoláin: Newman's Way

My first impulse was to begin this post with "If you only read one book about Newman...." Then I realized that I'm not in a position to say that, as it is the only book about Newman that I've read. But I will say at least that I don't feel any need to read another.

I'm not fond of biography as a genre: it tends to be dully written, and to include more mundane detail than I really care to bother with. I'm looking across the room right now at a biography of Auden that I picked up off the discard shelf at the library, and asking myself whether I really want to read it, or perhaps should return it to the library to be re-discarded. This one, however, like the Knox brothers biography that I wrote about a while back, is the work of a very good writer and is enjoyable on its own merits. (I base "very good writer" on this book alone--I recognized Ó'Faoláin's name as a writer of fiction, but had never read anything by him.)

It's not a full biography. It's primarily the story of Newman's departure from the Church of England and entry into the Catholic Church at the age of forty-four, with the almost forty-five post-conversion years seen only in a brief and poignant epilogue. One doesn't even need to have read the Apologia to know that basic story, and even if one has, there is (of course) a great depth which is not sounded there. Ó'Faoláin shows us Newman in the midst of a family to which he has deep emotional ties and a continuing direct involvement with his siblings and other relatives up until his conversion, when a deep and permanent estrangement took hold.

The Apologia is mainly a religious and intellectual autobiography--not exactly a spiritual autobiography, either, as it does not emphasize Newman's interior spirituality. I'm tempted to say that Newman's Way complements the Apologia as an emotional biography, but that's not exactly right. Though it does emphasize the emotional currents that helped to propel Newman on his way, the portrayal of those is closely integrated with the man's pursuit of the great question, and the great decision that was the end of it. The Little Flower's title fits: this is the story of a soul. The influence of personal matters is not trivial in itself and not insignificant in a consideration of Newman's thinking. I think I know enough of that to say that his own life was in a sense an instance, or an example, of the concept of development as revealed in the Essay On the Development of Doctrine. His abstract thought was not really, or not only, abstract, but rather a manifestation of his very life in its fullness, comprehending not only reason in the narrow sense, but the entire web of perception and the mind's working thereon. He only seems abstract because he happened to be a man to whom thought was as real as walking. 

It was a little surprising to me to learn that Newman's family was not especially well-off. It had come up considerably in the world over several generations preceding his own, and his father had risen as far as becoming a banker. But the bank failed in an economic panic, and the family fell back to a sort of lower middle-class level--I mean that not in the sense in which we use it now, but relative to early 19th century England, when "the middle class" was considerably more affluent than most, only not part of the aristocracy--the sort of families portrayed by Jane Austen. This relatively less-well-off position seems to have been something of an embarrassment to Newman, especially when among his fellow fellows at Oxford; Ó'Faoláin recounts a cruel moment when a don embarrasses Newman by correcting his choice of serving utensils in front of the whole table, an ugly example of formal etiquette serving bad manners. 

It was also surprising to learn that Charles Newman, one of J.H. Newman's two brothers, was eccentric to the point of near-madness, and spent his whole life bouncing from one difficulty to another, frequently bailed out financially by John and the other brother, Francis (Frank). It was less surprising that Frank was a low-church Anglican clergyman, and that past a certain point in John's evolution the brothers could hardly speak to each other, and then only by sticking strictly to everyday matters and avoiding the big questions--a situation familiar to many of us, now probably more often due to politics than religion (but then part of the problem is that politics is religion for many). His relationship with his sister Jemima, seven years younger, seems to have been, at least in adulthood, the closest and most durable of his sibling relationships (there were three sisters, one of whom, Mary, also the youngest of the children, died at nineteen). But even Jemima ceased to invite him to her home after he became a Catholic.

I had read somewhere, perhaps in the Apologia, Newman's lament that he had given up almost everything dear to him when he left Oxford and Anglicanism. But I had not grasped the full pathos of it. Ó'Faoláin vividly communicates the deep attachments which Newman knew himself to be severing when he took the big step. And, just as vividly, he communicates the theological issues, which, abstract though they may seem to one who doesn't understand the stakes, were for Newman as dangerous and painful and as powerful to alter his life as would have been the decision facing a Virginian in 1860; only the physical violence is missing. That late-in-life epilogue begins with this:

There can have been few more lonely men in the world than the aging Newman.

Actually, on reflection, and leafing through the book again, I think I will, after all, say that if you only read one book about Newman, this is, if not the only reasonable choice, a leading candidate. There can't be many that are at once so pleasurable and illuminating. It appears to be out of print now, but used copies are available at Abebooks and Alibris. 


This book came into my hands more or less accidentally, as part of a deceased clergyman's library intercepted on its way to Goodwill. It was published in 1952. Stuck between the pages I found this seventy-year-old postcard supplied by the publisher, perhaps used by the original owner as a bookmark, as it now is by me:

Devin-Adair-Postcard1 Devin-Adair-Postcard2
It's oddly poignant to me--as a relic of the book's original purchaser, and a relic of a time for which I'm not ashamed to say I feel some nostalgia. "New York 10, N. Y." The ZIP (for Zone Improvement Plan) code was not introduced until 1963. 

A Note on Period Performance

The struggle between those who think baroque and earlier music should only be performed with period instruments and style (as best the latter can be surmised) and those who think that's faddish nonsense producing dry, thin (or worse) performances can be somewhat bitter. I don't take a definite position, as I think there's something to be said for both. I have two recordings of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, one more in the "modern" period style (Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan) and one in the "traditional" modern style (Klemperer I hope that way of putting it makes the controversy seem a bit ridiculous: the two recordings are very different from each other, and I love both of them. 

That aria from the St. John Passion sung by Krista Ludwig (see previous post) obviously comes from a recording which is in that second camp--lush, rich, expressive, maybe even "romantic." Not owning a copy of the oratorio, I thought I might buy the, or a, recording which includes Ludwig. As far as I can tell there is only one, recorded sometime in the '60s with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Karl Forster with the choir of St. Hedwig's Cathedral. It's apparently out of print but I was able to locate it on Discogs and Amazon. Used copies can be had, both CD and vinyl, at reasonable prices. 


Trying to decide whether the overall performance is well-regarded enough to warrant buying it, I looked at the user reviews on Amazon. And I found a lengthy note from a Bernard Michael O'Hanlon which makes the anti-period argument very amusingly. 

"Goodbye to all that!" I muttered as I broke open the top of the tunnel. As far as I could tell, I was twenty metres beyond the barbed wire. Behind me lay Stalag Jeggy. For the past twenty five years I had been incarcerated inside this hellhole. The facility itself was owned and operated by SPECTRE (Sinister Period-Practice Enacted to Counter Traditional Readings Everlastingly). The Kommandant, whose hauteur was legendary, had tormented us incessantly by playing his speedy, dry-as-dust performance of the John Passion over the loudspeakers, punctuated by the occasional sea-shanty from Percy Grainger. Nor was he averse to reading out favourable reviews of his recordings from the Gramophone. Adding to our anguish, the chaplain of the Stalag was Father Melchizedek (O.P.), who also served concurrently as the High Priest of HIP. There had been tension between this cleric and the Kommandant as the latter had used a choir to scratch out his bloodless rendition of the John Passion whereas Father Melchizedek dogmatically insisted upon one-voice-per-part. In consequence, both parties took out their frustrations on the inmates. Devil's Island was Club Med in comparison.

The escapee goes on to discover a copy of the Forster recording. I take "Jeggy" to be a reference to John Eliot Gardiner. "HIP" seems to be meant to be an acronym but I don't know what the letters stand for. You can read the rest of the story here

"Es ist vollbracht" -- "It is finished" (Bach, St. John Passion)

I know I said I wasn't going to post till Monday, but I've been listening, for the first time, to Bach's St. John Passion, and this aria seems perfect for Holy Saturday, containing both the sorrow and the triumph of the Crucifixion. (Regarding the title of the post: I still prefer the traditional "It is finished" to other English versions of those words.)

Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished !
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
Die Trauernacht
The night of sorrow
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
now reaches its final hours.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
Und schließt den Kampf.
and brings the strife to an end.
Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished!

(Text and translation from, which seems to be one of those wonderful group labors of love that are found on the web. It started in 1999 and the web site still looks that way, but don't let that bother you.)

This performance by Christa Ludwig is not from the Passion I've been listening to, which is a more recent one (i.e. 1986!) conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and more in the favored style of recent years, said to be more authentic. But I saw this one on YouTube and I find it more moving. It's almost a full minute longer than the Gardiner version. 

The St. John is not nearly as well-known as the monumental St. Matthew, but it has many, many virtues which I'm happy to have discovered better late than never. 

"Run, y'all!"

Another one of the many bits of C.S. Lewis's writings that rattle around in my head is one in which he discusses a phenomenon which troubled his youthful Christianity: he was not able to feel things that he was told, or at least that he felt, he should feel. It may be in Surprised By Joy. Or maybe it's a discussion of his reasons for writing allegorically in the Narnia stories.

Anyway, I have the same problem. In a few days I'll be attending various Holy Week liturgies, and in some of them, especially the Stations of the Cross on Friday, I will be contemplating the Crucifixion and quite likely, depending on the texts, be reciting words that say I'm weeping, filled with grief, and so on. But for the most part I won't actually be feeling these things. For whatever reasons, having to do with long familiarity but not only limited to that, I don't feel the intense emotions I rightly should feel about the Passion. I don't mean that I'm indifferent, and sometimes  am touched, but mostly my reaction is somewhat abstract: I think very cosmic thoughts about the awesome significance of it, rather than feel simple human grief for this innocent who is so wrongly tortured and killed.

I did feel those emotions very powerfully once, long ago, watching a TV show. Sixty years is a long time not only to remember a TV show but to be touched again by the pity and sorrow which it produced. I'm pretty sure I would find myself having difficulty speaking if I were to try to tell the story out loud. 

The show was the old General Electric Theater, hosted by Ronald Reagan. I thought I remembered that much, and thanks to the Internet I was able to find more exact information: the episode was called "The Patsy," and it was first broadcast in February of 1960. So I was eleven years old. 

It starred Sammy Davis, Jr., whose name is probably not as well known as it once was, at least not to younger people. He was one of the most successful and best-known black actors of the time--well-known even in comparison to his fellow members of the "Rat Pack"--Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others. In the show, Davis is the titular "patsy" (a dupe, a scapegoat, the butt of jokes--I point that out in case that old bit of slang is no longer generally known). He plays the only black member of a squad of soldiers. He's naive and maybe somewhat simple-minded, and the other men are constantly making fun of him, playing practical jokes on him, and so forth. If I remember correctly he does his best to take it good-naturedly but is clearly hurt by it.

In the final prank, one of the men drops a grenade which everyone but the patsy knows to be a dummy. The others feign fear and move away. The patsy throws himself down on the grenade and lies there yelling "Run, y'all! Run!," waiting in terror for it to go off. When he realizes it isn't going to, he just lies there, sobbing, still muttering "Run." 

At least that's the way I remember it. As a boy growing up in that post-World-War-II time, I had heard of this act of heroism, seen it enacted in movies. The thought of such a self-sacrifice was always moving, but what made it so very much so in this case was that the one giving his life was despised and rejected of men.


I won't be posting again until next Monday. But I'm not going offline completely (probably should), and will still see comments, and respond if/when inclined.

Compact: A New Post-liberal Magazine

"Post-liberal," in case you've missed it, is the tag now being applied to people, mostly on the right, who are more or less giving up on the classical liberalism which is the foundation of our republic. Or, if they haven't given up on it completely, have come to the conclusion that liberalism contains the seeds of its own destruction, which is now playing out in various political and cultural crises. A new publication called Compact, subtitled "A Radical American Journal," is the voice of some of them, though their masthead is by no means limited to conservatives: it includes Glenn Greenwald and some others who seem to be on the left (no "seem" about Greenwald, unless he's changed his mind about a lot of things). I believe the editor, Sohrab Ahmari, considers himself a Catholic integralist, and I see the names of one or two others who might accept that label for themselves. Matthew Schmitz, formerly of First Things is there.

I don't consider myself to be a post-liberal, but I do understand and sympathize with their pessimism about liberalism. My own basic view is expressed in the title of this post: "You're Gonna Miss Your Classical Liberalism When It's Gone." But I recognize the problems that are pretty much intrinsic to liberalism and certainly look as if they might destroy it. Here is a long post from 2017 about Ryszard Legutko's The Demon in Democracy, which discusses some of these ideas. I thought I had written a post about Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed, but if I did I can't find it at the moment. 

And I don't think it's too egotistical of me to point out that I reached the same basic conclusion as the post-liberals over twenty-five years ago, and wrote about it in Caelum et Terra. You can read the whole somewhat lengthy essay here, but a few excerpts, from a section titled "Nine Popes Without A God," will do to as my assessment of the (possibly? probably?) fatal flaw(s) in our constitutional system:

It has frequently been observed that American institutions presume the existence of a coherent, more or less univer­sal, more or less Christian, ethic. It has been pointed out that the collapse of this consensus will lead, is leading, has led to the collapse of society. Both these statements are true. And nothing confirms them more clearly than the present condi­tion of the Supreme Court....

The law of the land, the law which really must be obeyed on pain of punishment, is the Constitution....

It would be unwise to try to make Scripture serve as the constitution of a civil government; Scripture is not meant for that purpose and can reasonably be invoked as sanction for a number of different forms of government. But it is equally unwise to make the Constitution into a scripture. And that is what America has done, or at least tried to do, because there is no other place than the Constitution to look for the establishment of fundamentals upon which all Americans must agree.

It is no one’s Bible, no one’s Magisterium, to which Americans may, in the end, legitimately appeal on public matters. There is, literally, no higher law in the United States of America than the Constitution..... As far as the law and customs of the nation are concerned it is the Constitution which judges religion; it is the Constitution which says what really matters, what is right and wrong. This is quite a burden to place upon a thoroughly pragmatic document written one summer in Philadelphia by a group of men trying to organize a government. And of course now that the ethical consensus which underlay that document has cracked, the inadequacy of the document alone is obvious. If the people cannot agree about what a human being is or what its purpose might be, what a family is, what a right is, what liberty is, then the Constitution is utterly impotent to guide them...

Even those who approach the Constitution as a fundamentalist approaches Scripture accept the fact the Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means.

It is in many circles somewhere between bad manners and villainy to admit to having fixed beliefs on most moral and philosophical questions. Yet it is clear that the human mind requires such points of fixity, and so we find the most skeptical intellectuals placing the most naive trust in the judgment of the Supreme Court. It is not just that they acknowledge the fact that the Court has the last word; there is almost a sense that they believe that the Court’s decisions constitute what is right and true, at least for the moment.

Things have gone a good deal further now, of course. There are significant numbers of people with significant levels of influence who don't even pay much lip service to the written text of the constitution, but simply look on the Supreme Court as a sort of wise tribal council with the power to decide matters as they see fit. The same people are likely to have quite definite and fixed beliefs on certain moral and philosophical questions. A few of those beliefs are, to be blunt, insane, and many are toxic.

And so the sense of despair about the possibility of salvaging liberalism has set some people to figuring out what comes next. Here's how the founders of Compact describe their project:

Every new magazine should be an intimation of a possible future, a glimpse of how the world might be. Our editorial choices are shaped by our desire for a strong social-democratic state that defends community—local and national, familial and religious—against a libertine left and a libertarian right....

We believe that the ideology of liberalism is at odds with the virtue of liberality. We oppose liberalism in part because we seek a society more tolerant of human difference and human frailty. That is why, though we have definite opinions, we publish writers with whom we disagree.

Compact will challenge the overclass that controls government, culture, and capital.

I'm not endorsing the magazine. In fact I've only read a couple of pieces from it. But it's interesting, in itself and for what it represents. At the moment you can read it without paying, but that's meant to change soon, and I doubt that I'll be subscribing, as the price is a little high for my level of interest: after the first year it will be $90 per year. But then again I may change my mind when I've read more of it.

My Heart's One Desire?

There's a worship song (sorry, I don't know its name) used frequently at my parish which has a refrain that concludes:

My heart's one desire
Is to be holy

I cannot honestly sing those words (and I find it difficult to believe that very many people can, but that's none of my business). "one desire"? Hardly.  Usually not even the strongest. For me the truth is closer to "Among many other things, I would like to be holy."

The problem with being holy is that it's very difficult. It requires steady effort and sacrifice, and I do not like either of those things. I like things that are easy and pleasant. I would like to be a really excellent guitarist, too. But here I am, going on sixty years since I first picked up the instrument, and I'm not all that much better than I was when I was twenty. 

About the best I can say for myself with regard to the guitar is that I have never totally or permanently given up on it. Some thirty-five or forty years ago I decided to get a bit more serious about it, and started taking classical guitar lessons at a music shop not too far from where I lived. I made some progress--I could even stumble through an arrangement of Erik Satie's famous Gymnopédie #3 so that it was at least recognizable. I made progress in part because I made myself practice consistently for at least fifteen minutes a day. That's not much, but it was enough to make a difference, and every week or so I could tell that I was a little bit better than I had been the week before.

But then, as usual with me, my resolve collapsed. I started skipping my practice sessions, blaming work and family life, though laziness and inconsistency were at least equally to blame. Eventually I had gone several weeks without practicing and dreaded going to my lesson. The teacher had been a little impatient with my lack of ability to begin with, and I was embarrassed to show up not having practiced, and therefore not having improved, at all. And clearly the lessons were a waste of money if I wasn't going to work consistently, at least, if not all that hard. So I quit them. But I didn't quit playing altogether, and I still do play (not classical music), and I still don't practice regularly, and I'm still not very good.

I'm not doing very well at all with my Lenten observances this year. I set the bar pretty low and still have fallen short of it. About the best I can say for myself, both with regard to Lent and to the pursuit of holiness in general, is that I have never totally or permanently given up.


Apart from the words, I'm not very fond of the kind of music which that song represents. But our choir is really quite talented, they work hard, and they do that sort of thing very well. And sometimes they venture into older and better music. This Lent, for instance, they have been ending Mass with an arrangement of this chant:

They harmonized it for their six or eight voices, and in addition to the basic Latin chant, they added a sort of descant in English, by two (I think) sweet, yearning female voices. It's the last thing we hear at Mass, and is for a moment or two almost unbearably moving.

I'm a little puzzled by their translation, though. The Latin is:

Attende domine
et miserere
quia peccavimus tibi

which is something like "Hear us, Lord, and have mercy, for we have sinned against you." But the choir sings "Burdened with sin, we implore you" (or was it "thee"?) which doesn't seem a close translation of anything in the text. So I'm wondering if this is some traditional English version, possibly something from the Book of Common Prayer or some other Anglican source. But I haven't been able to find it. I like it better than the more literal translation, actually. It's more desperate.


Here's the Gymnopédie, by the way, played by Christopher Parkening. As you can hear, it's not that difficult, and of course very pretty, so a nice thing for a not-very-advanced player to work on.


P. G. Wodehouse: The Mating Season

Hence, loathed melancholy. Something like that is what I'm thinking when I pick up a Wodehouse book. And it works, for when I'm actually engaged in the reading loathed melancholy is banished to its uncouth cell. (See the opening of Milton's "L'Allegro.") I feel the way champagne looks.

I can't remember where it occurs or even which of them said it, but either Lewis or Tolkien made a memorable response to the charge that the kind of fiction they wrote was escapism. Since I don't have it at hand, I will paraphrase broadly: people who want to escape are prisoners, and the people who don't want them to escape are jailers. And there are many good reasons why one wants, even needs, to escape.

There's a further point, which Tolkien at least made: that the world which he created was not safe, which one might expect (or at least hope) an escape to provide. On the contrary, though his work, and some of Lewis's, are set in nonexistent worlds, those worlds are hardly an escape from dark things. The central drama in their work is the conflict between good and evil, and the evil is real, serious, and deadly. Nor are the fictional situations idyllic: no one would want to be in Shelob's lair.

Wodehouse's work, on the other hand, can be fairly called escapist--pure escapism, in that the escape is complete, because his world is entirely apart from the one we shuffle around in. There is no real evil in it at all. At most bad things are glimpsed from a great distance, as in the character of Roderick Spode, a would-be fascist, based on Oswald Mosley and introduced in The Code of the Woosters. But nothing is said of the actual evil that he represents; he is simply mocked as a ridiculous figure: "Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags!"  (football, i.e. soccer, shorts--his gang is called the Black Shorts, in mockery of Mosley's Black Shirts). 

Nothing really bad ever happens in Wodehouse's world, and in fact a significant element of the humor is the disparity between Bertie's view of his really quite trivial troubles and reality--his fear of Aunt Agatha, for instance, or his desire to escape marriage--in the midst of which he fancies himself living up to a heroic family name (as The Code of the Woosters suggests). 

Bertie as a satirical representation of an upper-class Englishman belonging to a club called The Drones is devastating, but when I'm reading about him I don't think of that connection to reality; I only see a goofy, bumbling, quotation-mangling young man of, as Jeeves puts it, negligible intellect. He  and all the other Wodehouse creations live in a world which has only enough relation to reality to make it intelligible to us. This world and these people never really change across the decades and numerous novels in which they occur. And normally one might consider that to be a fault in a novelist. But they remain fresh because Wodehouse's gift for comedy never failed. So many artists (I think of pop musicians especially) have one or two spectacularly excellent works, but don't succeed either in getting out of their original pattern or equaling their best work in it, so that there are a few brilliant things and a string of others of which one says they are similar, but not as good. With Wodehouse it's as if the Beatles continued making albums similar to Revolver, yet of comparable quality, for decades. Somehow he managed to keep it fresh.

Waugh said it best, in a remark quoted on the dust jacket of all the Overlook Press editions:

Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

And which cannot be inhabited by melancholy; that's taken at the door when you enter. It will be a sad day for mankind when the only people capable of reading Wodehouse will be scholars of 19th and 20th-century English literature and culture.

So, about this particular book: it was published in 1949, well into Wodehouse's career, and by my count is the ninth of the Jeeves and Wooster series. I have to wonder whether Wodehouse, perhaps a little bored with the act, deliberately set himself the challenge of juggling as many balls as possible. In the other novels there is usually at least one romance to be threatened, rescued after many complications, and sent on its way to the altar. And frequently there's an anti-romance involving Bertie's attempts to avoid marriage. In this one there are no less than four romances, therefore eight lovers, with Bertie in danger of being captured by one of them, Madeleine Basset, if her engagement to Gussie Fink-Nottle falls through. The plot is wildly complex. Besides the four romances, Bertie and Gussie are obliged to impersonate each other, old friend Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright to impersonate Jeeves, Jeeves to pass as Gussie-Bertie's "man" under another name. And five aunts, not Bertie's but a menace to him nevertheless, in addition to Aunt Agatha. And a pest of a child, Aunt Agatha's son Thomas. And a dog named Sam Goldwyn. And a policeman. 

It's a delight, as usual. I feel rather glum. Maybe I'll just read it again.  TheMatingSeason

The cover of the Overlook Press edition. That's Bertie, drinking port and singing.


The original cover. That's Bertie behind the sofa.