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Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)

Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington (1916)


I’d prefer to have met Strachey’s work first in this book rather than in Eminent Victorians (1918). Then the best would have been still to come. As it was, I first read Eminent Victorians, then sought out more of his work and was disappointed. Victoria (1921) is dull, Elizabeth and Essex (1928) duller.

The Shorter Strachey is much better than those two. Indeed, one short essay on Lodowick Muggleton is worthy to stand beside the long essay on Cardinal Manning that opens Eminent Victorians. This is very good writing:

Never did the human mind attain such a magnificent height of self-assertiveness as in England about the year 1650. Then it was that the disintegration of religious authority which had begun with Luther reached its culminating point. The Bible, containing the absolute truth as to the nature and the workings of the Universe, lay open to all; it was only necessary to interpret its assertions; and to do so all that was wanted was the decision of the individual conscience. In those days the individual conscience decided with extraordinary facility. Prophets and prophetesses ranged in crowds through the streets of London, proclaiming, with complete certainty, the explanation of everything. The explanations were extremely varied: so much the better — one could pick and choose. One could become a Behmenist, a Bidellian, a Coppinist, a Salmonist, a Dipper, a Traskite, a Tryonist, a Philadelphian, a Christadelphian, or a Seventh Day Baptist, just as one pleased. Samuel Butler might fleer and flout at

petulant, capricious sects,
The maggots of corrupted texts;

but he, too, was deciding according to the light of his individual conscience. By what rule could men determine whether a text was corrupted, or what it meant? The rule of the Catholic Church was gone, and henceforward Eternal Truth might with perfect reason be expected to speak through the mouth of any fish-wife in Billingsgate. (“Muggleton”, in Portraits in Miniature, 1931)

Elsewhere, Strachey writes well but not exceptionally on subjects as varied as Voltaire and Frederick the Great, the acting of Sarah Bernhardt, the humour of Dostoevsky, and his own life. He’s witty, perceptive, and, in the autobiographical pieces at least, unblushingly candid. His day-description “Monday June 26th 1916”, in which he longs for a flyweight boxer in the Daily Mirror and tries to realize a daydream of seducing “that young postman with the fair hair and lovely country complexion who had smiled at me and said ‘Good evening, sir’, as he passed on his bicycle”, couldn’t have been published in his lifetime.

Which didn’t last long. It began in 1880 and ended in 1932. There were big changes in those five decades and Strachey was at the heart of some of them. Eminent Victorians was an important book, part of the revolt against the old order provoked by the slaughter and futility of the First World War, but it wouldn’t have been so successful if it hadn’t been so well-written.

You’ll see here that Strachey was rebelling against part of himself: there’s Victorian stodginess in some of the essays and reviews, even if they were written after Eminent Victorians. But “Muggleton” is as light as a soufflé. It’s also affectionate rather than acid. It would have been a foretaste of literary bliss, if I’d read this book first.

I’d didn’t, but you should if you don’t know Strachey. If you do, you’ll learn a lot more about him here. There are also glimpses of others in the Bloomsbury Set, like Ottoline Morrell and Dora Carrington. And The Shorter Strachey closes with four essays on French literature and culture, which were both very important to Strachey. The French writer Jean Giradoux supplies his epitaph: « Seuls les médiocres sont toujours à leur meilleur. » – “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” Strachey wasn’t mediocre and wasn’t always at his best. But he got there in “Muggleton” and got close elsewhere in this book.

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Oxford Dictionary of British Place-Names by A.D. MillsA Dictionary of British Place-Names, A.D. Mills (Oxford University Press 1991)

A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been scraped clean and used to write something new. But the original manuscript can still be glimpsed under the new writing. British place-names are like that, except that they’re a palimpsest of a palimpsest and some of the oldest names are still there. Germanic languages like Anglo-Saxon and Norse replaced Celtic ones like Welsh and Gaelic, but those languages may have replaced something even earlier:

Some river-names, few in number but the most ancient of all, seem to belong to an unknown early Indo-European language which is neither Celtic nor Germanic. Such pre-Celtic names, sometimes termed ‘Old European’, may have been in use among the very early inhabitants of these languages in Neolithic times, and it is assumed they were passed on to Celtic settlers arriving from the Continent about the fourth century BC. Among the ancient names that possibly belong to this small but important group are Colne, Humber, Itchen, and Wey. (Introduction, “The Chronology and Languages of English Place-Names”, pg. XV)

I don’t see how they know that language was Indo-European. Perhaps it was a linguistic isolate or related to Basque or Etruscan. Or perhaps it was Indo-European but had preserved something even earlier. The names of rivers are usually the most ancient of all, because rivers are visually and psychologically powerful things. Whatever the truth about those river-names, there’s a strange power in the thought of an entire language reduced to a few syllables, like a sea shrinking to a few salty pools. I’m reminded of the doomed siren in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Sadastor”, confined to the pool that is all that remains of a world-ocean.

When we say “Humber” or “Wey”, we step into a pool of that ancient language and it lives again for an instant. If the theories are correct, that is. There is a lot of conjecture and uncertainty in toponymy, the science of place-names. This entry is like a fairy-tale in miniature:

Warnford Hants. Warnæford c. 1053, Warneford 1086 (DB). ‘Ford frequented by wrens or one used by stallions’. OE wærna or *wæærna + ford. Alternatively the first element may be an OE man’s name *Wæærna.

Wrens, stallions or man? The entry in the Domesday Book (DB) didn’t record the exact quality of the vowel, so the original meaning is lost. Something similar happens in the preceding entry, but this one is a fairy-story by the Brothers Grimm:

Warnborough, North & Warnborough, South Hants. Weargeburnan 973-4. Wergeborn 1086 (DB). Possibly ‘stream where criminals were drowned’, OE wearg + burna, though wearg may have an earlier sense ‘wolf’, hence perhaps ‘stream frequented by wolves’.

But far more onomastic fish were caught by the Domesday Book than slipped through. It was a net cast by the Normans over their new kingdom and historians have been feasting on the catch for centuries. Very few names were recorded much earlier. One of those that were hasn’t survived unaltered:

Hebrides (islands) Arg., Highland, W. Isles. Hæbudes 77, Hebudes 300. Meaning uncertain. The Roman name was Edudæ or Ebudes, and the present name resulted from a misreading of the latter, with ri for u.

I like fortuitous changes like that. Is it another pre-Celtic name? Perhaps. But mysteries can rise from clear meanings too:

Caithness (district) Highland. Kathenessia c. 970. ‘Promontory of the Cats’. OScand. nes. It is not known why the early Celtic tribe here were called ‘cats’; the cat may have been their token animal.

We know what the name means, but not why it got that meaning. We’ve lost so much of the past and that’s one of the powerful things about this book. George Orwell summed up the feeling in another context:

When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves’ names are known to you? I can think of two, or possibly three. One is Spartacus and the other is Epictetus. Also, in the Roman room at the British Museum there is a glass jar with the maker’s name inscribed on the bottom, ‘FELIX FECIT’. I have a mental picture of poor Felix (a Gaul with red hair and a metal collar round his neck), but in fact he may not have been a slave; so there are only two slaves whose names I definitely know, and probably few people can remember more. The rest have gone down into utter silence. (“Looking Back on the Spanish War”, 1942)

So have most of the people who lived on the British Isles. Kings have reigned here and been utterly forgotten. But here and there a name survives with no story attached to it:

Broomfleet E.R. Yorks. Brungareflet 1150-4. ‘Stretch of river belonging to a man called Brūngār’. OE pers. name + flēot.

Who was Brūngār? Was he important? Was the name a joke? If the name hadn’t been recorded so early, we might now think the name refers to a plant, like “Broomfield, ‘open land where broom grows’”. Misinterpretations must happen a lot in toponymy: Celtic words with one meaning look like Anglo-Saxon words with another, pre-Celtic names may have been folk-etymologized, and so on.

That raises another haunting question, which Orwell addresses here in another and more serious form:

If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened – that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death? The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. (Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Part 1, ch. 3)

Suppose that an apparently transparent place-name like Greenfield or Shepton is a re-working of an older name with an entirely different meaning in Celtic or pre-Celtic. Does the truth survive in any sense? Or does the meaning of the new name change the truth? This must have happened many times in Britain and elsewhere.

The reverse is rarer: some apparently mysterious names might be scribal slips or lost words in familiar languages. This village in Worcestershire has a strange name that may be thousands of years old:

Tardebigge Worcs. Tærdebicgan c. 1000, Terdeberie [sic] 1086 (DB). Possibly a Celtic name from Brittonic *tarth ‘spring’ + *pig ‘point, peak’.

Or does it go back even earlier, to that vanished pre-Celtic language? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s really Anglo-Saxon, distorted or otherwise. Unless a chronoscope is invented, we may never know the truth and mysteries like that may remain.

But mysteries are rare. Viewed in the context of local topography or history, place-names usually have obvious meanings. And they tell us what we’ve lost. Britain used to be a place of glades:

Lanercost Cumbria. Lanrecost 1169. Celtic *lannerch ‘glade, clearing’, perhaps with the pers. name Aust (from Latin Augustus).

It used to be a place of wolves too:

Greywell Hants. Graiwella 1167. Probably ‘spring or stream frequented by wolves’, OE *grææg + wella.

And of witches:

Hascombe Surrey Hescumb 1232. Possibly ‘the witch’s valley’. OE hægtesse + cumb.

And of Woden:

Wednesbury Sandw. Wadnesberie 1086 [DB]. ‘Stronghold associated with the heathen god Wōden’. OE god-name + burh (dative byrig).

But the forests were cut down, the wolves were slaughtered, and the grey Galilean triumphed over Woden. So another layer of meaning washed over the landscape and new languages appeared in place-names, like Latin and French: Eccles means “church” and Beaulieu means “beautiful place”, for example. To survive, some of the old paganism had to be obscure:

Sawel (Samhail) (mountain) Tyrone. ‘Likeness’. Samhail Phite Meadhbha c. 1680. The full name is Samhail Phite Méabha, ‘likeness to Maeve’s vulva’, referring to a hollow on the side of the mountain.

Most of the etymologies in A Dictionary of British Place-Names are mundane, not Maevish, but age can lend glamour even to the mundane. Some place-names in Britain are very old and this book is a good way to feel the years.

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The Oxford Companion to Wine edited by Janice RobinsonThe Oxford Companion to Wine, ed. Janice Robinson (Oxford University Press 2006) (third edition)

Another big book for another big subject: wine. Because it’s organized alphabetically by topic, you can open it anywhere and begin zigzagging through the world of wine. The antiquity of the world is reflected in the antiquity of the word, which entered English so long ago that it preserves the original pronunciation of Latin vinum, with initial “w”, not “v”. “Vine” is from the same root but comes from Old French. The word has deeper roots in Indo-European – “wiyana and wayana are quoted from the ancient Anatolian languages” – and may have cognates in Hebrew and Arabic. But what is its ultimate origin? “No theory is convincing,” concludes the linguist Dr Leofranc Shelford-Strevens, “except after a few glasses” (entry for “Wine”, pg. 768).

That’s a good name for someone writing about wine and that Johnsonian humour enlivens other entries: “wine writing” is a “parasitical activity undertaken by wine writers enabled by vine-growing and wine-making” (pg. 772) and “Siegerrebe” is a “modern German vine crossing grown principally, like certain giant vegetables, by exhibitionists” (pg. 630). Wine apparently encourages high spirits in its writers, not just its drinkers, but there’s also an entry for “bore, wine”. The next entry is for “borers”, about “beetles and their larvae”. Then comes the entry for “boron”, about an essential trace element. So three entries span sociology, entomology and chemistry. Each has a separate author too. This book had to be a collaboration, because no-one could possibly be an expert on all aspects of oenology, as the study of wine is called (from Greek oinos, whose earlier form is woinos).

So different entries have different flavours, like wine itself: simple or complex, sweet or astringent. All wine-making countries and regions have their own entries, from Alsace to Zimbabwe, from Georgia to Japan, and almost every conceivable aspect of wine and viticulture is discussed and described, from the gustatory and linguistic to the botanical and medical, from Dionysus and drunkenness to bottles and the shape of wine-glasses. You’ll learn here how the Greek writer Athenaeus (fol. 200 AD) wrote a book called Deipnosophistae, “The masters of the art of dining”, in which the “two most frequent topics are Homer and wine” (pg. 38). But Athenaeus isn’t systematic about wine: he assembles “curious facts”.

This book is systematic, but it has a lot of curious facts too. What are the differences between macro-, meso- and microclimate? They’re explained here. What did the Roman poet Martial think about Egyptian wine? His astringencies are quoted not just in translation, but in Latin too (pg. 429). Which Roman emperor ordered vineyards rooted up and which ordered them re-planted? Domitian (pg. 234) and Probus (pg. 548), respectively. Which wine did Napoleon drink to console his exile on St Helena? Constantia (pg. 193). Which wine is celebrated in the national anthem of its homeland? Tokaji (pg. 699) – the Hungarian anthem praises God for ripening wheat tokaj szőlővesszein, “in the grape fields of Tokaj”. But I couldn’t find anything on wine and the visual arts. It would have been good if they had been discussed and some wine-paintings and wine-sculptures had been included with the other photos. The closest the book comes is a photograph of a barrel cellar owned by the Mastroberadino firm in Campania, Italy, which incidentally shows a beautiful and mysterious painting on the roof. Why are the naked female figures hiding their faces? Who was the artist?

Dionysus (c. 70 A.D.) (see also)

Dionysus (c. 70 A.D.) (see also Prometheus Unbound)

You won’t learn that here. You won’t learn how to pronounce unfamiliar names and terms either, because no pronunciation keys are given. So no art, no articulation. Apart from that, this big book is worthy of its big subject. Is wine one of the glories of life? Some don’t think so: they go further, as the entry for “Rome, classical” reveals (pg. 589). “Vita vinum est!” proclaims Trimalchio in the Satyricon (late 1st century A.D.): “Life is wine!” Petronius may not have lived to drink himself, but he surely made his life better with wine. Two millennia later, you can make your wine better with the words in this book.

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Classic Horror Stories by H.P. LovecraftH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Lovecraft has come a long way. From the margins to the mountebanks, you might say, because he’s getting serious interest from American and British academics nowadays. In France, he got it a long time ago:

In the late 1960s, the French academic Maurice Lévy wrote a thesis on Lovecraft as a serious fantasiste, continuing the French love of all things tinged with Poe. In turn, the radical philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used Lovecraft as a touchstone for notions of unstable being and becoming-other in their revolutionary manifesto, A Thousand Plateaus (1980). (“Introduction”, pg. xiii)

I didn’t realize it was as bad as that. Then again, I already knew that the Trotskyist gasbag China Miéville had been influenced by Lovecraft and had intensively interrogated issues around Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia. Roger Luckhurst interrogates them too. After all, they’re a glaring flaw in an important and highly influential writer. How could HPL have been so egregiously wrong and in such an offensive way?

Well, perhaps he wasn’t wrong and perhaps he wouldn’t have written so imaginatively and powerfully without his crime-think. The psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested that psychoticism — which is distinct from psychosis – was essential to genius. But was HPL a genius? In his way, I think he was. It wasn’t a purely literary way and perhaps HPL is bigger than literature. He wasn’t a genius like Dickens or Kipling, because you don’t read Lovecraft for literary skill, psychological subtlety and clever characterization. No, you read him for sweep and scale, grandeur and grotesqueness, darkness and density. You should also read him for humour:

In February the McGregor boys from Meadow Hill were out shooting woodchucks, and not far from the Gardner place bagged a very peculiar specimen. The proportions of its body seemed slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe, while its face had taken on an expression which no one ever saw in a woodchuck before. (“The Colour out of Space”, 1927)

Like J.G. Ballard, Lovecraft is often misread as lacking humour. In fact, like Ballard, he’s often very funny. This book is a joke he would have appreciated: there’s something blackly humorous about his posthumous elevation to hard covers and high-quality paper under the auspices of the Oxford University Press. His work is now getting more care than his body did: as Luckhurst notes in the introduction, HPL died of stomach cancer at 47 as “an unknown and unsuccessful pulp writer” (pg. xii). Is he better in a pulp paperback, with battered covers, yellowing paper and no notes? Yes, I think he is, but he’s best of all when he’s both paperback and hardback. I don’t like literary studies in their modern form, but Roger Luckhurst doesn’t slather HPL in jargon or suffocate the stories with notes.

So the notes aren’t intrusive, but they are instructive – for example, about HPL’s modesty and self-doubt. Did he really think “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) “displayed evidence of a ‘lack of general ability’ and a mind corrupted by ‘too much reading of pulp fiction’” (“Explanatory Notes”, pg. 470)? Then he was a giant who mistook himself for a pygmy. But that’s better than the reverse. Most of his greatness is collected here, from “The Call of Cthulhu” to “The Shadow Out of Time”, though I would have dropped “The Horror at Red Hook” and included “The Music of Erich Zann”. I would also like to drop China Miéville and include J.G. Ballard, but unfortunately HPL didn’t influence Ballard. I wish he had. Mutual influence would have been even better.

Nietzsche did influence Lovecraft and Lovecraft’s work can be read as, in part, an attempt to confront the death of God. Spirit departs the world; science invades. Where are wonder and horror to be found now? In “The Call of Cthulhu” or “At the Mountains of Madness”, stories that draw on astronomy, geology and biology to awe us with space, time and organic possibility. And Lovecraft, unlike Nietzsche or Ballard, recognized the importance of mathematics. That’s most evident here in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933), which mixes trans-Euclidean geometry with ancient superstition. But maths isn’t the only influence on this story: so is M.P. Shiel’s novel The House of Sounds (1896). I didn’t know about that and I’m glad to have learnt it. That’s good scholarship, introducing readers to older authors and deeper influences. It still doesn’t feel right to read Lovecraft on clean white paper in a heavy book, but it’s good that he’s come up in the world. Let him bask in the sun before the Übermensch arrives.

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