Monday, June 29, 2009


The discussion was of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1874) and “Tamara Drewe” (2007) by Posy Simmonds. The Simmonds graphic novel is set in the present but loosely draws on the plot of the Hardy novel.

An innovation introduced at the beginning of the meeting was a photo-call for the web-site, not, mercifully of the Monthly Book Group members, but of their varied editions of the Hardy novel. Some members were sporting the latest editions, complete with 74 page critical appendices and peppered with learned footnotes. Another had a copy stamped as the property of an Education Authority, from which he inferred he had taught the book, although he had no memory of doing so. And one produced an 1889 “New and Cheaper Edition”, replete with advertisements for “Rowlands’ Macassar Oil” and “Whelpton’s Pills” (was he really that old?).

Introducing the discussion the proposer noted that Hardy had published the first instalment of “Far from the Madding Crowd” in January 1874 when he was 33. The novel was remarkably complex, mature and poised for one of that age.

This was the golden age of novel - the age of the great Victorian novel. Dickens had died only four years earlier. George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” was also published in book form in 1874. Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” was published in instalments between 1873 and 1877.

It was Hardy’s 4th published novel, and his first major success. Hardy was returning to Dorset after some years in London as an architect, and searching for a style of novel that would bring him commercial success. The traditional pastoral form in the arts involved an idealised world of shepherds and nymphs. Hardy’s slight novel “Under the Greenwood Tree” (subtitled “A rural painting of the Dutch school”) had more or less conformed to that ideal. However, despite its title (from Gray’s Elegy) this pastoral novel presented us with a real shepherd and real sheep, and all that meant in economic terms, and only in minor aspects was it idealised. One could see his tragic vision beginning to emerge in this novel.

Nevertheless it was a sunny novel by Hardy’s standards (only two characters dying and one ending up in prison!) – and reflected a happy period in his life with his engagement to his first wife. It was a long way in tone from “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure”, those two great howls of rage about the human condition. Hardy created many fine female characters, and Bathsheba was a particularly brilliant creation.

The proposer continued that one of the reasons Hardy intrigued him was that he had been both a major Victorian novelist and a major twentieth century poet (publishing eight books of poetry between 1898 and 1928). Donald Davie, a formidable critic of poetry, wrote a book in 1973 contending that Hardy, rather than Yeats, still less Eliot or Pound, had for good or ill been the most far-reaching influence on British poetry in the previous fifty years. The proposer could not think of any other literary figure who had had a comparable impact in different literary forms in different eras. Hardy’s life was an intriguing one, and the best biography remained that by Michael Millgate.

Hardy, who had always wanted to be a poet, had suggested that he gave up the novel because of public reaction to Tess and Jude. But perhaps the reality was that he had exhausted his contribution to the novel with these two remarkable works. The fact that he was at heart a poet might explain some of the distinctive features of his novels. This was not so much in the prose style, as in the intensity of imagination that brought alive his characters, plots and scenes, and brought alive the natural world which was the backdrop of the novels.

He was a very visual novelist, which might be one of the reasons his works had so often been turned into films. (Sotto voce murmurings about the attractions of Julie Christie in the 1967 film of the novel, which were to rumble on all evening, became more audible at this stage).

In terms of the tradition of the novel, Hardy was heavily indebted in this novel to the early works of George Eliot, in particular “Adam Bede” (1859) and “The Mill on the Floss” (1860), although the two novelists were to develop in very different ways. In terms of Hardy’s own influence it was intriguing that an early (1914) work of D. H. Lawrence was a study of Thomas Hardy (even if much of it turned into an exposition of Lawrence’s own philosophy).

The proposer (turning to sip from a distinctly credit crunch wine) said that in his experience people either really liked Hardy’s novels or really disliked them. If they disliked them it was generally because of the gloominess, the use of coincidence and the way in which the characters failed to control their own lives. (Some of those who disliked the novels liked the poetry, however – such as F. R. Leavis, and even Hardy’s latest biographer, Claire Tomalin, who seemed less than enthusiastic about many of the novels).

Putting this theory to the test at a member’s suggestion, a straw poll found one or two of those present falling between the really liked/really disliked extremes, while the majority were on the really liked side (and thus bang went the proposer’s theory).

One fan, who had seen the film on his first date with his wife, had read the book in tandem with listening to an audio version – an in depth experience he particularly recommended. Another did not in the least find it the depressing experience he had feared with a Hardy novel. He found it very good, and relished the period flavour, in a society in which people were not good at expressing their emotions, and the period scenes such as the sheep-shearing. “Loved it” was the most common phrase used by these fans of the book.

And wasn’t love the major theme of the book? Taking Bathsheba as the central figure, the novel explored love as conquest (Troy for Bathsheba), love as infatuation and passion (Bathsheba for Troy), love as obsession (Boldwood for Bathsheba), and love as steadfast devotion (Oak for Bathsheba). And how cunningly the plotting pulled these elements together, with the reader being drawn irresistibly along by the narrative, hoping that Gabriel and Bathsheba would eventually marry.

But, challenged one, was Bathsheba really made happy by her marriage to Oak at the end? Even if Bathsheba had retained a degree of control by, in effect, proposing to Oak, she was settling for second or third best. She did not love Oak, and at the end of the novel she was said to smile seldom these days. Others, however, felt that she had realised that love as companionship was the best long-term basis for a relationship, and come to value Oak’s qualities.

Another way to look at it was that Hardy had portrayed Bathsheba as a complex and contrary character, who would be more than capable of holding several conflicting opinions on such a matter simultaneously.

As a Victorian novel, the mores of the time – in which, for example, a proposition of marriage had to precede a date – gave the framework for the novel. But, suggested one, the two finest characters – Bathsheba and Troy – transcended the bounds of conventional society. This point, noted another, chimed with the views of D. H. Lawrence – that so many Hardy characters “burst” (like the poppy or the phoenix) out of the confines of society, into individuality. For Lawrence, this self-realization led directly to their tragedy. Troy was a free radical, an outsider (as was Bathsheba to a lesser extent) and he was the catalyst for much of the plot to unfold.

Troy, according to Hardy, was someone who lived in the present, with no real concept of future or past (but, suggested one, perhaps most young men were like that?) Was he the stereotypical bounder? He reminded one of Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice”. And what was his motive for wanting to marry Bathsheba, and then show little commitment to the marriage? Was it again his inability to think ahead?

But Troy was not wholly bereft of finer feelings – didn’t he feel guilt at Fanny’s death? Indeed were we not to credit him with really loving Fanny? Some would, but others saw in his display of guilt at her death yet another short-lived emotion, adopted partly to hurt Bathsheba. And for them his irritation at her for going to the wrong church was of a piece with his weakness and selfish egotism.

These divisions of opinion suggested that Hardy had again created a character of life-like complexity.

The portrayal of Boldwood’s obsession for Bathsheba was equally compelling, but there were doubts about how convincing it was for such a man to have lived so long untroubled by interest in the opposite sex.

Not so Hardy himself, who was fascinated by relations between the sexes and spent most of his life falling in and out of love with a succession of women (a trait of his he satirised in “The Well-Beloved”). Indeed he appeared to have propositioned the illustrator of “Far from the Madding Crowd” – Helen Paterson – on first meeting her, despite both being engaged, and with the effect that she would never illustrate another of his novels.

Indeed, one had liked the eroticism of the novel, which had slipped under the moral radar of the Victorians. What eroticism, replied another, polishing his glasses? Well, the sword scene. And, added another, the voyeuristic scenes at the beginning. And wasn’t there some dominance/submissiveness interplay as she took on the role of Oak’s employer? Not to mention, leapt in another, Bathsheba riding her horse in the “masculine” way, tossing her head back as she did so.

Well, phew! Your correspondent had missed all this, and gratefully accepted the offer of a glass of the credit crunch wine from the proposer.

But they hadn’t finished yet…What about Hardy’s choice of names for his characters? “Gabriel Oak” was obviously a steadfast guardian angel, and “Troy” no doubt named because he laid siege to Bathsheba. So what could be the significance of “Bathsheba”? “Bathsheba”, replied our walking Wikipedia “was the biblical wife of Uriah who was seduced and made pregnant by David after he saw her in her bath…”. After that we did not even need to discuss the significance of “Fanny Robin” as a name …

Goodness gracious, bet they didn’t cover all that in the grumbling appendix!

Moving on, as I gulped the indifferent wine, Hardy’s language came in for praise as well – “an incredible gift of language, so fluent I thought he must be Irish” –as did the considerable humour in the novel.

The evocation of the natural world throughout the calendar year was outstanding – most memorably in the poetic storm scene, which you could read and re-read indefinitely – and seemed to be an integral part of Hardy’s vision of humanity. And the symbolic scene in which Troy entranced Bathsheba with his swordsmanship was one of the most powerful to be found in the English novel. One who had read the book aged seventeen still clearly remembered the storm and swordplay scenes long after he had forgotten many other novels read in the interim.

So unconditional love for the book? Well, no. The novel wore too readily on it sleeve its intention to preserve in aspic a dying way of rural life. Some signs of the book being written in episodic fashion for its original magazine format were still evident. And in this novel he seemed to be trying too hard to imitate the early George Eliot in a number of respects: the overly long scenes with the comic chorus of rustic characters; the arch, home-spun philosophising; and the detailed slabs of analysis of his characters as they were introduced. Hardy was to drop these elements in his later work.

And what about the role of coincidence in Hardy’s novels – though less prominent in this one – which annoyed many readers? Couldn’t it be seen as his dramatising of the role of the accidental – the black swans – in life? Whole lives changing because of one very minor event? One who used to be annoyed by Hardy’s use of coincidence when younger found it less irritating now. At one stage he had thought that chance played little role in the outcomes of life – if something did not happen in one particular way, it would probably soon happen in another way.

You mean – if one wife did not come along at that moment, another one much the same would soon after? Well –for example he had thought that if Hitler had not survived the First World War, someone else would have started the Second World War for similar reasons, given the underlying historic, economic and political drivers. But now he was less sure that was the case, and so Hardy’s vision was now for him less unrealistic.

Nevertheless, suggested one, despite Hardy’s use of quasi-spiritual figures in some of his poetry, there was no reason to look for a formal metaphysical philosophy in his novels. His vision was of human life as fragile in the face of an indifferent universe and inhuman social rules, and in which people could be brought down by random chance. Such as sending a Valentine. But, responded another, that act was the product of Bathsheba’s capricious personality….

At which point the proposer moved the discussion on to “Tamara Drewe”. Bathsheba had sent a “gorgeously illuminated” Valentine card to Boldwood, with a wax seal embossed “marry me”. But the equivalent Valentine in Tamara Drewe was a text message saying “I want to give you the biggest shagging of your life”. And it was sent to three different men!

Posy Simmonds was born in 1945 and studied at the Sorbonne and in London before joining The Guardian as an illustrator in 1972. She started a Guardian comic strip in 1979 that led to the publication of several books. She then turned her hand to children’s books, before returning to The Guardian with “Gemma Bovary”, published in book form in 1999. It was similar in concept to “Tamara Drewe”, but less subtle in its relationship to its nineteenth century predecessor. “Tamara Drewe” had also first appeared in the Guardian between 2002 and 2004.

Simmonds loosely followed the plot of “Far from the Madding Crowd” in this beautifully illustrated graphic novel, but her sensibility was very different. She was a social satirist rather than a tragedian, an Austen rather than a Hardy. Many of her funniest moments – and she was deliciously funny - were when she mischievously contrasted what happened in 1874 with what happened in 2006. The Valentine was a good example. And instead of Bathsheba swooning over a soldier, Tamara swoons over a boy band drummer. Social security claimants replace farm labourers. A fully working agricultural economy has been replaced by one in which a novelists’ retreat is one of the few things to flourish. Fanny’s death from hunger and childbirth is replaced by Jody’s death from glue-sniffing.

And while Tamara gets involved with three lovers similar to those of Bathsheba, she does not need to waste time waiting for propositions of marriage but leaps straight into bed as she wishes. Posy also has a bit of fun with her characters’ names (though not as much as Hardy) with a “Sergeant” standing in for Troy, a “Cobb” standing in for Oak, a “Drewe” for the illustrator’s heroine, and a “Hardiman” as her novelist.

For a graphic novel there was an unusual amount of text, including first person narratives, which allowed her to give a lot of depth to her story. She had an uncanny knack of being able to capture a character, a mood, or a thought with a drawing – and this was a different dimension to what a conventional novelist could offer.

Some of her themes were similar to those of Hardy. One was relationships between men and women (and in her case she could be explicit about sex). Another was rural society and how people related to the countryside (Nicholas’ death at the feet of the cattle is fitting for one with no real sympathy for the countryside). The same themes are present in “Gemma Bovary”.

But her overall story and characters were different from Hardy’s and weak compared to his: her strength lay in satire rather than in plotting and character development.

“Great fun”, “Very refreshing”, “Wonderful – they’ll be reading this in 100 years time” were some of the comments. It was remarkable how she could capture someone’s feelings or attitudes by sketching their face. She had caught precisely the popular/intelligent novelist preening himself in front of an audience of adoring women, with the diligent wife who had let herself go.

But there were a few reservations. It could be a bit painful reading Posy – she could be quite vicious, and it came too close to home for some Guardian-reading academics. While Hardy shows sympathy for all his characters, Simmonds has little sympathy for many of them.

And while the text was good, the drawing was better, and maybe less text and more drawing would have been a more effective balance. Some found the combination of text, boxes and drawings a little confusing to read. And one indeed complained that the book was too large for easy reading in bed, while others relished the lavishly produced book.

While Simmonds had based herself on a novel written by a man, there were some touches that were distinctively those of a female writer. One was at the beginning, when Beth is deliberately put off going to the party by a subtle put-down about her clothing. Another was her emphasis on how sexual allure is created by a woman – in this case Tamara’s nose job - rather than natural, a theme that recurs in “Gemma Bovary”. And while Hardy sees vanity as a female trait, this novel shows it as a male trait in Nick Hardiman the novelist.

A few owned up to reading other graphic novels (but it was never clarified whether they read them in bed or not) and there were recommendations for “Maus” (1980-91) - the anthropomorphic account of a Polish Jew’s struggle to survive the Holocaust; “Watchmen” (1986-87) – the critique of the American cult of the superhero; “The Sandman” (1989-96) about the Lord of Dreams; and of course for HergĂ©’s Tintin books.

Probably the graphic novel would be considered as a standard artistic genre in years to come – was it not normal for new genres, such as the novel and the film, to gain great popularity long before they gained academic respectability?

Your amanuensis cadged another wine (funny how it was tasting better after a few) to disguise my amusement at this enthusiasm for comics, and let the conversation drift over my head… Posy had a wonderful ear for teenage slang, garnered, she had told the Edinburgh Book Festival, by listening carefully on bus journeys... Didn’t the academic look like Bill Bryson and the novelist look like Ian McEwan?... and so they burbled gently on…

Meanwhile I was weighing much more serious questions of literary criticism, such as whether Tamara was more attractive than Bathsheba ….hmmm, too difficult…

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Introducing the evening and our guest, the host said that it was a very special event for the Monthly Book Group. It was the first time a book of poetry had been discussed, and the first meeting where we had been honoured to have the author of the book present – in this case an internationally known and highly regarded poet.

Valerie Gillies was a longstanding friend of the host. She was born in Canada, grew up in Scotland, and studied at Edinburgh University. A Commonwealth Scholarship had allowed her to continue her studies at Mysore University in India. She had been writing poetry since she was fourteen and had been a freelance writer since 1971. She was well known as the River Poet who followed the Tweed and the Tay from source to sea. She was the winner of several prestigious awards and had held several writing fellowships across Scotland.

Valerie had written several books of poetry including Each Bright Eye, Bed of Stone, Tweed Journey, The Chanters Tune, The Ringing Rock and The Lightning Tree and a book of non-fiction Men and Beasts with photographer Rebecca Marr. Her subjects were wide and varied. She had written about cities, towns, castles, houses, people, rivers, animals, fish, birds, insects, guns, medical matters, her family, natural phenomena and, of course, springs and wells. Her poetry was to be found etched onto plaques and stones throughout Scotland.

She had been appointed the poet laureate for Edinburgh, the first female Edinburgh “Makar”, in 2005 and her official poems include The Balm Well, A Place Apart about the quiet room at Marie Curie Centre and To Edinburgh for the official opening of the new Council’s Headquarters. She taught creative writing in schools, colleges and hospitals. Valerie was also well known for her collaborative achievements in the visual arts and music, and was editor of the interactive Poetry Map of Scotland.

Valerie was married to Professor William Gillies, Professor of Celtic Studies at Edinburgh University, and two of their children were pursuing careers in the decorative arts. The “Spring Teller”, the subject of discussion with the Group, was written over a period of three years from 2005 and was Valerie’s most recent work. Her beautiful poems covered wells and springs throughout Scotland, plus one or two in Ireland and even in Wales, India and Crete. Her descriptions were of the locations of the wells and springs, and their topography, history, traditions, healing properties, and wildlife. Also discussed were visitors to the wells, local people and efforts to unblock ancient wells.

Valerie had been a neighbour for many years, and indeed had composed many of her poems in a summer-house adjoining his garden, which he hoped indicated they had proved good neighbours.

Indeed so, agreed the lady herself (who could perhaps say little else about the state of neighbourly relations, thought your eagle-eyed correspondent, whose suspicions were aroused when it later transpired she had penned a poem entitled “Berserk in Morningside”…)

Mrs Gillies said she traced her fascination with wells and springs back to her grandfather, who had taken her as a child on a mystery tour to an Angus glen. There he had filled a lemonade bottle from a spring and said “there, that’s the water I dreamt of every night in the trenches…”

It was particularly apt that the Book Group was meeting on the last day of April, because there was a tradition of visiting wells to celebrate them on the first day of May, or on the first Sunday of May. We speculated on why such traditions and our fascination with water might exist. The month of May associated with the Virgin? The fact that we were ourselves largely composed of water? The positive ions produced by flowing water – but wells did not flow (ah not so, we were told, a well is an enclosed spring in which the water moves – not a stagnant pool). Our uterine beginnings in water? Water as part of fertility rituals?

A clue, suggested Valerie, was given by archaeologists, who had not found remains earlier than Roman in Scottish wells. Such Roman remains had included whole breastplates of armour. So perhaps the tradition of honouring wells had started with the Roman tradition of equipping the deceased for their journey to the next world.

Whatever the origins, it had become customary to “silver the well”. This was of course done with silver coin, and – if that could not be afforded – a small white pebble was used (an example was shown to us by the poet). This tradition had been debased both literally and metaphorically these days by the throwing in of one or two pence coins.

But not everything was developing for the worse. There was a growth of interest in well-visiting in some parts of Scotland, for example in the Black Isle. This applied particularly to “clootie wells” (rag wells) where a piece of clothing from a sick person was hung up by the well, with the hope that as the cloot decayed so would the illness. (We were advised against placing the sort of non-decaying garments known to be favoured by Monthly Book Group members, such as shell-suits, polythene bags etc, as they might prolong the illness).

This growth in interest might reflect the general growth of interest in Scotland in archaic traditions, as well as in alternative medicine. And there was certainly evidence that the favouring of certain wells for particular illnesses was soundly based scientifically on their particular chemical properties, such as the chalybeate wells for anaemia, a well that was a cure for “dry–eye”… and so on. The Balm Well at Liberton was famous for producing a tarry oil that was good for the complexion and skin complaints, and had been much used by everyone in Scotland including royalty in past centuries.

And the poet took particular pride in the fact that some of her poems had helped to revivify interest in historic wells or springs that had been blocked off, perhaps for health and safety reasons. One example was St Anthony’s Well on Arthur’s Seat, where there was now a chance it would be restored.

How did she go about writing her poems? The Ordnance Survey “Explorer” maps, large enough to show wells and springs, were an important part of her kit. Also important – for finding wells and springs that had been covered up – was a set of dowsing rods. Dowsing rods definitely worked, and could easily be bought via the web (or indeed made from coathangers).

A sceptical scientist in the group picked up her set of dowsing rods, held them out, and was astounded when they twitched towards a large pool of brown liquid in front of him, contained in a pint glass. And he continued this experiment – with the same results - periodically throughout the evening.

Her normal method was to record her impressions in some notes and sketches, then later write a poem in pencil, and finally type it up. She wrote little prose, as prose offered an infinity of choice of word, whereas the rhythmic structure of poetry forced the writer towards the right word.

Poetic influences? Some favourites were Michael Longley, Sorley MacLean, and John Clare.

We then moved on to inviting Valerie to read – and discuss - our favourite poems from the book. These included:

“Munlochy”, a sinister poem about a spooky clootie well;

“Queen Mary’s Bath-house” and “Spring, Tinto Hill” – where the traditional rhyme and metrical structure found favour;

“The Wellhead”, a political poem addressed to the Scottish Parliament about the lack of history teaching in Scottish schools;

“Samuel Rutherford”, which recounted the tale of a famous divine who, when a boy, had fallen into a deep well. When those who had gone for help returned they found him safe by the side of the well. He told them he had been rescued by an Angel.

The poet herself put forward the poem “The Butter Well” in the Lowthers, about a well which had been used in butter-making.

We noted how interesting it was to hear the rhythms conveyed by the poet herself reading aloud, and discussed the impact of unconventional metrical structures.

We then ranged more widely, discussing the use of poetry in cancer care, and hearing from the proposer two particularly poignant poems from the collection “The Lightning Tree”. We heard of an indentation in a bank manager’s lawn which had turned out to cover the gaping chasm of a thirty foot well – was this a portent of the credit crunch?

We established that the poet was next undertaking a poetry-writing project in America, listening to their birds in their woods; and we then insisted she signed our copies of “The Spring Teller”.

Then at last she was free from the clutches of the Monthly Book Group, and could retreat. Perhaps to the safety of her summer-house, to pen “Berserk in Morningside Revisited”.

Meanwhile the members of the Group spilled out into the street, led by the no longer sceptical scientist, convinced that his dowsing rods would soon lead us to a public house…

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