I ended last week feeling like that Bear of Very Little Brain, Pooh. I’d been Thinking of Things so much lately to do with books, and then finished not only a couple of classes, but the final paperwork too, that on Wednesday evening I felt I was owed a celebration.
As I considered the state of my shelves, looking for a Thing that would be bookish, but not workish, I hummed a little tuneless something.
There are books,
(Dum, dum, dum)
Too full of hooks,
(ta la da da).
What I need,
(Da do do do).
Oh yes indeed,
Da dum dum dum)
Is something not too long...
Luckily for my sanity, at that point I reached a selection of Daphne du Maurier novels I’ve been collecting. None are very long, but for decades she was a top writer of quality-romances. They seemed like a safe bet.
I’d read three of her most famous titles as a school-girl, so opted for one I’d missed, a historical adventure, Frenchman’s Creek. It was just what I needed. Not great enough to keep me reading into the small hours, but I picked it up at breakfast and lunch-time, and finished it as I ate tea.
Then I dropped it in my discards bag and looked for something of a matching size and age on the next shelf. Evelyn Waugh’s Edmund Campion has been there for so long I’ve forgotten where it came from, though I do have a hazy recollection that someone recommended it.
If only I had done more than notice that the cover illustration suggested it was set in a similar period to Frenchman’s Creek,I might have realised it is a biography, not a novel before I opened it. It’s also set in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, not Charles II.
After a momentary hesitation, I read on. Perhaps because the first section, The Scholar, begins by describing Elizabeth’s last days.
She had round her neck a piece of gold the size of an angel, engraved with characters; it had been left to her lately by a wise woman who had died in Wales at the age of a hundred and twenty. Sir John Stanhope had assured her that as long as she wore this talisman she could not die.
I probably should have stopped on page five, when I found this paragraph:
In these circumstances the Tudor dynasty came to an end, which in three generations had changed the aspect and temper of England. They left a new aristocracy, a new religion, a new system of government; the generation was already in its childhood that was to send King Charles to the scaffold; the new, rich families who were to introduce the House of Hanover were already in the second stage of their metamorphosis from the freebooters of Edward VI;s reign to the conspirators of 1688 and the sceptical, cultured oligarchs of the eighteenth century. The vast exuberance of the Renaissance had been canalized. England was secure, independent, insular; the course of her history lay plain ahead; competitive nationalism, competitive industrialism, competitive imperialism, the looms and coal mines and counting houses, the joint-stock companies and the cantonments; the power and the weakness of great possessions.
Aaaagh. With a few adjustments it could have been written in the 1560s.
I hadn’t even met Edmund Campion yet. It seems I’d fallen through a wormhole to that time before I gave up on my vow to never let a novel defeat me. Like Pooh, I’d found that a Book I’d anticipated being very Bookish was quite different once opened. Meanwhile, I was caught up with turning pages. The sentences got longer, the paragraphs continued to bounce backwards, forwards then back through time again. Still I continued to read.
Campion makes his first appearance on page seventeen. Even allowing for a largish font, that’s a long wait for a heroic entrance. Then, immediately after mentioning him, Waugh side-tracks to tell us about ‘another young Oxford man’, and doesn’t return to Campion until page twenty-two.
I read on. I’m still reading, though I’m not sure why.
There’s more to be irritated by than the examples I’ve already provided. The narrator demonstrates just the kind of bias I enjoy in fiction. Here it keeps drawing me away from engaging with Campion, though I want to know more of him.
Though perhaps after all I do know what holds me. This is a story about discord and martyrdom, and I’d like to understand.
As Pooh says, “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”