Book Talk S05E04 transcript: Writers and Revolution — from the French Revolution to Charles Dickens |
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Book Talk transcript : S05E04 — Writers and Revolution:

Jill Kitson: Hello and welcome to Book Talk. This week: writers and revolution from the French Revolution to Charles Dickens — Clive James and Peter Porter in the fourth of six programs on the artist and politics, from Plato to the present.

The Australian poets Clive James and Peter Porter are long-time Londoners who share an equally long friendship. When they got together to talk about writers and politics from 1789 and through the 19th century, Clive opened the conversation:

Clive James: Peter, it's been my perhaps too lovingly cherished theory for some time that anyone in Britain (in the arts or in the intellectual world) who cherished the idea of a social solution by violent means, stopped cherishing it after the French Revolution. The British Revolution really wasn't scary enough. Not enough writers and thinkers lost their lives but in the French Revolution, which was watched carefully from abroad and especially from England, the minds paid the price for what was in them.

Peter Porter: A good example of this is that youngest of the strange triumvirate that ran the French Revolution, Saint-Just. There's a quotation I have from him, which I think is from him but it's quoted by Robert Lowell so it may have been written by Robert Lowell, but it's a very good quotation for what enthusiasm of the French Revolution did, and the Terror. He says, 'We bronzed a liberty with the guillotine.' And I think, in a sense, that's true. He was a most unusual person and he was a man totally obsessed by virtue, as was Robespierre, but he was different from Robespierre, he was a handsome dandy of a figure.

Clive James: But like Robespierre, his virtue could kill you. My own revolutionary figure is a writer a bit like me, a bit of a gadfly writer of little bits and pieces called Camille Demoulin, and Camille Demoulin was sent to the guillotine by Saint-Just.

Peter Porter: Well, again Lowell speaks of Saint-Just as inhabiting, what he called, a hideous cardboard Sparta, and you can see precisely how this works out. Yet, as he went to the guillotine to die, he just said, 'Je sais ou je vais,' and very few people are able to say, 'I know where I'm going.'

Clive James: Yes, and Camille Demoulin said, 'C'est ma plaisanterie que m'a tuapos; — 'My joke has killed me.' Which I'd like to be put on my tombstone but I don't want to die by the guillotine because quite a lot of people did. The great Terror was scaled down subsequently, especially by French left-wing intellectuals right into this century, but in fact the death roll was enormous, and in fact in the Vende the first population extermination connected with modern politics happened. But there was quite enough happening in Paris to horrify observers from abroad and especially across the 22 miles of the English Channel because many of the younger English writers had had their hopes set on a change of order, and they realised, usually painfully, that the new order was considerably worse. One of them was Wordsworth of course.

Peter Porter: Yes. 'Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, to be young was very heaven.'

Clive James: Yes, later on he started thinking differently...

Peter Porter: Very differently, but I think the precursor to this, which we forget, is that a lot of English intellectuals had gone out of their way to upset the government of King George III in supporting the American Revolution in 1776, and it was on the basis of that revolution that people had expectation of the French Revolution. But the French Revolution immediately turned into something entirely different — it turned into a self-generating virtue campaign, and that, I think, was what really upset everybody.

Clive James: Well, it would have helped if France had been ruled by England, as America was.

Peter Porter: Tom Paine, after all, was an Englishman who was accepted in America but then saw the French Revolution as an extension of the American Revolution. Whether he ever recanted on that I don't know.

Clive James: The consequences were drastic, and very considerable artists just vanished. Some people think that Andre Chenier was the most gifted of all French poets of the period, and he died very young. I'd like to have thought that I might have been as brave but I doubt it. He spent his last night in the Conciergerie before he was taken away to be guillotined comforting a beautiful, young aristocratic girl, which we'd all like to do on our last night alive...

Peter Porter: Well, he got his apotheosis in an opera didn't he? That's exactly what happened in Giordano's opera. But what the English people, who were very suspicious of the French Revolution, forecast (and they forecast accurately) was that it would change, not with a continuous revolution, but with the imposition of imperial power ... and in fact, Napoleon just used his guns to close it all down, and turned the revolution of virtue and idea into a pure revolution of conquest. Not that when he got into l'ancien regime outside of France, he didn't do a lot of good because they were living in a positively antediluvian state of law, and the French Revolution brought a lot of comfort to countries outside of France.

Clive James: The Code Napoleon was welcomed in many ways, because it wasn't just a revolution of absolute power and violence, there was genuine opportunities. The career open to the talents was a Napoleonic invention, and it had the same appeal in the 20th century in Germany under Nazism. That's one of Nazism's strengths among the German population, is that it offered people from ordinary backgrounds a chance to get to the top. Napoleon was widely admired all over, even by Beethoven. In fact, that's an historic moment, isn't it, when Beethoven actually takes Napoleon's name off the Eroica, but the crucial point is he put it on in the first place.

Peter Porter: Of course, what the British did I suppose instead of having a revolution was to have a stylistic revolution, and they began Romanticism. Almost the only great movement in literature which can be said to have begun in Britain, and of course the Germans took to it like measles, but generally speaking it was a British thing. Now, when we think of the revolution, we don't only think of Wordsworth wandering in the Tuilerie or something, or the people who had to give up their revolutionary feelings, we think of those revolutionary feelings that were translated into Romanticism; so we think of Byron, we think of Shelley, we think of Keats...

Clive James: And we also think of people who seem to have been untouched by the revolution or Romanticism like Jane Austen, the first and greatest and most hard-headed of the 19th century novelists. What is she actually doing? What is she leaving out? There's a relationship to politics here that's very important, because it raises the principle of whether you can ignore the political scene around you. As some great artists always have. Not many, but some have always done.

Peter Porter: Well, I don't think that she ignored it; she simply moved it into another field, as it were. That is to say, Jane Austen is not just a person who writes about class and about distinctions of class, she's a person who writes about how money changes class, and how class and money together are what drive the wheel of the state.

Clive James: In fact, why Orton, I think, called her one of the most subversive writers who'd ever lived. He found her shocking.

Peter Porter: But the whole of Britain during that period ... once Victoria gets to the throne — you get a consolidation of Romanticism. It's still Romantic, I mean, Tennyson is one of the most Romantic writers you could come across. But all English Romanticism has in it an element of realism, which is not to be found often ... if you contrast, say, Byron who was not at all a Romantic except in his earlier work, or if you take a genuine Romantic like Coleridge, I suppose ... you look at the Germans; the Germans are quite different. They are very Romantic indeed.

Clive James: Byron was a great believer in freedom for a foreign country, wasn't he? But he wasn't all that revolutionary about the British class system. I've got many reasons for remembering Byron, I think he's one of my favourite writers, but I can't get over the fact that he sent one of his servants to the colonies for stealing half a crown. I've got a feeling that Byron might have put the half crown on the mantelpiece so the servant could steal it. There was nothing subversive about Byron's attitude towards British social structure; he wanted to inherit Newstead Abbey, or at least the benefit of it.

Peter Porter: He didn't keep it long though. He flogged it to a fellow Harovian for a very large sum of money, which he then used to subsidise the war for the liberation of the Greeks. But also Byron had the same principle at heart, I think. He was a great defender of Alexander Pope; he was a great defender, in fact, of 18th century British decorum. One of the things he notes about the season in London ... I think the last three cantos of Don Juan are among the finest social verse written in English, not just for how adeptly it is written, not just for the handling of the ottava rima but for his insight into the boredom that was going on amongst these people who were consolidating themselves in society. There's one lovely couplet where, looking around a dinner party, he says, 'Society has grown one polished hoard, formed of two mighty tribes — the bores and bored.'

Clive James: It's extraordinary that Pushkin more or less reached the same conclusion, Eugene Onegin is in many ways about that. But the connection between Pushkin and Byron isn't as firm as people would like to think. For one thing they were living in very different societies. Russia was a despotism and there's a difference; Britain wasn't, and hadn't been for a long, long time and was never going to be again, and finally that made all the difference. What was happening in British literature, for all the abuses that we can ... and we Australians can certainly point to the fact that many of the people who got transported to Australia after the French Revolution were transported just for the very idea that they might become revolutionaries, that they might break farm tools and so on. But for all the abuses, the writers on the whole accepted British society. They didn't see their way forward to drastic reforms, and certainly not without a monarchy.

Peter Porter: But despotism in Russia was absolute. Despotism in Britain did not apply to the people who were well-off. It did apply to the people who were not well-off ...

Clive James: But included among the well-off was the new bourgeoisie, the writers and artists, wasn't it?

Peter Porter: Oh yes, and I think it's fair to say that the writers and artists often had sympathy with the circumstances of the poor. A good example ... a man forgotten about ... because he's a great political writer, is Thomas Love Peacock, and he lived at a time of Captain Swing which was these disenfranchised farm labourers that swept around the country burning down wrecks, and then there were the Tolpuddle Martyrs and all such things. A lot of people of the class of Peacock desperately supported that and they didn't like the reactionary Tory governments, of which I suppose Lord Castlereagh would be a kind of secret .... I mean, I'm not sure Lord Castlereagh was any worse than anyone else ...

Clive James: What did Shelley say about Castlereagh?

Peter Porter: 'I met murder on the way, he wore the mask of Castlereagh.' Yes, but Shelley is a polemicist in that sense. I think the trouble with most left-wing rhetoric (and this is something which I have to remind myself) is that its effectiveness is best when it is least subtle; when it is simply straightforward yelling. In some ways, the whole question of Shelley's attitude towards England was so over the top in the sense that ... so unwilling to recognise that there were degrees and permeations of ...

Clive James: Well, this is something that Peacock knew. The reason why Shelley's name popped into my mind is I was thinking of Peacock and his wonderful caricatures of Shelley in some of the novels. Peacock, although he's suspicious of the rack-renting land owner, is just as suspicious of the revolutionary with the universal solution. Peacock is a reasonable man, and I think in many ways Peacock influenced Dickens in this way. Some of Dickens's fantastic characters are fantastic because they represent extreme viewpoints and that comes out of Peacock.

Peter Porter: I think this is the case, but it's also true to say of Peacock that he had a dislike of Romantic exaggeration. Why he didn't see this in his friend Shelley, I'm not quite sure. He gives a lovely picture of Shelley in Nightmare Abbey as Scythrop but he also gives a lovely picture of him as Mr Sylvan Forester in that little-known novel, Melincourt. It would fit well into a modern best seller list because it's about stopping the importation of sugar from overseas slave labour. You see in the kind of person that Shelley was ... but is not the kind of person who appears in Shelly's poetry, which is a mere rhetorician.

Clive James: What is Browning really saying about Wordsworth when he does that ... what is it?... 'Just for a handful of silver he left us'...

Peter Porter: 'Just for a ribbon to stick in his coat.'

Clive James: What is he really saying there? Is he saying that Wordsworth became reactionary? Because it raises the question of whether Browning was any kind of social revolutionary.

Peter Porter: I don't think he was a social revolutionary but he was undoubtedly an aesthetic revolutionary. I'm very partial to Browning so I have to enter this, shall we say, health warning beforehand. Browning was the first man after the great period of English poetry, which I suppose most people consider the period of Romanticism, to introduce human life at a sort of newspaper level. He really did believe that poetry could handle everything the novel could handle. The real revolution in English poetry of the 19th century is — do you go along with Tennyson (although admittedly in Locksley Hall and in The Princess Tennyson is trying to cope with local situations) ... Browning was the only one really who thought that poetry had a handle on it. I think his great achievement was to invent, as Ezra Pound pointed out, was to invent modernism by saying verse can handle anything which prose can handle.

Clive James: I think that Eliot said of Browning, that he was the first poet to be called difficult. There had been poets before him who were difficult but they were called silly, and he was recognisably difficult because ... so compressed. We have to remember about Browning ... when you contrast Browning and Tennyson, you've got the difference between absolute success in the case of Tennyson and, in Browning, something pretty near to the modern condition we both know where the poet is a marginal figure. Tennyson was part of the landscape in a way that we find very hard to appreciate now. I mean, Queen Victoria read him, everybody did, and Tennyson thought he had a right to bore people with his poems. There's a wonderful story where Tennyson was at a dinner party (this is in his grandeur, in his Laureateship) he was at a dinner party and Mrs Ruskin was a fellow guest, and Tennyson had published Maude and Mrs Ruskin said she hadn't read it yet, and so Tennyson recited the whole thing to her. Then he thought she hadn't been sufficiently appreciative or understanding, so he recited it again.

Peter Porter: That took him well beyond the soup, didn't it?

Clive James: Think of the self-confidence of that. Now, as Browning, I think, sold 15 copies of Sordello. Strangely enough, The Ring and the Book was a hit.

Peter Porter: The problem, I think, with Tennyson is that he was the English Mendelssohn. Now, I'm not saying that in a derogation of either artist because Mendelssohn is one of my favourite composers, but he doesn't have the necessary scope and seriousness which, say, Wagner had (and Wagner, of course, hated him). I think the thing about calling Tennyson the Mendelssohn is that perfection of shape and artistic style is present in both of them. There is very little perfection of that sort in Browning. What there is instead, is I suppose a kind of entirety, a sense of a whole landscape being developed, and a mental landscape I mean. Incidentally, another thing about Browning is he wasn't very interested in describing actual pastoral landscapes. He was interested in the actions of people. I think, of all the English writers of every sort, prose and poetry, he's the one since Shakespeare who introduces the largest number of civic events, the largest number of people's actions with other people, rather that the curse of English literature which is — 'I have a feeling and it's about that tree over there'.

Clive James: You could say of Tennyson, and even of Browning in exile, that they're not really fighting British society in the way that, say, Victor Hugo was obliged to fight French society, because France had a continuing constitutional crisis since the revolution, it could be said to be still having it, and you could say this is very stimulating for the arts, but it does produce polarities in France that Britain didn't really have. I think the big arguments in Britain, in all of literature and especially in the novel, are really about how society must be handled not how it should be revolutionised, and it does bring you to Dickens, who was a much more acute critic of the fabric of British society that says all there was of the French one, much more acute; deeper, more detailed ... but not, in any sense, a revolutionary. In fact, in Dickens's novels, when the characters are granted (usually towards the end of the book) an apotheosis, a salvation from all their troubles, they're usually given an inheritance and become grandly placed. He's not really questioning the way the society is built, only how it runs.

Peter Porter: This is quite natural because if you look at what Orton believed was the second greatest work of literature in the entire European inheritance, the first being the Bible of course, the second was the German fairy tales, the Marchen, and there, whether there are wicked people or not wicked people, there is always some handing out of goodies, some Deus ex Machina does something to make things right. And the same thing applies in Dickens's novels. He writes the circumstances of his life but he wishes the circumstances could be sort of waved away with a wand at the end, and I think this is something which isn't natural to literature. That's why I don't think, myself, that literature is ever a very sharp tool for revolution because literature is at its best when it shows the need for revolution, and its worst when it proclaims a need for revolution. I think that's the great thing about Charles Dickens. When he actually began to talk in parliamentary Blue Book terms outside of literature and he got involved with all these charitable activities, he nearly always put his foot in it. Within the books themselves, however, he shows the land that people are living in, and while some people would deny that because they'd say it was so chock-a-block full of caricature, it seems to me that caricature, ever since the days of Theophrastus, has been one of the ways of sharpening up reality, and Dickens's caricatures make the Victorian age much more palpable than if he wrote a more studied and sensible kind of exoduses.

Clive James: He was a great realist about social mechanisms, a fact often forgotten. He knew that there was nothing more pointless than an abstract feeling of charity; it had to be specific, and not just that he was a remorseless analyst of the kind of people who wanted to run the poor-house and the correctional institute, but his caricature of Mrs Jellaby in Bleak House ... I think Bleak House is a very great novel for three quarters of its length, I'm just sorry that Esther Summerson narrates any of it, but without that it would be the greatest novel of the 19th century bar none I think. The caricature of Mrs Jellaby, which we referred to in the last program when we were talking about Johnston's warning against abstract charitable instincts, actually puts the lid on a whole question about diverting your own energies towards an unattainable ideal and neglecting what's happening around you. The way Dickens sets it up is that Mrs Jellaby is more interested in what happens to the people of the Niger, whether they get transferred from the left bank to the right bank, this is in Borrio-boola-Gha, than she is in her own children, and that's the crucial point, that's the point that Dickens focuses on. Her children are running wild, falling downstairs ... he creates this drama around her which dramatises the fact that you have to have an orderly existence around you before you start bothering about the entire planet. He's actually putting a knife through the revolutionary mentality. It's a deeply conservative viewpoint.

Peter Porter: There are, of course, his co-equals, fellow countrymen writers, who didn't see it quite like that. I greatly prefer Dickens because I like literature which sparkles and which has a less great concern for being fair than it has for being truthful. But you get, I suppose a person who is now much more admired perhaps in general university terms that Dickens is, and that is George Eliot ... Middlemarch, I find, to be an extremely big trudge ...

Clive James: Oh, I can't agree, I think it's a great book. Strangely as you and Edmund Wilson ... actually Edmund Wilson was proud of never having read it which I think is pushing it a bit far. You've read it ...

Peter Porter: Well, yes, I have sort of ...

Clive James: Well, we'll examine that 'sort of' later in the pub.

Peter Porter: But in life she was an admirable woman; very sensible, very practical, and I think very kind. In her literature, however, she has got that instructing, governessy tone which is almost hard to bear.

Clive James: Well in the case of Middlemarch she's surely right. The contrast she draws between Casaubon and all the sensible people in the book is just crucial because Casaubon is the first useless intellectual who has appeared in serious literature. They abound in Peacock of course, they were Peacock's favourite people, but Casaubon is engaged in drawing up the key to all the mythologies, as endless as joining the stars — it's a brilliant idea, and it's never going to mean a damn. He's a warning to us that in the future there will be such a thing as the disoccupied intellectual whose efforts, such as they are, will weigh nothing besides those of the ordinary, concerned individual, the one who dies in the unvisited grave. I think that's a brilliant dramatisation; very, very important.

Peter Porter: Well, opposite to Casaubon I suppose is the much more practical figure of Gradgrind, who simply wants to give people facts, and that is a species which has lived on into the present as well, and I think somewhere if you look at true Casaubon, you're beginning to focus on the greatest prevaricator of all time, the huge mystifier, the enormous Sumerian lake: Henry James.

Clive James: We're going to have to leave it to the listeners to look up what the Sumerian lake is, I'm not so sure myself, you can explain it to me afterwards, but I would have picked Shaw as the transitional figure. When you look closely at Henry James, and it's a very wearying process to do so I'm bound to say ... I'm working my way through the later novels again at the moment, but what I find is a contentment with the structure of high society in Europe. In fact, he's very keen that high society in Europe should stay exactly what it is, that's why he's there, that's why he came from America. And if you look at a novel like The Ambassadors, when you fight your way through the opening subtleties, which are really almost too subtle to appreciate, and get to the real subtleties, you do find — although a very penetrating view of society in all its most comfortable aspects — you also find a deep acceptance of it. Now, Shaw knew all about that high society too but he didn't like it, he wanted it reformed.

Peter Porter: I'd like to enter a little bit of a caveat to that because, after all, Henry James in The Princess Casamassima did write a political novel which is an extraordinary thing to do, better, I think, than Conrad did. He was concerning himself with all the anarchist fighting that had been going on in Europe, he was concerning himself with politics as well as the high society.

Clive James: But I don't think anyone would call Henry James a revolutionary, whereas that's exactly what Shaw thought he was, and I think in our next program we'll be moving into the big question that opens up in the beginning of the 20th century — what is to become of society, capitalist society, in order to make it more just? And the artists thought they had a role in this — were they right?

Jill Kitson: Clive James ending that discussion with Peter Porter, the fourth of six programs on art and politics, from Plato to the present. Programs five and six will be broadcast next month.

The title of Peter Porter's new collection of poems is Afterburner. Clive's latest is The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958–2003. Picador publishes them both. And that's all for this edition of Book Talk.

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