As We Were: A Victorian Peep-show
6 journalers for this copy...
I've enjoyed nearly everything I've read by E. F. Benson, from his ghost stories to his Mapp & Lucia comedies of manners. He also wrote several non-fiction books of assorted recollections and autobiographical bits; this is the first, with As We Are and Final Edition following up. This book, subtitled "a Victorian Peep-show," was originally published in 1930; this edition came out in '85 and has a new introduction by T. F. Binyon, which includes a lot of biographical info about Benson and his family.
Benson's account begins with "the pincushion," a chapter that uses an ornamental pincushion (procured specifically for a visit from Queen Victoria) to establish the time and place; the descriptions of the furnishings, fashion, and customs of the time are amusing and quaint. About the common practice of "impromptu" musical performances after dinner:
Such songs as "The Lost Chord" (words by my cousin Adelaide Anne Procter, music by Arthur Sullivan) were accepted as test-pieces for tears: the singer tried her strength with them, as if they were punching-machines at a fair which registered muscular force. If there was not a dry eye in the room when she had delivered her blow she was a champion.But even as Benson describes these evenings he admits that they are long gone:
Now such an evening as this, designed and appreciated as an agreeable social dissipation, seems to us now more socially remote than the feasts of late Imperial Rome or the parties at the Pavilion at Brighton during the heyday of the Regent, and so no doubt it is.Benson seemed to know nearly everyone who was anyone - his family was quite well-connected. He describes his father's rise from headmaster to head of the Church of England, natters charmingly about a pair of fascinating society women (who may have served as inspirations for some of his fictional heroines), and comments on "three monumental figures" - Gladstone, Tennyson, and Queen Victoria. Of Tennyson he notes:
He was recluse, he did not appear much in London, but a somewhat famous occasion of the sort was when he attended a garden party at Marlborough House. He was there seen by Mr. Oscar Browning, a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, who had an amiable and insatiable passion for intercourse with the eminent. So he went up and shook hands with him, and as the poet seemed not to have the slightest idea who he was, he introduced himself by saying, "I am Browning." Tennyson must have thought that he was impersonating Robert Browning, so he merely replied, "No, you're not," and seemed disinclined to listen to any explanations.Oscar Browning features largely in another chapter: "He was a genius flawed by abysmal fatuity." And another of the Fellows of King's, one Walter Headlam, is apparently a classic model of the absent-minded professor; there's a hilarious passage describing how he would make little notes on slips of paper about passages he wanted to quote, and then light his pipe with the same papers, all the while having forgotten about the shaving-water that was on the boil. (He also tended to shift books and papers on top of such items as his pipe or his lunch, so I felt him to be a kindred spirit, as I too am a victim of "putting things on top of other things".)
Benson describes the world of fashion as well as the academic world; later in the book he talks of several of the "great ladies" of the era, and of the parties at which they would preside. Many of their guests were notable in their own right: "Oscar Wilde came drifting largely along, and caught sight of some new arrival. 'Oh, I'm so glad you've come,' he said. 'There are a hundred things I want not to say to you.'"
Oscar features more prominently in a later chapter in which Benson discusses his life, works, and the infamous trial; it's interesting to see the viewpoint of a contemporary of Wilde's who had no bone to pick with either side, and though Benson doesn't entirely admire Wilde - at one point he says that his plays "have aged rapidly and become out of date, their wit to us seems tight-roped and acrobatic, and now no one in England will listen to them," and theorizes that had it not been for the trial Wilde's work would not have survived at all - he does conclude with "...of the number of his real friends, who knew what lay below his follies and his vices, there was none who failed to stand by him. There is much to be said for judging a man by his friends."
Other chapters deal with artists, poets, writers, politicians - often all at once. I found it especially charming when Benson would be chatting about various authors' works and then toss in a line about "I was staying with him [Henry James] once at Lamb House in Rye..." - he got a lot of his information about these people from very close at hand!
The book begins with a reminiscence, and ends with a chilling news item about an assassination; at the time it means nothing to Benson and his friends: "'Serajevo?' I asked. 'Oh, yes, I remember. Bosnia is it? I'm nearly as ignorant as I was before.' That was all: we did not allude to it again." But then "early in August the shirt of fire in which Europe was to burn for four years, was ready for the wearing, and the old order of secure prosperity, of which I have been speaking, smouldered into ash, and England will know it no more."
Gossipy, informative, and often very funny; recommended!
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...and back to GoryDetails [NH].
The book's on its way to sqdancer in Canada. Hope you enjoy it!
I enjoyed the book and Gory's very thorough (as usual) journal entry. Thanks for sharing.
The book was mailed on Thursday, October 6th via Air Mail.
Thanks for sharing your book!
Peace and Happy Bookcrossing!
Reserved for the next reader.
WILD RELEASE NOTES:
WILD RELEASE NOTES:
I decided it was time to let this book move on, and left it in the Little Free Library, after a lovely dinner with a friend at nearby Tuscan Kitchen's outdoor seating (get the duck!). Hope the finder enjoys the book!
[See other recent releases in NH here.]
*** Released for the 20/20 Vision challenge. ***