My essay in the new issue of Open Letters Monthly is on The Mill on the Floss and spoilers:
Yet as every reader knows, something is different if you already know the ending—something’s lost or changed or constrained. Even setting aside the thrill of suspense and the pleasure of surprise (and are these really such childish desires?), an unread, unknown novel has an open-endedness that keeps us alert to possibilities—including interpretive ones. Unsure of the of the outline, never mind the ultimate direction, of the path we’re on, we have to pay attention to everything. We’re better readers as a result. After all, once we know for sure how things do turn out, it’s much harder to think about how they might have turned out, and then the full significance of the ending that we do get might be lost on us.
Take The Mill on the Floss, for instance …
What a beautiful, delicate melancholy Gaskell conveys in this scene from Cranford of Miss Matty and Mary Smith sorting and burning old family letters.
I never knew what sad work the reading of old-letters was before that evening, though I could hardly tell why. The letters were as happy as letters could be - at least those early letters were. There was in them a vivid and intense sense of the present time, which seemed so strong and full, as if it could never pass away, and as if the warm, living hearts that so expressed themselves could never die, and be as nothing to the sunny earth. I should have felt less melancholy, I believe, if the letters had been more so.
“Every year, in the deep midwinter, there descends upon this world a terrible fortnight. A fortnight, or ten days, or a week, when citizens cannot get about the streets of their cities for the surging pressure of persons who walk therein; when every shop is a choked mass of humanity, and purchases, at the very time when purchases are most numerously ordained to be made, are only possible at the cost of bitter hours of travail; a time when nerves are jangled and frayed, purses emptied to no purpose, all amusements and all occupations suspended in favour of frightful businesses with brown paper, string, letters, cards, stamps, and crammed post offices. This period is doubtless a foretaste of whatever purgatory lies in store for human creatures.”
— Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train
“Here,” he said, and passed her the Literary Supplement. “My first review. Read it.”
She read it.
“Not bad, is it,” she commented, having done so.
He stared at her, aghast at her ignorant optimism.
“Not bad! Which part of it isn’t bad, I’d like to know? Except the first few words, down to 7s. 6d. n., it’s all as bad as it could be.”
“It says a pleasant talent, Arnold.”
“It does not. It says a certain pleasant talent. That’s entirely different.”
“Why? Isn’t it better than an uncertain one?”
She was hopeless. She didn’t understand words as used. He looked at her wrathfully.
“And anyhow, it’s in the wrong part of the paper. It’s not a review at all; they’ve fobbed me off with a snippet… . “
“The Weekly Comment review is important, of course,” he added.
“Is it? Good. Why?”
“Well, because … Oh, well, it is. It’s read by people who matter. It counts.”
“Why are the people who matter, Arnold? … And how do they matter? And how is one paper more important than another? And what does important mean?”
Arnold, pleased with his review and his holiday morning, tried to explain.
“The people who matter, in an intellectual sense, are the intelligent readers and critics. And a paper is important, intellectually, if it’s written and read by intelligent and thoughtful people. As to important … well, of course, it’s a relative word; it doesn’t stand by itself… .”
“Is it more important that clever people should like your book than stupid ones?” Denham pursued, giving him more coffee.
“More important to me, certainly.”
“Why? Because there seem to be more stupid people. Isn’t it important that they should like the book? Guy says it’s mostly stupid people who buy books, or get them from libraries, because intelligent people can usually get hold of them, if they want to, some other way.”
“Oh, well, I don’t aspire to be a best-seller among the lowbrows. I should never be any good at that. My only chance is to make some kind of hit with the highbrows. I may not be much good, but at least I’m no worse than some of the people they praise up.”
—Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train
“There is … very little demand for genuine criticism of the novel. Expert advice in this field is not felt to be necessary. It is a very easy kind of book to read. The other arts strike the average man as being much more mysterious, and as making more strenuous demands upon him. When delighted by poetry, music, or painting he is inclined to ask why he should be thus affected. He is aware of some complicated process of statement and response. Endeavouring to understand this experience he turns to criticism for elucidation. He is less likely to feel this when he enjoys a novel; that pleasure strikes him as simple, natural, and familiar. He cannot remember a time when he did not enjoy stories; his pleasure has blossomed from very early roots and from the days when his mother used to tell him about The Three Bears at bed-time. He has been so long and so well-acquainted with this kind of satisfaction that, when he encounters it as an adult in expanded form, he takes his response for granted, as he did as a child.”
— Margaret Kennedy, The Outlaws on Parnassus (her fascinatingly brisk and idiosyncratic book on ‘the novel’)
Nobody puts baby in a binder.
My favourite (so far) in this particular meme.