Thursday 2 June 2016

'Unfortified with cold fowl and Madeira...': Amis on Peacock and others

My latest charity shop purchase is a rather battered (ex-library) copy of What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions, a 1970 collection of mostly literary essays by Kingsley Amis. As you'd expect with such a stylish, opinionated - and funny - writer, it's bracing stuff.
 The title essay is an exercise in precision bombing targeted on Mansfield Park, the character of Fanny Price in particular, and what Amis perceives as the 'corruption' of Jane Austen's judgment and moral sense, as embodied in Fanny - 'a monster of complacency and pride who, under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel. What became of that Jane Austen (if she ever existed) who set out bravely to correct conventional notions of the desirable and virtuous? From being their critic (if she ever was) she became their slave.' Bracing stuff indeed, not to say harsh and provocative.
 This fierce opener is followed, however, by something more nuanced - a pithy and discriminating survey of the novels of Thomas Love Peacock, written at a time when that literary one-off seemed in danger of being altogether forgotten, except perhaps as a friend of Shelley and sometime father-in-law of Meredith. Amis acknowledges both the weaknesses and the strengths of Peacock's novels and is happy to separate out (accurately) what is most worth reading:
 'A line must be drawn somewhere between the living and the faded parts of his work, but merely to draw the line between living and faded targets of ridicule ... would not be quite adequate. To throw in a reflection on Peacock's inordinate capacity for simple diffuseness and repetition would have the advantage of helping to get Melincourt and Gryll Grange out of the way (where they belong), but would be little use on the harder question. What can we turn to next, then? To plot versus no plot? No: the answer that appeals to me is that Peacock was only at his best in farcical-sentimental comedy with a satiric background. The moment the satirist holds the stage he makes a dive for the lectern, and the reader, unfortified with cold fowl and Madeira, spreads a handkerchief over his face.'
 (That's Amis the comic novelist breaking through in the last sentence.) 'Almost the whole of Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey' survive Amis's critical scrutiny (along with parts of several other novels), and that would seem a very fair judgment. He characterises Peacock as 'far more energetically original' than even his admirers have often realised, and ends with a perfect summing-up: 'That enchanting urbanity, which gave him command of a whole range between witty seriousness and demented knockabout, was something which disappeared  from the English novel almost before it had properly arrived.' And more's the pity.
 Opinionated as he is, Amis is also capable of changing his mind (as he did about politics, swinging dramatically from Left to Right early in his career, as described in another essay collected here, Why Lucky Jim Turned Right). In The Poet and the Dreamer, Amis subjects Keats's poetry to a withering critique that leaves little standing beyond the middle stanzas of the Ode to a Nightingale and a small part of the revised Hyperion. Having, in this 1957 essay, dismissed Keats as 'an often delightful, if often awkward, decorative poet', self-indulgent and lacking in craftsmanship, Amis returns to the subject in a 1970 postscript which, while still expressing reservations, acknowledges that 'I neglected to celebrate, or took for granted, that tremendous originality and audaciousness which went far beyond any mere "decorative" quality...'. And he concludes, generously and rightly, that 'Whatever the detail of Keats's performance, his achievement is such that no one who has never thought him the greatest poet in the world, no matter for how brief a period, has any real feeling for literature.'


  1. Super. Fascinating post Nige. Would love to get my hands on some of those essays and v helpful to know which Peacock to prioritise. Thanks

  2. The American critic Marvin Mudrick is good on Austen in general, and hard on Mansfield Park in particular. Bless me if I know in which of his books it is collected; some publisher may have used the essay as foreword to an edition of Mansfield Park; if so, the publisher certainly knew how often people read forewords.

  3. Actually, Mudrick's essay appears as the Afterword to a 1964 Signet paperback of Mansfield Park. One of the later paragraphs begins

    "Ultimately, Jane Austen sacrifices her novel to her plan. Henry and Mary must be cast out so that Edmund and Fanny may be united in a wedding of propriety and sentiment and Sir Thomas tardily vindicated. Elizabeth Bennet, that paragon of sense and vivacity, would have been nonplussed to catch her auther setting up so crude a tableau of evangelical complacency; but then Elizabeth is one of the last bright spirits of the eighteenth century, and could not be expected to approve the thickening pieties of the nineteenth."

  4. Thanks George - that's very good. I must confess I've always felt a kind of repellent force field around Mansfield Park (uniquely among the novels) - to such an extent that I'm not sure I've ever managed to read it in its entirety. I think Amis and Mudrick identify the problem very acutely.

  5. Guy - keep watching your local charity shops - there's a lot of Amis turning up just now...

  6. Thanks. Good tip. My latest find was Ford's complete "Parade's End"in a pristine Everyman hardback the other day for £3. From a school library. Never been opened.