Wednesday 13 May 2020

'Sleep, "in a reverent attitude of attention"'

The other day I found Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics still lurking among my bedside books. I thought I'd read it all, but I'd missed one of the (more or less relevant) Appendices – and it's a gem. Titled 'Serious Circles', it offers a vignette from the early life of Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) and a lively sketch of a more familiar subject – the home life of the Carlyles.
  Sitwell depicts the 22-year-old Mary Ann getting 'her first experience of intellectual society' at a high-toned garden party on the outskirts of Coventry, hosted by a Mr Bray. The future George Eliot was at this time 'a positive glutton for boredom – devouring, with apparent enthusiasm, such works as Scrope's Deer-stalking in the Highlands,  Mrs Jameson's Winter Scenes and Summer Rambles in Canada (although the book aroused in her grave doubts of Mrs Jameson's religious principles), Professor Hooper's work on the subject of Schism, Milner's Church History and W. Gresley's Portrait of an English Churchman.'
  When her brother took her to London for the first time, 'she was "not at all delighted with the stir of the Great Babel"; and, having unwisely allowed some flippant friends ... to take her to an Oratorio, she could not help asking herself: "Can it be desirable and would it be consistent with millennial holiness for a human being to devote the time and energies that are barely sufficient for real exigencies, in acquiring trills, cadences, etc., etc."
  'But in after years, it must be admitted that she was so weak as to be seduced by Handel's oratorio The Messiah; and it is recorded of her that even in girlhood she was so overcome by the religious feeling of some Oratorio to which, again, she had allowed herself to be taken, that she burst into a loud howling, the bassoon-like notes of which persisted throughout the work, gravely disturbing the rest of the audience.'
  Mr Bray was a devotee of phrenology, having discovered the subject when a bookseller sent him George Combe's Phrenology by mistake, instead of Andrew Combe's Physiology. Opening the book, he was immediately 'seized with wild excitement':
'A prey to this ungovernable excitement, he dashed up to London and into the first hairdresser's shop he saw, and demanded that his head be shaved completely bare. A cast of his head was then made, and Mr Bray rushed back to Coventry to inquire, from Mr Combe's book, if his mind was of the order that he supposed.'
  It seems it was, and Mr Bray became a fanatically convinced phrenologist –  'regarding himself as a missionary, he rode through the countryside, distributing casts to the villagers, who, attracted by the sight of his gleaming cranium, gathered around him.'
  He married soon after this, and, on honeymoon with his new wife, 'made the breath-taking announcement to her that he had renounced Unitarianism for ever. Then, producing from his luggage Holbach's System of Nature and Volnay's Ruin of Empires, he called upon his bride to read these and follow his example.'
 Serious circles indeed.
 At the intellectual garden party, George Combe himself was the guest of honour, holding forth at length to the assembled company. His monologues, Mr Bray recalled, 'made his presence a wholesome sedative to our spirits. It did not surprise us, sometimes, when his devoted wife dropped asleep in the middle of his discourses, her head inclined towards him in a reverent attitude of attention.'
 Sitwell adds sardonically, 'Sleep, "in a reverent attitude of attention", was the keynote of life with the Brays...'

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