Frank Kermode, Don Juan, and Other British Lit from the TLS
A look at great reads from the editor of the TLS. This week: the famous bluestocking feminists, Byron’s poem Don Juan finally completed, and a remembrance of critic Frank Kermode.
Who Were the Bluestockings?
What happens when intellectual women get together? According to the caricaturist, Thomas Rowlandson, chaos ensues. His drawing “Breaking up of the Blue Stocking Club” shows a callisthenic catfight, writes Emily Hodgson Anderson in the TLS, in which clothing is torn, bare breasts fly, and women beat, tug and bite each other. Signs of civility (a disregarded tea service) remain only in their destruction; it is one man’s cynical vision of what a female community can do. The gathering is grossly physical, strictly limited to women, and a far cry from the elegant salons that first gave the club its name.
The original bluestocking salon of Elizabeth Montagu, described in Elizabeth Eger's new book, Bluestockings, included Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, and the term goes back to 1756, when the scholar Benjamin Stillingfleet supposedly arrived at one of Montagu’s events wearing a pair of blue-worsted hose, the garb of working men. But by the end of the eighteenth century the term designated primarily “intellectual women ... unnatural, ‘unsexed’” and targets for mockery—Montagu herself becoming Byron's Lady Bluebottle in his Literary Eclogue of 1821.
Don Juan, Concluded
When Lord Byron died in 1824 during the Greek War of Independence, he left unfinished his mock epic, Don Juan, one of the finest and most enjoyable poems in the English language. Its hero, after a range of amorous adventures, is left at a country house party hosted by Lord Henry and Lady Adeline Amundeville whose other guests include his Grace, the Duke and the beautiful Duchess of Fitz-Fulke. Juan has seen a ghostly figure walking and next morning he is told it must be the Black Friar who haunts the house. The next night the “friar” comes to his room. It has red lips, sweet breath, a glowing bust, and is none other than Lady Fitz-Fulke, at which point this magnificent saga suddenly and disappointingly ends. Byron left no clues as to where the story would turn, but in the current holiday edition of the TLS, the distinguished poet and translator, Ranjit Bolt, provides some 70 stanzas of answer. Below is just a taste—and in due course Bolt is expected to finish the whole poem.
"You could have heard a pin’s proverbial drop Such silence reigned around that breakfast table— Save for Lord Henry munching on a chop And Adeline, as soft as she was able, Cutting up little strips of toast to pop Into her egg, it was an inverse Babel Though a quiet meal is like a headless torso There being nothing English folk abhor so. His Grace, ensconced behind his morning paper, Saw nothing by the which he might be warned Of any clandestine nocturnal caper And, had you told him that he’d just been horned, Would have dismissed your tale as so much vapour Though few things in our country are more scorned Than cuckoldom, and its reverberations Are stronger than in many other nations.
Thus blithely breakfasted the unwitting spouse While Juan and his duchess found it hard, Now they had been so fiercely lit, to douse The flames of love, and keep up the façade So necessary in a country house When antics are afoot as untoward As those I fear we cannot but assume Had taken place last night in Juan’s room.
Of infidelity much has been writ And who am I to add to that great heap? I have no private bone to pick with it Provided that I sow and do not reap And as to that, I hope I have the wit – The wounds that horns inflict are cruel and deep – We weep for Agamemnon; e’en Othello Brute though he was, can make us think: “Poor fellow!”"
The Wonder of Frank Kermode
"Sir Frank Kermode’s career is a wonder," wrote Dinah Birch in the TLS earlier this year. Now that the “is” has become a “was” there has been much mourning and remembering among the community of literary critics in Britain. To sum up his critical life, more than forty volumes have appeared since he began to publish in the 1950s, together with a wealth of articles and reviews. He held senior posts in universities up and down the land, including a notable term of office as King Edward VII Professor of English Literature in Cambridge. Neither retirement nor a ninetieth birthday slowed his publication rate. And his two last works, “a thoughtful study of E. M. Forster and Bury Place Papers” showed how Kermode’s learning and insight had come to seem indestructible.
Despite these claims to distinction, it was never easy to pin down Kermode’s contribution to literary culture. His turn of mind was “brilliantly agile rather than polemical." One of his most perceptive books, in Birch's assessment, was The Genesis of Secrecy (1979), which speaks of Hermes as the patron of hermeneutics: “He is the god of going-between: between the dead and the living, but also between the latent and the manifest… and between the text and the dying generations of its readers.” The spirit of Hermes, subtle and stealthy, was never far from Kermode’s work.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.