Tag Archives: anglo-irish

The Old Jest: Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston’s short novel, The Old Jest, a coming of age tale, takes place over a number of days in 1920. The main focus is an 18-year-old girl named Nancy, and when the book opens it’s her birthday. On the cusp of adulthood, Nancy has finished school and plans to attend Trinity in the autumn. There’s not enough money in this faded Anglo-Irish gentry family to send her to Oxford university–plus there are rumblings of “a war with England.”

Nancy is an orphan. Her mother died some years earlier, and she never knew her father, a man who remains a mystery figure. She’s been brought up by her Aunt Mary who bears the burden of the household since her brother, Gabriel died at Ypres. Nancy’s grandfather, General Dwyer is “potty,” but these days we’d probably say he has Alzheimer’s. One of the biggest dramas in Nancy’s life is her crush on a young man named Harry who has his eyes on the bigger prize of the heiress Maeve.

the-old-jest

Nancy’s diary entries make up some of the novel, so we see her confessional thoughts, and her desire that her grandfather die “before we become damaged by his decay.” She’s still a girl, and yet she’s supposed to act like an adult. Nancy chooses her moments to flip back and forth as if she can’t quite accept the responsibilities and polite behaviour of adulthood.

Outside of the safety and security of Nancy’s home, civil unrest occasionally washes up on their doorstep. There’s mention of the Black and Tans, but life in the household is mainly untouched by what goes on in the outside world until Nancy meets an IRA man who’s hiding out in an abandoned beach hut she frequents. He calls into question everything she’s been taught to believe:

“After all,” he said gently, “Your grandfather was a killer too, and no one makes sarcastic remarks at him for that. Not at all. They gave him medals and a pension, He wasn’t even killing to defend his own fatherland, indeed the very opposite. He was taking other people’s land away from them. Creating an Empire for a little old lady with a thing like a tea cosy on her head.”

There’s a sweetness hovering over the novel that partially comes from Nancy’s innocence and zest for life. (Some readers found Nancy annoying–I did not.) Some of the sweetness comes from the idea that we are glimpsing the last days of a particular lifestyle–although Nancy is initially unaware of the truth of the family’s circumstances.

I liked this novel, which has the feel of a well-fleshed out short story, for its bittersweet glimpse at Nancy’s life; by the time the book concludes, it’s easy to see that her world has irrevocably changed. Her innocence is gone, and so her childhood passes away, leaving her to face an uncertain adulthood.

Review copy

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Loving: Henry Green (1945)

Henry Green’s novel Back  is the story of a soldier, now an amputee who returns home to England while WWII rages on. The title, obviously, refers to the man’s return; he’s changed, his world has changed. Loving, published a year before Back, must then refer to the relationship between the newly appointed butler, Raunce and the maid, Elsie. There’s a secondary romance but more of that later.  The story is set in a grand house owned by an upper class Anglo-Irish family with the servants, in theory, making sure that everything runs smoothly. These two groups of people–the masters and the servants–move in different worlds, but when things go wrong, as they do several times in the novel, there are comic results which reveal the inherent paradoxes within the upstairs-downstairs relationships.

loving

The grand country house is owned by the Tennants, but the son (and heir) of the house, Jack, is off at war, and most of the servants are British (the one irish servant isn’t allowed in the house). There are rumours that the Germans may invade, rumours that the IRA may attack, and the servants, isolated from events in Britain, except for the occasional letters, are cocooned from the deprivations of rationing, and spared the German bombing raids. The male staff members know that if they step foot back on British soil, they’ll be conscripted. So here they are, sitting out the war, hearing its distant rumblings, isolated from their home land.

The novel opens with the death of the elderly butler, Eldon, who unbeknownst to the lady of the house, Mrs Tennant, has been steadily ripping her off over the years. Charley Raunce, formerly the head footman and now butler by default (where else would Mrs Tennant get a replacement in wartime?) ‘inherits’ Eldon’s notebooks. One shows how much he’s been siphoning off the estate, and the other is a sort of reference guide of visitors–its information directed towards getting tips.

The death of Eldon heralds a mini-crisis within the household as head housemaid, Mrs Burch can’t accept Raunce’s promotion. Raunce’s promotion is a shake-up of the established power structure, the unspoken element the entire house runs on.

Not a great deal happens in this story: the cook’s disruptive nephew arrives, scrawny and ill-fed from England, a peacock is murdered, the peacocks are locked up, a valuable ring goes missing, and Mrs Jack (whose husband is away fighting) is caught in bed with a naked man. Through all of these incidents, just what should be aired and what should be kept secret (away from Mrs Tennant) become the points of action. These incidents serve to underscore the separate worlds of the two classes, and the problems that ensue when those world collide.

Loving is a sort of upstairs-downstairs book with an emphasis on the latter. Dozens of peacocks roam the estate–beautiful and yet rather useless, and somehow they seem emblematic of the Tennant family who are largely clueless about what is going on under their noses. The war rages on outside this country, but the Tennants, who care nothing for Ireland, are mostly concerned with the cold dinners delivered to the nursery and the dearth of coloured blotting paper:

“You write to London for the blotting paper of course?”

“Yes Madam but this is all Mr. Eldon could get. I believe he was going to speak about it.”

“No, he never did,” she said, “and naturally it would be hopeless trying to buy anything in this wretched country. But tell me why if there are several pastel blues can they do only one shade of pink?” 

“I believe it’s the war Madam.”

She laughed and faced him. “Oh yes the shops will be using that as an excuse for everything soon.”

If Raunce’s promotion leads to a mini-crisis in the house, the disappearance of a ring is near catastrophic. The servants, and not Mrs. Tennant’s well-known carelessness, are immediately blamed, and this leads to a very funny scene with the insurance investigator and even accusations that the cook is a drunk:

“I think everything’s partly to do with the servants,” Mrs. Tennant announced as if drawing to a logical conclusion.

“The servants?” Mrs. Jack echoed, it might have been from a great distance.

“Well one gets no rest. It’s always on one’s mind, Violet.”

There’s very much the bitter-sweet sense that we are privileged to see a vanishing world. Violet, Mrs Jack, is in love with another man, in a relationship that will not survive if her husband returns from war. If Jack dies in war, what will happen to the house? The Raunces of this world are not the Eldons. The servants are restless and consider other lives; there are no ties to Ireland, no sense of permanence:

“No, what’s going’ on over in Britain is what bothers me. The ways things are shapin’ it wouldn’t come as a surprise if places such as this weren’t doomed to a natural death so to say.”

Another wonderful revival from New York Review Books

Lisa’s review is here.

Review copy

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Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

You know how it is with some books. You’ve been meaning to read them for years, but somehow you always pass them by. Perhaps part of that comes from the idea that you think you know what the book’s about, and there’s a familiarity to it since it’s been sitting on the shelf for decades. This is exactly the case with Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. I’d always meant to read it, but I passed by my old hardback edition–even the college library threw it away which is how I came to own it. For some reason that I cannot adequately explain I had the impression that Castle Rackrent was a gothic novel–perhaps because I’d seen it linked with Ann Radcliffe’s works, so I was very surprised to find myself laughing at this very funny short book narrated by the old, faithful family retainer, Thady. Thady manages to outlive generations of dissolute owners of Castle Rackrent in the book that he presents as a “Memoir of the Rackrent Family.” The cover of the Oxford Classics edition says it all:

castle rackrentBut first a note on Maria Edgeworth… the introduction to my copy states that she was born on January 1, 1767 and died on May 22, 1849. At this point in time, Wikipedia gives her birth year as 1768. She was born in Oxfordshire as the result of the marriage between her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth and the first of four wives. My copy states that Maria was the first child of 19–Wikipedia places her as the second of 22. Right away of course, whichever version is the correct one, we know that there’s an interesting dynamic at work–especially with a quote from Maria’s father regarding his four wives:

I have had four wives. The second and third were sisters, and I was in love with the second in the lifetime of the first.

So whether we are talking about 19 children or twenty-two, this had to be an energetic and chaotic household. Maria Edgeworth lived with her aunts until her mother’s death and then her father remarried and relocated the family to his Irish estates. She returned to England for her education  during the illness of her first stepmother, Honora Sneyd, but after her death, and Mr Edgeworth’s remarriage to Honora’s sister (my intro says that this was Honora’s dying request), Maria shortly returned to Ireland yet again. So no small amount of impermanence and upheaval until Maria’s teen years. At this point she became involved in her father’s business and estates.

Castle Rackrent was published in 1800, initially without the author’s name, but this was added for the second edition. This is an unusual novel for its time as it is narrated by a servant, Old Thady Quirk, and if this story were told by the successive gentry owners of the estate, it would be a very different story indeed. As it is, Thady ‘s disingenuousness may be a construct to not speak ill of his various ‘masters,’–a habit from a lifetime of obsequiousness, or it may be his way of telling this shameful history while still appearing ‘loyal’ to the dissolute members of the family. Nonetheless, it’s the spaces between Thady’s naïve narrative and the actual events that creates so much humour. And this is how it begins:

Having, out of friendship for the family, upon whose estate, praised be heaven! I and mine have lived rent-free time out of mind, voluntarily undertaken to publish the MEMOIRS OF THE RACKRENT FAMILY, I think it my duty to say a few words, in the first place, concerning myself. My real name is Thady Quirk, though in the family I have always been known by no other than “Honest Thady.”

The insertion of Honest Thady let’s us know that the version we are about to hear is suspect, and as the tales unfold from Honest Thady of a dissolute bunch of owners, we have every reason to suspect his version of events.

Castle Rackrent was originally owned by Sir Tallyhoo Rackrent who came to a bad end, so the estate passed to Sir Patrick O’Shaughlin with the stipulation that he take the “surname and arms of Rackrent.” The litigious Sir Patrick, “who used to boast that he had a lawsuit for every letter in the alphabet,” according to Thady, “gave the finest entertainment” in which “not a man could stand after supper but Sir Patrick himself.” Here’s an example of Thady’s fond recollection of a Rackrent:

I remember when I was a little boy, the first bumper of claret he gave me after dinner, how he praised me for carrying it to my mouth.

Probably a good thing that the male Rackrents seem to die early and without issue–and that brings me to my very favourite member of the family, Sir Kit, who brings over his new bride who is, as we learn later, a very dark-complexioned Jewish woman, the “grandest heiress in England,”  who’s been married for her fortune.  The poor woman has no idea of what’s in store for her:

“Is the large room damp, Thady?” said his honour.

“Oh, damp, your honour! how should it be but as dry as a bone,” says I, “after all the fires we have kept in it day and night? It’s the barrack-room your honour’s talking on.”

“And what is a barrack-room, pray, my dear?” were the first words I ever heard out of my lady’s lips.

“No matter, my dear,” said he, and went on talking to me ashamed-like I should witness her ignorance. To be sure, to hear her talk one might have taken her for an innocent, for it was, “What’s this, Sir Kit?” and “What’s that, Sir Kit? all the way we went. To be sure, Sir Kit had enough to do to answer her.

“And what do you call that, Sir Kit?” said she; “that–that looks like a pile of black bricks, pray, Sir Kit?’

“My turf-stack, my dear,” said my master, and bit his lip.

Where have you lived, my lady, all your life, not to know a turf-stack when you see it? thought I; but I said nothing. Then, by-and-by, she takes out her glass, and begins spying over the country.

“And what’s all that black swamp out yonder, Sir Kit?” says she.

“My bog, my dear,” says he and went on whistling.

“It’s a very ugly prospect, my dear,” says she.

“You don’t see it, my dear,” says he; “for we’ve planted it out; when the trees grow up in summertime—” says he.

“Where are the trees,” said she, “my dear?” still looking through her glass.

“You are blind, my dear,” says he: “what are thee under your eyes?”

“These shrubs?” said she.

“Trees,” said he.

“May be they are what you call trees in Ireland, my dear,” said she; “but they are not a yard high, are they?”

“They were planted out but last year, my lady,” says I, to soften matters between them, for I saw she was going to make his honour mad with her: “they are very well grown for their age, and you’ll not see the bog of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin at-all-at-all through the screen, when once the leaves come out. But, my lady, you must not quarrel with any part or parcel of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin, for you don’t know how many hundred years that same bit of bog has been in the family; we would not part with the bog of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin upon no account at all; it cost the late Sir Murtagh two hundred good pounds to defend his title to it and boundaries against the O’Learys, who cut a road through it.”

Now one would have thought this would have been hint enough for my lady, but she fell to laughing like one out of their right mind, and made me say the name of the bog over, for her to get it by heart, a dozen times; then she must ask me how to spell it, and what was the meaning of it in English–Sir Kit standing by whistling all the while.

According to Thady “she laid the corner-stone of all her future misfortunes” this very first day, and if you want to know the fate of this particular Lady Rackrent (none of them exactly fare well), then you’ll have to read the book. Thady relates her history in this deadpan style–as if what happened to the poor woman was 1) deserved and 2) normal, but then the term ‘normal’ doesn’t apply to the Rackrents–an atrocious bunch of Anglo-Irish riffraff, a family of boozers, bounders and debtors, and the very worst sort of landowners.

There’s also an extensive glossary that accompanies the text, and written in an authoritarian style, this adds another level of irony to the humorous tale. Finally the topic of the Irish Roof emerged in Great Granny Webster, and the subject appears again here–the windows are broken and the roof leaks, but there’s too many debts and too little money to fix anything as the various heirs to the castle run the place into the ground.

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