Tag Archives: Englishman abroad

The Relentless City: E. F. Benson

“America sat high on the seas, grown like some portentous mushroom in a single night.”

Author E.F. Benson (1867-1940) seems to be best remembered for his Mapp and Lucia books which have made their way to television–definitely a way to keep that written word in print. I’d never read Benson before, but then I came across a 99cent offer for the kindle: The Relentless City.

the relentless cityThe Relentless City (1903) is a social satire, a novel of manners, built around a English man, Lord Bertie Keynes, set to inherit a title and a heavily mortgaged estate, and Sybil Massington, a young English widow. These two people decide that they want to marry wealth, and that translates to marrying Americans. Bertie must marry money, and Sybil finds herself admiring the American spirit. Bertie is cynical about his quest:

You don’t suppose the Americans really think that lots of us go there to find wives because we prefer them to English girls? They know the true state of the case perfectly well. They only don’t choose to recognize it, just as one doesn’t choose to recognize a man one doesn’t want to meet. They look it in the face, and cut it–cut it dead.

The Relentless City of the title is literally New York but it’s also the frenetic American way of life epitomized by self-made millionaire and workaholic, former railway porter, Lewis S. Palmer–a man whose whole life is directed, with intense preoccupation, towards the making of money.

Yet in the relentless city, where no one may pause for a moment unless he wishes to be left behind in the great universal race for gold.

The novel opens at the London Carlton, “full to suffocation of people,” and that includes the American Mrs. Lewis S. Palmer, a loud woman who appears to the “casual observer” to be dressed “exclusively in diamonds.” Mrs. Palmer flaunts her wealth and brags that whenever she’s homesick, her husband “sends to Tiffany’s for the biggest diamond they’ve got.” She’s enjoying her time in London, threatens to buy it, and suspects she’ll “rupture something” when she returns home to America. Even though she’s in the Carlton, that doesn’t stop her frequent screams whenever she’s amused. A great deal is made of Mrs. Palmer, her manners “of a barmaid,” & her behaviour in this first scene:

It was said of her, indeed, that staying for a week-end not long ago with some friend in the country, rain had been expected because one day after lunch a peacock was heard screaming so loud, but investigation showed that it was only Mrs. Palmer, at a considerable distance away on the terrace, laughing.

Bertie, who recently recovered from losing his first great love, actress Dorothy Emsworth, sails to America and is the guest of the Palmers at their opulent, ironically named home: Mon Repos where life is “not a holiday, but hard, relentless work of a most exacting kind.” As a Long Island hostess, one of Mrs. Palmer’s goals is to attract people to her social headquarters and away from Newport and rival hostess Mrs. John Z. Adelboden. Mrs. Palmer triumphs when she lures a minor royal to her home:

For only two days before the reigning Prince of Saxe-Hochlaben, a dissolute young man of twenty-five, with a limp, a past, and no future, had arrived like a thunderbolt in New York.

Mrs. Palmer organizes the most outrageously expensive parties. In one, she transforms a local beach into a lagoon with tiny cabinets complete with a change of clothes and fishing nets for all the guests:

The lagoon itself smelt strongly of rose-water, for thousands of gallons had just been emptied into it, and the surface was covered with floating tables laden with refreshments, and large artificial water-lilies. And scattered over the bottom of the lagoon-scattered too, with a liberal hand–were thousands of pearl oysters.

There was no time wasted; as soon as Prince Fritz grasped the situation, and it had been made clear to him that he might keep any pearls he found, he rushed madly to the nearest cabin, rolled his trousers up to the knee, put sandals on his rather large, ungainly feet, and plunged into the rose-watered lagoon. Nor were the rest slow to follow his example, and in five minutes it was a perfect mob of serge-skirted women and bare-legged men. Mr. Palmer himself did not join in the wading, for, in addition to a slight cold, wading was bad for his chronic indigestion; but he seized a net, and puddled about with it from the shore. Shrieks of ecstasy greeted the finding of the pearls; cries of dismay arose if the shell was found to contain nothing. Faster and more furious grew the efforts of all to secure them; for a time the floating refreshment-tables attracted not the smallest attention. In particular, the Prince was entranced, and, not waiting to open the shells where the oyster was still alive (most, however, had been killed by the rose-water or the journey, and gaped open), he stowed them away in his pockets, in order to examine them afterwards–not waste the precious moments when so many were in competition with him; and his raucous cries of ‘Ach, Himmel! there is a peauty!’ resounded like a bass through the shrill din.

In this lively, highly-entertaining novel of manners, there’s lots of scope here for the clash of cultures as English habits and values meet brash, disinhibited America, and the author seems to have great fun exploring the excesses of American high society. After the scene at the Carlton, Bertie’s friend, Charlie, portrayed as a much less progressive character than Bertie, weighs the pros and cons of Mrs. Palmer as part of the “barbarian invasion.” Bertie, the eldest son of an impoverished marquis, much later in the novel makes a statement that American culture is not less or lower than English culture–just different, and while this is an effort to establish differences rather than superiority, it’s a limp attempt as the majority of the book pokes fun at Grande Dame Mrs. Palmer, her ludicrous parties, and the planned stripping of a beautiful English ancestral estate for its coal by the new American owners. In The Relentless City, the American characters are here for laughs with generous dollops of humour in the vein of Oscar Wilde, and  while there are basically two love stories which unfold, there’s also a bit of villainy seen through the character of the dastardly Bilton. Ultimately, after meeting and mingling with the Americans the English characters are left shell-shocked more than anything else.

More intimately disquieting was the perpetual sense of his nerves being jarred by the voices, manners, aims, mode of looking at life of the society into which he was to marry. Not for a moment did he even hint to himself that his manner of living and conducting himself, traditional to him, English, was in the smallest degree better or wiser than the manner of living and conducting themselves practised by these people, traditional (though less so) to them, American. Only there was an enormous difference, which had been seen by him in the autumn and dismissed as unessential, since it concerned only their manners, and had nothing to do with their immense kindliness of heart, which he never doubted or questioned for a moment. What he questioned now was whether manners did not spring, after all, from something which might be essential, something, the lack of which in one case, the presence of in another might make a man or a woman tolerable or intolerable if brought into continuous contact.

 

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The Notebooks of Major Thompson by Pierre Daninos

I have a very clear memory of a history class in which the subject of venereal disease was mentioned. I’ve long since forgotten how the topic started, but I recall the teacher explaining that the French called it, “the English disease,” and the British called it “the French disease.” This memory flooded back as I read The Notebooks of Major Thompson by Pierre Daninos, the second book from a virtual book exchange with Emma. I hadn’t heard of the book before, and since I enjoy comic fiction, I looked forward to reading it. The secondary title to the book is: An Englishman Discovers France and the French, and I suspect Emma selected this particular book as she knows that I enjoy watching films or reading books about people’s behaviour abroad. (Suggestions welcome)

Translated by Robin Farn, the novel includes a number of illustrations by Walter Goetz. The book is written from the viewpoint of Major Marmaduke Thompson, a rather affable fellow who finds himself, in late middle age, married for the second time to a French woman named Martine. He’s now living in France and trying to understand the natives. Several times throughout the book, Thompson references the author as P.C. Daninos–a man “who is naturally distressed that he is not English,” and that Thompson first met when Daninos was a liasion officer of Thompson’s battalion. It is Daninos, according to Thompson, who edits the ‘notebooks.’

Each chapter takes a loose approach to a topic in which Major Thompson attempts to illuminate the differences between the French and the British–the “two most dissimilar peoples on the earth,” and chapter 1: What is a Frenchman? starts with an anecdote of sorts in which Major Thompson claims that a brain surgeon friend of his “opened up an Englishman” in his Harley Street office and found a number of items–most of which are indelibly connected to the British “royal” family. In contrast Thompson begins his definition of the French as a people of vast “contradictions.” He can’t make sense of the fact that this is a nation of Republicans who worship the queen of England. I don’t know enough French people to know if this is true, so I can’t comment on that, but as a relic of the British Empire, Thompson seems a little uneasy about the French Revolution. The topic crops up frequently in his “notebooks” almost as if he’s afraid another revolution might suddenly erupt at any moment, and at one point he calls the French “these guillotiners of kings.” To give you an idea of the sort of humour within the book, here’s a quote:

The American pedestrian who sees a millionaire going past in a Cadillac dreams secretly of the day when he will be driving his own; the French pedestrian who sees a millionaire going past in a Cadillac dreams of the day he will get him out of it and make him walk like everyone else.

He doesn’t say what a British pedestrian would do…

Chapter 4-The Land of the Handshake had me a bit confused. I always see French people kissing each other on the cheeks, and I’m not sure of the etiquette of that custom. Thompson argues that “for the French–and for many others–England is the land of the handshake.” He then argues against this position and states that the French have perfected the art of handshaking to include “various nuances.”

According to Thompson’s fictional biography he appears to have retired from the army in 1945, and so he is a relic of the British Empire, serving in India, Palestine, and Egypt. He makes a perfect stock character for an Englishman, a great stereotype, and yet at the same time he is a bit dated. I, for one, can’t relate to some of his “Englishness” as his background is pro-royal, aristocratic privilege. But at the same time, I can relate entirely to other sections: The Case of Count Renauld de la Chasselière in which Thompson describes the “silences” of the British, for example. I’m frequently told I’m ‘aloof’ and ‘cold’.

Readers brings  their own experiences to the books they read, and so I read this book through a rather complicated prism. I’m probably a different sort of reader for this book as I’m British but live in America, and so while I read Thompson’s attempts to understand the French, I brought in my own experiences of being British in yet another foreign country. When Thompson made comparisons between the French and the British attitudes towards royalty for example, I found myself marvelling all over again about the royal worship I’ve encountered in America. For some reason, most Americans seem to think I should worship the royal family, and that I glue myself to the television set for every so-called royal wedding as if I feel some connection. I have literally been lectured by Americans for not having ‘proper respect’ which is hilarious to me since America had a revolution, ostensibly (yes we can argue that other motives were afoot) to get rid of the monarchy. But I digress….

My favorite chapter was My Dear Hereditary Enemy  in which Thompson discusses the upbringing of his son and the dreaded governess Miss ffyfth–a formidable woman whose history lessons include a pro-British (read anti-French) version of history:

Meanwhile, Miss ffyfth was striding onward through history. She was sorry for Joan of Arc, who was burned as a witch, but she was careful to point out that the tribunal which condemned her was composed of Frenchmen, and that King Charles VII did nothing to aid the girl (monstrous!). Soon she would get to Napoleon. Without even speaking of Trafalgar or Waterloo; Wellington had already beaten Napoleon at vimieiro–remember: Vi-miei-ro. In the end, the tiresome little man with his funny hat had never been able to realize his dream, which was to go to England. For there was the sea–la mer–and, above all, the Br–the Brr–the British navy, dear….

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