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Ronald Blythe

Ronald Blythe is the author of Akenfield and of a recent study of old age, The View in Winter.

Jericho

Ronald Blythe, 17 September 1981

James Woodforde’s diary retains its lumbering, unremitting interest. The obvious question is: what made him keep it? To tell us about his times, or to tell his page about himself? These are the reasons why most men keep diaries, but neither was the compulsion behind this one. This is perhaps why, with this latest edition of Parson Woodforde, we push along beside a writer who, one imagines, would not have cared to be designated social historian or confessional writer, but who nevertheless, deliberately or artlessly, reveals himself and his age with a starkness akin to the hard Norfolk light falling on a ditch. Here is life in its abundance, here is clear-cut order, here is every local specimen, the admired and the despised, here the useful and the worthless, and here the nasty, with everything swirling along on the slowest of currents. The Rector of Weston is a realist with no great literary skill to lead him into deeper waters, and so (in the study where he wrote all those sermons whose contents he never divulges?) he records the rural Georgian surface, bland reflections, delightful encounters, painful discoveries and scummy edges. And why? Perhaps to provide an affidavit of his existence.

Settings

Ronald Blythe, 24 January 1980

When Margaret Drabble says that, like Trollope, ‘Henry James admires the inimitable, unpurchasable gleam of time’, and describes his Poynton as ‘a Mentmore in miniature’, or when she writes of ‘the allegorical significance and sexual innuendo of the medieval garden’, or remarks that architectural irregularity, to English eyes, ‘seems to be a key, a touchstone, a mystic pledge of some indefinable authenticity’, or calls Dickens ‘the great poet of pollution’, or reminds us that, in Wordsworth’s time, ‘the love of nature seemed almost to replace the love of mankind,’ or says a thousand other such things as she wanders through the settings of our stories and poetry, it becomes obvious that we are in for a new look at this celebrated scenery. If one had to draw a single broad conclusion from the closing chapters of her book, it would be that contemporary fiction is under-set, and that much contemporary poetry is all setting. The latter has august precedents, of course. Such a conclusion would, however, be all too simple. What emerges from this long and lively tour of the lakes, moors, streets, fields, houses and shores of the literary imagination is proof that landscape has always been a complicating factor in our view both of life and of art. Where is the actual eroticism in the work of Emily Brontë and D.H. Lawrence? Where is the heaven of Milton, Wordsworth and Blake? Where is Dickens’s hell? Where is the social realism in Crabbe’s ‘Tales’ or Mrs Gaskell’s or Arnold Bennett’s novels? In men and women and angels and demons? No, in places. We move about in these little islands according to the statements listed in a double gazetteer: one from the AA, and the other begun by Celts and Saxons, or even by Romans, for Tacitus mentioned Colchester. If publishers’ lists are anything to go by, the second gets an added entry every hour.

Sitting for Vanessa

Julian Bell, 13 April 2000

My grandmother was the painter Vanessa Bell. She died aged 81 when I was eight. I loved my grandmother, but 39 years later I have few memories of her. If, that is, a ‘memory’ is some...

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Jingling his spurs

P.N. Furbank, 10 October 1991

The Second World War, writes Ronald Blythe in the Introduction to Private Worlds, precipitated the ‘last great avalanche of private correspondence’. Thanks to the Education Act of...

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