Pals

John Bayley

  • The Oxford Book of Friendship edited by D.J. Enright and David Rawlinson
    Oxford, 360 pp, £15.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 19 214190 2

Do we have ‘friends’, or do we just know various people? There is something a bit sticky and self-conscious about the idea of friendship. Anyone can be in love and proud of it, but to have a ‘friend’ – no, it really won’t do. ‘I’m your friend,’ said Myfanwy to John as they crouched in the ‘dark and furry cupboard while the rest played hide-and-seek’. Betjeman got that about right.‘We’ve always been the greatest friends’ – that is the kind of thing the lady says about her dentist or accountant, or a woman she’s known for years and years and doesn’t trust an inch. Friendship, like patriotism, is one of those things that has gone off the scale of expression. E. M. Forster managed to combine both in the stickiest sentence he ever wrote: the one about hoping he would have the guts to betray his country rather than his friend. We still have the crude but at least practical convenience of ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’. But can the past, and its writing, restore sense and civility to the idea of friendship?

This engrossing anthology shows that it can, that is has done and still does. Forster apart, it is reassuring to find that the literature of all ages takes friendship in its stride, briskly, unself-consciously and unsentimentally. There can seem to be no problem. In ‘Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s’ Frank O’Hara writes that

The poem goes on too long because our friendship has
been long.

In the context of poetry and longevity friendship seems to take a quite natural place at the civilised table. Mention of ‘friendship’, that is. What about John Masefield asking a correspondent ‘whether you ever think about the place of friendship in life’? That was to the friend of his old age, Audrey Napier-Smith, and it is touching because he was old, she young: but he is also making up to her, being flirtatious, a little coy. As my quotation from Betjeman shows, emphasising friendship can be a form of love-making without sex: intended to reassure, to flatter yourself and the other, to ask for a conscious relationship to which you will both be consciously faithful. The conscious part of the transaction seems the more dubious: love rejoices in its self-awareness, but friendship should be almost insensible, taken for granted?

C.S. Lewis, whose way with words can be almost as embarrassing as Forster’s, did not think so. He thought friendship, preferably between men, should be proclaimed as ‘the crown of life’, and he was impatient with its marginalisation as something that ‘fills up the chinks of one’s time’. And yet he observed rather shrewdly that it was ‘the least natural of loves’, the least instinctive, biological or necessary; and for that he is commended by our anthologists, who had the good idea of appending a short commentary of their own at the head of their various sections – ‘The Nature of Friendship’, ‘Among Men’, ‘Among Women’, ‘Between Men and Women’, ‘Youth and Age’, and so on. Aldous Huxley did this very successfully long ago in an excellent anthology called Texts and Pretexts, which ought to be reprinted: but it is a dangerous thing to do, because the anthologist himself can sound too wise, too knowing or too perky among the native flora and fauna of his examples. Dennis Enright and David Rawlinson pass the test with flying colours, and their observations not only shed light on the topic but add their own quota of good things to the many they have selected.

They are well aware of the possible drawbacks, and of the fact that friendship and reticence are natural partners. ‘We are afraid of sounding highflown or mawkish or naive,’ they write, and they quote the Restoration Comedy character who said: ‘What an odious thing it is to be thought to love a wife in good company.’ He meant, presumably, that a display of domestic affection is quite out of place when having an evening out with your pals, with a rider implying that any demonstration of feeling is beside the point of having pals. If you must be analytical, stick to La Rochefoucauld’s dry definition that the point of the business is ‘a reciprocal management of interests’. The point of friends is to use them and to be of use to them, in the context in which they are found. Few things are more depressing than trying to keep up a friendship after the reciprocity has gone. A change in living must be a change of friends. Unless of course you are going to invoke the sanctity of the concept itself, as so many of the contributors to this anthology feel it necessary to do. ‘A man, sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair,’ said Dr Johnson – presumably he meant both keeping old friends and making new ones. But, oddly enough, none of the contributors comments on the blank toil of keeping up a friendship after the natural occasion of it has departed, nor is there any entry on the subject as realistic as Larkin’s bleak poem ‘No Road’, with its image of an access slowly falling into disuse: friends who without specially willing it have

        turned all time’s eroding agents loose
Silence, and space, and strangers ...

Yet Larkin, we gather, was a man with a gift for friendship and a great dependence upon it, even though he tended to keep his friends in separate compartments.

There is no doubt it is a strangely sensitive subject, much more so than love. No one minds admitting that they have never fallen in love; it might indeed make them sound more interesting. But no one wants to say they haven’t any friends, or don’t make them. And one of the sharpest pangs in social intercourse can occur when a friend asks casually if you know so-and-so, forgetting that it was you who introduced them in the first place, and implying that he is now a particular friend of so-and-so, whereas you are probably no more than an acquaintance. Indeed the pangs of friendship often perpetuate, even if they water down, the more acute trials the state afflicts in adolescence, when your Best Friend of one day can speedily disown, his hostility armed with a full knowledge of your weak points, gleaned during the period of your intimacy. No wonder experts on the subject lay far greater stress on loyalty in friendship than in love, or even in marriage. There is a slight tremour of agitation behind La Rochefoucauld’s calm comment that ‘however rare true love may be, it is less so than true friendship.’ Had he found at one time or another that everyone in the circle had let him down? But if you live in a hothouse of the commodity, like he and the salon ladies and gentlemen of his milieu, you must expect to find all sorts of pests and troubles – jealousy, backbiting, gossip – that others associate with the trials of love?

Or can the two really be separated? – many of Enright’s and Rawlinson’s contributors suggest that they frequently aren’t, especially where two of a sex are concerned, and in more formal societies like the Victorian. Were ‘Boston marriages’ a question of love or of friendly convenience? They could be both no doubt, with a large question of the Will coming in, sometimes alarmingly, and particularly interesting to Henry James. In The Bostonians he put this exchange between Olive Chancellor, the intense young spinster, and Verena Tarrant, the easy-going, delightfully Mozartian creature who can be so fervently eloquent at feminist meetings, and who will eventually be carried off by the sexist from the South, Basil Ransom.

    ‘Will you be my friend, my friend of friends, beyond everyone, everything, forever and forever?’ Her face was full of eagerness and tenderness.

    Verena gave a laugh of clear amusement, without a shade of embarrassment or confusion. ‘Perhaps you like me too much.’

Liking too much is dangerous to the state, as Tennyson may have felt with Hallam and Housman with Moses Jackson.

Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say ...

Girls with girls were ever more forthcoming, their advances a compliment rather than an embarrassment: but in this sort of friendship, much more than in love, the old cynic with the full-bottomed wig tends to be present, pronouncing that there is one who kisses and one who turns the cheek.

Serious in all she did, George Eliot was serious about her friends. Passages from Middle-march, from her own letters and those addressed to her and from Edith Simcox’s Autobiography reveal a cult of friendship foretelling that of Bloomsbury to follow. Edith’s remarks show that the novelist had the gift for taking the heat out of a situation by making candid ‘confessions’ to the friend who was turning the heat on. ‘She said – perhaps it would shock me – she had never all her life cared very much for women – it must seem monstrous to me – I said I had always known it.’ George Eliot added that men were what she liked, perhaps because they were always kind to her when she was young, while ‘girls and women seemed to look on her as somehow “uncanny”.’ ‘In friendship she had the unconscious exactingness of a full nature,’ observed Edith in a glowing obituary in the Nineteenth Century.

One suspects that Jane Austen took a more robust view and belonged to a generation which did not see sacrifice as a part of friendship. Two passages from Emma, in the same context, make plain the unwisdom of Emma in cultivating Harriet Smith. ‘How can Emma imagine she has anything to learn herself,’ observes Mr Knightley dryly, ‘while Harriet is presenting such a delightful inferiority?’ As for Harriet, ‘she will grow just refined enough to be uncomfortable with those among whom birth and circumstances have placed her home.’ One shudders at the common sense of it : but it also shows how much we unconsciously accept the more high-minded and sacrificial 19th-century view of friendship which succeeded it. The humble Edith Simcox, who had made shirts for a living, could be sure George Eliot would not cast her off, however subtle the novelist’s tactic for keeping the relationship cooled down. In the same section, Kilvert’s Diary for June 1872 records a visit to young Mrs Prosser who was dying of consumption. ‘ “My left lung is quite gone,” she said, looking at me with her lip trembling and her beautiful eyes full of tears.’ She had been warned not to sleep with her sister who had the disease, but who pleaded with her from their years of close attachment not to withhold this comfort. ‘A sad beautiful story,’ records Kilvert. Laying down one’s life for one’s friend was taken seriously in those days: and perhaps, in odd involuntary ways, it still can be. I read somewhere that a tycoon, whose life was his work, recently insisted on retiring ‘in order to spend more time with my family and friends’, a slightly gruesome cliché which he had himself probably picked up from a newspaper or radio interview. He was dead within a year. Unlike Mr Nicholas Ridley, who recently cracked that he was not resigning to spend more time with his loved ones.

Jane Austen’s attachments were less self-deceiving, and in her art she preferred to define the limits of friendship. Even the simple Catherine of Northanger Abbey soon discovers that her delightful acquaintance with Miss Thorpe, which had seemed ‘the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love’, will not do. Jane Austen was not impressed by the many varieties of having a crush on someone, which can occur at any age, and are here represented by extracts from Byron’s ‘Detached Thoughts’, Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Walt Whitman, together with many milder examples of such affection. She believed in its opposite, the doctrine as it were of mutual necessity. You don’t choose your friends any more than your siblings, but depend on them while they are there, as they on you. She might have sacrificed herself for Cassandra, though it is hard to imagine an occasion, but she would have let no one know, not even her sister. Elizabeth Bowen took a similarly tough view of friends as family, whereas the professional friend-seeker never tries to find one within the domestic circle. In The Death of the Heart the author muses that ‘we have no absent friends,’ and in The Little Girls, not quoted here, great emphasis is laid on chance, not choice, as the proper arbiter of friendship: we have no duty to what we cannot help needing. You certainly can escape the hothouse effect that way, and an attachment like the solicitous Hayley’s, which was so oppressing William Blake when he exclaimed: ‘Do be my enemy for friendship’s sake!’