Coats of Every Cut

Michael Mason

  • Robert Surtees and Early Victorian Society by Norman Gash
    Oxford, 407 pp, £40.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 19 820429 9

Vladimir Nabokov said that it was ‘childish’ to read novels for information about society. In the same context (the Afterword to Lolita) he also wrote that ‘reality’ was ‘one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes’. Such scepticism about the capacity of fiction to report on the world is still very fashionable, and in that sense Norman Gash’s book on Robert Surtees goes against the grain of present-day literary analysis.

It does not go against the traditional grain of writing about Surtees, a novelist who has almost always been praised simply as a reporter of the English scene in the mid-19th century, even on the few occasions when he has come under the notice of fairly ambitious critics, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Quentin Bell and Anthony Powell. There is very little published comment on Surtees from his own day, but what there is tends to be emphatic about his fidelity to life. ‘The account of the medical worthies who first made the Handley waters famous,’ said Lockhart, reviewing Handley Cross, ‘will be allowed to equal in accuracy ... any parallel record that could be cited from the pages of Dr Granville.’ (Granville’s Spas of England, of 1841, is a text which Professor Gash also uses as a kind of control against which to test Surtees.) Fraser’s Magazine thought that Surtees on the Newmarket races ‘conveys a better idea of the doings of that noted sport than any we have ever read’.

It is easy to see how the Surtees novels invite this kind of estimate, both in themselves and because of their literary environment. Surtees published eight novels between 1838 and 1864. As can be deduced from topical allusions, each of them is supposed to be set in the most immediate present: not just in the year, but in the very month, of publication (they were first issued in serial form). This extreme and explicit up-to-dateness contrasts with the practice of every other Victorian novelist of importance. Also, Surtees’s novels return again and again to the same groups in English provincial society. Certain aspects of the lives of these groups are reported in great detail, sometimes with the claim tacked on by the author that this detail is representative. The novels have little plot and not much of a moral scheme; they are apparently not in danger of being blown off an empirical, descriptive course as more elaborately constructed or more didactic novels might be.

Nabokov’s sneer about using novels as evidence about society is misplaced: novels do contain veridical information about a non-problematic reality. The rawest kind of information they contain of this sort – which indeed they cannot avoid containing – is linguistic: even the most fustian of 19th-century historical romances is evidence about 19th-century usage. But it is true that the material in question is usually so hard to identify in a novel that only an extreme dearth of other kinds of information about a society would lead a historian to fall back on the evidence of its fiction. If every record of Victorian England except the novels of Dickens were to vanish, historians would pore over this vestige as their only possible means of reconstructing the reality of the period. Their conclusions would often be uncertain, but the attempt not ‘childish’.

Norman Gash is not awed by trendy prohibitions against using novels to understand a past world, but his book does vary its procedure according to the total context of information available on different aspects of 19th-century life. By comparison with R.D. Altick’s The Presence of the present, which achieved a certain tidiness by carefully treating the topicality of Victorian fiction as a rhetorical matter (and avoiding the question of accuracy), this is a relaxed and unsystematic discussion. At one extreme, Surtees’s fiction will be used as the starting-point for Gash’s own exploration of a feature of the period as it is reported in non-fictional sources. At the other extreme, where Surtees provides a uniquely or exceptionally rich amount of detail, his word will be taken by Gash as being the best evidence we have.

The first kind of discussion is, to my mind, the more rewarding feature of Gash’s book. There are two or three marvellous surveys here of topics in Victorian social history where Gash has brought together the fruits of omnivorous reading in diaries, letters and memoirs of the period, with only a slight prompting from Surtees. For example, what he calls a ‘deliberately provocative observation’ by the novelist, in Plain or Ringlets (1859-60), about the oddity of men bathing naked at the seaside, while women watch, leads to twenty-five pages on the phenomenon of naked bathing by both sexes. This is the first time evidence on the subject has been brought together on this scale. Gash shows that costumes for bathing took a long time to be accepted in 19th-century England (longer than in Belgium), and that considerable naked exposure by both sexes was normal at least until the 1870s. He also has fine sections on the fashion for beards and on smoking, topics which are opened up well beyond the fairly restricted (if accurate) glimpses of Victorian practices offered by Surtees.

Though Gash accepts Surtees as good evidence on such otherwise veiled topics as the horse-trade, card-sharping, tipping on railways, and the afterlife of the old posting-inns, he dissents from the novelist’s presentation of servants. This is to undermine considerably Surtees’s credentials as a reporter of the Victorian world, because, as Gash points out, there is more ostensible information about servants in his novels than in those of any contemporary. They also offer, as is well known, even more about hunting (of fox, hare and stag), and a very great deal, less famously, about dress, especially male dress. Norman Gash refrains from discussing the hunting passages as social history, except in certain incidental respects, and deals only selectively with the really astonishing wealth of detail in Surtees’s novels concerning items of apparel, their textiles, colours and condition. What is one to make of these large components of the Surtees universe if a commentator with Gash’s interests is more or less silent about them?

Siegfried Sassoon wrote of Jorrocks: ‘great were his ambitions, but his enthusiasm was greater. On Arterterxes he rode clean away from reality.’ The meaning of hunting in Surtees cannot be coped with in social-historical terms, and requires reference to the novels as affective and linguistic creations. In these novels hunting constitutes the possibility of human joy and good-heartedness which, as every reader will notice, is invariably denied in the other phases of existence – at home, in society, in public life – which are so sourly dealt with by Surtees. Hunting in Surtees is not, as Quentin Bell learnedly expressed the point, just ‘cynegetic’. We enjoy the hunting scenes even if (as seems to be the case with Gash) we cannot properly interpret them. They are the necessary counterweight to an otherwise unacceptably jaundiced image of humanity. Admirers of Surtees acknowledge that they love his ‘humour’, which is a stilted way of recording a response to the vein of pleasure and release in his fiction. A good hunt in Surtees becomes a fantasy-fulfilment, a view from a hang-glider or a flight with Superman, with ‘hounds, horses and men, swinging away down the hill like a bundle of clock pendulums into the vale below’.

The image of the hunt as a set of swinging pendulums was used by Surtees in two novels. He relished similes, and coined one of the best metaphors in Victorian fiction when he wrote of ‘coveys of white cups, clustered about brown-hens of teapots’. Surtees was a brilliant user of the language, with an idiom that falls foul of accusations of bad grammar and carelessness, but also possesses the improvisatory variety and boldness of birdsong. He was probably no more licentious in his English than the perpetually rule-breaking Dickens, even if not up to Dickens’s cool overall command of long episodes of linguistic disruption. Gash calls this passage from Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour a piece of ‘straight visual reporting’:

Away they rumble up the Edgware Road; the gradual emergence from the brick and mortar of London being marked as well by the telling out of passengers as by the increasing distances between the houses. First, it is all huddle with both. Austere iron railings guard the subterranean kitchen areas, and austere looks indicate a desire on the part of the passengers to guard their own pockets; gradually, little gardens usurp the places of the cramped areas, and, with their humanising appearance, softer looks assume the place of anti-swell-mob ones.

  Presently a glimpse of green country or of distant hills may be caught between the wider spaces of the houses, and frequent settings down increase the space between the passengers; gradually conservatories appear, and conversation strikes up; then comes the exclusiveness of villas, some detached and others running out at last into real pure green fields studded with trees and picturesque pot-houses, before one of which latter a sudden wheel round and a jerk announces the journey done.

This is not particularly visual, and not at all straight, carrying as it does a message of unsentimental pastoralism, and being built around partly serious and partly almost surrealistically bizarre linkages between the passengers and what they can observe. The extraordinary equation of ‘conservatories’ and ‘conversation’ – creating a nonsensical-cum-significant effect more familiar in the age of the word processor – is a touch which would have occurred to no other Victorian novelist.

As for the sartorial descriptions in Surtees, they resemble nothing so much as James Joyce when the latter is indulging his appetite for specificity about garments and their constituents to the hilt – as in the Circe episode of Ulysses. There are so many of these passages in Surtees that it is hard to select one for quotation, and the Joycean torrent of detail tends to make them very long. Here, again from Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour, is Mr Waffles:

He had coats of every cut and colour. Sometimes he was the racing man with a bright-buttoned Newmarket brown cut-away, and white-cord trousers, with drab cloth-boots; anon, he would be the officer, and shine forth in a fancy forage cap, cocked jauntily over a profusion of well-waxed curls, a richly braided surtout, with military over-alls strapped down over highly-varnished boots, whose hypocritical heels would sport a pair of large rowelled, long-necked, ringing, brass spurs. Sometimes he was a Jack tar, with a little glazed hat, a once-round tye, a checked shirt, a blue jacket, roomy trousers, and broad-stringed pumps; and, before the admiring ladies had well digested him in that dress, he would be seen cantering away on a long-tailed white barb, in a peagreen duck-hunter, with cream-coloured leather and rose-tinted tops.

The Surtees novels are so densely populated by costumes, in such a variety of fashions, fabrics, colours, states of wear and degrees of cleanliness, that they may be experienced as a kind of dream-like panorama of dress, only incidentally connected to a historical reality. But these passages of sartorial description, cumulatively and, often, in themselves, carry a general message about Victorian England. Mr Waffles is a complete parvenu, the offspring of a marriage between a dairy-maid and a wealthy grazier (or perhaps ‘brazier’: Surtees contrives another of his strange orthographical rhymes with the pretence that a blot of ink has fallen on the relevant document). But he has real social standing. His high status (he is Oxford-educated) is concocted, improvised, assumed – like his various garbs – but not false.

Norman Gash speaks rightly of the ‘confused standards of a rapidly changing society’ revealed by Surtees. The fascinating implication of these novels is that Victorian ideas of authority, decorum, hierarchy, correctness and so forth were frequently improvised, made up on the hoof, so to speak, and open to replacement. The net effect is of instant tradition. This is implied not only in the numerous cases of individuals inventing their own costume for particular roles (and getting away with it, effectively creating a new piece of etiquette), but in Surtees’s treatment of new social environments. He is not concerned with the cliché of 19th-century urbanisation, the manufacturing city, but rather with the new urban settings such as spas and seaside-resorts, which exploited the ancient – a nearby spring or ruined abbey – and tried to conceal the brashness of the operation with an appearance of rootedness and decorum. This emphasis may have sprung from Surtees’s personal interests, but it corresponds to Early Victorian demography. As Gash points out, ‘the fastest growing group of towns was not London and the industrial aggregations of the North and Midlands but watering places and holiday resorts.’

The one novelist in the period this reminds me of is Thomas Hardy, especially in The Mayor of Casterbridge. That novel is full of improvised ceremonies, either wholly concocted or adapted from some imperfectly remembered tradition, and all given a certain gloss of venerability. So effective is the bluff of instant tradition that readers think of Hardy as the novelist of ancient rural survivals, when he is really the novelist of new adaptations. Michael Henchard is a kind of serious version of Jorrocks, socially, temperamentally and in his personal relations. His strange appeal for the reader perhaps lies in things which also make Jorrocks oddly appealing: self-reliance, intense and simple emotions, a capacity for commitment, dignity despite being ignoble.

Norman Gash refers to The Mayor of Casterbridge when he is describing the career of a footman called Luff, who rose to be mayor of Blandford. Such things did happen in Victorian England. That they weren’t normally followed by a Hardyesque nemesis, and fall to the old social station, suggests that John Jorrocks, preposterous though he may seem, is a more realistic conception than Michael Henchard. Jorrocks is elected to the Commons at the end of Hillingdon Hall, but Surtees never wrote a sequel. Gash feels that ‘it requires, perhaps, some effort of the imagination to picture Mr Jorrocks taking his place at Westminster.’ If Surtees had made this effort for us the result would deserve to be taken seriously as an image of Victorian possibilities.