Enthusiasms

The prolific architectural historian Mark Girouard is the author of the revelatory, endlessly entertaining Life in the English Country House, one of the great works of social and material history. It now emerges that he has another, more miscellaneous side, and has happily squandered incalculable hours attempting to winkle out answers to questions over which few people lose sleep. The excellent fruits of this intellectual wantonness can be found in Enthusiasms, a tidy little volume of fifteen essays and explorations.

Girouard begins with the question of when Jane Austen wrote Catherine, or the Bower, the unfinished novel that is usually considered to be the last of her juvenilia. In a carefully laid out argument he convincingly plumps for 1795-96 over the commonly accepted 1792, placing the work not only after Susan but also after the first version of Pride and Prejudice. This is the sort of revolutionary declaration that will cause Janeites to reach for their smelling salts. Nonetheless, it is not nearly so arresting to me as his remarks on the near absence of servants from Austen's novels, something I have wondered about myself. "Jane Austen's drafts," writes Girouard, "must have needed alterations to bring them in line with growing early nineteenth-century notions of propriety." And an important element in that was the portrayal -- or non-portrayal -- of servants. Though there is a lively maid in Catherine, Austen has almost entirely banned these essential creatures from the highly polished published work, which novels, says Girouard, "it should be remembered, were published at the time when tunnels were being built in some country houses so that service and servants could move to and fro without being seen by the gentry."

In another reassessment, "Up and down with Oscar Wilde," Girouard displays a strange animus toward his subject, showing how relentlessly this "Irishman on the climb in London" promoted himself. He then tots up how much money the broken aesthete actually had at his disposal for the last, reputedly impoverished three and a half years of his life, arriving at "around £70,000 a year in modern value." In the course of pillorying Wilde as a brown-nosing, jumped-up poetaster who cried poormouth, Girouard acquaints his readers with some of the arcana attached to an artist or writer breaking into Society's various bastions at the time, from the more accessible dinners and receptions to the fastness of the country houses. Of the last named he observes, "Only a few were given entrée to those, for reasons not always clear -- Landseer but not Millais, Dickens but not Thackeray, Lear but not Carroll, Tennyson but not Browning, Barrie and James, but not Galsworthy or Hardy." And, note to the socially ambitious: it was "'Saturday to Monday' parties" to which the chosen might be invited; " 'weekend' was considered a vulgar expression."

Girouard's appetite for research gets a thorough workout in "Walter wins: a hunt but no kill," an engagingly unsuccessful investigation into the true identity of the libidinous "Walter" of My Secret Life, first published in eleven volumes between 1882 and 1894. (Girouard keeps a three-volume edition of the work in his bathroom, "very much to hand on the bottom shelf, alongside the Rev. F. E. Witts's Diary of a Cotswold Parson and Bernard Walke's Twenty Years at St Hilary.") Claiming to have had sex with over 1,200 women, Walter was "a compulsive collector and cataloguer" and, as such, "a dedicated worker and happy in his work." Girouard's account of searching for Walter -- his fossicking through public records, sleuthing about in the streets, and visiting possible sites of bygone conquests -- is, to my mind at least, more thrilling than that priapic hero's adventures.
 
Throughout these essays Girouard shows a wry, unillusioned sense of how the historical record is fashioned. He begins "The myth of Tennyson's disinheritance," for instance, with this edifying picture:

What is that gentle sound of rustling, clipping and scratching, that faint smell of burning, which the sensitive ear and nose can catch as background to the brassier sounds and smells of the decades around 1900? It is made by the widows and children of great Victorians at work deleting, cutting out and burning all the passages in letters, all the unpublished writings of parents or spouses which could deface the marble perfection of the portraits of greatness which they or suitably emasculated biographers are preparing for the world. Not always just the widows, for sometimes the act of purgation goes off while the great man himself, still magnificently bearded in his ruin, sits benignly in the background as the good work goes on.

It may be that you do not count the disinheritance of Tennyson or, rather, of his father, George, among the great crimes against humanity, but Girouard's debunking of the legend is nonetheless a wonderful example of how history is shaped by a combination of special pleading and ignorance or disregard of the usages of the past. Girouard shows -- in detail that I will leave you to savor -- how the first official chronicler of Tennyson's life, his son Lionel, took two indisputable facts, sheared off their historical circumstances,  and combined them to produce a venerable, ahistorical fiction.

In "P. G. Wodehouse: from hack to genius" Girouard ponders the question of why and how the great man was able to write such quantities of bilge and yet produce gold. "It would not much worry me," he tells us, "if…all his books published before 1922 and after 1949, were to disappear." It is a judgment he alters somewhat in the course of his consideration of the nature of Wodehouse's fiction, though he does believe that it was likely that the author himself, ever alert to sales, couldn't really tell the difference between his good and bad works. Boiled down, Girouard believes that Wodehouse's short-story writing sharpened up the novels of the golden period, and that his exile from Britain after the war extinguished the spark. He also believes that someone called "Robert McCrane" wrote a biography of Wodehouse in 2004; it was Robert McCrum.   

Among the other questions Girouard takes up are how much time John Masefield, who would have had us believe that he "must go down to the seas again / To the lonely seas and the sky," spent as a mariner. It was, in fact, four months, endured when he was in his teens, and, as Girouard puts it, "for the rest of his long life he made his home as far from the sea as possible." He sets the record straight on which castle appears in Charlotte Mews's poem "Ken," arguing for Arundel in Sussex  instead of Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight, and gets caught up in the carryings-on of Vita Sackville-West's grandmother, Pepita. On the face of it, these are not subjects to drive all other thoughts from the minds of most people, but Girouard opens them up beyond petty detail, expanding them with his understanding of historical context, and brings such an infectious mood of inquiry to them that they become irresistible.

Girouard finishes with three essays about his family: the Jewish Solomons who, among other things, pretty much ran St. Helena while Napoleon was there; his French-Canadian grandfather, Lieutenant (later Sir) E.P.C. Girouard), an engineer whose exploits included building Kitchener's impossible railroad connecting Wadi Halfa with Khartoum; and his aunt Evie, who took him and his two sisters in after his mother was killed in an automobile accident when he was nine. The last, in particular is an affecting, often funny exercise in stiff-upper-lippery, as well as a meditation on the habits of the wellborn and the decline of the servant class.

Girouard tells us in his brief introduction that he has written these pieces "for pleasure, not instruction, and one of the pleasures for me has been to escape from the burden of a professional historian, the need to provide footnotes and to qualify my judgements." It is that freedom, no doubt, that contributes to the book's overall tone, a uniquely winning one of easygoing elegance and scholarliness lightened by jouncing, irrepressible enthusiasm.

About the Columnist
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

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