The Conradian: Review

ByJohn Lester, London

Christopher Scoble, Letters from Bishopsbourne: Three Writers in an English Village. Cheltenham: BMM 2010. 354 pp. £17.99.

This volume celebrates one tiny English village on the outskirts of Canterbury and three distinguished writers who were domiciled at some stage of their careers within its precincts. The village of Bishopsbourne witnessed much of the life of Kentish-born Jocelyn Brooke, the waning years of Joseph Conrad, born on the other side of Europe, and the priest Richard Hooker, originally a man of Devon.

Three contrasting writers with contrasting lives, all of whom sought some measure of sanctuary in this peaceful part of England. There is a tranquillity about the very appearance and feel of the book, if not of the lives it commemorates. Three earnest faces stare out from its cover; three rural residences adorn its rear. Its author adopts a lucid, languid and literary style in keeping with its subject. Here is an early sample:

But in 1939 the Elham Valley railway had been handed over to the military, so it is only in imagination that our soldier from Canterbury in 1943 can alight at the little sunken station (where Churchill had visited two years before to inspect the massive rail-mounted howitzer secreted in Bourne tunnel to give the Germans a fright), climb the path to the road, and then descend the long winding hill to pass on his right the ancient rectory where nearly four hundred years earlier a judiciously literary clergyman had sat at his open study window, gazing out over his newly planted yew hedge, as he fought for the precise mellifluous word to add to the latest chapter of his great work aimed at sweetening with honeyed allurements the recalcitrant drones who opposed the new Anglican dispensation. (6)

This is a long sentence of Conradian, even Jamesian proportions, but it flows without apparent effort from the hostilities of wartime to a seemingly tranquil past, though the final line hints at implied conflict there too. We see, Conrad would be pleased to note, two contrasting scenes four hundred years apart merged seamlessly together so that we end the sentence in a different world and a different atmosphere from those we entered at its beginning.

After a brief survey of the village's history (Bishopsbourne because of the manor there owned by the Archbishop from the eleventh century) and its historian, Kenneth Witney, Scoble settles down to the writers. Of Hooker I have heard; of Conrad I have written; but the name of Brooke (1908-66) is new to me. Chapter Two is entitled 'An Orchidaceous Pyrotechnician' in homage to Jocelyn Brooke's twin delights, plants and fireworks, both of which find expression in his works.

This may also be reflected in the way Brooke loved both the peaceful village and the army. He did not love public school though, running away from what he regarded as its horrors, and was sent down from Oxford, having written a long poem on the examination paper instead of answering the questions. Besides begonias and bangers, he took inspiration for his writing from Aldous Huxley and particularly Proust, but the early extracts from his work, especially The Image, which Scoble considers 'reeks of Kafka', reveal the impact of war and the employment of 'nightmare prose', the quiet idyllic village transformed into post-atrocity horror and closely detailed death.

From this, Scoble reveals, he was saved by his love of flowers. If the menace and reality of war pervade The Scapegoat and The Image, neither of which sailed into publication, the quieter atmosphere of botany brought forth The Wild Orchids of Britain and then the beginnings of a trilogy based on his life. The Military Orchid, A Mine of Serpents and The Dog at Clambercrown are cited as examples of autobiografiction (a Stephen Reynolds term) – a genre to which Conrad's "Youth" clearly belongs.

These made Brooke successful and the village appears in all of them; indeed Scoble reports that the writer could never truly settle away from it and the company of his mother and his faithful nanny, Emily Fagg (known as Ninnie). He rejoined the army in post-war Britain only to leave it again two years later. Scoble weaves a deft passage around the man and his work and reveals enough of the latter to suggest that Brooke was a significant and unjustly neglected author.

An "Interlude" chapter separates Brooke and Conrad and celebrates "A reluctant oculist," A. E. Waite, a writer on the occult and mysticism, and "A looming youth," Alec Waugh (brother of Evelyn) who had a brief sojourn at Oswalds ten years after Conrad's time. Two lengthy chapters are devoted to Conrad.

The first – "An Ancient Mariner" – follows a leisurely reminiscence of how Scoble was first struck by the Conrad plaque at the village hall with a survey of Conrad's life and achievements. He particularly highlights and discusses Nostromo during the course of this, paying close attention to the process of composition. The chapter is also a tale of the road to Oswalds, a kind of literary tour of Conrad's dwellings up till then. Conrad's connections with Oswalds and Bishopsbourne feature in the second of the chapters – "Joseph Conrad" – which notes the routines of the household in some detail, especially in relation to their weekly trips to Canterbury, and how, unlike Brooke, Conrad showed no desire to involve himself fully in the life of the village and, indeed, was planning to leave it at his death. The village river, however, was rather too eager to become involved with him:  

Most dramatic of all was the occasion when Conrad one day stamped his foot in temper in the front hall and went straight through the rotting floorboards. Further investigation showed that the Nailbourne, which back in the eighteenth century had been diverted to a north-easterly path round the house, had still retained part of its original flow under Conrad's front door. (171)

Conrad's struggles with Suspense (the novel which remained unfinished at his death) are noted, and there is an interesting contrast at one stage with Nostromo, much to the earlier novel's advantage:

The prose is clear and simple, abandoning the rich tapestries of Conrad's stylistic past, and the narrative builds slowly, yet still holding the reader in its grip. But overall the book lacks the bite of his old masterpieces, the scepticism and the all-pervading irony: the major themes are slow-moving and self-consciously introduced where in Nostromo they would emerge naturally from a single scene or punchy piece of dialogue. Set-piece descriptive scenes scarcely reach below the surface of things: the evening reception given by Adèle cannot approach the power and symbolism of Nostromo with the meetings in the Casa Gould. (174)

This is a thoughtful assessment, rather more relevant than the glib comment in the blurb that Conrad was "struggling to produce even sub-standard work." "Sub" by whose standards, though?

A second interlude introduces us to the Revd Joseph Bancroft Reade, who resided in Bishopsbourne from 1863 and combined his religious duties with an enthusiasm for nineteenth-century optical developments. Photography and the microscope were his especial delights. A century earlier, Horatio Mann initiated and presided over a brief eighteenth-century cricket boom in the village, preceding Canterbury as a major venue for the sport. Visitors to the area in his time included the Mozart family from Austria, and so the village once hosted the nine-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus playing his violin.

The final major figure is Richard Hooker, born near Exeter in 1554 "in the first year of Mary’s reign when altars were rebuilt, chalices brought out and dusted off and the mass celebrated once more openly and in earnest" (197). By the time he was four, though, Elizabeth was on the throne and the Reformation resumed. Scoble here is anxious to produce a faithful portrait of his subject and is wary of Izaak Walton’s idealized version the following century which, he feels, continues to hold sway in some quarters.

He still extols Hooker’s approach to his writing, summarizing it as ‘his patient exposition of complex issues, his faith in the tools of rational inquiry and logical demonstration, his charity and forbearance, his wide reading and keen sense of history, and above all his deep devotion to his church’ (208).

Nevertheless he also notes the strange irony that a crucial work in the history of the Anglican Church (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity) should be so little read by those who owe so much to it, claiming: "Many are the retired clergymen, reposing in the quietude of their country retreats, who hold the book on their shelves but have never dared venture within its covers. It is one of those rare works that is pre-eminently alive in its historical and literary contexts, but no longer active in the world of today" (217).

Hooker arrived in Bishopsbourne as its clergyman in 1595, appointed partly, it seems, because his writing was seen to be of great importance by the church hierarchy and this rural retreat would afford him more time to achieve this. The final four books of his Polity were completed here, the last three being the most contentious. Scoble laments the fact that, despite its literary and historical associations with the early Anglican Church, the rectory where he lived and wrote was torn down in 1955 (ironically an anagram of the year Hooker arrived in the village). Hooker’s works were regarded so highly that even the Pope, Clement VIII, admired them.

Book V is seen as being of especial importance and Scoble is generous with the extracts he gives to show the intellect of Hooker’s arguments and the effectiveness of his style. Hooker emerges as a moderate, tolerant theologian, negotiating his passage with care between the Scylla of Papal splendour and the Charybdis of Puritan austerity and attracting criticism from extremists because of this. He appears also as a caring pastor to his village flock, longing to live this life only but compelled always to struggle to complete his great work.

Not surprisingly the final chapter records the final days of the three writers. Hooker dies in 1600, the last three volumes completed but still unpublished; Conrad departs in 1924, his Napoleonic novel unfinished and perhaps unfinishable; Brooke breathes his last in 1966, predeceased by his faithful nanny and his mother, his final works rejected and his sense of failure acute – frustration haunting all.

These strange bookfellows are brought together by their common dwelling-place and their chronicler’s sympathetic pen. This interesting and unusual volume is generously illustrated, and Christopher Scoble merits our gratitude for bringing it about.

© 2011 John Lester






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