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[personal profile] mtvessel
Mar 2013
After London / Amaryllis at the Fair - Richard Jeffries - Everyman, 1939
* * * *
Anyone who has known me for a while will have been on the receiving end of my complaints about the indiscriminate collecting tendencies of my parents, which meant that I grew up in a rich but messy, cluttered and inconvenient environment. Christies catalogues, old travel guides, art history magazines and tottering piles of prints from antiques shops vied for space with stuffed toys, dolls houses, art materials, china knick-knacks, incomplete crockery sets, random screws and plugs saved in case of an (implausible) outbreak of DIY, and books of every description, from bound copies of Punch to the complete Funk and Wagnall encyclopedia and year book collection (all 50-odd volumes) with which I shared my room. I became adept at the hip swivels and side-steps necessary to negotiate the obstacle course of bookshelves, cupboards, inconveniently placed tables and fancy but impractical chairs (which you sat on at your own risk) that filled every available space. It was really weird when I started visiting friends' houses and discovered that most people didn't live like this.

Needless to say, most of the collected items have more sentimental than artistic or monetary value, but every now and then something interesting can be found. This book is one such. Richard Jeffries had a short life - he died in 1887 at the age of 38 from tuberculosis - but he wrote some extraordinary books. After London is an early example of post-apocalyptic fiction, where an unspecified disaster has turned that city into a poisonous and festering swamp and created a huge lake in central southern England. Amaryllis at the Fair is another sort of rural apocalypse - a portrait of a family edging towards financial disaster. Both are worth reading, even though as novels they fail utterly.

After London begins with a lumpen forty pages of scene-setting, describing in loving detail how nature has reclaimed the land after a disaster that has destroyed all major population centres. The precise causes are not given, but the writer suggests an increase in the earth's inclination caused by "the passage of an enormous dark body through space" and that this, while it lasted, "altered the flow of the magnetic currents, which, in an imperceptible manner, influence the minds of men" (as hand-waving pseudo-scientific gobbledigook goes, this is actually pretty good, particularly given that plate tectonics and the historical reversals in the direction of the earth's magnetic field were not discovered until the twentieth century). A huge lake, caused by the damming of the Thames by debris washed down from upstream and the silting up of the Thames estuary, stretches from the "Red Rocks" near the Severn to the marshes of London and some distance north (Oxford, I am pleased to say, survives, as the renamed city of Sypolis on the northern shore). The land around the lake has reverted to forest whose animal inhabitants include boar and three types of wild dog and whose human denizens are fierce bushmen and gypsies. Invasions by the Welsh and Irish are regular occurrences. The rest of the world has, somewhat improbably, ceased to exist - "Ofthe vast multitudes that left the country nothing has ever been heard, and no communication has been received from them".

Then, unfortunately, we get to the plot. Felix Aquila is a bookish archer, the eldest but least regarded son of a minor noble. He is in love with Aurora Thyma, the daughter of a major one. But the difference in their stations makes the union impossible, so he relieves his frustration by building an outrigger canoe (in enormous detail) with the support of his rather hilariously homoerotically described brother Oliver. After a visit to Thyma Castle where it becomes apparent that his beloved Aurora is intended for another, he sets out across the great lake with the aim of taking arms with another lord. But things don't go quite according to plan and Felix finds himself on a Cook's Tour of the lake's environs, culminating in an extraordinary and surreal chapter where he finds himself adrift in the toxic marshes of London.

As a novel it is a bit of a disaster. The first forty pages would have been much better incorporated into the storyline - as it stands, they simply telegraph to the reader what is to come. Other than Felix, there are no sustained characters and nothing that he or anyone else does has any significant consequences. But I have to say that I rather enjoyed it. The ridiculously over-detailed descriptions do at least create powerful visual images and such characterisation as there is is strong. I even rather liked the strange, abrupt ending where the author basically gives you all the components for a proper conclusion to the story and then leaves you to construct it for yourself. And the world, with its Pre-Raphaelite-style mediaeval society in a nature-reclaimed post-apocalyptic world, strikes me as an excellent role-playing setting. Victorian fantasy, anyone?

Amaryllis at the Fair is a similarly oddball work that reads like Thomas Hardy with laughs but without a plot. It follows the title character, a lively young country girl, as she talks to her father and mother, then goes to the local fair and has lunch with her rich grandfather Iden. Time passes; there are indications that the family's debts are getting worse due to the intransigence of Amaryllis' father; a couple of relatives come to visit; and then it stops.

The lack of ongoing story is almost criminal. The characters are strong and you are itching to see them develop, but they don't. Several plots are hinted at; Grandfather Iden, for example, introduces Amaryllis to the local bigwig family, whose son and heir Raleigh falls for her heavily. But after that chapter is over, we never hear of him again.

What makes it even more frustrating is that some of the writing is brilliant. Take this paragraph about Raleigh:

He got rid of money in a most surprising way, and naturally had nothing to show for it. The wonderful manner in which coin will disappear in London, like water into deep sand, surpasses the mysteries of the skies. It slips, it slides, it glides, it sinks, it flies, it runs out of the pocket. The nimble squirrel is nothing to the way in which a sovereign will leap forth in town.

I laughed out loud at that final line, something I hardly ever do even with Dickens. And I think the comparison with that writer may be apposite, for like early Dickens, After London and Amaryllis at the Fair are really collections of startlingly good sketches with continuing narrative an afterthought. Like my parents' house, they are rich and full of human interest, but are too stuffed with unnecessary clutter for a clear story to emerge. Dickens eventually taught himself to write good plots; Jeffries, alas, died too early to achieve that. A shame, for it is clear from these two novellas that he was a writer of considerable talent.

Date: 2013-08-30 07:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ingaborg.livejournal.com
Extremely interesting review of somebody I've never heard of - thank you!

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