I’ve not long finished reading Restless Human Hearts for the first time. Having only recently re-joined the Richard Jefferies Society after many years of wandering around in other things (I remember Cyril Wright very well…) it was exciting to find that the books which had only been names to me for sixty years had been reprinted by the Society. Having read Besant & Salt & Pocock & others long ago I had been brain-washed into the idea that the novels would not be worth reading anyway since Jefferies was ‘wasting his time’ trying to write them… On the other hand, being what they call a ‘Polarity Responder’ (when I’m told not to do something I do it out of sheer cussedness), I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of the early novels.
When I got to the end of Restless Human Hearts I admit to having felt looseleft – a newly invented word defined in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (John Koenig) as: ‘feeling a sense of loss upon finishing a good book, sensing the weight of the back cover locking away the lives of characters you’ve got to know so well…’
I’m only too aware that this might not be everybody’s response to Restless Human Hearts but I go along with the idea that when ten people read a novel there are ten different novels (Sartre (1947): What is Literature?): we reconstruct an author’s meaning by reference to our own unique life-experience, our beliefs & learnings, our assumptions about what a novel is and how we should set about reading one. My life-experience? During the last forty years I have tacked my understanding of the teaching of GIGurdjieff and the serious practical study of NLP on to my long-time acceptance of basic Zen ideas and the existentialism of JPSartre; amongst other things, these (let’s say) systems affect my responses to a lot of things including what I read. I am also of the old school of New Criticism which argues for paying attention to ‘the words on the page’, the way they fit together, the images & linguistic structures, rather than lingering much in the life of the author.
Googling ‘gurdjieff-magnetic-centre-richard-jefferies’ will get you to an essay on my Website relating the teaching of Gurdjieff to Jefferies as I see the connections.
As for how I read a novel… I long ago enjoyed the idea that when Bevis read an old poem from an ancient book the pages of which had ‘not been cut by machinery’ (such a joy to read a book like that!) he ‘put himself so much into it that he did it all: he bribed the porter, he played the harp and drew the sword; there were no words to him, it was a living picture in which he himself acted…’ When I read any novel, especially when I’m frequently prompted to think/feel/act for myself while reading as I am by the extraordinary author of Restless Human Hearts, I put myself into each character, feeling whatever they go through for myself; there are certainly words on the pages of this novel but the whole became a set of pictures made to come alive by dint of frequent ‘sideways’ reminders that we are reading a novel.
Another way of getting into the spirit of a novel, in order to thoroughly enjoy the reading experience, is to activate a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ (Aristotle via Coleridge), an attitude of mind that helps to avoid indulging in negative thoughts when faced with something seemingly impossible or crazy. You certainly need to exercise your suspension of disbelief when, for example, in a railway train speeding on its way to London, Carlotta discovers a cobra in a box in her compartment and, terrified, throws herself out of the carriage door. One can’t lament this because she’s not a very nice person anyway – the complete opposite of Heloise, who is her sister but by their father Pierce’s second wife. It turns out she goes to live in Torquay having only injured her brain; it makes no difference to her thoroughly nasty self-centred behaviour though.
In fact, rather than the abstract nature of the novel’s title, I think it would perhaps have been more appropriate to call it Heloise – for me she is the central character, in & out of whose development others weave their way. She undergoes the most profound change: she is dipped into human horror and refined in the fire to return to Avonbourne with a revived sense of being. This is how I see the pattern of the novel moving through each of the four elements:-
One might note that Aristotle added ‘ether’ to the four traditional elements as the vehicle for pure essence – the element that carries light as Heloise, major light-bringer, seems to do.
I was alerted to the Gurdjieff connection when I read just one sentence in Restless Human Hearts on the subject of Heloise’ non-intellectual, poetic (feelingful) response to life:-
It was as if her own enjoyment of the sunlight and the spring were multiplied a hundredfold – as if her own identity were divided into innumerable portions, each an ‘I’, each basking in the sunshine.
The explanation which follows this sentence delivers up a number of ‘I’s as noted in square brackets.
She could feel [one ‘I’] with the squirrel on the topmost boughs of the fir-tree — she could enter into his pleasure, and enjoy with him [another ‘I’] the sway, the gentle swinging motion of the delicate branches yielding to the breeze. Whatever living creature, be it plant or flower, animal or insect, on which her eyes rested, [as many ‘I’s as the plants & creatures she looked at… Looking-at-a-cosmos-flower-I, Looking-at-an-ant-I and so on…] her soul seemed to enter into its existence, and she felt [Feeling-I again] with and understood it [Understanding-I].
A central issue in the Gurdjieff canon is that we can never develop ourselves while we imagine we operate out of a single unified ‘I’ – that way experience is constantly confusing: how does one explain that a single ‘I’ can be miserable one day and joyful the next, for example, unless there are actually two different ‘I’s? Since we are in fact thousands of ‘I’s the task before us is to study them systematically in order to advance to the position where we can go beyond all our Multiple-I’s to arrive at an ‘I’ that supervenes their distracting jostling for attention. Becoming aware that we may well be operating out of less resourceful ‘I’s enables us to advance towards a single Unified-I which I call ‘Meta-I. What are Heloise’ ‘I’s? These perhaps for starters.
In The Story of My Heart Jefferies, experiencing the eternal NOW, is very close to single Detached-observer-I (Meta-I), ‘on the margin of a life unknown’.
Sometimes I have concentrated myself, and driven away by continued will all sense of outward appearances, looking straight with the full power of my mind inwards on myself. I find ‘I’ am there; an ‘I’ I do not wholly understand, or know – something is there distinct from earth and timber, from flesh and bones. Recognising it, I feel on the margin of a life unknown, very near, almost touching it: on the verge of powers which if I could grasp would give me an immense breadth of existence, an ability to execute what I now only conceive; most probably of far more than that. To see that ‘I’ is to know that I am surrounded with immortal things.
This is where we hope (my own Meta-I hopes…) that Heloise might be when she virtually both gets hold of the Multiple-I concept and incorporates Feeling-I with Being-intellectual-I and takes steps to work in Being-positively-active-I. It doesn’t work in such terms for her, of course, it’s just a potent way of thinking about the point of the novel.
To ponder (a favourite word of both Jefferies and Gurdjieff!) our Multiple-I system is an effective way out of the confusion which often smites us in our dealings with the world: thinking one thing then another is to shift unwarily from an ‘I’ believing this to another believing something else. What complicates things is we converse with people who are similarly tangled in their many ‘I’s. For example Heloise’ basic mode of apprehending the world is kinaesthetic – she has a ‘plastic nature’, and her soul is ‘rippled up like water’. She cannot speak about any of this – her ‘being was that of a harp played upon by nature’; sensing her growth of feeling for Noel she is confounded by his Being-a-man-of-action-I; he in turn, understanding nothing of Heloise’ Being-poetical-I , is nonplussed by his new unfamiliar strong feelings of Delighting-in-her-presence-I.
With the clash of ‘I’s it will not be an easy task to establish such a relationship. Jefferies keeps us nicely in suspense. But while she has a Being-non-analytical-I, Heloise, we notice, at least has a powerful Caring-I and an incisive Shrugging-off-I (of her husband Louis with his Being-unscrupulous-I). Noel is thrown by ‘…the radiance upon her countenance… [because] the emotions that were reflected there were not such as he had known – they came from no source of which he had the key…’ He goes over the top into an excessive Unthinking-feeling-I – ‘…as though he had been walking by the side of an immortal, of one of those divine beings which in the old time came down to mortals, and brought with them an indefinable Presence…’
They are both silent for different reasons as ‘their souls grew as one’. To give this idea some genuine momentum they each need to get hold of their Thinking-things-through-objectively-I. Instead of which there’s a literal & metaphorical snake in the grass. They’ve kissed. When Noel posing as Being-an-action-man-I adopts Pleading-elopement-I she goes into Feeling-guilty-I crossed with Feeling-joyful-I – a tricky combination, difficult to make a synthesis out of unless you put a buffer between the ‘I’s which Heloise, with her Being-determined-I, is not inclined to do.
In the Gurdjieff canon the truly balanced human-being has achieved a judicious mix of intellect, emotion & action – thinking systematically, feeling about whatever’s thought & doing the right thing in accord with both. Georgiana needs more of an emotional grasp of things; Heloise needs to think objectively; both need to take positive action. Though not without a little admixture of the other two, the unbalanced human-being functions primarily in only one of these parts: either being devoted mostly to intellect (Georgiana), washed over with feeling (Heloise), or very athletically inclined (Noel). Where Jefferies’ characters are, how they shift about, on this scale is a structural theme in the novel, it seems to me.
Heloise is into ecstatic feeling but doesn’t think much; both Carlotta and Louis operate mostly in Being-negative-towards-others-I – they seem unlikely ever to change from Being-out-for-what-we-can-get-I though they can adopt a Putting-on-an-act-I when it suits them. Being-feelingfully-intellectual-I Neville has a strong Craving-solitude-I which conflicts with Georgiana’s Sharing-ideas-with-others-I. Though somewhat thrown by the Manipulating-I’s run by Carlotta & Louis, Pierce has a committed Being-constant-I; he carries his weather with him and remains unaffected by outside circumstances, more than content in his garden even though he is severely challenged by inheriting a fortune and a Lordship.
I think of Properly-unified-I as ‘Meta-I’ which is not a Gurdjieff term but signifies the occupation of a space beyond, above, or distant from any ordinary ‘I’ one cares to think of – a place from which all one’s ‘I’s can be studied to determine their effect on behaviour. For me, Restless Human Hearts is a complex psychological study of shifting ‘I’s, posing the question – who will arrive at a Meta-I at the end and how will they do it?
Authorial Meta-comments and Sideways Glances
One of the reasons why Jefferies’ early novels were described as ‘worthless’ was because he is apparently writing about people – Lords & Ladies, the insufferable disconnected rich – of whose lives he has no knowledge; that he only comes into his own when he writes about chiffchaffs and the ordinary lives of country folk with whom he lived.
What do any of us know about the multi-millionaires? What do they know about themselves? Blair, nearly a worthless Knight, with 39 homes & flats worth £35million, Sunak, estimated to have a net worth of around £200million, recently having built a £400,000 leisure complex at his £2 million Yorkshire mansion and married to a woman richer than the Queen. They can surely only live in pretty much the way Jefferies describes – throwing their money about, with no concern for the hoi polloi. On the other hand, we, like Jefferies, without even the knowledge he quite possibly gained from the private lives he had had an insight into during his time as a reporter, can easily project ourselves into the way all this must be happening – foreign travel, yachts, big mansions in the country, servants – it doesn’t take a lot to imagine the lives of the idle rich. We might also think with Jefferies: ‘It is the well-to-do who are the criminal classes…’ as he says bluntly in The Story of My Heart.
In any case, the reading experience called ‘Restless Human Hearts’ has us thinking (at least initially) of its characters not as Lords & Ladies but as ordinary human beings. It’s a challenge to be told we are in the presence of the upper upper classes – Heloise described as ‘Lady Fontenoy’ comes as a shock to one’s reading system. We can take the characters to be just quite well-off ordinary people living lives that are variously honourable, antagonistic, thoughtful, nasty, ambitious, vicious, self-serving, benign, corrupted, devious, deeply contented, just like anybody else.
It could be said that one of the faults in Jefferies’ novels is that he frequently engages in ‘digressions’; I choose to call them useful ‘meta-comments’ – insertions above or beyond the narrative, all with some tangential bearing on it – we have to work to make the connection. The meta-comments serve as a constant reminder, in a modern, Brechtian, kind of way, that we are reading a constructed narrative rather than an attempt to depict a slice of ‘real life’; they serve to create a wider context that contributes to a reader’s active mentation – ‘what will this have to do with events?’
In one Meta-comment, Jefferies is scornful of the millionaires and their wealth which could be put to benevolent purposes:-
What on earth do they do with their money? They cannot eat it nor drink it all, nor spend it all on horse-racing and yachting. Why does not some one or other of them come forward and endeavour to satisfy this craving of the public mind, and at the same time cover themselves with honour? …Does the very fact of the possession of unlimited means close the eyes to the perception of how those means can be utilised and turned to the highest pleasure, besides popularity, and therefore profit?
At the beginning of a chapter Jefferies often approaches his story-line in a roundabout kind of way; in Greene Ferne Farm that’s called ‘getting at [things] sideways as country folks will…’ The very beginning of Restless Human Hearts is a ‘sideways’ approach to the eventual action. Jefferies’ provocative ‘sideways’ glances and meta-comments are a significant part of his novel-writing approach.
Now that we dwell in… smoke & brick walls it’s good to find that some men & women act as ‘air-holes’… they make ‘breathing spaces’ through the thick crust of artificiality… they let in a little of the divine light and ether to purify the air and vivify the corrupting mass…
Though the term is never mentioned again, we wonder who we will find to be ‘air-holes’ as opposed to characters consumed by artificiality.
We Begin in a Theatre
Louis is late and sneering, apparently as usual, by the side of ‘impetuous’ Heloise who demonstrates a ‘radiant smile’. They’ve only been married about six weeks. Louis reads his newspaper; he would rather have been ‘on the continent’ with his mates in Antwerp who represent ‘progress without faith… supreme intellect without moral principle… without cohesion… wandering individuals…’ They ‘deserve a chapter to themselves’… ‘ if time allows they shall have it…’ says Jefferies, making it clear, as he frequently does, that we are reading a novel that is in course of being written rather than some complete imitation of ‘reality’. He does not set himself up as an omniscient author; we are conscious of him being inside the narrative, toying with it and with us.
As a meta-comment, we are asked to step outside the theatre, recalling the blue mist in Antwerp cathedral with its ‘sensual spirituality’ – ‘Louis would laugh his horrid grating laugh if he could read this…’ – Jefferies has us believe he’s a real person in Antwerp, reading the novel as it gets written!).
Heloise is without doubt an ‘air-hole’. By the end of the first chapter we warm to her enthusiasm and wonder why on earth she’s married to the sneering Louis who calls her ‘my dear child’ and has no time for her delight in the theatrical performance. She’s a breath of fresh air! Louis represents the world of the artificial.
Jefferies does abrupt contrasts very well – they cause genuine cognitive excitement. Avonbourne comes as a complete happy contrast to the scene in the theatre in Paris. Heloise learned her enthusiasm for life from Pierce, her father, who is more than ‘at home’ in Avonbourne. He is another air-hole, the still point in this turning world. Heloise is ‘at home’ likewise and finishes there after she has experienced the peril of fire and Noel, whom she eventually marries, has survived drowning. Avonbourne is solidly grounded on the elements of earth & air.
Winding and turning, the lane came down to the bourne. The swallows gathered thickly in the osier beds at this time. The tall yellow rods of willow were black with the folded wings of the birds of summer, as they lit down upon them in countless crowds, and, pruning their feathers, chattered incessantly of the voyage they soon must take… Pierce Lestrange said the birds came about his home because he never offended the fairies… It was his poetical way of expressing the fact that he lived in accord with nature… Pierce would have no lonely dell or woody nook of his land defiled [by] ‘filthy lucre’… The goldfinches sang in the morning on the apple-trees – trees which grew almost under Pierce’s window.
Like Neville & Noel (and Jefferies…), Pierce values seclusion. He thinks of Heloise as Psyche. In The Story of My Heart Jefferies explains that he was not fond of the word ‘soul’ which carries too much baggage; he preferred to use the ancient Greek word ‘psyche’ (Ψυχη – the shape of the upper case Greek letter psi, Jefferies’ oftentimes depicted symbol, looks like the raising of the arms to the sun). Heloise is possessed of a kind of ‘religion’ (we could call it ‘spiritual awareness’, perhaps) which is more like ‘an aesthetic longing than a tangible realisation. It had no existence apart from colour and light and joy. So she was rarely seen at church; it was too cold and damp and dim and dull there. It was all stone – dead…’
In the same way Noel’s quite different brother Neville is repelled by the ‘hewn stone’ of the [British] Museum which represents for him ‘pure intellect only’, asserting that Jesus taught naturally beneath the shadow of a tree ‘in grove & garden’. Rather than intellectualising, Heloise, whose soul ‘ever hovered near her lips’, felt for some emotional grasp of things, and
…dreamt day-dreams, not of heaven, but of something – she knew not what; of a state of existence all and every hour of which should be light and joy and life. It was one of her fancies, this lying on the broad earth, with her ear close to the ground, that she could feel the heart of the world throb slowly far underneath.
She will have got her feelings from Pierce and his ‘old philosophers’ who taught that the world collectively was in itself a vast animal or creature, with heart and pulse and soul…’ It was during her rambling ‘…in the silence of the hills she could hear this great heart throb…’
Jefferies is projecting his own Zen state of non-dualism into Heloise; this was something he’d experienced for many years prior to 1883: in the first draft of The Story of My Heart he writes:-
On lying down, I used to [some years ago] first look up at the sky, gazing at it, till I could seem to see deep into the azure, and then lie down with my face in the short grass and thyme, placing my hands at each side of my face so as to shut out everything and quite hide myself. Then having first drunk deeply of the Heaven above, and felt the most glorious rays of the sun… I became lost, as it were, and absorbed into the being or existence of the universe… feeling down, down, down, deep into the earth under, and high above into the sky, and yet farther up to the sun and the stars… and beyond these into the Great Space, and losing thus my separateness…
Loss of self, arrival at Buddhist ‘non-self’, opens us to ‘just-being’, Meta-I, to fit with whatever it contemplates in non-dual thinking – the essence of a Zen way of contemplating the world. Heloise is the sunset flaming in the west. Jefferies himself loses his separateness from the cosmos, takes it up for himself, by being more fully conscious in a higher state of being.
To me, it seems unnecessary and misleading to call this ‘mystical nature worship’: it makes the experience seem remote or known only to a limited bunch of initiates. Similarly, the word ‘worship’ carries the baggage associated with the dead stones of church Heloise shied away from. One can feel the full flood of Nature and not call it ‘worship’ or resort to ‘prayer’. Words falsify experience as Jefferies often laments; we need new words for new experience. He asserts that ‘it’s all in the mind’ anyway – what gets called ‘supernatural’ is in fact just very natural – it’s each of the things he ‘catalogues’. All that’s needed is to take the thinginess (istigkeit) of things into oneself. An act of will, getting hold of ‘Pure Impressions’ as Gurdjieff would say. It’s no great shakes – certainly not by any stretch of the imagination ‘mystical’ – to look out of my window now, as I write, and realise that the gentle movement of bare fronds of a tree against a grey-blue winter sky are a lot more than mobile twigginess: I will myself to see them as a momentary decoration of soul-life. Nothing mystical about it or even mysterious, just the way it is. In this way I am being intellectual about it, whereas looking out of the window just now I was lost in feeling and now I am acting to attempt to explain myself. On the odd occasion when I teach drawing/painting I suggest that friends first become whatever they are looking at so that they are simply putting on paper something of themselves rather than aiming for ‘likeness’ in the first place. I become the silver birch tree outside my window, every little twig, in order to draw it. Non-dualism…
So What on Earth is Heloise Doing Hitched to Louis?
‘…the theatre had this colour and light for her…’ and she’s not aware of Louis’ sneering. It’s quite some time before we get an answer; it’s Carlotta, ‘pettish, ambitious & artificial…’, ‘magnificent tigress’, ‘boa constrictor’, ‘vixen’, full of negative emotional scheming, sister from Pierce’s first marriage, who organised to get her lover Louis married to Heloise in the expectation that it would enable her to see more of him!
Relying on what Gurdjieff called ‘false imagination’ (in NLP ‘mind-reading’ – imagining you know what somebody else thinks or feels), Heloise was attracted to Louis as an ‘original thinker’. Without properly focussing the ‘microscope of his mind’, he in turn was initially attracted by what he thought of as Heloise’ abstract ‘magnetism’. They are both caught up in the prison of their mind, failing to consider things as they really are; a cool application of a modicum of Gurdjieff’s ‘external considering’ (looking at things as they really are outside you) might have served to avoid disaster. After twenty-five years absence, Carlotta and her husband Horton Knoyle, money man, had suddenly arrived at Avonbourne completely unannounced, more or less taking over the house and bringing his brother Louis, who we are surprised to learn is a peer, with them.
Georgiana & Neville in the British Museum
Another contrast of place. There’s an abrupt switch to two people who, without sexual constraints, in ‘pure intellect’, appear to know much more about the workings of their own single-minded focus. Georgiana Knoyle, Horton’s sister, vigorous mind, tall & large-limbed, well-developed, is waxing lyrical to Neville: ‘the history of man [sic] must be re-written… to include the nameless millions and myriads of nations… the primeval inhabitants of earth… ; existing races are a deterioration…’ Neville agreed that it is necessary to ‘search into the early history of man’ and was accordingly engaged in ‘reconstructing his own mind…’ In spite of their differences, they are ‘working out the same great problems of existence’ together. This could be taken to be a reflection on the failure of the marriage of Heloise & Louis. Georgiana says she’ll visit Heloise which sets us up for a meeting of Intellect & Emotion.
She discovers Heloise, slowly recovering from her Paris experience, as ‘natural woman’, real woman in the abstract, the ideal of woman… she opens Heloise’ eyes to ‘the condition of woman… as she might be…’ but in doing so, engaged to Neville, thinking in a more realistic, less abstract way, she begins to wonder whether marriage is a tyranny as Heloise’s seems to be; ‘…worst of all is the impossibility of escape when once the ceremony was completed…’, even perhaps from Neville.
The prose is so well done that I don’t find it a problem that Jefferies tells us all this instead of showing what’s happening by putting it into conversation. It’s possible to imagine for oneself what words are exchanged or not, as the case may be. Considering that Georgiana is working on the idea of having a 3 year trial marriage it’s amusing to find that Louis sneeringly suggests
that wives, in his opinion, ought to have written characters, as servants had; and if the character was false or overdrawn, the husband should have the power to dissolve the marriage, and to prosecute the parent or guardian who had given him a wrong estimate of his bride. Georgie had bitterly retorted, that if the bride should be furnished with a written character, the bridegroom should be required to furnish two sureties in large sums for his good behaviour.
By the end of Volume One we’ve been introduced to the main characters by reference to the degree of Intellect, Emotion & Action they display. The question is whether they will stick to what they’ve got or develop into being more balanced individuals.
The way Jefferies depicts the relationship between Heloise (emotion) and Noel (action), Georgiana and Neville (intellectual and feelingfully so) gives us some impression of the likely struggle. When Noel, helping Neville & Georgiana to care for Heloise recounts his past bold adventures to her, who becomes even more attractive to him, she feels spellbound but also becomes more ‘meditative & thoughtful’. It’s still mind-reading but she recognises that he had ‘fought with nature’; there’s a ‘motherly yearning’ and a ‘gladsome ring in her voice… sparkle of her eyes…’ a ‘solidity’. Noel seemed more like ‘the hero of her early vision of seas, hills & trees…’ She may be kidding herself still but there is a ‘germ of untterable love…’
Heloise asked herself no questions [in relation to Noel]. Just as with Louis in the early days of their marriage she had revelled, absorbed in the beauty and pleasure and excitement of the theatre, oblivious of all else; so now she gave reins to the most exquisite pleasure of Noel’s society, and never once said, ‘Is this good? Is it right?’
She never once went into ‘intellect’. Georgiana is locked in her feelings for Neville but wondering how to proceed with marriage successfully without surrendering her mission ‘to be the prophet of a new dispensation’. How to think clearly!
Georgiana’s 3 year trial marriage idea, which comes out of her Being-intellectual-I, meets with condemnation from lawyers, religionists, and supporters of women’s rights who were jealous of the notoriety that she would achieve! All young men thought it a good idea though – the possibility of multiple trials does seem like a good idea to a bloke!
In spite of Georgiana’s dilemma, both she and Neville are intent on breaking free from the world as it is, with its material concerns and ennui (‘…everything has been done. Everything has been thought…’)
One meta-comment, important because it’s a possible explanation for why human hearts are so restless, concerns education which gives us ‘…ideas and feelings which we must afterwards spend years in endeavouring to unlearn… [after suffering] no little deception and misery’; it also promotes the value of working for money [Horton] which… ‘does not stir the heart and intellect… gradually deadens and dulls all the passions…’ except the desire for it. It’s all a sham: people ‘…labour to reduce themselves to… figures, passionless, purposeless, mere machines for eating and drinking and sleeping!’ We are machines, says Gurdjieff… When we follow these things all we get is ‘disappointment, loss, deceit, fraud; we become mere carcasses for the vultures to feed upon…’ Then we are educated into imagining that work ‘…is ennobling and dignifying; that it enlarges man’s nature and makes him nearer a god; that there is something grand about it. Also, on more practical grounds, that by work alone money can be made, and position and independence assumed…’ All fallacy. ‘…That money can be made by work alone is a downright lie, and nothing less. Astute society has learnt long ago that in ninety-nine times out of the hundred, money is made by a combination of circumstances, by luck, by calculation, and most of all by Humbug…’
I much admire Jefferies because he is one of the select band who recognise HUMBUG! when they encounter it.
He is also into ‘postmodernism’ 100 years before it manifested itself: ‘…We know so much nowadays… Every possible emotion has been felt in every imaginary manner. Every combination conceivable of human relationship has been worked out and the quarry is empty. The world has grown so small. Time was (it was a long time ago) when there was a Verge, an Edge, beyond which there was an unknown something for man to seek. All the continents are found now; the geographers assure us that no more remains to be discovered. Excepting only a few small spots, and these, too, narrowing daily, the whole surface of the earth has been surveyed and mapped out and reduced to scale…’ Even loving…
Maybe we should all strive to achieve Being-contented-I, with a balance of Intellect, Emotion and Action like Pierce, carrying his weather with him, for whom
…at Avonbourne it was summer the whole year round. Not the hot glaring summer of the middle of June; but the sunshine lingered with him in the drear days of November. It lingered with him for this reason: that he studied how to catch it, how to retain it. His winter-room faced the south, and opened upon his garden, the garden where the birds congregated; only this portion of it was enclosed with high walls, and these walls hidden with thickest hedges of cropped yew-trees. Thus it was that the reflection from the house of the rays of the sun whenever it shone, and the total exclusion of all winds and draughts, rendered this small square plot of ground, carefully laid down with thick tiles, warm even in winter.
By the end of Restless Human Hearts, who else gets to Meta-I and how do they get there?
After the completely satisfying absorbing experience that is ‘Restless Human Hearts‘ – its psychological complexity involving characters I felt looseleft about, I found World’s End a kind of classy rigmarole with flashes of Gothic fantasy and one very hilarious episode, all very well written but lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. It’s true that when Jefferies gets his prose teeth into a specific nail-biting moment he really does grip the reader and suspension of disbelief has the required effect… till the moment ceases and then you realise the absurdity of what you’ve been reading; it doesn’t fit together as a whole. It’s a let-down. It’s a ‘classy rigmarole’ because of Jefferies’ prose style; otherwise it’s a long series of events – and then and then and then but before that and then – strung together by the disjointed carryings-on of characters whose lives are extraordinary but whom I leave behind me without a trace of John Koenig’s looseleft; in fact towards the end I began simply to cast my eyes down the middle of many pages, as did President Kennedy, to pick up the gist of things. I had an urgent anticipation of being able to close the book up with absolutely no remaining interest in what happened to any of the characters – they were mere ciphers.
A large town comes into being after the action of rats who demolish a tree which stops a stream to transform an arid landscape into a swamp and then a populous wealthy city, most of it taken over by human rats. There’s a squabble over inheritance and the chief rats, Theodore & Marese Baskette, plan to gas the American claimants, descendants of the Swampers and others, on their boat to England so there’s no contest. But they are delayed and come on another boat while the first one becomes a derelict – the crew gassed. Aymer, the luckless hero, also a claimant and therefore in peril from the rats, besotted by Violet, befriended by Lady Lechester, has the task of keeping track of the claimants’ meeting when he could be writing his book or seeing Violet in her refuge from the rats – a Gothic mansion, The Towers, where Lady Lechester hides from her misery over a dead suitor. Got it? The account of the meeting is the funniest thing I’ve come across in the whole of Jefferies’ output. It made me think of many dopy academic meetings I used to participate in.
Lady Lechester has it in mind to marry Marese Baskette who is now an MP (sounds right for a particular kind of rat) but she is drowned in a watery pit on the eve of the ceremony, scared by Odo Lechester who is a nutty tin whistle player. The luckless Aymer is tricked by Theodore into being incarcerated in his lunatic asylum from which he miraculously escapes with the help of Fulk Lechester and attends a performance in a theatre which is blown up killing all the audience, including Theodore.
When I found myself not caring what happened to anybody at the end it was a nice compensation to find that the highpoint Gothic disasters reminded me of a telling passage in The Story of My Heart in which Jefferies says it’s just as well there’s no divine intelligence running everything because if there were it would be impossible for humans to make any changes to their behaviour.
How can I adequately express my contempt for the assertion that all things occur for the best, for a wise and beneficent end, and are ordered by a humane intelligence! It is the most utter falsehood and a crime against the human race. Even in my brief time I have been contemporary with events of the most horrible character; as when the mothers in the Balkans cast their own children from the train to perish in the snow; as when the Princess Alice foundered, and six hundred human beings were smothered in foul water; as when the hecatomb of two thousand maidens were burned in the church at Santiago; as when the miserable creatures tore at the walls of the Vienna theatre. Consider only the fates which overtake the little children. Human suffering is so great, so endless, so awful that I can hardly write of it. I could not go into hospitals and face it, as some do [is he thinking of Walt Whitman?], lest my mind should be temporarily overcome. The whole and the worst the worst pessimist can say is far beneath the least particle of the truth, so immense is the misery of man.