Monday, 17 October 2011

Penguin no. 138: Self
by Beverley Nichols

There is no more fascinating study to the psychologist than that of the reformed sinner. The old epigram that the only difference between the sinner and the saint is that "the saint has a past and the sinner has a future" contains in it the whole essence of that fascination, for the most interesting saints are those who have been driven by the desolation of sin to the retreat of virtue. The man of the world who suddenly starves himself and finds salvation in a monastery, the actress who takes the veil with a gesture more superb than any she has exhibited on the stage - it is men and women of this type who are worthy of true admiration, rather than those who throughout their lives advance gloomily along the path of virtue or of vice, without the courage or the artistic sense to realize the value of the contrast.

Beverley Nichols' third novel Self was first published in 1922, shortly after he graduated from Oxford. In the foreword written for the 1938 Penguin edition he seems to be distancing himself from the book, acknowledging that it drew heavily on the works of other authors, while passing this off as a foible attributable to his young age, and congratulating himself for choosing his models so well. He doesn't write this early novel off completely, claiming for it "a lot of quiet humour, and a tremendous gusto for sheer wickedness which is very appealing." I think he is being a little too generous in praise of his book. I found it to be a story with many flaws: it is overly melodramatic, with an odious main character whose actions didn't always make sense, and who seemed too naive for someone who is also so ruthless. The more I read, the more I suspected that the author was looking to shock his audience.

Nancy Worth lives a life of deception. She despises people generally, and only treats others well if she perceives they will be one day be of some use to her. She consciously sets out to act the roles of capable governess, caring friend, and eventually adoring wife, but in reality she is none of these: she is a manipulative opportunist, whose principal interest is in maximising her wealth and status, and who sets absolutely no limit on what she is willing to do to achieve her aim; she is something of a Becky Sharp updated for the early 20th Century. The death of her impoverished parents has left her in a precarious position, but she heads out into the world with considerable confidence and an unusually long list of accomplishments: she is alluring to men, speaks perfect French and German, is musically talented, and can sing beautifully. She plans to determine the course of her life with her intellect rather than her heart, and she has no intention of selling herself for less than she believes she is worth.

I think the author may be suggesting that there is some merit in the fact that she is honest in her dishonesty, and that it is to her credit that she can look at herself objectively, and recognise and accept what she is. He is certainly suggesting that society is in general behaves hypocritically: the book is littered with characters who would view themselves as morally upright, and who would condemn Nancy's behaviour, and yet are guilty of dissembling themselves, such as the school mistress encouraging the belief that she is a patron of literature and a friend of writers to attract a better class of pupil, or the vicar preaching his Protestant sermon each Sunday while secretly lusting after Nancy. But the deceits are barely comparable, and the difference is one of scale, in that Nancy draws no line, feels no empathy for those she betrays, and deceives almost everyone she meets. Her misdeeds are far more serious, and include infidelity, theft, blackmail, and prostitution.

Her desire for success is understandable, even if the means she uses to achieve it are appalling. She is superior in talent and intellect to those that surround her, and yet in the society of her day she is considered inferior solely due to the circumstances of her birth (and I imagine her name has been chosen to highlight this point). However, the recognition of her innate worth would not satisfy her: she also requires everyone else to humbled by an awareness of their own relative mediocrity. It is this need to win every contest, and seek revenge for every slight, which is her undoing.

As the title suggests, her real problem is her complete absorption in herself. Eventually she is transformed by an event which transfers her focus elsewhere, and she resolves to travel a new path, giving up her ambitions, and living a quiet and faithful life. But it is simply infeasible: she has made too many enemies, and too many mistakes. It is very clear we are meant to sympathise, but by the end of the book I found it difficult to care. Her conversion is simply unbelievable, and I didn't accept the premise that she should be quarantined from the consequences of her previous choices.  She gambled with being found out, and she lost.

Also by Beverley Nichols:
Penguin no. 7: Twenty-five

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