Sunday, 11 December 2011

Penguin no. 342: Farewell Victoria
by T.H. White

Life was giving him a send-off. The sea had been the vital fluid itself, and here, in a tiny outpost of the sea, was society which made an insignificance of death. Man was occupied with his extinction, even against the obvious background of all those people on the front. He strove importantly in the anthills and the hives of towns, without humiliation before his species. But here were species which had no cousinship with man, which still worked with the same preoccupation, which pursued the urge for life along a million parallel courses. The picture was not depressing. Old Mundy found himself welcomed. He became a part of the brotherhood, wrapped in the common movement, supported by the freemasonry. Here in his rock pool, was war and peace and industry.

What is it about books written years ago that makes them so appealing? It was something I reflected on a little this week after Kevin from Interpolations asked me a few questions about why I read and the type of fiction I enjoy. There seems to me something captivating in the way these old books capture the times in which they were written, inadvertently recording aspects so commonplace that no one would think to make a point of writing them down. The small details they reveal can be endlessly surprising, highlighting how distorted contemporary views of the past can be, or perhaps only that my understanding of the past remains so uninformed, a picture inadequately inferred from the small and unrepresentative sample of facts I have come across. Time seems to act as a filter, removing all the subtle details.

Farewell Victoria seems to have been written in this spirit: the author sets out to capture and record some of the commonplace, mundane, and fleeting fragments of life in the Victorian and Edwardian eras before they pass from memory. He tells his story by focusing on the ordinary life, one affected by the important events of the time, but not integral to them. In doing this he recognises that recorded history tends to be the stories of exceptional people and exceptional events, and it is this that skews the picture. Instead he uses wonderfully evocative prose to construct a comprehensive mosaic more fully describing the experience of any person living in those times. Disraeli, Gladstone, Victoria and Edward are mentioned, but they remain in the background.

His principal character is Mundy, the son of a groom, born in 1850 into a world that still retained some artifacts of its medieval past. Mundy dies 83 years later; his life is lived during a time of unprecedented change. We first encounter him at the age of eight, an uncomprehending child, completely accepting of the world into which he was born. He lives his early life at the manor of Ambleden, a world of rural beauty, imposed structure, and simple pleasures: of trees and animals and hunting, and Pic-Nics, and segregated bathing, and horse-drawn bathing machines. We return to Mundy at distinct moments in his life, some personally important, and some important to the nation. We follow him to the savage wars in Zululand, and to retirement in Hastings. And we follow him as he becomes increasingly unimportant to Society, just like the horses he has always loved and cared for.

The book reads as a lament for that which is left behind, and for the fact that all existence is temporary. Mundy is the last living of his contemporaries, and so as every child is introduced we are reminded that he or she grew into an unrecognisable adult, and is already in a grave. Nothing sustains; everything described here has vanished; what has been passed over is no longer valued. It is a reminder: the experiences and memories stored in Mundy's brain will never be observable again; when he dies it is all lost.

However, there is no sense here that progress is something to be avoided, or that the past was idyllic, only a recognition that modernity came at a price, and that price was the loss of individuality. It is suggested that the modern world is one of crowds and communal pleasure, and of observing someone else achieve. It is pleasure in observing rather than doing, and in winning rather than in participating.

It is a lovely book, beautifully describing a world which no longer exists, and insisting that there is value in remembering the past.


  1. I love the sound of this book Karyn, I'll put it on my TBR list.

  2. I bow before your closing sentence. I do. K

  3. Presumably this is TH White who wrote The Once and Future King, Mistress Masham's Repose, England Have My Bones... I've never come across anything else he wrote - I'll have to hunt and see what I can find!

  4. Hi Christine,

    Lovely to have found your blog. Having shelves of Penguins tends to skew my knowledge, so I know him for this book, and The Age of Scandal and The Goshawk (I own several copies of these, but have yet to read either of them), but it is the same TH White. I think he is best known for The Sword in the Stone.

  5. And Joanne,

    It is a lovely book, I hope you can find it.

  6. I shall hunt for it and see what others I can find. Love your collection of Penguins. When I was a child my parents' bookshelves were packed with Penguins - novels & crime for mum, social history & politics for dad.

  7. There is a fine biography of White, a tragic figure, by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

  8. Just discovered your site today through research on T.H. White and Penguin -- speaking as a Penguin/Pelican fanatic, it feels like I've hit the mother lode. I could lose hours here.

    It looks like you haven't read 'The Goshawk' yet, but I'm pretty sure from looking at your reviews that you'll love it -- I just finished it last night. And I hadn't heard of 'Farewell Victoria' but now very much want to read it. Sounds a little similar to Orwell's 'Coming Up for Air' (which I agree with you is excellent...)

    Keep reading!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...