Sunday, 4 August 2013

Penguin no. 195: The City of Beautiful Nonsense
by E. Temple Thurston

She believed so much in what her husband said, did the little old white-haired lady. It is not often, that after twenty odd years of married life, a man keeps still alive that ideal of unquestionable reliability which he wife once found in everything he said. Usually comes a time - sad enough in its way, since ideals are almost everything - when those which once were words of wisdom, fall tainted with the odour of self-interest. It becomes a difficult thing to believe in them, that aphorism of your philosopher, which brings him the warmest seat in the chimney corner, or the softest place in the bed. And that is the wisdom of a lot of people - a philosophy of self, translated into a language for others.

The title suggests that this will be a novel about nonsense, and in one sense it is, for what is offered here is a very sentimental and unlikely romance, but also a rather lovely one. This is a story about two people who are deeply in love but who are kept apart, not by circumstances beyond their control, but by circumstances they have been conditioned by their upbringing to accept, however unreasonably. Temple Thurston gives his principal characters the names Jack and Jill, and the little old white-haired lady and the little old white-haired man, so that his story reads very much like a fairy tale. I suspect that his intention was to portray an ideal, and by doing so to provide some comment on the values of the society in which he lived.

The City of Beautiful Nonsense was first published in 1913 and the issues considered have little relevance now; the world being described is similarly unrecognisable. It seems that in the Edwardian era the right to sit upon a deckchair in Kensington Gardens had to be purchased for a penny, and the most important thing to know of someone was where they lived. To have to admit to an address in Fetters Lane in London - within walking distance of St Paul's - was apparently to invite social exclusion.

Temple Thurston considers what it means to live a successful life, and who should have the right to set the parameters of that life. He notes in the passage quoted above that self-interest, however much it is disguised, is the natural order of things, and that it offers a very distorting lens, encouraging people to weight their own concerns more heavily than the concerns of others. When the people concerned are parents, contemporary notions of filial duty can protect them from recognising their own 'philosophy of self' and that the sacrifices they sometimes require of their children may be unreasonable. In part, Temple Thurston is offering a contrast between two styles of parenting.

John Grey is a writer and a journalist. He is struggling to establish himself in London and it means he has very little money, but his poverty is expressed in an unusual form, for he will sometimes choose having clean clothes or paying to sit upon one of those deckchairs in Kensington Gardens instead of having something to eat. His unusual choices render him an object of ongoing interest to his neighbours, who cannot understand why a man who has a dress suit in his cupboard and who sometimes drives away in the evening in a hansom cab would choose to make a small room above a greengrocer in Fetters Lane his home. The choices he makes inevitably reflect his values, but they may also reinforce that while he lives amongst the truly poor, he is not one of them.

John Grey's parents are the little old white-haired lady and the little white-haired man, and they too are struggling financially. They live together in a run-down palace in Venice, and wait throughout the year for their son's annual visit. The little old white haired lady's hands are crippled by arthritis, and the little old white-haired man can no longer sell the paintings which have provided their income until now, so they are slowly and reluctantly selling off the things they have accumulated over the years, things which could be described as beautiful nonsense. They choose this sacrifice because their priority is to give their son the freedom to make his way, and so they conceal from him the extent of their financial difficulties, keen to ensure he is free of any notion that they may require support. They feel that his success is will give their lives' meaning, but the success they hope for cannot be measured in terms of fame or wealth. They hope only to see him living with someone he loves, and pursuing an occupation he enjoys, as his his happiness is their principal concern.

But this is not the case with Julie Dealtry, usually called Jill, who is the young woman Jack loves, and who also has parents who are experiencing financial difficulties. Her parents' wealth was lost through misguided speculation, but this is something they wish to keep hidden, and their priority is to retain all the outward markers of success, such as an address in the West End and a son at Eton. They hope to be protected from the consequences of their recklessness through the marriage of their daughter to someone much older and wealthier whom she does not love. She has been schooled to recognise such a sacrifice as her duty, and to place the family's interests above her own.

The phrase 'beautiful nonsense' is a used to describe all things which might induce a sentimental response, such as works of art and craftsmanship, possessions that may have been accumulated through a lifetime, the hopes that Jack Grey's parents hold for the future, the rituals of the Catholic religion, the various superstitions and portents encouraging the hopes of the little old white-haired lady, the dreams Jack and Jill share which may never be realised, and stories like this one, about people in love. It also describes items fashioned by humans to convey something greater than their intrinsic value, such as a ring to denote a commitment, or a crown to denote power and obligation. And it includes the city of Venice, described here as the city of beautiful nonsense.

Even though his story about these four appealing characters is a simple and sentimental one, there was something very charming about the way Temple Thurston seeks to tell it. He is always trying to induce an emotional response, particularly in his descriptions of the charitable and selfless actions of his characters, and in the detailed descriptions he gives of London streets and Venetian alleyways. And he succeeded, for I found the experience of reading this story to be a delight.

Link: Project Gutenberg (read this book online).


  1. It does sound charming. I'd like to read this.

  2. I agree, it sounds wonderful, and I hope that the fairy-tale elements included a happy ending!

    1. Thanks Christine and Lisa,

      I've added a link to free online version of the book which I recommend reading, even though I am not usually an enthusiast of romances - and the ending is both happy and sad, as you might expect from someone who was trying (and in my case succeeding) to induce an emotional response in his reader.



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