Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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Truman Capote. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. First Published 1958.

I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment…

One of my favourite films of all time is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I saw it and loved it long before I got around to reading the book. Which I also love. I find myself returning, like the story’s narrator, to those places where I first knew Holly Golightly.

Beautiful, fragile, fearless, desperate, calculating Holly. Living her life all at once precariously at the mercy of the men around her and also fiercely and independently on her own terms. I love the sweet, sappy, happy ending of the Hollywoodised film, and I love the wistful, hopeful, doubtful ending of Capote’s original work.

I love simple, stoic Doc and watchful, protective Joe and bemused, detached ‘Fred’. I love the no-name cat and the calling card that says “Travelling”. I love the apartment with its “camping-out atmosphere… like the belongings of a criminal who feels the law not far behind.”

I’ve nothing else to say. Wikipedia informs me that Norman Mailer said he “would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Neither would I.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

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DH Lawrence. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. First Published 1928.

I think it’s Stella Gibbons fault. After reading her wonderfully funny parody of English rural melodramas I decided to segue into Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and from that starting point it was hard to take this classic quite seriously enough.

And it is serious book, with a serious place in literary history. It’s appropriate to include Lady Chatterley’s Lover in a blog dedicated to Popular Penguins. It was Penguin who took the provocative step of publishing the unexpurgated book in the UK for the first time, complete with its c and f words, and was pursued in the celebrated obscenity trial.

I won’t go through the whole story here, there’s plenty of other places you can seek it out. As both of you probably already know, Penguin sought to test the new Obscene Publications Act, which allowed literary merit as a defence for publishers of otherwise obscene works. Lady Chatterley’s Lover passed the literary merit test, and who am I to disagree with the findings of a court of law?

Not everyone agreed, though. Some big literary names of the period damned it with faint praise. I particularly like Evelyn Waugh’s contribution, reproduced here from the pop culture website Dangerous Minds:

I have not read Lady Chatterley’s Lover since it first came out. My memory of it is that it was dull, absurd in places and pretentious. I am sure that most of its readers would be attracted by its eroticism. Whether it can “corrupt” them, I can’t tell, but I am quite certain that no public or private “good” would be served by its publication. Lawrence had very meagre literary gifts.

While I wouldn’t be so heretical (or perhaps egotistical) as to join Waugh’s assessment of Lawrence’s “meagre literary gifts”, I’ve got a bit of sympathy for his assessment of Lady Chatterley as “dull, absurd in places and pretentious”.

Take, in Tea and Penguins tradition, the opening paragraph:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

The fallen skies are the war, the industrial revolution, the blight on the pastoral landscape by coal and electricity, the widening distances between the classes, and particularly in their relative wealth, and the triumph of intellect and progress over emotion and an attachment to the earth.

Just as I don’t need to tell you the story of the famous trial, I probably don’t need to sketch out the plot for you. What I found amusing rather than profound, and what I guess Gibbons was playing on, was the book’s sometimes relentless oppositionism. Nature is good, industry is bad. Connie Chatterley’s lover Oliver Mellors is a gamekeeper, charged with nurturing and protecting the woodland creatures (albeit for someone else to come along and kill later). Her husband Clifford is a coal baron, and increasingly obsessed with modern uses for the black gold that runs through his land. This dichotomy is akin I think to the theme critics and reviewers frequently identify: intellect and emotion, mind and body. They are not necessarily sentiments that I disagree with (although I am a girl who prefers balance in most things, rather than definitively taking one side or another). I did find it all a bit dull and obvious after a while, and I think it made Mellors in particular a bit flat and one dimensional for me. He has only one view on everything, and you can guess up front what it will be on most issues:

Their spunk is gone dead. Motor-cars and cinemas and aeroplanes suck that last bit out of them. I can tell you, every generation breeds a more rabbity generation, with indiarubber tubing for guts and tin legs and tin faces. … Money, money, money! All the modern lot get their real kick out of killing the old Adam and the old Eve.

Mellors seeks refuge in “the darkness and seclusion of the wood”, but even there the industrial noises of Clifford’s modern world intrude, and the “world allows no hermits.” When Connie encounters Mellors bathing, naked to the hips in the yard of his cottage, she is somehow shocked, and has to remind herself “After all, merely a man washing himself; commonplace enough, Heaven knows!” But the shock is the tingle of emotion, of body, of nature. Common sense, intellect and modern industry won’t compete.

The very practical Flora Poste would have had a brisk response to Mellors and his bleak world view. But Lady Chatterly is being guided by DH Lawrence, not Stella Gibbons, and the outcome is very different indeed.

Cold Comfort Farm

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Stella Gibbons. Cold Comfort Farm. First published 1932.

I confessed in my review of To The Lighthouse that I’m aware that my review style is less book review than high school English essay. It was amusing, then, to read author and journalist Lynne Truss‘ introduction to the Penguin edition of Cold Comfort Farm, and the sad story of Brian, desperately searching for a book report on Stella Gibbons’ best known but undervalued work. And, ironically enough, I don’t think I’ve got a book report for Cold Comfort Farm, only because it was so much fun. After the hard but rewarding work of The Well and To The Lighthouse, something lightly but intelligently amusing was called for. Cold Comfort Farm was utterly perfect.

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

And so Flora flings herself on her obscure relatives, the Starkadders, at Cold Comfort Farm in deepest rural Sussex, because:

whereas there still lingers some absurd prejudice against living on one’s friends, no limits are set, either by society or by one’s own conscience, to the amount one may impose upon one’s relatives.

But Flora is not heading to the village of Howling to meekly and helplessly throw herself on the mercies of her relatives. Whatever state they are in, she intends to change them into something that suits her better. She fully intends to “find a relative who is willing to have me, [and] I shall take him or her in hand, and alter his or her character and mode of living to suit my own taste. Then, when it pleases me, I shall marry.”

At Cold Comfort Farm no one escapes Flora’s improvements, and life is all the better for everyone after Flora sets to work on them. Even the cows, Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless, will have a new outlook on life after the interventions of Miss Poste.

“There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm,” intones Aunt Ada Doom. Aunt Ada has forbidden anyone from leaving Cold Comfort Farm, ever since she saw something nasty in the woodshed as a girl. All of the Starkadder family have lived under the gloom of her heavy if invisible hand. There seems no escape. Not for Elfine, who wanders the hills writing poetry and pining for the love of Richard Hawk-Monitor of Hautcouture Hall. Nor Judith, who hides in her room, “weaving her own shroud”, while she mopes with a somewhat inappropriate devotion to her son Seth. Even Judith’s husband Amos’ ventures to nearby congregations to preach to the Quivering Brethren are short and clandestine.

Into this gloom-filled world comes Flora, with a good dose of practicality and her copy of The Higher Common Sense. Her methods begin on a small scale – acquiring a dish mop for Adam Lambsbreath, to help him with “clettering the dishes”, and a little talk on contraception for Meriam Beetle. But can she pull off the great challenges – getting Elfine married into the Hall, and, greater still, lifting the curse of Aunt Ada Doom?

It helps to know that Cold Comfort Farm is a parody. A wicked send-up of the romantic rural novels of the time, with a hefty and direct swipe at DH Lawrence’s ideas on sex as well as rural life. This knowledge helps us to make something of wondrously purple prose like this:

Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.

Other reviewers have talked about the cleverness of Cold Comfort Farm, its laugh-out-loudness. There’s a lot in it if you want to go deep. Or you can skate gleefully along the surface with Flora and the Starkadders, for whom “life burned in them with a fiercer edge”. There may have been something nasty in the woodshed, but there is certainly something wonderful at Cold Comfort Farm.