I seem to have a soft spot for the heroes of guile and stratagem. Odysseus. Scaramouche. Gabriel Syme. The Man Who Was Thursday is fantastically surreal, as “philosophical policeman” Syme is sucked deeper into the world of the Central Anarchist Council of Europe, elected to the role of Thursday under the terrifying Sunday. Chesterton delights in wordplay and the twist of ideas. “Always be comic in a tragedy,” we are told. “What the deuce else can you do?” Syme is a man for whom the London Underground is the most poetic thing in existence, a symbol of man’s triumph over disorder that inspires in him raptures. He is gloriously flippant (“What’s your favourite word? Mine is ‘coeval’.”) and fabulously droll. “The adventures may be mad, but the adventurer must be sane,” and perhaps Syme’s “spasms of common sense” are enough to secure him that title. Who can say?
It emerged almost two hundred pages in that my Don Quixote is an abridged schools edition. I’m going to count it anyway, because it’s just as substantial as many full novels and I’d already invested a significant amount of reading in it. This abridgement might, however, explain the weirdness and inconsistencies I’d been noticing – things like the claim that neither Quixote nor Panza had ever seen Dulcinea, when the start of the book claims otherwise, and references to adventures of which I had no recollection.
The book is funny. And weird – it gets especially surreal when they start talking about a recently-published book about Don Quixote. Like an extreme version of Catherine Morland, Quixote is the victim of taking his books too seriously. We are told that “with little sleeping and much reading, his brains were dried up and his intellects deranged”, so that “whatever he saw was quickly adapted to his extravagancies.” His adventures and misadventures entertain even today. Cervantes gives us the original of “quixotic” and “quixotery”, and such memorable tableaux as the tilting at the windmills.
I’m sure I would understand The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge’s details and nuances better if I had read its precursor, The Scholarship Girl, but Elder does a good job of making clear the backgrounds and the relevant past events. Monica Baxter, our heroine, having previously won a scholarship to the prestigious Greystones, where she became a respected senior figure, has now repeated the feat with respect to the fictional Girnham College, Cambridge (based, despite the name, firmly on Girton and not at all on Newnham, to the extent of sharing its location). Her best friend and mentor from Greystones, Francesca Lucas, joins her as they move into this very different world and make a group of new friends, laughing meanwhile at those who adopt pretensions in an ill-judged attempt to set themselves apart. “‘They worship it like an idol,’ Monica said with insight, ‘just because it’s queer and grubby’”; such people “were odd on purpose, had covered up their real selves with a patchwork of oddness, because they wanted to be unusual, not because they really were.” “They were horrible people – lazy, self-satisfied, unwholesome people who sneered at everything that was healthy and honest and unaffected.”
Monica and Francesca are far from perfect, let it be admitted. But Monica takes pity on a peculiar girl named Hester and attempts to draw her out – much as, it seems, Francesca drew her out when she was an out-of-place new arrival at Greystones. Hester, however, is selfish and deceitful; a big fish in the little pond of her school, she is incapable of looking out for herself and poor at forming genuinely reciprocal relationships. Although, by degrees, Monica manages to drag Hester up out of her lethargy, she herself is dragged down; she stops participating in college life, withdraws from her friends who recognise Hester’s faults more keenly than she, and is chastised by her own supervisor for unhealthily obsessive working habits (including teaching the lazy Hester half the Tripos).
Ultimately, of course, all comes right. As the reader, your feelings change; gradually, I think, you realise that Hester is at least somewhat incorrigible (“the lessons she learned did not show yet, and Monica did not know she had learnt them”), and that even though, as Francesca says, “we lucky ones ought to help the people who come up alone”, Hester (unlike Monica in the first book) will never become a model of health and decency, embodying team spirit and Monica’s prime virtue of kindness. And yet it is impossible, I think, wholly to regret Monica’s time in the wilderness attempting to bring Hester on; by the end, reconciliation having been effected by the ever-loyal Francesca, Monica is back in the fold of her friends, whose wavelengths match hers, and Hester has found friends of her own sort and grown into a woman with her own code and way of life. It is not right for our heroine, but when we see it, we can’t think that it is all bad. Still, as Jim Lucas says, “if you’re going to take pity on all the dud people who don’t know how to behave – well, you’ll go to Heaven, but you’ll have your work cut out as long as you’re on earth.” As well as being a story of friendship and loyalty, then, The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge is a salutary tale about the limits of helping those who don’t want to be helped, and the dangers of putting all your energies and hopes into someone else’s success. It would be interesting to read The Scholarship Girl if only to see how Hester’s case differs from Monica’s.
Bringing me back up to speed (book and day 22), George MacDonald’s classic children’s fairy-tale The Princess and the Goblin, written in a charmingly conversational style, as if to be read aloud – like Kipling’s Just So stories. Princess Irene, her peculiar (deeply peculiar) great-great-grandmother, her fussy nurse, and the miner’s son Curdie come together for what is essentially just a really lovely story, about, essentially, poetry-phobic goblins. And MacDonald does actually write wonderfully, including this fantastic instance of polysyndeton:
The noises they made […] could be described neither as grunts nor squeaks nor roars nor howls nor barks nor yells nor screams nor croaks nor hisses nor mews nor shrieks, but only as something like all of them mingled in one horrid dissonance.
Fantastic in the truest sense, this is the bedtime story raised to an art form.
The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare
Author GK Chesterton
Best character Dr Bull. “He lay back in his chair with a broad smile, the picture of an optimist in his element.”
The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha
Author Miguel de Cervantes
Published 1605 and 1615 (two parts)
Best character Who knows? They’re all mad.
The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge
Author Josephine Elder
Best character Francesca. “There was only one person she knew she could really trust.”
The Princess and the Goblin
Author George MacDonald
Best character Curdie. MacDonald’s knack for nonsense ditties comes into play.