Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Frank Swinnerton, Nocturne (1917)



Nocturne was Frank Swinnerton's breakthrough book. Having left school at 14 (in 1898), the largely autodidact Swinnerton worked as a clerk for J M Dent and then a proof-reader and, after a while, editor for Chatto & Windus. He began publishing his own fiction and other books in 1909, and whilst researching his George Gissing: a Critical Study (1912) he contacted, and became friendly with, Wells.

There's a Gissingy vibe to his own fiction, too, though a less pessimistic sort of Gissing-ness. Swinnerton specialised in low-key studies of working class life, quietly realist, psychologically acute (very long lived, he published scores of novels along these lines, the last appearing in 1976). Nocturne is a case in point: the story of one night in the lives of Jenny and Emmy Blanchard, two young sisters who live in a poky house in Kennington. Jenny works in a milliner's, and is being courted by a lumpish young cockney called Alf, but she dreams of escape and freedom and glamour. Plain, stolid Emmy stays home and cares for their partially paralysed father. Her dreams are more domestic—she yearns to marry Alf and set up house on her own. The plot is slight: Jenny, knowing which way Emmy's heart inclines, sets her up (in effect) on a date with Alf. When the two of them are at the theatre a letter comes for Jenny from her sailor beaux, who, languishing on his boat with an injured leg, begs her to come to him. Jenny hurries out for a tryst, leaving her Pa. When the sisters returns, they find Pa unconscious in the kitchen:—he'd got himself out of bed, fallen and hit his head. The novel ends on Jenny's remorseful self-accusations. But though the plot as such is deliberately exiguous, the novel as a whole works in satisfyingly complex ways as a study of the contrasting characters of the two sisters, via the atmospheric evocation of confining place and thwarted desire. It's a pretty interesting work, all told.

But why is it making an appearance on this blog? Because Wells was persuaded to write an introduction for the first edition.

It's a seven paragraph preface that only gets to Swinnerton in para four: prior to that it's all Wells drawing on his knowledge of Wells to talk about Wells and Wellsianism (‘This much may sound egotistical,’ Wells concedes over halfway through the piece, with a rather winning honesty of narcissism, ‘and the impatient reader may ask when I am coming to Mr. Swinnerton, to which the only possible answer is that I am coming to Mr. Swinnerton as fast as I can’). The introduction dilates on how Wells prefers to read the work of writers unlike himself, since when he reads the work of writers like himself he is made uncomfortable: ‘the confessed imitators give me all the discomfort without the relieving admission of caricature; the parallel instances I have always wanted to rewrite.’ He then summarises his own relationship to the le Naturalisme:
The science of criticism is still crude in its classification, there are a multitude of different things being done that are all lumped together heavily as novels, they are novels as distinguished from romances, so long as they are dealing with something understood to be real. All that they have in common beyond that is that they agree in exhibiting a sort of story continuum. But some of us are trying to use that story continuum to present ideas in action, others to produce powerful excitements of this sort or that, as Burke and Mary Austen do, while others again concentrate upon the giving of life as it is, seen only more intensely. Personally I have no use at all for life as it is, except as raw material. It bores me to look at things unless there is also the idea of doing something with them. I should find a holiday, doing nothing amidst beautiful scenery, not a holiday, but a torture. The contemplative ecstacy of the saints would be hell to me. In the—I forget exactly how many—books I have written, it is always about life being altered I write, or about people developing schemes for altering life. And I have never once “presented” life. My apparently most objective books are criticisms and incitements to change. Such a writer as Mr. Swinnerton, on the contrary, sees life and renders it with a steadiness and detachment and patience quite foreign to my disposition. He has no underlying motive. He sees and tells. His aim is the attainment of that beauty which comes with exquisite presentation. Seen through his art, life is seen as one sees things through a crystal lens, more intensely, more completed, and with less turbidity. There the business begins and ends for him. He does not want you or any one to do anything.
‘In the—I forget exactly how many—books I have written ...’ is a touch too mannered in its insouciance to be believable; but I'm intrigued by this briefly summarised aesthetic credo: a sort of writers have hitherto only described the world; the point is to change it manifesto. We might say that that old warhorse of SF criticism, Suvin's novum, is a passive (that is, representational) iteration of Wells's more active understanding of the difference between mimetic traditions and the SF-Fantasy-Satire-Utopia nexus. And we might say that this gives Wells's novums more oomph. Or we might not.

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