by John Mortimer (U.K. 1985).
The book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
begins with the famous “WASP rot” speech, an explanation, by an arriviste, of why he collects the houses and ornaments of high society but is thankful he was not born into it.
“What I enjoy most,” he said, "is living like an aristocrat without the burden of having to be one. Blue bloods are so inbred and weak. All those generations of importance and grandeur to live up to. No wonder they lack ambition. I don’t envy them. It’s only the trappings of aristocracy that I find worthwhile – the fine furniture, the paintings, the silver – the very things they have to sell when the money runs out. And it always does. Then all they’re left with is their lovely manners.”
The story in Midnight
starts well after the rot has set in, after the grand families of Savannah, Georgia, have sold their mansion blocks and tea services and decamped to the suburbs with the remains of their liquidity. The more interesting story is why the families declined and what they did and said as the family fortune was being dissipated and – most of all – who filled the vacuum.Paradise Postponed
attempts to tell that story in post-war Britain. The book opens with the death, in the mid-1980s, of the Reverend Simeon Simcox, the radical Church of England vicar known to every newspaper editor in the country for his epistles against apartheid, nuclear weapons and myriad social injustices. Rev. Simcox and his wife were able to raise their two sons, Henry and Fred, in genteel comfort due to their family share in the old and successful Simcox Brewery.
The family lives in the village of Rapstone Fanner, two hours west of London. The town has its hierarchy. The Fanners are the aristocrats by virtue of their land and their name. The Stroves, slightly less grand, also have freeholds, and the patriarch was for many years the local Member of Parliament, a Conservative of course. The village has a solicitor and a doctor and a pub and a meadow. Down the road is a rougher counterpart where the working class live, many employed at the Brewery. Parents with money send their sons to the Knuckleberries boarding school; those without make do with the local grammar school. On the occasion of birth, marriage, death or religious holiday, everybody attends one of Rev. Simcox’s services and then immediately returns to their assigned space.
That’s how it seemed to have been since time immemorial, except that, at some hazy point in the late 1950s, things started to change. Ambitious boys from proletarian families began to take elocution lessons and invite themselves to meetings of the Young Conservatives. The great families rented their cottages to the cash-flush from the entertainment business, people who wanted to pretend at country squiredom but be within commuting distance of Broadcasting House
. Elder son Henry began a literary career as an Angry Young Man, found success in Hollywood and became the type of fatuous author who writes essays on the virtues of English tweed. Younger son Fred attended medical school and joined the local practice, rooting himself.
And then Rev. Simcox did a strange thing. He died, which was upsetting enough, and he willed the family fortune to one Leslie Titmuss, the grasping, social-climbing, graceless young man – son of a Brewery accountant – who had, through application and cunning, married into the Fanners, succeeded in business and maneuvered his way into the Stroves’ old parliamentary seat. As a Cabinet minister in Mrs. Thatcher's government, he implements policies that the late Reverend found abhorrent, but not abhorrent enough to prevent a bequest of all dividend-paying Class A Brewery shares.
The novel intercuts between the present – where son Henry contests the will, but Fred takes a more measured approach to unraveling the mystery – and the past 50 years of Rapstone Valley history. They are, in large part, a history of the English upper classes failing to notice the plebian strivers, realizing too late that the upstarts challenged their position and wealth, and then sulkily protecting their remaining turf with their last weapon, a quiet contempt expressed through ornate manners and a feigned indifference to the new reality. “It might just be that Leslie Titmuss is the future,” one character says. “If he is I’m not waiting for it,” another responds.
Some of the derision is returned. At one point, Leslie Titmuss explodes at Fred, “You’re the one for arrogance, aren’t you? You don’t do anything, don’t commit yourself to anything. It’s all far beneath you, isn’t it? Politics! Business! Property! Writing books! Even getting married and giving birth to another human being. All that’s beneath your dignity!”
The television series which was written in tandem with the book was broadcast in the United States in 1986, and I watched every episode, soaking up the atmosphere. The sets and locations gave English life a solidity, a seeming permanence, which made the changing times that much more puzzling. In the series, these qualities were communicated in long shots of English fields, and the coziness of the Rectory, and the familiarity of the local pub, and in dozens of other visual touches.
None of that is in the novel. The book contains almost no description, and I was consistently disappointed when the author, John Mortimer (who also wrote the teleplays), avoided the many opportunities to provide a sense of place – a heart-shaped void in a book that is fundamentally about a small village buffeted by change.
At times, the book felt more like a novelization than a novel, all meat and no sinew. Scenes would shift abruptly. That’s fine in a television program, because the eye would immediately adjust to the new location, but it doesn’t work in print.
The theme of the story – the self-inflicted irrelevance of the British rural nobility, dinosaurs unaware of the hungry mammals underfoot – is lost. In the series, it was front and center, maybe through camerawork, maybe through music, maybe because the mind processes film differently than mere words.
The book has lovely manners, but not enough substance. Just like some of its high-born characters.
Labels: Book Review, Fiction, U.K.