A picture paints a thousand metaphors

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Portrait in a Mirror by Charles Morgan, first published in 1929. 

But first:


My novel A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts is now available as an ebook.

It can be purchased at:

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If you’d like to get in touch with any questions about the novel or comments drop me a line at

acityofghosts AT gmail dot com

Nigel, the narrator of the Portrait in a Mirror, is a young man, still in his teens, in love with an older woman about to be married. Speaking as a middle-aged man who was once a young man, still in his teens, this is something with which I can identify. He is awkward and socially inept, all of which reminds me why I do not miss my adolescence. He is also a talented artist, and there my identification with Nigel ends. He does lay his head on his beloved’s bosom but with a little more chasteness than your average adolescent boy normally would show in such a situation. Not for the first time in literature, art provides the means of escape from the narrowness of life in the provinces.

The setting is the English shires (or counties, I never remember which) in the mid-1870s. This would put Nigel’s birth in the early to mid-1850s. Looking at the names of British artists born at this time, we come across men such as George Clausen (1854 – 1942) who painted like this: 

The Girl at the Gate. Source xaxor.com

Or there is Edward Wilkin Waites (1854 – 1924) who painted like this:

A Surrey Cottage in June. Source burlington.co.uk

And then there is the wonderful Alfred Wallis (1855 – 1942) who painted like this:

The Blue Ship. Source tate.org.uk.

Nigel’s teacher, the painter Henry Fullaton, sees the spirt of originality in his work and also the danger that comes from being a willful taker of risks. The painters I’ve mentioned above, and others I have looked at, do not fit that pattern. Even Alfred Wallis, I’m certain, painted what he saw, whereas Nigel strives to paint what cannot be seen. Charles Morgan (his biography is here) may not have had any British painter in mind when he wrote the novel, but it is striking how little the artists born at this time fit his description of Nigel and his work.

However, when you turn to women artists born at the same time, you find Marianne Stokes (1855 – 1927) who painted like this:

Angel. Source: bertc.com

Or Kate Elizabeth Bunce (1856 – 1927) who painted this:

Melody (Musica). Source: bertc.com

Or Dame Ethel Walker (1861 – 1951) – yes, I’m stretching the date requirement but if I don’t my argument won’t hold water – who painted this self-portrait in 1925:

Dame Ethel Walker. Source npg.org.uk

All, I feel, more challenging, and rewarding, to the viewer than the male artists mentioned above.

Putting aside this spurious argument I’ve developed, one based on nothing but what it is I want to see, what of literary taste in the novel? There’s oodles of it. It fair sloshes around like a bucket filled with champagne. Such is the rigour of its style and pointed nature of its prose, I felt as if I had risen a whole social class by the time I finished it. Suffice to say, I have since sunk back to my usual level. Literary taste, as I have discovered not only has a social element (see the previous blog) it also has more than its fair share of class, and English class at that. A rewarding (3,1) seems a just choice of coordinates.

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2 Comments

  1. Have you read the Parody Party satire on Morgan, by Rebecca West? It suggests, forcefully, that CM wrote about self-obsessed men who conducted their love affairs so delicately and discreetly that the women may not actually have been aware that they were the object of their lovers’ affections.

    Reply
    • You’ve hit the nail on the head. I knew something wasn’t quite right but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Everything is so chaste. There is nothing remotely physical in their relationship. He thinks about what would happen if they eloped but he never talks to her about it. I’ll need to track down the piece by RW.

      Reply

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