Your rambling blogger has vague memories of the day when he found out that essays were actually a literary form, and not just an instrument of torture, wielded by sadistic teachers. Since then it has been an all-too-sporadic delight to dip into the works of Elia (alias Chas. Lamb), de Quincy, Addison and the other ‘bloggers’ of their day, not to mention his beloved Montaigne from further back and farther away.
For many readers today, when any communication of more than one or two brief paragraphs will be met with the abbreviation TLTR, the works of these old luminaries may seem too prolix (what a change even between my first and last partners-in-life, the first who complained when any missive was under six sides of writing paper – or whatever the carrier pigeon could manage – to the last, who would refuse to read anything more than 50 words). But it’s just a matter (unless you’re an inveterate reader of wordy, 18th or 19thC lit) of getting your head into ‘wallow’ mode and being carried along by the prose, which is, let’s be honest, often about quite trivial subject matter. But that’s part of the joy of the essay: explorations of the quotidian in scintillating form.
And one of the great exemplars, which your correspondent knows less well, was old Billy Hazlitt (hero of my one-time neighbour, Michael Foot). To me (let’s drop the third-person affectation for now), the only way to enjoy these old ramblers and idlers is in equally old hardback editions, probably from Everyman’s Library (I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side). And ’twas with such a volume that I wallowed recently in a warm bath, both of words and water, reading Mr Hazlitt’s Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen. The author recounts an evening’s blether with some fellow wits, including Lamb, where those assembled end up discussing which folks from history they would most like to have met and had discourse with.
As I believe has already been said in these files, our own coterie at the Proms concerts, back in the 90s, had a game we called We’re Going Down the Pub, a mock tv panel show where we discussed a number of real or fictional characters with whom we’d like to go drinking. One crucial rule was No Shop Talk, ie no taking Joe Stalin for a pint, only to ask him why he slaughtered so many of his people. And Hazlitt’s bunch seem to have had a similar idea; they discuss more the companionable nature or otherwise of their intended visitors. Also they fight shy of those, like Shakespeare, of whom they would be too overawed to chat with.
And, among some fascinating and odd suggestions (such as Guy Fawkes), one of Lamb’s ideas is … well, I shall let Hazlitt tell you:
Lamb then named Sir Thomas Browne and Fulke Greville, the friend of Sir Philip Sidney, as the two worthies whom he should feel the greatest pleasure to encounter on the floor of his apartment in their nightgown and slippers, and to exchange friendly greeting with them. At this Ayrton laughed outright, and conceived Lamb was jesting with him, but as no one followed his example, he thought there might be something in it, and waited for an explanation in a state of whimsical suspense. Lamb then (as well as I can remember a conversation that passed twenty years ago — how time slips!) went on as follows. “The reason why I pitch upon these two authors is, that their writings are riddles and they themselves the most mysterious of personages. They resemble the soothsayers of old, who dealt in dark hints and doubtful oracles; and I should like to ask them the meaning of what no mortal but themselves, I should suppose, can fathom.
Now my only prior knowledge of Fulke Greville (now Wikipedially extended) was his connection with Warwick Castle, near to which I once dwelt. He is buried in St Mary’s Church, and it is said (especially by guides to credulous tourists) that his ghost returns to the tower in which he had his rooms. As the Great Towers website (honestly) tells us:
Greville’s ghost returns to the castle to walk the room that was once his study. Here witnesses have reported catching fleeting glimpses of his sad shade staring at them from the dark corners, or feeling his presence at the place where he once composed such prophetic lines as:
If nature did not take delight in blood,
She would have made more easy ways to good.”
But mainly it struck me that each generation will have its celebrities and its idols, many of whom (with the exception of the Shakespearos) will be forgotten a century later. Greville was an outlier even in Hazlitt’s day, as Ayrton’s reaction shows, but who now even knows he was a writer? And who apart from scholars reads Phil Sidney, for that matter? I only know him as the geezer who said that heaven must be like eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets — and that wasn’t him at all but someone called Sydney Smith! Astrophel, that was P Sidney. Never read it. Probably never will. None of these ever featured in WGDtP, that’s for sure.
So who would your erudite chatterer go for these days, as an off-kilter choice? Someone I hadn’t heard of back in the last minnellium, but have since translated and even bigged up on these pages before, methinks. ‘Nun’ other than Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, author of Hombres Necios (see Hashtag Yo Tambien, 1st May 2019).
As I said back then, she was amazingly erudite, had a library of 4,000 books, spoke Latin, Spanish and Nahuatl and wrote on many topics, not least her polemics on male double standards and the importance of making education available to women. From her writing one gets a sense of a very witty as well as wise woman, with a deep humanity and engagement with life. So, assuming my ‘gaditano’ Spanish is up to the job, what a great person to pass some time and tequilas with, ¿verdad?
And as, despite her putative ‘calling’, she famously entertained lovers of both sexes in her cell, who knows how a visit might develop? It’s not all about the blether, you know.
After all, we’re not allowed to talk shop.