Saturday, February 25, 2006
The Submerging Wherry
Since Edward Gorey has come up in the adultish fiction for children thread, I may as well mention that Joan (Conrad’s daughter) Aiken’s Wolves chronicles are very appropriately and handsomely graced with Gorey covers. Here’s a pretty good critical overview. I haven’t read them all myself and only read them as an adult. But - like father like daughter - it strikes me that Joan Aiken is managing the trick of writing kid’s literature while expending a lot of energy on effects only adults are likely to appreciate. The language is hilarious in a way I’m not sure kids would quite pick up on; deadpan whimsy, going out of its way to enrich your wordpower while tweaking English monarchical succession. Kids probably take it pretty straight. I’ll quote a representive stretch of dialogue from the start of Dido and Pa, which provides some narrative overview. Our young heroine is back in England and reunited with an old friend.
"Croopus, Simon, there’s such a deal to tell you. Oh, I’ve had such times since I saw you last ..."
Arm in arm, still hugging one another, they turned back through the beech grove, both talking at once.
"How in the name o’juggernaut did you know I was up here on the hill, Simon?"
"When I looked down this morning from the Whispering Gallery - and saw Dido Twite carrying the king’s own train - in the coronation procession - you could have knocked me down with a quill. How in the world did that come about?"
"That’s a long tale - that’d be a deal of long tales ... But if you saw me there in St. Paul’s this morning, why in mux’s name didn’t you let out a holler then, to tell me as you was there?"
"In the middle of the coronation? I sent a message as soon as I could, but you’d gone by then; you see, I had a lot of jobs to do after the service - getting red carpet laid along the street from St. Pauls’ to St. James’s Palace - "
"You gone into the carpet business, then, Simon?" said Dido, stopping in surprise. "I thought you was fixing to be a painter?"
"Oh, I am," he assured here. "But, you see, when Uncle William died - "
"Hold hard! I never knew you had no Uncle Will. Thought you was an orphan?"
"Yes, well, it turned out - You remember the duke of Battersea?"
Funny old gager in a wig what you used to play chess with?"
"It turned out he was my uncle. So, as he had no children, when he died of the quinsy last winter - that meant I was the next duke."
"Holy mustard!" she exclaimed, thunderstruck. "You, Simon. You a dook? Come off it! You’re gammoning me!"
"Fact," he assured her. "I’m the sixth duke of Battersea. Loose Chippings Castle in Yorkshire belongs to me ... [Simon tells the rest of the tale what happened since that ship went down, the last time he and Dido were together. Dido takes up her side of the tale ...]
... And coming home on a man-o’-war, we had to stop in at a place called New Cumbria - and then, after that, we got mixed up in the Chinese wars. Why, if I was to tell you the half of what’s been happening to me, I’d be talking till Turpentine Sunday ... So you don’t live in Rose Alley no more, now you’re a dook?"
"No, my uncle left me a house in Chelsea - Bakerloo House. I live there with Sophie. She turned out to be my sister."
"Well, I’m blest! Come to think," said Dido, "anyone might ‘a’ guessed it. You’re as like as two blackberries - dark hair an’ eyes. Why don’t you live in Battersea Castle, where the old dook lived?"
"That - er - got blown up ..." Simon hesitated tactfully.
"Did my pa and his Hanoverian mates blow it up? I knew they was a-reckoning to, when the old king, the one before this one, came to eat his Christmas dinner with the old dook -"
"Well, yes, they did. And - I’m very much afraid - "
"Ma got blowed up too," said Dido matter-of-factly. "And my aunts, and a whole sackload of other Hanoverians."
Alas, Dido’s pa and the Hanoverians are at it again. Wolfgang von Eisengrim, margave of Nordmarck, landgraf of Bad Wald, Baron Blitzenburg, first cousin to Prince George of Hanover, and the Hanoverian ambassador to England, is eating thirteen oysters set out on his plate like numbers on a clock, and drinking a glass of wine. The next bit cries out to be illustrated by Gorey. (It pencils itself, right down to the title: ‘The Submerging Wherry’.)
The margrave swallowed his frugal meal slowly, in tiny sips and nibbles. He wore jacket and knee breeches of black velvet and had a snowy muslim napkin tucked under his chin. The room was papered with red velvet and had a black marble fireplace. The sound of music, played on violins, hoboys, and spinet, came from the next room through an open door.
A wherry under sail crept past the dining room window, which looked onto the river. The boat was low in the water and was evidently sinking. Voices shouted for help.
The margrave turned his head slightly, and called, "Play louder!"
Immediately the music doubled in volume.
Behind the margrave’s chair stood a servant, also dressed in black. With a slight gesture his master directed him to go and look out the window. He did so - opened the window, leaned out, closed it again, and walked back, all in silence.
"Well?" said the margrave, having dispatched his thirteenth oyster. "Did the ship sink?"
"It sank, my lord, with all on board."
"Very good. That is very good. We have now disposed of Lord Forecastle, Sir Percy Tipstaff, and the dean of St. Paul’s."
Gorey should give us these three long-faced, high-collared, pathetic eminences, on their feet and listing up and to the left, as if empathically counterbalancing the danger to their small craft, going down and to the right; expressively, futilely, they seek an audience on the riverbank.
I loved those books as a child, but I don’t recall finding them funny. I did laugh at her stories about Mortimer the raven, for younger readers - I hope you know those as well. Gorey I found terrifying (specifically his pop-up book “The Dwindling Party”, which someone unwisely gave me as a fifth birthday present).
In the “adult children’s literature” vein, and a direct precursor to JA’s brand of whimsy: Richard Hughes’ “The Spider’s Palace”.
"Gorey [which someone unwisely gave me as a fifth birthday present] I found terrifying.”
Gorey is like Gahan Wilson illustrating “Green Eggs and Ham.” You would fear for the very life of Sam I Am.
Back in the Sixties, there these were hip/hippy friends of the family we’d visit in Santa Cruz. The kids called the parents by their first names, that kind of thing. They had original edition Gorey’s. The thing that struck me the most was the sexual overtones. It was scary, but although I was only eight, I could also tell in the vaguest way that it was also attractive. Undoubtedly I’ve read much into it since then, but I had the feeling it was touching on the root of things.
I love the “snowy muslim napkin”.