Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Eothen and Mr Kinglake

We recently had the hall and landing redecorated, which meant that I had to move all those books out from the shelves under the stairs, which meant, as usual, that I found a few things that I didn’t know I had, plus a few old favourites.

One of the old favourites is Eothen by A.W. Kinglake. How did I come by that? Some years ago I read that someone had once asked Winston Churchill’s advice on how to improve his prose style. ‘Read Kinglake,’ said Churchill. Well, since the old boy did win the Nobel prize for Literature, on account of his ‘mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory’, I figured that it might be worth taking his advice.

Turns out that Kinglake wrote two things of note: Eothen, for one, plus an eight-volume history of the Crimean War. I started with the former, which was originally published in 1844, when Kinglake was 35. The word Eothen, incidentally, means ‘from the east’, and the book describes the author’s travels in what is now, I suppose, called the Middle East.

Well, Churchill was right, in that Eothen is easy to read and tells a gripping story. The title, as the author points out, is the hardest word in the book. There are 29 chapters, many of them indicating the places he went to, such as Constantinople, Cyprus, Cairo, Damascus, and so forth.

Two examples of the content will suffice. One chapter is devoted to Lady Hester Stanhope. Lady Hester evidently came from Somerset, where she acquired a formidable reputation for breaking in the most vicious horses. At some point, however, she became bored with life in England and answered the call of the east. She ended up in the desert, somewhere near what Kinglake refers to as Beyrout, which I suppose is what we now call Beirut.

The desert held no terrors for an Englishwoman with balls, which is very definitely what Lady H was. She could also ride a horse better than most men. Her reputation with the desert tribes was sealed when she was accompanying a group which lived in constant fear of attack by their enemies. At one point, a tiny disturbance was noted on the far horizon, and the group began to panic, thinking that an enemy force was hunting them down. Lady Hester, however, had keener eyes than any of them. She studied the tiny speck on the horizon for a few moments, and then announced that there were indeed horses approaching, but that they were riderless. This statement proved to be correct, and thereafter the tribe seems to have made her some sort of honorary queen.

On another occasion, Lady H was with some other members of a tribe and was told, as tactfully as possible, that if she was found in their company, the whole group would be killed by a rival tribe. Lady H immediately broke apart from her companions, and set off across the desert alone. Sure enough, she was soon being chased by a large band of brigands. Recognising that she could not escape, Lady H turned to face them, and with a roar of defiance yelled out, ‘Avaunt!’ Which is, of course, an obsolete expression, meaning ‘Go away!’ Or ‘To hell with the lot of you!’ Or perhaps something even ruder. The band of brigands was so impressed by this display of courage that they decided not to kill her after all, and roared their approval in reply, firing their weapons into the sky instead of at her. There is more about Lady Hester, along the same lines.

The other story in Eothen which I find quite unforgettable concerns Kinglake’s time in Cairo. Even as he approached the city, he was warned to turn back because the plague was rampant, but he went ahead regardless. He soon discovered that death was a commonplace event. The stream of funeral processions past his lodgings was almost constant. And sure enough, after a few days Kinglake too fell ill with a sore throat. Most of the doctors had fled the city, but one remained – remaining because he was too young and poor to leave, rather than through any desire to serve his fellow men. Kinglake visited the doctor, was examined, and was given a prescription. As he left, he noticed that, although the day was not hot, the doctor was sweating heavily. Within a few days, Kinglake had recovered and the doctor had died.

It is, I believe, somewhere in Eothen (though I cannot now locate it) that you will find a piece of advice which I pass on to you. It is a saying which is sometimes attributed to Cecil Rhodes, but I suspect that it was common currency in the nineteenth-century gentlemen’s clubs and in the officers’ messes. The advice is this: Always remember that you are an Englishman, and have therefore won first prize in the lottery of life.

In the nineteenth century, this was, of course, no more than a statement of fact; but it has a lot of truth in it, even today. So, on those mornings when you wake up and feel that all is far from well with the world – that Mr Blair is a clueless moron, and Mr Bush worse; that David and Victoria are bound to split up, despite your very best efforts; and that, as sure as it is Tuesday, it will rain again in the afternoon – on those occasions, dear reader, I recommend that you repeat the nineteenth-century mantra: I must always remember that I am an Englishman... et cetera.

Of course this little magic spell, so to speak, only works if you actually are an Englishman (or woman). If you are a Frenchman or an Italian, or something ghastly like that, I can only offer you my deepest sympathy. Reading Eothen, however, might at least cheer you up somewhat, and it won’t do your prose style any harm either.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I too have recently started reading Eothen - for the first time (a Paisley Grammar School prize my grandfather was awarded in 1902!) and am really enjoying it.

On another note, as a Scot exiled in England I would remind you of part of a verse by Oscar Wilde -
". . . and the English, who consider themselves a race of self-made men, thereby relieving the almighty of a terrible burden."

Yours truly,

Douglas Crawford
douglas.crawford@hotmail.co.uk

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