February 2017 re-reading: Mark Rutherford

And so to 1978 – the year Leyton Orient reached the FA Cup semi-finals, I learned to swim as a 30-something adult (for which I will be eternally grateful to Waltham Forest baths) and the Callaghan government limped on. According to my records, I read 35 books, 23 of them novels or short-story collections (including an unfinished Mill on the Floss) that year. Which to re-read?

I have gone for something obscure that still sits on our bookshelves: The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford. An old hardback that I remember buying, one lunchtime, in a second-hand-book shop in Bell Street (Marylebone). Why did I buy it? I suppose I must have had some idea that despite his obscurity Mark Rutherford was a serious writer – perhaps thanks to George Orwell. There are a couple of substantial references to MR in Orwell’s four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, parts of which I had read in the early 70s. In an essay on Gissing (1948) Orwell claims Rutherford is the “English writer nearest to Gissing”, although he was “less definitely a novelist [and] wrote much better prose”.  He thought the two writers had “a sort of haunting resemblance, probably explained by the fact that both men lack that curse of English writers, ‘a sense of humour’” and that what they had in common was “a certain low-spiritedness, and air of loneliness”.

Certainly there is an air of loneliness, and no humour to speak of in The Autobiography. What there is in its 139 pages is a lot of introspection, a lot of agonising about nonconformist versions of Christianity … and very little plot. Which is, to summarise: middle-aged man looks back looks back on his “weaknesses and failures”, from growing up in a Calvinistic Independent household in the East Midlands, his attendance as a student at a “Dissenting College”, and then his career as a preacher, first with “Independent” nonconformists, then Unitarians. His gradual loss of faith in any organised form of religion leads him to give up this life and move to London, where he rejects a teaching job and finds work as a clerk with a publisher. Among the characters that cross his path are the “strictly proper” draper Mr Snale, a deacon at MR’s first chapel; Mardon, a local newspaper compositor who is sceptical about religion, and his devoted daughter Mary; and a butterfly collector who has no name but inspires MR with his enthusiasm.

But before I go any further, I’d better introduce some salient facts for the uninformed. As I learned after my first reading, “Mark Rutherford” is a pseudonym for the Bedford-born William Hale White (1831–1913), who wrote five novels late in his life, beginning with The Autobiography (1881) and its immediate successor, Mark Rutherford’s Deliverance (“one of the best novels in English” according to Orwell): both of these purport to be “edited by his [Mark Rutherford’s] friend, Reuben Shapcott” – a distancing effect that was maintained in his subsequent books. In the voice of Shapcott an introduction claims that “Rutherford, at any rate in his earlier life, was an example of the danger and folly of cultivating thoughts and reading books to which he was not equal”. An awkward don’t-trust-this-writer message to wrong-foot the reader

In reality Hale White did attend a “dissenting college”, but was expelled for his unconventional views, and the publisher Wollaston who appears in the Autobiography’s last chapter is apparently based on the radical publisher John Chapman; his niece “Theresa” is similarly a version of Mary Anne Evans (in other words, George Eliot), whom the author met before she was well known. Hale White spent most of his working life as a clerk at the Admiralty, supplementing his income with journalism: his career as a novelist did not begin until he was 50. He also translated (and must have been influenced by) Spinoza.

What was/is the appeal of Mark Rutherford? His concerns seem much more remote from our present day than other writers of the 1880s such as Hardy, Trollope or Robert Louis Stevenson (OK, Trollope died in 1882, but the other two were flourishing right through the decade). His plain prose has a kind of earnestness that is attractive, though; and the fact that it throws a light on a way of life and thinking which despite everything still pervades our mental and physical landscapes (think of all the used and disused nonconformist chapels here in South Wales) makes him worth reading. The only similar work I can think of is Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907), a memoir about growing up among Plymouth Brethren.

I was also interested to find an unexpected consonance between MR and another book I’ve been reading recently: Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café, about Sartre, de Beauvoir and their influences. Here’s Mark Rutherford:

As I got older I became aware of the folly of this perpetual reaching after the future, and of drawing from to-morrow, and from to-morrow only, a reason for the joyfulness of to-day. I learned when, alas! it was almost too late, to live in each moment as it passed over my head, believing that the sun as it is now rising is as good as it will ever be, and blinding myself as much as possible to what may follow. But when I was young I was the victim of that illusion … which causes us, on the brightest morning in June, to think immediately of a brighter morning which is to come in July.

Now Sarah Bakewell, on phenomenology:

The point is to keep coming back to the ‘things themselves’ – phenomena stripped of their conceptual baggage … it is a liberating task: it gives us back the world we live in. It works most effectively on the things we may not usually think of as material for philosophy: a drink, a melancholy song, a drive, a sunset, an ill-at-ease moment, a box of photographs, a moment of boredom. It restores this personal world in its richness …

Or her observation that phenomenologists and existentialists

set out to detect and capture the quality of experience as we live it rather than according to frameworks suggested by traditional philosophy, psychology … or any of the other -isms and disciplines that explain our lives away.

Also interesting in my edition of The Autobiography was the previous owner’s (or owners’) annotations. He/she/they obviously took Mark Rutherford very seriously, underlining in the margin passages such as “Those who have sobbed together over a dead friend, who have held one another’s hand in that dread hour, feel a bond of sympathy, pure and sacred, which nothing can dissolve”. Or this: “Passion may burn like a devouring flame; and in a few moments, like flame, may bring down a temple to dust and ashes, but it as earnest as flame, and essentially pure.” How did that chime with their own experiences?

Before I finish, it’s worth noting that if you type “Mark Rutherford” into a search engine you’ll discover there’s now a Mark Rutherford school in his birthplace of Bedford: among the school’s alumni is the now US-based comedian John Oliver. Do they ever read the works of MR there? There is also a small but enthusiastic Mark Rutherford Society, I gather, to be found at http://www.davidfrench.org.uk/markrutherford/mrsociety.htm. May they flourish.

As for my other reading in February, another not-quite-novel I enjoyed this month was Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, which might more properly be called a “biographical fantasia” based on the facts of Shostakovich’s life. I liked it a lot – Barnes’s output, whether fictional or journalistic, is generally worth making time for. I also enjoyed a short story in the New Yorker: ‘The Prairie Wife’ by Curtis Sittenfeld. However, another much-praised recent novel borrowed from the local library was a disappointment. I won’t name it.

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