Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Larkin's Game of 'Spot the Inkling'

So, it's not particularly well known that Philip Larkin, before he became the great English poet of his generation, had begun his career as a novelist, and only abandoned writing fiction when writer's block made it impossible for him to continue. And it's even less know that, in addition to his two published novels, he left several early unpublished and/or unfinished novels, two of them dating from his time at Oxford. Having just read his 'Oxford novel', WINTER TERM AT ST. BRIDE'S, I was amused to see several Inklings references in it, and thought I'd share.

WINTER TERM AT ST. BRIDE'S (written 1943; published posthumously in 2002) is a sequel to Larkin's TROUBLE AT WILLOW GABLES (ibid.), which had been a deliberate attempt to write a 'girls' school' novel (he even wrote an accompanying essay analyzing the genre). This second attempt follows the adventures of some of the same girls as they arrive at Oxford for their first university experiences. One goes all-in for sports, another spends all her time studying, one blows off all lectures for social events, and so forth (which only goes to show how thoroughly women had become acclimatized to Oxford a mere twenty-odd years since first being admitted as full students).

What's amusing from my point of view is a running motif about a new detective story set in Oxford, Edmund Crispin's THE CASE OF THE GILDED FLY [1944]. Crispin is famous today for another novel in the same series (the fourth, SWAN SONG [1947]) including the line "There goes C. S. Lewis . . .  It must be Tuesday" [p.60] as his detective et al. sit in the front room of the Bird and Baby (so called by Crispin, rather than Eagle and Child). In real life, "Crispin" was a friend of Larkin's named Bruce Montgomery, but  THE CASE OF THE GILDED FLY (the first in the series) had appeared pseudonymously, and Larkin gets a good deal of fun out of the fact that in his novel everyone is speculating about who wrote it and assigning various absurdly inappropriate Oxford luminaries to the role of being hidden behind the pseudonym: Nevill Coghill, Lord David Cecil, and C. S. Lewis prominent among them.

[first excerpt, page 198-199]
"Three coffees," said Margaret to the waitress.
   Marie, Margaret, and Mary were in Elliston's next morning at eleven o'clock. Marie had just come from Blackwell's, where she had bought her daily book; Margaret had been pursuing her own private affairs since breakfast-time; while Mary, strange to say, had only just got up. She felt rather hungry.
   "And buns," she added. "Buns for one — or two," she added, catching Marie's eye. "What's the book, Marie? Looks rather a shocker."
   "It's a detective story," said Marie guiltily, displaying the yellow wrapper. "A new one."
   "The Case of the Gilded Fly?  I don't like Oriental things. I suppose it's full of Chinamen and sliding panels."
   "It may be," Marie answered. "I believe it's rather good," she added dubiously. "By Nevill Coghill, you know."
   "Who's he?"
   "Look here, what's the latest but Hilary?" interposed Margaret . . .   

[second excerpt, pages 215-216; Hilary meets 'Diana's Set'] 
   "Now, let's have a little bright intellectual conversation!" commanded Diana, clapping her hands. "Come on, Pam. Say something intelligent."
   "Are you reading an interesting book?" Hilary asked, looking at the beige-and-grey volume* lying face downwards on the thick carpet. "Who's it by?"
   "Oh, it's Lord David Cecil's book," said Diana carelessly, snatching it up. "The Case of the Gilded Fly, you know. I'm half way through it."
   "Diana dear, I'm sure it's not Lord David," said Pam. "Someone was telling me it was C. S. Lewis."
   "Oh no, dear, not C. S. Lewis. It's obvious that 'Fen' is a caricature of Lewis. Fits him to a T. Horribly malicious."**
   "Surely if it were by Lewis it would be about God," suggested Hilary, cautiously exhaling smoke.
   "If it were about God it would have been in the Daily Mirror first," said Pam. "Anyway, there's no place for God in a detective story."
   "Oh, it's a detective story, is it?" said Diana, frowning at the book with renewed interest.
   "As a matter of fact, I think you're all wrong," said Miriam. "Someone told me yesterday, straight from the horse's mouth, that it was by Lord Berners. But do keep it quiet."
   "Well, that would account for the music bits," agreed Diana. "But do you think it's good enough for Berners?"
   "Heavens, I haven't read it," said Miriam, shrugging her shoulders. "Haven't the ghost of an idea."
   "I expect in the end you'll find it was by Stanley Parker," said Pam . . . 

[*note: we're meant to assume Diana is so incredibly swanky that she even has cheap novels recovered in her favorite colors]
[**i.e., Gervase Fen, Crispin's eccentric-professor detective]

[third excerpt, page 219; one of the characters develops an obsession with belts]
   "I've tried everything. I've been long walks. I've been to the theatre and cinema. I've even read detective stories." Here she waved a despairing hand towards a copy of The Case of the Gilded Fly which lay on the mantelpiece. "But nothing does any good. I'm lost. Nothing can save me now."

[fourth excerpt, page 230]
[Here, things begin to get really weird. One character gets so drunk that she wanders out of the story and briefly encounters characters from the previous story ("Willow Gables"), who explain to her that she's in the current story but they're not; then she strays into real-life, where those present include Montgomery himself:]

. . . near the door, a pale girl with distant eyes and pale-rimmed spectacles laid one hand on the arm of her companion, a severe young man with a walking-stick, and said:
   "But what are you going to call it, Bruce dear?"
   "I shall call it," said the young man in the voice of one who has no doubt, "The Case of the Gilded Fly". The pale girl looked uncertain. "It's from King Lear," he added crossly.

---I admit to not knowing Lord Berners, or what the joke as concerning the Daily Mirror, and the editor himself confesses ignorance as to "Stanley Parker"

---Still, I was fascinated by this little spoof. After all, one of the Inklings DID write detective stories, though under his own name: Charles Williams. And both Coghill and Lewis contributed poetry to Oxford magazines pseudonymously. Lord David Cecil never wrote any fiction at all that I know of, but he was someone Larkins and Kingsley Amis never tired of mocking for his aristocratic speech patterns.

---Larkin, by the way, knew Charles Williams slightly and rather liked him as a drinking companion, though he had a v. low opinion of C.W.'s poetry and found him rather a figure of fun for frequently quoting poetry and always getting it wrong (though, as with Rev. Spooner, the degree to which Williams misquoted may have been exaggerated for effect).

---one more element of the joke: everyone in Larkin's novel (written 1943) is reading Crispin's book, whereas the real book came out in '44 and was probably still being written at the time Larkin's characters were making their speculations about its author.

---I suppose we shd count ourselves lucky that Larkin didn't fix on another of his professors who annoyed him, JRRT, for inclusion in this dubious gallery of faux-detective story writers.

--in any case, an amusing glimpse into Oxford personalities when the Inklings were in full flight.

--John R.

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

Thanks for making this discovery; it's going straight into my "Inklings in fiction" bibliography.

Gerald, 14th Lord Berners, was a famously eccentric nobleman best remembered today as a music composer. (Bruce Montgomery was one as well.) He was socially notable at the time and inspired fictional characters in Nancy Mitford novels and elsewhere.