Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Helen Haines

So, as part of the work for my Kalamazoo piece ("The Missing Women: JRRT's Lifelong Support for Women's Higher Education"), I wrote up by way of contrast a short section depicting his friend C. S. Lewis's views towards women's higher education, insofar as they can be determined from comments in his letters, most significantly in his first letter to E. R. Eddison. Here he described the woman through whom he learned of Eddison's work as

"som poore seely wench that seeketh a B.Litt or a D.Phil, 
when God knows shad a better bestowed her tyme 
makynge sport for some goodman in his bed 
and bearing children for the stablishment of this reaulme 
or els to be at her beeds in a religyous house" 

(CSL to ERE, Nov. 16th 1942; COLLECTED LETTERS Vol. II p. 535).

That's appalling enough. But when Eddison, in his response, asked the name of the person who'd written about him and the title of her book, Lewis professed ignorance, saying he'd forgotten both.

Thanks to the good work of Eddison scholar Paul Thomas, who shared his discovery with me, I now know both name and title: Helen E. Haines' WHAT'S IN A NOVEL (1942). Far from being a graduate student, Haines was seventy at the time, and a distinguished figure in the field of library science (a discipline she helped establish), making Lewis's dismissive comments all the more jarring (and thus relevant to my essay).

But now having gotten my own copy of her book (which was v. popular in its day, and hence easily available on abebooks or, I find it interesting in its own right. For one thing, she does not just mention Eddison's WORM, as I'd assumed from Lewis's letter, but all three of Eddison's novels: THE WORM OUROBOROS, MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES, and A FISH DINNER IN MEMISON, the last of which having only been published the year before. The context, too, is significant: Haines, who's recommending books for the typical library, devotes an entire chapter to fantasy, called "Spells, Signs, and Symbols" and including therein science fiction, utopias, et al.

Of modern fantasy writers, she says two stand out: James Branch Cabell and E. R. Eddison. After discussing Cabell's Poictesme novels and ERE's three books, she immediately segues into Rbt Nathan, who shd probably be considered the third in her unofficial pantheon at the core of modern fantasy -- not at all a bad choice, though I wd have included Dunsany.  His being sidelined (appearing only in the opening paragraph to this chapter in her general overview of the field's range, and in a line about his minor late novel MY TALKS WITH DEAN SPANLEY in her penultimate paragraph) shows just how much his star had fallen since his glory days in the late teens.

So far, so good. Yet it's that penultimate paragraph that ultimately turns out to be the most interesting thing about her whole book.* As she's wrapping up, she pauses at the end to single out two bright young talents: T. H. White's THE SWORD IN THE STONE** and J. R. R. Tolkien's THE HOBBIT. I've asked around, and so far as I've been able to find out so far, this marks the first critical discussion of THE HOBBIT in a book, all previous known references having been in book reviews and the like. So Haines is near the well-head of Tolkien criticism. And let's not forget that her book was popular, widely read and widely influential. Her praise of JRRT no doubt helped spread word that here was a good book you ought to consider having in your town library.

Here's what she has to say about Tolkien:

. . . the whole sequence [by T. H. White] is a unique,
many-faceted commentary on Arthurian legend and
on the deep-rooted, traditional English way of life. 
To many readers they may seem books for children,
but in reality they are full-fledged fantasy at play for 
old as well as young.  So is The Hobbit, or, There 
and Back Again, that adventure into the land of Faerie, 
where dragons, elves, goblins, dwarves, and creatures
of magic still challenge the dominion of men. Written by
 J. R. R. Tolkien, professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford,
for his own children, it fuses legend, tradition, and the 
dim beginnings of history into a robust imaginative
creation that mingles homely simplicity, humor,
drama, pictorial beauty, and a truly epic quality.

--Haines, p. 217

I think that holds up pretty well, seventy-odd years later. Now I'm curious what Haines has to say about other genres and categories of fiction, such as the detective novel, the subject of her next chapter, "The Lure of Crime" (curiously enough, she credits Woodrow Wilson with a role in its rise to popularity).

--John R.
current reading: C. S. LEWIS AND THE MIDDLE AGES by Boenig (2012)

*caveat: at least as much as I've read of it so far.

**and its first two sequels, which again were v. recent books at the time Haines was writing, the three volumes having been published in 1938, 1939, and 1940, respectively.


Brer said...

Though it could be argued that Lewis' "medieval attitude" on women in the letter to Eddison might simply have been part of the pastiche in which he was writing, the character of Jane Studdock in "That Hideous Strength" seems to confirm his opinion of academic women, at least in the Forties. A later encounter with philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, and more personally Joy Davidman, seems to have knocked some of that conceit out of him by the end of his life.

Anna Smol said...

Thanks for this fascinating addition to your Kalamazoo presentation.

I'm curious about why CSL used that Chaucerian-style English in his letter. Did he do that all the way through?

Jason Fisher said...

I've asked around, and so far as I've been able to find out so far, this marks the first critical discussion of THE HOBBIT in a book, all previous known references having been in book reviews and the like.

John, have you looked at Anne Carroll Moore's My Roads to Childhood: Views and Reviews of Children's Books (Doubleday, 1939)? She mentions The Hobbit a couple of different times. Maybe this would fall into "reviews and the like", or maybe it wouldn't. Reviews, after all, are "critical discussion" to some extent, or should be. Moore's is one of the earliest mentions of The Hobbit I've found.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Brer
Yes, CSL was definitely playing a role, and his comments are meant to have a jovial tone. But the jokes we make say a lot about us, so I don't think that altogether gets him off the hook. In addition to Jane Studdock, cf. also his remarks re. Damaris Tighe (hapless protagonist of his favorite Ch. Wms novel).
CSL's encounter with Anscombe was not a happy one (for him); yr point re. Joy Gresham is well taken.

Dear Anna
Glad you liked the piece.
Most of CSL's letters to Eddison (and some of ERE's letters in return) are in faux-Tudor English, because CSL is imitating the style in which Eddison wrote his great work THE WORM OUROBOROS. Lewis was a master at this kind of epistolary pastiche; cf. his Malorian letter to Barfield (MARK VS. TRISTAM), his Johnsonian letter to, I think, Harwood, and his Swiftian letter to T. H. White (to match the latter's MISTRESS MASTRAM'S REPOSE).

Dear Jason.
I hadn't known about Moore's work, which clearly seems to have priority. Thanks for letting me know about it; I'll have to track down a copy.

--John R.