JUDY KRAVIS

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Monday, 25 January 2021

I scour my bookshelves looking for something that has slipped my attention for years, and T.H. White, Farewell Victoria, a thin Penguin (number 342) held together with two staples since 1943 (a good year for staples), 4p or 4d in thick black marker across the front cover, fits the bill. 

The end of the back cover blurb about the author is enough:

His occupations, he says, are "keeping out of London, wondering why nobody cares about the country labourer, meeting him and other intelligent people".

His main character is Mundy, a groom, later a husband, soon an abandoned husband, then a soldier in the Zulu wars, then a coachman, a modest man who absorbs the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on behalf of the author, on behalf of the reader. The wartime edition suits his modesty, and calls up the reader's quietness and sympathy.

Out in South Africa he reads avidly the newspapers his mother sends by every boat — Natal was 29 days from England by sea.

It was an avid interest to him to exercise this new faculty of the hieroglyph. Ink in certain arrangements conveyed thought and fact from one mind to another. Print was a kind of invisible ink, a mysterious preparation in which the thoughts of one mind were fixed in dumbness and sent forth; to be steeped in the transferring agent of another and there re-vivified, made vocal, turned to thought again.

With the same avidity he observes Zululand. With the same sense of mystery he finds himself in a battle. 

And there they were, an inexorable, a sable host; nearer than he had dreamed. He wondered how they had come to be so near without his noticing. He wondered how many of them there were. He wondered whether it was snowing in England. He discharged his rifle.

Mundy is a quiet mouthpiece for T.H. White's reflections on the sorrow of the mass, the curiosities of war. Both Mundy and T.H. White are moustachioed, Edwardian, they try to keep their whiskers from their beards. 

A historical novel, said C. No, I said. It's not a story set in the past. Or a story at all. The past, the present are their own story, their own fabric. No one is a main character.  Or all of us are. 

War had happened before, and in battles many men had died. The creatures who were now falling on the Somme were in few respects different from those who fell on the triumphant hill at Albuera. Even the great war would be historical, a past imbroglio of the human race. There seemed to be some consolation in that. It would pass, and the race would continue; not very much wiser but possibly a little tamed.


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