A footnote in one book led me to buy another, an obscure seventeenth century publication known as The Overburian Characters. Most of us know Elizabethan and Jacobean literature for its poetry and plays, not for its prose. Why that should be is hard to say, as so many of the poets and playwrights wrote stories, sermons, essays and, in this case, ‘characters’ too and were as well known for them in their day as they are for their other works in ours.
Sir Thomas Overbury was a friend of Ben Jonson’s, one of ‘the tribe of Ben’ as they were known, and turned to him and other writers for contributions to a collection of short prose pieces to eke out a volume designed mainly to showcase a poem of his own called A Wife. The book came out in 1614, by which time Overbury himself was dead, as the text of the title page makes clear: ‘A WIFE now The Widdow of Sir Thomas Overburye, being a most exquisite and singular poem of the choice of a wife, whereunto are added many witty Characters and conceited Newes, written by himself and other learned gentlemen his friends.’
A ‘character’ like the epigrams and satires that were popular at the time, was based on a classical model, but soon acquired its own English form, described by one of the contributors in a very short piece entitled What a character is. The anonymous author, none of the contributions except the poem being ascribed to a particular contributor, passes quickly from its Greek and Egyptian origins to what it had become in England: ‘To square out a Character by our English level, it is a picture (real or personal) quaintly drawn in various colours, all of them heightened by one shadowing. It is a quick and soft touch of many strings, all shutting up in one musical close. It is wit’s descant on any plain song.’ If there were nothing else in the book worth reading, that lovely example of seventeenth century English prose would be enough on its own.
But there is much else worth reading, both for its own sake and for the tantalising pleasure of knowing that what you are reading might have been written by Jonson or Dekker or Webster. The true character of a dunce, for example, begins its descant, as most of them do, with a witty exposition of its subject: ‘He hath a soul drowned in a lump of flesh, or is a piece of earth that Prometheus put not half his proportion of fire into.’ Several variations on the theme follow, making clear that the dunce in question is not just any old dunce but another writer: ‘One of the most unprofitable of God’s creatures being as he is, a thing put clean besides his right use, made fit for the cart and the flail, and by mischance intangled amongst books and papers.’ Little by little, the description becomes more personal, so that you imagine it cannot have been hard for a reader of the day to guess who might be meant: ‘You shall note him oft (besides his dull eye, and lowting head, and a certain clammy benumbed pace) by a fair displayed beard, a night cap and a gown, whose very wrinkles proclaim him the true genius of formality.’ Sentence by sentence, the writer’s scorn for whichever of his colleagues he has in mind turns increasingly to disgust: ‘As unwelcome to any true conceit, as sluttish morsels or willowish potions to a nice stomach, which whiles he empties himself of, it sticks in his teeth, nor can he be delivered without sweat and sighs and hems and coughs, enough to shake his grandam’s teeth out of her head.’ Is that something Jonson might have written? Is it more like Webster? We shall never know, nor will we know the identity of the dunce. But what a treasure this is of pictures, real or personal, quaintly drawn in various colours, each shutting up in a musical close, like this: ‘In a word, rip him quite asunder and examine every shred of him, you shall find him to be just nothing, but the subject of nothing: the object of contempt; yet such as he is you must take him, for there is no hope he should ever become better.’
The book for the July meeting of my book club was Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The overblown praise quoted on the cover (‘Dazzling’, ‘A box of delights’, ‘Triumphant’) filled me with foreboding, which was to begin with only partially realised. The first three hundred pages, in which incidents are replayed in various ‘what if’ scenarios, were intriguing. For the next three hundred, the increasingly predictable ‘what ifs’ were replaced by a more and more frustrating ‘so what?’ What exactly are you trying to say, I wanted to ask, and have still not found a satisfactory answer. What do the ‘what ifs’ tell me about the events, large and small, general and specific, social and personal, of the twentieth century? Or any other century? And anyway, why write about the kind of well-to-do family whose encounters with the lower orders begin and end for some of them with their servants and for others turn out to be mistakes, when this territory has been explored so many times before, starting brilliantly with E.M.Forster and continuing in a downward spiral ever since?
The answer, as any publisher will tell you, is, ‘Downton Abbey, stupid!’