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Jeremy’s Progress

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My grandparents’ books were ranged in a deep alcove by the fireplace, a shadowy and mysterious recess that invited exploration. During visits in school holidays, I read my way through those faded hardbacks and ever afterwards associated their authors with the thrill of exploring that dark corner. The pleasurably fusty smell of the pages seemed to me the smell of an epoch, of the generation of my grandparents, born in the 1890s. Over the years I made the acquaintance of the writers they had grown up with – Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, Hugh Walpole.

Ah, Hugh Walpole. Who reads him now? So prolific (36 novels by the time he died in 1941, still in his fifties), so well-loved in his day. He didn’t always find favour with highbrow critics; a traditionalist in an age of experimentation, a romantic in an age of realism, he broke no moulds – but his books were bestsellers and his reputation stood high, at least before Somerset Maugham lampooned him in Cakes and Ale as the talentless, tirelessly networking Alroy Kear. The postwar world appears to have endorsed Maugham’s verdict; at any rate, although Walpole’s Herries saga has found fans, he has been largely discarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant. And yet of all the books in that alcove it was a slim volume of Walpole’s, a favourite of my mother’s before me, that I loved and which I appropriated and took home with me: Jeremy (1918), the first in his trilogy about a young boy.

I doubt that Walpole himself would have picked this out as the work for which he most deserves to be remembered. It was hugely popular at the time, as attested by the number of boys named after its eponymous hero in the years following its publication, but he put far more labour and ambition into other novels (Jeremy was written in spare moments while Walpole was doing propaganda work in Russia during the First World War). Yet while whatever else of his I read in youth has long faded from

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My grandparents’ books were ranged in a deep alcove by the fireplace, a shadowy and mysterious recess that invited exploration. During visits in school holidays, I read my way through those faded hardbacks and ever afterwards associated their authors with the thrill of exploring that dark corner. The pleasurably fusty smell of the pages seemed to me the smell of an epoch, of the generation of my grandparents, born in the 1890s. Over the years I made the acquaintance of the writers they had grown up with – Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, Hugh Walpole.

Ah, Hugh Walpole. Who reads him now? So prolific (36 novels by the time he died in 1941, still in his fifties), so well-loved in his day. He didn’t always find favour with highbrow critics; a traditionalist in an age of experimentation, a romantic in an age of realism, he broke no moulds – but his books were bestsellers and his reputation stood high, at least before Somerset Maugham lampooned him in Cakes and Ale as the talentless, tirelessly networking Alroy Kear. The postwar world appears to have endorsed Maugham’s verdict; at any rate, although Walpole’s Herries saga has found fans, he has been largely discarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant. And yet of all the books in that alcove it was a slim volume of Walpole’s, a favourite of my mother’s before me, that I loved and which I appropriated and took home with me: Jeremy (1918), the first in his trilogy about a young boy. I doubt that Walpole himself would have picked this out as the work for which he most deserves to be remembered. It was hugely popular at the time, as attested by the number of boys named after its eponymous hero in the years following its publication, but he put far more labour and ambition into other novels (Jeremy was written in spare moments while Walpole was doing propaganda work in Russia during the First World War). Yet while whatever else of his I read in youth has long faded from my memory, Jeremy has stayed with me, one of those books that make themselves comfortably at home in your imagination and never leave. It charts ten months in the life of 8-year-old Jeremy Cole, in the small cathedral town of Polchester in Glebeshire, before he is packed off to boarding school – the last months of the innocence of early childhood. No one knew better than Walpole did, from painful experience, the loss of innocence once a boy is submerged in school life. The second novel in the series, Jeremy and Hamlet (1923), switches between school and home, with Jeremy having to readjust to home life in the holidays with the help of his boon companion, his dog Hamlet – an important character in his own right. In the last, Jeremy at Crale (1927), Jeremy is 15 and all the action takes place at his public school. At the start of the first and, for me, most engaging of the novels (though all three are full of excellent things), which opens on Jeremy’s eighth birthday, his universe is still largely that of the nursery, shared with sisters Mary and Helen and ruled over by their nurse, nicknamed the Jampot. The children’s mother is a placid presence in the background, their clergyman father, unimaginative and ineffectual, mostly a non-presence. Two other members of the household loom large: silly, interfering Aunt Amy, who always rubs the children up the wrong way, and Uncle Samuel, sarcastic and inscrutable, an unsuccessful painter who’s the black sheep of the family. Jeremy knows that, of all his circle, it is Uncle Samuel who understands him best, but he’s generally invisible in his studio – except when he disappears to ‘that mysterious, unseen, unfathomed country, Paris’. From the opening chapters, Jeremy’s horizons are already starting to widen beyond the nursery. The departure of the Jampot and the arrival of Hamlet, henceforth his companion in adventure, are early milestones in his growing quest for independence. It is a quest which naturally brings conflict with uncomprehending adults, who view as disobedience what is only the assertion of his individuality, the expansion of his spirit. The theme of the novel and of the trilogy as a whole is ‘Jeremy’s progress’, with each episode marking a ‘station’. Jeremy is the first of Walpole’s Polchester books. Subsequently the setting for The Old Ladies and other novels, this fictional city was chiefly inspired by his mother’s home town of Truro, though for its cathedral he drew on Durham, where he went to school. Polchester became so real to Walpole’s readers that an American fan mapped it out and drew it in loving detail, and in Jeremy it is vividly introduced through the eyes of a child for whom everything in it is an object of wonder and enjoyment. On the face of it, the world of Polchester is familiar from countless other chronicles of Edwardian and late Victorian childhoods (both Jeremy and Walpole were born in 1884): a world of teas and curates and governesses, unmarried aunts and uncles, and phalanxes of servants. Jeremy was written during the Great War, so it is inevitable that it conveys a feeling of nostalgia for a lost golden age. Childhood per se, however, is by no means viewed as a golden period. It wasn’t a happy time for Walpole himself. Bullied at school, he was in some ways unlike his sturdily independent hero and, as he points out in the preface, the novel is not straightforwardly autobiographical. As a child Walpole had more in common with Jeremy’s sister Mary, the ‘clever’ one of the siblings, who takes refuge from a bruising world in the novels of Charlotte Mary Yonge and endless romances of her own invention. With her stringy hair and huge spectacles, hypersensitivity and inconvenient hunger for appreciation and affection (‘You do love me, Jeremy, don’t you?’), the ever-suffering Mary furnishes some moving passages. Like George Eliot in her account of the early trials of Maggie Tulliver, Walpole knew that, as he tells us in Jeremy at Crale, ‘the catastrophes of childhood are eternal’. When Jeremy is denied a much-anticipated trip to a pantomime as punishment for a minor misdemeanour, his universe plunges into a darkness that seems final. ‘His whole world was gone.’ Delivered from despair by Uncle Samuel and smuggled into the show, his rapture is as intense as his previous misery. What Jeremy does have in common with Walpole, apart from sensitivity and imagination, is a sense of wonder and a capacity for enjoyment. The landmarks that punctuate his year – the Christmas pantomime, the annual holiday at Cow Farm on the Glebeshire coast, the autumn fair, disapproved of by his parents as a magnet for undesirables and declared out of bounds – are for him objects of passionate surmise and expectation, experiences his expanding spirit craves. To Jeremy, Dick Whittington at the Polchester Assembly Rooms, with their smell of gas and oranges, is, quite literally, magic. His merry-go-round ride on a black ‘steed’ during an unauthorized visit to the fair whirls him far away from the sphere of the nursery and the rocking-horse into an intoxicating exaltation and feeling of power. ‘He had long known that this glory was somewhere if it could only be found, all his days he seemed to have been searching for it.’ Walpole unpicks the complexities of the emotions felt even at moments of ecstasy like these. On arrival at Cow Farm at the start of the holidays Jeremy detects, at the heart of his almost intolerable happiness, ‘a strange unhappiness that he had never known before’ born of growing awareness of his separateness from the rest of the family. Experience can never be fully shared; he’s ‘caught into a life that was utterly his own’. There are many such moments of insight, and of darkness and strangeness. Jeremy has intimations of ‘a world adjacent to this one’ on the sands of Rafiel Cove, said to be haunted by the Scarlet Admiral of local legend, seen landing one summer morning from a splendid ship to fight a duel to the death on the cliffs. In Jeremy and Hamlet, venturing alone into the cathedral, he has a vision of the gauntleted Black Bishop who lies buried beneath its flags, another figure of local legend who fought to the death. He senses a past that is as real as the present, a past that is the present. And there is the mounting horror of a day on which his mother hangs between life and death, and his gradual conviction that the Old Testament God of his father’s morning sermon demands a sacrifice in return for her life – and that the sacrifice required is Hamlet, his closest friend. The sudden blackening of the sky as he wrestles with this idea, a clap of thunder and Hamlet’s abrupt disappearance as a storm breaks bring a revelation as well as terror: ‘In that moment he believed in God.’ At certain points in his ‘progress’, the mysterious forces he encounters are forces of darkness within himself. In tormenting Miss Jones, the elderly governess who replaces the Jampot, he finds in himself a new power and capacity for cruelty.
It was something indecent, sinister, secret, foreign to his whole nature felt by him now for the first time, unanalysed, of course, but belonging, had he known it, to that world of which afterwards he was often to catch glimpses, that world of shining white faces in dark streets, of muffled cries from shuttered windows, of muttered exclamations, half caught, half understood. He was never again to be quite free from the neighbourhood of that half-world; he would never be quite sure of his dominance of it until he died.
In a disturbing episode, Jeremy’s long-standing dream of running away to sea turns to obsession when a sailor grants him a sight of his tattoos. When he is stalked by the man for weeks after this encounter, pleasure mingles with fear. ‘Strangest of all was the sense of evil that came with the attraction.’ The seafarer’s own interest, as it turns out, is not in Jeremy himself but in the contents of the Coles’ house. Even so, the emotions explored, like those at play in the game of ‘teasing Miss Jones’, are murky. Jeremy is a book about children, therefore, rather than for children. In the course of it, he grows in empathy as well as self-knowledge, becoming increasingly aware of the adults around him as people in their own right and not just the backdrop to his own drama. When he finds Miss Jones in tears and learns her history, she springs to life as a real, suffering person. ‘The world seemed to be suddenly filled with pressing, thronging figures, all with businesses of their own.’ Perhaps, he realizes, even Aunt Amy has a history, and cries. Most intriguing and enigmatic of all the adults is Uncle Samuel, untidy and unshaven, with his paint-stained smock, crimson slippers, blue tam-o’-shanter and cryptic remarks. He is not yet the mentor and confidant he becomes later in the trilogy, when Jeremy is admitted to the sanctum of the studio. Even at 8, though, Jeremy senses that this disreputable relative has more to teach him than the other adults of the family; only Uncle Samuel, like Jeremy himself, views things through the eyes of the imagination. In Walpole’s books about adult passions we are conscious of his limitations. Entertaining and gripping at his best, at his worst he can appear shallow and facile. But in articulating a child’s feelings he is masterly. Jeremy resonates with the sense of mystery and wonder, of being a child in a world that is both frightening and marvellous.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 65 © Helen MacEwan 2020


About the contributor

Helen MacEwan is a translator. She is also the author of books about Charlotte Brontë’s time in Brussels, which has been her home for the past fifteen years, and of a life of Winifred Gérin, a Brontë biographer with a Belgian link.

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