The New York gal and the Shropshire lad

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The Independent Online
Somebody said to me the other day that the reason Jane Austen was so popular in New York at the moment was not that people there found her nostalgic or quaint or anything, but that all the things Jane Austen's characters were so worried about were all the things that people in New York are getting worried about right now. Making the right marriage, meeting the right people, getting the right money, making the right move at the right time ...

This may be true. And if it is true, you can feel the twitch of alarm among Austen-lovers already. Fancy their Jane being taken away from them by a transatlantic gang! Bad enough having her hijacked by television, but having her colonised by the Americans as well ...

Things like this are always happening in literature, with reputations going up and down, in and out of fashion, up in one place and down in another. Here's another example of the Jane Austen bandwagon doing a slight detour:

"Jane Austen is a lady whose genius, compact of humour and keen observation, entitles her to a high place in English letters. But there has sprung up a Cult concerning Jane. The Snobs, I fear, have got her: the pale horror- dogs who yelp and maunder over Proust and Pirandello are hugging Jane to their bosoms and treating her least novels as if they were a Byzantine codex."

This was written in 1927 by DB Wyndham Lewis, and seems to be a cry of alarm at the thought of the Bloomsbury mob claiming Jane Austen as one of theirs, or at least at the thought of the literati taking her out of the realm of the much-read into the much-discussed.

She seems to have survived the treatment pretty well, as well as she is surviving the dual assault at the moment by television and Emma Thompson, and Wyndham Lewis need not have worried.

Not that he did worry. Perusing a collection of pieces written in the Twenties, I find that DB Wyndham Lewis was much more obsessed with another writer who has also recently turned up in the anniversary news: AE Housman.

I am not sure what Housman's reputation is today - quite high with the Shropshire Tourist Board, I would imagine, and fairly quiet elsewhere - but it must have been pretty big in the Twenties; and this riled DB Wyndham Lewis considerably, as he found Housman's Shropshire stuff too gloomy for words.

He catches Housman's tone quite well when he suggests that if Housman had written "I'm To Be Queen of the May!" instead of Tennyson, it would have come out like this:

Oh Mother, wake and call me,

It is the First of May!

Whatever may befall me

I simply must be gay

Though clammy lies the clay.

On Wenlock Edge the plovers

Depress me with their wail,

The lads who were my lovers

Are hanged in Shrewsbury Gaol,

It makes me rather pale.

If I should catch pneumonia

Through walking in the dew

I leave my pet begonia

To little Sister Sue,

My mulching iron, too.

"There is always," says one of DB Wyndham Lewis's characters, "something rather Housmannish happening in Shropshire. It is not always so with Sussex, which is owned in equal parts by Mr Belloc, Mr Kipling and Miss Sheila Kaye-Smith. It is not always so with Mr Hardy's Wessex. But with Shropshire, yes. The civilian population is always being hanged there, for example. Yet a Crimean veteran died of old age in Ludlow over the weekend, I observe: it is a little difficult to realise that he, too, was a Shropshire lad, for they generally get a bullet in the heart soon after enlistment ..."

Nor, come to think of it, for those who are unaware of him, have I left myself space to say anything about DB Wyndham Lewis, one of the best but most forgotten humorists of the century. He was not Wyndham Lewis, who was someone much more serious. He was the very first Beachcomber - JB Morton came after him - and he later adopted the pen-name Timothy Shy, under which pseudonym, unlikely though it seems, he came to write a novel- length St Trinian's story for Ronald Searle's drawings ...

More of him some other time, I hope.

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