Like many a child of the 80s, I grew up reading T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958). Merlyn was the reason I kept reading. If Wart, the young Arthur, was my surrogate, then Merlyn was the man I wanted to be. Like me, Merlyn was out of step with his fellow human beings. In Merlyn’s case, this discrepancy resulted from him living his life backwards like Benjamin Button, only over multiple centuries; in my case, it resulted from undiagnosed Asperger’s. In White’s books, Merlyn was able to transform his eccentricity into a source of strength: an ability I dearly wished to have.
I stopped reading White after primary school. But I became interested in him again when I had become an eighteenth centuryist and discovered that White shared my enthusiasm for the period. Another of White’s children’s books, his 1946 Mistress Masham’s Repose, imagines that a group of Lilliputians have founded a colony on a small island in the grounds of a Blenheim-like palace in England. The Sword and the Stone also includes a reference to eighteenth-century literature, thanks to Merlyn’s living his life backwards. When Wart asks Merlyn and Archimedes the owl whether birdsong is language, Merlyn slightly misquotes The Natural History of Selbourne (1789): “‘Gilbert White,” said Merlyn, “remarks, or will remark, however you like to put it, that ‘the language of birds is very ancient, and, like other ancient modes of speech, little is said, but much is intended.’” White’s version of Arthurian romance often seems filtered through an eighteenth-century sensibility.
My own research into eighteenth-century anecdotes led me to the two books in which White gives his eighteenth-century obsession full reign: The Age of Scandal, published in 1950, and its 1952 sequel, The Scandalmonger. These books are crammed with anecdotes from White’s readings in eighteenth-century letters, journals, and biographies. Their presiding figure is that of Horace Walpole, who provides many of the anecdotes in the books, and whose stuffing of the fake Gothic mansion Strawberry Hill with curious objects provides a kind of metaphor for White’s own collections of literary tidbits.
Some of the chapters in the books read as small essays. But the quoted material from the eighteenth century continually threatens to overwhelm White’s own prose. In one chapter in The Scandalmonger, White begins by quoting Samuel Johnson: “I love anecdotes…If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but few in comparison of what we might get.” In the chapter that follows, White simply reproduces a series of anecdotes “mainly from Walpole” and “without system,” including this one:
AN ILL-USED SEA CAPTAIN
Last Monday there was at Court a Sea-Captain who had been made prisoner at Algiers. He was complaining how cruelly he had been used. They asked how? “Why,” said he, “you see I am not strong, and could do no hard labour, and so they put me to hatch eggs.” But his greatest grievance was, that, when he had hatched a brood, they took away his chickens. Did you ever hear of a more tender-hearted old hen?
In this chapter, White’s anecdotes succeed in escaping from any strictures of argument or category that might curtail them. In other chapters, however, there are clear principles for the selection of anecdotes. White has a chapter on executions, for example, and a chapter on gossip of the royal family. Other chapters are more idiosyncratic. There is a chapter on ears. There is also a chapter on the eighteenth-century concept of “Bottom.” To “have” bottom (as opposed to having a bottom) was to exhibit strength of character. But the body part also denoted by that word is never far away. White opens the chapter, however, by quoting the anecdote recorded by Boswell in which Johnson solemnly eulogized a woman by saying she “had a bottom of good sense”—and reduces the mixed company he is in to an infantile fit of giggling.
White goes on to note that there was indeed a strong connection between the two meanings of the word, for “The earliest training for the faculty was appropriately concentrated on the physical bottom.” He quotes a number of caning anecdotes, like the story of the master “who was accustomed to flagellate boys every morning according to a list provided” and “contrived to muddle his lists and whipped the confirmation class before the error was corrected.” The chapter ends with a series of examples of “Bottom” being exhibited, including the exploits of John Mytton who was often compelled to show his “Bottom” (in the metaphorical sense) through acts of daring:
Mytton drove a chaise across country, by night, over hedge and ditch, till it collapsed: he jumped the iron railings of his park: he introduced a live bear at a dinner party: he galloped over a rabbit-warren to see whether his horse would fall, which it did: in the end, to cure the hiccoughs, he set light to his own nightshirt, and burned himself to death. It was to prove that he was not afraid.
(It is a pity to spoil a good story, but Mytton did not die from the nightshirt incident. He died from the effects of alcohol withdrawal in the Kings Bench Prison at the age of thirty-eight.)
White’s preface to The Age of Scandal presents the book as “a last, loving and living picture of an aristocratic civilization which we shall never see again.” The actual books that White wrote, however, are much more interesting than this description would suggest. They hardly represent a eulogy to a lost aristocratic civilization. Many of the anecdotes White unearths take unabashed delight in human suffering, like the one in the chapter on ears, originally told by the Irish judge Sir Jonah Barrington in his Personal Sketches of His own Times (1827), of two day-laborers named Ned and Dennis who attempt to catch a salmon in the river with a scythe. As Dennis leans his head over the river and Ned swings the scythe, the farm implement takes off Dennis’ head and one of Ned’s ears, which float together down the river and are picked up together by one of the workers at a mill-dam. When asked to whom the head belongs by the miller, the man responds, “Whoever owned it had three ears at any rate.”
While White’s The Age of Scandal and The Scandalmonger are flagrantly unscholarly, with no footnotes and little care for accuracy of quotation or fact, the picture of the eighteenth century that emerges in them often seems close to the one coming into view in recent studies of eighteenth-century literature. Nobody reading White’s “little scrap-book[s] of a nostalgic Tory,” for example, would be surprised to learn of the extent to which the eighteenth-century upper classes took pleasure in cruelty, something that Simon Dickie extensively documents in his Cruelty and Laughter. The snobbery White extends (with his eighteenth-century subjects) to the labouring classes might be off-putting, but his undermining, at every turn, of normative masculinity and sexuality makes him a more attractive figure.
White’s books also sit well with a tendency in recent books on eighteenth-century literature to draw attention to the processes of selection and juxtaposition that led to their own creation, a willingness to draw attention to the fact that other illustrations might have been chosen and different stories about the period been told. As a result, many recent books seem balanced between exhibiting the idiosyncrasies of the eighteenth century and those of the critic’s own mind. I am thinking here especially of Jenny Davidson’s Breeding, Sean Silver’s The Mind is a Collection, and Brad Pasanek’s Metaphors of Mind. In many respects, we are only just catching up to White’s eighteenth century. And that only seems a fitting twist of fate for a man who felt more comfortable in an imagined past than in the present, much like Merlyn condemned “to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind.”
James Robert Wood is a lecturer in eighteenth-century literature at the University of East Anglia. His book Anecdotes of Enlightenment: Human Nature from Locke to Wordsworth will be published by The University of Virginia Press in June 2019. Find him on Twitter @drjameswood