What Is The Origin Of (235)?

Darby and Joan

There are some benefits to growing old. Admittedly, the limbs are not as supple as they once were, there are more aches and pains and the faculties are not as sharp, but it is a pleasure to be able to do what I want at a pace of my choosing. My wife and I are in danger of becoming that archetypal elderly couple, Darby and Joan, spending our final years, decades I trust, in contentment. Where does the phrase come from and who were Darby and Joan, if anyone?

There is a tendency, as we have seen, in etymological researches to seek to identify a phrase with real people, often erroneously. That may be the case here. The starting point is a reference that the eccentric lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, in the Literary Magazine in 1756 to a ballad about Darby and Joan. Johnson may have had in mind an anonymous poem, printed in the weekly journal, the Gentleman’s Magazine, in March 1735, entitled The Joys of Love never forgot. It contains these lines; “Old Darby, with Joan by his side,/ You’ve often regarded with wonder:/ He’s dropsical, she is sore-eyed,/ Yet they’re never happy asunder.

The devoted couple are thought to have been John Darby and his wife, Joan, a printer who lived and worked in Bartholomew Close in London. The poem is ascribed to Henry Woodfall who worked for him. However, in The Literary Janus, edited by J Wilson and published in the early part of the nineteenth century, there is a similar poem by the title of The Happy Couple. The only difference in the text is you’ve is replaced by I’ve in the second line and in the fourth line reads “and yet they are never asunder.” The couple are supposed to be long-standing residents of a Yorkshire village, three miles from Tadcaster, called Healaugh, and the poem is attributed to Lord Wharton, who was Lord of the Manor of the village.

It is difficult to know what to make of this. A reason to doubt the Woodfall story is that Darby the printer is thought to have died in 1704. Is it likely that he would have waited thirty years to laud his master and his devoted wife? The Yorkshire Darby and Joan seemed to have lived an idyllic life, Darby smoking his pipe and quaffing his ale while Joan “in all the garrulity of age, relating tales of days long passed away” and going to church on Sundays. Are these the prototypical happy, contented couple? I’m not sure it matters.

What is clear is that by the beginning of the nineteenth century the phrase was well established. The Times noted in its edition of May 26, 1801 that a new dance by the title of Darby and Joan was being “received with loud and general plaudits” and in June there was a ballet of the same name doing the rounds. On February 1, 1802 the Thunderer announced that what it termed as a “comic divertissement” was being performed at London’s Royalty Theatre by the name of Darby and Joan; or The Dwarf.

By the middle of the century Darby and Joan was being used to describe a seemingly devoted couple. In He Knew He Was Right, published in 1869, Anthony Trollope wrote, “when we travel together, we must go Darby and Joan fashion.” The verbose Henry James, writing in The Golden Bowl, published in 1904, described a couple thus; “their silence eked out for her by his giving her his arm and their then crawling up their steps quite mildly and contentedly, like some old Darby and Joan…” Darby and Joan were the names given to the devoted couple who provide hospitality in Herman Melville’s Omoo from 1847.

There was a popular song in the 1890s, written by Frederic Weatherly, entitled Darby in Joan in which Joan serenades her hubby with these words; “Darby dear we are old and grey,/ Fifty years since our wedding day./ Shadow and sun for every one,/ as the years roll by.” The couple also made an appearance in Hammerstein and Kern’s 1937 classic song, The Folks Who Live on the Hill.

Whoever they were, they have been an enduring symbol of a long and happy marriage and long may it continue.

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Book Corner – January 2019 (2)

Any Human Heart – William Boyd

How well do we really know someone? Henry James opined “never say you know the last word about any human heart” and as well as giving Boyd the title for this 2002 novel, he may well be right. The construct of Boyd’s novel is that it is a compilation of diaries or, as the French more elegantly put it, journaux intimes, detailing the life and times of the protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, with short bridging sections as we move from one phase to another. As a result we are intended to get a deeper insight into what made the character tick. But do we and do we really care?

It was an easy read written in an engaging style and offers some interesting perspectives on human existence that resonate more with me as I move inexorably towards that point when I shuffle off this mortal coil. “Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary – it is the respective proportion of those two categories that make that life appear interesting or humdrum”, Boyd writes and “life does this to you sometimes – leads you up a path and then drops you in the shit, to mix a metaphor.”  Mountstuart’s life is certainly an extraordinary aggregation of good and bad luck, triumphs interspersed with moments of disaster and tragedy.

I enjoyed the early parts of the book, where Mountstuart starts out on his journey through the 20th century as a rather precocious, priggish and, doubtless, very annoying public schoolboy, picking up two life-long friends, Peter Scabius and Ben Leeping, along the way. It is then on to Oxford (natch), and afterwards to London where he establishes himself as a writer.

After war service as a naval intelligence officer and a return to a much-changed post-war London and then to New York as an art dealer courtesy of Leeping, his career becomes more preposterous, teaching in Nigeria just in time to witness the Biafran war, and then back to London where he falls on bad times and gets mixed up with a Bader Meinhoff cell, and then skips to France to enjoy a modest retirement.

I may have lived a sheltered life but this seems much too much excitement to pack into a life. During this odyssey, we are asked to believe that Mountstuart rubbed shoulders and spent time with many of the literary and artistic celebs of the 20th century. The pages are littered with scenes involving the likes of James Joyce, Ian Fleming, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, not forgetting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It all gets a bit wearing at times. At least, Anthony Powell, who appears in the book as an affable chap, had the grace to hide Nick Jenkins’ celeb mates under the cloak of pseudonymity.

Ironically, it is the fictional characters who seem to come to life for me, not least Mountstuart’s grand and haughty mother who slowly and inexorably falls into what were termed reduced circumstances, thanks to unwise investments ahead of the Wall Street crash (natch) – it is that sort of book – even having to resort to taking in lodgers.

I found Mountstuart hard to warm to and even when he hits his lowest point, subsisting on dog food at a time when Scabius, whose literary merits he had derided, was riding the crest of a wave, it is hard to have too much sympathy for him.

Boyd’s book is ambitious book, bestriding the 20th century and some of its significant literary and historical events, but for me it falls a little short.

Book Corner – November 2018 (4)

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

I mentioned a little while ago that Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street was denied the 1921 Pulitzer Prize when the Trustees overturned the jury’s decision. The prize was awarded to a more established and perhaps more conventional writer, Edith Wharton, making her the first woman to receive the Pulitzer. The winning book, The Age of Innocence, was her 12th novel and appeared initially as a four part serial in the Pictorial Review. It takes its title from a 1785 Joshua Reynolds’ painting, A Little Girl.

On the whole, the Trustees were just about right. Wharton’s novel is a more complete, more rounded piece of work than Lewis’ patchy Main Street but, interestingly, they both explore the theme of how society and its conventions can thwart the individual. Instead of little America Wharton’s book plunges us into New York society of the 1870s and explores its foibles and conventions and the threat that new money and younger people with changing attitudes and values presents to the rather ossified, conventional ways of their elders. She is in her element in poking fun, either directly or with withering parenthetical remarks.

The story is a love triangle. At the start of the book we meet part-time lawyer, Newland Archer – surely his surname is a nod to Henry James’ creation in Portrait of a Lady? – who is engaged to be married to the well-connected, shy, lovely Mary Welland. But there is trouble in Paradise when Mary’s cousin, the exotic Countess Ellen Olenska, scandalously separated from her husband, arrives on the scene. Newland is smitten. He is torn between the stability, comfort and influence that he will derive from a marriage that cements him into the upper echelons of New York society and the all-consuming passions that the unconventional, socially ostracised and rebellious Countess stoke in him.

The pressures of convention and society win out and Mary and Newland are married. But the fire in his heart that Ellen has lit will not be extinguished. After much agonising, Newland decides to elope and join Ellen who has returned to Europe, without leaving word to her beau. Just as Newland steels himself to announce his intentions to Mary, she drops the P word. She is pregnant and, indeed, suspecting the affair, had caused Ellen to leave for Europe. A man of honour, Newland stays with his wife in what becomes a loveless union.

The final scene even affected a world-weary cynic like me. In Paris with his sone, Mary long dead, Newland is offered the opportunity to visit his one-time lover. But he prefers to sit it out on a park bench conveniently looking on to the window of Ellen’s rooms. Perhaps he is right. Memories are far better than reality.

The crux of the book is how to read Mary. Was it just a set of unfortunate circumstances or was she a manipulative little so-and-so, not quite the demure wife that Wharton portrays? I favour the latter interpretation.

It is a great read, some wonderful passages, Wharton writing in an easy style that engages her readership. There is a wider message too behind the book. New York society is/was too suffocating and insular. It needed culture and new influences to breathe and flourish. Exactly what Sinclair Lewis was saying about Mid-West America.

Book Corner – August 2018 (3)

The Spoils of Poynton – Henry James

Published in 1896, by James’ standards this is a short book, running to about 250 pages. The unkind critic might argue that it could all be boiled down to a short story of around twenty to thirty pages but Henry James wouldn’t be Henry James if he didn’t use 5,000 words where a hundred would do and sentences that positively creak under the weight of subordinate clauses.

The Spoils of Poynton, according to Jamesians, is the transition point between his early and later styles and there is certainly something of the theatrical in its construction. There are relatively few characters, five of whom only four really play prominent parts in the drama. The action, such as it is, is episodic, staged in set pieces. James was unsuccessful as a playwright and used some of the techniques of crafting a stage drama in constructing the novel.

As often is the way with novels of the later Victorian era, the Spoils of Poynton is much ado about relatively little. In essence, Mrs Gereth has filled her house, Poynton, with furnishings, tapestries, paintings, objects d’art, of which she is inordinately proud. The death of her husband means that the ownership of these artefacts falls to her son, Owen, to do with as he pleases. Owen is engaged to be married to Mona Brigstock who doesn’t share her appreciation of the finer things in life. What tension there is in the book revolves around the battle of wills between Mesdames Gereth and Brigstock, the artefacts being the spoils of the battle.

The character with one of the most ludicrous names in English literature, Fleda Vetch, is initially Mrs Gereth’s willing conspirator and develops what are termed as feelings for Owen. But she will not steal the poor sap, a pawn in the game of three powerful females, from his betrothed. Much of the book is concerned with Fleda wrestling with her moral dilemma – does she do Mrs Gereth’s bidding and wrestle Owen away from Mona, thus rescuing the spoils from a woman of questionable taste, or does she go with her moral sensibilities and leave well alone? Frankly, the scenes between Owen and Fleda are the most strained and unconvincing parts of the story. Ultimately, Fleda loses everything, including the spoils which are consumed in flames as Poynton burns down.

In many senses, Fleda is a foil to Mrs Gereth. Gereth’s aesthetics are positively Olympian and purely black and white. Something either accords with her refined definition of what is art and what is beautiful or else it doesn’t. When she visits Ricks, the already furnished alternative accommodation that Owen has found for her to live in following her eviction from Poynton, all she sees is ugliness. Fleda has more mortal set of aesthetic sensibilities. She appreciates that a person’s view of an object’s worth can be tinged by such feelings as sentiment and association. Tellingly, she says “by certain natures, hideous objects can be loved.

As the book progresses one starts to wonder whether Mrs Gereth’s aesthetics are all they are cracked up to be and whether she is as guilty of bad taste as her mortal enemy, Mona Brigstock. A point perhaps reinforced by Mona’s and Fleda’s attachment to Owen whom Mrs Gereth sees as a boorish dolt.

There are some striking similarities, at least in terms of plot, with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Both books are about women whose moral standards put them under considerable emotional stress. Both Fleda and Fanny Price are in love with the sons of the women they are staying with and both the chaps are blithely unaware of this romantic interest. The denouement is different – in Austen’s work Fanny gets her man.

There is enough in the book to recommend it but it is not one of James’ best.

The Streets Of London – Part Seventy Two

Millbank, SW1P

Millbank runs from the end of Abingdon Street by the Black Rod Garden along the north side of the Thames to the junction with Vauxhall Bridge Road. Today it is a road lined with impressive buildings overlooking the River Thames, including the Tate Britain gallery, the Chelsea College of Art and design and government offices. It is all rather pleasant and up-market but it wasn’t always so.

The street takes its name from a watermill which was situated near what is known as College Green and owned by Westminster Abbey – it is referred to in John Norden’s map of London, dating from 1593. However, it seems to have been the only redeeming feature in an area that was described as a place of plague pits and a “low, marshy locality” suitable only for having a pop at the snipe which frequented the “bogs and quagmires.

By the mid 17th century the area was known as Tothill Fields, or Tuttle Fields as Pepys called it, and following Cromwell’s crushing victory at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, it was used as a holding area for 4,000 Royalist prisoners before their enforced migration to the West Indies to serve on the sugar plantations. The area was so insanitary that around 1,200 prisoners died before they could be shipped off. During the Great Plague of 1665-66 it served as a communal burial ground for the victims. Pepys noted in his Diaries, “I was much troubled this day to hear at Westminster how the officers do bury the dead in open Tuttle Fields, pretending want of room elsewhere.

The mill was demolished by Sir Robert Grosvenor around 1736 to make way for a grand house, which was itself demolished in 1809 to make way for the world’s first modern prison, reconnecting the area with incarceration. The design was unusual, with its walls forming an irregular octagon, enclosing seven acres of land. There was a stagnant moat running around the walls, the vestiges of which can be seen in the ditch running between Cureton Street and John Islip Street. Within the walls there were six buildings running off like spokes from the central hub which was the Governor’s house. The idea was that the design made it easier for the warders to keep an eye on what was going on but the labyrinthine corridors meant that they often got lost! And the marshy conditions caused considerable engineering difficulties which racked up the costs.

The prison opened for business on 26th June 1816, its first batch of prisoners being women, later joined by the first group of men in January 1817. Its primary purpose was to serve as a staging post for those prisoners who were to be transported to Australia – one origin of Pom is that it is an acronym of Prisoner of Millbank. Along the riverside you can still see some of the capstans to which the prison vessels were moored. Transportation officially ended in 1868 but by then Millbank had been superseded by the latest in prison design that was Pentonville, opened in 1842.

Dickens, in David Copperfield, described the exterior of the prison as “a melancholy waste … A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls” while Henry James, in his novel, the Princess Casamassima, published in 1886, went one better by describing the interior as having “high black walls whose inner face was more dreadful than the other’, ‘grey, stony courts’, ‘steep unlighted staircases’ and ‘circular shafts of cells.” The inmates, he wrote, were “dreadful figures, scarcely female.

The prison closed in 1890, demolished two years later. Tate Britain was built on the site in 1897, across the road from the Royal Army Medical School where the first typhoid inoculation was developed, reinforcing the area’s link with disease, and some of the bricks from the prison were used between 1897 and 1902 to build social housing for over 4,000 residents on the Millbank estate. The angularity of the modern streets in the area are a testament to the old prison and the rather splendid Morpeth Arms is worth a visit, built originally for the prison warders and underneath which run a warren of tunnels used to ferry prisoners from the river to the prison and back. It is even said to be haunted.

A fascinating area.