Wednesday 11 July 2012

Farewell Victoria

My vintage Penguin was
published in 1945, and has
a dancing Penguin logo,
used for a short period.
Farewell Victoria, by TH White is a paean to bygone era and must, I think, have been something of a curiosity, even when it was first published in 1933. It's interesting for its record of rural customs in Victorian times, and the feudal existence of people living in a great house, but I felt it was less successful as a novel. Mundy - groom, soldier, coachman, hackney carriage driver – is dying at the age of 83, and looks back on his long life, the momentous events he has seen, and the people he has known.

Somehow there is a lack of empathy for the characters, and they never really come to life, but perhaps that is White's intention, since people and events are viewed from a distance, by a dying man, and what emerges is a series of moments in time: dusty, faded snapshots of the past retrieved from his memory. Here he is at the start of the story, the eight-year-old son of a groom, already good with horses, running errands in the stables, watching the children of the house, trying out horses for them, and caring for their animals.

Time passes and we see him fall in love, only to lose his wife and surviving child to his gamekeeper friend. By the 1870s he is a soldier in the Zulu Wars, and by 1901 when Queen Victoria dies, he marries his second wife, Alice, a cook. As the rest of the world moves into the age of the motor car, Mundy works as a coachman for an eccentric Russian countess, and following her death some 20 years later he sets himself up in business as a hackney carriage driver, with a horse-drawn vehicle.

Mundy himself is known throughout by his surname (although at one stage his brother refers to him as Johnnie), which seemed to distance him even further, annoyed me, though I suppose it shouldn't, since servants were never called by their Christian names, and there are plenty of books with characters who are known by their surname. And I hated the way White compares Mundy and the other lower-class characters to animals. Mundy is like a monkey, his first wife Ellen has kittenish qualities, and Foxwell, the charismatic gamekeeper, is an otter. From what little I could find out about White I think he regarded animals and working men as noble creatures and may have viewed as complimentary, but personally I found it patronising and demeaning – it dehumanises people.

Towards the end of his life, while he is still working, Mundy is described as:

An old man came slowly from behind one of the horses in a stall, wiping his hands upon the sack he wore for an apron. The hair was of that singular whiteness which is seldom achieved except in wigs; the face, wrinkled and fallen in till it was practically a skull, was the skull of an old monkey. It was a gentle face, of happiness and sympathy, that of a domestic animal, such as is called a friend to man.

I think that's horrible when he's talking about a fellow human-being. Overall, White seems to have had an idealised image of the Victorian period (and the past in general) as well as the 'Working Man' who was proud, independent, loyal to his betters, and determined not to accept state hand-outs. He acknowledges the social problems that existed in the 1930s, and says: “The end of the Victorian era had banished man from the world.” But he's no social reformer, and you get the impression he'd welcome a return to the old paternalistic system.

His account of the carnage of the Zulu Wars is very much of its time, with no effort to explain the issues involved, and to see the Zulus as anything other than a savage people in a primitive land, and all I can say is that hopefully we have moved on.

Novelist TH White
Where White comes into his own is when he writes about nature and rural life. A rabbit in the early morning mist; the gamekeeper doing up his gaiters as prepares for the day ahead, and the grooms soaping saddles and leathers and washing the horses, are all lovingly described. He does, however, have a tendency to indulge in some over-blown, fanciful writing – a 'toilsome angler' sticks in my mind, as does a dragonfly flying 'with the action of those aeroplanes which were still within the womb of time'.

I didn't hate 'Farewell Victoria', and I'm not sorry I read it, but it is very different to 'The Once and Future King, or 'Mistress Masham's Repose' (although his keen interest in nature is apparent in both). It lacks the quirky charm and humour of both those books, and somehow seems to hark back to an earlier age, not just in the subject matter, but in the way its written, and the opinions expressed. From reading this I had the feeling that if I had met Terence Hanbury White I would not have liked him, and that feeling was compounded by an interview with Robert Robinson, which is available at the BBC archive 


  1. I've not read The Once and Future King but have certainly heard of the book and its famous writer. Your review here informs me the other side, or shall I say, one of many sides, of a writer, or, a person. I can understand your feeling indignant about his degrading descriptions of some people. Maybe White should have stayed with fantasy rather than realism in his writing?

    1. I don't think he really regarded himself as a fantasy writer - The Once and Future King was written as a serious interpretation of Malory's Morte d'Arthur, which he'd studied at Cambridge, and I think it's wonderful - funny and sad, well written, very idiosyncratic, and full of insights into human nature. Farewell Victoria wasn't in the same league at all and, as you tell, it brought all my socialist principles to the fore!