The Bridge Of San Luis Rey – A Link Across The Abyss

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey is Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel about a group of people who, in the summer of 1714, happen to be crossing a Peruvian rope bridge when it collapses. A scientifically inclined friar witnessing the disaster, is so traumatised that he sets out to research the victims’ biographies for reasons explaining their seemingly random fate.

Novels have a contradictory history when it comes to morality. There is a tradition where fictional characters are rewarded or punished according to their choices. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded of 1740 is an early example. But authors are not always fussy school teachers giving marks for good behaviour. In 1748 John Cleland published Fanny Hill, an exact reversal of novels which emphasise virtue – describing the life of a prostitute, who learns to enjoy her work, and use it to find freedom and financial independence.

So, is the God of Thornton Wilder’s book more of a Samuel Richardson or a John Cleland? The Bridge Of San Luis Rey suggests the Almighty could be both or neither. For a start, the vices or virtues of an individual often depend on who you talk to, or what particular aspects of an individual you are considering. And the ‘reward’ or ‘punishment’ is equally ambivalent. Are the victims of disaster good people called to heaven early, or bad people cast into the abyss? Judgement of people is never as straightforward as it seems. The image of the bridge in Thornton Wilder’s novel is an apt one, since instead of easy categories we get a sense of opposites existing together, with a fragile link spanning the gap between them. In a figurative kind of way, maybe the bridge collapses when people stop trying to make a leap of understanding. The Catholic Inquisition looms behind the action in this book, an illustration of human behaviour at its most cruelly judgemental.

This all makes for an intelligent and moving novel, relevant for our own times when there is still a temptation to judge behaviour rather than seek to understand it.

The Penguin Book Of Dragons – Monsters Of The Mind

The Penguin Book of Dragons is a fascinating collection of writing referencing this famous mythic beast, with examples dating from about 1500BC, to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

When I was at university in the 1980s, one of my courses covered what was called ‘agitprop’, a kind of aggressive, black and white theatrical style used to push a political agenda. Dragons started out in life with a starring role in what you might call religiously inspired agitprop. Heroes of all religious shades, wishing to acquire an impressive reputation, required a formidable enemy to defeat. The scarier the enemy, the more impressive the chosen one’s triumph. Drawing perhaps on an instinctive fear of snakes, a ferocious, fire-breathing serpent evolved to take on the task of symbolic enemy. For millennia this super snake was a tool, actually more a blunt instrument, used to build up heroes, run down opponents, or maintain discipline – in the ‘go to bed or the monster will get you’ sense. The Loch Ness Monster derived from accounts of this kind. In a more general context the dragon became a symbol of temptation or greed. While Genesis had a serpent persuading Eve to eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, later more secular incarnations were characteristically portrayed as guardians of cursed treasure hoards.

So pervasive was dragon imagery, so tied into primeval desires and fears, that early scientists bent themselves out of shape trying to make a mythic animal into a real one. In the case of the Loch Ness Monster, scientific investigations continued until quite recently – a 2019 DNA study of the loch showing a large eel population.

Slowly as the centuries went by, with people became at least a little more rational, these ferocious creatures began to lose their power. Though one scurrilous eighteenth century journalist suggested there were dragons living near Horsham, Sussex, their habitats were generally located in conveniently distant, inaccessible locations, the kind of places that were progressively squeezed away by the advance of knowledge and technology. By the early twentieth century, dragons had been tamed into cute characters in children’s stories, by writers such as Kenneth Grahame and Edith Nesbit.

And yet, all the human characteristics which gave birth to dragons still survive. People remain greedy, vulnerable to temptation, and are still prone to an irrational simplification of complicated situations into an easily digested agitprop. We might be more scientific these days, but irrationality in many ways is still a potent force, as seen in modern conspiracy theories and misinformation. Perhaps The Penguin Book of Dragons presents the trajectory of its narrative a little too neatly. There remain, after all, echoes of former dragon powers in Tolkien’s Smaug, and in the hatchlings of Westeros, which, in the Game of Thrones books, mark the return of a long-lost species of a fire breathing reptile to the world. Perhaps that return in George R.R. Martin’s hugely successful book series is instructive. Maybe dragons continue to lurk, not now in dark corners of the world, but in dark corners of the human mind from whence they originally emerged.

Howard’s End – A Small House With Big Rooms And Plenty Of Them

Howard’s End is E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel about three families: the wealthy, materialistic Wilcox clan, the somewhat less wealthy but much more cultured Schlegel siblings, and a working class couple, Leonard and Jacky Bast.

They are all brought together by circumstances, a chance meeting on holiday, or at a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The story of their goings on together raises a number of topics, such as the nature of art, or the need to see life with an open mind. But overall, the subject of change seems to be the most important theme. In some ways we get a picture of a world that really needs a shake up. Leonard Bast is a promising young man with artistic ambitions. But limited means make it very unlikely he will achieve his potential. Helen Schlegel tries to help him, with less than ideal results. Talking of Helen, women have yet to get the vote. However, despite this portrayal of a world in need of development, the book is also about the sadness of change. Old, well-established places represent a steadying distillation of human experience, which cannot be recovered once lost. The book is a constant struggle between a desire for stability and a need to move into the future – all focused on a rambling and attractive former farmhouse on the outskirts of London, called Howard’s End.

Howard’s End is Mrs Wilcox’s special place, where she was born and has lived all her life. Now facing her death, she decides to give the house to Margaret Schlegel, whose London home is soon to be demolished to make way for modern flats. However, when the time comes for Mr Wilcox to honour his wife’s wish, he ignores it.

As the ramifications of this decision unfold, I eventually got the feeling that a rather impossible compromise is required to keep people happy – their lives have to change but also stay the same. This tricky demand is behind Margaret’s house-hunting request, which would challenge even the most creative estate agent:

We merely want a small house with large rooms, and plenty of them.”

Margaret wants the cosiness of a small home along with space to expand and develop.

This is an interesting book, quite funny in places, usually at the points where artistic or wealthy pretensions get punctured. The school-masterly author voice can be a bit pompous, but its own pretensions sometimes find themselves cut done to size.

Howard’s End still deserves its classic status. After all, people continue to want small houses with big rooms and plenty of them.