All Creatures Great and Small

What I think I’m doing here: Passing along my enthusiasm for the recent TV adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small and feeling some feelings.

When I was little my mom would read me stories from the series of illustrated books James Herriot wrote for children. Memories of Blossom the runaway cow or Gyp the silent sheepdog are symbolic shortcuts back to the safe harbors of bedtime stories. My mom passed away a number of years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, but when I had children of my own I bought used copies of Only One Woof and The Market Square Dog and Blossom Comes Home, hopefully creating new memories, new harbors. To be an adult is to live a life where “everything has to be parried” says Knausgaard in Spring. If you’re lucky, like I was, you have opportunities as a child to simply accept and take in, and part of what I took in were stories of a vet at work in the Yorkshire Dales.

So, I am the sort of person primed for what the recent television adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small has to offer – a certain nostalgia for a place I’ve never been, long tracking shots of rolling green fields, the comfort of knowing that James will always do the honorable thing (always), and the web of family and community that Skeldale House promises (a safe harbor for its characters, and for its readers/viewers). Even if it was absolutely terrible, I would probably tune in – my adult defenses are no good here (so fair warning for what follows). But, I’m pleased to say it is actually quite good – strong performances, excellent production values, good writing – it works.

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On Telling the Truth

Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective. And yet there was no guarantee of this. Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness.

Penelope Fitzgerald – Human Voices

It is difficult to think of a contemporary institution one might trust to tell the truth above all. Reading Fitzgerald’s description of the wartime BBC in Human Voices I can’t help but internally roll my eyes a little. I am a creature of my own time, skeptical and critical, and one need not be a full-fledged cynic to harbor serious doubts about the truthfulness of most public discourse. Fitzgerald clearly loves her fictional BBC, “a cross between a civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur theatrical company that wasn’t too sure where next week’s money was coming from” and makes a case for its integrity. But, she is no sentimentalist, and her BBC’s commitment to the truth isn’t some simpleminded idealism. One of the more dramatic scenes in the novel involves the DPP (Director of Programme Planning) surreptitiously “pulling the plugs” on a live broadcast of an escaped French general who delivers a message of despair and encourages the British public to surrender in the face of the oncoming Nazis. The result is ten minutes of silence on the airwaves. Clearly, telling the truth is no simple matter.

Among the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s final writings from prison was an unfinished essay fragment on “What does it mean to tell the truth?” (it’s included in volume 16 of the English edition of his works, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945). Bonhoeffer was undergoing regular interrogations by the Gestapo at the time and so his concern with what it meant to tell the truth was an immediate, existential one. In a letter from prison he sums up the fragment: “telling the truth … means, to my mind, to say how something is in reality, i.e., respect for secrecy, for trust, for concealment.” Again, this isn’t truth-telling as a naive or quasi-robotic categorical imperative, but a consideration of what the truth looks like in a “life that is fully alive” – one that takes the “given world” into consideration.

For Bonhoeffer, the given world is one created by God. But, this divine foundation does not provide an escape hatch onto some higher, less ambiguous plane for the person seeking to tell the truth: “The truthfulness of our words that we owe to God must take on concrete form in the world. Our word should be truthful not in principle but concretely. A truthfulness that is not concrete is not truthful at all before God.” To tell the truth requires an assessment of the relationships one is engaged in, the position one holds, and the responsibilities one has: “the more diverse the life circumstances of people are, the more responsibility they have and the more difficult it is ‘to tell the truth.'” In Bonhoeffer’s view, a failure to pay attention to one’s context or position results in cynicism and ultimately in falsehood.

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Life will not conform

The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.

Penelope Fitzgerald, at the end of her life, quoted in Hermione Lee’s biography. “Life will not conform” summarizes Fitzgerald’s own struggles in many ways, and is a fundamental theme of her fiction (“life makes its own corrections” as a sledge driver says in The Beginning of Spring). They should probably just stamp it on the back of the books, I’m sure it would boost sales.

(As an aside: Lee is very good at arranging her material. She places this quote just prior to Fitzgerald starting to write and publish, in her late 50s. In another wise decision she discusses the books not in order of publication, but in relation to the parts of Fitzgerald’s life to which they seem most connected – although something like this was inevitable, I suppose, given how late in life Fitzgerald started writing/publishing).

Penelope Fitzgerald (Almost) Writes an Inklings Novel

In old age, Penelope began to sketch out notes for a novel called “Why (or ‘How’) We Were Very Young.” The setting is Oxford in the 1930s, and the main characters are to be J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Tolkien lectured to her on Anglo-Saxon and “Middle English,” with occasional readings from The Hobbit (published in 1937). She disliked him for his misogyny and used to refer to the “odious Tolkien.” C. S. Lewis was “darkly red-faced and black-gowned,” talking from the minute he entered the room, “the indispensable teacher, about whom all we personally knew was that he was pipe- and beer-loving, lived outside Oxford, and made a ‘thing’ of disliking the twentieth century. When T. S. Eliot came to read ‘The Waste Land’ to the Poetry Society, Lewis was not there.” Yet her notes sympathetically and comically reconstruct what their lives must have been like.

From Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, which deserves all the accolades it has received. Partly because Lee is just a good biographer, and partly because Fitzgerald’s life is better material for a biography than the back-of-the-book notes on her life (or her self-curated public persona) would indicate.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s potential “Inklings novel” (which obviously could have gone a number of directions) really would have been fantastic though. We got The Gate of Angels instead, which is not a bad consolation prize, but … I mean, come on. Both Lewis and Tolkien are, in a number of ways, the sorts of can’t-quite-cope-with-the-world male characters that appear so frequently in Fitzgerald’s novels. It gets me thinking about a contemporary author I could imagine writing an Inklings novel I might actually like to read. A.S. Byatt had Lewis as a tutor as well, I think, but she wouldn’t do a great job with this. Francis Spufford maybe, or Sarah Perry, but their books would be very different than Fitzgerald’s.

He had no ability to make himself seem better or other than he was. He could only be himself, and that not very successfully.

Penelope Fitzgerald, At Freddie’s