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Friday, August 11, 2006

 

Going mad in style

Eighteenth-century prose is wonderful. The balance, dry humour and forcefulness of it strikes me dumb with envy: it's hilarious while being completely deadpan, and winds up feeling unarguable. It's particularly funny when it's read out loud, as the sentences are long but intensely rhythmical, and you get the full force when you hear them spoken.

My boyfriend Gareth has pointed me to a particularly nice example. It's a little tale out of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott that feels like it might have been a footnote in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The ability to avoid using the same word twice in a row alone makes it worth a read; I do feel sorry for the sufferer, but I can't help enjoying the story.

A young man of fortune, who had led what is calle d so gay a life as considerably to injure both his health and fortune, was at length obliged to consult the physician upon the means of restoring, at least, the former. One of his principal complaints was the frequent presence of a set of apparitions, resembling a band of figures dressed in green, who performed in his drawing room a singular dance, to which he was compelled to bear witness, though he knew, to his great annoyance, that the whole corps de ballet existed only in his own imagination. His physician immediately informed him that he had lived upon town too long and too fast not to require an exchange to a more healthy and natural course of life. He therefore prescribed a gentle course of medicine, but earnestly recommended to his patient to retire to his own house in the country, observe a temperate diet and early hours, practising regular exercise, on the same principle avoiding fatigue, and assured him that by doing so he might bid adieu to black spirits and white, blue, green and grey, with all their trumpery. The patient observed the advice, and prospered. His physician, after the interval of a month, received a grateful lette r from him, acknowledging the success of his regimen. The green goblins had disappeared, and with them the unpleasant train of emotions to which their visits had given rise, and the patient had ordered his town house to be disfurnished and sold, while the furniture was to be sent down to his residence in the country, where he was determined in future to spend his life, without exposing himself to the temptations of town. One would have supposed this a well-devised scheme for health. But, alas! No sooner had the furniture of the London drawing room been placed in order in the gallery of the old manor house than the former delusion returned in full force: the green figurantes, whom the patient's depraved imagination had so long associated with these movables, came capering and frisking to accompany them, exclaiming with great glee, as if the sufferer should have rejoiced to see them, 'Here we all are - here we all are!' The visionary, if I recollect right, was so much shocked at their appearance, that he retired abroad, in despair that any part of Britain could shelter him from the daily persecution of this domestic ballet.

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