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Criticism of Society in the English Novel between the Wars

Hena Maes-Jelinek

Ronald Firbank

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  • 1 E.M. FORSTER, “Ronald Firbank,” in Abinger Harvest, London, 1961, p. 135.

To break a butterfly, or even a beetle, upon a wheel is
a delicate task. Lovers of nature disapprove,
moreover the victim is apt to reappear each time the wheel revolves,
still alive, and with a reproachful expression upon its
squashed face to address its tormentor in some such words
as the following: “Critic! What do you? Neither my
pleasure nor your knowledge has been increased. I was
flying or crawling, and that is all there was to be learnt
about me.1

  • 2 Anthony POWELL, Preface to The Complete Ronald Firbank, London, 1961, p. 10.
  • 3 Jocelyn BROOKE, Ronald Firbank and John Betjeman, Writers and their Work Series, London, 1962.

1In his preface to The Complete Ronald Firbank Anthony Powell says that “Ronald Firbank is not a writer to be critically imposed by argument. He must be approached … in a spirit of sympathy.”2 Though this is true with respect to most creative writers, it is certainly the first requisite with Firbank. Otherwise one is likely to wonder what to make of his provocative fantasies. He is greatly admired by some – mostly for his technical skill and originality and for the “opulent beauty” of his settings – and he is dismissed by others as unworthy of serious consideration. The few critics who allude to him agree that one cannot take too much of him at a time and that his novels cannot be dissected, for they are too unsubstantial to lend themselves to analytical scrutiny. Even Jocelyn Brooke,3 an obvious admirer, calls him a “pure artist” but has some difficulty in making good his claim. The extravagance of court life in an imaginary Balkan country, the desire of a fashionable woman to be immortalized by a stained-glass window in a cathedral, a visit to Greece, the whims of centenarians, the success and misadventures of artists, or the eccentricities of a cardinal, such are the frivolous elements on which Firbank builds his conversation-pieces. Only in Prancing Nigger, a novel about the misfortunes of Haitian Negroes, does he allow compassion to creep in very briefly, but he hastily returns to his frivolous mode.

  • 4 Ronald FIRBANK, The New Rythum and Other Pieces, London, 1962.

2Firbank’s characters resemble one another because they all talk about trifles in the same way, and it is impossible to remember which character belongs to which novel. What one does remember about his collection of unusual people – aristocrats, ecclesiastics and their choir-boys, artists, lesbians and homosexuals – is their uninhibited pursuit of pleasure, their determination to enjoy life in whatever way suits them (one soon learns to expect anything), their taste for the beautiful, and their capacity to ignore any unpleasantness or catastrophe, or to turn it into yet another source of enjoyable gossip. They are insensible to, or even unaware of, ordinary human concerns and emotions. Firbank creates his own delicate and fantastic world with complete disregard of morality. All his characters are perverts, some innocently, others naughtily, and this can only suggest affectation and a desire to shock. On the other hand, his posthumous papers4 denote a high degree of artistic seriousness and testify to the care with which his novels were built. That is why one cannot altogether ignore the amorality of his writings, especially since this aspect of his work came to be identified with the prevailing mood of the Twenties. Firbank is an innovator as a creator of gaily irresponsible social attitudes and as a stylist, who conveys exclusively through dialogue the futility and the heartless gaiety of these attitudes. His work seems ageless because of its fantastic character. But he produced at the right moment the kind of literature people were likely to enjoy, and the young writers of the Twenties who tried to interpret the spirit of their age were clearly influenced by him.

  • 5 Siegfried SASSOON, Siegfried’s Journey, p. 136.

3The world imagined by Firbank is deliberately cut off from reality. It reflects his desire to escape the ugliness of ordinary life and to ignore all sources of tension and displeasure. The life of retirement which Firbank led in Oxford during the War is characteristic of his refusal to be involved in any serious human predicament. Siegfried Sassoon, who knew him at the time, says: “Watching him through the jungle of orchids I found it hard to believe that this strange being could have any relationship with the outer world. He was as unreal and anomalous as his writings and the room – with its exquisite refinements and virtuosities of taste – seemed a pathetically contrived refuge.”5 The testimonies of his acquaintances suggest that he was trying to resemble his own characters, though his excessive shyness pre-vented him from meeting people with the same detached assurance. His withdrawal into a private world of nonsense and the rich elaborate elegance of his fictional mise-en-scène may be due to a particular mixture of fin de siècle aestheticism and a distaste for serious social problems. He was writing in a period of transition, but his work foreshadows attitudes which the lost generation of the Twenties was to adopt.

  • 6 Walter PATER, quoted by Cyril CONNOLLY in Enemies of Promise, Penguin Books, 1961, p. 4.

4Firbank’s novels express the passing moment: “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end,”6 and life is to be enjoyed at all costs. The behaviour of his characters is completely unpredictable and never accounted for. He presents as natural the most secret and unavowable feelings and instincts. Here is a fairly typical example of his writing:

  • 7 Ronald FIRBANK, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, in The Complete Ronald Firbank, (...)

It was to be an evening (flavoured with rich heroics) in honour of the convalescence of several great ladies, from an attack of ‘Boheara’, the new and fashionable epidemic, diagnosed by the medical faculty as ‘hyperaesthesia with complications’: a welcoming back to the world in fact of several despotic dowagers, not one perhaps of whom, had she departed this life, would have been really much missed or mourned! And thus, in deference to the intimate nature of the occasion, it was felt by the solicitous hostess that a Tertulia (that mutual exchange of familiar or intellectual ideas) would make less demand on arms and legs than would a ball: just the mind and lips … a skillful rounding-off here, developing there, chiselling, and putting-out feelers; an evening dedicated to the furtherance of intrigue, scandal, love, beneath the eager eyes of a few young girls, still at school, to whom a quiet party was permitted now and then. …
‘Vittorio forbids the circus on account of germs,’ the wife of the President of the National Society of Public Morals murmured momentously.
‘Really, with this ghastly Boheara, I shall not be grieved when the time comes to set out for dear Santander!’ a woman with dog-rose cheeks, and puffed, wrinkled eyes, exclaimed, focusing languishingly the Cardinal.
‘He is delicious in handsomeness tonight!’
‘A shade battered. But a lover’s none the worse in my opinion for acquiring technique,’ the Duchess of Sarmento declared.
‘A lover; what? His Eminence …??’
The Duchess tittered.
‘Why not? I expect he has a little woman to whom he takes off his clothes,’ she murmured, turning to admire the wondrous Madonna of the Mule-mill attributed to Murillo. On a wall-sofa just beneath, crowned with flowers and aigrettes, sat Conca, Marchioness of Mucarnudo.
Qué tal?
‘My joie de vivre is finished; still, it’s amazing how I go on!’ the Marchioness answered, making a corner for the duchess. She had known her ‘dearest Luiza’ since the summer the sun melted church bells and their rakish, pleasure-loving, affectionate hearts had dissolved together. But this had not been yesterday; no; for the Marchioness was a grandmother now. ‘Conca, Conca: one sees you’re in love.’ ‘He’s from Avila, dear – the footman.’ ‘What!’
‘Nothing classic – but oh!
‘Fresh and blonde? I’ve seen him.’
‘Such sep …’
‘Santiago be praised!’
The Marchioness of Macarnudo plied her fan. ‘Our hands first met at table … yes, dear; but what I always say is, one spark explodes the mine!’ And with a sigh she glanced rhapsodically at her fingers, powdered and manicured and encrusted with rings. ‘Our hands met first at table,’ she repeated.
‘And … and the rest?’ the duchess gasped.‘I sometimes wish, though, I resembled my sister more, who cares only for amorous, “delicate” men – the Claudes, so to speak. But there it is! And, anyway, dear’ the Marchioness dropped her voice, ‘he keeps me from thinking (ah perhaps more than I should) of my little grandson. Imagine, Luiza … Fifteen, white, and vivid rose, and ink-black hair. …’ And the Marchioness cast a long, pencilled eye towards the world-famous Pietà above her head. ‘Queen of Heaven, defend a weak woman from that!’ she besought.7

5Firbank creates his own Eden, in which there is nothing right or wrong in the pursuit of beauty and pleasure; his characters have no concern for human beings, for this would be an obstacle to the free enjoyment of life. Whoever takes life seriously is doomed to failure and banished from Eden. People spend their lives in futile or frivolous activities. At a party organized by Mrs. Henedge, a young man reads an unknown verse by Sappho, and all the ladies present go into raptures over it although the verse doesn’t make sense at all. Mrs. Henedge has a new dress made for her conversion to Catholicism and another one for her re-conversion to Anglicanism. Even death is taken lightly; though it may inspire a slight melancholy, this is dispelled by the excitement of the funeral arrangements, and the dominant feeling is one of satisfaction at being alive. Most characters simply refuse to be touched by death. Nor are marriage, love, or religion allowed to thwart selfish pleasure. They are turned into mere social affairs or instruments of vainglory. Money is not permitted to intrude either. When people are ruined, they withdraw from the scene without complaining, as any good loser is supposed to do. Life is a game in which women have the initiative; when they are good at it, they care little about men and their feelings, and often make use of them. In Firbank’s novels the female character who dominates the social scene is absolutely free, snobbish, unencumbered by considerations which entail personal dedication or suffering. The thoughtlessly cruel modern woman whose whims determine man’s fate was to reappear as Mrs. Viveash and Margot Metroland in Huxley’s and Waugh’s satires. Waugh’s vision of a crazy society in which clever women take the lead owes much to Firbank.

6The antics of the characters, their witty conversations, the pleasant nonsense of their existence and the inconsequence of their behaviour reduce life to sheer farce. Centenarians indulge their lingering sexual appetites; a cardinal, naked but for his mitre, pursues a choir-boy in his cathedral. But the carelessness and absurdity of the characters’ comportment also derive from their sense that purposiveness and dedication are of no avail to reach the one desirable aim: social success. Yet life seems to take revenge on nonsense and irresponsibility, for these often provoke catastrophe. In Caprice Miss Sinquier, who wants to be a great actress, is caught in a mouse-trap set by her most dedicated admirer and dies just after a successful first night. The son of Lord Intriguer dies of shock in an expedition to Sodome because he suddenly sees a jackal while composing a sonnet. In Inclinations a famous actress is shot by a fashionable woman firing at a flying fish. These catastrophes are never described, they occur between chapters to avoid creating embarrassment and disturbing the gaiety of the other characters. But the latter’s unconcerned references to these catastrophes make their irresponsibility and the futility of their lives all the more striking. The way in which these accidents happen and the characters’ reaction to them emphasize the precariousness and meaninglessness of life; they stress its instability and reveal the characters’ curious lack of expectation or of illusion about humanity. Indeed, what can one expect in a world in which wisdom is never learned, a world without love or attachment, in which people, though conscious of tensions just beneath the surface of life or of tragedy within or just beyond the limits of their environment, do their best to ignore them?

  • 8 Ronald FIRBANK, The Flower Beneath the Foot, in op. cit., p. 553.

7Firbank’s characters like to appear unworldly, but this is only when they can take their social position for granted. Actually, all try to win recognition through eccentricity and extravagance. For instance, a famous actress thinks of organizing a concert of music by Rossini and Cimarosa and considers the colour of the chasubles which the clergy are to wear for the baptism of her chow. Religion and sex – they are often associated – come next among their interests, mainly because they provide sensuous and rather hysterical gratification. By religion is meant the ornaments and sometimes elaborate practices of Catholic rites or the improbable pleasures of religious community life. Sex usually implies a kind of neurotic, giggling sensuality which leaves the characters emotionally uninvolved. Mademoiselle de Nanianzi compares her former engagement to the Prince with her relationship with Sister Ursula and decides in favour of the latter because of “the charm, the flavour of the religious world! Where match it for interest and variety!”8

  • 9 Ronad FIRBANK, Valmouth, in op. cit., p. 404.
  • 10 Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, p. 698.

8Firbank giggles with his characters, and he obviously enjoys their antics. His fantasies hardly imply any social criticism; at most they are parodies of an elegant, fashionable, snobbish and charmingly detached society. However, the wind of folly which runs through his work does not silence the undertone of melancholy and often leaves behind a faint taste of disgust and bitterness. In spite of their frantic search for pleasure the characters are always bored. In The Flower Beneath the Foot His Weariness the Prince murmurs in a voice extinct with boredom – the prototype of Mrs. Viveash’s expiring voice – and most characters could say with Lady Parvula: “I go about as other fools, in quest of pleasure, and I usually find tedium.”9 The fact that all those who attempt to be serious fail in life and are made to look slightly ridiculous may be another source of melancholy. Moreover, the characters’ refusal to look straight at life and their unavowed feeling that this prevents them from getting their full share of it arouse in them a sense of frustration. None of this is clearly expressed, but Firbank sometimes comes very near to giving a glimpse of the tragical reverse side of buffoonery. When Cardinal Pirelli dies after his pursuit of a choir-boy, death gives him a dignity he lacked in life, and the contrast awakens regret that his life should have been what it was: “Now that the ache of life, with its fevers, passions, doubts, its routine, vulgarity, and boredom, was over, his serene, unclouded face, was a marvelment to behold. Very great distinction and sweetness was visible there together with much nobility, and love, all magnified and commingled.”10 The seriousness of this passage jars with Firbank’s detached frivolousness in the rest of the novel. It is as if he realized that morality, though a convention, has its roots in human nature. Yet the obtrusion of seriousness on Firbank’s world makes it cruel and morbid. This sometimes happens in Cardinal Pirelli and Prancing Nigger when Firbank stops frolicking.

9Firbank’s work is ageless and apparently too fantastic to be viewed as the mirror of a period. His wit, his nonsensical jokes, his gaiety and the atmosphere of irresponsibility and inconsequence of his novels can be enjoyed for their own sake. He brought to the novel a technique which allies dispassionate observation and economy and is particularly suited to record the surface life and the chit-chat of society. He is the first modern writer to have caught and exactly reproduced the tone of futile social intercourse. Firbank has an ear for conversation, and, like a tape-recorder, he transcribes without comment the incoherent bits of talk which make up the chatter of a crowd. All his novels and almost all his chapters start abruptly in the middle of a conversation as if one suddenly came upon a group of people without knowing who they are and what they are talking about. There is no transition between the chapters or “scenes”; they are juxtaposed with little or no narrative, a method which enhances the impression of dislocation in the social world he creates.

10There are traces of a belated Romanticism in Firbank’s work, particularly in Odette and Santal. His preciosity and his artificiality, his deliberate exclusion of morality from art, the frivolity of his characters and their immunity from the everyday world, these point to an aestheticism inherited from the Nineties. Only three of Firbank’s novels were actually published in the Twenties: The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923), Prancing Nigger (1924), Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926), and only Vainglory (1915), Caprice (1917) and Valmouth (1918) take place in England. Yet his work exemplifies the tone, the manner and the mood which came to be identified with the fashionable English society of the Twenties. In a way he anticipated their behaviour by imagining people who want to avoid responsibility and take refuge in art and pleasure; after the War the younger generation recognized their own attitudes in his novels. This may account to some extent for his success in the Twenties and for the revival of interest in his work after the Second World War. The innumerable parties, the jazzband always playing The Blue Banana in the background of a social gathering, a queen with her crown on, crossing her capital on an errand in an open automobile, the gossip columnists, and fashionable ladies untiringly cheerful and greeting each other with “My Dear, what a honeymoon hat!”, all these are part of the hectic and frivolous atmosphere of the Twenties. A disrupted world is created by the apparently random assemblage of conversations intended to convey an impression of pleasant confusion. Moreover, since the dialogue and the surface life it renders seem to make up the whole existence of Firbank’s characters, life itself is reduced to nothingness.

  • 11 According to Grant Richards, this must have been how Firbank felt even during the War, for he was (...)

11Without deliberately intending to satirize society Firbank exposes its chaotic state and the dissoluteness of its morals by revelling in the follies of his private world. By recording noncommittally the eccentric talk of fashionable people and by making light of barely suggested tragedy, he initiates a method, later to be exploited by Waugh, by which situations and characters become self-satirizing. He doesn’t make fun of elderly ladies boasting shamelessly of their infatuation for young boys; nor does he comment on the irresponsibility or the snobbery of his characters. There is no penalty or retribution for whatever attitude they adopt, but the author’s detachment or his delight makes them all the more grotesque or ridiculous. The chimerical world of Firbank’s novels might suggest any period; if it weren’t for a few details in the setting, one couldn’t even place it. But it stages a rootless and disintegrating society, and its very singularity indicates a desire, common to many people in the Twenties, to escape from the pressure of society into a world of their own.11 It is a mad world, whose frantic gaiety doesn’t quite succeed in keeping out the sense of impending disaster. Yet the gaiety outlives many frustrations and disappointments. This cheerfulness at all costs is due to a sense of the transiency of life and of the fragility of human beings, which makes them eager to enjoy the present moment and to escape from the burden of ordinary life. Of course, the people who do so are necessarily the idle rich, who can afford to be eccentric or indifferent to criticism because their position is taken for granted.

12Firbank strives after perfection both in his style and in the beauty of the world he creates. Whatever his intention, he does convey a vision of an unsound world; he never sees it as a whole but always piecemeal, and he brings the bits together in the most unexpected ways. By imitating him and adapting his method to their needs, both Huxley and Waugh recognized their debt to an artist who had opened the way to the expression of a new rhythm of life; they sensed in his fantasies the throb of modern neurotic society. They made theirs the irreverence, the delight in shocking, the slightly bitter satisfaction at stressing the unpredictability and instability of life, and Waugh perfected his technique of neutral observation. Like Firbank, Huxley and Waugh felt the melancholy and disillusion which underlie this avid search for pleasure. Firbank’s world is too heartless to be genuinely gay: the absence of love, the lack of faith in human nature, the selfish enjoyment of life, the total disconnection between people or social groups make the individual unspeakably lonely. To stress this aspect of his work would destroy the delicate web of his fanciful creations and endow him with a seriousness out of proportion with his achievement; it would also seem irrelevant to the atmosphere of careless extravagance in his novels. But when the merry-making is interrupted for a moment, one is appalled at the futility of it all.


1 E.M. FORSTER, “Ronald Firbank,” in Abinger Harvest, London, 1961, p. 135.

2 Anthony POWELL, Preface to The Complete Ronald Firbank, London, 1961, p. 10.

3 Jocelyn BROOKE, Ronald Firbank and John Betjeman, Writers and their Work Series, London, 1962.

4 Ronald FIRBANK, The New Rythum and Other Pieces, London, 1962.

5 Siegfried SASSOON, Siegfried’s Journey, p. 136.

6 Walter PATER, quoted by Cyril CONNOLLY in Enemies of Promise, Penguin Books, 1961, p. 4.

7 Ronald FIRBANK, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, in The Complete Ronald Firbank, pp. 660-2.

8 Ronald FIRBANK, The Flower Beneath the Foot, in op. cit., p. 553.

9 Ronad FIRBANK, Valmouth, in op. cit., p. 404.

10 Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, p. 698.

11 According to Grant Richards, this must have been how Firbank felt even during the War, for he was in constant fear of being forced into the army. Author Hunting, London, 1960, p. 200.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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