|My friend Georgeann, photographed here against another scene of nature -- the lake at VanDusen Garden -- introduced me to the book. She just happened to have it on her library shelf.|
|I loved the book's delicate pages and the way it was created with such care. I found another, more current copy of my own so I could fold down pages and not worry about ruining it.|
|A beautiful sketch of the author at the front of Georgeann's book. No modern publisher would include anything like this. |
Why would I – or anyone – care about the eclectic jottings of a grumpy old man who sequesters himself away in rural England in the late 1800s? He doesn’t like modern life, visitors, religion, hotels, science, vegetarianism, industrialization, the city or people -- especially people. Nor does much happen in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. There are some walks, the arrival of a parcel of books, a couple of chance encounters, the change of seasons. We know when and how our protagonist dies: the preface tells us that he goes to sleep after a long springtime walk and doesn’t wake up.
So, no mystery, no drama, no romance and a failed writer as our hero. Why did I still love this book, from the moment my friend Georgeann showed us her early-1900s copy, with its whisper-thin pages, its old-fashioned cover decorated with author George Gissing’s tiny silver signature, and its fine sketch of Gissing himself in the opening pages?
Because Henry Ryecroft – a semi-autobiographical version of Gissing himself – is, for all his querulous relationship with many things of the world, a thoroughly happy man. After a miserable, lonely life, starving and scraping his living out of writing in the cheapest hidey-holes of London, he is bequeathed an annuity. It’s a modest one – 300 pounds a year – but it means he can rent a small house in the country, hire a housekeeper and spend his days doing exactly what he wants – reading, thinking and enjoying nature.
His pleasure in this new life; his intense appreciation for his reprieve, shine through every page of this little book. How rarely we read about – are suffused in – gratitude! How uncommon are the heroes thankful for a modest break and not yearning for a bigger one! How seldom does a protagonist choose simplicity and nature over the glitzier rewards of the world!
“Here was a man who, having his desire, and that a very modest one, not only felt satisfied, but enjoyed great happiness,” writes the fictional character who explains in the preface how he “finds” Ryecroft’s journals after his death and decides to publish them.
There’s more beyond gratitude, of course. Gissing wasn’t a famous writer, but he was a serious one, comparable to Thomas Hardy and George Meredith. He knew his classics, his philosophy, his history, and the Ryecroft character he created was as deep and accomplished as himself. And so we have Ryecroft grappling with such Enlightenment questions as the mind/body split; man’s and nations’ propensity for war, and his dislike of science, which he fears will become “the remorseless enemy of mankind,” destroying beauty and simplicity and leading ultimately to chaos.
But mostly, Ryecroft talks – bluntly – about anything and everything, and it’s that openness that reverberates more than a century later. We may not see ourselves in all his topics, but we’re sure to catch glimpses in some of them. As I look for some of my favourite passages to give as examples, I notice how often they include that theme of gratitude:
Here is Ryecroft reflecting on his own character:
“Do I really believe that at any time of my life I have been the kind of man who merits affection?” he asks, then answers: “I think not. I have always been much too self-absorbed; too critical of all about me; too unreasonably proud. . . I had brains, but they were no help to me in the common circumstances of life. . . But for the good fortune which plucked me out of my mazes and set me in paradise, I should no doubt have blundered on to the end.”
On the coziness of his living room; an ode to a coal fire:
“See how friendly together are the fire and the shaded lamp; both have their part alike in the illumining and warming of the room. As the fire purrs and softly cracks, so does my lamp at intervals utter a little gurgling sound when the oil flows to the wick, and custom has made this a pleasure to me. . . .After extinguishing the lamp, and when I have reached the door, I always turn to look back; my room is so cozily alluring in the light of the last gleeds, that I do not easily move away. . . . With a last sigh of utter contentment, I go forth, and shut the door softly.”
On helping a friend: Ryecroft, who spent most of his working life unsure whether he would have a roof over his head or enough food to keep from starving, delights in being able to help others now:
“Greatly as I relish the comforts of my wonderful new life, no joy it has brought me equals that of coming in aid to another’s necessity. . . Today I have sent S--- a cheque for fifty pounds; it will come as a very boon of heaven, and assuredly blesseth him that gives as much as him that takes. A poor fifty pounds, which the wealthy fool throws away upon some idle or base fantasy, and never thinks of it; yet to S--- it will mean life and light.” Ryecroft recalls that in his poverty, he sometimes gave money away, but always in fear “that I myself, some black foggy morning, might have to go begging for my own dire needs. That is one of the bitter curses of poverty; it leaves no right to be generous. Of my abundance -- abundance to me, though starveling pittance in the view of everyday prosperity – I can give with happiest freedom; I feel myself a man, and no crouching slave with his back ever ready for the lash of circumstance. . .how good it is to desire little, and to have a little more than enough!”
Ryecroft is never able to forget the horrors of his working life in London. One of his starkest descriptions is of a dark foggy morning, when he had a bad cold and a sleepless night:
“Hideous cries aroused me; sitting up in the dark, I heard men going along the street, roaring news of a hanging that had just taken place. . . It was a little after nine o’clock; the enterprising paper had promptly got out its gibbet edition. A morning of mid-winter, roofs and ways covered with soot-grimed snow under the ghastly fog pall; and, whilst I lay there in my bed, that woman had been led out and hanged—hanged. I thought with horror of the houses, nothing above me but a ‘foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’ Overcome with dread, I rose and bestirred myself. Blinds drawn, lamp lit, and by a blazing fire, I tried to make believe that it was kindly night.”
On blackberries: Once, when Ryecroft was poor, he was astounded to realize that he had eaten enough wild blackberries during a walk that he didn’t have to buy any food. The memory makes him appreciate even more his current prosperity and to reflect on the brutality of the economic system.
“At that time, my ceaseless preoccupation was how to obtain money to keep myself alive. Many a day I had suffered hunger because I durst not spend the few coins I possessed; the food I could buy was in any case unsatisfactory, unvaried. But here Nature had given me a feast, which seemed delicious, and I had eaten all I wanted. The wonder held me for a long time, and to this day I can recall it, understand it.” Ryecroft thinks there “could be no better illustration of what it means to be very poor in a great town . . . . I know, as only one with my experience can, all that is involved in the possession of means to live. The average educated man has never stood alone, utterly alone, just clad and nothing more than that, with the problem before him of wresting his next meal from a world that cares not whether he live or die.”
“Every morning when I awake, I thank heaven for silence. This is my orison. I remember the London days when sleep was broken by clash and clang, by roar and shriek, and when my first sense of returning to consciousness was hatred of the life about me. . . Here, wake at what hour I may, early or late I lie amid gracious stillness. . . But there is the rustle of branches in the morning breeze; there is the music of a sunny shower against the window; there is the matin song of birds.”