William Gerhardie Essay - Critical Essays

Gerhardie, William

Gerhardie, William 1895–

Gerhardie, born and raised in St. Petersburg, is an English novelist and autobiographer. At the age of seventy-five he published the four-volume novel This Present Breath, upon which he had worked for twenty-five years. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

To date [1971], My Wife's the Least of It is the last, the most extensive and not the least of William Gerhardie's novels. It also represents his first and only foray into the hilarious Pickwickian tradition of novel writing. Its structure is episodic, for it's an offshoot of the picaresque novel and relies on a high proportion of dialogue. Since people do not behave logically in life, neither should they do so in fiction. But in Gerhardie's books they attempt to do so. What he shows us is the lunacy of logic, and the illogical quagmires into which the straight and narrow path of logic unerringly leads us. His dialogue catches this illogical paradox, or paradox of logic, marvellously well, and his meticulously odd speech rhythms, repetitive yet with intricate variations, are like a musical refrain serving to orchestrate the idiosyncratic behaviour of his characters.

Like much of Gerhardie's fiction, the literary value of My Wife's the Least of It does not depend upon suspense or dense plot construction. It is a sane study of general insanity, and the technique which Gerhardie employs to heighten this insanity is one that he had first put to use 16 years earlier in Futility: perpetual deferment. Ostensibly this novel is the expanded version of an original manuscript written by Mr Baldridge, a one-time novelist who, following his marriage to a mad millionairess, rises to a position of unprecedented public esteem in the administration of charities. This device enables Gerhardie to portray Mr Baldridge's inside history … without identifying himself with his central character….

[This] is a sad book—not depressing, for it is wonderfully fertilised by humour, but remorseless, like a Chinese torture. The unfortunate Baldridge is never the pessimist: it is his continual optimism that exhausts him. As the lost opportunities multiply and the absurdity rises almost to a screaming pitch, we may protest, 'Surely this is enough.' But we are not to be spared. The pointless unavailing activity spins us round faster and faster; the switchback of anticipation and disappointment jolts us ever more mercilessly up and down until we cry out in desperation—and still we are not heeded, but ingeniously carried, without regard to our feelings, on and on.

Gerhardie does not tell us that all hope is vain. He shows us that hope, if harnessed exclusively to the external world, must take us nowhere in the end. The intimations in My Wife's the Least of It are of money, not immortality; and the paradise that is so tantalisingly deferred is of this world alone. He has not written a social satire…; he has given us an illustration, detail by dire detail, minute by minute, of our life in time…. Through My Wife's the Least of It, hidden to closed hearts, there runs the whole gamut of the Word from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane—the malaise, only recently apparent, about an undue anthropocentrism of pervading human theology.

My Wife's the Least of It is remarkable for the number of characters from Gerhardie's other novels who, as in some final curtain call, reappear…. This trick of reintroducing his own characters in slightly altered connotations was one subsequently employed by Evelyn Waugh. But Waugh's tone is less gentle than Gerhardie's and in its component parts (as opposed to its cumulative effect) more exaggerated. During the Coronation of George VI, Gerhardie's Aunt Minnie, who originally appeared in Of Mortal Love and whose enthusiasm for the ceremony is second to no one's, drops off to sleep on the balcony where, hours later, having dreamt of the procession but not actually seen it passing below her, she is found in the drizzling rain, happily waving a miniature Union Jack. The way Evelyn Waugh would have treated this scene … is to send her toppling over the rails, and possibly not content with this, he would have had a parrot overbalance her to her death….

Among his novels of the 1930s My Wife's the Least of It occupies a place similar to that of Doom in the previous decade. Both are prophetic, concerned with the future, but the limited future. Of the possibilities beyond time, which Gerhardie revealed in Resurrection, there is no hint—unless it is in Gerhardie's clairvoyant humour which implies another dimension and provides a detached, but not unfeeling, appraisal of Baldridge's predicament. For Baldridge himself, such clairvoyance is more difficult to achieve, for indignation threatens him with loss of humour.

After the desolation in Of Mortal Love,… the hilarity of My Wife's the Least of It was welcome, and the book was generously received by almost the entire London press when it was first published in 1938. It was, as John Davenport commented, 'a tardy tribute'. But at last nothing (barring a war) seemed able to prevent Gerhardie's novels receiving the general acclaim they had for so long been on the very point of receiving.

Michael Holroyd, "Lost Opportunities," in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 23, 1971, p. 120.

I don't consider myself at all well read…. However, I do make a point of knowing which authors I should have read. That much at least I owe to literature. When these three novels [Futility, The Polyglots, and Of Mortal Love] by William Gerhardie arrived, I was taken aback. Review excerpts didn't come from the Placebo, Arkansas Bee-Examiner. They came from C. P. Snow, H. G. Wells, G. B. Shaw, Edith Wharton, that sort…. I had never read William Gerhardie. I had never even heard of him before.

I should have. And so should you. Gerhardie is one of the most important and most rewarding novelists to have written in this English century….

His first two novels, Futility (1922) and The Polyglots (1925), are quite similar: eyewitness accounts of the huggermugger intervention [of the Allies, during the Russian Revolution] exalted to marvelous comic fiction by a sensitive absurdist eye. A British eye. Red areas on the globe circa 1910 indicated nations where detached observation was going on. Asides to the audience: understated, elegant of style, somewhat separate, always somewhat privileged. You know, Waugh, Greene, and the others; they are Gerhardie's heirs. It was part of British colonialism and commerce that the foreign was exploited in fiction. There are other rapes than the one Lord Elgin pulled off.

But a gentle human tension pervades Futility and The Polyglots that, say, the author of Black Mischief would not even deign to RSVP. Gerhardie's subject is double: the nation and the family. The nation is huge, quite mad, divided against itself, disintegrating. The family is huge, quite mad, divided against itself, and yet obdurately cohesive—perhaps because of inertia and selfishness, perhaps because of love (which is often, in aspect, selfish and inertial).

British fiction has invented better, more engaging eccentrics than any other literature. Gerhardie's two families—Russian in Futility, English-Belgian in The Polyglots—endure chaos extra- and intramural. Their insane quirks are comic but also defensive, even therapeutic. Monomania confronting the polymania of generals and bureaucrats and terrorists. It is these family groups, set against an ancient world's catastrophic end, that give Gerhardie's first two novels the high strain of resilient social tissue and loyalty, which, no matter how absurd at its surface, stands for human magnificence. He may be pardoned for using such an extraordinary theme twice. Novelists are seldom so fortunate in their biographies. Futility is a fine novel. The Polyglots, which refines it, must rank with Waugh's very best, with Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, amongst the three or four most superb examples of that peculiar and significant British fictional vision.

Futility announces a proviso. "The 'I' of this book is not me." But, as far as any first person can be the author in fiction, Gerhardie's first person is Gerhardie. The Polyglots has no proviso. It/they are a young first person, both charming and honest. Though perceptive, they do not judge. Their detachment, moreover, has been pleasantly flawed. They are in love. As Britain discovered excuses to intervene in Russia, these young British officers intervene in families for love. Each family has one beautiful, perverse, silly, self-interested young lady. Love fascinates Gerhardie. In its insane vagaries and destructiveness it parallels war. But young ladies are Gerhardie's problem both as first person and as novelist.

In Of Mortal Love (1936) Gerhardie faced the ultimate fictional challenge at ten paces: to create a loveworthy woman. Perfect eyes or that special uptilted profile have no legal tender on the page. Men can be loved for their professions: artist, hero, citizen of the world. Women, 1930s women anyway, can be loved only for what they are. It comes down to dialogue and the odd action. Dinah has been given a boost over her capricious predecessors, but not enough of one. Gerhardie put governors on his comic sense, so that she should not be tainted by it. Yet Dinah is vain, fickle, overpassionate, full of childish inconsequence. At her tragic death, face powder is delivered from the chemist just too late. Dinah doesn't seem worth Gerhardie's time. Not so much of it at least.

And Gerhardie seems uncomfortable at home. Of Mortal Love is first rate, but the novel has only England in peacetime as a counterpoint. Perhaps he sensed this. Many chapter headings designate their subject matter by a place name; ordinary British folk make abortive cameo appearances in trams, in streets. It's as though these devices were intended to give the novel greater geographical and social breadth. Dinah has a St. Petersburg history and a large staff of relatives, but they are peripheral, they serve rather as live flashbacks. Gerhardie's other young women, less well conceived than Dinah, comic figures, were justified by both family and nation. Which all means: The Polyglots does tend to spoil one. (pp. 403, 405)

A novelist of this stature deserves more than twenty years' determined silence. (p. 405)

D. Keith Mano, "Before Waugh and Greene, Gerhardie," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), April 11, 1975, pp. 403, 405.