English Music

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

English Music is a work with a double structure. In its odd-numbered chapters we follow the development of Timothy Harcombe from childhood to manhood, opening with Timothy, now an old man, looking back on the much-altered scenes of his youth and reflecting on them. In the even-numbered chapters, by contrast, we are repeatedly plunged into a succession of strange worlds in which the authors and the characters of English literature, or English culture more generally, come alive and appear to Timothy in visions.

The contrast between these two strands is striking on every level. Timothy’s life is unusual, but nevertheless drab if not dull. He has no mother, and has especially to begin with a particularly close relationship with his father, an undistinguished medium and healer practicing his trade among poor people in the back streets of London. Clement Harcombe uses his son in his business, and seems to treat the small boy Timothy is in the beginning almost as an adult, talking to him at an unusual level of sophistication. In spite of this close relationship, however, as the book develops Mr. Harcombe forms the habit of going off on his own affairs, leaving Timothy to be brought up in haphazard fashion by his grandparents, with further influences on him from members of the “Harcombe Circle,” those people, themselves rather undistinguished, who believe in his father’s powers. In this fashion Timothy grows up, goes to school, discovers that he too has unusual psychic powers of divination, finds a job in an art gallery, and in the end is caught up in World War II. It is easier, however, to say what does not happen to Timothy than what does. He shows no career ambition, makes no use of his psychic powers, remains sexually uninitiated, and from an early age seems more interested in remembering the past than in experiencing the future.

Color and life are added to the novel by the strange events interposed in odd- numbered chapters. These are easier to describe than to analyze. At the start of chap- ter 2, for example, the reader is told that as Timothy slept he “must have dreamed a dream”—an allusion to the opening words of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-1684), by John Bunyan. But the figure whom Timothy sees running toward him is not Bunyan’s Christian but a young girl in a white dress. “Why,” says Timothy to himself, “that’s Alice,” the heroine evidently not of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress but of Alice in Wonderland (1865-1871) by Lewis Carroll, the pen name of Charles Dodgson. Yet what Alice says as she runs past him is the cry of Bunyan’s Christian, “How shall I grapple with the misery that I must meet with in eternity,” while when Christian appears (as he does on the same page), he is muttering a version of the White Rabbit’s complaint from Wonderland, “Won’t He be savage if I’m too late!” Why cross Bunyan with Carroll, Alice with Christian? At first sight they seem to have nothing to do with each other at all, the one pair preoccupied with questions of religion, predestination, and Hell, the other pair part of a child’s fable. Yet as this chapter progresses, one realizes that both stories are for one thing nonrealistic in rather similar ways. Christian falls into the Slough of Despond, Alice finds herself almost drowning in her own tears. They are also both works containing a deep anxiety, overt in the case of Bunyan, covert in the case of Carroll. They feel similar, even if the authors come from almost totally different backgrounds and address different issues.

In brief, this is the mode of the succession of visions which Timothy sees through his young life. The second of them, chapter 4, is a collage of snippets from the works of Charles Dickens, in which Dickens himself mingles with his characters and with quotations from Great Expectations (1860-1861), David Copperfield (1849-1850), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), and other novels. In chapter 6 we run into Sherlock Holmes, the great detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in chapter 8 we find both Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver, from the works by Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift respectively, while the five further “visionary” chapters present allusions to or rewritings of works by a whole string of authors, including William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer, Sir Thomas Malory, and a dozen others, some relatively little known. There is a certain sense that as the novel proceeds we are going back further in time, in contrast to the movement forward of Timothy’s own life, but this never reaches total consistency. If there is a rule governing appearances, it is one of unexpectedness, connection by feel or style (as with Alice and Christian) rather than formal literary history.

What is the point of this proceeding (a question which Timothy asks himself more than once)? The answer perhaps lies in the phrase “English music,” employed repeatedly in the novel. Timothy’s father, with his lecturing style of conversation, uses the phrase to mean not only English music and its history, but also English literature, history, and painting. Why call all these things music? One answer suggested is that all of them are capable of being transposed without undergoing fundamental change. The same tune can be played by different instruments. Or it can be made into a series of variations. Or it can be absorbed...

(The entire section is 2207 words.)