Authors: G.B. Edwards
GERALD BASIL EDWARDS
(1899â1976) was born in Vale Parish on the Channel Island of Guernsey and lived there until joining the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry in 1917. He attended Bristol University for several years, though he does not seem to have graduated. By the late 1920s Edwards was living in London, where he taught literature and drama at a number of institutions, including Toynbee Hall, and became acquainted with the writers J. S. Collis, Stephen Potter, and Middleton Murry, who recruited him to write for
. All three considered Edwards a genius and expected him to become a new D. H. Lawrence. In 1928, Edwards was commissioned by Jonathan Cape to write a biography of Lawrence, with whom he briefly corresponded. Lawrence then died and the biography was never completed. Although he continued to write, Edwards published very little from that point on, eventually earning his living as a civil servant. He retired to Dorset, where in 1972 he met the art student Edward Chaney, who encouraged him to complete
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
. Edwards bequeathed the typescript to his young friend, who eventually succeeded in having it published. It was hailed as a great novel in England and America and has since been published in French and Italian.
(1926â2005) was a critic and writer best known for the novels
The Collector, The Magus
The French Lieutenant's Woman
THE BOOK OF EBENEZER LE PAGE
G. B. EDWARDS
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
For Edward and Lisa Chaney
There may have been stranger recent literary events than the book you are about to read, but I rather doubt it. It is first of all posthumous, since the author, born a year older than the century, died in 1976. Then it is an only novel, seemingly not begun until he was in his late sixties. Even without those oddities, its voice and method are so unusual that it belongs nowhere on our conventional literary maps. Such a writer might at least have enjoyed the thought of a little personal publicity beyond the grave? Not at all: he made very sure before he died that any future biographer would have an exceedingly hard time of it. Mr Edward Chaney has kindly let me see a series of letters Gerald Edwards wrote to him in his last years. They tell us a good deal of the psychology and character of the man, and even something of his family background; but of his own history, next to nothing.
So far as we know it was not until 1974 that Edwards made (through Mr Chaney, to whom he gave the copyright) any attempt to have
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
published. He bore the rejections it then received with an at least outward patient obstinacy. He more than once likened his stubbornness to that of a donkey; but this was a wise and well-read donkey, a very long way from being the innocent that a surface view of his book might suggest. He knew very well that it no more fitted contemporary literary taste (what in one of his letters he called âhelicopter thinking', judging everything âfrom a superior height') than a furzebush does a greenhouse. If I cannot think much of the judgement of the various eminent London publishers who turned the typescript down in the mid 1970s, at least I can understand why they all seem to have had trouble explaining the rejection. What had landed in their nets was a very strange fish â and one, I suspect, that on a quick reading it was only too easy to place in a wrong literary species, that of the provincial novel.
I think myself that it is no more properly classifiable so than Flora Thompson's famous trilogy,
Lark Rise to Candleford
. Of course any book whose ground is the close observation of a small community risks this damning label of âprovincial'. Yet even if Edwards' account of the life and times of one Channel Islander had to be thus valued, it would still seem to me a remarkable achievement. If Guernsey feels that it has, since Victor Hugo's famous fifteen years of exile there, been rather left out in the literary cold, it need worry no more. It now has a portrait and memorial that must surely become a classic of the island.
But what Edwards does, as readers will soon realize, is to extend the empire of the book well beyond the confines of one particular island. All small islands conform their inhabitants in markedly similar ways, both socially and psychologically. On the credit side there is the fierce independence, the toughness of spirit, the patience and courage, the ability to cope and make do; on the debit, the dourness, the incest, the backwardness, the suspicion of non-islanders ... all that we mean by insularity. None of these qualities and defects is special to islands. One might argue that the âisland syndrome' occurs with increasing frequency in many of our embattled inner cities, and very much in the context of what finally becomes the major theme of this book â that is, the impact of new values on old ones, of ineluctable social evolution on individual man.
Edwards' own view is made very clear through his fictional
. For him the new values â in local terms, all that has turned Guernsey into tourist resort and international tax haven â are anathema. They have destroyed nearly everything on the island â and by implication everywhere else â that he cherished and celebrates so well and elegiacally, beneath the plain language, in the first half of the novel. Whether Edwards was right or wrong to see more ashes than hope in progress is not, I think, what matters. What does is to have such a richly human account of what it felt like to live through the period of the book, from about 1890 to 1970.
We are still too close to it to realize what an astounding and unprecedented change, unprecedented both in its extent and its speed, has taken place in the psyche of Western mankind during those eighty years. In very many ways, and certainly for the working-class majority, the late 19th century remained closer to the 17th than to our own. It is only the very old now who can fully understand this: what it means to have known, in the one lifespan, both a time when city streets were full of horses, the car not yet invented, and a time when man stood on the moon; or even more incomprehensibly, both a time when even the most terrible weapons could kill a few hundred at most, and a time when their power risks entire cities â and their aftermath, whole countries.
It is almost as if in those same eighty years we left the old planet and found a new; and we are all, however brashly contemporary, however much we take modern technology for granted, still victims of that profound cultural shock. One symptom of it is the recurrent recrudescence of conservatism (and in far more than politics) in the second half of this century. We have at least realized we made a very clumsy landing on our new planet, and also left a number of things behind on the old that we might have done better to bring with us â qualities very close to that list of traditional island virtues I mentioned just now.
This inability to forget the old, this querulousness over the new, is what makes Ebenezer Le Page such a convincing portrayal of a much more universal mentality than the matter of the book might at first sight suggest. Edwards himself recognized this when he wrote that Ebenezer âexpresses from the inside out the effects of world events'. His novel is really far more about the impress of recent human history on one fallible but always honest individual than about Guernsey and its traditional manners and mores, fascinating and amusing though those often are to read.
The ubiquitous contempt for England and the English (and outsiders in general, even the sister Channel Island of Jersey) must similarly be taken in a metaphorical way. The encroachment is of infinitely more than ugly holiday bungalows and tourist dross, of greedy entrepreneurs and tax-evaders; it is essentially upon the individual mind, and therefore upon individual freedom. To those who want a homogenized world (because such worlds are easier to manipulate) Ebenezer is an eternal thorn in the side. He may seem an exceedingly unfashionable reactionary about a number of things, including woman. But his saving grace is that he is equally reactionary about anything that tries to occupy, as the Nazis did Guernsey in the last war, the island of the self. He is much more against than he is ever for, and that kind of againstness, or bloody-mindedness, however irritating it may be in some circumstances, is a very precious human (and evolutionary) commodity. Provincialism is not merely lacking city taste in arts and manners; it is also an increasingly vital antidote to all would-be central tyrannies. To give such a convincing illustration of this ubiquitous contradiction, this eternal suspicion at the less articulate base of society, is one of Edwards' major achievements.
Another seems to me a technical one, and that is the creation of such an intensely colloquial speech, with its piquant French undertones, for his hero. Even more remarkable is his almost total reliance on it â how he manages, despite the general absence of normal linear narrative, despite the way characters meander almost haphazardly in and out of his pages, despite the minute stitch of social detail, to carry us through with him, at times to the point where we no longer care how inconsequential or digressive the story becomes, as long as that voice is still speaking. I can think of very few novels where this extremely difficult device, of the prolonged reminiscence, is worked so well.
Edwards' choice of it was quite deliberate. He spoke several times of the âcircular form' of the book, of its âindirection'. On another occasion he said âWriting has for me, I think, always to be done obliquely ... it feels to me phony when I'm not allowing an incubus to speak in a circumstantial context'. He also revealed that âthe beginning and the end were conceived simultaneously ... the book grew out of the pivotal image of the gold under the apple-tree'. That may have been true thematically; but the literary gold was buried in the voice of the incubus. We may note too that Edwards always thought of the patois as his native language. His deep regard for Joseph Conrad was not purely literary. Here was another exile forced to write in an âacquired' English.
Two other things must be said. One is that Edwards never received expert editorial advice. This is most noticeable at the very end, where one senses that he begins to identify too closely with Ebenezer, and surrenders to a common impulse among novelists: the wish to reward his surrogate, or hero, with a distinctly sentimental ending. This was pointed out to him, but he refused to change his text. He wrote that the aged Ebenezer âsees in a romantic glow. I don't; and the reader should not'. Perhaps here the âGuernsey donkey' was sticking his heels in a shade too firmly; but even a professional editor might have had some difficulty in persuading him to wear less final heart on his sleeve. Mr Chaney once sent Edwards a copy of Wyndham Lewis's
The Lion and The Fox
, and the judgement in return showed no mercy. After condemning Lewis for his slipshod scholarship and âhis rasping, harsh, abusive manner', Edwards went on: âIt all adds up to no more than a chaos of logical positivist deductions, heartless and intellectual ... “romantic” is not a dirty word, you know.'