Happy New Year from BHDandMe

I’ve been reading the Selected Short Stories of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch. (Penguin,1957) Born in the mid nineteenth century he lived into the middle years of the twentieth, was a Cambridge lecturer and prolific writer across several genres. Popularly known as ‘Q’, he was one of the team of editors who put together my favourite short story repository, Hammerton’s Thousand Best Stories (of all countries and all times), into which he got three of his own tales.

This morning’s story was Lieutenant Lapenotiere, a tale of the man who brings to the Admiralty the first news of Nelson’s death at the battle of Trafalgar. He arrives in the small hours, dragging Barham (First Lord? How good is your naval history?) from his bed to read Admiral Collingwood’s despatches. The story is driven by the excitement experienced by the characters, who are coming to terms with the great victory, and the great loss, and I wondered if it was to communicate a sense of what that experience might have felt like that was the purpose of the story. If it was, that’s quite a modern idea of what story is for, compared to idea that a story enables us, not so much to share the experience, as to judge the nature of that vaguely defined human condition, and its moralities, wisdoms and follies.

The story is one of ordinary, and extraordinary men and situations which bring them together, but it doesn’t end there. Q goes on to introduce a ghostly element, for when the eponymous hero leaves the building, on the way to his lodgings he encounters a post-boy who has instructions to take him to Merton. In fact, he has note requesting that, written in the hand of Nelson himself. The lieutenant makes the journey, and we are told that when he retells the story, he recalls walking in silence with his dead hero, before the door is opened by a ‘beautiful woman.’

The story is set about a century before it was written, and another century has passed since then, and a lot of its potency must depend upon what we know, and understand about the significances of the events and people described. Those significance are not set values. They will have changed, from the people involved, to the contemporaries of the writer, to our own times, our relation to the ‘facts’ and our knowledge and understanding of them must have altered progressively, and this is one of those stories, I feel, where those changes impact on our ability to be moved by the story. In my case, it was the ‘Merton’ reference that was not clear. I’ve heard of Lady Hamilton, but I don’t know for sure if she’s the woman in question. I could find out, but there’s something about the short story that demands we’re on the inside of it, and references to what’s on the outside have to be ones that we are familiar with, if they are to work – because the work they have to do is work on our emotions or intellects. in the case of the woman at Merton that necessity is even for greater, for it comes at the end of the story. The lieutenant’a arrival there is what the rest of the story has been  contextualising. The very last words of the story have our hero reaching for the ‘private letter’ which he carries, ‘and the shade at his side left him to face her in the daylight.’ The true resonance of the story demands that we have at least an opinion of what that facing might entail.

The ghostly element, and the romantic element – the presence of Nelson’s ghost, and the idea of bringing a last message to a significant other from the recently dead, has, of course, a potency even if know nothing of who the individuals concerned are…but knowledge of the context of those individuals, of, perhaps the disparity between their public and private faces, would, one imagines add more power to the denouement.

To what extent, I wonder, can we make sure, or indeed should we strive to make sure, that the universality, in time and place, outweighs their contextualities?