Saturday, January 23, 2021

Hamnet

Regular readers of E&I may be aware that I don't post with great frequency about contemporary fiction. Of the 141 works of fiction listed on this blog's Book Index only 56, or 40%, were first published after 1950 (which is stretching the definition of "contemporary" quite a bit). This is not because I don't read contemporary fiction. I regularly scan book reviews, make lists, and seek out new works. Almost inevitably, though, I am disappointed by the quality of the writing. Reading 18th- and 19th-century novels may have spoiled me for modern prose.

These thoughts are occasioned by my encounter with Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet (Knopf, 2020), which imagines the impact of the death of the eleven-year-old Hamnet on his mother Agnes and his father William. [1] The year is 1596; four years later, his father will appear as the Ghost in his new play The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke (the names Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable; the Ghost is that of Hamlet's father, also named Hamlet).

Opening page of The Tragedie of Hamlet from actor David Garrick's copy of the Second Quarto (1605). Image source: The British Library

O'Farrell's novel has been highly, not to say extravagantly, praised. It won the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction (the jury called it "truly great") and was named by the New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2020, only half of which are fiction. It was also the first book mentioned on the The Guardian's Best Fiction of 2020 list and was tied for fifth on LitHub's Ultimate Best Books of 2020 list. The only dissent from the near-universal commendation came from the Man Booker Prize judges, who omitted it from their 2020 longlist.

In Geraldine Brooks' New York Times review she wrote that you do not "go after the private life of the Bard of Avon with a casual regard for English prose." Well, here are some passages from the first pages of the book, whose narrative text begins on page 5:

  • Hamnet "sighs, drawing in the warm, dusty air" (p. 5). But when you sigh you breathe out, not in. ("A long deep and audible exhalation" is how "sigh" is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.) "Hamnet draws in the warm, dusty air and sighs" might work; the reverse doesn't.
  • When in the next sentence Hamnet steps out into the street, "the noise of barrows, horses, vendors, people calling to each other, a man hurling a sack from an upper window doesn't reach him" (p. 5). And yet when he enters his grandfather's house next door, he hears "the creaking of beams expanding gently in the sun, the sigh of air passing under doors, between rooms, the swish of linen drapes, the crack of the fire, the indefinable noise of a house at rest, empty" (p. 6). So within the space of a few sentences Hamnet is described as both utterly oblivious to the world around him and extraordinarily sensitive to it.
  • About "the crack of the fire": On the first page we are told that "it is a close, windless day in late summer" and on the second page that "the heat of the day" is making Hamnet sweat so heavily it runs "down his back." On a swelteringly hot summer afternoon would a fire be kept burning, and would it have been left untended in an empty house?
  • And "the sigh of air passing under doors, between rooms, the swish of linen drapes": if the day is windless, would a breeze be moving audibly through the house and stirring the drapes enough to make them swish? And as we will soon learn, Hamnet's grandfather is a leather tanner and wool merchant who is in financial distress; would his house have linen drapes, or would he be more likely to use the materials at hand? Just asking.
  • The sounds of the empty house are described as "indefinable noise," although we've just read a detailed list of the specific sounds Hamnet detects (in what way, then, are they "indefinable"?). On the same page its smell is described as "indefinably different" from the rooms where Hamnet lives with his mother and sisters. Leaving aside the rather uninspired repetition, are we perceiving Hamnet's thoughts, and if so, would an 11-year-old boy in the 16th century really think that sounds or smells were "indefinable"? (Apart from the unlikeliness of "indefinable" occurring to an 11-year-old boy, according to the Shorter Oxford the word doesn't even come into use until a century after Hamnet is born.)
  • Speaking of repetitions, in the first pages we read the phrases "the noise of barrows" (p. 5), "the noise and welter of the courtyard" (p. 6), "he makes this noise" (p. 6), "the indefinable noise of a house" (p. 6), "the noise of a bird in the sky" (p. 7), "a noise, a slight shifting or scraping" (p. 9), and "he hears a noise. . .the definite noise of another human being" (p. 11).

    Repetition can be an effective fictional technique: the word "fog" occurs 22 times in the first chapter of Dickens' Bleak House, along with "foggy" and "fog-bank," as the murky case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is introduced:
    Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds. . .

    Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth. [2]
    In Hamnet the repetitions of "noise" in the opening pages are (I'm guessing) meant as a deliberate contrast with the last words of the chapter: "there is nothing: only silence" (p. 24), which echo the last words of Hamlet in Shakespeare's play: "the rest is silence." But earlier in the chapter when Hamnet was listening for an answer to his calls, he was keenly aware of all the faint sounds in his grandfather's empty house. He is listening just as intently now: why does he hear "only silence"?
  • "Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre" (p. 9). After five pages written largely in free indirect style, as though we are listening to Hamnet's thoughts, this is an abrupt intervention from an omniscient narrator. One, moreover, born after the mid-20th century when "epicentre" was first used to mean "the centre or heart of something," according to (yes) the Shorter Oxford, which also tells us that the word "epicentre" was coined (by the Irish seismologist Robert Mallet, says Wikipedia) in the late 19th century.

    The use of "epicentre" could be a deliberate signalling to the reader that the narrator shares our time frame rather than that of the characters. This is a variant of a technique called "the intrusive narrator," and is used, for example, by Michel Faber in The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), set in Victorian London. From that novel's opening:
    Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them.

    This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.

    When I first caught your eye and you decided to come with me, you were probably thinking you would simply arrive and make yourself at home. Now that you're actually here, the air is bitterly cold, and you find yourself being led along in complete darkness, stumbling on uneven ground, recognising nothing. . .

    Apart from the pale gaslight of the streetlamps at the far corners, you can't see any light in Church Lane, but that's because your eyes are accustomed to stronger signs of human wakefulness than the feeble glow of two candles behind a smutty windowpane. You come from a world where darkness is swept aside at the snap of a switch, but that is not the only balance of power that life allows. Much shakier bargains are possible. [3]
    Hamnet is similarly written almost entirely in the present tense, but unlike Faber's novel it is almost entirely in free indirect style. O'Farrell does not seem to have intended to employ an intrusive narrator, but rather to immerse the reader fully in the characters' world and thoughts. This is why I find an anachronism like "epicentre" so jarring.

I recognize that my comments on these examples—all taken from the novel's first chapter—will exasperate or infuriate many people. They will think I'm nit-picking: what does it matter if O'Farrell's writing is at times unwittingly anachronistic, dully repetitious, disconcertingly inconsistent, or simply wrong? They are welcome to find her novel, as the cover blurbs describe it, "a thing of shimmering wonder" (David Mitchell), "beautifully imagined and written" (Claire Tomalin), "finely written" (Sarah Moss), full of "flawless sentences" (Emma Donoghue), or "one of the best novels I've ever read" (Mary Beth Keane).

But for me details matter, especially in historical fiction, and most especially when they are so carefully specified and emphasized by the author. And as regular readers know, I'm one of those unfortunates for whom lapses like the ones I've listed are so grating they render imaginative entry into O'Farrell's fictional world impossible. [4]


  1. As O'Farrell explains in her Author's Note, "Most people will know [Hamnet's] mother as 'Anne,' but she was named by her father, Richard Hathaway, in his will, as 'Agnes,' and I decided to follow his example." I wonder whether a woman wouldn't more likely be called by her preferred name in the records relating to her adult life and death than in her father's will; certainly the few other documents that exist indicate that she was known as Anne.
  2. Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter I, "In Chancery." http://gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1023/pg1023.txt
  3. Michel Faber, "The Crimson Petal and the White, Episode One," serialization in The Guardian, 31 May 2002. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/jun/01/fiction. For a brief discussion of the intrusive author/narrator in Faber's novel and its antecedents in Fielding, Eliot, and other writers, see John Mullan, "Book club: Follow my leader," The Guardian, 17 October 2003. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/oct/18/1
  4. For more evidence, if any is needed, see "On ignoring the big picture for the nagging detail" in my post on Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading."

Monday, January 11, 2021

Helen Walker

Helen Walker as psychologist Lilith Ritter in Nightmare Alley.

After seeing Helen Walker's performance as the twisted psychologist in Nightmare Alley (1947) I wondered why I had never heard of her before. So last week we embarked on a Helen Walker film festival, watching four movies from the middle and end of her too-brief career.

Image source: Classic Movie Favorites

Cluny Brown (1946), screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt, based on the novel by Margery Sharp; directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

The final film completed by Ernst Lubitsch before his death, Cluny Brown features his trademark lightness of touch as well as typically risqué dialogue, this time featuring plumbing as a metaphor for sex.

As the plumber-heroine Cluny, Jennifer Jones displays an unsuspected flair for comedy and a British accent that often vanishes completely, while as Adam Belinski, a penniless Czech refugee from the Nazis, Charles Boyer offers his usual suavity. Both have wound up at the country estate of Sir Henry (Reginald Owen) and Lady Alice (Margaret Bannerman), where Cluny is a new serving maid and Adam is the guest of family's son and heir Andrew (Peter Lawford). (Lady Alice finds Adam's name hard to remember, because "so many foreigners do have foreign names, don't they?") Though both Adam and Cluny have been given places of a kind, they are both fundamentally out of place: he is separated from his homeland, and she from the work that she most enjoys. As he tells her, "Wherever you're happy—that's your place."

Helen Walker plays the Honorable Betty Cream, Andrew's presumptive fiancée, who has been invited to the house for the weekend by Lady Alice to try to patch things up with Andrew after a row. Andrew is sincere but a bit dim, while Betty is self-possessed, coolly witty, and gets some of the better lines.

After Betty's screams rouse the house one night and Adam is discovered coming out of her bedroom it precipitates a crisis that results in Andrew finally proposing to Betty (though it's really the other way around) and having it out privately with Adam. Right afterward Betty surprises Andrew taking something from a drawer:

Betty: Why, Andrew Carmel, are we starting out with a secret? Is this the kind of marriage we're going to have?
Andrew: Darling, trust me. Please trust me.
Betty: Darling, if I trust you now I'll always have to trust you. And I won't. Now what have you got behind your back?
Andrew: I suppose you think it's rather foolish of me to lend the professor 50 pounds. [Andrew, of course, is getting rid of Adam.]
Betty: Foolish? Give him 100 pounds, 200, 300.
Andrew: Oh, now, wait a minute. I'm very fond of the professor, but after all, walking into your room like that. . .
Betty: Thank heavens he did. If I hadn't screamed last night, we wouldn't be engaged today. You always behaved so well, I might have died an old maid.
Andrew: You're so right, Betty. We all behave too well. We never do the wrong thing at the right time. I've said it before and I'll say it again: what England needs is more Belinskis!
Betty: I think one is quite enough.

Cluny Brown may not rank with Lubitsch's greatest work, but it is a charming and affectionate send-up of British manners and mores, and its oppositions are never simple ones. It makes me wonder why both Jennifer Jones and Helen Walker didn't get to play more comic roles.

Image source: Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans

Call Northside 777 (1948), screenplay by Jerome Cady and Jay Dratler, adaptation by Leonard Hoffman and Quentin Reynolds, based on articles by James P. McGuire; directed by Henry Hathaway.

Based on the real-life wrongful conviction of Joseph Majczek and Theodore Marcinkiewicz for the murder of a Chicago policeman in 1932, Call Northside 777 has a semi-documentary style enhanced by filming in many of the actual locations involved. James Stewart plays P. J. McNeal, a character based on Chicago Times reporter James P. McGuire, who is sent by his editor to interview the Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski), mother of convicted cop-killer Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). Although she earns her living scrubbing floors, she has carefully saved her money for over a decade and has placed an ad offering a $5000 reward for information about the true killers. Although initially skeptical, McNeal gradually becomes convinced of Wiecek's innocence, but faces obstruction by the police and justice system as he pursues the case.

Helen Walker plays McNeal's loving wife Laura, who urges him to continue investigating the case despite his initial skepticism. When we first see her she is fixing a late dinner for McNeal; as he eats it he works on a jigsaw puzzle that she's started. While the jigsaw puzzle is perhaps too obvious a metaphor, their interplay over the pieces nicely encapsulates the mutuality of their marriage. It's not a large role, but she makes it memorable.

In Call Northside 777 Helen Walker embodies the supportive Good Woman (in the typology proposed by John Blaser in "No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir"). But as Nightmare Alley proved, she could also brilliantly play the femme fatale, as she did in her next major role.

Impact (1949), screenplay by Dorothy Reid and Jay Dratler, directed by Arthur Lubin.

The plot of Impact turns on false identities and misidentification: a hitchhiker speeding in a stolen car on a dark mountain road dies in a fiery crash, and everyone believes that it's the car's owner, San Francisco automotive magnate Walter Williams (Brian Donleavy), who has been killed. Just before the crash, though, Williams was assaulted by the hitchhiker and left for dead. Dazed, he climbs unnoticed into the back of a moving van that stops at the accident scene; he wakes up in a small town in Idaho. (Larkspur, California stands in for the nonexistent "Larkspur, Idaho" in the location shots.) There Williams discovers his "death" and realizes that his wife Irene (Helen Walker) and the hitchhiker (Tony Barrett) were lovers who had plotted to murder him. 

He meets a struggling gas-station owner, Marsha Peters (Ella Raines), and—his former life shattered—decides to stay on and help her as "Bill Walter." Eventually, though, he reveals his true identity, and at Marsha's urging returns to the Bay Area to clear his wife of murder charges—only to find himself imprisoned, accused by Irene of killing her lover. Now Marsha must try to prove his innocence. . .

One of the eerie things about Impact is how elements of the story echo events in Helen Walker's life. On January 1, 1947, she was driving at night in a borrowed car from Palm Springs to Los Angeles on Highway 99 (now Interstate 10). Outside Palm Springs she picked up a hitchhiking soldier, Robert Lee, and near Beaumont two other hitchhikers, Philip Mercado, an 18-year-old student, and his friend Joseph Montaldo. About 15 minutes later, "her car hit a dividing island in the roadway on the eastern outskirts of Redlands and turned over six times while rolling and skidding 600 feet," according to an LA Times report [1]. Investigators estimated that the car was traveling at 80 miles per hour, and a later civil suit brought by one of the passengers claimed that she'd been driving over 90.

Lee, sitting in the front passenger seat, was killed. Mercado and Montaldo, riding in the back seat, were thrown from the car and, though severely injured, survived. Walker herself suffered a fractured pelvis and collarbone, and several broken toes; she spent a month in the hospital. The Redlands policeman who pulled her from the wreckage said at the inquest that he smelled alcohol on her breath. She was charged with manslaughter but exonerated when it could not be proven that she was driving under the influence.

After Impact Helen Walker's career faltered. In 1950 she married furrier Edward Nicholas du Domaine, but the marriage was not a happy one, and lasted only two years. Perhaps she should have listened to her instincts: she told a the writer of their LA Times wedding announcement that "the first time I met him I hated him." [2] She testified to the judge in the divorce proceedings, "My husband resented my career, my friends in the motion picture business and everything else about me. In fact, he made me drop my friends and give up my contracts." [3]

Her career never recovered, although from the evidence of her next significant film her drinking may have played a role as well.

The Big Combo (1955), screenplay by Philip Yordan, directed by Joseph Lewis.

In The Big Combo, Walker's strong features look heavy, bloated, and in many shots (thanks in part, perhaps, to her deliberately dowdy hair, makeup and costuming) she looks much older than her 34 years. She plays Alicia, the sequestered wife of mob kingpin Mr. Brown (Richard Conte, from Call Northside 777). Alicia has been cocooned in comfortable ignorance, but once incorruptible cop Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) discovers her sanitarium refuge and undeceives her about Brown's murderous brutality she is convinced to give evidence against her husband.

The Big Combo is notable for its stunning, deeply-shadowed black-and-white cinematography by John Alton and its relentlessly grim atmosphere of darkness, violence and sex. Diamond's fury towards Brown is fueled in part by his jealousy of Brown's relationship with society girl Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), whom Brown apparently holds in sexual thrall. Brown disposes of anyone who might testify against him, including his second-in-command Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy, from Impact), while Diamond's girlfriend, burlesque dancer Rita (Helene Stanton), is riddled with bullets by Brown's henchmen Fante and Mingo (early-career roles for Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) during a botched attempt to assassinate Diamond. The movie ends in a showdown between Diamond and Brown with Susan in the middle, facing a fateful choice about which man she will help.

After The Big Combo Helen Walker's acting career wound down with appearances in a few episodes of crime and Western TV shows. She died of cancer in her Hollywood home in 1968 at the age of only 47. But she deserves to be remembered for her best films, and especially for her indelible femme fatale performances in Nightmare Alley and Impact.


  1. "Actress Hurt as Car Upsets, Killing Soldier," Los Angeles Times, 3 January 1947, p. 2.
  2. "Actress Helen Walker Will Wed in Palm Springs," Los Angeles Times, 28 April 1950, p. A1.
  3. "Actress Says Mate Resented Career: Divorce Granted Helen Walker from Furrier on Testimony He Made Her Drop Contracts," Los Angeles Times, 10 June 1952, p. 2.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

After Silence

Thinking of Hamlet's last words, "the rest is silence," Aldous Huxley writes,

. . .all the things that are fundamental, all the things that, to the human spirit, are most profoundly significant, can only be experienced, not expressed. The rest is always and everywhere silence.

After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

After Silence is the title of the new album by Voces8. It celebrates their 15th anniversary, which just makes me regret that I wasn't aware of them until this year. Many thanks to the friend and colleague who shared their music with me.

The album is divided into four sections: Remembrance, Devotion, Redemption, and Elemental; but as the inexpressible for Hamlet is his own death, the pieces included in each section touch on mortality or irrevocable loss. As you'll hear, the music is both elegiac and uplifting, thanks to how superbly the voices blend and how beautifully the dynamics are shaped by artistic director Barnaby Smith.

From Remembrance, "Drop, Drop, Slow Tears," music by Orlando Gibbons, words by Phineas Fletcher, both Shakespeare's contemporaries:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZTFLZiZUSo

Drop, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from Heaven
The news and Prince of Peace.

Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.

In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.

Voces8 has been accused of being almost too smooth, too technically perfect, which is a curious complaint. Of course, smoothness can shade into blandness if it is pursued to the exclusion of all other values, but Voces8 performs a wide-ranging and challenging repertoire. No one listening closely to what they are doing (and aware of the difficulty of achieving it) is likely to think that their performances are bland.

Unlike some other British a capella ensembles, Voces8 does not focus exclusively, or even, perhaps, primarily, on music of the Renaissance and Baroque. They have commissioned many new works, and the majority of the pieces included in After Silence (including all those in the final section, Elemental) were written in the 20th or 21st centuries. Well-known composers such as Arvo Pärt and Jonathan Dove are represented, but for me the most compelling music on After Silence is by composers I hadn't known before, such as Philip Stopford (his version of "Lully, Lulla, Lullay" is gorgeous and sad) and Eric Whitacre.

From Devotion, Whitacre's "A Boy and A Girl," the words a translation of "Los Novios" by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLoncQ9Euik

Stretched out on the grass,
a boy and a girl.
Savoring their oranges, giving their kisses
like waves exchanging foam.

Stretched out on the beach,
a boy and a girl.
Savoring their limes, giving their kisses
like clouds exchanging foam.

Stretched out underground,
a boy and a girl.
Saying nothing, never kissing,
giving silence for silence.
Tendidos en la yerba
una muchacha y un muchacho.
Comen naranjas, cambian besos
como las olas cambian sus espumas.

Tendido en la playa
una muchacha y un muchacho.
Comen limones, cambian besos
como las nubes cambian espumas.

Tendidos bajo tierra
una muchacha y un muchacho.
No dicen nada, no se besan,
cambian silencio por silencio.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Enemy of All Mankind

Steven Johnson, Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History's First Global Manhunt, Riverhead Books, 2020

In September 1695 off the western coast of India an English pirate ship attacked the trading vessel Ganj-i-Sawai ("Exceeding Treasure"), which was laden with gold, silver, jewels, luxury goods, and dozens of pilgrims returning from Mecca to the Mughal court. The Ganj-i-Sawai (which the British called the Gunsway) was a formidable target: it carried 80 guns and 400 soldiers to defend the cargo and the 600 crew and passengers. The pirates were outgunned and outmanned by large margins. But they had surprise, speed, terror, and accident on their side.

The Ganj-i-Sawai was a luckless ship. The pirates' first volley brought down its mainmast, one of its cannon exploded and caused a fire on the gun deck, and its captain fled down into the hold rather than encouraging his men to fight. Despite the long odds the pirates were able to capture and plunder the ship ("plunder" included the torture of members of the crew and the gang rape of the female pilgrims). This act set off an international crisis that nearly resulted in the expulsion of the British from India.

The pirate captain, Henry Every, and the bulk of his crew were mutineers. Two years before the attack on the Ganj-i-Sawai a four-ship expedition had set sail from England bound for the Caribbean to salvage treasure from sunken Spanish ships. However, after making port in Corunna in the northwest corner of Spain the expedition was held up for months waiting for its authorization to sail. Unpaid since the start of the expedition and sick of waiting in port, Every, the charismatic first mate on the expedition's flagship Charles II, ultimately led a mutiny, seized the ship and sailed out of port. Renaming the ship the Fancy, Every navigated not west towards the Caribbean but south down the coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, and then northeast into the Indian Ocean.

His goal was the mouth of the Red Sea, a waterway less than 20 miles wide that would funnel Arabian and Indian traders right towards where his ship was waiting to intercept them. And although a convoy of trading vessels managed to slip past the Fancy by sailing through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait at night, afterwards the convoy separated. The Fancy, a ship that had been stripped down for speed, was able to catch up to and capture two of its ships, the Fath Mahmamadi and the Ganj-i-Sawai.

Anonymous 18th-century engraving of Henry Every, with the Fancy engaging with another vessel in the background. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The haul was immense. Pirate ships were floating collectives, and the Fancy's crew had decided to divide any captured loot equally (with the captain getting a double share). Most members of the crew wound up with money and goods worth hundreds of pounds, and Every's share was at least £2000. In comparison, the annual wages of an ordinary seaman in the Royal Navy might have been £10. It's no wonder that piracy held such attractions.

When word of the loss of the ships to the English pirate reached Dehli, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb assumed that Every, like many other privateers, was operating under a letter of marque issued by the British government. He ordered the arrest of the British factors in the port city of Surat, the seizure of their goods, and for his armies to prepare to assault the East India Company fort at Bombay. Cooler counsel ultimately prevailed, in part because Britain put a bounty on the heads of Every and his men, and in part because the East India Company agreed to provide armed escorts to accompany Indian merchant ships. Not only did this provide immediate income for services rendered, it placed the trade of the Mughal Empire under the protection, and ultimately the control, of the Company. It was a key shift, one of the many occurrences that over the succeeding decades would enable the Company to dominate most of the subcontinent.

Proclamation for apprehending Henry Every, alias Bridgeman, and sundry other pirates, 1696.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Johnson, a popular writer on business and technology, has hit on a fascinating story that, in retrospect, is an inflection point in British relations with India and in the development of global trade. Along the way he discusses the brutal and dangerous lives of seventeenth-century seamen; press-gangs and the slave trade; the history of piracy; the violent succession of Mughal Emperors; the rise of mercantilism and the creation of the joint stock company.

Johnson's tale is engagingly told, but he makes some mistakes, both minor and major, along the way. An example of the former: he writes of pirate Thomas Tew's Red Sea raid of 1693 (which probably inspired Henry Every's plans),

. . .most of the men on board took home roughly £2000 after the prizes had been fully allocated by the quartermaster. Recall the terms that James Houblon had offered the experienced crew of Spanish Expedition Shipping: £82 for the entire voyage. A midshipman on [Tew's ship] the Amity had earned fifty times that much in a six-month voyage. (p. 114)

More like 25 times that much, but still a handsome reward. Although his prize share had been between four and eight thousand pounds, enough money on which to live in peaceful retirement for the rest of his life, Tew unwisely returned to the Red Sea in 1695 and was briefly allied with Every. However, the Amity had its own encounter with the Fath Mahmamadi, during which Tew was struck in the abdomen by a cannonball and killed. If the rewards of piracy were great, so were the dangers.

Sometimes Johnson gets the math right, but calculates from the wrong assumptions. He writes that immediately after the mutiny,

Every's most pressing need was not for food or armaments, but rather men. The eighty pirates aboard the ship would not give Every enough manpower to exploit the Fancy's full potential in an exchange with another vessel. Each of the great guns on deck required at a minimum six men to man them in the heat of battle; with forty-six guns on board, Every knew he needed at least three times his current crew to fire a full broadside. More would be needed to fire the muskets, man the sails, and storm enemy ships if the Fancy were able to overpower them. (p. 111)

So by Johnson's calculation of six men per gun, during an encounter the Fancy would need 280 men to fire a broadside, plus more to "fire the muskets, man the sails, and storm enemy ships." Only, sailing ships didn't generally carry enough crew to man every gun onboard because ships fought side-by-side and during an engagement could usually at any time bring only half of their guns to bear. If the ship maneuvered during battle to change the side facing the enemy, the gun crews simply moved across the deck.

This can be confirmed by examining the crew complements of British 46-gun ships launched or acquired between 1680 and 1700, which range between 128 and 230 men and average about 170. For her armament the Fancy was undermanned at the start; Every probably wanted to double the size of the crew, but not (as Johnson has it) increase it by a multiple of three or four. Sailing ships were small and crowded and men needed food and water, which had to be stored onboard; any crew beyond the minimum necessary were burdens on a long voyage. In the event Every was able to recruit additional crew from the English, French and Dutch prizes the Fancy took on the way to the Red Sea. [1]

This is not the only error in the book that could have been corrected by a quick internet search. Johnson approvingly quotes historian John Keay's description of the Mughal Empire's use of some of the gold and silver paid for Indian spices and fabrics as "'nullifying its economic potential by melting and spinning the precious metals into bracelets, brocades and other ostentatious heirlooms.'" Johnson then adds his own description of the process as "the equivalent of winning the lottery and decorating your house with wallpaper made of hundred-dollar bills" (p. 50).

Jigha turban ornament, 18th century. White jade (nephrite), diamond, spinel and emerald in 22K gold. 14 cm. Photo by Robert & Orasa Weldon/GIA. Image source: GIA.edu

This seems like a false comparison. For one, the value of metals, gems, and other materials is not destroyed by their incorporation into jewelry; if anything the reverse. For another, jewelry, brocaded fabrics, and other luxuries possessed symbolic value: they were worn by rulers (not only in India, as portraits of English kings and queens attest) as highly visible manifestations of power and status; they could be given as gifts to reward the loyalty of subjects and reinforce networks of influence and patronage. Finally, even if you want to make the case that the manufacture of jewelry was not the most productive use of India's huge trade surpluses, the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707) is probably not illustrative of the point: he was highly devout and enforced the prohibition in Islamic law against men wearing gold. [2]

So what happened to Every and his men? After the spoils were divided up, Every sailed the Fancy back around the Cape. Reprovisioning only at Ascension Island, an uninhabited six-mile-wide volcanic speck in the middle of the South Atlantic, he sailed on to Nassau in the British Bahamas. [3] There the Fancy, all the goods in her, and a large sum of money were offered to the governor, who (probably for reasons both of prudence and profit) accepted the deal. The crew dispersed, with many heading to the American colonies. 

Every and twenty companions acquired a single-masted boat, the Sea Flower, and sailed northeast across the Atlantic to Ireland, where they split up. [4] Returning to the British Isles seems like a highly risky choice, and so it turned out to be: eventually eight crewmen were identified, arrested and put on trial in London for piracy (a fascinating story in itself, which Johnson tells well). 

But Every was not among those arrested. One of the captured crewmen who claimed to have traveled with him on the Sea Flower, Joseph Dann, testified that Every was headed for Scotland but had said his ultimate destination was Exeter in southwestern England, near where he'd been born. (Although, given the consequences of being found, how likely is it that Every would reveal his true destination?) 

Tantalizingly, Dann also reported an encounter just a few days before his arrest with the wife of the Fancy's quartermaster, Henry Adams, at St Albans, a stagecoach stop northwest of London. Mrs. Adams and Dann knew one another well, as she had met and married Adams in Nassau and had been one of the voyagers (and the only woman) on board the Sea Flower. Mrs. Adams was boarding a coach, traveling alone, and told Dann she was going to see Every. Interestingly, although Johnson doesn't mention it, St Albans was on the Great North Road, and a traveler boarding there was probably heading towards Yorkshire or Scotland and not towards Devonshire. 

But Mrs. Adams' reference to him, if true on both her part and Dann's, is the last known trace of Henry Every. After this moment he vanishes. His ultimate fate remains unknown.


  1. See the website Three Decks, which compiles known information about ships in the Age of Sail: https://threedecks.org/index.php 
  2. See Dona Mary Dirlam, Chris L. Rogers, and Robert Weldon, "Gemstones in the Era of the Taj Mahal and the Mughals," Gems & Gemology, Fall 2019, Vol. 55, No. 3, https://www.gia.edu/gems-gemology/fall-2019-era-of-the-taj-mahal-and-mughals, and Alice Keller and Terri Ottaway, "Centuries of Opulence: Jewels of India," October 11, 2017, https://www.gia.edu/jewels-of-india
  3. That the Fancy could navigate to a six-mile-wide island in the middle of a 2400-mile-wide ocean says a great deal about the skill of the men on board. Amazingly, 17 members of the crew elected to stay on Ascension rather than risk capture and execution in British territories. 
  4. Another remarkable feat of sailing and navigation.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley (1947), screenplay by Jules Furthman based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, directed by Edmund Goulding.

Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power, playing against his usual romantic-hero type) is a carny, drifting along and looking for a hustle. Trading on his good looks, he seduces the sideshow psychic Zeena (Joan Blondell) and tries to get her to reveal the secret code she used in her mind-reading act with her husband Pete (Ian Keith) before he took to drink.

Zeena refuses at first, but when Pete dies after drinking a bottle of wood alcohol he mistakes for moonshine (an accident that Stan has a hand in), Zeena needs a partner for her act and agrees to teach Stan the code.

Thanks to his hard-knock life, Stan also turns out to be able to draw on a deep well of pious patter ("It's what they used to give us at the orphanage on Sundays after beating us black-and-blue all week") and a gift for cold-reading—intuiting facts about someone (and the vulnerable points through which they can best be manipulated) through non-verbal cues. It's a gift that will fail him, though, at a crucial moment.

Stan is two-timing Zeena with Molly (Coleen Gray), another (younger, prettier) performer with an electric girl act, who is the girlfriend of the strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki).

Once they have the code and their lovers have discovered their betrayal, Stan and Molly leave the carnival and head for the big city to make their fortune.

Their upscale nightclub act, in which a blindfolded Stan (as "The Great Stanton") divines the contents of the audience's written messages thanks to Molly's coded questions, is wildly successful. In the audience one night is "consulting psychologist" Lilith (Helen Walker, with tightly coiffed/repressed hair), who asks The Great Stanton a trick question.

Stan dodges the trap and impresses Lilith against her better judgment. She invites him to her office the next day:

Lilith: "How did you know [my question was fake]?"
Stan: "I didn't. I just had a feeling that your question wasn't on the level. I figured you were trying to make a chump out of me. Just common sense."
Lilith: "It's not so common."
Stan: "I don't know about that."
Lilith: "Why?"
Stan: "I've got that same feeling right now."

Stan learns that Lilith records all of her sessions with her wealthy clients, and realizes that their confessions are a gold mine. It doesn't take long for Stan to convince her to help him launch an even bigger hustle: spiritualism. With the details he gleans from Lilith's recordings Stan can convince the credulous rich that he is communing with their departed loved ones, and in return they shower him with cash. But even if Lilith's name wasn't enough to tip him off, Stan should have listened to his instincts. . .

The carnival sequences are authentically seedy, in part because a real carnival was rented and installed on the backlot.

But the final third of the movie feels a bit rushed: transitions are abrupt, Stan uncharacteristically lets down his guard at a key moment, some actions seem inadequately motivated, and some major plot developments (such as a police manhunt for Stan) are left unresolved. 

It feels a bit as if director Edmund Goulding (Dark Victory, The Razor's Edge, Pickup on South Street) was forced to shorten the movie by 30 minutes, although clearly the Production Code is playing a hand as well. In William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel, for example, rich mark Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes) is racked by guilt because his youthful sweetheart Dorrie died in a botched back-alley abortion, something that veteran screenwriter Jules Furthman (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep) obviously couldn't allude to. And the ending of the film, which in one of its many instances of doubling/repetition grimly echoes the beginning, still offers a faint gleam of consolation entirely missing from the novel.

But Power gives an excellent performance as Stan, a guy for whom no scam, however successful, is ever quite enough, and whose fall leads him to make a desperate choice. And Helen Walker is a chilling femme fatale. She would later appear in Call Northside 777, Impact, and The Big Combo—I'm planning a personal Helen Walker film festival right now.