Sunday, 14 October 2012

Carnival - Compton Mackenzie

… or, as the 1961 Panther edition pictured here has it, “Compton Mackenzie's world-famous Carnival". I can't comment on the degree of global renown that the book enjoyed 49 years after its original publication in 1912 but, another half-century on, I wonder how many people have even heard of it, let alone read it. (The one 'review' that appears on – a one-star review at that – is from a reader who confesses to not having finished the book, doesn't appear from their account actually to have read any of it and misspells Mackenzie's name (twice). It was unknown to me before coming across this copy, despite having read some of Mackenzie's other early works. But, like J B Priestley, he seems to be one of those hugely prolific men of letters who are now only remembered for one or two works - in his case, two slices of Scottishry in the form of Whisky Galore and Monarch Of The Glen. But much as he is now associated with that part of the UK (he was also a founder of the SNP), Mackenzie wrote some excellent works of London fiction early in his career, the most notable of which is his 1914 magnum opus Sinister Street. Carnival was published two years earlier and there's as much here to enjoy for the dedicated London novel enthusiast. Interestingly, there appears to be a new edition on the way, and it's a novel that certainly merits rediscovery.

Anyone expecting the melodramatic potboiler suggested by this Panther edition, however, would probably be disappointed. The story of dancer Jenny Pearl, which starts with her birth in the fictitious respectable-working-class Hagworth Street, Islington, proceeds at a measured pace, especially the account of her early years; several chapters elapse before the action even ventures beyond Hagworth Street. But hard-going it isn't. Mackenzie is a meticulous and careful writer, and especially successful at conveying how childhood experiences, often involving adult behaviour that seems mysterious and incomprehensible at the time – inform his key characters. (He would take this idea much further with the story of Michael Fane in Sinister Street). Jenny, daughter of a feckless father but a strong, strict and loving mother develops a vehement desire to train as a ballet dancer but, due in part to her reluctance, once she's been set on her chosen path, to apply herself to her art, ends up in the career graveyard that is Piccadilly's Orient Palace of Varieties. It's there she encounters the upper-middle-class would-be artist Maurice Avery, and their passionate but unconsummated affair – and Maurice's importuning of Jenny to take their relationship to another level – form the key part of the story.

This all takes place amid a large cast of characters and a vividly evoked turn-of-the-century London with all its pleasures. And there's a noticeably more frank – and grown-up – treatment of sex than one would find in English novels of the Victorian era that had only ended just over a decade previously (indeed, Mackenzie also drops surprising hints here and there about darker sexual practices and proclivities).To modern readers, the character of Jenny is refreshingly independent, strong and
self-assured, and determined throughout not to be subjugated by any man – even one with whom she's in love. Nor is this is remarked on as in itself especially unusual or noteworthy – although when she has a brief flirtation with the suffragist movement the result is in no way a meeting of minds. In fact, she is (as is made clear on several occasions) neither an intellectual, nor possessed of much imagination; she's not even especially sympathetic – at least not at first, and this gradual change on one's perception is, I think, part of Mackenzie's skill. That said, towards the end of the novel ones sympathies become polarised by the introduction of one of the grimmest characters I've encountered in fiction in a long time: the Cornish farmer Zachary Trewellha. Arguably this threatens to overbalance the whole work but, without wishing to drop a spoiler, it's worth mentioning here that Mackenzie's inspiration for the novel (as he himself notes in his somewhat pompous introduction) was a visit to a farmer he knew in Cornwall whose wife turned out to be a peroxided former barmaid he'd met in a Leicester Square dive and persuaded to marry him.
As a London novel, there is much to relish here: the depiction of Maurice’s dishevelled bachelor pad-cum-studio, the backstage world of the dancing girls at the Orient (based on a real place?), and conversational quirks of the period:
"Is that right?" murmured Irene. "Is what right?" "About getting off with a fellow in the stalls?" "You're not nosy, are you? Oh, no, it's only a rumour. But if you want to know, it's nothing to do with you."
And despite the final section, it's as a predominantly London-set tale of great subtlety and superbly realised characterisation that this is likely to linger in ones mind.


  1. At the beginning of the First World War, Compton Mackenzie was considered by many, including Henry James, to hold the future of the English novel in his hands. Carnival was a great success at the time and much relished by the golden youth of the day, most of the male half of which was all too soon to perish in the trenches of France; Lady Diana Manners (later Cooper) adopted Jenny Pearl's 'There's nothing wrong with this little girl' as her own. Very sad that Mackenzie and this novel have been so neglected these last decades.

  2. Carnival was one of the first books to appear in Penguin in the Thirties, possibly even the first Penguin ever.

  3. I think the fate of CM is similar to that of many novelists whose output might be termed 'middlebrow', and especially those who were very popular in their day. And he's probably not been in the critical doldrums sufficiently long to be taken up and rediscovered, although with the republishing of Carnival I could be wrong - we'll have to see!
    I should really get around to posting about Sinister Street here too, although that'll mean ploughing through its 800-odd pages again! (Particularly daunting when it comes to the section dealing with Fane's Oxford days…) Maybe I'll start with Sylvia Scarlett...