A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

Ransacking its recollection for some yardstick of enormity to apply, the press came up, not very appositely, with the Oscar Wilde case, and a bright young journalist, remembering that Wilde had once lived in Tite Street, made great play with the fact that Odingsels frequently “resorted” there, to the editorial offices of a publication called Lantern, run by a Chelsea group which was made out to be as unsavoury as the laws of libel would permit. Another point of similarity with the Wilde affair was that Odingsels showed no proper dismay in the dock, but grinned and sometimes laughed outright when evidence was given that he had received as much as one hundred guineas for a single exclusive print.

Odo’s counsel, a celebrated silk, attempted to defend him on the ground that many of his ingenious photographs, representing cel­ebrated figures in world affairs, were essentially political in subject, and satiric in intent. They were, he said, the modern counterparts of the vigorous, sometimes savage, and often suggestive political carica­tures of Rowlandson and Gilray. He created a sensation in court when he produced a list of Odingsels’ clients and began to read it; extra­ordinary as it seemed, some of the photographer’s victims were themselves purchasers of obscene portraits of other eminent people. The Judge did not permit the reading of the list to go far, but read it himself, declared it to be, for the present, irrelevant, and no more was heard of it. But the eminent silk had read enough to set the news­papers buzzing; it was, Fleet Street agreed, the liveliest thing since the great hue and cry after homosexuals a few months before. Leaders appeared under such headings as “Curiosa In High Places”. Much was made of the fact that the learned Judge, after looking through a portfolio of Odingsels’ work, said, “These things would make a vulture gag.” He also said that the models who lent themselves to the production of such filth should be discovered and dealt with appropriately.

“Thank God for Bun Eccles,” said Monica, drinking this in with her breakfast coffee, “or I might have to stay here for a few months. I wonder if they’ll get Perse? A girl with as many moles as she has oughtn’t to be hard to identify — but the slops can’t strip every tart in London, matching up shapes.” — From which it may be seen that Monica did not phrase her private thoughts as elegantly as she did her speeches to the Bridgetower Trustees. — “I wonder who I would have been the body of, if I’d gone to him? I always knew he was no good. I just hope Giles has enough sense not to try to go to his rescue by appearing as a character witness, or something.” For five days the wonder raged, and at last a shuddering smudge appeared in the newspapers which was described as a radio-photograph of Odo Odingsels being escorted from the Central Criminal Court by twelve police, while a crowd of five hundred angry women tried to slaughter him with umbrellas and rotten vegetables. His offence was such a strange one, and the law relating to it so various and confused, that the best the Judge was able to do for him was to send him to prison for five years, three of which were to be spent in hard labour.

Much was made during the trial of the unsavouriness of Odingsels’ appearance; the Judge and the newspapers were at one in agreeing that his outward form was the true mirror of his soul. Monica and everyone else learned that the type of mange from which he suffered was called alopecia areata, and everywhere harmless, afflicted citizens wrote to the papers protesting that this ailment was not a mark of turpitude. But the Odingsels Obscenity Scandal vanished as suddenly as it came.

There were two days when the name of Lantern was prominent in the news, and when people who had never seen a copy were writing of it as a scabrous and scruffy publication, when she had to be very firm with herself, to keep from sending a cable of warning advice to Giles. But she knew how furiously he would resent such interference; three or four weeks in Canada, domineering over her relatives, had awakened her considerable talent for bossiness, but she must not use it on Giles. Of late his touchiness had reached new heights; hard work on The Golden Asse raised his spirits, but drove him to new excesses of freakishness. And so much of it was directed against Stanhope Aspinwall! The critic had been favourable but pernickety in his judgement of Kubla Khan when it was broadcast; Monica was inclined to think well of him because he had written of her singing in terms of warm praise. . . “an artist still somewhat tentative in her approach but plainly possessed of uncommon abilities. . . combines vocal qualities usually considered to be mutually exclusive. . . extreme agility and brilliance in the upper register with a warm and expressive tone. . . a purity of English pronunciation and delicate interpretation of poetic nuance which recalls the late Kathleen Ferrier”. Monica had suggested to Giles that, as he had taught her all she knew, this praise was for him, but he would not hear of it. “All these old critics go ga-ga about a new girl if she isn’t a positive gargoyle,” he had said, and had raged on about Aspinwall’s criticism of the piano part of the cantata as unduly elaborated. And when, a few weeks later, Giles had given a recital of his work at Wigmore Hall, and Aspinwall had once again praised her warmly, and found some faults in the music, Giles became quite impossible.

He had procured a picture of Aspinwall (through Odingsels, it was now unpleasant to remember), had framed it and hung it in the water-closet which was one flight downstairs from his own apart­ment. He made a point of using the paper for which Aspinwall wrote in order to wrap his garbage; he bought several copies every week, cut out Aspinwall’s signed articles, and hung them in the water-closet, as a substitute for the toilet roll, though Mrs Klein and the other lodgers objected strongly. On one embarrassing occasion he took Monica to a concert and, finding that they were sitting behind Aspinwall (which he swore he had not arranged) he badgered the critic by tapping on the back of his seat, and making insulting remarks, just loud enough to be heard, in the intervals. He even began to write obscenely abusive letters to Aspinwall, but Monica and Bun Eccles intercepted them, and so far as they could judge, none had escaped their watch.

“Pay no attention,” Bun had said when she confided her worry to him; “old Giles is a genius, and when he’s working at full steam he gets ratty. Some of the things he does are a bit crook, Monny, but he’s sound as the bank — too right he is. Wait’ll he gets the opera done, then you’ll see.”

Well, she thought, the first thing is to get the opera done, and hope Aspinwall likes it. So she cabled Giles that the money difficulty was settled, explained it in detail in a letter, and worked even harder for the Bridgetower Recital.


When the day came Monica’s nervousness, as always, took the form of depression, a sense of unworthiness, and a fear not of failure but of a spiritless mediocrity. By now she had some experience of this state, and recent reflection had convinced her that it was part of her heritage from Ma; her imagination, and her ups and downs of feeling, were Ma’s. Well, she must not let them dominate her life, as they had dominated the life of Mrs Gall.

But it is one thing to reason with depression, and another to lift it. All day she was gloomy. She had procured invitations for her own friends. Would Kevin and Alex draw attention to themselves in some unsuitable way? Would George Medwall, with whom she had had two or three brief, uneasy conversations, come at all, and would it bother her if she could not see him in the audience? The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had asked to make a tape-recording of part of the concert; was that going to mean a microphone to fix her with its disapproving, steely face, somewhere directly in her view? Why, she wondered, did anyone want to be a singer?

Did she indeed want to be a singer? What singer whom she knew did she admire? In her present mood she could think of none. Singers! The creatures of a physical talent, constantly fussing about draughts in spite of their horse-like health — conscious that their voices might drop a tone if the room were too hot. Evelyn Burnaby, with whom she now had some acquaintance, and whom she admired as an artist — did she really want to be like Evelyn? So dull, except when she sang.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson