Pale around the Gills

One of those odd coincidences occurred recently which set one thinking about an issue raised by two, otherwise unrelated events. On the day we visited the museum in Ditchling, East Sussex I happened to finish reading Falstaff, the novel by Robert Nye, and both experiences set me thinking about morality in art.

Ditchling Common was the home, for a few years, of the community of craftspeople and makers led by Eric Gill. Gill’s genius as an engraver, designer of typefaces and sculptor has been tarnished, to put it mildly, by revelations about some rather less savoury predilections, which included having sex with one or more of his daughters and trying it on with a dog. It is an old dilemma: should we countenance the work of someone so compromised or order its removal from public view? In favour of leniency it may be argued that Gill’s lettering and engraving (including many war memorials) are beyond reproach, anonymous when encountered and too widely disseminated to be recalled like a faulty car part. His sculpture, meanwhile, is largely religious in flavour (he was a fervent if oddball Catholic) and may serve the useful, if unintended purpose, of debunking that sort of piety. In fact, apart from diary entries, only a few, rarely-seen drawings of his daughter hint at something off-colour and theirs would be a relatively minor loss if we decided to avert our eyes. Even in this case, however, a more adult approach would surely be to trust one’s own judgement and immunity to being depraved.

To these specific circumstances may be added a more generic defence. The dead lie outside our jurisdiction. By deleting their work (even supposing that were possible in Gill’s case) we would be punishing not them but ourselves. Instead, cases like his might be used to investigate the pathology of genius and perversion, extremes of the human spirit still insufficiently understood.

There rests the case for a kind of suspended sentence where posterity is concerned. The trouble is, given the peculiar nastiness of child abuse, even I am not totally convinced. The sexual predators recently exposed are not able to continue their careers in a part of life kept separate from any moral or criminal offence. In such cases the awfulness is the man. Can something similar not be applied retrospectively when the miscreant is immune to censure or due process? Or would that result in galleries being half-empty, libraries with closed doors?

Which brings me to Nye’s brilliant, innovative novel. First published in 1976, it purports to be Falstaff’s own account of his life using what appears about him in Shakespeare supplemented by much highly impressive research. The exaggeration and self-mythologising are rampant, blatant and explicit by turns, much of the obscenity concerning his exploits with an (in modern parlance) under-age niece. One commonly-used (and often self-serving) mitigation of inappropriateness is that it dates from, or refers to, an earlier time when the moral climate was different from our own. In a case such as this, however, the question arises: which timeframe are we talking about?

In the fifteenth century child brides and the debauching of innocence were commonplace. By our own standards, life was brutish and short. Women and girls were chattels or vessels for men’s pleasure and progeny. In a work of fiction is it not possible, even praiseworthy, to make this clear, or should my pleadings be dismissed as the speciousness of a man who enjoys reading dirty books?

The second context is that in which the book first appeared. Here a different set of considerations apply. Nye was writing less than twenty years after the Lady Chatterley trial, when Britain’s old obscenity laws bit the dust. People were still testing the boundaries of what was possible or artistically justified. And the emphasis on liberation, sexual and otherwise, ushered in by the 1960s had yet to give way as a prevalent cultural force to materialism and personal greed. In his writing Nye was an innovator, as I shall shortly explain; but he was also a creature of his times, both empowered and constrained by commercial reality and cultural assumptions. To break moulds is still to be defined by them.

The third epoch is, of course, our own, when a character like Falstaff – rumbustious, licentious, self-aggrandizing – is more likely to be seen through the prism of male entitlement. The books exist, there is no going back on that; but it is unlikely we shall see a new edition while justice is still being sought for the victims of sexual abuse. We read or view or listen with current events looking over our shoulders, and it is impossible to read the passages regarding Miranda, the niece, without wincing at their impropriety. But two things redeem Nye’s project, both of them entirely in keeping with the times. Firstly, the women he writes about are endowed with agency, as current jargon would have it. Miranda herself, and Doll Tearsheet the bawd, are strong, feisty and, yes, lusty characters not passive victims of Falstaff’s appetites. Secondly, none of it is true – and not just in the sense that this is a story. In Sir John, Nye gives us an early and almost unmatched instance of the unreliable narrator, since established as a staple of the post-modern novel. Not only is this clear from what we know of the man from Shakespeare’s plays; the book contains a clever device which enables someone to contradict what the old man is saying. True, the passages involving Miranda can still cause offence as male fantasy, with possible implications for the author’s state of mind. But, like any great work of art, his book exists in the unique space it has made for itself, at arm’s length from its creator and from reality while embracing and, for this reader at least, enriching life.