Friday, 11 November 2016

The Humour is Lonely: a review of The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith (1959).

 I am sad about this book. I came to it an innocent, knowing nothing of its provenance, expecting to laugh, to learn something about the Hebrides in the 1950s (we have ancestors who came from there, so it’s cool to learn a bit), to enjoy some good writing. It came off of a friend’s shelf. She had three of Beckwith’s books, and is herself of Scottish heritage. I felt safe.

I did laugh. Sometimes quite hard. I did learn things about life in the Hebrides, and was reminded of places and people I knew many years ago—it was good to remember being with them. And yes, there is some excellent writing.

What breaks my heart is the endless caricatures, sometimes bluntly ugly, made of people who welcomed her into their lives. True, she has “fictionalized” it, but it doesn’t matter. Even if every person in the book is unlike anyone she met there, even if no one could think, my God, is that me she is writing about?!, even if every situation is patently not something that happened there, even if she has (and she has) made herself out in as unflattering ways as she has anyone else, it doesn’t matter. She has characterized the whole culture as dirty, foolish, unconsciously gross. She has missed the elegance of other writers who will lightly lampoon themselves and one or two others and let the other characters have their dignity. Why didn’t anyone tell her?

I do not entirely blame the author. She was a person of her times and had not the insight to recognize that just because the rest of the world thought it was okay to lampoon a whole people (or any person), it doesn’t mean it IS okay. There are intimations that she did care about the people whose world she entered and remained in for some years. And yet she was too foolish to realize that THIS KIND OF HUMOUR HURTS. It hurts an individual, and it hurts a culture by upholding stereotypes that dismiss and demean, it hurts the children growing up knowing that this is how they are seen, it hurts the children growing up thinking there is a division between themselves and someone else just because they have different manners, different ways. It hurts any possibility of true friendship between the classes and peoples involved. It hurts.

One of the realizations I had as I read in alternating delight and creeping horror, was that these ugly stereotypes were the reason, or at least part of the reason, that I grew up learning to dislike and distrust the English, the ones with perfect grammar and chilling mannerisms, and to always feel clumsy and ridiculous in comparison to them—because they despised us. I have pretty much healed from that. The world is not black and white to me as it was then. But this book is a sad reminder of that rift, one that extended, and extends, to people of all colours, all classes, all differences.

There are hints here of the damage this does to the person in the oppressor role, too. The obvious one is that she must be annihilating the goodwill of the people she lampoons, and yet she blithely and unawarely does it anyway, when she could as well have written the same book without the ugliness. It is like watching a slow motion train crash. You can see it coming, you know what is about to happen, you see the nose of the train ploughing dully into the mountain side, but the engineer cannot or will not make it stop, and all are doomed. Engineer, passengers, standers-by.

But read this. She has gone back to England for a few weeks after a couple of years in Scotland. When she returns the three elderly people she has been living with welcome her with great enthusiasm.

“The fervour of the welcome from all three of them was impressive and made that which I had received in England seem frigid in comparison (pg. 234).”

This insight, which candidly illumines something she has been hinting at in her self-deprecation throughout—her depiction of herself as humourless, arrogant, rude—is poignant. But it is instantly extinguished by her next, rallying-back-from-awareness, blunt instrument of humour:

“It was difficult to repress a feeling of elation, for the geniality of the Gael, despite its lack of sincerity, is an endearing trait (pg. 234).”

Oh, Lillian. How must you have hated yourself to shove that last spike in.

Having written this review, I find out a little bit more about Lillian Beckwith, both from LibraryThing itself, and from her Wikipedia page:

“Her life on the island provided the basis for seven books published between 1959 and 1978, although allegedly, some of her neighbours later felt that the somewhat comical characters on Beckwith’s fictional island of Bruach were too close to real persons, causing Beckwith to become something of a persona non grata in her former home.[citation needed] She moved to the Isle of Man in 1962 and died on 3 January 2004 aged 87.[1]”

If true, it doesn’t surprise me at all that she had to leave the Hebrides.

What shocks me is that (LibraryThing tells me) Pan Books put out a 2016 edition of this work. It shocks me that generations of people both English and, if you believe the reviews on her bookcovers, Scottish, have thought these warmly realistic and hilarious depictions of Hebridean life. 

It is just like the caricatures of First Nations people, and similar to, if more heavy handed than, that of the Newfoundlander, that I grew up with in the same era that she was writing. But surely we don’t sell those images anymore? Surely??

I could be angry—thirty years ago I would have been. Now I am simply sad.

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