The Quiet Desperation of Caryl Bramsley

Maurice Baring’s novel C”, published in 1924, is a fictional memoir about a late Victorian/Edwardian character named Caryl Bramsley (nicknamed “C” by his friends). The book is similar to Baring’s stories Cat’s Cradle, Tinker’s Leave and Coat Without Seam—repeating many of the same elements and unabashedly drawing on the author’s experiences. An important theme is unrequited or failed romance (Baring was himself a lifelong bachelor). On the other hand, the novel is in no way a reflection of the author’s own childhood, which was apparently just short of idyllic. Biographer Emma Letley refers to Baring’s “skill in evoking childhood and youth.”

In C, using ingredients from his own life but creating a very different atmosphere from that he had himself known, Baring carefully dramatises the child’s sense of time and the child’s viewpoint….

Critics complained that Baring’s story was a chronicle of endless dinner parties. But that is true only the on surface. Many of his tales evince Thoreau’s adage about people leading lives of “quiet desperation.” Nevertheless, setbacks need not lead to utter despondency, and in that sense Baring’s outlook was the opposite of so many of his peers who had turned to fashionable pessimism. Worldly failure has its antithesis in otherworldly hope and spiritual resolution, and religion (specifically Catholicism) forms an unequivocal motif, even if only in the background.

In the preface, a friend posthumously explains how C’s story came to him by way of a mutual acquaintance, Gerald Malone. Like C, he is young man of unfulfilled potential, now sick and dying in a shabby little room where he is visited by a few loyal companions. We learn that Gerald, while careless of spirituality throughout most of his life, “had seen the priest and had received the last Sacraments” before he passed away.

As for Bramsley, the young man is underappreciated by many grownups, starting with his parents, though there are some who intuit that his stubborn pretense to mediocrity is really a defense mechanism. His Master at Eton, Mr. Cobden, realizes that “he was not the average boy he pretended to be.”

Mr. Cobden called him an idle brat, but he was interested, and said in his report at the end of that summer half that C. was ‘an uncommonly sharp and thoughtful lad.’
His tutor was astonished to learn that C. was at the top of his division that half, and had been presented by Mr. Cobden with Boswell’s Life of Johnson….
“Have you ever read this?” asked Mr. Cobden, as he wrote C.’s name in it.
“No, sir.”
“Well,” said Mr. Cobden, “it’s the best book the world.”
C. felt quite certain that Mr. Cobden was speaking the truth.

These sorts of classical literary cross-references are delightful and, needless to say, Mr. Cobden is entirely correct about Boswell.

For more on Baring, I refer readers to Letley’s study, Maurice Baring: A Citizen of Europe (1991). Piers Paul Read provides a brief and insightful appreciation in “What’s became of Baring?” (The Spectator).

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