Review of ‘Peculiar People: The Story of My Life’

Peculiar People: The Story of My Life
Augustus Hare (Anita Miller and James Papp, Editors)
Academy Chicago

Call a book charming in these benighted days and you risk burying it forever. Yet Augustus Hare's Peculiar People is just that. An abridgement of the six-volume autobiography of a late 19th-century British travel writer (1834-1903), it may sound like the epitome of Victorian dullness, but it gives as much pleasure as a country-house weekend with good shooting, lots of champagne and brilliantly amusing guests. No doubt Anita Miller and James Papp have chosen the best pages from Hare's original, but I for one will be combing secondhand bookshops for the complete set.

The joy of Peculiar People lies in its deceptively simple style, coupled with a flair for outrageous anecdote. Augustus Hare's mother, for instance, decided to give up her unwanted baby boy, our hero, to a widowed aunt: "My dear Maria, how very kind of you! Yes certainly, the baby shall be sent as soon as it is weaned; and if anyone else would like one, would you kindly recollect that we have others." If this sounds monstrous (in a deliciously black-humored way, of course), matters quickly grew far worse for young Augustus when his adoptive mother, out of the highest Christian ideals, became so "afraid of over-indulgence that she always went into the opposite extreme: and her constant habits of self-examination made her detect the slightest act of especial kindness into which she had been betrayed, and instantly determine not to repeat it."

The result is as harrowing a childhood as any in Dickens — or Edward Gorey. Augustus is refused playthings, playmates and treats. Delicious puddings would be spoken of at the dinner table, but "just as I was going to eat some of them, they were snatched away, and I was told to get up and carry them off to some poor person in the village." Worse yet, Augustus and his new "mother" fall under the dread dominion of Aunt Esther, the zealous, spiteful wife of an inept clergyman relative. Aunt Esther has conceived an intense hatred for the boy: "As if you ever could say anything worth hearing, as if it was ever possible that anyone could want to hear what you have to say." Every year she gives Augustus, for his birthday and Christmas, the very same present, a copy of The Rudiments of Architecture, "price ninepence, in a red cover. It was always the same, which not only saved expense, but also the trouble of thinking." At one point, to punish the boy, she actually hangs his beloved pet cat.

From out of this early nightmare, which included several months passed in an iron frame to correct a curvature of the spine, Hare developed an eye for human psychology and a taste for human eccentricity. During church services his Uncle Julius "had the oddest way of turning over the pages [of the Psalter] with his nose." At Oxford he becomes chummy with a fellow student: "It was very difficult to distinguish him from his twin brother Vernon; indeed, it would have been impossible to know them apart, if Vernon had not, fortunately for their friends, shot off some of his fingers." At one Brinkley Manor-ish country estate he encounters "Mr. Wooster, who came to arrange the collection of shells four years ago, and has never gone away." (Surely, a perfect subject for an Edward Lear limerick.)

My favorite character, though, must be the Dean of Christ Church College, nicknamed "Presence-of-Mind" Smith. "In my life," he would tell his friends, "there has been one most fortunate incident. A friend of mine persuaded me to go out with him in a boat upon a lake. I did not wish to go, but he persuaded me, and I went. By the intervention of Providence, I took my umbrella with me. We had not been long on the lake when the violence of the waves threw my friend out of the boat drowning, and he sank. Soon, as is the case with drowning persons, he came up again, and clutched hold of the side of the boat. Then such, providentially, was my presence of mind, that I seized my umbrella and rapped him violently on the knuckles till he let go. He sank, and I was saved."

Though Hare gained much success with his guidebooks, especially those devoted to Italy, his family life continued to be dogged with disaster. When his sister Esmeralda dies suddenly, he suspects his brother of having done her in for their inheritance — but it turns out that the young woman succumbed from a lifetime of copper poisoning, the result of having swallowed a thimble in childhood. Later Hare finds himself in a lawsuit over the ownership of a family portrait, then is accused of plagiarism, once seriously and once amusingly. In the latter instance, he had been showing tourists the sites around the Forum in Rome when he noticed that the group was being spied upon by an increasingly distressed stranger. After Hare concluded his tour, the unknown man stepped forth: "All that this person has been telling you about the Palace of the Caesars, he has had the effrontery to relate to you as if it were his own. You will be astounded, gentlemen and ladies, to hear that it is taken — word for word, without the slightest acknowledgement, from Mr. Hare's 'Walks in Rome.'"

In his later years, Augustus Hare grew especially celebrated in aristocratic circles for his retellings of strange stories, filled with ghosts, murderous servants, visionary dreams, vampires, mad guests and imprisoned nobility. Peculiar People retells a score of these tales, some truly frightening but most cozily shivery, or even humorous, as in the famous story of the noblewoman who was awakened from sleep to find that the butler, walking in his sleep, had laid a table for 14 on her bedclothes. Still, pride of place should go to this anecdote about a perennially unpunctual American:

"One day, in a very out-of-the-way place, he fell into a cataleptic state, and was supposed to be dead. According to the rapidity of American movement, instead of bringing the undertaker to him, they took him to the undertaker, who fitted him with a coffin and left him, laying the coffin lid loosely on the outside of it. In the middle of the night he awoke from his trance, pushed off the lid, and finding himself in a place alone surrounded by a quantity of coffins, he jumped up and pushed off the lid of the coffin nearest to him. He found nothing. He tried another: nothing. 'Good God!' he cried, 'I've been late all my life, and now I'm late for the resurrection!'"

Anyone requiring the perfect bedside book need look no further than Peculiar People, a now-rediscovered masterpiece of character-painting, anecdote and understated wit.

Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Washington Post Book World.

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