8 April 2016

Edward Chaney: G. B. Edwards & The Book of Ebenezer Page (2015)

Again, I'm very grateful to Edward Chaney for posting a comment on one of my blog posts and thus drawing my attention not only to The Book of Ebenezer Page but also to this fascinating biography. It's the first book from Blue Ormer, which is to publish Guernsey-related books and takes its name from a mollusc which is found mainly in the Channel Islands. It's a beautiful, well illustrated 408-page book and must surely be the definitive biography of a man who wasn't the most sociable of people and didn't make a biographer's work too easy. Edward Chaney is very fortunate in having Edwards as a friend who gave him complete rights to his work: this only novel is a work of considerable interest and importance.

This is a book in two main parts: the life of G. B. Edwards, and The Book of Ebenezer Page (which was originally the sub-title, with Sarnia Chérie the half-title). George Basil Edwards (1899–1976) was born at Sous les Hougues in the Vale, Guernsey, to a quarryman, and apart from this posthumously published novel his other published work is limited to reviews and articles in John Middleton Murry's the Adelphi, which was called the New Adelphi for three years between 1927 and 1930.

Edwards then was known to a certain extent in literary circles, and apart from Murry was well known, for instance, by Stephen Potter and J. S. Collis, who referred to him as 'our genius friend'. He was a great D. H. Lawrence enthusiast, although he never met him (only his wife Frieda), but he failed to produce the book on the man that he had been commissioned to write: instead he wrote the monograph Jesus, which was never published.

Apart from writing, he earned a living – frequently rather precariously – by teaching, producing in the theatre, and even working part-time for Mass Observation (in Bolton). Edwards married Kathleen Smith in 1926 and had two children, Adam and Dorcas, by her. During the marriage she also had two other children by different men this was of course a time of communes, Utopian societies (such as Lawrence's unfindable Rananim), and of free love. By about 1933 the marriage was over.

The shorter second part of this book is concerned with Edwards's later activities and his letters to Chaney, but above all it is about the long slog through potential publishers and their rejection slips, until, five years after G. B. Edwards's death, Hamish Hamilton published The Book of Ebenezer Le Page with an Introduction by John Fowles in 1981. It was extremely well received, with a small mark of its importance being its enshrinement in Margaret Drabble's The Oxford Companion to English Literature. It is not an (auto)biography, although a number of characters in it bear similarities to characters who lived on Guernsey, and to some extent Edwards can be seen in both Ebenezer and Raymond. There are also similarities between Chaney and the character Neville Falla, although Edwards denied it.

Edward Chaney's Genius Friend is obviously a labour of love, an accumulation of many years of research, and that research is excellently done with generous explanatory footnotes, appendices, bibliography, and comprehensive index, etc. Inevitably, there are a few essentially minor things I don't like:

––– The most important of those is the falseness of the front cover. There are obviously very few decent photos of G. B. Edwards, and the one chosen for the front cover is not doubt the best choice, although at some level of consciousness I realised that there is something odd about it: that it is slightly blurred can't be helped, but Edwards's left jacket sleeve seems to hang about him as if there's no arm in it, as if it doesn't actually belong to him, and in fact it doesn't belong to him. On page 60 there reappears exactly the same shot of Edwards, although his left arm is on the shoulder of Kathleen: there's been some photoshopping going on here, and Kathleen has been airbrushed from the cover.

––– Without Edward Chaney The Book of Ebenezer Le Page would most probably never have been published so at a pinch I suppose we can forgive him the rather self-indulgent photo of him with his young daughter in his arms and 'Aunt Jo's Upway home' in the distant background, although I can't find any excuse for the surely irrelevant photo of his wedding on the steps of the Mairie in the 5earrondissement. OK, it's interesting that the late George Whitman of the second generation Shakespeare and Company bookshop is in the photo, even that the couple stayed in the writers' room of the bookshop, but all the same, doesn't this belong in the family album only?

––– A few sentences struck me as a little odd, but none more so than a comment in a footnote on Katherine Mansfield's sexual dalliance with the French novelist Francis Carco: 'Photographs of him go some way to explaining Murry's confidence that Mansfield would come back to him.' Really? Do external appearances govern us to such an extent? If they did we'd be pretty superficial people, wouldn't we? No, this is just a gratuitous, bizarrely bitchy sentence.

I know, I've been perhaps over-critical in the last three paragraphs: this really is a wonderful book and deserves to be read by a great number of people. There, I feel better.

My other post on G. B. Edwards:

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G. B. Edwards: The Book of Ebenezer Le Page

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