Not that kind of girl
A museum curator and an historian of art and fashion, James Laver also wrote poetry and fiction, with a focus upon gently satirising the social and sexual mores of the Bright Young Things of 1920s England. Three comic poems – ‘Cupid’s Changeling, or The Lady’s Mistake’, ‘A Stitch in Time, or Pride Prevents a Fall’ and ‘Love’s Progress, or the Education of Araminta’ – were collected as Ladies’ Mistakes by Nonesuch Press in 1933, with illustrations by Thomas Lowinsky. Copy 246 of the three hundred limited-edition copies is held in the Brice-Smith Collection in the Old Library.
The poems are all narratives and written in metrical rhyming couplets. The form is competently handled, but Laver’s modest ambitions are indicated by his willingness to add metrical feet when he needs to fit more information into a line, and by his occasional changing of tenses in order to secure rhymes: the goal here is not to engage in the complexities of well-wrought linguistic art, but to tell stories and crack jokes.
Those stories and jokes involve young women, a different one in each poem, navigating sexual independence, celebrity culture and intellectual trends in a world in which 'life moves faster than it moved of yore, | And primrose paths are all asphalted o’er' (p. 44). The satire is as light as the verse: the women and their generation do not entirely dodge critique, but Laver was writing from and for the social stratum he was writing about, and the air is more of ribbing between friends than of the savaging of enemies.
The bathetic deflation of archaic loftiness is Laver’s main stock in trade:
‘Did ever breathe a more unfortunate maid?
I’d set my soul on wearing just that shade.’
‘You Gothic boor,’ she cried, ‘barbarian churl!
You should have known I’m not that kind of girl.’
He taught her next who GIOTTO was – and why,
And how the mountain’s inmost strata lie,
And how the feathers grow in angels’ wings,
All this he taught – he taught her many things,
Till, in the end, to get his doctrine right
She brought her handbag, and she stayed the night.
And each of the three poems betrays an enthusiasm for achieving this effect with the word ‘flat’ (in the sense of ‘apartment’).
But even heroes can’t go on like this
For ever, and the highest waves of bliss
Subside at length, as even JOHNSON found;
And coming gently back to common ground
And feeling that the time had come for chat,
He murmured casually, ‘I like your flat.’
The maiden stood at gaze, her roving eyes
Swept the apartment with a pleased surprise,
And comprehended in one searching glance
The jars of China, and the silks of France,
The walls jade-green, the tasselled hangings red,
(His flat was very nice, BELINDA said.)
‘He lives in squalor, mine’s a decent flat.
Why waste your beauty on a dolt like that?’
There are diminishing returns. The second attempt quoted above approximately halves the brilliance of the first (partly by deploying the limp ‘said’, rather than ‘flat’ or ‘nice’, as the termination of the punchline), while the third dispenses with it altogether: word choice matters, but so does word placement. '"I like your flat"' is not the only instance of Laver depending upon a rhyme word for comedy, although in the following examples the wait-for-it effect of the dash does not quite prevent one wondering, in some distraction, what the (presumably hilariously rude) alternative concluding words could, in the context of the sentences and the couplets, reasonably have been.
Then down the staircase to the street she sped,
And praised the gods that she had kept – her head;
He even got an expert from the docks
To show her patterns of the latest – frocks.
The poems' moral lessons (although 'What are Morals nowadays?' [p. 35]) are, predictably, somewhat flippant. But 'Love's Progress' contains a version of the opening of Keats's 'Endymion' that has a surprising amount of heft, its noncommittal comma splice suggesting that Laver was either unaware of or uncomfortable with the amount of profundity in his parody.
The quest for Art is one sustained endeavour,
A thing of beauty is a toil for ever.
This does not say to Keats, 'It's not a joy; it's a toil.' Or not exclusively. Laver acknowledges the coexistence, even the codependence, of joy and of toil – effort; commitment – in the creation of art or indeed, per the poem's title, in the progress of love. That he goes on to list with sarcasm the aesthetic toils undergone by Araminta's obsessively colour-coordinating paramour confirms that he is still playing for laughs. But the couplet stands.
This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 14 February 2019 by Adam Crothers, Special Collections Assistant.