PLUM VIDIES.

Formerly frequent commenter jamessal (don’t judge him, he’s got good excuses for his absence of late) was so excited by John Fowles’s prose in Daniel Martin that he sprang for a copy for me, which I have begun reading, and I too find the writing enthralling. The novel starts off in Dorset in 1942, and the protagonist, “the boy,” is helping the locals harvest the wheat; his job is to stook it:

Clutching a sheaf in the right hand, just above the binder twine, never by the twine itself, then moving on to the next sheaf, picking that up in the same way in the left hand, then walking with the two sheaves to the nearest unfinished stook, a stook being four pairs of sheaves and a single “to close the door” at the end; then standing before the other sheaves propped against each other, lifting the two in each hand, then setting them, shocking down the butts into the stubble and simultaneously clashing the eared heads together. …
The boy sets the first two sheaves, the founders, of a new stook. They stand, then start to topple. He catches them before they fall, lifts them to set them firm again. But old Mr. Luscombe shocks his pair down six feet away, safe as houses. His founders never fall. He smiles lopsidedly with his bad teeth, a wink, the cast in his eye, the sun in his glasses. Bronze-red hands and old brown boots. The boy makes a grimace, then brings his sheaves and sets them against the farmer’s pair.

At one they break for lunch:

They sit beneath the ash, or sprawl; out of the dish-cloth, white with blue ends, a pile of great cartwheels of bread, the crusts burnt black; deep yellow butter, ham cut thick as a plate, plate of pink meat and white fat, both sides of the bread nearly an inch thick; the yellow butter pearled and marbled with whey, a week’s ration a slice.
Thic for thee, thic for thee, says doling Mr. Luscombe, and where’s my plum vidies to?

I had no problem with “thic,” clearly a dialect form of “this,” but I was stopped in my tracks by “plum vidies”; I checked the OED and Google Books without result and was just about to post a query here in my desperation when I read a little further and realized that Mr. Luscombe’s phrase was just his version of the narrator’s “Pelham Widows” from a few lines later: “Beauty of Bath, crisp and amberfleshed, with their little edge of piquant acid. Still Primavera’s, thinks the boy; and much better poems than bruised and woolly Pelham Widow. But who cares, teeth deep in white cartwheel, bread and sweet ham, all life to follow.” But what are Primaveras and Pelham Widows? Anybody know? Also, jamessal is “curious to see how well known he is to your readership, and how well regarded,” and so am I; any Fowles fans out there?

Comments

  1. I went on a Fowles binge in my late teens and was given a hot-off-the-press copy of Daniel Martin by my then-boyfriend (I think I was in my first year of university). I love the writing but can’t shed my early sense that Fowles is just the tiniest bit nasty. Sadistic, even, to his characters. Equivocal attitudes to women.
    Pelham Widow is a kind of apple…

  2. rootlesscosmo says:

    I think “poems” may be a typo for “pomes.” Beauty of Bath–the description hints at this–is an apple variety, and I’m guessing Pelham Widow is as well. But the sentence that begins “Still Primavera’s” baffles me.

  3. I think “poems” may be a typo for “pomes.”
    Ah, I’ll bet you’re right; that makes a lot of sense. Seems never to have been corrected, since Google Books has only “poems.”

  4. I love the writing but can’t shed my early sense that Fowles is just the tiniest bit nasty. Sadistic, even, to his characters. Equivocal attitudes to women.
    I’m afraid that’s true of many male midcentury writers, probably the majority. He surely can’t be as bad as Hemingway in that regard.

  5. I’ve written about stacking wheat, etc. here and here.

  6. Vance Maverick says:

    Here’s a list of varieties with Primevere and Plum Crabbies.

  7. I first heard the word “primavera” used to describe a color or color combination, actually, but I understand it means first flower of spring – he’s emphasizing the youth of the fruit.

  8. komfo,amonan says:

    I read The Magus when I was ca. 20, & it freaked me out no end. I thought it was good, however, & would recommend it to young men of that age who aren’t opposed to being freaked out. The copy belongs to my mother, a nursing school graduate who as far as I know was not otherwise partial to the literary novel.

  9. Of course I should have used a dictionary before I made my previous post, as it would have proved me wrong. Turns out the name of the dice color I was thinking of was “Primula” anyway. Still, there’s the sense of both Spring and being first, so that’s my guess.
    I read The Magus a while back, but I found it didn’t stick very strongly – I may have been a bit young.

  10. One doesn’t want to believe it when young, but different books really are suited to different ages.

  11. Jan Freeman says:

    Well, I can’t be the only one of your fans who’ll be interested to see how you like the rest of the book. (Not a challenge, not a dissent. I like much of it. But not much of it is set among the plum vidies and slaughtered bunnies of the first chapter.) And Pica is certainly right: on the woman question, JF’s hero lives uncomfortably in uncomfortable times.

  12. Equivocal attitudes to women.
    Have mixed feelings gone out of fashion, or is there now a Law Against Uncertainty ? Is it inacceptable to dislike certain types of person, however demarcated and for whatever reasons ? I didn’t know that hypocrisy is now the order of the day – I had imagined that it was optional.
    Rightthink is an ever-present danger. I believe that the proponents of unequivocal attitudes towards women, in particular, have overshot the mark. They seem to think that disliking necessarily leads to exterminative action, like the claim that drinking one beer puts you on the path to alcoholism. Isn’t that a melodramatic attitude typical of … ?

  13. Hypocrisy is the tribute that equivocal attitudes pay to Rightthink. You can’t change what people think by muzzling them.
    Rightthink encourages pussyfooting terminology, which makes it harder than it already is to know what the other guy thinks. The phrase “equivocal attitudes towards women” here may be a weak-spirited way of referring to seriously inacceptable phenomena like contemptuous behavior towards women, and discrimination against them when it comes to jobs.
    I agree that such should not be tolerated. But equivocal attitudes are a different thing altogether. They cannot be vanquished, not even by a Women’s Army. They merely go into hiding under attack, and flourish in the dark as Morlocks – which is the greater danger.

  14. Victor Sonkin says:

    I’ve been a Fowles fan since my teens. He is still one of the best-loved British authors in Russia (and, sadly, he’s probably the most ‘modern’ British author actually known/read in Russia).

  15. I’m another former teenage Fowles fan. I adored ‘The Collector’; it was even the first full-length book I tried to read in Russian, as I assumed, not entirely correctly, that loving the original would help me disentangle the translation. However, I was puzzled by ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ and intimidated by ‘The Magus’. Probably age-related; I should give Fowles another chance, equivocal misogyny or not.

  16. jamessal is “curious to see how well known he is to your readership…”
    Isn’t he the NJ ice-cream magnate?
    Plum is of course how Wodehouse was known to his friends, his first name being Pelham.

  17. Have mixed feelings gone out of fashion, or is there now a Law Against Uncertainty ?
    Did you not actually read the comment you excerpt, or are you simply ignoring the mixed feelings expressed there in order to have a firm footing on your soapbox? Nobody is calling for Fowles or his protagonist to be eviscerated, but you can hardly expect people who either are or care about women to jump up and down with joy when women are treated badly, in life or in fiction.

  18. Isn’t he the NJ ice-cream magnate?
    He is indeed, and ice-creaming (I screaming) is one of the things that’s keeping him from joining us around the campfire and singing jolly songs.

  19. “Equivocal attitudes toward women” was actually euphemistic, I think. If Pica had said “unpleasant attitudes toward women” perhaps the argument could have been avoided, or at least Grumbly’s contrarianism would have been given a real workout.

  20. “Pelham’s Widow” is also the title of a novel by one Thomas Campbell. I believe this is the TC known as “the poet”, a Scotsman (1777-1844) “chiefly remembered for his sentimental poetry dealing specially with human affairs”, according to Wikipedia, which nowhere lists this novel. “Pelham’s Widow” may be a parody of “Pelham”, the gossipy novel that made Bulwer-Lytton famous. See Charles Duffy’s 1943 item “Notes and Queries”: I can’t. (Here and, for the paper-bound, 184(3): 75.)
    Was the fruit named after the novel? It wouldn’t have been the first time the public imagination takes a literary character and applies the name to something far-flung: the Dolly Varden trout springs to mind. (Many things were named after the beautiful young woman in “Barnaby Rudge”.) Or was the apple, more prosaically, named after a horticulturalist, a talented pome-grafter? Granny Smith was a real person; perhaps a Mrs Pelham took up orchard-keeping once Mr P was fertilising the graveyard.
    And was John Fowles aware of Campbell’s novel? I’ve written before of the difficulty of knowing what books were in a certain author’s library or mental store.

  21. Primavera is the current word for “spring” in many Romance languages; etymonline has the Latin (primus ver). It seems to refer to something else in the text thought, and my nonexistent classical education precludes me having any idea of what.

  22. JE: “Equivocal attitudes toward women” was actually euphemistic, I think. If Pica had said “unpleasant attitudes toward women” perhaps the argument could have been avoided
    Good point, John. I had myself wondered whether that was meant, and if so, why it wasn’t said straight-out. Had it been, my soapbox would have remained in the attic. But of course Pica is not to be blamed for my sarcasmotrophy.
    Peace to all women of goodwill. The men will be served later.

  23. Roberta Wedge: (Many things were named after the beautiful young woman in “Barnaby Rudge”.)
    Do tell details !? I just read it this year. For what it’s worth, I liked it in many respects far better than many another Dickens novel. It contains fascinating sociological passages, such as the description of how carriage-bearers work (the men who carry the boxes that could be hired to shlepp you from A to B).

  24. Details of items named after Dolly Varden can be found here, and a description of the naming of the trout here.
    I have an idea about “Still Primavera’s”. (First of all, could The Hat, or someone else with the text, please confirm the apostrophe?) You may well be stuck if you know apples only as a ruddy-cheeked autumn fruit. But I think the phrase in question could mean, “There were still some spring apples.” Presumably the grain harvest is around July?
    If we take “still” to mean “there continued to be” (as opposed to a more far-fetched possibility related to cider), then a visit to a French village market a few years ago has given me a clue. It was this time of year, or rather, a week earlier: crucial detail. I stopped in front of a stall of fruit and vegetables — a profusion of strawberries, and the tail end of asparagus, and other goodies of the season. The farmer also had apples.
    “Oh”, I said, “What variety are these?”
    “St Jean,” quoth the hoary-handed son of the soil.
    “Ah”, said I, “Today is St John’s Day.” (Also, confusingly, known as Midsummer’s Night – I had seen the bonfire being prepared by neighbours in a nearby field.) “So these earliest ripeners must have been named after their date of readiness, around the summer solstice.”
    “That’ll be three euros fifty,” said the farmer. “Anything else?”

  25. In short, Pica was guilty of polite understatement rather than PC overstatement.

  26. Grumbly Stu: …the description of how carriage-bearers work (the men who carry the boxes that could be hired to shlepp you from A to B).
    I always thought the word was “chairman”, always plural of course, “chairmen”, as they worked in pairs. There are pubs called “The Two Chairmen”, and they are not referring to the head of the board of directors.

  27. First of all, could The Hat, or someone else with the text, please confirm the apostrophe?
    I hereby confirm it.

  28. Thanks, Roberta. Chairmen is the right word, not “carriage-bearers”:

    The solitary passenger was startled by the chairmen’s cry of ‘By your leave there!’ as two came trotting past him with their empty vehicle—carried backwards to show its being disengaged—and hurried to the nearest stand. Many a private chair, too, inclosing some fine lady, monstrously hooped and furbelowed, and preceded by running-footmen bearing flambeaux—for which extinguishers are yet suspended before the doors of a few houses of the better sort—made the way gay and light as it danced along, and darker and more dismal when it had passed. It was not unusual for these running gentry, who carried it with a very high hand, to quarrel in the servants’ hall while waiting for their masters and mistresses; and, falling to blows either there or in the street without, to strew the place of skirmish with hair-powder, fragments of bag-wigs, and scattered nosegays.

  29. OK, on page 35 of my edition it says “I was in flakes and they made me go straight to bed when we got to the hotel.” Anybody have any idea what “in flakes” might mean? (It’s the ’70s and the narrator, an actress, has just arrived in Los Angeles to make a movie, if that helps.)

  30. Oh, and she’s just flown in from London and is of Scottish origin.

  31. rootlesscosmo says:

    “The chairmen particularly seem to have had a sense of humour. Two of them, very drunk, carrying home the prim, terrified, and abstemious Mrs Herbert, opened the top of the chair and told her indistinctly, “Madam, you are so drunk, that if you do not sit still, it will be impossible to carry you.”
    –T.H. White, The Age of Scandal

  32. opened the top of the chair
    That’s another thing that was new to me. A Phiz engraving in my 3 Euro Wordsworth Classics edition shows what the deal is.

  33. Anybody have any idea what “in flakes” might mean?
    I think it means the same as “flaked out”, in other words “exhausted” or “fit to sleep.” It sounds like a reanalysis based on a mistaken assumption that the phrase originated from “flake” meaning “break into chips” rather than “flake” in the sense cognate with “flag” meaning “droop.”

  34. Ah, OK, that makes sense. (Though really, I expect better word analysis from literary types. One demerit for Fowles.)

  35. There’s a song called Flakes on Frank Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti. The album was made in the 1970s (just) and the song is about LA (-ish).
    Hope this helps!!!

  36. “flake” in the sense cognate with “flag” meaning “droop.”
    Is “flake” in that sense an entry in the OED (to which I have no access at the moment) ? MW has “flake out”, but not “flake” by itself, in that sense.
    MW also says “flake” is/has been a slang term for cocaine. The derivational direction could go either way: from cocaine-wasted to “flag/droop” or the other way around. The very appearance of “flag” in the sense of droop is rather literary, though – on the other hand, literati took a lot.
    So the etymological lines may not be clear, but the consumption lines are: it must have been bad material if it was flaky. Doing coke is a flaky activity anyhow, to my mind, so maybe it all adds up.

  37. Right at the beginning of the Zappa song, there is “They’re not working when they oughta should”. I had forgotten about “oughta should” – it has now been restored to the old active vocab.

  38. Is “flake” in that sense an entry in the OED (to which I have no access at the moment) ?
    The OED has three entries for flake as a verb. The first has to do with forming or covering with small pieces. The last is a nautical term to do with laying ropes and sails. The second is:

    1. = flag v.1 in various intr. senses. To become languid or flabby. Of a garment: To fall in folds. Obs.
    2. to flake (out) : to faint, fall asleep (from exhaustion, drunkenness, etc.). So flaked (out) ppl. adj., exhausted; unconscious, asleep. colloq.

    There is a 350 year gap between the last example given for the obsolete sense (in 1592) and the earliest example given for flaked out meaning tired (in 1942).

  39. I wasn’t aware of “oughta should”, I suppose it’s the opposite of “didn’t ought(a)”.

  40. Double modals are one of my favorite inheritances from my Ozark ancestors.

  41. Wikipedia says: One of the most interesting questions is why the modals can be used with the auxiliary werden in German to form a future tense, and why the infinitives exist in modern German, Dutch and Norwegian but not in Modern English.
    But they don’t offer any more than that. And anyway it’s two questions, not one.

  42. Could it be one question with two answers ? Or two ways of asking the same question ? Or … In short, do these one most interesting questions have anything to do with each other ? I’m not sure what a “modal” is, so I’ll take my cue from Hat and assume that “ought” is a modal.
    Let’s start with the first most interesting questions: “Modals can be used with the auxiliary werden in German to form a future tense”. Hmmm …
    1. Wir soll(t)en das tun [we ought to do that]
    2. Wir werden das tun sollen [we will have to do that]. How strange, “ought” now has to be avoided, in favor of “have to”, or equivalents like “be obliged to”, “be under an obligation to” …
    Now the other most interesting questions: “why the infinitives exist in modern German, Dutch and Norwegian but not in Modern English”. WTF, “to X” for any X = verb is an infinitive, innit ?
    What’s going on here ?

  43. They mean the infinitives of the modals. In German you can say zu können, but in English you cannot say to can (unless you are preserving your harvest).

  44. Trond Engen says:

    The pre-modal infinitive and present is preserved in Sc/NE to ken. The infinitive of the preterito-presentic verb would have been to cun, as in cunning, I think. What I see as the most interesting question is if this was lost in English or if the other Germanic languages developed it separately, when and how either process took place, if the modern double modal in AmE can be analysed as modal + new analogical infinitive and if it developed in dialects with a German or Scandinavian substrate, preferrably the latter since here the infinitives and preterites of thei modals have all but merged in form.

  45. Who took “to can” away from us ? At least Google Translate isn’t troubled by: “I if I want to can do it much better”. This becomes Ich mich, ob ich will tun können, es ist viel besser. It doesn’t make any sense, but I shouldn’t complain because the commas were added gratis.

  46. When you learn Norwegian the grammar books translate modal infinitives, like å må as “to must”, knowing it’s not done but having little alternative. You could translate å må as “to be obliged to”, but it would be a cop out.

  47. Paul, the Magus is a young reader’s book. If it didn’t stick then, it won’t stick now.

  48. Trond Engen says:

    å må
    No, the infinitive is å måtte. The other modals are å ville, å kunne, å skulle, å burde.

  49. “I if I want to can do it much better”
    I’m not troubled by that, either. But I parse it as “I can do it much better if I want to,” which in turn is short for “I can do it much better if I want to do it much better”, not “I can do it much better if I want to can do it much better.”

  50. Here’s an example of a legitimate “to can”, without any comma-sneaking or harvest-preserving ruses: “I keep telling him to can it, but he just can’t and won’t”. I wonder if I know this guy.

  51. To can play at that game.

  52. You could translate å må as “to be obliged to”, but it would be a cop out.
    English speakers have to make substitutions like that all the time.
    I must do it.
    I will have to do it [rather than I will must do it].
    I can do it.
    I could do it.
    I will be able to do it [rather than I will can do it].

  53. I knew there was something wrong when i wrote that. Oh well, it doesn’t change my point.

  54. I’m still hoping for a steak-and-potatoes explanation as to what happened to “to can”, “to ought” and so on in English. Were they never there ? I couldn’t understand what Trond wrote (sorry !), but have noted down “preterito-presentic verb” for future use in an intellectual slanging match.

  55. Trond Engen says:

    [...] what happened to “to can”, “to ought” and so on in English.
    Several things happened. This is how I like to think about it:
    First the original situation: The Germanic verb paradigm used to be different. In the indicative there were two tenses, the present and the past. These have become the present and the preterite in the modern languages, but originally the past tense was perfective in meaning:”I go”, “I have gone”. For verbs implying some sort of transition, this perfect would describe the end state. present I ken “I notice”, past I can “I have noticed”. Or perhaps rather “I am in the state of noticing” vs. “I am in the state of having noticed”. Being in this end state can be a present situation: I can “I know from observing”.
    I can developed to a general “I know”. With this bleaching it became eligible for the next stage: The development of a whole range of new tenses from verbal nouns and adjectives with auxiliary verbs: I can “I know how to”.
    The old tenses became narrower in meaning, the past becoming a preterite, but for the very verbs that had been grammaticalized as auxiliary verbs, the past was fixed in its perfective or stative meaning: I can go “I’m able to go”, not “I saw some going.”
    The result was a split of the old verb paradigm. The old infinitive and present, to ken “to notice, recognize, become aware of”, continued the old meaning and developed a new past. The old past, can, was reinterpreted as a present, took with it the past participle and developed a new simple past. These verbs are traditionally known as preteroto-presentic, but would be better described as perfecto-presentic. (And often is in recent texts, by all means. The term is not my own invention.)
    In German and Scandinavian the perfecto-presentic verbs developed a new infinitive from the same stem as the perfect participle (modern können, kunne). The question that keeps coming up is whether English lost it or never developed it in the first place.
    I should warn that while the start situation and end result are well-known, the step-by-step description is my own attempt to understand the intermediate process. Not necessarily novel or anything, but not something I can claim to have based on authoritative sources.

  56. Trond Engen says:

    The question that keeps coming up is whether English lost it or never developed it in the first place.
    Keeps coming up in this thread, I mean. The answer’s probably been out there for a century and half and is well known to Germanicists.

  57. Thanks, Trond. That is plus-crazy stuff, I had not a winkling or a nod of it. What can I read to get more ? Basic orientation, I mean. Is this historical linguistics, the kind of thing marie-lucie does ?

  58. Yes it is, and you’re beginning to see why some of us were so attracted to it we voluntarily underwent the Hell of Graduate School to learn more about it.

  59. Trond Engen says:

    What can I read to get more ? Basic orientation, I mean.
    I hoped someone else would answer this. I can only say “Wish I knew”. I haven’t found an easy-to-read general overview of the history of Germanic. If I had I wouldn’t have to make up stuff like that!

  60. J.W. Brewer says:

    “Hell of Graduate School”? When I studied historical linguistics in a room in that building in New Haven nigh-universally called simply “HGS” (during the decade following Hat’s departure from town), I was assured it simply an initialism for “Hall of Graduate Studies.” Was that a euphemism?

  61. Heh. I must admit I loved HGS; I could shuffle down the long hall from my room to the classroom without changing out of my slippers (and carrying my cup of coffee, which infuriated my Sanskrit teacher).

  62. I must also admit that when I first arrived, awestruck and ignorant about almost everything, at HGS to begin my residence there, I assumed its ivied grandeur dated back to at least the nineteenth century, little knowing it was built (like much of the campus) during the depression using cheap imported labor.

  63. Old English had all those strong perfects as weak presents and they had infinitives: ágan, cunnan, dugan, durran, magan, mótan, munan, nugan, sculan, þurfan, unnan, witan.
    Early Middle English had to can while it was transitioning insensibly from ‘to know’ to ‘to know how to’ to ‘to be able to’.
    Scots still has to can for ‘to be able to’, I believe.

  64. “HGS is a uniquely shaped building”
    No kidding. Someone should do a book on those pre-war US university buildings. Lovely rooms too. It’s too bad they’re always full of immoveable ugly furniture.

  65. If you would like to study Italian and don’t have money to do a course try a free course. Free education for all, yea!

  66. Most people, including myself, are not much interested in educating themselves just to be doing – and why should they be ? They are interested in their interests, and in being entertained and fed. Doesn’t that apply to you as well ?

  67. “in flakes” – could this be dialect or a Fowlesism for “in bits” – “orig. and chiefly Brit.: in a state of distressing confusion or (severe) emotional stress or upset” (OED).

  68. J. W. Brewer says:

    I once attended an early-morning (at least by my standards) class in HGS in my bedroom slippers, despite the fact that I needed to walk for about three blocks outside to get there. I think it was a session of my semantics class (in which I got a very poor grade which was richly deserved)? In any event, I had clearly not had enough coffee, as I was halfway through the class before I noticed I was not wearing proper shoes.

  69. “in flakes” – could this be dialect or a Fowlesism for “in bits” – “orig. and chiefly Brit.: in a state of distressing confusion or (severe) emotional stress or upset” (OED).
    Very possible indeed; even likely. Well done.
    I once attended an early-morning (at least by my standards) class in HGS in my bedroom slippers, despite the fact that I needed to walk for about three blocks outside to get there.
    Sir, you have me beat all hollow.

  70. Auden used to wear them on the NYC subway, beat that!

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