Thursday, June 28, 2012

Modern Fiction: Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

In novels, aunts rarely do things by half. They can be as different in character as Bertie Wooster's aunts Dahlia and Agatha – the former, "my good and kindly aunt", the latter, "the one who kills rats with her teeth and devours her young". Yet they will nearly always be domineering. They will have, as Wooster puts it, "a carrying voice". Also, to quote Wodehouse one more delightful time, they're tough: "It isn't often that Aunt Dahlia lets her angry passions rise, but when she does, strong men climb trees and pull them up after them."

Literary aunts are, in short, formidable. Alongside Wodehouse's battleaxes, there's the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. There are Just William's scolding, scowling aging relatives. There's Aunt Ada Doom, the witness of the woodshed in Cold Comfort Farm. There are the horrific and cruel aunts Spiker and Sponge in James and the Giant Peach. Best of all there's Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield, who electrifies every scene she enters. This is the woman who will rage at David for making the mistake of being born a boy instead of a girl, who will terrify anyone foolish enough to bring a donkey anywhere near her garden, but who still may be finest person ever to have appeared in the pages of a novel: "Never," said my aunt, "be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel. Avoid those three vices, Trot, and I can always be hopeful of you."When we meet Aunt Augusta in Travels with My Aunt, all the signs are that Graham Greene is giving us a classic of the breed. Even her name is mighty. Her first words, meanwhile, are as striking as they come: "I was once present at a premature cremation." Within three short pages of making that memorable statement, she implies to Henry that his recently deceased mother was a virgin, that his father was anything but and also invites him round to her gaff for a stiff drink. This is not someone who is backward in coming forward.
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