Off the Shelf — November 2014

By Richard Lofthouse

Pride of place this month goes to The History of Bhutan by Karma Phuntsho. It is the first comprehensive English-language history of Bhutan, the Switzerland-sized nation that nestles between Tibet and China to the north and India to the south. Dr Phuntsho not only studied his DPhil at Oxford, but had already completed Buddhist monastic training. He is a great spokesman for a country recently in the limelight for its Gross National Happiness policy (as opposed to ‘GNP’ alone), but he is ‘great’ in this sense precisely because he is a scholar. Thus, this 650-page book performs the extremely difficult task of extracting Bhutan from the intricate shadow of Tibet, from the silly Shangri-la sentimentality of westerners, and latterly from Bhutan’s nascent tourist industry that would pander to this western view.

The author puts on a slightly editorial garment only at the very end, where clearly the monk in him is acutely torn between what is being lost in Bhutan as commercial progress fosters individualism at the expense of communal values, and what brought the country to where it is historically and religiously. Notably, and I suppose obviously on reflection, ‘There is nothing new or revolutionary in the idea of seeking happiness,’ Phuntsho observes in relation to the Gross National Happiness policy. Moreover, there are loads of unemployed young Bhutanese who would love to work in a western warehouse for ‘quick bucks’, as he puts it.

The thoroughfare of the book is of course historical, but maps and photos are in good supply, and so too is geography and human incident. We learn immediately that the country owes something of its coming of age in the 17th century to the concealment of the death of the founder, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The governor of Bengal was told that Namgyal was an ascetic living on bananas and milk, age 120. But he was long dead. The ruse helped Bhutan to sustain a new-found sovereignty into the era of modernity, notes the author. 

Phuntsho strikes out a definite path by claiming that Bhutan, even in matters religious, is less obviously an extension of Tibet than the Tibetologists would have us believe. He convincingly works through the etymology of names, places, oral and written historical evidence, to sift the Drukpa lineage of Buddhism as it came to rest in the country from the early 13th century. As for the modern name Bhutan, it is a legacy of British colonialism and European confusion about the Himalayan region.

There is no room here to say more, except that the desire to hold on to what is evidently special about Bhutan is strengthened rather than weakened by a scholarly treatment. The biodiversity of a country that spans lush tropical rainforest to soaring Himalayan peaks; the coherence of the Buddhist culture despite centuries of reincarnation in-fighting and political violence; and the fact that 72.5% of the country remains densely forested – and protected as such despite great poverty – remain causes for hope. The book itself is an enormous contribution to knowledge and so interspersed with compelling narratives (and not just how the British were humiliated, although that is a funny chapter) that it should shoot to the top of any Oxonian Christmas Book List.

Leaping to late Victorian Britain, we have Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer, a detailed rendering of the summer of 1894 in which Wilde took his family to Worthing and wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. The author, Antony Edmonds, who like his subject attended Magdalen, suggests that the Worthing summer is a perfect capsule of Wilde at the mid-point between marriage and downfall. The first thing to say is that this is a very readable, very compelling book. Secondly, and more perhaps than the author may have realized, it makes for oddly discomforting reading in light of Jimmy Savile (etc.)

Of course it goes without saying that we have to distinguish the literature from the life, and the present from history, and same-sex relations from under-age relations. Yep. But the stuff contained in this book will still revise your take on Oscar Wilde. For example, a former teenage lover (victim? Robbie Ross, age 17 in 1886, discussed here page 12, later Wilde’s executor) of Wilde’s visited a clergyman who ran a boarding school in Belgium, groomed a boy, Claude Dansey, who had barely turned 16, brought him back to England and seduced him; handed him to Lord Alfred Douglas who trawled him off to Wilde like a bit of chicken on a string. This was the Spring of 1893: ‘On Saturday the boy slept with Douglas, on Sunday he slept with Oscar. On Monday he slept with a woman at Douglas’ expense. On Tuesday he returned to Bruges three days late.’

Dansey’s father was set to sue but decided not to because of the collateral damage. This and other narratives are reminiscent of so many scandals of our own times that you can’t be light-hearted about the crashing echoes. 

Yes, I know you wanted me to serve up some epigrams, and Edmonds brightly insists, early on and at the end, that The Importance of Being Earnest is ‘the most-performed and best-loved comedy in the English language outside the works of Shakepeare’. But he also wisely notes at the end how ‘the passage of the years has a curious relationship with awkward truths,” and how one campaigner wanted the blue plaque to Wilde removed from Worthing because it was attracting the wrong types. And all this in the bit of the Diocese of Chichester most centrally (and very recently) in the firing line for paedophilia in the Church of England. So erm, actually, you won’t come out of this book with quite the same view of Wilde’s quip, ‘Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.’ It just doesn’t sound cool in the same way it used to. It just doesn’t.

Our third work is George Eliot and Money by Dermot Coleman. Coleman attended Univ and for his entrance exam wrote about (and consistently misspelt) George Eliot. He then went into wealth management but quit just before it all went wrong and instead wrote this book. How interesting and improbable is that! The result is a serious monograph that sits in a significant series of comparative, interdisciplinary studies of the 19th century edited by Gillian Beer, over at Cambridge. As a work partly of literary criticism, George Eliot and Money will be centrally of interest to readers who have already read Eliot. Yet the broader portrait is a cultural and intellectual one, of a society grappling with the surging money economy and what it implied for philosophies of the individual versus the communal and societal. Because Eliot herself became rich from literary success, so the issues became pervasive subjects in her novels, but not in such a way that they have ever been properly studied. Coleman has done the field a huge service, and his own direct experience in money management plus the freight of the Great Crash of 2007–8 makes this a work that speaks strangely to our own times. The issues on the table are largely unchanged.

Finally and with a light touch, John Farndon’s Do You Still Think You’re Clever?, the follow up volume to his 2009 Do You Think You’re Clever? Farndon went to Cambridge but it doesn’t matter. Here, he takes on and tackles 37 questions claimed to have been taken from actual admission interviews at Oxford and Cambridge. They range from ‘Was Shakespeare a Rebel?’ to ‘What makes a strong woman?’ and ‘Why does a tennis ball spin?’ Good prep if you know someone interviewing next month – and needless to say Farndon himself is something of a polymath, and needless to say very clever.

Image of a decorative banister from Punakha Dzong, Bhutan, by Baron Reznik via Flickr under Creative Commons licence.