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Authors: Patrick O'Brian

Testimonies: A Novel

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TESTIMONIES
Other Works

The Works of Patrick O’Brian

Biography

PICASSO

JOSEPH BANKS

Aubrey/Maturin Novels in order of publication

MASTER AND COMMANDER

POST CAPTAIN

H.M.S. SURPRISE

THE MAURITIUS COMMAND

DESOLATION ISLAND

THE FORTUNE OF WAR

THE SURGEON’S MATE

THE IONIAN MISSION

TREASON’S HARBOUR

THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD

THE REVERSE OF THE MEDAL

THE LETTER OF MARQUE

THE THIRTEEN-GUN SALUTE

THE NUTMEG OF CONSOLATION

THE TRUELOVE

THE WINE-DARK SEA

THE COMMODORE

THE YELLOW ADMIRAL

THE HUNDRED DAYS

BLUE AT THE MIZZEN

Novels

TESTIMONIES

THE GOLDEN OCEAN

THE UNKNOWN SHORE

Collections

THE RENDEZVOUS AND OTHER STORIES

T
ESTIMONIES

Patrick O’Brian

W.W. NORTON & COMPANY

NEW YORK/LONDON

For Mary, with love

Contents

Preface

Pugh

Lloyd

Pugh

Pugh

Pugh

Bronwen

Pugh

Pugh

Pugh

Bronwen

Pugh

Lloyd

Bronwen

Pugh

Copyright

Preface

T
o read a first novel by an unknown author which, sentence by sentence and page by page, makes one say: he can’t keep going at this pitch, the intensity is bound to break down, the perfection of tone can’t be sustained—is to rejoice in an experience of pleasure and astonishment. Patrick O’Brian’s
Testimonies
makes one think of a great ballad or a Biblical story. At first one thinks the book’s emotional power is chiefly a triumph of style; and indeed the book is remarkable enough for the beauty and exactness of phrasing and rhythm which can only be characterized by quotation:

It was September when I first came into the valley: the top of it was hidden in fine rain, and the enclosing ridges on either side merged into a gray, formless cloud. There was no hint of the two peaks that were shown on the map, high and steep on each side of the valley’s head. This I saw from the windows of the station cab as it brought me up the mountainous road from the plains, a road so narrow that in places the car could barely run between the stone walls. All the way I had been leaning forward in my seat, excited and eager to be impressed: at another time the precipices that appeared so frequently on the left hand would have made me uneasy, but now they were proofs of a strange and wilder land, and I was exhilarated.

… There may be things more absurd than a middle-aged man in the grip of a high-flung romantic passion: a boy can behave more foolishly, but at least in him it is natural.

I kept away. I read Burton in the mountains. We had a spell of idyllic weather, and the soft loving wind was a torment to me.

I would not pass those days again. I knew I was a ludicrous figure, and it hurt all the more. I did not eat. I could not read, I could not sleep. I walked and walked, and when one day I broke a tooth on a fruit stone I welcomed the pain.

Long before I had engaged to help with the yearly gathering of the sheep for the shearing, and now the time came around. The boy came up to ask if I would meet Emyr on the quarry road early the next morning. I wondered how I should face him, but there was nothing for it and I said I should be very glad.

But the reader soon forgets the style as such—a forgetting that is the greatest accomplishment of prose—in the enchantment and vividness of the story. John Aubrey Pugh, an Oxford don who has given up his teaching post and come to live in a secluded Welsh valley, falls in love wth Bronwen Vaughn, the wife of a young farmer who is his neighbor. She in turn, but less quickly, falls in love with him; and she is estranged from her husband, an admirable man in many ways, but one who has compelled her to submit to some unnamed, brutal sexual perversion. When a famous preacher whose advances she has rejected with contempt persuades the entire community that she has committed adultery with Pugh—an accusation which is false in a physical sense but true emotionally—she is poisoned or poisons herself. This summary is more unjust than most, for the comparative simplicity of the action when thus formulated conceals the labyrinthine complexity of attitude, motive, and feeling.

For example, Mr. Pugh and Mrs. Vaughn, as they call each other to the end, come to a recognition of their love for each other without speaking explicitly of love at all, while they are arguing mildly and pensively about whether civilization makes human beings happy or unhappy. The over-civilized man condemns civilization and the beautiful, spontaneous woman defends it, both of them unknowingly and passionately evaluating civilization as they do because they are in love with each other, the man condemning civilization because it is the great obstacle between him and another man’s wife, the woman praising it because the man is entirely a product of it. The reader, drawn forward by lyric eloquence and the story’s fascination, discovers in the end that he has encountered in a new way the sphinx and riddle of existence itself. What O’Brian has accomplished is literally and exactly the equivalent of some of the lyrics in Yeats’
The Tower
and
The Winding Stair
where within the colloquial and formal framework of the folk poem or story the greatest sophistication, consciousness and meaning become articulate. In O’Brian, as in Yeats, the most studied literary cultivation and knowledge bring into being works which read as if they were prior to literature and conscious literary technique.

—Delmore Schwartz, in the
Partisan Review
,

August 1952

Pugh

“M
r. Pugh, I came to ask you some questions about your life in Cwm Bugail and about Mrs. Vaughan of Gelli, Bronwen Vaughan. But now I think it would be better if you were to let me have a written account.”

Pugh had been expecting this: he had been prepared for it ever since he had come to that place, but still it was a blow on his heart, and he could scarcely reply. He said, Yes, he would do his best.

“I am sure it would be less painful than being questioned, and it would be better from my point of view, I think. What I should like is a roughly chronological narrative, as full and discursive as possible—nothing elaborate, of course; nothing in the way of a formal, scholarly exposition: it is for my eye alone. You need not be afraid of being irrelevant; there is hardly anything you can write on this subject that will not be useful to me. There is no hurry, so do not press yourself; but please remember that it should be comprehensive. I will come in from time to time to see how you are getting on.”

When he had gone, Pugh sat down again. He wondered why he was so moved; he had hardened himself for this—he had even prepared some of his answers in advance. The things they wanted to know about had been continually in his mind or on the edge of it; but now it was as if the idea were new, and the memories broken open for the first time.

He began. At the top of the clean page he wrote
The Testimony of Joseph Aubrey Pugh
, and underlined it twice. Then he paused; he leaned back in his chair and let his mind slip into a reverie: for a long, long silent wait he sat motionless.

He wrote—

It was September when I first came into the valley: the top of it was hidden in fine rain, and the enclosing ridges on either side merged into a gray, formless cloud. There was no hint of the two peaks that were shown on the map, high and steep on each side of the valley’s head. This I saw from the windows of the station cab as it brought me up the mountainous road from the plains, a road so narrow that in places the car could barely run between the stone walls. All the way I had been leaning forward in my seat, excited and eager to be impressed: at another time the precipices that appeared so frequently on the left hand would have made me uneasy, but now they were proofs of a strange and wilder land, and I was exhilarated.

I did not expect my cottage when the car stopped; indeed, I thought that the driver had pulled up again to open a cattle-gate. We had been climbing steadily the whole length of the road and now as I got out of the car the cloud blew cold and damp in wisps on my face. The cottage stood on the mountain-side, square on a little dug-in plateau that almost undermined the road. It was the smallest habitation I had ever seen; a white front with a green door between two windows, and a gray roof the size of a sheet.

The driver, a bull of a man and silent, gave me a grunt for my money, recognized the tip with “Ta” in a more civil tone, and backed rapidly away in the thickening mist. I stared about for a minute and then with a curious flutter of anticipation I walked up the path and in at the green door. My things had arrived: they were standing in the doorway of the little room on the right of the door and I kicked over them before I found a match and the lamp.

The golden light spreading as the lamp warmed showed beams and a wooden ceiling a few inches above my head; the floor was made of huge slate flags, and the moisture stood on them in tiny drops that flattened to wet footprints as I walked. Still with the same odd excitement I took the lamp and explored my dwelling: I found a much better room on the left of the front door—two windows and a boarded floor, a comfortable chair and a Turkey rug by the stove. The house was built with stone walls of great thickness and this gave the windowsills a depth and a value in a small room that I would not have expected. The far window looked straight out over the valley: I leaned on the sill and peered out down the slope. The last gray light and a parting in the mist showed a huddle of buildings down there; I supposed them to be the farm, and while I stared a light appeared, traveled steadily along to a door and vanished; a faint ghostliness filled the windows of the building and then the mist blotted it out.

Up the ladder-like stairs—I had to hold the treads with one hand while I went up—up the nine flat rungs of this staircase were two A-shaped lofts, made by the sloping sides of the roof and the top of the ceilings below. One had a bed and a window. A lean-to at the back, a coal-hole and a dreary little lavatory tacked on behind completed the house. It appeared to me incredible that so much could have been packed into that toy box of a house.

I had taken Hafod by letter, sight unseen. At that time any small furnished place was difficult to find, and as this one promised tranquillity, remoteness and a certain degree of comfort, I had taken it without spending much time in reflection.

A retreat of this kind had become quite necessary for me: for the last few years my health had been declining, and my work had grown increasingly arduous. It was not that my duties in the university took up so many days in the term, nor that my research carried me along at an exhausting pace; it was my tutoring that wore me down. The young men who came to me did not seem to do very well, and my responsibility for their lack of improvement worried me more and more. It had come to the pitch where I was spending more time over their essays than ever they had spent; and with indifferent health I found that this frustrating, ungrateful task had become an almost intolerable burden. Many people supposed, I believe, that I should throw up my fellowship, and although it was wretchedly paid there were plenty of unfortunate devils who would have been glad of it: but that I could not do. With no private means and a name unknown outside my college and the small circle of palaeographers who had read my articles, it was impossible.

BOOK: Testimonies: A Novel
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