Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Toronto the Good

I guess that my long walk through 45kph winds on Monday night has done me in: sore throat, muddled head, developing cough, and excessive saliva. The second possibility hardly bears thinking about: maybe the bat spit I touched in the summer has finally worked its way into my nervous system. Cujo was a St. Bernard, after all.

To comfort myself I'm reading "Toronto the Good," written in 1898 by Evening Telegram journalist C. S. Clark. He wrote the book to counter claims by city planners that Toronto was "the city on the hill," a booming utopia. By exposing crooked police, useless morality laws, fawning presses, corrupt financial enterprises, gambling, prostitution, and the general awfulness of women, Clark's book is well-remembered...though he himself appears to be forgotten.

This is just as well. My initial impression (partway through the book) is that Clark is a crotchety, nasty old bastard. He obviously has a narrow range of tolerences and interests, and anything that falls outside that range -- certain types of literature, for instance -- is unspeakably awful. But not REALLY "unspeakably," because he chooses to speak about it...endlessly. Bitterly. Impotently.

The thing is, I haven't figured out yet if the book is serious, satirical, or sarcastic. And herein lies my problem with the common writing style up to 1930 or so: I can never tell if they're joking or not. Part of this is because I don't understand some of the references -- some of them are only implied instead of being stated outright -- and also because satirical writing was much more subtle and dry at the time. Not to mention some words had a slightly different meaning; off the top of my head: "rise," "reach," and "brilliant."

But the big issue has to do with sentence structure. Run on sentences were not just acceptable, but par for the course. I've spent some time trying to figure out why Victorian writing gives me such a headache, and I think it's because it tends to be written like this:
"Short sentence proposing something. Another short sentence of exactly the same length that ramps up the emotional level somewhat. A third short sentence to let you know that the author really means it. An incredibly long sentence, with, awkward punctuation, that provides a useful logical link, which works towards proving the point, with a digression, and this is related to another earlier point, and you'd better believe it reader, the final logical link in the chain, and now I've proven the point with a long-winded final sentence fragment including a chuckle at the whims of humanity.

"A new paragraph about something completely different."
Anyway, I'd love to be able to present some pieces of wisdom I've gleaned so far -- some interesting insights into early Toronto life, for instance -- but all I've learned so far is that C. S. Clark probably had very few friends and that women shouldn't write about anything other than fashion (and those who do write about anything else have "acidulated" faces), that "bucket shops" were places were you could gamble on the stock market without actually BUYING stocks, that (literally) all police officers were scoundrels, and that the Evening Telegram has the BESTEST writers in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD, which is no coincidence because Clark writes for it.

Okay, here's something interesting: C. S. Clark REALLY HATES people with cute names, and he wonders repeatedly "how people, presumed to have good common sense, could expect children possessed of such names to live." As an example of the sorts of cute names that people had at the turn of the century, here are the awful ones he culls from obituaries (to prove -- I think seriously -- that people with such names die sooner):
  • Prince.
  • "A laboring grinder in a concern where I once worked called his son Earl. The child died in four days."
  • Queen Victoria Lockwood Warner (AKA "Queenie," a very popular "cute nickname" of the period).
  • "Li Hung Chang Jones is the fearsome name with which a heartless father has burdened his helpless and unoffending offspring."
  • "Birdie" Bates (another common nickname).
  • Dorathea Beatrice (Queenie) Chambers.
  • Emeline (Emmy) Gladys Davis.
  • Irminie Savage.
  • Zenith Gertrude Longley.
  • Abraham Lyncoln Ulysses William McKinley Graydon. Not to be outdone, a neighbour called his child Thomas Jefferson Andrew Jackson James Monroe William Jennings Bryan Vaughn. "At last accounts both infants were doing as well as could be expected under the circumstances."
As a sidenote, these "Coles Canadiana" reprints are priceless.


Anonymous said...

Those names are interesting. One of the daughters (the bad 'un, if I recall) in "This Happy Breed," who probably would have been born around the beginning of the last century, was named Queenie. "Prince" would have been for the Prince of Wales--Prince Turveydrop, a character in Dickens's "Bleak House," is named after the Prince of Wales, patron of Beau Brummel and other dandies, who later became George IV. Those later Princes were presumably named after the Prince who became Edward VII.

And the babies with the long series of names of American politicians? The first is named after Republicans (Ulysses is Grant's first name), the second after Democrats (thankfully, W. J. Bryan never became president--why thankfully? See the Scopes Trial).

e, who was only acidulated once, in 1968

Adam Thornton said...

The origin of the name "Earl" had never ocurred to me, I never realized it was meant to invoke royalty. C. S. Clark's real beef with these names is that they're used by "low-bred" prople to make their children sound significant, but it just comes across as desperate and crass.

We certainly have names like that nowadays, but I'd hate to make a list just in case somebody reading this blog has that name. "Muffy" was at one time a high-class name -- I don't know how or why -- but it quickly fell into the desperate and crass category.

Oh wow, I hadn't picked up that the rival babies had republican and democrat names!