Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Varietal Onions for Fun and Profit

    VARIETIES OF ONIONS (from left to right): Oliverian, Satirical, Vidalian

    You doubtless remember Mark Twain’s cynical definition of a literary classic: a book that everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read.  Now and again when my writing seems stalled and my “official” reading is insufficiently compelling, I pick up something of that sort from a convenient shelf.  Yesterday it was the Modern Library Book of Famous Ghost Stories.  I am not a great ghost-story reader.  Once you have read The Turn of the Screw and maybe some Arthur Machen or Walter de la Mare there doesn’t seem to be much adult literature in the genre—though I’d welcome the advice of other readers.  However, the classic ghost tale I had been putting off for the last half century, known to be in this anthology, was the long story or perhaps novella “The Beckoning Fair One” (1911) by Oliver Onions.
    It is indeed a great story, and worthy to be mentioned (as it often is) in the same sentence with James’s masterwork.  It is in some ways reminiscent also of the widely anthologized classic of early feminism: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  I’ll say no more, as Onions and his story offer the occasion rather than the subject of this post.
    We all have at least two vocabularies—an ear-vocabulary of words we learn from hearing and use in our speech and an eye-vocabulary, usually much larger, that we can understand in our reading.  In a literate society, the eyes have it.  Many novice readers pronounce the word quay as though it rhymed with say rather than see, and that is creeping into educated speech. Most people know the word for a pottery oven: a kiln.  But if you pronounce the final n, as most of us now do, you have allowed the eye to conquer the ear.  Oliver Onions (1873-1961) fell victim to this phenomenon.  His surname since time immemorial had been pronounced Oh-NIGH-unz in the language of speech, but most people knew him only from the eye-language of the printed page and thought it was UN-Yunz like, well, you know the famous southern writer of romantic tear-jerkers, Vidalia Onions.  Oliver Onions had his name legally changed to George Oliver.
    Not so his more courageous contemporary kinsman, Charles Talbut Onions (1873-1965), the great philologist and one-time editor of the O.E.D., still living and venerated in the Oxford of my day.  He knew how to pronounce his name, and so did some others.  When I once referred to the compiler of A Shakespeare Glossary in vegetable fashion, I got a quick correction from my future father-in-law.  I try to find a lesson in most of life’s experiences, but this one stumps me.  I suppose the lesson might be this: although there are few Englishmen named Onions, those born in 1873 were particularly durable.
    The central character of “The Beckoning Fair One,” Paul Oleron, has taken an apartment in a badly haunted house.  It was a part of Onions’s account of the things that go bump in the night—italicized by me below--that caught my attention.
    Here, quite apart from such recognizable sounds as the scampering of mice, the falling of plaster behind his paneling, and the popping of purses or coffins from his fire, was a whole house talking to him had he but known its language.

    Say what?  Purses?  Coffins?  My resident Englishwoman was as nonplussed as her husband, and that meant it was time to get serious.  To get serious in such a context means to consult the inestimable Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.  Alas, even that gushing fountain ran dry on such subjects as fiery purses and burning coffins.  Only tardily did it occur to me that to demystify one Onions might require the expertise of a second; so I turned to

    The word coffin proved a dead end, so to speak; but then at purse (sb. I, 5) I found gold: “a fragment of live coal starting out of the fire with a report; regarded as a prognostic of good fortune (1766).”
                Even in this oil-addicted Age of Hot Air almost everyone has had the experience of sitting near an open fireplace from which a small projectile fragment has alarmingly popped forth with a bang.  That is why folks less tolerant of singed carpets than we use fire-screens.  An old English superstition, which apparently reflects the vestiges of ancient fire divination, held these errant embers to be omens.  The vaguely round-shaped ones were purses, and were good omens.  The rectilinear ones were coffins.  I probably don’t have to tell you what kind of omens they were.
                Folkloristic augury was common in the old world, and applied to many aspects of material life.  Even with the advance of the tea-bag (a miniature version of the fire-screen) we sometimes talk of “reading the tea leaves.”  A floating leaf fragment in your cup meant you should expect to encounter a stranger—if hard to the touch, a man, if soft, a woman.  Since I don’t want to spoil “The Beckoning Fair One” for you should you happen not yet to have read it, I’ll say no more.  Anyway, it’s not as though I needed to draw you a picture.