Blasted with Antiquity: Old Age and the Consolations of Literature by David Ellis - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

How Late It Was

Blasted with Antiquity: Old Age and the Consolations of Literature


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The subtitle of Blasted with Antiquity might lead you to expect the author to present a selection of books designed to cheer up readers in old age, starting perhaps with the novels of P G Wodehouse. Arthur Marshall, one recalls, always liked to read a few pages of Wodehouse in bed so that, if he died in the night, he would do so with a smile on his lips. Not a bad idea.

David Ellis, emeritus professor of English literature at the University of Kent, is rather more ambitious. His book is not always comforting or indeed consoling; sometimes it is grim and realistic. ‘Although the lessons one could learn from old age are often unpalatable,’ he writes, ‘they have a linguistic or dramatic value that makes them easier to digest.’ Perhaps.

He begins with retirement, though now of course this commonly comes long before you are waiting for the last bus. Ellis wonders if Shakespeare’s retirement to Stratford, when he wasn’t yet fifty, was as idyllic as Victorians liked to believe. In truth we know nothing about it, but there’s no reason to suppose that his daughters proved to be like Goneril and Regan. Now retirement can often last as long as a working life. Writers seldom retire, though their publishers may cut them off. 

Old age may bring serenity. Ellis draws attention more than once to Eliot’s Four Quartets. There is wisdom there indeed. Then one reflects that Eliot was only middle-aged when he wrote these poems. As I was reading Ellis’s book, I was rereading W Somerset Maugham’s A Writer’s Notebook, published in

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