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Friday
Sep242010

The Purple Wig

Readers of these pages are quite aware of my antipathy to inherited status – be it wealth or honorific titles that pollute the fine white of a business card – which might suggest that my own family hails from modest means.  I cannot confirm or deny this last sidelight, nor does it merit further speculation.  Suffice it to say that lords and ladies and the appalling smugness they display to a world who would gladly extinguish their wasteful habits should not garner any admiration.  And yet, as we peruse British literature throughout the centuries, we may well become besotted with precisely such an existence.  English manor houses in late Victorian times and then again in the interbellum period have remained in the creative imagination because there, life was smooth and fancy and free.  It takes a story such as this one to set us straight.

Our initial yet thankfully not our sole protagonist is a certain Mr. Nutt, who edits a paper appropriately called The Daily Reformer.  More specifically, he edits out all wit, political incorrectness, and genius because, as he gently admonishes one of his offending correspondents, "you must keep your eye on the suburbs" (a better epithet for bourgeois complacency could probably not be devised).  His combattant is a worthy one, Francis Finn, chronicler of the shocking details that all good writers find fascinating.  His initial report to Nutt attends to their differences in an unsurprisingly direct manner:

Of course I don't believe in the old legend about James I; and as for you, you don't believe in anything, not even in journalism.  The legend, you'll probably remember, was about the blackest business in English history the poisoning of Overbury by that witch's cat Frances Howard, and the quite mysterious terror which forced the King to pardon the murderers. There was a lot of alleged witchcraft mixed up with it; and the story goes that a man-servant listening at the keyhole heard the truth in a talk between the King and Carr; and the bodily ear with which he heard grew large and monstrous as by magic, so awful was the secret.  And though he had to be loaded with lands and gold and made an ancestor of dukes, the elf-shaped ear is still recurrent in the family .... The point is that there really is something queer about Exmoor and his family; something quite natural, I dare say, but quite abnormal.  And the Ear is in it somehow, I fancy; either a symbol or a delusion or disease or something.  Another tradition says that Cavaliers just after James I began to wear their hair long only to cover the ear of the first Lord Exmoor.  This also is no doubt fanciful. 

This passage predicates the notion that while the elite do have a jolly good time, "we surrender too much when we admit that aristocracy has made even aristocrats happy."  I don't know whether that's really ours to judge; that is to say, if you don't feel bad that you have piles of money and practically unlimited possibilities of use of that money, what moral teaching could you possibly derive from a prolonged existence pondering your privileges?  Nevertheless, Nutt is the consummate Philistine and such a story means excellent circulation and a small feather in his small, plain cap.  And Finn does him and the reader a great service by dropping his initial philosophical pretensions and adopting a much more riveting plot.

Finn comes upon an inn called the Blue Dragon "consisting really of a cottage and two barns," where three men of varied shape and appearance sit in the natural fairy-tale triptych.  And Finn half-expects a fairy tale even if he knows that the final printed product will more greatly resemble an editorial.  The men are clearly distinguishable in such a way that while the first two men wear extensive black, they are perhaps a foot apart in height (never mind that they do not at all resemble one another and the shorter one is a Catholic priest).  Yet it is the third man, in keeping with our familiar structure, that will most greatly attract attention:   

Perhaps the third man, at the other end of the table, had really more to do with it than the rest, though he was both slighter in physical presence and more inconsiderate in his dress.  His lank limbs were clad, I might also say clutched, in very tight grey sleeves and pantaloons; he had a long, sallow, aquiline face which seemed somehow all the more saturnine because his lantern jaws were imprisoned in his collar and neck-cloth more in the style of the old stock; and his hair (which ought to have been dark brown) was of an odd dim, russet colour which, in conjunction with his yellow face, looked rather purple than red.  The unobtrusive yet unusual colour was all the more notable because his hair was almost unnaturally healthy and curling, and he wore it full.

This color will seem far less odd when we consider the neighborhood elderly women whose hair is strikingly lavender in some lights (I am also reminded of that fabulous phenomenon, the "blue chin," but these are minor objections).  Our third man then begins to narrate a confrontation between the Duke of Exmoor and a young attorney by the name of Isaac Green that dovetails with some rumors Finn had already mentioned.  And what is the upshot of such a discussion?  That while Isaac Green may have a repugnantly bald head, there could be nothing more horrific than having the Duke remove his wig to reveal his own, and we will smartly not go any further.

The magic of Chesterton is evident in so many ways in The Purple Wig that it seems silly to list them in some kind of triumphant scroll.  If you can imagine that, in maybe four thousand faultless words, a reader can behold a whole moral code, a sinister countryside of emerald hue, an old legend revived perhaps only for the sake of greed, and still smirk heartily at the sardonic portrayal of Nutt, who is a work in and of himself, then this is the type of stuff with which you should populate your shelves.  Unless, of course, you think irony also governs how we treat one another at our weakest hours.  In which case you also probably think that morality is only a device stuck in books to arouse a sensation of guilt within us regarding crimes we could not have possibly committed.  Or, as Nutt might say, a mild seasonal fever.      

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