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High Table by Joanna Cannan
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High Table (1931)

by Joanna Cannan

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Opening in the 1860s, Joanna Cannan's High Table is the story of Theodore Fletcher, who from a shy, awkward, introspective child grows into a shy, awkward, introspective young man. Physically rather weak, terrible at games, and socially inept, Theodore consoles himself for his inadequacies by clinging to the idea of the superiority of the intellectual life, untainted by the "animal" in man. His theories receive a rude shock when his "purely intellectual" relationship with the local publican's daughter, in which he lends her books and lectures her on his theories, ends in a single sex act and an unwanted pregnancy.

Fleeing his responsibilities, Theodore escapes to Oxford University, and there he stays. Excelling academically, he wins a Fellowship, and in time achieves the great ambition of his life when he is elected Warden of St Mary's College. For a brief time, Theodore blossoms...only to shrink back even further into his sterile and lonely life when he discovers that far from indicating his colleagues' respect for him, his election was arranged just to keep another man out of the position. Theodore passes many empty years until the outbreak of World War I, when an accidental encounter with a young soldier who he believes to be the result of that single sexual encounter in his youth changes everything...

Joanna Cannan's father was Dean of Trinity College, and one wonders (although the two of them seem to have gotten along) if this novel was intended as some sort of "revenge" upon him or upon his institution. It's very well-written, but often a quite difficult read. We may understand and even sympathise with Theodore, at least to an extent (particularly the more awkward and socially inept of us!), but he's not a likeable person, and his company does become a little wearisome.

But of course, the point of the novel is Theodore's eventual "awakening" upon becoming acquainted with Lennard Twigg and his fiancée, Doreen Logan, two happily normal and completely unintellectual young people who exemplify everything that is positive about the "animal" life that Theodore has scorned and rejected. Although keeping the secret of Lennard's birth, Theodore befriends the young couple and begins to understand what he has, not just missed, but deliberately thrown away in life. This new perspective offers Theodore the chance of something like redemption and a purpose in life, particularly when Lennard is recalled to France and persuades Doreen to marry him before he goes.

The revolution in Theodore's attitude and his growing scorn for his own narrow existence is entirely understandable. However, the difficulty for the reader of High Table is deciding whether Theodore's eventual dismissal of academia, of education and intellectual pursuits generally, as ultimately useless and without purpose, a way of avoiding life rather than adding to it, is to be taken at face value. We are given no perspective but Theodore's, no alternative viewpoint; supporting characters like Haughton, from whom Theodore takes the Wardenship, with his "Rabelaisian" humour and his six lively daughters, are given little chance to air their views. While I imagine some readers might find themselves quite in agreement with Theodore's conclusions, I have to say that for me, the apparent creeping anti-intellectualism of the novel made it something of a discomforting read:

"All these years of war, I was just what I couldn't bear to be, what Hamilton and Quears and the rest of them thought me---a man who'd nothing to worry over because he had sat himself down at High Table and let common life go by, a pretender to the knowledge that has not spared the human race its Great War, living in a place that was a shell. If it should be true that one is born again, he thought, let me be born a farm-hand, to turn the clods and drive the beasts and giggle obscenely at the corner of the green on Sunday afternoons, but, at least, while I'm alive to live the life of earth..."
  lyzard | Mar 23, 2011 |
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It is just a little tummy upset, says Dr Harbutt, and Mrs. Fletcher, meeting Lady Oliver outside the Post Office and Miss Bird outside the General Stores, described it as one of Theodore's tiresome little turns; but in the afternoon she closed the pitch-pine shutters of the dressing-room window across the view of the bright, climbing pasture, and Theodore took off his spectacles, laid down Masterman Ready, composed his small body obediently among the crumbs from the sponge fingers which he had eaten with his arrowroot, and slept heavily until Kate brought in his tea.
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