Penguin Books have
now started publishing books in French, very nicely got up, at half-a-crown each. Among
those to appear shortly is the latest instalment of André Gides
Journal, which covers a year of the German occupation. As I glanced through an old
favourite, Anatole Frances
Les Dieux Ont Soif (it is a novel about the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution), the
thought occurred to me: what a remarkable anthology one could make of pieces of writing
describing executions! There must be hundreds of them scattered through literature, and
for a reason I think I can guess they must be far better written on average
than battle pieces.
Among the examples I remember at the moment are Thackerays description
of the hanging of Courvoisier, the crucifixion of the gladiators in Salammbô, the
final scene of A Tale of Two Cities, a piece from a letter or diary of Byrons, describing a
guillotining, and the beheading of two Scottish noblemen after the 1745 rebellion,
described by, I think, Horace Walpole. There is a very fine chapter describing a
guillotining in Arnold Bennetts
Old Wives Tale, and a horrible one in one of Zolas novels (the one about
the Sacré Coeur). Then there is Jack
Londons short story, The Chinago, Platos account of the
death of Socrates but one could extend the list indefinitely. There must also be a
great number of specimens in verse, for instance the old hanging ballads, to which Kiplings Danny
Beever probably owes something.
The thing that I think very striking is that no one, or no one I
can remember, ever writes of an execution with approval. The dominant note is
always horror. Society, apparently, cannot get along without capital punishment for
there are some people whom it is simply not safe to leave alive and yet there is no
one, when the pinch comes, who feels it right to kill another human being in cold blood.
I watched a man hanged once. There was no question that everybody concerned knew this
to be a dreadful, unnatural action. I believe it is always the same the whole jail,
warders and prisoners alike, is upset when there is an execution. It is probably the fact
that capital punishment is accepted as necessary, and yet instinctively felt to be wrong,
that gives so many descriptions of executions their tragic atmosphere. They are mostly
written by people who have actually watched an execution and feel it to be a terrible and
only partly comprehensible experience which they want to record; whereas battle literature
is largely written by people who have never heard a gun go off and think of a battle as a
sort of football match in which nobody gets hurt.
Perhaps it was a bit previous to say that no one writes of an
execution with approval, when one thinks of the way our news-papers have been smacking
their chops over the bumping-off of wretched quislings in France and elsewhere. I recall,
in one paper, a whole series of photos showing the execution of Caruso, the ex-chief of
the Rome police. You saw the huge, fat body being straddled across a chair with his back
to the firing squad, then the cloud of smoke issuing from the rifle barrels and the body
slumping sideways. The editor who saw fit to publish this thought it a pleasant titbit, I
suppose, but then he had not had to watch the actual deed. I think I can imagine the
feelings of the man who took the photographs, and of the firing squad.
To the lovers of useless knowledge (and I know there are a lot of them, from the number
of letters I always get when I raise any question of this kind) I present a curious little
problem arising out of the recent Pelican, Shakespeares England. A writer
named Fynes Morrison, touring England in 1607, describes melons as growing freely. Andrew
Marvell, in a very well-known poem written about fifty years later, also refers to melons.
Both references make it appear that the melons grew in the open, and indeed they must have
done so if they grew at all. The hot-bed was a recent invention in 1600, and glass-houses,
if they existed, must have been a very great rarity. I imagine it would be quite
impossible to grow a melon in the open in England nowadays. They are hard enough to grow
under glass, whence their price. Fynes Morrison also speaks of grapes growing in large
enough quantities to make wine. Is it possible that our climate has changed radically in
the last three hundred years? Or was the so-called melon actually a pumpkin?