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New Year, New Beginnings

The first scene of The Family Reunion (1939) is set on a cold winter´s evening, symbolic of Amy’s life which is about to be extinguished. As she awaits the arrival of her son, Harry, she also longs for the return of spring: “Will the spring never come?” Her rhetorical question seems to invert the reassuring last line of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” The play´s second scene opens on a similar note with Mary complaining that “the spring is very late in this northern country,” and Agatha agreeing.

Later, when Agatha leaves Mary alone with Harry, he evokes the negativity of a “cold” spring and wanders whether it is not “an evil time, that excites us with evil voices”. Echoing Harry’s lyrical tone, Mary refers to “the ache in the moving root” or “the aconite in the snow”. The connection with The Waste Land and with the natural imagery of Four Quartets seems inexorable, although The Family Reunion was to be the last of Eliot´s plays where intertextuality with his poetry is patent.

Harry goes on to identify the spring, the birth of the natural year, as “a season of sacrifice”. Carol H. Smith convincingly interpreted The Family Reunion within the framework of fertility rites, and therefore in continuity with The Waste Land (*); after the sacrifice of the fertility god, his return to life is mirrored in nature as springtime regeneration. Mary shares Harry’s vision of spring, her words suggest the interconnectedness of Christ’s birth (in winter) and his death and resurrection (in spring): “I believe the season of birth / Is the season of sacrifice”.

Amy’s birthday, the occasion of her family reunion, is also to be the day of her death; she was born, and will die in winter. According to Smith, the Dowager is the old year that must die, while her son stands for the new year (*). Harry will embrace the prospect of rebirth, leaving family and Wishwoood manor behind. One of his younger brothers, John, will therefore experience a different new beginning by becoming the Lord of Wishwood. As we learn from the news item reporting the road accident that prevented his arrival at Wishwood, the events of the play take place on or around January 1st.

Eliot’s “Little Gidding” (1942) contains the two famous lines, sometimes quoted at this time of year: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / and next year’s words await another voice”. They readily apply to The Family Reunion as a turning point in Eliot’s dramatic production: a play written in “last year’s language” (a language lacking in dramatic purpose and plausibility), but prefiguring “another voice” (that of a more confident playwright).

(*) Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice. From Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963) 134-5.

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What’s in a Name

Sir Claude’s new family in Act Three of The Confidential Clerk

According to Pope Francis, “God calls each one of us by name, loving us individually in the concreteness of our history”; with baptism, a child, “in his or her name, will have an original identity, including the Christian life linked to God” (*). In Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk – a transcendent comedy about double, feigned and mistaken identities – naming and renaming is crucial.

Sir Claude Mulhammer believes Colby Simpkins to be his son. Colby, a sensitive and conscientious young man, will replace Eggerson, Sir Claude’s long-serving confidential clerk. Sir Claude hopes that his wife, Lady Elizabeth, will grow fond of Colby and will accept him as her son. In fact, Lady Elizabeth feels more at ease with the new clerk than Sir Claude does: significantly, the latter calls him “Mr. Simpkins,” whereas the former prefers “Colby”.

Lucasta Angel is also Sir Claude’s illegitimate daughter. She has a maladapted relationship with her father; the antipathy she feels for Lady Elizabeth is mutual and thinly disguised. She shocks Colby by calling them “Claude” and “Lizzie”: “it did make my head spin – all those first names”. Lucasta has embraced the role of black sheep, but Colby quickly identifies this image as a mask of self-assurance.

Similarly, Lucasta sees through Colby and understands that being Sir Claude’s confidential clerk and Lady Elizabeth’s adoptive son will not make him happy. Colby is the only character with whom Lucasta can be honest, and her honesty helps him realise that spiritual fulfillment must be sought elsewhere. In that sense, the name “Lucasta” (originally derived by the Renaissance poet Richard Lovelace from the Latin lux casta, “pure light”) and the surname “Angel” are highly symbolic.

In the play’s final act, Colby’s “aunt” – whose name, Mrs. Guzzard, resonates with “wizard” – resolves the mystery of his identity, and incidentally, that of Lucasta’s fiancé, Mr. Kaghan. Kaghan – another unusual surname – goes by the pragmatic name “B,” which, as Mrs. Guzzard reveals, stands for the unfashionable “Barnabas”. The ambitious young businessman who started life as a foundling jokingly argues that “Barney Kaghan […] wouldn’t make the right impression in the City”.

At the end of The Confidential Clerk, Sir Claude, Lady Elizabeth, Lucasta and Kaghan redefine their relationships, which implies calling themselves by other names and so adopting new familial identities. On the other hand, as Colby begins a promising new life under Mr. Eggerson’s mentorship, he surprises himself calling his new (symbolic) father “Eggers”.

(*) Junno Arocho Esteves, “Name given at baptism gives sense of identity, belonging, Pope says,” National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2018, <https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-chronicles/name-given-baptism-gives-sense-identity-belonging-pope-says>.