On the second anniversary of the establishment of the Port Elizabeth public library, the Rev. Francis McCleland was requested to deliver the main address at the Commercial Hall on the 4th July 1851. The title of his talk was The Progress and Advantages of Literature. At a later stage, somebody deemed it necessary to release this 30-page address in booklet form. In the hope – perhaps forlorn – that it would provide an insight into the character of my great great grandfather or the milieu of that era, I obtained a copy of this book.
Main picture: Cover of the book
What cannot be denied is that Francis was not witless or braindead. Francis might have been called many pejoratives, but I doubt whether dull-witted was amongst them for he was a graduate of the divinity department at Trinity College in Ireland. During this era, a varsity education was not the norm but instead it was the preserve of the wealthy minority.
Health and life
In 1851 Francis’ life was drawing to a close. His wife Elizabeth had passed away some 10-years previously in 1842 of an unknown ailment of which its debilitating effects had impeded her mobility. By 1851, Francis’ health was also in noticeable decline and he must have rued the day once more that his abode was atop the steep Castle Hill. Residing with him was his youngest child, George, still at school and two much older daughters who would never marry and who would in due course migrate to Cape Town.
Style of the lecture
The focus of education during this period was on languages especially the antiquated ones such as Latin and classical Greek. This is self-evidently Francis’ forte as he liberally sprinkles these dead languages as well as literary quotes in the text. One can but wonder whether this pretentiousness and pomposity is endearing or impressive in any manner. I doubt it. Instead its grandiloquent style detracts from the flow and readability of this 30-page book.
Character of McCleland
The only surviving image of Francis is a sketch made after his death by Mrs Ashkettle which portrays him with a sullen, stern and unsmiling visage. The only possible inference as to his character that can be drawn from this likeness of him, is that he never suffered fools gladly, a pejorative often applied to me. Certainly he could be cantankerous as many allege especially the fellow Irish settlers at Clanwilliam.
For me, the only additional revelation of the character of the man is that he was erudite and well-read. If he had instead studied to be an attorney where being personable was not a character trait which his job description would contain, it would a perfect match and synergy with his temperament.
Does presentation meet its objective?
Apart from the fact that the presentation celebrated the creation of the library, the title lays the claim that two objectives would be met in the presentation.
The first goal was to illuminate the progress of literature. McCleland meets this requirement by comparing the works of Homer of ancient Greece, Cicero of the Roman Empire and Milton’s Paradise Lost of the “current” era. As the goal was to illustrate the progress of literature over the ages, one would expect the aspects of the progress to be identified and highlighted. Surely those aspects which best indicate what the progress would be discussed. Was it word pictures, believability, quality of its metaphors? None of the above. Instead it is rather the cataloguing of the contemporary works sans the comparison.
Then it should have been the turn the Advantages to be addressed. One is left befuddled as to what McCleland deems the advantages to be. Does it assist with expanding ones understanding of the world or human nature? Perhaps. But it is not clear what these advantages alluded to in the presentation‘s title are being addressed.
Instead of a work ripe with possibility, it is more like a word salad as Americans would say or purple prose as my brother would.
My suggestion is to give this book a miss as one would be wasting an hour or two ploughing through opaque words and lengthy sentences. Overlong sentences impede the flow like a dam on a river especially when some are half a page long. Intelligibility would have been enhanced if many sentences had been truncated.
The Progress and Advantages of Literature by the Rev. Francis McCleland (1851, Port Elizabeth, Eastern Province News). Photocopy provided by Carol Victor.