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The Ballad of Peckham Rye as a carnivalesque novel

Julia Kapuśniak

The Ballad of Peckham Rye, a novel written by Muriel Spark in the 1960s, tells the story of  Dougal Douglas, a Scottish man who comes to the district of London called Peckham and takes the position of an Arts man at the textile company Meadows, Meade and Grindley, at the same time getting a job at the competing company under the name of Douglas Dougal. Besides that he ghost-writes an autobiography of an old actress, Maria Cheesman. During the time Dougal spends in Peckham he causes mischief among his colleagues and the Peckham’s community itself. He builds new relations with Peckham’s residents causing different kinds of emotions, some of the residents are fascinated by him and others strongly dislike Dougal’s eccentric behaviour. He gains the sympathy of  his co-workers Merle Coverdale (who is involved in the affair with Mr Druce) and Elaine Kent, an "experienced controller of process", as well as Humphrey Place, a refrigerator engineer. On the other hand, Dougal by his arrogant behaviour causes himself trouble as the local gang members led by Trevor Lomas accuses him of collaborating with the police. Dougal’s actions cause absenteeism, nervous breakdowns and public fights. The culminating point of his behaviour takes place when his land lady Miss Frierne, has a stroke, Mr Druce kills his mistress Merle Coverdale and Humphrey Place leaves Dixie Morse at the altar during their wedding. Dougal leaves Peckham to cause mischief elsewhere and two months later Humphrey marries Dixie and everything around Peckham again seems like it used to be before Dougal’s arrival.

Entitling  the novel a “ballad” Muriel Spark  refers to a lyrical form which originates from oral folk culture. Folklore is also an attribute of carnival festivity. According to Mikhail Bakhtin folklore and humour were significant in the process of creating the folk culture of laughter. Spark sets her novel in Peckham Rye which is a park in London’s district of Peckham. The park, which is a central place of the area,  may be associated with a central area where all forms of festivity take place such as celebrations, romances, or fights. The park  is a place where the whole society meets.  Rachel Conlon in her thesis writes, “Spark's choice of the titular ballad, a poetic form rich in oral and folk culture, also evokes the folk festival of carnival. The inclusion of "Rye" in the place name draws attention to this central green space, the common area where the carnival would have taken place, which is still the site for fights, romance, and general nightlife”(BPR 43).

One of the moments in the novel which makes the reader uncertain whether Dougal acts seriously or is rather playing a game is a moment when he receives the letter from his girlfriend Jinny who has decided to break up with him. After reading the letter, Dougal starts to cry at the canteen in the presence of his female co-workers, causing different kinds of reactions: one of them is combing his hair while another brings bringing a cup of tea, and the third one giggles. “Jinny had finished with me. […] Dougal put his head on his arms in full view of these girls, and wept”( BPR 538).  Both the characters in Spark’s novel and the reader cannot be sure about the genuineness of Dougal’s emotions as he did not visit Jinny at the hospital during the time she was ill. “ ‘ I’ve got into hospital again […] You’ll come and visit me there? No, quite honestly, I won’t.’ Dougal said”(BPR  524). The conversation between Dougal and Jinny brings the feeling of disruption and make the reader question if Dougal is the person who he appears to be in front of Peckham’s residents. As argued by Conlon, “Douglas’s laughter and tears appear to destabilize the community around him” (BPR,39).

One of the inseparable elements of the carnival described by Bakhtin in his work is the carnival fool. Even though Dougal is not named a fool in the novel, his behaviour resembles the qualities of  a carnival fool presented by Bakhtin. Before Dougal comes to Peckham it seems a quiet place, an industrial area where life seems steady. When the time Dougal Douglas arrives in Peckham and during the time he stays there, many odd events occur in the plot of the novel such as the murder of Merle Coverdale as well as Humphrey leaving his wife to be, Dixie, at the altar, or absenteeism among the employees in the companies which Dougal joins. These events make  Dougal resemble a carnival fool who brings destabilization to the stable society of Peckham.

What is more, Dougal during his career at Meadows, Meade & Grindley, not long after he has joined the company, persuades his co-workers to take Monday off. This is illustrated in one of his conversations with Humphrey:“ ‘Take Monday of,’ said Dougal. ‘Take Tuesday off as well. Have a holiday”(BPR, 534). Another example of Dougal encouraging his colleagues, to take “Monday off” is his conversation with Merle Coverdale. In this way, Dougal challenges the stability of social-economic order of Peckham,  as he often plays truant and becomes an employee of the competing company.

“ Let’s go for another walk if it’s nice on Monday morning,’ he said.”

“I’ll be at work on Monday morning. I’ll be down to work, not like you.”

“Take Monday off, my girl,’ Dougal said. ‘Just take Monday off.”(BPR, 533)

Dougal’s behaviour not only helps the absenteeism to increase at the companies that he works for but also suggests liberation from the truths outside the carnival and mockery of the established social order and hierarchy. Another example of Douglas’s mockery is the moment when he talks with Humphrey about Humphrey’s and Dixie’s marriage. He impersonates a priest holding the Holy Bible but instead of holding the Bible he holds a plate with eggs and bacon: “Dougal stood up and took the plate of bacon in his hand.[…]Dougal read from the book: ’Wilt thou take this woman,’ he said with a deep ecclesiastical throb,’to be thai wedded waif?” (BPR, 599).

Dougal’s power of making people think or behave in a certain way towards those citizens with whom he interferes in Peckham brings chaos into their lives. As stated in the first chapter, the carnival has the subversive potential which may change the natural order, and Dougal is the catalyst for this change in The Ballad of Peckham Rye. In fact, the characters who are affected by Douglas’s presence are not trying to oppose his influence and they give in to his manipulations and follow his free spirit just as if they all participated in a carnival. “It wouldn’t have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn’t come here,” (BPR, 511). This sentence from the first page of the novel is repeated several times by different characters, all perceiving Dougal Douglas as the source of inexplicable events happening in Peckham.

According to Bakhtin, during the period of carnival life stands only for its own laws and its own freedom. Dougal laughing, making shocking and unacceptable gestures as well as provoking fights in public, for example the fight at the pub with Trevor Lomas,  breaks the social etiquette. One of the examples of his unusual behaviour is the time when Dougal visited Dixie’s house. During watching a cabaret show on television, Dixie’s stepfather finds Dougal dancing in the middle of their carpet, which makes Mavis, Dixie and Humphrey laugh.  Dougal’s behaviour leaves the rest of inhabitants of Peckham unsure about his authenticity.

What is more, Dougal is presented as an ambiguous figure, possessing antithetical features. He associates himself with the devil, while Spark gives him angelic attributes, which are polar opposites, which according to Conlon makes Dougal (as a carnival fool) more “ambiguous”:

Dougal posed like an angel on a grave which had only an insignificant headstone. He posed like an angel-devil, with his hump shoulder and gleaming smile, and his fingers of each hand widespread against the sky.( BPR, 530)

Another thing suggesting the carnivalesque features of the novel is celebration of midsummer night in Peckham, reflecting a carnival atmosphere.  Dougal dances with Elaine in the ballroom in the presence of Peckham’s inhabitants. Douglas’s strange dances are again the cause of people’s opposite reactions towards Dougal based on his embarrassing  performance, however, they all participate in the same event as it is the time of “release and celebration”. According to Bakhtin, carnival is a time of temporary release, and this seems to be the case in Spark’s novel:

Dougal was dancing with Elaine. He leapt into the air, he let go of her hands and dangled his arms in front of his hunched body. He placed his left hand on his hip and raised his right while his feet performed the rapid movements of the Highland Fling, heel to instep, then to knee.[...] Everyone was talking or laughing.(BPR,553)

What is more, in one of his conversations with Humphrey,  Dougal speaks about a mysterious discovery from the carnivalesque past of Peckham. The discovery is a mermaid from an “account of the fair up the road at Camberwell Green” which comes from Colburn’s Calendar of Amusements 1840 thus, Douglas’s discovery suggests that Peckham is as a place with carnivalesque history.

According to Bakhtin, the carnival is a temporary period and once is finishes, the existing order is re-established. Accordingly, when Dougal leaves Peckham the carnival period comes to its end. Life is again what it was before his arrival, and the characters return to their routine activities. The example may be  Humphrey Place, who marries Dixie Morse two months after Dougal has left Peckham. Dougal becomes only a local story after he leaves and Merle Coverdale’s murder is described as  “poor Miss Coverdale's pool that was”(BPR 515).

The disorder and chaos in the world of Peckham and the changes Dougal brings are not controlled by the society, but with Dougal’s arrival comes the time of the release and new rules are established, and the existing order is temporarily suspended. Duality, oppositions, Merle Coverdale’s murder, Humphrey’s decision to leave Dixie at the altar, Douglas’s provocative behaviour and violence which occurs in Peckham during his stay as

well as the lack of hierarchical order- all of these make The Ballad of Peckham Rye a carnivalesque novel.

*English teacher from Poland. She lives in UAE.