[The vagabond Paragot, narrator Asticot, and the young woman Blanquette are are on their way to perform the entertainment at a country wedding]
A black velveteen jacket resplendent with pearl-buttons, velveteen knee-breeches tied with ribbons at the knees, and a rakish Alpine hat with a feather adorned my master’s person. Blanquette was attired in a short skirt, a white fichu moderately fresh, a kind of Italian head-dress and scarlet stockings. Enormous gilt ear-ring swung from her ears; a cable of blue beads enriched her neck; her lips were dyed pomegranate, her eyes darkened and her cheeks touched with rouge. A pair of substantial gilt shoes slung over her shoulders clinked their heels together as she walked….
[At the wedding] The signal to start was soon given. Paragot tucked his violin under his chin, tuned up, waved one, two, three with his bow; Blanquette struck a chord on her zither, and the dance began….
Paragot fiddled with strenuous lightheartedness, and Blanquette thrummed her zither with the awful earnestness of a woman on whose efforts ten francs and perhaps half a goose depended. But it was Paragot who made the people dance. To me, sitting in red shirt and pomaded hair at his feet, it seemed as if he were a magician.
observations: I must have borrowed Beloved Vagabond from the local public library for the first time when I was about 12. I then borrowed it many more times, read it and re-read it because I loved it so much. Years later, in the internet era, I was able to track down my own copy of it, and I still read it again every few years. Locke (sometimes William J, sometimes WJ) wrote a huge number of now-forgotten books, many of them bestsellers, and they often became plays or films. I have tried others by him, but only this one does it for me.
Mentions of Zola and Impressionism suggest the main action of this one is set around the 1870s and 1880s. Asticot, who narrates, is looking back from middle age. He relates how he, a Cockney boy from an impoverished family, met Paragot (who has many names in the story, but we’ll stick with this one) – a philosopher who was running a debating/supper club in London at the time. Paragot takes a fancy to the boy, ‘buys’ him from his mother, and embarks on the boy’s education, as well as on a vagabond’s path through Europe. They pick up a dog, Narcisse, and the young woman Blanquette along the way.
Paragot is the perfect beloved vagabond. He is larger-than-life, he drinks too much, and although Asticot worships him there are notes of disenchantment as he discovers feet of clay. And yet Paragot is never less than a splendid fellow. As is absolutely routine in such books, it turns out he comes from a most respectable background, went to Rugby School, and was a prize-winning architect before taking up life as a Bohemian and street philosopher.
He is used to dominating the table at whichever café he patronizes in the Latin Quarter of Paris, and there is a nice moment when he denounces his disciples as not being true Bohemians, quoting from the Henri Murger book Scenes from Bohemian Life, with Mimi Rodolphe and Marcel. This book was the basis for Puccini’s opera La Boheme, which had not been written when Paragot is speaking, but was current when the book was published.
Claud Cockburn’s great book Bestseller – in which he looked at ‘the books everyone read’ in the first half of the 20th century – points out how attractive the idea of Bohemianism was to Locke’s readers:
The writer reflects and plays cunningly with the daydreams of his huge middle-class British audience. He understands the different nuances of those daydreams. They are sometimes, whimsical, laughable. But sometimes too, and this is heavily emphasized, they are to be regarded as a form of quite serious philosophizing, a consideration of the meaning of life.So that would be me then, the teenage daydreamer. My obsession with this book was so great that it will need another entry…. there is a lot about the plot I haven’t mentioned.
The top picture is Italian Girl by Corot
The second one is Dancing Break at a Wedding by Benjamin Vautier. Both images from The Athenaeum website.