Libraries, of course, imply the presence of librarians—those wonderful, towering people we learn to hold in a sort of terrified awe as children, and continue to do so after we’re grown-ups.
We’ve been presenting some of MacDonald’s ideas about libraries this week, so it seems about time to meet one of his librarians. Mr Cupples stands not only as one of MacDonald’s greatest characters, I would argue that he is one of the greatest, most colourful characters of English (and Scottish) literature. He is a kind of librarian—sort of. Or he could be.
Here is one of the few times we actually meet Mr Cupples in the library, instead over toddy in his flat. I make no apologies for the un-translated Scots. The flavour and authenticity is worth persevering through the difficult passages (for English language readers).
Those readers who have met Mr Cupples before will know how much the image or idea of the library shapes the character. And they will understand why I was nearly moved to tears when at last he goes flying kites.
Read and discuss.
“But,” said Alec, “what is Mr Cupples?”
“That’s a queston he cudna weel answer ye himsel’,” was [his landlady’s] reply. “He does a heap o’ things; writes for the lawyers whiles; buys and sells queer buiks; gies lessons in Greek and Hebrew—but he disna like that—he canna bide to be contred, and laddies is gey contresome; helps onybody that wants help i’ the way o’ figures—whan their buiks gang wrang ye ken, for figures is some ill for jummlin’. He’s a kin’ o’ librarian at yer ain college i’ the noo, Mr Forbes. The auld man’s deid, and Mr Cupples is jist doin’ the wark. They winna gie him the place—’cause he has an ill name for drink—but they’ll get as muckle wark oot o’ him as gin they did, and for half the siller. The body hauds at onythiug weel eneuch a’ day, but the minute he comes hame, oot comes the tappit hen, and he jist sits doon and drinks till he turns the warl upo’ the tap o’ ‘m.”
The next day, about noon, Alec went into the library, where he found Mr Cupples busy re-arranging the books and the catalogue, both of which had been neglected for years. This was the first of many visits to the library, or rather to the librarian.
There was a certain mazy sobriety of demeanour about Mr Cupples all day long, as if in the presence of such serious things as books he was bound to be upon his good behaviour, and confine his dissipation to taking snuff in prodigious quantities. He was full of information about books, and had, besides, opinions concerning them, which were always ready to assume quaint and decided expression. For instance: one afternoon, Alec having taken up Tristram Shandy and asked him what kind of a book it was, the pro-librarian snatched it from his hands and put it on the shelf again, answering:
“A pailace o’ dirt and impidence and speeeritual stink. The clever deevil had his entrails in his breest and his hert in his belly, and regairdet neither God nor his ain mither. His lauchter’s no like the cracklin’ o’ thorns unner a pot, but like the nicherin’ o’ a deil ahin’ the wainscot. Lat him sit and rot there!”
Asking him another day what sort of poet Shelley was, Alec received the answer:
“A bonny cratur, wi’ mair thochts nor there was room for i’ the bit heid o’ ‘m. Consequently he gaed staiggerin’ aboot as gin he had been tied to the tail o’ an inveesible balloon. Unco licht heidit, but no muckle hairm in him by natur’.”
He never would remain in the library after the day began to ebb. The moment he became aware that the first filmy shadow had fallen from the coming twilight, he caught up his hat, locked the door, gave the key to the sacrist, and hurried away.
The friendly relation between the two struck its roots deeper and deeper during the session, and Alec bade him good-bye with regret.
Mr Cupples was a baffled poet trying to be a humourist—baffled—not by the booksellers or the public—for such baffling one need not have a profound sympathy—but baffled by his own weakness, his incapacity for assimilating sorrow, his inability to find or invent a theory of the universe which should show it still beautiful despite of passing pain, of checked aspiration, of the ruthless storms that lay waste the Edens of men, and dissolve the high triumph of their rainbows. He had yet to learn that through “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” man becomes capable of the blessedness to which all the legends of a golden age point. Not finding, when he most needed it, such a theory even in the New Testament—for he had been diligently taught to read it awry—Mr Cupples took to jesting and toddy; but, haunting the doors of Humour, never got further than the lobby.
(Alec Forbes of Howglen, ch. XXXIX, 1865)