BY PHOEBE ADAMS
The author’s foreword perfectly explains the existence of THE WASHING OF THE SPEARS (Simon and Schuster, $12.00). “I first came across the tale of Rorke’s Drift,” DONALD MORRIS begins, “in a longforgotten collection of stirring deeds written for children. ... I certainly did not know who the Zulus were, nor even where Natal was. It stuck with me as the story of a fight, however, and it always seemed to me a more satisfactory battle than I such better-known events as the Alamo or the Little Big Horn . . . and by 1955 I was planning a magazine article on” Rorke’s Drift and Isandhlwana. Then “Ernest Hemingway pointed out to me that there had never been a readable account of the Zulu War of 1879, nor, indeed, any account published in the United States, and that it would be a pity to throw the two battles away on a magazine. He was, of course, right, and the present volume is the result.” Six hundred and fourteen pages, all highly readable and well worth the trouble Mr. Morris has obviously expended on them. He not only describes Rorke’s Drift; he explains how it came about, and therefore begins with South Africa before the arrival of the Dutch in the seventeenth century. The subsequent encroachments and collisions of Dutch, English, and Zulus (who were no more native to the territory than the Europeans) are expounded with clarity, liveliness, and sporadic explosions of a mordant humor, which, if brutal, is nevertheless just what the subject deserves. I was bewitched by the book, but before recommending it promiscuously, I should perhaps confess to a pro-Zulu bias acquired through early reading of Rider Haggard.
In defense of Ian Fleming, KINGSLEY AMIS has written THE JAMES BOND DOSSIER (New American Library,
$3.95), a careful but not entirely serious study of his late friend’s popular, much abused creation. The book is stuffed with shrewd insights and amusing footnotes and explains,
among other things, why, although Bond is a derivation of the Byronic hero, his following remains predomi-
nately masculine. “We don’t want to have Bond to dinner or go golfing with Bond or talk to Bond. We want to be Bond.” This relieves me of any further responsibility toward Bond, and I am grateful to Mr. Amis. Also much entertained.
It always seems faintly boorish to complain of a work undertaken by a competent author with the intention of aiding the cause of literature, but DAVID WRIGHT’S translation into modern prose of Chaucer’s THE CANTERBURY TALES (Random House, $7.50) is really too much for good manners to bear. In the first place, Chaucer himself is not all that difficult to read. In the second place, Chaucer was a master-hand at getting comic or satiric or emotional effects by the juxtaposition of sounds and by subtle shifts in the timing of his lines. All this automatically disappears in a prose version. Frantic efforts by the prose paraphraser (translation is the wrong word for the business) may preserve part of it, but there is no indication that Mr. Wright has made any effort at all or has even noticed that the baby has gone out with the bath water.
HELEN BEVINGTON’S CHARLEY SMITH’S GIRL (Simon and Schuster, $4.95) is a memoir of the author’s youth, and it differs from the general run of female memoirs in being neither spiteful nor sentimental. Mrs. Bevington was unlucky in her parents. Her mother was a woman of some talent and decided virtue, but coldly inept in dealing with people. Her father, Charley, was that ludicrous figure of folklore, a Methodist minister with an incorrigible itch for girl chasing. This dryly convincing book seems to be a belated attempt to do the pair justice — not because they were much better or worse than their young daughter thought, but because, on reflection, Mrs. Bevington has realized that they did as well as they knew how.
THE BETTER HALF (Harper & Row, $6.95) by ANDREW SINCLAIR is a solid study of the changing habits and position of American women during the nineteenth century. It inevitably becomes a history of the suffrage campaign. Mr. Sinclair offers no spectacular theories or unexpected discoveries. He does, however, bring together in an orderly pattern information that is normally left scattered about in several different fields.