Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Have You Got the Bottle?

Should you be a student of literature casting about for a dissertation topic, may I suggest 'The Milk Bottle in the 20th Century Novel' as an idea? It came to me when I was reading A Fairly Honourable Defeat, which includes milk bottles as a recurring motif.

They are first introduced about halfway through the text:

'The kitchen smelt of decaying matter. It was difficult to trace the source. "I must get rid of all those milk bottles", thought Tallis. Some of them contained weird formations resembling human organs preserved in tubes. It was quite difficult to get these out of the bottles and the last time he tried to he stopped up the sink.'

They recur later, functioning as a measure of one character's energy:

'He did not feel strong enough to tackle the milk bottles',

and again, further on, compounding the breakdown of his marriage:

'They staggered together, knocking over a row of half empty milk bottles ... The kitchen floor was covered with broken glass and stinking yellowish milky mess ...Tallis stared at jagged glass and crumpled newspaper and milk which had already dried into thick yellowish pats and errant gleaming globes of wine-dark Baltic amber. He stared down into a world that had been utterly changed.'

Eventually, they are noticed by another, stronger character:

'Julius scrutinized the kitchen with a faint frown, noting the milk bottles.'

It is he who, by the end of the novel, manages to overcome them:

'"What did you do with all those milk bottles?" said Tallis. "I washed a few and put them outside and I put the rest in the rubbish tip across the road."'

In Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn, milk bottles play an even more prominent role. Indeed, one of the characters is so in thrall to them that she fills her shed with the things:

'Then, as the day was fine, she went into the garden and picked her way over the long uncut grass to the shed where she kept milk bottles. These needed to be checked from time to time and occasionally she even went as far as dusting them. Sometimes she would put out one for the milkman but she mustn't let the hoard get too low because, if there was a national emergency of the kind that seemed so frequent nowadays, or even another war, there could well be a shortage of milk bottles.'

This character becomes so concerned when an acquaintance inadvertently leaves an alien milk bottle in her possession that she wraps it up and seeks her out in a library to return it:

'Marcia crept up behind [Letty] as she browsed among the biographies.

"This is yours, I think, " said Marcia in an accusing tone, thrusting the wrapped milk bottle towards her.

"A milk bottle?" Of course, Letty did not remember the occasion and Marcia had to explain it, which she did, loudly, so that other people turned round and the young blond-haired library assistant seemed about to make some kind of protest.

Letty conscious of tension in the air, accepted the bottle without further question.'

If someone as ill-read as me can find two instances so easily, I'm sure there must be many more references to this quintessentially English obsession scattered through the fiction of the twentieth century. I look forward to following the glittering academic career of whichever enterprising young scholar chooses to investigate this fascinating and thus far thoroughly overlooked area of research.


  1. I love Barbara Pym, a very underrated author

  2. Milk bottles were a source of instruction and hazard near Cleveland, Ohio. Now and then during the winters, one saw how water expands as it freezes. A cousin from an accident-prone household managed to trip and fall onto a milk bottle, shattering it and chopping up his wrist. (I believe I heard that he sustained some nerve damage, but then I know that he learned to play the guitar.)

    The only milk bottle reference, though, that I can think of in American literature is in From Here to Eternity. Unless I've entirely forgotten, the protagonist starts a fight with another private by throwing a milk bottle at his forehead over the breakfast table; all parties then go to the company green to fight and watch the fight. It is as entirely un-Pymmish as all the rest of the novel.

  3. there's a long riff (many pages long) on milk bottles in Nicholson Baker's rather exhausting The Mezzanine - sample quote "And here was another wayside greatness of the milk carton: the small diamond shape of the spout is a perfect fit for the nose, concentrating any scent of sourness: no wide, circular milk-bottle opening could have been nearly so helpful for diagnosis."

  4. Oops. I find that was a coffee mug, not a milk bottle.

    But very early in Ulysses a quart of milk is poured into a jug. Does that count?

  5. Ah, and Wright Morris's The World in the Attic (central Nebraska, last mid-century), Mabel of Mabel's Lunch pours coffee to go into a quart milk bottle.

  6. I reckon the Ulysses counts, George - and The World in the Attic - although I've only ever seen pint-sized milk bottles. And with the Nicholson Baker from Worm this is beginning to look a lot less like a joke and more like a real phenomenon, bizarrely.
    I know more than I want to about frozen and half-frozen milk, by the way, George - I think I wrote here somewhere ages ago about the revolting gill bottles we were supposed to drink each day at school when I was a child - they'd freeze on the school doorstep and then be put on the radiator for an hour before being given to us. Nothing since has ever seemed quite so disgusting.
    I like Barbara Pym a lot too, Nurse, although she seems to be pretty much out of print now.

  7. Z: the glass bottles we got in Ohio held a half gallon.

    I find, by the way that the obsession carries over more than I thought to Nebraska--in Morris's Ceremony at Lone Tree a mailman distresses his wife and daughter by drinking milk from the bottle. I really can't picture most of Morris's characters finding their way into one of Pym's novels.

  8. It's quite intriguing to think of different authors trying to write each other's books - For instance, The Road by Barbara Pym would be a lot less dreary than Cormac McCarthy's version, I suspect