Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The rightful heir?

If I Were You, P.G. Wodehouse

When I go into a bookstore, there are certain names I automatically check for, starting with Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and Angela Thirkell.  P.G. Wodehouse is also on that list, and it was a pleasant surprise the other day to find a title I didn't recognize.  The blurb on the back sold me with the first line:
If I Were You is Wodehouse's comic variation on a favorite theme of Victorian melodrama - the changeling.  Did old Nannie Price really substitute her own child for the infant son of the late Lord and Lady Droitwich while they were away in India?  If so, Tony Droitwich is the heir, not to rolling acres and a stately pile, but to a barber's shop in London's West End.  With Socialist Syd Price determined to prove himself the new earl, and Tony's haughty relations determined that he shall not, the stage is set for an amusing battle, waged by a familiar Wodehousian cast of fat butlers, tough aunts, lively American girls and drawling dandies.
I should point out that there is actually only one of each from the above list (butler, aunt, girl and dandy).  The cast also includes Tony's uncle and former guardian, Sir Herbert, married to his aunt Lydia  (the Prices usually call him Sir Rerbert, which made me giggle every time, and sometimes picture Kermit the Frog).  There is also Tony's new fiancée Violet Waddington, heiress to a soup fortune.  She is one of those pillish young women you meet in Wodehouse, usually engaged to some hapless male, who you know are destined to grow up into termagant aunts.  Tony, on the other hand, is a gentleman and a good guy.  I figured he was going to get the happy ending he deserved, though I wasn't sure exactly how.

In a light-hearted way, this book is about Nature vs. Nurture.  Syd may be the heir to a hundred earls (or he may not be), but hairdressing is in his blood too. Tony's aunt and uncle want to deny him the title in favor of Tony, who may or may not be the rightful heir, but who fits their idea of an earl much better than the Cockney Syd.  Yet they don't seem as concerned about Tony himself as they do about having a proper Earl of Droitwich in place.

The reference in the backcover blurb to the stage being set for the cast is very appropriate.  The story could easily be adapted for the stage, and I wondered if in fact it had started as a script.  The cast is small, with a couple of walk-on roles.  The action is divided into three scenes, two of which take place in the drawing room at Langley End, Lord Droitwich's estate in Worcestershire, book-ending one set in Syd Price's barber shop near Hyde Park.  Langley End is described in glowing terms, nestled like Blandings Castle in its gardens and terraces, but unusually for Wodehouse (at least in the books I've read), the action is confined to the drawing-room, and to Syd's shop.  The characters move constantly in and out of the rooms, like actors exiting stage left and right.

This book was published in 1931, and for the first part of that year, Wodehouse was in Hollywood under contract as a screenwriter for MGM.  Maybe that explains why it reads rather like a script at times.  But however it was written, this is a fun book, and I really enjoyed it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Returning to Sarantium

Lord of Emperors, Guy Gavriel Kay

This is the sequel to Sailing to Sarantium, one of the best books I've read so far this year, which will certainly be on my "favorite books of 2014" list.  I had to wait until the end of the TBR Triple Dog Dare to read this one, and when I finally started it, it was with some mixed feelings.  In my experience, sequels don't always live up to the promise of the first book.  But my main concern was because, in the meantime, I read another of Guy Gavriel Kay's books, and I just loathed it, almost as much as I loved Sailing to Sarantium.  I hated the way that the female characters existed only in relation to the male characters, while the men became friends, enemies, partner, rivals, mentors, to each other, as well as to the women, in a rich web of relationships.  I counted only two conversations between female characters in the entire book, and one of those was about the heroes, thus failing the Bechdel test.  I was equally irritated in that book by the frequency with which Mr. Kay used false foreshadowing and misleading clues, to make us think for example that Character X had been killed, only to reveal five or ten pages later that it was really Character Y.  About the third time that happened, I began to find it annoying, and my annoyance increased with each new occurrence, until I just started leafing ahead to find out what had really happened.  I finished the book with gritted teeth and immediately gave my copy away.

Though I began this book with some trepidation, I was so happy to find it just as engrossing and entertaining as the first book - a worthy sequel.  It was wonderful to meet the characters again, six months later, to catch up with them and then see where the new story took them.  I admit, as I started to suspect where events were heading, I began to fear for two of my favorite characters.  I skipped  ahead at that point, because if Mr. Kay had killed them off, I think I might have given up on his books altogether (despite the two that are still on the TBR stacks).  Fortunately, they both were spared.  I also admit to my own inconsistency, though, because I don't quite believe in the happy endings that he gave them either.

But that is really my only quibble with the book.  I had noted in Sailing to Sarantium that the women characters lacked female friendship or support, but here they have found that, in relationships that sometimes cross social lines but feel authentic.  I think Mr. Kay is very good at creating strong female characters, intelligent, forceful, active women.  I know he is a major fan of Dorothy Dunnett's books, so I don't think he would mind the comparison if I say they remind me of Philippa Somerville, Gelis van Borselen, and Groa - not to mention Margaret Lennox and Queen Carlotta.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, which as in the first book concerns imperial politics, theology, liturgical art, and racing at the Hippodrome.  This book actually opens outside the Sarantine Empire, in the lands ruled by the King of Bassania, to the east and south of Sarantium (standing in for our world's Persian empire).  From there a doctor named Rustem travels north to the great city, ostensibly both to study and to teach, but also with a mission from his king.  Like Crispin, the master mosaicist of the first book, he soon makes new friends and new enemies, and in the process he becomes enmeshed in events whose effects will reach far beyond the city walls.

The subtitle of this book is "Book Two of the Sarantine Mosaic."  I think of these books as two halves of a story, and I'm sure that's how I will re-read them in the years to come.  At the same time, I can't help hoping that there are more pieces of the Mosaic to come.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A subversive Scottish heroine

Kirsteen, Margaret Oliphant

I have only read a few of Margaret Oliphant's ninety novels, the "Chronicles of Carlingford," for which she's probably best known, and The Curate in Charge. I've enjoyed them, particularly Miss Marjoribanks and The Perpetual Curate, though I found Salem Chapel a bit dreary. None of them prepared me for this story, though, with its independent and really subversive heroine.  It is also the first of her books that I've read to be set in her native Scotland, and it's thick with Highland Scots dialogue.

The subtitle of this book is "The Story of a Scotch Family Seventy Years Ago."  Published in 1890, it opens in 1814, just as the Napoleonic Wars are ending.  Kirsteen, the title character, a young woman of twenty, is the third of four daughters of the Laird of Drumcarro.  His small estate in Argyllshire is a constant reminder of how far the once-powerful Douglas family has fallen over the years, particularly since Culloden.  Neil Douglas is counting on his seven sons to rebuild the family's fortune, and with it their proper place in Scotland.  Everything he can wring from the estate goes to them.  As the story opens, the fifth, Robbie, is being sent out to India to join his brothers, while the two youngest wait their turns.  The daughters are left to themselves, and to the care of their mother, worn out with constant pregnancies and her martinet of a husband.  Drumcarro considers his daughters just a drag on the family's resources, costing him money that should go to the boys. His eldest daughter Anne escaped this neglect and her father's tyranny by eloping with a young doctor.  Her enraged father has cast her out of the family, forbidding anyone even to mention her name.  Finally his cousin Miss Eelen Douglas convinces him that his daughters must be introduced into society, if they are ever to find husbands who will take them off his hands.

Aunt Eelen, a comfortable spinster, escorts the two oldest girls, Mary and Kirsteen, to a ball in Glasgow. There Kirsteen meets a contemporary of her father's, John Campbell of Glendochart.  He is immediately drawn to the young woman and begins visiting Drumcarro regularly, though Kirsteen has no idea that he is courting her.  Her heart is already given to another, though secretly.  When her father informs her that she will marry Glendochart, threatening her with blows and beatings if she refuses, she is afraid she will be forced to yield.  Her only option is to leave home, to run away, even if it means being cast out in her turn.  She decides to go to London, to seek her fortune.

Her story is quite an adventure, as she walks across the moors to Glasgow, to catch the coach to London.  Arriving dazed and exhausted in the great city, larger than she could ever have imagined, she goes to the sister of the family's devoted housekeeper Marg'ret (whose small savings funded her flight).  Miss Jean is a successful dressmaker, who is at first reluctant to take a lady, one of the great Douglas family, into business.  But Kirsteen talks her way in, and she soon proves to have a gift for design.  As she settles in to her work and her new home, the story shifts back to Drumcarro, where her older sister Mary takes a leaf from Charlotte Collins in Pride and Prejudice.  The third sister, Jeanie, the beauty of the family, will have her own adventures, more along the lines of the Brontës than Jane Austen.

There is so much to enjoy in this book, starting with the heroine.  Kirsteen is young and naive, but also strong and quick to learn.  Like many of Margaret Oliphant's heroines, she has to care for the more feckless members of her family, starting with her afflicted mother.  But in contrast to her mother, she also has staunch role models in her Aunt Eelen, the local dressmaker Miss MacNab, her surrogate mother Marg'ret, and Miss Jean.  All are independent and self-reliant, none of them rich but each content in her own way. I love stories about dress-making businesses, second only to tea-shops.  I was reminded of "The House of Eliott," as well as Susanna's shop in Eva Ibbotson's Madensky Square.  I also enjoyed the Highland setting, though I was sometimes a bit puzzled by the dialogue, and Regency London as well.  I couldn't help imagining one of Georgette Heyer's characters driving up to Miss Jean's door, to order a new gown.  (The author, who was born in 1828, is rather dismissive of the fashions of 1814, though to my eyes they look more comfortable than the layered outfits of the 1890s.)

It is a shame that so few of Margaret Oliphant's books are still in print, though they are available as e-texts.  The introduction to this book mentions several other titles, and I think I'll look for The Ladies Lindores next.  It's about a family who suddenly inherits a fortune. Knowing Margaret Oliphant, I'm sure complications arise.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A woman soldier and a nurse, though probably not a spy

Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy, Sarah Emma Edmonds

I first learned about Sarah Emma Edmonds from a book about women soldiers in the Civil War, They Fought Like Demons.  When I saw this on the shelves at Half Price Books, the title caught my eye, and then the author's name.  Sarah Edmonds enlisted in the Union Army in May of 1861.  As "Franklin Thompson," she served in the 2nd Michigan regiment for two years, much of the time as a hospital nurse or orderly.  In 1863 she deserted, resumed dressing as a woman, and spent the rest of the war working as a nurse in army hospitals.  After the war, she married and had several children.  Twenty-one years later, like many aging veterans she applied for a military pension, for which she had to document her service as "Franklin Thompson."  Before she could receive the pension, the charge of desertion had to be expunged from her record, which wasn't difficult, since if she had been outed as a woman while serving, she would have been immediately discharged.  The military records of her service and of the pension granted her prove that Edmonds, a woman, served as a soldier in the war.  That much is clear.  The memoir she wrote about her service rests on that fact, but she seems to have taken some liberties with the details of what exactly that service entailed.

Sarah Edmonds first published her memoir in 1864, under the title Unsexed: or, The Female Soldier.  It was reprinted in 1865, by a new publisher, as Nurse and Spy in the Union Army.  The annotated edition I read was published by Northern Illinois University Press in 1999.  The editor, Elizabeth Leonard, does not discuss why the title to the present edition was changed yet again, not just with the addition of "Soldier" to the title, but also with the subtitle, "A Woman's Adventures in the Union Army."  I am sure it was to highlight what made those adventures ground-breaking.  Lots of women served as nurses, many served as spies.  While other women served as soldiers, none is as well-documented as Edmonds, and only one other (a Confederate woman soldier) wrote a memoir about that service.

Changing the title to emphasize Edmonds' role as soldier highlights an ambiguity in the book: nowhere in it did Edmonds state that she was a soldier.  She was incredibly coy about it. According to the introduction, Edmonds left her home in New Brunswick to come to the United States, probably in 1859, and probably already presenting herself as a male.  Her readers wouldn't have known that, so when she talked about feeling the call to serve her adopted county in its hour of need, and being "employed by the government" as a "FIELD NURSE," they would have assumed it was as a woman, not a newly-enlisted volunteer soldier.  At this time, though, all army nurses were male soldiers.  In answering the call to serve, she wrote, "I could only thank God that I was free to go forward and work, and was not obliged to stay at home and weep."  Maybe her readers took it for granted that she was "free" because she was unmarried, with no family ties.  They couldn't have guessed that her freedom was based on her male persona.

In telling stories about her spying missions, Edmonds mentioned that she wore male civilian clothes when she snuck through the Confederate lines to gather information. She just didn't mention that she took off "Private Thompson's" Federal uniform to do so.  At one point "Thompson" disguised "himself" in women's clothes, so à la "Victor/Victoria," we have a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.

Watching these convolutions was fascinating.  They carried me through some of the less entertaining parts of the book.  Edmonds wrote in the first chapter that she came to America because she wanted to be a foreign missionary (I don't think she meant it was to evangelize godless Americans, but maybe so).  That should have prepared me for the piety that permeates this book.  The pages are filled with prayers and poems and portions of sermons.  There are frequent stories of camp meetings, conversions, and soldiers dying holy deaths.  These are interspersed with gruesome accounts of the battles that brought the soldiers to the hospitals, and the primitive medical care that could not save them (and may have killed some of them).

One soldier's death highlights the tensions in Edmonds' story.  After the battle of Antietam, in September of 1862, Edmonds was crossing the field, searching for the wounded among the dead, when she "was attracted by the pale, sweet face of youthful soldier who was wounded in the neck."  The soldier confided to Edmonds that she was a woman, an orphan who had enlisted with her brother, killed earlier that day.  Edmonds called a chaplain, and then stayed with her until she died, and helped with her burial, to keep her secret safe.  I wonder if it would have comforted that unknown soldier, to know there was a woman comrade by her.  Edmonds chose not to tell her.

Edmonds wrote that the nursing work was a terrible strain, which I can imagine it was.  As she told it, she learned that the army "Secret Service" had an opening for a spy, and she volunteered.  Part of the interview included a phrenological exam, which showed that her "organs of secretiveness, combativeness, etc., were largely developed," which qualified her for the job (though the exam apparently missed the fact that the head in question was a woman's).  Even before I read the editor's note that Edmonds' service as a spy has been called into question, I had begun to have my doubts.  The first assignment she recounted was to dress as a (male) contraband, an escaped slave, to cross to Confederate lines.  In her account, on the Confederate side she was pressed into a work gang, before she was given a rifle and sent out alone on picket duty, which allowed her to escape back to the Union lines.  No Confederate would have given an African American a gun in the first place, let alone allowed him out of his sight with it.  In another adventure, while she was trying to buy food for the hospitals, a Confederate woman shot at her.  Edmonds returned fire, deliberately aiming at the woman's hand.  She immediately treated the wound, converted the rebel from the Confederate cause, and escorted her new friend "Alice" to the Union lines, where she became a devoted nurse herself.  However fanciful, her adventures are definitely entertaining.

Of course, writing about her exploits in disguise as a contraband, Edmonds used the broadest "Gone With the Wind" dialect, both for herself in character and for all the African Americans she encountered (usually referring to them as "darkies," which is at least slightly less offensive to modern readers than the n-word).  But they are not the only characters spouting stage dialect.  Edmonds later impersonated an Irish pedlar woman (in another bit of cross-cross-dressing), with the worst "Faith and begorrah" Oirish accent I think I've ever read.  In the course of that adventure, she met an H'inglishman, who h'only wished 'e was h'at 'ome with 'is family, far from Jeff Davis.  There is also a "Dutchman," as 19th-century America labeled Germans, who sounded just like Professor Bhaer in Little Women.

Though I rolled my eyes frequently reading this, it is still a fascinating book.  Despite the probably fictionalized elements, it is an eye-witness account of the Civil War, from a unique perspective.  Edmonds included a lot of information about hospitals and nursing care, as well as the daily lives of soldiers in camp and on the march.  She was present at many major battles, including the surrender of Vicksburg in 1863.  She analyzed the officers she served under or met, including Generals George McClellan and Ulysses Grant, both of whom she admired greatly.  And there is a genuine poignancy in her accounts of the young soldiers, suffering and dying for a cause they believed in, far from their families.  Parents often traveled to the battlefields to help care for their sons, but many arrived too late.  I think it's to Edmonds' credit that she dedicated not just her book, but the proceeds from it, "To the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of the Army of the Potomac," among whom she served.

What really floored me was to learn that Sarah Edmonds and her husband, a fellow Canadian, ended up right here in Houston, in the 1890s.  Here Edmonds was inducted into the Grand Army of the Republic, the premier Civil War veterans' organization, and she was inducted as a woman.  She died near Houston in 1898, and the GAR later had her buried with full military honors here in the city.  I plan to visit her grave as soon as I can.

N.B. As I mentioned above, the publication history of Edmonds' memoir is convoluted.  The 1865 version reprinted the text of the 1864 original with no changes except to the title.  The 1999 edition I read reprinted the 1865 version, again with no changes except to the title.  I am using the 1865 date for the "Mid-Century of Books" challenge.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I'm glad I read this book

Pollyanna, Eleanor H. Porter

I heard the term "Pollyanna" growing up, sometimes in reference to my mother, but I never knew its origin.  I came across the 2003 TV version during an infatuation with the actor Aden Gillett (after binge-watching all three series of "The House of Eliott").  That was my introduction to the story, but I didn't know it was based on a book until I came across a copy on the library sale shelves.  That's also when I discovered that the story is actually set not in England, but in Vermont.  I've had it on my "Mid-Century of Books" list, and then a recent review by Melanie at The Indextrious Reader (and comments from Vicki) moved it up the list.  I came home yesterday on a cold rainy evening, after a frustrating afternoon at work and a horrendous commute, and all I wanted was a cup of tea, a hot bath, and a comforting book.  Pollyanna fit the bill perfectly. And I was glad that I hadn't read it earlier.

I remembered something of the plot from the TV version.  The orphaned Pollyanna is sent to live with her only surviving relative, her mother's sister Polly, who accepts her much like Marilla Cuthbert did Anne Shirley - from a sense of duty, at heart unwillingly.  There is no Matthew to welcome her, but Pollyanna makes friends wherever she goes, starting with Nancy, the young maid of all work.  Pollyanna goes everywhere, and everyone she meets is invited to play "the glad game," of finding something to be glad about no matter what the circumstances.  Pollyanna and her widowed father, a minister poor as the proverbial church mice, began playing the game one day when the regular missionary barrel arrived (which reminded me of Polly's family, in An Old-Fashioned Girl, unpacking theirs, and the Little House family theirs).  Pollyanna had been praying for a doll, her father had even requested one for her, and naturally she was disappointed when her father fished out a little pair of crutches instead (I'd like to think some Ladies' Aid societies re-thought their donation policies after reading this).  Anyway, Pollyanna's father tried to distract and comfort her with the idea that at least she could be glad that she didn't need the crutches!  And that was the start of the game. As she tells Nancy,
"I was playing the game - but that's one of the times I just did it without thinking, I reckon.  You see, you do, lots of times; you get so used to it - looking for something to be glad about, you know.  And most generally there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it."
Maybe, Nancy replies, "with open doubt."  But she is soon playing the game too, along with the crotchety invalid Mrs. Snow.  Pollyanna also befriends the town's miserly recluse, John Pendleton, though he is too cranky really to play the game.  Aunt Polly isn't playing either, because she doesn't know about the game - though she gives her niece lots of scope for practicing, starting with the hot bare attic room she assigns to her.

In the wrong hands, this could have been an awful book, one of those treacly pious morality manuals for producing saintly children (often by sending them to heaven early).  But while Eleanor Porter has moral lessons to impart, she weaves them into an entertaining story with interesting characters, many of whom need some kind of lesson, including the adults.  Pollyanna is energetic and exuberant, and I found her foot-in-mouth tendencies really entertaining.  She is a chatterbox, with a fund of slyly funny stories about the Ladies' Aid Society in her old home-town, who helped care for her after her parents' deaths.  But they come off better than the Ladies' Aid Society in Beldingsville, who would rather give to the foreign missions, with their contributions published in an annual report, than help a small orphan boy that Pollyanna finds by the side of the road (not in a basket - Jimmy is willing to work for his keep).

That sort of sharp-eyed social commentary, with the Vermont setting, reminded me of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's books.  And Pollyanna's friendship with John Pendleton reminded me of another wealthy man with an interest in orphans, Jervis Pendleton of Daddy-Long-Legs.  I took it off the shelf this morning to check something on "Master Jervie," and almost broke the Triple-Dog-Dare to re-read it then and there.

My copy of Pollyanna is a 1947 reprint (with rough paper that is browning and crumbling).  It was a gift to Margaret, from "Daddy and Mother,"  On the cover, the title is followed by the words "Trade Mark," as is another phrase, "The Glad Book."  I see from the back cover that there is a series of "Pollyanna" books, only the second of which was written by Eleanor Porter before her death in 1920, Pollyanna Grows Up (1915).  The titles of the others, the "Glad Books" (all Trade Marked), fill me with dread: Pollyanna of the Orange Blossoms, Pollyanna's Jewels, Pollyanna's Western Adventure [my eye started twitching], Pollyanna in Hollywood [shudder], Pollyanna's Castle in Mexico [a distinct tremor], and finally, Pollyanna's Golden Horseshoe. Not to judge a book by its title, but I don't think you could pay me to read them.  Maybe these books explain why calling someone a "Pollyanna" is not a compliment.

Today was another miserable day at work, and I did find myself trying to play the game.  The best I could come up with was, "Well, I'm glad it's 4.30 and I can go home."  Maybe I'll get better with practice.  And maybe I'll look for Pollyanna Grows Up.  It involves a trip to Europe, and a mysterious "Jamie."  Has anyone else read it?

N.B. Pollyanna was originally published in 1912 as a serial, in The Christian Herald - an interesting choice, since despite the two ministers and those Ladies' Aiders, it isn't what I'd consider a real church story.  It was published in book form in 1913, so I'm using that date for my list.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Finding a place in Italy

A Small Place in Italy, Eric Newby

Eric Newby's books were one of my favorite discoveries in 2012 (and from my own TBR shelves to boot).  That year I read several accounts of his adventures, usually with his wife and long-suffering travel partner Wanda.  And then last year I completely neglected them, though I still had some of his books unread.  I was hunting around the TBR shelves the other day, unable at first to settle on anything, when I chose this one pretty much at random.  I'm glad I did, it did felt like meeting old friends again.

The opening chapter gives a quick overview of Eric Newby's experiences in Italy in World War II, where he was first a prisoner of war and then, after escaping, on the run for four months (a story told in greater detail in his book Love and War in the Apennines). His future wife Wanda was among those who helped him, as did the country people in the hills of the Parma region.  He and Wanda returned often to Italy, to visit his rescuers as well as her family in Slovenia (in a region annexed to Italy in the early 20th century).  They had always hoped to buy a house in Italy.  In 1967, they finally decided to do it, spurred in part by rising real estate prices.  They wanted to live in the north, along the Apennines, and the house they finally found was in northern Tuscany, near the Ligurian Coast (the handy map in the front of this book was helpful and instructive).  At the time, Newby was the travel editor of the Observer, so they could only visit during his holidays, generally in the spring and autumn.

Writing almost thirty years later, in 1994, Newby details the complicated process of buying a small two-story farmhouse, I Castagni (The Chestnuts), near a small village called Fosdinovo.  The house needed major repairs and upgrades, including adding a bathroom.  I thought that this was going to be the story of the house, and in fact I kept thinking that the title was "A Small House in Italy."  Though Newby devotes several chapters to the work done on the house, he is as always more interested in people, starting with their new neighbors, and in exploring their corner of Italy.  The Newbys are the first foreigners to settle in the area (Wanda likes to remind people that she grew up in Italy), and they are warmly welcomed.  They go everywhere they are invited, from the first day.  Arriving on Good Friday, they join the traditional procession through the village streets, ending with services in the parish church.  Each year they also join neighbors in the vendemmia, the harvesting of grapes for wine, in days of hard work in the autumn heat.

Newby makes frequent references to his war-time adventures, comparing and contrasting the lives of the local residents with what he experienced living among them in 1943-1944.  He finds some surprising overlaps, but over the twenty-five years that the Newbys own their house, they see more and more changes in the traditional ways.  The country-side becomes increasingly urbanized, with people moving out from the cities and with more outsiders like the Newbys themselves setting in Italy.

As usual Newby describes the food of the region in some detail.  He seems to have thought his readers would be unfamiliar with the basic dishes (though he cites Elizabeth David's Italian Food, published in 1963).  He takes care to explain what pesto is, as well as bruschetta and pecorino cheese (reading this did make me hungry).  He also discourses at some length on mushrooms, which grow wild in the forests around the area, the collecting of them and the cooking of them.  Local residents had to move quickly to stay ahead of professional funghi seekers from the cities, who often raided the best spots.

This was a quieter book than some of his others that I have read, though it does include an account of a tramp along the crinale, the main ridge of the Apennines, which sounded absolutely miserable (cold buffeting winds and rain blowing along alpine heights).  I enjoyed learning about the region as well as the neighborhood of I Castagni, and watching Eric and Wanda Newby find their place in it.  Like them, I was sorry to say good-bye, when they finally decided they had to sell the house.  I hope the people who live there now enjoy it as much as the Newbys did.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fräulein Schmidt's letters

Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther, Elizabeth von Arnim

I am not quite sure what to say about this book.  As I was reading it, I found my opinion of it, and feelings about it, changing constantly. Elizabeth von Arnim's stories never seem to go in the direction I expect, which can make for an unsettling reading experience.  This wasn't as difficult a book for me as The Pastor's Wife, but days later I am still looking it and thinking, "Hmmmm...."  This post is an attempt to figure out why.  There may be some mild spoilers, for those who haven't read the book.

Published in 1907, this is an epistolary novel, a genre I love.  It consists of letters written by Rose-Marie Schmidt, a young woman of twenty-five living in Jena, a small country town near Berlin.  In the first letter we learn that she has just become engaged to Roger Anstruther, a young Englishman who has been boarding with her family for the past year while studying German.  His declaration and proposal, and her acceptance, were hastily given and received, almost as he was on his way out the door, returning home to England.  Rose-Marie sends her first ecstatic love letter following after him, full of things she had no time to say.

Rose-Marie's love and hopes pour out in frequent letters to Roger, and she is constantly expecting to hear from him, calculating how long it will take letters to reach her from England.  When his begin to arrive, they quickly begin to suggest that he is having second thoughts, and that it is "out of sight, out of mind" with him.  I appreciated Elizabeth von Arnim's skill in building up a picture of Roger solely through Rose-Marie's letters.  He plays such a major part in the story without ever appearing even once, or speaking a word - and yet his character and his personality come through so clearly.  He is obviously the vacillating type, for whom the grass is always greener over the proverbial fence.  Rose-Marie, clinging to her love, trusting her beloved, doesn't see this - or perhaps refuses to.  It was painful to read her letters, knowing what coming, watching her increasing desperation at his silence.  But no sooner does Roger break the engagement, in favor of a rich and well-connected young English girl, a favorite of his father's, than he begins to pine for Rose-Marie again, and to pursue her by letter.  She, slowly recovering from heart-break, answers his letters briefly and reluctantly at first.  As she warms to writing again, she insists it is as a friend only, almost a sister.  She warns him off constantly from any expression of sentiment or emotion, but he doesn't seem to understand how serious she is.  Like Lily Dale, she will not accept love again from someone who proved unworthy of her trust.

That determination, her strength of mind, is part of what makes Rose-Marie such a wonderful heroine.  Other than a few bitter asides, she does not complain to Roger about his caddish behavior.  She simply sets about rebuilding her life.  I admired her for that (while thinking of a few things I'd like to say to Roger myself).  She is a bibliophile, and poetry becomes a solace for her.  She is bright and inquisitive, and somewhere in her small-town life she has learned to think for herself.  Endlessly curious about the world around her, she writes about her neighbors and people she meets, books she is reading, the challenges of housekeeping, what she sees on her walks in the countryside around Jena.  She philosophizes frequently (sometimes at great length) on the big questions of life: love, faith, the role of education, women's place in society.

Part of Rose-Marie's initial joy in her engagement is at the prospect of escaping from small-town provincial life, and from her step-mother Emilie, who brought necessary income but not much happiness to her new home.  Rose-Marie's father has no profession and no money of his own, other than the fees he collects for tutoring.  Known as "the Professor," he is a student of Goethe, a religious free-thinker who scandalizes his conventionally pious neighbors.  He is also a rather unworldly man, writing long books that fail to find a publisher.  The father and daughter have a warm, loving relationship, with shared interests in poetry, and shared jokes.  I can imagine that Emilie must often feel a bit left out, and Rose-Marie recognizes at one point that she has not always been kind to her step-mother, resolving to do better.  The Professor reminded me a bit of Mr. March in Little Women, with Rose-Marie something like Meg and Jo.  I think this is the happiest father-daughter relationship that I have come across in von Arnim's books.

Rose-Marie writes frequently about the beauty of the country-side around Jena, where she loves to ramble (and where she also finds solace for her heart-break).  Her letters also discuss the details of house-keeping on a small budget (including an amusing attempt to become vegetarians, even vegans).  I was fascinated to learn from the introduction to my Virago edition that Elizabeth von Arnim did some personal research for this book, in a small town like Jena, where she disguised herself as an English governess on holiday, boarding with a local family and doing housework in exchange for German lessons.  In a version of "Victor/Victoria," we have an English woman pretending to be a German woman pretending to be an English woman.  I wonder if her employers ever discovered the deception..

Writing as the German "Elizabeth," the English von Arnim frequently skewered the people of her adopted and native countries, particularly the men, in her books.  She was writing with inside knowledge of both, though few of her readers at the time would have known that.  (In fact, Rose-Marie herself is half-English, though she apparently learned little of England from her mother.)  Here Roger is presented as immature, indecisive and completely self-absorbed.  We also get Joey Collins, his successor in the Schmidt household, who is equally immature, interested only in sports.  And while on the German side we have the Professor, we also get his brother, a Berlin banker, another Man of Wrath who snubs his wife and daughters at every turn, as well as his lackadaisical brother; whose own comfort must come before everything else.  And through Rose-Marie's letters von Arnim paints a very unflattering portrait of provincial German life, where the riches of Sunday dinner are contrasted with the cold emptiness of Sunday services, where the women's constant "Kaffee-Klatches" consist mainly of gossip about whichever neighbors aren't present that day.

Teresa just posted about deceptive back cover blurbs, and whoever wrote this one for Virago is equally guilty:
This enchanting story tells of the love affair between Rose-Marie Schmidt and Roger Anstruther.  A determined young woman of twenty-five, Rose-Marie is considered a spinster by the inhabitants of the small German town of Jena where she lives with her father, the Professor.  To their home comes Roger, an impoverished but well-born young Englishman who wishes to learn German: Rose-Marie and Roger fall in love.  But the course of true love does not run smooth: distance, temperament and fortune divide them. We watch the ebb and flow of love between two very different people and see the witty and wonderful Rose-Marie get exactly what she wants.
Reading this, one would never know that the story starts after Roger has left Jena.  It's not as if we get to see them fall in love, we only learn about that in retrospect, from Rose-Marie's letters.  And that last sentence is completely misleading.  I find the ending rather bleak, and very ambiguous (like others of von Arnim's stories).  There is a hint that she may follow in her creator's footsteps, and become a writer.  I wonder if Elizabeth von Arnim ever thought about the later lives of her characters.  Jane Austen used to tell her family little snippets, like Kitty Bennet marrying a clergyman with a living near Pemberley.  I wish more authors did that.