Wednesday, July 20, 2016

New books, and a book lost

If all goes well, I will be moving in a month or so. I should be thinking about all the books that I have to put into boxes between now and then. I should be weeding out books that I don't need to take with me (to the built-in bookcases). I should not be adding more books to those stacks. Like Louis in "Casablanca," I am sure that you will all be shocked, shocked!  to hear that somehow I keep finding books that I just have to have.


The book on the left is The Sherwood Ring, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. I learned about from a post by Constance Martin on Staircase Wit, "10 Books for the Hamilton-Obsessed." Her description immediately sold me on the book:
"This is a jewel of a YA historical fantasy from an author wrote only two books (both outstanding). When orphaned teenaged Peggy goes to live with her cantankerous uncle in upstate New York, her loneliness results in encounters with characters from the Revolutionary War. The contrast between the 20th century and the British-occupied countryside is entertaining and British officer Peaceable Sherwood is as charming a character as you will find in a story that combines history, romance, and humor."
I've been in the mood for a time-travel or time-slip novel, and I think this one will be just right.

The book on the right arrived today, in a wrapping so elegant that I thought immediately of Persephone Books. This one comes thanks to Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. I initially resisted both her review and the book's beautiful cover, but I knew it was only a matter of time. I'm glad I was able to find a copy whose cover is still in pretty good shape, and I am so looking forward to the story within. March Cost is a completely new author to me - with more titles to explore.

(Thanks to Jane and Audrey, I may also have ordered a copy of Margery Sharp's Martha in Paris today - another beautiful cover. I still have The Eye of Love to read first.)

Sadly, another book has been lost in transit.  When Jennifer of Holds Upon Happiness wrote about reading My Family and Other Animals for the first time, she asked about sequels. I couldn't remember the name of the second book, so rather than walking all the way out to the living room, I did a quick Google search. My reward for sloth was the discovery that there is a third book set in Corfu, The Garden of the Gods.  Of course I had to look for a copy - and there aren't a lot out there. I did find one for a reasonable price, but it never arrived, and today Amazon gave up hope and credited me for it. (I once lost an Amazon book package left on my doorstep; I have a theory that they are sometimes appropriated by people assuming they must contain electronics.)  While I was waiting, I picked up My Family and Other Animals, for the first time in at least fifteen years. What a joy it was to rediscover this book. I had only the vaguest memories of it. Now I'm looking forward to sitting down with Birds, Beasts and Relatives - of which I remember even less (if possible).

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

I am reading: Bound for Canaan, by Fergus M. Bordewich


The subtitle of my copy (borrowed from the library) is "The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America." The image above, with a more forceful text, is from the paperback edition. It feels like a perfect time to be reading this book, under either title, given the events of the past two weeks (and the many past actions and tragedies they evoke). 
     At the start of the twenty-first century, Americans are in the midst of a contentious, often painful, national debate about slavery and its role in American history. At a time when earlier remedies for inequality have been discarded as politically and practically unacceptable, as the historian of American slavery Ira Berlin has put it, "slavery has become a language, a way to talk about race, in a society in which it seems that blacks and whites hardly talk to each other at all." Modern-day racism's roots lie in the slavery era, and any attempt to seriously address race today must also take into account not only the slavery of the past, but also the commitment and sacrifices of other Americans, both black and white, to bring slavery to an end. A better understanding of the Underground Railroad, and of men and women like George DeBaptiste [a black "conductor" in Indiana], deserves to be part of that conversation. . .
    The story of the Underground Railroad is an epic of high drama, moral courage, religious inspiration, and unexpected personal transformations played out by a cast of extraordinary personalities who often seem at the same time both startlingly modern and peculiarly archaic, combining then-radical ideas about race and political action with traditional notions of personal honor and sacred duty. . .
    The Underground Railroad's impact on the antebellum United States was profound. Apart from sporadic slave rebellions, only the Underground Railroad physically resisted the repressive laws that held slaves in bondage. The nation's first great movement of civil disobedience since the American Revolution, it engaged thousands of citizens in the active subversion of federal law and the prevailing mores of their communities, and for the first time asserted the principle of personal, active responsibility for others' human rights. By provoking fear and anger in the South, and prompting the enactment of draconian legislation that eroded the rights of white Americans, the Underground Railroad was a direct contributing cause of the Civil War. It also gave many African Americans their first experience in politics and organizational management. And in an era when proslavery ideologues stridently asserted that blacks were better off in slavery because they lacked the basic intelligence, and even the biological ability, to take care of themselves, the Underground Railroad offered repeated proof of their courage and initiative.
     The Underground Railroad, and the broader abolition movement of which it was a part, were also a seedbed of American feminism. . . In the underground, women were for the first time participants in a political movement on an equal plane with men, sheltering and clothing fugitive slaves, serving as guides, risking reprisals against their families, and publicly insisting that their voices be heard. ("Introduction") 
The cover of this book immediately caught my attention when I came across it in the library, with its pictures of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I didn't recognize all the people shown, and now I've met some of them, extraordinary characters - heroes - like Rev. Josiah Henson, a runaway slave who made it safely to Canada, where he established a colony in Ontario for his fellow fugitives. And Isaac Hopper, who began a long and distinguished career as an abolitionist and central figure on the railroad at age 16, when he helped a fugitive slave in Philadelphia find a safe home and work.

I've already ordered a copy for my shelves, since the library will want theirs back on Saturday.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A positively wolfish appetite for books

     The Small Person used to look at them sometimes with hopeless, hungry eyes. It seemed so horribly wicked that there should be shelves of books - shelves full of them - which offered nothing to a starving creature. She was a starving creature in those days, with a positively wolfish appetite for books, though no one knew about it or understood the anguish of its gnawings. It must be plainly stated that her longings were not for "improving" books. The cultivation she gained in those days was gained quite unconsciously, through the workings of a sort of rabies with which she had been infected from birth. At three years old she had begun a life-long chase after the Story. She may have begun it earlier, but my clear recollections seem to date from Herod, the King, to whom her third year introduced her through the medium of the speckled Testament....
     Religious aunts possibly gave it horrible little books containing memoirs of dreadful children who died early of complicated diseases, whose lingering developments they enlivened by giving unlimited moral advice and instruction to their parents and immediate relatives, seeming, figuratively speaking, to implore them to "go and do likewise," and perishing to appropriate texts. The Small Person suffered keen private pangs of conscience, and thought she was a wicked child, because she did not like those books and had a vague feeling of disbelief in the children. It seemed probable that she might be sent to perdition and devoured by fire and brimstone because of this irreligious indifference, but she could not overcome it...
     Little girls did not revel in sumptuous libraries then. Books were birthday or Christmas presents, and were read and re-read, and lent to other little girls as a great favor.
    The Small Person's chase after the Story was thought to assume the proportions of a crime...
     "That child has a book again!" she used to hear annoyed voices exclaim, when being sent up or down stairs, on some errand, she found something to read on the way, and fell through the tempter. It was so positively unavoidable and inevitable that one should forget, and sink down on the stairs somewhere to tear the contents out of the heart of a few pages. . .   
There is something enchanting about meeting a fellow reader across the years. This is from Frances Hodgson Burnett's The One I Knew Best of All, a memoir of her childhood in the 1850s (it was published in 1893). This particular chapter has a happy ending, with the Small Person discovering, in "a large old-fashioned mahogany bookcase" called the Secrétaire, shelves and shelves of stories inside the "substantially bound and serious-looking books" that fill it.
Her cheeks grew hotter and hotter, she read fast and furiously. She forgot that she was perched on the ledge, and that her legs dangled, and that she might fall. She was perched in Paradise - she had no legs - she could not fall. No one could fall from a Secrétaire filled with books, which might all of them contain Stories!
I had been reading William Still's The Underground Railroad, his record of the fugitive slaves that passed through Philadelphia on their way to freedom in Canada. He began the work to document these individuals, which might help them find their families again later. His is an invaluable record, but it isn't concerned as much with how the fugitives escaped and made their way north, or how the Railroad operated. That's the part of the story that I want to read, so I think I'll set it aside for now in favor of a more general history of the Railroad.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Not a lot of reading, but books still beget books

I haven't managed much reading in the last couple of weeks - at least of books. Instead, I have been reading though paperwork. After many years of apartment living, I finally decided it was time to buy a house. I was lucky enough to find one that I liked - and not just because of its built-in bookcases. Things have moved more quickly that I thought possible. It doesn't seem quite real, despite the thick stacks of contracts and loan documents and association covenants that I am carting around. Yesterday I received a 58-page inspection report, which made me realize how much I have to learn about the care and upkeep of a house.

People keep asking if I am excited, and I'm not, yet - I'm anxious and unsettled. And I haven't even started packing, though a friend has collected boxes for me. Normally, I would turn to some comforting books for distraction, like the Little House stories. (At least I don't have to pack everything into a covered wagon to move to a sod shanty.) Or Georgette Heyer, where servants efficiently move families between London and their country estates. Instead, I inched my way, a few distracted pages at a time, through a biography of Harriet Tubman and the autobiography of Elizabeth Keckley.

Reading about Harriet Tubman made me want to learn more about the Underground Railroad. Catherine Clinton, author of the biography, wrote about other prominent "conductors" and "abductors," including Tubman's "great comrade and benefactor" William Still. The child of a fugitive slave mother, Still became the central agent of the UGRR in Philadelphia,
the primary mover and shaker, spending much of his career risking jail and sheltering fugitives. He also kept a remarkable record of the stories of those who passed through his station from 1852 onward. His notes were hidden away in a cemetery until after the Civil War. Finally, in 1872, the publication of Still's manuscript provided the most detailed record of the inner workings of the Underground Railroad. This volume offers a black eyewitness to these extensive operations and amazing tales.
After reading that, I put in a request for his book, via interlibrary loan. It's a big fat volume, almost 800 pages. William Still originally began documenting his "passengers" to help families torn apart, by sale or other forced separations, to find each other again. The first account is of his own brother Peter, whom their mother had to leave behind in slavery when she made her escape. Neither brother knew who the other was, when they first met forty years later. William afterward helped Peter buy the freedom of his own wife and children, left behind in turn.

Because their work violated the national fugitive slave laws, most of the workers on the UGRR were careful not to leave any incriminating evidence around. Many of the fugitives they helped couldn't read or write. So very few records of this work survive, and that makes William Still's book unique. The stories are amazing, and heart-breaking, and enraging, in turn.

It can't be coincidence that I had already found this in the new books bin at the library:


I'm sure eventually I'll need to take a break from history, for something lighter, but for now I am happily riding the rails.

Friday, June 24, 2016

New books: Behind the Scenes, by Elizabeth Keckley

In addition to writing about books that I'm reading (books in progress), I thought I might also write sometimes about new books (new to me anyway) as they arrive.

When I was at the Barnes & Noble site the other day, ordering a copy of Catherine Clinton's Harriet Tubman, another book that popped up on the screen caught my eye.


I knew Elizabeth Keckley's name from reading about Abraham and Mary Lincoln. She was an African American dressmaker who became Mary Lincoln's friend and emotional support during her troubled years in the White House and after. According to some historians, Keckley played a part in educating Lincoln on the realities of race and slavery, helping move him toward emancipation. I had no idea though that Keckley wrote an autobiography. The subtitle of her book, "Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House," intrigued me so much that I immediately added it to my order.

The blurb on the back of this neat Penguin edition intrigues me even more:
The remarkable - and, in its time, fiercely controversial - memoir of the former slave who became an intimate witness to the Lincoln presidency.

Born a slave in Virginia, Elizabeth Keckley bought her freedom at the age of thirty-seven and set up a dressmaking business in Washington, D.C. One of her clients was Mary Todd Lincoln, whose husband had recently been inaugurated President of the United Sates. In time they became close friends. Their intimacy informs this extraordinary book, which is at once a slave narrative, a candid private view of the Lincoln White House during a violent turning point in American history, and the story of a friendship that continued after Lincoln's assassination. Condemned at its publication as an "indecent book" authored by a "traitorous eavesdropper," Behind the Scenes remains a poignant, revelatory work that belong on any shelf of Civil War or African American literature.
This book ticks so many boxes for me: a slave narrative by a woman, who emancipated herself, and then made her way to the center of political Washington, and into the heart of the Lincoln family, during the Civil War. Plus dressmaking! And apparently it was the publication of letters from Mary Todd Lincoln that made the book so "indecent" and "traitorous." (It's a safe assumption that a good part of the outrage over the book was because its author, the friend and confidant of Mary Lincoln, was African American.)

This is next on my reading list, despite the tall stack of library books due tomorrow - hopefully I can renew most of them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

I am reading: Harriet Tubman, by Catherine Clinton

I find myself stymied lately when it comes to writing about books I have read. So I thought I would borrow an idea (from Audrey and JoAnn among others), to write about books that I am reading, as I am reading them, as something strikes me. Today that is Harriet Tubman, The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton.


When the announcement came that Harriet Tubman will be featured on the re-designed $20 bill, I realized how little I remembered about her. I was surprised to that a suggested design showed her posed with a gun:


I didn't associate her with active rebellion, but then I knew or remembered so little. In the discussion of the new bill, Catherine Clinton's biography was mentioned several times, so I added it to my reading list. I was happy to find a copy in the library, and I think I will be adding this to my own shelves.

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland around 1820, in the same section of the state as Frederick Douglass. Like him, she escaped to the north and freedom. But then she returned to the south, over and over again, to bring her family to freedom, and then scores of others, friends and strangers. She made at least one raid a year, working the rest of the time in domestic service and farm work to fund her missions. She was never captured, and she brought her people safely to freedom every single time.
     This is what makes Harriet Tubman's accomplishments so remarkable, as she was certainly the lone woman to achieve such a prominent role within the [Underground Railroad]. Also she was one of only a handful of blacks publicly associated with these extensive clandestine operations to shepherd slaves to freedom. Again, she was the lone fugitive to gain such widespread fame. Her unique vantage point - being black, fugitive, and female, yet willing to risk the role of UGRR abductor - is what allowed her to become such a powerful voice against slavery during the years leading up to the Civil War.
    When she spoke out against slavery, she was not attacking it in the abstract but had personally known its evils. She risked the horror of re-enslavement with every trip, repeatedly defying the slave power with her rescues and abductions. These risks elevated the significance of her contributions to the UGRR movement.

Catherine Clinton explains that the term "abductor" was used for "the very few who ventured into the South to extract slaves . . . to distinguish them from the vast majority of the conductors, who guided fugitives on very limited segments of their journey."

And the gun? "Tubman even carried a pistol and was prepared to use it, which earned her a reputation for toughness. . . Her fearlessness was legendary."

Now back to the book. Harriet Tubman has just been raising funds to support John Brown's ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry. And I'm sure she didn't sit on the sidelines during the Civil War either.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Three volumes of Emily Eden's letters

Miss Eden's Letters, Violet Dickinson, editor  (1919)
Letters from India, Vols. 1-2, Emily Eden (Eleanor Eden, editor)  (1872)

Reading Emily Eden's Up the Country made me curious about her other books. I had already read her novels, The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House, which always make me wish she had written more fiction. I found that an edition of her letters was published in 1919. Copies are rare, even in libraries, so I downloaded an e-version from Google Books (and read about half the letters). I was very pleased when ABE Books finally found me a copy two years later. It was withdrawn at some point from the Manchester Public Libraries - at least I hope it was, and not stolen. The "NOT TO BE TAKEN FROM THIS ROOM" notice pasted on the front cover, with its threat of prosecution, still makes me a bit nervous.

The letters in this book date from 1814 to 1863 (Emily Eden died in 1869). They consist primarily of letters from Emily to family and friends. Born in 1797, she was one of twelve children. Her father George Eden was a diplomat, raised to a barony for his service in various embassies in Europe. His second son George, who became his heir, went into Parliament as a Whig and then into government service. Their family moved in the highest social and political circles, and Emily's sisters married into prominent families. She and another sister Fanny never married, living with George and acting as his political hostesses. When their old friend Lord Melbourne appointed George Governor-General of India in 1835, Fanny and Emily went with him. He was recalled after the disastrous First Afghan War, settling again in England with them.

The first half of Miss Eden's Letters covers her life before India. The early letters remind me very much of Jane Austen's, full of family jokes and gossip. There are constant references to the birth of nieces and nephews, and to their marriages (Emily's oldest sister was twenty years older, so there was an overlap of generations in the family). Like Austen, Emily paid frequent visits to friends and family, but she moved in much higher circles. She stayed at Chatsworth and Hatfield House, and made long visits to Lord and Lady Landsdowne at Bowood. The first letter in the collection mentions that family friend Anne Milbanke has written to announce her marriage to Lord Byron. There are also frequent references to politics, in which Emily took a keen interest. I was a little out of my depth there, despite the footnotes.

The letters in this section include several from two of Emily's closest friends. Pamela FitzGerald was the daughter of Lord Edward FitzGerald, a leader of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. After his death in prison, his estate and his children were put under attainder. It isn't clear from the letters how Pamela and Emily met, but they developed a lasting friendship, sustained by long letters in between rare visits. I wonder if Emily was as surprised as I was when Pamela announced her marriage to Sir Guy Campbell, a widower with children whom she married shortly after meeting him in Scotland. He had to go back into the army to support their constantly-growing family, and they ended up stationed in Ireland. I felt her letters highlighted the limited opportunities for women of their class (even those not under attainder), and I wondered if Emily ever felt that she herself had chosen the better part (like one of her own sisters, Pamela bore eleven children). Another close friend and correspondent, Theresa Lewis, offered a different option. A wife and mother, she also wrote novels with her husband Thomas. It was Theresa who would later edit Emily's novels for publication.

Almost exactly half-way through this book comes the announcement of Lord Auckland's appointment to India. I had already realized that there are another two volumes of Emily's letters, covering her years in India. I decided to read those, before returning with her to England. The India volumes were published after her death. Her niece Eleanor Eden wrote in a preface that Emily had begun collecting the letters, after the success of Up the Country, but died before the project could be completed. The first letters in the first volume of Letters from India describe the preparations for the trip, and the six months' voyage. I enjoyed reading those, with their account of the passage via Rio and Cape Town. I am always in awe of people traveling such immense distances in small wooden sailing ships. It was a miserable trip, partly because Emily was a poor sailor, and partly because she didn't want to be there in the first place. She hated leaving England and her extended family, she did not want to spend five years in India, but she also couldn't bear to be parted from her brother. She disliked India from the start, particularly the heat and humidity of Calcutta (Kolkata). With Fanny, she acted as the "Governor's lady," hosting receptions and balls and theater performances, and joining Lord Auckland on formal occasions. But she lived for letters, and for books. She noted that pirated American editions were easy to find in the shops. ("The Americans are valuable creatures at this distance. They send us novels, ice, and apples - three things that, as you may guess, are not indigenous to the soil." Letter, April 24, 1836)

I found the first volume of these India letters interesting, with the journey out and the first accounts of their lives in Calcutta. Emily could find the fun in almost anything, I think, and she wrote comically about their European neighbors and the various social activities. She also liked to tease her brother, and to share jokes. There are more troubling elements, such as her attitude toward the Indian people. She frequently used the term "savages" in discussing them, though she also protested against their abuse by Europeans. She saw nothing to admire in their history or art, and she had no respect for Hinduism (Islam on the other hand was simply an incomplete religion). I know these attitudes were common. I just found them a bit wearing in letter after letter. I also would have appreciated some context on the political situation in India, which was presumably fresh in the minds of readers in the 1870s. I had to keep checking for more information, to understand how Lord Auckland got England involved in war with Afghanistan and what went wrong. At the same time, he was sending British troops to the First Opium War with China. Emily wrote about these events, of course fully supporting her brother's administration. There is no hint in her letters that he was actually recalled to England, under a cloud, because of the debacle of the Afghan war.

I finished the second volume of India letters with some relief, prepared to return to England with Emily. I was taken aback to find that Miss Eden's Letters continued with yet more Indian letters. I was also surprised to find myself enjoying those letters more. I think it's partly that they were written to people that I knew from the earlier correspondence. Though they included many of the same complaints, they felt more alive, and Emily's sense of fun came through more clearly. These India letters take up most of the second half of the book. The letters that date from her return to England deal mainly with her declining health, though she continued to follow politics carefully. Her brother George's death in 1849 was a terrible blow, as were the deaths of her sisters in the 1850s. It was in those years that she was writing The Semi-Detached House, and revising The Semi-Attached Couple. Like Jane Austen, she carefully collected reviews, both private and published. The letters don't mention the publication of Up the Country, however, which also did very well.

All of these books are available in e-versions, through Google Books. The two volumes of India letters have been reprinted in modern editions, and they are available in print-on-demand editions. I think Miss Eden's Letters is the best. Anyone interested in women's lives in the early 19th century, or in Emily Eden, will find much to enjoy. She really is good company, and I think this is a book I will return to. The India letters are interesting to a point, but I struggled to finish them. I would only recommend them to someone who wanted to delve deeply into the British women's experience in India in the 1830s.

Reading these letters did remind me how long it has been since I read The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House. I think I'll be taking my combined Virago edition off the shelf again before too long. It is clear particularly from The Semi-Attached Couple how much Jane Austen influenced Emily Eden's novels. There are frequent mentions of Austen's characters in her letters, which show how familiar she was with the books. She also enjoyed Charles Dickens' books, but I was tickled to find in the later letters that she had lost her taste for Charlotte M. Yonge's books.
I have been fairly beat by Miss Yonge's new book, The Daisy Chain, which distresses me, as I generally delight in her stories; but if she means this Daisy Chain to be amusing, it is is, unhappily, intensely tedious, and if she meant it to be good, it strikes me that one of Eugène Sue's novels would do less harm to the cause of religion . . . [I think] Ethel, the heroine, the most disagreeable, stormy, conceited girl I ever met with. . . I read on till I came to a point where she thought her father was going to shake her because she was ill-natured about her sister's marriage; and finding that he did not perform that operation, which he ought to have done every day of her life, I gave it up. (Letter, March 1856)

N.B. I have already filled the 1872 slot in my Mid-Century of Books, but I can still fill 1919 with Miss Eden's Letters.