Thursday, December 18, 2014

Discovering secrets in the silence

The Grace of Silence, Michele Norris

When I saw Aarti's review of this over on Book Lust, I immediately added it to my library queue.  Michele Norris is a journalist, for many years the host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" show, to which I very occasionally listen while stuck in traffic. (I don't usually have the radio on while driving - I find silence more calming in Houston traffic.)  Her memoir, published in 2010, grew out of a project for NPR. As she explains in the Introduction,
I began this project in 2009 because I became convinced that an unprecedented, hidden, and robust conversation about race was taking place across the country in the wake of Barack Obama's historic presidential campaign and his ascension to office. Americans seemed to be spending more time talking about race, but even so I had the feeling that something was always left unsaid. Filters would automatically engage, preventing us from saying things that might cause us embarrassment or get us into trouble or, even worse, reveal us for who we really are.  We weren't so much talking about race as talking around it.
Reading this four years later, in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, I want to believe that there is a "robust conversation about race" going on right now.  But the comments I read on news and opinion pieces make me think there are too many people trying to drown out this desperately-needed talk, saying there is no problem, stop talking about these things and they will go away.  Which, not coincidentally, is what a lot of northerners thought about slavery before the Civil War.  All they wanted was for the abolitionists to shut up and go away. "Not our problem," they said.  We know how that worked out.

Michele Norris learned in the course of her project that "The discussion about race within my own family was not completely honest."
I was shaped by the advice and admonitions that rained down on me.  I've always known that.  What I did not know until I began this project is that I was also shaped by the weight of my parents' silence. I originally wanted to write about how "other people" talked about race, but that presumption was swiftly disabused when I learned about secrets in my own family that had purposely been kept from me.
The first, and more devastating for her, is that "as a young man, my father had been shot by a white policeman" (in one of his legs). She learned of this more than twenty years after her father's death, when her uncle mentioned it casually in conversation.  It happened in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, just after her father, Belvin Norris, was discharged from the Navy in 1946.  Her uncle, her father's youngest brother, is an elderly man, and unclear on all the details.  Her mother had heard this only second-hand, in passing.  Ms. Norris began to investigate the circumstances, traveling to Birmingham to pore over arrest reports, trying to piece the story together.  In the process, she learned more about her father's service in the segregated Navy, where African Americans were relegated to menial jobs as cooks and stewards.  And she learned for the first time of the wave of violent attacks on African American veterans returning home.  I don't remember ever learning about this myself, and the violence of the attacks horrified me. I knew that President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, but I did not know that he was particularly moved to action by the brutal beating of Issac Woodward in February of 1946.  The day after he was discharged from the Army, and still in uniform, Woodward got into an altercation with the driver of the Greyhound bus he was riding home to his family.  When the bus stopped in a small South Carolina town, two policemen dragged him off and beat him so badly that he was left blind.  The attack on Ms. Norris's father may have been part of this larger attempt to intimidate and control African American veterans, protesting Jim Crow discrimination in the United States after fighting for freedom abroad.

The second secret Ms. Norris learned, from another uncle, was about her maternal grandmother, Ione Hopson Brown:
Grandma Ione had worked for Quaker Oats as a traveling Aunt Jemima. For years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she dressed up in a hoop skirt and apron, with a bandanna on her head, and traveled to small midwestern towns touting Aunt Jemima pancake mix to farmwives.
Her daughter Betty Brown Norris did not want to talk about her mother's work with her own daughter. "She hated the story as much as she hated my badgering her for details."  Talking about it helped her work through "the shame she felt about Grandma Ione's work . . ."  Michele Norris feels no shame, but she couldn't picture her stylish, polished grandmother in that role.  Betty Norris also told her daughter,  "If you write about this, you better get it right and make sure people know not just what that symbol means right now but what it used to mean when they first rolled out all that mammy mess."  Ms. Norris does just that, exploring the development of the "Aunt Jemima" character and the various ad campaigns over the years, as well as the role of the "Mammy" figure in American culture, in both the black and white experience.  I have read something of this, the quandary Quaker Oats faces with a best-selling brand based on a racist portrayal of a woman slave.  Presumably the makers of Mrs. Butterworth face the same issue, though the brand is I think less iconic.  A quick Google search shows that her bottle-shaped figure has evolved like the image of Aunt Jemima has.

Framing her investigation of these two secrets, Ms. Norris recounts her experiences growing up in Minneapolis.  She spent summers in Alabama with her father's family, where she experienced Jim Crow segregation first-hand.  But she and her family also faced racism in Minnesota and in other parts of the United States.  When her parents bought a house on an all-white block, panicked neighbors rushed to sell.  Others, further down the block, stayed put, and slowly the neighborhood became integrated.  Her parents held Ms. Norris and her older sisters to very high standards, as representing the African American community.  They were told,
"Keep your eye on the prize." Stay strong. Keep committed. Focus on the fight for justice and equality . . . Don't let up. Don't look back. Don't slow down. Ignore the slights and the slurs - and the laws - that try to keep you from achieving your goals.
In the end, she suggests, that's what lay behind her grandparents' and parents' silence: "So as not to allow us to be hindered by acrimony and rancor in our struggle to rise above 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and achieve self-fulfillment no matter what."  Ms. Norris has a different take:
Our continuing national conversation on race will no doubt proceed by fits and starts and occasional spats and squabbles.  But all of us should be willing to remain at the table even when things get uncomfortable.  We need to be fearless while unburdening ourselves, even as we respect the same effort in others. There is often grace in silence. But there is always power in understanding.
I agree. But it has to be a conversation.  What I hear and read from a lot of white Americans right now is monologue, or else the equivalent of a child sticking fingers in her ears and closing her eyes.  (I am going to stop reading the comments sections, I really am, before I lose all hope.)  I'm also going to suggest this book to all three of my book groups, and see what kind of conversation develops.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Filming the Scottish play in Flanders

A Citizen of the Country, Sarah Smith

This is the third in Sarah Smith's trilogy of historical novels.  They aren't mysteries, at least of the "who done it" variety, but more novels of suspense.  The main character is Alexander von Reisden, whom I identified as a German baron in my post on the second book (The Knowledge of Water).  Mea culpa, he is Austrian - not that it makes a lot of difference, in Paris in 1911.

Like the previous books, this is a complex story, and it is definitely not the place to start with the series.  At the center of the story is a film production of a French version of Macbeth, here called Citizen Mabet.  Set during the French revolution, it culminates in the death by guillotine of Mabet and his wife.  The production, filming in Arras, stars a hero of the Franco-Prussian War, Maurice Cyron.  Retired from the army, he now stages patriotic theatrical spectacles in Paris, where every night with an evangelist's fervor he reminds his audiences of the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, ceded to Germany after France's humiliating defeat in that war.  The film's director is his adopted son André, the Comte de Montfort, whose crumbling chalk castle in Arras is the production's headquarters.  André also runs a theater in Paris, of a very different kind: the Necro, where Grand Guignol stories of bloody murder and madness play out nightly.  In an afterword, Ms. Smith acknowledged that he shares more than a name with Count André de Lorde, a co-founder of the Grand Guignol.   I wouldn't want to attend one of those performances, but I found the film production fascinating.  The author has clearly done her research in early motion pictures.

There are other stories woven around the film, in Paris and in Arras, which often interrupt the production.  Count André, recently married to Sabine, a local heiress, thinks his wife is poisoning him.  He is rather obsessed with poisoning, and gradually we learn why.  He has cast Sabine as one of the Three Witches, without realizing that she is a prominent member of the local coven.  Another member of the coven is found dead in her home, poisoned, and more deaths follow.  Meanwhile Reisden, whose company Jouvet Medical Analyses is financially stretched to the limits, is in the running for a lucrative contract to provide psychological testing on the French army's new conscripts.  Cyron is deeply suspicious of this Austrian, doubts he shares with his old allies in the army, but he enlists Reisden for a part in the film, and to keep an eye on André.  There are other, more personal elements to Reisden's story here, building on the previous two books - and that's all I will say, to avoid spoilers.

All of this takes place during the Agadir Crisis of 1911, which for a while looked like it might bring war between France and Germany.  (It was also my introduction to the Agadir Crisis.)  That, and the setting in French Flanders, with Vimy ridge looming in the distance, of course invoke the war that would follow just three years later.  Everyone in the story expects a war, and a German invasion.  The shadow of death seems to hang over the young soldiers recruited as extras, playing the troops in Mabet's army.

I have never given up hope that Sarah Smith will write another book in this series, perhaps set in Paris during the war.  In the meantime, I learned that she has written a young-adult novel, The Other Side of Dark, which I got from the library yesterday.  There is also her very different book Chasing Shakespeares, which I read when it came out in 2003.  It was the first thing I'd ever read that dealt seriously with the debates over his authorship of the plays; I remember I found the arguments compelling at the time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A classic account of Galveston in the 1900 Storm

A Weekend in September, John Edward Weems

When a co-worker recently asked me to start a book club at work, I told her that I didn't think there would be much interest.  To my surprise, twelve people signed up, and we have our first discussion on Thursday.  I said at the initial meeting that I don't want to be the only one suggesting or choosing books, since my reading tastes are pretty eclectic.  As a case in point, I was then reading Nayantara Sahgal's memoir Prison and Chocolate Cake, and despite my enthusiastic recap, no one seemed interested in that one.  (Just as well, since it's out of print.)  After some discussion, someone mentioned this book, a classic of Texas history, and the group quickly agreed.  I've heard enough comments over the past couple of weeks to know that people are reading it, so I am hoping for good discussion.

A Weekend in September is an account of the great 1900 Storm.  The hurricane that hit Galveston on September 8th is still considered the worst natural disaster in United States history.  It left at least 6,000 dead on Galveston Island alone, and the city, then the fourth largest in the state, in ruins.  When I moved to Houston twenty-two years ago, I knew about hurricanes, but I thought they only happened in the tropics.  I had no idea Texas was ever at risk.  This book shattered that comfortable illusion, and I began keeping an eye on the Gulf of Mexico, fifty miles away, and paying close attention to the weather reports in the warm months.  We were spared for many years, until Hurricane Ike hit in September of 2008 - one of the longest nights of my life.

To tell the story of the 1900 Storm, John Edward Weems wove together the experiences of people in different parts of the city.  He drew on interviews with survivors as well as published sources.  When he was researching this book in the mid-1950s, there were still many survivors around, some of whom had been children at the time. (Even in the early 1990s, obituaries in the paper occasionally mentioned that the deceased had survived the 1900 Storm.)  The hurricane hit the city on a Saturday.  Taking his account chronologically through the weekend, Mr. Weems switched back and forth between several central characters, such as the police chief, as well as introducing others at particular points.  This approach reminds me of another classic disaster narrative, Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, which made me a Titanic buff in my teens.  As in his book, there is a large cast of characters here, and it can be a bit confusing trying to keep everyone straight.  It is also predominately a white cast, reflecting in part the times in which it was written.  Mr. Weems presumably could have found African Americans or Hispanics in Galveston who survived the storm.  However, both in 1900 and in 1957 they were much less likely to be represented in the historical documentation than today.

Despite occasional moments of lightness, such as a horse that took refuge in a family's second-story bedroom and refused to budge, this is a sombre story, of death and destruction. There are also instances of great courage and concern for others, and of tenderness as families faced the end.  The focus on individual experiences always draws me right in, while it breaks my heart.  Many of the individuals we meet were later lost in the storm; those that survived were often the only members of their families left. When the storm finally passed, the city was buried in slime and wreckage, with bodies lying everywhere.  In the last chapter, Mr. Weems recounted how Galveston began to re-build, an incredible effort that included not just the construction of a protective seawall, but also raising the grade of the entire island by more than five feet.  Though Galveston would be hit by several major storms later in the 20th century, none were as destructive as in 1900.  People continue to live there, and to build, though it will always be vulnerable to storms.  When I first thought about moving to Texas, I wanted to live in Galveston, near the beach.  Now I am content to live those fifty miles inland, though that made little difference in Ike.

I've promised to bring some lighter suggestions for next month's book.  People want something happier to read over Christmas.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Love & music & madness & painting in Paris

The Knowledge of Water, Sarah Smith

This is the middle book of a trilogy of historical novels, more stories of suspense than mysteries, set in the first decades of the 20th century.  The central character is Alexander von Reisden, a German baron who works as a researcher in chemistry.  I learned about these books from Laurie R. King.  At a book signing in Houston, she was asked what books she read, and Sarah Smith was the first author she named.  Fortunately, the signing was at my beloved Murder by the Book, and they had the first of the set, The Vanished Child.  By the next day, I had found copies of the other two, and I devoured them.

In that first book, set in 1906, Reisden encounters an American man on a railway platform in Lausanne, who asks him, "Richard, do you know me?"  When Reisden says no, the other man says, "Then Jay really killed him," and collapses.  Curious despite himself, Reisden begins to ask questions.  He learns that the Richard in question was eight years old when he disappeared in 1887, the same night his grandfather and guardian William Knight was shot at the family's summer home in New Hampshire.  When an academic conference takes him to Boston, Reisden meets members of the Knight family and is drawn into the mystery of Richard's disappearance.

This book opens three years later. Reisden is now living and working in Paris.  A young woman he met in Boston, Perdita Halley, has joined him there, officially to study piano at the Conservatiore, where women students are barely tolerated.  Perdita, who is legally blind, hopes to make a career as a professional musician, but her relationship with Reisden is a constant distraction.  He has his own distractions, including the recent acquisition of a business, a medical facility that treats mental illnesses, the Analyses Medicales Jouvet.  Its main attraction for Reisden is its archives, generations of patient files, "the best multi-generational data on insanity in France."  His position as director of Jouvet may explain why he receives a letter one day, asking him to ensure the proper burial of a street performer and sometime prostitute, known as the Mona Lisa, who was recently stabbed to death by an unknown assailant.

The Mona Lisa, both the victim and Leonardo's masterpiece in the Louvre, is one theme running through this rich and complicated story.  There is also the upcoming Winter Salon, which will include a retrospective on the Impressionist painter Claude Mallais, who died three years ago.  His widow has been selling off a few of his remaining works, but suddenly questions have come up about some of these paintings.  Reisden's cousin Dottie, the Viscountess de Gresnière, owns one of those later works, and she wants him to investigate, to prove it genuine. Even more than that, she wants him to stop seeing Perdita and marry someone suitable, not an American woman of no family ten years his junior, who wants to go on tour.  Perdita herself is torn, trying to understand why women aren't taken seriously as artists, why they can't have both careers and families, not to mention love.  At one point, she asks herself,
What was wrong with the world, that a woman who saw pictures could not paint them?  There were the clothes to fold, the children to take care of; the men who expected the women to fold clothes and take care; the daughters who did not have music, the sons who did; the necessity of everything that women did, and its second-classness; but why could there not be more, for someone, who could there not be more?
In the course of the story, Perdita meets women whose unconventional lives underline her questions.  One is a thinly-veiled portrait of Colette, here called Millie de Xico; the other is I think Gertrude Stein.  Pablo Picasso is also here, under another name, and those more familiar with Belle Époque Paris may recognize other characters.

I won't say anything more about the book, to avoid spoilers, except to mention that the climax takes place during the great Paris floods of January 1910.  It has been a few years since I've re-read these books, in part because I read them so obsessively in the beginning.  In that, and in the relationship between Perdita and Reisden, with its Lymond and Philippa overtones, they remind me of Dorothy Dunnett's books.  I needed to read something for a book club meeting, or else I'd have gone straight on to the third, A Citizen of the Country.  It's up next.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A fascinating collection of letters

The Selected Letters of Somerville and Ross, Gifford Lewis, ed.

I wanted to read these letters while E.O. Somerville's combined memoir and biography Irish Memories was fresh in my mind, and they fit together beautifully.  Somerville's book gave me a basic outline of her life and Martin Ross's, as well as their work together.  She quoted often from Martin's letters, and I recognized them when I came across them here.  I found it interesting and more satisfying to read the letters themselves, rather than excerpts.  And where Somerville was looking backward over their lives, here the letters stand on their own, day to day accounts of experiences as they happened. They have an immediacy and an energy different from a memoir, particularly an elegiac one such as Somerville wrote.

I thought the editing of this selection of letters was very well done.  According to the Introduction, their letters, like Jane Austen's, had already been edited, physically, either by the authors themselves or by family members.  Pages were removed, presumably because they included private or embarrassing information.  For some letters, only fragments survive.  Often those fragments include notes in Somerville's hand, which show how she used them in her book.  That suggests to me that Somerville herself may have done the physical cutting in some cases.  The editor, Gifford Lewis, provides context and commentary for most of the letters, and I found the information very helpful.  I have been unable to find much about the editor, however.  I did learn that she is the author of a biography of Martin Ross (née Violet Martin), as well as two other books about the writing team of Somerville and Ross. I hope to get my hands soon on Two of a Trade: The Selected Writings of Somerville and Ross, probably through interlibrary loan.  I ordered a copy of Somerville and Ross: The World of the Irish R.M. as a Christmas present for myself (the only Christmas shopping I've done so far involves books for me).

The bulk of the letters included here date between 1886, when the cousins first met, and 1895.  Living in different corners of Ireland, they spent little time together in the early years, because they couldn't afford to travel, and because as unmarried daughters they had duties at home.  So they kept in constant contact by letter.  These were the years when they began writing together, first An Irish Cousin (known in their families as "The Shocker," which just tickles me).  In 1894, they published The Real Charlotte, which Gifford Lewis considers "the best Irish novel of the nineteenth century . . ."  In between they wrote articles for newspapers and journals, as well as three travel books.  But like Jane Austen, they had to squeeze their writing in between family duties, and the social obligations that fell on them as members of close-knit communities, all of which were discussed in their letters.  For both Somerville and Ross there was also the constant distraction of fox hunting, the love of which runs through the letters as it does through The Irish R.M. stories.  But despite the distractions they considered themselves professional writers, they honed their skills and critiqued each others' work, and they expected to be paid well for it.

Reading this also reminded me of the Mitford sisters' letters, which I read in the edition edited by Charlotte Mosley.  Like theirs and Jane Austen's too, Somerville and Ross's are filled with family and local gossip, and with shared in-jokes.  Both were descended from Charles Kendal and Anne Bushe, a point of great genealogical pride among all their descendants.  One of the cousins used the term "Buddha-like" to define them, which was adopted and shortened to "Buddh."  As did the Mitfords, the Buddhs developed their own coded language, derived from English and Irish words.  Apparently the first collaboration of Somerville and Ross was in compiling a "Buddh dictionary," which is included in this book.  It's very helpful, since they both used Buddh terms in their letters, and I flipped back to it constantly.  I was especially taken with "Minaudering," defined as "pres. p. of verb used to describe the transparent devices of hussies."  Presumably a hussy would not waste time minaudering a Segashuative, "A man who gives discreet and peaceful good company to women."  I also admire the elegance of "I must decant," used "to explain that one had to leave the scene in order to empty one's bladder" (editor's note).

I did note in reading these letters that most are from Martin to Somerville.  The Introduction explains that more of her letters survived than did Somerville's (139 to 97).  I wondered if writing a book on Violet Martin might also have influenced the editor in her choice of which letters to include. On the other hand, we have Somerville's account of their lives in her book.  Here Martin's letters provide a balance in giving us her point of view, and allowing her voice to be heard.  Together these books give us a fascinating window into Ireland in the late 1800s, through the lives of two women who played their expected roles as Victorian daughters, but by their writing managed to gain a level of independence and autonomy, and became best-selling authors as well.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Signing on for another round of the TBR Dare


I am thankful that James of James Reads Books is hosting another round of his annual TBR dare.  This year, it's the Double Dog Dare!  You may already know the dare: to read only from your TBR shelves from January 1st to April 1st of 2015.  Any books on hold at the library by Dec. 31st of this year are also eligible.  This will be my fourth year of participating, and it's not easy.  But I do feel a sense of accomplishment (and a bit of relief) in crossing books off the TBR list, while trying not to add too many new ones.  This year again I'll donate a dollar for every book (finished or not) to RIF (Reading Is Fundamental), a children's literacy non-profit.  As the (pretty flexible) rules allow, I am claiming exemptions for book club books, and also for the new book by Laurie R. King, a Sherlock Holmes & Mary Russell story to be released in February.  I am also mulling over allowing myself one comfort re-read each month if needed - because I'd still be reading from my own shelves.

I have an idea in the back of my mind that I might carry this on past April.  We'll see - that's easy to say now.  But for the last couple of years, I've had these little notes posted on my computers: "TBR Free in 2015."   They're on my computers because that's where I often learn about new (or new-to-me) books and authors, from blogs and email discussion lists.  And that's also where I all too easily click over to book-buying websites.  Realistically, there is no way I will make that goal now.  And there will be new books that I want to read, and some to add to my shelves.  I don't think I'll ever not have a TBR stack - but it would be nice to have a stack and not shelves of them.  Sometimes I feel like a book hoarder, sometimes I feel guilt over all these unread books, sometimes I'm almost paralyzed by so many choices of what to read next. So I have my eye on 2016 instead.  Maybe.  We'll see how the Dare goes first.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My introduction to Maria Edgeworth

The Absentee, Maria Edgeworth

A copy of Maria Edgeworth's 1801 novel Belinda has been sitting on my TBR stacks for years.  Only recently did I realize that I have had her confused with Frances Burney, who wrote several novels with single-word titles (including Evelina, which I've read).  I still haven't read Belinda, but when I came across this at Half Price Books, I was intrigued by the back-cover summary:
The Absentee centres around Lord and Lady Clonbury, a couple more concerned with London society than their duties and responsibilities to those who live and work on their Irish estates.  Recognizing this negligence, their son Lord Colambre goes incognito to Ireland to observe the situation and trace the origins of his beloved cousin Grace. To put matters straight he finds a solution that will bring prosperity and contentment to every level of society, including his own family.
Published in 1812, this is a fairly short book (256 pages in my Penguin edition), but it packs in a lot of story.  It opens in London, where Lady Clonbury is desperately trying to gain a foothold in Society.  Though she is oblivious, her son recognizes that she is failing, in part because she is trying too hard, with entertainments so ostentatious that people question her taste.  Even more damning in Society's eyes, Lady Clonbury goes to extremes to deny her Irish roots, speaking with an artificial accent that makes her sound more like a Cockney than a member of the Ton.  At the same time her lavish parties, with their expensive London way of life, have driven her husband Lord Clonbury to the moneylenders.  These include an unfortunately stereotypical Mr Mordicai.  According to the introduction, an American woman named Rachel Mordecai wrote politely but firmly to Marie Edgeworth to protest (in the editor's words) her "vicious portrayal of Jews in general and Mordicai the coachmaker in particular."

Lady Clonbury has high hopes that her son will make a match with the heiress Miss Broadhurst, but he has fallen in love with his cousin Grace, whom his mother took in after she was orphaned.  Lady Clonbury disapproves of cousins marrying, "because they form no new connexions to strengthen the family's interest, or raise its consequence."  Her son will not marry against her wishes, but neither will he marry just to please her.  In part to escape those expectations, and in part to find a way out of the family's financial quagmire, he decides to travel over to Ireland.  It will be his first visit since he left as a child, to be educated in England.

In Ireland, Lord Colambre rediscovers his native country, meeting both the best and the worst of Irish society.  Through his experiences the reader is also introduced to Ireland and its people.  The editor notes that Maria Edgeworth is considered a pioneer in the "regional" novel and in the new realistic mode of fiction.  Her books, which she preferred to call "tales" because "novels" were morally suspect, also "portray[ed] the Irish differently than the traditional, comic Irish stage persona."  In Dublin, Lord Colambre meets people of education and culture, whose society is much more congenial than he found in London.  He also meets social-climbers, and a rapacious mother on the hunt for a new son-in-law.  Irish titles count for less than English, but they are still titles, and Colambre is a viscount.

The real heart of Edgeworth's story, though, lies in the countryside, on the Clonbury estates.  There Lord Colambre finds waste and ruin, under agents who are cheating both the tenants and their employer.  The lands at Colambre, under an honest and enlightened agent, are prospering.  In fact, they are a kind of Eden, where the Catholic and Protestant children attend school together, the Catholic priest and Protestant minister work together.  The wicked Clonbury agents are scheming to take over this district and run it like their own.  Lord Clonbury over in England is oblivious to all of this, concerned only that regular payments arrive.  His son comes to see that it is the family's moral duty to return to Ireland and take their place as the landlords.  This will also allow them to live within their means, freeing them from crippling debt and the possible loss of their estates.  In Edgeworth's view, the absence of the hereditary ruling class across Ireland threatens the stability of the entire country.

I knew that Jane Austen was a fan of Maria Edgeworth's books.  She famously wrote to her niece Anna, "I have made up my mind to like no Novels really, but Miss Edgeworth's, Yours & my own."  I was reminded of Austen as I read this book.  Its scope is of course larger, moving from England to Ireland and back again, and including different levels of Irish society.  Unlike Austen, Maria Edgeworth felt comfortable writing scenes between men, with no women present, and with the lower social classes.  She also wrote about a higher level of society than Austen's country families, but with the same sharp eye for pretension and snobbery, as well as the quiet cruelties masked by politeness.  Edgeworth's story felt a little contrived, in part I think because it is a book with a message.  It is probably not fair to judge just by one book, but Edgeworth's characters also felt a little contrived.  I think Austen's speak more naturally, even if their language sounds stilted to our ears today.  Lord Colambre in particular tends to moralize a bit, and occasionally breaks into a minor soliloquy, though that may also be due to this story's origins as a play.

As I mentioned in the previous post, reading E.O. Somerville's Irish Memories finally nudged me to pick this up, and I'm glad it did.  I'm looking forward to reading more of Maria Edgeworth's books.