Monday, May 25, 2015

Tracking a cast of characters

An Unsuitable Attachment, Barbara Pym

I didn't enjoy this late novel of Barbara Pym's as much as the others I have read.  It has two familiar settings, the north London parish of St. Basil, where Mark Ainger is the vicar; and a small specialized library where Ianthe Broome, one of his parishioners, works.  In a switch, at least from the other Pym novels that I have read, it includes a trip to Rome with most of the main characters.  There are seven of these, starting with Mark's wife Sophia.  Really, I think I'd have to include their cat Faustina on the list as well.  She is a source of tension in the vicarage and even with some of the parishioners.

Overall, the story felt a bit diffuse to me, switching constantly between so many different characters and points of view.  The ending seemed even more ambiguous than usual.  I am not sure that the attachment of the title is really that unsuitable.  There is a five-year difference in age, on the woman's side, which doesn't seem like a big gap to me, but may have read differently when this story was originally written.  On the other hand, I felt like I didn't know the male part of the attachment all that well; we just aren't given enough information about him, to judge his suitability.

I saw from a brief forward that this book was published after Barbara Pym's death.  Her literary executor Hazel Holt edited the manuscript for publication.  Ms. Holt wrote that the edits included cuts made according to discussions  Pym had with her about the manuscript over the years.  She made other cuts in sections that "have dated in ways [Pym] would have found unacceptable..."  In looking over the other Pym novels that I still have unread, I discovered that three are also posthumous publications: A Few Green Leaves, Crampton Hodnet, and An Academic Question.  A note at the start of An Academic Question states that Ms. Holt combined two manuscript versions to produce the published work. I find the question of posthumous publication a bit troubling.  How can we be sure what the author would have wanted?  Shouldn't it be clear what is the author's work, and what her editor's?  I don't believe that Jane Austen would have published the versions of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion that her brother Henry did, though I am glad to have them.  I am looking forward with some trepidation to two posthumous novels by favorite authors, Elizabeth Peters and Terry Pratchett.

I found the multitude of characters in this book bewildering enough that I made a cast list.  Then when one, Rupert Stonebird, hosts a dinner party about half-way through, I knew I had met one of his guests before, in an earlier book - I just couldn't remember which one.  I went looking for a list or chart of the characters that appear across different books, but the only resource I found was an academic article that I can't access.  At least from the abstract I was able to identify the guest, Everard Bone, whom I first met in Excellent Women.  So I decided to start my own, non-spoilery version, because I can't resist that kind of literary puzzle, and honestly, trying to remember from book to book will drive me batty.  If the information is easily available elsewhere, please let me know in the comments or in an email (maylisa66@earthlink.net).  Please also feel free to add information on other characters not listed below - without major spoilers if possible.  I will update this list and also post it in the "Pages" section.  It's not a long list so far, because I haven't read all of her books yet.

Everard Bone: character in Excellent Women; appears in An Unsuitable Attachment

Julian Malory: character in Excellent Women; appears in A Glass of Blessings

Winifred Malory: character in Excellent Women; appears in A Glass of Blessings

Mildred Latham: central character in Excellent Women; mentioned in An Unsuitable Attachment; brief appearance in Jane and Prudence

Prudence Bates: central character in Jane and Prudence; mentioned in A Glass of Blessings

Rocky Napier: character in Excellent Women; mentioned in A Glass of Blessings

Wilf Bason: character in A Glass of Blessings; mentioned in An Unsuitable Attachment

Wilmet Forsyth: central character in A Glass of Blessings; cameo (with husband Rodney & friends) in Jane & Prudence

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiography

Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder
   Pamela Smith Hill, editor

This book was everything I hoped it would be, and I enjoyed every page of it (if not every footnote).

I've written before about the books that made the strongest impressions on me as a child.  Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books are the ones stamped most deeply into my literary DNA, before Louisa May Alcott or Nancy Drew or Anne of Green Gables.  As I've said elsewhere, my dad bought me a copy of Little House on the Prairie when I was six.  I still remember the trip to the store, walking back across the parking lot to the car, clutching that bright yellow cover.  It's the first book I can remember anyone buying me.  Of course I had other books, and I had already learned to read from them.  But I have no memory of them.  My reading life began with Laura and Mary and Jack the bulldog.

When I moved away from my home town to go to graduate school, I didn't take the Little House books with me.  But I bought new copies before too long, and they're on the shelves behind me right now.  As an adult, I find the books troubling in ways that I didn't as a child, particularly the treatment of Native Americans and the whole complicated history of westward expansion that underlies the stories.  I don't read Little House on the Prairie very often these days (nor On the Banks of Plum Creek, for different reasons).  But when I do sit down with Little House in the Big Woods, or The Long Winter, I am immediately back in a familiar world with characters that I have known and loved for more than 40 years now.

Even as a child, I was aware of them as characters.  Though I couldn't have put it this way, I knew that these books were fictionalized accounts of the lives of the Ingalls and Wilder families.  It was only recently, when I began reading biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder, that I began to understand where the lines between fiction and autobiography were drawn, and why.  I found Pamela Smith Hill's Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Writer's Life, very informative and interesting.  She drew extensively from Wilder's unpublished autobiography, which piqued my curiosity to read Wilder's own words.

When I finally got my copy of this massive book, I was not prepared for a 45-page introduction, which explains how Laura Ingalls Wilder came to write the manuscript of Pioneer Girl, and how it was then extensively re-written.  The end result was four different versions, all aimed at an adult market.  This book publishes Wilder's own work, her handwritten account, while sometimes noting (in the footnotes) where the other editions revised or changed the story.  Another brief introductory section explains the different versions, and a final section outlines the editorial decisions made in preparing the manuscript for publication.  As someone who works with historical manuscripts, I found this context informative and interesting.  Less obsessive readers might only need to know that this edition consists of Wilder's original version, as written on a series of ruled notepads in 1929-1930.

The explanatory notes in this book are legion, sometimes taking up two pages between the actual text.  They consist mainly of background information, on people, places and things.  Every neighbor mentioned in the text, every animal and bird Pa hunts, every type of prairie grass known to humanity, is identified and explained as accurately as possible.  The sheer level of detail can be overwhelming.  I soon started skimming the animal and vegetable information, as well as the notes on every single song the family ever sang, including author and copyright if known.  I did appreciate though learning that Pa's favorite song was "In the Sweet By and By," which was sung as his funeral.  I always get a lump in my throat listening to that song.

The notes that point out where the later versions diverge from Laura Ingalls Wilder's original also cite letters showing how Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane wrestled with reshaping the material into children's books.  For me, knowing those children's books almost by heart, reading this autobiography was like an x-ray into those familiar stories.  I could see through them to the bones, the historical facts.  I could recognize where Wilder turned the events of her own life into her fictional Laura's.  The explanatory notes helped me see where and what she decided to cut - sometimes with Lane's advice, sometimes against.  What struck me particularly was how Wilder's real-life mother was a much stronger presence in her daughter's life, how Wilder re-shaped the stories to make Pa the greater influence, Laura's ally and refuge.  I remember from my earlier reading that Wilder rushed to her father's bedside in his final illness, yet twenty years later when her mother died, she was not even present for the funeral.  But it was just a year after her mother's death that she wrote to an aunt, asking about "the little everyday happenings and what you and mother and Aunt Eliza and Uncle Tom and Uncle Henry did as children and young folks..."

I would have loved this book for the illustrations alone.  There are maps of each place where the real-life Ingalls family lived, along with pictures both period and modern of the towns and smaller communities.  There are numerous pictures of the family, including aunts, uncles and cousins.  It was interesting to compare two of Laura's parents Caroline and Charles, one from around the time of their marriage in 1860, the other from De Smet days in the 1880s.  I was also impressed at how many pictures of friends and neighbors appear.  The photo researchers for this book really did an excellent job.  And it was interesting to see the original illustrations by Helen Sewell in the 1930s editions, next to the familiar Garth Williams ones that I grew up with.  The Williams illustrations are so much more realistic and life-like, and having seen pictures of the real-life Ingalls clan, I can recognize some of them in his work (like the wild Uncle George of the Big Woods).  The extensive bibliography is impressive as well, and I've already requested a couple of the books cited from the library.

I had mentioned elsewhere one of the surprises in this book: that the Ingalls family had to skip out of town one night, owing back rent (which Charles Ingalls insisted he had already paid).  This took place in Burr Oak, Iowa, a chapter in the family's life that was completely omitted from the Little House books.  My other shocking revelation was that the real-life Laura hoped to dump Almanzo for Cap Garland, even after he brought her home from her remote school on the bitterly cold drive that could have killed them both.  By the time that Cap got around to asking her out for a sleigh ride, though, she had already changed her mind in "Manley's" favor.  And I did have to laugh at one anecdote, which for me brought Caroline Ingalls to greater life than in all her daughter's novels:
We played up stairs in the big loft while Aunt Martha and Ma got supper.  We fought a little and made lots of noise so that Ma opened the stair door to tell us to be still.  Nannie was crying because Will had pulled her hair; Joe was chasing me around the room threatening me because I had scratched his face and Mary and Letty were trying to catch Joe.  I heard Aunt Martha say to Ma "You go up Caroline and spank them all.  I'll go next time."  Ma came up and spanked Will and Joe for being rough, Nannie for crying and me for scratching and Mary and Letty for helping make such a noise.  Then she went down and we were quiet.  Aunt Martha didn't have to come up.

More than sixty years later, that round of spankings remained vivid in her daughter's memory.  And a wicked part of me was glad that the angelic Mary got spanked too.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The other autobiography I was reading

The Autobiography and Other Writings, Benjamin Franklin
   Kenneth Silverman, ed.

Having emerg'd from the Poverty & Obscurity in which I was born & bred, to a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World, and having gone so far thro' Life with a considerable Share of Felicity, the conducing Means I made use of, which, with the Blessing of God, so well succeeded, my Posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own Situations, & therefore fit to be imitated.

I might have bought this book after visiting Benjamin Franklin's house and printing shop in Philadelphia, back in 2000.  It is an amazing historic site, which I'd love to visit again someday.  I know it inspired me to buy a biography of him, which I never read.  Or I might have bought this several years later, when the Museum of Natural Science here in Houston hosted a really cool exhibit on him. Jill Lepore's book on his sister Jane Franklin Mecom, Book of Ages, which is almost a dual biography of the sister and brother, reminded me that I had this still to read.  But it was really my plan to read the books that have been longest on my TBR shelves that finally led me to pick this up.  Once I started, I found it and its author so fascinating that I am making lists for further reading.  I even put off reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder autobiography that finally arrived!

Benjamin Franklin had such an amazing life.  I knew the outline of it already.  He was born in Boston in 1706, the youngest son of seventeen children.  He had only a year of formal schooling but managed to educate himself, in large part by borrowing books, which he studied at night.  Apprenticed to an older brother as a printer, he learned not just to compose type but also words and arguments.  He ran away at seventeen to Philadelphia, where he found work as a printer, eventually opening his own shop and starting a newspaper.  His business did so well that he could retire in his early 40s, to focus on scientific experiments, reading and writing.  His scientific work brought him international acclaim, honorary doctorates and court honors.  He was instrumental in founding the first library, hospital, fire company, militia, and university in Philadelphia, which was becoming the most important city in the colonies.  Franklin also was appointed or elected to a variety of public offices.  This led to a post as Pennsylvania's agent in Britain, where he also represented three other colonies.  Fiercely loyal to the British Crown, his conversion to the cause of independence made him a key figure in the struggle.  When he was named "minister plenipotentiary" to France, he became the darling of French society, with his face appearing on all kinds of china.  He helped frame the Declaration of Independence, and his was the closing speech at the Constitutional Convention.  There is simply no one else like him in the whole of American history.

Franklin began his autobiography in 1771, writing it for his son William.  He was later angered and grieved by his son's decision to remain loyal to Britain in the war for independence, which left them estranged for the rest of his life.  The final two sections of the autobiography are more impersonal but just as interesting.  It is not a full account of his life, however.  It breaks off in 1757, when Franklin was in London representing the Pennsylvania assembly in a dispute with its "proprietaries," the descendants of its founder William Penn.

As I said elsewhere, reading this book felt like opening a door and stepping into 18th-century America, traveling with Franklin from Boston through New York to Pennsylvania, and eventually to England.  I found his style very readable, once I got used to the Capital Letters that always Look so Strange at first in documents from that time.  Franklin had a great story to tell, full of ups and downs, successes and even a few failures.  As the editor points out, it is a carefully curated story, but isn't that true of most autobiographies? And clearly it only skims the surface of a very complicated and sophisticated man, but again, that isn't uncommon in autobiography, and even biography.

The Penguin edition that I read includes a brief miscellaneous collection of short pieces and excerpts from his letters.  Of course it features a selection from his famous "Poor Richard" almanacs.  In introducing this section, the editor writes that they "are included here to show aspects of his character and career that the Autobiography muffles or ignores."  The Autobiography does not mention for example that Franklin owned slaves, but later in life he became an abolitionist. I wasn't surprised to find a document he signed as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.  He probably ended up the president of every group he joined.

I will be looking for a biography of Benjamin Franklin on my next trip to the library, and recommendations would be very welcome. (I wish I could remember which one I bought and abandoned.)  It's a little daunting to see that the published Papers of Benjamin Franklin have now reached 40 volumes.  Reading this book has also reminded me how much I have forgotten about early American history.  I have the letters of Abigail and John Adams already on the TBR shelves, which may help fill in some gaps.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday miscellany: two bookish points and a mini-rewiew

I thought I would be spending this weekend with Pioneer Girl, the annotated edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder's unpublished autobiography, which finally (finally) arrived on Friday.  But instead I am reading another autobiography, Benjamin Franklin's.  I was already in the middle of it, and I found that I didn't want to put it aside, even for Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Though every time I look at Pioneer Girl I am sorely tempted.  No one told me there is a picture of Mrs. Boast!  Mrs. Boast!!  For some reason that made me giddier than anything else I've seen in my quick glances.  But I keep going back to Dr. Franklin, because his story is just so interesting. I feel like I've stepped through a door into 18th-century Philadelphia, with a side-trip to London.  Of course, his is a little Penguin paperback, while Pioneer Girl is a massive square hardback, which I will be toting around this week to the detriment of my back.

I nearly took both of them with me to our JASNA Houston meeting yesterday, just to have someone to gloat over Pioneer Girl with me.  The tea was delicious, as always.  It was disappointing that in the end, we didn't have enough people to play whist.  We played a Pride and Prejudice trivia game instead, which is always fun.  However, though the moderator was completely impartial, something was obviously favoring the opposite team.  Actual questions for them: Who did Mr. Collins ask to marry him after Elizabeth Bennet turned him down, and What was one reason that Mr. Collins gave for seeking a wife?  Actual questions for our team: Who did Lydia and Kitty dress up in women's clothes to fool visitors, and How many were supposed to be in Mr. Bingley's party for the assembly ball?   Needless to say, we lost.  (We also missed "How many dances did Bingley dance with Jane at the ball?" and "Who married 'a man of more fashion than fortune'?")  However, we successfully contested one point.  On the question, What was Jane Austen's father's name, after we tried "Mr. Austen," we decided on "George."  The card said "William," which I knew was wrong!  We weren't using our phones, just our wits, but I did have to look that one up.  I should have petitioned for a forfeit at that point.

And finally, a mini-review: after reading and loving Sharon Shinn's The Turning Season, I was very excited to get the first two books in the "Shifting Circle" series.  I had some pretty high expectations for the first, The Shape of Desire, and at first I was disappointed.  Told in the first-person present as well, it is narrated by Maria Devane.  She met shape-shifter Dante Romano in college, and they have been together ever since.  She has adapted her life completely around him, but his time in human form is steadily decreasing, and now she sees him only a few days every month.  This is a darker story than Kara's in the later book.  Maria is more isolated, by choice in order to keep Dante's secrets and her own.  I felt initially like she had lost herself in the relationship, like she was paying too high a price for a few days of manic happiness and sex with her lover, followed by weeks of isolation and depression.  But the story turns out to be more complicated than that, as does their relationship, and I found it increasingly absorbing.  Here again there was a surprise at the end that I did not see coming (though I can see in hindsight that hints were planted), and I found the ending very intriguing.  I would like to check back in on the characters - maybe they will appear in later books?  I don't know if Sharon Shinn will be writing more of this series, but I hope so. I still have one more to read, Still Life with Shape-Shifter, which is connected to the third book.  After I read that, I'm looking forward to exploring her other books, and would welcome any recommendations (Reading the End Jenny already mentioned one that is a take-off from Jane Eyre).

I hope everyone has a good week!  We are supposed to have some terribly wet and stormy weather starting tonight, which will be a great excuse to curl up with tea and cats and autobiographies.  Mrs. Boast, y'all!  And I just opened it randomly, to a picture of the Farmer Boy family!  Back to Ben, and then on to Laura!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Falling in love with Doctor Thorne, man and book

Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope

I had planned to join in the #6Barsets reading of Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire series, which Audrey has organized for this year celebrating the bicentennial of his birth.  And I was looking forward to re-reading The Warden and Barchester Towers, which were my introduction to Trollope over twenty years ago now.  (I first read them in a combined Modern Library paperback, and I still think of them as one book.)  But reading C.P. Snow's biography of Trollope, excellent as it was, threw me off.  When I started The Warden, I found myself thinking about Trollope rather than his creations, and I could never lose myself in the story, so I set it aside.  Then I missed Karen's bicentennial reading event in April, partly because Charlotte M. Yonge's Heartsease gave me a strong aversion to all things Victorian.  Fortunately, it wore off in time for me to join the third of the #6Barsets read-alongs, with Doctor Thorne.

I had only read this book once, several years ago now, so while I remembered the basic plot - or maybe I should say the main plot, this being Trollope, Man of a Hundred Subplots - I had forgotten so much of it.  And I'm not sure I even appreciated it properly the first time I read it.  I remember being disappointed at the shift from Barchester to the surrounding countryside, to Greshambury in West Barsetshire.  I missed Mr. Harding, and Dean Arabin, and even Mrs. Proudie.  I think it wasn't until I read Framley Parsonage that I really appreciated the Barsetshire setting, and by then I had also discovered Angela Thirkell's 20th century Barsetshire.  This time I could give this book its due.

I won't say much about the plot(s), since people are still reading or planning to read (though Trollope enjoys dropping his own spoilers along the way).  I do want to say how much I came to love Doctor Thorne himself.  As I said elsewhere, he is the perfect uncle and the perfect doctor.  His only real rival is Uncle Doctor, Alec Campbell, from Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins and A Rose in Bloom (though Doctor T isn't concerned about dress reform, nor does he make his ward exercise as much as Rose has to.)  My only complaint about this book is how often the title character is absent from the action!

I was amused to come across what I now recognize as some of Trollope's favorite hobbyhorses, which he regularly rides into his stories.  One enduring theme is what exactly makes a gentleman, or a gentlewoman - a particularly important question in this story, concerned as it is with Blood, Family and Money.  He also manages to work a parliamentary election into this book, which may not appeal to certain readers at this particular moment.  But in writing about it, Trollope gets to repeat another favorite theme: the glory of serving as a Member of Parliament, despite the ugliness of campaigning.  It reads a little poignantly, knowing how much Trollope himself longed to win a seat, and how much his loss in his one candidacy hurt (in 1867, almost ten years after this was written).  And at a particularly fraught moment, Trollope the postal surveyor stops his story to trace a very important letter as it moves slowly through the West Barset postal system.  I was surprised to read that Trollope was traveling (on postal business) in Egypt and the Holy Land while he was writing this book.  He must have had England's green and pleasant land so clearly in his mind's eye the whole time.

A final familiar theme: the difficulties of young women, who are not supposed to fall in love first, but wait for their true love and then follow his lead.  Trollope frequently points out the proper pattern, but his characters just as frequently flout it, usually to a happy ending (though not always).  He also takes the proper line about how a woman in love must have "acknowledged him to be the master of her spirit; her bosom's lord; the man whom she had been born to worship..."  He can say that, and does repeatedly, but the characters he creates are so far from clinging vines, are so often stronger than the men around them, that I can never quite see them sinking into a completely passive role.  They are too alive and active for that, and they often see all too clearly the clay feet of those they're supposed to worship, and accept them anyway.  I'm trying to think of one woman character in Trollope who has to be brought down and humbled, like Charlotte Yonge's Theodora in Heartsease, and I can't, off-hand [Edited to add: I haven't of course read all the books].  Maybe they have to curb their behavior, but never break their spirit.

When I finished this, I was strongly tempted to start Framley Parsonage, but I resisted.  I'm really looking forward now to re-discovering The Small House at Allington, another of his books I have only read once.  And The Last Chronicle of Barset may be my favorite Trollope of all.

N.B. This reading project and the Trollope Bicentennial may help me fill up several years of my Century of Books. The 19th century section is looking very Trollopian!

Friday, May 1, 2015

A shifting circle of friends

The Turning Season, Sharon Shinn

I picked this up from the new books bin at the library because the cover caught my eye:


I was immediately intrigued by the first few pages, when the unnamed narrator flees a grocery story because she is about to transform.  She just has time to drive out into the country, call friends to let them know what is happening, park her car, and shuck her clothes, before the pain overwhelms her.
      I'm crouching barefoot on the side of the road, but the pain drives me all the way to my knees. I can feel the dry knife-edge of the weed leaves slicing at my bare toes and ankles; I can feel the broken stone of the asphalt digging into my calves. But I scarcely notice. The migraine has enveloped my whole body. It is cracking my skull in two, it is pummeling my stomach, and I am bent over so far that my nose rest between my knees . . . 
     One more powerful compression, as if a giant hand is squashing me from above with such force that I grunt involuntarily. And then it's all over.
     The pressure, the pain, the nausea. Gone, evaporated. I feel light, almost weightless. I feel lithe and strong and absolutely right. My body has once again survived a violent passage and rebirth and delivered me to a shape that calls to it as seductively as its own.
     For a moment, I just revel in the bliss of well-being, then I take a moment to determine what I am.  I extend my left arm, to find it covered with fluffy marmalade fur; I've unsheathed five impressively sharp claws, and a slinky tail wraps around from behind.  A cat then - housecat, probably. I don't feel large enough to be one of the bigger wild felines.

Though I'm not usually a fan of present-tense narration, I was seriously intrigued by that point.  I've never read anything about shape-shifters, outside of wizard and witch stories.  There the transformation is by choice, a matter of power and strong magic.  Here it was involuntary, and the shape seemed to be outside the shifter's control.  I definitely wanted to read more, though my squeamish side was more than a little concerned about bad things happening to animals, whether originally human or not.

Eventually we learn that the narrator is Karadel, who runs a vet practice that is also an animal sanctuary.  There her fellow shape-shifters can get medical help, or just take cover during their transformations.  She is part of a tight circle in their small Illinois town, who care for each other and the other shifters that are drawn to them.  Over the course of the story we meet these others, and their "normal" allies, and learn some of their backstories, which highlight the challenges that shape-shifters face.  It is an inherited trait; both of Kara's parents were shifters.  We see the variety of forms that shifting takes: some can control when they shift, some only take one form when they shift, some are on a rotating schedule.  Kara herself has been everything from an elephant to a bird, particularly in her turbulent teenage years.  (When I read about her turn as a butterfly, I felt this surge of intense anxiety, for everything that could have happened to her in that state, which I think is a tribute to Sharon Shinn's talent in creating characters and story.)  Kara is working on a series of experiments, using the blood serums of different shifters, to try to control factors like the timing and the form of transformation.

I learned later that this is the third in a series, the "Shifting Circle" books.  The first two are already waiting for me at the library.  I enjoyed this one from start to finish, and my own copy is on its way to me.  It is very different from anything I've ever read in science fiction or fantasy.  I found the set-up really interesting, both the shifting itself and the community of shifters and allies.  I thought the transformations were handled really well, balancing the human and animal elements.  Kara remains herself, as cat, wolf or dog.  The animals are presented matter-of-factly and felt real.  These aren't magical creatures (no werewolves).  There is a sweet  romance running through the story, but I found the love and kindness linking the circle just as compelling.  And there was a plot twist at the end that came out of left field (hah) and caught me completely off guard - but made a lot of sense in retrospect.  I am really looking forward to the first two books.  I see that Sharon Shinn has written quite a few other books, and I will be exploring those as well.

I have to admit, I've been looking at animals and birds a little differently this week, thinking, What if....

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Revisiting America with the Provincial Lady

The Provincial Lady in America, E.M. Delafield

When I finished Charlotte M. Yonge's Heartsease the other day, I wanted to leave the Victorian era far behind.  I needed something light, bright and sparkling, and above all modern, where women didn't have to be pressed down into proper passivity.  A chance comment I saw on a blog reminded that I have been meaning to re-read the adventures of the Provincial Lady, particularly this 1934 book.  I first learned about E.M. Delafield from an essay in The New Yorker, but I had trouble finding her books.  I finally ordered the modern Virago omnibus edition, only to come across a complete set of the Cassandra Editions at Half Price Books. I bought them hoping to cancel the online order, but it was too late.  I decided to keep the omnibus edition and share the individual volumes with a friend (though I kept The Provincial Lady in Russia).  I wish now I had kept the single volumes instead.  With omnibus editions, I tend to binge-read straight through the volume.  As a result, I don't remember much now about any of the four PL adventures. I wish I had heeded the words of Nicola Beauman in her introduction: "it would be doing E.M. Delafield a disservice to sit down and read the four Provincial Lady volumes straight through," in part "Because they were written as weekly installments..."

I first read this book in 2005.  All I really remembered about it was how much EMD wanted to visit Louisa May Alcott's house in Concord, Massachusetts.  Reading it again ten years later, I was struck by all kinds of things that I didn't know the first time around.  I enjoyed the set-up, with the PL at home, preparing for her trip, dealing with her version of The Man of Wrath (or at least of Grunts), and all the humor of her adventures. But even more I was enjoying all the connections I was finding.  Most importantly, this time I had a much better understanding of who EMD was, from reading Vera Brittain's Testaments.  That first time, I noted that the PL columns were originally published in Time and Tide but didn't give it much thought.  Now I know something of the journal, Lady Rhondda its publisher, and the other contributors.  I'd like to learn more, so suggestions for further reading would be appreciated!  I also noted the discussion at one point of how well Testament of Youth was selling in the United States.  I just checked my copy to see that it was published in 1933.

In New York, EMD met the critic Alexander Woollcott, who seems to have taken quite a fancy to her.  He was instrumental in finally getting her access to the Alcott house:
     He has, it appears, read in a paper (Boston Transcript?) that my whole object in coming to America was to visit the Alcott House, and of this he approves to such an extent that he is prepared to Mention It in a Radio Talk, if I will immediately inform him of my reactions to the expedition.
     Immediate volte-face now takes place in attitude of Pete, Fanny and everybody else. If Alexander Woollcott thinks I ought to visit Alcott House, it apparently becomes essential that I should do so. . . Am much impressed by the remarkable difference between enterprise that I merely want to undertake for my own satisfaction, and the same thing when it is advocated by Mr. A.W.
I had no idea who Alexander Woollcott was then - now I know better.  From what I've read, it's lucky that the mercurial Woollcott did take a liking to her.  But I can't help thinking of the version of him in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's "The Man Who Came to Dinner," now one of my favorite Christmas movies.  I keep picturing Monty Woolley getting ready to Mention It in a Radio Talk.

I've read that Woollcott loved the character of Sheridan Whiteside, and even wanted to play him on Broadway!

I also know a little bit more about Louisa May Alcott now, from reading her letters, so this time I knew that the "Mrs. Pratt" who showed the PL all around the Concord site is connected to "Meg," aka Anna Alcott Pratt.  Louisa adopted her two sons later in life (not the twins Daisy and Demi).  I was envious of her personal tour, with guides "prepared to show me everything there is to see."  But knowing that the guides were Alcott connections makes that envy so much worse.  I enjoyed the Alcott references sprinkled through the book, particularly her immediate association of the Boston Common with Polly of An Old-Fashioned Girl.  I'm happy that she enjoyed seeing the 1933 film of Little Women.  I can't cope with Katharine Hepburn as Jo myself.

The schedule arranged for her took EMD to Chicago, where the 1933 World's Fair was in full swing.  There she was to speak and sign books in the book section of a department store.  When I read, "Department store is the most impressive thing I have ever seen in my life, and the largest," I sat straight up and said, "Marshall Field's!"  The reference to Marcella, the head of the book department, with her office "entirely plastered with photographs, mostly inscribed, of celebrities," confirmed it.  Emily Kimbrough, in her memoir of working there, described Marcella as one of the most powerful women in the store, a loyal friend once you got to know her.  The PL was less impressed.  I couldn't help picturing her, like Emily, coming in through Charley's door.  Kimbrough was no longer working at the store at the time, unfortunately.  If EMD met her during her visit to Philadelphia, she didn't mention it.  Her descriptions of traveling by train and meeting groups to speak reminded me of Kimbrough's later book, ...It Gives Me Great Pleasure.

To top off all her other excellencies, I will love E.M. Delafield forever for her description of the Lincoln Memorial as "the most beautiful thing, without exception, that I have seen in America."

I had such fun touring the eastern U.S. and Canada with the Provincial Lady.  I wish that she had made another tour, of the west.  And I look forward to revisiting the other books in this series - one at a time, this time!

N.B.  This is the only the second book that I have re-read for my Century of Books.  I may fill in a few of the Victorian years with Louisa May Alcott.

N.N.B.  My escape into more recent literature means that I will miss the Trollope bicentennial event this month, drat it.  I hope to get back on track with Doctor Thorne next month, for #6Barsets.