Sunday, July 28, 2013

Complications at the Château Valmy

Nine Coaches Waiting, Mary Stewart

I've been keeping an eye out for this book since Helen commented that it is her favorite of Mary Stewart's.  When I came across a copy at Half Price Books the other day, I put it on the top of the reading stack.  I'm anticipating Anbolyn's Mary Stewart Reading Week in September, but then I do still have four more of her books on the TBR shelves.

I started this book really with a clean slate.  For once the cover blurb gave very little away (and that little wasn't completely accurate).  Perhaps because I'm a loyal reader (and re-reader) of favorite authors, and often of series, new books can sometimes feel familiar.  It's not that an author can't surprise me, but there is an awareness that comes with continuing characters, a well-known setting, or even writing style and word choice.  That is all missing of course with a new-to-me author, one whose work I'm just discovering.  This is only the second of Mary Stewart's suspense novels that I've read (the first was Madam, Will You Talk?).  So while I thought I had worked some things out, spotted the hero and so on, I was actually falling for a couple of red herrings.  I had a whole alternative story line worked out in my mind - one that did not end well.  I admit that eventually the suspense got the best of me and I turned to the last page, just to see what happened.  As I've mentioned before, I am generally bad about working out mysteries anyway.

The heroine of this book is Linda Martin, just arrived in Paris to take up a position as governess to Philippe de Valmy, the nine-year-old Comte de Valmy.  Recently orphaned, after his parents died he was taken from his home in Paris to the Valmy estate in the Haute-Savoie, under the care of his uncles Léon and Hippolyte.  Léon and his wife Héloïse live at the Château Valmy, where he has managed the estate for many years.   It was Héloïse who traveled to London to engage an English governess, a replacement for a suddenly-departed nurse.  Linda, understanding that the Valmys particularly want an English governess, has not told her new employer that she herself was raised in France, the child of an English father and a French mother, and that she is a native French speaker.  Ten years in England, first in an orphanage and then working at a prep school, have made her English on the surface, but her past is never far below.

When she arrives at the Château Valmy, she is charmed by the beauty of Haute-Savoie (I've had lots of fun googling maps and pictures).  She falls under the difficult charm of Léon de Valmy, a paraplegic from a polo injury.  She feels a different connection to her charge, a sad and peaked boy, who is terrified of his uncle and distant with his aunt.  As with Madam, Will You Talk, the heroine is drawn into helping a scared, lonely little boy, becoming his protector and advocate, gradually coming to suspect that all is not well in the Valmy family, and that her charge may be in danger.  Of course the settings could not be more different, from the heat of a Provençal summer to a lovely cool spring further north.  Stewart does excel at settings!  There is another important difference in the heroines' situations: unlike Charity Selborne, Linda is not a free agent.  She has no car, and no money beyond her small salary, she is dependent on the Valmys.

I won't say too much more about the plot, in case I am not the last to read this.  I did enjoy it very much, reading breathlessly along, waiting to see if my suspicions were correct (mostly, they weren't).  I thought the ending was very well done, bringing everything together in a neat solution, one that brings happiness to the deserving and just punishment to the wicked (though one villain escapes).  One line on the last page struck me: "Later, when we could admit between us the commonplace of laughter . . . "  It reminded me, as so much does, of Dorothy Dunnett: late in Checkmate, when Philippa "realized that laughter, which they had lost, had come back to them, and they were whole again."  At least in the two novels that I've read, Stewart like Dunnett creates interesting, complicated characters, putting them into difficult and dangerous situations that require ingenuity, intelligence, endurance - not to mention trust and love - to resolve.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Doctor's Wife

The Doctor's Wife, Mary Elizabeth Braddon

I first learned of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novels from Louisa May Alcott.  In An Old-Fashioned Girl, while country visitor Polly is out in the healthy fresh air, sledding and playing in the snow, city girl Fanny stays indoors, in "the big chair where she had been curled up for an hour or two, deep in 'Lady Audley's Secret.'"  There is no editorial comment here, as there is on those yellow-backed French novels in some of the other stories, so I was unprepared for the racy excitement of Lady Audley's Secret, which I enjoyed very much.  I quickly collected others of her books.  The next one I read, John Marchmont's Legacy, I just loathed.  I forced myself to finish it, but then I moved two other books of hers far down the TBR stacks, where they have languished ever since. Reading Rhoda Broughton's Not Wisely But Too Well, and also reading a little about Broughton herself, reminded me of Braddon, with whom she is often linked as "sensation novelists."  I have also been thinking about Braddon since Helen reviewed her novel Aurora Flood.  In a bit of cross-blog synergy, I was amused to come across in The Doctor's Wife the quote that headlines Helen's blog: "She had read novels while other people perused the Sunday papers; and of the world out of a three-volume romance she had no more idea than a baby."

The "she" in question is Isabel Sleaford, a young woman living in Camberwell with her father, stepmother, and rambunctious brothers.  Isabel spends most of her days reading, novels of romance and adventure as well as poetry.  Her favorite authors include Dickens, Thackeray, Scott, Tennyson, Byron and Shelley.  Their stories, their characters, are almost more real to her than her family, and she is only waiting for her own chapter of adventure to open up.  "She wanted her life to be like her books; she wanted to be a heroine, -- unhappy, perhaps, and dying early.  She had an especial desire to die early, by consumption . . . "  Or perhaps a duke riding by in a carriage will see her in the street, and fall instantly in love with her.

The Camberwell household also includes a lodger, Sigismund (né Sam) Smith, who writes sensation fiction of the most lurid kind for the papers, while hoping for greater success as a novelist.  One day he brings a friend to stay, George Gilbert, a doctor up from his Midlandshire village for a London holiday.  Meeting Isabel, George is immediately drawn to her, captivated by her deep dark eyes.  Both he and Smith are shocked when the family abruptly disappears with no explanation.  Months later, Smith writes George to tell him that he has learned of Mr Sleaford's death.  Isabel, left penniless, is now working as a governess in the home of Charles Raymond in a near-by town, only eleven miles away.  George wastes no time in riding over to visit, the first of many such rides, and eventually he proposes marriage to Isabel.  Though she does not love him, at least not like the heroines in her books, she does not reject him.  "The story had begun, and she was a heroine."  But life as a country doctor's wife in a small village is far different from the stories she has read and told herself.  She grows more and more unhappy, until the day she meets Roland Lansdell, the owner of Mordred Priory, long absent from the country, returned after years of travel and riotous living.  Like the doctor before him, he is fascinated by her, while she in turn quickly falls in love with someone she sees as the embodiment of all her favorite heroes.

From the time this book was published in 1864, critics pointed out that Braddon had borrowed the basic plot from Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary.  It has been many years since I read that book in college, and I have only the vaguest memory of it.  According to the introduction of the Oxford World's Classics edition I read, Braddon did take elements from Flaubert's story but made them into something very different, very much her own.  The editor also argues that with this book Braddon was trying her hand at "serious" fiction, hoping like Sigismund Smith to move beyond the "sensation" fiction for which she was best known.

This is certainly a less exciting book than Lady Audley's Secret, but I enjoyed it just as much.  I can see that some people might find Isabel annoying, in her immaturity and naiveté, particularly her repeated wish to die young, that apparently being the most important quality in a heroine.  Though Mr Raymond is a wonderful father figure, rather like Mr Jarndyce in Bleak House or Uncle Alec in Eight Cousins, he couldn't really provide the guidance that Isabel needed.  And as an impoverished young woman without family to care for her, she didn't have that many options.  I understood that marriage to the successful Doctor Gilbert seemed the best one, even as I wanted to talk her out of it.  Braddon created interesting, well-rounded characters in Isabel, George, Mr Raymond, and Roland Lansdell.  My favorite though is her fictional alter-ego Sigismund, always racing to finish the next installment of his penny dreadfuls, cheerfully appropriating his friends' homes as settings for his tales of revenge and murder, and expounding on his chosen profession:

'Why, you see, the penny public require excitement,' said Mr Smith; 'and in order to get the excitement up to a strong point, you're obliged to have recourse to bodies. Say your hero murders his father, and buries him in the coal-cellar in No. 1.  What's the consequence? There's an undercurrent of the body in the coal-cellar running through every chapter, like the subject in a fugue or a symphony . . . And once you've had recourse to the stimulant of bodies, you're like a man who's accustomed to strong liquors, and to whose vitiated palate simple drinks seem flat and wishy-washy.  I think there ought to be a literary temperance-pledge, by which the votaries of the ghastly and melodramatic school might bind themselves to the renunciation of the bowl and dagger, the midnight rendezvous, the secret grave dug by lantern-light under a black grove of cypress, the white-robed figure gliding in the grey gloaming athwart a lonely church-yard, and all the alcoholic elements of fiction.  But you see, George, it isn't so easy to turn teetotaller . . .'
The Doctor's Wife was itself first published as a serial, and I discovered one of the benefits of that kind of story-telling.  Reading it on the flight home from Portland, I found that just at a most dramatic point late in the book, 33 pages disappeared, replaced by pages mistakenly reprinted from the first chapter.  And there I was, trapped on a plane with no access to the internet, to search for the missing pages.  Fortunately, there was enough repetition and rehashing in the later chapters that I could figure out what I had missed.  Last night I downloaded a copy from Girlebooks, to read the missing pages myself.

I still have Aurora Flood on the TBR stacks, and I'm looking forward to reading that, and to discovering more of the eighty-five books that Mary Elizabeth Braddon published in a career that lasted from 1860 to her death in 1915 (her last novel was published posthumously).  I might even seen if John Marchmont's Legacy is as loathsome as I remember.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Thirkell raffle results and a trip to Powell's

My Angela Thirkell raffle

As I mentioned in my post about Angela Thirkell's The Brandons last week, I had an extra copy of it and one of Wild Strawberries to share.  While I was at Powell's this past Saturday (more on that in a minute), I found another copy of The Brandons, a bit battered but so inexpensive that I couldn't resist adding to the stack.  After a completely random drawing, the copies are going to these folks:

I'll be contacting you to get mailing addresses, or you can send them to me at maylisa66[at]earthlink[dot]net

A long-deferred visit to Powells

I was visiting family in Portland over the weekend.  Of course the very best part was seeing my family, particularly my beautiful nieces and nephew, who are all growing up too fast (we have coined the term "niblings" as a collective for nieces and nephews, the children of siblings).  Loading up my sister's van with another sister, a sister-in-law and three nieces for a trip to Powell's City of Books was definitely a highlight.  An entire city block filled with books, new and used, everything under the sun - it is one of my very happy places.  The bookworm gene runs strongly in my family.  Collectively, the six of us came away with over 30 books (I lost track of some of the chapter books for the youngest reader).  Though I took a list of 17 authors with me, in the end I myself was relatively restrained.  Apart from the extra Thirkell, I only ended up with seven books.  Here they are, stacked on the TBR shelves, which have no room for them:

From the bottom,

  • Anthony Trollope, The Vicar of Bullhampton  (one sister commented, "Don't you already have all the Trollope novels?")
  • Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Seasoned Timber  (her last novel, published in 1939)
  • Charlotte M. Yonge, The Clever Woman of the Family  (an irresistible Virago and technically a second copy so it hardly counts)
  • Ada Cambridge, The Three Miss Kings  (a new author to me, but an 1891 tale of three sisters left orphans in an Australian seaside resort in 1880 also proved irresistible, particularly in a Virago edition)
  • Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera  (one of her bleaker novels, I understand) and All the Dogs of My Life
  • Baroness Orczy, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard  (normally I avoid print-on-demand books, but this is a Powell's reprint - the machine is right in the store - a facsimile copy that includes the original illustrations)

Fortunately, I had packed carefully, so there was plenty of room going home.  Now I just have to make room on the shelves - and decide what to read next.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Brandons, with a copy to share

The Brandons, Angela Thirkell

I was killing time before a meeting the other evening, browsing at Half Price Books, when I came across two Angela Thirkell novels, Wild Strawberries and The Brandons, in Carroll & Graf paperbacks editions.  I have copies of both, but knowing they can be hard to find I thought it would be fun to pass them along.  I'm happy to send them anywhere, so if you'd like one or the other, leave a comment and tell me which one, or email me (my address is down at the bottom right).  These are used books - Wild Strawberries is a bit battered, intact, but definitely a reading copy.

After I got home I was leafing through The Brandons, which I haven't read in a while, and of course soon found myself back at Chapter One and settling in for "Breakfast at Stories."  This book was my introduction to Thirkell, and it has always been one of my favorites in the very long Barsetshire series.  Published in 1939, it is the last of the pre-war books, and it has something of the timeless quality of P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings stories.  The central character, Lavinia Brandon, is a widow living with her son Francis (who works in Barchester) and her daughter Delia, in her small but beautiful Georgian house Stories, in Pomfret Madrigal, a village in West Barsetshire.  The Brandons aren't one of the county families, though a branch of the family has been settled at Brandon Abbey since the 1860s, of which an elderly aunt, Miss Brandon, is now the last remaining.

Just as the book is a favorite, Lavinia Brandon is a favorite characters in the series.  In a Georgette Heyer novel, she would be described as a "lovely widgeon."
Certainly anyone who had met her coming furtively and hurriedly but triumphantly in by the drawing-room window, her arms full of the gardener's flowers, would entirely have agreed with her own opinion of herself and found her still not unattractive, or possibly have felt that a woman with so enchanting an expression could not have been more charming even in her youth.  Mrs. Brandon herself, in one of her moods of devastating truthfulness, had explained her own appearance as the result of a long and happy widowhood . . . The only fault she could find with her children was that they didn't laugh at the same jokes as she did, but finding that all their friends were equally humorless, she accepted it placidly, seeing herself as a spirit of laughter born out of its time.
Men of all ages tumble headlong into love with her, which entertains her children even as it embarrasses them.  While she is sometimes silly, there is an underlying shrewdness, combined with a warm heart.  She is prone to doing and saying things with one eye on their effect, but she has the saving grace of humor, never taking herself or her ploys too seriously.

Not much really happens in this book.  Old Miss Brandon is growing weaker, and the Stories family visits her at the Abbey, with another cousin, Hilary Grant.  There is much speculation about who will inherit the Abbey if Miss Brandon dies.  Hilary is spending the summer working with Mr. Miller, the rector of Pomfret Madrigal, preparing to read law.  Both he and Mr. Miller fall victim to Mrs. Brandon.  Since both are working on books, their devotion takes the form of reading their manuscripts to her, never noticing how far her attention wanders.  Their work is interrupted not just by the events at the Abbey, but also by picnics and the highlight of the village Fête.

Though this is the 8th book in the series (if you count The Demon in the House), I think it's really the start of the series as such.  The previous books all share a common setting in Barsetshire, but they are stand-alones, with each book introducing a new set of characters and a new area of the county.  I think that Laura Morland is the only character who appears in more than one of the earlier books.  In the books that follow, characters from the earlier books are woven into what becomes a kind of continuing story, sometimes in central roles, sometimes as supporting actors.  Mrs. Brandon's story in the later books is not always as light-hearted as this one, though it has a happy ending.  (It was very gratifying to see her son Francis behaving so well in this book; he grows into a bit of a rotter later.)  Here picnics, a funeral, and the Fête bring back Laura Morland and her son Tony (for what I think is his last appearance), as well as Dr. Ford, the hardest-working doctor in Barsetshire.  We also get Lady Norton, not quite the Dreadful Dowager of the later books, and the Keiths, introduced with the attorney Noel Merton in Summer Half.  Lydia Keith was at school with Delia Brandon, under the infamous headmistress Miss Pettinger.  There are references to Lord Pomfret and his agent Roddy Wicklow (from Pomfret Towers), and hints of the perpetual spiritual warfare carried on between the Bishop of Barchester (with his wife) and the clergy.  Mr. Miller, the rector of Pomfret Madrigal, who of course has the proper antipathy toward the Bishop, will appear in later books, as will Sir Edmund Pridham, Mrs. Brandon's trustee, who has his fingers in every county pie.

If you are new to Angela Thirkell, I think The Brandons is an excellent place to start.  I always come back to it with pleasure, meeting the Brandons themselves again, and watching as the story opens up to Angela Thirkell's wonderful series.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Louisa May Alcott's short stories

A Garland for Girls, Louisa May Alcott

While I suffer occasional crises of conscience about the size of my TBR stacks, I still regret the books that got away - the ones that in a temporary fit of reform I talked myself out of buying, only to realize my mistake later.  I am still haunted by the copy of Edward R. Murrow's This is London that I left on the library sale shelves.  Sometimes these books turn up again, when I least expect them, like a bit of bookish lagniappe.  This book of short stories by Louisa May Alcott was one I had put back on the shelf and regretted ever since.  Though I had downloaded an e-version, I was very pleased to find the actual book again recently.  I don't know if it was looking for fictional Fourth of July celebrations, or maybe a stressful week, but I suddenly found myself in the mood for Alcott.

This book was published in 1887, the year before she died.  It includes seven stories, as the title suggests, all about girls, and each with some flower theme. Though I have been reading Alcott's books for almost 40 years now, I have never read any of her short stories before.  I have found that not all novelists can write short fiction.  So I was pleasantly surprised at these stories, which seem like concentrated essence of Alcott.  They have that unmistakable authorial voice, natural and colloquial, sometimes sentimental, sometimes didactic.  The stories have familiar elements of Alcott, young women like the March sisters or Polly Milton struggling against adversity, rich girls like Rose Campbell trying share their blessings.  There are sudden illnesses, reversals of fortune, marriage proposals, budding writers, country girls and city sophisticates, loving mothers and sisters.  The stories have all the pleasures and virtues of Alcott's writing, as well as some of its faults.  The moralizing definitely gets rather heavy-handed in some of the stories, particularly the drippy "Little Button-Rose," about a winsome poppet named Rosamond who goes to stay with elderly great aunts and a flighty cousin while her parents are traveling.  Naturally she becomes a ray of sunshine in the home, making peace with a crotchety old neighbor before falling ill with scarlet fever (due to the selfishness of the flighty cousin).

Two of the stories were particularly interesting to me.  In "Pansies," three girls are spending a summer holiday with Mrs. Warburton, "a delightful old lady" who "loved young people, and each summer invited parties of them to enjoy the delights of her beautiful country home, where she lived alone."  On a rainy morning, the girls gather in the library, reveling like Jo March in its riches, discussing what they are reading and debating what makes a good book.  Mrs. Warburton is drawn into the discussion, and I think she speaks for Alcott here.  One of the girls, Carrie, is chided for preferring Ouida to George Eliot or Charlotte Yonge.   Their hostess gives her highest praise to a book I'd never heard of, Thaddeus of Warsaw by Jane Porter, which I learn from Google was published in 1803 and is considered one of the earliest examples of historical fiction. Sir Walter Scott also comes in for praise, as does Maria Edgeworth.  Henry James is dismissed as even duller than Samuel Richardson, "with his everlasting stories, full of people who talk a great deal and amount to nothing."  Considering the kind of books that Alcott wrote, it's a little disconcerting to hear her characters dismiss novels about "people as they are, for that we know, and are all sufficiently commonplace ourselves, to be the better for a nobler and wider view of life and men than any we are apt to get. . . "  Apparently historical fiction will provide that nobler and wider view.  I fear Mrs. Warburton would not approve of my reading, since she warns against "promiscuous novel-reading," advising the girls not to "be greedy, and read too much."  She also cautions against "book-loving lassies [who] have a mania for trying to read everything, and dip into works far beyond their power."

I very much enjoyed "Poppies and Wheat," the story of a European tour like Amy's in Little Women.  Ethel Amory, a spoiled seventeen-year-old, is traveling with family friends, Professor and Mrs. Homer.  She is accompanied not by the French maid that she wanted, but by a chaperone, Jenny Bassett, a few years older than herself, a governess who welcomes the break from teaching and the opportunity to travel.  In this take on the Ant and the Grasshopper, as the party travels through Ireland and Britain before moving on to the Continent, Ethel frivols away with light-hearted friends, shopping and playing.  Jenny, on the other hand, reads and studies, under the guidance of the Homers.  In the end, she is rewarded with an invitation to join them in Italy for the winter, while Ethel, realizing how she has wasted her time, sails sadly for home, her trunks full of cheap tarnished trinkets.

After so many years of reading and re-reading Louisa May Alcott, it was a pleasure to come across a new-to-me book of hers.  I will be keeping an eye out for more of her short stories.  With all due respect for Mrs. Warburton, I think I'll also look for Ouida's novels.  I see several are available through Project Gutenberg.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Diagnosing a doctor

Dolly and the Doctor Bird, Dorothy Dunnett

This is the third book in Dorothy Dunnett's series of mysteries and espionage thrillers centered around Johnson Johnson, whose career as a portrait painter of international repute provides cover for his work in British Intelligence.  It was published in 1971, and like other books in the series, under more than one title: besides Doctor Bird, it is also known as Match for a Murderer and Operation Nassau

As that last title suggests, this book is set mainly in the Bahamas, with side trips to New York City and Miami.  The "bird" of the title is Dr. B. Douglas MacRannoch.  The B is for Beltanno, but no one except her father calls her that; most call her "Doctor."  Her father is James Ulrich MacRannoch, also known as The MacRannoch, the 45th chief of Clan Rannoch, widowed and in his 60s.  Unfortunately, he is "subject to nasal polyps and asthma in winter, during the Perth bull sales, and when the stock-market wavers."  On medical advice, he has leased out the family seat, Rannoch Castle, "a small but finely-preserved twelfth-century castle" in Argyll, and setted in the Bahamas.  Beltanno, his only child, gave up a promising research career in Cambridge to join him.  She is now the Medical Officer at the United Commonwealth Hospital in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. Her father has for years carried on a blatant campaign to get his daughter suitably married off, before the family fortune and the chieftanship fall to the next heir, Mr. T.K. Rannoch, a native of Tokyo.

Returning from a brief trip escorting a patient to New York, Beltanno is waiting for her flight at Kennedy Airport when she is called to a medical emergency.  The new patient is Sir Bartholomew Edgecome, a retired ambassador now living in the Bahamas with his wife.  Though Beltanno suspects nothing more sinister than food poisoning, she takes samples before he is transported to the hospital, where he improves overnight.  She agrees to escort him home on the morning plane, and he has another attack on the flight, despite having eaten nothing unsupervised.  When Beltanno has him safely installed in her own hospital, he asks her to take a letter to Johnson Johnson, staying nearby on his yacht Dolly.  Before she does so, she runs tests on the samples she took, which show that he was poisoned with arsenic.  Taking that news with Edgecome's letter to Johnson, she is drawn into helping him discover who is trying to kill the former ambassador.  Her father, meanwhile, is continuing not just his matrimonial schemes but also planning a MacRannoch Gathering, Tattoo and Highland Event, drawing clan members from around the world, including his unwelcome heir.

It has been many years since I read this book, and I had no real memory of it, so the developments of the plot often caught me by surprise.  There are two main stories here.  The first is the mystery involving the attacks on Edgecombe.  It takes Beltanno to various islands around the Bahamas and to Miami, to nightclubs, the dog-track, and some very fraught rounds of golf.  There is a moonlit chase up a water tower, and a white-knuckled sail under pursuit through a maze of inland water channels.  Johnson is in full 007 mode here, though without Q's gadgets.  Sir Bartholomew describes him at one point as "a personalized Army assault vehicle with amphibian characteristics."

Woven through these perilous events is a second story.  Working with Johnson brings Beltanno into more than one dangerous situation, she is threatened and in one case cruelly attacked.  But it also brings her out of what some might consider a rather restricted life of work, her one recreation golf.  She has no real friends, she avoids emotional relationships and refuses to consider marriage.  She and her father are in a constant state of war as he tries to maneuver her into marriage, embarrassing her with blatant offers to eligible men.  She retaliates by refusing his financial help, supporting herself frugally on her salary, and frequently announcing that she will marry Mr. MacRannoch of Tokyo (whom her father refers to in very un-PC terms).  Johnson diagnoses it as "a hell of a family life."  Beltanno has to admit that, accept the problems and her share of the responsibility, before she can move on.  Though the mystery is solved neatly in the end - well, no, the ending of that is pretty messy, actually.  But there is resolution, while Beltanno loses something that meant a great deal to her, but equally is left with new choices, new possibilities.  I can't make up my mind what she will choose, or even what I would advise her to choose.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen, Elizabeth von Arnim

After The Pastor's Wife, it was quite a while before I had the urge to read Elizabeth von Arnim again.  It is a very good book, but very bleak in places, and it was one of the most intense and disconcerting reading experiences I've had in a while.  Lately though I've been thinking of summer books, which reminded me that I had this one still on the TBR shelves.  It is an account of a summer tour the titular Elizabeth takes, eleven days on the island of Rügen in the Baltic, off the Pomeranian coast.  It was nowhere near as intense as The Pastor's Wife, but it wasn't quite what I expected either, shifting from a travelogue to a domestic farce, with philosophical and sociological excursions on the side.  By this time, I should be expecting the unexpected from Elizabeth von Arnim.

The book opens in Elizabeth's beloved Nassenheide in Pomerania, the setting for Elizabeth and Her German Garden (as well as its sequel, The Solitary Summer).  But this summer will be different.  It is blazingly hot, and there is a drought (much like Houston right now).  She doesn't want to sit "watching a garden parch browner day by day beneath a sky of brass."  In the schloss's library she comes across books that tell of Rügen,

an island of twists and curves and inland seas called Bodden; of lakes, and woods, and frequent ferries; with lesser islands dotted about its coasts; with bays innumerable stretching their arms out into the water; and with one huge forest, evidently magnificent, running nearly the whole length of the east coast, following its curves, dipping down to the sea in places, and in others climbing up chalk cliffs to crown them with the peculiar splendour of beeches.

Reading that, I was nearly ready to book a ticket to Rügen myself.

Elizabeth's initial plan is to enlist a woman friend to join her on a walking tour.  One after another, a dozen of her friends decline, saying that "that it would make them tired and that it would be dull."  She cannot go alone, for reasons of both propriety and safety, so she decides to travel by coach, taking her own driver, August, as well as her faithful maid Gertrud.  This immediately sets her apart from the other tourists on the island, who arrive by train or ferry, but it ensures her independence in traveling.  She can go wherever the horses take her, whenever she pleases (though to placate the Man of Wrath, left behind with the children, she has to take care not to overwork the horses).

Much of the first part of the book is travelogue: the trip to the island, the start of their tour, the villages they drive through, the surrounding countryside, and especially the sea.  Elizabeth bathes wherever she can, drawn to the clear cold waters and the beautiful beaches.  In between the descriptons are adventures and mishaps that reminded me a little of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men books.  Like him, she points out some of the foibles of German life, particularly the tendency to build unattractive cafés right in the middle of the most picturesque sites.  Elizabeth later meets two English tourists, Mrs Harvey-Browne and her son Brosy, which gives her a chance to needle the English as well.  Mrs Harvey-Browne is the wife of a bishop (von Arnim seems to have had it in for Anglican bishops), which impresses her much more than it does anyone else she meets.  Her son is a student of philosophy, much given to discussions of the Absolute.  Elizabeth is also surprised (and somewhat dismayed) to come across her cousin Charlotte, whom she has not seen in many years.  When they are joined by Charlotte's husband, the elderly but spry Professor Nieberlein, of whom the Harvery-Brownes are ardent admirers, Elizabeth sees her plans for a peaceful, solitary holiday collapsing.

More than once in her book, Elizabeth apologizes because she meant to write "a useful Guide to Rügen," but "With every page I write it grows more plain that I shall not fulfil that intention. What, for instance, have Charlotte and the bishop's wife of illuminating for the tourist who wants to be shown the way?"  Though I don't think this book was ever taken for a guidebook, even at its publication in 1904, it is still a lovely introduction to the island and actually includes a lot of information.  And as Elizabeth von Arnim knew very well, Charlotte and the bishop's wife add greatly to the fun of her story.  Charlotte, though, is something of an uneasy character.  Married at twenty to her Professor, forty years her senior, she has now become an ardent feminist, traveling around Europe on behalf of the rights of women (her married life reminds me of Ingeborg's in The Pastor's Wife).  Elizabeth finds her ideas on women and marriage uncomfortable, though she can't help agreeing with some of her points.  She quickly grows tired of Charlotte's stridency, however, taking refuge in the "easeful simplicity of the old conventions."

"Just to think of it gives me a headache. The only thing I know of that does not give a woman a headache is to live the life for which she was intended - the comfortable life with a brain at rest and a body wholly occupied with benevolences . . ."

The Elizabeth of this book may believe that, but Elizabeth von Arnim herself certainly didn't live a "comfortable life with a brain at rest."  Was this just part of the "Elizabeth" persona, like the pretence that she was German?  I am also learning to expect this ambiguity, with Elizabeth von Arnim.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Fourth of July in fiction

I was sitting in traffic this morning, looking forward to the July 4th holiday coming up (even though going back to work on Friday will feel a little weird), and I started thinking about some of my favorite fictional Fourths.  The ones I came up with are all from children's books, the best-loved ones that are still on my shelves:

My all-time favorite is probably in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town on the Prairie.  De Smet, the little town on the Dakota prairies, has survived the Long Winter and is growing daily as new settlers arrive to stake their claims.  It is prosperous enough to have a celebration on the Fourth, though Ma is disappointed that it will just feature horse-racing, not the picnic with the traditional fried chicken that she would prefer.  Laura and Carrie are thrilled to go with Pa, to enjoy fireworks, eat pickled herring, listen to a reading of the Declaration of Independence (which they all know by heart, of course), introduce Carrie to lemonade, and watch that young Wilder boy win a buggy race with his team of perfectly-matched Morgans (which they win in spite of the heavy peddlar's wagon they're pulling).  In Farmer Boy, set ten years earlier, Almanzo's whole family goes to the Fourth celebrations in the town of Malone.  There he is taunted by his mean cousin Frank because he doesn't have a nickel to buy lemonade.  When he asks his father for the money, he gets a homily on hard work, but he is rewarded in the end with a half-dollar.  Surprisingly for Farmer Boy, which I've seen described as food porn, there is no luscious description of the picnic lunch that Mother packed (reading this book always leaves me hungry and craving apple pie, which they eat for breakfast).

The only Fourth I can remember in Louisa May Alcott's books is in Eight Cousins.  Rose and Uncle Alec are spending a delightful holiday camping with the boys and the perfect Aunt, Jessie, on Campbell's Island.  But Rose decides to return to the aunts' house and send Phoebe, her friend the family's maid-of-all-work, off to the Island to enjoy a rare holiday on the Fourth.  She has to trick everyone, including Phoebe, to accomplish this.  While she nobly enjoys "a quiet, busy day, helping Debby, waiting on Aunt Peace, and steadily resisting Aunt Plenty's attempts to send her back to the happy island," everyone else on the "happy island" is fretting because she isn't there, particularly Phoebe, who doesn't enjoy her holiday at all.  Kindly Uncle Mac finally drags her out of her slight martyr complex to watch the fireworks.

I also like the Fourth of July with Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind-Family, who celebrate on New York's East Side in the early 1900s.  All the familiar elements are there - flags, bunting, firecrackers -  but the family feasts on potato kugel rather than hotdogs and apple pie.  (In the next chapter Mama takes the girls to Coney Island for the day, with a picnic lunch that includes limburger sandwiches.)

One of the very nicest Fourths takes place in Philadelphia in the 1820s, in Jane Flory's Faraway Dreams.  Maggy Mulligan has been rescued from the Seafarer's Safe Harbor, an orphan's home, by Miss Charlotte Sutcliffe, a milliner, who has taken her as an apprentice.  Miss Sutcliffe has a tiny workroom in a house shared with her sister, whose pompous husband and spoiled daughter hate having a relative in trade but depend on her earnings.  Miss Sutcliffe is an artist whose bonnets are much in demand, and Maggy slowly grows to love the beautiful fabrics and the creative work, as well as her gentle mistress.  After long summer days of hard work, Miss Sutcliffe declares that they will take a holiday on the Fourth and enjoy the whole day: "The prospect was exciting. Independence Day was celebrated all over the country, of course, but nowhere with more enthusiasm than in Philadelphia where the Declaration had been signed."  It is a day of pure delight, start to finish.  I loved this book as a child, checking it out over and over again from the library.  I was so happy to find a copy again a few years ago, and to find that it is still a joy to read.  Jane Flory wrote another of my favorite childhood books, One Hundred and Eight Bells, about a young Japanese girl growing up in Tokyo in the early 1960s.  It was my introduction to Japanese holidays like New Year's, which sounded particularly fun.  Sadly, her books have probably been purged from most libraries these days.

Any favorite fictional Fourths to add to the list?