Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A day in the life of Laura Marshall

One Fine Day, Mollie Panter-Downes

I haven't been lucky enough yet to find an affordable copy of Mollie Panter-Downes's celebrated London War Notes, a collection of her weekly columns written from England for The New Yorker during World War II.  I was able to borrow a copy through inter-library loan last year, but I couldn't finish it in time, and I'm not sure what the statute of limitations is for requesting a book again.  I've had better luck with her fiction.  In fact, I was stunned to find the Persephone edition of Good Evening, Mrs. Craven last year, since Persephones are even rarer than Viragoes in Houston bookstores.  And while One Fine Day was re-printed by Virago, I was very happy to find an American first edition on-line.

It seems fitting that this book is dedicated to William Shawn, the long-time editor of The New Yorker, where her fiction as well as the war pieces were published for so many years.  I didn't realize until I read her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that she continued to write her column after the war ended, up until 1984.  In all she wrote an astounding 852 pieces for the magazine, which has to be some kind of record!

To me, she seems to have brought something of the journalist's observant eye to this novel, which chronicles a single day in the summer of 1946.  The central character is Laura Marshall, who lives in a country village with her husband Stephen, a veteran of the war, and their ten-year-old daughter Victoria.  Stephen commutes into London every day from their house in Wealding (which seems to be somewhere on the south coast, not too far from the sea).  Laura and Victoria stayed in their home during the war, joined by displaced friends, women like Laura on their own with children.  Now, without the servants they rather took for granted, the Marshalls are finding the house and garden almost too much for them, yet they continue to cling to pre-war standards and expectations.

This hot summer day is not a special one in any way.  Stephen goes off to work, Victoria to school.  Laura is at home when her daily cleaner arrives, but then she leaves to shop and run other errands.  She speaks to her mother on the phone, she inquires about hiring a gardener, she stops in a tea room, she goes after an idiotic dog that has run away (and who is likely to return in the family way).  As Laura moves through the day, the story moves back and forth in time, giving us a glimpse of life during wartime, or her introduction to Stephen, or a dinner party with friends who are leaving for Ireland.  With Laura we meet people in the village, including the owner of the manor house, forced to let it go to the National Trust.  Buying sweets, Laura chats with the young woman minding the shop, a war widow, whose announcement of a second marriage rather shocks Laura.  The story also briefly shifts to Victoria and Stephen, in their very different days.

I am a comparative reader.  As I read a book, I'm usually reminded of others, and I tend to compare and contrast.  The most obvious comparison here for me is with the post-war novels of Angela Thirkell.  This felt like a much more realistic account of life in peace-time, still recovering from the effects of the war, surrounded by reminders of it, including German prisoners working in the fields.  It is also an account of a marriage and a family, coping with the strains imposed by war and long years of separation, reunited but still divided.  This is of course an important theme in Thirkell's novels of the 1940s, though her Barsetshire families have managed to hang on their servants.  None of her heroines is forced like Laura into doing her own cooking, none of her heroes after a hard day's work in London joins his wife in the washing-up, as Stephen does (however reluctantly and crankily).  Thirkell's stories are leavened with comedy, like the running jokes over Mixo-Lydian refugees (available for kitchen work) and the constant warfare with the Bishop of Barchester and his wife.  Panter-Downes's story is more straight-forward and serious, though that isn't to say it is humorless.  I particularly enjoyed her description of the garden, which is proving too much for Stephen and Old Voller, who comes twice a week to potter around helping him:
The garden's vitality was indeed monstrous and somehow alarming  . . .  The result was that a vegetable war to the death appeared to be on, green in tooth and claw.  The flowers rampaged and ate each other, red-hot poker devouring lily, aster swallowing bergamot, rose gulping jasmine. Cannibals, assassins, they sat complacent with corners of green tendrils hanging from their jaws.  The cutthroat bindweed slip up the hollyhock and neatly slipped the wire round its throat.
"Green in tooth and claw" - "complacent with with corners of green tendrils hanging from their jaws" - I am chuckling as I type this (and casting an uneasy eye over at my house plants).

The DNB calls this "one of the great British novels of the twentieth century."  I don't know enough about the literature of the period to agree or disagree, but it's one of the best novels I've read about life after World War II.  And as all good novels do, it left me wanting to know what happened next, particularly for Laura and Victoria.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The glory that is Sarantium

Sailing to Sarantium, Guy Gavriel Kay

I first learned about Guy Gavriel Kay's books from the Dorothy Dunnett listservs I belong to.  Mr. Kay is a fan and advocate of her books.  In fact, one of his characters is considered an homage to Francis Crawford, the hero of her Lymond Chronicles.  Many Dunnett readers know the blankness that comes with finishing the last of the Chronicles, and realizing that there is no more Lymond.  Some go on, as I did, to look for Lymond-like characters in other authors' books, only to realize that there is no substitute for Lymond himself.

So I came to Mr. Kay's books with unrealistic expectations, and when I didn't find what I was looking for, I set them aside - for far too long.  What finally convinced me to take a second look was (again) the Dunnett lists, where a subgroup has been discussing his novels for more than a year.  I was also intrigued by the reviews that came up on some of my favorite blogs, such as Claire's and Helen's.  All these together convinced me that it was past time to try Mr. Kay's books again.  Unfortunately, they are not easy to find in bookstores, new or used.  (At least with used-book stores, I tend to take that as a good sign, of people are holding on to their copies.)  I found Sailing to Sarantium on the shelves at Barnes & Noble one day, and from the back cover and the first few pages, I decided this was one to try - and wow, was I right!

I saw this book described as "historical fantasy," a new term to me but one that fits perfectly.  I am already a fan of the genre, from the books of Naomi Novik, Megan Whalen Turner, and Lois McMaster Bujold.  The setting of this story particularly appealed to me, with Sarantium based on Byzantium, Constantinople.  I know something of the history of the city, which added to the interest, and it is also a familiar setting from other books (including Dunnett's Pawn in Frankincense). In addition to the city itself, and the imperial politics playing out in it, another major element of the book is the mosaic work that brings one of the central characters, Caius Crispus, a master artisan, from the ruins of the Rhodian Empire in the west. He arrives in answer to a summons, to add his art to the great sanctuary of Holy Wisdom that the Emperor Valerius II is building.  Mosaic art fascinates me, particularly the Roman and Byzantine work that has survived.  A friend and I made a special pilgrimage in Italy to see the famous mosaics at Ravenna, on our history and art geeks tour of Europe after college.

I enjoyed the first few chapters of the book, which start with a "Prologue" in Sarantium, with the death of one emperor and the choosing of his successor.  The city and the characters were so interesting and appealing that I didn't want to leave them behind, when the first chapter proper jumped ahead twelve years and traveled to Varena, a city in the ruins of the Rhodian Empire, where Caius Crispus is working with his partner Martinian.  When the older man receives an imperial summons to Sarantium, he decides that Crispin should go in his place.  After some persuasion, Crispin reluctantly agrees.  Before he leaves, he visits a friend of Martinian's, an alchemist named Zoticus, who gives him advice about the journey and the city at its end, and two names that might prove helpful.  He also gives Crispin a small mechanical bird, which speaks both aloud and in Crispin's mind.  Zoticus tells him that the bird, which he claims is invested with a soul, will be of great help and comfort to him on his journey.

The bird, a small sparrow-like creature named Linon, is infuriated to be sent on this journey with such a companion.  It is quick to complain and to insult, and for a few pages I thought that this might be too much for me.  I kept picturing a Disney sidekick, like Zazu in The Lion King, and no matter how many times I told myself, "It's a magical element in a fantasy novel," it just felt wrong.  As it turns out, I was wrong, so wrong.  In the next couple of chapters, the part that Linon plays in the story, and what we learn of its creation, are so powerful and so moving that it left me stunned.  In just a few pages I went from enjoying the book to loving it, in the way that brings out the book evangelist in me.  This is my first "Oh, you have to read this" book of 2014.

I don't want to say much about the story itself, to avoid spoilers.  There is a large cast of interesting and appealing characters, which Mr. Kay balances well throughout the story.  It includes several strong women, and one who is stronger than she realizes; these women do not have a lot of options or power in their own right, like their historical counterparts.  They also seem to lack female friends or support, which I hope they will find.  Mr. Kay manages his complicated plot very effectively.  At times he shows us events from two different characters' points of view, without it feeling repetitive.  I found the imperial politics fascinating, as well as the religious controversy over whether the great god Jad had a son, Heladikos; whether that son was mortal or divine; and whether creating mosaics of Jad, let alone his Son, is sacrilege. The historical parallels add interest to the story, at least for me, but this isn't simply a re-telling of history in different clothes.

Before starting this book, I would advise that you have the sequel, Lord of Emperors, in hand.  I didn't, and I am kicking myself that now I have to wait til April 1st and the end of the TBR challenge to find out what happens next.  (Unless I can con - or convince - one of my book groups to read both - sadly unlikely.)  I do have two of his other novels, eligible for the challenge, but of course what I really want is return to Sarantium. I see that Mr. Kay has written twelve novels, and I know I'll be looking for all of them.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A mixed blessing

The Blessing, Nancy Mitford

I was lucky enough to find a first edition of this some years ago - still with its original Cecil Beaton-designed cover - on the "Old & Interesting" shelves at Half Price Books.  Why did it take me so long to read it?  Partly I think because it's a story of an Englishwoman who marries a Frenchman in the midst of World War II, bears him a son, and then goes to live with him in France, where complications ensure.  And I was remembering the story of Linda, in The Pursuit of Love, who meets a Frenchman and bears him a son in the midst of World War II, but doesn't get to live in Paris afterwards; and of course Nancy Mitford's long relationship in Paris with her "Colonel," Gaston Palewski, which feels such a sad one in the end.  But this is a very different story, and now that I've finally read it, it's my new favorite Mitford book.

This is the story of Grace Allingham, who one day receives an impetuous and demanding visitor, a "tall, dark and elegant" officer in the French Air Force.  He is just back from the Middle East, where he met Grace's fiancĂ© Hughie Palgrave.  On the spot he invites her out to dinner, and she accepts without even knowing his name, which she learns later is Charles-Edouard de Valhubert. A month later they are married, in a registry office.  Charles-Edouard goes back to the war, leaving Grace at her father's country place, where she soon learns she is pregnant.  After the birth of the baby, a black-eyed child named Sigismond, the "blessing" of the title, she spends the next seven years in the country, seeing Charles-Edouard only once in all that time.  Then he telephones one day to say he is England, comes down to Bunbury, and announces that they are all going to France the next day.

All this takes place in the first three chapters.  Much of the rest of the book is the story of Grace's adjustment to France, first at the family's country estate in Provence, and then later in Paris, where things become more difficult.  Grace also has to adjust to a different kind of marriage than she expected, one with a husband who, while he loves her, cannot sustain life with just one woman.  Though she honestly believed herself to be free from jealousy, she quickly has that belief tested and tried, under the scrutiny of Parisian society.  Sigismond comes to realize the advantages that fall to the child of divided parents, and in a rather cold-blooded campaign, this little boy of seven does everything he can to keep his parents apart.  At one point, while Grace and Sigi are staying in England, Hughie takes them to visit his nephew at Eton, with an eye to pulling some strings to get Sigi a place.  It is described as a cold dank Dickensian place with iron bedsteads and short rations, and by the end I was hoping that "the blessing" would be sent there for a good long term.

I feel the same kind of difficulty in talking about Nancy Mitford's books as I do P.G. Wodehouse's or Elizabeth von Arnim's.  The plot is the least of their stories, but it's almost impossible to capture the charm of them, so I fall back on details of plot and character. 

I noticed at least two "Mitfordisms" in the book that delighted me.  At one point, Grace asks her old Nanny, now caring for Sigi, "Do you admit," a phrase that pops up constantly in the letters between the Mitford sisters (the editor, Charlotte Mosley, says that "Deborah was instigator of the frequent plea...").  There is also a mention of Heywood Hill's bookshop in London, where Nancy worked during the war.  Alex at Thinking in Fragments recently reviewed The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street, a book of the letters between Nancy and Heywood Hill, and I was lucky enough to come across a copy (also at Half Price Books).  I'm also guessing that the Allinghams' country estate is named for Oscar Wilde's Bunbury.  He is the great hero of Linda and Fanny in The Pursuit of Love, after all, though Uncle Matthew considers him such a sewer.

I still have Don't Tell Alfred on the TBR stacks, so I can look forward to another trip to Paris with Nancy Mitford.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A week at Blandings

Full Moon and Galahad at Blandings, P.G. Wodehouse

These days I wouldn't usually read two Wodehouse books back to back, because past binge readings have taught me that, wonderful as they are, they lose some of their savor when read too closely together.  But half-way through Galahad at Blandings, I realized that I had its prequel of sorts on the TBR stacks as well, and I couldn't resist picking it up next.

I think I've mentioned before that for years, all I knew of P.G. Wodehouse were the Bertie and Jeeves stories.  I had no idea that he wrote so many different series or connected stories, let alone all the stand-alone books.  I feel like I only truly came to appreciate Wodehouse in 2004, when a comment on the Georgette Heyer listserv I belong to led me to Leave It to Psmith, my introduction not just to the inimitable Rupert Psmith (of the Shropshire Psmiths), but also to Blandings Castle.  Blandings is of course the Shropshire home of Clarence Threepwood, ninth Earl of Emsworth, and his prize-winning pig, the Empress of Blandings.

The Earl is afflicted with four sisters, the kind of domineering women that haunt so many of Wodehouse's characters, frequently as interfering aunts.  He also has a younger brother, the Honorable Galahad Threepwood, who is a much more welcome visitor at Blandings, except to whichever of his sisters is currently in residence.  He's another of my favorite characters.
Gally Threepwood was the only genuinely distinguished member of the family of which Lord Emsworth was the head.  Lord Emsworth himself had once won a first prize for pumpkins at the Shropshire Agricultural Show and his pig, Empress of Blandings, had three times been awarded the silver medal for fatness at that annual festival, but you could not say that he had really risen to eminence in the public life of England.  Gally, on the other hand, had made a name for himself.  The passage of years had put him more or less in retirement now, but in his youth he had been one of the lights of London, one of the great figures at whom the world of the stage, the racecourse and the rowdier restaurants had pointed with pride.  There were men in London - bookmakers, skittle sharps, jellied eel sellers at race meetings and the like - who would have been puzzled to know whom you were referring to if you had spoken of Einstein, but they were all familiar with Gally.

Gally has a kind heart and ready sympathy for young people in trouble, especially in matters of the heart.  He still remembers the love of his own younger days, Dolly Henderson, a music-hall singer from whom he was forcibly separated by his appalled family, who shipped him out to South Africa and the army.  He is always ready to help young lovers torn apart by families or fate - or by their own rash actions.  He finds plenty of scope for his good deeds at Blandings.  As Freddie, Lord Emsworth's younger son, explains,  "I ought to mention that all the younger generation of my family get sent to Blandings when they fall in love with the wrong type of soul mate.  It's a sort of Devil's Island."

In Full Moon, it is Prudence Garland, the daughter of Freddie's aunt Dora, who is sent to Blandings, because she has gotten engaged to William Lister.  Bill is an aspiring artist with no money and no prospects, except an inn near Oxford that he recently inherited.  That makes him a completely ineligible suitor for a member of the Threepwood family, even though he is Gally's godson. (Actually, for Gally's sisters, that is a strike against Bill.)  Already in residence at the castle is another aunt, Hermione, with her husband Colonel Wedge and their beautiful but witless daughter Veronica. Though like his father the elder Wedges look on Freddie with a jaundiced eye, they are thrilled to hear that he is bringing a friend to stay, since the friend is a young millionaire, Tipton Plimsoll, who recently inherited America's largest chain of grocery stores.  But the course of love doesn't run smoothly for either Bill or Tipton, until Gally takes a hand to sort everything out.

Galahad at Blandings was written almost twenty years later, but little time has passed at the castle.  It is a shorter and more compact book than Full Moon, despite the three couples who need Gally's help to a happy ending this time.  In my new favorite line, at one point he tells one of the young women, "Take that lemon out of your mouth, Mona Lisa."  Unlike his usual role, Gally here has to protect his brother Clarence against a designing female, a widow with a loathsome young son, whom Lady Hermione has invited to Blandings.  This book features another resident of the Castle, Beach the butler, who knows most of the family secrets and often takes a hand in the complicated affairs of the younger generation.  He had only a cameo in the earlier book, and it was good to see him again on center stage in the later one.  In the course of the story, he loses a beloved silver watch, the prize of a darts tournament, to one of the distraught young lovers.  We're never told if he gets it back in the end.  Perhaps I'll find out in the next installment, A Pelican at Blandings, which is still on the TBR stacks.

My Arrow edition of Full Moon has a quote from Stephen Fry on the back cover: "You don't analyze such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour" (you can read the essay from which it's taken here).  I couldn't agree more, and I am always happy to spend a few days at Blandings.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Janeite in 1905

Jane Austen and Her Times, 1775-1817, G.E. Mitton

I should point out that G.E. Mitton never used the term "Janeite" in this 1905 study of Jane Austen, though she did refer to her subject as "Jane" throughout.  Instead she labeled herself and other Austen devotĂ©es as "Austenites."  Whatever she called herself, she was an enthusiastic and informed reader of Austen's novels, as well as works about her, and the characters of the novels clearly lived in her imagination.  Mitton also wrote as a fellow author, a novelist, as well as a biographer and a travel writer (I particularly like the sound of her 1907 novel, A Bachelor Girl in Burma).

As the title suggests, Mitton's book is both a biography of Jane Austen and an exploration of the times in which she lived.  In the first chapter, she wrote that
beyond a few trifling allusions to her times no writer has thought it necessary to show up the background against which her figure may be seen, or to sketch from contemporary records the environment amid which she developed. Yet surely she is even more wonderful as a product of her times than considered as an isolated figure; therefore the object of this book is to show her among scenes where in she moved, to sketch the men and women to whom she was accustomed, the habits and manners of her class, and the England with which she was familiar.
This is of course a standard approach to biography, but I don't know how ground-breaking it was in 1905, or if the focus on a women writer made Mitton's work unusual. It is certainly the earliest work on Austen that I have come across, other than A Memoir of Jane Austen, written by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh and published in 1870.  In her study Mitton moved chronologically through Austen's life, discussing the minor works and the novels in order of creation, through chapters focused on her subject's childhood, life in Steventon, the role of the clergy in society, life in Bath, and so on.

Though G.E. Mitton wrote her book less than 90 years after Jane Austen died, she suggested that "the times of Jane Austen are more removed than the mere lapse of years seems to warrant." In support of this she cited the "extraordinary outburst of invention and improvement that took place in the reign of Queen Victoria," in trade, communications, and industry.  Of course, to the 21st-century reader, Mitton's world seems much closer to Austen's than to our own.  Part of the fascination of this book is the sidelights it gives into Mitton's world, such as when she compared the freedom of the "modern" girl, with her tailored suit and bicycle, to girls in Austen's time, hampered by long skirts and unable to venture out alone.  The skirts and corsets of 1905 don't look that much less confining than those of 1805, at least in 2014.  In another place Mitton commented that
There is one custom which we must all be thankful exists no longer, the intolerable fashion of morning calls.  Calls are bad enough now as custom decrees, but we are at least free from the terror of people dropping in upon us before the day's work is begun.
She also noted that Steventon was hard to find, and that the cottage at Chawton where Austen lived for many years was currently occupied by farm workers.  Clearly there were no omnibuses or charabancs full of Austenites arriving in the village at that time.

In the light of changing times and customs, it is interesting to read Mitton's comments on Jane Austen's books.  In her telling, Pride and Prejudice was universally acknowledged the best of the books, with Emma and Persuasion also highly rated.  Northhanger Abbey on the other hand was appreciated only by true Austenites.  Mitton felt that Emma is a more skillful book than Pride and Prejudice, showing Austen's development as a writer, but lacking the sparkle and fun of the earlier book.  Like many modern readers, she thought Mansfield Park the least interesting of the books, mainly because Edward and Fanny are so dull, not to say priggish, though she fully appreciated the awfulness of Aunt Norris.

While Mitton loved Pride and Prejudice, she took serious issue with Darcy, particularly his behavior at the Meryton assembly when he refuses to dance with Elizabeth. "It is inconceivable that any man with the remotest pretension to gentlemanly feeling" should behave that way.  In fact, Mitton went on to argue that Austen, like many women authors, had "an inability to grasp the code belonging to gentlemanly conduct."  This is one of several statements that took me aback, like her assertion that Austen became a pioneer in realistic fiction by accident or instinct, with no idea of what she was doing.  It is clear from the letters that Austen read widely in the fiction of her time, and I believe that she developed her ground-breaking style carefully and deliberately.  The parodies of the juvenalia show that she could write in the prevailing style when she wanted to.

Mitton quotes a great many late 18th century sources in exploring Austen's world, as well as some later contemporaries of her own.  Unfortunately, the book has no bibliography, and I admit I did not take the time to search out all of her references.  (I did note one, Constance Hill's Jane Austen, Her Homes and Her Friends, published in 1902, an e-version of which is now on my Nook.)  Mitton's work draws heavily on the Austen-Leigh Memoir, and also the two-volume edition of Austen's letters published by her great-nephew Lord Brabourne in 1884.  (The son of Austen's beloved niece Fanny, he inherited the bulk of the extant Austen letters.)  For a 21st-century Austenite, both have some drawbacks, which are reflected in Mitton's biography.  There is no reference to her brother George, who may have been mentally or physically disabled, and who was raised in a foster home. Lord Brabourne in editing the letters cut some of the humor and the caustic comments that were probably considered inappropriate for a rector's daughter, like a joke about her niece Cassy having fleas.  He was also sometimes careless in editing.  Mitten quoted an 1808 letter, referring to a "friend's" impending visit, on which she built a complicated theory about the "friend" being a suitor, perhaps someone Austen had come to care about, perhaps her last chance at marriage.  The letter actually refers to the coming visit of some "friends."  I think Mitton's reliance on the Memoir also explains her constant refrain that Jane Austen had a happy life, always contented and cheerful, free from worry and sorrow.  That seems a bit simplistic compared to the more modern biographies I have read.

In the end, this was a very interesting book, both for the information it gives about Britain in the late 18th and early 20th centuries, and for its author's appreciation of Jane Austen.  I had to remind myself that at the time G.E. Mitton was writing this, she could only know Austen's works by reading them, or perhaps by seeing a staged version.  I couldn't help wondering what she would think of the films, and the world-wide "Janeite" phenomenon.  She died in 1955, so maybe she saw the 1940 film, with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson.  Her reactions would make an interesting codicil to this book.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Around the world in 76 days

In Seven Stages: A Flying Trip Around the World, Elizabeth Bisland

One of my favorite books from last year was Matthew Goodman's Eighty Days, an account of the race around the world between Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland in 1889.  I was only a few pages into it when I learned from the notes that both women later wrote their own books about the race.  I quickly downloaded an e-book edition of each, but I also found that they are in print and ordered copies as well.  Since I finished Goodman's book sympathizing with Elizabeth Bisland, who [spoiler alert] lost the race, I decided to read her account first.

Bisland published her book in 1891, a year after Nellie Bly's (thus coming second again).  It is a short book, only 101 pages, divided into eight sections, the "stages" of the title.  (I don't know why she didn't count the last stage, perhaps because that's when she lost the race.)  It opens on a peaceful November morning in New York City, in 1889.  Bisland had breakfast in bed, reading her mail, which included acceptances for a tea party she was holding in two days, and a notice from her tailor about a fitting for a new gown.  She was surprised to receive a summons to the office of her boss, the editor of The Cosmopolitan, where she was the literary editor.  When she arrived, she was stunned at his proposal that she leave that day, to travel literally around the world, "endeavoring to complete the journey in some absurdly inadequate space of time."  It took him an hour to convince her to make the attempt, and by 6 PM she was on a train.  Nellie Bly had sailed that morning, heading east.  Bisland took the opposite direction, west across the United States to San Francisco. From there she sailed across the Pacific and then the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean to Italy, crossing Europe by train and then the Channel by boat, finally taking ship from Ireland for New York.

For such a short book, this left me with very contradictory feelings.  On the positive side, Elizabeth Bisland seems to have really enjoyed most of her travels.  Once she was launched on her trip, she never mentioned the race again until almost the end.  Of course her contemporary readers would have known all the circumstances, including the outcome of the race.  But Bisland might almost have been traveling just for pleasure. There is no sense of hurry or urgency, except in the last stage.  She frequently had to wait for ships to arrive or depart, and she spent the time happily wandering around, exploring and observing, and shopping whenever she got the chance.  She fell in love with Japan, returning later in life to live there.  She seems to have gotten along well with her fellow travelers, often setting off on excursions with them, but she also had an eye for their absurdities.  At a New Year's Eve ball in Ceylon, she noted an American woman from Texas, "in a fearful and wonderful costume, that casts a slight but comprehensive glance at the modes of three centuries and muddles them all," who "is tossing her powdered head and flirting shrilly..."

In the final stage of the journey, Bisland arrived in Paris by train.  There she was met by an agent of Thomas Cook's, who told her that the ship she was hoping to catch at Le Havre had sailed without her.  Later she discovered that the ship had in fact waited for her, delaying as long as possible.  Had she caught the ship, she might have won the race.  "The cause of this false information was never satisfactorily ascertained," she wrote. "It, however, succeeded in lengthening the voyage four days" - and those four days were crucial.  I did admire how Bisland simply carried on, crossing the Channel to Britain and across to Ireland, to catch a ship out of Cork.  The voyage to New York was a nightmare of storms and mountainous seas, which Bisland stoically endured.

I enjoyed the later stages of the book more than the early ones.  Each stage is fairly brief, since despite the leisurely air Bisland was traveling as quickly as possible.  She took pains to describe the places and the people she encountered, but she was writing from at most two or three days of observation.  Particularly in her scenic descriptions, her prose tended toward the purple (the ellipses are hers):
As I passed in my swift circle about the great ball plunging along its planetary paths, many mighty and glorious visions of the coming and passing of light were revealed to me; but none more fair than this with that radiance of youth, whose vast, sweet nature-shadow and simulacrum the dawning is . . . Eternally renewed, though all ages .. still, with the white peace of innocence .. rosy with promise and potentialities, gilding all the commmonplaceness of the landscape with golden glamours and fantasies...

A little of that went a long way.  But I found her descriptions of people more troubling.  Crossing into California, she noted "the first outer edges of that yellow wave from China which has broken upon the Pacific coasts."  She didn't actually use the term "Yellow Peril," but she might just as well have.  I had to keep reminding myself that her anti-Chinese attitude was completely (in Barb's marvelous term) "era acceptable."  Reading this, I was struck again by Louisa May Alcott's audacity in including a Chinese character in her "Campbell" books, the young merchant Fun See, who may be rather a figure of fun, but at the end of Rose in Bloom he is about to marry into a blue-blooded Boston family.  Bisland did approve of the Japanese, however, though she labeled them "still children" and "hopelessly immodest, with the unconscious shamelessness of babies...."  She also admired the Sikhs that she met first in Hong Kong, though she was more impressed with the British, who had brought them to serve the Empire.

As I said, this book left me with very mixed feelings.  I admired Elizabeth Bisland's courage in agreeing to the race, and her stoic endurance of defeat under the worst of conditions.  But I felt there was no depth to her account.  She was recording impressions and observations from only the briefest of encounters, so it feels of little value as a travelogue.  On the other hand, it doesn't really work as an account of the race, because she hardly seems to be in the race at all.  I don't quite know what to make of it, and having read it I'm not sure I need to keep it.  Though I generally prefer the original source, in this case I think Matthew Goodman's is the better book.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A summer in Ireland, a long time ago

A Long Time Ago, Margaret Kennedy

After seeing this described as "a hilarious evocation of an Edwardian houseparty invaded by an amorous prima donna," I put in an inter-library loan request for it, and a copy arrived just before Christmas.  I read it over the weekend, and while I enjoyed it very much, I found it anything but hilarious.  That isn't to say there aren't lighter moments - there are, quite a few - but this is a much more serious story than I was expecting.

It is divided into three parts, two short sections framing the central part of the story.  In the first, "Sunday Morning," we are introduced to Ellen Napier at her home, Cary's End, in a small village.  Though she has been a widow for seven years, she is still sometimes overwhelmed at the loss of her husband Dick.  Staying with her for the week-end is her daughter Hope, who settles down with her library book while her mother goes out to garden.  The book Hope is reading is a memoir by the singer Elissa Koebel.  "It was only just published, and she had been longing to get hold of it for two reasons: because it was said to be very scandalous and because it revived an episode in her own past."  She finds one chapter, "A Summer, in Ireland," which she realizes, "must be about us!"  Kennedy includes this chapter in its entirety, and I think she had great fun writing it.  It shows Elissa Koebel to be shallow and self-absorbed, rather amoral, overtly sexual, self-dramatizing to the point of tedium, and a writer of very little talent.

Thirty years ago, Hope with her siblings and her parents spent a summer in Ireland, living in a small castle in the middle of a lough with aunts, uncles and cousins.  Elissa Koebel, staying in a cottage on the shore, invited herself to the island one day and became part of the group, fascinating more than just Hope with her unconventional behavior and her singing.  Hope never forgot that summer, but what she did not know until now was that during those days Koebel had an affair with her father, who left the castle for her cottage.  As Hope is reading this, her uncle Kerran is on his way over to Cary's End from his near-by home, to find out how Ellen is bearing up under the scandal of the book.  Their older sister Louise and sister-in-law Maude, who were on the island that summer, want to have the book suppressed.  Kerran is relieved to find that Ellen knows nothing of the book, but he is taken aback to find his niece brandishing it at him, demanding to know why no one ever told her any of this.  In trying to calm Hope down, Kerran lets it slip that he has a cache of letters written during that summer by the various family members to their own mother, discussing the situation (and each other) with sometimes brutal frankness.  He offers to let Hope read the letters, to give her a better understanding of what happened.

The second and longest section moves back in time to that summer (a reference to "the King's" appendicitis suggests it is set in 1903).  I won't say too much about what actually happens at the castle and the cottage, to avoid spoilers.  This section is told mostly in the third-person, shifting in point of view between the family members.  In addition, the group includes Muffy, the family's long-time nurse, and the only outsider other than Elissa: a guest actually invited (unlike Elissa), Guy Fletcher, an Oxford colleague of Louise's husband Gordon.  This section also includes the letters written to the absent Mrs. Annesley, which give sometimes very different perspectives on the events that occur, and also shed some interesting lights on the writers themselves.  At the same time, the reader can compare their version of events, and the narrator's, with Elissa's account from the first chapter.   Myself, I distrusted Elissa's from the start, and I was interested to see the differences, the contradictions, in the others'.

I think Margaret Kennedy is saying something here about the limited understanding we may have of events even as they happen to us, let alone as we look back on them over the years.  Neither the letters written at the time, nor the later memories of those present, are complete or free from error.  Each member of the family has preconceptions, prejudices, blind spots.  All of Ellen's siblings have settled opinions about her marriage and her husband, for example, but they see only from the outside and therefore they're all mistaken, to one degree or another.  Kennedy's story is also an exploration of marriage, the bonds that draw couples together, which ones hold and which don't.  Here she contrasts Ellen's marriage with that of Louise and Gordon, as well as Maude and their brother Barney - while the reader can't help remembering that it's Ellen's husband who has the affair with Elissa.

In the midst of all of this, Ellen is also struggling with a spiritual crisis - an aspect of the story that took me completely by surprise.  It isn't a major plot element, but its resolution does have an important and lasting impact on Ellen.  For one thing, it moves her beyond her rather confused understanding of God.
For she was a religious woman, a communicant, and she believed in four Gods, or rather four Persons who bore the same name.  She believed in the God of the Old Testament  . . .  He had nothing to do with the Presence lurking in the background of the Gospel story, an impersonal and unsatisfying Divinity  . . .  Nor could she identify either of Them with Jesus, the Man of Sorrows  . . .  And fourthly there was the Holy Ghost, a mere name  . . .  [She] could not escape from the feeling that her prayers were being heard by a committee . . . 

I found Ellen a very sympathetic character, in surprising ways, and as I said at the beginning, I did enjoy this book.  My only quibble is the tendency of many of the characters to launch into interior monologues of some length, which I found a bit unrealistic.  They tend to slow the story down, and even worse, sometimes they start to sound a bit like Elissa's memoir!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

At home in Highbury

Emma, Jane Austen
Emma is the climax of Jane Austen's genius and the Parthenon of fiction. She wrote it in fifteen months, and with a dazzling poise and certainty which are transmitted to the reader at the very first sentence  . . .  [I]t was published by John Murray in 1816. A century and a half of spontaneous appreciation has accompanied this, the happiest of love stories, the most fiendishly difficult of detective stories, and a matchless repository of English wit, since it emerged from Albermarle Street on that winter morning.  (Ronald Blythe, Introduction to the Penguin Classics Edition, 1966)
I have always loved that introduction to my old Penguin Classics.  As I've mentioned elsewhere, Pride and Prejudice was the first of Jane Austen's novels that I read, but I think it was Emma that made me a Janeite.  I have the clearest memory, thirty years later, of the delight I felt in reading it for the first time, the absorption in the events at Hartfield and Randalls, and the shock when I realized how just how cleverly Austen, like Frank Churchill, had pulled the wool over my eyes.  As with all detective stories, there is such fun in re-reading, to note how the author lays her traps, and to recognize where I, like Emma, was decoyed on to the false trails.

I think of Emma as a Christmas book.  In part that is because the first volume of the story comes to its climax at Christmas, when John and Isabella Knightley are visiting Hartfield with their children.  There is the Christmas Eve dinner at Randalls, which ends with Emma and Mr. Elton alone in a carriage.  During the interminable drive back to Highbury, she is forced to listen to his presumptuous, alcohol-laced proposals, and he is forced to endure not just her emphatic refusal but the mortifying suggestion that he should marry Harriet Smith instead.  Fortunately for Emma's conscience and her peace of mind, the snow falling that night is deep enough to keep her home from church on Christmas morning, so she doesn't have to face Mr. Elton again, and it also keeps Harriet with her streaming cold away from Hartfield.

I also think of Emma as a Christmas book because my mother gave me a copy for Christmas the year I first read it, one of the orange Penguins, and I stayed up all night re-reading it.

I won't say too much about the story itself, with its complicated plot, but I wanted to mention a couple of things that struck me, reading this again for the umpteenth time.  Aside from the title character, when I think of this book I think of two others: Miss Bates and Mrs Elton.  Miss Bates is introduced, by the narrator, in Chapter III of the first volume.  I particularly noticed this time how the authorial voice first presents her in a very a positive light:
[She] enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married.  Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her, into outward respect. She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible.  And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will.  It was her own universal good-will and contented temper which worked such wonders.  She loved every body, was interested in every body's happiness, quick-sighted to every body's merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body and a mine of felicity to herself.  She was a great talker on little matters, which exactly suited Mr. Woodhouse, full of trivial communications and harmless gossip.
Reading that made me realize how much my opinion of Miss Bates has been shaped by Emma's, who a few chapters later describes her, while good-natured, as "so silly - so satisfied - so smiling - so prosing - so undistinguishing and unfastidious...." (I have also probably been prejudiced by knowing real-life "great talkers on little matters," and by the fear of becoming one myself.)  Other characters acknowledge that Miss Bates can be a bit overwhelming in the full flow of her conversation, but no one else says as much about it as Emma does (even before the Box Hill incident).  I can't help thinking that here is another of Emma's errors in judgement, perhaps an immaturity in her, which sees only the irritating and the ridiculous.  I feel like this reading was the first time I really noticed that Miss Bates doesn't even appear in the first volume - we only hear of her from the other characters.  It is only in the second chapter of Volume II that we meet her in person, "active and talking."

Generally, Emma's actions are kinder than her words, with Miss Bates, at least up until the ill-fated expedition to Box Hill.  Mrs. Weston, who is pregnant, stays home to keep Mr. Woodhouse company. I found myself wondering whether Emma would have behaved differently - better - if her oldest friend and former governess had been there.  I can't help but think that both she and Frank Churchill would have restrained themselves a bit.  It is such a difficult scene to read, not just for the distress that Emma's joke causes Miss Bates, but also for the strain that Jane Fairfax is clearly under, particularly once the reader knows how Emma is unconsciously making it worse for her.  Reading this time, I was also struck by the impropriety of Emma telling Frank Churchill her suspicions about Jane and the Dixons.  It is sheer speculation on her part, the kind of gossip that could damage a young woman's reputation, and she has no business telling it to anyone, particularly a gentleman that she has just met.  I noted that she never breathes a word of it to Mr. Knightley or Mrs. Weston, who would not have approved.

A great deal of the comedy in this book comes from the dreadful Mrs. Elton, who arrives about half-way through the story, demanding all the attentions due a bride and constantly talking up the glories of "my brother Mr. Suckling," his carriages and his estate near Bristol.  Emma finds her first uncongenial and then insufferable, and I think as readers we're meant to agree (her author certainly doesn't defend her).  However, Emma herself commits some of the same sins.  Just as Mrs. Elton is overly familiar, with her "Knightley" and "Jane," Emma is as well.  She forms an immediate friendship not just with Harriet, whose status as a "natural child" places her far below Emma's level socially, but with Frank Churchill.  She is also too friendly with Mr. Elton, welcoming him frequently to Hartfield and including him in social events like the dinner at Randalls. Granted, it's with the aim of encouraging him to fall in love with Harriet, but that isn't how it looks to him or to the gossips in Highbury.  And where Mrs. Elton wants to take over Jane Fairfax, managing her life for her, Emma actually does that to Harriet, to the point of persuading her to reject (against her own inclinations) the marriage proposal from Robert Martin.  Like Mrs. Elton, Emma can be fatuously self-satisfied, sure of her own judgement, as when she assures John Knightley that Mr. Elton is in no danger of falling in love with her; or when she tells his brother, "with a confidence which staggered, with a satisfaction which silenced, Mr. Knightley," that Frank Churchill is completely indifferent to Jane Fairfax.  With all the self-knowledge that Emma gains in the course of this story, I'm not sure she ever sees how thin a line sometimes separates her from Mrs. Elton.

Emma includes some of my favorite lines from Jane Austen's books.  Emma's companion on a drive to Randalls is her cranky brother-in-law John Knightley, grousing all the way.  Emma "dreaded being quarrelsome; her heroism reached only to silence."  She also takes refuge in silence when irritated with Mr. Weston and Mrs. Elton over the proposed expedition to Box Hill: "Emma denied none of it aloud, and agreed to none of it in private."  And while many consider Captain Wentworth's letter in Persuasion as the most romantic scene Jane Austen ever wrote, I have to put in my vote for Mr. Knightley's declaration: "If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more."  I once wrote that on an anoymous card to a young man, on whom I had the kind of painful crush that left me completely tongue-tied in his presence.  But since I properly attributed the quote to Emma, he probably went off searching for someone named Emma.

Jane Austen famously wrote of Emma that she was planning to write about a heroine "which no one but myself would like."  Instead, she gave us a young woman who with all her faults does have a loving heart, good principles, a strong sense of duty, and the all-important sense of humor - someone who can also learn and grow.  I like her in spite of her very human faults, and I love watching her story unfold in the little world of Highbury.  This might be the best book that Jane Austen ever wrote; it is certainly one of my very favorite (as perhaps you might have guessed from the Batesian length of this post).

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Reading in 2014

The TBR Triple-Dog Dare has begun, so for the next three months I'll be reading only from my own TBR shelves, with the exception of a few library books already checked out or reserved.  This year I did not load up my library list, because I really want to tackle the TBR stacks.  I bought a lot of books last year, and my TBR total has reached a new high.  Many of these books are from the authors I was introduced to last year, including Monica Dickens and Margaret Kennedy; and others that I found again after many years, like Mary Stewart, Alexandre Dumas, and Barbara Pym.

At this point, I have to admit that my TBR-reduction project, which originally began in 2008, has been a spectacular failure.  This blog was meant to help in that project, but instead it has led me to other blogs featuring alluring books and new-to-me authors.  The net effect has been like a chocoholic let loose in a Ghiradelli factory.  Hopefully in these months I can make something of a dent, and also restrain myself from adding too many new books.

Other than the TBR Challenge, I don't sign up for challenges, really, though I enjoyed the RIP Challenge last fall.  My reading is generally pretty eclectic, and I want to follow my own whims or interests in choosing books.  I am hopeless with reading schedules, as my two RL books groups can testify.  I cannot read to a deadline.  I just don't want to turn the comfort and joy I find in reading into another source of stress (I have enough of that already).

All that said, I have been intrigued by the "A Century of Books" challenge, which Claire and Simon among others have completed and which is now starting a second round.  Intrigued by the idea of reading a book from every year from the 20th century, though not enough to join in.  But then Jane came up with a twist for her second round - reading mid-century as it were, from 1850-1949.  And that really piqued my interest, encompassing my favorite Victorians down to the mid-20th century.  It is a sad commentary on my TBR shelves that at this point, I already have 67 of those 100 years covered, some with 2-3 books.  The 1850s are the biggest gap, to my surprise.  The Dumas books I have waiting are too early, and the Trollope mostly too late (though coming in strong in the 1870s & 1880s).

So I think I am signing on for this one, but more with the intention of reading what I want to for the most part, and fitting those books into the century.  That means it will most likely take me more than the two years Jane has set as her goal.  The most important thing to me is that this should be fun. I won't read books just to fill up a year - I don't have enough time to read as it is.  But I am looking forward to discovering new authors, particularly for those 1850s.  I have a feeling I may finally have to read some e-books for the earlier years.  Also, I am going to borrow Jane's idea of periodic updates, since she found them helpful and encouraging.  But unlike Jane, I am going to read more than one book by some authors (Trollope comes to mind first), though I will try to avoid filling 1920-1949 just with Georgette Heyer, Dorothy L. Sayers, Angela Thirkell, Josephine Tey and Margery Allingham.  (I do have unread books by Heyer and Sayers that fall in those years, however.)

This is new territory for me, and a little outside my comfort zone - so a challenge in more than one sense.