Monday, July 25, 2016

A different kind of cover

Did you cover your school books? We did, usually in brown craft paper - sometimes even with grocery bags, as I remember. Then we'd spend the next few months doodling on them, decorating them, writing coded messages and jokes that seemed hilarious at the time. I haven't thought about that in years. I haven't covered a book in years. (I'm an archivist, not a librarian, so I never learned to do real book conservation).

Inspired by Audrey and Jane, I pulled Margery Sharp's The Eye of Love off the TBR shelves (partly in preparation for the arrival of the book on the left).

My copy is a first edition (third printing), and at almost 60, looking its age. It arrived without the dust jacket, which I don't mind at all. But the top of the spine is broken - luckily not yet completely detached. Someone probably have grabbed it from the top once too often. I've done that myself, pulling a book down from a shelf, and noticed how vulnerable the binding there can be. I do know enough not to try and tape a book back together (I could show you horrors of bad taping in my archives). So I decided to go the old-fashioned route and make a book cover. Not out of acidic brown paper, though, I used a sheet of acid-free paper instead. I couldn't quite remember how to fit the cover, and one of my co-workers helped me. It took me straight back to high school, those first days of the new school year with the books piled up. To be honest, my cover looks rather sad, a bit lumpy in spots, and the lettering leaves a lot to be desired. Hopefully it will keep the spine intact for a while, and that's all that matters to me.

Isn't the Martha in Paris cover lovely?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

New books, and a book lost

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A positively wolfish appetite for books

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

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Not a lot of reading, but books still beget books

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 24, 2016

New books: Behind the Scenes, by Elizabeth Keckley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

I am reading: Harriet Tubman, by Catherine Clinton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Three volumes of Emily Eden's letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Few Quick Ones, by P.G. Wodehouse

I haven't read all of P.G. Wodehouse's books - there are more than 100 - but I thought I was familiar with most of the titles. So it was a happy surprise to come across this one recently at Half Price Books. This is a short-story collection, first published in 1959. And it's something of a Wodehouse smorgasbord, with stories featuring his popular characters Bertie and Jeeves, Lord Emsworth, Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, the Oldest Member, and Mr Mulliner. Three are set at the Drones Club, but rather than the amiable Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, we get Oofy Prosser, the rich but tight-fisted blot who never puts himself out to help a friend in trouble.

I complained recently about short stories being too short, but reading these reminded me how well P.G. Wodehouse handles them. And I've noticed before how often his stories are about stories. It's not just Bertie addressing the reader. When the Oldest Member and Mr Mulliner appear (in this and other books), they're telling stories to those around them. Likewise, most of the Drones Club stories consist of members relating the adventures (and mishaps) of fellow members.

I don't think that Psmith ever appeared in a short story, so I didn't expect to see him. I was hoping though that Uncle Fred, the fifth Earl of Ickenham, might. After all, his long-suffering nephew Pongo Twistleton is a member of the Drones. (It's from the club windows that Uncle Fred uses a slingshot to fire on someone's hat, setting off the action in Cocktail Time.) But no such luck. I was happy though to see another earl, Clarence, the ninth Earl of Emsworth. In his story, "Birth of a Salesman," he is far away from his ancestral Blandings Castle. In the United States to attend a wedding, he is staying with his son Freddy on Long Island. His overbearing sisters tend to treat Lord Emsworth like he is dumber than a pile of rocks, and Freddy has unfortunately developed something of the same scornful attitude. Left to his own devices, Lord Emsworth gets to rescue a damsel in distress and score a point against Freddy. It was lovely to see him blossom out a bit, even if he is acting under a major misapprehension most of the time. I think his brother Galahad would be proud of him.

I still have a couple of Wodehouse books on the TBR stacks, but I'll keep an eye out too for the serendipitous ones that I didn't even know I was missing.

Friday, April 15, 2016

No Surrender, by Constance Maud

As I've mentioned before, U.S. women's history was one of my concentrations in school. That's where I learned about the different campaigns for equal rights, particularly for the vote. I never learned much about the movement in other countries though. Then a few years ago I read an overview of the U.S. woman suffrage campaign that discussed what American activists learned from the British campaigns, and how it changed their tactics. I have been interested ever since in learning more, though I haven't found a good overview yet (and welcome suggestions). When I saw that Persephone had published two novels about women's suffrage, I thought they might be a place to start.

I learned a lot from No Surrender, published in 1911. Constance Maud tells her story through two main characters: Jenny Clegg, a mill-hand, who sees the economic dimension of the women's rights movement; and Mary O'Neil, a young woman of good family, already active in social causes, who is inspired to join the cause. Both have support from older women friends, equally committed. Both are soon working full-time for suffrage, Jenny as a paid worker for a suffrage organization. We follow them through different campaigns, which land them both in jail more than once. I had not known that British women were arrested and jailed (in the "second division," as criminals) simply for trying to present petitions to government officials. That is something that women in the U.S. never faced. I learned that the British movement was then divided between constitutional suffragists and militant suffragettes. I think the terms "suffragist" and "suffragette" are used interchangeably for the U.S. campaign, which (among other issues) was divided over whether to seek a federal amendment to the Constitution or work state-by-state to get women the vote. Both tactical approaches involved petitions and meetings with political leaders. I also learned about the British suffragettes' campaign to be treated as political prisoners, not as criminals, and the hunger strikes that became one of their major tactics. The forced feedings that they endured sound like torture, particularly the nasal tubes.

I expected to learn from this book. But it is also a great story that held my interest to the last page. Jenny and Mary are both engaging, sympathetic characters. I think they keep the story grounded and real. Constance Maud had points to make and issues to address through them, but they never felt like mere straw women for her arguments. She makes those arguments, but she doesn't beat them into the ground. And there are lighter moments in her story. One Sunday morning Jenny and two other members of the Union Sisterhood head off to a country church where three Cabinet ministers will be attending services, a "rare opportunity which offered for catching [them] off their guard, and presenting the eternal Petition - justice for women." The sight of three young women, "all with conspicuous badges of the Union colours, bearing the device, 'Votes for Women,'" so terrifies the ministers' church party that one of them never even makes it into church, and another flees before the sermon. They wouldn't have appreciated the sermon anyway, since the visiting priest uses the story of Jael to preach in favor of women's rights and their campaign.

I do have to take issue with Constance Maud on one point, however. She describes the "presence of mind and imperturbable good humour" of women speakers facing hostile crowds. She goes on, "Thus have Jane Austen's sweet, sensitive English maidens, who went into fits of hysterics at the sight of a mouse, been transformed by a process of rapid evolution and adjustment to new environment." As far as I know, not a single mouse appears in any of Jane Austen's stories, and the only young woman who could be described as hysterical is Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Austen's young women are much stronger than Maud credits, and Austen herself is now seen as a feminist.

I found the preface by Lydia Fellgett very interesting and informative as well. It gives background information and context to Jenny and Mary's stories. I learned from it that Mary may be modeled in part on a socially prominent suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton. Her memoir Prisons & Prisoners, The Stirring Testimony of a Suffragette is now on my reading list. I think Cicely Hamilton's novel William - an Englishman will soon be joining it on the TBR shelves. Captive Reader Claire and I were discussing elsewhere the lack of good suffrage novels or stories set in North America. If you know of one, please let me know!

N.B. I am pleased that this book adds another year to my Mid-Century of Books.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Sue Barton, Visiting Nurse, by Helen Dore Boylston

Looking at the lists of books published in 1938, I didn't find too many for children or young adults. I was expecting to see one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books there, but that year fell between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. I did notice though when I completed my Sue Barton collection that the third in the series, Sue Barton, Visiting Nurse, was published in 1938, so I decided to re-read it (for the umpteenth time).

I wrote about this book in the early days of my blog (my original post is here). Briefly, it is the story of Sue Barton and her friend Kit Van Dyke, newly-qualified nurses who come to New York City to work in the Henry Street Settlements (a real place). As visiting nurses, they go into the immigrant neighborhoods and the tenements to provide home health care. Sue, who is secretly engaged to the handsome doctor Bill Barry, wants to work for a time before marriage. She falls in love with settlement work and is reluctant to give it up, despite increasing pressure from Bill.

Reading this book again, I was struck by a couple of things. First, there is nothing in the story that ties it specifically to the late 1930s. There are no references to current events or politics. People are out of work, but there is no mention of the Depression. Sue does think at one point that "This was the way the nurses in the Great War had had to work, making the best of what meagre equipment they had -" (and Helen Dore Boylston knew all about that from her own war-time nursing) - which would suggest a book written before World War II. There are also a couple of references to a fellow nurse, Miss Glines, whom Sue mentally categorizes as a "whoops-my-dear" type, a phrase that immediately made me think of the 1920s and Bright Young Things in stockings and gin. This lack of specifics in the setting here carries over in the later books, which were published in the 1940s and early 1950s but never mention the Second World War, even in passing.

Second, reading this again reminded me how much I love stories about young women coming to the Big City and making good. For stories set in the United States, this usually means New York. Here Sue and Kit get to live in a cozy little red-brick house in Greenwich Village, with a view of the Empire State Building. They can afford it because the rent is ridiculously low, due to rumors that the house is haunted. They also get to stay in luxury with cousins of Kit in their apartment on Central Park West. On their free days, they can wander the city and play tourist. And their Henry Street uniforms open doors everywhere. Helen Boylston lived in New York herself at different times, and she clearly loved it. Her city has slums and dirt and poverty, but it's full of life and energy - and very little crime. I'd love to visit her city. And reading this made me want to re-read other New York books, like All-of-a-Kind Family and The Saturdays, and watch some Rosalind Russell movies ("His Girl Friday" or "My Sister Eileen" - and "The Women").

N.B. In my original post, I mistakenly wrote that this book was published in 1939.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A bit of a blogging block

I've had Dorothy Whipple's High Wages and Margery Sharp's The Flowering Thorn by my computer for more than a week now. I started a post about High Wages, which is still sitting in the "drafts" folder. At this point it feels deader than Jacob Marley or the proverbial door-nail. I expected to like these books, and I did, very much. I'm giving them both five stars on LibraryThing. For some reason, though, I'm struggling with what to say beyond that - such an odd feeling, because I usually find myself with almost too much to say about books. I enjoyed the characters in both books, the settings, the common theme of young women finding their way in life (in very different ways). But when I try to write more, I just go blank. So for the moment, I am registering my unqualified approval of both books. (I'd like a sequel to High Wages, to see how Jane Carter fares in London. I worry that she won't find it as easy to open a shop there.)

I have been browsing the Persephone list, and I think that Dorothy Whipple's Greenbanks will be my next order. I'm also leaning toward A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes - there are so many to choose from! I haven't heard anything more about an American branch of the shop, but I am still hoping. Until then, the shipping charges will keep me from ordering too many at one time.

Fortunately, it's just writing that's a problem, not reading. I'm deep into Constance Maud's No Surrender, which has added William - An Englishman to my reading list. I can't think of any American novels about the woman's suffrage movement, though Louisa May Alcott endorses in a couple of her books. If you know of any, please let me know!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

This book just knocked me sideways. It's the first of a series, and I realized half-way through that the second book isn't coming out until August. It's going to be a long five months. I mean, how often do you read a book with first lines like this?
    Let's start with the end of the world, why don't we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.
    First, a personal ending. There is a thing she will think over and over in the days to come, as she imagines how her son died and tries to make sense of something so innately senseless. She will cover Uche's broken little body with a blanket - except his face, because he is afraid of the dark - and she will sit beside it numb, and she will pay no attention to the world that is ending outside. The world has already ended within her, and neither ending is for the first time. She's old hat at this by now. . .
    But you need context. Let's try the ending again, writ continentally.
    Here is a land.
The end comes - and this is all in the Prologue, mind you - when a man stands outside a great city. He gather forces from below and around and above him.
    He takes all that, the strata and the magma and the people and the power, in his imaginary hands. Everything. He holds it. He is not alone. The earth is with him.
    Then he breaks it. . .
     Now there is a line, roughly east-west and too straight, almost neat in its manifest unnaturalness, spanning the girth of the land's equator. The line's origin point is the city of Yumenes.
    The line is deep and raw, a cut to the quick of the planet. Magma wells in its wake, fresh and glowing red. The earth is good at healing itself. The wound will scab over quickly in geologic terms, and then the cleansing ocean will follow its line to bisect the Stillness into two lands. Until this happens, however, the wound will fester with not only heat but gas and gritty, dark ash - enough to choke off the sky across most of the Stillness's face within a few weeks.
This ushers in a Fifth Season, "an extended winter - lasting at least six months" according to the glossary in the back of the book. I didn't find that appendix until I'd finished the book. I had figured that the Fifth Season must be a deadly one, outside the normal round of time, which this one certainly will be.

We learn later that there are people in this land (the Stillness) who like the unnamed man of the prologue can pull and direct energy from the earth or other matter. The official term for these people is "orogene," but they are usually called "roggas" by those who hate and fear them. Children who show orogenic talent may be sent to the Fulcrum in Yumenes, where they are taught to control and use the talents, to stop earthquakes for example. Some orogenes try to mask their power, to blend in with their communities. But the gift (or the curse) is genetic, and children often give themselves away before they learn to hide it.

There are several strands to this story, which moves back and forth in time from the end of the world. We learn more about the woman mourning her dead son, who must also deal with the cataclysm unleashed by the broken earth. There is another child, from an earlier time, whose power manifests itself one day in the school yard. Her frantic parents lock her in the barn while they notify the authorities. And we follow an older orogene, sent from the Fulcrum to deal with a problem in a coastal community. It took me a little while to orient myself in this world, and to sort out the different strands of the story. But I found each of them so compelling that the switches between them caught me by surprise. I was sometimes tempted to peek ahead, to follow a particular story a bit further - but I resisted. I had an idea that a couple of them might come together in the end, but there were twists that I didn't see coming. I reached the last page without realizing it, mislead by the appendices and some teaser chapters from other books. I wasn't prepared for the story to end, and I was left feeling a bit bereft. I've had a hard time settling down with another book since- my heart and mind are still back in the unstill Stillness. I have already pre-ordered the next book. There are mysteries to be explained, and I want to know what happens next!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Visitors, by Sally Beauman

This book is set mainly around the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, in the early 1920s. It is narrated by Lucy Fox-Payne, eleven years old when the story opens. She has come to Egypt in the winter of 1922, under the care of Miss Myrtle Mackenzie, still suffering the combined effects of a bout of typhoid fever and the loss of her mother to the same illness. Her father, a Fellow of Trinity College in Cambridge, never had much time for his daughter and is quite happy to ship her off with Miss Mackenzie.

Staying at the famed Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo, Lucy and Miss Mack meet the Winlocks, a family of Americans. Lucy makes friends with Frances Winlock, whose father Herbert is the director of excavations for the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Miss Mack meanwhile bonds with Helen Winlock, Frances's mother. Through this family, she and Lucy meet other archaeologists, including Howard Carter. They also meet Lady Evelyn Herbert, daughter of Lord Carnarvon, who holds the permit that allows Carter to dig in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes. When the archaeologists move on to Luxor, Lucy and Miss Mack go with them.

The story moves back and forth in time. In the present-day, the elderly Lucy is visited by Dr. Ben Fong, an American working in London on a documentary about King Tutankhamun and the discovery of the tomb. She distrusts him from the first, but his visits stir up memories, and she begins to sort through old letters and photographs, as well as her memories. The story also moves back and forth between Egypt and England, as Lucy returns home to Cambridge. Later she visits the Carnarvons at Highclere Castle, while staying with two young friends she met in Egypt, Rose and Peter. Lucy and Miss Mack manage to return to Luxor for the 1922-1923 digging season, which is of course when Howard Carter finally makes his great discovery.

I spent much of the weekend completely caught up in this book, which has layer upon layer of plot elements. I was fascinated by the sections set in Egypt. I knew the basic outline of the history of the tomb, and I've seen three different exhibits of artifacts from it (someday I hope to see them in Egypt). Reading this, I felt like I was right in the middle of the events, though naturally Lucy and Miss Mack are mainly observers. I did stop to look up photos of the real-life characters and some of the artifacts. (Ms. Beauman includes a list of characters at the beginning, with the fictional ones noted, and a section at the end with details about the lives of the real people in later years.)

The sections set in England, both in the past and the present, were interesting in different ways. I liked the older Lucy and enjoyed learning how her life had unfolded. When she returns to Cambridge the first time, she discovers that her father has installed a governess for her. Nicola Dunshire, a graduate of Girton, is a self-proclaimed bluestocking who pushes her pupil hard, and not just in her studies. She and Lucy have the most complicated relationship, and I'm still puzzling over the nuances of it. Her father lives in his rooms at college, returning only on Sundays, and Lucy spends most of her time with Miss Dunshire. (I loathed him from the start, and he did nothing to change my mind - quite the opposite.)

I had only one quibble with this book. Lucy and Frances Winlock show a great talent for eavesdropping. They regularly fade into the background, behind sofas and so on, where they overhear all kinds of fascinating information. But various adults are also prone to confide in Lucy as soon as she sits down near them. I found it hard to believe that Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter in particular would talk so freely to a young girl that they hardly know. I understand it's a plot device to convey information that Lucy otherwise wouldn't have access to, but it felt clumsy.

This book was a birthday gift, from the friend who first introduced me to Elizabeth Peters's books. I had to keep reminding myself that Amelia and Emerson were not going to make an appearance in this one. (My sister reminded me that Emerson was at this point banned from excavating in the Valley of the Kings after picking fights with various officials.) There is a bibliography of books about Egypt and archaeology, some by the real-life people of this book, and I may be looking for some of those. I see Ms. Beauman has also written several other books. Any recommendations of which to read next? (Probably not the Rebecca sequel.)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Sisters, by Ada Cambridge

It took me three tries to read this 1904 novel, because the first chapter got the story off to such an ominous start. It introduces us to Guthrie Carey, a young sailor who "married Lily Harrison, simply because she was a poor, pretty, homeless little girl, who had to earn her living as a nondescript lady-help in hard situations, and never had a holiday." Two weeks after their marriage, he shipped out for a long voyage. When he returned almost a year later, he had a son. He prepares a cozy home for his family, and to give his wife a treat he arranges to travel there by boat, across the bay outside Melbourne. The couple are sitting happily cuddled together in the bow of the ship when a rogue wave hits, washing them overboard. Lily, who cannot swim, sinks and drowns, leaving Guthrie with their infant son.

All this happens in the first chapter. Now, Ada Cambridge began A Humble Enterprise with a tragic accident, and a much gorier one at that. But I had a feeling that this story was going to be a darker one, more like A Marked Man or Fidelis. This time, I made up my mind I was going to get past Lily and see where the story took me.

It is through his son Harry that Guthrie meets the sisters of the title, four daughters of Mr Pennycuick of Redford, a sheep station in the Western District. The second daughter, Deborah, is the belle of the district, and Guthrie promptly falls in love with her. Her older sister Mary, afflicted with a skin condition, has run the household since the death of their mother. She takes charge of Harry, making much of him - as women with an eye on the widower father tend to do. The third sister, Rose, is a quiet homebody, while the youngest, Francie, is a budding minx and hobbledehoya. The story shifts from Guthrie to follow the sisters through the next twenty years, particularly after their father's death leaves them almost penniless. (Guthrie turns up occasionally, between voyages.) I think Cambridge was using their stories to explore the limited choices available to women of their class. Each marries, but the only happy one shocks the other three, because that sister marries "beneath her." She has to keep apologizing that her husband is "only a draper," despite the fact that she lives in great comfort and on the best terms with her handsome husband (and their eleven children). Another sister is forced at a moment of great emotional crisis to marry a clergyman in full Mr Collins mode. Cambridge's comment on this marriage shocked me: it "meant a footing for her somewhere, and at the same time a means to commit suicide without violating the law." No wonder that on their wedding night she "shrank back from [the bedroom door] with a shriek." Cambridge wrote in A Humble Enterprise that a good marriage is "the nearest approach to happiness that has been discovered at present," while an "unlucky" marriage is a "living martyrdom." She certainly echoes that here.

I was drawn into the sisters' stories, curious to see how they would turn out. I was pretty sure that the "mésalliance" would be a success, but I had my doubts about choices the others made. I couldn't help comparing these sisters to those in The Three Miss Kings. The Pennycuicks are much richer and grander, at least while their father is alive. They don't have the closeness of the King sisters, nor their cheerful ingenuity. Both stories have an element of a fairy tale, with a generous godparent, but the Pennycuicks don't get as much joy out of theirs. In the end, I thought this book was interesting, but it didn't draw me like The Three Miss Kings or A Humble Enterprise.

One last note: another reason I struggled with this book is the weird formatting of the copy I read. It is a modern reprint by Kessinger Publishing, in an odd size (9x7 inches, which feels almost square). It is very poorly edited, with different characters' speeches running together in paragraphs, and it has LOTS of ODD capitalization (perhaps italics in the original). If I am tempted to re-read this book, I think I'll look for an e-version.

N.B. This fills another year in my Mid-Century of Books.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Book serendipity

I had planned to write a post this evening about a book I've actually read, but instead I have to share some books that I found today, serendipitously. (The spell-check thinks that isn't a word; if not, it should be.) I enjoy tracking books down on-line, and there is a particular joy in finding an elusive title. Then there are the books that turn up when I least expect them, often the unusual ones - and frequently completely new to me.

The first, on the left, came from a charity shop where I will soon be volunteering. I went to a lunch for new recruits today, and according to the people at my table, the book section needs workers. I have to circulate through the different areas at first, to get a sense of the operations, but I'll be putting my name in for the book section. After the lunch I had my first real browse through the shop, and there in the book section I found Give the Lady What She Wants, a history of Marshall Field and Company, the iconic Chicago department store. This is where Emily Kimbrough worked, and the book even has a picture of the Charley who guided shoppers Through Charley's Door. I might not have bought it just for that, or for the mentions of Kimbrough and Cornelia Otis Skinner, but the jacket copy promises "the story of Woman's Century in which females won their right to buy, dress and live as they chose..." and "the rise of militant Feminism, paced by the marching Bloomer girls." I'm curious, I admit, to see how the two male authors define "militant Feminism" in a book written in 1952. I will say, the pictures are fascinating, particularly of women's clothes (I haven't found the Bloomer costumes yet).

Later, just to kill a few minutes, I stopped in at Half-Price Books. First, in the "old and interesting section," I found The One I Knew Best of All, an autobiography by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It's a lovely hardback from 1895, in a green binding with gold decorations on the front cover and spine. She wrote in the Preface,
I should feel a serious delicacy in presenting to the world a sketch so autobiographical as this if I did not feel myself absolved from any charge of the bad taste of personality by the fact that I believe I might fairly entitle it "The Story of any Child with an Imagination."
Next, in the general fiction section, I passed right by a small grey book before my mind registered it as a Persephone. And not just any title, but Dorothy Whipple's High Wages, the book of hers I've been anxious to read next. (I talked myself out of a visit to the Persephone site to order it just three days ago.) It is in perfect condition and even has the bookmark. I will continue to order directly from Persephone, because I want to support their work, but I can't pass one up one of their books for a good price and no international shipping costs.

Finally, in the travel section, I saw Jerome K. Jerome's name on a title I didn't recognize: Diary of a Pilgrimage. Published in 1891, it is an account of a trip to Oberammergau to see the Passion Play.  I think Germany brings out the best (or the worst) in Jerome, and I'm really looking forward to reading this.  Since I was going to break the TBR Dare anyway, this might be the perfect book for Easter time.

I was going to break it with Emily Eden, but there has been a slight delay in that plan. Despite what many booksellers apparently believe, her book Up the Country is not Volume II of her Letters from India. Thinking that I had already read the second set of letters, I only bought Volume I of the Letters. Now I've realized my mistake and I'm waiting on a copy of Volume II, before I start Volume I.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ending the TBR dare a little Early - due to the letter E

As James has just reminded us, there are only eleven days left in the TBR Triple Dog Dare. I know I could make it to April 1st, but I don't think I will. There are two reasons for this. The first is the long Easter weekend. While I'll be spending extra time at church, I'll also have extra time for reading, and it feels like a good time to get to some of the new books.

One book in particular, by Emily Eden. I mentioned before that ABE Books finally found me a copy of Miss Eden's Letters, edited by a great-niece and published in 1919. I had downloaded an e-version some time ago and read about two-thirds of it. I stopped at the point in 1835 where Miss Eden was preparing to go to India with her brother, Lord Auckland, the newly-appointed Governor-General. I've read her book Up the Country, a collection of letters written from India between 1837 and 1840. I have since learned that two additional books of her letters from India were published soon after her death. I've re-read Miss Eden's Letters up to 1835, but because I like my stories in chronological order, I've set them aside to read the Letters from India. Volume I (a modern reprint) arrived last week. As soon as I finish the book I'm currently reading (from the TBR shelves), I think I will be back with Miss Eden.

I really enjoy her letters, which remind me of Jane Austen's. Like Austen, she was part of a large, clever, close and funny family. Unlike Austen's, though, they were nobility, an old Whig political family. Emily's father, the first Lord Auckland, was a diplomat who served as Ambassador to France, Spain and Holland. She moved in the highest social and political circles. She and her unmarried sister Fanny acted as hostesses for their bachelor brother, with whom they lived. Like Austen, she came to value her "life of single blessedness," particularly as her sisters and women friends produced child after child. "Six small Intellects constantly on the march, and [sister] Mary, of course, is hatching a seventh child," she wrote in 1827 (another sister gave birth to seventeen).

I'll write more about this book later, when I've finished it, but I have to share this Austen-esque paragraph from an 1815 letter to her brother George, Lord Auckland:
There is to be a meeting of all the Sunday Schools in the district next week at Bromley, and a collection, and a collation. We mean to eat up the collation, and give all our old clipped sixpences to the collection, which we think is a plan you would approve if you were here.
And this one, to her oldest sister Lady Buckinghamshire in 1817, could have come straight out of Jane Austen's juvenalia:
My dearest Sister, the reason I am in such a state of ignorance about the letter is, that Mama and Louisa went to meet them on their way to London; that we were behind them in the poney-cart; and George behind us in the grig. We all fell in with each other and the letters in the middle of Penge Common, where we each took what belonged to us. I met immediately with the dreadful intelligence that you were going actually to take May Place, and on our recommendation, which dreadful intelligence I communicated to George, who immediately fainted away, and was driven off by his servant. I fainted away, and was driven off by Mary, and Mama and Louisa went on in hysterics to London.
The later letters are less light-hearted, but always interesting. I am looking forward to reading in Letters from India about the long voyage out, and her first impressions of the country.

I've done pretty well with the Dare as it is. I've cleared off 53 books, and half of two more. I've added another 35 to the shelves though, which only gives me a net gain of 18 (plus two pending). In addition to Miss Eden's letters, I'm looking forward to reading more Willa Cather, Patricia Wentworth, Margery Sharp, and N.K. Jemisin. I am also anxious to get to Shilpi Somaya Gowda's new book, The Golden Son.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Growing Older with Jane Austen, by Maggie Lane

 I love this cover!

The reviews in JASNA News, the newsletter of the Jane Austen Society of North America, tempt me with every issue. That's where I discovered this. I had already read two of Maggie Lane's books, Jane Austen and Food and Jane Austen and Names, both of which I found very interesting and informative (particularly the book on food). I also have her Jane Austen's England on the TBR shelves.

As you would guess from the title, this book is an exploration of age and aging in Austen's work. It draws on her letters as well as her novels, the juvenalia, Lady Susan, and the unfinished works (The Watsons and Sanditon). Maggie Lane also incorporates the real-life experiences of Austen, her family and friends. As she writes in the Introduction,
    Unlike her parents and six of her seven siblings, who all lived into their seventies, eighties or even, in one case, nineties, Jane Austen did not see old age. She was just forty-one when she died, in the very prime of her writing life. But she did share, with everyone who outlives youth itself, the experience of growing older. Jane Austen at forty was a different woman from Jane Austen at twenty.
    Like any thinking person, she was aware of the changes in herself wrought by time. . . 
There are chapters on "The Loss of Youth and Beauty," "Old Wives" and "Old Maids," "Four Dowager Despots," and "The Dangerous Indulgence of Illness." Maggie Lane points out that Austen's main characters are young, but each book has a large supporting cast of people in different phases of their lives. Much of her discussion focuses on these characters. I had not appreciated before how
With the lightest of touches, Jane Austen grounds her characters in the age range they inhabit. Small details of clothes, hair or deportment, or more frequently and consistently of speech, outlook and habit, help us perceive her older characters to be middle-aged or elderly. We experience them as older people, acting and speaking in ways that distinguish them - yet without exaggerated effect - from the youthful cohort whose foils they are. In fact, from infancy to senescence, her characters act in age, while not sacrificing individuality.
I knew that Jane Austen with her many nieces and nephews appreciated the importance of aunts, but I had not realized how few grandparents there are in her books. She never knew her own, and none of her heroines has one. Jane Fairfax of Emma is the only major character to have a grandparent, in Mrs. Bates - and an inactive one, "a very old lady, almost past every thing but tea and quadrille." So Austen's heroines lack any guidance from that earlier generation, as do the parents of the heroines (some of whom stand in need of help and advice themselves, like Mrs. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility).

I found the last chapter, "Nothing to Do but to Die," very interesting. Again, I had not considered how few deaths occur in Austen's novels (there are more, and comic ones, in the juvenalia). "Death is never gratuitous in Austen," Lane writes; "it always has some function to perform in terms of plot or character." Mrs. Churchill's death in Emma, the only one to take place in the course of the story, frees Frank Churchill to marry Jane Fairfax. Mrs. Tilney's off-stage death in Northanger Abbey is the only one described in any detail, and hearing the story from Henry Tilney has a huge impact on Catherine Morland and on their relationship. In this chapter Maggie Lane also considers the deaths in Austen's own family, including her own. In a short "Conclusion," Lane asks what Austen's life would have been like had she not died so young. "Professionally, she would surely have grown in both output and reputation. . . Did she have a Cranford in her? Or a 'Condition of England' novel?" How I wish we could know.

Reading this has moved Jane Austen's England up my reading list. And from the bibliography I had a couple of other titles in mind, Jane Austen's Family through Five Generations (Maggie Lane) and Jane Austen and the Body (John Wilshire).

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Liffey Lane, by Maura Laverty

This 1947 novel, published in the UK as Lift Up Your Gates, is set in the slums of Dublin. Fourteen-year-old Chrissie Byrne lives in a one-room flat with her mother and her brother Lar. Her small cousin Kevin, the illegitimate child of her aunt Phil, used to live with them, but now he has a place at a nearby industrial school. When we meet Chrissie, she is sitting on a bench in St. Stephen's Green, waiting to collect the papers she delivers each evening to the small houses and cottages on the "good" side of Liffey Lane. They are across the lane from the tenement where the Byrnes live, which is due to be demolished in a few weeks.

Chrissie is in no hurry to collect the papers and head home, because she is in trouble. She has sold something that doesn't belong to her, to buy a treat for Kevin when she visits him at school. And even worse, what she has taken belongs to the convent that gives her family and many others a hot "Penny Dinner" every day, making sure they have enough to eat. Sister Martha, who oversees the kitchen where the food is cooked and distributed, lent Chrissie a nice little tin, to carry the daily stew home. But after her brother Lar, addicted to gambling, took the money she had saved, Chrissie is desperate to bring Kevin the cake roll she promised.

We follow Chrissie as she moves through her evening round, sick with the guilt and shame of her theft. We meet her customers and learn something of their lives, and we also learn more about Chrissie and her family, as well as their neighbors on the "wrong" side of the street. I was worried about where Chrissie's story might take her - not realizing that there are several different stories winding through hers. Her story comes to an end, one that I think is a happy one, but several of theirs are left open, unresolved, and I have been thinking about how they might turn out.

At first this story seemed very far from the small town of Ballyderrig, the setting of her best-known book Never No More (and a later book, Touched by the Thorn). Laverty puts her readers right in the middle of the poverty, the dirt, the smells of the Liffey Lane tenements. Food and decent clothing are scarce, and illness common particularly among the children. But there is also kindness and decency, neighbors looking out for each other, a community very different from that of the small Irish town, but still bound together. But this community is being scattered as the tenements are torn down, forcing the residents to find other homes. Chrissie moves through this world, and the more privileged one on the "right" side of the street, centered in her love for Kevin, whom she helped raise from a baby, and in her simple faith. She also has a true friend in Sister Martha, who makes time to listen and to help when she can.

I thought there was also a familiar Laverty touch in the chapter where one of Chrissie's customers makes an apple tart, with all of the loving attention to the details of Gran in Never No More. (I need to look for a copy of Laverty's iconic book on Irish cooking.) Another of Chrissie's customers is a writer, struggling with a story that compels him. I wondered if he was speaking for his author, when he thought about his work.
He continued to write, refusing to interrupt the rare lovely harmony which existed between his pen and his vision, fearing to move lest the harmony should shatter in discord. He was too appreciative of what had been given to him this evening to take any risk of spoiling it. Such harmony came so seldom. But when it came, how generously it made up for everything! One hour of it, and he forgot the torture of all those arid days when he sat dry-souled and futile and thwarted, deserted by the vision, sickened by the tastelessness of the words that came to him. One hour like this, and he recanted all the bitter protests his heart had ever uttered against the slavery into which a man delivered himself when he obeyed the urge to create.
This was Maura Laverty's last novel. I wonder if the vision deserted her. I hope not - I wish there were more of her books to discover. But I'm grateful for the four that she did write. I know I'll be reading and re-reading them many times in the years to come.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Now and Then, by Emily Kimbrough, and which books of hers I think you should read (and which avoid)

This 1971 book is I think the last that Emily Kimbrough wrote - or at least it's the last that I have collected. It is a memoir, a series of remembrances, not one of her travel books. She began with stories about her twin daughters and then went on to write about events in her own childhood and adolescence. I enjoyed reading them, seeing how they fit into what I already knew of her life, particularly from her first autobiographical book, How Dear to My Heart. There is a chapter about the birth of her younger brother, which plays a part in the earlier book, but here we see it from another angle and learn a family secret, one I found genuinely touching (and a little eerie). I enjoyed meeting Emily's parents again, as well as her stepmother Achsah (first met in Through Charley's Door, she was apparently still alive at the time this book was written). There is a brief cameo by Cornelia Otis Skinner - and a cosy tête-a-tête dinner with Katharine Cornell to boot. I was also interested in a chapter detailing a family trip to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. During their stay in the city, Emily spent most of her time with a theater troupe rehearsing a series of Greek plays, eventually earning a place in the Chorus. (I learned a lot more about the fair itself from Laura Ingalls Wilder, who stayed with her daughter Rose for the exhibition; her letters home to Almanzo were published in West From Home.)

So I will put this book on the "keeper" list. Not the "you have to have this book" list - see below. Now, just for my own entertainment, I'm going to rank the other books of hers that I have read.

In the "You have to have this book" category, there is only one: Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, written with Cornelia Otis Skinner. Seriously, everyone should have a copy of this book.

In my "Really good - worth looking for" category, I would put most of her memoirs:
  • How Dear to My Heart - life as a child in Muncie, Indiana, before the Great War
  • Through Charley's Door - entering the working world in the 1920s
  • ....It Gives Me Great Pleasure - her career as a speaker, touring small-town America in the 1940s
  •  We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood - this one about traveling to Hollywood with Cornelia Otis Skinner to write a screenplay of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay just squeaks in. She tries too hard to be funny in the beginning, but it gets better once they arrive in California and set to work. 
  • Now and Then

The best of the travelogues:

A bit "meh" but readable and mildly amusing in spots:
  • Forty Plus and Fancy Free - a driving tour of Italy and a trip to London for Queen Elizabeth's Coronation
  • Time Enough - a canal-boat trip in Ireland

Don't bother:
  • The Innocents from Indiana - a memoir of her family's move to Chicago when she was eleven (I was really disappointed in this one)
  • Floating Island - a canal-boat trip in France (despite Cornelia Otis Skinner being one of the party)
  • And a Right Good Crew - a canal-boat trip in Great Britain
  • Forever Old, Forever New - a return to Greece

Avoid like the proverbial plague: So Near and Yet So Far - a tour of Louisiana (I'm not even sure why I still own a copy of this)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A double dose of Miss Silver

I've been trying to ration my reading of Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver mysteries, partly because I don't have that many left to read, and partly because it would be so easy to binge on them. I gave into temptation recently and read two, though not in a row. They were both published in 1955, which I only realized as I was writing this. I've been a little dubious about the later books in this long series, but I found these two very entertaining.

The first was Vanishing Point. I remember Vicki (skiourophile/bibliolathas) saying that she enjoyed this one. Here is the blurb from my later Coronet edition, which has I think a great cover:

    Hazel Green was as quiet a place as you could imagine. Nothing ever happened there except polite afternoon tea-parties spiced with village gossip. But suddenly something rather strange did happen. Maggie Bell went out one evening for a breath of air - and never came back.
    Was her disappearance linked to security leaks at the nearby Air Ministry experimental station? Miss Silver is called to clear up the mystery. Just in time for the next disappearance...
She is called in by the police, to be exact. I think this is the first of her adventures to involve espionage! And Miss Silver goes to work on the case while knitting a hood and scarf in cherry wool for her great-nice Josephine, and she has time to start a twin set and then a pair of leggings for the child as well.

What amused me most about this book involves the central characters. Rosamond and Jenny Maxwell live with their cousin Lydia Crewe. Jenny was badly injured in a car accident, and she needed somewhere quiet to recuperate. Rosamond, who cares for her, is also working herself to the bone for Cousin Lydia in return for their keep. Jenny at twelve is bright and precocious, with dreams of being a writer. She has in fact sent some of her work to a publishing firm. One of their agents, Craig Lester, comes to Crewe House to meet her. He gives Jenny some advice about the writing life, and I presume he is speaking for his author here. Jenny chatters to him about her own favorite authors, particularly Gloria Gilmore and Mavis la Rue. Lester and Rosamond are rather scathing about their books, with titles like Passionate Heart and A Sister's Sacrifice. Lester advises Rosamond to "see that she has the right things to read - don't let her fritter away her taste on trash." He recommends a solid diet of Victorian novelists to "Stop the rubbish." I couldn't help but be amused at this attitude from an author whose books inevitably feature an angry young man who must rescue a beautiful young woman in danger (did I mention Craig Lester's temper?). But then Miss Wentworth's books are far from rubbish.

The second book was Poison in the Pen (a Christmas present from my friend Nancy, who noticed I was collecting Miss Silver books). Here is the back-cover blurb from the Harper edition I read:
    When a mysterious suicide follows an outbreak of poison pen letters in the quiet village of Tilling Green, Detective Inspector Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard dispatches Miss Silver to investigate. Disguised as a vacationer, the retired governess stays with Renie Walsh, the town gossip, and learns of the marital and financial difficulties among the Reptons at the Manor House as well as all the petty details of life among the other village inhabitants.
    It soon becomes apparent to Miss Silver that the suicide was murder...
Here again it is Scotland Yard that calls Miss Silver in. I thought this was a nicely twisted mystery, and I admit that Wentworth neatly pulled the proverbial wool over my eyes. I never saw the final twist coming. What particularly caught my attention in this book however is that it features a crazy cat man. James Barton, the village recluse and misanthrope, lives in Gale's Cottage with his seven tabby cats, all with Biblical names starting with "A" (Achan, Abijah, Abimelech and so on). Every night they join Barton in his rambles around the village, but neither he nor they are seen during the day.

Tilling Green is in the county of Ledshire, whose Chief Constable, Randal March, was once a pupil of Miss Silver's. I have met him in other books, but I haven't been keeping track of which ones. I think that his wife might have been involved in one of Miss Silver's cases as well. I am starting to think that Ledshire is rather like Midsomer County, at least in its homicide rate.

Oh, and in this book, Miss Silver is knitting a red-wool cardigan, a Christmas present for her niece Ethel, Josephine's mother. Hopefully the reds will look well together!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Jane and Her Gentlemen, by Audrey Hawkridge

The subtitle of this book, published in 2000, is "Jane Austen and the Men in Her Life and Novels." Audrey Hawkridge has held one of my dream jobs, working for the Jane Austen Memorial Trust at Jane Austen's House in Chawton. Visiting the House was by far the highlight of my last trip to Great Britain. I have never moved so slowly through a museum - I wanted to see absolutely everything. (I may have even touched a couple of things, accidentally of course.)

This joins my extensive collection of "Jane Austen and..." books (the clergy, marriage, food, crime, and so on). I see that Ms. Hawkridge has also written Jane Austen and Hampshire, which I expect will be added to the collection at some point.

Ms. Hawkridge begins with a brief biography of Jane Austen. She then looks at the men in Austen's family, her father and brothers, as well as her nephew and first biographer, James Edward Austen-Leigh (the son of her oldest brother James). Next she covers the fictional men in Austen's novels, suggesting possible links to her family. Austen's naval brother Frank, for example, rejected the idea that Captain Wentworth of Persuasion was based on him, but admitted that "the description of [Captain Harville's] domestic habits, tastes, and occupations have a considerable resemblance to mine." I remember Austen mentioned in one of her letters that Frank made fringe for the drawing-room curtains of the house they were sharing in Southampton. The final section covers Austen's romantic interests, starting of course with Tom Lefroy, whose family removed him from a promising flirtation because he could not marry the daughter of a country rector with no money of her own. Ms. Hawkridge argues that Austen chose to remain single, rejecting at least one offer of marriage, and settled contentedly into life as a spinster. She also suggests that Mr Knightley of Emma is the best match for Austen herself - dismissing Edmund Bertram, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon as unheroic and anaemic. (That may be true of the book's Col. Brandon, but not of Alan Rickman's smouldering Colonel.)

I enjoyed looking at Jane Austen's life and works from this angle, and it made me wish for a companion book on the women in her life. I find Austen's mother fascinating, with her quick wit, her hypochondria, and her pride in the family nose. I'm equally interested in the Austen women's friendship with the Lloyd sisters, particularly Martha, who came to live with them at Chawton. Her sister Mary, James Austen's second wife, was apparently sometimes difficult to get along with, though all kindness in Jane's final illness. I appreciated Ms. Hawkridge's point that Jane (and Cassandra) spent a lot of time and energy on their brothers' concerns, including helping with their families. I had not realized how much Austen wrote about their health problems in her letters, which say very little about her own. (Her brother Edward seems to have inherited their mother's tendency to hypochondria.)

Friday, February 26, 2016

Bibliotherapy at the end of a tough week

This was a full-moon week, for sure. Too many things to do, too many deadlines and appointments. I felt off-balance all week, like the Red Queen running as fast as I could just to stay in place. And to cap the week off, I had a meeting with my tax adviser this afternoon. (At least it looks like I'll owe less money this year.) Heading home afterwards, I felt I deserved a treat - or a prize for getting through the week. I started with a chai latte at Starbucks and then plotted a course for Kaboom Books. Though I had Willa Cather and Margery Sharp in mind, I wasn't looking for anything in particular. As usual, I found some irresistible books there.

I had not come across this 1935 novel before. The back cover has a quote from the Times Literary Supplement that sold me on it: "In Lucy Gayheart, Willa Cather seems to be writing the lightest and slightest of records of a short life: the obscure life of a young girl in an American village who goes to Chicago to study music . . . but the impression left on the reader is not slight . . . The unity of Miss Cather's design, the clarity and distinction of this book should put it beside her first great success, My Antonia."

Another book I knew nothing of, despite my years of collecting P.G. Wodehouse's books. The back-cover blurb says that this is "the nearest Wodehouse ever came to a serious story," but it also mentions "a series of of comic mishaps in a book which features a galaxy of vintage Wodehouse characters." I see it was published in the U.S. as Their Mutual Child. I just mentioned in a post on Indiscretions of Archie that I've never read a Wodehouse book with a pregnant character - and here apparently is another. Though if the woman on the cover is pregnant, she is carrying that child in a very odd place.

This book sold itself on the title and cover alone. I see that Isabella Bird and Amelia Edwards are included, and I'm looking forward to meeting more of their intrepid sisterhood. I also see many lovely illustrations  - and maps! Lots of maps, for the geographically-challenged!

I instantly thought of Jane of Beyond Eden Rock when I saw this book. I enjoyed reading the three volumes of Rev. Francis Kilvert's diaries from the 1870s, but I was frustrated by the editing, which (as often happens) cut out things that I wanted to read about in favor of things the editor wanted to talk about. (See also: the diaries of George Templeton Strong.) This small volume covers a holiday that Kilvert spent in Cornwall in 1870. "This is the first complete edition of Kilvert's Journal No. 4..." I love the words "complete edition," as well as "Copiously illustrated with contemporary photographs and engravings - some of which are published here for the first time..."

Some time ago, I came across Vol. II of Anthony Trollope's 1862 travelogue North America, in the edition above. Having already read an extremely condensed one-volume edition, I bought it, even though Vol. I was not on the shelf, because complete editions of these books are hard to find (in print). I felt sure that someday I would come across the first volume, and today I did. But it was on sale with the second volume, as a set. I can understand that the proprietor didn't want to be left with an odd Vol. II that was unlikely to sell (except to a hopeful reader like me). So I bought the set, which at least wasn't expensive. If anyone would like the orphaned Vol. II, I'd be happy to send it along. I think it may be the more interesting of the two anyway, since it covers Trollope's visit to Washington and to the western theatre of the Civil War and its armies.

More for the TBR stacks, but at least I think I can resist them for the remainder of the TBR Dare (I've resisted Vol. II of North America for quite a while now).