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!