Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dancing with Lord Krishna

Faint Promise of Rain, Anjali Mitter Duva

I learned about this book from a Book Riot podcast that offered suggestions for reading more diversely, particularly among South Asian authors.  I wrote down a slew of authors' names and book titles as I watched.  I immediately focused on this book because of its setting: among a family of temple dancers, living in India in the mid-1500s.  It sounded so intriguing, unlike anything I'd read before.

The story opens in 1611 and then quickly jumps back to 1554, the day that a daughter, Adhira, is born to Girija and her husband Gandar.  She is their fourth and last child.  Her father is the dance master of the temple of Krishna that lies just outside Jaisalmer, a walled citadel in Rajasthan in northern India.  Gandar teaches the devadasis, the women dedicated to Krishna as temple dancers.  They dance daily in honor and worship within the temple, as well as at at major holidays and important events like a raja's coronation.  Through their dancing they are vessels for the god's blessings to flow to his servants.  They are spiritually married to Krishna and are treated as holy themselves.  No one may touch them, but after they dance, people rush to collect the dust their feet touched.  There is however one major and unpleasant exception to the no-touching rule: once a devadasi reaches womanhood, she is auctioned off to the highest bidder, who becomes her patron.  He is expected to support her and her family with generous gifts.  In a particularly frustrating bit of double-standard, a devadasi must sleep with her patron whenever he summons her, but that makes her "impure," so she isn't allowed to dance for a few days.  Any female child she bears him is destined to become a devadasi in turn, though girls born to outsiders can be accepted into the temple.  In fact, like medieval convents, the temple can be a good place to deposit an extra unwanted daughter.

I found the whole temple fascinating, particularly the descriptions of the dances, which tell stories of Hinduism's gods and heroes.  Often one dancer presents the whole story, shifting from character to character, embodying men and women, gods and goddesses, even animals and natural forces. According to the author's note, Anjali Mitter Duva is the co-founder of "an organization that teaches and presents India's classical kathak dance," as Gandar is teaching it to his students.  She makes the dances come alive, even for someone like me with only an outsider's knowledge of Hinduism and ritual dance.

Equally interesting to me was the story of Adhira and her family.  She narrates the story, looking back over her life.  In a neat bit of story-telling, she explains that late in life she has been given a gift by the gods:
     I am not sure why they acted as they did, or how they chose what knowledge to grant me and what to keep concealed, but I was given insight into the thoughts and feelings of others. Was it a moment of selfishness on the part of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva? Was it for our dance? I cannot presume it was just for me. Whatever the reason, I came, in hindsight, to know the minds and hearts of some of those closest to me when I was a child, a knowledge that allows me to tell this story.
     It is not my story alone, therefore, but it is mine alone to tell.
This allows Adhira to tell us of conversations and events that took place when she wasn't present.

Almost from the moment of her birth, her father assumes that she will become a devadasi, though she is not born to it, since her mother Girija is not one herself.  It is clear from infancy however that Adhira will dance - that she is compelled to dance.  Equally she is drawn to Krishna himself, with a strong faith and a desire to serve him through the dance.  But her mother does not want her to follow that life, nor does her older brother Mahendra.  Though trained by his father and an excellent dancer himself, he is determined instead to fight against the Muslims pushing south into India.  A second brother, Hari Dev, was born with twisted legs, but the dance runs through him too, as patterns in his mind that he tries to share with his ultra-traditional father.

I enjoyed this book so much.  I was particularly drawn to Girija, trying both to protect her children and to give them the freedom their father would deny them.  Though she is outside the life of dance in the temple, she draws strength from her friendship with Manavi, the senior devadasi.  Manavi's own daughter and granddaughter serve with her among the dancers, and she understands that Girija wants a different path for hers.

I see from the author's note that Anjali Mitter Duva is working on a second book, set in Lucknow in the 19th century.  I'm guessing that the Mutiny will play a part in that story.  I'm already looking forward to reading it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Down the Nile, though Egypt's past and present

The Nile, Toby Wilkinson

Last week was a demanding (sometimes frustrating) one at work, the weather was cold and gloomy, and I had a constant low-level headache (I think from weather fronts moving through).  But to balance all that out, I had this book, the subtitle of which is "A Journey Downriver through Egypt's Past and Present."  I spent every minute I could immersed in it.  It was a lucky find in the "new books" bins at the library; I now have my own copy.  As soon as the TBR Dare is over, I will be looking for the other books on ancient Egypt that Toby Wilkinson has written. 

The author lays out his premise in a Preface:
     Egypt is the most populous country in the world's most unstable region. It is the key to Middle East peace, the voice of the Arab world, and the crossroads between Europe and Africa.  Its historical and strategic importance is unparalleled.  In short, Egypt matters.  Understanding the country and its people is as vital today as it has ever been.
     The key to Egypt - its colourful past, chaotic present and uncertain future - is the Nile. . . Egypt is the Nile, the Nile Egypt.  The river is the unifying thread that runs throughout Egyptian history, culture and politics.  It has shaped Egypt's geography, controlled its economy, moulded its civilisation, and determined its destiny. . . Travelling down the Nile, past villages, towns and cities, dazzling ancient monuments and ambitious modern developments, is the best way to feel the pulse and understand the unique character of this chaotic, vital, conservative and rapidly changing land.
Traveling down the Nile has been a dream of mine for many years now.  Mr. Wilkinson begins his book with a general introduction to the Nile and its place in Egypt.  He then moves to Aswan, far to the south, which many ancient Egyptians considered the source of the Nile.  His journey begins there and ends in Cairo.  He writes in the present tense about his own travels, at least in part on those romantic Nile vessels the dahabiya. Though he doesn't say so, it seems that he combined several of his own visits to Egypt over the years, weaving them into his south-to-north narrative.

Along the way, he stops at different sites, some active towns or villages, others abandoned and disappearing into the sands.  At each place, he explains its importance in Egypt's history, moving back and forth through the millennia.  As he says more than once, the Nile - and Egyptian history itself - is a palimpsest, as succeeding generations, including  foreign invaders, incorporated and built upon what came before.  His writing is colloquial and easy to follow, his enthusiasm is infectious, and he knows how to make history come alive.  He also sees clearly the challenges that Egypt faces today.  While his book was written in December of 2012, it includes a postscript discussing more recent political events, up to the book's publication last year.  His observations on current conditions mirror what I have read particularly in The New Yorker, which has regular articles written from Cairo.

I soon realized though how very little I know of Egypt's history, beyond the Valley of the Kings.  I was surprised to read of the civil wars that broke out, between south and north, and how frequently coups put new pharaohs on the throne.  And I thought I knew something of Egypt's ancient religion, but I don't remember ever hearing of Hapy, the god of the annual inundation, nor of the many cults centered in the towns along the river.  It isn't much of an exaggeration to say that I learned something from each page of this book.

One of the things I learned is that the indomitable Amelia Edwards was a journalist before becoming an Egyptologist, and that she wrote an account of traveling the Nile (by dahabiya) in the 1870s: A Thousand Miles Up the Nile.  A classic of travel writing, according to Mr. Wilkinson, a copy is now on its way to me (to be squirreled away until April 1st).  Needless to say, I felt her literary heir Amelia Peabody Emerson reading over my shoulder the whole time.  (If it weren't for the Dare, I would have immediately set off on a re-read at least of Crocodile on the Sandbank.)  Sadly, Mr. Wilkinson makes no mention of Amelia or Radcliffe Emerson among the scholars, though I recognized some of their colleagues/competitors, including Flinders Petrie.  I had no idea that Amelia Edwards helped fund Petrie's work, nor that he was the first to hold the chair of Egyptology that she established at University College London.  I was also happy to read about a protegée of Petrie's, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, whose work at the prehistoric sites around Lake Fayum in the north revolutionized scholars' understanding of early Egyptian history.

There are several references to Agatha Christie through this book, including her mystery set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes As the End (which I read many years ago but don't really remember).  And of course Mr. Wilkinson includes Death on the Nile, in the section on Aswan.  As many times I have read that particular book, it was a real shock to realize that I had paid no attention to the Egyptian setting.  I never understood that the steamer heads south from Aswan, going up the Nile, nor that Wadi Halfa is in the Sudan. That was a rather humbling experience.

Monday, January 12, 2015

More Victorian melodrama than I could stand

East Lynne, Ellen Wood

I thought I knew Victorian melodrama and sensation fiction.  After all, I've read Rhoda Broughton and Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins.  But nothing I've read so far prepared me for Ellen Wood and East Lynne.  The title was vaguely familiar when I came across it in Patricia Wentworth's The Watersplash, but I'd somehow gotten the impression it was a story about a seaside resort.  One of the central characters in Wentworth's book is cataloguing a library of Victorian novels, which contained "An entire set of Mrs. Henry Wood, including no less than three copies of the famous East Lynne. A notorious tear-jerker - but three copies!"  That was enough to send me looking for just a single copy.

I learned in the first chapter that East Lynne is an estate, located near the provincial town of West Lynne.  It belongs to the Earl of Mount Severn, crippled by gout at age 49 and down to his last shillings.  Archibald Carlyle, a well-respected young lawyer in West Lynne, comes to the Earl to ask about purchasing East Lynne, one of the few unentailed properties left unsold. Carlyle stays to dinner with Lord Mount Severn, where he meets the Earl's beautiful daughter Lady Isabel Vane.  Later, Lady Isabel goes on to a party with her cousin and chaperone Mrs Vane, whose handsome cousin Captain Francis Levison joins their party.

The story then quickly shifts back to West Lynne, where we meet the equally beautiful Barbara Hare.  Her brother Richard is a fugitive from justice, accused of the murder of George Hallijohn.  He was discovered standing over Hallijohn's bloody corpse, gun in hand.  It's well known that Richard was infatuated with the victim's daughter Afy, whom he used to visit in their isolated cottage, despite his father's angry threats.  Richard fled after the murder, but now he has sneaked back, to see his mother and ask for money.  He tells his sister that there was another man present the fateful night, a Captain Thorn, with whom the faithless Afy was keeping company.  He thinks the Captain is the killer.  Barbara wastes no time in passing this news along to Archibald Carlyle, their friend and neighbor (for whom her feelings are more than friendly).  He and she begin trying to prove Richard innocent.

These first chapters set up the two main threads of the story.  There is a detective story, as Archibald, Barbara and their allies try to prove Richard innocent.  Woven through that story, there is a marriage, a wicked seduction and ventre-à-terre elopement, a divorce and remarriage.  There are two sisters, both determined to marry the same man; and an older woman, determined to marry her younger rival off to the first man who asks.  There is a repentant sinner, left alone in France.  There is a railroad accident that leaves one character injured almost to death and threatened with amputation.  Confused with another victim of the crash, badly disfigured, this person is reported dead, thus freed to assume another identity and insinuate him/herself into a family's life.  Two children die, one of picturesque consumption, after a long and extremely pious deathbed scene.  People from West Lynne travel to a small spa village in Germany, where they just happen to meet other people connected with East Lynne.  There is also a Parliamentary election (pitting the wicked seducer against the outraged husband), a trial for murder, and a final deathbed scene, again from picturesque consumption.

I admit, I found the story of Richard Hare's involvement in the murder interesting.  I thought I had the murderer figured out pretty early on, and then Ellen Wood pulled a fast one, which I fell for.  The other plot line I found increasingly tedious and increasingly implausible, in about equal measure.  The edition I read, an Oxford World's Classic, is just over 600 pages.  It felt like the Neverending Story.  Maybe if I'd been reading it in installments, as originally published, with weeks between each section, I'd have had more patience with it.

I also have to admit that I did enjoy one character, Archibald's older half-sister Cornelia.  She is a mixture of Marilla Cuthbert on a bad day and Aunt Norris from Mansfield Park.  A spinster with independent means, she is a pinch-penny who dresses in the crankiest outfits.
Simultaneously with the [church] bells, Miss Carlyle burst out of her bed-room in one of her ordinary morning costumes, but not the one in which she was wont to be seen on a Sunday.  She wore a buff gingham gown, reaching nearly to her ankles, and a lavender print "bedgown," which was tied at the waist with a cord and tassels, and ornamented off below it with a frill.  It had been the morning costume of her mother in the old-fashioned days, and Miss Carlyle despised new fashions too much to discard it. . . Her head-dress cannot be described; it was like nothing in the mode book or out of it; some might have called it a turban, some a night-cap, and some might have thought it was taken from a model of the dunce's cap and bells in the parish school; at any rate, it was something very high, and expansive, and white, and stern, and imposing.
Her caps provide some welcome humor throughout the book, as when she wraps her head in three square feet of flannel, to ward off a cold. "A conical pyramid rose on the crown of her head, and a couple of small flannel corners flapped over her forehead..."  But she also plays a serious role in the story.  Her outrage over her brother's extravagance in buying East Lynne is nothing compared to her horror when he announces his impending marriage (by letter, the wise man, since she is given to screaming fits).  She then decides it is her duty to move into East Lynne and run his household and his wife.  This does not make for a happy family situation, though Archibald has no idea how his wife is bullied by his sister in the best Aunt Norris fashion, nor how unhappy she is made.  However, Cornelia also comes to believe in Richard Hare's innocence and does what she can to help in the investigation.

The editor of this edition, Elisabeth Jay, points out that what separates Victorian melodrama from the earlier Gothic fiction is that it is rooted in its own time and place.  That is a point I hadn't considered before.  She argues that a book like East Lynne reflects its readers' anxieties over adultery and divorce, for example.  I also learned from her introduction that large numbers of Victorian novels were pulped during World War II, presumably during the paper drives.  This may explain why the work of so many Victorian women writers has been lost.

This was originally a three-volume work.  Generally, I found the first part slow going, the second much more interesting, and the third frequently ridiculous.  It was only sheer stubbornness that got me through the last 150 pages - that and the trial of Hallijohn's murderer.  I turned the last page with a sigh of relief.  I won't be adding this book to my shelves, nor do I feel any need to seek out more of Ellen Wood's many, many books and stories.

N.B. This story was serialized in 1860-1861, and published in book form in 1861.  I'm using that date for my Mid-Century of Books.

Friday, January 9, 2015

A woman with too much time on her hands

A Glass of Blessings, Barbara Pym

All the while I was reading this book, I was wishing that I could give the central character, Wilmet Forsyth, a copy of the last book I read, Marjorie Hillis's Live Alone and Like It.  Not because Wilmet is single or lives alone, but because she has no plan for living, she just drifts through her days with few interests or responsibilities.  She and her husband Rodney have no children, though I couldn't figure out if that was by choice or not.  Because she has so much time on her hands, and I think feels the lack of something she can't quite define, she plays around at love, flirting with her best friend's husband and brother in turn.  She begins to take one of these relationships more seriously, building it up in her mind to a real love, but it ends badly for her (in a way that surprised me nearly as much as Wilmet**). By the end she seems to have learned something, at least to know herself a little better, and that seems a happy ending.  Her story reminded me a little of Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse, who also makes some big mistakes about love and marriage, and about herself, though she gets a much more obviously happy ending.

I won't say much about the story, because I'm sure many people have already read this one, and those who haven't should have the fun of discovering its twists and turns for themselves.  I'll just mention a couple of things that struck me with this book.  I wondered from the start about Wilmet's name, which I have never come across before.  I was happy to learn that she is named for a character in Charlotte M. Yonge's novels, though she doesn't say which one.  A later reference to Barchester Towers reminded me that Barbara Pym was also a fan of Anthony Trollope, who with Yonge is mentioned in others of her books.

Wilmet and Rodney live with his widowed mother Sybil, in her home.  We aren't given the backstory, whether it's for economic reasons or family ties (Wilmet apparently has no family).  It certainly isn't because Sybil needs care.  I think one reason that Wilmet is a bit adrift is that Sybil does so much, apparently handling all of the household tasks.  She is also very involved in settlement work, inviting Wilmet along to help.  Unlike Wilmet, who is an active member of her parish, she is an agnostic - I think the first I have met in Barbara Pym's books.  She is quite open about her beliefs and willing to debate.  She seems to have influenced Rodney, who will drive his wife to church but rarely attends services.  I really enjoyed Sybil's sometimes sharp comments and observations, as well as the way she makes her own life.  I think she sees more than Wilmet realizes but isn't sure how to help her.**

I had actually met Wilmet already, as she makes a cameo appearance in No Fond Return of Love.  I have gotten used to Pym's characters crossing from book to book, but I was still surprised to meet so many in this book.  Both Wilmet and her friend Rowena were once infatuated with Rocky Napier from Excellent Women, whom they met in Italy during the war.  Julian and Winifred Malory from Excellent Women also appear, and one character ends up living with them for a short time.  Prudence Bates from Jane and Prudence plays an important part in this story, though she herself remains off-stage.  And Rodney's colleague James Cash seemed familiar, though I haven't figured out if he and his wife Hilary are in another book.

**The next sections contain some spoilers.

Wilmet builds up in her mind a love affair with Piers Longridge, the brother of her friend Rowena.  I figured out there was some kind of mystery about his living situation, but like Wilmet I was surprised to discover that he is gay, living with a partner, Keith (both of whom show up with Wilmet and Rodney in No Fond Return of Love).  Not that anyone ever says it out loud - but everyone pretty much accepts it.  I didn't expect that in a book published in 1958 - either the characters or the acceptance.

Wilmet and Rodney receive an even greater shock when Sybil announces first that she will marry her old friend, Professor Arnold Root; and second, that she expects them to move out when Arnold moves in.  She hardly seems to notice that she is upending their lives. I want to think that she is doing it at least in part for their own good.  And I believe it will be good for them, to be on their own, building their own home and a different kind of life together.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Live Alone and Like It, a "Classic Guide for the Single Woman" of 1936

Live Alone and Like It, Marjorie Hillis

This "Classic Guide for the Single Woman," first published in 1936, is one of the brightest and funniest books that I've read in a long time.  According to the author's note, Marjorie Hillis worked for Vogue, eventually becoming an assistant editor.  She was part of the rise of a class of professional women in early 20th-century America, many of whom lived away from family and on their own - both major social changes.  Her book is aimed at her fellow workers, as well as those women who through chance or circumstance ended up living alone.  It includes a lot of practical information, some a bit dated, but other sections that wouldn't be out of place in this month's Oprah magazine.  It's the tone though that makes this such a delight.  Here is the opening of the first chapter, "Solitary Refinement":
    This book is no brief in favor of living alone. Five out of ten people who do so can't help themselves, and at least three of the others are irritatingly selfish. But the chances are that at some time in your life, possibly only now and then between husbands, you will find yourself settling down to a solitary existence.
    You may do it from choice. Lots of people do - more and more every year.  Most of them think that they are making a fine modern gesture and, along about the second month, frequently wish they hadn't.
     Or you may - though of course you don't - belong to the great army of Lonely Hearts with nobody to love them. This is a group to which no one with any gumption need belong for more than a couple of weeks, but in which a great many people settle permanently and gloomily.
I loved the bracing mix of snark and hard common sense in those paragraphs, which set the tone for the rest of the book.  In the next, Ms. Hillis laid out the philosophy and purpose of her book:
The point is that there is a technique about living alone successfully, as there is about doing anything really well.  Whether you view your one-woman ménage as Doom or Adventure (and whether you are twenty-six or sixty-six), you need a plan, if you are going to make the best of it.
She was a strong advocate for independence and self-determination, writing "You have got to decide what kind of life you want and then make it for yourself."  It should be a life that brings enjoyment and fulfillment.  Her book covers what she saw as key elements in a plan for successful living.  The most important is to build relationships, friendships as much as romance.  (Refreshingly, if this book isn't a brief for living alone, it also does not assume that all women will or should marry, nor is it a husband-hunting guide.)  She included advice on dressing well, furnishing and decorating a home (of any size, including a studio apartment), cooking and eating for one, and entertaining.  There is also very practical advice about living on a budget, and the need for savings, particularly in planning for retirement.  All of this makes for an interesting social history of life in the 1930s.

Each chapter ends with case studies, illustrating the topics covered in the chapter.  They contrast women who have made happy lives for themselves with others who can't be bothered, or those who feel too sorry for themselves to even try.  One of my favorites was Mrs. C of Chicago, recently widowed,
who weighed the advantages of being a widow in one place or the other and decided that her choice was between frills in her home town and necessities in Chicago. Knowing herself better than most of us do, she took the frills and returned, sleek and slim in widow's weeds, to her native town. . . She has become a Character and will some day become a Legend.  And since Mrs C loves popularity and adores fame, and would have had little of either in Chicago, we salute her as a lady who knew what she wanted and got it.
Ms. Hillis was a great advocate of comfort and even luxury, within one's budget.  She laid it down as dogma that single women should have their breakfasts in bed, even (or especially) if they were going on to some less-than-exciting job.  "[B]e an elegant lady of leisure just the same, from, say, seven-forty-five to eight-fifteen. Even though nobody knows, you'll be more of a person the rest of the day."  Of course, to truly enjoy that luxury, one's bedroom should be as comfortable and well-furnished as possible.
It is probably true that most people have more fun in bed than anywhere else, and we are not being vulgar . . . We are all for as much glamour as possible in the bedroom. The single bedroom, as well as the double one.  If even the most respectable spinsters would regard their bedrooms as places where anything might happen, the resulting effects would be extremely beneficial.
The temptation is to go on quoting from this racy, pithy little book.  I'll stop here, and just leave you with the titles of a few of the chapters, which might tempt you in turn: "When a Lady Needs a Friend," "Setting for a Solo Act," and "A Lady and Her Liquor."

Friday, January 2, 2015

A hasty marriage and its consequences

A Marked Man, Ada Cambridge

Quoting from Ada Cambridge's novel The Three Miss Kings, in a post about Anthony Trollope's Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, reminded me that I still had two of her books on the TBR stacks.  They were quickly acquired while I was still bowled over by The Three Miss Kings, but then of course I got distracted by other books.  I did start this one a couple of times, but I didn't connect with the story, so I put it back to try again later.  I find that happening more often these days.  A reading friend and I have a theory that books sometimes need to "ripen," until you are ready for them or vice versa. So when a book doesn't work, but it still feels like something I'd like to read, back it goes on the shelf.  Lately, it seems like "the third time is the charm" - as with this book.

I loved The Three Miss Kings, a story of orphaned sisters who use their small inheritance to move to Melbourne, looking for life beyond their small village.  It reminded me of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott.  There is a fairy-tale element in the way they find a sponsor to introduce them to Society, but to balance that there are more serious considerations of social issues, religious faith, and marriage.  A Marked Man is a very different story, a portrait of a marriage that never should have happened, which endures, but at a great cost.  According to the edition I read, a modern reprint in the Australian Women Writers series, this 1890 novel is considered Ada Cambridge's greatest work.

There may be mild spoilers in the next couple of paragraphs.  There is a big one further down, which is marked as such.  Don't miss the sharks, in the unspoilery paragraph after that!  The author includes spoilers in her story, by the way, little asides that tell you something of what's coming for her characters.

The "marked man" of the title is Richard Delavel, the third son of the squire of Dunstanborough, a village on the northeastern coast of England.  As the story opens, he has returned home from Oxford for the long vacation, in disgrace.  He has failed to take his degree, but even worse, he has refused to enter the Church, despite his father's long-standing plans for him.  He knows himself unsuitable and unfit for ministry, and he will not be a hypocrite or a place-holder.  His parents cannot understand his position, nor can his cousin Max Delavel-Pole, who holds the family living at Dunstanborough.  Dicky goes to call on Max one morning, just as Matins are finishing, and there he sees a young woman, Annie Morrison, the daughter of a tenant farmer.  At loose ends, with nothing to do, and emotionally vulnerable, he falls in love with her. He proposes after just two meetings, encouraged by her mother and brother, who want to be sure the squire's son isn't just trifling with a pretty girl.  Annie is overwhelmed by the attention from Mr. Richard; she has visions of becoming the wife of a clergyman, the daughter-in-law of the Squire.  She cannot accept that Dicky will not enter the Church, any more than his father can.  Even after their clandestine marriage in London, she still tries to convince him that it is his duty, and he should do it to please her.  His father naturally disowns him when he learns of the marriage, though a small olive branch is extended.  If Dicky will accept ordination, the family will find him a quiet parish far away from Dunstanborough, where his wife will not disgrace the family.  Refusing this offer, Dicky resolves to sail for Australia and a fresh start.  But Annie refuses to go with him.  She prefers to wait in England until he has a home ready for her.

I had expected that this would be about emigrating and making a new life in Australia, a Victorian Nevil Shute story.  Instead, the story then jumps ahead twenty-five years.  Mr. and Mrs. Delavel are now living in a luxurious home in Sydney, where Richard has built a successful shipping business.  They have a twenty-year-old daughter, Susan, whom Annie is determined to marry into a family worthy of the Delavels, preferably one with a title.  Sue, more her father's daughter, falls in love with Noel Rutledge.  Once a rising young clergyman, he suffered a crisis of conscience and left the priesthood, which makes him anathema to Annie Delavel.  He is also poor, scraping by as a writer for the newspapers.  Richard sees something of himself in the young man, but while he is sympathetic, he warns his daughter against rushing into marriage.  Though a perceptive and loving young woman, Sue has no idea of the reality behind her parents' marriage.  Nor does she know what happened in the years that her father spent in Australia before her mother joined him.  Reading this, I learned her father's secrets as Sue does, but because I knew her parents' story, I had a perspective that Sue lacks.  Ada Cambridge structured her story very skillfully.  My sympathies were always with Richard, but I understood Annie as well.  They were young, carried away by emotions and hormones, encouraged on the one hand by Annie's star-struck family.  Richard's family, on the other hand, simply issued fiats and expected obedience.  Wise and loving counsel could have saved them both from a misalliance, an unhappy marriage, but there was no one to offer it in time.  Actually, Annie doesn't even seem to realize it is a mistake.  My heart broke for Richard, who sees it all too clearly on the very day of their marriage.

Anyone who wants to discover Richard's secrets for her/himself should skip the next paragraph.

Reading this book, I had to keep reminding myself that it was published in 1890.  I see from the introduction that it got very positive reviews, both in Australia and beyond. I found myself wondering if there was any criticism of the book - at the time - on moral grounds.  We learn, with Sue, that during the years her father was first in Australia, alone, he fell in love with a young woman, Constance, who nursed him through a dangerous illness and fell in love in her turn.  She did not know at the time that he was married - a secret he kept from her - and when she learned of it, she tried to give him up.  Their feelings were so strong, however, that eventually she felt she had to leave Australia for England, to put that distance between them.  Unknown to him, she has now returned to Sydney, and Sue meets her one day, not knowing who she is.  From Sue's casual description of her, Richard realizes it might be his lost love.  He actually takes his daughter out to look for her, and later sends her with a message to Constance.  Even from my 21st-century perspective, I found that a bit shocking!  Both Constance and Richard are quick to assure Sue that they broke no vows, that theirs was an affair of the heart only - which isn't much of a consolation to her.  It takes her time to understand just how badly her father has suffered, in his marriage and in the loss of Constance, and she brings that knowledge to her love for Noel Rutledge.  It is really an extraordinary exploration of marriage, particularly from a Victorian writer - and the wife of an Anglican minister, no less.

(End of serious spoiler)

This book feels very grounded in its Sydney setting, which for me at least felt more real than Dunstanborough.  The Delavels' home, on Darling Point, sounds absolutely charming, with verandas and terraces leading down to the sea.  I was tickled to read that it includes a bathing house for Sue, a "stone-walled basin at the bottom of the garden which gave her room to swim in, protected from sharks by an iron grating, through which they occasionally peered longingly at her. . ."  The family also has a rustic camp in Middle Harbour, where Richard often escapes his unhappiness at home.  Sue loves being there too, but Annie not only refuses to go but tries to keep Sue from going.  And Sue gets into trouble with her mother, for the freedom with which she rides buses over the city and wanders around on her own - as no proper young woman should do, let alone a Delavel and an heiress.  (Like Mrs. Churchill in Emma, she has out-Delavel'd the Delavels, and no one in Sydney has any idea she started life as a tenant farmer's daughter.)

The editor of this edition, Debra Adelaide, writes in her introduction of "the wearisome truth of a certain familiar pattern: like countless women writers before or since, Ada Cambridge's substantial contribution to her country's literature has been overlooked."  She goes on to say that Cambridge has "until recent years, been largely ignored, unread, buried in libraries and out of print."  Unfortunately, her books are again out of print, though copies of the Virago edition of The Three Miss Kings are available on-line. Fortunately, like many other Victorian women writers, at least some of her books are now available as e-texts.  I had already downloaded a copy of her autobiography, Thirty Years in Australia (1903).  I will also be looking for a copy of The Eternal Feminine from 1907, which features Esther, "medical student and sometime champion of the rights of women."

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Some favorite books and authors of 2014

I love this time of the blogging year, when the lists of "My favorite books of 2014" appear.  Even with blogs that I read regularly, I still find authors and titles to add to my TBR lists - just before the TBR Dare kicks in.  Usually I enjoy putting my own together, but I'm having trouble coming up with a list that satisfies me.  When I look back over the books I read this year, there were new-to-me authors, introduced via blog reviews or recommendations.  There were also authors I rediscovered on my own shelves, and other favorites whose books I am still exploring.

In the new-to-me category, Patricia Wentworth tops the list, with her detective stories featuring Miss Maud Silver.  I am not the only one asking how I missed her books all this time, particularly as I'm a fan of Golden Age mysteries.  I read five of her books this year, starting with The Clock Strikes Twelve, which was a perfect introduction.  However, my favorite was The Watersplash (featuring a quite reasonable cat lady and a fascinating old library to be catalogued).  If I had any talent for fan fiction, I'd write a story where Miss Silver and Dorothy L. Sayers' Miss Kitty Climpson join forces to solve crime.

Two years ago, tracking down a copy of E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross's The Irish R.M., I realized for the first time that they wrote many other books together.  I read two of their entertaining travel accounts and enjoyed them.  But it was finally reading Somerville's memoir Irish Memories this year, as well as a selection of their letters, that really sparked my interest in their other, more serious novels.  I have their first books written together, An Irish Cousin and The Real Charlotte, on the TBR stacks.

Finding a copy of Emily Kimbrough's Water, Water Everywhere at Half Price Books was something of a turning point in my reading year.  I had read another of her travel accounts, which didn't inspire me to read more.  But this one, about a trip to Greece, was so good that it made me think I had been too quick to set her aside.  Her memoir about finding a career in the 1920s, Through Charley's Door, was also a highlight. There will be more of Emily Kimbrough's travel books to come.

Last year I rediscovered Mary Stewart's books, and this year I read two that are now my favorites of her mysteries, The Ivy Tree and My Brother Michael.  Thanks to the Mary Stewart Reading Week hosted by Anbolyn, I have added a few more to the TBR shelves, including another set in Greece, The Moonspinners.

One of my best reading discoveries in 2013 was Margaret Kennedy.  The first of her books that I read, Lucy Carmichael, is still far and away my favorite, but I have enjoyed exploring her other books.  This year I read two very good ones, A Long Time Ago and The Wild Swan.  I owe my introduction to her books to Jane (Fleur), whose Margaret Kennedy Reading Week added even more titles to my TBR list.

I began my reading year with Jane Austen's Emma, and what could be better?  Our Houston JASNA chapter met to discuss Sanditon this fall, and I gained a new appreciation of Austen's last, unfinished story.  I know I'm not the only Janeite to have many more books about Austen than books by Austen on my shelves.  This year I particularly enjoyed Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends, by Constance Hill and Ellen G. Hill, an account of an Austen pilgrimage they took in 1901.

Over the past four years, the United States has been observing the sesquicentennial of our Civil War, which will end in 2015.  At one point I had the crazy idea that I could clear all the Civil War-related books off the TBR shelves by 2015.  That might have worked, if I had just stopped adding new ones.  This year I only managed to read two, Sarah Emma Edmonds's Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy (at least partly fictionalized), and Joshua Zeitz's study of Abraham Lincoln and his secretaries, Lincoln's Boys.  Marking the centennial of the Great War, I also read a fascinating compact history of it, Michael Howard's The First World War

Tomorrow begins the TBR Double Dog Dare, hosted by James of James Reads Books.  For the next three months, I plan to read only from my own TBR shelves (with a few exceptions like book club selections).  Even beyond the Dare, I would like to reduce the ridiculous number of unread books that I have accumulated.  I have made that resolution so many times that I feel a bit like the boy who cried wolf in saying it yet again.  But I am making it one of my reading goals for 2015.  If I stick with that, I will be checking the library catalogue for the enticing books that appear daily on my favorite blogs.  My other reading goal for the new year is to continue to read more diversely, in both fact and fiction, with at least twelve books by authors of color - one a month, or about 10% of my usual reading.

It has been such a good year of reading.  Thank you to everyone who has read along.  The conversation here and on your blogs has enriched my reading life so much, as well as adding books to the TBR stacks.  I wish you a very happy New Year, one that brings all good things, especially books to read and share.