Friday, November 29, 2013

Jane & Prudence

Jane and Prudence, Barbara Pym

This novel, published in 1953, combines two of Barbara Pym's familiar settings.  The title characters met at Oxford, where Jane was Prudence's tutor.  Despite the twelve-year gap in their ages, they became and remain friends.  As the book opens, they are attending a Reunion of Old Students at the college (a setting that instantly evoked Gaudy Night for me).  Their lives have taken different paths since those college days.  Jane is married, with a daughter about to go up to Oxford in her turn.  Her husband is a vicar, and they are preparing to move from their suburban parish to one in a small country town.  Prudence on the other hand lives in London, in an elegant flat with Regency-style furniture.  She has fallen in and out of love many times over the years - Jane thinks that her affairs "were surely as much an occupation as anything else."  The current object of her devotion is her married boss, Dr. Grampian, who writes learned books (about economics or history; we are never told which exactly).  Prudence is part of the office staff who assist in the research and publication of his books, though like the office in Quartet in Autumn, it is never clear what anyone actually does there.

The story moves back and forth between Jane in the country and Prudence in the city, and the occasional visits they exchange.  Jane is settling into the new parish, where she doesn't quite fit.  She is warm-hearted and friendly, interested in people and sympathetic.  But she is an unconventional vicar's wife: a poor housekeeper, badly dressed, uninterested in parish work, given to saying whatever crosses her mind without considering her audience, and confusing people with random lines of poetry.  I liked Jane very much, and it was painful to watch her flounder around, sticking her foot in her mouth, irritating even her long-suffering husband.  It's especially endearing that she recognizes and humbly admits her own failings, though perhaps basing her ideas of a vicar's wife on the novels of Anthony Trollope and Charlotte M. Yonge set her up for disappointment from the start.

Jane is also determined to find Prudence a husband. Her first choice is a youngish man in the village, Fabian Driver, playing up his role as a widower after neglecting his wife while she was alive and carrying on affairs in London.  I would have considered that a major red flag, but he is single and comfortably well off, which seems enough for Jane.  She invites Prudence down for a visit, the two meet, and Prudence begins seeing Fabian both in London and the village.  She transfers her affections from Dr. Grampian to Fabian, but they seem hardly any warmer, let alone the basis for a real relationship.  Both Prudence and Fabian seem to be following a script for romance, leading to suitable marriage, though in the end they aren't reading from the same one.  Prudence at 29 feels the pressure of social expectations, that women should marry and have children, set against her quiet flat and her independent life in the city.  But then her work is not particularly interesting, particularly after she falls out of love with Dr. Grampian.  I enjoyed the sections set in the offices, where Prudence feels herself rather superior to her co-workers, with their quiet gossip and constant clock-watching. She also feels herself in competition for Dr. Grampian's attention, particularly with the sole male on the staff, Geoffrey Manifold, a young man of her own age.

In the end, Prudence's story is left unresolved, in what I am coming to think a typical Pymian ending.  However, we do learn the coda to an earlier story, with its own ambiguous ending, that of Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women.  I was disappointed that we didn't get a cameo from Mildred herself, my favorite so far of Pym's characters; we only learn her news second-hand, through something Jane hears.  It did make me wonder, though, if we might hear of Prudence especially in a later story.  I'd like to think that Jane just continues on her own happily idiosyncratic way, malaprops and all.  Instead of Trollope and Yonge, though, perhaps she should have read Dorothy L. Sayers' books, with their excellent vicars' wives, especially Mrs. Venables from The Nine Tailors.  I do love characters who are readers.  Prudence, whose last name is Bates, disavows any likeness to the Bates mother and daughter in Emma, though she seems to prefer modern novels, "well written and tortuous, with a good dash of culture and the inevitable unhappy or indefinite ending, which was so like life."  I wonder whose books Barbara Pym had in mind when she wrote that!

I still have several of her books to read, but I don't want to rush through them, and I feel that I don't want to read too many at once, unlike say Angela Thirkell.  Reading one Thirkell (or even someone else's review of Thirkell) always makes me want to pick up the next in the series.  Perhaps that's because they are a series, though, unlike Pym's stand-alone novels.  Speaking of Thirkell, I read a Moyer Bell edition of this novel, and I did not notice a single misprint or error, unlike those that plague their awful editions of Thirkell's novels, which proves they did have a copy-editor at one time.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Julia Margaret Cameron and her camera

From Life, Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography, Victoria Olsen

A couple of months ago, Anthony Lane wrote an article for The New Yorker about an exhibit of Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (the website for the exhibit is here).  By the end of the first page, I was wondering, "How on earth have I missed this amazing woman?"  Just in case I'm not the last to learn about her: she was born Julia Margaret Pattle in Calcutta in 1815, her father a member of the British East India Company.  One of ten children, she and her siblings were sent "home" to be educated, in their case to their maternal grandmother, a woman of Franco-Indian descent then living in Versailles.  The seven sisters who survived to adulthood formed a close-knit family unit that their friend William Thackeray called "Pattledom."  The fourth sister, Maria Theodosia, married a man named John Jackson and became the grandmother of Vanessa Bell and Virgina Woolf.

In 1848, Cameron and her husband Charles Hay settled in England with their five children (a sixth would be born later).  For many years the Camerons lived in a house on the Isle of Wight next to Alfred and Emily Tennyson, and the families became the closest of friends.  Anthony Lane related one incident when Tennyson "refused to be vaccinated against smallpox, [and] she stood at the foot of his stairs and cried, 'You're a coward, Alfred, a coward!'"  I think that's when I put the magazine down and went to look for books about her.

Julia Margaret Cameron's daughter Juley gave her a camera in 1863, and within a couple of months she had produced her first finished works.  Photography was then still a relatively new process.  Cameras were heavy and cumbersome, they used fragile glass negatives, they required long exposures when the subjects had to hold completely still, and the chemicals needed for developing images were both expensive and dangerous.  Men were starting to make a name for themselves as photographers, but Cameron was one of only a few women to do so, in an age where women of her class did not work nor promote themselves, as she had to do to sell her images.  Through her family and her friendships, as with the Tennysons, she knew the leading political, literary, artistic, and scientific figures of her day, and many of them ended up in front of her camera.  Cameron produced portraits, but also the allegorical scenes that were then popular, growing out of amateur theatricals and tableaux vivants.  One of her last major works was a series illustrating Tennyson's Idylls of the King.

In her lifetime, and ever since, critics have disagreed over Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs.  Her portraits, especially of "great men," have generally been praised, while her staged scenes have been dismissed (especially in the 20th century) as mawkish, Victorian tripe.  More troubling for critics has been her technique.  Cameron played with focus: many of her images are blurry, partially obscured with shadows.  She sometimes brought the camera very close to her sitters, so that their faces fill the frame.  And she was unconcerned about flaws in her negatives, scratches and cracks that then appeared on the finished photos.  She would scratch out something in an image and leave the marks for all to see.  In her own day, many critics took her to task for what they perceived as technical faults.  They wrote above all that she needed to learn how to focus her camera.  Cameron knew exactly what she was doing, and she kept on doing it.  As Victoria Olsen writes, "Cameron could make perfectly focused images, but she did not always want to."  She believed that her camera was catching not just the physical likeness of an individual, but also something of his or her essence, the interior reality.

Anthony Lane mentioned this book in his article, calling Victoria Olsen the "most perceptive biographer of recent years."  Taking that as a recommendation, I requested a copy from inter-library loan.  I have to say, I found this book disappointing and struggled to finish it.  My faith in the author was shaken early on, when she mentions the Pattle family's friendship with William Thackeray, whom they knew in France as well as India and later England.  At one point in 1833, when they were living in Calcutta, Thackeray wrote his mother that he was going to dine with the Pattles and "shall meet pretty Theodosia," to whom "I would not hesitate above two minutes in popping that question wh. was to decide the happiness of my future life," if she only had £11,000.  Olsen says that "Thackeray biographers have long speculated over this reference to a 'Theodosia' Pattle, since none of the sisters was so named."  If so, then neither she nor those biographers have looked closely at the Pattle family tree, handily printed at the front of this book, where Maria Theodosia appears clear as day.

I can't speak to other biographies of Cameron, but I think that, ironically, Olsen mirrors some of the flaws that critics have seen in her subject's work.  The book's focus shifts constantly away from Cameron, to discuss the key people around her at crucial points in her life.  This is one of the biggest challenges that a biographer faces: how to put the subject's life in context, to integrate the other characters into the story, while still keeping the focus on her. Olsen doesn't quite manage it.  I felt that she put Cameron's story on hold, while she turned to the astronomer Sir William Herschel, the actress Ellen Terry, and Cameron's niece Julia, among others. In fact, Olsen frames Cameron's story with her great-niece Virginia Woolf.  There is also a great deal of discussion of the place of photography in history and in art.  In general I find art criticism even less intelligible than literary criticism.

At the same time, there are some surprising omissions in Olsen's account.  While emphasizing the importance of family in Cameron's life, she mentions that both her parents died in India in 1845 almost in passing, without stopping to consider the impact on their daughter.  She spends a lot of time detailing and analyzing Cameron's relationships with her children, but she refers only briefly to her grandchildren, at least one of whom lived with the Camerons in England.  Along the same lines, Olsen reports that when Cameron and her husband relocated to Ceylon in 1875, they traveled with "Julia Margaret's great-niece and adopted daughter Mary Clogstoun, and their maid Ellen Ottingham."  This was the first (and last) mention of an adopted daughter; the maid fares better.  Most tellingly for me, Cameron's death in January of 1879 is discussed in terms of what her sons remembered about it, and how Virgina Woolf recorded it in a play four decades later.  On the other hand, Cameron's husband Charles Hay died two years later, and Olsen describes not only his deathbed but his funeral.  It is only then that we even learn where Julia Margaret was buried.

I also have to mention the most irritating feature of this book, one I find incomprehensible in a book of this type, about an artist and her work.  There are four sections of photographs, by Julia Margaret Cameron and other artists (including one of her sons).  For some reason the images are labeled but not numbered.  Olsen discusses the images in detail and refers back to them frequently, instructing the reader to "[see figure]."  With no way to know which section includes the "figure" in question, and with only a title or description to go by, I spent an inordinate amount of time flipping back and forth between the sections, distractedly trying to find the picture, muttering imprecations on whoever decided to omit this basic aid to the reader.  It was a distraction that for me constantly broke up the flow of the narration.

In the end, I felt that I learned a good deal about Victorian photography and the people who influenced Julia Margaret Cameron, and something about the woman herself.  I wish that the proportions had been reversed, and I will probably look for other books about her.  I also learned that I had in fact read about Cameron before.  There is no mention of Anthony Trollope in Olsen's book, but when I checked my Oxford reader's guide to Trollope, I found that he met her on a trip to the Isle of Wight in 1864, and that he sat for her at least twice during his visit.  Victoria Glendinning mentions this in her biography, describing Cameron as "the pioneer photographer," adding that she "took a marvelous photography of Anthony Trollope."  I guess in this case my own focus was too much on Trollope himself.

I am glad to have finished this book, and after a steady diet of history and biography over the last couple of weeks, I am hungry for stories, as Helene Hanff once said, of things that never happened to people who never existed.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Voices from the past

The Voices of Morebath, Eamon Duffy

The subtitle of this book is "Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village."  When I came across it at Half Price Books, it instantly appealed to me on several levels.  It is the history of a community over more than 50 years, covering the different phases of the Tudor Reformation, based on church archives, from a small village in Devon.  When I was in high school we lived in Devon for several months, in a small village, while my father was on a teaching exchange at the University of Exeter.  I don't know that we ever went to or through Morebath, in our rambles around Devon.  After reading this book, I'd like to visit someday.

The Tudor period was one of my areas of focus in college, though this book made it clear just how much I have forgotten in the years since.  I have never been lucky enough to work with archival documents from that era, though I have seen them in museums.  At Hatfield House a letter with Elizabeth I's signature was on display, which gave me goosebumps.  This book is based on a set of churchwardens' accounts, kept by Morebath's parish priest, Christopher Trychay, from 1520 until his death in 1574.  Eamon Duffy argues it is his voice that makes Morebath's accounts unique:
There are more than two hundred surviving sets of churchwardens' accounts from Tudor England, but none of them like Morebath's.  Almost everywhere else these accounts are what they sound like - bare bones, dry records of income and expenditure.  The Morebath accounts contain all that, but they are packed as well with the personality, opinions and prejudices of the most vivid country clergyman of the English sixteenth century, and with the names and doings of his parishioners.  Through his eyes, or rather through his voice, talking, talking, talking - for he wrote these accounts to be read aloud to his parishioners - we catch a rare and precious glimpse of life and death in an English village.
Duffy uses the Morebath records to introduce us to Morebath itself, to its priest Sir Christopher (I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that Catholic priests in England before the Reformation were called "Sir"), and to the people who made up the parish.  He uses the accounts to show a small community with close ties, centered in the church, particularly in the different "stores."  These were groups within the parish, one each for the young men and women, others dedicated to the Virgin Mary or other saints like the local Devon saint Sidwell.  The stores helped maintain the church through flocks of sheep communally raised, contributions, and community celebrations called "ales," which were the main source of funding in the year.  Parishioners were elected as wardens of the different groups on a rotating basis, women serving as well as men, and even the younger girls in the "Maidens."  All these groups provided an accounting at least once a year, which Sir Christopher recorded in the accounts, often in the words of the wardens themselves.

Morebath weathered the changes that came under Henry's reforms fairly smoothly, if a bit reluctantly at times.  Trouble came however during his son Edward's reign, which brought much more abrupt changes, including at one point the prohibition of church ales.  With the veneration of saints condemned, the "stores"  disbanded, the communal sheep flocks dispersed, and the parish lost its major funding sources.  As tensions over the changes mounted, Morebath sent five young men to the siege of Exeter in 1549, part of a rebellion that was convulsing the west of England.  The armed uprisings ended in bloody defeat for the rebels; only two of Morebath's are known to have returned home.  The accession of the Catholic Queen Mary relieved Sir Christopher if not to all his parishioners, but only a few years later her death brought Queen Elizabeth to the throne.  Here again, as under King Henry, priest and parishioners conformed to yet another series of changes in religious life, sometimes dragging their feet a bit, as when they hid vestments and images of the saints that had been removed from the church.  Duffy suggests that priests like Sir Christopher, who accepted the changes whatever their personal convictions, helped their parishioners to do so as well and moved the English Reformation forward, especially in Elizabeth's reign.  That isn't to say there weren't problems, especially over money.  Parliament under all of the Tudor monarchs passed levies to raise funds for war, with Scotland, France and Ireland. Without the money from the "stores," Morebath had to scramble to pay its share, selling everything they could from the church.  Eventually they were forced to rely on contributions from the wealthier parishioners.  Duffy shows how the lack of funding from the "stores" hurt the parish, and he argues that their loss weakened the community's bonds.

This was a really interesting, engrossing book.  It was not a quick read, and I was sometimes a bit lost among the villagers, their stores and flocks.  I really had to concentrate and pay attention, more than I usually do in reading for pleasure, but it was well worth the effort.  At times I even felt a sense of dislocation, moving from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first.  I particularly appreciated Duffy's succinct and balanced overview of the English Reformation.  In the end, I was sorry to read about Sir Christopher's death, which closes Duffy's account, and I found myself wondering how Morebath fared in the centuries that followed, and who lives there today.  I also found myself contrasting this book with another that I read recently, Jill Lepore's Book of Ages, also based on one individual's years of personal accounts, written 200 years after Sir Christopher's.  Both are social history, documenting the everyday lives of ordinary people, which in the past have been overlooked by historians focused on kings, statesmen, generals and popes.  Of course, one of the problems in chronicling "the short and simple annals of the poor" is that they tend to leave fewer records behind them.  The people of Morebath were lucky to have Sir Christopher as their chronicler.

I have to say, reading about the Tudor era brought the Lymond Chronicles very strongly to mind.  Of course, I'd have to get any re-reading done before the Triple Dog Dare kicks off on January 1st.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Taking the Triple Dog Dare

It's that time of year, when James from Ready When You Are, C.B. issues his TBR challenge.  This year, it's the fearsome Triple Dog Dare.  The rules are pretty simple: read only what's already on your TBR shelves from January 1st to April 1st of 2104.  No new books, no re-reading, and no library books (except those reserved by Dec. 31st).  There's no ban on buying new books, just on reading them.  I'm going to try not to buy too many, though, because it kind of defeats the purpose of the Dare to be adding new books as fast as I'm clearing old ones off.  And then new books are always so tempting and distracting!

This will be my third year of participating.  Last year I cleared 35 books off the stacks, which wasn't bad, but I know I can do better (my total the first year was 71 books).  Just to make it interesting, I'm going to donate a dollar for each book crossed off the list (finished or not), to RIF (Reading Is Fundamental), a children's literacy non-profit.  As the rules allow, I am claiming my usual exemptions for book club books, and also for Deborah Crombie's latest book.  It will be released on March 25th, and I should be able to wait another week to read it, except the last one ended with such an awful cliffhanger.

Thanks to James for hosting the Dare again this year.  I am cudgeling my brains to figure out what comes after the Triple Dog Dare, so this doesn't really have to be the last.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Jane Austen's fans

Among the Janeites, Deborah Yaffe

Our Houston-area chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) is discussing this book at our monthly meeting on Saturday.  The author will even join us for a brief chat via Skype.  When the book was first suggested, there was some talk of a chapter focusing on a well-known Texas Janeite, who attends the annual conferences in elaborate Regency outfits.  In fact, she travels to and from the conferences in costume, even on airplanes.  From that, and from the cover of the book (which you can see here), I thought it might be a satirical look at the eccentricities and excesses of Jane Austen's fans.

Instead, from the first page Deborah Yaffe establishes herself as one of us.  And not just as a Janeite; she was from a child the kind of compulsive reader that I think many of us were and still are, though she was reading Trollope and Thackeray when I was still reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and Nancy Drew.  She was a Janeite long before Colin Firth and his wet shirt in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice created legions of new fans almost overnight.  (I may be the only Jane Austen fan on the planet who has not seen that Pride and Prejudice, and I admit to a slight prejudice against the "wet-shirt Darcy" obsessives. I have gotten some nasty looks when I point out that the scene doesn't actually take place in the story Austen wrote.)

Recognizing the global "Austen phenomenon" that took off in the mid-1990s, Yaffe "set out to examine Janeite obsessiveness from the inside, and maybe to figure out along the way what kind of Janeite I was myself."  She states that her book is "a work of journalism, not a scholarly study of Jane Austen appreciation . . ."   It is based on interviews with a range of Austenites, primarily in North America, but also on her own experiences as a fan.  In the interests of research, she ordered a custom-made Regency gown, and a corset to go under it.  She traveled to England with a JASNA tour, and she attended the 2011 annual general meeting in Fort Worth.  She immersed herself in fan fiction, modern continuations and sequels (something that has never, ever appealed to me).  One chapter focuses on Sandy Lerner, the American millionaire, co-founder of Cisco, who funded the restoration of Chawton House and the establishment of a research library focused on women writers of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Other chapters discuss Janeites on-line, the founding of JASNA, and teaching Austen in colleges and universities, among other topics.

Yaffe defines a Janeite as someone who enjoys and engages with Jane Austen's work.  As she points out more than once, there are many different ways of appreciating and enjoying Austen.  I count myself a Janeite of long-standing.  As I've mentioned elsewhere, I was introduced to Austen's work by the 1980 BBC Pride and Prejudice.  I've read and re-read her novels for many years, and I've gone on to read about her life and the world in which she lived.  I now have about three times as many books about Austen as by Austen.  I've visited Bath and Chawton and Winchester.  I've enjoyed meeting other Janeites through JASNA, as well as through the Yahoo Janeites group (which features in Yaffe's book). I'd like to attend the annual meeting one day.  But I am a book-based Janeite, who prefers not to see the films.  (I made an exception for the Ciaran Hinds-Amanda Root Persuasion; the book is still better).  And I don't think I'll be buying a Regency dress.

This was an interesting and entertaining exploration of "the world of Jane Austen fandom," as the subtitle says, and I am looking forward to discussing it with the Houston Janeites.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Jane Franklin's "Book of Ages"

Book of Ages, The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore

Dr. Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker, which is where I first came across her work.  Her articles and reviews often focus on some aspect of American history, though in this week's issue she writes about Doctor Who.  They are always interesting and informative, and occasionally a bit snarky.  I knew that she was working on a book about Jane Franklin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin's sister.  I was already planning on reading it when I read an article in The New Yorker about the project, a personal essay linking her research and her own family history.  This moved the book to the top of my waiting list.  I picked up my copy on Monday evening, and for the past week I have been immersed in Jane Franklin's world and in this wonderful book.  I am glad it has already been nominated for a National Book Award.  I expect to see it on many more prize lists.

Benjamin Franklin was the youngest son and Jane the youngest daughter of their father's seventeen children from two marriages (their mother bore ten of them).  He was born in 1706, she in 1712.  They grew up in a small crowded house in Boston, which also served as their father's chandler shop.  Benjamin famously ran away at seventeen, to Philadelphia, where he set up a printing shop.  By writing, printing, and scientific experiment, he became the most prominent intellectual, the most famous man, in the American colonies.  He was drawn into politics, serving in London as the representative for four colonial governments, before returning to take his part in the struggle for independence.  Jane on the other hand remained in the family home, caring for her parents, marrying, starting a family of her own.  She bore twelve children in twenty-four years; only two survived her.  Though she could read, she wrote with difficulty, at least at first.  But she read everything she could get her hands on.  Despite their very separate lives and their rare visits, she and her brother remained close, exchanging letters and books through the years.  Eventually, they were the only two siblings left, which drew them even closer.  Yet he never mentioned her in his famous Autobiography, nor did he save her letters.  She saved all of his, and she collected every piece of his writing that she could find.  She also wrote an autobiography, of sorts: a small hand-sewn book she titled her "Book of Ages," where she noted the major events in her family's life, the births and (all too frequently) the deaths.

Jill Lepore argues that despite the silence about Jane Franklin in the published Autobiography, "little of what Benjamin Franklin wrote . . . can be understood without her."  So to study Jane's life is to explore his as well, which gives "a wholly new reading of the life and opinions of her brother."  This is really a double biography, of the sister and brother.  Franklin has been studied exhaustively.  The collected edition of his papers has reached thirty-nine volumes, with more to come, and many biographies have been written.  His sister Jane has been the subject of only one previous biography, in the 1950s, as well as a edition of the letters exchanged with her brother.

This is more than just biography, though, it is also social history at its best.  Dr. Lepore uses the siblings' lives, especially Jane's, as a base from which to explore many aspects of life in colonial America, particularly for women.  It is fascinating reading.  Among the topics she considers are education and literacy, religious practice, employment, housework, childbirth, funeral customs, and the conventions of letter writing.  I did not know or had forgotten that in the New England colonies, children were taught to read but only boys learned to write; girls and women were never expected to do more than sign their names.  This wide-ranging exploration of Jane Franklin's world reminded me of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's excellent A Midwife's Tale, which uses the diary Martha Ballard kept in a small Maine town in the late 1700s to the same effect. 

Like Laurel Ulrich, Dr. Lepore does not lose sight of the people at the center of her story, Jane Mecom and Benjamin Franklin.  I think she does an excellent job of bringing Jane especially to life, of making her real to us.  That to my mind is the ultimate test of biography.  It should convey, in the words of historian Paul Murray Kendall, "the warmth of a life being lived."

Initially Jane Franklin Mecom's world was bounded by the care of parents and children, not to mention a feckless husband always in debt.  Many of her children died young, from consumption, and she raised grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.  At least two of her sons had mental problems.  It was heart-breaking to read of one, confined for years in a barn in the country; there was no place else to send him, no one who could care for him.  But gradually Jane became more aware of and interested in politics, and this book then also becomes an overview of the colonial struggles with Britain over taxation, the clashes that led to war for independence, and the uneasy first years of the American republic.  Living in Boston, Jane of course saw much of this first-hand, and she also had a unique perspective through her famous brother.  She was living with him in Philadelphia in 1775 and 1776, and she was there for the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

All of this would be riches enough.  But Dr. Lepore does something else with this work: in writing about an ordinary person, and a woman at that, she wrote "a meditation on silence in the archives."  History is no longer just the stories of the great men, but history is dependent on sources, on what is saved and preserved.  Benjamin Franklin did not keep his sister's letters.  Neither did Jane Austen's brothers keep hers, and then her sister Cassandra mutilated what little was left.  What we know about the past, about the lives of people like ourselves, depends on records: letters, diaries, account books, inventories, wills, church registers, Books of Ages.  Dr. Lepore pieces together the fragments of Jane Franklin Mecom's life that have survived, and she uses "this most ordinary of lives to offer a history of history and to explain how history is written: from what remains of the lives of the great, the bad, and, not as often, the good."  If you think that sounds dry, please take my word for it, it's most assuredly not.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A writer's raw materials

Raw Material, Dorothy Canfield

I don't know who is responsible for this rather odd book, but I lay it to the earlier generations of my family . . .  

In the rather odd first chapter of this book, published in 1923, Dorothy Canfield suggests that many of us from our early years are story-tellers, creating vivid narratives woven together out of the messiness of our daily lives.  We synthesize, we organize, we create order out of chaos.  We may never write our stories down, or even share them with anyone else, yet they are a part of us.  But there are also those who see the world only through other people's stories, through the prism of books they have read, art they have seen or lectures they have heard.  In her view, that second-hand sight is really a type of blindness.

At least I think that's what she is saying.  Anyway, her book is for the story-tellers:
[T]his is not a written book in the usual sense.  It is a book where nearly everything is left for the reader to do.  I have only set down for my own use, a score of instances out of human life, which have long served me as pegs on which to hang the meditations of many different moods  . . .  In this unrelated, unorganized bundle of facts, I give you just the sort of thing from which a novelist makes principal or secondary characters, or episodes in a novel.  I offer them to you for the novels you are writing in your own heads  . . .  I have only tried to loan you a little more to add to the raw material which life has brought you, out of which you are constructing your own attempt to understand.

I found that first chapter a little difficult to follow (let alone summarize).  I also started to wonder uneasily if I am one of the second-hand crowd, too caught up in books.  I thought, "If the whole book is like this, I won't get too far with it."  But the chapters that followed were a delight.  They consist of vignettes, reminiscences of people and places, episodes in her life or in the lives of family and friends.  Some are set in her childhood, others in adulthood.  Many of them take place around her home in Vermont, in the small town where generations of her family had lived. Others are set in France, during her times there as a student, and then later during the Great War, when she was doing relief work.

There is an interesting variety in the chapters.  I  could see connections to other books of hers that I have read, particularly the sections on France in World War I, which fit right in with Home Fires in France.  One tells the story of her friend Octavie Moreau, who in the third year of the war was sent to a prison camp in Germany, with 39 other women from their town, as a reprisal for something that supposedly happened somewhere else.  I have never read anything about German concentration camps in the First World War, nor about civilian deported to them.  Another chapter, "Scylla and Charybdis," is about little Cousin Maria Pearl Manley, an orphan moving back and forth between two branches of her family, happy in neither.  I wish she could have spent some time with the Putney family from Understood Betsy.  In the last chapter, "Almera Hawley Canfield," Canfield builds up a picture of the great-grandmother whom she never met, from the reminiscences of family members and old friends, which also show us something of the community in which she lived.  It's really beautifully done.  The Vermont sections made me think of Sarah Orne Jewett and her evocative stories of Maine. 

I have so many of her books still to read, and I will be looking for these connections, to see if she used her raw materials in later works.

I found my slightly battered and foxed 1923 edition at Kaboom Books here in Houston, and it was $8.50 well spent.  A previous owner, Ralph M. Pons, left his bookplate inside the front cover. He can't ever have read it, though: at least a quarter of the pages were unopened.  So for the first time in my life, I found myself nervously separating the edges of pages.  It was more difficult than I expected, and I was a bit clumsy at times, so the book is a little more battered than when I bought it.  I don't mind, I'm just happy to have it on my shelves.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Life as a small-town journalist

My Turn to Make the Tea, Monica Dickens

After a week with Henry Esmond, I really felt the need of something light, bright and sparkling, and I thought that Monica Dickens was just the thing.  This is the third of her accounts of different (brief) careers (the first about working as a cook-general, the second nursing in World War II).  I knew from reading her autobiography, An Open Book, that this is actually the least autobiographical: "I disguised the paper, since I meant to go on living in that corner of Hertfordshire, and I mixed some fiction in with the facts, since I felt that two autobiographical books was all people could stand."

I don't know if reading that pre-conditioned me, but I thought this book read more like a  novel than the previous two.  The book opens with Dickens at work, at the Downingham Post (standing in for the Herts Express).  She is called to the downstairs office to deal with an irate reader, threatening a case for libel, because her name has been mistakenly published in the court reports, and demanding a retraction and apology.  This is familiar Dickens territory: caught in a screw-up and frantically trying to set it right.  And we know there will be more to come.

The Post is a small-town weekly paper, old-fashioned I imagine even when this book was published in 1951.  Its offices are cramped, dingy, and overflowing with "old, old ledgers and files. Nothing much newer than the turn of the century."  Dickens is the only woman on the small reporting staff, who spend an inordinate amount of time down at the pub playing darts, coming back to correct endless pages of proof.  They are sent out to cover different events, though often they just crib stories from other papers and the morgue files.  All the stories are local, about matters that affect the readers directly.  There is little point in publishing even the biggest national stories, because as the editor points out, with a weekly paper "by the time we went to press, people would have read all about it in their morning papers."  Dickens wants to do more than write up wedding announcements and magristrates' court reports and Women's Institute meetings. But she is squashed every time she tries to liven up her stories, or convince the editor they need a "women's section," or snare more exciting assignments.  She is constantly told she doesn't have enough experience, and somehow, it is always her turn to wash the cups and make the tea.

Her work at the Post is only half the story here, though.  The other half revolves around her room in a rather unsavory lodging house.  Her landlady, Mrs Goff, is a bad cook and a worse housekeeper.  Dickens is drawn into the lives and adventures of her fellow lodgers, some of which take a dramatic, not to say melodramatic, turn.
Sometimes the place seemed more like a nurses' home than a boarding house, with coffee brewing in an enameled jug on the gas ring and people in dressing gowns curled up on each other's beds, talking about themselves, until Mrs. Goff, like Night Sister, knocked on the door to inquire if we thought she was made of electricity.
I've never lived in a boarding house.  I don't think I could take that much togetherness.  And though I don't have a huge apartment, I can't imagine having all of my life in one room.  For one thing, the books would never fit!  But all of this is part of the fiction in Dickens' account.  At the time she was working on the paper, she was living in a cottage described in loving detail in An Open Book, where she was reveling in the solitude.  So no boarding-house adventures, no cramped living conditions, but a peaceful life with dog and cats, family and friends visiting on the weekends.  In addition to working on the Post (Express), Dickens was writing a weekly feature for Woman's Own, so she wasn't completely unfamiliar with journalism.  She was also continuing to write her own books.  She says in her autobiography that she left the Express to write My Turn to Make the Tea (a much less dramatic exit than in the book itself).  She later sent copies to the editor and a reporter she had worked with.  Getting no response, she finally called the reporter to ask what he thought of the book.  "'I read some of it,' Arthur said. 'I thought it was silly.'"

I don't think this is a silly book, but I don't think it's the best of her "working books."  I enjoyed the sections set at the newspaper office, and when assignments took her out of the office, however dull she found them.  There's a lot of humor in the staff's constant procrastination (all those darts matches), not to mention the way everyone falls asleep in court, at theatrical performances, and during political speeches.  Then they have to rush around like mad to concoct stories, correct proofs, and "put the paper to bed."  Their frantic busyness then reminded me of the advertising agency in Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, as well as my favorite fictional newsroom, in Terry Pratchett's The Truth.  On the other hand, the stories of her fellow boarders weren't as interesting to me.  They felt sometimes like padding.  I don't know if I'd have felt the same way, if I hadn't know they were fiction.  If so, I hope I haven't ruined the book for anyone else!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Henry Esmond's life and loves

The History of Henry Esmond, William Makepeace Thackeray

Anthony Trollope said in his autobiography that this is "the best novel in the English language," supplanting his first choice, Pride and Prejudice.  We will just have to disagree about that.  I don't think it is even William Thackeray's best novel, though I've only read two of them so far.  To my mind, it can't compare with Vanity Fair, let alone Pride and Prejudice, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to his books.

As the title suggests, it is the autobiography of Henry Esmond, written late in his life for his descendants.  It is told mainly in the third person, with occasional notes from family members.  At the time of its writing, Esmond has been living for many years on the family's Virginia estate, a grant from King Charles I.  The estate, the family and Colonel Esmond himself are introduced in a brief Preface by his daughter Rachel Esmond Warrington, dated in 1778.  The preface includes some key information about the Colonel and his wife, also named Rachel, and their immediate family, including her son Frank and daughter Beatrix from a previous  marriage

When we meet Henry himself, in the first chapter, it is 80 years earlier.  A twelve-year-old boy, he is living alone at the family estate of Castlewood, in Hampshire.  His cousin Francis, the fourth Viscount Castlewood, who has just succeeded to the title and estate, arrives with his wife and their two young children.  As the Viscountess tours the house, she comes across Henry in a gallery, and he falls instantly in love:
she had come upon him as a Dea certè, and appeared the most charming object he had ever looked on.  Her golden hair was shining in the gold of the sun; her complexion was of a dazzling bloom; her lips smiling, and her eyes beaming with a kindness that made Harry Esmond's heart to beat with surprise.
Henry determines to devote his life to the lady and her family.  He has been left orphaned at the death of his father Thomas, the 3rd Viscount Castlewood, but his place in the household was precarious even before that.  Acknowledged as Thomas's bastard, he lived his first years with Huguenot weavers in London, before his father brought him to Castlewood.  His father's wife, though aging, still hoped to produce an heir, and she initially resented her husband's son.  Life in the household was precarious in other ways.  The Castlewood family has always been loyal to the Stuarts, which cost them heavily at times.  One of the second Viscount's sons was killed defending the house against Cromwell's forces, and another died at the Battle of Worcester.  The family was "concerned in almost all of the plots against the Protector," and after the Restoration they were high in favor with Charles II.  They stand as loyally by James II, equally concerned in plots to restore him or his son to the throne.  Their Jacobite politics run all through Henry Esmond's story, though he himself admires William of Orange as the greatest king England ever had.

Henry finds a surrogate mother in the new Viscountess, Rachel, and becomes almost a step-brother to her children Frank and Beatrix.  Lady Castlewood schemes to send him to Cambridge, so that he can be ordained and appointed to the family living of Castlewood.  Henry feels no call to the ministry but accepts her choice.  However, his education and his future career are cut short when he is drawn into standing as a second in a duel between Lord Castlewood and the notorious rake Lord Mohun, who has designs on Rachel.  Henry is briefly sent to prison for his part, and after an angry parting scene with Lady Castlewood, he determines to join the army. 

Serving under the Duke of Marlborough, he sees action at Blenheim and other major battles in various campaigns against the French.  When he returns to London on leave, he falls in with literary men like Richard Steele and Joseph Addison.  He also falls deeply in love with his cousin Beatrix, now a maid of honor at Queen Anne's court and the toast of London.  She has no plans to throw herself away on a poor bastard cousin, though she enjoys tormenting him.  He spends much of his time on leave pursuing her, when he isn't pouring out his frustrated love to Beatrix's mother, who both wants him to succeed and doesn't, partly because she believes her daughter unworthy of him.  In the end, Henry gives up his military career.  He accepts the Virginia estates from the 5th Lord Castlewood and settles down to a happy life as a plantation owner.  His daughter assures us in her preface that his slaves were perfectly happy and well-treated, and that he was "as courteous to a black slave-girl as to the governor's wife."

There were definitely things I liked about this book. It is historical fiction, and Thackeray created a literary voice for Henry that sounds authentic - to me at least, though I have read very little from the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  I studied British history in college, and have read some since, but I am not as familiar with the Stuart period, the Glorious Revolution or Queen Anne's reign.  The edition I read is an old Classics Club hardback, without the notes or supplemental materials that I'm used to in Penguin or Oxford editions.  I ended up doing some quick supplemental reading on my own.  I was lucky enough to tour Blenheim on my last visit to England, so I had at least some background on Marlborough, who plays a big part in Henry's military career.  Thackeray did a good job of blending his fictional and historical characters, though it sometimes took me a while to figure out which was which.  I had heard of Joseph Addison, of course, but did not recognize Richard Steele, with whom he founded The Spectator.  (Henry helps Addison with his great poem The Campaign, commemorating Marlborough's victory at Blenheim.)  I also enjoyed the twists of the Jacobite plotting, however misguided and unsuccessful.  Henry has quite a shock when he actually meets the Chevalier of St. George, or James III as the Castlewood family usually refers to him.

I really enjoyed Henry's military exploits, his literary friends, and the Jacobite adventures.  Unfortunately, they are woven into the story of his love for Beatrix, whom he hopes to win by military or literary fame.  She is a bit of a Becky Sharp character, and he knows she will never accept him, but he can't accept that.  So he goes off to war, comes home, moons over her, is rejected, whines for hours to her mother, goes back to war, and starts the whole cycle over again.  He is rather a glum character at the best of times, and this brings out the worst in him.  I found the repetition of these scenes, and his complaining, very tedious after a while, and I started to dread his returning to England.  I had visions of smacking him like Cher in Moonstruck: "Snap out of it!"  It was especially disconcerting, and a little creepy, that he spends so much time detailing his love for Beatrix to her mother, and that Rachel tries to convince her daughter to marry him, when we know from the preface that Henry marries Rachel in the end.  There are hints throughout the book that Rachel has been in love with Henry for many years, though I can't figure out what she sees in him.  She tries to disguise it as maternal love, calling him her third child (which is also a little creepy), and her children tease her about it, sometimes in front of Henry.  To be fair, Henry does perform a service for the family, admittedly at great cost to himself.  He does it willingly and in secret.  Over the course of the story, each member of the family discovers the secret, and each time the story of the service is told again, and there is an emotional orgy of praise and thanks and repentance and reconciliation, which after a while also become tedious.  I learned of this secret from a family tree that I came across while searching for cover images, which I couldn't resist copying out.  Like maps in travelogues, I find genealogies very helpful in family sagas like this one, even if they contain spoilers.

In the end, I found this book interesting more than compelling, though it did keep me reading despite my frustrations.  As I said, I don't think it can compare to Vanity Fair.  I still have The Newcomes and Pendennis on the TBR shelves, both of which Trollope praised as well.