Sunday, July 31, 2011

Henry Street nurses

Sue Barton, Visiting Nurse, Helen Dore Boylston

I've posted before about my attachment to the Sue Barton books.  As an adult, I was able to find my own copies of the books through the internet, except for one.  There were very few copies of Visiting Nurse listed and they were far out of my price range.  Last month I discovered that a company called Image Cascade is publishing new paperback editions, with vintage covers, and I ordered Visiting Nurse.  I've found the other books to be a bit dated but still enjoyable reading, reminding me of why I loved them so much as a kid, and I was curious to see if this one held up as well.

Visiting Nurse is a fictional account of six months spent working with the Henry Street Nursing Service, part of the Henry Street Settlement work in New York City.  I don't remember ever thinking that much about the setting, but now that I've read about Jacob Riis and visited Hull House in Chicago, I realized that nurses in this book were either a real group or based on one.  With a quick google search, I learned the reality behind the book, which even includes a cameo by the founder, Lillian Wald.  I don't think Boylston ever worked with the program, from what I can find, but she clearly admired their work, which she showcased.

In the book, Sue's work takes her through the crowded slums, in and out of tenements, meeting the diversity of peoples that make up the neighborhoods.  Many are recent immigrants or migrants, and Boylston skirts the edges of caricature with her Irish and Italian patients.  Sue is later transferred to a district in Harlem, where many of the African American characters sound like Prissy in Gone With the Wind, yet Boylston clearly wants to portray them in positive ways and condemn racist attitudes.

A major plot element revolves around women's careers and marriage.  Connie, a close friend from training, is engaged and will marry soon, abandoning her career, which Sue privately considers a waste.  Another friend from training, Kit, who joins Sue at Henry Street, seems to be focused on a career, with no thought of marriage (like Boylston herself, perhaps).  Sue is engaged to Bill, a young doctor she met during her training, and she wants to be married but isn't yet ready to give up her own work.  Henry Street nurses can be married, though in 1939, when the book was published, nurses and teachers often had to give up their work at marriage.  By the end of the book, Sue seems poised to have both marriage and a career, working with Bill in his country practice as a rural district nurse.  Since my mother worked as a nurse for most of my childhood, I took it for granted that women could do both (though without realizing how difficult and draining it could be).  I apparently also took for granted that all the doctors are men and the nurses women; I don't think there is a single female doctor in the entire series.

Now, though, I want to read more about Lillian Wald and the real world of the Henry Street Settlement.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Mother to daughter, queen to princess

Dearest Child, Letters Between Queen Victoria and the Princess Royal, Roger Fulford, ed.

When people ask me about my job, about what an archivist does, I sometimes tell them that I spend all day reading other people's mail.  It might be letters from the 1850s, or from the 1990s - and some days it's more financial reports and building plans and committee minutes.  But I do read an awful lot of other people's mail. I even do it for fun, in book form, whether it's fictional mail like Jane Austen's Lady Susan, or Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs; or real-life mail, Abraham Lincoln's, or in this case, the British Royal Family's.

When I was reading Jehanne Wake's biography of Princess Louise, I saw this book cited in the sources and remembered that I had checked it out from the library once but never read it.  I also discovered that there are four other published volumes of letters between the two Victorias, mother and daughter, and I expect I will be reading them as well.

The letters in Dearest Child cover the years 1858 to 1861.  The first was written on the day of the Princess Royal's marriage, at age seventeen, to Prince Frederick William of Prussia.  The last was written three days before the Prince Consort's death in December 1861.  They are mainly from Queen Victoria to her daughter, though some of the Princess's are included, primarily in answer to her mother's or to add additional detail.  The letters are obviously edited and culled; in some cases, only a line or two is given.  Faced with hundreds of letter, the editor, Roger Fulford, was very selective in what he included, yet he had a broad goal: "to retain the heart of the correspondence, revealing the life of the Queen, her interests and preoccupations."

In his introduction, Fulford speculates that Queen Victoria, isolated within her position, longed for equal friendships, particularly with women.  Once her daughter married, Victoria immediately put her into that role, as a confidant, while retaining of course her motherly prerogatives of advice, probing questions, and demands.  The letters bear this out with frank discussions.  Did it bother her daughter, the first-born child, to read more than once how furious Victoria was to be "caught" in her first pregnancy, how much she resented the disruption that children brought to her early married life?  Commenting frequently on the Prince of Wales, the Queen could find nothing good to say about her eldest son: his head small, his chin weak, his features outsize, his hairstyles ridiculous, his nature lazy and boorish.  At the same time, the Queen enlisted his sister in the search for prospective brides, about whom both commented very freely as well.  The Princess Royal also helped arrange the marriage of her sister Alice, to another German prince.

In addition, the letters focus on the younger Victoria's married life in Prussia, both at court and in her husband's divided and quarrelsome family.  The Princess bore her first child, the future Kaiser Wilhelm, in the first year of marriage.  Two years later, as the letters ended, she had borne a second child and was pregnant with her third.  Naturally, pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing were frequent subjects in the letters, but so were Prussian politics and the strained family relationships.

In March of 1861, the Queen's mother, the Duchess of Kent, died. Victoria's grief overwhelmed her, and she withdrew even from family life.  It was an eerie, unconscious rehearsal for the greater loss that she would face that December.

What draws me to letters and diaries, especially those written privately with no expectation that anyone but the recipient would ever read them, is the life and personality that flow through the words.  It is very different from biography.  Even when heavily edited, as these are, it is the people themselves who speak to us across the years. That is the fascination of archives.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Golf, Wodehouse style

The Clicking of Cuthbert, P.G. Wodehouse

As I've mentioned before, it was Psmith who converted me completely to P.G. Wodehouse.  When I started looking for PGW's books, though, I passed over the ones labeled "Golf" in the lists, because I know little and care less about golf.  Besides, there were all those books listed under "Blandings" and then "Uncle Fred" to read.  A couple of months ago a friend assured me that the stories aren't really about golf, but they are prime PGW.  Then I came across something Anthony Lane of The New Yorker wrote in an article about his own addiction to Wodehouse:
"I have paid extra attention to Wodehouse's golfing stories (which I thought would be a closed book to non-golfers, whereas they are in fact open to anybody with a keen sense of the ridiculous; namely, non-golfers)."
I don't think it's a coincidence that copies of The Clicking of Cuthbert and The Heart of a Goof then showed up at Half Price Books.  I'm so glad that I obeyed the omens, because I wouldn't have missed The Clicking of Cuthbert for anything, even if I still can't tell a brassey from a niblick. The format reminds me of the Mulliner stories, with the Oldest Member sitting around the clubhouse primed with stories to fit any occasion.  Unlike Mr Mulliner, the Sage often takes an active part in the events that make up the stories.  In my favorite, "The Long Hole," he is one of the judges for a very unusual sixteen-mile, one-hole match.  This one gets my vote as the funniest Wodehouse story, which I'd previously given to "Portrait of a Disciplinarian" in Meet Mr Mulliner, which had in turn deposed "Tried in the Furnace," in Young Men in Spats.

The New Yorker book blog recently noted that Norton is publishing new editions of the Jeeves books, suggesting that summer is the perfect time to get lost in Wodehouse.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Peter at Pym's Publicity

Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy L. Sayers

Seeing various posts on Peter Wimsey from the "As My Whimsy Takes Me" challenge has reminded me how long it's been since I've read the stories.  I was introduced to Lord Peter through the TV series with Ian Carmichael, when they were on PBS's Mystery back in the 1980s.  Once I found the books themselves I never looked back.  Lord Peter was my first literary love, and I re-read the books so many times over the years that they became almost too familiar.  So I started reading about Dorothy L. Sayers instead, and then looking for her other writings, including her letters.  What sent me back to the books, to Murder Must Advertise, was a posting on The New Yorker book blog on whether ad copy can teach us anything about the craft of writing.

I've always thought that Murder Must Advertise is the funniest of the Wimsey stories.  There is Peter masquerading as Death Bredon, a "cross between Ralph Lynn and Bertie Wooster" in horn-rims.  It struck me this time, though, that Peter is channeling Psmith rather than Bertie.  He piffles his way around Pym's, and like Psmith in the City, he is hardly ever to be found at his desk.  He also gets to play in a staff cricket match that shows him in his element, as one of the game's great players (which reminds me that I need to finish the Raffles stories).  True, he has a much more serious purpose, investigating the death of an employee, Victor Dean, which leads him to a gang of drug dealers.  But in between the investigations, we get to know Peter's fellow workers at Pym's, the different parts they play in the work of the ad agency, the details of the various ad campaigns, and the difficulties they run into, especially from the clients.  Sayers drew from her own experience working in an advertising agency to create this complex little world of Pym's.  And while there is a general consensus that she wrote herself into the stories as Harriet Vane, I think a case could be made for Miss Meteyard, the brilliant and acerbic Somerville graduate, who isn't beautiful but has interesting bones, who figures out not only the murderer but who Mr Bredon really is.

Peter often gets labeled a snob, which I've never understood.  I don't see how anyone could think that after reading this book.  He fits right in at Pym's, where "the atmosphere suited him well enough. He was a bonhomous soul, with the insatiable curiosity of a baby elephant..."  Miss Parton, one of the typists, sums him up: "He's a darling."

Peter in this book reminded me not just of Psmith, but even more of Francis Crawford of Lymond, the hero of Dorothy Dunnett's great Lymond Chronicles.  Peter has a second secret identity in this book, as the Harlequin who enthralls Dian de Momerie, his entrée into the drug gang.  The scene where he captivates her by diving from the top of a high fountain into its shallow basin is pure theatrics (not to mention mind-boggling). The stories he weaves for her and her associates, the games he plays with them, the physical stunts, are all Lymondesque.

The wonderful cast of characters also includes Charles and Lady Mary Parker, though sadly not the Dowager Duchess.  Bunter appears only briefly, at the end, and there is an oblique reference to Peter dining with Harriet Vane, "the one young woman who showed no signs of yielding to him..."  It is no compensation to have Helen Denver instead. Now, there's the ultimate snob.

I enjoyed this re-read so much that I think I'll be back with Peter before too long.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

On holiday with the Baron

The Caravaners, Elizabeth von Arnim

When I started looking for Elizabeth von Arnim's books, which was even before I finished The Enchanted April, I initially passed over The Caravaners.  But when I saw a reference comparing it to Three Men in a Boat, I immediately started looking for a copy. And I'm so glad that I did!

This is the story of a holiday trip by caravan, through the southeastern counties of England, narrated by Baron Otto von Ottringel of Storchwerder, in Prussia. He and his wife Edelgard join a neighbor, the beautiful widow Frau von Eckthum, in the trip she has arranged with her sister, married to an Englishman, and various friends.  Though the Baron has a low opinion of England and the English, he succumbs both to the Frau's charms and to the idea of a cheap holiday (no hotel bills! no train tickets to buy!).  This August holiday is meant to be a celebration of the Baron's twenty-five years of married life.  Not his silver anniversary with Edelgard; they have only been married five years.  Previously married almost twenty years before his wife's death, the Baron feels entitled to all the perks of the anniversary, because after all he has been married twenty-five years.  He is rather miffed that his family and friends do not take the proper view of it and express their congratulations in the form of silver coins and gifts.

By the end of the first chapter, we have a pretty clear understanding of the Baron, one that would surprise him, if he weren't so completely entrenched in his own superiority as an officer and a gentleman, and above all a German.  Much of the comedy in the story flows from this, that while the Baron is telling this story, and we see everything through his eyes, he is so obtuse, unobservant, and self-centered that we can see around him, all the things that he misses, the real story of what is happening.

The tour, promising so much pleasure, soon dissolves into a plodding misery.  Part of the reason is the weather, cold with unseasonable rain that turns roads and fields into mud.  This was the only place where I felt a minute twinge of empathy with the Baron, because I don't like camping under those conditions either.  It didn't last, though because the main source of misery is the Baron himself.  He complains constantly, he expects to be waited on, he shirks his share the work of camping. He toadeats one of the party, a younger son of the Duke of Hereford, and snubs another, a socialist MP, while pursuing Frau von Eckthum (mainly by talking at her non-stop).  And he berates his wife Edelgard, who begins to break out of the role the Baron and his God have laid out for her: "the plain, flat-haired, tightly buttoned up, God-fearing wife and mother, who looks up to her husband and after her children, and is extremely intelligent in the kitchen and not at all intelligent out of it."

When Edelgard, without so much as asking her husband's permission, changes her hairstyle and shortens her skirts, when she neglects to wait on him, when she chooses to walk and talk with other members of the party, including the male ones, the Baron can hardly contain himself.  Even the flimsiness of the caravan's walls, which provide no privacy, can't restrain his rebukes.  And though he keeps most of his opinions of the degenerate English for the pages of his narrative, the rest of the party can hardly be in doubt of them either.

The Baron is a great comic villain.  I longed to see him get his come-uppance, but at the end of his story he is stolidly ensconced once again in Storchwerder, writing his account of the trip.  The only cloud on his horizon is the unaccountable failure of his superiors to promote him to colonel.  He can congratulate himself, though, that his rebellious wife, as "the influence of Storchwerder presses more heavily upon her . . . shows an increasing tendency once more to find her level."  I did find myself wondering where the Baron will be by 1918, and if the Baroness might possibly find herself free, or still locked into "kinder küche kirche."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

All roads lead to Callimbia

Cleopatra's Sister, Penelope Lively

I've mentioned before my great enthusiasm for Penelope Lively's books.  In the last few years I've read each new book of hers at publication (and there is another one to look forward to in November).  At the same time I've been looking for her previous books. Somehow I missed Cleopatra's Sister, which was published in 1993, just after my favorite City of the Mind.

This book is very different from the last Lively I read, The Road to Lichfield, which I posted about back in June.  It seems very different from any other Lively that I have read. I knew the basic plot elements going in: a British passenger plane en route to Nairobi is forced to make an emergency landing in the African nation of Callimbia.  A military coup has just taken place, and some of the passengers are held as political hostages.  The story focuses on two of them, Howard and Lucy, strangers up to that point, who fall in love in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty.

The first part of the book traces the history of Howard, Lucy, and Callimbia itself in alternating sections leading up to the fateful flight.  Callimbia, a fictional country, lies on the north coast of Africa, west of Egypt and Libya.  Lively creates a credible and fascinating history for this country, starting like James Michener sometimes does with the dawn of time and the shifting of the tectonic plates.  The sister of the title, Berenice, was supposedly executed by their father Ptolemy (not to be confused of course with her two brothers named Ptolemy) in one of their many family quarrels, but according to an alternative account, she was rescued by a love-struck guard captain and fled with him to Callimbia.

All three of these stories, of Howard, Lucy, and Callimbia, are presented as examples of one of Lively's frequent themes:
"[the] uneasy balance between the operation of contingency and decision, with the subject tottering precariously between the two from the cradle to the grave. Which is the stuff of history itself, a conjunction so capricious that it hardly bears contemplation by those unfortunate enough to get mixed up in the process."
Howard becomes a paleontologist because when he is six years old, his parents can't afford a vacation abroad. On a beach in Somerset, he discovers an ammonite, and from his fascination with it his career is born. Lucy, a journalist, gets an important job because she falls getting off a bus, pops into the nearest Boots to buy new tights, and meets an acquaintance who knows of an opening.  Howard is on the flight because he learns of a new collection of fossils at a museum in Nairobi, Lucy because she accepted an assignment to write a travel piece.  Both elements, contingency and decision, are there, and woven throughout this book.

The second part of the book is a straightforward account of the flight, the forced landing, and all that ensues with the group held hostage.  They have no idea what is going on, and neither do we, and the tension rises steadily.  I said in my post on The Road to Lichfield that Lively's books are not action-driven, and here she proves me wrong.  I admit that I grew so concerned over the hostages' fate that I finally gave in and read the last two pages.  Lively brings the story to a neat and satisfying conclusion, though as with The Road to Lichfield, I was left wanting to know more, to know what happens next, not least to Callimbia itself.  In these days, this story of a fictional north African country, under a military coup, perhaps resonates differently than it did in 1993.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Moonacre and Silverydew

The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge's Linnets and Valerians has long been one of my comfort reads.  I have a battered old ex-library hardback, and I often dip in for a quick re-read of the best parts (any involving Uncle Ambrose).  I didn't discover it until I was in college, and after I had read some of her other books, including The Dean's Watch, also a favorite. Goudge's books can be hard to find, or at least they were before the internet, and I still remember the thrill of getting my own copy of Linnets and Valerians.

A few years ago Goudge came up in discussions on the Georgette Heyer listserv I belong to, and several people recommended The Little White Horse as their favorite.  I had never heard of it, but I found a copy in a bookstore and added it to the TBR pile, where it languished.  Last week I sat down with Linnets and Valerians for a few minutes before bed, and that inspired me to pick up The Little White Horse again.

It is the story of Maria Merryweather, newly orphaned and sent off to live with her only surviving relative, her second cousin Sir Benjamin Merryweather, "in his manor-house of Moonacre in the village of Silverydew."  I am a sucker for orphan's tales, no doubt due to early exposure to Rose Campbell, Anne Shirley and Sara Crewe. 

I enjoyed this book in part because it kept me off balance.  I thought I had a good idea of where the story was going, and in general I was right, but there were zigs and zags that took the plot in directions I wasn't expecting.  Goudge also knows how to balance the sweet elements of the story, without letting them slip into saccharine (I admit, the names Moonacre and Silverydew initially gave me pause).  As in Linnets and Valerians, she also weaves supernatural elements into the mundane, and pagan elements into Christian spirituality, even in clergymen like Uncle Ambrose or the Old Parson in Silverydew.

I do think, though, that Goudge didn't quite play fair with one character, Robin, who is initially introduced as a playmate of Maria's in London.  Maria's governess Miss Heliotrope firmly believes Robin to be a figment of her imagination, and Maria just as firmly insists on his reality.  Robin reappears in Silverydew, to Maria's delight.  When she asks why he disappeared from London, he replies,
"We were getting too old for those children's games . . . Soon you would have been bored with them, and as soon as you had begun to be bored you wouldn't have believed in me any more.  People only believe when they are interested.  It was better to come away before you began to be bored."
That to me suggested that Robin was imaginary, or a Puck-like sprite. When his true identity is revealed, he's a real person with roots in Silverydale. So how could boredom or disbelief change that?  It's a small point, but it jarred in a book where so many other diverse elements mesh so seamlessly.

But that's a quibble, and in the end I did enjoy the story, and I can certainly see why it won the Carnegie Medal.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

An actor's life

Footlights and Spotlights, Otis Skinner

My interest in the American theatrical family the Skinners continues.  I'm glad, though, that I read Cornelia Otis Skinner's Family Circle before reading this, her father's account of his acting career over almost fifty years.  As his daughter does, Skinner describes his family and his early life growing up in Massachusetts and Connecticut.  On a visit to New York City, his brother took him to a performance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and while absorbed in the play he suddenly realized, like a religious conversion, that acting would be his life's work, his vocation.

It wasn't easy for a small-town boy to break into acting, even in the 1870s.  A letter of recommendation from his father's former parishioner, P.T. Barnum, finally got him a place at a struggling Philadelphia theater as a general utility man, playing different characters every day and scrambling to learn new parts between each performance. From there, Skinner would move on to increasingly distinguished companies, and he would also organize his own companies, taking them on grueling road tours across the United States.

The subtitle of this book, "Recollections of My Life on the Stage," perfectly describes it.  It is an account of actors and theaters and plays, a true theatrical history.  Reading this, I realized how little I know about the literature of the drama.  I didn't even recognize the names of most of the playwrights, let alone their works.  Skinner pays tribute to the managers and actors with whom he worked, especially those who helped his career, and he is generous even to those with whom he disagreed and parted company.  Two extended sections discuss Edwin Booth, whom Skinner greatly admired, including an eerie account of Booth burning a trunk of costumes and properties belonging to his brother, the Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

This is a book about the theater, and it includes very little of his life outside the theater.  It was Cornelia's book that provided much of the context and fleshed out some of the stories.  Otis briefly describes his parents in a couple of pages; he does not even mention a sister who died in infancy. Cordelia recounts the death and its effects on the family. The sight of his father pacing the house, clutching his sister's tiny body, taught Otis "that his Olympian father was capable of profound emotion," while his mother "bore the tragedy with desperate stoicism."  Otis discusses at length his tenure with the Augustin Daly company, one of the most distinguished in New York in the 1880s.  He mentions the temperamental star, Ada Rehan, but it is Cornelia who explains that her volatile liaison with the married Augustin Daly caused many of the problems in the company.  His wife Maude Durbin generally appears only in the context of her acting career, and there are only three references to Cornelia.

Skinner's book was published in 1923.  Cornelia published Family Circle in 1948, after the death of both her parents.  The greater frankness of her book may reflect a different attitude toward biography and autobiography, in the changes those 25 years brought.  Of course, hers is also a family's story, rather than an individual's.  I'm glad to have read Footlights and Spotlights, but in the end it's the Skinners themselves that interest me, more than the theater, and it's Family Circle that I will re-read, with pleasure.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

An American family and how it grew

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, Melissa Fay Greene

Melissa Fay Greene is usually identified as the "Author of Praying for Sheetrock," which is a very, very good book about race relations.  But my favorite of her books is the 2006 There Is No Me Without You, a study of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa, and the story of one woman's struggle to care for children infected and/or orphaned by the disease.  Haregewoin Teferra, an Ethiopian living in the capital of Addis Ababa, lost her daughter to the disease. Overwhelmed with grief, she found herself taking in children who had no one to care for them, despite her own straitened circumstances.  Eventually she turned her home into an orphanage, named for her daughter.  In telling her story, within the larger context of AIDS in Africa, including the scarcity of antiviral medicines readily available in the West, Greene helped bring publicity and funds to the work.  In the course of her research, Greene and her husband Donald Samuel adopted first a daughter and then a son from Ethiopia.

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is the story of how the Greene-Samuel family grew from four biological children, to include five more children, all adopted from outside the U.S.  When Greene's youngest child was two, she and her husband considered another child, but Greene wondered if they were too old, and if their family wasn't pretty good as it was.  Four years later, an unplanned but welcomed pregnancy ended in miscarriage; Samuel suggested adoption. Greene was initially hesitant, but once she began researching foreign adoptions, she became mesmerized.  A third son, Jesse, Bulgarian by birth, of Romani heritage, became part of their family in 1999.  Over the next eight years, as the older children went off to college and careers, a daughter and three sons would follow, all from Ethiopia.

This book is in part an exploration of foreign adoptions, of the process, and of the pitfalls. Greene is very honest about the difficulties and about her own doubts, even of her motives.  She was especially concerned about the effects on her original family, scared that she had "wrecked my dearest treasure, my family."  She knew nothing about "post-adoption depression syndrome," which many parents experience, and felt great guilt over her inability to bond instantly with Jesse. Greene also interviewed other families with multiple adoptions, looking at the question of how many, and when the balance tips between large family and group home.

The book is full of warmth and humor, much of it at Greene's expense (she is apparently a notoriously bad cook). In the Acknowledgements, there are the notes,
"Yes, my children know I'm doing this.
"Yes, my children have had veto power.
"Yes, there are incidents that never saw print, having been throttled in the infancy of their composition.
No, I'm not going to talk about those incidents in public; that would defeat the purpose of the children having had the last word."
Greene is careful to avoid any suggestion of sainthood in her family or in their reasons for expanding that family.  From this book, though, it seems like she and her husband are pretty cool people, and they raised some pretty amazing kids.  As when I finished Calvin Trillin's Family Man, I was really tempted to write and ask if they would consider adoption of an older (ok, much older) child.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An unconventional princess

Princess Louise, Queen Victoria's Unconventional Daughter, Jehanne Wake

I enjoyed Jehanne Wake's book Sisters of Fortune so much that I immediately looked to see what else she has written. This book, her first published, caught my eye.  All I knew about Princess Louise was that she married the Duke of Argyll (and I was wrong about that, since at the time of their marriage he had the title of Marquis of Lorne). I was intrigued to find out more about her, especially how one of Queen Victoria's daughters managed unconventionality.

Princess Louise was born in 1848, the sixth child and fourth daughter of Victoria and Albert.  By that time, her parents relaxed some of the strict disciplines that the older children had suffered under, but Louise still lived a very restricted, regimented life, seeing her mother rarely.  She was also frequently ill; an attack of tubercular meningitis at age sixteen may have made it impossible for her later to have children.  Louise was only thirteen when her father died.  Most of her adolescence and young womanhood passed in her mother's obsessive mourning. Victoria, selfish in her grief, insisted that everyone else share it. She made no allowances for the children's resiliency and quashed any high spirits as disrespect toward their sainted father.  I have read other accounts of Victoria's problems as a mother, but reading this was like seeing her from inside the family circle, and I felt little sympathy for her.

In this atmosphere of mourning, and as her sisters were married off to Europe's princes, Louise began to carve out her own place.  A gifted artist, she managed to persuade Queen Victoria to let her study sculpture, at that time considered too robust for women.  Her studies brought her into contact with a wider world, and sometimes a less respectable one, than Royal Princesses normally met. She also took an interest in women's rights, especially education and access to professions.  Once she sneaked off to visit Elizabeth Garrett, the first woman doctor to practice medicine in England.  Princess Louise would become a great philanthropist, especially interested in women and children, in hospitals and schools.  Not content with simply lending her name, or giving money, she was an active (some thought overactive) patroness, poking into everything.

Louise's marriage was also unconventional for the time.  Selfishly, the Queen wanted to keep her daughter in England, though the married Princess Helena and her husband lived close to her, and the youngest daughter Beatrice was still at home.  The Queen's solution was marriage to an Englishman or Scotsman.  The search for the right young man reads almost like a farce at times, with Queen Victoria enlisting a reluctant Lord Granville of the Foreign Office to vet candidates, with a constant stream of letters deluging the poor man. John (Ian) Campbell, the Marquis of Lorne and the heir of the 8th Duke of Argyll, was an early candidate, and after some false starts he was eventually accepted.  His position as a non-royal Royal husband would prove a difficult one, which put strains on their marriage, as did their inability to have a child and Louise's continued ill-health.

I enjoyed this book, though it wasn't an easy read.  It seems to have a cast of thousands, and Wake seems to assume a familiarity with the Court circles and the great families of England.  There are family trees of the Royal Family and the Campbells on the endpapers, and I referred to them constantly (I had a complete blank spot about Princess Louis of Battenberg and had to look her up every single time she was mentioned).  But there are others who play important parts in Louise's life, who aren't fully identified or placed in context.  Lord Ronnie Levenson-Gower first appears on page 37 as a playmate of the royal children, and he remained an important part of Louise's life until his death in 1916.  I had to google him to learn he was Lorne's uncle, his mother's brother, since her family isn't identified by last name on the family trees, just by titles.  The index is unusual in that it lists subjects by first name ("Sophie, Lady - see McNamara, Sophie") but it would have been helpful to work quick identifications or reminders into the text.  There were constant crises and feuds in both the Royal and Campbell families, which were sometimes difficult to follow in all their twists and turns.  At the same time, there are interesting omissions.  There is no discussion, not even a single reference, to the murders of the Romanovs in 1918, though Alexandra was Louise's niece (and the sister of the ubiquitous Princess Louis of Battenberg).  Nor, despite Louise's early interest in women's rights, was there any discussion of women's suffrage in the 20th century.  Did Princess Louise ever vote?

Unconventional to the end, Louise was the first member of the Royal Family to be cremated, at her death in 1939. Due to wartime restrictions, she could not be buried with her husband in Scotland, so she was reunited with her parents in burial at Windsor.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Two innocents in America

Christopher and Columbus, Elizabeth von Arnim

One of the symptoms of a new literary crush is that I immediately start looking for the other books that my new discovery has written (I'm currently waiting on Otis Skinner's autobiography from the library).  I was introduced to Elizabeth von Arnim with The Enchanted April, and the copy I read included brief descriptions of several of her books.  Of course I will be reading Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but what really caught my eye was Christopher and Columbus:
"As the First World War looms, Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas, seventeen-year-old orphan twins, are thrust upon relatives. But Uncle Arthur, a blustering patriot, is a reluctant guardian: the twins are half-German and, who knows, they could be spying from the nursery window ... Packed off to America ..."
This all sounded so intriguing, from the Great War setting to the Sara Crewe element to the voyage to America.  Maybe my expectations were initially too high, because the first part of the book dragged a little for me.  I didn't find the twins quite as captivating as I think I was supposed to, though to be fair we meet them at a very depressing moment, as they huddle together on the deck of the ship taking them to America. The twins' mother returned to her native England after the death of their Junker father.  She died shortly afterwards, leaving them to their Aunt Alice and her husband Arthur, a spiritual twin of Mellersh Wilkins and Vernon Dursley.  England is in the early days of the Great War, and Uncle Arthur already hates Germans, even half-Germans. In the world of this book, the father's nationality trumps the mother's, in part because the twins speak English with an accent (a rolling R), and in part because everybody automatically hates Germans.

Still, I found it hard to believe that Uncle Arthur could have these seventeen-year-old girls put on a ship to America, alone and in second class, with £210 and two letters of introduction.  Even Sara Crewe got to stay in the attic bedroom and eat kitchen scraps.  Aunt Alice, worn down by twenty years of marriage to Uncle Arthur, is torn between her duty to him and to her nieces, but in the end she chooses her husband.  What she needs is a trip to Italy in April

On the boat, the two Annas meet Edward Twist, an American returning from France.  The inventor of the marvelous "Twist's Non-Trickler Teapot," he has funded an ambulance and has driven it himself at the front, and he is now returning for a leave in America.  He becomes increasingly concerned about their situation, eventually appointing himself their de facto guardian.  Their adventures after the ship reaches New York make up the rest of the book, with Twist trying to ride herd on two devastatingly lovely and outspoken young women, while becoming more and more attached to them.

Much is made of America's status as a neutral country, and yet the twins face constant hostility when their German identity is disclosed.  They are automatically assumed to be spies or German agents, much as Americans of Japanese descent were in World War II.  I saw from the biographical note in the book that von Arnim traveled to America in 1916, after the break-up of her marriage to Earl Russell, so she may have seen this prejudice at first hand. The information that her daughter, Felicitas, died in Germany during the war adds a poignant note to Anna-Felicitas' name, and to the book as a whole.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Two innocents abroad

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Cornelia Otis Skinner & Emily Kimbrough

As I mentioned in my last post, about Cornelia Otis Skinner's Family Circle, I first read this book probably thirty years ago.  I've read it many times over the years, and found it just as hilarious and endearing each time.  It's been a while since I've re-read it, though, in part because I know it so well, and in part because I don't seem to re-read books as much as I used to.  There are just so many fascinating new unread books that I want to get to.

But reading Family Circle made me think so much of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay that I picked it up again as soon as I'd finished the other.  This book, published in 1942, is an account of a trip Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, who met at Bryn Mawr, took to England and France when they were nineteen, sometime in the early 1920s.  It was a great adventure of their lives, because they were traveling independently for the first time, on their own with no chaperones, though Cornelia's parents were also sailing for England:
"but on a different ship, and from New York. They had no idea of cramping Emily's and my style, but they thought it just as well to be in the same hemisphere as we. They would be in England when we were and we might look them up if that wasn't too much of a strain on our independence." 
The narrative voice here is Cornelia's, of course.  In my background reading on the Skinners' theatrical careers, I learned that Cornelia was an innovator in that she wrote and performed dramatic monologues.  She later collected these monologues into book form.  These is an easy flow to her writing, which carries the story along.  Emily Kimbrough had a later career in journalism, and she wrote several books about her own travels.  I've read one of these, Forty Plus and Fancy Free, and it is entertaining enough but to me lacks the vitality of Cornelia's.

Their voyage from Montreal got off to an unfortunate start when their ship ran aground within hours of sailing.  This set the tone for their travels, with mishaps galore, including measles, bedbugs, those unfortunate white rabbit evening cloaks, and an encounter with a house of ill-repute.

Reading this book again after several years, and after Family Circle, gave me a new light on it.  Both Cornelia and Emily felt like old friends met again, except that now I knew Cornelia not just as that nineteen-year-old, but as if I'd known her all her life, because I'd just been reading about her childhood and teenage years.  And her parents weren't simply supporting characters, but people in their own right, whose stories I also knew.

Two things especially caught my attention.  While they were staying in Paris, Cornelia wrote up a solo sketch about a young American woman visiting the Louvre.  She read it to Emily, who thought it was wonderful and asked why she couldn't do something with it as an actor. Monologue wasn't theatre, Cornelia told her, but "something Emily had said had given me an idea and gradually I began to say to myself, 'I wonder. Maybe someday I might do monologues in a theatre.'"  With hindsight, now I know that this was the germ of one of her greatest successes as an actor.

Also in Paris, Cornelia met a veteran of the Great War, hopelessly maimed and institutionalized.  She and Emily helped him sell the bead jewelry that he was able to make, to supplement his pension. The women also visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at the Arc de Triomphe.  These reminders of World War I, of the human cost, struck me differently this time, after reading Vera Brittain and Helen Dore Boylston.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A great theatrical family

Family Circle, Cornelia Otis Skinner

I can't remember the first time I read Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough.  It had to be thirty years ago or more.  I've read it so many times over the years that I can visualize some of my favorite scenes, like Cornelia and Emily's arrival at the Trocadero in London, wrapped in their new, tent-sized white rabbit evening cloaks. Emerging from their taxi in billows of white fur, they discover Cornelia's father helpless with laughter. "'Oh my God!' he managed to choke forth. 'How could you get so many rabbits?'"  I never really thought much about Cornelia's parents, they were there in the background for help with bedbugs and financial crises.

I picked up Family Circle at Half Price Books a few years ago, because it was written by Cornelia Otis Skinner (my copy, which may be a first edition, is even autographed).  But it sat on the TBR pile for years, until this past week, when for some reason I took it off the pile and sat down with it.  I found it a bit slow going at first, as it starts with a biography of Cornelia's mother, Maud Durbin, who grew up in a large family under unstable conditions, with an alcoholic and often absent father.  Maud, who showed talent in private theatricals, wanted a career in the theater, and she found a mentor in the Polish actress Helena Modjeska.  And by the point that Maud joined her theater company, I realized that I was reading in part a history of American theater.

This wasn't a subject I know much about, except for the tragedy of the Booth family.  That's pretty clear by the fact that I never realized who exactly Cornelia's father Otis Skinner was.  The second strand of Cornelia's book is his story, how a Unitarian minister's son became one of America's great actors, in a career spanning fifty years. Otis Skinner was often under contract to theater companies, like Helena Modjeska's, where he met Maud in 1893 (it was mutual indifference at first sight).  But between seasons, he loved to tour, despite the hardships of travel and the primitive conditions of many local theaters.  This part of the story reminded me so much of other well-loved books, Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series.  Touring companies bring excitement and glamour to Deep Valley, Minnesota, in the 1910s, and there is even a reference to Otis Skinner in the books; and Cornelia quoted a letter from her father dated from Mankato, the real-life Deep Valley.

Cornelia herself entered the story she was writing a third of the way into the book, when it became the family's story.  Maud retired from the stage at that point, and she made a home with Cornelia while Otis continued his career.  At times mother and daughter joined him on tour, and the three also traveled to Europe for work and pleasure.  All three of them were such high characters, and Cornelia a most unusual child, that there is so much humor just in their daily lives.

Maud had many great plans for Cornelia's future, none of them involving a career on the stage.  Cornelia, who had a firm conviction that she going on the stage, never bothered to argue with her about it. Otis supported her decision, gave her much wise counsel, and arranged her debut in New York in one of his plays.  The book ends after she takes a curtain call with him, then retreats to the wings to watch as he returns to take still more.

I finished the book last night feeling very much part of their family circle, and wanting to know more, what happened next.  I did learn that Our Hearts Were Young and Gay takes place the year following, and I knew I'd need to read it again, now that Maud and Otis have become so real to me, much more than just the parents in the background, the supporting characters.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A memoir of loss

The Long Goodbye, Meghan O'Rourke

I got this book from the library after reading a quote in a review: "After a loss, you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead. It doesn't come naturally."  That one statement struck me as so absolutely true that I felt impelled to read this book. We have recently suffered a loss in my family, and I am still trying to learn to believe this.

The Long Goodbye is a memoir of the illness and death of Meghan O'Rourke's mother, Barbara Kelly O'Rourke.  The book opens with a brief prologue, a memory of summer family vacations. The first sentence of the first chapter then comes as a shock: "My mother died of metastatic colorectal cancer shortly before three p.m. on Christmas Day of 2008."  From there O'Rourke moves back and forth in time, weaving together different strands of narrative: her parents' marriage and her own childhood; her mother's diagnosis of stage four cancer, the agonizing and ultimately futile treatments she endured; and the aftermath of her mother's death and her own attempts to live with that reality.

It is a truism that grief is universal, but each of us experiences it in unique way.  At the same time there are commonalities.  As other writers like Joan Didion and Kathleen Ashenburg have noted, as a society we have lost many of the rituals that helped people in past generations; we don't know how to mourn.  Yet public grief has become unseemly, except at the deaths of celebrities.  In our self-help society, mourners are expected to "get better," to move on, lest they make others uncomfortable.  O'Rourke's parents were both atheists, and she considers the role of faith in loss, coming to some stirrings of belief herself.  From what I have seen, faith doesn't always provide answers or even consolation, but the rituals of faith, especially liturgical burial rites, do offer some comfort, even if it's just the comfort of having something to do, to follow.

O'Rourke is a poet, and her words sing in sorrow.
"The night is very long, and my mother is lost in it . . . The bond between mother and child is so unlike any other that it is categorically irreplaceable . . . with my mother's death, the person who brought me into the world left it, a portal closing behind her . . . " 
Apparently it is common after a loss for mourners to be given books on grief, and apparently these aren't always welcome or helpful.  This one might be both.

Monday, July 4, 2011

An American nurse in the Great War

"Sister,"  Helen Dore Boylston

I have loved the Sue Barton books, by Helen Dore Boylston, since I was a kid, and I have five on my shelves today.  My mother was a nurse, and I was in love with the idea of going to nursing school.  Other girls might have been reading about boarding schools and wishing their parents would send them to the Chalet School.  I wanted to follow Sue Barton and Cherry Ames to nursing school.  I've forgotten most of the other series, but I still re-read Sue Barton (and I much prefer her to the less realistic Cherry Ames).

I never gave much thought to the author, though.  I don't know if the library copies I read even had an author note; if they did, it didn't make any impression.  In just the past few weeks, thanks to the internet, I've learned that Boylston served as a nurse in France during World War I; that she kept a diary of her experiences, which she later published; and (most surprisingly to me) that she became close friends with Rose Wilder Lane, with whom she took a driving tour from Paris to Albania in 1926.

I still feel, after reading Testament of Youth, that I know far too little about the First World War.  So I got Boylston's nursing diary, "Sister," from interlibrary loan.  I thought it would be an interesting companion to Testament of Youth.  Boylston, a trained nurse and an American, kept a diary that she published in 1925. Vera Brittain had no experience when she left Oxford to volunteer as a V.A.D. nurse.  Her Testament is a memoir, published in 1933.

Boylston's diary opens in February, 1918, at a convalescent hospital in Paris Plage, where she is recovering from flu and trench fever.  There is no introduction, no background, nothing to tell us how she came to be in France. A later entry mentions her third anniversary in France, but it's not clear if she only kept a diary in 1918 or only chose to publish the last year's entries.  From other sources I learned that, soon after her graduation from nursing school, she volunteered for service with a medical unit from Harvard.

Boylston details the day to day life of the medical station, which from what I can tell was located on the western coast of France, near Le Touquet.  She records her fellow nurses, the patients she cares for, the different wounds they suffer, the arrivals of yet more wounded, and the terrifying air raids that go on for weeks.  But the diary is just as much about her time off-duty, getting all the fun she could out of life to balance the mud, the fear and the death.  There is very much a "seize the day" flavor to her entries, especially with regard to the men she dates.  Normal rules and moralities don't apply; married men are considered "war rations," available for the moments of fun snatched between bombs and 48-hour shifts in the operating theatre.  Brittain's Testament is much more sombre in tone, reflecting of course the loss of her fiancé Roland Leighton in 1915, perhaps Brittain's different temperament, and also their different circumstances.  Boylston doesn't mention any relatives or friends in the armies. In addition to her fiancé, Brittain lost her only sibling Edward and two of their best friends in the war.

When Boylston returns to the United States in January 1919, like many veterans she finds the adjustment difficult:
"How we worked! We gave all we had to give, and life was glorious. Even numbed with fatigue as we were, we knew it was glorious. . . I can't stand it here much longer, in this place where nothing ever happens and every day is like every other day."
On the last page of the book, we learn that she has volunteered again, for the Red Cross, and is sailing to Paris.  As far as I can discover, she never wrote of those adventures.

I can't say I learned much about the Great War itself, but I caught at least a glimpse of what it was like to be part of that war, caring for those who fought it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Who is Popenjoy?

Is He Popenjoy?  Anthony Trollope

This is one of my favorite Trollope novels, though not his best-known.  It isn't part of the interconnected Barsetshire and Palliser novels, and there isn't a single cameo from another book.  It was apparently not well-received when it was serialized in 1877-1878 and then published in book form in 1878.  The copy I have is an Oxford World Classics edition from 1965, a small hardback with no introduction and none of the explanatory notes that have now become standard.  Fortunately, I have the Oxford Reader's Companion to Trollope, to fill in the gaps.  From it I learn that the Spectator in reviewing it called it "unwholesome," and Charles Dickens, Junior, who serialized it, removed allusions to adultery, pregnancy, and lactating mothers - all of which were apparently restored in the book version.

There are two main, intertwined stories, both centering on marriage and parentage.  The action is divided between London and Brotherton, a cathedral city in the county of Brothershire. In the first story, Lord George Germain, the younger brother of the Marquis of Brotherton, marries Mary Lovelace, the daughter of the Dean of Brotherton.  Dean Lovelace is a very loving father, and a rich one.  Though his own father kept a livery stable, he has risen in the Church and intends his daughter to have a high place in society.  The Germain family is cash poor, and the head, the Marquis, has been living in Italy for many years, leaving the management of the estate to his brother. Despite the inequality of the match, it is made. Mary is not in love with Lord George, who had previously been refused by a neighbor, Adelaide De Baron, who later made her own advantageous marriage.  Mary is a perfect Trollopian heroine, beautiful, innocent, playful, with an inner strength and even a stubbornness in her own beliefs, though accepting first her father's and then her husband's authority.  Fifteen years younger than her husband, she sets herself to fall in love with him, who though he is handsome is also presented as taciturn, gloomy, weak, and often irritable.

When the newlyweds go up to London, Mary meets Jack De Baron, a lively Guards officer who becomes a friend, really a playmate. Though their relationship is innocent, it becomes the subject of gossip, which tortures Lord George.  At the same time, he falls again under the spell of Adelaide De Baron Houghton, who flirts with him, draws expressions of love out of him, and writes him very indiscreet letters.  One of these letters falls into Mary's hands, but Lord George continues to obsess over her morals and behavior.

The second story revolves around the Marquis of Brotherton.  When Lord George writes to his older brother to announce his marriage, the Marquis replies that he too is going to be married.  Then comes the report that not only is he already married, to an Italian woman, but he has a son, his heir, Lord Popenjoy.  This comes as quite a surprise to his English family, who cannot help wondering why this news was kept from them.  As the heir to a great title and an estate (however diminished), the child's birth should have been announced and celebrated.  Dean Lovelace, who has ambitions for his daughter, insists that the marriage must be investigated, to prove that the child is actually legitimate and the rightful Lord Popenjoy.  Lord George reluctantly agrees, for the good of the family, that any doubts must be set to rest, but the Marquis is naturally enraged by the suggestion that his son is a bastard.

The Marquis is a thoroughly nasty character.  When he returns to England, he evicts his mother and unmarried sisters from the ancestral home, where they have been living in all the years of his absence.  He demands that they find a home far away, rather than taking the dower house to which his mother is entitled, and he is enraged again when they defy him in this.  He refuses to see his family, insisting that he will only visit his mother when his sisters are absent, and he will allow no one to meet his wife.  He berates Lord George for his marriage to, as he puts it, the livery stable, and he tells Mary's father the Dean that she is a "-----" (a term so bad it couldn't be printed - all I can guess is "whore" ?).

There is also a subplot involving one of Trollope's favorite targets, strong-minded women, especially American women. On her first visit to London, Mary is taken to a lecture at the "Rights of Women Institute. Established for the Relief of the Disabilities of Females," commonly referred to as "the Disabilities."  The speaker, a fat German with a moustache [always good for a laugh], a Baroness Banmann, is soon overshadowed by Doctor Olivia Q. Fleabody of Vermont.  Civil war breaks out among the women, with the Baroness eventually suing the institute's officers.  Trollope is mocking the women's rights movement when he writes about their belief that "a glorious era was at hand in which women would be chosen by constituencies, would wag their heads in courts of law, would buy and sell in Capel Court, and have balances at their banker's."  At least the women have the last laugh here.

The resolution of this family drama comes only after two deaths, one of them an innocent bystander, which are the cost of the happy ending but don't seem to carry that much emotional weight. This is an unsettling book, but it is a fascinating one, and it should I think be better known.