Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kingship and friendship

A Conspiracy of Kings, Megan Whalen Turner

This is the fourth book in Megan Whalen Turner's excellent "Thief" series, and the last published so far.  I was almost reluctant to read this book, because when I finished it I would have none left to look forward to.

There will be spoilers here for the earlier books, and possibly for this one as well.

The series is set in three kingdoms, Attolia, Sounis and Eddis, in a land that combines ancient Greece with elements of Byzantium.  Conflict is constantly breaking out between the three countries, and sometimes within each, often at the instigation of an outside power, the Medes, who would like to absorb the kingdoms into their empire.  The central character of the stories is Eugenides, the cousin of the Queen of Eddis, who holds the almost mythical position of "Thief of Eddis" at her court, but he gives that up to marry the Queen of Attolia and rule as her king.  Who Eugenides is, his true character, his capabilities, his heart and mind, are revealed gradually over the course of the stories.  As I mentioned in my review of the third book, The King of Attolia, he reminds me of Dorothy Dunnett's great heroes, Francis Crawford of Lymond and Nicholas de Fleury.

I had forgotten that, at the end of The King of Attolia, someone says of Eugenides: "That one will rule more than just Attolia before he is done. He is an Annux, a king of kings."  In this book, we see this prophecy begin to come to fulfilment.  At the center is Sounis, torn by civil war and rebellion against its king.  Rebel barons kidnap the king's nephew and heir Sophos (whom we met in the first book) to use him as a pawn.  Through the adventures that follow, Sophos constantly accuses himself of weakness and cowardice, but as with Eugenides we see his true character, his strength and courage, revealed.  When the king dies unexpectedly, Sophos suddenly finds himself the new Sounis.  He must secure his throne not just against his barons but also the Medes, who are angling to seize the country from a new, weak king caught in the chaos of civil war.  Sounis turns for help to his friend Eugenides.  His friend is now Attolis, though, and his help has a price: Sounis will become a vassal state.  There is also a different kind of alliance under discussion, with Eddis and its Queen (one of my favorite characters).

Though some readers have complained this book has too much Sophos and too little Eugenides, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I like Sophos, and I hope to see him again in the later books (and I hope we don't have to wait too long for the next one). I dote on Eugenides though. I want to see him vanquish his enemies,  particularly those evil Medes, and triumph as Annux.  And I can't wait to see him as a father.

Monday, November 28, 2011

In the parlour with the aunts

Presentation Parlour, Kate O'Brien

With my rediscovery of Kate O'Brien, I started looking at the books of hers that I haven't read yet.  Presentation Parlour immediately caught my eye, because it was described as an autobiography and because the title reminded me of the convent setting of The Land of Spices, my favorite of her books.  Presentation Parlour was originally published in 1963, when Kate O'Brien was 66 years old.  When the book arrived, I was surprised to find it so short, less than 120 pages, which suggested a very brief account of her life.  As it turns out, this isn't really an autobiography, more a biography of a family.

One of nine children, Kate O'Brien was 5 years old when her mother died.  Her characters are often orphaned at a young age, or separated from their mothers.  Her five aunts, from both sides of the family, helped her father raise his large family.  This book tells the stories of their lives and their place in the children's lives. O'Brien writes in her Introduction that "our father, and we with him, became more than is usual dependent upon the five - for authority, fun, advice, or affection. And we would have been a lost and queer bundle of orphans without them. Anyway, they were there."

Three of the aunts were her mother's sisters.  O'Brien uses the first chapter, on her Aunt Annie, to explore the history of her mother's family, and I could see how she drew on that history in her first published novel, Without My Cloak.  The other two maternal aunts were nuns, members of a strictly enclosed order whose convent was in Limerick, where the family lived.  Visits to their convent were a regular part of the children's life, and the convent's parlours became a center of family life.  Holidays like Christmas were celebrated in the parlours, so the aunts could join in.  These visits kept the aunts in touch with the family's life, so they could advise and interfere.  They also gave the family a front row seat to watch the community's life unfold.  O'Brien herself was educated in a convent boarding school, and this with the experience that she had of her aunts' vocations must have shaped the setting and story of The Land of Spices.

The chapters on Aunt Fan (Sister Clare) and Aunt Mary (Mother Margaret Mary) brought back my own memories of parlor visits.  When we stayed with my grandmother in the small Idaho town where my mother grew up, just up the road was the Benedictine monastery where her sister, my great-aunt, was a nun.  We never missed a visit, sitting in the visitors' parlor until we kids got restless and went out (or were sent out) to play in the grounds.

O'Brien spends less time on her last two aunts, her father's sister and sister-in-law, who joined in the family celebrations in the convent but were otherwise less involved in their lives.  It was her father's sister-in-law, Auntie Mick, who was the first of the five to die, and in a final chapter O'Brien brings each of the aunts' stories to its end.  She writes, "So there they pass, my aunts. No one but I will care about their 'short and simple annals,'" yet short as the annals are, she made these women real to me, though she herself says, "And for all my searching back, for all my will to reach them, I have not found the very heart of any one of them."

This book was not what I expected, yet I enjoyed its portrait of life in Ireland in the late 1800s and early 1900s, its exploration of religious life and vocation, and its affectionate pictures of five very different women, as well as the glimpses it gives into the roots of Kate O'Brien's novels.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My first challenges

I've never done a challenge before, though I tagged along on the reading of The House of the Seven Gables, which some people were doing for the RIP challenge.  But here I am signing up for two in 2012.

The first is the TBR Double Dare, hosted by C.B. James over at Ready When You Are, C.B.

I'm accepting the dare (the double-dare!) to read only from my own shelves from January 1st -April 1st next year, with the goal of whittling down my TBR pile.  That means no library books, no buying books.  Which I need to do - let's just say the name of this blog isn't strictly accurate at this point.  I know it is going to be tough, because reading blogs has introduced me to some great authors (I just posted about one, Jo Walton, earlier today).  But I've also added too many books to the TBR pile as well.  It should be good for me and for my bookshelves (and maybe even for the book sale at the library - oh lord, something else I'll have to avoid).

The second challenge I've seen popping up all over is A Classics Challenge, hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn.

This one involves reading seven classic novels over the course of 2012, with some directed discussion on the 4th of each month.  This will dovetail nicely with the TBR challenge, since I have these books on the TBR pile:
  1. Persuasion, Jane Austen (a re-read)
  2. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
  3. Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel, Jerome K. Jerome (I've never read the Bummel part)
  4. A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf
  5. The Three Clerks, Anthony Trollope (though I may change this for another Trollope)
  6. A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft
  7. Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw
Thanks to C.B. and Katherine for hosting these and letting me join in.

A far from cozy mystery

Farthing, Jo Walton

While reading a review of Farthing over on Shelf Love, I had the immediate and oh-so-familiar feeling of "I need to read that," which sent me looking for a copy.  I'm very glad that I did, because this is a seriously good book.  It is a country-house mystery, set in England in the spring of 1949, but it is far from the traditional "cozy."  In this England, a peace treaty with Germany in 1941 ended the Battle of Britain, bringing the country "Peace with Honour."  Hitler rules the Continent, though the Reich is mired in a seemingly-endless war with Russia.  The United States, under President Lindbergh, holds to its isolationist line (after reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh's diaries, I think she would have been an invisible and personally miserable First Lady).  In Britain, despite the peace, economic conditions are precarious, and anti-semitism is rampant, as are xenophobia and homophobia.

As the story opens, Lucy Kahn and her husband David are spending the weekend at Farthing, the country home of her parents, Lord and Lady Eversley.  The house has given its name to the Farthing set, a group within the Conservative Party, one of whom, Sir James Thirkie, negotiated the "Peace with Honour."  The set, while influential, has moved to the fringes of power but hopes to return to the center.  Lucy, however, has taken a step almost unthinkable for one of her class and position by marrying David Kahn, a Jew, over the objections of parents, friends, the press and even the general public.

The first chapter is in Lucy's voice, and she is an immediately appealing character.  Her voice draws the reader into the story from the first page. She describes herself as "scatterbrained and not really very bright," but the reader sees her as clear-sighted, loyal, loving - and brave.  She is also plain-spoken, to a fault sometimes, and her attempts to catch her own words back are touching and revealing.  Lucy's chapters alternate with those focused on a second character, Inspector Peter Carmichael.  His chapters are in the third-person, which creates a distance from the character, in contrast to Lucy's.  Carmichael is a complex character whose background is gradually revealed.  It is only at the end of the story that the reader learns why he was assigned to this case.  He is sent from Scotland Yard to investigate the murder of Sir James, found in his bedroom with a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest by an antique dagger.  On that evidence alone, David Kahn immediately becomes a suspect, such is the prevailing anti-semitism and the fear of anarchists (many of them Jews, in the public mind).

To say more about this book risks spoilers.  And while the mystery itself is interesting, it is Jo Walton's  alternate history and the England it produced that are so fascinating, as are the characters, particularly Lucy.  My only quibble is a factual one: Sir James, a baronet, would not sit in the House of Lords.  Since much of the story turns on his career in politics, it seems a strange error.

This is a three-book series, and I am very much looking forward to the next one, Ha'penny.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

John Brown's raid

Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz

The subtitle of this book is "John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War."  When I saw it announced, I wanted to read it because I enjoy Tony Horwitz's writing, and because of the importance of Brown's raid in American history.  On October 16, 1859, he led eighteen men, including two of his sons and five African Americans, on a raid of the Federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia.  One of his stated objectives was to spark an uprising of Southern slaves, to overthrow the slave system.  Brown had taken no steps to alert the slaves in the area, however, and he inexplicably waited in the town while enraged white Virginians armed themselves and federal troops, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, moved in.  Brown was captured with four of his men; ten others were killed in fighting or trying to escape. His two sons were among the dead, as were four townspeople and one of the soldiers. 

Within a week, Brown was on trial for treason and conspiring to incite a slave revolt, and by November 2nd he had been condemned to hang.  After his sentance had been pronounced, he told the court,
"Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the end of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I submit. So let it be done!"
Though the trial was rushed, authorities in Virginia delayed his execution for a month, time that Brown spent writing letters and giving interviews to the press, expanding on his words in the courtroom and explaining what had led him to Harper's Ferry.  In that month, Northerners who had originally seen him as a deluded and dangerous fanatic came to see him as a martyr, dying in the cause of abolition of slavery.  Abolition wasn't popular in the North.  While many northerners shared Abraham Lincoln's view that slavery was wrong, like him they also held racist views of African Americans and didn't want freed slaves moving north, competing for jobs or living next door to them.  At the same time, tensions were rising as America expanded westward.  With each new territory and state added, the same question came up: would it be slave or free?  While many northerners, again like Lincoln, believed that the Constitution protected slavery where it already existed, they did not want it expanded into new territory.  There were various tense compromises worked out over the years, admitting slave and free states in exact balance. But the tension exploded in the 1850s over Kansas, as pro- and anti-slavery forces fought for control of the new territory.  There were armed battles, and even murder.  John Brown and his large family had been at the center of this fight, implicated in the murder of at least four settlers in 1856, one a sixteen year old boy (one of Brown's many sons was in turn murdered by pro-slavery forces).

John Brown's execution galvanized anti-slavery feeling in the north.  New York diarist George Templeton Strong, unsympathetic to abolitionists and African Americans, wrote,
"Slavery has received no such blow in my time as his strangulation. There must be a revolution in feeling, even in the terrified State of Virginia. . . So did the first Christian martyrs wake up senators and landed gentlemen and patrician ladies, tempore Nero and Diocletian, and so on. One's faith in anything is terribly shaken by anybody who is ready to go to the gallows condemning and denouncing it."
At the same time, Southerners were outraged by Northern support of Brown. Just days after his execution, Jefferson Davis in a speech on the Senate floor threatened secession.  Less than a year later, the election of Abraham Lincoln as President made that threat a reality.

I was a little reluctant to read this book, though, just because it is about John Brown.  I first came across his name in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, where Reverend Brown, the Little Town on the Prairie's Congregational minister, is said to be a cousin of "old John Brown of Kansas." Laura doesn't like him, and neither do Ma and Pa. "What he said did not make sense to [Laura], but he looked like that picture of John Brown in her history book, come alive. His eyes glared, his white mustache and his whiskers bobbed, and his big hands waved and clawed and clenched into fists pounding the pulpit and shaking in air."  I didn't know who John Brown of Kansas was then, but I was left with an image of a fanatic Old Testament figure.  What I learned about him later made him seem a 19th century domestic terrorist.

Tony Horwitz addresses this in his Prologue:
     "Viewed through the lends of 9/11, Harpers Ferry seems an al-Queda prequel: a long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. government, launches nineteen men in a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power. A shocked nation plunges into war. We are still grappling with the consequences.
     "But John Brown wasn't a charismatic foreigner crusading from half a world away. He descended from Puritan and Revolutionary soldiers and believed he was fulfilling their struggle for freedom. Nor was he an alienated loner in the mold of recent homegrown terrorists such as Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh. Brown plotted while raising an enormous family; he also drew support from leading thinkers and activists of his day, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Henry David Thoreau. The covert group that funneled him money and guns, the so-called Secret Six, was composed of northern magnates and prominent Harvard men, two of them ministers.
     "Those who followed Brown into battle represented a cross section of mid-nineteenth-century America."
In this book, he traces John Brown's life, before Kansas and before Harper's Ferry, to explain his extraordinary commitment not just to abolition of slavery, but to equality for African Americans, and to place those events in context of his life and of the larger American story.  Brown's character and his beliefs were strongly influenced by the stern Calvinism of his parents, and he was inspired by Old Testament heroes like Gideon and Samson.  Horwitz argues that despite what Brown told his supporters and followers about his plans for the raid, he may have seen himself as a Samson, who in failing would bring down the institution of slavery.  In this, he succeeded.

Thanks to Tony Horwitz, I now have a better understanding of John Brown himself, of his motives and his mind, and of the role he played in American history.  As a popular Civil War song had it, "John Brown's body is a-mouldering in his grave, but his soul is marching on."  Yet he is still a disturbing figure, and understanding his motives still leaves me uncomfortable with the means he chose.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Murder in academia

Rashomon Gate, I.J. Parker

Maybe it's from growing up and working in college towns, but I love stories set in academia.  Gaudy Night is probably my favorite of Dorothy L. Sayers' novels, and I also enjoy Jill Paton Walsh's series set in Cambridge, with college nurse Imogen Quy, as well as Connie Willis' 21st century Oxford.  Rashomon Gate takes place in and around a university in 11th century Japan, but despite the very different setting, some things sound very familiar: budget cuts, declining enrollments, faculty squabbles, accusations of cheating, and student pranks.  And then there is murder.

This is the second in a series of mystery novels featuring Sugawara Akitada, an official at the Ministry of Justice, in the imperial capital of Heian-Kyo (modern Kyoto).  The first I read, The Masuda Affair, turned out to be the seventh in the series, and now I'm reading the earlier books.  As this book opens Akitada, bored with the endless paperwork of his job, receives a dinner invitation from one of his former professors at the Imperial University.  Professor Hirata is more than a teacher to Akitada, who lived in his home while attending the university, after a breach with his own father.  He feels a responsibility for the older man, and for his daughter Tamako, now a lovely young woman.

Hirata shows Akitada a note that had been left in his academic gown: "While men like you enjoy life, others do not have enough to fill their bellies. If you wish to keep your culpability a secret, pay your debts! I suggest an initial sum of 1000 cash."  He assures Akitada that it cannot be meant for him and asks his help in investigating it.  For the sake of the university, he wants it handled discretely, so he suggests that Akitada take a temporary position with the law faculty, as a cover for his investigations.  Accepting this charge offers Akitada a break from the dull office routine, leading him into three separate mysteries involving theft and murder.  These cases bring him into contact with Kobe, the captain of the Metropolitan Police, who like many professionals in law enforcement resents this amateur detective, especially when Akitada solves the cases for him.  They also bring him into frequent contact with Tamako, with whom he falls in love.  Her father suggests marriage to a very willing Akitada, but she refuses him, and his emotional turmoil makes it difficult to concentrate on his teaching or his investigations.

With this book I enjoyed learning more about Akitada's family and background.  His retainers Seimei and  Tora (a former bandit) uncover key information during the investigations, in the course of which Akitada adds two more reformed outlaws to his household. There is another and much more important addition to the family: a wife.  It was also interesting to read about the city of Heian-Kyo and the university.  As well as a "Historical Note" at the end of the book, my edition included a map of the city and illustrations, which helped me picture a world so very different from my own.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates

Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor

As I have mentioned before, it was Susan Hill's Howards End Is On the Landing that introduced me to Patrick Leigh Fermor.  I had never heard of him, but her description of his books was enough to send me in search of them.  I found A Time of Gifts enchanting, in the spell-binding sense of the word, from his account of a very non-traditional education, to his sudden decision to set off an adventure like walking across Europe to Constantinople, with the descriptions of the people and places he encountered, the sidebar excursions into history and geography and ethnography and linguistics; all written in such lyrical, limpid prose.  It is one of the most beautifully-written books I have ever read.  When I finished it, leaving Leigh Fermor standing on the bridge between Slovakia and Hungary in April of 1934, I didn't immediately pick up the sequel, Between the Woods and the Water.  I needed time to digest the first book, and I didn't want to rush into the next one.

Far from rushing, as usually happens one book led to another, and it was more than a year later that I came back to this book.  I sat down with high expectations, remembering A Time of Gifts, but to my surprise and disappointment I struggled with this book, at least initially.  I think that is due in part to the lag between reading the two books, so that I have forgotten much of the detail of the first book.  Also, A Time of Gifts covered familiar territory, as Leigh Fermor journeyed from Holland through Germany and Austria to Slovakia.  I have read about these countries, and with the exception of the Czech Republic, I have traveled in them, giving me at least some context for his wide-ranging discussions of the history and the peoples of the different areas.  As Between the Woods and the Water opened, he entered Hungary, and the book covers the months he spent in Hungary and in Roumania, according to the subtitle from "the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates."  To my shame, I know very little about the history or even the geography of this region, so I lack the basic context that Leigh Fermor seemed to assume his readers would have; I was soon lost, not even sure what or where the Iron Gates were.  I ended up reading with an atlas open on my lap, allowing me to track at least his physical route.  My Penguin edition of A Time of Gifts has a basic map showing his route, but the NYRB edition of Between the Woods and the Water doesn't have one, an unfortunate omission to my mind.

Once I figured out the physical setting of the book, I stopped trying to keep all of the history and ethnography and linguistics straight.  I settled down to enjoy Leigh Fermor's beautiful prose, as he described his visits to Hungarian and Roumanian and Transylvanian manors, as well as his encounters with shepherds and Gypsies and woodsmen - and of course with animals and the natural world.  He frankly admitted that his frequent stays in the manor houses, with their libraries and games and dances, distracted him from the original purpose of his travels, and he was sometimes tempted just to settle in.  There is a shadow of melancholy to this book, because the author and the reader are very much aware that so much of what he wrote about in 1934, the people and the places, would vanish just a few years later.  Of course at the time his 19-year-old self had no idea of this, despite his recent tour through Hitler's Germany.

At the end of this book, Leigh Fermor decided to spend more time in Roumania rather than continuing east toward Constantinople, the original goal of his journey.  The last chapter ends with the words, "To be concluded."  At the time of his death in June of this year, the final volume remained uncompleted.  But at least there is a manuscript, and we can hope for a final volume that will indeed bring us to Constantinople.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An Irish "miss" in Spain

Mary Lavelle, Kate O'Brien

I discovered Kate O'Brien's books over twenty years ago.  The first that I read, The Land of Spices, is still one of my favorite books, and it was also the first Virago edition I ever bought.  As I usually do, I then collected every book of hers I could find.  But I never got around to reading Mary Lavelle, which I vaguely thought was a sequel of sorts to The Land of Spices.  Reading the reviews of Kate O'Brien over at Verity's Virago Venture sent me to the TBR shelves in search of it, and I have spent the past several days lost in the story.

I very quickly realized my mistake: this isn't a sequel to The Land of Spices.  As the book opens, it is 1922 and the title character, Mary Lavelle, is traveling from her home in Ireland to take up a position in Spain as a "miss," a combination of governess and chaperone.  Like Mary, most of the "misses" in Catholic Spain are Irish Catholics.  Unlike the other "misses" she meets, though, Mary has not come to Spain to make a career.  She is engaged to a young man in her home town, John, but they cannot afford to marry yet.  Rather than simply living in her father's house, waiting for her wedding, she seizes a chance to do something different:
"To go to Spain. To be alone for a little space, a tiny hiatus between her life's two accepted phases. To cease being a daughter without immediately becoming a wife. To be a free lance, to belong to no one place or family or person - to achieve that silly longing of childhood, only for one year, before she flung it with all other childish things upon the scrapheap. Spain!"

Determined not to let this opportunity slip from her hands, Mary overcomes John's opposition and her father's indifference.  She takes her place as "miss" to the three daughters of the Areagava family, prominent citizens of the town of Cabantes on Spain's northern coast.  At 21, she is only a few years older than the eldest, Pilár, but it is the youngest, 14-year-old Milagros, with whom she bonds most deeply.  In addition to their parents, the family also includes a son, Juanito, who lives in Madrid with his wife and baby son.  When Mary meets this second "John" they are immediately and irresistably drawn to each other.  Mary also meets her fellow "misses," most of whom are loud in their complaints about Spain itself and their employers, but they lack the resources, financial or mental, to find other work or to return home.  They cannot understand Mary's contentment, her growing attachment to Spain and to the people she meets.

Mary is a very sympathetic character, and it is fascinating to watch her metamorphosis in this coming-of-age story.  O'Brien delves deep into the hearts and minds of her characters, switching her point of view between Mary and other characters, particularly Juanito and his father Don Pablo.  Her language is elegant and yet easy, it never strains for effect.  The story is so rich in emotion and character that I found myself putting it down at the end of almost every chapter, to savor it and to consider what had happened before reading on.  This was not a book to be rushed through.

Like The Land of Spices, this book was banned in Ireland at publication, in part because of its frank sexuality (though not explict in today's terms), including sympathetic treatment of a gay character.  And while all of the characters are practicing Catholics and people of faith, they struggle with their own beliefs, with living their faith, and even with the Church itself, which may also have been a factor in the ban.  The strongly Catholic setting, richly evoked, was a pleasant change from the constant, almost reflexive anti-Catholicism that I have come across lately in so many 19th century English novels and letters.

I also have on the TBR pile O'Brien's Farewell Spain, about her own experiences of the country, including a year's stint herself as a "miss."  Looking at the author's note in this book, I see several other of her books that I haven't read, including an autobiography and a book about Ireland.  I am so glad to have re-discovered Kate O'Brien - on my own shelves, no less!

Friday, November 11, 2011

A country curate and his family

The Curate in Charge, Margaret Oliphant

I knew nothing about Margaret Oliphant, and very little about Victorian women writers in general, when I came across a used copy of Miss Marjoribanks several years ago.  When I sat down to read it, I was instantly enthralled with Miss Marjoribanks herself, with the fictional setting of Carlingford, and with Oliphant's writing.  She reminds me of Anthony Trollope, in the easy accessibility of her stories, the sense of real life that she gives to her characters, and her narrative voice.  I immediately set out to find the other books in the "Chronicles of Carlingford" series, and I was lucky enough to find copies of the recent Virago reprints.  I also found a copy of her autobiography, which I read only last year, a heart-breaking and incredibly moving account of loss and grief.  And I came across a copy of The Curate in Charge, which years later I have finally gotten around to reading.

Again like Trollope, Oliphant writes frequently about clergymen and their families.  The title character of this book is the Rev. Cecil St John, who has been the curate of Brentburn, a country parish in Berkshire, for twenty years.  Brentburn is a college living, and the holder of the living, the Rev. Mr Chester, made his health an excuse to retire to Italy.  (My recent reading of Irene Collins' book Jane Austen and Clergy gave me a better understanding of the circumstances of the living and the curate's position.)  In his twenty years in the village, Mr St John has married and lost two wives, leaving him with two families to support on his curate's salary.  The first family consists of two daughters, Cicely and Mab.  When they leave Brentburn to go to school, their father marries their former governess.  After their stepmother's death, the girls return home to help care for the twin boys she leaves behind.  Just as they are trying to adjust to their new life, word arrives that Mr Chester has died in Italy.  A new rector will now be appointed, their father will lose his home and income, and at age sixty-five, must look for a new place.  After twenty years in a quiet country curacy, Mr St John is completely unprepared to face this upheaval in his life, and to Cicely's despair, he will make no provision nor take any action.  He welcomes the new rector, Mr Mildmay, without even a hint of the family's precarious position.  Cicely must do everything herself, even searching for a new situation for her father, while trying to run the household and care for her brothers.  Her younger sister Mab, a talented artist, is much more likely to pose the children, barefoot and in rags, than to care for them.

Oliphant often found herself in Cicely's position, caring for husband, children, brothers, nieces and nephews, many of whom were just as impractical and passive as Mr St John.  Her writing supported her extended family for decades, with more than 100 books, as well as articles and reviews.   Again like Trollope, she was sometimes criticized for writing too much, or too commercially.  There seems to be general agreement that the quality of her books varies widely, which is understandable given that she wrote at speed and under pressure.  The Carlingford books are considered among the best of her work, and I enjoyed them all, particularly The Perpetual Curate, my favorite of her novels.  I think The Curate in Charge, while a slighter novel, should be ranked with them.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A chain of cause and effect

How It All Began, Penelope Lively

This has been a year of reading Penelope Lively - books I'd had unread for years, and other books (new to me) that I came across.  And now there is her latest, which I've been anticipating ever since I saw it announced earlier in the year.  How It All Began is vintage Lively.  It is a story of cause and effect, of chance and choice, of the connections between people, and how a person's actions can affect more than just his or her own life.  The book opens with a quotation from James Gleick's Chaos: "The Butterfly Effect was the reason . . . Errors and uncertainties multiply, cascading upward through a chain of turbulent features . . ."

As the story begins, Charlotte, an elderly woman, has been mugged.  The attack leaves her with a broken hip, and she must move in with her daughter Rose and son-in-law Henry while it heals.  Rose has to cancel a business trip with her employer, Lord Peters, a retired but still busy historian, and he recruits his niece Marion to accompany him instead.  To go with him, Marion has to break a date with her married lover; the text she sends him goes to his wife instead, who immediately throws him out.  This isn't one story, it's a chain of stories, and the characters move in and out of the different chapters, continuing to affect each other's lives.

In addition to the Butterfly Effect, Lively also uses the stories to explore the nature of history, one of her frequent themes.  Lord Peters belongs to the Great Man school of history (which features few women), arguing "that events are governed entirely by politics and persons," not by impersonal forces or by chance and choice.  We come to see how out of touch and in fact marginalized he has become, and there is a pathos in his attempts to reconnect and reinvent himself, though there is a satiric edge to Lively's portrait of him.  He stands in contrast to Charlotte, who is for me the heart of the stories.  She has been forced into dependence and the uncomfortable intimacy of living with her daughter.  Reading is her natural refuge:
"For ever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pas the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even. She has read to find out how sex works, how babies are born; she has read to discover what it is to be good, or bad; she has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her - then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what is it that other people experience that she is missing."
I can't remember another Lively character with such a passion for reading.  And Charlotte has always shared her love of books.  A gifted teacher of English before her retirement, she now volunteers as a literacy tutor.  Her own reading and her sessions with one student, Anton, allow Lively to explore different books as well as the idea of reading itself, while also bringing Anton into the chain of cause and effect.  I was amused at the nods to P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, among others, and I think I now know a little about what Lively herself likes to read.

I really enjoyed this book.  It may not have the emotional weight of some of her books, like The Photograph or Perfect Happiness, but it is an engaging story (or set of stories), told with Lively's style and wit, with a cast of characters that draw you in.  I have to wonder, though, at Lively's American publishers.  The UK version (left, rather blurry) has the most attractive cover, one that I just want to sink down into, and it's a teaser for things that happen in the book. To my mind, the American cover is garish, and the uneven lettering looks silly.  Maybe they thought Americans would buy a book with a picture of London on it, but not one with books and flowers and tea.  I decided to splurge on the UK edition, and I'm so glad I did, however shallow that makes me.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A majestic biography

Queen Mary, James Pope-Hennessy

Several things in my recent reading got me interested in reading more about Queen Mary.  The first was the volumes of letters between Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia that I read over the summer.  There were frequent references to "Aunt Cambridge" and her family, particularly the difficulties of marrying off her daughter Mary Adelaide.  It took me a while to figure out that Princess Mary Adelaide was Victoria's cousin and the future mother of the future Queen Mary.  Then I came across Princess Mary Adelaide, now the Duchess of Teck, in Mistress of Charlecote, The Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy, where she completely captivated Mrs. Lucy with her friendliness and charm.  Finally, Queen Mary also plays a fictional role in Rhys Bowen's Lady Georgie mystery series, now in its fifth book.  I already had this book on my shelves, a gift from a friend years ago, which I never got around to reading, until now.

I do not think I have ever read a biography that embodies its subject so completely.  Queen Mary is majestic, intelligent, discrete, obsessed with family relations and genealogy, and fascinated with furniture and objets d'art.  Two years after Queen Mary's death in 1953, Queen Elizabeth II asked James Pope-Hennessy to write the biography of her grandmother.  He was given access to the Royal Archives at Windsor, which include Queen Mary's diaries and letters, as well as family archives in Europe, including the personal papers of the Duke of Windsor.

In a book of 620 pages, Pope-Hennessy devotes more than a third of it to the future queen's childhood and adolescence, and to her remarkable parents.  Like Mrs. Lucy, he seems captivated with her mother, Queen Victoria's cousin and one of the most visible, and popular, members of the Royal Family (he even analyzes her astrological sign).  She was what we today call "plus-sized," and though she was a Princess of the Blood Royal, it took quite some time to find her a husband.  She married at what was then the advanced age of 32.  Her new husband, Prince Franz of Teck, was the child of a morganantic marriage, which in the view of many in Europe, particularly at the Prussian Court, should have disqualified him to marry into the British Royal Family.  Like Prince Albert, Franz moved to his wife's country, but unlike Albert he found very little to do, and his frustration created tension in the family.  So did the massive debts from the extravagant life he and his wife led. 

In this atmosphere, their eldest child and only daughter Victoria Mary, called "May" in the family, grew into a quiet, studious, compassionate young woman, known for her good sense and for her blonde good looks.  All of these qualities combined led Queen Victoria and the Prince and Princess of Wales to choose her as the bride of Prince Albert Victor of Wales.  Pope-Hennessy is rather discrete about Prince Albert Victor, whom he calls "Dear and good . . . pliable and obedient" - or perhaps it is that more information about the Prince has come to light since this book was published in 1960.  I don't think anyone can take seriously the theory that he was Jack the Ripper, but he seems to have led a pretty unsavoury life.  It is clear from Queen Victoria's letters that she thought the best reform for a rake was marriage to a good woman (which didn't work in her own sons' cases).  Pope-Hennessy devotes several chapters to Prince Albert Victor, their engagement, his death soon after, and the pressure that built on May to then marry his brother the Duke of York, the new heir-presumptive.  He writes with sympathy and insight of her grief, and her embarrassment at the situation she found herself in, explaining how affection for her cousin George and her sense of duty to the Royal Family led to her second engagement.

Her marriage to the Duke of York and then her nine years as Princess of Wales take up a scant third of the book, and then her twenty-five years as Queen Consort and seventeen as Dowager Queen take up the last third.  Pope-Hennessy spends so much time and attention on the first twenty-six years of her life that it almost seems like the last sixty get short shrift, in comparison.  He makes the argument that in marrying the Duke of York, May devoted herself to the service of the British Crown, and that when her husband became King in 1910, she focused her life on supporting him.  Pope-Hennessy is very candid in discussing her failures as a parent, including her exclusive focus on her husband, though he points out in her defense that she gave the same devotion to her sons Edward VIII and George VI in their turns as King.  What spare time she had was devoted to collecting artifacts of the Royal Family, a hobby that became something of an obsession (and may have shaded into kleptomania in her last years, which Pope-Hennessy naturally doesn't mention).  When I visited Windsor Castle a few years ago, I got to see Queen Mary's Dolls' House, part of her fascination with miniatures.

I found Pope-Hennessy to be an entertaining narrator, but an unusual one for a biographer, particularly of a royal subject.  He is not above sarcasm.  Writing about the Duchess of Teck's training her children in charitable work, he quotes an account of one occasion when "Her Royal Highness sent a dinner to a destitute family, and gave instructions that the children were to stop and see the poor people eat it, showing at once her practical mind and her goodness of heart."  Pope-Hennessy adds, "Such golden opportunities to observe the Poor at feeding time in their natural surroundings were supplemented by hearsay. . ."  While researching the book, he traveled extensively in Europe, staying in the former homes of Teck and Cambridge relations.  At times his story becomes more an account of his own travels, and I lost patience a little with his intrusions into the story:
"The valley lies silent in the sunset. No puff of wind stirs the sentinel trees. Wafting slowly upwards from a hidden chimney, a curl of wood-smoke hovers above the old house's purple roofs.  Somewhere in the walled garden of the Schloss, with its frozen pool and its black box hedges, a dog is baying."
In the end, I enjoyed this book very much and learned a lot from it.  If I had been reading a library copy, I would already have been out searching for my own.