Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Literary crushes, and chapters in a traveller's life

A Traveller's Life, Eric Newby

I have a new literary crush.  Does anyone else get those?   It might be an author, or a character, or even a historical figure.  It leads to spending as much time as possible with the crush (which usually means buying lots of books), trawling the net for their life history, and going on and on about it to friends who are probably thinking, "There she goes again."  Sometimes the crush settles into long-term relationship (Peter Wimsey, Lymond, Terry Pratchett, Abraham Lincoln); sometimes I wake up one day and realize that the magic is just gone (Elizabeth George, Julia Spencer-Fleming). 

Last year's set included Elizabeth von Arnim, George Templeton Strong, Cornelia Otis Skinner's family, and Ulysses Grant.  I met my latest, Eric Newby, thanks to the TBR Double Dare.  I'd had his book Round Ireland in Low Gear on the TBR stacks for years and never got around to reading it until now.  I added A Traveller's Life last year, just from the back cover blurb:
"Eric Newby's life of travel began with strange adventures in prams, forays into the lush jungles of Harrods with his mother and into the perilous slums of darkest Hammersmith on his way to school. Such beginnings aroused his curiosity about more outlandish places, a wanderlust satisfied equally by travels through the London sewers, by bicycle to Italy and through wildest New York."
Newby writes in the introduction, "This book is not an autobiography."  The first chapter comes closest, telling the story of his birth in 1919, and placing it in a very specific context: what people were doing, how they were living, where they were working and shopping and what they were earning, particularly in his corner of southwest London.  From there, the book becomes a series of episodes centered around travel, moving chronologically through his life.  It was published in 1982, five years before Round Ireland, and the last chapter is dated 1973, when Newby left his position as travel editor of The Observer.

Like any book of short stories, some chapters are stronger than others.  I enjoyed the early ones about his childhood and school days.  Two chapters cover his apprenticeship in 1938-1939 on a grain ship sailing round-trip from England to Australia.  I don't think two short chapters can do justice to a voyage like that, and in fact Newby wrote a book about the trip, The Last Grain Race (currently sitting in my shopping cart on Amazon).  There are chapters on his World War II service in the Middle East, including time as a prisoner in Italy (Love and War in the Apennines, already awaiting the end of the TBR challenge), his celebrated travels through the Hindu Kush (which inspired his first book) and down the Ganges, and his varied career choices (like his father he worked in the fashion industry, before turning to journalism, which he also chronicled in a book).  In his later years, he and his wife Wanda bought and restored a house in Tuscany.  The book he wrote about their experiences apparently started what I think of as the "Year in Provence" trend.

Newby definitely wasn't one for the safe packaged tour.  The penultimate chapter recounts a trip to Haiti in 1972.  Even more perilous was a trek one year earlier, to the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula (home of the marvelous Biblical texts discovered by the Sisters of Sinai).  Travel through the desert was dangerous enough, but tensions were high as Egypt and Israel clashed over Sinai.  Though there were only eight monks in the monastery at that time, Newby felt the pull of the place: "The longer I remained within the walls of the monastery . . . every day I became more disinclined to leave it. . ."

I feel equally disinclined to part company with him, and I'm already looking forward to the next chapter.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right"

Lincoln's Greatest Speech, Ronald C. White, Jr.

I spent much of the past week reading Tom Jones.  I have found it really captivating, very funny in places and touching in others, and I can't imagine where Tom's adventures are going to take him next (except into more trouble).  But somewhere around p.460, my interest started to flag.  I realized that I was counting the pages rather than following the story (my Penguin edition has 851 pages of fairly small print), and I decided it was time to take a break.

This past week I also had the opportunity to see an exhibit on the Civil War at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.  It consists primarily of material from the collections of the National Archives, and the main draw for visitors last week was the addition of the Emancipation Proclamation, on display for only a few days.  As thrilled as I was to see that, the highlight for me was something that many visitors may have missed.  In a case with several small photos of soldiers, both individuals and groups, was one of a woman soldier who enlisted in disguise as a male, in order to serve with her husband.  The label referred to the more than 400 women who have been identified as serving, a topic that I've become very interested in after reading DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook's book They Fought Like Demons

Seeing the exhibit led me back to the Civil War section of the TBR stack, and to Ronald C. White's book on Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.  As the title states, White considers this the greatest of Lincoln's speeches.  Like the Gettysburg Address it is short, but it conveys profound and powerful ideas in its 703 words (you can find a text of it here). The epigraph of the book is Frederick Douglass's statement to Lincoln: "The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper."

 White, a professor of history at UCLA, has written several books on American religious and intellectual history.  In this book, he analyzes the Second Inaugural as both a state paper and a sermon.  The first chapter, "Inauguration Day," sets the stage in March, 1865.  Though the war has not yet ended, victory seemed near, with Grant's campaign against Lee in its final stages, and Sherman marching through South Carolina.  At the same time, though, Americans had suffered through four years of a brutal civil war with appalling casualties and destruction on a scale never seen before.  As people flooded into Washington to celebrate, they faced questions about how the war would end, how the rebel states would be brought back into the Union, and the fate not just of the soldiers who fought the war but also of millions of former slaves.  Many expected Lincoln to address these questions, to lay out his plans for what was already called "reconstruction," or to trumpet the victories of the Republican party and the Federal armies.

What Lincoln did instead was to trace the history of the conflict, to indict both the North and the South for the sin of slavery, and then to call the country to repentance, to reconciliation, and to care for those most affected by the war, the soldiers, their families, and the freed people.  White devotes a chapter to each section of the speech, to analyze its historical context, how it fits it with Lincoln's other writings, and its careful grammatical structure.  He pays particular attention to the religious context of Lincoln's words, including his background in the "Old School" wing of the Presbyterian Church.  White argues that Lincoln affirmed in this speech his belief in a providential God who was present even in the terrible events of the war, and that the address follows the familiar structure of a 19th century sermon, with indictment followed by imperative: we have gone astray and sinned, we must make amends.

In addition to the speech itself, White's analysis incorporates many other interesting elements, including the reaction to Lincoln's words, in Europe as well as America.  I had not realized that, according the political calendar of the time, Congress would not come back into session until December 1865, which meant that Lincoln would have had a free hand for months in "reconstruction."  Unfortunately for the country, among those in the audience at the Inauguration was John Wilkes Booth, clearly visible in photographs, who would assassinate Lincoln 41 days later.  White also looks at the place of the Bible in Civil War America, and the work of Bible societies (north and south, Protestant and Catholic) who distributed copies to the soldiers.  There are many accounts of soldiers' lives saved by their pocket Bibles, which deflected or stopped a bullet.  The exhibit here in Houston includes one of those Bibles, gouged with the track of a bullet.

I see from Dr. White's website that he has written a full-scale biography of Lincoln and is currently working on one of Ulysses Grant.  I look forward to reading both.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The murder of a prince

Island of Exiles, I.J. Parker

This is the fourth in a series of mysteries set in 11th-century Japan, featuring Sugawara Akitada, an official in the imperial Ministry of Justice.  In the third book, Black Arrow, he accepted an assignment as provisional governor of the remote northern Echigo Province (today's Niigata Prefecture).  As this book opens, he and his family, which now includes his baby son Yori, are still in Echigo.  They have been waiting six months for his recall to the capital, and for his salary, now badly in arrears.  Facing the onset of another long winter, with their resources exhausted, their situation is becoming desperate.

When envoys from the capital arrive one day, it is not with good news.  Men of high rank, they carry documents from the Emperor himself, ordering an investigation into the murder of a member of the imperial family.  Prince Okisada, the eldest brother of the current Emperor, had been passed over in the line of succession.  Okisada later plotted to gain the throne for himself, which led to his permanent exile on Sado Island, a penal colony off the coast of Echigo.  While visiting a friend's home, the Prince was suddenly taken ill and died.  Poison was immediately suspected, and the son of the island's governor, a young man named Toshito who was present, was arrested and charged.  Though the case against Toshito seems clear, there are larger issues at stake.  There are rumors that Okisada may have been plotting another attempt to take the throne, perhaps this time by an alliance with the Ezo people of the north (who played a part in Black Arrow).

Akitada has no choice but to accept the assignment, coming as it does from the highest authority.  But then the envoys add a twist: they suggest that he go undercover, alone and posing as a convict.  Though he travels with secret papers identifying himself, from the moment of his arrival he is subject to brutal discipline and even abuse.  Because the prevailing Buddhist ethos forbids the taking of life, executions are rare.  The most severe punishment, for crimes like murder and treason, is exile.  Exiles like the Prince, with financial resources, find life on Sado pleasant, if a bit restricted.  For a convict like "Taketsuna," the newest arrival, life is likely to be brutish and short, hard labor on short rations, particularly for those assigned to the island's silver mines.

"Taketsuna" quickly finds allies.  The governor, advised of his arrival and anxious to clear his son, appoints him a clerk, sparing him from manual labor.  He is assigned to assist a provincial tax inspector on his rounds, which will give him the chance to meet the Prince's inner circle and to ask questions.  But his investigations draw the attention of Kumo, a rich landowner and the province's high constable.  Returning to the capital of Mano one night, he is set upon by armed men who beat him senseless.  When Akitada awakes, he is imprisoned deep in one of Kumo's mines, with his investigation stalled and many questions unanswered.  What is the connection between Kumo and the Prince?  Is Toshito being framed for the murder, perhaps because of conflicts between his father and Kumo?  Most importantly, how can he escape the brutal slavery of the mine?  His disappearance alarms his family back in Echigo, and his faithful retainer Tora travels to Sado to find him, arriving just in time to help him escape and finally resolve the case.

As I have said before, I don't know much about 11th-century Japan.  Each story in the series has introduced me to a new place, a new level of society.  Even so, this story's setting is unique.  And in this story, Akitada is completely out of his element.  While he does have allies, he is on his own for much of the story, without the protection of his position or his household.  He endures the humiliating and dangerous conditions of life as a supposed criminal.  He risks his life to pursue the investigation, driven by his sense of duty, and also by stubbornness and curiosity.  I'm looking forward to seeing where they take him next.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cycling through Ireland

Round Ireland in Low Gear, Eric Newby

I have mentioned before that while I am not a great traveler (or perhaps because I'm not), I enjoy travel narratives, and I have quite a few on my shelves.  Some of them are about places I have been or hope to go to one day, others are about trips that I know I will never take.  Round Ireland in Low Gear is one of the latter. Though I would love to visit Ireland, it certainly won't be on a bike tour in November and December.

This is the first of Eric Newby's books that I have read, and I feel like I have made a fascinating new acquaintance whom I can't wait to meet again.  I'm excited to see how many books he wrote, about such varied journeys.  I already have another of his books, A Traveller's Life, on the TBR pile.  Newby reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor in the breadth of his interests, particularly in this book in the history of Ireland.  But while his prose can't match Leigh Fermor's, he also seems a little less intimidating.  His sense of humor and willingness to risk looking like an idiot remind me of Calvin Trillin and Tony Horwitz (and like Trillin, he always reports on the food).

In the fall of 1985, Newby and his wife Wanda (an interesting person in her own right) decided to take a cycling tour of Ireland.  They chose the fall because it was the dormant season of the apparently demanding garden and orchard at their Dorset home.  After Wanda declined a walking tour, and Newby reluctantly accepted that a balloon tour was impractical, they settled on bicycles.  Their first trip, through County Clare, and their second, along the southern and southwestern coastline, were both gruelling slogs through mud, rain, and snow.  At one point a gale-force wind blew Wanda clean off her bike.  I wasn't surprised that they occasionally gave in and took trains, buses and even taxis.

The third trip, in June of the next year, was more successful.  Not only was the weather much better, but as Newby wrote,
"I had what seemed to me a brilliant idea about how to overcome one of the principal factors that made cycling so unpopular with Wanda, namely, hills. . . My idea was to ride westwards from Dublin . . . along the banks of the Grand Canal, which begins where the River Liffey meets the Irish Sea in Dublin Bay and eventually comes to an end at Shannon Harbor."
I love canals, and I hope someday to take a trip by canal boat.  On this trip they stayed in Banagher, near Shannon Harbor, which is where Anthony Trollope "started work for the Post Office as a surveyor in 1841 and wrote his first two novels . . ."  I had been looking for a mention of Trollope, whose years in Ireland were so formative, though I had forgotten where he had his headquarters.

In addition to Ireland's political and social history, which Newby wrote about with objectivity, he was also interested in its literature and in its religious history (which is of course intertwined with its politics and society).  He and Wanda visited countless shrines, holy wells, and ruined monasteries, and on a later visit on his own, he made the ascent of Croagh Patrick, the Holy Mountain of St. Patrick.  (On a less sanctified visit, he and Wanda raced their bikes up and down the corridors of the dorm at the storied Catholic seminary, St. Patrick's College at Maynooth.)

I learned from this book that Newby met Wanda during World War II, when he was a prisoner in Italy.  He wrote about their experiences in a book called Love and War in the Apennines, and if I had it here right now I think that would be the end of the TBR challenge.  It has gone straight on my post-challenge reading list.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Archaeology in Arizona

Summer of the Dragon, Elizabeth Peters

I have been a fan of Elizabeth Peters' books for many years now.  I started with her series featuring Victorian archaeologists Amelia and Radcliffe Emerson.  While exploring and excavating in Egypt, the Emersons are drawn into investigating various crimes, often related to the theft of antiquities.  Over the course of the series, which now includes 19 books, I have learned more than a little about ancient Egypt and modern archaeology.  Elizabeth Peters herself has a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and has written a book on Egyptian history under her own name, Barbara Mertz (Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs).

Summer of the Dragon is set in her familiar field of archaeology, but in a new location: Arizona.  D.J. Abbott, a grad student in anthropology, needs a summer internship so she doesn't have to spend the summer with her loving but crazy parents.  She accepts a vaguely-worded offer from Hank Hunnicutt, a self-made multi-billionaire, famous for pouring money into crackpot ideas like the search for UFOs.  He claims to have made a sensational discovery near his Arizona ranch, and he needs assistance in bringing it to light.  When D.J. arrives as his palatial estate (somewhere around Flagstaff), she discovers a crowd of guests, many with their own crackpot theories (Atlantis, past-life regressions, alien abductions) that they are hoping Hank will fund.  Some are true believers, others are clearly con artists.  Peters has a lot of fun with the crowd, pointing out the absurdities and inconsistencies in their theories. 

At the ranch D.J. also discovers two tall, dark & handsome young men, one Hank's assistant (and an archaeologist in his own right), the other searching for lost gold mines.  One woos her, the other spars with her at every turn.  If you've read enough Elizabeth Peters, it's pretty clear who the hero is going to be.  I was never completely sure about the villain, though, because there is such a cast of suspects.  Whatever Hank has discovered out in the desert, it is making someone nervous.  Then Hank himself disappears.  Has he been kidnapped?  The police don't think so, but D.J. and the saner members of the party head out into the desert to find him - though "sane" doesn't necessarily mean "innocent."

As with the Emerson books, Peters introduces history and archaeology without overwhelming the story. This was a fun, fast Sunday-afternoon read, though I don't think D.J. would make it through an internship with Amelia and Emerson in Egypt.  I also enjoyed the Arizona setting.  Peters clearly loves the austere beauty of the desert, whether in Egypt or America, and there are some almost lyrical descriptions of mountains and canyons, and the effects of light and space.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Becoming "Laura Ingalls Wilder"

Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, John E. Miller

Last year I read two new (or new to me) books about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life and Pamela Smith Hill's Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Writer's Life, while overlooking this book sitting on the shelves unread for years.  The TBR Double Dare is really making me aware how often I do this, distracted by the new and shiny books I come across.  It has led me to a belated new-year's resolution to read the books acquired each year within that year - as well as continuing to whittle down the TBR stacks.

On the other hand, though, I'm glad I read Pamela Smith Hill's book before Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The title reflects the author's thesis, which he states in the Introduction:
"In some measure, therefore, this book is about how the real Laura Ingalls Wilder became, to her readers, the fictional Laura.  More important, however, it is about how the young Laura Ingalls became a successful and popular author recognized far and wide as Laura Ingalls Wilder.  In that process of "becoming" she would be addressed by several different names . . . Getting to know Laura Ingalls Wilder, therefore, partly involves discovering how her personality evolved coincident to a variety of name changes over time."
In the Introduction, Miller also addresses what seems to be the main issue in Wilder studies: who wrote the books. "At the heart of any analysis of Laura Ingalls Wilder lies a paradox: how did this seemingly ordinary woman come to produce such extraordinary work?"  For many, the answer is simple: she didn't, her daughter Rose Wilder Lane did.  Miller takes the middle position, arguing that while Lane's contributions as editor were crucial, the stories and the books were still Wilder's (Hill is a staunch Laura-ist).

The first third of Miller's book recounts Laura's life in the years covered by the "Little House" books, pointing out where her life diverges from the story of the fictional Laura.  I found this section rather flat, in part because the flood of information about all the different places where the Ingalls family lived over the years.  Miller seems to love statistics.  Laura and her family sometimes get lost in census figures and production statistics and community histories, which are clearly meant to provide context for their lives but take on a life of their own.  And his narration of Laura's life lacks the spark found in the books themselves, particularly when he recounts specific events like Ben Woodworth's birthday party or Laura's recitation of American history for a school exhibition.

Where the book took off for me was in the middle section, starting with Laura's early married life.  I know much less about her life after the events of the books, and I found this part very interesting and informative (though still weighed down at times with statistics).  Laura did not leave behind a lot of documentation, letters and so forth, and I was impressed with Miller's research in uncovering what information he could about her.  One of his main sources would be the columns Laura wrote for a farm paper, the Missouri Ruralist in the early 1900s.  In many cases he has to infer what Laura and her family were doing at particular times, but his inferences are always grounded in his research, and he puts her life in the context of what was going on in their local community, as well as the United States as a whole.  I had no idea, for example, that all three members of the family, Laura, Almanzo and Rose, despised Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, or that they were staunch isolationists before World War II.

In addition to tracing the roots of Laura's writing career, Miller focuses on her complicated relationship with her daughter Rose, which becomes a major theme of the second half of the book.  Rose did leave behind a wealth of primary source documents, including journals she kept while living with her parents as an adult.  Miller seems to have found these sources iresistable, and at times Rose takes over the book, particularly during the years after she returned from Albania to live on their Missouri farm. In one of the most fascinating episodes of their lives together, Rose built her parents an English-style cottage on the farm, which they didn't want, but into which they dutifully moved, while she took over their beloved home, complaining meanwhile about the expense of building the cottage.  I think they could have all benefited from some family therapy, Rose in particular.  She struggled for many years with depression and other mental and emotional problems, to which Miller returns again and again and again.  While I sympathized with her problems, I resented the way she took over the story.  It is only after she left her parents' home for good in 1935 that the focus can again return to Laura.

By that point, the first two books in the "Little House" series had already been published to great acclaim, with the third, Little House on the Prairie, ready to come out.  Miller traces their writing process in detail, making his case for their collaboration, while also placing it in the context of Rose's own career.  Though she was the more experienced and established author, she would be eclipsed by her mother's rocketing popularity.  Rose's greatest successes came with novels drawn from the pioneer stories of her parents and grandparents - Little House books for adults.  One point I have yet to see addressed anywhere is what Almanzo Wilder thought of the books, either Laura's or Rose's, particularly about his own fictionalization as a character (and a heroic one at times).  He was apparently a man of few words.  Laura was the talker, but like her he also left behind few records, so we may never know.

The story ends with Laura's death in 1957 (Almanzo had died in 1949), which according to Miller came as a great relief to Rose: "The mother who had brought her into the world, who had loved her, smothered and controlled her, and who had depended heavily on her had caused both pain and joy."  He describes her as "almost buoyant."  Whatever the complications of their relationship, it seems a shame to leave the reader with that impression of Rose - or perhaps that is just my Laura bias showing.

I am glad to have this book on my shelves as an informative biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, particularly on her later life.  For anyone interested in Wilder's life outside the Little House books, though, I would recommend starting with Pamela Smith Hill's book.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Classics Challenge: February with George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw

This is the second round of the Classics Challenge, hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn.  The theme this month is character and the prompt is to write about one that we find interesting.  I am going to take a more general approach in discussing the characters in this play.

I am very familiar with My Fair Lady, the musical that is of course based on Pygmalion.  Since I expect that most people are familiar with one or the other version, I won't summarize the plot.  My high school's drama department put on My Fair Lady one year (as always, I was in the chorus), and I have seen the film version with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn several times.  I have never read the play before, though, and I wanted to see how it compares with the musical.  Generally, I find that the book is always better, and Pygmalion is no exception.

One of the most interesting differences to me was in the characters.  In the play, the cast is much smaller, and they are quieter, without the heightened emotions of the songs.  At least to me they feel more grounded, more real.  Both Mrs Higgins and the housekeeper Mrs Pearce do more than just react to Henry or Eliza, they play a real part in the story.  Mrs Pearce is very straight-forward and out-spoken over her concern for Eliza and the effects of Higgins' scheme, and it is clear that she and Eliza talk things over between themselves, and that Eliza has taken her counsel to heart.  Colonel Pickering also plays a more active role, in part because in the play he and Higgins take Eliza on outings that they all enjoy, to concerts and museums.  He has a relationship with Eliza that is different than hers with Higgins, one that plays a crucial role in her decision to leave Higgins' home after the experiment ends.  In the musical, Pickering does not appear after the three return in triumph from the ball.  In the play, he comes with Higgins to look for Eliza, to convince her to come home again.  And as the play ends, he is setting off with the ladies to the wedding of Eliza's father, out of his natural kindness and good nature. 

Then there are the Eynsford Hills, the mother, her daughter Clara and son Freddy.  Eliza meets them at one of Mrs Higgins' at-homes, in her first social test, which she flunks just as she does at the musical's Ascot.  In the play, they are the only witnesses to Eliza's gaffes, apart from the Higginses and Colonel Pickering.  It is of course much more realistic that Higgins would start with a small test rather than one of the major social events of the season.  In the play, the Eynsford Hills are given a backstory of social position undermined by genteel poverty that makes them sympathetic characters, but also underscores the rashness of Freddy's impulsive non-proposal (he never asks, he just announces that they are engaged).

I think that the play and the musical versions of Higgins are the most closely aligned, except in the play he is about 40, much younger than Rex Harrison.  Shaw describes him as
"but for his years and size, rather like a very impetuous baby . . . His manner varies from genial bullying when he is in a good humor to stormy petulance when anything goes wrong; but he is so entirely frank and void of malice that he remains likeable even in his least reasonable moments."
I see the bullying, and the stormy petulance, and the frankness, but also malice as well, and I don't quite see the charm that Shaw wants me to.  I find it entirely fitting that the play ends with him left alone in his mother's house, while the rest of the company goes off to the wedding.  As Mrs Higgins says, they can't take him along because he can't behave himself in church.  Eliza's father, on the other hand, is charming, despite his "Nietzschean transcendence of good and evil."  I think he was also translated well into the musical version.

My feeling for the characters was definitely colored by Shaw's afterword, which carries the story several years into the future.  His explanation of Eliza's state of mind and heart, her conviction that she cannot marry Higgins, makes sense and feels right.  The musical gets it wrong and does her character a great disservice, after her declaration of independence, when she returns immediately to Higgins' home, ready to fetch his slippers again.  In the story Shaw tells in the afterword, she and Freddy are dependent for a long time on Colonel Pickering's generosity, which eventually enables them to open a flower shop (which almost fails due to their lack of business experience).  At the same time, Freddy's sister Clara discovers H.G. Wells, becomes a convert to socialism, finds friends in a circle of fellow Wellsians, and even takes a job, all of which gives her much more joy and satisfaction than her life of genteel poverty on the fringes of society.  I loved her transformation even more than Eliza's, and though Shaw gently pokes fun at her, he treats her with respect.

I am afraid that the musical version is ruined for me now, but I am curious to see the 1938 film version with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. I did wonder in reading it how on earth some of the scenes could be staged, such as when Mrs Pearce takes Eliza upstairs for a bath (and attacks her with a scrubbing brush).  In a Preface, Shaw answers that:
"A complete representation of the play as printed in this edition is technically possible only on the cinema screen or on stages furnished with exceptionally elaborate machinery. For ordinary theatrical use the scenes separated by rows of asterisks are to be omitted."
My Penguin edition lists the copyright in 1916 (renewed 1944), with additional material copyright 1942.  The "additional material" apparently includes scenes Shaw himself wrote for the 1938 film version.  I am going to keep an eye out for the original 1916 script, just out of curiosity.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Abelard and Heloise

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, Betty Radice, trans./ed.

I bought this book several years ago under the influence of Sharan Newman's excellent series of 12th-century mysteries.  The first, Death Comes as Epiphany, is set in 1139 and introduces Catherine LeVendeur, a novice under Heloise at the famous convent of the Paraclete, and Edgar, a student of Peter Abelard's.  Heloise and Abelard themselves appear in the books, and I learned quite a bit about their story over the course of the series.  Around 1118, Abelard, a famous master of logic and professor at the Cathedral School of Notre Dame in Paris, agreed to tutor Heloise, the niece of one of the cathedral's canons.  She had a brilliant mind and had already received an excellent education for a woman of that day.  Abelard set out to seduce her, and they were soon involved in a passionate affair, one they found impossible to hide even before Heloise became pregnant.  Her uncle's rage when he discovered the affair was not satisfied by their hasty marriage, particularly after they separated, with Heloise living in a convent.  One night his servants attacked Abelard in his lodging and castrated him.  Their separation then became permanent; Heloise entered the convent, and Abelard became first a monk and later a priest.

I probably thought that this book would be letters exchanged back and forth during their passionate love affair.  It's not, it's much more than that. It is a fascinating window into the lives to two extraordinary people, and also into life in the 12th century.  The book is divided into three sections.  The first is Abelard's Historia Calamitatum (The Story of His Misfortunes), written around 1132.  An autobiographical account of his life up to that time, it tells the story of his meteoric rise as a master of logic, the enemies he made along the way, and the conflicts he constantly found himself involved in.  Abelard was a leader in the new branch of dialectics, teaching through questions that forced students to think and reason for themselves, but when he turned his focus to theology, some became alarmed that he was leading young minds to question faith itself.  This charge would haunt him through his career and his writings, bringing him to face church councils and once to have his work publicly burned.  He also accepted an appointment as abbot of a troubled monastery, which turned out to be a disaster, as the monks rebelled against his authority and even tried to kill him.

The Historia is framed as a letter to a friend undergoing his own troubles: "In comparison with my trials you will see that your own are nothing, or only slight, and will find them easier to bear."  This was perhaps just a literary convention, though, because a copy found its way to Heloise.  She was then the abbess of a convent called the Paraclete, formerly the site of one of Abelard's schools.  She and her nuns were refugees from their original convent, which had been appropriated by a powerful abbot who turned them out into the world.  Heloise wrote Abelard in distress at his sufferings, but also in distress that he had taken no note of her sufferings.  She had no vocation for religious life; she fled to the convent after the attack on him.  Abelard found a vocation as a monk and priest.  Heloise simply endured, through years of religious life, still deeply in love and physically drawn to him, though outwardly a model nun, elected to the highest office.  She wanted the consolation of knowing that he did love her.  Their letters back and forth make up the second section, the "Personal Letters."  Abelard refused to give her that consolation, telling her to find it in faith and her life in God, finally telling her that he felt for her was lust, not love, and God's mercy had saved them both from that.

Heloise's response to that opens the third section, the "Letters of Direction."  It is as if a door had closed in her mind, or in her heart.  She will not ask again.  Instead, she asked Abelard, whom the nuns considered their founder, to draw up a rule of life for them.  They were Benedictines, under the Rule of Benedict, which was written for men, for monks.  Though Benedict had a sister Scholastica, considered the first Benedictine nun, he wrote no separate rule for her community.  Heloise listed some of the problems: could nuns offer hospitality to men, as monks were commanded to do?  The Rule instructs the abbot to read the Gospel aloud at set times, but women are forbidden from doing that.  I did not realize that there were few if any rules for women, some seventy years before Francis and Clare of Assisi would form the Poor Clares, or Dominic his nuns.  Though Abelard's long letter on his proposed rule was sometimes hard to follow, it was also full of fascinating details.  Unlike other nuns, the Paraclete nuns were allowed meat, since after all the priests and rulers of the church allowed themselves meat, and it was often cheaper than fish.  But they were not to eat white bread, and never bread hot from the oven!  Any nun who showed an aptitude for learning must be educated, particularly in the Scriptures.  The abbess ruled unconditionally in the monastery, like a general in the army, but as women they must be under the direction and authority of the abbot of a men's community.

I found this book unexpectedly fascinating.  Both Heloise and Abelard wrote frankly about abuses in the Church and in religious life.  They discussed life in the world, in contrast to the cloister.  It was painful to read the constant refrain, even from Heloise herself, that women are weak not just physically but in intellect and morals, inferior, tending to gossip and malice, at the mercy of their passions, like Eve leading men astray.  They are, however, much less liable to drunkenness than men, because of their extremely humid bodies.

I came away from this book grateful that that I was not born in the 12th century, and with a deep admiration for Heloise.  She at first refused to marry Abelard, believing that domestic married life would distract him from his calling as a teacher and philosopher, and their bond did not need the legality of marriage.  Abelard overruled her, then her uncle's assault ended her marriage, and against her will she entered the convent.  She was powerless in these matters, and she was left to make what she could of her life.  She reminded me of another woman placed in religious life, in this case by her father: Suor Maria Celeste Galilei, whose story is told in Dava Sobel's excellent Galileo's Daughter.  Her letters have also been published separately.

There are apparently further letters between Abelard and Heloise, dealing with the practical matters of the Paraclete.  They were not included in this book, but I would be interested to read them even if they consist of the minutiae of convent life.  The editor and translator, Betty Radice, wrote a wonderful introduction that frames their lives, and particularly Abelard's career, and also carries their stories beyond the final letter here.  As she said, they "are also individuals who would be exceptional in any age . . . They deserve to be heard, even if imperfectly and at second-hand through a translation, in the words they wrote."

Friday, February 3, 2012

Murder in the mud pools

Colour Scheme, Ngaio Marsh

As I've mentioned before, I discovered Ngaio Marsh a few years ago through the television series.  I was interested enough to look for the books, and I enjoyed the ones I read, primarily the early ones set before World War II.  But I moved on to other books before I read all that I had collected, leaving several on the TBR pile.  Last year I read Scales of Justice, which I thought pretty dull.  I can't say that Colour Scheme is dull, but I'm starting to wonder if I've just lost my taste for Marsh's books.

I had high hopes for this one, just from the setting: New Zealand during the second world war.  I don't think I have ever read a book set in New Zealand, and I know nothing about the home front there (or in Australia) during the war.  The story is set in a shabby little resort built on the thermal baths at Wai-ata-tapu Springs, on the northwest coast.  Colonel and Mrs. Claire run the place with their two grown children, Barbara and Simon, and Mrs. Claire's brother Dr. James Ackrington, retired from his London practice.  Dr. Ackrington believes that a paying guest, Maurice Questing, is a fifth-columnist providing information on Allied shipping.  He writes a letter setting out his suspicions to Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, who has come to New Zealand to investigate such activities.  Soon after, other guests arrive at the hotel: the famous stage actor Geoffrey Gaunt, with his secretary Dikon Bell, and Septimus Falls, a gentleman suffering from lumbago.  (It doesn't take much detective skill to figure out who is there under an alias.)

Maurice Questing has been making enemies.  He has a financial hold over Colonel Claire and drops broad hints about taking over the resort.  He has been making advances to Barbara.  He has upset the Maori living in a nearby village (pa) by trespassing on sacred territory in their reserve and by showing too much interest in Huia, a maid at the resort and the great-granddaughter of the local clan's chief Rua.  He toad-eats Gaunt and tries to use his celebrity to draw attention to the resort.  The resort handyman Bert Smith thinks Questing tried to kill him, and Simon also thinks he is an enemy agent.  So there is no shortage of suspects when Questing goes missing, presumed to have fallen (or been pushed) to a horrible death in one of the boiling mud pools that dot the area.

Marsh takes almost half the book to set the stage, introduce the characters, and draw the lines of conflict, which involve a lot of rather tiresome arguments.  Dr. Ackrington is a bully,  Gaunt is theatrical, the Colonel and his wife are woolly-minded, Simon is abrasive, Bert is surly and drunk, and Questing is vulgar.  The investigation of Questing's disappearance sends them all into over-drive, and it came as a relief to have the case solved and the book finished.

I did find the treatment of the Maori characters interesting.  I know very little about their history and culture, which the New Zealand-born Marsh would have been familiar with.  I was reminded of how Native Americans are portrayed in I Heard the Owl Call My Name: close to nature, wise, wary of outsiders, struggling to maintain their traditions against the encroachments of Anglo culture and especially concerned about the young people of the tribe, who are losing the old ways.

I will probably try the other Marsh books in the TBR stacks at some point, though I'm wondering if I'd just be better off sticking to the older books that I've read and liked.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Under the lilacs with Louisa May Alcott

Under the Lilacs, Louisa May Alcott

When I was 8 years old or so, my mother bought me a box set of Louisa May Alcott's books.  It included the Little Women trilogy, Eight Cousins, and Jack and Jill.  It was years before I discovered the sequel to Eight Cousins, A Rose in Bloom, or my favorite of Alcott's novels, An Old-Fashioned Girl.  It was also years before I discovered that the Nelson Doubleday editions in my set had been bowdlerized.  Cutting out all the temperance moralizing in Little Women, for example, makes for a much shorter book.

Along with the Little House books, I read Alcott's books over and over, and I still re-read them from time to time.  Lately I've also been exploring her dark side, with her "sensation" novels like A Long Fatal Love Chase.  But until now I had never read Under the Lilacs, though it was included in my box set.  I can't remember at this point if I tried it and didn't like it, or I just never got around to reading it.

Under the Lilacs was published in 1877, between A Rose in Bloom and Jack and Jill.  It opens with two little girls, Bab and Betty, arranging a tea party for their dolls (which may be one reason why I never got too far into the book).  The sisters, Bab the sharp and sometimes naughty one, and Betty the simpler and sweeter one, are types that appear in Alcott's other books: Jo and Beth in Little Women, Daisy and Nan in Little Men, Molly and Merry in Jack and Jill.  Alcott actually seems to prefer the Jo type, or at least she makes those characters more interesting.

The tea party is interrupted first with the arrival of a standard white poodle, and then a young boy, Ben.  Ben and his dog Sancho were once part of a circus act with his father, who went west on business some time ago and has never returned.  Ben and Sancho, having fled the circus, are on the road, but thieves have taken all their possessions and they are hungry and weary.  The girls take the two home to their mother, Mrs. Moss, who immediately takes Ben in, feeding and clothing him before arranging a job with the local squire.  Used to the excitement of life on the road, Ben, like the boys who come to Jo's school in Little Men, finds it hard to settle down to humdrum work.

The widowed Mrs. Moss is the caretaker of a large house in the village that has stood empty for years.   The sudden arrival of its owners, Miss Celia and her brother Thornton, becomes quite an occasion.  Miss Celia offers Ben a more congenial job that includes helping to care for her brother "Thorny," recovering from an illness that has left him weak and fretful (much like Mac in Eight Cousins).  Thorny finds amusement and occupation in teaching Ben, who has never attended school, while at the same time Ben helps him to a more active and healthy life.  Like Phebe in Eight Cousins, Ben becomes part of the family, both in the big house and in the village.

I gave my niece a copy of An Old-Fashioned Girl a few years ago, which my sister thought was too preachy.  It can't compare with Under the Lilacs, which like Jack and Jill is an improving story with strong moral lessons.  I don't think this is Alcott's best or most interesting book, but it is a very typical one, with echos of her other books, and I am glad to have finally read it.

A correction: I got one of the plot elements wrong.  Ben doesn't meet the sisters at their tea party, but a couple of days later, when ther mother takes them into the estate's old coach-house.  There they discover him camping out with Sancho, and Mrs. Moss shows her Jo-like motherly heart in deciding on the spot to take him home.