Friday, March 30, 2012

Love and tuberculosis in Paris

La Dame aux Camélias, Alexandre Dumas fils

I bought this book for fifty cents at a library book sale, because I have never read Dumas fils (despite my three semesters as a French major in college), and because the back cover describes it as "one of the greatest love stories of all time."  The next lines of copy cover on this Oxford World's Classics edition, though, are a textbook example of backhanded compliment: "Resisting criticisms of sentimentality, of an almost Gothic melodrama in certain scenes, and of a view of women that is hardly modern, [it] still has the power to cast the spell that has fascinated generations of readers."

As endlessly adapted as this book has been, the story was new to me (for anyone else unfamiliar with the story, there will be spoilers ahead).  It is also a textbook example of a roman à clef.  In 1844, Alexandre Dumas fils became the lover of Marie Duplessis, an entrancing young woman, one of the most sought-after courtesans in Paris, who was already in the early stages of consumption.  A year later he ended their liaison, and Marie turned to other lovers, including Franz Lizst.  Her health declined as the tuberculosis continued to advance.  She died soon after her 23rd birthday, in February of 1847. In June of that year, Dumas began writing La Dame aux Camélias, the story of the doomed love of Armand Duval and Marguerite Gautier, a celebrated Parisian courtesan already suffering from consumption.  Dumas's friends and Marie's other patrons appear under aliases and discrete initials.  He later turned his novel into a highly-successful play, which inspired both Guiseppe Verdi's La Traviata and several film versions.

Four narrators in turn tell this story.  The first, who is never named, sets the stage when he comes across a notice of an estate sale, which he later learns to be Marguerite's.  He attends the sale, where he buys a copy of Manon Lescaut, with a dedication from Armand to Marguerite.  He later receives a visit from Armand, who begs to be allowed to buy the book back.  A friendship develops between them, and Armand eventually tells him the story of his relationship with Marguerite.  At the end of his recital, he hands over a journal that she kept during the last weeks of her life, which when she grew too weak was completed by her devoted friend Julie Duprat, who remained with her to the end.

Even though I knew from the first page (not to mention the back cover) that Marguerite dies, I found myself completely caught up in the story.  Armand truly loves Marguerite, and he hopes not just to take her away from her sordid life, not just to cure her illness, but to cure her soul, through his love.  And Marguerite, who has been on the town for many years, comes to love Armand deeply.  They run away to a little house in the country, for months of simple life and love, where Marguerite grows stronger.  But she has enormous debts, which Armand cannot hope to meet.  And then Duval père arrives, determined to draw his son back to the straight path.  In Dumas's story, it is Marguerite who breaks with Armand, though it will be long before he understands the depth of her unselfish, self-sacrificing love.

Two things about this book really took me by surprise.  The first is its frankness about sexuality and prostitution (no wonder Louisa May Alcott's books constantly warn against the dangers of yellow-backed French novels).  In the first chapter, the anonymous narrator tells the story of an aging prostitute who forces her own daughter onto the streets to support her; when the girl gets pregnant, the mother procures an abortion for her, the effects of which later kill her.  The introduction notes that the historical Marie began her short but storied career as a courtesan at the age of 16, though her father may have forced her into prostitution even earlier.  The narrator recognizes that prostitution is the last resort for many women, their lives are hard, and their ends terrible. "Poor creatures!" he says. "If it is wrong to love them, the least one can do is pity them."  He argues that
"Jesus was full of love for souls of women wounded by the passions of men . . . Thus he said to Mary Magdalene: 'Your sins, which are many, shall be forgiven, because you loved much' . . . Why should we judge more strictly than Christ?"
Here the unnamed narrator is presumably speaking for Dumas, giving him a second voice in the novel.  Both the first narrator and Duval talk (though not graphically in today's terms) about the pleasures of sex. Duval and Marguerite spend entire days in bed, caught in the frenzy of love.  Would any English-language novel equal this frankness, before the 1920s?

The second point that caught me off-guard was Marguerite's illness.  She has active tuberculosis, with fevers and coughing fits that cause her to vomit blood.  Yet men still flock to her, as they did to the real Marie.  Marguerite begins to fall in love with Armand after he remains with her during one of her attacks, comforting and kissing her, even after she wipes the blood from her lips.  I know that medical knowledge about TB was not advanced, and I also know that in the 19th century there was a tendency to romanticize "consumption."  But having read about the agonizing death of Thérèse of Lisieux, and Betty MacDonald's harrowing account of her stay in a TB sanitarium in The Plague and I, I kept wondering if these men believed themselves immune from the disease?  I see a parallel with AIDS and sex workers in our own day.

On a lighter note, it was interesting to see that Indian shawls are a major status symbol in Marguerite's Paris, when I had just been reading about Emily Eden's many purchases of them in India itself in Up the Country.   And I think I may have to look for a copy of Manon Lescaut, which plays such a part in this novel, as it did in Dorothy L. Sayers' Clouds of Witness, where it gives Lord Peter Wimsey a vital clue.  As he sets off for Paris, he leaves Charles Parker "with a puzzled frown, before the fire at 110 Piccadilly, making his first acquaintance with the delicate masterpiece of the Abbé Prévost."

Monday, March 26, 2012

A venerable history of England

A History of the English Church and People, Venerable Bede

I have spent the last few days in the 8th century, and it was a surreal experience.  Reading Bede's History, wandering through the centuries of Romans and Saxons and Scots, kings and bishops and popes, moving from Bernicia through Lindisee to Wessex, I would suddenly stumble upon familiar names that link his England of 731 to the present, reminding me that what I was reading, after all, was history.
"In the year of our Lord 604, Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, consecrated two bishops, Mellitus and Justus. Mellitus was appointed to preach in the province of the East Saxons, which is separated from Kent by the river Thames, and bounded on the east by the sea.  Its capital is the city of London, which stands of the banks of the Thames, and is a trading center for many nations who visit by land and sea."
Bede's History, completed in 731, is considered both a literary classic and one of the most important sources for early English history.  He traced the history of Britain from the first settlements of the peoples he calls Britons (from Brittany) and Picts (from Scandinavia), though the centuries of Roman colonization and influence, and the later arrivals (or invasions) of the Scots (from Ireland. just to add to the confusion) and the Angles, Saxons & Jutes (from Germany).  There was constant war between kings and princes, invasion of territory, with pillage and slaughter. Much more important for Bede was the arrival of Christianity in 156 AD. Long before Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine as bishop to the Saxons of Kent in 596, missionaries like Columba and Ninian had brought the faith to Britain.  Over the centuries, Christianity would begin to knit together the disparate peoples, drawing them into a common identity in their faith.

The History is a remarkable work of scholarship.  Bede had access to Roman histories, to diocesan archives across Britain, and even to documents copied from the papal archives.  Among the Vatican documents was a papal letter affirming that pregnant women could be baptized and that women on their cycle were not only welcome in church but could receive Communion, which raises some interesting points about women's status at the time.  Bede also had the equivalent of oral histories, from people who had witnessed the later events he chronicled, or who knew the leading figures.  He often noted his sources, to demonstrate the authenticity of his history.  It is amazing to consider that he achieved all of this from an isolated monastery on England's northeast coast, where he had lived since the age of seven and which he rarely left.  There were no expense-account research trips for him.

As modern as his techniques may have been, though, this is not history as it would be wriitten today.  While broadly chronological in scope, it jumps back and forth in time.  The editor helpfully included dates in brackets in the chapter headings, which provide something of an anchor.  Even more confusing is the constantly changing cast of characters.  If I were reading this book for a class, say, I would have made a chart of all the kings and the bishops.  Bede had a tendency to introduce a character, and then return to him five chapters later, with a breezy "As I mentioned before, Earconbert...."  There was no index in my ancient Penguin edition and I quickly gave up trying to keep everyone straight.  Fortunately there was a map, with the locations of both kingdoms and peoples, and with the ancient as well as modern names.  The History also abounds with stories of saints and miracles, though here again Bede often cited his sources, in some cases the eyewitnesses from whom he heard the stories directly.

In one sense, this is classic history, the kind we used to learn in school, kings and bishops (with a few queens and nuns).  Reading this book, I had no sense of the lives of the ordinary people, either men or women, except that it must have been a precarious existence, and not only because of the constant wars (Bede also mentioned frequent plagues).  They are there in the background, though, all those lives lived, who sometimes surface in place names, when all other traces are lost.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A guided tour of New York City

Apple of My Eye, Helene Hanff

In the spring of 1976, Helene Hanff was hired to write the copy for a book of photographs of New York City, or at least the part of it that occupies Manhattan Island.  When she sat down to plan out her research, she realized that though she had lived in the city for decades, she had never seen many of its most famous sights.  So she made a list, and over the next two months she and her friend Patsy set out to see what they had been missing in their own town.  The project seems to have morphed rather quickly into a guidebook, with directions and advice and quick vignettes of historical information.  Write that down, Patsy kept saying, the tourists will need to know that.

I have spent a grand total of one day in New York City, the morning in research at the New York Public Library and the afternoon frantically trying to see something of the city.  I was a poor grad student at the time and couldn't afford more than a day trip.  I could have used this book for my one day.  It was originally published in 1977, and the edition I have is a 1988 reprint, with an extended afterword that tries to cover the changes of the intervening eleven years.  But Helene Hanff, who died in 1997, never saw the starkest changes, those that came with 9/11.  In almost every chapter, she mentions the World Trade Center, which she and Patsy visited twice; the second tower was still under construction.

My favorite chapter covers their visit to the Lower East Side, because it reminded me of so many books about New York's immigrants, from the All-of-a-Kind Family stories to 97 Orchard to Jacob Riis.  Just as Helene Hanff built up a picture of London from books and movies over so many years, before she finally traveled there herself, so I've also done with New York City, from Miracle on 34th Street to Jack Finney's Time and Again to George Templeton Strong's diaries to Calvin Trillin's Family Man, not to mention all those years reading The New Yorker.  And just like Helene and London, I'll get there one of these days.

Hanff clearly loved New York, its history, its diversity, its contradictions, and she wanted to share that with her readers.  When she visited England, she was the guest and the tourist.  Here she is the guide, and reading this book I sometimes felt like I had been pulled into a select and rather idiosyncratic tour, with guides who occasionally seemed to be channeling Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough.  Helene and Patsy didn't always see eye to eye about their excursions, Patsy had a tendency to ignore Helene's history lessons, and they were both directionally challenged.  I'm not sure I'd want to take a cross-country tour with them, but I did enjoy their slightly acerbic company in this book.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Travels in India

Up the Country, Emily Eden

One of the books I'm looking forward to reading when this cruel TBR challenge is over is Eric Newby's Slowly Down the Ganges, about a trip with his wife Wanda in 1963.  But in the meantime, I have Emily Eden's Up the Country, an account of a trip down the Ganges 126 years earlier, and it seemed only right to read this book, so long on the TBR pile, first.  I have long been a fan of Emily Eden's two wonderful novels, The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House (originally published in 1859/1860, and reprinted together in a Virago edition in the 1980s). 

The Semi-Attached Couple, written in the 1830s, has clear overtones of Jane Austen but also reflects the author's experience of politics.  Emily Eden was born in 1797, the twelfth child of the first Baron Auckland, a politician and diplomat.  She chose not to marry, setting up a household with her sister Fanny and brother George, who inherited the title at their father's death.  Lord Auckland, an active MP before his elevation to the House of Lords, held several high offices in Whig administrations, and Emily became a noted political hostess.  When George was appointed the Governor-General of India in 1835, Emily reluctantly went with him as his "First Lady," joined by Fanny and their nephew William.  They would spend six years in India.

In the fall of 1837, the Edens set off on what would be a two and a half year tour "up the country," from Calcutta northwest toward Delhi, then into the Punjab.  Emily chronicled their experiences in a letter-journal written to her sister Mary Drummond back in England, and her wonderful writing in this day-to-day account brings the reader along on this extraordinary trip.  The Governor-General and his suite travelled with an entourage of 12,000, whose line of march stretched ten miles.  Emily rode camels, elephants and horses, sometimes transferring to open carriages or palanquins carried by bearers.  The pace was slow, because the roads were bad, and also because there were frequent stops at the courts of local rajahs and princes, and at the stations with British residents, civil and military.

This tour had a political purpose beyond impressing the local rulers with British authority and prestige.  In Simla, Lord Auckland began talks that would eventually draw Britain into the First Afghan War in 1838.  Its disastrous end in 1842 would tarnish his reputation and overshadow the achievements of his administration.  Emily Eden, fiercely loyal to her brother, was not deeply concerned with the politics of the tour.  Nor was she greatly interested in the history or culture of the areas she visited.  After two years in India, she was intensely homesick for England, her sister Mary, and the rest of their close-knit family.  But she was determined to support her brother and play her proper part in his administration, though she was also determined to get all the fun out of it that she could along the way.  A gifted artist, she took every opportunity to sketch people and scenes, and some of her work was later published in a book of lithographs.  After accounts of the coronation of Queen Victoria reached India, Lord Auckland asked his sister to paint a portrait of the new queen, to be given to an important ally.  Emily drew on the newspaper accounts for details of the Queen's robes, but she had to make up the features of the face herself, hoping the prince would never know the difference.

Even on the march, Emily constantly recorded the arrival of mail and packages from home, forwarded on from either Bombay or Calcutta.  Letters brought family news, sometimes out of order ("Then Charley was going back to Eton. I never knew you thought of sending him there at all. I went all about the house, asking about him and his school").  She also received care packages with food ("preserves and sweetmeats and sardines and sauces from France"), clothes, new bonnets, and above all, books.  The Edens were major fans of Charles Dickens.  They left on their tour with The Pickwick Papers, and along the way they read and re-read Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, sometimes in serials sent out from England, and other times in cheap pirated editions.

With her brother and sister, Emily attended dinners and dances with the local British residents in the areas they visited, which were recorded in her journal with vivid sketches of the company.  She also took part in the durbars, ceremonial meetings with the Indian princes, and she and Fanny were sometimes invited into the cloistered women's quarters.  One of regular features of the visits was the lavish exchange of gifts, including fabulous jewels and valuable shawls. The Governor-General's sisters came in for a share of these gifts, but under government policy they could not keep them, though occasionally they were able to purchase some of the items back for themselves.

The only other Victorian woman traveler whose writings I have read is Isabella Bird (The Englishwoman in America, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan).  It is difficult to compare the two, first because their travels were so different.  Emily Eden travelled literally with a cast of thousands, as part of her brother's suite.  Isabella Bird travelled alone, with only the necessary translators or guides.  But even more than that, Emily seemed detached, uninterested in India and its people, focused on her family.  She wrote, "I never ask questions, I hate information."  Isabella Bird would talk to anyone, and she constantly asked and answered questions.  She made herself at home, while never losing sight of her position as an Englishwoman abroad.  I was also reminded of Elizabeth Grant, whose Memoirs of a Highland Lady include an account of her family's residence in India in the late 1820s, though she left India before the Edens arrived.

The edition I have is a Virago Travellers, published in 1983.  I see that other editions are available, and I hope that they include maps of the areas that Emily visited, the lack of which is a real handicap in this book.  It would have been even more helpful to include notes linking the English place-names that Emily uses with their modern equivalents.  I read this book with my trusty atlas on hand, but it was difficult to track their march from Umritzir, for example, until I figured out it was really Amritsar.  There are several pages of notes in the back of the book, reprinted from a 1930 edition, most of which identify people who for privacy appear only as initials.  But there is no asterisk or number on a page to signal an endnote, which I found frustrating.

Those quibbles aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  Emily is delightful company, even in her sad and homesick moods, and the pomp and circumstance of the trip is endlessly fascinating.  The introduction mentions two other volumes of her letters that have been published, and I will be looking for those as well.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A story of love

Love, Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April was my introduction to Elizabeth von Arnim last year, and she became one of my literary crushes.  I added several of her books to the TBR pile, but I've only now got around to reading this one.  From the back cover blurb of Love, I knew the basic premise: an older woman's relationship with a younger man.  From glancing at the introduction, I learned about Elizabeth von Arnim's own affair with a man thirty years her junior.  From reading some of her other books, I was expecting a comic, perhaps cynical version of a May-December affair.  But to my surprise, this book turned out to be nothing like what I expected.  As the title suggests, it is a story of love.

Catherine and Christopher meet at a play that draws small but fanatical audiences who learn to recognize fellow devotées.  The first time they notice each other, it is her fifth visit, and his 32nd.  Four performances later, Christopher moves to sit beside her, and in the intervals they talk.  He is half in love with her before he ever learns her name, or anything about her.  While he knows that she is older than he is, he takes no notice of that.  Catherine, who has a good idea just how much older she is, can't help but be flattered by his attentions.  A widow with a married daughter, she hardly takes them seriously, enjoying his company and his devotion, until she realizes that he has fallen in love with her.  When neither her true age (47 to his 25) nor the existence of her grown-up married daughter bring Christopher to his senses, Catherine tries to break things off with him.  But he simply refuses to accept that.  In a moment of passion, his kiss shocks Catherine into recognizing her own feelings, but also brings a sense of shame, of impropriety.

Fleeing both Christopher and her feelings, she seeks refuge with her daughter Virginia, now living with her husband Stephen at the family's home in Chickover, which she inherited on her father's death, and pregnant with her first child.  Stephen Colquhoun, the rector of the parish, is himself a year older than Catherine, making him thirty years older than his wife.  This May-December pairing is a happy and passionate one, with Stephen very much the dominant partner.  It is also a very private one.  While Stephen's mother lives in the village and is a frequent visitor, none of the three is pleased to see Catherine, who cannot explain why she has fled to her old home.  Stephen travels to London on the weekends to preach a series of sermons on Love, the focus of which is marital love, infused with his own late emotional development.  It is painfully obvious, though, both to Catherine and the reader, that whatever he or Virginia says about love, there is little room in their hearts or their life for her.  When Christopher rides unexpectedly to the rescue, on a motor-cycle with a side-car, Catherine cannot resist returning to London with him, however inappropriate Stephen and his mother may consider it.  This journey, seemingly such a simple one, will lead to their marriage, and further complications in their relationship, and in Catherine's with her family.

I was constantly surprised by the turns that the story took.  I was also surprised by how invested I found myself in Catherine and Christopher, and even in Virginia, how strongly I wanted things to go well for them.  I found myself peeking ahead, something I rarely do.  Catherine is a very sympathetic character, a good person who desperately wants to do the right thing.  She has spent her life caring for her husband and her child, cheerfully accepting her place in the background.  She makes the best of her widowhood, which under her husband's will left her only £500 a year and a London flat while her daughter inherited everything else, including her home.  In London, even in her reduced circumstances, she has re-discovered relations and found friends, and life seems to be opening out before her in a quiet way suited to her age and circumstances - and then she meets Christopher, who opens her life up in unquiet and unsuitable ways. 

In this book Elizabeth von Arnim is exploring more than just romantic love, though that takes center stage with the two very different couples and their relationships.  She also focuses on love between parents and children, from both points of view.  In addition, she considers how love is expressed, how it is made real, how it is lived.  The contrast between what Stephen preaches about love, and how he practices it toward everyone but his wife and mother, could not be clearer.  Virginia is torn between her love for her mother and her husband, particularly Stephen's disapproval of Catherine and Christopher.  They in turn face the challenges of most marriages, moving from the ecstasies of courtship to the practicalities of married life.

Love was published in 1925 but feels very topical in 2012.  May-December romances are of course common in stories, and now in celebrity culture, though an older woman-younger man pairing still draws more attention and comment than the reverse (I would be very glad if I never again hear the word "cougar" applied to a woman).  Reading Love reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett's Nicholas de Fleury, whose first marriage is almost as complicated and unwelcome as Christopher's.  Stephen made me think particularly of all the film pairings I find most uncomfortable, like Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon (she was so frequently paired with much older men, and Cary Grant was supposedly embarrassed by it in Charade).  There is something a little creepy about Stephen's history with Virginia:
"[He] had had his thoughtful eye on Virginia from the beginning.  When he went there she was five and he was thirty-four. Dear little child; he played with her. Presently she was fifteen, and he was forty-four. Sweet little maid; he prepared her for confirmation. Again presently she was eighteen, and he was forty-seven. Touching young bud of womanhood; he proposed to her." 
I couldn't help thinking of Mr. Knightley in Jane Austen's Emma, but after all he is a far different (and better) person than Stephen, and the difference in age and experience isn't as great.

As much as I wanted a happy ending, particularly for Catherine and Christopher, von Arnim doesn't give us one.  The ending is ambiguous, and we are left to write our own.  I do worry about the fate of one character introduced in the last pages; I fear his future at Chickover will be bleak.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Jane Austen and crime

Jane Austen & Crime, Susannah Fullerton

Jane Austen & Crime is one of those books that make me see Jane Austen and her works in a very different light.  Like Maggie Lane in Jane Austen and Food, or Irene Collins' Jane Austen and the Clergy, Susannah Fullerton explores an aspect of the Georgian period through Austen's life and her writings.  These books remind me that, as much as I enjoy the novels, the Letters, and the Minor Works, I don't know enough about the context in which she was was writing, the every-day things that made up her world and that inform the worlds of her novels.  Even more than the biographies of Jane Austen, these books enrich my reading of her books.

Before reading this book, the only crime I could think of in Austen's novels was the theft of turkeys in Emma.  I had read about her aunt Jane Leigh Perrot, who in 1799 was accused of stealing a piece of lace worth 20 shillings from a shop in Bath.  If convicted, she could have faced the death penalty, though it is likely she would have been sentenced to transportation instead, but fortunately she was found innocent.  A later Austen connection was not so lucky.  John Knatchbull, the brother-in-law of favorite niece Fanny Austen Knight, was hung in Sydney in 1844, for murder committed in the course of a robbery.  Fullerton doesn't tell us how this news impacted the Austen or Knatchbull families.  In 1811, Jane wrote to Cassandra, "I give you joy of our new nephew [Frank Austen's second son], & hope if he ever comes to be hanged, it will not be till we are too old to care about it."  By 1844, Jane had been dead more than 25 years; Cassandra would die the next year, perhaps before the news even reached England.

After introducing us to John Knatchbull, Fullerton goes on to a general discussion of crime in the Georgian period.  She then looks at several categories of crime, such as those against life and property, crimes of passion, social and Gothic crimes.  She ends with a discussion of punishment and the law.  She has chapters on specific crimes like murder and suicide (against life), adultery and elopement (passion), and poaching and dueling (social).  Much of the information was new to me, and the details are fascinating.  I had no idea that in Austen's time, half the prisons in England were privately owned and operated.  Among the owners were the Bishops of Ely and Durham, the Dukes of Portland and Leeds.  From the chapter on poaching I learned that there were strict controls on who could hunt game, including a property qualification that essentially limited shooting to the rich and landed.  There was also a qualification for owning sporting dogs, as well as a dog tax.  In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby's pointer is actually a status symbol, as are Charles Musgrove's dogs in Persuasion.  Fullerton argues that Austen disagreed with the draconian laws against poaching, which cut the poor off from an important food supply.  She points to Mr. Rushton in Sense and Sensibility, who is fanatical about catching poachers, suggesting that by making "the most stupid character [Austen] ever created" the anti-poaching poster child, Austen was actually signalling her disagreement with his ideas.

Fullerton also argues that Austen dealt with crime much more lightly in the Minor Works and in her early letters, while the novels and later letters show a more thoughtful approach.
 "As a young writer she employed elopements for comic purposes - the juvenalia are full of hilarious elopements . . . The more mature Jane Austen however, puts eloping couples through serious tests of character . . . Sexual immorality and the deliberate flouting of social rules are no longer funny and characters can no longer escape unpunished after such behaviour."
I particularly enjoyed Fullerton's frequent citations and quotes from the Minor Works, many of which were unfamiliar to me - and really funny.  In the section on elopements, she quotes from "A Collection of Letters" one from a "Miss Jane," who confesses to a friend that after eloping she kept her marriage a secret even after her husband's death:  "My Children, two sweet Boys & a Girl, who had constantly resided with my Father & me, passing with him & with every one as the Children of a Brother (tho' I had ever been an only child) . . ."  Clearly, it's time for a re-read of the juvenalia, though Fullerton's book makes me want to re-read all the novels, looking for crime and the criminals.  As she reminds us in her conclusion, "The woman who once wrote: 'Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked' very deliberately included crime in her fictional world."

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

St. Winifred's bones

The Holy Thief, Ellis Peters

I was home sick yesterday and I just wanted a good comfortable book.  Ever since I read Abelard and Heloise's letters, I've been thinking about the medieval mysteries of Sharan Newman and Ellis Peters, since both series begin in monasteries in the 1130s.  Luckily I still had The Holy Thief on the TBR pile.  Set in 1144, this is the 19th book in the "Chronicles of Brother Cadfael."  I had a vague idea that the later books don't quite stand up to the earlier ones, but this one is as good as any in the series, in my opinion.

The story opens with the arrival of two monks at the Abbey of Sts. Peter & Paul in Shrewsbury.  They are from the Abbey of Ramsey, which was seized and despoiled by the Earl of Essex, her monks scattered.  On his death-bed, the excommunicated but repentant Earl returned Ramsey to the Church.  The brothers have come to beg alms and assistance in rebuilding their foundation.  Shrewsbury is generous, even in the midst of heavy rains that bring floodwaters into the Abbey church itself, forcing the monks to move their goods and treasures to higher ground.  Their greatest treasure is a silver-chased reliquary housing the bones of the Welsh St. Winifred.  It is only after the Ramsey monks have departed with their alms and donated supplies that the Shrewsbury community realizes their saint is missing.  They immediately suspect that she was smuggled out in the wagon-load of goods headed to Ramsey.  The reliquary will fall into other hands before it returns to Shrewsbury, and murder will follow theft.  As usual, Cadfael and his friend Hugh Beringar, the Sheriff of Shropshire, must work together with Abbot Ranulfus to defend the innocent and bring the guilty to justice. 

They are assisted this time by another earl, Robert Beaumont, Earl of Leicester.  Leicester rescues the reliquary at one point, which he feels gives him a claim to it.  The Ramsey monks are anxious in their turn to claim it for their house, since the presence of such a saint's relics will draw pilgrims and gifts to honor the saint, and not incidentally to rebuild the abbey.  Both Leicester and Ramsey argue it was no accident that took St. Winifred from Shrewsbury; clearly she was choosing a new home.  The polite tug of war over her is typical of the medieval period, with its fervent devotion to saints and their relics.  The theft of major relics was not unknown, nor was the outright fabrication of them.  St. Winifred's relics also tie this story back to the very first Cadfael book, A Morbid Taste for Bones, where he joins a group from the Abbey setting off for Wales, in search of this very saint.  But (spoiler alert) the reliquary they bring back will have a very different body inside.  No one but Cadfael (and the reader) knows this, and since through the saint's intercession miracles occur around the reliquary, no one suspects.  But what if the secret is revealed?  What if St. Winifred chooses to honor Ramsey with her reliquary, instead of Shrewsbury?  I think Peters really captures the medieval belief in saints and their relics, as alien or superstitious as it may seem to 21st century readers.  But there are also moments of supernatural presence, and action, which make me wonder just what Ellis Peters herself believed.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A welcome return to Lafferton

The Betrayal of Trust, Susan Hill

I had a very long wait for this book, the sixth of Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler novels.  Last year I read the five previous books over the course of several months, and I had just posted about the last (The Shadows in the Street) when I saw a new book advertised on her website.  I immediately put in an order.  This was in July 2011, the book was published in November, and due to some mix-up it arrived in the mail just last week.  Since it was on order last year I figure it still counts under the TBR challenge.

And I have to say, this book was worth the wait.  It opens with a storm sweeping through Lafferton and the surrounding areas, flooding the streets and bringing down trees.  In clearing the storm debris washed down from the Moor, a clean-up crew finds human bones.  They are quickly identified as the remains of Harriet Lowther, a school-girl who disappeared sixteen years ago.  Then another set of bones are discovered in the same area, another female.  Simon is set to working what is a very cold case, though no one has forgotten Harriet.

Susan Hill does two things differently in this book.  This is the first in the series that doesn't involve a serial killer.  As I mentioned in my review of The Shadows in the Streets, Lafferton has had an unusual number of them.  Here Hill has written what I think of as a more traditional mystery with a central case to solve, and she does it brilliantly.  We really get to see Simon investigating, and to compare how investigations have changed in the years since Harriet disappeared.  For one thing, budgets have been slashed, leaving Simon without a team, forcing him to take on much of the work himself.  This means we get to see much more of Simon than in previous books, with more access to his thoughts and feelings.  Though these books are referred to as "Simon Serrailler novels," to my mind this is the first book that really focuses on Simon.  In addition to the case, the determinedly-single Simon meets someone, and he is more open with this person than with anyone else, even his sister Cat.  The relationship faces some major obstacles, including I think Simon's own state of mind and heart, and I am very interested to see where Hill takes it.  I do hope it won't be like his last attempt at a relationship, the fate of which we learned from a postcard sent to his sister (a disappointing anti-climax).

Simon and his case are not the only focus of the book.  In the first chapter, in addition to Simon, we see Cat at her farmhouse, worrying that her lodger Molly is caught out in the storm.  Molly, a medical student, helps care for Cat's three children, in addition to shadowing Cat.  We also meet a patient of Cat's, Jocelyn Forbes, an older woman living alone.  Jocelyn has developed some troubling symptoms that are later diagnosed as motor neuron disease (better known in the US as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease).  Her father died of this at a young age, and she is determined not to suffer its effects as he did.  In between chapters on Simon's investigation, and the progress (or not) of his relationship, we follow Jocelyn as she looks into options for assisted suicide, and Cat in her work at the hospice she helps run.  We also meet Lenny, a retired teacher, who must find care for her partner Olive, suffering from dementia, who is finally placed in a new care facility near Lafferton.  There is a lot going on here as the story shifts around this large cast, with chapters from their different points of view.  Hill carries us through it on her characters, which I think is one of her greatest strengths as a writer.  She makes these people three-dimensional, and I came to care about them.  I had no idea how Jocelyn would connect to Simon's case - though I had a good idea about Lenny - but I wanted to find out what happened next, what decisions she would make.  I did miss Cat, my favorite character in the series, who plays less of a role in this one.

I have only one real quibble with this book: the ending.  Simon solves the case, but he decides there is no case to answer.  "There are no witnesses and it's too long ago for there to be any forensic evidence," he tells one of the perpetrators.  This person has just confessed, though, and there is in fact a witness, whose belated evidence cracks the case.  The families of the two victims presumably have to be told what happened, what Simon discovered, as do his superiors.  In a case that garnered national publicity, it is hard to believe that he could make that decision, that it would even be possible.  An amateur detective like Peter Wimsey could - though Peter would never let a murderer go free - but an officer of the law can't, can he?  Isn't that the decision of the courts, the Crown Prosecutor?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A baker's holiday

Cooking the Books, Kerry Greenwood

When I signed up for the TBR Double-dare, this was the only new book that I claimed an exemption for. I found out too late about two other books published the very same day, both eagerly-awaited, C.S Harris's When Maidens Mourn  (the latest in a series of Regency mysteries)  and Naomi Novik's Crucible of Gold  (the latest in a series sometimes described as Patrick O'Brian with dragons).  Both are now sitting right here as I type, tempting me.

It's been a long wait for Cooking the Books, the sixth in Kerry Greenwood's series of Corinna Chapman books.  The last, Forbidden Fruits, came out in 2010, and the North American release of this new book comes months after it was published last year in Australia.  Having to wait for this book made me realize again how spoiled I have become, with the global reach of internet buying.

Cooking the Books is a welcome addition to the series.  Set in Melbourne, they feature Corinna, who gave up a career in accounting to become a master bread baker.  She has a very successful bakery called Earthly Delights, and in her spare time she solves crimes with her stunning Israeli partner Daniel, a private investigator.  Corinna lives above her shop, which is on the ground floor of Insula, an apartment building modeled on one from ancient Rome.  The other tenants, some of whom also own businesses in the ground-floor shops, are sometimes clients and sometimes partners in investigation.  They form a surrogate family, and it is always a pleasure to meet them, and their cats, again.

This book actually takes Corinna out of her familiar setting for much of the story.  It opens just after Christmas, when the bakery is closed for a month-long holiday.  A request from an old school friend, which quickly turns into friendly blackmail, leads Corinna to accept a temporary job as a baker for a catering company.  The company is providing the food for a film crew working on a TV soap about a wedding planning business.  Daniel, meanwhile, is helping a young intern at a financial company who has mislaid a set of bearer bonds worth $1 million.  When Corinna discovers that someone at the studio is playing vicious pranks on the Joan Collins-esque star, Daniel is brought in to investigate that as well, and as usual the cases begin to overlap.  In addition to the familiar characters, there is the cast and crew of the soap, as well as the caterers, and all the backstage drama they bring.  Corinna and Daniel also spend a lot of time out and about in Melbourne, tracking a mysterious set of clues, based in nursery rhymes and songs, to locate the bearer bonds.

I have enjoyed every book in this series.  I suppose they would qualify as cozy, since there is little violence, though the urban setting is anything but pastoral.  Corinna's apprentice Jason is a former street kid, a recovering addict, and in this book as in others the city's homeless play an important part in the story.  On the other hand, the surrogate family of the tenants makes Insula a refuge.  Corinna, a zaftig woman comfortable with herself, is someone I'd love to sit down and have a cup of tea with, and I'd really like to wander into her shop for some of her bread.  I am always hungry reading these books (Greenwood includes recipes in the afterwords and on her website).  We could definitely chat about books over tea, since Corinna is a fan of Georgette Heyer, Patrick O'Brian and Terry Pratchett, among others (not to mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Most Unforgettable Character

Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis

When Auntie Mame was published in 1955, it spent 112 weeks on the best-seller lists.  As I was reading it, I kept thinking, "Could he say that in 1955?"  The fact that Patrick Dennis could, and the book would sell more than 2 million copies in the next four years, challenged some of my ideas of America in the 1950s.  What in the world did those readers make of Mame saying, "I could be out at Fire Island with some of the most amusing boys..."  or a character who is described as having "laid everything but the Atlantic Cable" ?  I couldn't find any mention of bans or boycotts of the book, though I can't imagine it made too many church-sanctioned reading lists.

I also can't imagine how I missed reading this book for so many years.  I've watched a few minutes here and there of the 1958 film version.  While I love Rosalind Russell, no actress could fully capture a character like Mame, and here again I have to advance the Purist Principle that "The Book is Always Better."

As the story opens, Patrick Dennis is inspired by an old issue of Reader's Digest, which included a regular feature on the Most Unforgettable Character the writer had ever met. 
"That stopped me. Unforgettable Character?  Why, that writer hasn't met anybody! He couldn't know what the word character meant unless he'd met my Auntie Mame. Nobody could. Yet there were certain parallels between his Unforgettable Character and mine. His Unforgettable Character was a sweet little New England spinster who lived in a sweet little white clapboard house and opened her sweet little green door one morning expecting to find the Hartford Courant. Instead she found a sweet little wicker basket, with a sweet little baby boy inside. The rest of the article went on to tell how that Unforgettable Character took the baby in and raised it as her own.  Well, that's when I put the Digest down and got to thinking about the sweet little lady who raised me."
Patrick, who becomes an orphan at the age of 10 when his father dies in 1929, is left to the care of a guardian, his aunt Mame Dennis, under the supervision of the Knickerbocker Trust Company.  The trustees are there to ensure that Patrick is "raised as a Protestant and . . . sent to conservative schools."  He travels with the family's Irish servant Norah from Chicago to New York.  They arrive at Mame's apartment in the midst of a party, but when Mame finally works out who they are, her welcome is instantaneous: "'But darling,' she said dramatically, 'I'm your Auntie Mame!' She put her arms around me and kissed me, and I knew I was safe."  Patrick says later that "For both of us it was love, and the experience was unique."

That bond endures through the adventures and the mishaps that follow over the next fifteen years, including lengthy separations.  Mame, ignoring her brother's directions as to schooling, enrolls Patrick in a progressive school where the students and teachers wear no clothes, and the day often ends with a game where the boys play male fish fertilizing eggs laid by the girl-fish.  Unfortunately Patrick's trustee Mr. Babcock arrives one afternoon in the middle of the game, yanks him out of that school, and after blasting Mame ("No more fit to raise a child than Jezebel!"), drags Patrick off to a hellish private boarding school, St. Boniface Academy in Apathy, Massachusetts.

Some of their adventures are hilarious and quite racy, as when Mame takes in an unwed mother and decides to spend the last months of the pregnancy in Apathy, so Patrick will be on hand to run errands and make a fourth at bridge.  She allows her guest to register in the small town's most prominent hotel as "Mrs. Patrick Dennis."  In another escapade, as a college student, Patrick starts a torrid affair with a waitress from New Joisey, Bubbles, who insists that he take her to the Junior Prom at his Ivy League university.  Trying to keep Bubbles under wraps, Patrick is horrified to find Mame also in attendance at the Prom, the date of one of his friends (twenty years her junior).  There is also an emotional depth, though, in large part because of the bond between Mame and Patrick. Some of the adventures have a serious side, as when Mame loses her fortune in the Crash of 1929.  Her attempts to find work alternate between hilarious and heart-breaking, and I was reminded of Betty MacDonald's Anybody Can Do Anything, which also chronicles a search for work in the depths of the Depression.

"Patrick Dennis" is the nom de plume of Edward Everett Tanner III, who was a pretty unforgettable character in his own right.  There is a biography of him called Uncle Mame that is going on my post-TBR reading list, and I'll be looking for the other novels that he wrote as Patrick Dennis.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Classics Challenge: March with Henry Fielding

Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

This is the third month of the Classics Challenge, hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn.  The prompt this round involves the setting, with questions like "How has the author introduced the setting?" or "If this particular setting was changed how would it affect the course of the story?"

I am just over half-way through Tom Jones.  As I mentioned elsewhere, when I found myself starting to count the pages left to read, I decided to take a break from it.  But I do want to get back to it, and I'm hoping that writing about it will remind me what a great, entertaining book it is, and get me reading it again.

The setting of this story shifts constantly, as it follows different characters.  Though Fielding will sometimes describe a setting in some detail, he seems much less interested in his settings than in the characters who inhabit them.  Fielding spends most of the second chapter in Book I introducing us to the wise, noble and fatherly Squire Allworthy, who discovers the infant Tom Jones in his own bed.  His house in Somerset, where much of the early action takes place, is described in greater detail than any other setting, but only from the outside:
"The Gothic style of building could produce nothing nobler than Mr Allworthy's house. There was an air of grandeur in it that struck you with awe . . . It stood on the south-east side of a hill . . . In the midst of the grove was a fine lawn, sloping down towards the house, near the summit of which rose a plentiful spring . . . The left-hand scene presented the view of a very fine park . . ."
The story soon moves to a village where Tom's mother Jenny Jones lived prior to Tom's birth, then back to Mr Allworthy's house.  Next it shifts to the house of the neighboring Squire Western, where we learn much more about him and his daughter Sophia than about the house, though Tom is actually in residence there for some time.  When a misunderstanding with Mr Allworthy, and a conflict with Squire Western, force Tom to leave his home, to make his own way in the world, the story takes a picaresque turn as he decides to follow the drum as a soldier.  Traveling north to fight against the Jacobins, he meets various adventures with a large and colorful cast of characters.  Here again the characters and the action are the focus of the different episodes, rather than the settings.  I see from the next book that Tom is headed to London.  It will be interesting to see what Fielding makes of that setting.  In Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, his detailed descriptions of the areas where Moll lived and worked made me feel like I was following her through the streets.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Spoofing the Gothic novels

The Wizard's Daughter, Barbara Michaels

I don't read a lot of ghost stories, because I am a wimp.  The first time I read Barbara Michaels' Ammie, Come Home, I slept with the light on for the next couple of nights, and all these years later, I still don't read it after dark.  The Crying Child scared me so badly that I gave my copy away.  "Barbara Michaels" is a pen name of Barbara Mertz, who also writes as "Elizabeth Peters."  Her Elizabeth Peters books, some set in the 19th century, others in the 20th, tend to be straight-forward mysteries, with an occasional hint of the occult.  As Barbara Michaels, she has written Gothic novels, as well as stories about witches, ghosts, séances, spirit possession, and exorcism, sometimes centered in a crime to be solved, one that may have taken place years or even centuries ago.  Under both names, her books often have a romantic element, and they can be really funny (even in the midst of the creeps).

From the back cover, I expected The Wizard's Daughter to be one of the ghost stories.  Instead, it turned out to be a Gothic novel, or rather a spoof of a Gothic.  A brief prologue tells of a séance conducted in Paris by the famous American medium David Holmes.  Then the story shifts to Yorkshire, where Marianne Ransom, a ravishingly beautiful young woman, has been left an orphan, and a penniless one, at the death of her father.  In 1880, the options for a gently-bred eighteen-year-old are few.  Marianne is initially thrilled when a friend arranges for her to go to London, to a refuge run by a distressed gentlewoman for girls in her situation.  Rather than a career as a governess or companion, Marianne dreams of life on the stage.

Through the kind of coincidence common in Gothic novels, she manages to find work as a singer, though in her naiveté she does not realize that the "theatre" is actually a gentleman's club of bad repute. Resisting the advances of one of the members, she flees that job to accept one as governess to a budding psychopath and his sister.  She is rescued from this intolerable situation by the arrival of Roger Carlton, a lawyer who escorts her to the luxurious home of the Dowager Duchess of Devenbrook.  The Duchess welcomes her as a long-lost daughter.  Marianne gradually learns that the Duchess was the patroness and close friend of the medium David Holmes.  Holmes disappeared several years ago during a visit to the Devenbrook estate in Scotland and is presumed dead.  The Duchess believes that Marianne may be his daughter, and that she may have inherited his gifts.  Desperate to contact Holmes again, she pressures Marianne to try a séance.  Though the results are not conclusive to others, the Duchess is convinced, and she carries Marianne off to Scotland, hoping to make the final contact as the anniversary of Holmes' disappearance approaches.

There is a lot going on in this book, which has a large cast of characters, including the household of the Scottish estate.  Michaels has fun spoofing the Gothic genre (in which she herself has written), from the orphaned heroine, to the miseries of a governess's life, to the ancient Scottish castle of the Devenbrooks, with its ruined cobwebbed wings, hidden passageways and eccentric occupants (one of them a crazy cat lady).  She also has fun with the trappings of spiritualism, the séances with their rapping and table-turnings, the attempts by Carlton and the Duchess's friend Dr Gruffstone (such a Dickensian name) to debunk it all.  One spirit guide has the most inappropriate name of "Pudenzia."  The very susceptible Duchess claims to remember an early Roman virgin martyr of that name, which to her mind fully proves the guide's authenticity.  Marianne also meets various eligible and ineligible gentlemen, and here again if you've read enough Michaels/Peters books, you can spot the hero pretty early on.

In the end, the story turns on what happens in the séances: does Marianne have the gift, or is someone playing deadly tricks?  I admit, the answer took me by surprise.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

An Irish country childhood

To School Through the Fields, Alice Taylor

The subtitle of this book is "An Irish country childhood."  I used to collect books about Ireland, under the influence of Maeve Binchy and Maura Laverty, as well as the books Niall Williams & Christine Breen wrote about moving from New York to a small town in County Clare in the 1980s.  But it's only with the TBR challenge that I got around to reading this book, which according to the cover is "the biggest bestseller in Ireland's history" (it also features an admiring blurb from Maeve Binchy).  I see from googling Alice Taylor that she has published four other volumes of memoirs, as well as novels and poetry.

Taylor sets out the theme and tone of the book in the first chapter:
"This is the story of a childhood. In its day it was an ordinary childhood but, with the changing winds of time, now it could never be. . . Ours was a large family in a close-knit rural community that was an extension of our home. . . The old were never alone as the neighbors joined hands around them and the young, too, were included in the circle. . . Sharing was taken for granted, from the milk in the winter when some cows went dry, to the pork steak and the puddings when the pig was killed.  Work was also shared . . . So please come back with me, to where we had time to be children and life moved at a different pace."
Taylor, who was born in 1938, is writing about the Ireland of the 1940s.  Her book is less an autobiography or memoir than a series of anecdotes, linked by her blank verse poems.  She tells stories of her family and neighbors, of work on the farm, of her mother's cooking, of school and church.  Hers was a happy childhood and this is a serene book.  Her family was not rich.  Everyone worked hard on the farm, whose crops and animals provided much of the family's food.  The detailed descriptions of the farm work reminded me of Maura Laverty and Flora Thompson.  One section about her father's moving machine, with its gleaming "diamond-shaped edges called sections," took me straight back to Laura Ingalls Wilder and A Long Winter, where Laura and Carrie go to town to buy a new section after Pa breaks one in the mowing.

To me, much of this felt like familiar ground, and the anecdotes seemed unconnected, even by chronology.  I can understand though how this would appeal to many people as a warm and nostalgic look at country life and childhood.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Accessing the Aspern Papers

The Aspern Papers, Henry James

For my introduction to Henry James last year, I started with The Turn of the Screw (which I reviewed back in December).  My Penguin Classics edition includes a second novella, The Aspern Papers, and since they were paired together I was expecting another supernatural tale.  What I found instead was an amazingly modern story, which though it was originally published in 1888 perfectly fits our world in 2012.  Even the language feels more modern, simpler and less baroque than in The Turn of the Screw.

The story is set in Venice.  As it opens, the unnamed narrator is plotting with his friend Mrs Prest to make the acquaintance of the Misses Bordereau, aunt and niece, who live in self-imposed isolation within an ancient palazzo.  The elder Miss Bordereau was once Juliana, the muse, the beloved, perhaps the mistress, of the famed American poet Jeffrey Aspern (now deceased).  The narrator, more a disciple of Aspern's than a mere scholar, hopes that she has letters, manuscripts - perhaps the last undiscovered cache of his writings, which the narrator and his fellow dedicat can edit and publish. 

Accepting Mrs Prest's suggestion that "the way to become an acquaintance was first to become an intimate," he succeeds in becoming their lodger, renting a set of rooms in the palazzo.  He does so under a false name, prepared ahead of time with a calling card.  On his first visit, he meets the younger Miss Bordereau, Miss Tina, shy and socially awkward but simple and honest.  It is with her that he begins his campaign to gain access to her aunt's papers.

The narrator has no qualms about his campaign.  In his view, the ends of access to this treasury of his idol's writings justify any means.  Nor has he any qualms about opening every aspect of Aspern's life to the public gaze. "He had nothing to fear from us because he had nothing to fear from the truth, which alone at such a distance of time we could be interested in establishing."  There is no mention of a family, parents or wife or children, who might have something to fear from such exposure.  The narrator refers to Aspern as a celebrity at one point, and I could not help comparing the narrator himself to a paparazzo, worming his way into the household under false pretences, scheming to score a scoop.  I was also reminded of A.S. Byatt's Possession, where the papers of two poets play such key parts.  The narrator here has much in common with Byatt's American collector Mortimer Cropper, making his illicit copies of letters he cannot acquire honestly.

Juliana Bordereau's connection with Aspern dates from the 1820s, and the narrator is surprised simply to find her still alive.  She is the last of his contemporaries: "we had not been able to look into a single pair of eyes into which his had looked or to feel a transmitted contact in any aged hand that his had touched."  Yet there she is, living quietly for decades in Venice. "But it was a revelation to us that self-effacement on such a scale had been possible in the latter half of the nineteenth century - the age of newspapers and telegrams and photographs and interviewers."  Just add the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, and you have the celebrity industry of the early 21st century.

In discussing the papers, the narrator tells Miss Tina,
"It isn't for myself, or that I should want them at any cost to any one else. It's simply that they would be of such immense interest to the public, such immeasurable importance as a contribution to Jeffrey Aspern's history."
I can't share his easy assumption that the public's interest outweighs everything, or that every aspect of Jeffrey Aspern's history must be made public (or acquit him of wanting his idol's papers for himself).  Yet as an archivist, and a student of history, I know how vitally important letters and other personal papers can be, as primary sources.  In one of the volumes of Queen Victoria's letters that I read last year, her daughter the Crown Princess of Prussia asked permission to burn their letters, which her mother refused.  Except for purely personal letters that might embarrass individuals, she wrote, "I am very much against destroying important letters, and I everyday see the necessity of reference"  (March 1874).  As a Janeite, I mourn the loss of so many of Jane Austen's letters, particularly those sent to her sailor brothers, as well as those her sister Cassandra destroyed.  But what would Jane Austen think of her letters being read almost two centuries after her death?  She did not write with an eye to history, as Queen Victoria may have done.  Where do we draw the line?  It's not always easy to decide.  But in the case of the Aspern papers, while I can sympathize with the narrator, I must side with Miss Bordereau.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The play's the thing

Ha'penny, Jo Walton

This is the second in Jo Walton's trilogy of books, set in an alternate world where the course of the Second World War took a very different turn than in our own.  While America sat out the war, England made peace with Germany in 1941, the "Farthing" treaty negotiated by political and social leaders with fascist leanings themselves. Hitler now rules the Continent, though the Reich is still at war with Stalin's Russia (there is no mention of Japan or the situation in the Far East).  The first book in the series, Farthing, which I reviewed back in November, evokes a classic Golden Age mystery: Sir James Thirkie, the leader of the "Farthing" set, is murdered during a country weekend at the home of Lord and Lady Eversley.

Ha'penny opens with a compelling first line: "They don't hang people like me."  The speaker is Viola Larkin, one of six sisters, the famous (or infamous) daughters of Lord Carnforth, who are clearly meant to invoke the Mitford sisters.  One married Himmler because she couldn't get Hitler, another is a communist, the youngest married the Duke of Lancashire.  The oldest, killed in the Blitz, was the first wife of the now-murdered James Thirkie.  Viola has escaped her family and its constraints to a successful career on the stage.  As the story opens, she is offered the role of Hamlet in a cross-casting version of the play.  The director confides that the opening night will be a gala, with Adolf Hitler himself in the audience. Later that day, Viola learns that the actress chosen to play Hamlet's mother Gertrude has been killed by an explosion in her home.

Assigned to investigate the explosion is Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard.  Carmichael solved the murder of Sir James, but he was forced by his superiors to help frame an innocent man for the crime.  These superiors now know that he is gay, and in their virulently homophobic society this makes him vulnerable to pressure and even blackmail. As in Farthing, the story is told in chapters that alternate between Viola's first-person narration and third-person from Carmichael's point of view.  He investigates the actress Lauria Gilmore, who the evidence suggests was building a bomb in her home, which exploded and killed her.  Viola, meanwhile, finds that there is more than just the play connecting her to the dead woman. 

To say too much about the plot risks spoilers.  Unlike Farthing, though, this book is more a thriller than a mystery.  It reminded me so much of John Le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl, also centered on an actress, Charlie, who is recruited for a very different and difficult role.  Like Le Carré and like Josephine Tey, Walton vividly evokes the world of the theater, and I found the play itself unexpectedly fascinating.  The director casts Hamlet as a woman:
"Consider Hamlet, daughter and heir to Denmark. How much more likely that her uncle would usurp? How more more difficult that she assert herself?  Hesitation would be much more natural than for a man. Her relationship with Gertrude, with Claudius works perfectly. Horatio wishes to be more than a friend . . . Laertes too, Laertes is Hamlet's true love, which makes the end sing. In fact, the whole play makes much more sense this way."
I enjoyed watching the cast work out this version of the play, as they thought through the different emphases, the changed relationships.  And this book made me want to re-read both Hamlet and The Little Drummer Girl.  I have the third book of the series, Half a Crown, already on the TBR stacks (and I recently added a fourth of Walton's books, Tooth and Claw, which Claire from A Captive Reader described as "Trollope with dragons" - but that one will have to wait til the end of the TBR challenge).