"My tastes are fairly catholic. It might easily have been Kai Lung or Alice in Wonderland or Machiavelli -" ". . . Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?" "So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober." -- Gaudy Night
". . . Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?"
"So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober." -- Gaudy Night
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Murder in the midst of war
This is the fourth book in a series of mysteries set during World War I, whose main character and narrator, Bess Crawford, is an English nurse serving in France. Caring for the wounded in the field, or escorting convalescents home, she becomes involved in their lives and their problems, which usually end with someone murdered. Bess frequently turns for help to her father, a retired Army colonel now working with the War Office, who has connections and sources all over Britain. She also relies on Simon Brandon, once her father's Regimental Sergeant Major, who has remained close to the family and also works with the War Office.
As this book opens, it is the spring of 1918, and the Spanish Influenza is decimating the Army and the medical staff, as well as the civilian populations. One evening, the orderly on duty asks Bess to come with him to take the body of its most recent victim to the temporary morgue. Despite her exhaustion, she follows him into a room full of bodies. There he shows her one that she recognizes, Vincent Carson, from her father's former regiment. This man died not of influenza, but from a broken neck. Hours later, Bess herself falls victim to the influenza, and it is weeks before she remembers the body. She learns first that Major Carson was reported killed in action, and then that the orderly who took her to his body hung himself that same night. These are the first in a string of mysterious deaths. It becomes clear that someone is hunting down those with any connection to Major Carson, or to the field hospital that night. Bess herself becomes the killer's target. As before, she moves back and forth between England and France, between service and leave, as she works with the Colonel her father and Simon Brandon to catch the killer.
I have to say that I found this book rather confusing. There are a lot of characters, some introduced only as victims, and it was hard to keep them straight. It was also a challenge to follow the constant shifts in location. I found myself wondering at the ease with which Bess could move back and forth, even with her father's connections. The killer also moves at will around the battlefields, towns and hospitals of France, stealing supplies, uniforms, and cars - presumably under cover of the chaos of war, which must also explain how he is able to murder so many people and escape undetected. But I found his motive, and the solution of the mystery, to be a bit disappointing in the end.
In the last case, A Bitter Truth, Bess found an ally in an Australian sergeant, who made his interest in her clear as he helped to solve her case. This time, she finds an American, recovering from wounds received while fighting with a Canadian unit. He too becomes attached to Bess while acting as her assistant and, briefly, bodyguard. Bess seems impervious to both of them. Her nursing and detective work apparently leave her no time or inclination for personal relationships beyond friendships, or much of a social life. This may be because of her attachment to Simon Brandon, though the exact nature of their relationship remains frustratingly ambiguous. They care deeply for each other, though there doesn't seem to be much romantic tension. Perhaps Bess really means it when she describes Simon as "Half confessor, half godfather, half friend, half elder brother." With this book ending in the summer of 1918, perhaps the next book will see the end of the war. It will be interesting to see where Bess's life takes her then, and with whom.
Monday, June 25, 2012
Jane Austen and marriage
I don't read much literary criticism. As important as books have always been to me, I never wanted to study literature. I feel like I didn't learn the language of lit crit, so I can't understand much of it. But I do enjoy reading biographies of my favorite authors, discovering more about their lives and the context of their writing. With Jane Austen, I also enjoy books that explore an aspect of her worlds, real and fictional, through her novels and her own life. I think of these as the "Jane Austen and" books. One of my favorites is Maggie Lane's Jane Austen and Food. I've also learned a lot from Irene Collins' Jane Austen and the Clergy, Susannah Fullerton's Jane Austen & Crime, and Mary Waldron's Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time. When I saw a review of Jane Austen & Marriage in the JASNA newsletter, I added it to my list.
I enjoyed this informative and entertaining book very much. Hazel Jones notes in her introduction that marriage in Jane Austen's time is a complex subject: "These were years of great change and great resistance to change, creating a state of flux in that trickiest of personal relationships, marriage." One of the more influential changes was the growing ideal of companionate marriage, based on love, rather than marriage for social or financial gain. If the goal was a loving, stable, lasting relationship, rather than a marriage of convenience, the choice of a partner became critical, and the criteria different. How did one make the best choice, and who should do the choosing? Jones argues that the ideal of companionate marriage also challenged traditional views of dominant husbands and subservient wives, though she notes that many traditionalists criticized what they saw as radical theories bent on destroying marriage and family.
Jones explores several different aspects of marriage, including courtship, the wedding itself, the honeymoon, marital problems, the arrival of children, and naturally, given Austen's own life, the fate of those who never married ("spinsterhood" vs. "single blessedness"). In discussing each aspect, Jones draws on Austen's experiences and that of her family and friends, particularly as described in her letters, as well as the lives of her fictional characters. In addition, she brings in the experiences of Austen's contemporaries though their letters and journals, as well as newspaper articles. Jones also relies on conduct manuals and advice books, including the sermons of Rev. James Fordyce, which Mr. Collins chose to read aloud to his cousins, at least until Lydia's yawns offended him. Jones has great fun pointing out the absurdity of some of their arguments, though a few times she seems to take them a bit personally, and a tone of irritation slips through, as in her description of the Rev. Thomas Gisborne, who "deprecated the 'rage of rambling' and brandished St Paul - woman must be a 'keeper at home' - as a big stick to beat wandering females back indoors."
Each of Jane Austen's heroines ends up in a companionate marriage, though each takes a different route and a different hero. Her parents' marriage was a companionate one, as were her brothers'. I had not considered the effect of her parents' marriage on her own view of marriage. I've always been more intrigued by the lack of strong mothers in Austen's books, given her close relationship with her own mother. But in her circle of family and friends, she had many different varieties of marriage to study. From them, Jones contends, she developed an understanding of marriage that combined practicality with romance:
No Jane Austen heroine marries for money: affection is always part of the equation - yet the recognition that romance alone would neither keep body and soul together nor sustain marital accord is a crucial element underpinning all of her writing.
At the same time, Austen recognized the toll that marriage could take on a woman, in constant child-bearing, in marital problems. But single women, particularly those who like Austen herself lacked financial resources, faced many difficulties and hardships, including the ridicule society expressed for "old maids." Jones argues, though, that "Jane Austen knew that for her, the prospect of becoming an old maid at last was her best chance of self-fulfillment," because it gave her the space, the time, to concentrate on her writing. As she told her family, "her books were her children."
Saturday, June 16, 2012
A mother at work, a father at home
I've come across several reviews of this, but it was Claire's post over on The Captive Reader that put it on my TBR list. I knew nothing about the author, not even that she was an American. I've since learned about her impressive literary career, with 40 books published, both fiction and non-fiction. In addition to her own writing, she served for 25 years on the editorial board of the Book of the Month Club, which played a big part in how and what Americans read in the 20th century. I can't imagine that anything they chose was better than The Home-Maker.
The plot of the story, published in 1924, can be simply told. A father is injured, and a mother has to leave the home, to find work to support their family. But Fisher does something amazing with this story. Lester Knapp works in the business office of Willing's Emporium, a department store in their small town, where he is quietly miserable, constantly aware of his inadequacies as a provider. He left college after his junior year to find work so that he and Evangeline could marry. They are now raising three children on his small salary in a tiny house. Though she loves her children fiercely, Evangeline cannot help hating the work of caring for them and the house, and her unvoiced despair and anger are poisoning their home. When Lester suffers an accident that leaves him unable to walk, Evangeline in her turn finds work at the Emporium, and finds life opening out before her. Meanwhile, in the their home, Lester discovers his vocation in caring for the children, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. He grows particularly close to Stephen, the youngest, whom the neighbors generally consider a budding juvenile delinquent. With this unconventional reversal of parental roles, each member of the family settles into place, into loving relationships and growth. But it is only the family's outwardly tragic circumstances that allow a man and a woman, a mother and a father, to switch roles. What will happen as Lester recovers from the accident? Will he and Evangeline have to return to their traditional roles, and their old way of living, filled as it was with such pain and despair?
In telling this story, Fisher moves from character to character, taking us into their minds and hearts, showing us events through their eyes. As the story shifted, I found myself empathizing with each one, even Evangeline in her struggles and her misery - except for Mrs. Anderson, a witchy old neighbor who torments Stephen, the one completely unsympathetic and unredeemed character. Yet while we see from the perspective of the different characters, we also see beyond, see what they don't or can't, which gives us an understanding that they sometimes lack.
Through this story Fisher explores some of the major questions facing American society in the 1920s. One is the roles of men and women, of husbands and wives, changing in the wake of the Great War and with the political gains of the woman's suffrage movement. A second major topic is the education and care of children. Lester comes to see that his role as a parent is watch and guide his children, to give them the space and freedom that allow "the slow unfolding from within of a child's nature." The theories of child-raising that he puts into practice with such success reminded me of the Montessori method, which I later learned Fisher was also very familiar with.
Another topic that Fisher addresses is the commercialization of America. The Emporium has just come under new management, as old Mr. Willing's nephew and his college-educated wife take over the business. They have a vision of building their business, but even more of raising the town's quality of life. "'My idea of good merchandise, Mrs. Knapp,' said Mr. Willing seriously, 'is that it shall be a liberal education in taste." Access to good merchandise will give people in small towns the confidence of city-dwellers, while buying will build the American economy. Evangeline shares that vision, it's part of what makes her such a valuable employee. This view of business grates on Lester:
"Jerome Willing's business ideal, as Lester saw it, was to seize on one of the lower human instincts, the desire for material possessions, to feed it, to inflame it, to stimulate it til it should take on the the monstrous proportions of a universal monomania. A city full of women whose daily occupation would be buying things, and things, and more things yet . . ."
Yet there is also a poignancy to the Willings' hopes and dreams. They see it as their life's work, its success not just for themselves but for their children. The store is in a small town, and to succeed they must draw in the country folk as well as the local people. They know they are competing against "the mail-order houses and the ten-cent stores" that "steal the business of country people away from where it belongs." What the Willings don't know is that first the highways, and then the mega-stores along the highways, and finally the internet, will all but erase family businesses like Willing's Emporium.
These topics seem so relevant to the world today, almost 90 years after this book was published. But Fisher's story isn't just about sociology or economics, it is first and foremost about people, about whom I came to care very much. I am still thinking about them, especially Stephen, finding with his father the love and security that he so desperately needed. I want to believe that the rather ambiguous ending Fisher gives them is a happy one, for everyone. I can't wait to see what else Dorothy Canfield Fisher has written, and I'd love to hear suggestions about what to read next.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
An unexpected Trollope
It was a pleasant shock to come across this at Half Price Books. Luckily no one else was reaching toward the shelves as I lunged for it. This wasn't a title that I remembered, though when I looked back at Victoria Glendinning's Anthony Trollope I found several references to it. My copy is part of the "Penguin Trollope" series, a uniform edition of all his novels as well as his autobiography and selected short stories, published in the early 1990s. I love this series, which features a sketch of a benevolent-looking author on the cover, even though they lack the notes and additional materials of the Oxford or Penguin Classics.
Reading this book made me think that as much as I love Trollope, I may have begun to pigeon-hole him, in Barchester and among the Pallisers, forgetting that writers like other artists may choose to experiment, to turn their talents in different directions. I already have on the TBR stack (Trollope section) two of his experimental novels, Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel, published anonymously. I don't know that An Eye for an Eye was an experiment, but it is certainly different from his other novels that I have read. It is a short book that moves very quickly, covering six or seven months. As the title suggests, it is a story of vengeance that approaches pure melodrama, particularly in its conclusion. There is very little of the humor I've come to expect in his stories and in his narrative voice. And while I have always thought that one of Trollope's greatest gifts as a writer is the life he gives his characters, here they lack depth. I felt like he introduced his characters, and told us about them, but hardly gave them time or space to make them real to us.
I don't mean to say that I didn't enjoy this book, because I did, melodrama and all. In fact, I read it in one day - something I never expected to be able to say about a Trollope novel!
An Eye for an Eye opens with an "Introduction" to a woman living in a private asylum in the West of England, who spends her days constantly proclaiming the words of the title, asking, "Is it not the law?" Confined there for life, she has no friends or family, but the charges of her very comfortable maintenance are paid by the Earl of Scroope.
The first chapter then takes us to Scroope Manor in Dorset, the home of the old Earl and his second Countess. The Earl's life has been overshadowed by the deaths of his first wife and daughter, and the wild career of his son, who married a French courtesan but died himself before leaving an heir. The next heir to the earldom is a nephew, Fred Neville, who is invited to the Manor to take his place in the family. But Fred, who never expected to inherit, has joined a cavalry regiment. He is determined to enjoy a final year of freedom before settling down to his new position. His uncle reluctantly agrees, and Fred sets off to join his regiment in Ireland.
His military duties in County Clare leave him with a lot of free time, which he spends hunting, taking a small boat out around the cliffs of Moher to shoot seals. There he meets the O'Haras, a mother with a beautiful young daughter, Kate, who live in an isolated cottage on the cliff side. Mrs. O'Hara is an Englishwoman, married to a Wickham-like army captain who left her and their daughter all but destitute. However rough their life, they are ladies, but they are also Roman Catholics. Fred enjoys their company, particularly Kate's. She is beautiful and innocent and good, and it is not long before she falls deeply in love with him (like Anne Elliot, she has hardly anyone else to love). As rumors of his intimacy with them spread, a friend of Lady Scroope's writes her the full details of the women's ineligibility, their poverty, their religion, and their low social status. Fred is summoned back to England, where his aunt and uncle demand promises that he will not marry anyone who would disgrace their noble family. He travels back and forth between England and Ireland, between the Earl and Kate, torn between love and pride. But he has made promises to Kate, on those promises he has seduced her, and suddenly Mrs. O'Hara is standing by to force him to keep those promises, to save her from ruin.
Fred is one of Trollope's rather weak young men. He yearns for adventure and freedom, realizing only too late how he has wasted the gifts and opportunities he has been given. He vacillates between Scroope and Kate, his position and his love - physically in his travels back and forth, as well as in his emotions and thoughts. His younger brother Jack, an officer in the Engineers, is presented as a complete contrast:
"When Jack came [to Scroope] he was found to be very unlike the Nevilles in appearance. In the first place he was dark, and in the next place he was ugly. He was a tall, well-made fellow, taller than his brother, and probably stronger; and he had very different eyes, - very dark brown eyes, deeply set in his head, with large dark eyebrows . . . His features were hard, and on one cheek he had a cicatrice, the remains of some misfortune that happened to him in his boyhood. But in spite of his ugliness, - for he was ugly, there was much about him in his gait and manner that claimed attention."
After that, I wanted to know more about Jack, who seemed cast in a heroic mold.
I think of seduction and betrayal as tropes of Victorian melodrama, but I was surprised at the increasingly frank discussion of Kate's situation. At one point, the village priest says to him, "Have you no thought of the life of that young girl who now bears in her womb the fruit of your body?" Trollope also used this story to explore sexual double standards, where Fred is "sowing wild oats" and Kate is ruining herself. He believed that women were by far the harsher judges of their own sex:
"It is as though a certain line were drawn to include all women, - a line, but, alas, little more than a line, by overstepping which, or rather by being known to have overstepped it, a woman ceases to be a woman in the estimation of her own sex."
I wouldn't recommend this to a new Trollope reader, but I did enjoy it, for the story and also for the different slant it gave me on his work.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
This book, subtitled "My Life and Times in the Rag Trade," is part autobiography, part biography, part business history, and part travelogue. That is a lot of parts, some of which don't fit neatly together. Unfortunately, I think Eric Newby was trying to cover too much ground here, and the book sometimes feel a bit thin and disconnected.
The autobiographical sections cover his return to England after his years as a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany during World War II. I haven't read much from the point of view of British ex-servicemen of this period, and I wish he had written about this in more detail. He was very much at a loose end and clearly suffering from depression (if not post-traumatic stress), so with the best of intentions his parents pushed him into the family business, Lane and Newby. They were a firm of wholesale clothing manufacturers, and a large part of his job entailed taking models of the clothing they produced out on the road, visiting buyers for stores and shops, trying to get orders. This meant long weeks traveling by train, up into Scotland and then south towards London. Newby escaped whenever he could for excursions into the country-side, carrying along boots and walking clothes, but he doesn't go into much detail about his adventures. When not on the road, he was immured in the Lane and Newby premises in London, trying to learn the business (I found the business sections a little hard to follow sometimes).
One day he ran into an old army buddy who told him, "I've just seen Wanda. She wants to know when you're coming." Newby met Wanda when he was a POW in Italy, a story he told in Love and War in the Apennines. They had kept in touch after the war, but this reminder from his friend sent him off to join M.I.9, which got him to Italy and Wanda. He was actually there to locate those Italians who had assisted the POWs, to see if any of them needed assistance in their turn. I'm sure there were some great stories there, but Newby skips right over that period, jumping ahead six months to his return to England with his new wife. Wanda appears in two later chapters, one involving a disastrous holiday in Dungeness and the other the birth of their first child. I would love to know more about her experiences, an Italian citizen of Slovenian descent coming to England as a war-bride. I've read accounts of English and European women coming to the U.S. and Canada as war-brides, but never one going to England. I had to remind myself that this is her husband's book, not hers.
Something Wholesale is also Eric Newby's affectionate tribute to his father George, who was 45 when his first and only child was born. "We were separated by a great gulf of years, and when I was old enough to appreciate him the world which he knew and of which he was a part had passed away." This book tries to capture something of his father's character and his world, and I think those are its best parts. The senior Newby, who was apprenticed to the clothing business in 1887, at age 13, was also a sportsman all his life. He loved boats and rowing, though his son would classify it as obsession. Work, while financing boats and rowing, was something one did in the intervals. His son's accounts of their excursions reminded me both of Three Men in a Boat and of the Gilbreth family in Cheaper by the Dozen (though with ten less children). Unfortunately, his father's casual attitudes toward business taxes would eventually doom the firm. In 1953 they were presented with a cumulative tax bill of £17,000, due within the week.
After leaving the family firm, the younger Newby continued to work in the fashion industry for several years, while he also began his career as a traveler and a writer. The Epilogue is an account of a trip to Paris in January of 1985 with the editors of the British Vogue, for the spring fashion shows.
"In doing so I was partly inspired by nostalgia, partly by a genuine enthusiasm for fashion, which in spite of the very different way of life I have pursued since abandoning it, has never been extinguished in my, I hope, still fairly manly bosom."
It comes a bit oddly, thirty and forty years after most of the events in the book, but his enthusiasm for fashion is clear.
If this book doesn't measure up Love and War in the Apennines or The Great Grain Race, it was a pleasant read. There are some funny stories, some poignant ones, and Eric Newby is always good company.
Sunday, June 10, 2012
A country mouse in Spain
When I re-discovered Maura Laverty last year, I was reminded that I had never read the sequel to Never No More. Set in Ireland, in the County Kildare town of Ballyderrig, it tells the story of Delia Scully, who goes to live with her beloved grandmother after her father's death. When the story ends, Delia is on her way to take up a post as governess in Spain. As I had already learned from Kate O'Brien's book Mary Lavelle, Spanish families preferred to employ Irish women who shared their Catholic faith as "misses," chaperones and governesses, rather than the English women often found in other countries.
As soon as I opened this book, I realized that Delia's adventures would make a very different sort of book from Mary Lavelle's. She is much younger, not just in age but in experience. Mary is engaged, taking a temporary post in part to fill in the time before her wedding. With seven siblings at home, Delia has her way to make in the world. (It's an amusing coincidence that the nuns who find these two their jobs are both named Sister Liguori; apparently the sisters ran unofficial employment bureaus for their students.) While Mary is from the town of Mellick, Delia is a true country mouse. She arrives in the train station in Madrid on a November morning in 1924, wearing a coat that is too small and a light blue satin dress, which her Gran had bought for her first dance. "Well, it was my nicest dress. Of course, I can see now that it was really not suitable for travelling on the Continent in the winter." Her new employer, herself an Irish former governess who married into a Spanish family, "gave a quick sigh then, as if to say, 'Well, now that you're here I suppose I'll have to make the best of you.'"
Delia's education is rapid but not smooth. She learns how she is expected to dress and to behave (extremely quietly, in both cases). She meets not only the family who employs her and their servants, but also the community of her fellow governesses. Like Mary, she discovers a great warmth and friendliness among the Spaniards she meets, and she is drawn to the servants and to the kitchen. There she takes lessons in Spanish cooking. Food is a major theme for Laverty, who went on to write best-selling cookbooks that include the culinary history of Ireland, which are considered classics today. Maeve Binchy calls her a "food pornographer," and here she describes the rich cuisine of Spain in mouth-watering terms. I'm sure somewhere in Houston's United Nations of restaurants and groceries I can find the "gleaming amber cones of nun's cheese, a Catalonian specialty made with ground almonds, lemon, spice, egg-yolks and syrup."
Like Mary, Delia finds the other Irish governesses difficult to like. Many openly express their contempt for Spain and the Spanish, embittered by the poverty that keeps them tied to jobs and people they dislike. She does make one good friend, an older and more experienced governess, Miss Carmody, who gives her much-needed advice and support. Delia herself is often homesick for Ireland, and for her Gran, and her memories link this book back to the earlier one, as does her habit of comparing the people she meets in Spain with her neighbors in Ballyderrig.
Delia's naivité, friendly spirit, and youthful exuberance soon get her into trouble. Despite Miss Carmody's best efforts, she simply cannot confine herself to the narrow existence required of the "misses." In one grand misadventure, she spends an afternoon splashing around the beach with a young male friend, wearing a forbidden red bathing suit, only to discover her horrified employers sitting on the piazza of a near-by restaurant. Her job ends that afternoon. She begins to get the reputation of being "fast," particularly after she is seen with a young Spanish man, which means no reputable family will hire her. Her only recourse is to become a "professora," a free-lance tutor and sometime chaperone. This is much more to Delia's taste, giving her freedom and independence, but she finds it very difficult to establish herself, particularly at her young age. And even here, her madcap reputation causes her problems. She sets her sights on a goal that no Irish "miss" in Spain has ever achieved: to become an office worker, in jobs that are reserved for English women. Undaunted, Delia sets herself to studying shorthand and typing. Maura Laverty was writing from her own experience here. Like Kate O'Brien, she went out herself as a "miss" but later moved into secretarial work (including a stint with a princess) and then journalism before returning to Ireland, where she became one of the first prominent women journalists.
I loved this book, just as much as Never No More. I loved the connections back to Ballyderrig and the first book, and the contrast to Madrid. Mary Lavelle is set primarily in a small town on Spain's northern coast, also an interesting contrast to the Madrid setting here. I could not wait to see where Delia's adventures took her next. As you might expect of someone raised by the Gran of Never No More, Delia is a caring, compassionate person who wants to do the right thing, whose warm heart makes friends easily and remains loyal to them. Like Mary Lavelle she finds love in Spain, and if her first love proves unworthy, the love of friends is always there to support her. It is her innocence and her good heart that draw people to help her, and if they sometimes seem a bit like fairy godmothers and godfathers, I didn't mind a bit, any more than I minded that in this sequel Laverty has pushed the story back four years (Never No More ended in 1928, and this opens in 1924).
As with Mary Lavelle, there are political rumblings in this book, hints of the coming Civil War that would devastate Spain. Even in the sunshine and the warmth, Delia sees the problems in Spain, and as in Ballyderrig she sees the dark side of humanity. She sees them, she recognizes them, but she does not allow them to overshadow the good that is also there.
I just loved this book (I know I said that already), and I'm kicking myself for waiting so long to read it. I was lucky enough to find a 1944 first edition, with its "war-time economy" format. I've been trying to imagine what it must have been like, to read this warm, funny, loving book, in the dark days of 1944. It could only have been torture to read the luscious descriptions of food, but I hope it brought comfort in other ways.
My brother and sister-in-law are traveling to Spain in a couple of weeks. They had invited me to join them, but I couldn't manage it this year. If I'd read this book sooner, I'd have been sorely tempted to rig a ponzi scheme or buy lottery tickets or hold a bake sale or something, anything, to get myself over to Spain.
Friday, June 8, 2012
A life of Georgette Heyer
As I've mentioned before, I've been a fan of Georgette Heyer's books for many years, though for much of that time her books were hard to find in the United States. Even before the internet and its world-wide book inventories, I managed to collect quite a few, which I read and re-read. But as much as I enjoyed the books, with their wit and humor, their snappy dialogue, their romance and mysteries and conflicts, not to mention their whirlwind denouements, I never thought that much about the author. I simply accepted her genius and looked for the next book.
It was only when I joined an on-line discussion group (now the Almacks listserv) that I began to learn about Georgette Heyer herself. One of the first things I discovered was how little information there was, in large part because Heyer (who died in 1974) had maintained an amazing level of privacy throughout her writing career, even as her works sold hundreds of thousands of copies. There was then only one book written about Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge's The Private World of Georgette Heyer, which was out of print and hard to find. I was lucky enough to acquire a copy through the listserv, and I enjoyed Hodge's combination of biography and bibliography. Hodge presented a basic biography of Heyer, putting each of her books in the context of what was going on her life at the time (and giving a brief synopsis of the book as well). Her book is worth owning for the period illustrations alone, with some gorgeous color plates.
Jennifer Kloester, a fellow member of Almacks and the author of Georgette Heyer's Regency World (which I reviewed back in September), takes a similar approach in her recent biography. One of the real strengths of her book is the wide access she had not just to Heyer's papers but also to those of family and friends, as well as Heyer's agents and publishers. From this she has built a much more comprehensive narrative of Heyer's life, starting with her birth in 1902 and her formative years growing up in the Edwardian Age and then during the Great War. Kloester weaves together Heyer's private life and her writing career, which took off with the publication of her first novel, The Black Moth, in 1921.
Though her profits from her books increased steadily over the years, Heyer was always concerned about money, in part because she and her husband Ronald Rougier had little idea how to budget or to spend within their means, but also because they were supporting Heyer's widowed mother and two brothers. Kloester explores their complicated finances, which put pressure on Heyer always to write the next book, and also to write what she knew would sell. I find it sad that Heyer so often disparaged the "light, bright and sparkling" novels that made her a best-seller and a beloved author, the ones that readers continue to fall in love all these years later. She wanted to write great historical novels that would establish her as a great writer and respected historical authority. At least the letters that Kloester quotes frequently show Heyer's delight in the plots, settings and characters she was creating as she wrote.
I have two quibbles with this book. The first is grammatical: there are a distressing number of dangling modifiers and run-on sentences. This seems particularly unfortunate in a book about a master stylist like Georgette Heyer. Second, while Kloester quotes copiously, on almost every page, from archival sources, she does not always cite those sources, nor does she always identify to whom Heyer was writing. And while there is a list of "Heyer-related archives," there is no bibliography of primary or secondary works consulted, though some are cited by full title and publisher in the five pages of end notes. I think the book would also have benefited from a few more dates, as it is not always clear when the things that Kloester is writing about took place.
Those quibbles aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I learned a lot from it. Kloester brings Heyer to life, and she skillfully weaves in discussion of the books without overwhelming the larger story, or giving away too much about the plots. I especially enjoyed the account of a luncheon party Heyer attended at Buckingham Palace (I think in 1966). When the Master of the Household called to invite her, he told her, "We're all madly keen on your books here!", and she later learned that the Queen had bought twelve copies of Frederica in Harrods book department.
Last night I took A Civil Contract off the shelf to check some detail, and I immediately found myself back in Adam and Jenny's world. While I appreciate knowing more about their creator, even the fact that she considered Americans uncultured and overly gregarious, I am not conscious of their author while I'm reading one of her books. That is her genius, and her legacy, to have created such a world of wonderful characters, with their complex lives, who live on long after the Regency and Georgette Heyer herself.
Thursday, June 7, 2012
The Classics Challenge: June with Mark Twain
It was a quaint and curious pasttime, wandering through this old silent city of the dead - lounging through utterly deserted streets where thousands and thousands of human beings once bought and sold, and walked and rode, and made the place resound with the noise and confusion of traffic and pleasure.
And so I turned away and went through shop after shop and store after store, far down the long street of the merchants, and called for the wares of Rome and the East, but the tradesmen were gone, and the marts were silent, and nothing was left but the broken jars all set in cement of cinders and ashes; the wine and the oil that once had filled them were gone with their owners.
Compare the cheerful life and the sunshine of this day with the horrors the younger Pliny saw here, the 9th of November, A.D. 79, when he was so bravely striving to remove his mother out of reach of harm . . .
I was lucky enough to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum, and though the streets were far from deserted when I was there - packed with tourists like me - Twain's descriptions still resonated with me.
A side note: I apologize for all the blank spaces in this post. I detest and abhor the new blogger interface, I find it very difficult to use compared with the previous version, and missing important features. I cannot figure out something simple like how to eliminate those extra spaces.
Saturday, June 2, 2012
An irreverent pilgrim
The subtitle to this book, an account of a voyage in 1867, is "The New Pilgrims' Progress; Being Some Account of the Steamship Quaker City's Pleasure Excursion to Europe and the Holy Land; With Descriptions of Countries, Nations, Incidents and Adventures, As They Appeared to the Author."
Many years ago I watched a TV adaptation of The Innocents Abroad. It featured a handsome young Sam Clemens making friends on the voyage with two shipmates, one a beautiful young woman. The three shared many adventures together as the inevitable romantic tensions developed, both young men falling in love with the heroine, who was then forced to choose between them. I can't find this version listed anywhere, but I have the clearest memory of watching it, and under its spell I quickly went looking for the book at the library. Reading it was a complete disappointment. Not only was there no shipboard romance, which I'm sure was my primary interest at that age, but I thought Twain's humor labored, his language verbose, and the book dauntingly long. I gave up after only a few chapters and mentally filed it away as unreadable.
Recently I've had a recurring feeling that I should try reading this book again. I looked for it at the library last weekend, and then remembered that I'd downloaded a copy to my new Nook. So that Saturday I sat down with it, and by the end of the first chapter I was hooked. In the years since I first tried to read this, I've read a lot of Victorian writers, and what then seemed liked overly ornate language now feels very familiar and comfortable. In fact, Twain's narrative voice here reminded me of George Templeton Strong's diaries, the last volume of which I recently read. (I can't find any mention of Twain in the diaries, but I think Strong would have enjoyed this book.) I have also read quite a few traveler's tales lately, including Isabella Bird and Anthony Trollope's books on America, and it was an interesting contrast to read about Americans abroad, though Twain's tour didn't take him to Britain. And then of course in those years I have traveled myself, though not as widely as Twain.
The Quaker City was set to sail from New York in early June of 1867. This first organized American tour of Europe and the Middle East made headlines across the country. But the ticket price of $1250 (almost $20,000 in 2012 dollars, six times the passage on a Cunard liner) put it out of most Americans' price range, even without the recommended $5 per diem for tours and other expenses when the ship was in port ($77 in today's money). I learned from the introduction that Twain traveled as a correspondent for the Daily Alta California of San Francisco. General William Sherman and Rev. Henry Ward Beecher were supposed to join the excursion, but they both had to cancel, leaving Twain, already known as a journalist and humorist, the big celebrity draw.
The bulk of Twain's narrative focuses on the time he spent in France, Italy, Constantinople, Palestine, and Egypt. He was very impressed with the order and prosperity that he found in France, comparing it favorably with Italy and almost every other place he visited. Italy was a big disappointment to Twain, its Roman glory buried under centuries of dirt, poverty and ignorance, much of which he attributed to the Roman Catholic Church (a criticism he repeated constantly during his Italian stay). He was also underwhelmed by Italian art and architecture, and he suspected that his fellow travelers were just parroting guidebooks in their admiration.
There are constant tensions in this book that make it unsettling reading at times. Twain and his fellow pilgrims sailed with high expectations, based on years of reading, of both literature and history, ancient and modern. Through illustrations in the books they read, they had clear pictures in their minds of what they were going to see, and of course the reality often failed to meet their expectations. (I remember finally getting to the front of the crowd before the Mona Lisa, and my first reaction: "It's so small!") Though they wouldn't have used this term, the travelers also suffered from burnout, trying to see too much in too short a time. As Twain wrote, "One can gorge on sights to repletion as well as sweetmeats," and he also perfectly captured "museum fatigue." Writing about Raphael's Transfiguration, he said,
"Is it not possible that the reason I find such charms in this picture is because it is out of the crazy chaos of the galleries? . . . If this were set in the midst of the tempest of pictures one finds in the vast galleries of the Roman palaces, would I think it so handsome?"
Twain's narrative also shows the tension of the New World meeting the Old, not to mention the Ancient. Like other Americans abroad, he reacted by asserting the superiority of the United States, its scenery, religion, politics, education, and commerce. Perhaps he was reacting in part to travelers like Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens, with their very unflattering pictures of America. Yet at the same time, Twain mocked himself and his fellow pilgrims for their provinciality, their inability to speak foreign languages, their unthinking assumptions. He was particularly embarrassed by the sight of his fellow tourists in Palestine, "this fantastic mob of green-spectacled Yanks, with their flapping elbows and bobbing umbrellas," desecrating the "impressive religious solemnity and silence [that] rest upon the desert and the mountains that were upon them in the remote ages of antiquity . . ."
A third source of tension is suggested in the book's subtitle, "The New Pilgrim's Progress." For many of those on board the Quaker City, this was indeed a modern pilgrimage, and they tried to maintain a proper atmosphere, with prayer meetings and hymn singing. For them, the real goal and purpose of the trip was Palestine, with its myriad Old and New Testament scenes. Twain, though well-versed in the Scriptures and raised a Protestant, took a much more secular and worldly approach. He gathered around him a few fellow "sinners" who sometimes enjoyed baiting the pilgrims and mocking their enthusiasms. He was particularly horrified and mortified by their brazen theft of relics, and their willingness to damage ancient structures.
The incorrigible pilgrims have come in with their pockets full of specimens broken from the ruins. I wish this vandalism could be stopped. They broke off fragments from Noah's tomb; from the exquisite sculptures of the temples of Baalbec . . . Heaven protect the Sepulchre when this tribe invades Jerusalem!"
I hope that his account of a pilgrim climbing up the Sphinx with a little hammer was apocryphal.
I had forgotten how funny Mark Twain can be, though sometimes the joke is barbed. This was not always a comfortable book to read, and far from "politically correct" (though there was much less anti-semitism than I expected). In his conclusion, Twain wrote that
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."I think it's time for another look at Mark Twain. I will be looking for his other travel writings, including Life on the Mississippi, which I read and enjoyed years ago.
On a side-note, I started reading this on my new Nook, and after the first couple of chapters, I headed off to Barnes & Noble to find the actual book (it was a pleasant surprise to find two copies on the shelves). The main drawback I'm finding with the Nook is the difficulty of flipping back and forth, and the slowness of "turning" the pages back frustrates me. I have yet to read a complete book on it, though I expect that will change when I get around to reading the ebooks that aren't readily available in print.