Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A voyage of discovery: India in 1911

A Glimpse of Empire, Jessica Douglas-Home

Our county libraries have a wonderful interlibrary loan system, which can be accessed through their website to submit requests on-line. But it often takes a while for the books to appear, and in the meantime, the system doesn't allow you to track your requests. Since I keep forgetting to write mine down, I generally have no idea what I've asked for, and it's often a pleasant surprise to see what turns up. This past week I got three, none of which I initially even remembered requesting.

One of them was this book, an account of a trip to India to attend the Coronation Durbar of King George V and Queen Mary, in December of 1911. It is based (presumably) on the diary and photographs of Hon. Lilah Wingfield, a young woman of 23, the daughter of an Irish peer, Lord Powerscourt, and written by her granddaughter Jessica Douglas-Home. The youngest of five children, Lilah grew up on the family's estate in County Wicklow, with summers spent with her maternal grandfather, the Earl of Leicester, at his estate in Norfolk. It was a rough, rambunctious, and idyllic childhood, the despair of her mother's staid family. It ended with her father's death, when her mother took her three daughters to London, making room for the new Lord and Lady Powerscourt. Lilah's sisters soon found husbands, leaving her the companion to their difficult elderly mother. She hoped to escape for a while through travel, and when she saw an advertisement for a tour group going to the Durbar, it seemed the perfect opportunity. Enlisting a distant cousin as advocate and chaperone, she managed to convince her mother to let her go.

As Douglas-Home explains, the Durbar was months in the planning. The King was determined to go, and Queen Mary to accompany him. I had read about the trip in James Pope-Hennessy's Queen Mary, which of course focuses on her role and experiences, so this book provided an interesting contrast, though Lilah was hardly an ordinary tourist. Her position as a peer's daughter and her family connections opened many doors, as did the friends she traveled with. She and her companions stayed in the great tent city that covered 25 square miles near Delhi. Under escorts from the 10th Hussars, whose commander was known to have a tendre for her, Lilah had access to all the festivities leading up to the Durbar itself. After it ended, her party traveled up to the Northwest Frontier before turning south again to zig-zag across central India, stopping in several different states and often visiting the native courts. Entranced with India, Lilah was anxious to experience the reality of the subcontinent, to be more than a typical British tourist. She was in no hurry to return home, though she evaded at least two serious suitors, marriage to whom could have brought an extended stay in India.

I enjoyed reading about Lilah's unconventional but happy childhood, and I cheered her determination to break free of her constrained life in London. Douglas-Home places Lilah's adventures in India within the larger context of the Durbar, explaining its importance to Britain's colonial rule and the difficulties the organizers faced. Some of those difficulties came from the native rulers, many of whom Lilah met. Douglas-Home manages to introduce them, to describe their place in the Raj and their relations with the Empire, keeping them straight in the reader's mind while not allowing them to overwhelm Lilah's story. There are pictures of them in the four sections of photographs, with helpful captions to tie them into the story. Lilah was apparently an enthusiastic photographer, and many of the photos may be her work, though the sources are unfortunately not listed.

In a preface, Douglas-Home mentions her grandmother's photo albums. She also mentions a diary of Lilah's that someone purchased at a second-hand bookshop, but she says nothing more about it, not even if the diary was returned to the family. She quotes frequently from Lilah's writing, but since there are no notes, it is impossible to tell if the quotes are from this diary or other sources. As an archivist and a student of history, I found that frustrating. Douglas-Home also quotes others, apparently from letters, but again the quotes are unattributed and there is no bibliography. She has obviously done a lot of research, and it is a shame she chose not to share that information with those (like me) who might be interested in the context or in further reading.

Despite this lack, I found the book informative and engaging. Lilah's travels in 1911 are as interesting as Emily Eden's in the 1830s, but very different. The differences are not just in the years that separate them, but in large part in Lilah's determination to immerse herself in India, and in her openness to the native peoples that she met.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Summer reading

The Solitary Summer, Elizabeth von Arnim

A recent review of this book (I wish I could remember where) reminded me that I had a copy of it on the TBR stacks, perfect for summer reading. I was expecting a sequel of sorts to Elizabeth and Her German Garden, focused on the summer months in her beloved garden on the family's estate in Nassenheide, Pomerania (now called Rzędziny), with her husband (the famous "Man of Wrath") and her three little girls, the April, May & June babies. Like the earlier book, this is in the form of a journal, which begins in May and ends in October. In the first entry, Elizabeth tells her husband,

"I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes. On wet days I will go into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I'll lie on the heath and see how the broom flares against the clouds. I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me. Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace."

He warns her that she'll catch cold and sunburn lying around in the fields, people will think she is mad, and she will be bored, but "You know you do as you please, and I never interfere with you." He reminded me a bit of Marmee in Little Women, when the four girls want to spend their vacation time free even from their household work, who wants to teach them that all play is just as bad for them as all work. I settled in to read, already envious of her long leisurely summer days (and sure she would prove her husband wrong in the end). But while there is plenty of discussion of her garden, her delight in it, her frank accounts of her failures with it, the peace she indeed finds, it moves far beyond her garden, and I found those excursions fascinating.

Elizabeth usually takes a book with her on her rambles, which leads to a discussion of how books must be read in their proper place and at the proper time. Thoreau is for outdoor reading, out of place inside the house, while Boswell and Johnson belong "in the library when the lamps are lit . . . surrounded by every sign of civilisation." She moves from there to a meditation on reading: "What a blessing it is to love books." In her library, her favorite books are in cases built around a central pillar. The books on these shelves

lose the gloss of their new coats, and put on the comfortable look of old friends in every-day clothes, under the frequent touch of affection. They are such special friends that I can hardly pass them without a nod and smile at the well-known covers, each of which has some pleasant association of time and place to make it still more dear.

As her tastes change, books are promoted or demoted from the central cases to the wall cases, or to even more distant shelves - a system that we have in common. I love re-arranging shelves to accommodate some wonderful new book, debating which one must give way. I was glad to see that the first author she names from the prime favorite shelves is Jane Austen. I'd love to know which books are among the American and French and German children's books that she continues to read and love.

On one of the rare cloudy and windy days of the summer, Elizabeth's conscience drives her to make some long-delayed visits to the tenants in the village (reminding me of Austen's Emma on a similar errand when she meets Mr Elton). And suddenly the book becomes something of a social history, as she takes us into the cramped cottages and describes health and hygiene and diet. And in this book published in 1899, she calmly tells us that most of the couples in the area already have a child, in the cradle or on the way, by the time that they marry. While the local pastor denounces the sin and the sinners, his parishioners carry on, and Elizabeth herself can't condemn them, because "They only know and follow nature..." and divine forgiveness must surely encompass them. I found the whole discussion fascinating, and I wondered what her Victorian readers made of it.

One evening she drives out to an old mill for a solitary picnic. The elderly caretaker who lives there "informed me once that all women are mistakes, especially that aggravated form called wives . . ." As she sits in the gloaming, reading The Sorrows of Werther, suddenly she declares,

But here I am talking about Goethe, our great genius and idol, in a way no woman should. What do German women know of such things? Quite untrained and uneducated, how are we to judge rightly about anybody or anything? . . . Sitting there long after it was too dark to read, I thought of the old miller's words, and agreed with him that the best thing a woman can do in this world is to keep quiet.

Where in the world, I thought, did that come from? Is this "Elizabeth" speaking, or the real-life Mary Annette Beauchamp, who did not keep quiet, who spoke so frequently and definitely through her books? It is hardly a positive argument for the training and education of women. This might have been written by Baron von Ottringel of The Caravaners, whose pomposities about the proper place of women she so slyly tears to shreds. And then the book ends in October, with a discussion between husband and wife, and a final question that I find equally hard to interpret.

As often happens, this book was not what I expected, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, even as it left me puzzling over some of its parts.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Through the canals of France to Italy and Greece

Isabel & the Sea, George Millar

Despite the intriguing subtitle, "A Voyage through the Canals of France to the Mediterranean," I passed this up twice at Half Price Books before finally succumbing last week. I had no idea who George Millar was at the time, nor did I realize that the voyage took place in 1946, through countries still devastated from the Second World War. I have since learned that Millar, a journalist before the war, was already well-known for two books he had written about his work with the Resistance in France, Maquis and Horned Pigeon. This trip would take him back to areas that he knew well as a prisoner of war and later from years fighting behind enemy lines.

In the spring of 1946, Millar and his second wife (the Isabel of the title) bought a 31-ton ketch, the Truant, built in 1919, which had been laid up during the war. Neither of them had much experience sailing, and Isabel invariably became sick in any kind of heavy sea, but they were determined to sail to Greece, over the advice of many people. The first chapters deal with the necessary repairs and outfitting, complicated by post-war shortages. The Millars were also learning what they could of navigation and sailing. All my knowledge of ships and sailing is book knowledge, from Patrick O'Brian and Tony Horwitz, and I was soon out of my depth, but never enough to put me off the book.

On June 8th they set off from Southampton, bound for Le Havre and the mouth of the Seine, which would take them into the canals that would lead them eventually to the Mediterranean at Port St. Louis. From there they traveled east along the coast of France, then south toward Italy. Rounding the toe of Italy they set off for the Grecian Archipelago. After reaching Athens, they turned back to spend some time anchored off the Greek Island of Poros, where Millar focused on writing (what he was writing is never clear, perhaps newspaper articles or a draft of this book). With winter setting in, the Millars decided rather suddenly to sell the boat and return to England. In comparison with the lengthy preparations for their trip, its end came abruptly and almost as a surprise.

This book is fascinating on several levels. As a travel narrative, it took me to unfamiliar places that I now want to see for myself. I had no conception of the chain of canals that stretch across France. Nor have I ever read an account of a pleasure cruise along the northern coast of the Mediterranean. I enjoyed even the mundane details of their life aboard Truant. Their trip down the Italian coast and east to Greece reminded me again of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, though their experiences were in many ways very different. The most striking difference is that the Millars were traveling through Europe only a year after the end of the Second World War, and we see the devastation and the lingering effects of war through their eyes. Most of what I've read about the post-war era has been about America or Britain, and this book made me realize how little I know about Europe in this period.

Life for the civilian populations was slowly returning to normal, though food and other necessities of life remained in short supply in many areas, and people showed the effects of years of effectual starvation, particularly in Greece, exacerbated by a civil war. German POWs were at work in France, under both American military and French civilian authority, hated by the French people. The towns, especially port and dock areas, were frequently in ruins from Allied and German bombing. There was constant danger from the unexploded mines that webbed harbors and shipping lanes, which were also clogged with sunken ships and abandoned war supplies.

The Millars talked to anyone and everyone that they met along the way, frequently inviting people aboard the Truant for tea or drinks, or visiting them in their homes. They chatted to the lock-keepers, to fishermen along the rivers, to workers in the ports, to people waiting at communal fountains or taps for water. Millar noted that traveling as they did, handling all the work themselves, allowed them a connection with local people that many tourists never found:

I doubt if so many people would have spoken to me and treated me as a friendly equal if I had not been dressed in clothes faded and worn by work in the sun, and had not, like themselves, been working. . . Truant's water-cans were heavy, yet when I think back over the times that I filled them in foreign places I realise that the simple task was always enjoyable, because the mere fact that I was doing something necessary gave me a place in all those varied surroundings, a place among the native peoples and the growing things. Tourists who travel in more ordinary conveyances . . . are deliberately putting themselves in another category, and they will be misfits wherever they go.

They also had friends and acquaintances to visit, as well as letters of introduction to others. Millar's war books opened other doors to them. He and Isabel were also perfectly content with each other's company. I didn't realize until I'd finished the book that they had been married only a short time. His love for Isabel is clear, as is his pride in her. Friends constantly warned them that this trip could prove too much of a good thing, that a relationship could break under the stresses of such a difficult trip. Millar concluded instead that "Such people can have no conception of the strengthening tonic on companionship, and still more on love, of discomforts as well as pleasures faced together, accepted and overcome with some degree of fortitude."

As with Eric and Wanda Newby, I am looking forward to further travels with the Millars, and to learning more about George Millar's war-time experiences. I'm so glad I didn't pass this by a third time.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge

Ukridge, P.G. Wodehouse

I've had this book on the TBR shelves for a couple of years, and I did try it once or twice, but I always put it back to try again later. As hard as it is to find Wodehouse in the libraries and bookstores around here, I don't give up on one easily. It was only when I read Lord Emsworth and Others, which includes some Ukridge stories, that I finally fell under his spell.

The stories are narrated by James Corcoran, Corky to his friends, who first met Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge at school. Both attended Wrykyn, as did Mike Jackson of the Psmith stories, who was removed by his father after failing most of his subjects. Ukridge was expelled, for sneaking out at night to the local village's fair, disguised in scarlet whiskers and a false nose, but unfortunately still wearing his school cap. While Corky continued on to Cambridge and a career as a free-lance journalist, Ukridge gave up on education, "flitting about the world like a snipe." They meet again several years later in London. Ukridge is living on his wits, constantly in debt but always at work on the next scheme to make his fortune, like a school to train performing dogs for theatrical work. In the first story, he sets off with six Pekingese for a cottage in Kent. A few days later, Corky receives a telegram, begging him to come to Kent: "Life and death matter, old horse. Desperate situation. Don't fail me."

This sets the pattern for the stories that follow, as Corky is called again and again to the rescue. Sometimes he finds himself in the middle of Ukridge's schemes before he knows it. He arrives home to find his friend ensconced in his flat, drinking his whiskey, wearing his shirts and socks, and frequently hitting him up for a loan. Through it all he stands by Ukridge, who can generally talk him into anything. That's not to say that Corky can't be pushed too far, and he will occasionally balk, particularly in any situation involving Ukridge's Aunt Julia, a successful novelist and one of Wodehouse's most formidable aunts.

Several of the stories follow Ukridge's attempts to turn Wilberforce Billson, a ship's trimmer whom he met on his travels, into "Battling Billson," a professional boxer. Billson's physique and skills, honed in bar-room fights around the world, are impressive, and Ukridge jumps enthusiastically into the role of manager. Boxing, like golf, seems to have been one of P.G. Wodehouse's favorite sports, and boxers turn up regularly at least in his early books. Since I don't share the enthusiasm, I sometimes find that those books drag a bit. Not here, though, where the focus is on Ukridge's plots and plans. There is also a wonderful section on one of Billson's bouts at the Universal Sporting Club, which Corky describes at length as taking place in almost a religious atmosphere:

When we arrived, two acolytes in the bantam class were going devoutly through the ritual under the eye of the presiding minister, while a large congregation looked on in hushed silence. As we took our seats, this portion of the service came to an end and the priest announced that Nippy Coggs was the winner. A reverent murmur arose for an instant from the worshippers. Nippy Coggs disappeared into the vestry, and after a pause of a few minutes I perceived the familiar form of Battling Billson coming up the aisle.

This book was published in 1924, but the stories seem to take place even earlier. Automobiles feature in some of them, but no telephones. Corky and Ukridge exchange letters and telegrams, but just as frequently they have to track each other down to share vital information. Ukridge plans to train his dogs for the music-hall stage, with no mention of films, nor of radio. Of course Wodehouse's stories are generally timeless, his characters untouched by the later 20th century, Blandings standing unchanged in the golden light of a perfect summer afternoon. I'm certainly not complaining.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Debutantes & fascists

Half a Crown, Jo Walton

This is the third book in Jo Walton's "Small Change" series, set in a world where Britain made peace with Germany in 1941 and then itself turned toward fascism. Where the other two books (Farthing and Ha'penny) are set in the 1940s, this book is set in 1960. Hitler and his Reich still dominate the Continent, the sole power now that an atomic attack has neutralized Russia. The United States has also been hit with nuclear weapons, leaving it demoralized and even more isolated. In Britain, as delegates from the remaining world powers are arriving for a conference, meant to bring peace and a new world order, the government is preparing to open its first death camp. No longer will it have to send Jews and other undesirables to the Reich's camps on the Continent.

Peter Carmichael, a familiar figure from the previous books and now commander of the Gestapo-like Watch, has his hands full trying to ensure the safety of the delegates, including Hitler. (The Watch is meant to be the the terror of Britain's population, but every time I see the word I think of Sir Samuel Vimes and the Ankh-Morpork Watch, with its dwarves and trolls and Nobby Nobbs, and it rather spoils the menace for me.) Outwardly a loyal servant of the government, Carmichael also runs an "Inner Watch," an Underground Railroad to rescue innocent victims and get them safely out of the country. As a gay man, living with his lover Jack, who acts as his manservant, Carmichael himself could become the target of the Watch if he were outed, which is the weapon his superiors use to keep him in line and working for them.

All of this takes place during the start of the social season. Among the debutantes preparing for their presentation is Carmichael's ward Elvira Royston, the daughter of his sergeant, who was killed in the line of duty. Carmichael has sent her to the best schools, including an exclusive finishing school in Switzerland, and he has helped her achieve her dream of entering Oxford. His position and his money have induced the mother of a school-friend to present her, though Elvira is "not quite." One night Elvira and her friend Betsy accept an invitation from an eligible young bachelor to go to a fascist parade and rally, led by the "Ironsides." She thinks of it as a patriotic and fun evening out. But the rally turns into a riot, as speakers and a charismatic young singer from Liverpool challenge the Prime Minister, Mark Normanby, and his government as weak shadows of Germany. In the chaos, Elvira is separated from her friends and arrested. Using her guardian's name for protection draws him into an increasingly complex political situation and endangers them both. As unrest with the Normanby regime grows, rumors swirl around the Duke of Windsor, in London for the peace conference. Could he be plotting to regain the throne? It is a bad time to have one's loyalty in question, or to be suspected of subversive activities - and there are informers everywhere, even in the Watch.

As in the previous books, Walton tells this story in chapters that alternate between third-person narrative, focused on Carmichael, and a first-person narration, in this book Elvira's. I did not find her as engaging a narrator as Lucy in Farthing and Viola in Ha'penny. Unlike those two, Elvira has grown up in fascist Britain, it's all she has ever known, and she doesn't question it. She is completely focused on getting to Oxford, though I can't imagine that there is much academic freedom in the universities of this Britain. Her experiences as a prisoner and a target of the regime do open her eyes to some of its horrors, she learns empathy for her fellow victims, and she comes to understand that she has never really known her "Uncle Carmichael."

Like Ha'penny, this book is more of a thriller than a mystery, and it is the fastest-moving and most complex of the three. I think it is also the bleakest, as we see the human cost of the regime (like Betsy, I am haunted by the fate of one small child, part of the Ironsides' parade). There are wheels within wheels, as Carmichael and Elvira move around London, both constantly at risk of arrest and worse. The tension and the stakes keep rising - and then suddenly comes a most improbable ending, one that left me thinking "Huh?" and with a raft of questions (from non-spoilery reviews like Jenny's over on Shelf Love I knew that the ending was problematic, but I was completely unprepared for it). I really think that Jo Walton owes us another book, to tell us what happened next.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Little Women and me

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

As I've mentioned before, when I was eight or so my mother bought me a box set of Louisa May Alcott's novels. I never read them as obsessively as I did the Little House books, but I have probably read Little Women at least twenty times. I've known Meg, Jo, Beth & Amy almost all my life. As soon as I sit down and open the book, I am right back in their world and their lives. I wore out the original copy from the set, and it was only when I bought a replacement that I realized how heavily the copy I knew had been edited, to remove much of the moralizing, particularly about alcohol (like the discussion at Meg's wedding). When I re-read now, I come across scenes or lines that still seem new because they were missing from the familiar version that I read so often.

I know many people who never re-read a book, because "I've read it, I know what happens, why would I ever need to read it again?" I admit that I've read some books so many times that I feel like I've worn them out, but someday I'll open them up again. In general, though, a familiar book can seem quite different, because I'm reading it in a different context or from a new point of view. While I enjoyed the story of Little Women just as much this time around, I was also reading it in light of The Pilgrim's Progress, which I had just finished. No wonder that book felt so familiar. It is one of the major themes of the first part of Little Women, from the opening chapter, where the girls accept their mother's suggestion that her "little pilgrims" should "begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before father comes home." And of course in the chapters that follow their adventures echo Christian's, and there are constant references and allusions to Bunyan's work. My favorite was naming John Brooke "Great-Heart," as he prepares to escort Mrs. March to Washington, much as Bunyan's character guided Christiana and her children through their travels.

Perhaps because I was looking for Bunyan, I noticed for the first time how many other authors and books the March family reads. I first learned about Mary Elizabeth Braddon from Alcott, and I picked up Lady Audley's Secret in part because Fanny in An Old-Fashioned Girl curls up with it on a snowy day. In Little Women alone, there are references to Sir Walter Scott, Charlotte Yonge, Shakespeare, Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney, Goethe, Boswell and Johnson, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Hannah More, and of course Alcott's beloved Charles Dickens. And if there is no overt reference to Jane Austen, I don't think I ever appreciated before how perfectly Aunt March plays Lady Catherine de Bourgh to Meg's Elizabeth, with John Brooke as a much sweeter but much poorer Darcy.

In my bowdlerized original version, it was never clear exactly what Marmee is doing in "the rooms," where she works "getting the boxes ready to go tomorrow" and "cutting out blue flannel jackets." Now I gloat over knowing that, like her real-life model Alcott's mother, Marmee works with the New England Women's Auxiliary Association, supporting the work of the Sanitary Commission in the Civil War. The Alcotts' cousin, Abigail May, was the head of the Boston branch and a tireless worker for the cause. She is mentioned twice in connection with the work in George Templeton Strong's Civil War diary (though he disapproved of her as a strong-minded woman). Likewise, I didn't know for years that the Fair where Amy organizes the flower booth is raising funds for work among the South's newly-emancipated slaves, nor that at the end of the book Plumfield accepts a mixed-race child, "a merry little quadroon, who could not be taken in elsewhere." I would love to know the reasoning behind these editorial decisions. It can't just have been about shortening the book.

It was also interesting to read this again after having read The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott (Joel Myerson & Daniel Shealy, editors). Through her letters, I felt like I got to know something of the models for the Marches. And in Amy's letters home from Europe, I could see echoes of Alcott's own, particularly from a trip abroad in 1870-1871, which took her to Vevey, where Amy and Laurie meet again. I was reminded too of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, with Amy and Flo bouncing in rapture from side to side of the railway carriage, and Uncle Carrol rushing out to buy his dog-skin gloves and be shaved à la mutton-chop, so he could fancy "that he looked like a true Briton."

I recently read about someone who loved Little Women as a child but found it unreadable as an adult, because of all the boring pilgrims' talk. I'm glad to find that I still love it, even all the moralizing, lectures and life-lessons. I think that's because, like Jo's unsensational but successful stories, "There is truth in it . . . humor and pathos make it alive."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pilgrims on the road

The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan

I bought this book at a library sale a couple of years ago for 50¢. I'd always meant to read it someday, because it is a classic of English literature, and because it plays such a big part in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, a book I've read probably twenty times (and am now re-reading). I was reminded of it again when I read Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, which is subtitled "The New Pilgrim's Progress."

From the Introduction, I learned that the author, John Bunyan, was a Nonconformist preacher in the north of England. He was imprisoned for twelve years, starting in 1660, for refusing to conform to the practices and teachings of the Church of England. He may have begun writing this work while in prison, though it was not published until 1678. After his release he continued to minister in Nonconformist churches, and to write on religious topics, but The Pilgrim's Progress remains his best-known work.

From Little Women, I knew that The Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory of the Christian life. The unnamed narrator dreams of a man named Christian, the pilgrim of the title, who meets with various adventures and perils as he makes his way to the Celestial City, "from This World to That Which Is to Come." Allegory isn't a literary form with which I am very familiar, though as I read this I was reminded of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. Many of the characters and places that Christian encounters I recognized from Alcott, such as the Slough of Despond in which new pilgrims often find themselves bogged down, the monster Apollyon who terrorizes pilgrims in the Valley of Humiliation, and the valiant Great-Heart who guides them safely through trials. I was particularly struck by the the town of Vanity Fair, which sits on the pilgrims' road, a place of great peril. William Thackery must have known it, "not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy" (his Vanity Fair has just moved to the top of the TBR pile).

I also recognized images taken from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, like the River of God on whose banks Christian finds rest, with the trees of every kind "that bore all manner of fruit, and the leaves of the trees were good for medicine" (cf Ezekiel 47). Bunyan constantly quotes and references the Scriptures, and the editors of this version helpfully included citations and explanatory notes. But I am sure that as someone born in the 20th century I missed many of the allusions and references that would have been obvious to Bunyan's readers in the 1680s. There are also constant discussions on theological matters between the various characters, in the form of dialogues, and I sometimes found the subtleties of the arguments difficult to follow, partly because I'm not familiar with 17th century Nonconformist theology.

At least there is no subtlety in the names, which makes it easy to tell the good characters from the bad. Christian sets off on his pilgrimage with Pliable and Obstinate, who soon desert him. He finds better companions in Faithful and Hopeful. Along the way they meet characters like Money-Love and Vain-Confidence, who seem destined for their bad ends - though at the end there is some hope for poor Ignorance, always lagging behind.

This book is worth reading for the language alone. I was reminded both of Shakespeare and of the King James Bible.

Then said Evangelist, "If this be thy condition, why standest thou still?" He answered him, "Because I know not where to go." Then he gave him a parchment roll, and there was written within, "Fly from the wrath to come."
The man therefore read it, and looking upon Evangelist very carefully, said, "Whither must I fly?" . . . Then said Evangelist, "Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto; so shalt thou see the gate, at which when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do."

At other times, I felt like I was listening in on the day to day speech of Bunyan's time. Instead of "have," his characters constantly say "she might a drawn me" or "I might a had," which sounds very modern (and American Southern) to me. There are constant references to bowels, as in "the children of my bowels," where I think we might say heart.

I did not realize until half-way through the book that it included two different works. The first is Christian's journey. There is a "Second Part," published six years later, which tells the story of Christian's family. In the first book, thinking Christian crazy, they remain behind in the City of Destruction as he sets off for the Celestial City. Later, as reports of his adventures and eventual triumph reach them, they feel called to follow him. So his wife Christiana and four sons set off on their own journey, in company with Mercy, a young townswoman. Where Christian has to fight his own battles and find his own way, Christiana and her party get guides and protectors, including the mighty warrior Great-Heart. Where his journey feels like a quest, theirs feels more domestic. Their instructions and advice are presented in homely metaphors, hens with chickens, spiders in their webs, birds seeking food. Along the way, the four sons are even married off. They bring their wives along on the pilgrim road, and soon grandchildren appear (some of which, bizarely, are left along the way with shepherds). I admit, I was expecting some diatribes about women's weaknesses and their tendency to draw men into sin, but while the pilgrims are taken to see Eve's apple in one house they visit, their host also "[speaks] on the behalf of women, to take away their reproach," talking about the holy women of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. That was unexpected, and refreshing.

This book turned out to be more interesting than I expected, and I am very glad that I read it, even if some of its meaning escaped me.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Classics Challenge: July and lasting impressions

For the July round of her Classics Challenge, Katherine at November's Autumn asks us to recall the lasting impressions that classic works have left on us, and to look that what we have read this year: "What is a moment, quote, or character that you feel will stay with you? Years from now, when some of the details have faded, that lasting impression the book has left you with... what is it? --or why did it fail to leave an impression?"

The character who has stayed with me most vividly is from the very first book that I posted about for this challenge, back in January: Philip Morville from Charlotte M. Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe. I found him one of the most insufferable characters that I have ever come across in all my years of reading. He quite easily could have been a hero: a gentleman, handsome, gifted, intelligent and well-educated, with strong principles. He has many virtues, but they are outweighed by his pride and sense of superiority, which lead him to lecture and patronize even his elders. Yet Philip is also a disappointed man, destined for university and a gentleman's life, but left at his father's death without resources. Much against his inclination he has had to make his career in the army instead. This disappointment makes him resent his cousin Guy Morville, the heir of the title, who holds wealth and a title that Philip sometimes covets. Occasionally he seems to recognize in himself a fault or a weakness, and his usual reaction is to point the finger at someone else, often Guy, his most frequent target.

Philip had been used to feel men's wills and characters bend and give way beneath his superior force of mind. They might, like Charles, chafe and rage, but his calmness always gave him the ascendant almost without exertion, and few people had ever come into contact with him without a certain submission of will or opinion. With Guy alone it was not so; he had been sensible of it once or twice before; he had no mastery, and could no more bend that spirit than a bar of steel. This he could not bear, for it obliged him to be continually making efforts to preserve his own sense of superiority.

I had to make my own continual effort to remember that Philip was a fictional character, so immensely did he irk me. I enjoyed the ways that other characters in the book, who found him just as irritating, would bait and challenge him. I also enjoyed watching his story play out. Based on his eventual fate, I doubt that he was Charlotte Yonge's favorite character either.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Murder on the moat

When Maidens Mourn, C.S. Harris

I really enjoy C.S. Harris' series of Regency mysteries, centered around Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, of which this is the seventh. For me her books work both as mysteries and as historical fiction, which not all authors can pull off, particularly in writing about the Regency. Like Dorothy Dunnett, she has created a hero with unusual abilities, a military and intelligence background, and a tangled family history that he is trying to unravel. And Devlin has married into an equally complicated family situation. He has clashed repeatedly with his father-in-law, the ruthless Lord Jarvis, the Prince Regent's cousin and the power behind his slightly wobbly throne, and Jarvis has tried more than once to eliminate him.

This book opens just four days after Devlin's sudden marriage to Hero Jarvis. Their relationship is, yes, a complex one. Hero is an intelligent young woman, interested in history and the new science of archeology, as well as social causes and women's issues. She has worked with Sebastian on some of his previous cases, over her father's objections. Like Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, they will find their first days of married life overshadowed with murder, but in the course of the case they too will find a balance and a partnership.

The victim is Hero's friend Gabrielle Tennyson. Sharing Hero's interest in history and archaeology, she had been consulting on the excavation of a site called Camlet Moat on an estate, Trent Place, north of London. The estate's owner, Sir Stanley Winthrop, believes that Camlet, a corruption of Camelot, may be the ruins of the real King Arthur's court. Then Gabrielle's body is discovered floating in a boat; she has been stabbed. And the two young cousins, George and Alfred, who were staying with her, have disappeared. (I didn't immediately connect "Alfred" and "Tennyson," but once it clicked I resorted to Google to learn more about the family.) As Sebastian and Hero begin to investigate, they discover more than one motive for murder: rumors of buried treasure on the site, academic disputes about its authenticity, and family secrets. There are even shadowy figures using the Arthurian legend to challenge the House of Hanover and its sybaritic Prince Regent, which draws in Lord Jarvis.

The mystery of Gabrielle's death is an interesting one. The investigation plays out against the deepening relationship between Sebastian and Hero, and it also reveals yet another twist in his family's history. Only the case comes to a neat conclusion (and one firmly grounded in history). While they seem to have found a tenative balance in their marriage, what they have learned about Sebastian's family could destroy their lives. I will be very interested to see what the next book brings.

My only historical quibble is that the Tennysons' cook makes oatmeal raisin cookies for the young boys. I know oatcakes have been around for centuries, as have all kinds of sweet biscuits, but it seems a little early for these. I found a reference to a recipe from 1896, though C.S. Harris, like Georgette Heyer a careful researcher, may have come across something earlier in her sources.