Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Invisible women

Calling Invisible Women, Jeanne Ray

I have loved Jeanne Ray's novels since I read her first, Julie and Romeo, published back in 2000. She is the mother of novelist Ann Patchett, so clearly there are some good story-telling genes in that family. Her books are rooted in family life, often in the bonds (sometimes strained) between generations, shifting between comedy and drama. They are told in the first person, in a comfortable, matter-of-fact, rather wry tone that draws me at least immediately into the story. Julie and Romeo is about the older couple of the title finding love again, in the midst of a long-standing feud between their families, whose children are appalled by their fraternizing with the enemy. In Step-Ball-Change Caroline (who runs a dance studio not quite as whimsical as the one on Bunheads) and her husband Tom cope with a daughter's impending mega-wedding and the sudden arrival of her sister, whose own marriage is collapsing around her husband's infidelity. My favorite of her books is Eat Cake, whose heroine Ruth bakes her way through the complications of life with her teen-age daughter, her elderly mother, and her suddenly unemployed husband Sam, not to mention the arrival of her estranged father, who needs a place to recuperate after an accident. When Sam is unable to find work again immediately, Ruth's therapy becomes a source of income, one that draws the family together around cake. Every time I read this book, I end up baking a cake, though I haven't yet tried the recipes included at the end.

I had no idea that Jeanne Ray had just published another book, so it was a lovely surprise to come across this in the new book bins at the library last Saturday. Here she takes the kind of domestic setting that she does so well in a completely different direction. Clover Hobart is 54 years old, married to Arthur, a pediatrician and the mother of Nick (now living at home after losing his job) and Evie, a college student. A reporter for many years, Clover has also in a sense lost her job with reductions in the local newspaper where she works; she now writes a gardening column and the occasional book review.

One day, standing in the bathroom brushing her teeth, Clover notices that she has become invisible. It isn't a trick of the light, it isn't her mind playing tricks on her, it's not a metaphor: she is invisible. Her body is still there, she is still there, she just can't be seen. She discovers very quickly that if she puts clothes on, and acts normally, most people will simply ignore her missing head and hands: they will not see. The doctor she consults not only doesn't see, he also doesn't hear what she is trying to tell him (a situation a lot of visible people face every day; I certainly have). Neither her husband or her son notice anything different, though her best friend Gilda and her mother-in-law Irene both do.

It naturally takes Clover some time to adjust to this momentous change, and to her family's cluelessness. One day she sees an ad in her local paper, "Calling Invisible Women" to a meeting at a downtown hotel. There she finds that she is far from the only invisible woman. She also learns the probable cause of her condition (let's just say it's a medication issue involving a Big Pharma company, Dexter-White). With this support group, just with the knowledge that she is not alone, Clover begins to explore the advantages of her invisibility, while also coping with its disadvantages. As she meets more and more invisible women, and learns more about Dexter-White, Clover finds herself back reporting again, covering a crusade that she is also helping to lead.

I had no trouble accepting the premise of this book, because with Clover, Jeanne Ray has again created an appealing narrator who drew me right into her story. And it's a fun story, its message presented with a light touch. The ending may feel a little rushed, but it is nevertheless a satisfying one. I'll be very interested to see what Jeanne Ray writes next.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Cheating death

Cryoburn, Lois McMaster Bujold

This is the 13th book in Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, which I've seen referred to as "space opera." Set in the future, the books are centered on the Earth-settled world of Barrayar, where the great families of the Vor class have ruled for centuries in a medieval-style hierarchy headed by the Emperor. The Vorkosigans are the highest of high Vor, so closely related to the imperial Vorbarra family in this generation that its sons stand next in line for the throne. But the youngest member of the family, Miles, is far from a typical Vor lordling. His mother Cordelia (an immigrant from a very different world called Beta and a clear-eyed critic of Barrayar) suffered a chemical warfare attack while she was carrying him, and Miles was born with physical deformities that on Barrayar, even in this modern day, lead to infanticide. He eventually left the constrictions of his home planet for a wild career as a space mercenary, while working undercover to protect its interest through Imperial Security (the dreaded ImpSec). In the later books, Miles returned to Barrayar, to his role as heir to his father Aral, Count Vorkosigan, and to make his own place in his home world.

Lois Bujold dedicated one of the later Miles books to "Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy" - as in Austen, Bronte, Heyer, and Sayers - and their influence is clear in her writing. She creates indelible characters, people with emotional and psychological complexity, and embroils them in multi-layered stories, some set on space stations, others on worlds with echoes of our own. She writes marvelous dialogue that can dance like the best screwball comedies, or lay bare someone's soul. Miles, and even more his parents Cordelia and Aral, are among my absolute favorite literary characters, on a par with Elizabeth Bennet and Peter Wimsey, Francis Crawford of Lymond and Freddy Standen.

Normally, I buy Lois Bujold's books in hardback, as soon as they come out (this fall we will finally get a book about Miles' cousin Ivan Vorpatril, who like a secondary Heyer hero has played the carefree aristocratic bachelor for many years, hiding his lights under the proverbial basket for too long). But Cryoburn came out in 2010. I finally bought a copy last year, and have only now read it for the first time. I put off reading this book, I confess, because it brings the death of one character in the saga, whose end has been foreshadowed but to which I was not resigned. What finally motivated me to read it is the Dorothy Dunnett-Lois Bujold crossover listserv I belong to, which has been reading through the saga for the past several months. Now I can follow the discussions without fear of further spoilers.

Cryoburn is set on the planet Kibou-daini, whose main industry is cryonics. The technical problems of freezing and reviving people have largely been solved by the research & development departments of the large corporations, or "cryocorps," which dominate this world. Most of its population chooses to become cryocorpses themselves, hoping for revival in a future where whatever medical condition they face, even old age, will have been resolved. Miles Vorkosigan has been sent to a cryonics conference on Kibou because one of the corporations is planning an expansion on Komarr, the second planet in the Barrayaran empire. Miles is now an Imperial Auditor, one of a select group assigned by the Emperor to investigate or trouble-shoot across the Empire, acting in his name and with imperial authority - a position tailor-made for Miles, who shares with Peter Wimsey an insatiable curiosity.

When he is kidnapped from the conference, and then meets a young boy whose mother, an activist working against the corps, has been frozen against her will, Miles follows the trail into the depths of the cryocombs. What he discovers there resonates on some level with the corporations of today. And as he investigates the different cryo-corporations, and meets their future customers, Bujold explores what it means to face the end of life, with the option to cheat death. What would it be like to return to life 80 or 100 years later, physically healed but out of your own time? She has a lot of fun with the cryocorps, each striving to attract more customers than their rivals, through marketing and branding. My favorite is NewEgypt, where the frozen customers pass through gates guarded by giant statues of Anubis, to rest in pyramids.

Though this book is about death, or about a frozen state of almost-death, it is never morbid. It couldn't be, with Miles in full Auditor mode. There is also an excellent supporting cast, some old friends from previous books. It is always great fun watching people meet Miles for the first time, particularly his fellow Barrayarans. Lois Bujold has gone on to write two other series, the Chalion books, set in a medieval-Renaissance world with echoes of our own, and a remarkable theology; and the "Sharing Knife" series, set in a world that resembles North America, peopled with Lakewalkers, who have mystic powers and Farmers, who don't and who distrust those who do. I love the Chalion books, and I enjoyed the later Knife books, but I would trade them all for more Vorkosigan stories. At least I only have to wait til November for Ivan's adventures.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In the bar at the Angler's Rest

Mr Mulliner Speaking, P.G. Wodehouse

Thinking about this book, I realized that P.G. Wodehouse, a master storyteller, wrote a lot of stories about storytellers. Does that count as metafiction? The ones set in the Drones Club consist of members recounting the various adventures that have befallen their fellow Eggs, Beans and Crumpets (the title of one such collection). Bertie Wooster often narrates his own adventures, and he occasionally acknowledges his audience: "I don't know if you were among the gang that followed the narrative of my earlier adventures with Gussie Fink-Nottle - " (The Code of the Woosters).

And then there are Wodehouse's two supreme raconteurs, the Oldest Member of the golf stories, and Mr Mulliner, the star of this book and two others. Where the Oldest Member spends his time in the clubhouse and out on the links, Mr Mulliner can usually be found of an evening in the bar-parlour of the Angler's Rest, a glass of hot Scotch and lemon before him. Inevitably, as the conversation flows, he is reminded of a story, most of which involve his nephews and nieces (given the number of these stories, his must be a very extended family). Like the Oldest Member's, the stories are often about young men in love and the difficulties of courtship. In the Mulliner family, the course of true love rarely runs smooth, at least at first. For a change, three of the stories here are about Mr Mulliner's niece Roberta Wickham, who "like so many spirited girls of today . . . is inclined to treat her suitors badly."

Unlike the Oldest Member, whose audience often tries to escape when they feel a story coming on, Mr Mulliner's stories are always welcome. Or almost always - ironically, in this book, he comes across two golfers in the bar, to whom he tells the golfing story of "Those in Peril on the Tee," ignoring their efforts to evade him (the title of that story makes me giggle every time I think of it).

There is just so much fun to be found in Wodehouse, and in such variety. Both "Those in Peril on the Tee" and "The Long Hole" (in The Clicking of Cuthbert) are about a golf match, the outcome of which will decide whom a particular young lady will marry. Wodehouse takes the same setting in two completely different directions, and both in their own way are very funny (I still think "The Long Hole" is the best Wodehouse story ever). I'll just leave you with a quote from the first story in this collection, "The Reverent Wooing of Archibald":

People who enjoyed a merely superficial acquaintance with my nephew Archibald (said Mr Mulliner) were accustomed to set him down as just an ordinary pin-headed young man. It was only when they came to know him better that they discovered their mistake. Then they realized that his pin-headedness, so far from being ordinary, was exceptional. Even at the Drones Club, where the average of intellect is not high, it was often said of Archibald that, had his brains been constructed of silk, he would have been hard put to it to find sufficient material to make a canary a pair of cami-knickers.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Rediscovering Barbara Pym

Excellent Women, Barbara Pym

Many years ago I read several of Barbara Pym's novels - at this point I couldn't even tell you which ones. What I do remember is that I thought them clever but superficial, a little dreary, and in the end not really the kind of books that I wanted to read. Lately though I've been seeing posts about her books, like Anbolyn's on Gudrun's Tights, which made me think it was time to try them again. Perhaps I had been too quick to dismiss them, or maybe I would read them very differently all these years later. When I found copies of Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings at Half Price Books, it seemed like book fate.

The first time I started Excellent Women, I didn't take to it immediately, in fact I set it aside and went on to read other things. But when I came back to it, this time I was very quickly caught up in the story of Mildred Lathbury, one of the excellent women of the title and its narrator. She lives by herself in a flat in a quiet part of London, where she moved after the death of her parents. A clergyman's daughter, she is used to coping with the events of life, large and small. With a comfortable income, she does not need to work, but she has a part-time job with an organization that helps distressed gentlewomen. She gives much of her spare time to her parish, St Mary's, where she is friends with the vicar Julian Malory and his sister Winifred, who keeps house for him.

As the story opens, it is shortly after the end of the Second World War, and new neighbors are moving into the flat below Mildred's. She meets first Helena Napier, whose husband Rockingham is still in the Navy. Helena announces that she is an anthropologist, at work on an important project. She is not even there the night that Rockingham Napier arrives at their flat, and it is Mildred who welcomes him to his new home. With Helena caught up in her work, and in her colleague Everard Bone, her husband, handsome and charming, makes Mildred his confidant, turning to her for tea and sympathy. In time both Helena and Everard do as well. The arrival of the Napiers disrupts her quiet life, with its familiar rounds of work and church, evenings with the Malorys and church festivals, in ways sometimes exciting, sometimes troubling.

I found Mildred an interesting and sympathetic character, in part of course because she is telling her story. She gives us not just the events, but her own thoughts and feelings, even the negative ones. She has made herself a comfortable life on her own terms, and if it isn't precisely her ideal life, she doesn't spend a lot of time repining. She would like to be married, but she isn't willing to marry just for the sake of marriage, and she seems to see clearly the faults and foibles of the various men she meets, though she is equally honest about her own. She has more patience than I would in listening to people talk about themselves and in making them cups of tea or little meals - and she really listens, with interest and sympathy, which is rarer than people realize. Like most good listeners, however, she sometimes has a hard time making herself heard.

I've often seen Barbara Pym compared to Jane Austen, and I can certainly see why with this book. Though it is set in London, it is really about a small community within the city, centered in the neighborhood and around the parish. There are the different levels of their society, which can meet over decorating the church or a jumble sale, but not mix. There are the disruptions to that community that come with new arrivals, like an alluring widow who moves into a flat in the vicarage, and there is the communal interest in news, particularly in matrimonial prospects. Unlike Austen's heroines, of course, Mildred lives on her own and has a job, even if it is only part-time. She used to share the flat with a friend, who has recently moved out to take a job teaching, and she very much enjoys her freedom and her space - something I understand very well! Again unlike Jane Austen, Pym gives us a rather ambiguous ending. I think she is suggesting that Mildred may indeed marry, though with the two prospects she has in view, I would still vote for the quiet flat on my own. I was left wanting to know more, what happened next. But if I can't have more of Mildred's story, I have Barbara Pym's other books to look forward to.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A tale of two Rudolfs

The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope

I have lost my heart to Rudolf Rassendyll.

Ever since I saw part of the 1937 film on TV some months ago, the one starring Ronald Colman, I've been wanting to read this book. I guess I was just in the mood for swashbuckling adventure and High Romance, and nothing could be better for that than The Prisoner of Zenda. Originally published in 1894, according to my Oxford World's Classics edition, it put the fictional Central European country of Ruritania on our collective cultural map, and "It set the style of romantic adventure novels for at least thirty years after its publication." Or perhaps even longer; Wesley and Buttercup, Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen, and of course Inigo Montoya would have felt right at home in Ruritania.

I won't go into too much detail about the plot, which I'm sure is familiar to many people either from the book or the various film versions (there was also apparently a musical version at one point). Unlike the version I saw, though, the book introduces us to Rudolf in his family circle, at breakfast with his sister-in-law Rose, Lady Burlesdon. She objects to his idle life as a younger son with an independent income, alluding to an undesirable strain in the family. Rudolf then explains to us that both his red hair and prominent nose are reminders of a family scandal. In the reign of King George II, a prince of Ruritania named Rudolf, whose red hair and prominent nose marked him as an Elphberg of the Royal House of Ruritania, spent several months in England. His visit ended rather abruptly after he fought a duel with the 5th Lord Burleson, whose countess later bore a son with red hair and a prominent nose. Ever since then, the hair and the nose show themselves regularly in the Rassendyll family. But our Rudolf doesn't yet know how much he resembles the Elphberg who now holds the throne, who also shares his name.

On a whim, our Rudolf decides to visit Ruritania, where preparations for the coronation of the king are being rushed to completion. There are rumblings against His Majesty, from those who would prefer to see his half-brother Michael crowned in his place. Michael, the Duke of Streslau, is the son of a morganatic marriage, and thus not of the Blood Royal, a point underlined by his black hair. Yet his popularity - or his intrigues - could carry him to the throne, and marriage with their cousin the Princess Flavia would strengthen his hold on it. Our Rudolf, wandering around the countryside around the Duke's demesne of Zenda the day before the coronation, tumbles headlong into the intrigues. He finds himself constrained to play a part in them, in the course of which he proves himself a perfect knight and "the finest Elphberg of them all." Along the way, we get "Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge . . . chases, escapes, true love, miracles," though sadly no Rodents of Unusual Size (unless you count Michael and his henchmen).

I do have a soft spot for one of those henchman, the wickedly impudent Rupert of Hentzau. At one point our Rudolf tells him, "Surely, while you're above ground, hell wants its master!" I am already looking forward to the sequel, named after this hellion. However, I am thinking of writing a strongly-worded letter of complaint to Tony Watkins, who edited my OWC version, for giving away the entire plot of Rupert of Hentzau in his introduction - without even a spoiler warning. (He could take a lesson from the editor of my Penguin Vanity Fair, who suggested reading his introduction as an afterword, to avoid learning too much about the story.) In addition to Rupert, I've found The Heart of Princess Osra via Google Books, and I'm looking forward to spending more time in Ruritania.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen

A Governess in the Age of Jane Austen, Joanna Martin, ed.

The subtitle of this book is "The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter." Porter, who was born around 1750, was the eldest daughter of Rev. Francis and Elizabeth Porter. Her father came from a family of tradesmen, and he himself was apprenticed to a woollen-draper. It isn't clear where he acquired the education and connections necessary for ordination in the Anglican Church, but he certainly had no generous patron to present him with a rich living, like Edward Ferrars had Colonel Brandon. The family was never well-off, and his death in 1782 left his widow and three daughters with almost nothing to live on, and no dowries for the girls. After Jane Austen's father died, her brothers all contributed to the support of their mother and sisters. Those with no brothers or close male kin, like Agnes Porter (or Becky Sharp for that matter), could find themselves in dire straits. A position as a governess in a "good" family was of course one of the few employments open to genteel but poor women that would not cost them their already-precarious social standing. Many governesses were, again like Porter, daughters of the clergy, members of large families living on small incomes, which died with their fathers.

Agnes Porter took up a position as governess in the family of the Earl of Ilchester in 1784. At the time there were four children, all daughters. Two more daughters and a son would be born before Lady Ilchester's death in 1790. In 1794 Lord Ilchester married again, and Porter found his new, much-younger wife somewhat difficult to get along with. When a family friend offered her a place as a companion (another respectable employment), she decided to leave the family she had served so long. The proverbial straw seems to have been when she learned that she would not have her own private parlour on the family's annual visit to London - a loss of social status in the family and among the servants that she took very seriously.

Just two years later, however, she was back with a branch of the Ilchester family. The second daughter, Lady Mary, had married and settled with her husband, Thomas Mansel Talbot, at his home, Penrice Castle on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales (this is the ancestral home of the book's editor, Joanna Martin). Lady Mary invited her old governess in turn to take over the education of her own children. Agnes Porter would spend much of the next fourteen years with the family on their estate a few miles from Swansea. Eventually she retired from the family to live first with her married sister and then independently in lodgings before her death in 1814.

Joanna Martin says on the first page of this book that

I first met Agnes Porter twenty-five years ago in one of the attics of Penrice Castle, my family home . . . [which] has never been sold. This means that nobody has ever thrown away the miscellaneous debris of family life, and I grew up surrounded by the books, sketches, photographs and other possessions of past inhabitants. I would open a drawer in the old nurseries and find a half-finished piece of sewing, which had been put away and forgotten almost two hundred years before. In the next drawer I might find a packet of tissue-paper, containing locks of hair . . .

I was green with envy at that point - to be able to rummage at will through the miscellany of all those lives, through the generations of one's own family. And then the next sentences captivated the archivist in me:

In the attics I also found bundle after bundle of letters, and boxes full of old diaries and pocket books. Amongst these were the journals and letters of Agnes Porter.

In her excellent introduction, Martin explains that these letters and the journals, bound into volumes, remained in the family's hands at Penrice Castle. She notes that they were read and treasured in the family, with different members adding explanatory notes over the years. Martin uses the introduction to provide brief biographies of Agnes Porter and the Ilchester family. She also presents a wealth of information about women and education in the Georgian period, which saw a governess become a status symbol for the rising middle and professional classes. The daughters of those families, who in previous years would have been sent to schools, were now educated at home. Martin looks at theories of education, which were heavily influenced by how gender roles in society were perceived. Both Agnes Porter and her pupil/employer Lady Mary Talbot were very interested in the latest educational theories, if not in changing the place of women in society, and they put many of them into practice in Penrice. Martin also looks at the place of governesses in society, noting the ambiguities and varied experiences. Porter was treated more like a family member than a servant by the first Lady Ilchester and by her daughter Lady Mary, like Anna Taylor among the Wodehouses in Emma, but she lost that status with the second Lady Ilchester.

Martin presents the letters and the journals in chronological order, starting in 1788. There are many gaps, and no one year is complete. Many of the journal entries are single lines, often something like "We spent the day as usual." There are however frequent notes of social events, drinking tea and playing cards (a point of contention with her brother-in-law, a clergyman). What really surprised me was how much Agnes Porter travelled. She went up to London with her pupils almost every year, where she went frequently to the theater and stayed with her own friends. But she also took extended vacations to visit relations and friends, often absent from her post for months at a time. She seems to have received a generous salary, as well as presents from her employers, some of which she invested in the famous "Funds," and some of which she spent on travel. Unlike Jane Austen, who had to be escorted everywhere by male relations, Porter travelled by herself, on the stage or even in a hired chaise. I'm not sure if it was her age or her position as a governess that made this acceptable.

In the journal entries, Agnes Porter often reminded herself of all the benefits that she enjoyed, as she sometimes struggled with disappointment and fears for the future, when she could no longer work. The journal and the letters are full of her affection for her pupils of both generations, particularly Lady Mary. Her letters sometimes reminded me of Jane Austen's, in her reports of social events or her accounts of her fellow travellers. She described one evening gathering in 1803:

With a large card party at Mrs Vilett's - a little music, a deal of chat, with a tincture of scandal. Lady Meredith was talked of for being turned out of the Rooms at Bath by the Master of the Ceremonies for having no sleeves to her cloaths - the naked elbow appears every where with impunity, but the arm above it is not tolerated as yet.

Porter loved to receive letters, and she sometimes scolded her pupils for neglecting her. She told Lady Mary, "A letter to a friend seems to me simply this: giving them an hour of your company, notwithstanding whatever distance separates you." Though almost 200 years separate me from Agnes Porter, I enjoyed the hours spent in her company. I am grateful for Joanna Martin's careful editing and publication of these letters and journals, which do indeed bring to life a governess in Jane Austen's time.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A trove of Trollope

I was having dinner with friends last night, and I went early so that I could stop by the Half Price Books near their house, which I rarely get to visit. I was rewarded with more Trollope novels than I have seen anywhere outside the Oxford University Press bookshop (where I ravaged the Trollope shelves on my last visit to England). In the hardcover section at HPB, there were the Palliser novels, in the uniform OUP edition, which I've been tempted to get. But I was distracted by a collection of his Christmas stories, published by the Trollope Society. This I couldn't resist, though I already have them all in two volumes of his short stories (Early & Late). Sometime over Christmas I plan to sit down with a cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake to read them in their proper season - his somewhat Grinchy attitude toward the holidays might balance out both holiday stress and holiday schmaltz.

It was in the paperback section of the store that I really scored, though. I could hardly believe my eyes: an entire shelf of fat Oxford World's Classics paperbacks, including a title I didn't even recognize. I picked up Castle Richmond, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, An Old Man's Love, and Mr. Scarborough's Family. These include his first and his last novels. I've seen his early Irish novels described as "pedestrian," and I know that many consider his last novels weak, but I am still interested to read them. I left Rachel Ray, Lady Anna and Dr. Whortle's School on the shelves with some reluctance, even though I already have copies.

As if these weren't riches enough, I also found William Makepeace Thackeray's Pendennis, in the exact OWC edition that I've been looking for; Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond; and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's The Turkish Embassy Letters. I had found the Montagu book at another HPB, but that copy was too badly marked up and I reluctantly put it back on the shelves, so I feel very fortunate to have found such a good copy.

When I staggered up to the counter with my leaning tower of books, the very young clerk asked, "Are you getting all of these?" I told her yes, thinking that a strange question from someone working in a bookstore!

And then to cap all the bookish goodness, in yesterday's mail I received the copy of Noblesse Oblige, edited by Nancy Mitford, which Karyn at A Penguin a week was kind enough to send me.

After the TBR Double-dare, I've been trying to be more mindful about buying books, and to read them as I acquire them, rather than letting them linger on the shelves for years. My dad used to tell us that "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," and at this point, there's probably one of those road-side signs marking my stretch of that particular highway ("Sponsored by Lisa's book resolutions"). I know I won't get through all those Trollopes this year, let alone the ones I already had, but I am so pleased to have found them.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Classics Challenge: August and a little more Thackeray

For this month's round of her Classics Challenge, Katherine at November's Autumn asks us to post a memorable quote or two from our current classic. I'm still caught in the thrall of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which I posted about yesterday, and when I read her prompt one quote, one scene, came immediately to mind. I'm going to redact names, to avoid spoilers.

"It is not that speech of yesterday," he continued, "which moves you. That is but the pretext, X, or I have loved you and watched you for fifteen years in vain. Have I not learned in that time to read all your feelings and look into your thoughts? I know what your heart is capable of: it can cling faithfully to a recollection and cherish a fancy, but it can't feel such an attachment as mine deserves to mate with, and such as I would have won from a woman more generous than you. No, you are not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you. I knew all along that the prize I had set my life on was not worth the winning; that I was a fool, with fond fancies, too, bartering away my all of truth and ardour against your feeble little remnant of love. I will bargain no more: I withdraw. I find no fault with you. You are very good-natured, and have done your best, but you couldn't - you couldn't reach up to the height of the attachment which I bore you, and which a loftier soul than yours might have been proud to share. Good-bye, X! I have watched your struggle. Let it end. We are both weary of it."

"A woman more generous than you" - "I will bargain no more" - "Let it end. We are both weary of it." I thought there was true, genuine emotion in those words - even before I learned that this scene may have echoed one in Thackeray's own life.

A second quote, from the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo:

No more firing was heard at Brussels - the pursuit rolled miles away. Darkness came down on the field and city: and Y was praying for Z, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.

John Carey, who edited the Penguin edition that I read, calls this "the most shattering sentence in English literature . . . Nothing has prepared us for this. To remove [Z] so casually, in a mere subordinate clause, was unprecedented - sudden, callous, unreasonable and shocking, like real death." Reading his words, I felt rather callous myself, because I didn't find the sentence or Z's fate itself all that shattering, knowing how many died on both sides at Waterloo. But perhaps it's also partly from my own reaction to the character.

I'm tempted to quote some of Thackeray's confidential asides to his readers, but I'll restrain myself just to the last line: "Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out." It takes us back to the start of the book, when he addresses us "Before the Curtain," as "the Manager of the Performance."

Sunday, August 5, 2012

My introduction to William Thackeray

Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray

I have spent the last couple of weeks in Vanity Fair. How have I never read this book before? I bought a copy years ago, probably under some resolution to read more classics, and it has been sitting on the TBR stacks ever since (I've moved it at least twice to new apartments). I knew nothing about Thackeray at the time I bought it. I really became aware of him through Anthony Trollope. Early in his Autobiography Trollope writes,

I had already made up my mind that Pride and Prejudice was the best novel in the English language, - a palm which I only partially withdrew after a second reading of Ivanhoe, and did not completely bestow elsewhere till [Henry] Esmond was written.

I had never heard of Henry Esmond, nor did I know it is one of Thackeray's books. I take leave to doubt it is better than Pride and Prejudice (and I'd never rate Ivanhoe that highly), but I'm curious to read it, to see what Trollope might have seen in it. Later in his autobiography, he rates Thackeray first among the "English novelists of the present day" in the chapter of that title, discussing him at some length and noting faults as well as strengths (by the time he wrote, Thackeray had been dead for many years). From reading about Trollope I know that he loved and admired Thackeray, though their relationship had its difficulties.

Even more than Trollope, though, it was John Bunyan who led me finally to read Thackeray, because in The Pilgrim's Progress I found the original Vanity Fair. It is a city on the pilgrims' road, a terrible place of vice and temptation and trial, where Christian's companion Faithful is martyred. Louisa May Alcott uses it as a title for the chapter in Little Women where Meg spends a week with the worldly Moffats, whose luxurious and idle lives make her dissatisfied with her own hard-working one. Unlike Bunyan, Thackeray is not writing a spiritual work, though like Alcott he is a moralist.

When I sat down with Thackeray's Vanity Fair, I knew that it was about Becky Sharp, who is something of an adventuress, and I was expecting a book along the lines of a Victorian Moll Flanders. This book was nothing that I expected, and I was constantly surprised and delighted by it. I think the surprise and sense of discovery came in part because I had never read Thackeray before; with a new author, you don't know what he might do, how far you can trust her. Will he play fair? Is she the kind who will kill off a major character, just when you've gotten attached to her?

My first surprise was that, as entertaining as Becky Sharp's story is, this isn't just her story. Thackeray has a large cast of characters, and like Trollope he moves back and forth between them, following different plot lines. His cast spans all levels of society, including the rising merchant class, the army, and many servants. According to the introduction of my Penguin edition, he is considered a pioneer in the "Realism" school (to which Trollope also belongs), in part because of his inclusiveness. Thackeray explores the place of women in Victorian society, particularly through Becky Sharp and the other main female character, her friend Amelia Sedley, but also through others like the rich and unmarried Miss Crawley and her impoverished companion Miss Briggs. Ambition and greed condemn some women to unhappy marriages, yet he also shows the difficulties unmarried women face, particularly those without financial resources of their own.

The subtitle of this book is "A Novel Without a Hero," which is patently false. There is no mistaking the hero of this novel, even if he is presented unheroically, as ugly and ungainly, always tripping over his own large feet, afflicted with a lisp (I kept picturing Abraham Lincoln). Thackeray laughs at his hero, but then none of his characters is safe from his satirical eye. All of them are flawed, in very human ways, and their flaws are mercilessly exposed, from highest to lowest. Early in the book, he writes,

And, as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce them, but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love them and shake them by the hand: if they are silly, to laugh at them confidentially in the reader's sleeve: if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.

Certainly he "steps down from the platform," he comments freely on his characters and laughs up his sleeve at them, inviting our laughter in turn. Even more than Trollope, his narrative voice is warm and confidential, and he frequently stops the action to address the reader (as in the quote above). Unlike Trollope, though, he has only one character that I think is truly "good and kindly"; the rest are presented as silly at best, if not wicked and heartless. They aren't monsters, I thought them very real and very human, but with a couple of exceptions all are motivated primarily by self-interest. Thackeray doesn't seem to care for his characters as Trollope does, and so while I was interested in them, and concerned about what happened to them, I didn't feel the same connection that I sometimes do, with Trollope.

My second surprise was the setting and scope of this book, including its large and varied cast. I was expecting a Victorian story, but Vanity Fair opens during the Regency, its action spanning fifteen years. I found myself thinking of Georgette Heyer, particularly in a chapter set at Vauxhall. Through two families of merchants, the Osbournes and the Sedleys, Thackeray tracks economic changes, including the India trade. He is also very interested in how people of limited means maintain themselves, particuarly those in the upper levels of society (or who aspire to those levels). Two of the main characters are in the Army, and eventually the story takes us to Belgium and the Battle of Waterloo. Thackeray proclaims that he is not a military historian, so we stay behind, in Brussels, watching the great events unfold amidst the crowd of British civilians who followed the army to Belgium. (According to the Penguin introduction, this section of the book had a major influence on Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.) Later, several characters take an extended tour of Europe, spending some time in the German Duchy of Pumpernickel - an affectionate tribute to Weimar, where Thackeray himself lived for several months. While he of course presents a comic portrait of English expatriates, it is also an interesting picture of life in Germany, before the tensions that later arose between the two countries.

From the little I have read about Thackeray, there seems to be a consensus that Vanity Fair is by far the best of his novels (Trollope may be alone in his appreciation of Henry Esmond). If that's so, I can't be sorry that I started with the best, and I am looking forward to reading more of his work.