Monday, October 29, 2012

Down the Floss

The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot

I received this book last year from an anniversary giveaway at Shelf Love, which was such a thrill.  I was fairly new to blogging then, still a little hesitant about commenting, let alone registering for a free book.  At the time, I had not read any George Eliot, though I had read about her in Anthony Trollope's Autobiography, where he rated her very highly among his contemporaries.  Then I came across an article in The New Yorker that judged her a greater writer than Jane Austen, which raised all my Janeite defenses.  Determined to read Eliot, I started with Middlemarch, long on the TBR piles, but I gave up after three chapters.  I turned instead to Silas Marner, which I found a challenging but rewarding book.

Lately The Mill on the Floss seems to be turning up everywhere.  Cat at Tell Me a Story, Jane at Fleur Fisher, and Katherine at November's Autumn are among those who have posted on it recently.  I was also intrigued by a comment I read on William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, to the effect that Thackeray (an only child) couldn't write convincing brothers and sisters, especially compared with the warm and complex sibling relationship that Eliot created in Tom and Maggie Tulliver.

I had only skimmed the reviews that I came across, not wanting to know too much about the plot.  And I'm not going to say much about the plot here, either because it is already familiar to most people, or to avoid spoilers for those who have yet to discover it.  So just some general thoughts on the book:

Having struggled with Middlemarch and Silas Marner, I was pleasantly surprised at how easily I fell into reading this.  Perhaps because it is one of her earlier books, what the editor A.S. Byatt calls "the first stage of [her] work as an artist," the language felt much less baroque.  And then that opening chapter just flows, with the description first of St Ogg to the Floss and the Ripple, leading up to Dorlcote Mill, and that small figure in the beaver bonnet mesmerized by "the unresting wheel sending out its diamond jets of water."  By the end of that chapter, I wanted to know more about the place and the people, particularly the little girl.

Maggie Tulliver is such a fascinating character, one that apparently draws heavily on Eliot's own life.  I haven't discovered yet if Louisa May Alcott read Eliot's books, but surely Jo March owes something to Maggie, in her struggle for independence, for self-control, in the hunger of her mind and heart, in her attempts to be faithful to her duty and in her self-sacrifice, though the arc and ending of their stories could not be more different.  More than once Eliot describes Maggie in terms of "opposing elements, of which a fierce collision is immanent."  My own heart went out to Maggie, so hungry for love, so misunderstood, drawing only criticism and blame, compared so unfavorably with her angelic blonde cousin Lucy.  How could she not react with mischief and outbursts?  At least Jo had her parents' guidance and her sisters' love.  Poor Maggie has only her father, with his care for "the little wench." Against that, she has the range of her mother's sisters, the Dodson side of the family - great chacters so wonderfully drawn.  I particularly enjoyed Aunt Pullet, that watering-pot and hypochondriac, a spiritual twin of Aunt Myra in Alcott's Eight Cousins.

And then there is Tom.  I found him sadly lacking as a brother, though in her introduction Byatt argues that many readers are too attached to Maggie and don't judge Tom fairly.  Naturally as a youngster he lords over his little sister.  And as unsatisfactory as his education is, it confirms his expectations of rising above the mill, of taking a place in St Ogg society.  But when trouble comes, and he is forced to give up on those dreams for the harsh reality of debt and dishonor, and hard work, he shuts himself off emotionally, with all his energy and attention focused on his work.  I can understand all of that, and certainly his parents can't offer support or companionship in what he is going through.  It is only natural that an anger he can barely acknowledge would find its target in Philip Wakem, especially given their conflicts at school.  His anger, his need to control Maggie and to assert his authority, are natural reactions to what he has lost and the stress he is under.  Later, when he has paid the family's debts and regained their place in St Ogg, there is perhaps less  excuse for his reaction to Maggie's situation with her second suitor.  But by then Eliot has shown us how his boyish certainties of right and wrong, his strong moral compass, have hardened into an inflexibility of mind and heart.  Here her characters, especially Maggie and Tom, certainly illustrate how "her psychological insights radically changed the nature of fictional characterization."  At the same time, they are fully realized people that engage us and draw us into their lives.

A final note: I had no idea when I started this book that it, like Vanity Fair and Little Women, would draw heavily on The Pilgrim's Progress.  Clearly I read Bunyan's masterpiece at just the right time (I was recently reminded that Vera Brittain wrote about researching Bunyan in Testament of Experience).   The other book that plays a major part in Maggie's life is The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.  I used to have a copy of that, and now I'm curious to read it again.

I'm very glad to have read The Mill on the Floss (and thank you again to Jenny & Teresa).  I have two more of George Eliot's early works, Adam Bede and Scenes of Clerical Life, and I think I'll try one of them next, before trying Middlemarch again.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A family divided in war & peace

Born 1925, Vera Brittain

Though I read Vera Brittain's three Testaments (Youth, Friendship and Experience), along with England's Hour, her account of London in the first years of World War II, in fairly quick succession, I haven't really looked for her fiction.  I came across this novel, published in 1949, at Half Price Books.  I was intrigued by the jacket copy:

Vera Brittain ended her famous Testament of Youth with the year 1925.  It was the story of her own youth, shipwrecked in the sudden whirlpool of World War I.  She has chosen the same year for the birth of Adrian Carbury - representative of a new generation, whose youth in turn was wrecked by World War II.

The subtitle of this book,"A Novel of Youth," is a bit misleading.  The story opens on a Prologue, with Adrian, aged three and a half, waiting for a surprise, which turns out to be a new baby, his sister Josephine.  It then circles back to his parents, particularly his father, Robert Carbury, who to my mind is the dominating figure of the story.  The only child of a Liberal MP from Staffordshire who rose to a Cabinet position, Robert disappointed his father by showing no aptitude for a political career.  With the outbreak of war in 1914, he joins the Staffordshire Light Infantry.  He finds himself unsuited to army life, and accuses himself of cowardice, even after he leads a desperate assault on a machine-gun nest that wins him the Victoria Cross.  Severely wounded in the attack, he is invalided out.  During his long convalescence, he agonizes over the men he killed, recognizing them as fellow human beings caught in a war they did not make.  His spiritual and psychological struggles lead him to embrace pacifism, and to decide to enter the Anglican priesthood.

Wars, thought Robert, came as a consequence of man's disobedience to God's Will.  Surely, then, the only work for a man who was free, and qualified to do it, was to try to teach God's Will, and persuade his fellow men to accept it?

He is assigned first to a settlement in the London Docks, and then to a parish in Battersea.  To his surprise, he finds he has a gift for preaching, and as word spreads his congregation grows quickly, drawing people from around the city.  Among them is the noted stage actress Sylvia Salvesen, still mourning her young husband, killed in action just after their wedding.  Robert falls in love with her as he counsels her in her grief and persuades her to return to the stage.  When he asks her to marry him; she accepts, though there is no room in her heart for another love, and her career will always be more real to her than her marriage.  Soon after their marriage, Robert is appointed to St Saviour's, a parish in the West End with only a small congregation.  His preaching and his spiritual leadership transform the parish.  It is there that Robert founds a group to work for peace, the Builders of Jerusalem.  Through the turbulence of the 1930s, he will continue to advocate for peaceful solutions to the crises, even after war breaks out.  He will then come under increased scrutiny from officials worried about his influence and suspecting treason.

The birth of two children has little effect on Sylvia's life, which remains in the theater.  Yet Robert, who loves them both dearly, finds it much more difficult to relate to them.  Adrian reacts to the constant crises and the bustle of his father's parish by shutting himself off emotionally to everyone but his sister.  Both children are embarrassed by Robert's love for them and by his pacifism.  In the second section of the book, the children are sent to the United States, to live with friends of their parents.  They return in 1942 almost as strangers, who constantly bait and needle their father, worn out with the years of war and his continuing work for peace, which eludes him even in his own home.

This novel seems to echo much in Vera Brittain's own life, paralleling her Testament of Experience.  She herself was from Staffordshire.  Like Sylvia, Brittain lost her first love, Roland Leighton, in the war.  She later married George Catlin, who apparently believed for years that she like Sylvia was still in love with the dead.  Her own son John was born in 1927, followed by her daughter Shirley in 1930.  In 1936, Brittain met Canon H.R.L. Sheppard, who after serving as an army chaplain in the Great War was assigned to St. Martin-in-the-Fields, where "Within months he transformed a moribund city church into England's most vital Christian centre."  The model for Robert Carbury, Canon Sheppard founded a "Peace Pledge Union," of which Vera Brittain became a sponsor.  Brittain's own work for peace brought her, like Robert, under government scrutiny during the war.  It was a factor in the decision she and her husband made to send their children, like Adrian and Jo, to friends in America.  The Carburys end up at Cayuga University in New York, standing in for Cornell where George Catlin was on the faculty.  In Testament of Experience, Brittain writes candidly of her difficult relations with her children after their return to England in 1942.  She addressed the autobiographical elements of the book in a letter to a friend:  "In this book I have sought to work out some of my own problems vicariously and it is to me the most important novel that I have written (which does not mean that I regard any of my novels as important)."  She also tried to reassure her son John that the character of Adrian was not a portrait of him, though it included elements of his life. "Like most fiction characters Adrian is a complete hybrid and what matters about him is that he should be typical of his generation."  Brittain's daughter Shirley Williams wrote in her autobiography that as children, John was clearly her mother's favorite, and in this book the author clearly prefers Adrian, with Jo a minor character.

As interesting as it was to read this book through Vera Brittain's life, I also enjoyed it as a compelling story.  True, there are times that her polemics almost take over the story, and I found the internal monologues that she wrote for her characters very unconvincing.  But she created a great character in Robert, who to me is the heart of the book.  I came to care very much about him, and I missed him in the sections that follow Sylvia and the children.  He has a great capacity for love, which is frustrated by the emotional distance of his wife and children.  He commits himself completely to his ministry and to his peace work.  There is much discussion of the difficult relations between the generations, though the younger Carburys seem to make little effort to understand their father's mind or heart.  This is a familiar theme from Angela Thirkell's novels, both during and after the war.  As with England's Hour, Brittain also paints a vivid picture of London in the war, particularly after Adrian is called up and joins the bomb-disposal squads.

After reading this book, I'll be keeping an eye out for more of Vera Brittain's fiction.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Introducing kids to Jane Austen

I was thrilled to find a copy of this tonight.  I'd seen and coveted a friend's, which she got for her new granddaughter.  My nieces are both too old and too young to appreciate it, which means I get to keep it for myself.

If you can't read the lower right corner, it says, "a counting primer by Jennifer Adams"  (Alison Oliver is the artist).  This is the cleverest thing, well worthy of Jane Austen.  The numbers are represented by characters and events from Pride & Prejudice, with funny illustrations, like Elizabeth on the cover above, in a top that reads "I ♥ Darcy."  The number 2 is "2 rich gentlemen," Messrs. Bingley and Darcy.  The number 4 is "4 marriage proposals," though sadly Mr Collins's to Charlotte is not included.  My favorite number is 10: "10,000 pounds a year."

I see that the same team has also done Jane Eyre and Romeo and Juliet.  I'm hoping for Emma or Persuasion, myself.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A book club of two

The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe

I really had no intention of reading another book about a mother's illness and death, so soon after Madeleine L'Engle's The Summer of the Great-Grandmother.  But when Anbolyn mentioned this book, the title intrigued me, and after reading the summary on our libraries' website I added myself to the reserve list, expecting a lengthy wait.  Instead, it arrived almost immediately (the mystery of library lists).  When I had trouble settling on another book after finishing Seward, I picked this one up and was immediately immersed.

The book opens with Will Schwalbe sitting with his mother Mary Anne Schwalbe at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan, where she was being treated for pancreatic cancer.  As they were waiting to see her doctor, and for a round of chemotherapy, Will asked his mother, "What are you reading?"  This was a question they'd been asking each other for most of his life.  She was reading Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, a book he had owned, unread, for years.  This time when he picked it up, it clicked with him, and they spent her next appointment talking about it.  One of the characters in the novel (which I haven't read) is dying of cancer. 

The novel gave us a way to discuss some of the things she was facing and some of things I was facing . . . Books had always been a way for my mother and me to introduce and explore topics that concerned us but made us uneasy, and they had also always given us something to talk about when we were stressed and anxious.  But it was with Crossing to Safety that we both began to realize that our discussions were more than casual - that we had created, without knowing it, a very unusual book club, one with only two members.

Books have almost always been a great comfort to me, either as a distraction in the times of stress and anxiety; or as a way of connecting my situation with others, giving it context, trying to understand my experience through someone else's, even if that someone is fictional.  But that has been a private and individual response.  I am intrigued by the idea that a shared love of books could help a child and a parent through illness and death, that their discussions could "introduce and explore topics that concerned us but made us uneasy" - helping them face their fears and doubts.

Will had another goal for the book club:  "I wanted to learn more about my mother's life and the choices she'd made, so I often steered the conversation there."  Like Madeleine L'Engle, his book is in part a tribute to his mother and the extraordinary life she lived, as wife and mother, as a student and then an educator, as an aid worker in some of the world's most troubled areas.  She was the founding director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children and also founded the British branch of the International Rescue Committee (the parent organization of the Women's Commission).  When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, she was raising funds for a national library in Afghanistan.  She believed in the power of books to change people, to change the world.  Will's pride is her is clear, and one of the most touching moments in the book is when he tells her that. "I know that Mom knows I love her, but I don't know if she knows I'm proud of her."

His narrative weaves together his mother's life, the books that they read and discuss, and the progression of her disease and the side effects from chemotherapy.  Will's father, his partner David, and his siblings and their families are also part of his story, though he notes, "If it's mostly about Mom and me, and less about my father and siblings, that's only because I believe that their stories are theirs to tell, if and when they choose."  I enjoyed listening in on their book discussions, though I haven't read most of those they chose.  Mary Anne was particularly drawn to books like Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns that spoke to her experience working with women and children, or with refugees.  These included some very dark and difficult stories, which might not be my choice if I were in her situation (more Heyer and Wodehouse).  The story of her illness and treatment felt  familiar from my mother and friends who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.  That aspect also reminded me of a book I read last year, again about a mother's battle with cancer, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke.

I found this book moving, in Mary Ann Schwalbe's life and in her courage in facing death, in her close-knit family's care and concern, and in the love between mother and son.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Politician and statesman

Seward, Lincoln's Indispensable Man, Walter Stahr

Half-way through a review of this book in The New Yorker, I went looking for a copy.  William Henry Seward was the most prominent and influential Republican in the United States in the 1850s, a former governor and now a senator from New York, and many expected him to easily win the nomination and then the presidency in 1860.  In a stunning upset, the national convention in Chicago nominated Abraham Lincoln instead, an Illinois lawyer still unknown to many Americans.  Seward overcame his natural chagrin and disappointment, and he went on to campaign vigorously for Lincoln, helping to ensure his election.  He accepted an appointment to the new president's cabinet as Secretary of State, where he would play a crucial role throughout the Civil War and into the administration of Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson.

Seward's role in the Civil War and Reconstruction is second only to Lincoln's, and he has a conspicuous part in most histories of the war and in Lincoln biographies.  I learned something of his life from Doris Kearns Goodwin's account of Lincoln's fractured and fractious cabinet, Team of Rivals, but there he is part of a group portrait.  Seward of course had a prominent place in Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, about Anglo-American relations in the Civil War, and also in the diaries of George Templeton Strong, a fellow New Yorker who considered "Billy Seward" the consummate politician (if not always the most honest).  I thought it would be interesting to focus on this brilliant if divisive figure, and to see the events of the antebellum period, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through his life and work.

Walter Stahr has written a marvelous biography that brings this complicated character to life, one I fully expect to see on the prize lists next year.  This is an account not just of the man but also of his times, the years between his birth in 1801, in the early days of the Republic, and his death in 1872.  Seward was born in a small town 60 miles from New York City.  His parents owned slaves, which came as a surprise to me - a good reminder of America's complicated racial history.  The slaves were apparently not treated harshly, and the children even attended the village school.  Stahr does not mention what happened to the slaves; did the family free them before 1827, when by law most slaves in the state were emancipated?  Seward was never an abolitionist, unlike his wife Frances, though he thought slavery wrong and their house was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  He believed that each state must deal with slavery in its own way, as New York had done, but throughout his political life he staunchly opposed the expansion of slavery into the unsettled areas of the United States.  Their differences over slavery complicated the Sewards' marriage, as did Frances' health.  She spent much of their married life at their home in Auburn, while his career took him away from home for months at a time.

Seward was one of five children, the middle child, and the only one to attend college.  After graduation, he became a lawyer, developing an expertise in patent law that brought him cases across the United States, and convinced him of the importance of American industry.  But his real vocation would be politics.  He first joined the anti-Mason party in New York, which gathered strength in the 1820s (I had no idea this was such a force in American politics).  There he met Thurlow Weed, who would become his manager, his confidant, and some said his devil's familiar and his bagman.  Stahr suggests that in the rough and tumble of 19th century politics, Weed did the dirty work, including bribery at times, giving Seward deniability and at least nominally clean hands.  With Weed's help, Seward was first elected to the state senate, and then to the governorship of New York when he was only 37.

It is no exaggeration to say that Seward's four years as governor shaped his political future, in ways that he could not have anticipated.  Believing he was of Irish descent, though this was apparently family lore rather than fact, Seward welcomed immigrants to the United States, seeing them as crucial to the country's future growth and development.  He opposed attempts to deny voting rights to immigrants.  Even more controversially, he also supported separate schools for Catholics, many of them Irish immigrants, when public schools were dominated by Protestants who tried to evangelize the Catholic children.  This brought him into conflict with the nativist movement, whose strong anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic fervor coalesced into the American Party.  One reason that Seward lost the 1860 presidential nomination was lingering resentment, years later, over his pro-immigrant policies, which he continued in the U.S. Senate and as Secretary of State.

Elected to the Senate in 1848, Seward became the leader of the movement to restrict slavery to the states where it already existed, first as a Whig and later as a member of the new Republican party.  He was already seen as a dangerous radical even before his famous 1858 speech, which declared an "irrepressible conflict" between slavery and freedom, which must end in the country becoming "entirely either a slave-holding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation."  Seward was forever after associated with that phrase, which with his reputation as a radical were also factors in 1860. Though Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery, and had made similar statements about the conflicts between slavery and freedom, Seward's prominence cost him.

As the most prominent Republican in the country, one with far more experience than the newly-elected president, Seward thought that he would be the power in the Lincoln administration.  He soon realized his mistake, as well as the high qualities that the unknown Lincoln brought to his office, and the two would work together closely throughout the war.  Many feared Seward's influence over Lincoln, and there were constant efforts to force Lincoln to remove him from office, which Lincoln neatly countered.  This was a familiar story to me.  What I did not know was the role that Seward played in Andrew Johnson's administration, when he became president following Lincoln's assassination.  In both administrations, Seward's focus was on bringing the southern states back into the Union as quickly as possible.  Like Lincoln, he was willing to let the states themselves deal with the newly-freed slaves.  As long as the former Confederates accepted the emancipation of the slaves, they could even impose "black laws" that restricted where African Americans could live or what jobs they could hold (northern states had similar laws).  Many Republicans in Congress believed it was the federal government's responsibility to assist and protect the freed people, and they instead wanted the rights of former rebels and slave owners restricted.  Seward supported Johnson in his conflicts with Republicans over Reconstruction, even as the House moved to impeach the president.  He seems to have been as indispensable to Johnson as to Lincoln.  For this, Seward was accused to betraying his party, his country, and the freed people for whom so many Union soldiers and Lincoln himself had died, but he remained firm in his priority: restoring the Union.

As Secretary of State, Seward also worked to expand America's territory, laying the foundation for what would later be called the "American Empire."  He is best remembered of course for the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1868 (later derided as "Seward's Folly").  He was one of the most active Secretaries in American history, signing treaties to encourage trade and immigration with Japan and China, negotiating for naval bases in the Caribbean, and working to build a canal across Panama, then part of Colombia.  For his diplomatic work, his support of immigration and industry, and his role in the Senate and the Cabinet, Stahr argues that while William Henry Seward "was far from perfect, his talents and accomplishments" make him "other than presidents . . . the foremost American statesman of the nineteenth century."  This wonderful biography, thoroughly researched and very well-written, makes a compelling case.  It also succeeds in what Paul Murray Kendall defines as the mission of biography: "to elicit, from the coldness of paper, the warmth of a life being lived."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Classics Challenge: October and a chapter of Trollope

This month, for her Classics Challenge, Katherine at November's Autumn asks us to write on "the chapter you've just read or one that struck you the most. It can be as simple as a few words you learned, some quotes, a summary, or your thoughts and impressions."  I chose Anthony Trollope's The Three Clerks for this month, though I read it back in September (you can read my review here).

Initially I thought of the first chapter, which opens with the words, "All the English world knows, or knows of, that branch of the Civil Service which is popularly called the Weights and Measures."  It struck me as a typical Trollopian opening.  From the first sentence he makes us part of the world of his story.  The tone is confident, and confiding.  "All the English world knows..."  And we who don't know settle in to learn.  Generally with Trollope's books, I find myself hooked into the story by the end of the first chapter, captive to that wonderful warm authorial voice.

But I also have to mention one of my favorite chapters, "Crinoline and Macassar, or, My Aunt's Will."  In this chapter, two of the clerks of the title, Norman and Charley, are visiting their friends the Woodward family at their cottage.  Charley, who works at the much less important Internal Navigation office, is hoping to make some extra money by writing for the papers.  He has brought a story that he has just finished, and Mrs. Woodward reads it aloud to the group after tea.  As you might guess from the title (Crinoline is the heroine, Macassar the hero), it is a ridiculous story, in six chapters, no less, with poetry, though Charley takes it very seriously.  As Mrs. Woodward reads, or tries to read, she is constantly interrupted with questions and comments, advice and opinions freely given, which are just as entertaining as Charley's story itself:

           "The tale must now be told," continued Mrs. Woodward. "In his early years Macassar Jones had had a maiden aunt. This lady died - "
          "Oh, mamma, if you read it in that way I shall certainly cry," said Katie.
          "Well, my dear, if your heart is so susceptible you had better indulge it. This lady died and left behind her -"
          "What?" said Linda.
          "A diamond ring?" said Katie.
          "A sealed manuscript, which was found in a secret drawer?" suggested Linda.
          "Perhaps a baby," said Uncle Bat.
          "And left behind her a will - "
          "Did she leave anything else?" asked Norman.
          "Ladies and gentleman, if I am to be interrupted in this way, I really must resign my task," said Mrs. Woodward; "we shall never get to bed."
          "I won't say another word," said Katie [who interrupts again before her mother finishes the paragraph - "Will you hold your tongue, miss?" her mother says].

To my mind, this chapter shows Trollope's gift for capturing the natural rhythms of conversation.  It's also as funny as anything I can remember in his books.  And if he is laughing at his young author, it's not cruel laughter.  Trollope may even be remembering his own early attempts at writing.  This chapter also reminded me of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, where Jo's family comments just as freely on her plays and stories, though they treat their "authoress" with much more respect than Charley gets.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Past and present crossing

A Stitch in Time, Penelope Lively

After finishing Penelope Lively's The House in Norham Gardens, I wanted to read more of her children's books, and I was glad to find that our city libraries have quite a few.  Just from the brief description in the catalogue, I put A Stitch in Time at the top of the list: "A quiet lonely child spending her holidays by the sea is changed by an inexplicable link with people and events of one hundred years ago and also by the very real and lively family next door."  I love stories of the sea, and even more I love books where the past intersects the present (time shadowing, perhaps, rather than time travel).

The "quiet lonely child" is Maria, the only child of a sedate older couple who didn't plan to have children.  In fact, Maria once overheard her mother telling a friend that they almost decided not to have the baby, though now they're glad they did.  But they don't quite seem to know what to do with her, even how to talk to her, and they really don't listen well.  Maria doesn't have many friends; instead, she carries on imaginary conversations with the things around her, seeking some kind of connection.

The story begins with Maria driving with her parents from their home in London to spend their summer holiday by the sea.  They arrive in Lyme Regis to find that their holiday house is a large Victorian full of ornate old furniture, stuffed birds, and china knick-knacks (at least the kitchen is up-to-date).  Maria's father settles down with his paper, probably just as he does at home, while her mother dutifully takes Maria off to the beach, though she would much rather sit comfortably in the house too, working on her patchwork quilt.  On the beach, Maria finds fossils, ammonites, and like Howard in Cleopatra's Sister, she is immediately entranced.  She takes some of them back to the house, to compare them with a cabinet of fossils in her room and a book that she finds in the library downstairs.

From her room at the back of the house, Maria can watch the ocean.  She has a different view from the branches of an old oak in the garden, over the wall of the hotel next door.  One day she meets a boy, Martin, who is staying there with a large family group, mother and aunt, brothers, sisters and cousins.  Maria meets him again on the beach and finds that he too is fascinated with fossils.  Through this shared interest, Maria is gradually drawn first into friendship with him and then into the circle of his boisterous, casual family, who simply absorb an extra child with no fuss.  It is lovely to watch Maria expand, like Anne Elliot does at Lyme, finding her voice, gaining confidence to speak - and having fun, for the first time as part of a gang of kids.  This is a coming-of-age story in the sense that Maria finally learns to act her age, she becomes child-like (and even occasionally childish).

As she discovers the fossils on the beach, Maria is also finding reminders of more recent history.  The first night, sleeping in her back room, she hears a small dog barking, and a swing creaking in the breeze.  But there is no swing in the garden, and she never sees the dog.  The table in her room has initials carved on it, "HJP."  When she visits their landlady, whose family has owned the house for generations, she sees a sampler on the wall, with the inscription "Harriet Polstead aged 10 years her sample, Susan Polstead completed this work for her sister Sept 30 1865."  The sampler shows the house, above a row of cross-stitched ammonites, with a swing and a small black dog.  Walking on the cliffs, which show the destruction of slides, she hears the same dog barking, this time frantically, as if warning of danger.  Later she and Martin discover the swing of the sampler, buried beneath the overgrowth.  When they set it up again the garden, it is the sound of her dreams.  When she takes her turn on it, as she swings higher and higher, suddenly she feels long skirts flying around her, she hears a small dog barking, and a voice from the ground crying, "Harry, it's my turn!"  She tries to tell Martin about the peculiar things that have been happening, the dog, the swing, but he does not listen, does not hear.  She wants to know, though, what happened to Harriet?  Why didn't she finish her sampler?  Harriet collected fossils too, did she venture too far on the cliffs one day, with her dog for company?

This is a lovely book, and I'm not surprised that it won the Whitbread prize.  It has some familiar Lively themes, the roles of contingency and chance in people's lives and the constancy of change, but also the presence of the past, symbolized by the fossils that turn up everywhere. Lively puts these ideas in Maria's mind and in her words, expressing complex ideas in simple ways.

And here was she, Maria, standing looking at it on an August evening just as the girl who made the sampler - what was her name, Harriet? - must have done once, a long time ago.  Harriet is like the ammonites in the rock, she thought, not here any more but here in a ghostly way, because of the things she left behind. The sampler, and the drawings in the book. And it came to her, as she turned to go into the house, that places are like clocks. They've got all the time in them that's ever been, everything that's happened.  They go on and on, with things that have happened hidden in them, if you can find them, like you find the fossils if you break the rock.

I like the ambiguity of Maria's experiences.  Has she really found a connection back 100 years, to Harriet, or is it just her imagination at work?  I think it's a little crossing of time myself, like the stitches in the sampler, but then I always wanted something like that to happen to me.  I also love the setting of Lyme Regis.  Maria and her mother walk out along the Cobb, as I did on my last visit to England, and if there is no allusion to Louisa Musgrove, I'm sure that Maria will remember it, when she discovers Jane Austen.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A summer of loss

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, Madeleine L'Engle

This is the second of four "Crosswicks Journals" that Madeleine L'Engle published between 1972 and 1989.  I knew L'Engle only as the author of the classic young adult novels A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, and I discovered the first in this series because it had been improperly shelved in the children's section at Half Price Books.  "Crosswicks" is the 200-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut where L'Engle lived for many years with her husband Hugh Franklin and their three children.  When they later moved back to New York City, they spent their summers at Crosswicks with their extended family, including L'Engle's mother, also named Madeleine L'Engle.

Four generations gathered at Crosswicks in the summer of 1971.  When the elder Madeleine arrived, it was immediately clear that she was not well and was getting worse.  Now 90, she had been diagnosed with atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries, which was causing increasing weakness and senility.  Her condition often left her confused, unable to recognize family members, and even hostile, stranded as she believed she was among strangers.  Her daughter Madeleine arranged for her to be cared for in their home, while struggling to accept the reality of her mother's condition.

I know that this is a classic symptom of atherosclerosis, this turning against the person you love most, and this knowledge is secure above my eyebrows, but very shaky below.  There is something atavistic in us which resents, rejects, this reversal of roles. I want my mother to be my mother. And she is not. Not any more. Not ever again.

But if her condition was irreversible, it was not terminal, and she could continue in this state for some time, a prospect that appalled her daughter.

Will I ever be like that, a travesty of a person? It was the last thing she would have wanted, to live in this unliving, unloving manner.  I look up at the sky and shout at the stars, "Take her, God! Take her!

This is not a journal in the sense of a daily record of her mother's condition and the challenges of being a caregiver, though these are part of L'Engle's story.  It is more a meditation on facing death, one's own and that of loved ones.  As L'Engle notes, we face many losses in life.  She herself had experienced the deaths of grandparents, aunts and uncles, as well as her father many years before.  With her mother, it was a different kind of loss, not the immediate finality of death, but the erosion of her mother's being, her identity, and of their relationship: "I want my mother to be my mother."

One of the ways that L'Engle tried to cope with this loss was by trying to understand, to capture the reality of her mother, even as she was slipping away.  Her narrative becomes part biography and autobiography, in sections titled "The Mother I knew" and "The Mother I Did Not Know."  As she acknowledged,

The mother of my childhood and adolescence and very young womanhood existed for me solely as mother, and I suppose it is inescapable that for a long time we know our parents only as parents, that their separate identity as full persons in their own right unfolds only gradually, if at all.

She considers her parents' marriage, complicated by her father's service in the First World War, where he was gassed, from which he never fully recovered.  Even in her childhood, she was aware of strains in their family, despite the care her parents took to shield her.  She looks back at her mother's childhood, in a small town in Florida, tracing her ancestry back to the earliest days of European settlement.  L'Engle clearly took great pride in her family heritage, but I found myself confused as she moved back and forth between generations and branches (a family tree would have helped).  Over the years her family owned plantations and the slaves that worked them ("servants" in the familiar evasive language).  L'Engle insists that they were benevolent masters and later good neighbors to the freed people.  At the same time she details the suffering of her family in the Civil War and Reconstruction period, with much of their property lost in the conflicts, without acknowledging what that property was, or the suffering endured by African Americans both in slavery and in freedom during these years.  But then she was writing in the early 1970s; perhaps a later generation would tell a different story.

Finally, this book is also a meditation on faith.  As a Christian, a believer, L'Engle struggles to reconcile what her faith teaches her about loss, death, resurrection, with the reality of what is happening to her mother, and what will happen to her in turn.  She struggles to find God in her mother's suffering, in her own pain; to find meaning; to affirm her belief in "a loving God who will not abandon or forget the smallest atom of his creation."

This was not an easy book to read, but a rewarding one in the end.  L'Engle writes movingly of parents and children, of her own family.  I enjoyed her account of her childhood and adolescence, following her birth in 1918 in New York City, including her years in a Swiss boarding school and later at Smith College (she herself died in 2007).  Her mother is a fascinating figure, who led an adventurous life travelling around the world with her journalist husband, and faced life as a widow with dignity and courage, and found joy in it.  Perhaps her daughter idealizes her small-town Southern childhood, but it is a lovely warm account.

This book also resonated deeply with me because I lost my own mother last year, after many years of debilitating illness.  "I do not know how to say goodbye. All I can say, within my heart, is, 'I love you, Mother.'"