Monday, April 29, 2013

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

Witch Week
Charmed Life
The Lives of Christopher Chant, Diana Wynne Jones

I really am enjoying John Keegan's book on World War I, as well as learning a lot from it.  But last week was a bit stressful, and I found myself struggling with the complexities of six different war strategies, not to mention details of troop movements on both Fronts.  I found it hard to settle down with anything else, though. I started and abandoned books all week, until Friday evening, when I sat down with Witch Week, the fourth of the Chrestomanci books, and read half of it almost in one go.  And though I finally had Kate Atkinson's Life after Life waiting at the library, I set it aside for the moment in favor of still more Chrestomanci.

The Chrestomanci stories are set "In the multiple parallel universes of the Twelve Related Worlds."  In those universes, related worlds are created at a divergence over major events, like the Battle of Waterloo.  In our world, Napoleon was defeated, but a parallel world was created in which he won that battle, and World B (while related to ours) developed differently from that point.  Most people have doubles in all the related worlds, but occasionally someone doesn't.  If that single (un-doubled) person has talents, especially magical ones, then all the talent that would normally be spread across his or her doubles in the related worlds is instead concentrated in one person.  In the worlds with magic, the most powerful are the enchanters.  As Diana Wynne Jones explains,
"Now, if someone did not control all these busy magic-users, ordinary people would have a horrible time and would probably end up as slaves. So the government appoints the very strongest enchanter there is to make sure that no one misuses magic. This enchanter has nine lives and is known as 'the Chrestomanci' . . . He has to have a strong personality as well as strong magic."
The current Chrestomanci reminds me very strongly of a Georgette Heyer hero, one of the impeccably-dressed, imperious, rapier-tongued type, the Marquis of Alverstoke perhaps, though with the saving grace of humor.  When at home in Chrestomanci Castle, he tends to lounge around in gorgeous silk dressing gowns, but no one would ever take him for a curst dandy.

Witch Week, which I read first, falls somewhere in the middle of the series' chronology (which does not match the publication order).  It opens with an accusation: "SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH."  The class is 6B, in Larwood House, "a boarding school run by the government for witch-orphans and children with other problems."  The accusation of witchcraft is an extremely serious one in this world, where it is banned and witches are routinely executed (though no longer burned at the stake in public spectacle).  Hence all the witch-orphans, sent to places like Larwood House for re-education.  When accusations of witchcraft fall on 6B, and strange things begin to happen in the school, it won't be long before the Inquisitors make their appearance.  And those children who know or suspect that they are witches have no one to turn to, except the almost-mythical figure of the Chrestomanci.  Larwood House is a nasty place, with cliques and bullies, toadies and sneaks, and I don't think the similarity in name to Lowood House is a coincidence.

Charmed Life is the story of Eric Chant, generally known as Cat, and his sister Gwendolyn.  They are orphans as well, having lost their parents in a boating accident that Cat himself barely survived.  Gwendolyn is a powerful witch who believes herself destined to rule the world, though she is presently stuck in the small town of Wolvercote.  When she learns that they are related to Chrestomanci, she writes to him for help.  Soon after, a tall man dressed in trousers with a pearly stripe and a coat of beautiful velvet arrives (the setting seems Edwardian).  He arranges for Cat and Gwendolyn to live with his family at Chrestomanci Castle.  Gwendolyn is at first thrilled, believing that her time has come, but she is mortified when they arrive to be treated as a child, one who must still be educated in the basics of magic, let alone more mundane subjects.  She plots to prove her power and take her place as one of the great witches.  Cat, meanwhile, is miserably afraid of what will happen when everyone realizes he can't work magic.

The Lives of Christopher Chant is the story of how the Chrestomanci of the other books came to be.  It starts with a little boy, the Christopher of the title, who can travel in his dreams to all kinds of wonderful worlds.  These worlds are a way to escape his unhappy family, where his parents communicate only by acrimonious notes amid accusations that his father wasted his mother's fortune in foolish investments.  When Mama's brother Uncle Ralph learns about Christopher's journeys, he explains that bringing things back from those worlds can help his mother live a comfortable and happy life.  But the other worlds are a dangerous place, and Christopher dies more than once in the course of his adventures.  Once his father finds out what is going on, he takes Christopher away for proper training.  Christopher is devastated to learn that he is a nine-lived enchanter, and he must therefore be the next Chrestomanci.

All three stories are great fun, though each has its dark moments (I am haunted by the fate of the mermaids in one of Christopher's worlds).  There is treachery and betrayal, greed and ambition, but also loyalty, honor, and the love of family and friends - and a true appreciation for cats, especially those rescued from the Temple of Ashteth.  Some of the scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, like two accused witches fleeing in desperation, one on an elderly hoe and the other on a recalcitrant rake, while others are truly creepy.  Gwendolyn in particular has a talent for nasty tricks, and she doesn't spare even her own brother.  Cat is a great character, as of course is Chrestomanci himself, but the real hero of the books is his wife Millie, who has her own wonderfully adventurous story.

There are three other books in the Chrestomanci series, and I may find myself back in his worlds before too long.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The home front in France in the Great War

Home Fires in France, Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Katrina's review of this over on Pining for the West caught my eye the other day.  I've been looking around for more of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's work, after falling in love with The Home-Maker and Understood Betsy last year.  A book of stories about France in the Great War sounded very intriguing.  From reading about Fisher, I knew that she and her husband spent three years doing relief work in France, so I expected that her stories, while fictional, would be based on her own experiences.  Ever since reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth a few years ago (before I started blogging), I've wanted to learn more about the First World War.  It was a bit of shock to realize from that book just how little I do know.  I can't remember studying it in any great detail, even as a history major in college.  Only a random assortment of names and dates comes to mind - August 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the invasion of Belgium, Ypres and the Somme.  Thinking this might fill in some of the blanks, I requested a copy through interlibrary loan and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly it arrived.

Home Fires in France was published in America in 1918, presumably while the war was still going on.  According to the "Publisher's Note," Fisher wrote him that "What I write is about such very well-known conditions to us that it is hard to remember it may be fresh to you, but it is so far short of the actual conditions that it seems pretty pale, after all."  Her stories certainly aren't subtle.  They are clearly and strongly pro-French (one wouldn't know from them that the British are actually in the war). 

There are eleven stories in this book, and they are an interesting mix.  As the title suggests, they are not about the armies in the trenches but the home front.  They focus on both French soldiers and their families, and on Americans in France, many working for relief organizations.  Several of the stories are in the first person, with presumably Fisher herself narrating, others in the third person.  Some are set in Paris, flooded with refugees and invalided soldiers, others in the country-side, while two are harrowing accounts of events in northern France under German occupation. Fisher shows that while America was officially a neutral power, France was full of Americans like herself, collecting supplies and money from the U.S., organizing ambulances for the wounded, rehabilitation for the maimed and blind, food and clothing for the refugees.  Some of the Americans in her stories are there just to get their pictures in the paper, or to play at nursing handsome young men (as were some of the French involved in relief work as well). Others with a sincere desire to help are unprepared for the scope of the work and simply overwhelmed.  Several of the stories feature demobilized soldiers, maimed and blind, who must be provided for.  The narrator of one, "A Honeymoon . . . Vive l'Amérique," runs a Braille printing press producing books for veterans, which was one of Fisher's own projects.

The most affecting story, to me, was the one called "A Little Kansas Leaven," about a young woman named Ellen Boardman, twenty-seven, unmarried, an office manager, "plain, rather sallow, very serious."  Reading about the invasion of Belgium startles her into an awareness of world events, outside of her small Kansas town.  From the start, she cannot understand why America is standing by, unwilling to help France and Belgium (Britain apparently is on its own).  She ask questions of the fellow residents of her boarding house, and of her co-workers, many of whom see her as something of a crank, yet they find themselves reading the war news with more attention.  Eventually Ellen decides that she has to do something.  She takes leave from her job, over her boss's objections, takes out her life savings, and sails to France, to do what she can.  In Paris, she finds her way to a refugee bureau run by prominent Americans who desperately need her practical skills.  She spends four months there, organizing their work and their office.  In the evenings she goes to the Gare de l'Est, where soldiers returning to the front catch their trains.  There she timidly passes out chocolate and writing paper to those she finds alone, without family seeing them off.  When her savings run out, she sails back to America and her hometown, where she finds a hero's welcome.  I have to admit, this story brought tears to my eyes, a rare occurrence in reading.

I enjoyed these stories, though they weren't always comfortable reading.  However fictionalized, they opened up a new world to me, and they sparked my interest again in learning about the war itself.  I had no idea, for example, just what parts of France were occupied in the Great War.  Unlike Fisher and her readers in 1918, though, as I read I couldn't help thinking of the future, of what would happen in France just twenty years later.  It was especially poignant, reading the constant mention of fathers, husbands, sons lost, to know that her own son would die in the next war, in the Pacific.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Complications at the Château Blissac

Hot Water, P.G. Wodehouse

I think I've found the quintessential P.G. Wodehouse novel.  My Penguin edition has a back-cover blurb from the Daily Telegraph, "He has done nothing funnier than this," which initially left me a bit skeptical, a bit suspicious of hyperbole.  I wasn't half-way through the book before I found myself in complete agreement and reaching for superlatives of my own.  Hot Water was published in 1932, and I've mentioned before that I find the books written in the late 1920s and 1930s to have a brilliance, a comic energy, which show Wodehouse at the top of his game, which the later books sometimes lack, wonderful as they still are.

The story is set in St. Rocque in Brittany, where Mrs. J. Wellington Gedge has rented the Château Blissac for the season.  Mr. J. Wellington Gedge is oblivious to the charms of the resort and its famous Casino, homesick for his beloved Glendale, California.  Having lost all his money in the stock market crash, however, he must go where his wife leads.  Even when he had money, he would have found it hard to assert himself.
Mrs Gedge herself would have fought in the light-heavy division.  She was a solidly built, handsome woman a few years younger than her husband, and you could see from a glance at her why he always did what she told him to.  Even in repose, her manner was forceful. Of her past life before their marriage, except that she was the widow of a multi-millionaire oil man named Brewster who had left her all his multi-millions, Mr Gedge knew nothing. He sometimes thought she might have been a lion tamer.
Mrs Gedge summons her husband to her room to inform him she is leaving unexpectedly for England, and that guests will be arriving in her absence: an American Senator, Mr Opal, and his daughter Jane, as well as the Vicomte de Blissac.  These guests have been invited because they can influence the appointment of the next American Ambassador to France.  Mr Gedge is stunned and horrified to learn that he will be their candidate. He dislikes France and the French, he wants to go home to California, and worst of all, "Didn't Ambassadors have to wear uniforms and satin knickerbockers?"  However, he well knows that resistance is futile.

Also staying in St Rocque are two fellow Americans, Soup Slattery and Oily Carlisle, a safe-cracker and a con man respectively.  Both have their eye on Mrs Gedge's jewels, securely locked in her bedroom safe at the Château.  They aren't the only ones with their eyes on that safe.  It also contains a letter from Senator Opal that explains why he is reluctantly supporting Mrs Gedge's ambassadorial ambitions.  He wants that letter back.  His daughter Jane is engaged to a rising young writer named Blair Eggleston, whose recent novel Worm i' the Root thrilled the critics if not the people who actually buy books.  When Jane sends her fiancé to ask for her hand, her father mistakes him for the latest in a long line of valets and hires him on the spot.  The Senator is the male equivalent of Mrs Gedge, and Eggleston can't even manage to get a word in edgewise, let alone explain that far from being a valet, he hopes to marry the Senator's daughter.  Meanwhile, Jane has met Patrick (Packy) Franklyn, a young American millionaire, recently graduated from Yale, where he was a football star.  He is engaged to Lady Beatrice Bracken, an earl's daughter, a society beauty with higher thoughts and highest ideals.  Packy doesn't quite measure up to her standards, but she is trying to improve him through exposure to the arts and to writers like Eggleston (whom Packy considers "A gosh-awful pill with side-whiskers"). Lady Beatrice is setting off for a visit to her parents, and in her absence Packy is drawn into helping Jane recover the damaging letter, purely in a spirit of friendship of course.  He ends up in St Roque, where he meets his old friend the Vicomte and makes new friends in Soup and Mr Gedge.  I took to Packy straight off.  He has the high spirits of the Drones Club members, with the good heart and loyalty of Bertie Wooster, combined with the devious plotting of Psmith (though not his persiflage).

Hot Water has one of Wodehouse's more complicated plots, which is saying something.  It's full of surprises right to the end - the last of which I never saw coming.  The Château is crawling with impostors, and there are double- and triple-crosses, long-buried secrets, lovers' quarrels and reunions.  I had a pretty good idea how it would all end, but oh the fun in getting there!  From now on, if anyone asks me where to start, among P.G. Wodehouse's many marvelous books, with all due respect to Uncle Fred and Psmith, Mr Mulliner and the Oldest Member, I'm going to say Hot Water.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A career in the kitchen

One Pair of Hands, Monica Dickens

I've seen references to Monica Dickens on blogs from time to time but never felt any great curiosity about her books.  That changed abruptly somewhere around the second paragraph of Barb's review of One Pair of Feet over on Leaves & Pages.  Realizing that it is an account of nurse's training in World War II sent me off in search of a copy.  As I've mentioned before, I have a weakness for nursing school stories dating back many years, and I'm always interested in accounts of war-time nursing and the home front in World War II.  Then from the comments, I learned about One Pair of Hands, an account of an earlier career, and because I need to read stories in order, I started with this one.

The book opens with a bald declaration: "I was fed up."
     "I had just returned from New York, where the crazy cyclone of gaiety in which people seem to survive over there had caught me up, whirled me blissfully round, and dropped me into a London which seemed flat and dull.  I felt restless, dissatisfied, and abominably bad-tempered.
     "'Surely,' I thought, 'there's something more to live than just going out to parties that one doesn't enjoy, with people one doesn't even like? What a pointless existence it is - drifting about in the hope that something may happen to relieve the monotony. Something has got to be done to get me out of this rut.'
     "In a flash it came to me:
     "'I'll have a job!'"
But what sort of job?  A year at a London drama school had made it clear that she had no talent for the stage; she lacked both talent and interest in dress-making.  What did interest her was cooking, and she had taken lessons in Paris and London.

When she told her family her plans, "the roars of laughter were rather discouraging. No one believed that I could cook at all, as I had never had a chance to practise at home," where the family's long-time cook reigned in the kitchen.  She decided to find a job on her own and surprise them with her success.  She started with an agency, where I'm guessing her youth and her upper middle-class origins were just as much a problem as her lack of experience and references.
"[The woman at the desk] hinted in a delicate way that she wondered why I was looking for this sort of job, so I felt impelled to give her a glimpse of a widowed mother and a desperate struggle against poverty. I almost made myself believe in the pathos of it, and we had to cough and change the subject. I felt even more pathetic when she told me that it would be difficult to get a job without experience or references.  She rustled about among her papers for a a bit and I wondered whether I ought to leave . . ."
Instead, the woman offered her a position, starting the next day, with a dinner for ten people.  The dinner skirted the edges of disaster, and her new job ended that night, but the agency found her another, and she was launched on a career as a cook-general (combining cooking and housework).  The book is an account of her adventures in different households, as she learned on the job, by trial and error (with lots and lots of errors, and a quick end to several jobs, at least in the beginning).  I was reminded of Margaret Powell's book Below Stairs, another account of life as a cook in much the same time period. The two books are an interesting contrast.  Monica Dickens and Margaret Powell came of course from very different worlds.  Margaret Powell had to work her way up from kitchen maid to cook, but along the way she learned the fundamentals of cooking and then the elegancies.  Though Monica Dickens started out as a cook, she lacked basic skills, and she had to put a lot of energy into compensating for that, as well as keeping up her fictional persona.  But both women worked very hard.  Margaret Powell was part of a large staff and usually had help in the kitchen.  Monica Dickens was usually on her own, though she had a genius for recruiting help from the tradesmen who called, as well as friends who pitched in on a lark. 

Both women were acute observers of the families they served, as well as their fellow servants, exposing their foibles and follies in sharp, sometimes acerbic accounts.  Monica Dickens' tone is lighter and funnier, which points up the greatest difference between the two.  Margaret Powell worked from necessity, and she was a live-in servant, with little time or space for herself.  Monica Dickens was a daily, who went home each night to be tucked up by her mother in a comfortable bed, with a hot cup of milk from the cook.  Between jobs at one point, she joined her family on a trip to Alsace-Lorraine, where she studied the region's cooking.  She could pick and choose between jobs, and perhaps more importantly, leave a job when she felt like it, when she had finally had enough.  But though she might have been a dilettante, she did work hard, and I sympathized with her need to do something meaningful, something real.  I did wonder if any of her employers, reading this, recognized themselves.  Did they resent her deception, as well as her sometimes unsparing portrayals of them?   I on the other hand thoroughly enjoyed her book.  I'm looking forward more than ever now to her account of life as a nurse, and also to exploring her many novels.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Around the world with Miss Cayley

Miss Cayley's Adventures, Grant Allen

I knew I was going to enjoy Lois Cayley and her adventures from the opening line: "On the day when I found myself with twopence in my pocket, I naturally made up my mind to go around the world."  (From a reference to the Queen's Jubilee, these stories seem to be set in 1896-1897).  As she explains, her widowed mother married a scoundrel who wasted her small fortune, leaving just enough to educate Miss Cayley at Girton. Now even that is gone, and she is alone in the world, except for an aunt "who lurked in ladylike indigence in Blackheath."  Her friend Elsie Petheridge suggests the usual career of educated women, teaching, but Lois shocks her by stating that she will instead set out in search of adventure (preferably paid, of course):
"What adventure may come, I have not at this moment the slightest conception. The fun lies in the search, the uncertainty, the toss-up of it.  What is the good of being penniless - with the trifling exception of twopence - unless you are prepared to accept your position in the spirit of a masked ball at Covent Garden?"
Strolling through Kensington Gardens, Miss Cayley overhears a conversation, which leads to her first position, and the first step of her journey around the world.  Each adventure funds the next, and each leads her further east, to Italy, Egypt, India, and then Japan. I was amused to realize that her travels follow something of the same route as General Grant's (though in one year rather than two).  Along the way Miss Cayley encounters a con man, much less successful than Colonel Clay in Grant Allen's The African Millionaire - or rather she is more successful in foiling him than Sir Charles and Seymour.  The detective skills she develops in dealing with him come in handy when she is drawn into a mystery involving a missing will and accusations of forgery.  In the course of her adventures she also meets an attractive and very eligible young man, but she feels it is her duty to reject him, because she cannot bring alliance with an adventuress to his noble family.

Like Colonel Clay's, Miss Cayley's adventures were originally published in The Strand Magazine, in 1898 and 1899.   According to the introduction to this book, the reviewers were not kind.  Perhaps the heroine was a little too much ahead of her time, a little too modern for them.  They may also have objected to what the editor calls "Allen's liberal views on race" and his characterization of British colonial attitudes, particularly clear in the chapters set in India. 

I enjoyed this book very much, for the picaresque adventures, but even more for Miss Cayley herself.  She is smart, focused, ambitious, open to adventure and possibility, a loyal friend.  She insists that Elsie Petheridge join her on her travels, to escape from her London school and the threat of tuberculosis.  At the same time it is convenient to have Miss Petheridge as a companion; as a lady and an officer's daughter, Miss Cayley can't completely ignore social conventions.  All in all, she is a wonderful character, whose rather sardonic narrative voice reminds me of both Amelia Peabody Emerson and Mary Russell Holmes.  In fact, I think she and Amelia Emerson would get on very well, despite Miss Cayley's lack of enthusiasm for Egypt!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Meeting Rosemary Sutcliff

Blue Remembered Hills, Rosemary Sutcliff

I fell in love with this book second-hand, from Simon's marvelous review (which you can read here), and I know I wasn't the only one.  Sometimes in these cases of sudden infatuation, the actual book itself can be a bit of a disappointment, but this was just as wonderful as I expected.  I knew I was going to love it from the first chapter, where Rosemary Sutcliff recounts how her mother, "who was of the stuff that minstrels are made," told her young daughter that a stork had delivered her to the wrong house, that she was really meant for the next-door neighbors:
"It was a grief to me that I did not truly belong to my parents, but presumably I was unable to make this known; and when I was nearly four, and somebody said to me, in my mother's presence, 'What's your name, little girl?' to which I replied in a voice quivering with emotion, 'I'm really little Jeannie McPhee, but I'm living with Daddy and Mummy just now,' my mother was the world's most surprised and horrified woman. But she never learned."
From the first page I was captivated by her narrative voice, warm, wryly humorous, frank, and generous.

I knew almost nothing about Rosemary Sutcliff when I started reading this, other than that she was an author and that she developed juvenile arthritis at a very young age.  I wasn't too far into the book before I went looking to see what else she had written, which is when I discovered her fame as an author of historical fiction for children and young adults.  I don't know how I missed her books, growing up.  They are now in the "remote storage" sections of the main city library, from which I collected The Silver Branch this week.  Unfortunately, they don't have a big selection to choose from.

This book, subtitled "A Recollection," is not a full autobiography (again unfortunately).  It covers only Sutcliff's first twenty-five years (born in 1920, she died in 1992).  The first reference to juvenile arthritis comes just a page or two after the Jennie McPhee incident.  Again here I have to confess my ignorance; I knew nothing about the condition or its effects.  Her illness had a tremendous impact on her life, though she refused to allow it to define her.  In her first years, her mother provided almost constant care, which strained their relationship even as it brought them closer than many mothers and daughters.  Sutcliff was confined to a stroller and then a "spinal carriage" (a wicker coffin-shaped contraption) until she was 7.  She endured painful physical therapy and frequent operations, which meant long hospital stays.  She does not complain about any of this, she simply describes it in a matter-of-fact way.  There are occasional references to her stiffened knees, which in my ignorance I thought the only lasting effect.  Then I came across a picture late in the book, showing her at age 20 or so, which made clear the physical damage caused by the disease, and perhaps by the treatments.  It was the oddest feeling, as if the book had shifted 45 degrees, and now I was seeing everything from a completely different angle, one that made me admire Rosemary Sutcliff even more.

I found this book fascinating on so many levels.  It is the first memoir I have read of growing up with a physical disability.  I know very little about what resources were available for families in the 1920s and 1930s, but I can't imagine there was much in either North America or Britain, compared with today.  Devoted to her care, her parents showed great resourcefulness.  Sutcliff's father was a serving naval officer, which meant frequent moves and long separations.  She and her mother were able to join him on only one foreign posting, in Malta.  At other times they lived in officers' quarters in dockyard towns like Sheerness and Chatham, reminding me of Patrick O'Brian's novels.  Education, another major theme, was a challenge for Sutcliff, who absorbed information easily but found study difficult.  She did not learn to read until she was seven, in part because she preferred her mother's reading aloud: "I was reared on a fine mixed diet of Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, Dickens, Stephenson, Hans Andersen, Kenneth Grahame, and Kipling. . . "  Her relationship with her parents is another important element running through the book.  Sutcliff was their only surviving child (an older sister died in infancy).  Her father was frequently absent until his early retirement from the Navy.  Her mother was an extremely volatile person, whose swift mood changes put great stress on her husband and daughter (Sutcliff suggests that she may have been manic-depressive).  She was a demanding parent, who expected unquestioning obedience and stoic endurance from her daughter.  She insisted that the teen-age Rosemary take regular two-mile walks, and she refused to allow her to use a wheelchair.  Sutcliff writes about their difficult relationship, about the tensions in their three-person family, about how much she missed friends of her own age, with candour, trying to understand, not to blame or condemn.  Finally, the later chapters of the book are also an interesting account of the family's experiences in World War II.  Her father was called back to active duty, the dangerous work of convoys.  Rosemary and her mother remained at their home in north Devon, which seems to have been one of the safest areas in the country.  During these years Sutcliff, who had studied at an art college, began working as a painter of miniatures, while also secretly starting to write, which would lead to her true vocation.

Oh dear - reading this over, I'm afraid I've made this book sound rather bleak and dreary, which it isn't at all.  I'll refer you back to Simon's review, which really captures the magic of this warm, wise, funny memoir.