Saturday, August 29, 2015

Selected letters of Dorothy Canfield Fisher

This volume is titled Keeping Fires Night and Day.  The phrase comes from a letter that Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote to her publisher in January 1920, from her home in Arlington, Vermont:
We have been having a real siege here, with John [her husband] in bed with a badly infected knee and a high temperature and us in quarantine with both children [daughter Sally and son Jimmy] whooping it up with chicken pox, and the thermometer at twenty below and me keeping fires night and day and tending to my sick-a-beds.  Pretty strenuous materially, but not at all wearing morally as there was no anxiety about them, which is the only thing that ever bothers me in the care of the sick. John is up today pretty pale and peaked, Sally is up, pretty spotted and speckled, and I am back in my study to attack delayed work.
It seems like a very appropriate title for this book, published by the University of Missouri Press in 1993.  The editor, Mark J. Madigan, has chosen letters that focus on Dorothy Canfield Fisher's enormous output of work, both her fiction and the constant stream of non-fiction articles and reviews that she wrote.  Once she became a member of the board of the Book of the Month Club, she wrote reviews every month for their newsletter (from which members chose their books).  But she also kept the fire of her commitment to social justice issues burning throughout her life.  There her focus was on challenging racism and anti-semitism in American society, stressing the need for education and life-long learning, and campaigning for greater opportunities for women.  I have enjoyed the books of hers that I have read, very much.  Reading her letters gave me a great admiration and liking for her, as a person - with of course the quirks that we all have.

I have to say that this is the most meticulously-edited volume of letters I have ever read.  Mark Madigan included a section at the beginning, "Editorial Practice," where he explained how he chose the letters to include (189 of more than 2500 in DCF's papers).  He also explained how he edited them (minimally, which was nice).  There is a chronology of her life, an introduction to her life and work, and a section on "Notable Recipients" (who include Willa Cather, W.E.B. Du Bois, Robert Frost, Pearl Buck, Isak Dinesen and her brother Thomas, Richard Wright, and Christopher Morley).  Eleanor Roosevelt was another correspondent, though she is represented here by only one letter.  According to the editor, she enjoyed reading DCF's work and considered her one of the most influential women in America.

The letters cover the years 1900 to 1958 (the last written two months before she died).  In selecting which to include, Dr. Madigan wrote, "[They] have been chosen according to their relevance to Fisher's career and development as a writer."  He defined relevance "to include both direct discussion of literary topics and reflections of the personality, interests, background, and spirit which inform the author's approach to literature."  Because he included the entire letters rather than excerpts (I wish all editors did), they contain personal and family information as well.  There are several letters written from France in the First World War, which report on the war work DCF and her husband were doing (John driving an ambulance).  Many of the letters discuss work that she had in progress, including most of her major novels.  (I am very much looking forward now to reading The Deepening Stream, Her Son's Wife, Seasoned Timber and Bonfire.)  DCF also wrote in detail about the Book of the Month Club, particularly about the process of selecting books.  She answered letters from readers complaining about the selections, telling one woman who was concerned about the "bad morals" of books chosen that perhaps she should cancel her subscription if she was worried about her children reading them.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher challenged racial discrimination in American society throughout her adult life.  In her own work, she pointed out the racism of Northern whites, and the denial of opportunities to blacks, working these themes into her New England stories.  Despite her progressive outlook, however, her letters show that she wasn't completely free of racist attitudes, including the tendency to assign group characteristics to African Americans.  In her mind all black Americans are musically talented, all are great story-tellers - or liars, as she remarked in one jarring letter.  I was particularly troubled by a short series of letters to Richard Wright, whose memoir Black Boy was under consideration by the BOMC.  He was apparently still editing it, because DCF suggested in two different letters that he include some allusion to white allies, working to uphold American ideals, who might have encouraged him in his struggles.  This would in turn encourage those allies.  She said more than once that he should only do so if he truly believed this, because otherwise "even a single word would be a dreadful travesty."  I felt so uncomfortable reading these letters, wondering how much pressure Richard Wright felt not just from an older, established white author, but someone on a committee that could make his book a best-seller (it was chosen for the BOMC in March 1945).  I should note though that DCF made frank, detailed suggestions about writing and editing to other authors in her letters, and received advice herself (without always agreeing).

I truly enjoyed learning more about DCF's life, both through the letters and the editorial framework.  She wrote that "in the long run, most novels are a sort of autobiography I suppose -" but "imaginary autobiography."  She drew elements from her own life, but she insisted that none of her characters were portraits of real people.  I did find in the letters some common threads in the books I have read so far.  Her parents' marriage was strained, with her artist mother traveling frequently to France, where she kept a studio in Paris.  DCF often joined her there.  Like many of her characters, she attended Columbia University, where she earned a Ph.D. in French literature. (She also received at least six honorary doctorates.)  Her husband John was an alum as well, and the captain of the football team.  I expect he provided a lot of the detail for the football-mad Neale's career (on the varsity team at Columbia) in Rough-Hewn.  According to the editor he also acted as his wife's secretary and editor while she supported their family, in a reversal of traditional roles that suggests The Home-Maker and the shared work of the parents in The Bent Twig.  And of course there is Vermont itself, the Eden from which her characters are sometimes exiled and to which they return in their happy endings.

I learned from the introduction that Willa Cather stipulated in her will that her letters may not be published nor quoted.  I'm happy Jane Austen didn't think of that - or Dorothy Canfield Fisher either!

(Cather was a college classmate of DCF's older brother Jim, and the two women became close friends.  But they did not speak to each other for 20 years, after Cather wrote a story about a mutual friend that DCF begged her not to publish, because the friend was sure to recognize herself in it.)

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Bent Twig, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Oh this book. Nothing of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's work that I have read so far has been light or frivolous.  But this 1915 novel is so full, of people and ideas and questions and dilemmas.  It is long and thoughtful and unhurried, yet it never dragged for me.  And as with Rough-Hewn, I was reluctant to let the characters go in the end, I wanted to follow them on in their lives.  (Unlike Rough-Hewn there doesn't seem to be a sequel or a prequel.  It would be lovely if like Barbara Pym, Canfield Fisher allowed her people to cross over between books.)

Like Rough-Hewn, this is a story of young people finding their way into their lives.  It centers on Sylvia Marshall, whom we meet on the first page as a child of seven.  DCF described the book in a letter to her publisher, Henry Holt:
       I mean, you see, how there isn't any "story" except my Sylvia, and that what I'm trying to do is to tell what sort of clay she was made of, and into what sort of vessel she was finally shaped by the moulding of circumstance.
      Of course in that sort of a book, the "plot" in the Victorian sense, isn't the important thing: and the thread of the story does not run through a sequence of events but connects one phase of inner development with another.
It seems to me that she comes from the best sort of clay, a strong and loving family - though a bit of an unconventional one.  (DCF did stack the deck by making both parents from Vermont.)  Sylvia lives with her parents in a small midwestern town where her father teaches economics at the state university.  Their family includes a younger sister Judith and a brother Lawrence.  Their life in a small house in the unfashionable part of town sets them apart from most of the faculty families, who disapprove of their simple way of life.  Mrs. Marshall works in the kitchen and the garden, and Professor Marshall shares in the cooking and housekeeping.  He is also a caring and involved father.  The children attend the local public school, where they mix democratically and happily with the town children - though not with the African American children, who are segregated in their own neighborhood and school.

From an early age, Sylvia knows that her family is different, and sometimes this bothers her, even as a young child.  The visits of her father's sister, her Aunt Victoria, bring this into sharp focus.  Victoria is a wealthy widow, having married money after the siblings lost their family fortune.  She calls their home life "idyllic," but there is a sting to her words.  Sylvia is fascinated by her glamorous aunt, always beautifully dressed, living in luxurious hotels on her travels.  She begins to grow dissatisfied with the things of home, as she moves into young adulthood.  College brings only more questions, including the biggest one: what is she to do with her life?  Where is her place?  Her aunt invites her on a long visit to her summer home in Vermont, where Sylvia falls into her life of ease, and a possible answer to those questions.

In this book, DCF tackled some big topics, including racial discrimination in American society, the limited opportunities open to educated women, and economic inequality.  Sylvia and her mother have a discussion of relations between the sexes that while never graphic feels very grounded and real - one that I found surprising in a book written in 1915.  One character struggles with chronic alcoholism.  Two characters make a disastrous marriage, which society approves because she is rich and he is a man of culture.  And this is the first of DCF's books that I've read to address faith and belief, if only briefly and late in the book.  Though I have seen her books described as didactic, and I can understand why, they don't feel that way to me.  Perhaps it's because she creates such strong, three-dimensional characters who carry the story.  They are never just puppets or straw-men for her ideas.

I can't quite decide on the meaning of the title.  Is Sylvia is the twig, growing away from her parents' strong roots, and warping a little in the process?   But for DCF, parents eventually have to stand back and let their children go, to find their own way and make their own mistakes.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I discovered that a book of DCF's letters has been published, and I am already deep into it.  This book and the letters have inspired me to look for more of her writing.  I think though that (also like Barbara Pym) she is not an author to rush through.

N.B. I read a "School Edition" of this novel, republished in 1939.  I've never seen an edition like this before. It includes an introduction (by a teacher) with a section "On the Development of the English Novel" and a brief biography of Dorothy Canfield Fisher.  It also includes "Notes and Suggestions" at the end, with topics for themes and selections for class reading.  One section instructs the student reader to "Look up what is meant by a strophic circle."  Another suggests, "Make the following words a part of your working vocabulary" (including askance, welted, and abysmal).  I wonder what I would have made of this story in high school.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

When this was chosen for one of my book groups, I was looking forward to re-reading it for the first time in many years.  Sadly, meeting the Scarlet Pimpernel again in his book form did not live up to my expectations.  Since I first read it, I've seen both the Leslie Howard and the Anthony Andrews film versions several times.  It turns out that most of my memories of the story are from the films, and alas for the Purist Principle, I think in this case the film versions might actually be better.

The opening of the story is certainly exciting enough, set in "Paris: September, 1792," amid "A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name..."  But once the story shifted to England, it seemed to slow down to a crawl.  Everyone was always sitting around waiting, for someone to arrive, a signal to be given, the tide to turn.  Emotions were at a fever-pitch as people waited, hearts surging with fear and anger and love and desperation - but still they sat and waited.  For such a classic adventure story, there wasn't nearly as much action as I remembered.  Hardly a buckle was swashed, in the end.  We heard a lot about the daring feats of the Scarlet Pimpernel, but we didn't get to see much of the action. 

On the other hand, Marguerite Blakeney certainly played a heroic part, in her determination to save her husband.  Though she mostly had to sit around and wait (for a ship, in the hovel, on the beach), it was still bravely done, and she earned her happy ending.  I did feel that the romance at the heart of the story was more than a bit overblown, but that might have been partly the effect of the ripely purple prose.  If I had been the Baroness's copy editor, I would have pointed out that the words "merry" and "merrily" appear on every page in some chapters.  Everyone who laughs does so merrily, except perhaps M. Chauvelin. I found it annoying, after a while.  I would have also pointed out to her that an agent as experienced as M. Chauvelin would never leave a valuable hostage like Lady Blakeney sitting unguarded on the beach, however deserted it may appear.

With almost no memory of the book, Chapter XXVI, "The Jew," came as quite a surprise to me.  With all due latitude for a book written in 1905, I was uncomfortable with the appearance of Benjamin Rosenbaum and the part he plays in the story.  Orczy is at pains to point out the anti-semitism of Chauvelin and the French in general, contrasting it with the more liberal attitudes of the British.  But Rosenbaum is presented in stereotypical terms: greasy, greedy, obsequious.  Does the fact that this is a disguise negate the negative portrayal?  It doesn't feel that way to me, not when it is described as "the weird and distorted mask of the Jew."  I think Orczy is having it both ways, condemning anti-semitism while playing to its stereotypes.  I realize this is of its time.  I just found it particularly jarring in this story.

I'll be interested to see what the group makes of this book.  I think I will be donating my copy to the library book sale.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Duke's Daughter, by Margaret Oliphant

I have read that Margaret Oliphant resented Anthony Trollope's success as an author.  They wrote books set in similar milieus, her Carlingford series and his Barsetshire.  But his brought higher royalties and sold more.  Trollope does not mention Oliphant in his autobiography, in the chapter "On English Novelists of the Present Day."  I've read though that Lady Carbury in The Way We Live Now was based on or inspired by Margaret Oliphant, which might explain a certain frostiness in her attitude toward him.  But it also seems like choosing to title a book The Duke's Daughter might invite comparisons with Trollope, even if it was published eight years after his death, in 1890.  (Angela Thirkell of course used the same title for her 1951 novel, but she was deliberately re-creating Barsetshire. I don't know if she read Margaret Oliphant.)

I think of Margaret Oliphant, with Rhoda Broughton, as among the more subversive women authors of the Victoria period.  This book was published the same year as her astonishing Kirsteen, but it is a more conventional story.  It is only in marriage, we are told more than once, that women find purpose, meaning, and true life.  It decides for most women "whether their lives shall be lonely and in great measure objectless, or busy and full of interest and occupation."  I couldn't help thinking of Kirsteen there, or the unmarried women in Louisa May Alcott's books who (like their author) find life "busy and full of interest and occupation."  (As I have mentioned before, I find my own State of Single Blessedness busy and full of interest and occupation.)

I know from Margaret Oliphant's own autobiography that she read Jane Austen, and to me this book has echoes of Persuasion.  The part of Sir Walter Elliot is played by the Duke of Billingsgate, pickled in the pride of his noble ancestors and stuffed full of the dignity of his own role.  Unfortunately, his means aren't equal to his pride, or to the style of life that he inherited.  He is facing a serious financial crisis - except that he isn't facing it, he's ignoring it.  Like Sir Walter, he is blessed with a sensible wife, and he is lucky enough to still have her.  The Duchess like Lady Elliot has been doing all she can to bring some measure "of method, moderation, and economy" to their lives, with little success.  The Duke has an heir - a son, not a distant cousin - but he is as little pleased with his son's marriage as Sir Walter was with Mr Elliot's.  Lord Hungerford chose a young woman whose father made his fortune in the City.  She is rich and handsome, and she has already produced three sons.  None of that cancels out her impure blood, in the Duke's eyes.  He has pinned all his hopes on his daughter, Lady Jane.  She will make a proper marriage, if only he can find a candidate who meets his strict requirements as to family, rank, and fortune.  Meanwhile, Lady Jane meets someone as ineligible as Captain Wentworth: Reginald Winton, a commoner, though a wealthy one of good family.  Her mother discovers her secret, and sensibly decides her daughter's happiness is the most important thing.  But the Duke sets himself to thwart Duchess, daughter, and the thief who is trying to steal his daughter.

This is a fun story, more light-hearted than Kirsteen, with some elements of both the fairy tale and the Gothic.  At one point a member of the Royal Family steps in to help bring about a happy ending (discretely left unnamed, but I'm guessing the Princess of Wales).  To me, the Duchess is the true heroine of the story.  Like many of Oliphant's women characters, she works tirelessly behind the scenes to care for family members (as Oliphant did herself, for the husband, sons, and adopted children supported by her writing).  The men in her books are so often weaker or less capable than the women, yet they have power and authority that the women don't.  The women realize the weakness of their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, that they will have to be the practical and strong ones.
"I hope you will allow that she is my daughter as well," the Duchess said, with the half laugh, half rage natural to a woman long accustomed to deal with an impractical man.  She was obliged to laugh at his serious contempt of her, less she should do worse.

Maybe Margaret Oliphant too was obliged to laugh, lest she do worse.  The anger still leaks through her books in places, even in this more conventional story with its princesses and castles.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Ivory Dagger, by Patricia Wentworth

I enjoyed this outing with Miss Silver, originally published in 1950.  It is a country-house murder, which finds the house's owner Herbert Whitall stabbed with the dagger of the title.  Discovered standing over his body, with blood on her ivory dress, is the fiancée he was to marry in four days, Lila Dryden.  Lila's aunt Lady Dryden, staying there with her niece, rings up her friend Ray Fortescue in the middle of the night, to order her to collect Miss Maud Silver and bring her down to Vineyards with her.  Ray is very reluctant to do so, until she arrives at Miss Silver's neat flat with its comfortable Victorian furniture.  There she falls under Miss Silver's spell.  When Scotland Yard is called in later, Miss Silver's old friend DI Frank Abbott is as usual completely unsurprised to find her already in residence and full of helpful information.  The case proceeds in fits and starts, as different people disclose key points of information, until finally the solution falls into place.  This felt more like a case of using "the little grey cells" rather than actual investigating.  But overall it is a fun story, with two nice romances in the middle.

Since I started following the Clothes in Books blog, I've become more aware of the descriptions of dress in different books.  When we first meet Ray, she is wearing "her new autumn suit,"
because nothing gives you so much confidence as to feel that you are looking your best.  The suit was a success, and so was the little off-the-face hat that went with it.  They were perfectly matched, and they were just two shades lighter than her dark brown hair.  There was a spray of autumn leaves and berries on her hat, repeating the gay lipstick which went so well with the clear brown of her skin.
I was not prepared however for the first glimpse of Miss Silver in this book.  Ray has rung her up on the morning after the murder and is on her way over.  Miss Silver's devoted maid Emma has just brought her in a cup of tea. 
Removing her new bright blue dressing-gown with the practically indestructible hand-made crochet trimming skillfully transferred from its crimson flannel predecessor, Miss Silver stood revealed in a slip petticoat of grey artificial silk and a neat white spencer whose high neck and long sleeves had also been adorned with a narrow crochet edging.
I do not need to meet Miss Silver in her bedroom, let alone "three parts dressed"!  I cannot think that Miss Silver herself would want us in there.  I much prefer to wait with her clients in the drawing room.  However, I cannot help wondering what a spencer is in this context.  I am only familiar with the Regency-era spencers, which are short-waisted jackets - with long sleeves and high necks, like Miss Silver's, but worn over dresses, not as underclothing.

I did have one quibble with this book, which applies to a lot of the "cozy" mysteries that I've read lately.  Generally, the future victim is obvious from the first pages.  He or she is clearly marked out as a bad person - rude, selfish, cruel, loud-mouthed, carrying on feuds with family and neighbors, threatening or blackmailing them.  Often this person is trying to do something wicked like evicting a widow, tearing down a beloved landmark, or ruining local businesses.  She or he might be guilty of kicking stray cats and children.  Within a couple of chapters, the reader has a pretty good idea who is going to be killed and why, as well as who has a motive to murder.  Sometimes it feels like the author is setting up a straw-man, and these books can start to feel a bit rote.  Awful character => motives for murder => murder => investigation of motives, with means and opportunity => solution.  I'm starting to find this type of story rather unsatisfying.  Patricia Wentworth has written several along these lines, but I find the same thing in recently-published books.  I think I like my mystery stories with a little more mystery.  What will Peter Wimsey discover at Pym's Publicity, or Robert Blair in the old Franchise house?  What will interrupt the Emerson family's archaeological work this season?  How will the latest case that Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid are investigating for Scotland Yard unfold?  I guess it's about finding the authors that write the kind of mystery stories that I enjoy.  I think the library may be the place to carry out this kind of investigation, rather than spending money on books that I find so unsatisfying.  Which isn't to say though that I won't be reading more of Miss Silver!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Rough-Hewn, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

That proverb about not judging a book by its cover proved itself true once again with the beautiful, moving story inside these plain brown boards.

It's one of the best books I've read all year, and I kept putting it down to marvel at Dorothy Canfield Fisher's characters and their story.  I found my battered old copy on the shelves of Becker's Books, which almost overflows an old house on Houston's west side.  It's the kind of bookstore that rewards patient trolling through the shelves, particularly in the dimly-lit alcoves.  As I moved slowly along, it was of course Dorothy Canfield's name that caught my eye.  I knew nothing about this 1922 novel, not even the title, which naturally didn't stop me from buying it, since her books turn up so rarely.  I was very pleased later to find that this is a first edition.

With no dust-jacket and no cover copy, I truly had no idea what the story was about when I started it.  I was reminded again how rare that is. With new books, I usually know something about them - outlines of plot, details of character, whatever I glean from the covers.  Here I knew nothing, and I had the most delightful feeling of discovering a story, watching it unroll before me with no idea where it was taking me, or the characters.  And I haven't read enough of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's fiction to be certain how it would end.

For those who would like to discover this book for themselves, there will be spoilers below.  I don't think it counts as a spoiler though to say this is a wonderful book, and you should read it!

It opens in 1893, with a young boy, Neale Crittenden, just off to play shinny in the streets with his friends.  He lives in Union Hall, New Jersey, with his parents.  Neale attends a private school, but his whole life is taken up with sports and games.  Though he has loving and attentive parents, he lives very much in and by himself, in his own world.  I was just getting used to Neale and his world, when the next section of the book opened in France, where a young American girl named Marise Allen has arrived with her parents to live in Bayonne, near the Spanish border.  Her father is the sales representative of an American company selling farm machinery.  Really, however, they have come because Marise's mother wants to escape her provincial American life.  Having read a lot of novels and poetry, Mrs. Allen has come to Europe to find Culture and Life - and perhaps Love.  Too busy with these great things to care for her child, she leaves Marise to the Basque servants.  Old Jeanne in particular loves Marise like her own daughter, but she and the others despise Mrs. Allen.  Like her neighbors, they laugh at her behind her back for her laziness and for her too-obvious flirtations.  Marise, alone and vulnerable, picks up some very unfortunate ideas from them about men and relations between the sexes.  When her mother's imprudence leads to a great tragedy for the family, no one realizes how deeply it affects her young daughter, least of all Marise herself.

The story then moves back and forth between Neale and Marise.  In America, Neale moves through school and into college at Columbia, where he for a time finds his life's purpose in football.  His summers are spent in West Adams, Massachusetts, where his grandfather runs the family lumber mill.  Drawn to the work from childhood, Neale joins the lumber company where his father works after graduation.  He quickly becomes one of its rising stars, but suddenly he finds himself facing the question: what is he working for?  What is he meant to be doing with his life?  He gives up his job to travel, hoping to find an answer.  Meanwhile, Marise has sought refuge in music, studying the piano and hoping to make a career as a professional musician.  Eventually, her studies take her to Rome, where she meets Neale one fateful morning.

I loved so many things about this book.  At first I worried about Neale, whom I thought neglected by his parents.  Their close loving marriage seemed to leave little room for him.  It was only later in the book that I realized his parents, in best Dorothy Canfield Fisher fashion, were leaving Neale room to grow and develop, to find his own way.  The chapter where Neale discovers his parents' library and falls in love with books, starting with Great Expectations, was a complete delight.  Among his other attractions as a hero, he is a wonderful bookworm.  The senior Crittendens also give Neale the example of a happy, balanced partnership.  Once Neale is old enough, his father accepts a position in Central America, and his parents joyfully set off on their travels.  This is what they always wanted to do, they explain to their son, and now they can - leaving the conventional Yankee grandfather aghast, and blaming Neale's mother for this flightiness.

I thought Neale's story was much more interesting than Marise's, but then I realized that's because Marise's life is so narrow, hemmed in by her life in a small provincial French town, in a convent school.  I wondered how much Dorothy Canfield Fisher was drawing on her own experiences in writing Marise's.  Like Neale, Marise has to find her way into her own life (a phrase that DCF uses), but her first steps into that life come so much later than his.  I had a good idea where those steps were going to take them, when I learned that both Neale and Marise had roots in Vermont - the Paradise to which Dorothy Canfield Fisher returned again and again in her books.  In fact, Marise has an Aunt Hetty, clear kin to the Putneys in Understood Betsy.  As lovely as the ending of this book is, I do wish there was a sequel, set in Vermont.  I'd love to meet Neale and Marise again.