Thursday, January 28, 2016

Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

I just love this book. It is such a beautiful story, of friendship and faith and good works. I knew that it was a fictionalized account of a missionary bishop in the mid-1800s, in the southwestern United States. I think I expected a story of suffering and despair - and not just from the title. While there is suffering, and occasionally even despair, including some dark nights of the soul for the bishop, there is also beauty and grace, joy and peace.

When I started reading this book, I opened it to the first chapter, where "One afternoon in the autumn of 1851 a solitary horseman, followed by a pack-mule, was pushing through an arid stretch of country somewhere in central New Mexico." I read on, learning that he was a young French priest. A few pages further on, we are told "The traveller was Jean Marie Latour, consecrated Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico and Bishop of Agathonica in partibus at Cincinnati a year ago - and ever since then he had been trying to reach his Vicariate." It was only later that I discovered I had accidentally skipped over a prologue ("At Rome") that explained how Bishop Latour was chosen to be the Vicar. (An Apostolic Vicariate may be created when the Catholic Church in a particular area is not developed or organized enough for a diocese.)

The story follows Bishop Latour as he reaches Santa Fé and begins the work of organizing the vicariate, recently separated from a diocese in Mexico, as was the territory itself. Joining him in this work is Fr. Jean Vaillant, his friend from seminary days in France, who came with him to serve as a missionary in Ohio. Together they make the long trips to visit the scattered Native American settlements and the Mexican ranches, as well as the few small towns. Over the years, the Bishop reluctantly allows his friend to follow his heart into missionary work in the isolated areas, though he needs his help in administration and misses his friendship. They carry on their work of evangelization, serving the people of their vast territory where they find them and as they find them, with love and compassion. They are both such wonderful characters, men of faith, sustained by their long years of friendship - but not plaster saints. There is a lovely section where Fr. Vaillant cooks Christmas dinner for the Bishop, trying to bring a touch of their French home to this new world; and another where he charms two lovely little mules out of a reluctant rancher.

In later years, Fr. Vaillant accepts a new mission field, in the wilds of the Colorado gold rush, becoming a bishop himself. Bishop Latour becomes an Archbishop, as Santa Fé is promoted first to a diocese and then an archdiocese. As he grows older, he resigns the title and the active work to a younger man. Given the title of the book, I hope it isn't a spoiler to say that, as he feels death coming on, he returns to the episcopal residence in Santa Fé. "The next morning Father Latour wakened with a grateful sense of the nearness of his Cathedral - which would also be his tomb." The weeks that he spends quietly in his room, waiting for death, reminded me so much of my beloved Mr. Harding, in Anthony Trollope's Barchester novels. Both men of faith, gentle and kind, they are loved and cherished by their people. And like Mr. Harding, the Bishop's mind sometimes wanders through the past. I love too how Willa Cather weaves other stories through this one, legends, histories, the Bishop's own past. And she writes so beautifully about the landscape, the scenery, and the plants and flowers of New Mexico. Bishop Latour is very much attuned to the natural world, drawing strength and consolation from it to the end.

This story took on an extra dimension for me from its setting and characters. In the day job that supports my book habit, I am the Director of Archives & Records for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. [All opinions expressed here are of course my own. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.]  From my reading for work, I knew that Bishop Latour's real-life counterpart was Father Jean Baptiste Lamy. Like the fictional Bishop, Father Lamy came through Galveston on his way to his new vicariate. There he had a brief meeting with the Bishop of Galveston, Bishop Jean Marie Odin - a fellow Frenchman. Odin later wrote Lamy a letter of advice, based on his own experiences. Like Latour/Lamy, Odin came to Texas as a missionary, when it was an Apostolic Prefecture (even less developed than a vicariate). Texas had recently won its independence from Mexico, and Catholics who once belonged to Mexican dioceses were left in limbo. Odin faced many of the challenges that Lamy/Latour did, though he also had a more settled population in the eastern part of Texas. His letters in our archives, and the accounts of other missionaries here, are full of the same kinds of experiences that Willa Cather wrote about. Her story just feels so right and true, the very best kind of historical fiction.

I also checked on the real-life counterpart of Father Vaillant. He was Joseph Projectus Machebouef - isn't that a great name?  Like the fictional bishops, he and Lamy were both from the diocese of Clermont in Puy-de-Dôme, Auvergne. I may be the only historical-geek reader who actually felt the need to track that down.

I have read a couple of Willa Cather's books, but so many years ago that I've forgotten even the titles. Now of course I am wondering what else I have been missing. Any recommendations of what to read next/first? Honestly, I can't imagine anything better than this book, and I can't believe how long I left it sitting on the TBR shelves. Knowing of the close friendship between Willa Cather and Dorothy Canfield, I will be shelving their books together - and this book has the same warmth and life of Canfield's best.

N.B. Published in 1927, it also fills another year in my Mid-Century of Books.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Less Than Angels, by Barbara Pym

The first person we meet in this story is Catherine Oliphant, "brooding over her pot of tea" and watching people around her settle down with trays of food. She is a writer, of "stories and articles for women's magazines and had to draw her inspiration from everyday life..."  We learn that "Tom, her present love," is in Africa, studying a native tribe. In the crowds passing outside, Catherine sees two of his colleagues, senior anthropologists. The story then shifts to follow them to a gathering at a new anthropological library and research centre. The funds for it have been coaxed out of the recently-widowed Minnie Foresight by the retired but still active Professor Felix Mainwaring. Students are already making use of the library, and rather than shooing them out, the manager Miss Clovis reluctantly invites them to join the meeting. Among them is Deirdre Swan, a first year student; and two older students, Digby and Mark, hoping to win grants to do field work.

Digby and Mark are friends of Catherine's through Tom Mallow, who lives with her when he isn't in Africa. The story moves between Catherine, in her comfortable little flat "on the shabby side of Regent's Park," the students and staff at the centre, and Deirdre's family. She lives with her mother and her unmarried Aunt Rhoda, and her brother Malcolm. Their house is next door to a church, where the older women have become devout members of the rather High congregation. Like Catherine, both are keen observers of their neighbors, particularly Alaric Lydgate, who has just moved in next door. He too is an anthropologist, retired from the field, with boxes of notes that he has never managed to write up into articles. His sister Gertrude, herself an anthropologist, shares a flat with Esther Clovis and is often at the centre.

The first chapters introduce us to this large cast of characters, establishing their connections and relations. Then one morning Tom Mallow walks into the centre. He has returned after two years in Africa. Finding no one he knows at the centre, he introduces himself to Deirdre, takes her out for a drink, and is soon meeting her regularly. He invites her to a party at Catherine's flat, where she is shocked to learn that he lives with Catherine. But it doesn't stop her from meeting him. Eventually Catherine sees them together - at a restaurant across the street from her flat, where she often eats with Tom herself - and things come to a head. Tom however escapes much of the reaction by returning to Africa, leaving both Catherine and Deirdre to deal with his absence.

At the moment of crisis, after seeing Tom with Deirdre, Catherine thinks "I'm not one of those excellent women, who can just go home and eat a boiled egg and make a cup of tea and be very splendid..."  But I thought she was a wonderful character, and I deeply wanted to smack Tom's face for treating her so badly. There is such life in her. I liked her determination to deal with the situation with Tom. She doesn't wallow, she just gets on with things. She is unconventional, not just in living with Tom outside marriage (which I found rather surprising in a novel from 1955). She asks questions, she is interested in people, and she often says whatever comes into her mind. She also seems to have a gift for friendship - and perhaps the need for it. To the astonishment of the Swans, she barges into Alaric Lydgate's life, and she even manages to work out a friendly relationship with Deirdre.

I also enjoyed the familiar Pymian elements to this story, particularly the squabbles among the anthropologists, competing for funds and recognition. Professor Mainwaring plumes himself on the grants that Minnie Foresight will provide to deserving students, but his pride is destined for a spectacular fall. He is a great trial to Esther Clovis, as she tries to manage the centre. Few people know why she left her previous position as secretary to a Learned Society. had something to do with the making of tea. Not that the making of tea can ever really be regarded as a petty or trivial matter, and Miss Clovis did seem to have been seriously as fault. Hot water from the tap had been used, the kettle had not been quite boiling, the teapot had not been warmed . . . whatever the details, there had been words, during the course of which other things had come out, things of a darker nature. Voices had been raised and in the end Miss Clovis had felt bound to hand in her resignation.
I am still wondering about those "things of a darker nature..." Perhaps she was skimming off the tea funds.

The front cover of my Plume edition of this book has a quote from the Chicago Tribune: "One of Pym's sleekest and funniest novels." I thought the words of the Kirkus Reviews on the back a better fit: "Ironic, shrewd, a bit sad...especially diverting."  I did find this story rather sad, both in Catherine's situation, and in something that happens to another character - quite suddenly, and with no warning.

Since anthropologists play a major role in this book, I was not surprised to find references to Helena Napier and her husband (Rocky), and Everard Bone and his wife Mildred. Miss Clovis considers Mildred "a rather dull woman," which proves she isn't all that bright herself, but at least she admits that Mildred is "a great help to him in his work" out in the field. I will add this to my list of cross-over characters. I would quite like to meet Catherine in another story, or at least to find out where her story takes her.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Sun in Scorpio, by Margery Sharp

Having missed Jane's birthday party for Margery Sharp last year, I was determined to join in this year. I have been saving a couple of books for it, and then I added two more to the stacks, just to be safe. I chose this one to read first, knowing nothing about the story.

The edition I read is a Perennial Library, from Harper & Row. I've complained about their strange covers before (particularly Cluny Brown with an old-fashioned diving helmet). At first I thought this one was another odd one:

But thinking about it later I realized it is completely appropriate, because the main character is this story is very much a fish out of water. We meet Cathy Pennon at aged nine, living with her parents, brother and sister on an island in the Mediterranean. It was "by no means so important as Malta (hence its nick-name, The Next-Door Island)..." From reading Dorothy Dunnett, I immediately assumed this was Gozo, but the book never really says.

The Pennons are a bit of a fish-out-of-water family on the Island. They aren't part of the British administration, nor of the service families in residence there. They are living on the proceeds of Mr. Pennon's family business back in England. Mrs. Pennon explains to everyone that they've come to the Island because of her husband's health. The narrator tells us though that "it wasn't so much Henry Pennon's chest that was weak as his will." However, as war begins to threaten in 1914, he decides to take his family home.

Life in England comes as a tremendous shock to the family, after the warmth and ease of the Island. Cathy's sister Muriel and brother Alan find their feet in school, but she remains the odd one out. She is also the one most attached to the Island and their life there. She holds fast to something the Governor told her before they left: "Always hold the thread to the sun." I'm not sure exactly what that means, but for Cathy those become words to live by. What she wants most of all is to return to the sun, to the Island or at least the Mediterranean. When her sister is trying to decide which of two young men to marry, Cathy campaigns for the one who manages a tea plantation in Ceylon, so that she can come visit. And when she has left school, she accepts a job as nursery-governess to Lady Jean Lutterel at her home in Devon, mainly because Lady Jean is planning to take her daughter Elspet to Malta that summer. Cathy will even accept the ridiculously low wages, for the chance to get back to the sun.

Cathy is completely unqualified as a governess, but on the other hand it turns out that Lady Jean had no intention of taking her or Elspet to Malta (she has a handsome young man as a traveling companion instead). In between some desultory teaching sessions with Elspet, Cathy settles down to life at Wellscombe Manor. At first as a governess she is again a fish out of water, not part of the family but ranked above the other staff. But once she discovers a nightly poker game in the kitchen, and shows off the skills she learned playing on the Island, she is made welcome below-stairs. Even after Elspet goes off to boarding school, Cathy stays on at the Manor, right through the coming of the second world war. With the Lutterels in London, and most of the staff gone, she keeps the house together, with Cook and the butler Mr. Weaver. The end of the war finds them exhausted with the effort. The news that the Lutterels are shutting the Manor down comes as a great shock to Cathy, but it may open a way for her to return finally to the Island.

I found Cathy a very interesting and sympathetic character. (I've been a fish out of water more than once myself, in moving around the United States and living for several months in Great Britain.) In some ways, she reminded me of Cluny Brown. Both are the proverbial square pegs, full of life and energy, refusing to conform and constantly seeking their own way. But Cathy has a purpose in life, a mission, which Cluny lacks. No one else knows of it, nor would they understand if they did. She has a tougher struggle, and a longer one. She has to work hard (though not as a governess). But I think the ending of her story will be a happy one. The back-cover blurb says that the book "shows Cathy as an unwilling symbol of the 'average' Briton's endurance of years of radical historical change. It is a sensitive chronicle of those changes..." I don't agree with that. Yes, the story covers the years from 1914 to 1945, but the "radical historical change" mostly passes Cathy by, particularly once she settles in at Wellscombe Manor. The narrative occasionally shifts to follow her siblings Muriel and Alan, or one of the other characters, who do experience more of the changes, but to me at least those sections felt like distractions from Cathy's story.

I'm grateful to Jane for introducing me to Margery Sharp, and happy to join in celebrating her life and books. I just wish her books were easier to find! I'm particularly interested in The Flowering Thorn, but the few copies available are outside my price range. I'll keep my eyes open, because I found a copy of The Foolish Gentlewoman on the shelves of a bookstore here in Houston. Meanwhile, I think Britannia Mews will be next. And I'm sure the reviews from others joining the party will add to my reading list.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Naboth's Vineyard, by E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross

We were then [1889] at work on a short novel that we had been commissioned to write. This was "Naboth's Vineyard," which, after various adventures, was first published by Spencer Blackett, in October, 1891. The story had had a preliminary canter in the Lady's Pictorial Christmas number as a short story, which we called "Slide Number 42." It was sufficiently approved of to encourage us to fill it up and make a novel of it. . . It was a story of the Land League, and the actors in it were all of the peasant class. It was very well reviewed... (Irish Memories, E.O. Somerville)
I love that line, "the story had had a preliminary canter..." Trust E.O. Somerville to use an equine turn of phrase. And I wish I could find a copy of "Slide Number 42."

I knew the story of Naboth's vineyard from the Bible (I Kings) - how King Ahab coveted the vineyard of his neighbor in the city of Jezreel. When Naboth refused to sell his ancestral heritage, the wicked Queen Jezebel concocted a plot to have Naboth accused of blasphemy, and the people of Jezreel stoned him to death (without trial), leaving Ahab free to seize the vineyard.

I knew nothing of the Land League in Irish history, however, until I started reading this novel. From what I learned researching on-line, it was a movement that started in 1879, to reform the tenant system in Ireland. According to, "The league’s program was based upon the 'three F’s': fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale of the right of occupancy." One of the main tactics of the movement was a "moral coventry" against landlords and agents who resisted the reforms. This came to be known as a "boycott," after it was first used against an agent named Charles Boycott in 1880. I admit, I had no idea of the origins of that term!

Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (Martin Ross) belonged to the Anglo-Irish class of landowners. I had read in Somerville's memoirs that the Martin family lost much of their wealth and position in disputes with the tenants of their estate in Galway. I didn't expect this story would show the Land League in a positive light. And it doesn't, but it also isn't a strident or polemical novel.  It is set in the southwest of Ireland, "near the junction of the counties of Cork and Kerry," around a small fishing town called Rossbrin.

"On a certain fine October afternoon in the year 1883," John Donovan drives out from Rossbrin to the farm of the Widow Leonard. There, he orders her on behalf of the Land League to give up Drimnahoon, a second farm that she is renting for pasturage. The property is under boycott. Mrs. Leonard, a League member herself, absolutely refuses. "My answer to the Laygue is that when I give over payin' me subscription it'll be time for them to be givin' me their ordhers about me own uncle's land..." Donovan, who in addition to his position with the League also owns the hotel in the town, calls a boycott against the Leonards. They can't buy food in the stores, they can't sell their cattle, they are shunned in church. Mrs. Leonard's prize red heifer is found dead and mutilated up at Drimnahoon.

Only one person in Rossbrin defies the boycott: Rick O'Grady, who has come home from the United States to establish a commercial fishing business among the local mackerel fishermen. It may be Mrs. Leonard's beautiful daughter Ellen, as much as his sense of fairness, that draws him into supporting them. Gradually we learn more about the conflict over Drimnahoon, and the motives that drive the different characters, including Donovan's wife Harriet and the former tenant James Mahony.

This is one of Somerville and Ross's more serious books, in contrast to the light-hearted "Irish R.M." stories. Somerville said it was a "Land League" book, but it doesn't feel like a denunciation of the group or the movement itself (whose influence is much diminished by the end). It is a story about the people of Rossbrin, of conflict and control in a small rural community. Though it doesn't quite have the power of The Real Charlotte, or the warmth of The Irish R.M., I enjoyed reading it. It is a real shame that most of Somerville and Ross's books are out of print now. I was lucky enough to find via an internet bookseller a battered Tauchnitz edition from 1891. An e-book version is available through Google Books (not, I was surprised to discover, from Project Gutenberg).

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

FDR's Funeral Train, by Robert Klara

I had never heard of this book before it was chosen for one of my book groups this month.  It is an account of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's last trip (by rail) down to Warm Springs, Georgia, in late March, 1945. He had a private cabin there on the grounds of the institution he had founded, built around thermal springs, to treat polio victims like himself. Just weeks into his unprecedented fourth term, FDR was taking a brief break from war-time Washington. It was a trip he had made many times before. This would be the last. He suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage on the morning of April 12th, while sitting for a portrait. Within twenty-four hours, his body was back on the train. His massive copper casket was placed in the last compartment of the train, clearly visible through the car's windows with its honor guard of four servicemen. The train made its slow way back to Washington, as crowds gathered all along the route to watch it pass, many in tears. In Washington, there was a brief service in the White House on April 14th, before the family returned to the train with a carefully-compiled list of guests. This time they were headed north, to the Roosevelts' family estate in Hyde Park, New York. The next morning, April 15th, FDR was buried on the grounds in another brief service. In just three hours, everyone was back on the train and headed home.

Let me say first that there are a lot of trains in this book. The engines, the different cars, their various amenities, the tracks, the stations, the crews - all are described in meticulous detail, and in prose that sometimes verges on the purple. ("The locomotive's 4,075 horses had begun pulling . . . Moments later, the car would be nodding like a porpoise. . . the GG-1's traction motors took a quick sip of 11,000 volts from the wire overhead..." A car sputters along, "drinking its wartime cocktail of watered-down gasoline." And are a rising sun's rays really auburn? ) Several of the Pullman cars, such as the presidential Ferdinand Magellan, the train equivalent to Air Force One, are even included in the Epilogue that briefly outlines the lives and careers of the key players in the story. Though I like train stories and histories, I found the level of detail a little overwhelming.

The subtitle of the book is "A Betrayed Widow, A Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance." The "betrayed widow" was of course Eleanor Roosevelt. Present with FDR when he died was Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. She and FDR had had an affair during the First World War, when she was working as Mrs. Roosevelt's social secretary. The affair officially ended in 1918, but they continued to see each other in the years that followed. FDR's daughter Anna had even arranged visits in the White House during Mrs. Roosevelt's frequent absences. (It must have felt like a double betrayal when she was absent working on behalf of her husband, as well as for the causes dear to her.) In the midst of the shock over the president's death, his staff also had to cover up the fact that Rutherfurd had been there. It was all to no avail, as Mrs. Roosevelt either already knew or soon learned. The press however kept a discrete silence.

The "Soviet Spy" was Lauchlin Currie, one of FDR's economic advisers. He doesn't actually appear in the story until half-way through the book, as a passenger on the train to Hyde Park. From his prominence in the subtitle, I thought he was going to play an important part, but all he did was ride the train up and back. It's of course interesting that the Soviets had secured an agent who actually worked in the White House, in the West Wing. He gave them information about the administration's economic policies and relations with Stalin. But his story seems shoehorned into this account of FDR's death.

The third phrase, "a Presidency in the Balance," refers to Harry S. Truman's sudden succession to the presidency. It wasn't completely unexpected: FDR was clearly in poor health by 1945, though his primary physician continued to insist it was just fatigue, a cold, nothing serious. I had forgotten that Truman had played no major role in the administration during his weeks as vice-president. The author points out that the new president wasn't even aware of the most important war-time secret: the development of the atomic bomb. He had to be brought up to speed quickly. Truman also decided that at this time of crisis, he needed to make an address to Congress. All the way up to the funeral, and all the way back, he was meeting with advisers and speechwriters. Mr. Klara carefully plots out which of Roosevelt's cabinet and advisers transferred their allegiance to the new president, and which were on their way out of power. A final chapter covers the address, in which Truman pledged himself to carry out Roosevelt's goals, particularly victory in the war still going on, under no terms but the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

I found this book very readable, and it held my interest throughout, though I didn't try to remember all of the details. (The other members of the group agreed.) I knew of Roosevelt's death at Warm Springs, and I've been there with my family as a child, when we were living in Georgia. I knew little about his funeral, and it was interesting to compare it with other presidential funerals. (The off-beat and fascinating National Museum of Funeral History here in Houston has a permanent exhibit on presidential funerals.) I was surprised at the speed, and the lack of pomp and ceremony, even though FDR had left instructions for a simple funeral. Reading this made me want to read more about Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman. I have a book of his letters to his wife Bess, and I've also been thinking about re-reading David McCullough's great biography of him.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Louisa May Alcott in fact and fiction

When I read The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, I noted that some of those included survive only in transcripts made by Ednah Dow Cheney.  I assumed that her book, Louisa May Alcott, Life, Letters and Journals, consisted mainly of transcripts. It was only when I finally started reading the book (a long-term resident of the TBR shelves) that I discovered it was published in 1889, the year after Alcott's death; and that it is a biography as well as a compilation of Alcott's writings. It was clear from the text that Ednah Cheney knew Louisa May Alcott. When I looked for information about Cheney, I found that she is a fascinating figure in her own right, part of the Transcendentalist inner circle, an activist in the abolitionist and women's rights movements. Her biography is the first written on Alcott. She had access through Louisa's only surviving sister, Anna Alcott Pratt (Meg), to family papers. She did note that Louisa burned many of her papers before her death, and also sorted and burned her mother's. Anna Pratt may have done the same later for Louisa's. Among the extracts Cheney included were entries from a diary that Louisa kept as a child during the utopian "Fruitlands" experiment organized by her father Bronson Alcott. The original of the diary has since been lost (or destroyed), along with letters. (Alcott amended her journals later in life, adding notes and comments, which Cheney included in her transcriptions.)

I can't remember if I have read a full biography of Louisa May Alcott before. I found this an interesting outline of her life, and I enjoyed reading Alcott's own words. It is certainly not a rigorous scholarly biography. Cheney seems to have felt the need to defend Alcott, against accusations that her early writings were too sensational and immoral, or too full of slang; and also to assure her readers that Alcott was a true woman. Though she had no children of her own - and apparently didn't really care for children - still she had "the mother-nature strong in her heart..." At the same time, she allowed Alcott to speak for herself, and that keeps the book from turning into hagiography. I was surprised to read in a diary entry from the period when Alcott was writing Little Women, "Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters..." In 1877, as she was writing Under the Lilacs, she said in another entry that she was "tired of providing moral pap for the young." And she complained, a lot, about how hard she had to work, and how easy other people had it, particularly her youngest sister May (Amy). She noted at one point that "she [Anna] has her wish, and is happy. When shall I have mine?"  On one birthday she wrote "I never seem to have many presents, though I give a good many." By then she had become the main financial support of her family, which led her to exhaust herself in writing. I was reminded of Margaret Oliphant, churning out books and articles for her family's support, and sometimes complaining about it all.

Cheney's biography made me want to read one of Alcott's novels, and I chose Jo's Boys, published in 1886. I read it many times growing up, but it's one I re-read less often these days. Learning that it was Alcott's last novel piqued my interest. It is the third story of the March family, opening ten years after Little Men. Plumfield has now become part of Laurence College, funded by the estate of old Mr. Laurence. He has gone to his reward, as has Marmee. In real life, Louisa had also lost her sister May, the original for Amy. A touching Preface states that "since the original of that character died, it has been impossible for me to write of her as when she was here to suggest, criticise, and laugh over her namesake. The same excuse applies to MARMEE." Professor Bhaer is the president of the college, Mr. March its chaplain and resident philosopher. Meg has a house on the campus and acts as a den mother for the women students. Laurie and Amy have also built a house there, which is a center for art and music.

Reading this novel right after Cheney's book made it clear how much Alcott took straight from her own life for this book. Jo has become a famous author after writing "a little story describing a few scenes and adventures in the lives of herself and her sisters - though boys were more in her line..." The success of this Little Women-ish book allowed Jo to fulfill her dream: "a room where Marmee could sit in peace and enjoy herself after her hard, heroic life." That was exactly Alcott's wish for her Marmee, achieved through her own writing. With the runaway success of Jo's novel and the books that follow, fans deluge her with letters and camp out at Plumfield to see her. One woman visitor who forces her way in tells her, "If ever you come to Oshkosh, your feet won't be allowed to touch the pavement" - almost the exact words a fan spoke to Alcott herself in 1875. Jo however considers herself "only a literary nursery-maid who provides moral pap for the young..." Like her creator, Jo prefers "little Charlotte Brontë" to George Eliot. "I admire, but I don't love, George Eliot," she tells one of the women students who aspires to be a writer.

I was also reminded, reading this, of how subversive Louisa May Alcott could be. Laurence College is integrated, accepting African American students, including freed people from the south. It is also co-ed, and the women students are there to learn. The point is made more than once that women can study just as hard and as well as men. Many of the women students are preparing for careers - some out of necessity, and others by choice. While Alcott gave less attention to the girls who first appeared in Little Men, we get one of my favorites, the harum-scarum Nan, now studying to be a doctor and determined to remain a spinster. Meg's daughter Daisy, the rather bland twin sister of Demi, is set for marriage and domesticity, but her younger sister Josie is determined on a career as an actress. Amy and Laurie's daughter Bess, who will never have to earn a living, wants to be a sculptor. In the last chapter, Alcott tells us that Nan, Josie and Bess all achieve their goals. Alcott was an active worker for women's suffrage, organizing the women of Concord to vote in local elections. Nan argues for women's suffrage, and Demi supports her, pointing out that Meg, Jo and Amy vote in every election. And we also get the wild and wicked Dan, who can't settle down to anything but finally decides to dedicate himself to working among Native Americans. There is a fair bit of "noble savage" stereotyping, but Alcott also has strong words for the way "those poor devils" have been treated by the government, "cheated out of everything, and waiting patiently, after being driven from their own land to places where nothing will grow." It reminded me of her daring to marry the Boston blue-blood Annabel in the Eight Cousins books to a Chinese merchant, in the face of rampant anti-Asian prejudice.

Speaking of Eight Cousins, Cheney's book includes a long letter from Alcott describing a Christmas spent helping Abby Gibbons distribute food and toys in New York City. It was written in December of 1875, a few months before she began working on A Rose in Bloom, which mentions Abby Gibbons's work. I do love tracing connections like this.

Two quick quotes, to end with. As a child, Alcott listed among her vices, "Love of cats." And in Jo's Boys, the chapter "Plays at Plumfield" begins, "As it is impossible for the humble historian of the March family to write a story without theatricals in it as for our dear Miss Yonge to get on with less than twelve or fourteen children in her interesting tales..." Having finally read Our Dear Miss Yonge, I appreciate the truth of that statement! (It does make me wonder too if Alcott ever read Anthony Trollope - she knew his dear platonic friend Kate Field.)

Saturday, January 9, 2016

That Lady, by Kate O'Brien

When I re-discovered Kate O'Brien's books and started looking for the ones I hadn't read yet, I put this one on the bottom of my list. A novel about the court of King Philip II of Spain seemed an odd fit with her other books. I had forgotten that her first book, Without My Cloak, is a historical novel, a family story that opens in 1879, and The Ante-Room is set in the 1880s. I was also thinking of her primarily as an Irish writer. From her novel Mary Lavelle and the travelogue Farewell Spain I learned more about her own experiences living and working in Spain, and about her love for the county and its people. In the end, a copy of That Lady found me, turning up on the library sale shelves, a gently-used hardback for all of $1. I read it slowly over the past week, savoring it, and wishing I hadn't been so misguided in my snap judgement.

The lady of the title is Ana de Mendoza y de la Cerda, Princess of Eboli and Duchess of Pastrana. As the story opens, in October of 1576, she is a widow of 36, with six surviving children. She is awaiting the arrival of King Philip at her country estate of Pastrana, east of Madrid in the province of Guadalajara. Ana was a real person, the heiress to an immense fortune and the highest position in Castilian Spain. She was married at age twelve to Philip's political adviser and right-hand man, Ruy Gomez de Silva. (I had already met Ruy, and Philip as well, in Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles.) From what I have read, there were a lot of stories and rumors around Ana de Mendoza. She famously fought a duel with one of her father's pages when she was fourteen, during which she lost an eye, and wore a patch over the socket for the rest of her life. There are several portraits of her in existence. I found this one on Wikimedia Commons (source here):

The pictures I found intrigued me, and made me want to know more about Ana de Mendoza.

When King Philip arrives, Ana learns that he has made the trip to ask her to come back to Madrid. There are family matters that need her attention, and he also wants to squelch rumors - that the Princess has gone mad, or has quietly been murdered. Ana is reluctant to leave her quiet country life but she agrees. In Madrid, she makes a decision, to take a lover, which she believes should be a private matter. However, it becomes a public and then a political one, bringing consequences she could never have imagined. Knowing nothing of her story, I became increasingly concerned about how it would end, and I finally gave in and read the last two chapters.

At first this did seem quite different from the books of Kate O'Brien's that I have read. But as Ana's story unfolded, two familiar themes linked it to O'Brien's other books. First, Ana has had her life directed and organized by others, first her parents and then her husband. She accepted it, and she played the roles expected of her. Now, however, she is facing "her general, surprised sense of never having managed to be herself throughout her singularly successful life." For once in her life, she has chosen for herself, and she will take the consequences of that choice. She struggles with the knowledge that her choice is a sin, and with her relationship with God - another theme in O'Brien's books. I was glad that she has a wonderful spiritual counselor in the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo, one of my favorite characters. He calls her a conceited woman and a self-deluding creature - with a great affection - and tries to convince her to "Pray, child, and love Him. It's not such a very long journey from the love of man to the love of God." Ana's struggles felt very real, and very human, to me.

Kate O'Brien says in a brief Foreword that "What follows is not a historical novel. It is an invention arising from reflection on the curious external story of Ana de Mendoza and Philip II of Spain." She goes on to say that she has "retained the historical outline of events in which they have played a part," but that their words and writings, their thoughts and emotions, are invented. I'm not sure I understand the distinction she was making between a historical novel and an "invention." She certainly didn't pile on the historical detail, and her characters don't speak in ye olde quainte language. One even uses the word "psychology," which certainly didn't exist in the 1570s. But O'Brien evoked the period all the same, in much the same way that Dorothy Dunnett did, partly through simple details of daily life.

I feel like every novel of Kate O'Brien's that I read becomes my new favorite. It's certainly true for this book. I am still thinking about Ana and the other characters, particularly her daughter Anichu (theirs is such a close and loving relationship). And I cannot tell you how much I despise Philip II of Spain just now.

N.B. This novel was published in 1946, adding another year to my Mid-Century of Books.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Letters from Father Christmas, by J.R.R. Tolkien (Baillie Tolkien, ed.)

Jane of Reading, Writing, Working, Playing included this book in her Spirit of Christmas reading challenge, and as soon as I read her post about it, I headed off to find a copy. I figured it would be the perfect Christmas present to myself - and I was right.

Beginning in 1920, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote these letters for his children. The last letter included here was written in 1943, when his daughter Priscilla was aged 14. Father Christmas told her that year,
"I suppose you will be hanging up your stocking just once more: I hope so for I have still a few little things for you. After this I shall have to say 'goodbye', more or less: I mean, I shall not forget you. We always keep the old numbers of our old friends, and their letters; and later on we hope to come back when they are grown up and have houses of their own and children."
The first letters, to Tolkien's oldest son John, are fairly brief. As the years go on, they become more elaborate, with a cast of characters including the Polar Bear, who helps Father Christmas organize his work, when he isn't getting into trouble with his nephews Paksu and Valkotukka; and the Snow Man, the gardener, with his children the Snowboys. (The North Pole is a very masculine place.) Later on we meet the Cave Bear, whose tunnels have been infested with goblins, and the Red Elves who come to work for Father Christmas. There are some familiar Tolkien touches, particularly the elf Ilbereth, who becomes FC's secretary, and who writes in a beautiful flowing elvish hand. Polar Bear, wandering around lost in the goblin caves, became "quite long and thin with hunger...He said, 'I should soon have been able to squeeze through a goblin-crack'" - which sounds very Bagginsish to me. Under siege by goblin hordes, Father Christmas has to sound "the great Horn (Windbeam)," which calls "snowboys, polar bears, and hundreds and hundreds of elves" to help defeat the goblins.  And it made me laugh when Father Christmas told Priscilla and her brother Christopher in the 1937 letter, "I was going to send 'Hobbits' - I am sending away loads (mostly second editions) which I sent for only a few days ago) - but I thought you would have lots..." I had forgotten The Hobbit was published that year.

There are serious touches to the letters as well. In the 1932 letter, Father Christmas reminds the children "there are far too many people in your land, and others, who are hungry and cold this winter." The letters from 1939 on mention "this horrible war" and the suffering it brings. But he tells Priscilla in the last letter, in 1943, "I am still very much alive, and shall come back again soon, as merry as ever."

The letters are charming, but the illustrations are amazing. The time it must have taken Tolkien to devise the letters, write them in two or three different handwritings, and then illustrate them! I love the picture of Father Christmas on the cover of my edition:

I know this is a book I will want to read again next Christmas. In the meantime, I'd like to learn more about Tolkien and his family, if anyone can recommend a good biography.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A final post from Orley Farm

I have already written more about this 1862 novel than any other book I have read, but now that I've finally finished it, all 800 pages, I have a few last points.

The first is that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. At its heart is a lawsuit over the estate of the title. Sir Joseph Mason's will left it to his son by a second marriage, through a codicil. His elder son challenged the will at the time of his death, and lost. Now he is going to try again, on different grounds. As in many of Trollope's books, there are several subplots winding around the main story, with a large cast of characters. I found the secondary stories just as interesting as the main one. The second half of the book focuses more on the legal case, and I became more and more curious about how it was going to end - though I resisted peeking ahead. As usual, Trollope brings his many stories together into a neat ending, though this time without all of the detail that he sometimes gives us about his characters' futures. (I am still surprised at the imprudence of one parent in regard to a child's marriage.)

Both the introduction to my Oxford World's Classics edition and the invaluable Oxford Reader's Companion point out that Trollope uses his fictional trial to indict the British legal system and call for reforms. (Apparently he got many of the legal details wrong, and offended some lawyers.)  He particularly objected to the idea that it is the maneuverings of lawyers that make a case, not justice itself, and so the courts favor those with the best lawyers. Some of the strongest words come from Mr Moulder, a commercial traveler whose brother-in-law John Kenneby is to be one of the chief witnesses at the trial.
     "Look here, John; if you're paid to bring a man off not guilty, won't you bring him off if you can? I've been at trials times upon times, and listened till I've wished from the bottom of my heart that I'd been brought up a barrister. Not that I think much of myself, and I mean of course with education and all that accordingly. It's beautiful to hear them. You'll see a little fellow in a wig, and he'll get up; and there'll be a man in the box before him, - some swell dressed up to his eyes, who thinks no end of strong beer of himself; and in about ten minutes he'll be as flabby as wet paper, and he'll say - on his oath, mind you, - just anything that that little fellow wants him to say. That's power, mind you, and I call it beautiful."
     "But it ain't justice," said Mrs. Smiley.
     "Why not? I say it is justice. You can have it if you choose to pay for it, and so can I. If I buy a greatcoat against the winter, and you go out at night without having one, is it injustice because you're perished by the cold while I'm as warm as toast. I say it's a grand thing to live in a country where one can buy a greatcoat."
On the whole, I think Mr Trollope agreed with Mrs. Smiley.

Which brings me to my last point: this story is full of strong female characters. Trollope draws interesting parallels between some of them. Lady Mason and her neighbor Mrs. Orme are both widows with only sons. But while Lady Mason has been on her own, holding the property for her son, Mrs. Orme has been wrapped in cotton-wool by her loving father-in-law. He wants to shield her from everything that might defile her pure goodness, but she eventually insists on stepping outside the narrow role he has defined for her. There are two neglected wives, Mrs. Furnival, whose husband is Lady Mason's attorney; and Mrs. Moulder, wife to the commercial traveler. Both are married to hard-working and successful men, who leave them alone at home most of the time. Mr. Furnival is moving in higher social circles now, and the invitations no longer include his wife. They do include his daughter Sophia, a young woman with a sizable dowry and a mind to marriage. She is contrasted with Madeline Stavely, a young neighbor of the Ormes, who follows her heart. There are other secondary characters like Mrs. Smiley, quoted above, who is considering a second marriage but wants to protect the property from her first; Mary Snow, a young woman being brought up to be the perfect wife; and Bridget Bolster, the second major witness in the case, and a much stronger one than poor John Kenneby. And I can't forget Mrs. Mason, the miserly wife of the claimant to Orley Farm, the nastiest woman I have met yet in Trollope's books: a miser starving her family and her servants while stuffing herself in private. The scenes where she siphons off parts of the Christmas dinner for her own use - almost in the face of her invited guests - made my jaw drop.