Saturday, February 17, 2018

Celebrating Dorothy Canfield Fisher with her short stories

Today, Jane's Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors celebrates one of my favorites, Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I don't think I am the only reader who met her through the Persephone edition of her 1924 novel The Home-Maker. I'm not sure whose review I read first, but it may have been Claire's at The Captive Reader. That was back in 2012, and I have been collecting her books ever since. I was lucky enough to find some on bookstore shelves, even in the original editions, and others on-line.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher published several books of short stories, and I have read all of them except Basque People (from 1931). I have found something to enjoy in each of them, many with familiar settings in Vermont or France (particularly in the Basque region). I can see connections to her novels, common themes that run through her fiction and non-fiction. Though I have read the books of short stories, I still wanted to read A Harvest of Stories, an anthology collected by DCF herself and published in 1956. I wanted to see which ones she chose, as the subtitle says, "From a Half Century of Writing." I hoped that she might have something to say about the stories or about the writing of them.

There are twenty-seven stories included, divided into three sections: "Vermont Memories," "Men, Women - and Children," and "War." DCF introduces them with a Prologue, "What My Mother Taught Me." In it, she explains the part her mother played in making her a teller of stories, one who has "to try with all one's might to understand that part of human life which does not lie visibly on the surface. And then to try to depict the people involved, and their actions, so that they may be recognizable men, women - and children." I love that in her stories, that she wants us to understand her people, to see not just what they do, but why - their motives, which they themselves don't always recognize or understand. And she has such compassion, such empathy for people. She sees them clearly, and she doesn't gloss over or whitewash, but she does understand, and she wants her readers to as well.

This collection includes some of my favorites. "Uncle Giles" is about a relative who considered himself a gentleman, someone who "should not be forced to the menial task of earning a living."
The tales of how Uncle Giles blandly outwitted [his able-bodied and energetic kinspeople's] stub-fingered attacks on his liberty and succeeded to the end of a very long life in living without work are part of our inheritance. For three generations now they have wrought the members of our family to wrath and laughter. He was incredible. You can't imagine anything like him. Unless you have had him in your family too.
"The Bedquilt," on the other hand, is the story of Aunt Mehetable, "of all the Elwell family...certainly the most unimportant," until she has an idea for a bold new quilt design. "A Family Alliance" is about the parents of a young engaged couple, meeting for the first time, trying to live up to the expectations that their children have created. It's very funny, and very sweet. And "As Ye Sow," the story of a busy mother whose young son and his friends are excluded from their class's Christmas entertainment, because (as she discovers) they are terrible singers. "Through Pity and Terror..." and "In the Eye of the Storm" describe life in France, under German occupation in the Great War. They are difficult to read even now.

I am so happy that Jane included Dorothy Canfield Fisher in her celebration. And if anyone would like a copy of The Home-Maker, I have one to share. I don't want to give it to the library sale, I want to give it to a fellow reader, to someone who I hope will enjoy her books as much as I do.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Gemini and the House of Niccolò, by Dorothy Dunnett

Gemini is the eighth and last book in Dorothy Dunnett's second series, "The House of Niccolò." When it was published in 2000, I read the Michael Joseph UK edition, specially ordered from an Edinburgh bookseller, because like a lot of us in the US I didn't want to wait for the North American edition.

I'm not sure I've read it again since then.

The Nicholas books were my introduction to Dorothy Dunnett. Almost 30 years ago, I came across the first book, Niccolò Rising, in the library. The cover images from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry caught my eye, because I had studied and fallen in love with medieval art in college. I was fascinated with the story inside, of the young apprentice Claes, who takes his mistress's dye-yard business into a much larger world of trade and finance - and espionage. I loved the setting of 15th-century Bruges, like seeing a Van Eyck painting come to life. I enjoyed the journeys that take Claes (later Nicholas) beyond Flanders, to Geneva and Florence and Lorraine. And then there are the family complications. Claes, raised in the Charetty family, is known to be the son of the late Sophie de Fleury, but her husband's family, the St Pols of Scotland and France, have always rejected Claes as a bastard, not the son of her husband Simon. His position, as a bastard, an apprentice stinking of the dye-yard, makes his rise in this story all the more compelling.

I think Niccolò Rising is one of Dorothy Dunnett's best books, with King Hereafter, her novel of Macbeth. I've read it countless times, as well as the second in the series, The Spring of the Ram, which follows Nicholas to the court of the Byzantine Emperor in Trebizond. There is a tragedy at the end of the second book, though, that shook me when I first read it, and I did not then continue with the series. It was only after I was introduced to (and became obsessed with) Francis Crawford of Lymond and his story that I came back to the Nicholas books (set earlier but published later).

A main focus of this second series is the international business that Nicholas builds, on finance and trade and an excellent mercenary company. He gathers a company of men and women, drawn to him by his personality, his gifts, his genius (for trade, for sailing, for music). There are others, rivals in business, and the competition between them is intense, sometimes violent. His encounters with the St Pol family are always fraught, to say the least.

There is so much packed into these stories, as they move between trade and war, across Europe, to Africa and Egypt. They are full of the politics of the different countries where Nicholas's company trades, into which he is sometimes drawn. The complicated stories, the masses of detail, can be overwhelming at times. But where I struggle with some of the later books is with the personal. The men and women around Nicholas, who form a kind of surrogate family, have high expectations of him, and they make demands on him. Nicholas often thinks of them as his nurses, or his keepers. They constrain him, and all too often they misjudge him. They see part of his complicated family history, they see his actions, they make assumptions, and they get angry with him. We the readers know the truth, know more of the story than they do, and it's clear to us where they are wrong, unfair, misguided. Nicholas often takes the blame for things that are not his fault, with punishing consequences. It is true that he doesn't always explain himself, though we see much more of his mind and heart that we do of Lymond. And he does make mistakes, he does things wrong, often with great deliberation. But unlike his companions I can't fault him for guarding his privacy, and their self-righteous judgements grate on me. There is also one particular feud, a war carried out over more than eight years, based on a completely wrong premise. I realize this may sound ridiculous, but I get so irritated on Nicholas's behalf that I have trouble with the later books.

Which is why I may have only read Gemini one time. I clearly remember, the last time I read the series, holding out to the seventh book, Caprice and Rondo, and then giving up.

The other day, I was thinking of an incident in Caprice and Rondo ("Date stones, sweetheart!"),  which happens toward the end of the book. When I went to check it, I ended up reading the last chapters, and then I picked up Gemini, to look at the first chapter. And then there I was, reading Gemini again. It felt wrong, on one level, because I am normally a strict series-order reader. But how quickly I fell back under Dorothy Dunnett's spell. And how lovely it was to see the end of Nicholas's story. I know its beginnings so well, from umpteen readings of the first two books. Here she brings it to a very satisfying conclusion, answering questions and tying loose ends together, and ending feuds. One character in particular is completely redeemed, in my mind. Of course, being Dorothy Dunnett, she puts her people through hell in the process.

About half-way through the book (which is more than 600 pages), I had the heretical (to me) idea of reading the series in reverse. One of the great pleasures in the series in seeing Nicholas grow and develop and expand. It's a crucial difference between this series and the Lymond Chronicles. There we meet Francis Crawford, only a few years older than the Claes of the first book, but fully developed, fully mature. Nicholas we see becoming. His story is also more complicated, and for me, it's a challenge to keep all of the plot lines (even the personal ones) straight, much more so than with Lymond. I think reading backward might help with that.

And besides, I've fallen again under that familiar spell. When in its grip, no other stories will satisfy. So here I am, surrounded by expiring library books and tottering TBR piles, deep in 15th-century Poland with Nicholas.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Spring Fever, by P.G. Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse loved imposters in his stately homes the way Patricia Wentworth loved people suffering from amnesia in her mysteries. In PGW's stories, Person A is prevented or refuses, for a good reason, to make a visit to a stately home. Person B volunteers for his own reasons to go in his place (it's usually a him). Though there are usually at least two people in on the secret, Person B generally carries off the masquerade - until Person A shows up, under false pretenses and pretending to be someone else entirely (let's call him Person C).

In Spring Fever, published in 1948, Person A is Stanwood Cobbold. His father has sent him over to England to get him away from Eileen Stoker, a Hollywood star with whom he has fallen in love. Discovering that Miss Stoker has just arrived in London, for a two-picture contract, Cobbold Senior orders Stanwood off on a visit to Beevor Castle. The Castle is the Kentish home of the fifth Earl of Shortlands, the head of Cobbold family. The American Mr. Cobbold has discovered that his family is a colonial branch of this noble family, and he has developed (from afar) a great reverence for and devotion to the Earl. Lord Shortlands has no idea who this American person is, and certainly didn't invite his son for a visit. But then his masterful daughter Adela, whose husband's money keeps the Castle running, learns that Stanwood is the heir to a fortune. She immediately plans to marry him to her youngest sister Theresa.

Stanwood, however, has no intention of leaving London while Eileen Stoker is there. So his friend Mike Cardinal, a Hollywood agent, volunteers to go in his place. His motive: he is in love with Theresa (Terry), who is steadfastly refusing to marry him. When Lord Shortlands comes up to London, with Terry, to collect Stanwood, he hits it off with Mike and agrees to the impersonation. The Earl has troubles of his own. He needs £200, to win the hand of his cook Mrs. Punter, who wants to retire from service and open a pub in London. Lord Shortlands has a rival in his handsome butler Melvin Spink. His only consolation is that Spink regularly loses all his money on the ponies.

At first all goes well, except that Terry continues to refuse Mike's proposals and won't tell him why. But then Stanwood appears, pretending to be a Mr. Rossiter, an expert in rare stamps (about which he really knows nothing). An expert is needed because a rare Spanish stamp turned up in an old album, which both Lord Shortlands and his butler claim belongs to them. The stamp may be worth as much as £1500, which is more than enough to win Mrs. Punter's hand.

This book was such fun, with a capital "F". Lord Shortlands is one of those persecuted fathers, but he and Terry have a close and loving alliance. She is just a good egg, and I was curious to find out why she kept turning Mike Cardinal down when she's clearly not immune to his charm and beauty. Maybe it's the influence of his Hollywood career, but their flirtatious conversations flow like the best screwball comedy. At one point, he woos her by reading selections from "Percy's Promise, by Marcia Huddlestone (Popgood and Grooly, 1869)" - which is how it's referred to in the text every time, and that made me giggle.

And then there's Augustus Robb, Stanwood Cobbold's personal attendant. He is a massive man, an ex-burglar who has found religion, quotes constantly from the Scriptures, calls Stanwood "cocky" - and wears horn-rimmed glasses. I thought immediately of Magersfontein Lugg, Albert Campion's man, though it's Campion who wears the glasses. Did PGW ever read Margery Allingham's books, I wonder? And that reminded me of Peter Wimsey telling Bunter in Strong Poison, "Well, then, don't talk like Jeeves. It irritates me."