Tuesday, October 25, 2016

O Pioneers! - Willa Cather

John Bergson emigrated from Sweden with his family in the 1870s. They settled in Nebraska where there were many other European migrant communities - German, Bohemian, Norwegian. After several tough years farming on The Divide, struggling against poor crops & bad weather, John is dying. He leaves the direction of the farm's future to his daughter, Alexandra, a capable young woman who has the vision that is lacking in her two brothers, Lou & Oscar. We first see Alexandra in the role that will become familiar - taking charge of a situation. She comforts her youngest brother, Emil, when his kitten is chased up a pole outside the general store & asks her friend, Carl Linstrum, to rescue it. She is calm & sensible, dismissive of the admiration of a passer-by & preoccupied by her father's illness. Lou & Oscar are good workers but unimaginative. They agree with their father's last wish, that Alexandra will run the farm. After John's death, there are several hard years but Alexandra is determined to keep the land they have & she convinces her brothers to take out a mortgage to buy more land when other farmers, including their neighbours the Linstrums, are selling out.

Sixteen years later, Alexandra's determination has paid off. She is the owner of a flourishing farm, employing farmhands & training young Swedish girls as servants. Lou & Oscar are married & settled on their own farms with their families. Alexandra is determined to send Emil to college, although Lou & Oscar, unimaginative as ever, can't see the point. Alexandra's neighbour, Marie Shabata, is an attractive, vivacious young woman who married a handsome man who soon turned surly & unpredictable. Her childhood friendship with Emil has continued & she admires Alexandra's calm efficiency at the head of her household.

Alexandra herself has changed very little. Her figure is fuller and she has more color. She seems sunnier and more vigorous than she did as a young girl. But she still has the same calmness and deliberation of manner, the same clear eyes, and she still wears her hair in two braids wound round her head. It is so curly that fiery ends escape from the braids and make her head look like on of the big double sunflowers that fringe her vegetable garden. Her face is always tanned in summer, for her sunbonnet is oftener on her arm than on her head. But where her collar falls away from her neck, or where her sleeves are pushed back from her wrist, the skin is of such smoothness and whiteness as none but Swedish women ever possess; skin with the freshness of the snow itself.

Alexandra is pleased when Carl Linstrum returns to The Divide after years away. Carl has always cared for her & his visit soothes the loneliness of her life. Lou & Oscar accuse Alexandra of impropriety & think Carl is after Alexandra's money (or, more accurately, their own children's inheritance). This causes a breach between Alexandra & her brothers & Carl leaves to seek his fortune in Alaska without any definite understanding between himself & Alexandra. Emil's love for Marie seems hopeless & he decides to leave as well.

O Pioneers! was Willa Cather's second novel & is considered one of the greatest American regional novels. Cather admired the work of Sarah Orne Jewett (who had encouraged her to write) & her influence is very evident in the glorious descriptions of the natural world & the landscape. Cather grew up in Nebraska &, in the portraits of the farmers & their families, she pays tribute to the women especially that she saw around her. In some ways, O Pioneers! was her true first novel as she later wrote when comparing it to her actual first novel, Alexander's Bridge, about a young engineer & set mostly in London.

... I began to write a book entirely for myself; a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbors of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old. I found it a much more absorbing occupation than writing Alexander's Bridge, a different process altogether. Here there was no arranging or "inventing"; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. The other was like riding in a park, with someone not altogether congenial, to whom you had to be talking all the time.
(from My First Novels - There Were Two, The Colophon 1931)

O Pioneers! was unusual (it was published in 1913) as the popular novels of the time were the society or drawing room novels of masters like Edith Wharton & Henry James. Willa Cather's greatest novels & stories are set in Nebraska where she grew up & in New Mexico & other places where she travelled in later life. She was carrying on the tradition of writers like Jewett & Mary Wilkins Freeman in focusing on the lives of rural communities, often immigrant communities. Drawing on her childhood memories & the nostalgic affection she felt for the people & the times is one of the strengths of her work.

Alexandra is such a wonderful character. Calm, sensible, intelligent, she dominates the narrative as she dominates her family. She's like a medieval queen or great heiress, providing for her family, caring for her employees & treating them well but finding herself lonely in her lofty position. She also has her charities, from old Ivar, the strange old man who goes barefoot & has strange visions but has a canny common sense when it comes to farming to old Mrs Lee, Lou's mother-in-law, who looks forward all year to her visit to Alexandra where she can wear her comfortable clothes & tell all the old stories from her homeland that her daughter is too sophisticated to care about. Alexandra's competence leaves her feeling isolated & lonely, with only her old friendship with Carl to comfort her. Even Emil expects her to always be there, never changing, while he sets off to Mexico for adventures or is absorbed in his own thoughts of his hopeless love.  

O Pioneers! is a quiet book about determination & perseverance. The big emotions are there although they are hidden under the hard work & social expectations of a tight-knit community. In that same article for The Colophon, Cather writes,

... I did not in the least expect that other people would see anything in a slow-moving story, without "action". without "humor", without a "hero"; a story concerned entirely with heavy farming people, with cornfields and pasture lands and pig yards - set in Nebraska, of all places!

& was surprised when it was published. After her third novel, The Song of the Lark, Cather found herself going back to the direction of O Pioneers! with My Ántonia. Her best-loved novels are these stories about pioneering immigrant families & strong women like Alexandra Bergson & Ántonia Shimerda. Thank goodness she took that direction rather than any other.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sunday Poetry - John Donne

More John Donne this week. Last week's post has had more hits than most of my posts so I thought I'd see if the same thing happens this week. Maybe I should give up writing book reviews & ramblings & just post a poem every week? But then, I don't write the blog for the statistics, especially as Blogger's stats are notoriously dodgy. I'm just curious about why some posts attract so many hits. Maybe there are a lot of students studying Donne at the moment & they find my blog when they google his name? Who knows?
This is another of the Songs & Sonnets, Love's Growth.

I scarce believe my love to be so pure
   As I had thought it was,
   Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make’ it more.

But if medicine, love, which cures all sorrow
With more, not only be no quintessence,
But mixed of all stuffs paining soul or sense,
And of the sun his working vigor borrow,
Love’s not so pure, and abstract, as they use
To say, which have no mistress but their muse,
But as all else, being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do.

And yet no greater, but more eminent,
   Love by the spring is grown;
   As, in the firmament,
Stars by the sun are not enlarged, but shown,
Gentle love deeds, as blossoms on a bough,
From love’s awakened root do bud out now.

If, as water stirred more circles be
Produced by one, love such additions take,
Those, like so many spheres, but one heaven make,
For they are all concentric unto thee;
And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in time of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Cold Earth - Ann Cleeves

During Magnus Tait's funeral a landslide sweeps down the hill &, along with headstones & grave markers, destroys a nearby croft. Inspector Jimmy Perez is attending the funeral & decides to take a look at the seemingly abandoned croft. He's surprised to find a woman's body among the debris & even more surprised to discover that the forensic evidence points to murder rather than accidental death. The croft, Tain, had belonged to Minnie Laurenson &, after her death, her American niece had inherited the property. Apart from the occasional holiday let, the croft was empty & the identity of the woman proves hard to track down. The only clue is a letter addressed to Alis & a belt that may be the murder weapon. Local landowners Jane & Kevin Hay were Minnie's closest neighbours but polytunnels & trees obscure their view. Perez calls in Chief Inspector Willow Reeves from Inverness to lead the investigation & the team's first priority is to discover the identity of the victim.

Jimmy & Willow have worked together before & their friendship is tinged with a tentative attraction that both of them recognise but are unwilling to explore. Jimmy is still grieving for his fiancée, Fran, & he's caring for Fran's daughter, Cassie. He returned to Shetland some years before & knows the benefits & disadvantages of a tight-knit community when it comes to a murder investigation. The first clues to the victim's identity point to a happy, attractive woman buying champagne for a special Valentine's Day dinner but then another witness, Simon Agnew, comes forward & describes a visit from the same woman to his counselling drop-in service where she had been distraught & despairing. When the team discovers that the woman was using a false identity & that she had ties to Shetland going back some years, they need to find out who could have stayed in contact with her & what brought her back to the island. A second murder close to the scene of the first complicates the investigation & leads to suspicion & mistrust as the victim's private life is exposed.

The Shetland series is one of my favourites (links to my previous reviews are here). Originally a quartet of novels - Raven Black, White Nights, Red Bones, Blue Lightning - but the success of the quartet led to more Shetland novels - Dead Water, Thin Air & now Cold Earth. The Shetland setting is one of the strengths of the books. A remote, relatively closed community (although less so since the expansion of the oil & gas companies) is a classic setting for mystery novels & Ann Cleeves makes the most of the connections between families that result from living in such close proximity. Jimmy Perez is an enigmatic man who has had enough time away from Shetland to be mistrusted by some but it's also given him perspective which is valuable in his work. In a way Jimmy is the typical loner detective, self-contained & melancholy, but he's a more well-rounded character than the stereotype implies. Sergeant Sandy Wilson, who has lived on Shetland all his life, lacks confidence & looks to Jimmy for reassurance. His familiarity with the people & the place is both an asset & a burden but Jimmy has learnt how to work with Sandy to bring out the best in him.

All the characters are interesting & memorable, no matter how small a part they play in the story, like the observant young cashier at the supermarket who grabs any excuse for a cigarette & a coffee break to talk to Sandy to Rogerson's business partner, Paul Taylor, with his frazzled wife & three small sons. Jane Hay is a recovering alcoholic who is starting to feel restless in her gratitude to her husband for supporting her & worried about her son, Andy, who has dropped out of university & is back home, silent & uncommunicative. Jane's husband, Kevin, works hard but is unsettled by something or someone. Local councilor, solicitor Tom Rogerson seems successful but some of his decisions on the Council have upset locals & his family - wife Mavis & daughter Kathryn, the local schoolteacher - seem unaware of the rumours about his womanising.

I read Cold Earth so fast that, as usual, I had no idea about the identity of the murderer, even as Jimmy & Willow were racing towards the solution. I love a police procedural where all the steps of the investigation are laid out. There are flashes of intuition but most of the work is a hard slog, often frustrating but with enough clues to keep the detectives hoping & the readers reading along at a breakneck pace. I'm assuming that there will be a final novel in this second quartet with Fire in the title & I can't wait!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Life of Charlotte Brontë - Elizabeth Gaskell

When Charlotte Brontë died in 1855, she was a famous novelist. Her literary reputation was high after the success of Jane Eyre, Shirley & Villette. However, her personal life was still a subject for gossip & ill-informed rumour. When Charlotte's friend, Ellen Nussey, read an article that mixed critical acclaim with gossipy innuendo about Charlotte's life, she encouraged Charlotte's father, Patrick, & her widower, Arthur Nicholls, to commission a response that would silence the gossip. Although Arthur would have preferred a dignified silence, Patrick was persuaded & he agreed with Ellen that Elizabeth Gaskell was the right person to write such a response. Elizabeth Gaskell was not only a respected novelist herself but had known Charlotte in the last years of her life. The familiar story of the Brontë sisters begins with Gaskell's biography so, instead of retelling that story, I'm going to focus more on the writing of the biography & its effects on Brontë biography ever since.

The book that resulted is one of the greatest biographies ever written about a writer. Gaskell had admired Charlotte & had a profound sympathy for her struggles as a writer & as a woman. She had been just as avid as everyone else to discover the identity of the author of Jane Eyre, which had been published under the pseudonym Currer Bell in 1847. Through her friendship with philanthropist Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth she met Charlotte & they became friends. Gaskell heard from Charlotte herself the sad tale of death & illness that had haunted her family & observed at first hand the struggle Charlotte made to overcome her shyness & her ill-health to enjoy the fame that her books brought her. They corresponded & visited each other so Gaskell was already predisposed to defend Charlotte from any slights when she was asked to write a memoir of her friend. The charge that Jane Eyre was a  "coarse" book, unsuitable for young girls to read, was especially offensive to Gaskell & so she was determined to emphasize the dutiful womanliness of Charlotte Brontë. Her book would show that the unique experiences of Charlotte's life & her devotion to the truth had fed into the work & charges of coarseness & unwomanliness were completely unjustified.

The publication of the Life caused an immediate storm & scandal. The public's desire to know more about the author of Jane Eyre was amply satisfied by the book although those who felt slighted or slandered were not long in coming forward. Gaskell's research had uncovered the truth behind the Lowood scenes in Jane Eyre & she did not scruple to name names when she described Cowan's Bridge & its head, the Rev Carus Wilson, the original of the odious Mr Brocklehurst. She also retold the story of Branwell Brontë's employment with the Robinson family & believed his story of his passion for Mrs Robinson & blamed her for Branwell's decline into alcoholism & death. When Gaskell was writing the book, she jokingly asked her publishers, " Do you mind the law of libel. I have three people I want to libel ...". Unfortunately it was no joke when she was threatened with lawsuits by Lydia Robinson (she had remarried after her husband's death & was now Lady Scott) & the family of Carus Wilson. A second edition was already in print but the third, corrected, edition took her months of work & was eventually longer than the first edition. The edition I read was the first edition which has all the libelous bits intact. Gaskell's righteous anger is clear in these passages & also her reliance on the evidence she gathered from Patrick Brontë & Ellen Nussey as well as Charlotte's own letters.

Patrick Brontë admired the book & felt that it did justice to his daughter but his reputation suffered as well. The picture of Patrick as a stern misanthrope, cutting up his wife's silk dress & destroying his children's coloured boots as too frivolous, made him seem a crank. Gaskell got these stories from a couple of disgruntled former servants but she was too intimidated by Patrick to ask him for his side of the story. He generously refused to reproach her for the portrait she drew of him & it has been said that his reputation has only recently been rehabilitated by the work of biographers like Dudley Green & Juliet Barker. Gaskell also suppressed evidence that didn't fit with her thesis of a woman made great by suffering. She went to Brussels, where Charlotte & Emily Brontë attended the Pensionnat Heger. Here, Charlotte fell in love with her teacher Constantin Heger, the model for Paul Emanuel in Villette. She wrote him passionate letters which Madame Heger had kept & which she showed to Gaskell. Horrified by this evidence of Charlotte's love for a married man, Gaskell attributed Charlotte's misery during her second year in Brussels to worries about Branwell & her family. The secret of the letters was kept until the early 20th century when the Heger's son donated them to the British Library.

One of the great strengths of the biography is the use that Gaskell made of Charlotte's letters. Charlotte's own voice, in her letters to Ellen, to her publishers George Smith & William Smith Williams & to Gaskell herself, is vigorous & alive. Her opinions are pithy &, even though Gaskell edited the letters carefully to remove any details or comments that detracted from the image she wished to present, it was impossible to silence Charlotte's unique voice. Gaskell was a novelist & the narrative reads like a novel, once the early scene setting chapters are past. The story itself could not be more compelling & although she fudged some unpalatable facts & got things wrong, Gaskell's version was substantially true. She may have emphasized Charlotte's domestic virtues over her literary talent, but those domestic virtues were part of Charlotte's life just as much as her work. It wasn't until the later twentieth century that the Brontë Myth (as Lucasta Miller calls it in her wonderful book of that name) of the scribbling sisters in their isolated moorland home was overturned. Gaskell's version of Charlotte's life isn't the only one to read if you want a complete view but it's the only biography written by someone who knew Charlotte & who had a profound sympathy for her life & her work, a fellow novelist who admired the work & was passionately committed to the rehabilitation of her memory.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sunday Poetry - John Donne

I'm still on holidays & doing a lot of pottering around. I've been out & about this last week (out to lunch four days in a row) so less time for reading. I've also just subscribed to Netflix & have started watching Grace & Frankie with Lily Tomlin & Jane Fonda as well as the documentary series Making A Murderer. I was tempted to subscribe by the new series The Crown, about the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth II, which begins next month. There's a trailer here & it looks fascinating. So, while I'm deciding which anthology to read next, here's another favourite poem by John Donne, Lovers' Infiniteness.

If yet I have not all thy love,
Dear, I shall never have it all;
I cannot breathe one other sigh, to move,
Nor can intreat one other tear to fall;
And all my treasure, which should purchase thee—
Sighs, tears, and oaths, and letters—I have spent.
Yet no more can be due to me,
Than at the bargain made was meant;
If then thy gift of love were partial,
That some to me, some should to others fall,
         Dear, I shall never have thee all.

Or if then thou gavest me all,
All was but all, which thou hadst then;
But if in thy heart, since, there be or shall
New love created be, by other men,
Which have their stocks entire, and can in tears,
In sighs, in oaths, and letters, outbid me,
This new love may beget new fears,
For this love was not vow'd by thee.
And yet it was, thy gift being general;
The ground, thy heart, is mine; whatever shall
         Grow there, dear, I should have it all.

Yet I would not have all yet,
He that hath all can have no more;
And since my love doth every day admit
New growth, thou shouldst have new rewards in store;
Thou canst not every day give me thy heart,
If thou canst give it, then thou never gavest it;
Love's riddles are, that though thy heart depart,
It stays at home, and thou with losing savest it;
But we will have a way more liberal,
Than changing hearts, to join them; so we shall
         Be one, and one another's all.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Full Moon - P G Wodehouse

If I mention two words - pigs & imposters - that's really all you need to know about Full Moon, one of the Blandings novels of P G Wodehouse. I love Wodehouse & I'm very grateful to Simon & Karen for choosing 1947 for the latest instalment of their Club as it meant I had a chance to read one of his funniest novels.

As usual, there are several romantic couples facing opposition from the formidable women of Lord Emsworth's family. His sister, Lady Hermione Wedge, has a beautiful but dim daughter, Veronica, who needs a rich husband. Lord Emsworth's son, Freddie, now a super salesman for his American father-in-law's dog biscuit business, is bringing his friend, supermarket millionaire, Tipton Plimsoll, down to Blandings in the hope of convincing him to stock Donaldson's Dog-Joy in his chain of supermarkets. Lady Hermione thinks Tipton would be perfect for Vee. Tipton falls madly in love at first sight but is misled by Lord Emsworth into thinking that Vee is in love with Freddie. Tipton is also unnerved by a doctor's diagnosis of the spots on his chest as a sign of alcoholic poisoning & warns him of hallucinations & other dire symptoms unless he stops drinking immediately. The fact that Tipton has started seeing a grotesque face appearing & disappearing at frequent intervals is enough to put him off the drink for life.

The face in question belongs to artist Bill Lister (known to Freddie, of course, as Blister) who has no idea that he has become the stuff of Tipton's nightmares. Bill is in love with Prudence Garland, daughter of Lord Emsworth's sister, Dora. Even though Bill has just inherited a pub which Prudence thinks could be very successful with a little work, her mother forbids her daughter to marry an artist & sends Prue down to Blandings Castle to be guarded by her Aunt Hermione. Bill's godfather happens to be Lord Emsworth's brother, the Hon Galahad Threepwood. Gally decides that Bill should follow Prue to Blandings disguised as a gardener & wearing a false beard that makes him look like an Assyrian king. This bid fails miserably when Bill mistakes Lady Hermione for the cook & tries to bribe her with half a crown to take a letter to Prue, but Gally's next idea is even better. He introduces Bill (without the beard) to his brother as Edwin Landseer, the perfect man to paint a portrait of the Empress of Blandings, Lord Emsworth's prize-winning pig. Complications ensue as you might imagine.

It's all quite mad but a lot of fun. It was even more fun as I listened to the audio book of Full Moon read by Jeremy Sinden, which was wonderful. Jeremy Sinden is one of my favourite narrators of Wodehouse & I'm sure he narrated quite a few titles but there are only a few available on Audible. It amazes me that the plot components of all the Blandings novels consist of a selection of the following - imposters, thwarted love, the threat of the Empress being stolen or not eating, terrifying aunts, Gally's schemes & Lord Emsworth's dottiness - but they are all so funny. Wodehouse's wordplay is sublime & his way with names can be compared with Dickens.  My favourite in this book was E Jimpson Murgatroyd, Tipton's doctor. No matter how complicated the plot becomes, all will come right in the end.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Close Quarters - Michael Gilbert

My first choice for the 1947 Club is Michael Gilbert's first novel, Close Quarters. It's an atmospheric murder mystery set in a cathedral close in the years before the Second World War.

The Dean of Melchester Cathedral is concerned about a campaign of anonymous letters targeting the senior verger, Daniel Appledown. Appledown is an elderly man who has held the post for many  years. The letters accuse him of being unfit for the job & of unspecified illicit activities with the wife of a fellow verger. When the incidents become more public - leaflets in the choristers'  music scores & accusations painted on the garden wall, the Dean decides that he needs to consult an expert. The earlier death of Canon Whyte, who fell from the Cathedral Tower a year earlier, is also playing on the Dean's mind. His nephew, Bobby Pollock, is a Detective Sergeant at Scotland Yard & the Dean decides to invite him down for a few days to look into the matter.

When Pollock arrives, the Dean fills him in & describes the residents of the Close. Canons Residentiary, Vicars Choral, Verger & the Choirmaster as well as the Dean, their wives, daughters & servants as well as a black cat called Benjamin Disraeli. There's also Sergeant Brumfit, constable of the Close, who looks after the main gate assisted by his wife & seven children. Pollock begins his investigations, interviewing the other residents & discovering quite a bit about the rivalries & alliances of the inhabitants. Then, Appledown is found dead, murdered by a blow to the head, & Pollock calls in his boss, Inspector Hazlerigg, to assist the local police with the investigation.

The crucial time is around 8pm on the night before Appledown's body is found. Everyone in the Close had a regular routine of Church services & duties with the Choir but there are some interesting anomalies on the night in question. Nosy Mrs Judd (widow of a former resident who has stayed on despite all attempts to move her out) sees everyone who comes & goes through one of the entrances to the Close but even she has to leave her vantage point to eat dinner. Rev Prynne was at the cinema; Rev Malthus was supposed to be visiting his ill sister but he couldn't have caught the train back to Melchester that he claims to have caught; Choirmaster Mickie arrives home & tells his wife that he's just seen a ghost; Appledown's disreputable brother, who lived with him, was out with his Lodge on a regular outing & finished off the evening in the pub. Several members of the community claim to have been in the pub or working alone in their study or only have wives & daughters to give them an alibi. Hazlerigg & Pollock believe that the writer of the anonymous letters is also the murderer but what could be the motive?

"There's a mind behind this business, make no mistake about that. a very fine brain, cool, calculating, and deadly careful. every step, every single step, has been thought out beforehand. I have felt that once - twice - three times already today. ... the calm and clever thoughts of a man confident in his own ability. ... "Not madness but sanity - a sort of terrible sanity. Wne we discover the truth we shall find it as something simple and obvious. Its simplicity will be its strength. No elaboration - no frills - nothing to catch hold of."

I enjoyed Close Quarters very much & it's made me keen to read more of Gilbert's work. This was his first novel & while there may be too many characters to comfortably keep track of (fifty people living in the Close alone although we don't meet all of them), this is an exciting story with multiple red herrings & possible explanations. There are some great set pieces, especially a long chase by train & cab through London by Pollock following one character who, in turn, is following someone else & a long conversation between Hazlerigg & Pollock that lasts into the early hours of the morning as they work through the movements of their suspects. Gilbert's style has plenty of humour & wit,

"Good gracious me, you don't have to be invited. It's a regular Thursday afternoon 'do'. The Chapter take it in turns, and everyone in the Close rolls up and eats sandwiches and lacerates each other's characters, and all in the most Christian way imaginable. You'll regret it all your life if you miss it."

There are definite echoes of Dorothy L Sayers in this mystery, from the elaborate working out of a crossword puzzle to the closed circle of suspects not unlike the similar setting of Gaudy Night. Actually it made me want to immediately reread Gaudy Night & I mean that as a compliment. This is a true mystery of the Golden Age, complete with maps of the Close & a handy list of the main characters. I have a couple of Gilbert's other books on the tbr shelf (one in paper, Blood and Judgement, & the other, The Black Seraphim, an eBook I bought when Christine Poulson recommended Gilbert last year & again it in this great list of books set in Cathedrals). I'm very glad that the 1947 Club inspired me to get this book off the tbr shelves, it was a great mystery & a very enjoyable read. Thank you Simon & Karen.