Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Poetry - Emily Dickinson

A few weeks of one of my favourite poets, Emily Dickinson. As you can see in the picture, I have two collections of her work, The Complete Poems & a selection chosen by Ted Hughes. This is one of my favourite poems. I have a video of a 1980s documentary on Dickinson & Jane Alexander reads the poetry so beautifully, including this poem. I love that documentary, it was part of a series on American writers. I also have the episode on Sylvia Plath (which you can watch on YouTube here). I've watched both programs so many times. Critics & writers talk about Dickinson, including Richard Sewell, Joyce Carol Oates & Adrienne Rich. The music is also lovely, it was where I first heard the Bach cello suites. So, that's one of the reasons why this poem has stayed in my memory. I also love the image of a person being constructed like a house & somehow attaining the "perfected Life".

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Time of Hope - C P Snow

Time of Hope is the first book chronologically in C P Snow's Strangers and Brothers series. It was the third book to be published but should really be read first as it fills in the background of Lewis Eliot, the narrator of the series. I read George Passant first & all the questions I had about Lewis & where he fitted in were answered in Time of Hope.

Lewis is a clever boy growing up in a provincial city. His parents are ill-matched - his father, Bertie, is easy going & cheerful; his mother, Lena, is conscious of having married beneath her. She is ambitious for Lewis & devastated when her husband's business fails & he is bankrupt. His sister, Lewis's Aunt Milly, condescends to help out but always makes her disapproval known. Bertie eventually finds a job again & Lena saves any money she can to send Lewis to the best school possible so he can make the most of what chances he can get. Her disappointment drives her on, especially as her own family disowned her when she married.

Her hopes had been brilliant. She had a romantic, surging passionate imagination, even then, when a middle-aged woman beaten down by misfortune. As a girl she had expected - expected as of right -  a husband who would give her love and luxury and state. She thought of herself in her girlhood, and as she spoke to me she magnified the past, enhanced all that she could glory in, cherished her life with her own family now that she looked back with an experienced and a disappointed heart.

Lewis works hard at school & believes he will accomplish great things. It's a disappointment to find himself, several years after leaving school, working as a clerk in the local Council education office, a job with no future. He decides to take some law classes at the local Technical College where he meets George Passant &, with George's encouragement, Lewis decides to stake everything on becoming a barrister. Aunt Milly agrees to loan him the money he'll need as he will have to leave his job & devote himself to study full time to pass the exams.

After several very lean years, Lewis passes his exams & is called to the Bar. He has very little influence in a profession that demands patronage in order to get ahead but George's employer, Mr Eden, recommends Lewis to Herbert Getliffe, & Lewis joins his chambers as a pupil, a very junior member of staff. Lewis gradually begins to make money & have some success with the opinions & notes he writes for Getliffe & the cases the clerk of Getliffe's chambers finds for him. A serious bout of illness threatens his progress but his love for Sheila Knight & his determination to marry her is the real obstacle to any progress in his professional life.

Sheila is a beautiful young woman but emotionally unstable. Lewis meets her in his home town, as part of the group that gathers around George Passant & is immediately attracted to her.

 I did not make dreams of her, as I had done of many other girls. That first state of love was delectable beyond my expectation; in its delight I did not stop to wonder that I had often imagined love, and imagined it quite wrong. I breathed in the delight with every breath, those first mornings. I did not stop to wonder why my thoughts of her were vague, why I was content to let her image - unlike those of everyone else I knew - lie vague within my heart.

Sheila's father is a self-absorbed clergyman & her mother is suspicious of Lewis, thinking him a fortune hunter. Sheila herself seems to tolerate Lewis but without much enthusiasm. She often hurts him by mentioning other men that she's seeing & seems to find more enjoyment talking to Lewis's landlady or the waitress in a cafe than to his friends. She often tells him that she can't love him but he blindly pursues her & eventually she agrees to marry him. Their marriage is a disaster, almost from the beginning. Sheila needs constant reassurance from Lewis & his work suffers. She can't take part in the social life that is so important to Lewis's career & he finds himself stagnating at work & miserable at home. He begins to wonder if all his sacrifices & work have been wasted & contemplates leaving Sheila & ending the marriage.

This is a fascinating study of a man who, on the one hand, is determined to make a success of his life & on the other hand, almost blindly follows a course that will destroy him. When he first meets Sheila, Lewis is dazzled by her & is blind to the fact that Marion, another member of the group, is in love with him. Sheila is always completely honest with Lewis & repeatedly tells him that she doesn't love him & doesn't think she can ever really be in love with anyone. In the end, he wears her down & she just gives in. Lewis has seen enough of Sheila's problems to know that she will never be able to help him in his career so I thought it was unfair that he begins to resent her. Before their marriage, he has several opportunities to break away but he is never quite able to do so. He even drives away another young man who Sheila believes she could be happy with. Lewis's obsession with Sheila is irrational & he realizes this but is powerless to forget her or to leave her alone.

I especially enjoyed the early chapters of Lewis growing up with his ambitious mother & ineffectual father. Father & son spend a day at the cricket - it's the first game Mr Eliot has ever seen - & it's here that Mr Eliot finally tells Lewis about his bankruptcy. The picture of small town life, the gossip, the shame & the irritation of everyone knowing your business & having an opinion about it, is intensely claustrophobic. I felt less sympathy for Lewis as he grew older but I was always interested in his struggles in his career, his fear that his health would break down & his unrelenting efforts to succeed. I pitied Sheila, living with her uncomprehending parents & pursued by Lewis. She always seemed so much more clear-eyed about herself & what she was capable of than anyone else. I'd like to have been able to see Lewis through her eyes.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

More collages - books and cats

More collages, mostly books but one of Lucky & Phoebe. The photo of Phoebe on the bonnet of my car was taken a few months ago but the other two were taken just last weekend.

I've bought a few books in the last month. A few were bargains but most of them weren't. I bought some Greyladies & Girls Gone By books from Gill Bilski, a bookseller in the UK who specializes in children's books. The books were on sale but the postage wasn't. Still, by the time I'd chosen the books I wanted, a minor detail like postage wasn't going to stop me. I've also borrowed a lovely stack of books from my library, including the new biography of Queen Victoria by A N Wilson & a biography of Mary Gaunt, whose novel Kirkham's Find I read & loved earlier this year.

If these books were on a shelf rather than piled on my desk, I'd call them my Shelf of Shame. Of course, there isn't a spare shelf in the house so they're sitting on my desk reproaching me every time I look at them. These are the books I took from the tbr shelves to read next because I read a review on a blog or someone in my online bookgroup mentioned one of them. Some of them have been sitting there a very long time but their spot on the tbr shelves has long since been filled by another book so there's no going back. Extra brownie points for anyone who can work out all the titles (except for the Wodehouse on the bottom right, that's too hard. It's The Adventures of Sally).

Speaking of the tbr shelves, I still need to find room for all the books in the recently bought photo. I've already had to resort to stacking books horizontally & I think I need to do some more shuffling.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday Poetry - A E Housman

I've spent a lot of time in the garden this weekend - digging over a garden bed full of roots, digging in compost in the front garden & planting tomatoes, pumpkin, lettuce, basil & zucchini in the veggie patch. This poem seemed appropriate although I wasn't thinking about lying beneath the ground as I worked, I was looking forward to a cup of tea & a rest.

Next week, I think I'll move on from Housman's melancholy to something more cheerful.

I hoed and trenched and weeded,   
  And took the flowers to fair:   
I brought them home unheeded;   
  The hue was not the wear.   

So up and down I sow them           
  For lads like me to find,   
When I shall lie below them,   
  A dead man out of mind.   

Some seed the birds devour,   
  And some the season mars,           
But here and there will flower   
  The solitary stars,   

And fields will yearly bear them   
  As light-leaved spring comes on,   
And luckless lads will wear them           
  When I am dead and gone.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thin Air - Ann Cleeves

Three women who have been friends since university travel to Unst in Shetland when one of them, Caroline, marries Lowrie Malcolmson, a Shetlander. The wedding has already taken place but the traditional Shetland welcome for the married couple, the hamefarin', is a chance for the locals to have a party. Polly Gilmour has invited her new partner, Marcus Wentworth, & Eleanor Longstaff & her husband Ian, make up the group. Eleanor has been depressed after suffering two miscarriages & is resentful that Ian seems to be lacking in sympathy. She's a television producer with a small company & is currently researching ghost stories for a program about the phenomenon of practical people believing they've seen something supernatural. Polly is the quiet one of the three friends, always following where the others lead. She's a librarian, working at a special library dedicated to folklore. Caroline is a decisive woman who set her sights on Lowrie from their university days & now has what she's always wanted. She's even considering moving to Unst permanently.

The hamefarin' is a big success with nearly everyone on the island there. Eleanor surprises her friends late that night by saying that she's seen the ghost of a little girl, Peerie Lizzie, who had drowned 80 years before. The Peerie Lizzie story is one of those she's researching for her program & the legend is that if a woman sees the child she will become pregnant. Polly has also seen the girl but says nothing out of fear of ridicule. Next morning, Eleanor has disappeared. The police are called in & then Polly receives a text message from Eleanor saying that there's no point looking for her as she won't be found. Has Eleanor's fragile mental health been shaken by the sight of a ghost? Has she committed suicide or just run away? When her body is found on the shore, laid out very carefully, it's clear that she's been murdered.

Detectives Jimmy Perez & Sandy Wilson arrive from Lerwick to investigate Eleanor's disappearance which soon becomes a murder inquiry. They're joined by Willow Reeves, another islander whose style of working, abrupt & very focused, contrasts with Perez's calm watchfulness. The two have a cordial working relationship but Jimmy is still recovering from the murder of his partner, Fran, & believes that Willow is on the lookout for any sign that he's not up to the job. Willow is only too aware of Jimmy but her attraction to him annoys her & makes her seem unsympathetic.

The detectives stay at an upmarket B&B run by Charles Hillier & David Gordon. Charles had been a  well-known magician but his career had dried up & his partner, David, suggested they move to Shetland. The renovation of the B&B had been expensive & there are tensions & secrets between the couple that become obvious as the investigation continues. The relationship between Eleanor, Polly & Caroline also proves to be more complex than it first seemed. Eleanor had been the leader of the group, dominating the more introverted Polly, who becomes more & more frightened as the atmosphere on the island becomes claustrophobic & her own sightings of a little girl dancing on the beach who seems to vanish into thin air.

The Shetland series is one of my favourites. I'm not reading as many police procedurals as I used to, but this is one series that I always look forward to. The atmosphere of the island is beautifully evoked. The ghost story of Peerie Lizzie adds to the feeling of otherworldliness that is intensified by the midsummer simmer dim, the time when night never really seems to fall. The arrival of the visitors recalls memories & events long past & Eleanor's research into the story of Peerie Lizzie may have stirred up more than she expected. I love the way Ann Cleeves brings in so many possibilities & creates characters with whole lives behind them. Every twist & turn of the investigation brought some new perspective to the lives of one of the suspects. She's also very good at involving the reader in the lives of her detectives. I thought I knew the identity of the murderer several times but was wrong almost to the end when I did get an inkling.

Jimmy Perez is one of the most interesting, sympathetic detectives in crime fiction. Still grieving over the loss of Fran, he's also caring for Fran's daughter, Cassie, while trying to get on with his life & his work. He's an instinctive investigator, who sometimes goes off on a tangent of his own but his knowledge of the people & the islands is invaluable. I've just watched the TV series Shetland that was based on the books. I enjoyed it, loved the scenery & the music. It didn't bother me that Douglas Henshall, who plays Jimmy, is a pale skinned redhead rather than a dark descendant of the Spanish Armada as Jimmy is described in the books. Some changes have been made to the plots of the books they used but a TV series has to be different & I thought they did a good job. I believe a third series is planned. I'm sure it's done wonders for tourism in the islands.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Letters of Rachel Henning - edited by David Adams

 Rachel Henning was born in England in 1826. She was the eldest of five children & both her parents had died by the time she was 19. In 1854, Rachel left her sheltered middle-class life to go out to Australia to join her brother, Biddulph, & sisters Amy & Annie. This first trip was short-lived. Rachel missed England & hated the hot summer weather & so she returned home.

There's a difference in tone between Rachel's letters home on  her first trip & the second trip in 1856. When she left Australia, Rachel realised how much she missed Biddulph & her sisters & knew that if she returned, she would need to have a different frame of mind. Rachel's second trip to Australia was different. She knew what to expect & her letters reflect her excitement at seeing her siblings again & her willingness to do whatever was needed to make life as comfortable as possible.

The letters in this book are mostly written to Rachel's sister, Etta & her husband, Mr Boyce, back home in England. They are full of interest & humour & this edition is enhanced by the lovely line drawings by Norman Lindsay. Lindsay was quite a controversial figure in his day & is probably best known for his love of painting nudes & the childrens book he wrote, The Magic Pudding. A fictionalised version of Lindsay was played by Sam Neill in the movie Sirens with Hugh Grant & Elle Macpherson in the 1990s.

Rachel's brother, Biddulph, was considered to be quite sickly in England but he thrived in Australia. He learned station management & eventually bought his own sheep station in Queensland. Rachel is much more philosophical on her second visit to Australia in 1861. Waiting in Bathurst with her sister Amy's family to join Biddulph at his new station, Exmoor, on the Bowen River near Port Denison in Queensland, she seems resigned to waiting nearly nine months for Biddulph to come down to fetch her & her sister, Annie. I think she relished the independence of her life with Biddulph compared to the life she would have had, living with relatives in England.

I believe the only way is to live on in the present from day to day, and do what is to be done and enjoy what is to be enjoyed, and there really is plenty of both here.

Rachel enjoyed all the housekeeping & making do of living in the bush. She was a very competent housekeeper & shared the duties with Annie. Although Biddulph had a good property & was making a success of it, they still had to travel quite a way for anything they wanted. Clothes had to last & be patched or mended & of course, had to be fit for purpose.

Bonnets, of course, are no use in the bush. I got a new hat when I first came down here, rather a pretty black straw, and I have had my old one cleaned and trimmed and have a riding-hat besides, so I think I shall do. I have that old brown shawl, you remember, and a thin one I got last summer, so I think I shall do very well, though Annie and Emily bewail over my deficiencies.

Rachel had many adventures. On a journey to Shoalhaven for a visit, her party became lost in the bush

Bella and I kept shouting to know where the other was and invariable answered "all right", till at last Bella pulled up, and said it was all wrong, that her horse was at fault, and she did not the least we know where we were. This was cheerful, and we began to discuss the probabilities of spending the night in the bush, and the consequent rheumatism that we should catch, when my horse, rejoicing in the name of Skittles, after turning round and round several times, seemed to find the way.
Altogether it was a most pleasant visit, and I was very sorry to leave that beautiful country and return to the dusty streets of Sydney.

Camping in the rain on the way home to Exmoor,

Tom lit a great fire and made some beautiful "johnny cakes" - thin soda cakes which are baked in about ten minutes and are the best bread you ever ate, and with johnny cakes and jam and hot tea, which was brought us in the tent by shiny mackintoshed figures, we continued to do very well. A tin pannikin of hot wine and water was put under the curtain the last thing with the remark from Biddulph that ot was to keep off the rheumatism, and we slept as sound as if we had a dozen roofs over our heads instead of the rain pattering on the canvas.

Sunday afternoon on Exmoor station,

Sunday seems so quiet in the bush. I should like to hear some church bells, but there is no bell near ... It is a beautiful afternoon, the warm air blowing in through the open door and window, and whispering among the gum-trees, cloud shadows gliding over the opposite mountain range, great Lion, the bloodhound, lying asleep in the doorway, quite regardless of being walked on or fallen over. Biddulph, arrayed in white trousers, white coat and regatta shirt ... is lazily reading in an armchair in the pleasant recess where the books are. ... Presently, when we have done writing, and Biddulph wakes up - he is not to say asleep - we shall go for a walk, probably to the site of the new house, and then on to the plains beyond, and up the "Blackwall", a curious range of cliff that bounds the station on the west for two miles, then we shall come back to dinner.

Rachel was game for anything - helping with the shearing, nurturing her pet lambs who followed her everywhere, encounters with snakes - she embraced the bush life. She gives pen portraits of the workers on the station& their visitors.

When she was in her late thirties, Rachel became engaged to Deighton Taylor, who worked with Biddulph on the station. Rachel's family were disapproving, not only because she was several years older than Deighton but because of his lack of prospects. However, they married & were very happy. Deighton began working as a supervisor at a timber mill on the Myall River in NSW & Rachel wrote to Etta about her new life & her happiness,

For the rest, I doubt if there is anyone else in the world who would have made me so happy or whom I could have made thoroughly happy. You know I am not the most patient of tempers, and I might possibly have quarrelled  and skirmished with anyone of less unvarying kindness and good temper. As it is, we have never had a word or thought of difference.

Rachel enjoyed setting up her own home, hanging wallpaper on canvas & meeting new neighbours. Eventually the timber mill job came to an end & they thought about buying a sheep farm near Stroud, eventually settling on a farm at American Creek, near Wollongong. They built a house called Springfield in the 1870s & lived there until 1896 when Deighton's health began to fail. Rachel died in 1914 at the age of 88.

Rachel's letters give such a lively picture of life in 19th century Australia. She's a wonderful observer of people & places; her descriptive writing of the bush & the mountains is very evocative. Her love of the country is evident in every letter. She often says she is reluctant to go to Sydney, not just because of the traveling but because she loves the bush so much. She found a freedom & independence in Australia that she could never have experienced in England. Even before she married, she was the head of her brother's household & knew that she was contributing to his success with her talent for keeping the accounts & her unfailing resourcefulness & good humour when things went wrong. She loved horses & describes riding & walking through the bush nearly every day. She was an intrepid traveller, as she needed to be in those days, when it took weeks to get from outback Queensland to Sydney. Rachel Henning's letters give an invaluable picture of life in Australia in the mid 19th century. I borrowed my copy from Open Library (which is why there's a price sticker on the front cover!).

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday Poetry - A E Housman

Even Housman's humour has a melancholy edge to it. This is one of those poems when the dead speak to the living but this poor young man, lying in his grave, doesn't get the reassurance that he's looking for.

Is my team ploughing,   
  That I was used to drive   
And hear the harness jingle   
  When I was man alive?’   

Ay, the horses trample,           
  The harness jingles now;   
No change though you lie under   
  The land you used to plough.   

‘Is football playing   
  Along the river shore,           
With lads to chase the leather,   
  Now I stand up no more?’   

Ay, the ball is flying,   
  The lads play heart and soul;   
The goal stands up, the keeper           
  Stands up to keep the goal.   

‘Is my girl happy,   
  That I thought hard to leave,   
And has she tired of weeping   
  As she lies down at eve?’           

Ay, she lies down lightly,   
  She lies not down to weep:   
Your girl is well contented.   
  Be still, my lad, and sleep.   

‘Is my friend hearty,           
  Now I am thin and pine,   
And has he found to sleep in   
  A better bed than mine?’   

Yes, lad, I lie easy,   
  I lie as lads would choose;           
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,   
  Never ask me whose.