Tuesday, May 31, 2016

An Autobiography and other writings - Anthony Trollope

I was very pleased to be sent a review copy of this new edition of Anthony Trollope's Autobiography, as I loved it when I read it a few years ago. Trollope is one of my favourite authors & his autobiography is a portrait of a lovable man who survived a miserable childhood & created a happy life for himself, both personally & professionally as a novelist. He was also a very practical man, who kept working in the Post Office for many years while writing his novels. He didn't wait for inspiration to strike but was woken by a servant with a cup of coffee early every morning & wrote his quota before breakfast & heading off to work. This matter of fact attitude to writing & his descriptions of finishing one book on Monday & starting the next on Tuesday, dismayed some early reviewers of the book. His reputation didn't suffer any lasting damage though, as his novels have stayed in print & were among the most popular books (alongside detective novels) read in air raid shelters during the Blitz.

I've linked to my review above but I can't resist quoting this passage again where Trollope answers those critics who think that a writer should live a rarefied life of the mind. Practical & level-headed indeed.

I am well aware that there are many who think that an author in his authorship should not regard money,- nor a painter, or sculptor, or composer in his art. I do not know that this unnatural self-sacrifice is supposed to extend itself further. A barrister, a clergyman, a doctor, an engineer, even actors and architects, may without disgrace follow the bent of human nature, and endeavour to fill their bellies and clothe their backs, and also those of their wives and children, as comfortably as they can by the exercise of their abilities and their crafts.

This new edition also includes some of Trollope's literary criticism, principally a lecture that he gave called On English Prose Fiction as a Rational Amusement. In the lecture, Trollope surveys English novels from the Elizabethan beginnings, through the giants of the 18th century to the present day, although he doesn't mention any living novelists. He divides fiction writers into two camps - before & after Sir Walter Scott, whose work he sees as a high water mark for the art. Trollope declares that novel reading can not be bad for young people, one of the debates that had gone on for as long as novels had been published. Although he is dismissive of the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe & the even earlier work of Defoe, after Scott, there can be no hesitation in allowing the young to read fiction.

And I will begin by suggesting that if novel-reading be bad for young people, it is bad also for the old. I am disposed to think that the distinction which so many of us make in this matter is similar in its nature to that which we have instituted between the one-o'clock and the seven o'clock dinner. We who are the elders have the richer puddings and the more piquant sauces,- not because they agree with us better than with our children, but because we are able to get them. When I hear of ladies beginning to read French novels after they are married, I always think of the privilege which grown-up people have in spoiling their digestive organs. ... If novels, or any classes of novels, be bad for young women, than they are also bad for young men.

Trollope also refuses to denounce Sensation novels in preference to the Realist novel. He believes that novels should be a combination of both sensation & realism. A novel with no sensational elements in the plot would be boring. His own novels contain forgery, thefts, violent death & real wickedness but just piling on the tragedy will not hold the reader if the characters are not alive to the reader so that the reader cares about them. He gives examples from Scott, Thackeray & Charlotte Brontë,

Truth let there be;- truth of description, truth of character, human truth as to men and women. If there be such truth I do not know that a novel can be too sensational.

Other articles include an extract from his writings on Nathaniel Hawthorne & a few pages on the critical biography on Thackeray that he wrote for a Men and Letters series. I can't finish without quoting his opinions on Jane Austen. Trollope admired Austen & these comments were written in the his copy of Emma & in the travel book he wrote, The New Zealander, where he said,

With Mr and Mrs Bennet and Lady Catherine de Burgh we are quite at home. With the Mansfields and the Crofts we have our sympathies and antipathies with the surrounding families in our own village or our own circle. The return of Sir Thomas is as when our own father came upon us in our juvenile delinquencies; and we can hardly help believing that we ourselves received Mr Collins' letters each with one of Rowland Hill's penny stamps in the corner of the envelope.

Even here, Trollope can't resist a mention of the Post Office.

He wasn't quite so fond of Emma.

Her conduct to her friend Harriet,- her assumed experience and real ignorance of human nature - are terribly true; but nowadays we dare not make our heroines so little. Her weaknesses are all plain to us, but of her strengths we are only told; and even at the last we hardly know why Mr Knightley loves her.

The Introduction by Nicholas Shrimpton discusses the reception of the Autobiography, which was published after Trollope's death, & the way that Trollope's revelations about his working habits & his almost entire effacement of his personal life affected his reputation among critics.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a review copy of An Autobiography and other writings.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Lady Murasaki

This picture of Lady Murasaki (picture from here) hints at a winter reading project I'm contemplating at the moment.
Lady Murasaki was an early 11th century writer & poet, a lady of the Japanese Court.  Very little is known about her, even her real name is unknown. This is one of her poems.

lost in a sky
of strange and far places
a hint of a house
and treetops in the mist
guide my way to you

she gazes
into the same skies
as you do
may your thoughts also
come to be one of accord

if you answered
the tapping of every
water bird
even a wandering
moon could enter

if the haze had not
come out to go in between
the moon and flowers
otherwise even the birds nests
might have burst into blossom

boat upon high seas
if you are drifting without
a harbor or course
give me a call and I'll row
out to teach you about ports

not even knowing
the meaning which the color
of lavender has
but watching it carefully
this one's heart is deeply touched


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Literary Ramblings

I've come across some wonderful websites & podcasts recently & I do love to share. After all, if I'm going to be scrambling to fit all these into my reading & listening schedule, I think you should all be under the same relentless pressure!

First though, I want to mention an audio book. Some friends have been visiting Mitford country & that may be why, when my monthly Audible credit was due, I decided to download Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. Read by Patricia Hodge, who is the most perfect narrator for this book that I can imagine - do admit. I haven't read Love in a Cold Climate for years & I'm loving it. It's such a witty, funny book; Lady Montdore & Boy Dougdale are so dreadful that it's a treat to revisit them all again even though there's a sadness in Polly's story which is heartbreaking. That's my Mitford shelf at the top of the post. I have quite a few Mitfords on the tbr shelves but they're scattered so not easy to photograph.
I'm so pleased that some of these older Chivers audio books are available on Audible. Chivers went through several name changes over the years & finally went under altogether a couple of years ago. I would love their editions of the Barbara Pym & Dorothy L Sayers (read by Ian Carmichael) audio books to be available but, I'll take what I can get. Apart from anything else, their cover art for their classics series was always so stylish.

I came across this article about Constance Fenimore Woolson at Lithub which led me to sign up for their newsletter which links to lots of literary articles. The Woolson article was written by Anne Boyd Rioux, author of a new biography of Woolson that I'm very keen to read. Then, I discovered Boyd Rioux's website & her Bluestocking Bulletin which began in February & I've read the back issues & subscribed.

While reading the Bluestocking Bulletin, I came across a mention of the New Statesman History podcast series Hidden Histories. It is a six episode exploration of women writers before Jane Austen, from Aphra Behn to Maria Edgeworth. I've listened to two episodes so far & it's wonderful. You can listen at the website or subscribe to the podcast.

Another new podcast is from the people who run crowdfunding publisher, Unbound. Called Backlisted, each episode highlights a forgotten book, in the manner of the website, Neglected Books.
I've listened to one episode so far, on Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, one of my favourite novels. I found the episode a bit too long & a little self-indulgent. The three male hosts didn't let their guest, Samantha Ellis, get a word in for some time, but when the discussion did get started on the book, it was fascinating. I've downloaded two more episodes, on Nancy Mitford's The Blessing & J L Carr's A Month in the Country, so I will persevere.
I heard about this podcast from a terrific Facebook group, Undervalued British Women Novelists 1930-1960. It's worth joining if you're interested in the period & neglected women writers.

Well, that's it for now. More rambling to come when I have something to ramble about. Happy reading, listening & subscribing.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Tales of Angria - Charlotte Brontë

Fans of the Brontë sisters often wish that Charlotte, Emily & Anne had lived long enough to write a few more novels. Charlotte made a tentative start on a novel after her marriage & Emily may have started a second novel (& Charlotte may or may not have destroyed the manuscript after Emily's death), but really, seven novels between them just isn't enough for the devoted admirer. However, the three sisters & their brother Branwell did write a lot more. All through their childhoods, from the moment when their father brought home a box of toy soldiers, the Brontës turned the soldiers into characters in two long-running sagas. Emily & Anne created Gondal &, although they were still imagining Gondal into their adulthood, virtually nothing survives of these stories except some poetry. Branwell & Charlotte created Angria, an imaginary place which is a mixture of Africa & Yorkshire. A lot of the Angrian stories survive & I've been reading the last five novellas (or novelettes) that Charlotte wrote about Angria. These stories were written when Charlotte was in her early twenties, when she was at home at Haworth, on holidays from her teaching position at Roe Head School & after the end of her position as a governess, working for the Sidgwick family.

This Penguin Classics edition is beautifully edited by Heather Glen & includes copious notes explaining obscure political references & illuminating the relationships between the characters. Even so, I soon decided that I couldn't get too caught up in who everyone was & their backstories, it was just too confusing. Even more confusing, characters often change their names between stories or are addressed as one name by one character & something else by another. This is natural in such a long-running story, all the nuances of which would have been appreciated by the original readers, the Brontës themselves. The main characters are Arthur Augustus Adrian, Duke of Zamorna, King of Angria. Zamorna is married to Mary Percy, daughter of his once great friend & now enemy, Alexander Percy, Duke of Northangerland. Northangerland is married to Lady Zenobia Ellrington, who was once in love with Zamorna but married Northangerland on the rebound. Our narrator is Charles Townshend, cynical man about town & aspiring writer. Townshend was once Lord Charles Wellesley, brother of Zamorna in his younger days when he was Marquis of Douro, son of the Duke of Wellington.

The five stories are

Mina Laury - Zamorna has returned from exile after the civil war & is now King. Northangerland has been sent into exile but, because of their family relationship, Zamorna & Mary still visit him. Mary has become jealous of Zamorna's many love affairs & is now a shadow of the woman she once was. Zamorna's first love, Mina Laury, shared his exile with him & is still his mistress, living in a remote country house. Lord Hartford, one of the Generals in Zamorna's army, has long been in love with Mina & visits her to declare himself & ask her to marry him. Zamorna discovers this & challenges Hartford to a duel.

Stancliffe's Hotel - Charles Townshend & his friend, Sir William Percy, see a beautiful young lady in church, Jane Moore, daughter of a prominent barrister. After seeing her out riding, Percy declares himself in love & they decide to visit her, claiming to be clients of her father (who they know to be out of town). Jane receives them politely but is obviously under no illusions as to who they are, thinking them counting house clerks on a joke. Zamorna's continuing relationship with Northangerland is leading to political instability & a riot threatens to break out. Zamorna & his Duchess arrive & he quietens the rebels.

The Duke of Zamorna - Townshend begins by reliving events of the past. He remembers the younger days of Zamorna, then the Marquis of Douro; his friendship with Northangerland; Northangerland's despair after the death of his first wife & his relationship with Louisa Vernon which resulted in the birth of his daughter, Caroline. Then, we're back in the present day & Townshend's friendship with Sir William Percy continues with a series of letters written by Percy about Angrian society occasions. This is really a series of sketches which move about in time but illuminate the pasts of some of the characters from the first two stories.

Henry Hastings - Sir William Percy is now working for the Government & has become more serious, undertaking undercover diplomatic missions. Townshend, on the other hand, is much the same. He tries to make conversation with a young woman on a coach journey. She is Elizabeth Hastings, who has been employed as a companion/governess to Jane Moore. Elizabeth's brother, Henry, is an outlaw, a poet & a drunkard, who was once thought to have a promising military career until he shot his commanding officer. After years in exile, Henry has returned to Angria & Percy is on his trail. He traces him to a country house belonging to the Moore family where Elizabeth is staying alone as housekeeper.

Caroline Vernon - Caroline is the illegitimate daughter of Northangerland & the ward of Zamorna. Caroline is now a teenager, desperately bored living with her mother in the country & full of dreams of fashionable life. Northangerland decides to bring her out & she experiences society in Paris & Verdopolis, the capital of Angria. He is reluctant to introduce her to his own home or his wife & so she is sent back to her mother. Caroline is dissatisfied by her return to the country & runs away to find Zamorna, with whom she has become infatuated. Zamorna is true to his Byronic nature & seduces Caroline, proposing to set her up in the country as his mistress. Northangerland discovers what has happened & the two men have a violent argument which is where the story ends.

Soon after Charlotte wrote Caroline Vernon, she worked as a governess for a few months with the White family & then she & Emily went to Brussels. There's no evidence that she wrote any more Angrian stories or anything else (although there's a fragment of a novel set in Yorkshire) until 1846, when, after the failure of their book of poetry, Charlotte tried to publish her novel, The Professor, along with Anne's Agnes Grey & Emily's Wuthering Heights.

The last two stories in this collection - Henry Hastings & Caroline Vernon - are longer & more coherent narratives. I enjoyed all the stories but especially those two. Throughout the stories, Charlotte's distinctive voice can be heard,. She often addresses the Reader, as she does most famously in Jane Eyre. Her descriptions of place, particularly wintry landscape, & her scene setting are as good as anything in the novels.

The wind increased, the sky darkened, and the bleached whirl of a snow-storm began to fill the air. Dashing at a rapid rate through the tempest, an open travelling carriage swept up the road. ... It contained two gentlemen, one a man of between thirty or forty, having about him a good deal of the air of a nobleman, shawled to the eyes, and buttoned up in at least three surtouts, with a waterproof white beaver hat, an immense mackintosh cape, and beaver gloves. His countenance bore a half-rueful, half-jesting expression. He seemed endeavouring to bear all things as smoothly as he could, but still the cold east wind and driving snow evidently put his philosophy very much to the test. Mina Laury.

Sometimes when she was alone in the evenings, walking through her handsome drawing-room by twilight, she would think of home and long for home, till she cried passionately at the conviction that she should see it no more. So wild was her longing that when she looked out on the dusky sky, between the curtains of her bay-window, fancy seemed to trace on the horizon the blue outline of the moors, just as seen from the parlour at Colne-moss. The evening star hung above the brow of Boulshill, the farm fields stretched away between. ... Again, the step of Henry himself would seem to tread in the passage, and she would distinctly hear his gun deposited in the house corner. All was a dream. Henry was changed; she was changed; those times were departed forever. She had been her brother's and her father's favourite; she had lost one and forsaken the other. At these moments, her heart would yearn towards the old lonely man in Angria till it almost broke. But pride is a thing not easily subdued. She would not return to him. Henry Hastings.

Heather Glen's Introduction is very interesting in discussing the origins of the stories. Unlike other critics, she doesn't see them as a form of "trance-writing". She sees them as a response to the fiction that the Brontës were reading in the 1830s - the fashionable silver-fork novels, the Newgate novels about criminals & prisons & Gothic novels. There was also a vogue for short tales & sketches in the periodicals & newspapers of the time so the form of these stories may have been deliberate. Charlotte may not have wanted to write full-length novels although she also lacked the time to write longer narratives when she was teaching. Glen points out that Charlotte was in her twenties, the same age as Dickens was when he published Pickwick Papers. These Angrian stories satirise many of the conventions of the fiction of the day & there's an exuberance in the telling of stories for her siblings who would understand the allusions to the popular books they had read. As in all her work, Charlotte's own wide reading, especially of poetry & the Bible, is referenced everywhere. Charlotte was also in a conversation with Branwell in these stories, taking over one of his characters (Henry Hastings) for her own & turning him into a commentary on Branwell's own dissolute habits. She even resurrected a character (Mary Percy) that Branwell had killed off in one of his stories.

I loved reading these tales of Angria. I think that anyone who craves more Brontë stories should give these a try & this edition is an excellent place to start.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Charlotte Brontë

I've been reading Charlotte Brontë's juvenilia this week, the Tales of Angria, so I thought a poem by Charlotte would be perfect for today. This is Evening Solace, and its elegiac mood makes me think it must date from later in Charlotte's life, maybe after the deaths of Branwell, Emily & Anne, when she would pace the dining room alone in the evenings.

The human heart has hidden treasures,
In secret kept, in silence sealed;­
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,
Whose charms were broken if revealed.
And days may pass in gay confusion,
And nights in rosy riot fly,
While, lost in Fame's or Wealth's illusion,
The memory of the Past may die.

But, there are hours of lonely musing,
Such as in evening silence come,
When, soft as birds their pinions closing,
The heart's best feelings gather home.
Then in our souls there seems to languish
A tender grief that is not woe;
And thoughts that once wrung groans of anguish,
Now cause but some mild tears to flow.

And feelings, once as strong as passions,
Float softly back ­a faded dream;
Our own sharp griefs and wild sensations,
The tale of others' sufferings seem.
Oh! when the heart is freshly bleeding,
How longs it for that time to be,
When, through the mist of years receding,
Its woes but live in reverie!

And it can dwell on moonlight glimmer,
On evening shade and loneliness;
And, while the sky grows dim and dimmer,
Feel no untold and strange distress­
Only a deeper impulse given
By lonely hour and darkened room,
To solemn thoughts that soar to heaven,
Seeking a life and world to come.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The King is Dead : the last will and testament of Henry VIII - Suzannah Lipscomb

I love books that focus on one incident or a particular period of a person's life. I sometimes enjoy them more than a grand, sweeping history that takes in centuries of time & a cast of thousands - although I love the odd grand, sweeping history too. Suzannah Lipscomb's new book focuses on the last few months of the life of Henry VIII & the immediate aftermath of his death.

The last will of Henry VIII has been a contested document for centuries. There have been debates about when exactly it was written, what Henry's intentions were & how competent he was to draft a will by the final weeks of his life. By December 1546, Henry was very ill. Obese, suffering from intermittent fevers because of the ulcer on his leg, distressed by the factionalism of his Court, with religious conservatives & reformers jostling for position, Henry was determined to leave England with a blueprint for the future of the realm.

The main players at Court by the end of the reign were the King's brother-in-law, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, John Dudley, Lord Lisle & Sir William Paget, the King's Chief Secretary. Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester was the leading conservative clergyman & Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury was the leading reformer. Henry's last wife, Kateryn Parr, had narrowly escaped arrest for her reforming religious views just months earlier & since then, Gardiner had lost favour with the King. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, uncle of two of Henry's queens, had fallen from favour along with his impetuous son, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was executed for treason in the last weeks of the reign.

Henry began his Will with a list of the men who would constitute the Regency Council for his heir, Edward. He realised that he would be leaving his nine year old son to succeed him & he wanted to prevent the rise of one man as Lord Protector. He named ten men, members of his Privy Council, as his executors & members of the Regency Council & a further six men who were not Privy Councilors. Henry's personal control over the composition of the Council is evident in that men like Bishop Gardiner & Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk were excluded when they might have been thought essential members of the Council, as they had been close to the King for many years.

Henry VIII's desire to secure the succession influenced his actions throughout his reign. Would he have married six times if it wasn't for the desperate need for a male heir? Even in his final months, as his health declined, Henry's obsessive need to control the future of the House of Tudor & of England, fed into the drafting of his final will. After naming the Regency Council whom he envisaged ruling until Edward was old enough to take power, he enumerated many different scenarios if the unthinkable happened & Edward did not live long enough to marry & have heirs of his own. Although Henry's daughters, Mary & Elizabeth, had been declared illegitimate, Henry designated them next in line for the throne after Edward although he failed to legitimise them which caused trouble in later years. After his daughters, he ignored the line of his elder sister, Margaret, who had married James IV of Scotland & named the descendants of his younger sister, Mary, known as the French Queen after her short-lived marriage to Louis XI. She had later married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk & had two daughters. No other will of a medieval king had set out the succession in this way & the provisions caused discussion in later years as, one after another, Henry's three children ascended the throne & then died childless.

Henry also set out his religious beliefs. Henry's break with Rome had led to him formulating his own peculiar religious belief, somewhere between Catholicism & Protestantism.  He obviously wished that neither extreme should prevail but his wishes in this matter, as in so much else, were ignored. He also set out his bequests to his family & closest friends & servants. The will was dated December 30th 1546 & Henry died three weeks later in January 1547.

Controversy surrounds this last will & testament. Historians have debated Henry's fitness to make the will, citing his health. The fact that the King didn't physically sign the will (it was signed with a dry stamp, an impression of the King's signature that was inked in by his clerks) has led to accusations that it was contrary to his wishes or that it was tampered with after his death to favour Hertford & his faction who swiftly overturned the provisions for a Regency Council & became Lord Protector. Henry's death wasn't formally announced for several days & it has been speculated that Hertford & Paget had time to insert clauses that favoured them. Suzannah Lipscomb deals with all these theories very briskly. She discounts most of them by going back to the original sources, most importantly, to the will itself, which has survived & is in the National Archives. Where David Starkey has written that the last lines of the will are cramped & somehow added above the signatures of the witnesses (implying additions to the will after it was signed), Lipscomb disproves this by reproducing the last page of the will which is evenly spaced & written in the same hand as the rest of the document. The fact that his councilors did ignore the will so thoroughly & so quickly has led to speculation that a coup was planned before the King's death but Lipscomb believes that it's easy to see this with hindsight &, in reality, fear of treason kept Hertford & Paget from planning their takeover until literally the last hours of the King's life.

Suzannah Lipscomb does an excellent job of filling in the background of Henry's life before plunging into the more detailed story of his final months. Far from seeing Henry as a doddering old man at the mercy of his courtiers, she sees him as in control right to the very end. In her opinion, the will is consistent with Henry's beliefs & view of himself throughout his reign. That he could write, in his plans for the succession, of the possibility that Queen Kateryn might yet have a child or that he might remarry, shows an essential optimism that's quite touching. He believed that his councilors would follow his wishes for his son's reign & would have been horrified to know how quickly the provisions of his will were discarded.

The book itself is a beautiful object. The illustrations, many of the portraits of the main players are by Holbein, remind us that these names on the page were real people & how lucky we are to have Holbein's drawings to bring them to life. The entire text of the will is reproduced in the book as well as part of an inventory of Henry's belongings that gives a taste of his wealth & the magnificence of the trappings of the Tudor Court. The King is Dead is a fascinating look at the politics of the final months of Henry's life & the story of how the will was written emphasizes Henry's control of his Court. His hand was on the wheel until the very end, even though he was unable to ensure that his last wishes were followed.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sunday Poetry - Julia Ward Howe

I'm reading Elaine Showalter's new biography of Julia Ward Howe at the moment so the only possible poem for today is her most famous work, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It's impossible to begin reading it (or even write the title) without humming the famous tune.

The biography is fascinating as I knew nothing about Julia Ward Howe except the fact that she wrote the Battle Hymn. Her marriage to a famous doctor, Samuel Gridley Howe (he ran the Perkins Institute for the Blind that Dickens visited & wrote about in his American Notes), was fraught with tension. The Civil Wars of the title of Showalter's biography don't just refer to the conflict that began in 1861.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fatal lightning of his terrible swift sword:
      His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps.
      His Day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
      Since God is marching on.”

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment-seat:
Oh! be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
      Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
      While God is marching on.