Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Mary Swann - Carol Shields

Mary Swann was a little-known Canadian poet. She lived on a farm in Nadeau, Ontario, wrote her poems on scraps of paper & had little contact with the outside world. On the same day that she took her poems to local publisher Frederic Cruzzi, she was murdered by her husband. The poems were published & then forgotten until academic Sarah Maloney discovered a copy of Swann's Songs on holiday & suddenly the resurrection of Mary Swann had begun. Now, twenty years after her death, she is to be the subject of a biography by the distinguished writer, Morton Jimroy, biographer of Ezra Pound & John Starman. One of the few people who actually knew Mrs Swann, Nadeau librarian & Town Clerk, Rose Hindmarch, keeps the flame alive with the Mary Swann Memorial Room in the Local History Museum. There are plans for a Symposium on the life and work of Mary Swann which will be an opportunity for the academic world to celebrate the achievements of this most mysterious woman.

Mary Swann tells the story of the poet's life through the lives & perspectives of these four people, all with their own slant on the woman & the work. Sarah Maloney is a young woman who writes beautiful, engaging letters, is in a relationship with Brownie, a rare book dealer, & sees Mary Swann as her own discovery. Sarah is in correspondence with Morton Jimroy & has visited Nadeau, spoken to Rose & visited the farm, eager to soak up the atmosphere & learn as much as possible about her poet. She possesses Mary Swann's notebook which unfortunately contains little more than shopping lists & comments on the weather, no matter how often she pores over it, hoping for a revelation into the mind of the woman & the poetry.

Rose Hindmarch structures her day between her work as Town Clerk & Librarian. She knew Mary Swann as well as anyone as Mrs Swann frequently visited the library to borrow the two books her husband allowed her. Unfortunately for the academics, Mrs Swann's tastes ran to Edna Ferber rather than T S Eliot. Rose also feels slightly guilty that she encouraged Mrs Swann to take her poetry to Frederic Cruzzi, one-time Editor of the Kingston Banner, famous for its Poet's Corner & owner of the Peregrine Press. Could Mary Swann's husband have become so enraged by her visit to Cruzzi, my her late return, by her reading & writing, that this is why he murdered her & then sat at the kitchen table & killed himself?

Frederic Cruzzi, now an elderly widower, remembers the day that Mary Swann knocked on his door with a paper bag full of scraps of paper. It was freezing weather, his wife Hildë was out ice fishing, & Mrs Swann arrived, inadequately dressed, timid & apologetic. Expecting nothing more than the usual odes to spring & nature that any small press specializing in poetry attracts, Cruzzi was overwhelmed by the quality of the work & eager to publish. Hildë returns to find Frederic overwhelmed by the poetry although they can have no idea that, by the time they sit down to read the work together, Mary Swann is probably already dead.

Morton Jimroy is on a year's sabbatical in California, working on his biography of Mary Swann, such a change from his previous work on male poets. He's ill at ease on campus, where he is a Distinguished Visitor, disconcerted by the weather, his clothes (bought in haste when the airline lost his luggage) & increasingly obsessed by his research into Mary Swann. He interviews her daughter, Frances, but she doesn't remember her mother reading or writing. Her mother read her The Bobbsey Twins & Five Little Peppers, but there was nothing remarkable about her childhood. How is he going to write the life of this very ordinary woman? His correspondence with Sarah Maloney relieves his loneliness, feeds his fantasies, both personal & professional, as he dreams of meeting Sarah in person & gaining access to Mary Swann's notebook.

The four protagonists meet at the Swann Symposium, a section of the book structured as a screenplay, where the academic world collides with reality. It becomes apparent that Mary Swann, or at least her work, is disappearing. Jimroy's notes for his book were lost with his luggage & his briefcase is stolen during a power cut at the Symposium; Sarah's only copy of Swann's Songs, was loaned to a friend & not returned & the precious notebook, as well as the copy in the archives, have been lost. One of only two photographs of the poet is missing from the Mary Swann Memorial Room & Frederic Cruzzi's house was burgled on Christmas Eve - all that is missing are the last four copies of Swann's Songs from his print run. Mary Swann the woman has been engulfed by the needs of other people; what will be left?

This is a poignant, very funny book. It's not just about academia, although there are some wickedly funny scenes about academics & their obsessions. Morton Jimroy interviews Rose about Mary Swann's religious beliefs,

"Why do you think she stayed away from church so religiously? - if you'll pardon my little joke."
"Clothes probably," Rose said this boldly. She was conscious of a noisy brimming of happiness. She had only once before in her life been taken to dinner by a man, and that had been Homer Hart, years ago, before he married Daisy.
"Clothes?" His pencil moved busily.
"Well, she probably didn't have the right clothes. For church, you know." ...
"You don't suppose," Jimroy said, "that Swann felt her spirituality was, well, less explicit than it was for regular churchgoers in the area. That it was outside the bounds, as it were, of church doctrine?" He regarded Rose closely. "If you see what I mean."
"I see what you mean, Mr Jimroy. Morton. But I really think, well, it was probably a question of not having the right kind of clothes."

As the academics get hold of Mary Swann's work, her poetry becomes loaded with meanings that only academics can see. They remake her in the image of their own current fashion or enthusiasm. Any little scrap of information is seized on as proof of their own pet theory. As Frederic tells Sarah at the Symposium,

He (Jimroy) wants Mrs Swann's life. Every minute of it if he could have it. Every cup of tea that poor woman imbibed. Every thought in her tormented head. And what's more, he wants her death. Or some clue to it.

Carol Shields writes about the personal & the domestic life better than almost anyone else. In the four chapters of the book focusing on Sarah, Morton, Rose & Frederic, we witness their whole lives, not only the parts of their lives that intersect with Mary Swann. I first read Mary Swann in the 1980s, not long after it was first published & I'd forgotten how movingly she describes loneliness & regret, even as she also reveals the absurdities & mistakes in every life. Mary Swann is much more than an academic comedy, poking fun at the pretensions & ambitions of those who make their living from the work of others. It's a moving examination of life & the different ways that events & facts can be interpreted. We learn a lot about these four lives, even if the person we know the least about at the end, is the one thing they have in common, Mary Swann.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Edna St Vincent Millay


I've finished reading Edna St Vincent Millay's third book of poetry, Second April, so this will be the last of her poems in Sunday Poetry for a while. I've enjoyed discovering her work & will definitely look out for more of her poetry. I loved the poems in Second April especially, & this one, called Alms is melancholy & resigned. I love to read wintry books & poetry at this time of year.

My heart is what it was before,
A house where people come and go;
But it is winter with your love,
The sashes are beset with snow.

I light the lamp and lay the cloth,
I blow the coals to blaze again;
But it is winter with your love,
The frost is thick upon the pane..

I know a winter when it comes:
The leaves are listless on the boughs;
I watched your love a little while,
And brought my plants into the house.

I water them and turn them south,
I snap the dead brown from the stem;
But it is winter with your love,
I only tend and water them.

There was a time I stood and watched
The small, ill-natured sparrows' fray;
I loved the beggar that I fed,
I cared for what he had to say,

I stood and watched him out of sight:
Today I reach around the door
And set a bowl upon the step;
My heart is what it was before,

But it is winter with your love;
I scatter crumbs upon the sill,
And close the window, —and the birds
May take or leave them, as they will.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Thursday Bookshelf - GI-JA


A lovely mixture on this shelf. The Madwoman in the Attic by Gilbert and Gubar, one of those books of literary criticism I read over & over again in younger days. Books by Linda Gillard, one of my favourite contemporary writers. George Gissing, Rumer Godden & Lyndall Gordon - her biography of Charlotte Brontë is one of my favourites as she considers Charlotte as a professional writer & concentrates on her career much more than earlier biographers.

My favourite books on this shelf are the two by Elizabeth Grant, Memoirs of a Highland Lady and The Highland Lady in Ireland. I read these a few years ago during a very hot summer & just loved them. There was a very appreciative article in a recent issue of Slightly Foxed about Grant which made me wish I could get my hands on her other journals about her travels in France & Dublin.



I can see several copies of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, as well as the audio book read by Juliet Stevenson & John Nettles. Also the beginning of my Hardy collection.


The rest of the Hardy collection. He's one of my favourite authors & I love the poetry as much as the fiction. Cyril Hare is one of my favourite mystery writers. I would love to reread his books. Jenny Hartley's book on Dickens & the women of Urania Cottage is one of the best books about Dickens I've ever read. I love books that take an aspect of a life or a short period in the subject's life & illuminates the whole. Charles Nicholl's book on Shakespeare, The Lodger, is another book that brings such freshness to the story of Shakespeare's life by focusing on just a year of that life.


Georgette Heyer dominates this shelf. A reasonably recent discovery for me & I have many more of her novels on the tbr shelves.


Susan Hill's Through the Kitchen Window and The Magic Apple Tree are beautiful evocations of country life. I bought that copy of Victoria Holt's The Shivering Sands from a remainders table in a fit of nostalgia as I loved her books when I was young. I had them all in those lovely 1970s Fontana paperbacks (I'm sure some of you are sighing nostalgically along with me). Winifred Holtby is another favourite author. It's the 80th anniversary of her death this year so I'd like to reread Vera Brittain's biography, Testament of Friendship.


A very battered copy of The Nun's Story by Kathryn Hulme (with the movie tie-in cover), one of my favourite movies. Why doesn't someone reprint this? Anne Boleyn is another of my historical obsessions & Eric Ives' biography of Anne is wonderful. Henry James, on the other hand, is another of my blind spots. I didn't mind Washington Square but I don't really enjoy him. Another author to clear out when I need more shelf space. On the other hand, his sister, Alice's Diary is very good, a fascinating look at a woman who could have been a writer if ill-health hadn't dominated her life.

Sorry about the varying photo sizes. I found some of the photos became blurry if I enlarged them too much but others were fine. Another technological mystery.

Next week, James, P D to Marler.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

2015 Anniversaries

This is a great year for anniversaries, both historical & literary. I plan to read something about all of these anniversaries this year. I've already mentioned the 200th anniversary of Anthony Trollope's birth & I've already read two Trollopes this year, Cousin Henry & John Caldigate.

The 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta has been in the news lately, with an exhibition at the British Library & a number of books about the charter & about King John. Is John the one irredeemably bad king in English history? Richard III used to hold the title but he's been almost completely rehabilitated now. I suppose John, Ethelred the Unready, & Edward II are seen as wicked or incompetent, with Henry VI & Charles I not far behind. I've borrowed Stephen Church's new book from work & look forward to learning more about 1215. I'm afraid I can't get the picture of Claude Rains as Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood out of my mind...

The Battle of Waterloo was 200 years ago. I'm not a big fan of military history so I'm going to read Georgette Heyer instead. However, in my defence, An Infamous Army was recommended reading at several British military colleges because of the accuracy of Heyer's research. I may as well get some romance & sparkling dialogue with my military history. I'm listening to the audio book read by Clare Higgins &, so far, it's living up to the romance & sparkling dialogue of the best Heyer. I don't know about Lady Barbara but I'm in love with Charles Audley already (half way through).


2015 is also the 70th anniversary of VE Day. Victory in Europe was an occasion for rejoicing & sadness as the toll the war took on everyone, in the services or on the Home Front, was enormous. I have plenty of books on WWII on the tbr shelves to choose from, but I think I'll be reading one of the new Persephones, London War-Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes.

It's the 80th anniversary of the birth of Carol Shields. I had great plans to reread all her books this year but, it's June & I haven't started so I've decided to regroup. Where has the year gone? I don't know why I thought I'd start any kind of reading challenge at the beginning of the year, in summer, my least favourite season of the year. Winter is a much better time for me to settle down to a reading plan. A warm house, lots of tea & a cat or two on my lap - perfect. I've started rereading Mary Swann & next, I plan to read the Letters I bought last year.

It's also 80 years since the death of Winifred Holtby. After recently rereading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, I want to reread her biography of Winifred, Testament of Friendship, as well as at least one more of Winifred's novels from the tbr shelves.

Any other anniversaries I should be aware of? On second thoughts, maybe I'd rather not know, the reading year is filling up quite fast enough...

Monday, June 29, 2015

Togetherness - almost

A brief moment of togetherness (this is as close as they ever get) on a cold but sunny afternoon. After a few grey days, Lucky & Phoebe enjoy the sunshine on the back porch while it lasts.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Edna St Vincent Millay

This poem is from Millay's third collection of poetry, Second April. It's called Journey & captures the weariness of the traveller while also recognizing that the speaker wouldn't be happy if she wasn't always moving on or moving forward in her life.

Ah, could I lay me down in this long grass
And close my eyes, and let the quiet wind
Blow over me—I am so tired, so tired
Of passing pleasant places! All my life,
Following Care along the dusty road,
Have I looked back at loveliness and sighed;
Yet at my hand an unrelenting hand
Tugged ever, and I passed. All my life long
Over my shoulder have I looked at peace;
And now I fain would lie in this long grass
And close my eyes.
          Yet onward!
                               Cat birds call
Through the long afternoon, and creeks at dusk
Are guttural. Whip-poor-wills wake and cry,
Drawing the twilight close about their throats.
Only my heart makes answer. Eager vines
Go up the rocks and wait; flushed apple-trees
Pause in their dance and break the ring for me;
And bayberry, that through sweet bevies thread
Of round-faced roses, pink and petulant,
Look back and beckon ere they disappear.
Only my heart, only my heart responds.
Yet, ah, my path is sweet on either side
All through the dragging day,—sharp underfoot
And hot, and like dead mist the dry dust hangs—
But far, oh, far as passionate eye can reach,
And long, ah, long as rapturous eye can cling,
The world is mine: blue hill, still silver lake,
Broad field, bright flower, and the long white road
A gateless garden, and an open path:
My feet to follow, and my heart to hold

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Thursday Bookshelf - DO-GI


I've decided to use the bigger photos so that you can read the spines. It just means that you need to click on the photos to see all the books on each shelf.

This shelf begins with Dostoevsky, a writer I'm still struggling with. I admire him rather than love him. I'm about to begin reading The Gambler with my 19th century bookgroup so we'll see if I get on with him any better this time around. Maybe I only keep his books on the shelf for their snob value?! I have no such problems with the other writers on this shelf. O Douglas is a relatively recent discovery, thanks to Greyladies.
I've read the Sherlock Holmes stories many times & I can always pick them up with pleasure. The Penguin boxed set was a bargain & the volumes are just the right size to fit in my handbag. The Folio Society boxed set can be read at home & there's the giant annotated three volume set on the bottom of this bay of shelves because it didn't fit here. Margaret Drabble is another favourite as is David Duff. Like Theo Aronson, a biographer of royalty. Also, the beginning of my Daphne Du Mauriers.


The rest of the Du Mauriers, Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, a new favourite after I listened to it for the first time last year. Anne Edwards is another favourite biographer. The books on the shelf are about Sonya Tolstoy, Queen Mary & Vivien Leigh (sorry about the glare on the spines). Then, the Eliots, George & T S.

Carolly Erickson is another royal biographer whose books I've read over the years. Her specialty was the Tudors & they're the books I enjoyed most. I remember being very unimpressed with her biography of Tsarina Alexandra some years ago. Also Susan Ferrier's novel Marriage. She was a Scottish contemporary of Jane Austen & that's one of the Viragos I picked up in a bookshop in the city over 30 years ago when they were marked down on special. I also bought Storm Jameson's autobiography & Susanna Moodie's Roughing it in the Bush, about her life in 19th century Canada. As always, I only wish I'd bought more marked-down Viragos that day. What's that saying? You only regret the books you didn't buy, not the ones you did (or something like that)?
Penelope Fitzgerald is there too. I enjoy her fiction but love her non-fiction, the essays in A House of Air & her Letters, even though I was irritated by the way the editor arranged them & by the eccentric footnotes.I have Hermione Lee's biography of Fitzgerald on the tbr shelves & I must read it soon.


Two more favourite biographers on this shelf. Margaret Forster & Antonia Fraser. I've realised that I must buy more non-fiction than fiction as I've also read many novels by both these authors yet there are very few on the shelf. I remember buying the blue copy of Fraser's Mary, Queen of Scots back in the 70s. I was so excited to see it in a bookshop that I couldn't stop looking at it all the way home in the car (my Dad was driving) & I dropped everything to start reading it when we got home. I've read it several times since along with many other books about the Queen of Scots. Antonia Fraser is just as obsessed with Mary as I was. She wore a Queen of Scots headdress at her wedding to Hugh Fraser. There's a photo in her recent memoir, My History, which I've not yet read. Maybe I'll listen to the audio book, read by Penelope Wilton, instead?

More Antonia Frasers plus her biographer daughters, Flora & Rebecca. Lucy Frost's No Place for a Nervous Lady is a fascinating collection of letters & memoirs by women who lived in the Australian bush in the 19th century. Whether they'd just arrived from Europe or had grown up in the cities, the bush was a new & sometimes frightening experience for all of them. Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga - I still have Volume 3 tbr. I remember reading Juliet Gardiner's Wartime just after I moved into this house, while the electrician was sorting out the lighting. I have two more of her books - The Thirties & The Blitz - tbr.

Helen Garner, another author I've been reading since Monkey Grip in the 70s. In recent years, she's been writing non-fiction & Joe Cinque's Consolation is the best thing she's written, in my opinion. I gave my copy to my sister, which is why it's not there. My Elizabeth Gaskells are on this shelf & Winifred Gerin, biographer of Mrs Gaskell & the Brontës. Gibbon's Decline and Fall is there under false pretences, really. I confess, I haven't read it but I got so sick of seeing it on the tbr shelves so I put it away here. I couldn't bring myself to weed it as I really do want to get to it one day. I'm considering trying it on audio, there are several versions on Audible, & I've put the version narrated by David Timson into my Wishlist. Stella Gibbons finishes off this shelf along with the annotated Sherlock I mentioned above.