Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Lord Byron

I'm about halfway through reading the Letters of Lord Byron, recently reprinted by Michael Walmer. Byron has just fled to the Continent after the scandal surrounding the end of his marriage. Among the many rumours about the breakdown of his marriage was one that accused Byron of having an affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. They were devoted to each other & Byron was devastated to be separated from Augusta, sending little presents back to England for Augusta's daughters & his own little girl, Ada.

I don't think anyone really knows whether or not they were lovers (although there have been many theories) but this poem is full of despair, misery & sadness & I find it very poignant.

Though the day of my destiny's over,
  And the star of my fate hath declined,
Thy soft heart refused to discover
  The faults which so many could find;
Though thy soul with my grief was acquainted,
  It shrunk not to share it with me,
And the love which my spirit hath painted
  It never hath found but in
thee.

Then when nature around me is smiling
  The last smile which answers to mine,
I do not believe it beguiling
  Because it reminds me of thine;
And when winds are at war with the ocean,
  As the breasts I believed in with me,
If their billows excite an emotion
  It is that they bear me from
thee.

Though the rock of my last hope is shiver'd,
  And its fragments are sunk in the wave,
Though I feel that my soul is deliver'd
  To pain--it shall not be its slave.
There is many a pang to pursue me:
  They may crush, but they shall not contemn--
They may torture, but shall not subdue me--
  'Tis of
thee that I think--not of them.

Though human, thou didst not deceive me,
  Though woman, thou didst not forsake,
Though loved, thou forborest to grieve me,
  Though slander'd, thou never could'st shake,--
Though trusted, thou didst not betray me,
  Though parted, it was not to fly,
Though watchful, 'twas not to defame me,
  Nor, mute, that the world might belie.

Yet I blame not the world, nor despise it,
  Nor the war of the many with one--
If my soul was not fitted to prize it
  'Twas folly not sooner to shun:
And if dearly that error hath cost me,
  And more than I once could foresee,
I have found that, whatever it lost me,
  It could not deprive me of
thee.

From the wreck of the past, which hath perish'd,
Thus much I at least may recall,
It hath taught me that what I most cherish'd
Deserved to be dearest of all:
In the desert a fountain is springing,
In the wide waste there still is a tree,
And a bird in the solitude singing,
Which speaks to my spirit of
thee.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fortunata and Jacinta - Benito Pérez Galdós

Benito Pérez Galdós was the most famous Spanish author of the 19th century. He's been compared to Dickens & Balzac in his depiction of Spanish society & the broad canvas of his novels. He wrote 46 novels in his great series, Episidios Nacionales, from 1873-1912. In Spain, his name needs no explanation but very few of his novels have been translated into English.

Fortunata and Jacinta is the story of two women who both love the same man. One is his wife, the other his mistress. Juanito Santa Cruz is the spoilt only son of a wealthy merchant. He's never had to work in his life & shows no desire to try. Juanito spends his days & nights touring the poorer districts of Madrid with his friends. He meets Fortunata, a poor but beautiful young girl. They have an affair, she becomes pregnant & he leaves her. Juanito's mother becomes concerned about his profligate lifestyle, although she doesn't know about Fortunata. She engineers a marriage with Juanito's cousin  Jacinta, a lovely but sheltered girl who soon falls passionately in love with her husband. After the honeymoon, they settle in to a comfortable life with the older Santa Cruzes. Juanito has confessed his affair with Fortunata to his wife & she forgives him. However, Jacinta is desperate to have a child. When she doesn't fall pregnant, she becomes obsessed with Fortunata's son & tracks the child down to a relative of Fortunata's who is caring for the boy. However, this child is not Fortunata's son, who died as a baby. The unscrupulous relatives try to convince Jacinta to adopt the boy & almost succeed.

Fortunata has taken up with a man who mistreats her & when she leaves him, she has several unsuccessful relationships until she meets Maximiliano Rubín, a young man studying to be a pharmacist. Maxi falls in love with Fortunata at first sight but he's a poor specimen, thin, sickly & unprepossessing. He lives with his aunt, Doña Lupe, who disapproves of Fortunata's lifestyle but eventually gives in to Maxi's desire to marry her. Fortunata is still in love with Juanito but eventually agrees to marry Maxi for security. He persuades her to enter a convent that specialises in saving fallen women, where she will be able to cleanse her soul & prepare herself for marriage & life in a respectable family. While there, she meets an old friend, Mauricia, a seamstress who has delusions & visions caused by her drinking. Fortunata leaves the convent full of good intentions & marries Maxi.

Juanito, having lost sight of Fortunata for some years, sees her again & finds her more beautiful than ever. He pursues her, renting the apartment next door to the newly married couple & easily seduces her again. Maxi discovers the relationship & the torment he suffers begins to affect his mind. Juanito again leaves Fortunata & she is taken up by Don Evaristo Feijóo, an older man who becomes her protector & teaches her more cultured manners. Eventually he convinces her to return to Maxi as he worries about her fate after his death.

Almost immediately Fortunata realises that she has made a terrible mistake. She can't bear Maxi or his aunt, who is suspicious of her. She begins seeing Juanito again & confronts Jacinta, telling her that she is Juanito's true wife as she met him first & had a child by him. When Fortunata becomes pregnant, she can't hide it from Maxi, who begins having homicidal fantasies & vows to take revenge on his faithless wife & her lover.

Fortunata and Jacinta is a panoramic story of life in 1870s Madrid. The story is so rich that merely describing the plot doesn't begin to explain how absorbing it is. I know very little about Spanish history & the references to Spanish politics went over my head but it didn't really matter. I read a little bit about the fraught political situation around the succession to the Spanish throne but not knowing much about it didn't affect my enjoyment of the novel. The minor characters are just wonderful. Maxi's aunt, Doña Lupe, is a canny moneylender & investor who had brought up Maxi & his two brothers, political opportunist Juan Pablo & Nicolas, a priest whose appetite is legendary but who never pays for the enormous meals he consumes. The pharmacist, Bellester, who falls in love with Fortunata & tries to protect her from Maxi's odd behaviour. Mauricia, the alcoholic seamstress who shocks the nuns in the convent by her foul-mouthed tirades when she manages to get hold of drink. My favourite character was Guillermina Pacheco, an indefatigable worker for the poor who bullies all her acquaintances into supporting her charitable endeavours.

Juanito Santa Cruz was a completely worthless man with no redeeming features at all. I could only wonder why Fortunata loved him so much & why she kept going back to him after he treated her so badly. She seemed to think he was her fate & didn't even try to resist him. Jacinta became completely consumed by her desire for a child, unable to enjoy her privileged lifestyle & becoming more & more fascinated by the idea of Fortunata & her hold over Juanito. I read Fortunata and Jacinta with my 19th century bookgroup & I loved coming back to the book every week for another installment. I hope more of Galdós' novels are translated into English as I'd love to read more of his work.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Lord Byron

A light-hearted poem with a touch of melancholy written, as the poet tells us, On The Road Between Florence and Pisa, in 1821.

Oh, talk not to me of a name great in story;
The days of our youth are the days of our glory;
And the myrtle and ivy of sweet two-and-twenty
Are worth all your laurels, though ever so plenty.

What are garlands and crowns to the brow that is wrinkled?
'Tis but as a dead flower with May-dew besprinkled:
Then away with all such from the head that is hoary!
What care I for the wreaths that can only give glory?

O Fame!—if I e'er took delight in thy praises,
'Twas less for the sake of thy high-sounding phrases,
Than to see the bright eyes of the dear one discover
She thought that I was not unworthy to love her.

There chiefly I sought thee, there only I found thee;
Her glance was the best of the rays that surround thee;
When it sparkled o'er aught that was bright in my story,
I knew it was love, and I felt it was glory.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Beyond the Battlefield : women artists of the two World Wars - Catherine Speck

This beautiful book describes the lives & careers of some of the many women war artists who produced work during World War One & Two. Catherine Speck is Professor of Art History at the University of Adelaide & she has brought together the work of 62 artists from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada & the US. All were professionally trained but rarely officially employed or sanctioned.  Official schemes employing war artists were dominated by men working in the field & on the front line. The paintings, drawings & photographs produced by women artists concentrate on the Home Front but also include scenes in factories, the women's services & hospitals. There are some famous names here - Margaret Preston, Laura Knight, Lee Miller, Stella Bowen. More often, I'd never heard of the artist but the work reproduced in this book is always interesting & often very moving.

I haven't had a chance to read the whole book & I've had to return it to the library because it was reserved so here are just a few pictures showing the wide range of work & subject matter in Beyond the Battlefield.

This is Sybil Craig's picture of women working in a cordite factory in Maribyrnong, Melbourne in 1945.

Olive Mudie-Cooke was a British artist who was in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) during WWI & served in France & Italy. I love this watercolour on brown paper of an ambulance. After the war, she was commissioned to produce this work of her time as a nurse.

Ethel Gabain was commissioned during WWII to document the aftermath of bombing raids in London. This is called Bombed Out Bermondsey, 1941.

This is a famous picture by Dame Laura Knight, Corporal J D M Pearson, GC, WAAF, 1940. Daphne Pearson was the first woman to receive the George Cross for gallantry. She rescued a pilot from his burning aircraft when it crashed on landing at an airfield in Kent. when the plane's bombs exploded, she sheltered the pilot with her body & used her steel helmet to protect his head.

I've put myself back in the reservation queue for this book as I've only had a chance to skim the surface of the fascinating stories of the women artists that Catherine Speck has researched & recovered from obscurity.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

John Caldigate - Anthony Trollope

In this 200th anniversary year of the birth of Anthony Trollope, I plan to read at least a few more of his books. I've begun with John Caldigate (picture from here), one of Catherine Pope's Top 10 Trollopes & I think it's now one of mine as well.

John Caldigate has a fractious relationship with his father. Young John has gone to Cambridge & racked up gambling debts with an unscrupulous character called Davis. His father doesn't consider him worthy to inherit his estate &, even though the estate is entailed, he now favours a nephew instead. John has no feelings of family pride & readily accepts his father's offer to buy his reversion to the title. John can then pay his debts & make a new start. He decides to go to Australia with a friend, Dick Shand, & try his luck at gold mining. Before leaving England, John finds himself mildly entangled with two young ladies - Dick Shand's sister, Maria & his cousin Julia Babington. John, however, is attracted to Hester Bolton, the daughter of his father's legal advisor, a man who disapproves of John's flippant disregard for his family name & fortune.

John & Dick travel to Australia second class to save money which excites quite a bit of comment among the first class passengers. John becomes friendly with a pretty young widow, Mrs Smith. Mrs Smith's antecedents are obscure - she claims to have made a living on the stage before marrying unwisely - & everyone warns John against the intimacy. However, by the time they reach Melbourne, John has become entangled with Mrs Smith & they are engaged "unless something happens to part us" as John ungallantly adds. John realises his mistake as soon as he goes ashore but feels obliged to regard himself as engaged, although Mrs Smith has left him free to pursue his gold mining plans without the burden of taking her along.

The two young men travel to New South Wales with a letter of introduction to a friend of a friend, Tom Crinkett. They set themselves up with a claim with the help of another miner & they prosper. Well, John prospers. Dick takes to drink & ends up as a shepherd in the Queensland outback, helped out with money from John from time to time. Mrs Smith, meanwhile, has gone back on the stage in Melbourne & then goes to Sydney with her show, performing under the name of Mademoiselle Cettini.  John hears of her from a former shipboard acquaintance & goes to Sydney to see her. She returns to the goldfields with him & they live together for a time before parting.

Over the next few years, John's fortunes rise & he eventually returns to England with a handsome fortune & a new appreciation of his family estate. John & his father have been corresponding & their relations have thawed so that by the time he returns home, his father is proud & happy to see him. Old Mr Caldigate has become disillusioned with the nephew whom he once favoured over his son & decides to reinstate John as his heir. John marries Hester Bolton, despite the disapproval of her father & her intensely religious mother. Just after their first child is born, John receives a letter from Mrs Smith, signing herself Euphemia Caldigate & demanding to be recognized as his wife. Mrs Smith had bought shares in John's mine along with Tom Crinkett when John sold out & returned home. After John had left Australia, the mine petered out & the unlucky partners asked John to refund some of their money. He refused & the two travelled to England, hoping to convince him in person. As a result of the information they lay against him, John is charged with bigamy & committed to stand trial. Is John really a bigamist or are Crinkett & Mrs Smith trying to blackmail him using circumstantial evidence?

John Caldigate is an unusual Victorian novel because it shows a rather weak-willed young man as a hero. John starts off as an easily-led spendthrift who is sent out to the colonies almost in disgrace. He flirts with a young woman on board ship, makes her promises, lives with her unmarried & then tires of her. He works hard & is good to Dick Shand when he goes off the rails but returns to England with his fortune. He only offers to refund some of the money paid by Crinkett & Smith when he fears a scandal. The fact that he pays them the money tells against him at his trial although his motive, in the end, was honourable. There is genuine doubt as to whether or not he has married Mrs Smith because he has been such a slippery character.

The unravelling of the evidence against Caldigate by a Post Office worker called Bagwax (one of Trollope's silliest names, along with his colleague, Mr Curlydown) makes good use of Trollope's own expertise as a Post Office employee. Unfortunately Bagwax is fond of explaining his theories in minute detail & this part of the narrative drags a little. Our heroine, Hester Bolton, is also a wishy washy character, a very conventional heroine. She does have her moment of glory when she sits in the hall of her parents house for several days, refusing to move when they lock her in to prevent her living with a man who they believe has tricked her into a bigamous marriage. Hester's mother is a wonderful character, her religious convictions so strong that I wondered why she married at all. Maybe her religious leanings came on after her marriage? She doesn't approve of John even before the bigamy allegation & does everything she can to prevent the marriage. When she's overruled by her husband & her stepsons, she almost seems glad to be vindicated, even though it means her daughter's ruin. On the whole, though, this was a great story with enough ambiguity in the storytelling & in the character of John Caldigate to make the trial & its aftermath very suspenseful.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Lord Byron

This is one of those poems that I must have read many times but I can only ever remember the first two lines. The Destruction of Sennacherib was published in Byron's Hebrew Melodies in 1815. It's based on the Biblical story from 2 Kings, of the Assyrian king Sennacherib's campaign to capture Jerusalem. Looking this up, I also discovered that the form of the poem is an anapestic tetrameter, which means it sounds like the galloping of a horse. Which is exactly how it does sound if you read it aloud, I just didn't know that the effect had a name.

I also discovered (Wikipedia is a wonderful thing) that Punch published a parody of the poem when the Australian cricket team toured England in 1878 & prevented the legendary W G Grace from getting into his stride.

The Australians came down like a wolf on the fold,
The Marylebone cracks for a trifle were bowled;
Our Grace before dinner was very soon done,
And Grace after dinner did not get a run.

Anyway, here's the original & the best.

 The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

   Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

   For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

   And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

   And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

   And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Royal Escape - Georgette Heyer

I've always known that Georgette Heyer wrote historical novels as opposed to her historical & Regency romances. She wrote several novels about real historical figures - William the Conqueror, John, Duke of Bedford - and this one, Royal Escape, about Charles II & his flight into exile after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. I also knew that Heyer's research for her novels was prodigious & extensive. I was still surprised when I read the relevant chapter in Antonia Fraser's biography of Charles, after reading the novel, just how accurate she was. Names, places, incidents, all taken direct from the historical record & recreated as very exciting fiction. I listened to Royal Escape on audio, read by Cornelius Garrett who did an excellent job. Garrett is one of my favourite narrators. I remember his reading of Anne Perry's WWI series some years ago. I loved it so much that I would wait for the library to get the audio book rather than read the stories myself.

Royal Escape begins in the aftermath of the Battle of Worcester. The Civil War is all but over. Charles I has been executed two years earlier & his son, now King Charles II, has made an attempt, with the help of the Scots, to regain his throne from the Parliament forces. Unfortunately Charles's experiences among the Presbyterian Scots did not endear him to them & his potential English supporters disapproved of a Scots army invading England. At Worcester, the Scots failed to rally & the Royalists were defeated. Charles is now a marked man & must try to get to France where there are many Royalist exiles & he will find support at the court of Louis XIV.

Charles decides to travel with just one companion, his great friend, Lord Wilmot. Harry is an older man (& father to the Restoration poet, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester which I didn't realise until after I'd finished the book), absolutely devoted to Charles but almost comically unfit for the disguises & stratagems of a fugitive. The only concession he will make to a disguise is to ride with a hawk on his wrist as though he were just out for a day's hunting & he insists on his manservant accompanying him. Charles, on the other hand, a young man of only 20, is far more easygoing & is prepared to wear rough clothing, cut his hair, have walnut juice rubbed on his face, be lead about the countryside by the poorest of his subjects & obey their directions meekly & with a good grace.

The tale of Charles's flight is such a good story, with so many near misses, comical incidents & instances of great bravery & loyalty that it seems like a fairytale. It was one of Charles's favourite stories when he came to the throne & he apparently bored his courtiers by telling it so often. Charles certainly never forgot the many people who helped him & it's remarkable that he was never betrayed when it's estimated that more than 60 people knew of his whereabouts during the six weeks he was on the run. By good luck, he found himself among the Catholic families of the West Country & was impressed by their loyalty & faith, especially after the rude, harsh religion of the Scots Covenanters. It's been speculated that his later inclination towards Catholicism may have had more to do with this experience than with his French mother's teaching.

He famously spent a day hiding in an oak tree, hid in priest's holes in country houses & impersonated a servant (quite badly) when traveling with Jane Lane & her sister. He rode through troops of Parliamentary soldiers & ate in servant halls, often drinking a toast to his own health without his companions knowing who he was. Charles was touched by the loyalty shown him & repaid it with good humour & an awareness of the risks taken by the Penderels, Lanes, Giffards, Wyndhams & Gunters in aiding him. Eventually the King boarded a ship at Shoreham & made his escape to France.

Royal Escape is a story of great charm. Charles himself is a very sympathetic character, although his wicked sense of humour almost betrays him several times. Harry Wilmot provides the comic relief but his obvious love for Charles redeems him from being just a figure of fun. Cromwell & his New Model Army may have won the war but they had a long way to go in winning the hearts & minds of the English people. Charles, with his easy charm & sincere gratitude for the help he received, did more for the Royalist cause on his flight than he could have known.The legends that grew up about his escape kept the memory of the Stuarts alive over the long nine years before the Restoration.

Anglophilebooks.com Anglophile Books not only has a copy of the book but also the audio book (on cassette) of Royal Escape.