Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday poetry - Wooings

This week's poem from Antonia Fraser's anthology of Scottish love poetry is by a poet I've never heard of. Born in 1735, Robert Graham of Gartmore (picture from here) was a politician, a landowner & a poet & this is his best-known poem. It's been set to music twice, by the poet's great-great-grandson the Rev Malise Graham & also by Sir Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert & Sullivan fame.

O Tell Me How To Woo Thee is a lovely poem, full of joyful determination on the part of the wooer. He doesn't sound too desperately unhappy so I think he's had enough encouragement from his beloved to hope that his love will be returned. She just wants to make him wait a little longer, & prove just how much he loves her, that's all.

If doughty deeds my ladye please,
Right soon I'll mount my steed;
And strong his arm, and fast his seat,
That bears frae me the meed.
I'll wear thy colours in my cap,
Thy picture in my heart;
And he that bends not to thine eye,
Shall rue it to his smart.

Then tell me how to woo thee, love;
O tell me how to woo thee!
For thy dear sake, nae care I'll take,
Tho' ne'er another trow me.

If gay attire delight thine eye,
I'll dight me in array;
I'll tend thy chamber door all night,
And squire thee all the day.
If sweetest sounds can win thy ear,
These sounds I'll strive to catch;
Thy voice I'll steal to woo thysel',
That voice that nane can match.

But if fond love thy heart can gain,
I never broke a vow;
Nae maiden lays her skaith to me,
I never loved but you.
For you alone I ride the ring,
For you I wear the blue;
For you alone I strive to sing,
O tell me how to woo!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mary, Queen of Scots : truth or lies - Rosalind K Marshall

Mary, Queen of Scots is one of those historical figures that I find endlessly fascinating. There are so many questions & myths about her life, her motives & her beliefs. She was revered as a Catholic martyr & reviled as an adulteress who murdered her second husband to marry her third. Was she more French than Scots after her childhood at the French Court & her first marriage to Dauphin Francis? What was her real relationship with Elizabeth I? Was she in love with the Earl of Bothwell & did she conspire with him to murder Darnley?

Rosalind K Marshall is a historian who has written many books about Scotland's history. Last year I read her fascinating book about Anne, Duchess of Hamilton & posted about it here. She has also written about Mary & the influential women in her life in Queen Mary's Women. This book is a short (only 120pp) & succinct examination of some of the myths about Mary's life. Marshall sets out the myth & then examines the facts & the evidence to try to come to a reasonable opinion about the truth or otherwise of the myth.

The idea that Mary was more French than Scottish & knew very little about Scotland until she returned after the death of her husband, Francis II, has very little substance. Mary was Queen of Scots almost from birth as her father, James V, died when she was only a few days old. Her formidable French mother, Mary of Guise, was determined to protect her inheritance &, because she feared Mary would be abducted or assassinated by unruly nobles or Henry VIII (who wanted to marry Mary to his son & combine the kingdoms), she eventually agreed that Mary would be sent to France to be brought up at Court & marry the Dauphin. Mary was only five years old but she went to France with a retinue of Scottish servants & companions & it was expected that she would be treated as a Queen & not lose sight of her Scots heritage. Mary of Guise was Regent of Scotland & she wrote to Mary, keeping her informed of political developments.

When Mary returned to Scotland at the age of 18, after her mother & husband had died, she was not ignorant of the political or religious situation & her Personal Rule began well because she was determined to rule justly & with tolerance towards the religious reformers like John Knox. Mary's second marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley, was a disaster. Darnley was a cousin of Mary's & had Tudor & Stewart heritage. Their marriage began well but Darnley's immaturity & petulance soon made him enemies at Court & he was easily manipulated by the wily Scottish nobles who wanted to control the Queen & thought controlling Darnley was the way to do this. The murder of Mary's secretary, David Rizzio, in her presence when she was six months pregnant, was the beginning of the end of the marriage. Whether Mary had an affair with Rizzio, whether she was involved in the plot to murder Darnley at Kirk o'Field, & whether she connived with Bothwell in his abduction of her to force their marriage are some of the other stories examined in the book.

Mary, Queen of Scots : truth or lies is an interesting examination of Mary's life through the myths that have grown up around her. It's not a comprehensive biography & I think you'd need to know a bit about the subject to keep track of the many characters. Antonia Fraser's biography is still the best in my opinion, still in print over 40 years after publication. A more recent biography by John Guy, My Heart is My Own, is also excellent.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Best of Books and Company - ed Susan Hill

I love books that send me running to my shelves, inspired to read or reread a book I'd forgotten I even owned. This selection of articles from Susan Hill's little magazine Books and Company is just that sort of book. Books and Company was published by Susan Hill from 1997-2001. How I wish I'd known about it, I would have subscribed immediately. It strikes me as a forerunner of the wonderful literary magazine, Slightly Foxed. The articles are not really reviews, more appreciations of an author or a book, a reminiscence about learning to read or in Jeanette Winterson's case, learning how to hide her reading from her mother by memorising chunks of fiction & writing them down on slates. Winterson's description of reading is one I think all readers would agree with,

Time with a book is not time away from the real world. A book is its own world, unique, entire. A place we choose to visit, and although we cannot stay there, something of the book stays with us, perhaps vividly, perhaps out of conscious memory altogether, until years later we find it again, forgotten in a pocket, like a shell from a beach.

There are articles that made me smile with recognition & remembrance, like Andrew Taylor's two essays about crime fiction. Corpses in the Quad, about the origins & delights of Oxbridge crime, & P C Plod Apprehended, about the way policemen have been depicted in crime novels from Enid Blyton's Mr Plod through the gentlemen policemen like Alan Grant & Roderick Alleyn to modern day sleuths Dalziel & Pascoe.
Penelope Fitzgerald's perceptive essays on two small masterpieces, Sarah Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs & J L Carr's A Month in the Country which I wrote about here encapsulate the delights of discovering a perfect novel,

This short novel (Country of the Pointed Firs) is her masterpiece, no doubt about that, but it is difficult to discuss the plot because it can hardly be said to have one... In a few pages Jewett establishes forever the substantial reality of Dennett's landing. We know it, we have been there, we have walked up the steep streets and we taste the sea air. Now we have got to get to know the inhabitants, slowly, as the narrator does herself and, in good time, to hear their confidences.

W E K Anderson's wonderful article about the delights of reading Sir Walter Scott had me racing off to check what I had on the shelves. I read quite a few of Scott's novels when I was a teenager but in the last few years I've only read The Lady of the Lake & The Bride of Lammermoor with my 19th century bookgroup. We have The Talisman coming up soon & I'm looking forward to it very much, even more so now that I've read this enthusiastic championing of a novelist who reigned supreme for over a hundred years but then fell out of favour along with the historical novels he wrote. Anderson is the editor of Scott's Journal, which I also have on the tbr shelves & the Journal documents a fascinating period of Scott's life when he was working hard to clear his debts. Anderson champions Scott's ability to write about a broad range of characters. He says only Shakespeare & Dickens can compare with his range & vision,

In reality, the novels appeal to the reader on two levels. They tell a good story, set in an authentic historical period filled with real people, but at the same time they explore the notions of progress, of civilized values and of those qualities which are the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Then, there are the books I'd never heard of that I want to read right now even if they're out of print & hard to find. I've read a couple of novels by H Rider Haggard but I had no idea that his daughter, Lilias, wrote books about her life in the Norfolk countryside among other things. Jane Gardam writes about a wet summer holiday in North Yorkshire with a wakeful baby that was only saved by the discovery of the Rev J C Atkinson's memoir, Forty Years in a Moorland Parish, the story of his life as Vicar of Danby near Whitby in Yorkshire,

He estimated that in his first forty years at Danby he had walked seventy thousand miles on parish duty and at least as many again for his 'recreation'. His 'recreation' was often a sort of mystical rapture and often hard digging into Anglo-Saxon barrows. He was blissfully happy. 'Angels would forget their wings.' he said.

He married three times (the last when he was 70 & his wife was 30) & had 13 children. A remarkable life indeed.

There are essays on the Brontes by Lucasta Miller, M R James's ghost stories by John Francis, William Maxwell by Adele Geras & Osbert Sitwell's autobiography by Philip Ziegler & Margaret de Fonblanque on the independent women writers of the 20s like Dorothy L Sayers, Ivy Compton Burnett & Vera Brittain & Winifred Holtby. My only problem with a book like this is deciding what to read next. I've pulled out a few of Walter Scott's novels to look over & downloaded some more of Sarah Orne Jewett's short stories from ManyBooks & popped a few other bits & pieces into my Amazon basket & wishlist. The possibilities are endless. With collections like this, I will never be short of something to read next.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Penny Plain - O Douglas

I discovered O Douglas through Greyladies, the Edinburgh publishing firm that specializes in early 20th century fiction. So far, they've published Pink Sugar, Eliza for Common & The Proper Place & I hope they continue to reprint her books. While hunting around for more O Douglas, I discovered that several more of her novels were available from Project Gutenberg to download free for my e-reader. Among them was Penny Plain. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was reading Penny's blog, Scottish Vegan Homemaker (lovely blog by the way. Books, cats & delicious vegan recipes) & she showed off her collection of O Douglas novels & mentioned that she was reading Penny Plain for the umpteenth time. That was all the encouragement I needed to decide to read Penny Plain next.

O Douglas was the pseudonym of Anna Buchan, sister of the more famous John, author of The 39 Steps & many other adventure novels. I would describe her books as charmingly comfortable & I mean that as the highest praise. Her characters are charming, her stories are full of human interest, there's always a lovely romance & there's a lot of humour too, mostly through one of her small boys. Poignantly I learned from Penny's blog that the small boys in her books (in Penny Plain it's Gervase Taunton, known as the Mhor) were all based on her own young brother who was killed in WWI.  

Penny Plain is the story of the Jardines. Jean is 23 & has had the care of her two younger brothers & an adopted brother, the Mhor, since the death of dourly religious Great Aunt Alison who brought them up in Priorsford, a small town on the Tweed based on Peebles. David is about to go to Oxford & Jean has been scrimping & saving to make this happen. The family live frugally at The Rigs, a quaint, inconvenient house in the older part of town. Pamela Reston, a 40ish society beauty, arrives to stay in Priorsford while she considers her future. She's had a proposal of marriage from a wealthy politician but isn't sure what she wants to do. She soon makes the acquaintance of the Jardines & finds herself caught up in the life of the town. Pamela's brother Biddy, Lord Bidsborough, is an adventurer & explorer & she describes Priorsford life in her letters to him. When he finally arrives for a visit, he's attracted to Jean although she can't see past his wealth & her poverty & responsibility for her brothers. Lewis Elliott, a cousin of the Jardines, is also an old friend & sweetheart of Pamela's & they tentatively renew their friendship.

The other inhabitants of Priorsford are an interesting lot, their exact social relationships to each other very finely described. There's the overbearing Mrs Duff-Whalley & her unpopular daughter. She's the sort of woman who is always organising something & most people agree with her suggestions & directions because they just want to get rid of her. Mrs Hope is a spiky woman with a kind heart who has lost all three of her sons & lives with her daughter, making the best of her time until she can be reunited with her sons after death. The kindly minister, Mr MacDonald & his wife are good, true Christians, doing good on a tiny stipend. The genteel Miss Watsons who are delighted to be asked to Pamela Reston's tea party but secretly wish they could forego the social trauma & just sit at home in their comfortable clothes. When Jean receives an unexpected inheritance, she finds that the money is more of a burden than a blessing & her position in Priorsford society undergoes a change that disconcerts her.

The charm of Penny Plain is the depiction of small town Scottish life after WWI. I loved all the domestic detail of the Jardines' house. Glaswegian Mrs M'Cosh who looks after the family faithfully but yearns for the kitchen in one of the smart new villas on the other side of town. Pamela's landlady, Bella Bathgate, with her dreadful cooking & genteel ideas about furnishings. Jock & the Mhor (which is Gaelic for the Great One), with their dog, Peter, always in the middle of an adventure or planning mischief. Jean is good but not priggishly so. She lives for the boys & takes her responsibilities seriously. Her inner life is nourished with books & poetry & in the kindnesses she can do for others. She reminded me of Kirsty in Pink Sugar, another good young woman, but I liked Jean more because she doesn't have a perfectly comfortable life. She has to struggle & there's a feeling that her youth will pass her by while she lives & works for her brothers. Pamela Reston is the catalyst that starts to bring Jean out of her comfortable but limited sphere & the inheritance, while a worry, is also a way to broaden Jean's horizons & give her a chance to live for herself.

As I said, O Douglas's novels are charmingly comfortable but they also have an undercurrent of sadness. The books I've read so far were all written in the 1920s & are very perceptive on the social reality for many women who had lost men in the War.
I read Penny Plain on my e-reader, having downloaded it for free from Project Gutenberg. My only problem with reviewing books from my e-reader is finding pictures of the covers to illustrate my posts. The only cover I could find for Penny Plain had a sailboat on the cover & I couldn't see what on earth that had to do with the book. If there was a sailing chapter, I missed it! So, I've chosen a photo of Peebles, the original of Priorsford, which I found here.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sunday afternoon in the garden

It's been a while since I posted some pictures of the garden. I haven't spent much time in the garden lately. It's been cold & wet for one thing but it's also a bit lonely without Abby here to supervise my very amateur attempts at gardening. It rained all morning yesterday so when the sun finally broke through at about 3 o'clock, I went for a walk to get some air & when I came home, decided to take a few photos of some of the late winter beauties of the garden. You can see my preference for white flowers! Earlicheer daffodils have a lovely creamy colour & the white geranium is always reliable. I don't think I've ever killed a geranium. There used to be a white daphne next to the geranium but it was in one of Abby's favourite spots for digging & it didn't survive her attentions.

Then, there are the single white daffodils & snowdrops. I wanted to take some photos of the pink striped camellia but the rain had ruined all the flowers.

The most exciting thing is that the rose garden is going well. We've had some high winds & quite a lot of rain but the roses are all still standing &, as you can see, one of the Squire roses has started sprouting. I can't wait for the first roses to bloom.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunday poetry - Celebrations of Love

The anthology I'm now reading for Sunday Poetry is this lovely collection of Scottish Love Poetry by Antonia Fraser, published in 1975. This is another of the battered paperbacks I bought at the Lake Daylesford Book Barn in the 1980s when I used to stay with friends who had a lovely old house right on the Lake & two doors up from the Book Barn. Whenever I was missing, they knew where I'd be - next to the potbelly stove in the Book Barn.
Subtitled A Personal Anthology, in the Introduction, Fraser explains that her criteria was simply to choose the love poetry she enjoyed & had returned to over the years. The book is divided into 21 sections, each describing a different stage or condition of love, so I've decided to follow those sections & choose a poem from each of them over the next 21 weeks. The first section, Celebrations of Love, opens with the most famous Scottish love poem of all, Robert Burns's A red, red rose. This is one of my favourites too & Bryn Terfel sings a gorgeous version of it on his CD of British love songs. But, I decided on a lesser known poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, a gentle celebration of contented, happy love.

I will make you brooches and toys for your delight
Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.
I will make a palace fit for you and me
Of green days in forests and blue days at sea.

I will make my kitchen, and you shall keep your room,
Where white flows the river and bright blows the broom,
And you shall wash your linen and keep your body white
In rainfall at morning and dewfall at night.

And this shall be for music when no one else is near,
The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!
That only I remember, that only you admire,
Of the broad road that stretches and the roadside fire.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sylvia's Lovers - Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell described Sylvia’s Lovers as the saddest story she ever wrote & I would have to agree. Sylvia’s Lovers is a historical novel set in the fictional town of Monkshaven (based on Whitby in Yorkshire) at the time of the Napoleonic Wars in the 1790s. Sylvia Robson is a beautiful, wilful girl living on a dairy farm just outside Monkshaven. Her father, Daniel, has been a sailor on whaling ships in his youth & her mother, Bell, better educated & from a  slightly better class than her husband, is a good housekeeper & quite strict about Sylvia’s friends & associates.

Monkshaven is still a centre of the whaling industry at this time & the arrival of one of the whalers in port after a long journey to Greenland is a highlight of life for the townspeople. One day as Sylvia & her friend, Molly Corney arrive in town to sell their butter & eggs, they hear that one of the whaling fleet has been sighted. The whole town is waiting anxiously for news of loved ones on board but they’re horrified when a press gang arrives to try to take a few sailors for the King’s Navy. Press gangs were used to forcibly recruit men for the wars against France. They could “press” any man they thought a likely sailor so men from the whaling ships were considered perfect targets.  The townspeople hate & resent the gangs & do all they can to obstruct them. The anguish of the women who have lost their men to the gang before they’ve even had a chance to see them on their return is terrible,

A woman forced her way up from the bridge. She lived some little way in the country, and had been late in hearing of the return of the whaler after her six months’ absence; and on rushing down to the quayside, she had been told by a score of busy, sympathizing voices, that her husband was kidnapped for the service of the Government. She had need pause in the market-place, the outlet of which was crammed up. Then she gave tongue for the first time in such a fearful shriek, you could hardly catch the words she said.
‘Jamie! Jamie! Will they not let you to me?’

Sylvia has taken shelter in the draper’s shop where her cousin, Philip Hepburn, works. Philip is her mother’s nephew & a great favourite with his aunt if not with Sylvia. He is staid, quiet, a little pompous & very careful. His one passion in life is his love for Sylvia. She barely notices him & is irritated by his proprietorial attitude to her. He calls her Sylvie as though she were still a little girl. He tries to teach her to read but she’s too impatient to attend. Philip is loved by Hester Rose, a quiet, devoted girl who also works in the shop but Philip treats her fondly as a sister & never sees how she really feels. Molly encourages Sylvia’s vanity & carelessness & is full of stories about her cousin, Charley Kinraid, the specksioneer or harpooner on the whaler just returned. Charley was injured trying to stop the press gang take his fellow sailors & is treated as a hero by the Monkshaven people. When Sylvia meets Charley, she’s more than half in love with him already & it’s not long before he’s attracted to her. Philip’s jealousy of the bold, handsome sailor is all-consuming but his own attempts to court Sylvia are a failure.

Charley & Sylvia become secretly engaged just before he leaves on another voyage but when Charley disappears without trace, Sylvia is distraught. His hat with Sylvia’s ribbon tied to it is found washed up on the beach but it’s not known whether he drowned or was taken by the press gang. Only Philip, who followed Charley from the Robson’s farm that night, knows what happened & he doesn’t tell Sylvia. This one act of omission is the pivot on which the tragedy of the book turns. Philip convinces himself that Charley would never have been true to Sylvia & it’s kinder to let her forget him. He takes advantage of his knowledge & his position in the family to console Sylvia but doesn’t admit that their relationship is based on his treachery.

The press gang return to Monkshaven & Daniel Robson leads a gang to release some of the men they’ve captured. When the rescue turns into a riot & an inn is burnt down, Daniel is arrested as a ringleader & committed for trial. This is the beginning of Sylvia’s real suffering.

It is possible that Philip was right at one time when he had thought to win her by material advantages; but the old vanities had been burnt out of her by the hot iron of acute suffering. A great deal of passionate feeling still existed, concealed and latent; but at this period it appeared as though she were indifferent to most things, and had lost the power of either hoping or feeling much. She was stunned into a sort of temporary numbness on most points; those on which she was sensitive being such as referred to the injustice and oppression of her father’s death, or anything that concerned her mother.

Sylvia’s Lovers reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge & I have to wonder if Hardy had read it. The workings of Fate are everywhere & Philip’s act of treachery has far-reaching consequences. I can understand why Sylvia’s Lovers hasn’t been adapted for television or film. It certainly doesn’t have the sunny atmosphere of Cranford or Wives & Daughters or the passionate love story at the industrial heart of North & South. It’s much more in the style of her Ruth & Mary Barton. I first read it many years ago & I remember being irritated then by Sylvia’s pettishness & vanity. This time I was moved by her sufferings, I’d forgotten most of the details of the last half of the book, & I loved the atmosphere that Gaskell creates. I've been to Whitby & walked up to the ruins of the Abbey on the cliffs overlooking the harbour. It's a very dramatic landscape & a perfect setting for a story of love & tragedy. Gaskell visited Whitby after she wrote her biography of Charlotte Brontё & was inspired to write Sylvia’s Lovers by the stories she heard there of the old days. The raid led by Daniel Robson on the press gang was based on a real case but the atmosphere & the personal stories of Sylvia, Philip, Charley & their families are all Elizabeth Gaskell’s own. She was also inspired by several historical novels published around the same time such as George Eliot’s Adam Bede & Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Sylvia’s Lovers was published in 1863.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Garthowen - Allen Raine

My 19th century book group has been responsible for introducing me to several new authors & Allen Raine (picture from here) is the latest of these new discoveries. I had never heard of her & I don't think I have ever read a 19th century novel set in Wales (except for the scenes set there in Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth). Allen Raine was the pseudonym of Anne Adalisa Puddicombe, author of several novels including Garthowen, which I've just read.

Garthowen is the story of the Owens family. Ebben Owens is a farmer, living on the family farm, Garthowen, with his daughter, Ann, son Will & a family friend, Methodist preacher Gwilym Morris. Another son, Gethin, had left in some disgrace years before & is now a sailor. Among the servants & farm workers is Morva, a young girl who lives with her adopted mother, Sara. Morva was rescued from a shipwreck as a baby & Sara, who had just lost a child of her own, adopted her. Sara is a wise woman, who often has visions & trances & is equally feared & respected by her neighbours. Morva has grown up into a lovely girl with a little of Sara's fey wildness about her. She is very close & loyal to the Owens family & has secretly promised Will that she will marry him.

Will is studying to enter the Church of Wales. It was usual for the chapel going Welsh families to also have a son in the established Church, to have a foot in both camps as it were. Will, however, is eager & ambitious & his ambitions will take him far from his family. Ebben Owens's own brother has entered the Church of Wales & now moves in far more exalted social circles. Will's desire for advancement leads him to lose his Welsh accent & drop the plebeian s from his surname. He rescues a young lady, Gwenda Vaughan, from a runaway bull & suddenly his ambitions become personal as well as material. He is introduced to his uncle, Dr Owen, & the Dr likes what he sees. He decides to help Will in his career & introduces him into his social circle which includes Miss Vaughan & her family. However, Will is in love with Morva & refuses to let her out of the promise of marriage she made years before. Morva is more clear sighted than Will. She can see that as he rises in the world, he would soon grow to be ashamed of a wife who had little education & worked as a milkmaid. Will stubbornly refuses to listen & holds Morva to her promise even while he begins courting Gwenda Vaughan.

Gethin returns from his travels & is greeted as the prodigal son. He is his father's favourite & soon makes himself useful about the farm. Gethin has come home thinking of Morva & already more than half in love with her. Will's suspicions of this only make him cling to her more stubbornly than ever. Morva's feelings for the brothers are complicated by the promise she made to Will. She is attracted to Gethin but feels guilty about Will. At a party to celebrate the corn grinding, Morva's feelings for Gethin become overwhelming as she watches him dance,

The company looked on in breathless admiration, Neddy with nods of critical approval; but Morva's delight was indescribable. With eagerness like a child's she followed every dash, every scrape and every fling of the dance, and when it was ended, and Gethin returned, laughing and panting, to his seat on the barrow, alas! alas! he had danced into her very heart.

Gwilym Morris comes home with a bag of gold coins, payment of a debt he thought would never be repaid. That night, the money is stolen & Gethin disappears. Morva had been sleeping at the farm that night &, hearing a noise, she wakes to see Gethin creeping from Gwilym's room with a look of horror on his face. She doesn't believe he stole the money but there seems no other solution & the family hush it up for fear of scandal. Only Sara, with her strange visions & Morva, who loves Gethin, believe him innocent. As time goes by, Gwilym & Ann marry, Will neglects his family as he is adopted by his uncle & made his heir & it seems that Gethin will never return. Old Ebben's heart is breaking for his two sons, both of whom are lost to him.

Garthowen is a novel about family. The eternal conflict between brothers is played out between Will & Gethin but also reflected in the relationship between Ebben & his brother, long estranged by their different circumstances. Ebben's harshness towards Gethin leads to him leaving the family for the first time & his indulgence of Will has just as bad an effect on his character. Ebben fears he will die without either son at his side. Sara & Morva represent the traditional, Celtic, spiritual side of rural life. Morva's rescue from the waves is like a myth or fairy tale & Sara's powers are very matter of fact. When she feels a trance coming on, she puts a bunch of rue over the door as a signal to Morva not to be alarmed by her state of unconsciousness. Her visions are just a part of life & ultimately it is Sara who brings resolution & peace to the family at Garthowen. Morva is a simple girl, uneducated but not stupid. She revels in the countryside & is never happier than outdoors. She sees her relationship with Will very clearly & sees through his selfish grasping of her as a reflection of his jealousy of his brother rather than real love for her. She resents being held to her promise but her loyalty to the Owens family prevents her breaking that promise.

Garthowen is a wonderful book. I enjoyed the picture of rural Welsh life very much. The writing is lyrical & the bits of dialect give the dialogue life & a musical quality that's so evident in Welsh speech. The characters are beautifully drawn. Old Ebben, mourning his losses & coming to realise that he has caused his own misery; Will, ambitious, selfish & ashamed of his family; Gethin, bold & free & honest; Sara & Morva, loving & loyal. It's an absorbing story, well told.

There's more information about Allen Raine & her work here. I read Garthowen on my e-reader, downloaded for free from ManyBooks.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Villette - Charlotte Brontё

What is it about Charlotte Brontё’s voice that is so beguiling? I’ve just spent the last week in Charlotte’s company, reading Villette for the 5th or 6th time. After reading Margaret Oliphant’s views on the Brontё sisters & a recent issue of Brontё Studies (the journal of the Brontё Society) I knew it was time to revisit Villette & meet Lucy Snowe, M Paul, Madame Beck, John Graham Bretton, Ginevra Fanshawe & the spectral Nun again. I know that it’s not considered proper in critical circles to consider fiction as a form of veiled autobiography but in Charlotte Brontё’s case, I think I can claim an exception to the rule. Villette is full of Charlotte’s personal experiences. The evidence is there in her letters & the facts of her life as recounted by Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte.

Villette is the story of Lucy Snowe. We meet Lucy as a young girl, staying with her godmother, Mrs Bretton. Lucy’s life seems quite bleak. She seems to be shuttled from one relation to another & her visits to her godmother & her son, Graham, are an oasis of warmth & kindness. On this visit, a relation of Mrs Bretton, Mr Home, visits, bringing with him his small daughter, Polly, who will stay with the Brettons while he travels. Polly takes a fancy to Graham, who tolerates her fancies & allows himself to be adored. Mr Home returns, takes Polly away &, soon after, Lucy also retuns home & subsequently loses touch with the Brettons. Some years pass. Lucy is working as a companion to Miss Marchmont, an invalid who tells her the story of her own young life & lost love. When Miss Marchmont dies, Lucy is once more alone & friendless.

After hearing about schools in Villette on the Continent where English teachers are prized she decides to go there & look for work. On her journey, she meets Ginevra Fanshawe, a spoilt, pretty young woman, who is returning to school in Villette. She recommends Lucy try her luck with Madame Beck, the owner of the Pensionnat she attends. On arrival, Lucy gets lost but fortuitously finds her way to Madame Beck’s school & asks for work. She is engaged as nursemaid to Madame’s children but, after the English master incurs Madame’s displeasure, she becomes the English teacher. Lucy’s life at the Pensionnat is not unhappy. She has a healthy respect for Madame Beck even though she discovers that she runs the whole concern on a system of surveillance & spying, even going through Lucy’s belongings. She finds her feet as a teacher & has a friendship with Ginevra that amuses & irritates her in equal measure.

Lucy’s essential solitude begins to affect her health, especially when she is left alone in the school during the long vacation. She falls ill in body & spirit & is driven by her need for some human contact, to confess to a Catholic priest in the cathedral. This is a radical act for such a confirmed Protestant & she immediately regrets it. On her way back to the Pensionnat, she collapses & when she wakes, finds herself in a strange room that is also familiar. She has been rescued by the young English doctor, known to all as Dr John, & brought to his mother’s house. Lucy has already guessed that this young man is the Graham Bretton she knew in childhood although he doesn’t recognize her (& the reader has had no clue). Her godmother is pleased to be reunited with Lucy & her life begins to open up & become more social as she visits concerts, art galleries & theatres with the Brettons. She is also a witness to Graham’s infatuation with Ginevra & Ginevra’s flirting with both Graham & another foppish young man, Alfred de Hamal. As Lucy’s feelings for Graham become more intense, she finds herself relying on the letters he has promised to write to her when she returns to the Pensionnat.

Madame Beck’s cousin is also a teacher at the Pensionnat. M Paul Emanuel is an irascible, fiery man, vain, dictatorial but essentially kind-hearted. Gradually he becomes a friend & sometime antagonist to Lucy, bullying her into taking part in a school play & disapproving of her relationship with Graham. Lucy comes to realise that Graham’s feelings for her are no more than friendship & she symbolically buries her heart along with his letters beneath the pear tree in the garden where she likes to sit in the evenings. Lucy’s feelings for M Paul also change, becoming deeper & more serious. However, Madame Beck does not approve of their growing closeness & will do all she can to keep them apart.

Describing the plot of Villette doesn’t convey the flavour of the book. To me, all the interest & charm lies in the narrative voice & the knowledge of Charlotte’s life that informs the fiction. There is so much that mirrors Charlotte Brontё’s own experiences, there are echoes of her letters everywhere. Villette is based on Brussels where Charlotte & her sister, Emily, spent time teaching in a Pensionnat run by M & Mme Heger. Charlotte returned to Brussels for a further year without Emily & she found herself falling in love with M Heger. It’s impossible to say that M Heger is M Paul or that Mme Heger is Mme Beck but the characters were certainly based on Charlotte’s feelings about the Hegers – her love for Monsieur & hatred of Madame.

Graham & Mrs Bretton were similarly based on her publisher, George Smith, & his mother. George Smith acknowledged this, saying that Mrs Bretton was an exact picture of his mother, down to some of her favourite sayings & expressions. Charlotte’s feelings for George Smith have been a subject of much speculation. She certainly admired him & may have hoped to marry him. Her portrait of Graham Bretton is very honest about his faults & superficial nature & must have been uncomfortable for Smith to read. Charlotte’s journey to Brussels mirrors Lucy’s journey on the packet boat. Her mental torment, leading to the confession in the cathedral was based on Charlotte’s own experience which she wrote about in a letter to Emily. Charlotte also went to the theatre & was amazed & horrified by the performance of a great dramatic actress, just as Lucy is.

The plot of Villette shocked many reviewers at the time. Lucy falls in love with one man & then falls in love with another. This is not the conventional plot of a three volume Victorian novel. The heroine is not supposed to change her mind about her lovers in quite such an independent way. Harriet Martineau famously wrote, in a review that upset Charlotte so much that she broke off their friendship,

... so incessant is the writer’s tendency to describe the need of being loved, that the heroine, who tells her own story, leaves the reader at last under the uncomfortable impression of her having either entertained a double love, or allowed one to supersede another without notification of the transition. It is not thus in real life.

Well, I don't know about real life, but it certainly wasn't meant to be that way in fiction! Actually, the moment when Lucy falls out of love with Graham is very clear. He is trying to convince Lucy to intercede for him with a young woman, to remind her of their former acquaintance.

‘Could I manage to make you ever grateful?’ said I. ‘NO,
I could not .’ And I felt my fingers work and my hands interlock: I felt, too, an inward courage, warm and resistant. In this matter I was not disposed to gratify Dr John: not at all. With a now welcome force, I realized his entire misapprehension of my character and nature. He wanted always to give me a rôle not mine. Nature and I opposed him. He did not at all guess what I felt: he did not read my eyes, or face, or gestures; though, I doubt not, all spoke.

In those few sentences, Lucy sees Graham’s self-centredness, his self-satisfaction, his belief in his own charm, very clearly & she realises that she doesn’t love him.

Lucy does keep vital information from the reader, she’s a very secretive narrator, she certainly doesn't take the reader into her confidence. We don’t know anything about her family. Why is she alone at the beginning of the book? Why does she lose touch with her godmother? Why doesn’t she tell us when she recognizes Graham Bretton in the Dr John of Villette (there’s a hint but I’m not sure now if I recognized it when I first read the book). Lucy is crabby, secretive, sometimes ridiculous, self-sabotaging & stubborn. Yet, I feel she’s closer to Charlotte Brontё than even Jane Eyre. Her voice is entirely original & entirely her own. The sense of crushing loneliness & despair in Lucy always reminds me of Charlotte alone with  her father in the Parsonage after all her siblings were dead, walking around the dining room table alone where once she had walked with her sisters as they discussed their work. The ending of the book is famously ambiguous. Apparently Patrick Brontё begged his daughter to leave the reader with some hope of Lucy's happiness. Charlotte obeyed her father but only the most optimistic reader could take much hope from the end of the novel.

Charlotte said that she wanted a cold name for her heroine & she was called Lucy Frost for a great part of the writing of the novel. As always in Charlotte Brontё’s work though, frost is mixed with fire & passion. No wonder the critics were astounded & bemused by the Brontё sisters & their books & weren’t at all sure about the sex of the author. Imagine reading Jane Eyre, Villette, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Wuthering Heights for the first time in an age when there were very definite rules as to how a heroine behaved & what she said & thought. Jane, Lucy, Helen Huntingdon & Catherine Earnshaw were created from the imaginations of three extraordinary women. I read their books over & over again & never feel I’ve got to the end of their fascination.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sunday poetry - Matthew Arnold

Coincidentally, this week's Sunday poet, Matthew Arnold (picture from here), was a friend of last week's Sunday poet, Arthur Hugh Clough. Arnold was the son of the famous founder of Rugby School, Thomas Arnold & Clough & young Arnold were pupils there. He's probably best known these days for his beautiful poem, Dover Beach, partly written while he was on honeymoon. However, I've chosen the opening stanzas from another poem, Rugby Chapel, about a sombre, reflective visit to his father's grave 15 years after his death.

Coldly, sadly descends
The autumn evening. The field
Strewn with its dank yellow drifts
Of withered leaves, and the elms,
Fade into dimness apace,
Silent, - hardly a shout
From a few boys late at their play!
The lights come out in the street,
In the school-room windows;- but cold,
Solemn, unlighted, austere,
Through the gathering darkness, arise
The chapel-walls, in whose bound
Thou, my father! art laid.

There thou dost lie, in the gloom
Of the autumn evening, But ah,
That word, gloom, to my mind
Brings thee back, in the light
Of thy radiant vigour, again;
In the gloom of November we passed
Days not dark at thy side;
Seasons impaired not the ray
Of thy buoyant cheerfulness clear.
Such thou wast! and I stand
In the autumn evening, and think
Of bygone autumns with thee.

Fifteen years have gone round
Since thou arosest to tread,
In the summer-morning, the road
Of death, at a call unforeseen,
Sudden. For fifteen years,
We who till then in thy shade
Rested as under the boughs
Of a mighty oak, have endured
Sunshine and rain as we might,
Bare, unshaded, alone,
Lacking the shelter of thee.

O strong soul, by what shore,
Tarriest thou now? For that force,
Surely, has not been left vain!
Somewhere, surely, afar,
In the sounding labour-house vast
Of being, is practised that strength,
Zealous, beneficent, firm!

Yes, in some far-shining sphere,
Conscious or not of the past,
Still thou performest the word
Of the Spirit in whom thou dost live - 
Prompt, unwearied, as here!
Still thou upraisest with zeal
The humble good from the ground,
Sternly repressest the bad!
Still, like a trumpet, dost rouse
Those who with half-open eyes
Tread the border-land dim
'Twixt vice and virtue; reviv'st,
Succourest! This was thy work,
This was thy life upon earth.

This is the last Sunday poem from my anthology, A Book of English Poetry, collected by G B Harrison in 1950. Next week, I'm going to take down another battered Penguin anthology, Scottish Love Poems, edited by Antonia Fraser, & share my favourite poems from this lovely anthology published in 1976.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign - Margaret Oliphant et al

One of the members of my 19th century book group posted a link to this book, recently made available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg. It consists of a series of essays by 19th century women novelists in appreciation of their famous predecessors. Published to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the contributors set out their criteria in the Publishers’ Note,

Having been concerned for many years in the publication of works of fiction by feminine writers, it has occurred to us to offer, as our contribution to the celebration of ‘the longest Reign’, a volume having as its subject leading Women Novelists of the Victorian Era.

They only include dead authors & only those whose whole career was encompassed by the years 1837-1897. I was interested initially because the first chapter was Margaret Oliphant on the Brontёs. I’ve read quotes from this essay in many books about the Brontёs so I was interested to read the whole piece. Then, I skipped the chapter about George Eliot written by Eliza Lynn Linton, although I was intrigued by the beginning, which shows how sensitive the subject of her long, unmarried relationship with George Lewes still was, almost 20 years after her death,

In this essay it is not intended to go into the vexed question of George Eliot’s private life and character. Death has resolved her individuality into nothingness, and the discrepancy between her lofty thoughts and doubtful action no longer troubles us.

 I read about Elizabeth Gaskell, then Mrs Henry Wood was mentioned, &, as I’ve recently read her Anne Hereford, I wanted to read that & then there was Dinah Mulock Craik (I've read her John Halifax, Gentlemen) & before I knew it I only had a couple of chapters to go so I went back & read about George Eliot (where, despite her intentions, Linton does discuss Eliot's private life quite extensively!) & finished the book. Interestingly, several of the women in the book Notable Women Authors of the Day that I reviewed recently, turn up here writing about their predecessors. Edna Lyall writes about Elizabeth Gaskell,  Adeline Sergeant about Mrs Crowe (she wrote a well-regarded book of ghost stories, The Night Side of Nature, which I would love to get my hands on), Mrs Archer Clive & Mrs Henry Wood & also Charlotte M Yonge about three novelists I’ve never heard of (Lady Georgiana Fullerton, Mrs Stretton & Anne Manning).

However, my main interest was in Margaret Oliphant’s views of the Brontё sisters. I find it so interesting to see what the reputations of authors like the Brontёs were at the end of the 19th century & compare it to today.  The beginning of the essay is blunt, to say the least,

The effect produced upon the general mind by the appearance of Charlotte Brontё in literature, and afterwards by the record of her life when that was over, is one which it is nowadays somewhat difficult to understand. Had the age been deficient in the art of fiction, or had it followed any long level of mediocrity in that art, we could have comprehended this more easily. But Charlotte Brontё appeared in the full flush of a period more richly endowed that any other we know of in that special branch of literature...

Oliphant admits the genius of a woman with little experience of the world & no social advantages but she dislikes the level of satire & spite in the novels. I wondered several times if Oliphant was worried about hurting the feelings of some of the originals of Brontё’s fictional characters. She goes to great lengths to restore the reputation of the Clergy Daughters School, portrayed so scathingly as Lowood in Jane Eyre. She obviously remembered the furore over this when Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte was published in the 1850s. She even refers to it as,

The great school, which it was Charlotte Brontё’s first act when she began her literary career to invest with an almost tragic character of misery, privation, and wrong, was her first step from home.

Oliphant is also very disapproving of Charlotte's use of the Hegers in Villette. M Heger may still have been alive when the essay was written (he died in 1896) although he had died by the time it was published, but his children were still living in Brussels & of course Charlotte's passionate letters to him hadn't been revealed. Elizabeth Gaskell famously suppressed them when she was writing her biography. Charlotte's widower, Arthur Nicholls was also still alive in Ireland (he didn't die until 1906).

It startles the reader to find – a fact which we had forgotten – that M Paul Emanuel was M Heger, the husband of Madame Heger and legitimate head of the house: and that this daring and extraordinary girl did not hesitate to encounter gossip or slander by making him so completely the hero of her romance. Slander in its commonplace form had nothing to do with such a fiery spirit as that of Charlotte Brontё: but it shows her perfect independence of mind and scorn of comment that she should have done this.

She also discusses Shirley, feeling that the book is a failure compared with Jane Eyre or Villette & disapproving of the satirical scenes with the curates & the outspoken desires of Shirley & Caroline for love. Oliphant disapproves of the way love is portrayed in the novel, the way the women demand love as their right,

It is dominated throughout with this complaint. Curates? Yes, there they are, a group of them. Is that the thing you expect us women to marry? Yet it is our right to bear children, to guide the house. And we are half the world, and where is the provision for us?

Oliphant still sees this as a radical view, even 50 years after Shirley was published. She gives a sympathetic outline of Charlotte’s personal life, following Gaskell’s biography & has some very perceptive criticism of the characters in the novels, although she often dislikes the way the books have been written, both the style & the narrative tone. Oliphant has no time for Emily or Anne Brontё,

... Emily, whose genius has been taken for granted, carrying the wilder elements of the common inspiration to extremity in the strange, chaotic and weird romance of Wuthering Heights, while Anne diluted such powers of social observation as were in the family into two mildly disagreeable novels of a much commoner order...

& dismisses Branwell as a typical good-for-nothing wastrel son, whose life should have been discreetly veiled rather than exhibited so fully in the Gaskell biography. She discounts any influence that Branwell could have had on his sisters’ work. The other essays are just as interesting, even the ones about authors I haven’t read or heard of. This is an interesting book, especially if you have an interest in just what the critics thought about writers like the Brontёs who are now so indisputably part of the canon. After reading this & having just read the January edition of Brontё Studies which was a special issue with the recent papers from the conference on the influences of the men in the Brontёs' lives, I've started rereading Villette!

The picture is from here.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sunday poetry - Arthur Hugh Clough

Arthur Hugh Clough (picture from here) had a short, rather unsatisfactory life. Unsatisfactory in a worldly way as he spent much of it in doubt about his abilities, about religion, about his direction in life. He struggled with the expectations of his family, especially after his father's bankruptcy left him as sole support to his mother & siblings. He travelled to the US, met Emerson, indulged his interest in radical politics by visiting France & Italy during revolutionary times & worked as a secretary to his wife's cousin, Florence Nightingale, for some years. Most of his poetry was published posthumously after his death in Florence in 1861. He was only 42. Persephone have reprinted his verse novel, Amours de Voyage, about his experiences in Italy at the time of Mazzini's revolution.

Although this poem seems to be about encouraging weary soldiers to return to battle, it could also be about any human struggle - against physical or mental illness, an exhausting job or project, or any situation where you begin to doubt there's an end in sight.

Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright!

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Conspiracy of Friends - Alexander McCall Smith

This is the third volume of adventures for the inhabitants of Corduroy Mansions, a block of flats in London's Pimlico. I'm not as enamoured of the characters of Corduroy Mansions as I am of the Edinburgh equivalent, 44 Scotland Street. I'm interested & involved in all the Scotland Street crowd, even the annoying & unpleasant ones, but there are some Corduroy Mansions characters that leave me cold. I think it's the atmosphere of Edinburgh that's so attractive. McCall Smith really knows & loves Edinburgh. I know he lives there & I just think that level of knowledge & engagement with the city really comes across in both the Scotland Street & Isabel Dalhousie series.

I do love William French, failed Wine Master & owner of Freddie de la Hay, a dog with enough personality to carry the whole book on his own! Freddie's adventures in the previous book, The Dog Who Came In From The Cold, when he was seconded by MI5, were wonderful. As a definite cat rather than dog person, the fact that I always love McCall Smith's dogs is a testament to his excellent characterisations. William is kind, thoughtful but lonely, dismissed by his boorish son, Eddie (one of the characters I can't stand) & pursued romantically by Marcia, the caterer of diplomatic events. When William & Freddie visit friends in the country for the weekend, William in is for more than one surprise. He is disconcerted by a friend's confession & distraught when Freddie goes missing. I had to skim the chapters where Freddie was stuck head first down a rabbit warren but, he does escape from this near-death experience & he finds himself involved with a new family & a new career as a model.

Berthea Snark is continuing to research her warts-and-all biography of her dreadfully unpleasant son, Oedipus, "the only truly nasty Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament". Oedipus is thrilled to receive a promotion but not so pleased to discover that his new job doesn't entitle him to first-class air travel. His career may also be about to falter when his ex-lover, literary agent, Barbara Ragg, decides to spill the beans on a dodgy deal from his past. Then, on a trip to Geneva, Oedipus has a close encounter with the Hadron Collider that changes his life.

Barbara is also reassessing her life. She had promised to sell her flat to her business partner, Rupert Porter, & when she changes her mind, Rupert is so furious that he begins to undermine Barbara by pinching her clients. Most spectacularly he pinches the mysterious author of the Autobiography of a Yeti, the book that could be the bestseller of the decade. Barbara also finally finds out what happened to her fiancé, Hugh, on his life-changing trip to South America. Will the revelation change their relationship?

Berthea is also coping with her incredibly irritating & gormless brother, Terence Moongrove (another character I can't stand) as he is talked into buying a vintage racing car & getting involved in racing, with himself as driver.

Then there's Caroline, hopelessly in love with James, who may or may not be gay. Caroline's mother has tried to convince her that James isn't interested but she has to resort to a little motherly subterfuge to introduce a more suitable man into Caroline's life. But is Ronald all he seems to be? I think he's a little too good to be true. I have no evidence but a feeling & I'll have to wait for the next instalment to find out.

A Conspiracy of Friends is full of the humour, wisdom & gentle satire that is McCall Smith's trademark. First published as a serial novel in the Daily Telegraph, reading A Conspiracy of Friends  is a charming way to spend an afternoon.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Evelina - Fanny Burney

The subtitle of Evelina is the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World which describes both Evelina's & Fanny Burney's experiences. It was Fanny Burney's first novel and, like Lord Byron, she woke up the next day to find herself famous. Unlike Byron, though, Fanny was almost morbidly shy & was both horrified & fascinated by her new fame. She was lionised by the bluestockings of the day but especially enjoyed her friendship with the great Dr Johnson, who loved the novel & quoted from it in his letters. Her fame also brought her to the attention of the royal family & she was offered a position as lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte. Her father, the famous musicologist Dr Charles Burney, insisted she accept the post (which wasn't really refusable anyway) & Fanny spent a miserable few years at Court. Her health & spirits suffered from the boredom & backbiting & eventually she was allowed to graciously resign & return to private life.

Fanny Burney's life was an extraordinary one (picture above from here). Her Letters & Journals are wonderful, full of witty descriptions & emotion. She famously described the mastectomy she endured without anaesthetic in 1812. She survived the operation & recovered from breast cancer, living until 1840, when she died aged 87. She had married a French emigre, Alexandre D'Arblay, in 1793, & they had a son, Alex. Sadly, husband, son & her sisters (to whom she was very close) predeceased her.She was much admired, most famously by Jane Austen, who mentioned her novels, Camilla & Cecilia, in her defense of the novel in Northanger Abbey,

"It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.''

Evelina is an epistolary novel, told mostly through the letters of Evelina to her guardian, Rev Arthur Villars of Berry Hill. Evelina has been quietly brought up in the country. Her mother had married a young rake, Sir John Belmont, but he had scandalously deserted her & denied their marriage & poor Caroline died in childbirth. Evelina has lived a retired life, her education, both practical & moral, guided by the Rev Villars. At the age of 17 she is about to make her first visit to London in the company of her friend, Maria Mirvan & her mother. Maria's father, Captain Mirvan, is returning from a voyage & they will stay briefly in London before returning to the country.

As soon as Evelina arrives, her social education begins. She goes to a dance where she refuses an invitation to dance from a forward young man, Sir Clement Willoughby, only to accept another man's invitation shortly afterwards. Sir Clement pursues Evelina with questions & complaints about his treatment, leading Evelina to tell him that she had already promised Lord Orville the dance, even though this is not true. The web of white lies becomes more entangled until Evelina is almost distracted. Lord Orville's calm politeness & good manners entrance Evelina although she is mortified that every time she meets him, she seems to be caught up in an undignified scene.

Matters become more complicated when Evelina's grandmother, Madame Duval, arrives from France with the intention of taking the girl back to Paris to be "finished" & to pursue her father until he acknowledges her. Madame Duval is a vulgar, loud woman. Recently widowed, she is accompanied by a young man, Monsieur DuBois, with whom she's on intimate terms. She has had nothing to do with Evelina, having married a Frenchman & not even knowing of her existence until a few years before. The arrival of these "Frenchies" inspires Captain Mirvan to a fit of apoplexy as he displays all the traditional prejudice & xenophobia of the English. His teasing & plotting against Madame Duval is very funny & culminates with a plot to pretend to hold up her coach & steal her jewels which results in her losing her wig & being ducked in a pond.

Evelina is forced to leave her kind friends & stay with her grandmother on another visit to London, where she meets her equally vulgar cousins, the Branghtons, & tries to evade the attentions of Sir Clement while trying to prevent Lord Orville discovering her connections. Many misunderstandings result & there are some very funny scenes when Evelina is persecuted by the unwanted attentions of her family & various suitors. On the one hand she is entranced by London & its attractions. On the other, she has to navigate through the new world of polite society & keep her reputation intact. The difficulties of this show just how circumscribed the life of a young woman could be.

Evelina's social position is ambiguous. The world considers her illegitimate because her rich father has repudiated her mother. She is beautiful & attracts many suitors but are they looking for marriage or just a flirtation? The pitfalls & the dangers of making a false step are constant. The visits to the new pleasure gardens outside London like Vauxhall & Ranelagh illustrate this so well. Evelina becomes separated from her party & wanders down a dark path pursued by some drunken young rakes. In desperation, she takes refuge with two women who turn out to be prostitutes. They think it's all a fine joke & refuse to let her go. Of course, she meets Lord Orville while she's in the company of these women & has to try to convey her mortification while not being too forward or impolite.

Evelina could just be a stock heroine bouncing from one embarrassing situation to the next, getting deeper & deeper into a web of half-truths & evasions. She's a more interesting character than that, though. She learns from every situation she finds herself in. Her moral education has given her a solid grounding & she learns how to conduct herself through the mistakes she makes. Even when her romantic feelings for Lord Orville run away with her, the sober, loving replies from Rev Villars bring her back down to earth. Her good intentions are often thwarted by the adults who should be looking after her welfare but she follows her heart & overcomes all the obstacles on the way to her happy ending. This is a lovely book & I'm glad I finally got around to it as it's been sitting on my tbr shelves for a very long time.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sunday poetry - Robert Browning

Robert Browning (picture of the lovely portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti from here) is best known these days for his romantic elopement with Elizabeth Barrett & their life together in Italy. The critical reception of his poem, Sordello, almost destroyed his reputation but, in the 1850s, he published Men & Women, a series of dramatic monologues & poems written after his marriage. This collection marked the beginning of his rise in reputation. Browning's dramatic monolgues are my favourites of his work & this one, My Last Duchess, has been a favourite since I studied it at school. I love the way Browning exposes the speaker so completely, just through his own words. The whole history of this marriage is there. The Duke's pride, his jealous possession of his Duchess, the mystery about the Duchess's fate, "then all smiles stopped together." The warning to his companion, the envoy from the father of another young woman who may become the next Duchess, is so subtle but chilling. If I'd been that envoy, I'd have run back to my master at top speed & advised him to look for another alliance!

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
Fra Pandolf by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 't was not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, 'Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much,' or 'Paint
Much never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:' such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart - how shall I say? - too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 't was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace - all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech
Or blush, at least. She thanked men, - good! but thanked
Somehow - I know not how - as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech - (which I have not) - to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, 'Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark' - and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
-E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will 't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Something to look forward to

There are some very exciting books to look forward to in the next few months. Nancy Mitford fans have lots of lovely reprints to look forward to & an intriguing biography as well. Vintage are reprinting four of Mitford's historical biographies, Voltaire in Love, Frederick the Great, The Sun King & Madame de Pompadour. The Vintage covers are in this lovely sepia look. Capuchin are reprinting two more Mitford novels, Pigeon Pie & Christmas Pudding.

There's also a new book by Lisa Hilton about the relationship between Nancy Mitford & the love of her life, Gaston Palewski. Variously titled Nancy & the Colonel or The Horror of Love, it concentrates on this central relationship of Mitford's life.

I've only discovered the novels of Georgette Heyer in the last few years & I've read Jane Aiken Hodge's biography but I'm looking forward to Jennifer Kloester's new biography of Heyer. Heyer was famously private & Jane Aiken Hodge was left with great gaps in her biography because Heyer covered her tracks so well. I hope Kloester has managed to delve a little deeper. Kloester has also written a companion to the novels, Georgette Heyer's Regency World.

Next year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens & there are dozens of books on the way. The one book on Dickens that I can't wait for is Claire Tomalin's biography. I've read all Tomalin's books & she is one of my favourite biographers. Her book on Dickens's relationship with Nelly Ternan, The Invisible Woman, is one of my favourite books. Another book to look forward to is Lucinda Dickens Hawksley's illustrated biography of her great-great-great-grandfather. A little further away is Michael Slater's forthcoming book. The latest Dickensian journal describes it as "the history of the scandalmongering about Dickens's relationship with Ellen Ternan". I can't wait!

Alison Weir is another biographer whose books I always look forward to & her new book is about Mary Boleyn, sister of the more famous Anne. Mary has always been on the sidelines of history so I'm very interested to see what Alison Weir has managed to discover. She was the mistress of Francis I of France & Henry VIII. She then married a gentleman of the Court & slid into obscurity. You can read more about it here.

Sort Of Books reprinted Maria Edgeworth's novel, Helen, a couple of years ago & I'm ashamed to say it's still sitting on the tbr shelves. They are about to reprint another of her novels, Patronage. They use the line, Jane Austen's bestselling rival, on the covers of the books & whether or not that's strictly true (or just an excuse to get Jane's name on the front cover), I do want to read some of her novels soon. I think these are lovely editions.
Another project coming up in September is the Bloomsbury Reader. This is an initiative to bring authors back into print, either as POD books or e-books. The author I'm very keen to read more of is Monica Dickens. I've only read Mariana, reprinted by Persephone & I have Persephone's reprint of The Winds of Heaven on the tbr shelves.
Some time away but a definite treat in store for Persephone fans is Bridget Rech's forthcoming biography of Dorothy Whipple. I don't know when the book will be published but I'm sure it will send me back for a Whipple reread. Until then, we'll have to contain our impatience with the next Persephone reprint of her novels, Greenbanks, due in November.

So, while I'm waiting for all these books, what am I reading right now? Lots of classic fiction. I'm reading Evelina by Fanny Burney,  Garthowen : the story of a Welsh homestead by Allen Raine (for my 19th century bookgroup), Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell (in instalments with another group) & this afternoon, I'll be settling down with this month's section of War & Peace for Team Tolstoy over at Dovegreyreader. The 21st century seems very far away at the moment.
All the book covers are from The Book Depository.