Saturday, March 30, 2013

My Attempt to Join the Violent Reading Society

I loved Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy books when I was little, and the last time I reread them, I realized that they weren't just great stories. They're great sources for finding new books. I found one of my favorite books of 2012, The Beloved Vagabond, thanks to Betsy's recommendation in Betsy and the Great World. The best book in the Betsy-Tacy series for recommendations, though, is the last one, Betsy's Wedding. That's the one in which Betsy marries Joe, and the two of them begin their lives together as struggling writers, just as real-life Maud and her husband Delos Lovelace did. It's fascinating to read this book because it gives you an idea of what it might be like to be a young literary couple in 1914 Minneapolis, and it was even more fascinating for me to see what that couple would have been reading.

Betsy and Joe get engaged in this illustration by Vera Neville.

Betsy and Joe are friends with other young Minnesota writers, and they all get together regularly to share what they have been reading and writing. They call their group "The Violent Reading Society," parodying a "sedate and ladylike" book club in Minneapolis called "The Violet Reading Society." At club meetings, everyone has to bring a book to recommend to the others. They read their selections out loud and then argue about them -- sometimes loudly and vehemently, which is why they are the Violent Reading Society -- all while drinking tons of coffee. Here's how one of their meetings starts:

" 'First member to get both hands up reads first!' boomed President Jimmy Cliff.

Up and down the firelit living room, books, notebooks, and pencils clattered to the flood as members hastened to obey the unexpected order for two hands. One plump, dimpled pair rose with suspicious ease and the President nodded at the plump, dimpled owner.

'You win, Patty. No doubt because I warned you. However, this club is all for cheating, so you may read. And how nice that you have brought one of my favorite books!'

Tib's bewildered voice came through the hubbub of protest. 'But I never saw a club run like this! Don't you have any rules of order?'

'Miss Muller,' answered the President, 'this club is very anti rules of order.' "

Maud and Delos Lovelace in real life.

So I decided that if I couldn't join the Violent Reading Society, I would at least take a look at their reading list. What did fun-loving young writers in 1914 Minnesota read? Apparently, the Violent Reading Society likes some of the same kinds of books I do: comic writing, adventure stories, literary fairy tales, mysteries, coming-of-age stories. They read some depressing books too, but they tend toward the light-hearted in literature. (Later in the book, they almost kick Tib's awful boyfriend out of the club for insisting that everyone read serious fiction only, such as Theodore Dreiser and George Bernard Shaw.) These are the books and authors that are mentioned in Betsy's Wedding:

Messer Marco Polo, Donn Byrne
Sentimental Tommy, J.M. Barrie
Penrod, Booth Tarkington
The Song of the Lark, Willa Cather
Speaking of Operations, Irvin S. Cobb
Bird and Bough, John Burroughs
Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters
archy and mehitabel, Don Marquis
Leonard Merrick
G.K. Chesterton
Sherwood Anderson
Stephen Leacock
Charles Dickens
Jack London

Some of these are authors and books I know very well (especially Charles Dickens and Jack London), but most of them were new to me. I decided to begin with Messer Marco Polo, which I'd never heard of before, and read my way through the list. I'll write about Messer Marco Polo  in my next post, but for now I will just say that I loved it. The Violent Reading Society turns out to have been well worth joining.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Stack of Books and a Dream House

I teach at a university, and I use its library all the time for teaching resources and research and other work-related things. But a short while ago I realized that the university library also has novels. And then I never got any work done ever again. Okay, not really, but I did have a moment of amazement when I discovered that my library has some hard-to-find novels, ones that I have been searching for in every used bookstore for years. Here is most of my first haul:

Two E.H. Young novels, Celia and Jenny Wren; two Georgette Heyers; Mollie Panter-Downes' One Fine Day; and two D.E. Stevenson novels, Mrs. Tim Gets a Job and The House on the Cliff. I also got Mollie Panter-Downes' London War Notes and two more D.E. Stevensons, Shoulder the Sky and The Blue Sapphire.

I was so excited about all of the D.E. Stevenson books because I had just read Mrs. Tim of the Regiment and Miss Buncle's Book, and I wanted more. The first one I read was The House on the Cliff, which Stevenson published in 1966.

(You can see above what my copy looks like in its library binding, but I think this is probably the cover it had originally.)

(And here is the hilariously cheesy cover of the 1978 edition.)

The House on the Cliff is a perfect example of one of my favorite genres, the girl-gets-a-house book. You know the kind of story I mean. It's about a woman who buys or inherits a house. Ideally it should be a beautiful old house in a gorgeous setting, and there should be a community of eccentric neighbors. Sometimes there is a villain who wants to force the woman out, as in Elizabeth von Arnim's The Benefactress. Sometimes there are children who come to live in the house, as in Elizabeth Goudge's Pilgrim Inn. The woman almost always falls in love, but her most important relationship in the book is the one she has with her house.

The woman in The House on the Cliff is Elfrida Ware, and she is a struggling young actress in London, overworked and underfed. The house (spoiler: it's on a cliff) is in Devonshire, and it's not exactly beautiful, but it is strong and old and solidly built. Elfrida inherits it from a grandmother she never knew, and here is what one of the lawyers handling the will has to say about it:

"It's a real house. It has been there, sitting on top of the cliff for hundreds of years; it looks as if it had grown there, like a mushroom ... no, not like a mushroom (they're impermanent); it's more like a fine old tree, deeply rooted in the soil."

And that description explains why I love this kind of book. I love the idea that a house can give you a sense of permanence, that it can connect you to the landscape, that it can be so deeply rooted that you get your own roots just by living here. Elfrida's house is exactly the right kind of house to give her roots. It has everything: a bedroom that looks out on the sea, an ancient kitchen full of blue-and-white china, flower gardens, fruit trees, a farm with pigs and a cow, a stream with banks of primroses and violets -- oh, and it also comes with a cook and gardener who don't even want wages. So basically the ultimate wish-fulfillment house.

(I live in an apartment in a part of the world that doesn't really have cliffs. But maybe I should relocate to somewhere more like this?)

It's not just the perfection of the house that makes The House on the Cliff so satisfying. The story has all of the right elements. There is a character who is scheming to steal the house away from Elfrida, there is a child who comes for a life-changing visit to the house, and there are several men who might be romantic matches for Elfrida, one of whom is thoroughly unlikable. This book also has many of the qualities that I loved in the other D.E. Stevenson books I've read. The House on the Cliff isn't as witty as the Miss Buncle books, but it has the same sense of humor, the same sort of quirky characters, and the same absorbing interest in the everyday details of life. I think that those are the things that keep me searching for more and more books by D.E. Stevenson.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Female Quixote (Also, Manatees)

I'm sorry that I've been absent from blogging for a little while. There was some extra work, and there was also an unexpected trip which involved swimming with these creatures:

(Manatees are both cute and terrifying in person.)

I haven't been posting, but I have been reading a lot. One of the best things I've read over the past few weeks is Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote; or, the Adventures of Arabella. I was surprised by how much fun I had reading this book. I picked it up because I'd read that it was a favorite of Jane Austen's but I thought that the subject -- a parody of Don Quixote, written in 1752, about a young woman who reads too many romances -- might be somewhat dry. Fortunately, I was wrong: The Female Quixote is hilarious and charming.

It's about Arabella, who grows up on her country estate away from regular society, and becomes obsessed with the 17th-century French romances that she reads. She takes these books as an accurate portrayal of the world, and she lives her life as if she were a heroine in a romance. I didn't know much about this kind of romance before reading The Female Quixote, but I learned that they were hugely popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were massive tomes -- Artamene, or Cyrus the Great, by Madeleine and Georges de Scudery, took up ten volumes and might be the longest book ever written. All of the romances were set in a highly fictionalized ancient world, in places like Greece, Egypt, and Persia, and they all involve noble ladies whose beauty and wit drive men to perform epic acts of heroism to win them. When the characters in these romances aren't being captured by bandits or enchanted by sorceresses, they are delivering long, flowery speeches. In spite of all of this, I really want to read Artamene now. But I don't think I'm capable of making it through the original French version, even though the whole thing is available online.

So Arabella lives in one of these fantastic romance worlds. In her mind. In real life, she is the only daughter of a Marquis, living alone with her father in an amazing house with gardens and a vast library. For me, that world is romantic enough. In fact, one of the things I loved about The Female Quixote was how much it reminded me of a Georgette Heyer romance. Arabella has some things in common with Eustacie in The Talisman Ring, the young woman who dreams of marrying a bandit, or possibly being sentenced to the guillotine. Both books also have a character called the Beau -- the one in The Female Quixote is a vapid fashion-plate with the wonderful name of Mr. Tinsel.

(The real Beau, George "Beau" Brummel, by Richard Dighton, 1805.)

I loved Arabella from the moment I heard that "from her earliest Youth she had discovered a Fondness for Reading." Arabella is also beautiful, well-dressed, and possesses "an Air of Dignity and Grace." But what really draws everyone to her is her intelligence. Yes, she is delusional, but she's so eloquent and witty that people tend to believe her delusions. She even attracts two suitors who want to marry her, and most of the plot of the book revolves around her relationship to them. How can Arabella choose between the man who truly loves her and the man who wants her money? It's especially hard because she won't even let anyone declare his love to her:

"However specious your Arguments may appear, interrupted Arabella, I am persuaded it is an unpardonable crime to tell a Lady you love her ... I am certain, that Statira, Parisatis, Clelia, Mandana, and all the illustrious Heroines of Antiquity, whom it is a Glory to resemble, would never admit of such Discourses.

Ah for Heaven's sake, Cousin, interrupted Glanville, endeavouring to stifle a Laugh, do not suffer yourself to be governed by such antiquated Maxims! The World is quite different to what it was in those Days ...

I am sure, replied Arabella, the World is not more virtuous now than it was in their Days, and there is good Reason to believe it is not much wiser ..."

The Female Quixote deals with the virtues of both worlds -- the world of the romances and the contemporary world of the 18th century -- and it makes fun of them both. And even though I live more than 250 years later than Arabella, and I've never read a 17th-century romance, I found the whole book really funny. There are wonderful scenes which bring the two worlds into collision, such as the scene where Arabella goes to Bath, and we get to see what an ancient heroine would do when confronted with the fashionable set of 1752. I bet Jane Austen loved that scene too.

The Female Quixote isn't as perfect as a Jane Austen novel, but it's easy to see why it was one of her favorite books. I think that anyone who loves Jane Austen will probably love this book too.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Miss Mole

Miss Mole is my favorite of the E.H. Young books that I've read. Which is not that many -- she wrote thirteen novels, and I've read only four of them: Miss Mole, The Misses Mallett, Jenny Wren, and Celia. But Miss Mole is the one that I try to force people to read, because it's so good.

I think that E.H. Young was a genius at characterization. How did she make her heroines so flawed and so likable at the same time? Hannah Mole seems completely real to me. She's a plain woman of about forty, a farmer's daughter with a good education and very little money, who is forced to make her living as a housekeeper. She is occasionally self-pitying, deceitful, and sharp-tongued, but all of her faults are offset by her imagination, her love of beauty, and her kindness to everyone around her. Also, like all of E.H. Young's heroines, Miss Mole has beautiful feet. (Isn't it strange when you find that kind of quirk in an author? It's like in L.M. Montgomery books where all of the heroines have thin, pale faces, or in Josephine Tey mysteries where the villains always have pale blue eyes.) Oh, and also, Miss Mole has a scandalous secret in her past. I love a misfit heroine with a scandalous past!

Miss Mole takes a job as housekeeper to a widowed minister, a controlling man with high principles, and she befriends his two daughters. As I've come to expect from an E.H. Young novel, the family relationships are wonderfully complex. But as Miss Mole sees it, every relationship is full of possibility. One of the things I like best about this book is the way that Miss Mole is constantly imagining that something good is just about to happen to her -- that the curmudgeonly old neighbor will leave her a fortune in his will, that the dashing uncle of the family will fall in love with her and take her away to a new life. What really happens to her, though, is completely unexpected. I probably should have seen the end of this book coming, but I did not, and I loved the surprise.

(I love the cover art by Ruth Cobb in this first edition, published in 1930.)

Reading E.H. Young books will make you want to live in Radstowe, Young's fictionalized version of Bristol, with its lovely old buildings and river mists. I have no idea what actual Bristol is like, but fictional Radstowe is gorgeous. Some of my favorite parts of the book are the scenes where Miss Mole walks around Radstowe, drinking in the beauty of the city and imagining things. Take this passage, for example:

"There was her walk on the hill overlooking the water, with the bright tree showing through a grey mist which seemed to darken when the wings of a swooping gull flashed through it: there was the sound of unseen ships hooting or booming at the turn of the river and, at her will, she had been able to imagine them as huge amphibians, calling to each other as they floundered in the water and sought the hidden banks, or she could acknowledge them as the sirens of ships which were coming home from distant places or setting out on fresh voyages, and standing up there with the soft rain on her face, she had marvelled at the richness of human life in which imagination could create strange beasts though facts were sufficient in themselves ..."

(This is a 1920s souvenir postcard of Bristol, and is basically how I imagine Radstowe.)

I think that Miss Mole must be a little like E.H. Young herself. Young does the same thing that Miss Mole does: she transforms her world into something beautiful, without ever forgetting the reality behind it. That is a marvelous gift, and it's what makes Miss Mole the book that I push into people's hands, demanding that they read it right now.

Read this book right now!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Dark Fairy Tale of The Misses Mallett

The Misses Mallett (The Bridge Dividing), by E. H. Young, was the least cozy and most unsettling of all of the "Miss" books that I read recently. But I loved it. The blurb on the back of my Virago edition says, "Of Young's twelve witty novels, this, her fourth, first published in 1922, is the most reminiscent of Jane Austen." That blurb is why I bought the book in the first place, but I didn't really see much Jane Austen in The Misses Mallett. Yes, it's about sisters in a wealthy family who are contemplating the prospect of marriage, and it is witty and satirical, but it's much less Sense and Sensibility and much more a kind of dark retelling of Cinderella.

There are four Misses Mallett. The best characters, as far as I'm concerned, are the two eldest sisters, Caroline and Sophia, two old ladies who refuse to acknowledge their age. Caroline is stout and dashing, while Sophia is tiny and sweet, but they both delight in rouge and debutante dresses. They could easily have been pathetic figures, but E. H. Young makes them seem magnificent. I especially wanted to hang out with Caroline, who leaves French novels around her parlor and tells shocking stories about her heart-breaking days. "We're all wrapped up in cotton-wool nowadays," she says. "I ought to have lived in another century. I, too, would have adorned a court, and kept it lively! There's no wit left in the world, and there's no wickedness of the right kind." And even though Caroline is deluded about her past -- she never really shocked anyone, and her love affairs have been mainly imaginary -- her eccentricity adds to the fairytale atmosphere of the book. She does seem to belong to another century, or to a magical time that never existed. When Caroline tells her outrageous anecdotes, her stepsister Rose remembers "her childhood, when, like a happier Cinderella, she had seen her stepsisters, in satins and laces, with pendant fans and glitter jewels, excited, rustling, with little words of commendation for each other, setting out for the evening parties of which they never tire. They had always kissed her before they went, looking, she used to think, as beautiful as princesses."

(Edmund Dulac's illustration of Cinderella at the ball, 1910.)

The story of The Misses Mallett is really about the two youngest Misses Mallett and their tangled relationships. It's about the calm, secretive Rose and her niece Henrietta, a prickly young woman with her own Cinderella story. Henrietta's father was disowned by his family for making a bad marriage, and Henrietta was raised in poverty by her mother. After her mother dies, she comes to live a life of wealth and status with her aristocratic sisters. It's at that point that Henrietta falls in love with Francis Sales, the country squire who might be the prince to her Cinderella. The problem is that Rose is also in love with Francis, and the other problem is that Francis is already married to someone else.

Even though this is a romance, the most compelling relationships are the ones between the Malletts, especially the complicated relationship that Henrietta has with Rose. But what I really loved in this book were the fairy tale elements: the coaches, the balls, the gowns, the enchanted forests and lakes, and the disturbing twist that E. H. Young puts into each of these. Henrietta meets her lover by a moonlit lake, but she ends up rejecting him. The sisters attend a fantastic ball, but it ends not in a coronation but in a death. I loved how all of the characters kept shifting roles -- each one seems like Cinderella at some point in the story, but at other points they are foolish stepsisters, wicked witches, an evil stepmother, or a fairy godmother. I was anxious to see which (if any) of the Misses Mallett would live happily ever after. And even though this is not a thoroughly happy book, I found the ending very satisfying. It made me want to read everything that E. H. Young ever wrote.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Feeling Missish

This week I realized that, somehow, all of the books I was reading had "Miss" in the title. I read Miss Buncle's Book, by D.E. Stevenson, and its sequel Miss Buncle Married, and I also read two books by E.H.  Young, Miss Mole and The Misses Mallett. I must have been in the mood for a certain type of book: a book with quirky characters in a picturesque town, a book that is cozy and unsettling at the same time, a book about an unmarried woman who sees herself as being almost too old to have a romance, but not quite.

I was going to write about all four books -- and all six Misses -- in this post, but I ended up having more to say than I thought I would. So I'll start with the two D.E. Stevenson books, Miss Buncle's Book and Miss Buncle Married.

(This is not how I imagine Miss Buncle. Even after she gets a new hat.)

(This is a better cover, a 1930s/40s edition that I found in this fantastic collection of D.E. Stevenson cover art. I'm still amazed that the internet contains a collection of D.E. Stevenson cover art!)

Miss Buncle's Book is the coziest of this group, about the sleepy village of Silverstream, where Miss Buncle lives. Miss Buncle is "a thin, dowdy woman of forty" with no money, a terrible hat, and an inability to express herself in conversation. But she also has a gift for seeing everyone exactly as they are and then writing her observations down. She publishes a novel set in a thinly-disguised version of Silverstream, and in the novel the two sides of her personality are reflected: she bases a character on herself, a quiet old maid, but she is also represented in her book by a Golden Boy, a magical godlike character who walks through the village and changes everyone's lives. In the actual village of Silverstream, it's Miss Buncle who transforms the village -- by writing her book and showing the villagers what they are really like. So this is a book about a book, and it's totally metaliterary. For one thing, Miss Buncle's book is written in the same style as Miss Buncle's Book, if that makes sense. Miss Buncle is supposed to have written her book in deceptively simple language that makes the satirical portraits of her neighbors even funnier. And D.E. Stevenson combines simplicity and satire in the same way. The difference is that Miss Buncle is a more innocent writer: she writes the truth about her friends without seeing that it's funny, whereas D.E. Stevenson is definitely in on all of the jokes. And the jokes are very funny, like E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia books, only with a metaliterary twist. Oh, and later, Miss Buncle writes a second book in which the character based on her writes a book, and the metaliterariness (if that's a word) gets completely out of control.

(This is the most recent edition of Miss Buncle Married.)

(But look at this cover from the 1970s! It's like an old Harlequin Romance.)

I'm not going to worry about spoiling the ending of Miss Buncle's Book, because the sequel is called Miss Buncle Married, so you already know how it turns out. Miss Buncle Married finds the former Miss Buncle trying to navigate her world without publishing novels about it. She does seem to wield a frightening power in the first book -- she can control people's lives with her writing! In the second book, she's trying to avoid using her artistic power because of the repercussions that she suffered earlier. But she can't stop observing people and meddling with their lives. She befriends a pompous artist and his wild children, and she tries to direct the course of the romance between her nephew-in-law and his girlfriend. But things don't go quite the way she plans them, which leads to some hilarious scenes in this book, and also to some disturbing ones. In the end -- and now I am going to give away the ending of the book -- Miss Buncle decides that the best way to control other people is to be a wife and mother. This is the part that Teresa from Shelf Love found so off-putting, and I agree, although I see why Stevenson ends the book this way. But: "She had a man -- all her own -- with his life to make or mar; a house -- the house of her dreams -- where her lightest word was law," and soon she will have a child "to cherish and control." Wow, D.E. Stevenson. That's a disturbing way to put it. It doesn't mean, though, that I'm not dying to read the third Miss Buncle book (I'll never be able to stop calling her Miss Buncle, even though the third book is called The Two Mrs. Abbotts), which should have a new edition out in the U.S. next year. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Heir of Redclyffe and My Emotions

I'm ending the year by finishing a book that I've had on my to-read list for a long time, The Heir of Redclyffe, by Charlotte Yonge. I first heard about this book in Little Women, when Meg finds Jo "eating apples and crying over The Heir of Redclyffe," and then Lisa May mentioned it back in November. (And now I can read her review -- I've been waiting to finish the book myself first.) I thought that if Jo and Lisa May both liked it, it would probably be excellent, and I was not disappointed. The Heir of Redclyffe actually kept me up late because I couldn't stop reading it -- a thing that book blurbs always say will happen,  but that rarely happens to me because I really, really like sleep.

(The Heir of Redclyffe was published in 1853, but this is the 1882 edition with illustrations by Kate Greenaway.)

One of the reasons I found The Heir of Redclyffe so engrossing was that I disliked Philip Morville so much. He's such a well-drawn character: his role in the story is that of the villain, but he isn't really villainous, just arrogant and condescending and snobbish. (Oh, and he calls Dickens "cheap rubbish," and he dismisses Le Morte d'Arthur as being for children only. Grrrr.) He's basically decent, though, and he doesn't really mean to do the awful things he does. I could imagine him being the friend of a friend -- someone could like him, but I couldn't. I loved the scene where Philip's cousin Guy, the hero of the book, is telling a story, and Philip interrupts him with a Latin tag, a quotation from Horace -- because Philip is exactly the kind of person who would interrupt someone else's story with a Latin tag -- and when Guy caps Philip's quotation with the next line from the Horace poem, Guy mispronounces a Latin vowel, and Philip freaks out. It's the word "ovium" ("of the sheep"), and Guy says "ah-vium" instead of "oh-vium," to which Philip says, horrified, "Do anything but take liberties with Horace!" This is hilarious because it's a ridiculously small mistake, and I would be so impressed if any of my students could quote Horace like Guy. But Guy's pronunciation reveals that he hasn't had an aristocratic education at a private school, and that's what horrifies Philip. Ugh, Philip.

(Look at Guy's sad eyes in this Kate Greenaway illustration! How can Philip be so terrible to him?)

I liked Guy Morville, and I liked Amabel, who is underappreciated by her family and taught to think of herself as "silly little Amy," but who turns out to be secretly strong-minded. But my favorite character was Amy's brother Charles. I was surprised when I encountered Charles, because he seemed so familiar to me. It was like seeing a beloved actor in a new role. And then I realized that I knew Charles because he must have been the inspiration for Aubrey Lanyon in my favorite Georgette Heyer romance, Venetia. There are some differences between the two, but both Aubrey and Charles are bookish invalids who suffer from "a disease of the hip-joint" (that's a quotation from both Heyer and Yonge). Both have a cutting wit, and both tyrannize over their sisters. And even though Aubrey and Charles are fundamentally selfish, I can't help liking them both. Charles makes me happy every time he deflates Philip's pompousness with one of his jokes.

(Guy doing some gardening.)

I was glad that I read Sintram and His Companions before I read The Heir of Redclyffe, because the story of Sintram informs the whole novel. Guy Morville admits that he is "foolish about Sintram," and that he sees himself as the title character. Sintram is the Viking prince who is followed through his life by two terrifying figures, an impish little man in a pointy hat, who turns out to be Sin, and a pale old man dressed in bones, who turns out to be Death. Guy identifies with Sintram so much because he too is fighting against his own sinful nature, struggling against his family's violent past, and trying to make his peace with death. Charlotte Yonge even recasts some scenes from Sintram in The Heir of Redclyffe: a storm at sea, a melancholy Christmas spent in solitary meditation, the separation of the main character from his true love. I do think it's a little strange that Guy keeps referring to the woman he loves as "my Verena." Verena is not Sintram's true love; she's his mother. I mean, I know Guy is talking about Verena's saintly influence on Sintram, but still.

(Verena, illustrated by Gordon Browne.)

Like Sintram, The Heir of Redclyffe is a sad story. But Sintram is more of a gloomy fantasy, while The Heir of Redclyffe is a tragedy. I did cry over it, just like Jo March. But I loved it, and I'm hoping to read more books by Charlotte Yonge in 2013. (The Clever Woman of the Family is on my bedside table right now.)