Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Creepy Christmas Story of Sintram and his Companions

After reading Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, I moved on to the next de la Motte Fouqué novella, Sintram and His Companions. I read the 1845 volume that includes both stories, with an introduction by Charlotte Yonge, the same edition that Jo wants for Christmas in the first chapter of Little Women. It makes sense that Jo would want this book for Christmas, because Sintram is a Christmas story. But it’s not about a cozy, comforting Christmas like the one in Little Women. It’s about a series of bleak, demon-haunted Christmases celebrated by Vikings in the icy mountains of Norway.

In her introduction, Yonge says that de la Motte Fouqué intended some of his stories to reflect specific seasons. Undine is a story about spring, while “the stern, grave ‘Sintram’” is a winter tale. Yonge is right: Sintram is mainly set in the cold, dark heart of winter. It’s the story of Sintram, the son of a brutal knight and a saintly nun, who spends his life torn between those two influences. Sometimes Sintram gives in to his violent side and joins his father in burning and pillaging villages; at other times he is overwhelmed by guilt and spends his time in solitary prayer, and it’s not clear which side will win out. Sintram finds himself in particular difficulties when a French knight and his wife – Folko and Gabrielle – come to Norway and become guests at his father’s castle. Sintram wants to be like Folko, who is the epitome of the chivalrous, courtly knight, but he is tempted by his lust for the beautiful Gabrielle.

(Sintram being knighted by Folko, illustrated by Gordon Browne.)

I found this story difficult to read, and the character of Sintram difficult to like. But I did like the wildness of the landscape and the characters – I love that Sintram is so wild and strong, for example, that he would break the strings of a regular harp, and so he has to play music on a special giant harp strung with bear-sinews. And I liked the creepy, supernatural aspects of the story. According to Yonge, Sintram is inspired by a 16th-century Dürer engraving called “Knight, Death and the Devil,” which shows a warrior on horseback accompanied by Death, who looks like a skeleton crowned with serpents, and the Devil, a little horned creature with a goat-like face. These creepy figures are Sintram’s companions, although they change their appearance throughout the book.

(Albrecht Dürer, "Knight, Death and the Devil.")

Death usually looks like a tall, pale man dressed like a pilgrim, with clattering bones hung all over his robes. The best dialogue in the book occurs when he talks to Sintram, as in this scene when Sintram is giving him a ride back to the castle:

“’Draw thy garment closer around thee, thou pale man, so the bones will not rattle, and I shall be able to curb my horse.’

‘It would be of no avail, boy; it would be of no avail. The bones must rattle.’

‘Do not clasp me so tight with thy long arms, they are so cold.’

‘It cannot be helped, boy; it cannot be helped. Be content. For my long cold arms are not pressing yet on thy heart.’”

(Gordon Browne's illustration of the tall, pale pilgrim.)

The Devil, on the other hand, appears in the form of a little man dressed in fur, with one long feather in his cap. When he first meets Sintram he claims that he is a snail-hunter:

“’Why should you find fault that I go hunting here for snails? … I know how to prepare from them an excellent high-flavoured drink; and I have taken enough for to-day; marvelous fat little beasts, with wise faces like a man’s, and long twisted horns on their heads. Would you like to see them? Look here!’

And then he began to unfasten and fumble about his fur garment; but Sintram, filled with disgust and horror, said, ‘Psha! I detest such animals! Be quiet, and tell me at once who and what you yourself are.’

‘Are you so bent on knowing my name?’ replied the little man. ‘Let it content you that I am master of all secret knowledge, and well versed in the most intricate depths of ancient history.’”

That’s right. The Devil is an ancient historian. As a classics professor married to an ancient historian, I found this hilarious. The Devil knows all about classical literature and mythology, as we see when he tempts Sintram to run off with Gabrielle by telling him the story of the Judgment of Paris. Every time Sintram hears about the beauty of Helen, he wants to seize Gabrielle. So we can add Sintram to the list of works about the dangers of studying classics – and before I started this blog, I had no idea how many such works were out there. But now I know that classics will make you see demons (as in “The Raven,” “Green Tea,” and basically everything by M.R. James), arouse evil lusts, and turn you into a sorcerer (which is what the Devil is trying to do to Sintram). But it’s not just Greek and Roman mythology that is evil in this book. The pagan traditions of the Norsemen come in for their fair share of criticism, including a heathen Christmas tradition practiced by Sintram’s father that involves swearing an oath over a golden boar’s head.

Despite some wonderful details such as these, the plot of Sintram tends to drag. Sintram’s temptations are interesting; his repentance, not so much. But if you are looking for something really creepy, dark, and grim to read for Christmas, look no further.

(Sintram and his servant Rolf, being followed up a snowy mountainside by the two creepy companions.)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Literary Leftovers: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving

I’m fascinated by all descriptions of food in literature. So this Thanksgiving I found myself reading a lot about traditional Thanksgiving feasts, which I enjoyed very much, even though I am a lifelong vegetarian who has never tasted a turkey. I thought that I would spend part of yesterday writing about my favorite Thanksgiving story, Louisa May Alcott’s “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving.” But I was wrong, because this story is all about food, and after my own Thanksgiving feast, I couldn’t even think about more food. Today, on the other hand, everything in “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” sounds appetizing again.

This story is in volume six of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, a six-volume set of short stories that Alcott published between 1872 and 1882. The stories in this volume are for small children, and are fanciful tales of talking animals or dolls, or moral stories in which children learn to behave (although there is at least one story, “Poppy’s Pranks,” about a little girl who continually gets into trouble and never learns her lesson). “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” is different from the other stories, though. It’s longer, it seems to be written for a slightly older audience, and it’s a nostalgic story of life in the 1820s.

(The 1929 edition of Aunt Jo's Scrapbag, from this website.)

“An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” is about a family of eight children growing up in a New Hampshire farmhouse. It’s one of Alcott’s stories – like An Old-Fashioned Girl – which is about how much better country life is than city life, and how much better the ways of the past were than those of the present. The appeal of this story is in the quaintness of the New Hampshire children’s lifestyle, in the happiness of their family life, and in the trouble they get into when they are unsupervised. The parents have to leave unexpectedly at the beginning of the story, and the children decide to make Thanksgiving dinner themselves. (So basically the same plot as “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” but with better food.) Another appealing thing about this story is the abundance of delicious food that it describes:

“November had come; the crops were in, and barn, buttery, and bin were overflowing with the harvest that rewarded the summer’s hard work. The big kitchen was a jolly place just now, for in the great fireplace roared a cheerful fire; on the walls hung garlands of dried apples, onions, and corn; up aloft from the beams shone crook-necked squashes, juicy hams, and dried venison – for in those days deer still haunted the deep forests, and hunters flourished. Savory smells were in the air; on the crane hung steaming kettles, and down among the red embers copper sauce-pans simmered, all suggestive of some approaching feast.”

(Harvest abundance in a Victorian Thanksgiving card.)

It was so interesting to read this story after reading Sarah Josepha Hale. The Good Housekeeper (written about forty years before the Alcott story was published) has recipes for all of the food mentioned in “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” including cider apple-sauce, hasty pudding, Indian pudding, brown bread, baked apples, and roast turkey. If Tilly and Prue, the two oldest girls in “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” had owned a copy of Hale’s cookbook, they would have known that poultry should be stuffed with parsley, sage, winter savory, and marjoram. But, going on their memory of the dish, they stuff the turkey instead with catnip and bitter wormwood. It’s particularly funny to read this passage after reading what Hale has to say about stuffing: “It is needless to repeat over again the ingredients for stuffing, way of making gravy, &c. A female who has sense enough to cook a dinner will manage these things to her own liking and means. It is not necessary to good cooking, that every one should season alike.”

Tilly and Prue also ruin their plum-pudding, which turns out “as hard and heavy as one of the stone balls on Squire Dunkin’s great gate.” But if you believe Hale, plum-pudding is terribly unhealthy, so maybe that’s just as well. Hale says, “The custom of eating mince pies at Christmas, like that of plum puddings, was too firmly rooted for the ‘Pilgrim fathers’ to abolish; so it would be vain for me to attempt it. At Thanksgiving too, they are considered indispensable; but I may be allowed to hope that during the remainder of the year, this rich, expensive and exceedingly unhealthy diet will be used very sparingly by all who wish to enjoy sound sleep or pleasant dreams.”

(Cozy scene illustrated in the 1929 edition of Aunt Jo's Scrapbag.)

Fortunately, Tilly and Prue make enough successful dishes to give their entire family a satisfying Thanksgiving feast. Their menu features turkey with stuffing and onions, cranberry-sauce, mince pies, nuts, apples, oranges, and “vegetables of every sort.” This is the basic Thanksgiving menu suggested by Sarah Josepha Hale (although hers is fancier and includes more meats), and the same Thanksgiving meal that Alcott portrays in other books of hers; Little Men, for example. Hale was the driving force that made Thanksgiving a national holiday, but I think that Alcott must have played a role in popularizing its traditions. Except for the mince pies and plum-pudding (and the catnip stuffing), my family had a Thanksgiving dinner very similar to the one in “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving.” I think that we have both Alcott and Hale to thank for that.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reading Sarah Josepha Hale on Thanksgiving

This week I've been reading some of the works of Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who made Thanksgiving an official U.S. holiday.

(Portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale by James Reid Lambdin, 1831.)

She was the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, which was a wildly popular Victorian magazine featuring stories, poems, plays, recipes, household tips, and wonderful fashion spreads. Through her magazine, Hale became a huge influence on American society. She promoted U.S. authors, including Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edgar Allen Poe. She was an arbiter of taste and an advocate for abolition and women’s education. After the Civil War, she started campaigning to make Thanksgiving an official holiday that could unify the country.

(This is the letter Hale wrote to Abraham Lincoln asking him to make Thanksgiving an official holiday. You can read the whole thing at the Library of Congress website.)

Hale’s 1839 book on household management, The Good Housekeeper, is a fascinating read. (You can read it online here.) It’s an instruction manual on how to be the perfect Victorian woman: in control of her household, maintaining her family’s health, improving the morality of her husband and her community.

Hale was also a novelist, and at the end of The Good Housekeeper she provides some novelistic scenes of domestic life:

“Be particular that the dinner is in the very best style, Ruth; and pray see yourself that the ducks’ feet are crimped. I would not, for the universe, this should be forgotten, to-day. The feet are Mr. B____’s tit-bit,” said Mrs. B. to a girl who acted as an upper domestic or sort of housekeeper. Mrs. B. strove, as much as possible, to imitate European customs. … The truth was, Mrs. B. had been invited to a very select party of the fashionables; she wished to outshine all the ladies, and a new dress and set of pearl ornaments were to be the price of the dinner in general, and the ducks’ feet in particular.”

Mrs. B. has been neglecting her husband’s digestion, though, so he isn’t impressed by her fancy dinner. He doesn’t touch his crimped ducks’ feet (I still don’t know what exactly crimped ducks' feet are), and he doesn’t buy his wife a set of pearl ornaments. The Good Housekeeper is there to make sure that sort of thing doesn’t happen. It’s there, as the dedication says, to teach every woman how to “promote the health, comfort, and prosperity of her family.”

(Victorian Thanksgiving cards are all about the domesticity of women.)

Does that scenario with Mr. and Mrs. B. sound familiar to you? It did to me, and it’s not because I like to serve my husband crimped ducks’ feet. It’s because it’s the same kind of moral lesson that you get in a Louisa May Alcott book. The Good Housekeeper kept reminding me of different scenes from Alcott books: the girls who go to too many fancy parties and eat too much cake in An Old-Fashioned Girl, the mothers who neglect their children’s diet and education in Little Men, Rose’s cooking lessons in Eight Cousins

Hale and Alcott seem to share a lot of the same ideas about food, too. Like hot bread, which Rose is forbidden to eat in Eight Cousins. Hale seems to be a little obsessed with how bad hot bread is for you, returning to the topic over and over again: “But it is the hot bread, lying undigested, and of course hard and heavy in the stomach, which prostrates the system, and thus makes the mental fatigue injurious.” Hale wants everyone to eat cold whole-wheat bread, which she calls, unappetizingly, “dyspepsia bread.” She says that bread-baking is the finest accomplishment of a lady, a sentiment which is echoed in Eight Cousins by Uncle Alec, who tells Rose, “When you bring me a handsome, wholesome loaf, entirely made by yourself, I shall be more pleased than if you offered me a pair of slippers embroidered in the very latest style.”

There is more to The Good Housekeeper than nutritional diatribes. It's a reference book filled with all kinds of information, from how to manage your servants to how to get ink out of your mahogany furniture. It’s filled with recipes, some of which I really want to try, like squash pie (flavored with rose water and nutmeg) and rice snowballs (whole cooked apples inside balls of rice pudding). This book is also packed with strange and intriguing bits of trivia, like the frightening tale of the lady who washed her face with rum:

“A lady, in consequence of a nervous affection in her jaw, had used rum for fourteen years to wash in – not a drop of water had touched her face and neck during that time. She was not very old, but her skin looked as dry and shriveled as a baked sweet apple – you could scarcely put down a pin’s point without touching a wrinkle.”

(I imagine fashionable ladies, like these from an 1855 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, being horrified by this story, which is meant to show the evils of alcohol.)

The Good Housekeeper is an excellent book to read on a busy day like the one before Thanksgiving. You don’t have to make a major time commitment to it; it’s the kind of book you can just dip into when you have a spare moment and want something entertaining. And it's a perfect companion to the other thing I'm reading for Thanksgiving -- Louisa May Alcott's story "An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving." More about that story tomorrow.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Undine, the Original Manic Pixie Dream Girl

I’m still on a Louisa May Alcott kick, and I’m also reading all of the books that she mentions. Last week I picked up Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, because it’s the book Jo wants for Christmas in Little Women. Actually Jo wants Undine and Sintram, two novellas by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque. I haven’t finished Sintram yet, but I enjoyed Undine.

(The first edition, published in 1811.)

I like this translation of Undine, with an introduction by Charlotte Yonge. (Another author on my reading list – Jo reads her book The Heir of Redclyffe while crying and eating apples.)

Undine is based on the kind of folktale which involves a man marrying a water spirit. I’ve read a lot of these stories, so I can tell you: never marry a water spirit. Don’t even date them. It almost never turns out well for the human. The problem is that water spirits are usually so beautiful that humans can’t resist them, and that’s the case with Undine.

(Another example of this folktale is the Greek story of Peleus and the sea nymph Thetis. Sure, their relationship starts in a cute way, with Peleus holding onto Thetis while she turns into snakes and lions and all kinds of crazy things, but it doesn't end well.)

Undine is the adopted child of an old fisherman and his wife. She shows up soaking wet on their doorstep one evening, claiming to come from a land of golden castles and crystal domes. When she grows up, she wins over the first man she meets with her beauty and her quirky, childlike charm. Undine is an early version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: she’s a free spirit who doesn’t follow social conventions, and she broadens the worldview of the guy who falls in love with her. That guy is a knight named Huldbrand who stops by the fisherman’s cottage. He becomes entranced with Undine from the first moment he sees her – when she surprises him by meeting his gaze without blushing.

(John William Waterhouse, "Undine," 1872.)

Undine is odd. Before Huldbrand meets her, he hears her splashing bucketfuls of water against the cottage wall, which she thinks is a hilarious joke. She enjoys making fun of her parents and running off into the forest for no reason. When Huldbrand says something she doesn’t like, she bites him. Undine’s parents think that she is refusing to grow up and “give over this frolicsome childishness of hers.” But in typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl fashion, Undine remains adorable, no matter what she does. 

(Illustration by Arthur Rackham from the 1909 edition of Undine.)

Undine’s behavior makes sense once she reveals that she isn’t human. She’s a water spirit who came to live on land. She explains to Huldbrand that each element of the world is inhabited by spirits:

“The wonderful salamanders sparkle and sport amid the flames; deep in the earth the meagre and malicious gnomes pursue their revels; the forest-spirits belong to the air, and wander in the woods; while in the seas, rivers, and streams live the widespread race of water-spirits. These last, beneath resounding domes of crystal, through which the sky can shine with its sun and stars, inhabit a region of light and beauty; lofty coral-trees glow with blue and crimson fruits in their gardens; they walk over the pure sand of the sea, among exquisitely variegated shells, and amid whatever of beauty the old world possessed …”

(Gorgeous Rackham illustration showing Undine in her element.)

So this is where I started to like Undine, after she makes her confession to Huldbrand. She reveals her true self to her husband – and he doesn’t believe her. He keeps telling himself that “his lovely wife was under the influence of one of her odd whims, and that she was only amusing herself and him with her extravagant inventions.” And this is where I started to dislike Huldbrand. Even in the moments when he believes Undine’s story, he’s still freaked out by the idea that his wife might be a water spirit. What did he expect? Her uncle is a brook!

(Huldbrand and Undine in a 1901 illustration by Harold Nelson.)

Undine’s mysterious uncle Kuhleborn is my favorite character in the book. Sometimes he appears as a brook, sometimes as a tall, pale man who can dissolve into a torrent of water. He’s an eerie figure who tends to show up suddenly peering into people’s windows. And he’s dangerous, especially to anyone who mistreats Undine. I can understand being scared of him, but I’m still disappointed in Huldbrand for being scared by Undine’s otherworldliness.

(As you can see from this Rackham illustration, Huldbrand has already met a goblin, so a water-spirit shouldn't be too much of a stretch for him.)

It's so wrong that Huldbrand loves Undine before he marries her, and then starts to be afraid of her once she has a soul. It turns out that elemental spirits don’t have souls, but they can get them by having sex (or, as Undine puts it, through “the most intimate union of love”). So Undine wakes up after her wedding night with a soul. I find that disturbing – a man has to give her a soul by sleeping with her? – but I’m glad that Undine doesn’t completely change after her ensoulment. She’s able to love, but she’s still an inhuman water spirit. After her marriage, she seems even stronger and more magical: she can carve a stone with her fingers and calm flood waters. One of the things I liked best about this book was watching Undine's transformation. She starts out as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she ends up as a powerful goddess.

And anything bad that happens to Huldbrand as a result of marrying a water spirit? He totally deserves it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why I Read Understood Betsy Every November

When it gets cold outside -- or at least as cold as it ever gets here in Florida -- there are certain books I reread to put myself into a wintry mood. Anything with a snowstorm in it, like The Dark is Rising or Nine Tailors. Anything by Louisa May Alcott, for sledding and snowball fights. Anything by Laura Ingalls Wilder, for terrible winters that make me glad I live in Florida in 2012. One of the best winter books, though, is Understood Betsy, written by Dorothy Canfield Fisher in 1916.

(This is my copy of Understood Betsy here on the right, on the actual bamboo bookcase.)

The winter in this book is satisfyingly cold, the way winters should be. Understood Betsy  is set in Vermont, in an old farmhouse whose windows are rattled by icy winds. The snow piles up so deeply there that falling into a snow drift is like falling into a cavern. At first, Betsy doesn't like the idea of cold weather. It scares her, and she can't see any beauty in the cold countryside:

"She shrank together in her seat, more and more frightened as the end of her journey came nearer, and looked out dismally at the winter landscape, thinking it hideous with its brown bare fields, its brown bare trees, and the quick-running little streams hurrying along, swollen with the January thaw which had taken all the snow from the hills."

 (Betsy arriving in Vermont and being allowed to drive her uncle's horses, illustrated by Ada C. Williamson, 1916.)

But a few months later she has totally adjusted to cold weather. We see her running happily through the frozen woods with her family's huge dog, rescuing her friend from a snow drift, and making maple sugar candy in the snow:

"She found a clean white snow-bank under a pine-tree, and, setting her cup of syrup down in a safe place, began to pat the snow down hard to make the right bed for the waxing of the syrup. The sun, very hot for that late March day, brought out strongly the tarry perfume of the big pine-tree. Near her the sap dripped musically into a bucket, already half full, hung on a maple-tree. A blue jay rushed suddenly through the upper branches of the wood, his screaming and chattering voice sounding like noisy children at play."

( I will always be fascinated by snow candy! Here is a tutorial on making it. Maybe I'll try it this year when I'm visiting my family in the snowier regions of the U.S..)

In 1916 New England, winter seems to last for three seasons -- March and October are just as cold and snowy as January. That helps to make Understood Betsy the coziest book ever. The farmhouse has a warm kitchen with a tea kettle perpetually humming on the stove, and every possible cozy thing happens in that kitchen. Making popcorn, baking pies, reading out loud by lamplight, listening to the dog snore. And the kittens! Oh, the kittens.

(There is a reason why the cover is full of kittens, and the reason is that this is one of the greatest kitten books ever written.)

I remembered this book from my childhood as being primarily about kittens. Maybe that's partly because of the kittens on the cover, but I think it's mostly because Understood Betsy features incredibly cute kittens doing incredibly cute things. The book isn't really about kittens, though; it's about children's education. It's about Betsy's journey from her city life, where she's sheltered and spoon-fed, to her country life, where she learns to be independent and think for herself. Dorothy Canfield Fisher was an advocate for educational reform. But let's not forget that she was also an amazing describer of kittens, because that's pretty important too.

(Charles Livingston Bull, "Kittens with Mother," 1916. This print reminds me of the scene where Betsy's cat Eleanor carries her kittens inside to keep them warm for the winter.)

Winter is important in Understood Betsy. In the city, Betsy is told that she's sickly, and she's never allowed to feel cold. Once she gets to the country, though, she's allowed to run around in the cold, and it makes her stronger. By the end of the book, Betsy and her dog are "careering through the air like bright-blown autumn leaves" -- it's like she's part of the winter landscape now.

(Betsy's friends help her get used to playing outside in this illustration by Ada C. Williamson.)

Also, the cold Vermont weather is always being contrasted with the warmth of the farmhouse, and the warm hearts of the people who live there. Winter in this book is all about interior coziness and exterior merriment. And that's exactly what I want for my winter this year.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Thrilling and Shocking Tales of Ouida

Books keep leading me to more books. Sometimes I choose a book based on the fact that a character liked it. But sometimes I choose a book because it was too scandalous and shocking for a character to read. That's what happened when I read Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl. In An Old-Fashioned Girl, good girl Polly refuses to read the thrilling novels that her city friends love. And that made me want to read one of those thrilling novels.

(Girls in the latest fashions from Godey's Lady's Book, 1874.)

Polly's friends in An Old-Fashioned Girl  are sophisticated bad girls. Alcott describes them as "a room full of young ladies ... all very much dressed, all talking together, and all turning to examine the new-comer with a cool stare which seemed to be as much the fashion as eye-glasses. ... Several of the more frolicsome were imitating the Grecian Bend, some were putting their heads together over little notes, nearly all were eating confectionery, and the entire twelve chattered like magpies." These girls wear only the latest fashions, are more interested in love affairs than school, and behave as if they're in their thirties, even though they are teenagers. This is what Gossip Girl would be like if it were set in Boston in the 1860s. (And I would love that show so much; someone please make it!)

(The Grecian Bend was a trendy and scandalous dance, and also the name of the fashionable posture caused by wearing a tight corset and a big bustle.)

Here's what one of the fashionable crowd in An Old-Fashioned Girl has to say about books:

"'Oh, have you read The Phantom Bride? It's perfectly thrilling! There's a regular rush for it at the library; but some prefer Breaking a Butterfly. Which do you like best?' asked a pale girl of Polly, in one of the momentary lulls which occurred.

'I haven't read either.'

'You must, then. I adore Guy Livingston's books, and Yates's. 'Ouida's' are my delight, only they are so long, I get worn out before I'm through.'"

(She's a library patron!)

And that's when I decided that I had to read a thrilling novel by Ouida. "Ouida" was the pen name of author Maria Louise Rame (1839-1908). She wrote historical romances that shocked some Victorian sensibilities. She also wrote A Dog of Flanders, which I will never, never read, because I have a thing about tragic dog stories. Instead I read Cecil Castlemaine's Gage, Lady Marabout's Troubles, and Other Stories.

I can see why teenage girls in the 1860s might have loved Ouida. Her stories are full of bad role models: unbelievably beautiful ladies who drip with diamonds and leave trails of broken hearts behind them. One lady fleeces her suitor out of all of his money. Another one literally kills a man by rejecting him. The men in Ouida's stories tend to be careless dandies who gamble, drink, and toy with ladies' affections -- until they meet the right girl. Or they are silent, heroic soldiers whose reserve is broken down by love. I have to admit that I love that kind of romance, and here it is in its purest form.

(The super glamorous Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, painted by Charles Phillips in 1736. This is how I imagine Cecil Castlemaine, only with more jewelry.)

For example: 

"The new-comer was a tall and handsome man, of noble presence, bronzed by foreign suns, pale and jaded just now with hard riding, while his dark silver-laced suit was splashed and covered with dust, but as he bowed low to her, critical Cecil Castlemaine saw that not Belamour himself could have better grace, not my Lord Millamont courtlier mien nor whiter hands, and listened with gracious air to what her father unfolded to her of his mission from St. Germain, whither he had come, at great personal risk, in many disguises, and at breathless speed, to place in their hands a precious letter in cipher from James Stuart to his well-beloved and loyal subject Herbert George, Earl of Castlemaine.”

If you made it all the way through that sentence, you might like this book. Ouida's stories are short, but her sentences will wear you out. Also, I think that this book might contain the most vocabulary words I've ever had to look up, starting with "gage" (a pledge, or an object left as a guarantee of good faith). Basset? Minauderies? Pulvillios? Lappets? Bohea? (All words I had to look up just in the first few pages of this book! They turn out to be, respectively, a musical instrument, small ornamental cases, powders for wigs, decorative frills, and a strong China tea.)

(A powdered wig and lots of decorative frills on Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, 1778.)

But if you can put up with all that, there are some wonderful and hilarious moments in this book. I love some of the satirical things that Ouida says about her aristocratic characters: "Lady Elmers's pride was to possess the smallest terrier that ever took daisy tea and was carried in a monkey-muff." And my favorite line: "She is about as tenacious and resentful of objectionable contact as a sea-anemone."

(Fancy lady from a 1760s engraving.)

Reading the stories of Ouida might make you feel like a fashionable Victorian teen. Get ready to swoon over the romance and giggle over comic scenes, like the following one from "Lady Marabout's Troubles." Lady Marabout has been trying her best to arrange a marriage for the Hon. Val, but Val's iciness is making it difficult. In this scene, Val admits to Lady Marabout that the eligible bachelor -- the one they have been expecting to propose at any minute -- is leaving London without proposing. He's abandoning the icy Val for an even icier sea voyage and hunting expedition:

"'Well, love, what did he say?' asked Lady Marabout, breathlessly, with eager delight and confident anticipation.

Like drops of ice on warm rose-leaves fell each word of the intensely chill and slightly sulky response on Lady Marabout's heart.

'He says that he goes to Cowes to-morrow for the Royal Yacht Squadron dinner, and then on in the Anadyomene to the Spitzenbergen coast for walruses. He left a P.P.C. card for you.'

'Walruses!' shrieked Lady Marabout.

'Walruses,' responded the Hon. Val."

Sunday, November 4, 2012

My New Appreciation for an Old-Fashioned Girl

Now that my month of scary stories is over, I'm back to reading classic books for girls, starting with Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870).

(This is the 1902 edition.)

I like An Old-Fashioned Girl much more now than I did when I was little. Back then, I was mainly interested in the first half of the book, about a country girl who comes to stay with three city children, but I didn't really like any of the children. Polly, the old-fashioned girl of the title, doesn't read novels unless they are "improving reading," she suffers in silence when forced to lunch on macaroons and ice cream (poor girl!), and she's shocked at a musical when the actors use slang and wear skimpy outfits. I didn't think it would be fun to hang out with her.

(A thrilling novel, some fancy pastries, an operetta: basically my perfect day.)

I'm not even sure that Louisa May Alcott would want to hang out with young Polly in these scenes. I mean, Alcott preferred writing thrillers, even though her public kept demanding moral tales. She might have disapproved of macaroons, but she was definitely in favor of slang. An Old-Fashioned Girl is full of hilarious slangy expressions: frizzles, thingumbob, prink, wad, curly pow, fiddlestick, stunner, jiffy, whirligig. I love the slang used by city girl Fanny, who keeps calling her brother a "provoking toad." When Fanny uses the word "band-boxy," it's so slangy that Alcott has to step in to explain herself:

"I deeply regret being obliged to shock the eyes and ears of such of my readers as have a prejudice in favor of pure English by expressions like the above, but, having rashly undertaken to write a little story about Young America, for Young America, I feel bound to depict my honored patrons as faithfully as my limited powers permit. Otherwise, I must expect the crushing criticism, 'Well, I dare say it's all very prim and proper, but it isn't a bit like us ..."

(Polly, from the 1870 edition.)

Now when I read An Old-Fashioned Girl, I can see that Polly isn't always so prim and proper. Sometimes she seems a little more like Alcott -- or at least like Jo from Little Women.  There is a great scene where Polly sneaks off to go sledding, and when she's asked what Fanny would say about her uncouth behavior, she says, "Don't know and don't care. Coasting is no harm; I like it, and I'm going to do it, now I've got a chance; so clear the lul-la!" Which is so awesome. Clear the lul-la!

(Granville Perkins, "Winter Sports--Coasting in the Country," 1877. According to the article where I found this image, in 1850, only boys were allowed to sled ("coast") on the big public hills. In 1869, it's still pretty shocking behavior for Polly.)

So in the first half of the book, Polly is a little preachy, but she also has these moments when she's pretty cool. And then, in the second half of the book, everyone grows up, and Polly gets even cooler. She comes back to the city to live an independent life as a music teacher. Yes, she's still self-sacrificing, and she still dresses "like a Quakeress." But she does have a cool place of her own that reminds me of my first apartment. It's so small that she has to have a sofa that converts into a bed. (Who knew that the Victorians had convertible sofa-beds?) Polly doesn't have a lot of money, but she seems very happy in her little room with her kitten and her canary. She's also happy with her bizarre diet, which she thinks is simple and healthy: toast, bread-and-milk, baked apples, cake, honey, and cream. Seriously, how is that better than macaroons and ice cream?

(Now I want a baked apple.)

Also, Polly has really amazing friends: "Polly came to know a little sisterhood of busy, happy, independent girls, who each had a purpose to execute, a talent to develop, an ambition to achieve ... Young teachers, doing much work for little pay; young artists, trying to pencil, paint, or carve their way to Rome; young writers, burning to distinguish themselves; young singers, dreaming of triumphs ..."

(Gertrude Offord, "Interior of the Old School of Art, Norwich," 1897.)

Polly's sculptor friend Becky is someone I would like to hang out with. I love Becky's statue of the woman of the future. This woman is "strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-souled, and strong-bodied." At her feet she has a needle, pen, palette, broom, and ballot-box, showing her ability to sew, write, paint, clean, and -- most importantly -- vote. Polly's friends are suffragettes! Those are some progressive friends for an old-fashioned girl to have.

(Votes for Women poster by Hilda Dallas, 1909.)

Louisa May Alcott would definitely want to hang out with this crowd. And in fact she is hanging out with this crowd, in fictional form. Polly's friend Kate King, "the authoress," has to be a self-portrait of Alcott. She is "odd-looking" and boyish, she has a rollicking sense of humor, and she has "written a successful novel by accident." She's even going to write a book like An Old-Fashioned Girl; she says, "I must put you in a story, Polly. I want a heroine, and you will do." 

(Grace Cossington Smith, "Quaker Girl," 1915. I know it's the wrong time period, but it totally reminds me of Polly in her apartment.)

Kate King gets everyone to join in an impromptu picnic in the art studio, saying hilariously, "Now then, fall to, ladies, and help yourselves. Never mind if the china don't hold out; take the sardines by their little tails, and wipe your hands on my brown paper napkins." Some of the girls have to use flat shells for plates and eat with paint knives, but there is "a freedom about it ... an artistic flavor to everything, and such a spirit of good-will and gayety ..." 

Reading the picnic scene is the closest I will ever get to being at a party with Louisa May Alcott. There are many things to love about An Old-Fashioned Girl, but that is the thing I love the most.