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.