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.)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas with Rat and Mole

The Christmas scene that I love the most might be the one from The Wind in the Willows, the chapter called "Dulce Domum" ("Sweet Home"). I love its contrast between the cold winter night and the warm, bright home full of feasting and friends. To me, that's the essence of Christmas, and Kenneth Grahame does it so well.

Nothing makes me feel colder than reading about Mole and Rat as they travel their cold road through the village, watching all the cozy scenes of domestic life through the windows of the houses. They are especially affected by the sight of a sleepy canary in his cage, which makes perfect sense, because he is their exact opposite. Mole and Rat are independent animals with their own cares and worries, but the canary is a pet who is cared for completely. He never has to go outside in the winter. In fact, his cage is like a little house, making him the ultimate inside animal: he's so domestic that he has a house inside a house. Meanwhile Mole and Rat are freezing outside: "Then a gust of bitter wind took them in the back of the neck, a small sting of frozen sleet on the skin woke them as in a dream, and they knew their toes to be cold and their legs tired, and their own home distant a weary way."

(Arthur Rackham's illustration of Mole and Rat in the snow.)

But then nothing makes me feel warmer than reading about Mole's house, once the field-mice show up to sing a Christmas carol. At this point the Rat has warmed up the house by lighting a fire. Mole hasn't been in his house since the spring, and the only food he has is an old sausage, a box of hardtack, and a tin of sardines, but the Rat finds four bottles of beer left in Mole's cellar. (The Wind in the Willows contains much more alcohol than one would ever find in a contemporary children's book; it's like the Mad Men of children's literature.) And then the young field-mice arrive to sing a carol at Mole's door, and the Rat invites them in for mulled ale and a feast (which one of them will have to go out and buy). This is where Mole and Rat finally get the domestic warmth that they longed for earlier in the story. "It did not take long to prepare the brew and thrust the tin heater well into the red heart of the fire, and soon every field-mouse was sipping and coughing and choking (for a little mulled ale goes a long way) and wiping his eyes and laughing and forgetting he had ever been cold in his life."

(Illustration by E.H. Shephard.)

There is so much to think about in this chapter: how the animals never mention Christmas, except vaguely in the carol (maybe because, as we see in "Piper at the Gates of Dawn," they worship Pan); how the class differences between Mole and Rat show themselves (Mole's house, with its skittle-alley and yard art, is decidedly middle-class, while the Rat and his other friends are more aristocratic). But what I really like about "Dulce Domum" is how well it describes the experience of going home for the holidays. It covers all aspects, beginning with "the last long stretch, the home stretch, the stretch that we know is bound to end, some time, in the rattle of the door-latch, the sudden fire-light, and the sight of familiar things greeting us as long-absent travellers from far over-sea." Then there is Mole's unsettling feeling that things are different than he remembered them -- in his case, his house is smaller and shabbier than the places of his new life -- and finally, there is his joy at homecoming and his realization that his old home will be part of him forever. He sees "the value of some such anchorage in one's existence." He doesn't want to leave his new life, "but it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome."

This is the season when I'm glad I have my own anchorage, and I wish you all an anchorage in your existences, of one sort or another. Merry Christmas!

(Another illustration by Arthur Rackham, this one of Rat and Mole about to enjoy some Christmas beer.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas with Sherlock

Every year I almost forget, and then happily rediscover, that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a Sherlock Holmes Christmas story, "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." (It's in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and you can also read or listen to the story online here.) It's satisfyingly Holmesian -- London streets with gaslights, surly criminals, eccentric behavior from Sherlock -- and also satisfyingly Christmasy, with frosty weather and a Christmas goose. There are many things to love about "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle:"

1. The way that Holmes comes across the goose. Of course he doesn't go to the store and buy one. No, the goose appears slung across the back of a mysterious figure in the streets of London on Christmas Eve. The man with the goose is attacked, Holmes' policeman friend Peterson tries to stop the attack, and everyone but the officer runs away, leaving the goose in the street. Naturally Peterson takes the goose to Holmes to see what he makes of the incident, and Holmes concludes that Peterson should eat the goose himself. Would I eat something for my Christmas dinner that had been dropped in the street under mysterious circumstances? Probably not. But obviously it's a good thing that Peterson does roast the goose, because that's how he discovers that hidden inside the goose is an extremely rare jewel, the blue carbuncle.

2. The blue carbuncle. What is it? I spent way too much time thinking about this question. According to Holmes, it's "more than a precious stone. It is the precious stone." At first I thought it was a diamond, because Peterson tells Holmes that it can cut glass. It's "brilliantly scintillating," and diamonds can be blue, or at least bluish.

(For example, the Hope Diamond is blue.)

But Holmes says that the stone is "remarkable in having every characteristic of the carbuncle, save that it is blue in shade instead of ruby red." Carbuncles are red jewels, either garnets or rubies. But this can't be a ruby, because blue rubies are sapphires, which are lovely but not particularly remarkable. The blue carbuncle has to be completely fictional. Then I discovered, though, that blue garnets do exist. They were discovered in Madagascar in the 1990s. They won't cut glass, and they aren't worth as much as Holmes' blue carbuncle, but they are bright blue, sparkly, and very rare.

(You can buy your own blue carbuncle here.)

So now I think that Conan Doyle was prescient. The jewel in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" wouldn't be discovered for a hundred more years.

4. The opening scene, where Watson discovers that Holmes has been spending the post-Christmas holiday dissecting a hat:

"I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes upon the second morning after Christmas, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season. He was lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown, a pipe-rack within his reach upon the right, and a pile of crumpled morning papers, evidently newly studied, near at hand. Beside the couch was a wooden chair, and on the angle of the back lay a very seedy and disreputable hard-felt hat, much the worse for wear, and cracked in several places. A lens and a forceps lying upon the seat of the chair suggested that the hat had been suspended in this manner for the purpose of examination.

5. The conclusion that Holmes draws from the evidence of the hat about the hat's owner: "He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral regression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him."

5. The way that Holmes gets a witness to produce evidence by betting him he doesn't know the information Holmes needs: "When you see a man with whiskers of that cut and the 'Pink 'un' protruding out of his pocket, you can always draw him by a bet."

7. The cheerfulness of this story, even in the midst of crimes like theft and assault. Sherlock Holmes seems to be in such a good mood during the whole "Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." Maybe it's the Christmas spirit.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas in The Box of Delights

The Box of Delights, written by John Masefield in 1935, is a classic children's novel, but I read it for the first time last Christmas. Before last year, I didn't even know that John Masefield wrote children's books. I thought he was just the Salt Water Ballads guy, the guy who wrote "Sea Fever." ("I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide/ Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.") But then I got a book called Spellbound, a compilation of Diana Wynne Jones' favorite fantasy stories -- highly recommended, by the way -- and in that book I read an excerpt of The Box of Delights. Now John Masefield is one of the authors I read every Christmas.

The Box of Delights is about Kay, a boy who comes into the possession of a magical box during his Christmas holidays. The title is also a description of the book itself, which is crammed full of every possible thing you could want in a story, at least if you were a boy in the 1930s: time travel, jewel thieves, wolves, an evil wizard, talking animals, gangsters who fly stealth airplanes, mysterious strangers, gods and goddesses, pirates, and magical transformations on almost every page. This book is a lavish entertainment.

(The endpapers, illustrated by Judith Masefield, give you a sample of some of the book's variety.)

Its Christmas scenes are lavish too, especially the Christmas party that Kay and his friends attend at Tatchester Palace. They have "the biggest and most glorious Christmas Tree that had ever been seen in Tatchester," decorated with glass globes and electric lights, and stuffed full of incredible toys. It takes John Masefield almost two pages to describe all of these toys: whistles, drums, popguns, swords, dolls, teddy-bears, trains and railways, airplanes, farms, zoos, aquariums, soldiers, bricks, books, sewing kits with silver thimbles, costumes, jewelry, toy boats, and all kinds of candy. And there's more:

"All round this marvellous tree were wonderful crackers, eighteen inches long. The Bishop made all the children stand in a double rank round the tree, each with one end of a cracker in each hand. The musicians struck up a tune and they danced in the double rank three times round the Christmas Tree. Then the Bishop gave the word: they pulled the crackers, which went off with a bang together, like cannons. And then, inside the crackers there were the most lovely decorations -- real little tiny coats of coloured paper that you could put on, with the most splendid hats and necklets like real gold."

(A 1930s label for a box of Christmas crackers. I love how happy the random dragon in back is.)

This is a book in which one boy gets everything he has always wanted. That doesn't just include Christmas presents. In one scene, Kay enters an enchanted forest and meets Herne the Hunter, the horned spirit of the woods, who grants some of Kay's lifelong wishes by turning him into a stag, a wild duck, and a fish. The forest is just as rich and beautiful as Kay's Christmas party:

"... For there he was in the forest between the two hawthorn trees, with the petals of the may-blossom falling on him. All the may-blossoms that fell were talking to him, and he was aware of what all the creatures of the forest were saying to each other: what the birds were singing, and what it was that the flowers and trees were thinking. And he realized that the forest went on and on for ever, and all of it was full of life beyond anything he had ever imagined: for in the trees, in each leaf, and on every twig, and in every inch of soil there were ants, grubs, worms; little, tiny moving things, incredibly small yet thrilling with life.
'Oh dear,' Kay said. 'I shall never know a hundredth part of all the things there are to know.'
'You will, if you stay with me,' Herne the Hunter said."

(George Cruikshank's print of Herne the Hunter, 1840s.)

Later in The Box of Delights, Herne takes on the role of Santa Claus, taking Kay for a ride in a glittery, icy sleigh driven by a team of flying unicorns. Is it strange that two of my favorite Christmas books -- The Box of Delights and The Dark is Rising -- feature Herne the Hunter? I think that Susan Cooper must have been inspired by The Box of Delights, even though The Dark is Rising is so different in tone. The Box of Delights has some serious moments, but it's not a work of epic fantasy. It's more like a magic show that keeps unfolding enchantment after enchantment. That's exactly the kind of experience I want to have at Christmas.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas With Jeeves

I don't think that P.G. Wodehouse was the biggest fan of Christmas. First of all, there is the comic essay he wrote for Vanity Fair in 1915, in which he skewers the whole tradition of gift-giving. (I love the cynical modern child at the end of the essay who sneers at his Christmas present -- a silver cigarette case -- and then languidly re-gifts it to his manservant.) And then there are all the lines in Wodehouse stories referring to Christmas as an annoyance, like this one from "Jeeves and the Greasy Bird:"

"Jeeves was in the sitting-room messing about with holly, for we would soon be having Christmas at our throats and he is always a stickler for doing the right thing."

But in spite of that, I think that the Wodehouse story "Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit," from Very Good, Jeeves, is the perfect lighthearted Christmas read.

This is the story in which Bertie Wooster falls in love with Bobbie Wickham, and he cancels his holiday trip to Monte Carlo so that he can spend Christmas with her family. He defends his choice to a disappointed Jeeves:

"'In the first place, does one get the Yule-tide spirit at a spot like Monte Carlo?'
'Does one desire the Yule-tide spirit, sir?'
'Certainly one does. I am all for it.'"

One might expect this Christmas to turn into a traditional Dickensian holiday. Christmas with friends at their country house -- that's exactly like the Christmas scene in The Pickwick Papers. But Wodehouse redefines the Yule-tide spirit in this story, and it ends up not being Dickensian in the slightest. Wodehouse's Yule-tide spirit isn't the feeling of goodwill and merriment that you get in The Pickwick Papers; it's more like a high-spirited sense of mischief. Traditional Christmas activities like carol-singing and dancing recede into the background, and instead everyone in the story focuses on playing practical jokes on each other. It all culminates in the kind of Christmas morning that only Bertie Wooster would have:

"I could have sworn I hadn't so much as dozed off for even a minute, but apparently I had. For the curtains were drawn back and daylight was coming in through the window and there was Jeeves standing beside me with a cup of tea on a tray.
'Merry Christmas, sir!'
I reached out a feeble hand for the restoring brew. I swallowed a mouthful or two, and felt a little better. I was aching in every limb and the dome felt like lead, but I was now able to think with a certain amount of clearness, and I fixed the man with a stony eye and prepared to let him have it.
'You think so, do you?' I said. 'Much, let me tell you, depends on what you mean by the adjective 'merry.''"

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas in The Dark is Rising

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.

Every year around this time I find that verse jingling around in my head. I might be a little obsessed with the book that the verse comes from, Susan Cooper's 1973 book The Dark is Rising. It's the second in a series of five books, but it was the first Susan Cooper book I read when I was a child. It's my favorite in the series, and it works as a stand-alone novel too (although I can't imagine anyone not wanting to read the entire series after this one). And it's a wonderful Christmas book.

If The Blue Castle has the most romantic Christmas, The Dark is Rising has the most magical one. The story begins on midwinter's day and ends on Twelfth Night, and it features lots of the English and Celtic traditions associated with that time. There are traditions that I've practiced myself, like hanging up holly and going caroling, and there are folk rituals that I only know about from The Golden Bough, like the Hunting of the Wren. In The Dark is Rising, all of those traditions are recast as part of a literal battle between light and dark.

This book has some of the same plot points that I love in the Harry Potter books: an epic battle between good and evil, a boy who finds out on his eleventh birthday that he has special magical powers, a kindly but cryptic wizard who mentors him. But The Dark is Rising is more mysterious and sometimes scarier than the Harry Potter books. Susan Cooper can make the basic elements of winter -- snow, long nights, flocks of winter birds -- seem eerie and threatening. Behind the whole book is the idea that this time of year is dangerous; that the sun might not actually return. It makes the fires and festivities of Christmas seem all the more joyous in contrast.
(Christmas in The Dark is Rising features terrifying mobs of rooks like the ones in this picture.)

I love the Christmas Eve scene in The Dark is Rising, where the children go caroling, and the song "Good King Wenceslas" becomes a time-traveling device. And I also love Christmas Day with the family of Will Stanton, the hero of the book. He's the youngest of nine children, so he has the kind of busy and bustling holiday that you get in a big family, with all of its traditions and quarrels and merriment. This is what Christmas is like in Will's household:

"Hints and glimmerings and promises of special things, which had flashed in and out of life for weeks before, now suddenly bloomed into a constant glad expectancy. The house was full of wonderful baking smells from the kitchen, in a corner of which Gwen could be found putting the last touches to the icing of the Christmas cake. Her mother had made the cake three weeks before; the Christmas pudding, three months before that. Ageless, familiar Christmas music permeated the house whenever anyone turned on the radio ... Straight after breakfast -- an even more haphazard affair than usual -- there was the double ritual of the Yule log and the Christmas tree.
"For it was Christmas, which had always been a time of magic, to him and all the world. This was a brightness, a shining festival, and while its enchantment was in the world the charmed circle of his family and home would be protected against any invasion from outside. Indoors, the tree glowed and glittered, and the music of Christmas was in the air, and spicy smells came from the kitchen, and in the broad hearth of the living-room the great twisted Yule root flickered and flamed as it gently burned down."

(I would like to have a Yule log! If I had a fireplace.)

I can't think of Christmas without thinking of that scene. Also, every time I hear that it's going to snow, I quote The Dark is Rising to myself: "This night will be bad. And tomorrow will be beyond imagining."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Christmas in the Blue Castle

Christmas is coming, people! It's time for my most cherished holiday ritual, which, of course, is reading books. As the holiday gets closer, I'll revisit some of my favorite Christmas scenes in literature. I've already started reading Little Women out loud with my husband. I'm thinking, like Sarah from Pink of Perfection, that it might inspire my Christmas this year. (Can I convince my family to perform amateur theatricals?) But there are so many literary Christmases that I want to take part in. For the rest of the month, I'll occasionally be posting about the Christmas scenes that I love, and maybe I can manage to have a holiday that includes aspects of all of them.

(1896 illustration of Little Women by Frank T. Merrill.)

I'll start with the Christmas scene that I think is the most romantic: Valancy's Christmas from L.M. Montgomery's 1926 novel The Blue Castle. This is one of my favorite books ever, and I plan to write about it at great length later. (Spoilers follow. Well, one spoiler, anyway.)

For now I just want to say how much The Blue Castle makes me want to spend Christmas on a lake in Ontario. Maybe in Bala, the town in Muskoka that is supposed to be the inspiration for The Blue Castle. (They have an L.M. Montgomery museum! Let's all go.) But I doubt that any real place could be as solitary and beautiful as the cabin on (fictional) Lake Mistawis where Valancy and Barney live, the little house that is so perfect that Valancy names it after the place she always dreamed she would live, her imaginary "Blue Castle." This is what it's like on Lake Mistawis in winter:

"Days of clear brilliance. Evenings that were like cups of glamour -- the purest vintage of winter's wine. Nights with their fire of stars. Cold, exquisite winter sunrises. Lovely ferns of ice all over the windows of the Blue Castle. Moonlight on birches in a silver thaw. Ragged shadows on windy evenings -- torn, twisted, fantastic shadows. Great silences, austere and searching. Jewelled, barbaric hills. The sun suddenly breaking through grey clouds over long, white Mistawis. Icy-grey twilights, broken by snow-squalls, when their cozy living-room, with its goblins of firelight and inscrutable cats, seemed cosier than ever. Every hour brought a new revelation and wonder."

(This is a frozen lake in Japan, not Canada, but I found it on this wonderful Blue Castle-themed board on Pinterest.)

Okay, yes, I live in Florida, and I wear a sweater when the temperature gets below 70 F (21 C). But I'm pretty sure that if I were ever surrounded by such wintry loveliness, I would be exactly like Valancy: snowshoeing through the woods and skating on the frozen lake, too happy to catch a cold.

Valancy's life with Barney out on Lake Mistawis is her escape from the rest of the world, especially from her terrible family. But even if you don't need to escape from anything, there is something to be said for spending a holiday the way Valancy does: alone in a cabin with the person you love (and a couple of cats). Barney and Valancy celebrate Christmas with a dinner of roast goose, which they share with their cats, and a bottle of dandelion wine, which I hope they finish themselves. It sounds so relaxing:

"They had a lovely Christmas. No rush. No scramble. No niggling attempts to make ends meet. No wild effort to remember whether she hadn't given the same kind of present to the same person two Christmases before -- no mob of last-minute shoppers -- no dreary family 'reunions' where she sat mute and unimportant -- no attacks of 'nerves.' They decorated the Blue Castle with pine boughs, and Valancy made delightful little tinsel stars and hung them up amid the greenery."

(Christmas at my parents' house, where it does snow occasionally.)

The Blue Castle Christmas isn't exactly my ideal holiday, as I would like to see my family, and also maybe have indoor heating. But it's close.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Magician's Nephew and its Delights

I haven't been writing a lot lately because it's the end of the semester, which is a time of frantic grading for me. But somehow I have still managed to get in a lot of reading. This week I came across an essay that a student wrote on C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew, and I realized that I couldn't remember the plot of that book at all; it had been such a long time since I'd read it. Obviously it was my duty to stop grading and reread The Magician's Nephew immediately. It's work-related, right? That doesn't count as procrastination.

 (This is the first edition, published in 1955.)

Rereading the Narnia books as an adult hasn't always been successful for me. The Horse and his Boy, for example, turned out to be way more offensive than I remembered, and it was so disappointing. And I get tired of all of the villainous vegetarians, educational reformers, and independent women. All of the characters who would be sympathetic ones in an E. Nesbit novel are the bad guys in the Narnia books. So I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Magician's Nephew.

Maybe it's because The Magician's Nephew is the most E. Nesbit-like of all of the Narnia books. There is a reference to The Story of the Treasure Seekers in the first paragraph, and Polly and Digory, the main characters of The Magician's Nephew, are really similar to the Bastables children. (Except that they are much less hilarious.) When Polly and Digory plan to explore an abandoned house or make a smuggler's cave with packing-cases and ginger-beer bottles, it's straight out of the Bastables' playbook. They even sound like the Bastables when they talk, especially in the beginning when they are speculating about Digory's mysterious uncle:

"'Well, either he's mad,' said Digory, 'or there's some other mystery. He has a study on the top floor and Aunt Letty says I must never go up there. Well, that looks fishy to begin with.'
'Perhaps he keeps a mad wife shut up there.'
'Yes, I've thought of that.'
'Or perhaps he's a coiner.'
'Or he might have been a pirate, like the man at the beginning of Treasure Island, and be always hiding from his old shipmates.'
'How exciting!' said Polly. 'I never knew your house was so interesting.'"

(Illustration by Pauline Baynes from the 1955 edition.)

So much of The Magician's Nephew reminds me of the E. Nesbit book The Story of the Amulet. Both books are about objects that allow their bearers to travel magically: Polly and Digory have magic rings that take them to different worlds, and the children in The Story of the Amulet have a magic necklace that lets them travel back in time. Both books have imperious ancient queens who appear in present-day London, scholarly gentlemen who are interested in Atlantis, and mystical scenes that take place at the beginning of the universe. But it's fascinating to see C.S. Lewis's different take on these ideas. E. Nesbit's ancient queen is mildly annoying, her mystical scene is based on Egyptian mythology, and her Atlantean scholar is a kindly old man with a passion for learning. C.S. Lewis has a truly wicked queen, a mystical scene that is based on Genesis, and an Atlantean scholar -- Digory's uncle, and the magician of the title -- who is pure evil.

(H.R. Millar's illustration of the Queen of Babylon causing chaos at the British Museum, from The Story of the Amulet.)

(Pauline Baynes' illustration of the Queen of Charn causing chaos on the streets of London, from The Magician's Nephew.)

The Magician's Nephew has delights of its own, though, that are not found in any E. Nesbit book. I love the Wood Between the Worlds, a peaceful, drowsy woodland dotted with ponds that serve as portals between dimensions. (I also loved how these portals showed up in Lev Grossman's The Magicians and The Magician King, which are must-reads for any Narnia fans.) One of the ponds leads to Narnia, of course, but it's Narnia in its earliest days. That was one of the things I had forgotten about The Magician's Nephew: that it's the story of the creation of Narnia. It explains the origin of the witch, the wardrobe, the talking animals, even the lamp post. It's fun to see all of these things popping into existence.

(Aslan in the process of creating Narnia's animals.)

The Magician's Nephew is the best Narnia book that I've reread so far. I might try rereading The Silver Chair next. Although I just looked at it, and it starts out complaining about "co-educational" schools where the teachers don't beat the students, so ... maybe I should just reread another E. Nesbit book.

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.