Posts tagged ‘20th century’

05/12/2010

It isn’t really cheating…

Again with the high numbers, Reading Gods??

You know…given the beautifully Gaussian distribution of The List, it is rather remarkable how much trouble I’m having not merely landing anywhere near its median publication date, but even in the same century!

While this apparent determination of the Reading Gods to keep me reading outside the declared timeframe of this blog is somewhat exasperating (I know – it’s my own fault for moving the goalposts), I have to say that this zig-zagging between Restoration politics and the lighter literature of the early 20th century is starting to do some rather interesting things to my brain.

But to return to the point— If it is a case of again with the high numbers, it is also a case of again with a refusal on the part of Yours Truly to read what the Reading Gods were trying to make me read – although I think for a good reason. This trip to the random number generator sent me to Ethel Hueston’s 1924 novel, Prudence’s Daughter. However, a little searching and investigation, and it soon became evident that there was a series of “Prudence” novels, and that the one I’d hit was the last of them. That seemed a little self-defeating, so I decided to read instead the first of them, Prudence Of The Parsonage, which was published in 1915. This turned out to be Hueston’s first novel, which suited my “in order” sensibilities very well. It also meant that I could borrow a copy from my academic library, instead of having to buy one – yay!

In her day, Ethel Hueston was both a prolific and a popular novelist. She was born in Iowa, the daughter of a Methodist minister, Charles Wesley Powelson, and a number of her novels, including the “Prudence” series, have strong autobiographical elements. She was a graduate of Iowa Wesleyan College, and was married three times. She began writing during her first marriage, and always retained the professional name of Hueston. From 1915 into the 1950s, she published more than 50 novels in a variety of genres, although her more personal ones seem also to have been the most popular. Searching for this information, it became evident that many people have fond memories of Ethel Hueston’s novels, particularly those individuals who read them in their childhood or teenage years.

We shall see.

In other news, this week my arch-enemy, Whoever-It-Was, finally returned the third volume of Mary Meeke’s Count St. Blancard. Take THAT, Reading Gods!!

04/12/2010

The Mysterious Partner

Marjoribanks’s head rose over the sill, and there it stopped. By chance he had put the ladder against Danford’s bedroom. Looking in, he saw a big, pleasant room, a bed not far from the window, and on the bed, lying with its face turned towards him, its terrible face turned towards him…

Since the time of the Viking invasions, the Farthing estate has been in the possession of the Rivers and Danford families, which have run in parallel over the centuries, interconnected by various marriages. The current owner, Edgar Danford, purchased Farthing from its previous owner, Colonel Rivers, after Rivers fell into serious financial difficulties; subsequently, he committed suicide. The other occupants of Farthing are Edgar’s somewhat younger second wife, Ivory; his composer brother, Harold; and Pippa Hood, his step-daughter from his first marriage. Also living in a cottage on the grounds is Beaufoy Rivers, the son of Colonel Rivers, who acts as land agent for the estate. Famous for its paintings and its collection of relics, Farthing is everything an ancient estate should be. It even has a family curse.

Learning by chance that a man on the train with her is Chief-Inspector Pointer of Scotland Yard, Ivory Danford impulsively consults him about a strange situation in her home. Legend dictates that if the wild laugh of an ancestor, who was burned at the stake as a heretic, is heard three times, it heralds a violent death for the property’s owner – and the laugh has now been heard twice, by independent witnesses. Pointer is intrigued but declines to get involved, contending that it is not really a matter for the police. He gives Mrs Danford the name of a private investigator, Stephen Marjoribanks, who like Pointer finds the story interesting, but hardly takes it seriously. Marjoribanks fobs off his potential client with the excuse of another case, but with that case wrapping up more quickly than expected and his conscience troubling him just a little, he decides to call upon Ivory Danford and look into the business – and is thus on the spot when, after the third laugh has been heard, Edgar Danford is found dead, murdered, in an old converted stone tower that has been locked and sealed from the inside, with no second person present…

From its unexpected opening, with the suggestion of a supernatural force intruding into a very matter-of-fact depiction of family life, albeit amongst the wealthy, A. Fielding’s 1929 publication The Mysterious Partner manages, in an unhurried and somehow ineffably British manner, to spiral outwards so as to encompass not just an ancient curse, but murder, industrial espionage, fraud, embezzlement, impersonation, a fire, a plane crash, a missing will, a possible adulterous affair, secret underground chambers, a number of disappearances, and a variation on the locked-room mystery.

Over time, the novel’s title grows increasingly ambiguous: there are at least four people to whom it could apply; Mark Ormsby, for instance, who has just bought into Edgar Danford’s business, and for whom Pippa Hood has just rejected the attractive but rather unstable Beaufoy Rivers. Mark was always “terribly fond” of Pippa, of course – but somehow he never got around to proposing until he caught an accidental glimpse of Danford’s will, and learned of his intention to leave Farthing to Pippa and her husband. Then there’s Rivers himself, financially backed by Danford in some top-secret aviation research, which a great many people would like to get their hands on.

And even Rivers has a partner of sorts in the shape of Henry Jackson-Gupp, engaged in the same line of research as he and with seemingly impeccable credentials – and a tendency to appear and disappear at the oddest times. The most overtly “mysterious” of the various partners, however, is Digby Cox, a silent partner in Danford’s business who has apparently been drawing money from it under false pretences; who everybody recognises, thanks to his red hair and beard and glasses, but who nobody seems to actually know; who reports Danford’s murder to the police and then vanishes without trace, although there seems no way that he could have left Farthing without being seen…

And what are we to make of the behaviour of Ivory Danford, who in the wake of the third supernatural laugh leaves not merely Farthing, but England, sending back a letter boasting of a love affair that could never have happened? Or that of Beaufoy Rivers, who claims that he heard the three laughs before his own father’s suicide, and who is seen doffing his hat to the portrait of Sir Amyas Rivers, who gave up his wife to be burned alive rather than lose his estate – a ritual that tradition dictates is carried out by the owner of Farthing…?

Although a mystery and a detective story, The Mysterious Partner is not really a “whodunit”. Throughout, the police are privy to information that the reader is not, and so while it is possible to form a theory about the identity of the killer or killers, a full explanation is necessarily beyond the reader’s capabilities. That said, Fielding does do an extremely good job of distracting the attention from the plot details that really matter, so unless you’re paying minute attention, by the end you may not even have a proper theory, let alone the rest. The building complication of the story – ultimately there are at least three different mysteries developing in parallel, and occasionally overlapping – gives the novel a kind of Chinese puzzle-box structure, where the challenge is to divide plot-thread from plot-thread, and to place the characters correctly.

The Mysterious Partner is also the kind of mystery that depends very much upon its geography for its solution: Fielding spends quite some time upon the descriptions of Farthing, and the relative placements of its different sections and rooms. This made it rather hard going for me, as I tend to struggle with that kind of thing. This is not, I emphasise, at all a criticism of the novel itself – although it may serve as a warning for anyone who is, like myself, at all spatially challenged.

It was, I gather, A. Fielding’s way to support the professional against the amateur – somewhat against the British tradition. There are some nice passages in the book that speak admiringly of the advanced technology available to the police force, particularly by way of transport. A desperate chase finds Pointer behind the wheel of, “The Yard’s fastest car…a British Mercedes Benz, 36-220 h.p., a Grand Prix sports supercharger model, as yet invincible on the road…” Earlier, Pointer flies cross-country from the site of the mail robbery he’s been investigating to Farthing: “By train it would have taken half a day, by car a good two hours to get across country to Norbury, but Pointer’s Blue Bird flew it in under thirty minutes.” The point is made that Pointer – representing the police – is the very model of the modern Man Of Action. (And as it turns out, he once represented England at soccer—sorry, football.) But Pointer is also a thinker, and a man with a great belief in the scientific expertise of the Yard’s forensic investigators. The elucidation of the crime – or rather, the elucidation of the role played by a particular individual in the events surrounding the crime – rests upon footprint identification and soil analysis.

Beside Pointer, the amateur detective so beloved of English novelists doesn’t stand much of a chance. Here, the character of Stephen Marjoribanks functions primarily as a foil for the Chief-Inspector, the latter cool, logical and reasoning, the former tending to follow his instincts. Which is not so say that Marjoribanks is always wrong; he’s just not right as often as Pointer, and we become wary of relying upon his deductions. And speaking of instincts, the following passage is perhaps the only moment in the novel when you might guess the sex of its author:

      “Woman’s intuition is a wonderful thing!” agreed Boodle.
      “Any intuition is a wonderful thing!” corrected Marjoribanks.

18/11/2010

Not “the” Fielding, just “A.” Fielding

At first, when I landed on such a high number, the highest yet, for this round of Reading Roulette, I figured that the Reading Gods were still ticked off with me for not immediately taking advantage of their offer of a low number, in the form of Mary Meeke’s The Mysterious Wife. Then I realised that it was simply a matter of them paying attention to the discussion of Philip And Philippa, and deciding that nothing in the world could be more appropriate than to land me on a novel written by a gender-neutral author, who was once believed to be a man, but who was subsequently discovered to be a woman.

From the 1920s into the 1940s, some twenty-five detective novels were published under the name of “A. Fielding”, or in America, “A.E. Fielding”. At one point, the author was declared to be a man named Archibald Fielding, although I’ve no idea where that notion came from. (You can still find listings of “A. Fielding”‘s books under that name.) Eventually, Fielding’s publishers, Collins, revealed that the author was one Dorothy Feilding (note the spelling), but then completely muddied the waters by supplying a series of biographical details that turned out to be wrong. For a time there was some support for the theory that A. Fielding was really Lady Dorothy Feilding. However, not only was this denied by her family (“Feilding” is the family name of the Earls of Denbigh), but apparently the dates don’t add up. It seems now to have been accepted that whatever else Collins were wrong about, they were right about their author’s true identity. As the story goes, wishing to write under a pseudonym, Dorothy Feilding realised that nothing could be simpler or more effective than just switching the letters in her surname and hiding amongst all those with the much more common spelling – hence, “A. Fielding”.

The book I landed upon is from the middle of Fielding/Feilding’s career, 1929’s The Mysterious Partner. (It seems, in any event, that the Reading Gods were determined to make me read something “mysterious”.) Given that this novel is – gasp! – less than 100 years old, I had some hopes that I might be able to just borrow it…but the only library copy I’ve been able to find is in the Rare Book section of my academic library. Sigh. However, I’ve since located a secondhand copy of it – thank you, Grant’s Bookshop of Armadale, Victoria.

In other news, that annoying person will not return the third volume of Count St. Blancard – grr!

17/11/2010

The Eternal Woman

On whom a flawless, well-grown specimen of the divine ‘rose of womanhood’ has been bestowed has been granted the greatest gift on earth, and although Clara did not know it, she was one of the fortunate ones.
— Dorothea Gerard (1903)

In spite of the involuntary, and rather violent, exclamation of, Blecchh!! that escaped me upon reading the above and similar passages in Dorothea Gerard’s The Eternal Woman, I did try to give this novel a fair shake; although it was evident from its earliest chapters that it and I were operating from, to put it mildly, opposing philosophies. Written and set at the turn of the last century, The Eternal Woman is a determined attempt to turn the tide of female emancipation, chiefly by convincing young women that not only is marriage their true destiny, but a realm of female power and control.

Orphaned at an early age, Clara Wood, an English girl, is taken in on an impulse by the Viennese widow Baroness Sieffert. Shallow and self-absorbed, the Baroness loses interest in Clara as she grows older, although she always means to provide for her. However, when she dies suddenly, it is discovered that the Baroness has not made a will, and at the age of twenty Clara finds herself alone in the world and almost destitute. Turning for advice to the feminist magazine editor Fraulein Pohl, Clara is offered the chance to attend university, but decides that what she wants is marriage and a home, and as soon as an opportunity presents itself.  Becoming a governess, Clara passes three years moving from position to position without finding what she seeks, before manoeuvring herself into the household of Philip Aikman in the position of companion-nurse to his senile mother. Aikman is single, lives in near solitude in a small coastal village in Scotland, and is heir to his uncle’s substantial fortune. He is, in other words, exactly what Clara has been looking for, and she sets to work at the task of becoming Mrs Aikman, and with success – provided that her conscience doesn’t intervene…

It is clear in The Eternal Woman that Dorothea Gerard did not like the changes that were happening in her world, and that she set herself to counteract what she regarded as feminist propaganda with some propaganda of her own. She starts by showing her readers the face of the enemy, in the rather paper-tigery form of Fraulein Pohl; at which point we discover that some stereotypes have very deep roots. The Fraulein is, to no-one’s surprise, “masculine”; she is “stout”, with “a pug-dog nose”; she wears glasses, and not only has a slight moustache, she actively cultivates it. Amongst a myriad of foolish notions, the Fraulein dreams of a world where women will be free to have short hair and wear pants – quelle horreur!

Informed of Clara’s situation, the Fraulein, with hopes of winning Clara to “her side”, offers her the chance to attend university on a scholarship. This is really where The Eternal Woman disappointed me. It was fairly obvious that Clara would ultimately choose to “be a woman” rather than “have a career” (naturally, you can’t do both), but I did hope that this novel would first offer a look at what higher education was like for young women at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, however, Clara decides to reject the Fraulein’s offer – and you’ll never believe what makes up her mind for her.

As Clara ponders the Fraulein’s words and contemplates her destiny, we are given the passage from which this novel takes its title:

And yet, for all the plausible arguments used, for all the grain of truth which undoubtedly lay buried under the mountains of the editress’s rhetoric, there was something in it all which failed to satisfy some part of her inner self, and she was far too inexperienced to know that this part was nothing less than the eternal woman within her, who is neither ‘New’ nor ‘Old’, since she belongs to yesterday as well as to to-morrow…

Still undecided, Clara tries to read herself to sleep. Instead, she stumbles across the personal philosophy which will in future shape her actions:

And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them, if they do. Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once; old or ugly, it is all the same. And this I set down as a positive truth: A woman with fair opportunities and without an absolute hump may marry whom she likes. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.

Incredibly, Dorothea Gerard seems to have taken this passage at face value; Clara certainly does. Personally, I’ve always read it as a typical Victorian example of a comprehensive insult being offered in the guise of a compliment. I must be as stupid as Thackery thinks.

(I may also say that I find it highly significant that we are never made privy to Clara’s opinion of Amelia Sedley, that dear little clinging parasite.)

Anyway, Clara is inspired by this passage with a belief in “the power of her womanhood”, and decides to set about about life as a moral Becky Sharp, if you please: that is, she will conquer the world with her wits and womanhood alone, adapting herself to circumstances and making herself useful, thus creating opportunities, while staying within the bounds of conscience; and as soon as she finds “a decently marriageable man”, she will make him her slave.

And it works. As she goes from position to position, demonstrating how “clever” and “resourceful” she is, Clara finds every available man at her feet, and has to keep moving on because they’re not what she wants, one way or another. Three years on, however, Clara is beginning to get a little desperate; desperate enough to resort to some tactics that are a little too Becky-like for comfort in order to manoeuvre herself into a position in the household of the extremely eligible Philip Aikman.

The world that Dorothea Gerard creates in The Eternal Woman is one I find creepy and depressing. Gerard is so intent on turning young women away from work and self-sufficiency and into marriage with her vision of feminine dominance that – although I rather doubt this was her intention – I ended up feeling profoundly sorry for the male of the species. I wouldn’t wish Clara Wood on anyone.

Gerard seems to have no real notion of a companionate marriage. Her thesis is that any woman who understands her own “womanliness” can get any man she wants to marry her; and that having done so, she will control the situation from there on in. The only unhappy marriages in Gerard’s world are those where the wives do not grasp the true power of their womanhood, or where the wife wields her power in an insufficiently feminine way. Men, confronted by this dread force, are mere playthings, putty in their wives’ hands, who will work and slave and fall over themselves to provide these “queenly” creatures with everything they desire, asking nothing in return but the opportunity to worship at their feet. There’s an underlying implication in this novel that what women really want out of marriage is a roof over their head and children and, that being the case, it doesn’t much matter who they marry. And in fact, husbands are rather like children – just a little stupider, and easier to manage.

And if the promise of power is Gerard’s carrot, she provides a stick also, in her inferences about women who do want a career, or at least don’t particularly want marriage. Here she resorts to a form of language that became increasingly common in conservative novels throughout the second half of the 19th century, as the rumblings of female discontent grew louder, and as new opportunities began to open up. It was no longer sufficient to say, It simply isn’t done! – since, obviously, it was being done, and more often all the time. The implication then became that ambitions apart from marriage and motherhood were nothing less than a form of sickness. Anthony Trollope, that most Victorian of novelists, so generous in some respects, yet narrow to the point of being cruel on this particular subject, was very fond of telling his readers how healthy his marriage-minded young women were – and how unhealthy any woman who made the slightest effort to jump the extremely narrow tracks laid down for her life. Dorothea Gerard uses the same tactic: Whenever she had thought of the future she had thought of matrimony almost as a matter of course (as every healthy-minded young woman does, however furiously she may deny it). And backing this position up is the eternal threat: sure, you can have an education and a career if you want one; but if you do, no man will ever really love you.

It is true that Clara’s feelings finally prevent her from going through with her plan to manipulate Philip Aikman into marriage – but just the same, her tactics work on him as they have on every other man; the novel never really recants its central thesis. Rather, it finally argues that a love-marriage is best, if you can manage one; but failing that, any marriage will do; while beyond that lies a drab and difficult life as a governess, a teacher or a nurse; and beyond that

Actually, there’s nothing beyond that. No, no! – don’t look over there at the figure beckoning to you from the doorway to the university! Move along now – there’s nothing to see here.

Dismayed as I was by most of The Eternal Woman, there was one thing about it that I liked very much. Philip Aikman lives in a small Scottish fishing village called Rathbeggie, and his house is situated on a very cliff edge. We are given quite a number of word-pictures of Clara’s surroundings during the various extremes of local weather: the violent breaking of the waves, the power of the wind, the seaweed tossed upon the beach, the rock-pools and their scuttling crabs, the smell of salt in the air… In her physical descriptions of Rathbeggie, Dorothea Gerard’s writing contains a passion and a sincerity that are quite absent from her ruminations upon the relations between the sexes, and these passages are easily the best and most enjoyable part of this novel.

06/11/2010

Philip And Philippa: A Genealogical Romance Of To-Day

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I embarked upon this “genealogical romance”. Well – in a way I do: to be honest, something a bit creepily eugenic. But Philip And Philippa (1901) never wanders into that territory, thankfully, despite its unabashed belief in “family” and various references to “our race”. The emphasis turns out to be not upon “genealogical”, but upon “romance”.

This sole, self-published novel by John Osborne Austin tells the story of Philip Faulconer, a young American who is the last representative of his branch of the Faulconers. When his father, also Philip Faulconer, realises that his own death is imminent, he tells his son their history. Of an old English family, the Faulconers divided in 1645 when the younger of twin brothers, Richard Faulconer, emigrated to America.

(I may say that I was rather put off this novel at the outset by the discovery that the title in the Faulconer family was a knighthood – which Austin evidently believed to be hereditary. I suppose he meant “baronet”, or even “knight baronet”. Confusion of this nature is common enough in American writing, but it seems an odd mistake for a genealogist to make.)

Since that time, the two branches of the apparently not very fecund Faulconers had run in parallel, with the last of the male English Faulconers, one of many Sir Philips, dying some nine years before the opening of the story, in the same year as American Mr Philip’s wife. The only remaining member of the English branch, a five-year-old girl named (surprise!) Philippa, had subsequently been taken to New Zealand by her mother’s aunt.

Learning that around the time of the last Sir Philip’s death, Faulconridge, the ancestral home of the Faulconers, had burned down, destroying most of the family heirlooms and leaving Philippa with very little, Mr Philip Sr travelled to England, where he bought the lodge attached to the estate, refurbished it, and installed a housekeeper to look after it, intending it as a refuge for Philippa. However, knowing that he will not have time to find the girl himself, Philip Sr bequeaths this quest to Philip Jr, begging him to seek out his distant cousin, now aged seventeen, and convey her “home” to England.

(Ever noticed how characters in sentimental novels are always independently wealthy? Nothing inteferes with the pursuit of a romantic ideal quite so much as the need to earn an income, I guess.)

After his father’s death, Philip – the last Philip, thankfully – travels first to England, visiting the lodge and meeting its caretaker, Elizabeth Brown, and touring the ruins of Faulconridge, where he is inspired by his family’s history. Courtesy of Mrs Brown, he learns of a thwarted romance between two of his ancestors, Richard Faulconer’s great-grandson, Godfrey, and the third Sir Philip’s daughter, Philippa, who died before the marriage could take place. Also courtesy of Mrs Brown, who becomes convinced that the young Philippa must be the image of her grandmother, the seventh Lady Faulconer, whose portrait is one of the very few to survive the fire, Philip conceives a romantic infatuation for his as-yet unseen relative. He sets out for New Zealand, intending both to fulfil his father’s last wish and to unite the two distant branches of the family.

Arriving in Auckland, Philip learns that Philippa’s great-aunt has died, and gains only the vaguest clue to her present whereabouts. Swearing to find her no matter what it takes, he walks through a local park, where the very first person he runs into is his cousin – who he recognises instantly because she just happens to be a dead ringer for her grandmother.

I guess this is how things work in the world of the  “genealogical romance”.

Persuading Philippa to accept his father’s legacy, Philip escorts her to England. His feelings for his cousin move rapidly from infatuation to love, but since he is essentially in the position of her guardian, he decides that he must not declare himself until she is securely within her own home. The bulk of the remaining story consists of Philip’s inability to read Philippa’s feelings, his efforts to control himself in a string of tempting situations, and the possible dangers of staying silent. The latter manifests itself in the form of two potential interlopers: Ethel Mayberry, Philip’s childhood sweetheart, who may have a view to being something more; and Jack Spaulding, a young stockbroker from London who is instantly smitten with Philippa.

Will the Faulconer family history repeat itself? Will Philip’s feelings for Philippa turn out to be only infatuation after all? Will the advantages of outbreeding win out over a genealogical attraction? Will a member of the Faulconer family prove capable of loving someone whose name doesn’t contain a variant of “Philip”? Well, you’ll just have to read Philip And Philippa and find out, won’t you? – but since I apparently own the only second-hand copy still in existence, good luck with that one. (Hey, happy to lend…)

I guess the really interesting thing about Philip And Philippa is that it begs the question – when did it stop being okay for a man to write like this? John Osborne Austin makes no pretence whatsoever of his novel being anything other than a love story. The only thing that at all separates it from its fellows is that it is told from the point of view of the man. It is deeply sentimental in both content and tone, and not ashamed of being so. On the contrary: the preface reads, in part, The same old story of love’s young dream? Yes, prescient reader, the world never tires of it; and have you found anything better to dream of or work for? In addition, Philip stops from time to time to lecture us on the same theme, speaking pityingly to those who act or think slightingly of love: This is not a book of travel. but of love experiences; a theme large enough for most, if too restricted for a few. Unhappy few!

I don’t know about you, but I find myself glad that the obviously mushily romantic Mr Austin didn’t live to see a world where stories like his would end up branded with that most oppobrious of literary putdowns, chick-lit.

24/10/2010

Second time unlucky

It seems that my landing upon Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events for my first round of Reading Roulette was something in the nature of letting a rookie gambler win a few early hands, a lure to sucker me in so that I could get taken to the cleaners later on. In other words – the second time around, the reading gods have been a little less kind.

I was worried immediately after my recourse to the random number generator. I hit a high number, which meant I was straying from my comfort zone. The book in question I had never heard of: Eve’s Daughters by Arthur G. Learned, from 1905. When I began to hunt for a copy, I learned that it had a subtitle: compiled by a mere man. Hmm, I thought, that doesn’t sound promising. My next discovery was that the book was, A collection of aphorisms about women. No, thank you. In any event, it wasn’t a novel, and that gave me and my OCD an out:

And then it was back to the random number generator, and…another high number. Not really the time period I wanted, but I can hardly object on the grounds of insufficient obscurity:

Philip And Philippa: A Genealogical Romance Of Today (1901) – John Osborne Austin.

Austin was, as his subtitle suggests, a genealogist, one best known for his studies The Genealogical Dictionary Of Rhode Island and One Hundred And Sixty Allied Families. At first I had some faint hope that “A Genealogical Romance Of Today” was simply his facetious way of describing another family history, but no – Austin did just once turn his hand to novel writing, publishing this single work privately through the Rhode Island Press. This helps to account for the book’s comparative rarity: what seems to be the only secondhand copy still in existence is currently winging its way to me from Poultney, VT.

This is turning out to be an expensive hobby. Thank heavens the dollar reached parity.

30/09/2010

Reading Roulette; or, Varying The Diet

Okay – here’s how this is going to work. (“Work”, she said, optimistically.)

While I intend to keep on with my ordered journey through the early years of the (mostly English) novel, it seems to me that doing that and nothing else might make it all a bit of a chore rather than a pleasure, both for myself and for anyone stopping by. In addition, there are literally thousands of other things I want to read – so many that simply choosing a book is almost impossible. (Am I the only one who finds a long wish-list paralysing? As some wise men once said, Freedom from choice is what we want.)

So, while I continue with my chronological stroll, I intend to break things up by randomly choosing a novel from my reading list, with the cut-offs set at 1751 – 1930. (I originally had the cut-off at 1900, but there are a whole bunch of Viragos and Persephones that I’ve never read from between 1900 and 1930, so I moved the goalposts.) Not everything I hit on this way will be immediately available, of course: some books may need to be purchased, some may need an eReader; some might be simply impossible to get. Conversely, if I hit upon an author in whom I have an interest, I might choose to read an earlier/earliest work instead. As you’ve probably already gathered, I like doing things in order.

Hopefully in this way, I will have the chance both to finally tackle those authors who have eluded me up until now, and to stumble over some obscure but interesting works that deserve to be better known.

On the other hand— Well, if you’re going to play a game like this, I guess there’s always the chance that there’ll be a bullet in the chamber.

10/08/2010

A watched interlibrary loan never arrives

I suppose it’s my own fault for being naive. I meant to launch this blog with a review of the book officially first in my new reading list; which is to say, after sliding inexorably backwards in literary history since first conceiving this project, I finally managed to make myself draw a line in the sand at one particular work. Unfortunately, the work in question required an interlibrary. Oh, well, I thought, I’ll place it and fill in the time with some non-fiction; how long could it take, anyway?

Well, I’ll say this: it’s not *the* slowest interlibrary loan in history; I suffered that earlier in the year, working on a different project (three and a half months to get from one side of the city to the other); but it’s starting to push for the title… So here I sit, twiddling my thumbs while my blog template shakes its head sadly and gives me reproachful glances.

So— More non-fiction!

I don’t mean to say much about Ros Ballaster’s Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction From 1684 To 1740, because I will likely be dealing with its main subject matter – the fiction of Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley and Eliza Haywood – in context at a later date. I will say, though, that in its willingness to take the writing of these well-meaning ladies on its own terms and examination the political and social context of its creation, it provided a welcome counterbalance to the dismissive attitude of John Richetti’s Popular Fiction Before Richardson. Ballaster traces the various influences that shaped Aphra Behn’s fiction in particular, before showing how she in turn influenced other writers including Manley and Haywood. From the point of view of my own limited knowledge, perhaps the most interesting, if rather depressing, aspect of the book was the discovery that the most purely amatory writing of the three, that of Eliza Haywood, is ultimately also the most joyless, painting love and passion as inevitably destructive for the female sex. Ballaster also goes on to show how, under the increasing and ever-more restrictive demands of respectability, these three vital female writers were, over time, ruthlessly pruned out of the publicly acknowledged version of the novel’s family tree.

I was a little out of my depth with Life In The Georgian City, by art and architecture historian and BBC documentarian / presenter Dan Cruickshank and his collaborator, Neil Burton. Much of the hardcore architectural detail passed me by, I’m afraid; but on the other hand, the sections of the book dealing with daily life for the inhabitants of London during the 18th century were fascinating. Despite its broad title, the book does focus almost exclusively upon life in London purely, as Cruickshank admits, because of the comparative wealth of information that can be drawn upon. This study examines practicalities like house design and decoration and room arrangements; the evolution of house fittings such as lights, ovens, water and fuel sources, and (oh, admit it, you really do want to know!) sanitary arrangements; at how people of all sorts occupied houses of all sorts, and went about their daily lives; and at the rise of the garden. The book concludes with various case studies of specific elements of Georgian-built houses still standing in London (one of which, I gather, is Dan Cruickshank’s own). The text is well-supported by numerous photographs and reproductions of sketches and paintings.

More Dan Cruickshank. The Royal Hospital Chelsea: The Place And The People is an account of the famous military pension-house established by Charles II (at the prompting of Nell Gwynne, or so legend has it) partly as a refuge for those injured or disabled through militaty service, and partly as a barracks to serve as a standing warning to various disgruntled factions. The book is a deft sketch of the Hospital’s chequered history of threatened closures, political manoeuvring and financial chicanery, and a celebration of its survival into the 21st century. Cruickshank’s account has something for almost every interest, as it glances at the royal, architectural, military and political influences that shaped the Hospital – including the outright corruption of many given the task of running it. (Fun [?] fact: the famous Ranelagh pleasure gardens were built illegally on profits siphoned off from the Hospital.) The book is almost overflowing with sketches, paintings and photographs. An engaging read.

Currently reading: Factual Fictions: The Origins Of The English Novel by Lennard J. Davis. (Or to put it another way, no, my interlibrary loan still hasn’t arrived. Sigh…)