Archive for January, 2014

a girl of the limberlost gene stratton-porter 001A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter ~ 1909. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, circa 1927. Hardcover. 453 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Spinning my book-discussing wheels somewhat, trying to think of what to say.

An unusual book; definitely memorable for its strong imagery of beautiful Elnora, her white-haired, haunted mother, and the moths that flit in and out of every scene, until popped into the cyanide-filled killing bottle.

You see what I mean? This one made me downright squeamish here and there.

So here we are back in the Limberlost Swamp in Indiana, some years after our previously met fine fellow, Lord Terence something-or-other O’More, a.k.a. Freckles, has quit his timber patrols, married his Swamp Angel, and taken on his aristocratic hereditary mantle. The locals whisper his name with awe, and his benevolent shadow is present throughout the book, along with a more substantial appearance at the end of the tale. But in the meantime, the timber companies have harvested many of the trees, and oil has been discovered in the swamplands, so many of the smallholders on the fringes of the Limberlost are doing very well indeed.

One farm, however, remains untouched. The Widow Comstock’s trees are still standing; no oil pump brings black gold to the surface. Stern Mrs Comstock ekes out a subsistence living by farming, living off the land, and selling butter and eggs to the townfolk. She refuses to let a tree be fallen or an oil well drilled, as she holds the land as a sacred trust in memory of her dearly departed husband, whose acres these were.

Oh, yes. The husband. He perished most unpleasantly by falling into the quicksand swamp just out back of the family home. Mrs Comstock ran to the rescue, but she couldn’t save him because she went into labour right there on the edge of the swamp, and her baby was born as its father glubbed his last. And, get this, because the swamp is “bottomless”, the body is still down there, sixteen years later. No wonder Mrs Comstock’s hair went prematurely white, and she’s more than a little eccentric.

That baby, our heroine Elnora, has grown to sweet-sixteen-hood being deeply resented by her mother, with the only openly expressed love in her life coming from a child-less couple one farm over. (These folks had two daughters, but these perished early on; their parental love is therefore spent on deserving Elnora.)

Okay, this is turning into a saga already, and that’s just the barest setup. Let’s see if I can condense.

Elnora is desperate to continue her education past the country school and go onto high school in town. Off she goes in her clunky shoes and calico dress, only to be immediately and openly scorned by the other teenagers, and shocked to discover that she will need to pay tuition and buy books. Luckily a way opens for her. The kindly neighbours buy her clothes (which she insists on paying them back for out of stern pride) and she discovers that she can earn money by collecting Indian artifacts and nature specimens – arrowheads, rocks, leaves and insects – which she sells through the local naturalist, the Bird Lady. (See Freckles.)

Garbed in her new duds and with her gorgeous red-gold hair fashionably arranged, Elnora instantly becomes the belle of the school, winning over the entire student body. She is also naturally intelligent, and she excels at her studies, graduating at the top of her class. Attracted by some mysterious pull to try her hand at playing a violin left in an unoccupied classroom, Elnora is a virtuoso at first touch of the bow. (Must be heredity, because her dead dad was a dab hand at the violin, too, which is why her mother refuses to countenance an instrument in the house.)

Benda's illustration of Elnora and Phillip girl of the limberlost gene stratton-porter

Lovely Elnora and her wealthy lover, Phillip, dallying amongst the wildflowers. Illustration from the first edition “A Girl of the Limberlost.”

She befriends a trio of pathetic orphans, one of which is adopted by the neighbour couple, and in general is a ray of sunshine about the swamp. Butterflies and moths flock to her outstretched hands, to be caught and killed and then pinned to mounting boards for resale to collectors all over the world. ~ Insert subplot concerning rare moth here. ~

Then love walks in.

A wealthy young man discovers Elnora and falls in love with her, but both deny their feelings for each other because the young man is otherwise engaged. He leaves. She stays. He has a bust  up with his fiancé and returns to pledge his troth to Elnora. Complications ensue; Elnora runs off to spend some time with Freckles and Angel and their winsome brood of perfect children; young man has a spell of “brain fever” and is saved at last minute by his original fiancé’s agonizingly selfless kind deed of telling him where Elnora is hiding out.

Oh, and Mrs Comstock has a complete change of heart part way through, when she finds out that her husband died because he was creeping through the swamp on his way to a rendezvous with another woman, sneakily avoiding being seen by his great-with-child wife. Once that’s cleared up, Mrs Comstock comes to appreciate sweet Elnora, and turns into a model mother immediately.

I didn’t fall in love with Elnora as so many readers have, perhaps because I didn’t become acquainted with her when I was a young reader. My cynical side, which allowed itself to be fairly quiet while revisiting Freckles, surged to the surface while reading Elnora’s melodramatic tale.

Do you know what this book remends me of? Nothing other than L.M. Montgomery’s Kilmeny of the Orchard, which I read and despised last year. Elnora hails from 1909, and Kilmeny from 1910; almost-twin daughters of a style of story-writing just a bit too dated for my full appreciation, I suppose. (Or maybe it’s the common trait of these untrained young girls instantly mastering the violin…)

But sharp-eyed readers of this blog will note that I awarded A Girl of the Limberlost a respectable 6/10. That’s because, despite my rudeness regarding Elnora’s unlikely tale, it was very readable, and it kept me decidedly engaged from first page to last. And I will keep it, and probably reread it, though doubtless while muttering in annoyance here and there.

It’s a rather unique book, in so many ways, and I can see why there are so many fans.

Here are thoughts from a few other readers.

One in favour: Shelf Love: A Girl of the Limberlost

And one not so enamoured: The Book Trunk: A Girl of the Limberlost

I agree with both of these reviews, if that’s possible. To me, Elnora was a too, too “perfect” heroine, but there were glimpses here and there of something rather interesting going on, and I must say I loved Elnora’s mother at her very nastiest; she was the high point of the book, until she had her epiphany and deteriorated into being oh-so-nice and sweetly motherly and sentimentally soppy.

So another conflicted review of Gene Stratton-Porter’s work. Which means I’ll be reading more of her, I’m sure. She intrigues me, in a rather uneasy way.

And her many tempting food descriptions make me hungry. I’ve been thinking longingly since I turned the last page of fragrant spice cake and crispy fried chicken!

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freckles gene stratton porter junior deluxe edition ruth ives illustrationsFreckles by Gene Stratton-Porter ~ 1904. This edition: Doubleday Junior Deluxe Classics, 1967. Hardcover. Illustrated by Ruth Ives. 320 pages.

My rating: It’s complicated.

10/10 for childhood nostalgia and deeply sentimental romance of the boy-girl love affair; about a 2/10 for its cringe-worthy aspects in regards to class distinctions and the strong dependence by the author on the idea that “good birth” and “aristocratic heritage” trumps environment, upbringing, natural intelligence and aspects of genuine personal integrity; another 10/10 for its lovely descriptions of the flora and fauna of the swamp, and for the sharp-shooting, utterly fearless female characters the “Bird Woman” and the “Swamp Angel”; these women aren’t afraid to go about alone, get dirty, pursue their personal interests with complete competence, are respected and admired by everyone they meet – including the scruffiest of the “bad guys” – and at the end of the day go home to a hot bath and a complete change of attire to become “dainty beauties”. Oh, golly, I want to be them! With an ugly-handsome, physically-perfect-yet-interestingly-maimed, sterling-natured, completely devoted lover (such as our titular Freckles) on a silken leading string. Sigh

Where was I? Oh, yes. Rating. Decisions, decisions…

I’d better give it something fairly high, because I do still love this book, despite the squeamishness it stirs within me when I think about it too hard. Here we are, then: 7.5/10.

Time travelling, in several aspects, this reading experience was.

On a personal level, I first read this book back when I was just 11 or 12, and periodically in the years since, and a good percentage of my affection for it is pure nostalgia. That and the fact that the hero and heroine are so darned adorable, and their love story, coming to a climax with the hero being gravely wounded rescuing the heroine from an unpleasantly dramatic death, is of the sort to cause serious heart throbbing in a susceptible young reader.

On a historical level, this is very decidedly a book which deserves the label “period piece.” It is very much a product of its era, and many of the attitudes and assumptions Gene Stratton-Porter captures and espouses so strongly are quite distasteful to this  modern day reader, and though I still feel the appeal of the fairy tale nature of the story and the complete and utter good-ness of its main characters, I can only hold on to that affection by viewing it forgivingly through my rose-tinted “era appropriate” lenses. (Handy categorization, that!)

Oh, golly. Look at the time! Must condense and get on with this. Luckily the World Wide Web is bursting with reviews on this one, if any of you are keen to investigate further. Here’s the barest outline.

Way back at the turn of the 19th Century, Indiana’s 13,000 acre Limberlost Swamp (a real place) was a deeply mysterious, untouched-by-man enclave of flora and fauna. Including some exceedingly valuable trees, both from the everyday “lumbering” aspect and for the incredible value of occasional ancient, huge, furniture-making stand-alone hardwood trees, such as birds-eye maple, black walnut, and golden oak. A timber lease was a valuable business enterprise, and forest guards were routinely employed to patrol the borders of the leases to avoid trespassing and theft of the most valuable of the trees. (A genuine occurrence, which is still common today.)

Our hero, the teenage “Freckles,” brought up in an orphanage from babyhood, is employed as a timber guard by a wealthy timber boss, who looks past Freckles’ shabby clothes and missing hand (cut off in unknown circumstances just before his appearance on the orphanage steps) to his sterling heart within and falls in paternalistic love with the boy at first sight. Freckles makes a success of his timber patrols, pluckily routing the Big Bad Timber Thieves with his cudgel and revolver, and pausing occasionally in his tireless rounds to commune with the flowers and make friends with the little forest animals.

freckles frontispiece ruth ives gene stratton porter 001

Here they are at their first meeting, the manly youth Freckles and the pure and lovely Swamp Angel.

Freckles falls in love with a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl who regularly accompanies an older woman friend into the swamp, the photographer and naturalist known only as the “Bird Woman.”  Many adventures ensue, with encounters with various wild creatures and vanquishing timber thieves, etcetera. The “Swamp Angel,” as Freckles names the lovely girl (we never do find out her real name), returns his love, though he doesn’t realize it until he saves her from being squashed by a falling tree and sustains horrible injuries himself. Swamp Angel rallies her wealthy father to transport Freckles to the best hospital in Chicago, where he is patched together physically, though he threatens to expire because he is so depressed that he will never be able to speak his love to Angel because he is merely a nameless Irish orphan who could not seek to raise his eyes to a child of wealth and good breeding.

Angel trots off to discover Freckles’ heritage, miraculously does so, and Freckles rallies and the birds all sing in celebration (okay, I added that last bit in, but you get the idea), and manly and womanly tears are shed in great abundance (that bit is in the book – they do all cry a lot, men and women both. And people faint fairly frequently, come to think of it…) and everything ends gloriously happily.

That’s pretty well it. Drama, tears, adventures, love at first sight, bad guys, cute forest creatures, pretty flowers, more drama, more tears, happy ending.

Please excuse my flippant tone this morning. This thing really is a sentimental, highly clichéd, occasionally cringe-making bit of romance literature, and though I love it I also feel a bit ashamed of the bad bits, such as the snobbishness of the author regarding class distinctions, and the complete acceptance of it being perfectly all right to raze and drain a unique natural forest while blithering on about how lovely it all is and oh, well, too bad it’s doomed but we do need some nice veneers for our bedroom furniture, and some more acres to grow corn and pasture our mules, and at least we have some specimens of pressed flowers, dead moths, animal skins and photographs to remember it by.

But there is some lovely writing, and it is a rather sweet love story, and the Ruth Ives illustrations in my childhood edition are rather adorable. The author’s love of nature does shine through, though she seems to have no qualms about contemplating the destruction of the Limberlost to the greater profit of the timber companies. Because to be good and rich is an admirable thing, as her wide-eyed, obviously approving descriptions of the wealth of Angel’s family makes very clear.

Yes, I guess I am a bit conflicted.

This book was followed by another much better known, A Girl of the Limberlost, in 1909, which I am halfway through at this point. It’s an interesting read, and I’m just as conflicted by it as I am by Freckles.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Gene Stratton-Porter and her fictional characters very soon.

freckles illustration 1 ruth ives gene stratton porter 001

A page scan from “Freckles”, highlighting the best bits of the book, the descriptions of Freckles learning about and interacting with the wild things of the Limberlost Swamp. Ruth Ives illustrations throughout are a definite bonus to the Doubleday edition.

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the orchid robert grant 001The Orchid by Robert Grant ~ 1905. This edition: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905. Hardcover. 229 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

In this short novel – really more of a novella, as its 200+ pages are of the “big print, lots of margin and wide line spacings” sort – Robert Grant clothes a barbed comment or two on the hypocrisy of American society in the garb of an amusing light novel.

I was initially a bit disappointed in the superficial nature of the book, having hoped for something as complex as Grant’s ambitious Unleavened Bread , but as I read on I realized that the voice of the writer was still there, still saying the same thing, though here in a minor key.

As I wouldn’t recommend that anyone run out willy-nilly and find this book – it’s very much a minor work, though quite nicely readable – I’ll go ahead and summarize the key points of the tale, which takes place in a fictional American east coast setting – near real-world Boston, perhaps? – with the characters being the wealthy social set, most with two homes, one in the city and the other in the rural retreat of “Westfield”, where the lavish estates of the brash nouveau riche coexist with the more modest homes of the more staid “old money” American aristocrats of the time.

Miss Lydia Arnold is the orphaned just-in-her-early-twenties daughter of a socially prominent but not tremendously wealthy “aristocratic” couple. She is by way of being a shining star amongst the other young women of her set; much admired by everyone for her sharply brilliant wit, athletic ability, and physical beauty. As the story opens, Lydia is about to accept the marriage proposal of Herbert Maxwell, first generation member of the smart set, made acceptable by the wealth backing him from his father’s success in trade.

For Herbert Maxwell was a new man. That is, the parents of the members of the Westfield Hunt Club remembered his father as a dealer in furniture, selling goods in his own store, a red-visaged, round-faced, stubby looking citizen with a huge standing collar gaping at the front. Though he had grown rich in the process, settled in the fashionable quarter of the city and sent his boy to college in order to make desirable friends and get a good education it could not be denied that he smelt of varnish metaphorically of not actually, and that Herbert was, so to speak, on the defensive from a social point of view. Everybody’s eye was on him to see that he did not make some “break,” and inasmuch, as he was commonly, if patronizingly, spoken of as “a very decent sort of chap,” it may be taken for granted that he had managed to escape serious criticism…

Self-contained and luxury-loving Lydia (the “Orchid” of the title, a creature which flourishes best in a hothouse setting, flauntingly beautiful but decidedly touch-me-not) decides to follow the money, and she and Herbert in due course produce a child, the small Guendolen, treated by her mother as a slightly annoying doll to be occasionally dressed up, and by her father as the beloved apple of his eye. I rather enjoyed the nice little aside the author included at Guendolen’s birth, with Lydia’s lady-friends debating the pros and cons of nursing one’s own child, and the social benefits of freeing oneself from constant attendance on an infant by employing wet nurses and “artificial food”, with some holding out for the “old-fashioned” habit of mother-child bonding through breastfeeding, “to give the children the benefit of the doubt as to any possible effect on character by being suckled by a stranger.” (!)

No second baby follows Guen, and Lydia obviously considers that by providing her spouse with a child the great part of her marital bargain has been met. She proceeds to employ herself by pursuit of her sporting interests: riding with the Hunt Club, and the newest craze fresh over from England and Scotland, golfing. Needless to say she excels on the greens as much as she does in the equestrian field, and she soon catches the eye of recently arrived Harry Spencer, one of the “poorer” members of the Westfield social set who has been off travelling for some years.

Handsome Harry has broken hearts by the dozen, but has never succumbed himself, until the sight of lovely Mrs Maxwell undoes him completely. The two come together like steel and magnet, until at last Herbert Maxwell is moved to ask his wife just what the heck is going on. She responds by requesting a separation, commenting that she intends to take little Guen with her. Herbert refuses categorically, and the conjugal fight is on, watched with breathless gossiping interest by the members of the Westfield set.

Then Lydia comes up with what she views as a win-win scheme. For a two million dollar settlement, she will renounce her claim to Guen and allow Herbert to divorce her, and with the money she and Harry will be able to set up house in the manner in which they’d both like to be maintained.

“She’s sold her child!” the Westfield matrons cry, and for a while the skirts are primly twitched back as Lydia passes by. But once she’s safely married to Harry, living in her old house which she has snagged from her ex, and driving a posh new automobile – “bridal white and luxurious” – the society ladies glance at each other out of the corners of their eyes. Will they accept Lydia and Harry back into the fold and attend her tennis party – tennis being the latest craze, trumping that yawningly boring old-fashioned golf – and grand reception?

What do you think?

Robert Grant thinks that they will squash their inconvenient morals, and so they do, with the last hold-out, the stern matriarch of the set, coming round at the end.

“Everyone is going, and most of the nice people are coming from town. So why should I be stuffy and bite my own nose off? Which goes far to prove, my dears,” she added sententiously, “that the only unpardonable social sin in this country is to lose one’s money. Nothing else really counts.”

Indeed.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

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These next two books are proving to be something of a challenge to me.

Well, not actually the books themselves. Reading Miles Franklin’s teenage bestseller, My Brilliant Career, and her publisher-suppressed sequel (and apology to her parents) My Career Goes Bung, has been a fascinating process. My dilemma lies in how best to express what these books are really all about, and how they reflect the strong ideals of their author in her own life, while still inhabiting the fictional realm.

I will try to keep things brief(ish); one could go on for pages and pages and pages. Luckily there are others who have covered this ground before, and I think that if I succeed in piquing your interest in this writer and her books I will have to say, “Good enough.” Biographies and resources are definitely available for further study.

my brilliant career virago press miles franklin 001 (2)My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin ~ 1901. This edition: Virago, 2002. Introduction by Carmen Callil. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-193-9. 232 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

My sphere in life is not congenial to me. Oh, how I hate this living death which has swallowed all my teens, which is greedily devouring my youth, which will sap my prime, and in which my old age, if I am cursed with any, will be worn away! As my life creeps on for ever through the long toil-laden days with its agonizing monotony, narrowness, and absolute uncongeniality, how my spirit frets and champs its unbreakable fetters—all in vain!

Whoa, steady on, there!

These emotions, from the introduction of My Brilliant Career, written in the voice of fictional autobiographer, almost-seventeen-year-old Sybylla Melvyn, absolutely sob teen angst. Appropriately so, for their real author, Australian Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, was just sixteen herself when she dashed these words off in the late 1900s, and the youth of the author is very evident throughout the story.

The fictional Sybylla starts life as the indulged child of a successful New South Wales landholder and an aristocratic mother. When Sybylla is eight years old, a prolonged drought inspires her father to change his occupation, to that of a stock dealer in nearby dairy-farming region, and the landholdings are sold and the family relocated to a much smaller farm. Sybylla’s father proves to be a very poor businessman, and his escalating failures start him drinking to excess, until the family’s circumstances become reduced to the point of bankruptcy. Sybylla’s mother is predictably soured by all of this, and her frustration with her declining lot in life and with her continually sulking eldest daughter comes to a head. Sybylla is told to get out into the world and earn a living, as the family cannot support either her careless ways or her continued financial drain on family resources. A reprieve comes through an offer by Sybylla’s well-off maternal grandmother to come and live on the family estate.

Sybylla finds life at her grandmother’s very congenial, and she blossoms into something of a local belle, eventually attracting the attention of the district’s wealthiest bachelor, the dashing Harry Beecham. Harry and Sybylla come to a tentative agreement – tentative, anyway, on Sybylla’s part, though ironclad on Harry’s – that she will marry him once she turns twenty-one. As she is just seventeen when this takes place, anything might happen in the ensuing years, and of course it does.

Harry loses his estate and leaves the district in order to re-establish himself; Sybylla’s parents send for her to take on a post as a governess with a family friend who has loaned the Melvyns money; Sybylla’s labors will count towards the interest. This proves to be a squalid and humiliating experience; Sybylla ends up having a nervous and physical breakdown, and returns to her parents’ home to recuperate, much to their combined dismay.

Harry returns, with fortune well on its way to being restored, but Sybylla has developed a deep antipathy to the married state, having observed the brutal physical and emotional effects of even a happy marriage on the women she has been observing as she becomes ever more acquainted with the wider world. Though Harry offers her a deep respect and swears that he will allow her the freedom to pursue her own interests (writing and music), and she is herself more than a little in love with him, she is ultimately unable to commit herself to him, and there Sybylla’s story abruptly ends.

This novel was an immediate bestseller, and brought the young author – Miles Franklin was twenty-one when it appeared – much fame and notoriety, as it was claimed by the publisher to be autobiographical, and the parallels between aspects of the lives of fictional Sybylla and real-life Miles were too obvious to dismiss. Teenage girls thrilled to Sybylla’s emotional outpourings and her desire to make something of herself, to have a “brilliant career”. The melodramatic tone of the tale caught adult readers’ attention, while family friends and neighbours raised querying eyebrows at the “Franklin girl’s” manipulation of the facts, and eagerly purchased the book for its curiousity value.

Despite the welcome income her debut novel brought, Miles Franklin was appalled at how it was received, and by the assumption that her family was accurately portrayed; she had meant it as a fiction. When her publisher inquired as to whether she would allow a second edition, Miles Franklin staunchly refused, and the book went out of print, until it was finally reissued in 1966, twelve years after her death.

The emotions expressed in the novel, chiefly those of frustration at the lack of opportunities for education and professional development for women, resonated with the modern feminists of the 1960s, and My Brilliant Career has been in print ever since, a highly regarded piece of early feminist literature, and a blazing example of a young woman’s refusal to bow to the status quo.

So much for the “meaningful” aspect of this book. Was it a “good” read?

Well, yes. It really was. I enjoyed it greatly.

Sybylla, for all of her over-the-top rantings about the woefulness of her life, early on turns into a very real and relatable character. I found that I was completely drawn in to her rather heart-rending little saga, and though I had moments of wanting to shake her vigorously – my “mother” side coming to the fore, I’m sure – I was completely on her side throughout. I sighed a bit when she turned down Harry Beecham at the very last; he was a wonderful catch, especially for the time and place. It was touch and go there for a bit, until Sybylla’s deeply entrenched intention of lifelong single womanhood got the upper hand!

Fascinating, then, to read the “sequel” to My Brilliant Career, which was written soon after the first book was published, but which was turned down by the publisher because of fear of scandal. More below.

First edition cover of "My Brilliant Career", which is gently mocked in the author's sequel/rebuttal, "My Career Goes Bung".

First edition cover of “My Brilliant Career”, showing the illustration which is gently mocked in the author’s sequel/rebuttal, “My Career Goes Bung”.

my career goes bung virago press miles franklin 001My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin ~ 1946. This edition: Virago, 1981. Foreword by Verna Coleman. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-220-X. 234 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I bless the serendipity which brought this book to me just before Christmas, when I was assembling books for the Century reading challenge. The name “Miles Franklin” was in the forefront of my awareness, having just purchased her first novel, My Brilliant Career, to represent 1901, and that in combination with the green Virago cover caught my eye.

While My Brilliant Career is something of a curiousity, a teenage writer’s attempt at dramatic fictional autobiography, My Career Goes Bung shows a polish and maturity which make me eager to explore more of this writer’s work.

The back story behind the delayed publication of the novel is fascinating as well. Written in 1902, concurrent with the author’s brief social success in Sydney as an up and coming young writer due to the instant popularity of My Brilliant Career, this next novel was returned by Franklin’s publisher with a terse, “No, thanks!”, citing fears of libel suits as well as concerns about its audacious and “advanced” views on sexuality and women’s rights. Miles Franklin then packed the manuscript away, and for decades believed it to have been destroyed, until the discovery of a second copy in an old trunk of her mother’s led to its publication in 1946.

In My Career Goes Bung, we are introduced to the “real” Sybylla, the young woman who has penned a bestseller based very loosely on fact, but which has been accepted as strictly autobiographical. In My Brilliant Career the fictional Sybylla’s parents and associates are portrayed as much less than admirable, and it is not at all surprising that the young author finds herself humiliated by the whole experience, and deeply apologetic to her parents, who were in actuality supportive of the young Sybylla’s literary strivings.

Peeling away the layers then, we have three characters to consider while reading these books. At the core, the very real person, Miles Franklin. Then her sympathetic alter-ego, the Sybylla Number Two of My Career Goes Bung, and lastly the teenage creation of excessive emotion and high imagination, Sybylla Number One, of My Brilliant Career.

Got that? It’s not all that complicated once one is immersed in the books; it all falls into place quite neatly. (Trust me!)

Sybylla Number Two goes off to Sydney to attempt to take advantage of the hubbub around her bestselling novel and to meet some of the literary stars of the day, with an eye to advancing her writing career. She is greeted with enthusiasm as the novelty of the moment, the little “bush girl” in her simple frocks, very much the innocent abroad, fending off the wolves by her impermeable naïvety in regards to their social manipulations, and in the case of many of the men, their sexual advances.

Sybylla attracts the eye of the handsome, calculating and immensely successful Goring Hardy, a thinly disguised version of the real-life “Banjo” Paterson (Waltzing Matilda, The Man From Snowy River, et al), who finds the virginal Sybylla a tempting prospect for conquest. Sybylla submits to his caresses, but allows no further liberties than some hot and heavy fondling and kissing; at the end of a week of secretive meetings, both parties realize that the relationship is not about to progress any further, and politely part ways. (Miles Franklin did have a short-term relationship of some sort with Paterson, hence the libel suit fears in regard to the fictional version.)

Sybylla is apparently something of a “babe” – in the most modern sense of the term – attracting the lavicious attentions of every many she meets. Another suitor, one Henry Beauchamp, assumed by all to be the original of the dashing Harry Beecham of My Brilliant Career, appears to vigorously woo Sybylla, but she spurns his frequent marriage proposals with steadfast determination. Sybylla then rather scornfully dismisses Sydney society as an artificial and fickle atmosphere antipathetic to true creativity, and returns to her family home more than ever determined to live the life of an independent woman, unshackled by the chains of marriage and childbearing, to pursue her ideals alone.

The End. (With the sound of enthusiastic feminist cheering faintly off on the sidelines.)

The real Miles Franklin stood by her convictions as firmly as did her fictional alter-ego. Though courted by many men, she never married. She continued to further develop her unique literary voice, supporting herself while writing by a variety of occupations, including nursing, housemaiding, and working as a secretary. She adopted the unlikely and picturesque nom-de-plume “Brent of Bin Bin”, avoiding her (modified) real name in order to sidetrack unfavourable comparisons of her subsequent work to My Brilliant Career, and had a modest success in her lifetime as a writer of Australian historical sagas and slightly quirky fictions.

Miles Franklin. I don’t think I’m quite done with her yet. What an interesting writer. Century of Books, you’ve already introduced me to a number of new-to-me mind-broadening reading experiences, of which this one stands out, so early along. I wonder what other happy surprises this reading year will bring?

Project Gutenberg Australia has a number of Miles Franklin’s works represented online, well worth looking at. My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung are widely available in physical book form, in some cases as a combined edition, which I highly recommend. The second book enhances the first, and they greatly reward being read together.

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the princess priscilla's fortnight elizabeth von arnim 001The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1905. This edition: Smith, Elder & Co., 1906. Hardcover. 329 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Her Grand Ducal Highness the Princess Priscilla of Lothen-Kunitz was up to the age of twenty-one a most promising young lady. She was not only poetic in appearance beyond the habit of princesses but she was also of graceful and appropriate behaviour. She did what she was told; or, more valuable, she did what was expected of her without being told. Her father, in his youth and middle age a fiery man, now an irritable old gentleman who liked good food and insisted on strictest etiquette, was proud of her on those occasions when she happened to cross his mind. Her mother, by birth an English princess of an originality uncomfortable and unexpected in a royal lady that continued to the end of her life to crop up at disconcerting moments, died when Priscilla was sixteen. Her sisters, one older and one younger than herself, were both far less pleasing to look upon than she was, and much more difficult to manage; yet each married a suitable prince and each became a credit to her House, while as for Priscilla,—well, as for Priscilla, I propose to describe her dreadful conduct.

German Princess Priscilla is finally facing an appropriately marriageable suitor, a personable prince with a suitably secure income, and all that is left is to arrange the formal engagement. But the princess is suffering from what would vulgarly be called “cold feet”, so she dreams up a plan to escape from her overly lavish courtly surroundings, “where one is never alone”, by taking up an incognito life in an English country cottage with her personal mentor, the elderly ducal librarian, who sympathizes with Priscilla’s secret desire to pursue the beautiful simple life.

Bribing one of Princess Priscilla’s maids to go on ahead and meet them in Cologne, prefatory to travelling through France and crossing the Channel, Priscilla and Herr Fritzing disguise themselves in old clothes, scarves and veils and depart the castle on bicycles. Luck smiles on them; they make a clean getaway, and eventually fetch up in the English countryside, where they turn a sober village upside down by their joint combination of well-meaning naïvety and high-handed snobbishness.

Two young men fall immediately head over heels in love with the oblivious princess, two households are bitterly disrupted, and then the cheerful farce of this improbable adventure turns even more sober when Priscilla’s thoughtlessness and misplaced generosity causes a hitherto honest young woman to turn thief through irresistible temptation, and an elderly woman to be murdered for the money Priscilla has given her.

Once luck deserts the two idealistic German vagabonds, it does so with a vengeance. Their emotional maid, deeply resentful of her lowly position and the assumption that she will take on menial tasks unthought-of in castle days, blackmails Herr Fritzing for his last penny. The indignant mothers of Priscilla’s two local suitors descend upon the household with their respectively outraged and tearful maternal woes, and the local tradespeople send in their bills and refuse to extend any more credit to the suddenly-beleaguered establishment.

Luckily this is by way of being a fairy-tale-ish confection, and a bold rescuer appears from an unexpected direction. Priscilla comes away from her rural fortnight a much sadder and wiser young woman, and the obvious morals are writ large in bold letters all over the concluding chapters.

This playful story with a semi-serious message is a very readable light novel, something along the lines of The Enchanted April and The Jasmine Farm in tone, with a similarly neat and tidy satisfactory ending. Perhaps not one of von Arnim’s best and most complex works, but more than acceptable for cheerful diversion, and charmingly witty, with the author getting her usual digs in at the Germanic patriarchy’s tendency to squelch their women into an acceptable meekness.

Here is Princess Priscilla at Project Gutenberg, and here are several other favorable reviews:

The Captive Reader ~ The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight

Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf ~ The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight

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Down by the Fraser River, which forms the boundary of our small farm, New Year's Eve afternoon. A brief moment of peaceful beauty, soon to change...

Down by the Fraser River, which forms the boundary of our small farm, New Year’s Eve afternoon. A brief moment of peaceful beauty, soon to change…

The book reviews have been coming daily so far in January, and though this looks quite impressive, I hasten to reassure my readers that it will definitely not be the pattern of the year. January so far has been something of an anomaly, a time of stillness and a sort of tipping point for what is proving to be a transitional time in my life, in a smallish and positive way.

(And as some of you might remember from previous comments, we don’t have TV, so that time is freed up for dallying with books. At least an hour or two a day, if our friends’ TV watching habits are anything to go by.)

For the past twelve years I have been that most involved of maternal figures, a fully fledged dance mom, and it had looked like this would have been one of the busiest years yet in that regard, as it would have been my daughter’s “peak year”, the last fully dedicated to dancing before her graduation from high school and transition into the next stage in her life. After much agonizing, the decision was made in October to call it quits right now, a year early, as it were. No more long commutes to the dance studio in the city two and a half hours away, no more trips to Vancouver to visit her choreographer, no more sweating over solos and arranging for rehearsal sessions and cutting music and mulling over costumes, and most lovely of all, no more monthly tuition, choreo and fuel bills. We are suddenly free from the self-imposed tyranny of the dance world, and though there are definitely deep regrets for the many positive aspects of being a serious amateur dancer, we are both, she and I, rather enjoying the experience of going into the festival and competition season stress-free (for we are still both involved on an organizational and volunteer level in our local performing arts festival), and being able to look forward to being home in the springtime, instead of daily on the road to somewhere else.

For we’ve also decided to take a sabbatical from running our plant nursery this year, something we’ve done twice before in our twenty-one years of involvement in the business. Our personal perennial garden desperately needs a concerted year (or possibly two) of attention, something impossible to do when one is tied up in the greenhouse growing thousands of lovely little plants for other people’s gardens. The little propagation greenhouse, my 12-hours-a-day home in February-March-April-May, which has been yearly shored up and patched up and made to “make do”, is at last going to be replaced with something a bit bigger, much better built, and more comfortable to work in.

January 1st, 2014. Ice coming down the Fraser River has piled up a mile or so downstream, causing an ice dam and upstream flooding of our lower fields.

January 1st, 2014. Ice coming down the Fraser River has piled up a mile or so downstream, causing an ice dam and upstream flooding of our lower fields. This is looking north, as the river runs backwards in the main channel, on the other side of that ice pile mid-photo. I had to scoot out of the way, as my feet were about to get very wet!

And what with various family medical crises these past few years, including losing a family member to cancer, my mother’s serious fall in the summer and subsequent transition into a seniors’ care facility, and a flare-up of problems with my own two broken ankles which still refuse to work properly several years post-injury, it’s time for a healing year, emotionally and physically. Time to step back, and look inward for a bit.

Usually January 1st marks the time of taking a huge breath and diving into the combined maelstrom of dance festival preparation and concentrated seed starting and seedling care. Not this year. Not a single seed has been planted – heck, not a single seed order has been made! – and the dancer has cheerfully packed away her pointe shoes and has turned to drawing up ambitious garden plans instead. Under doctor’s paradoxical orders to both favor my ankles and exercise as much as possible, I’m attempting to do both by having some sitting down time every hour (which happily translates into reading time and computer time), and by using hiking poles when out and about, which is slightly awkward in that I am still learning how best to use manage my sticks properly when going up and down hills and on narrow paths. But the ankles are noticeably less painful at the end of the day, so maybe it’s working. One can hope!

We’re presently getting some work in on our still-not-finished self-built house, including a gorgeous set of floor-to-ceiling bookcases in a newly constructed hallway/office space which we are calling the “L Room”. “L” for its funny shape, and for “Library”, too! It’s coming along nicely, and when completed will house my working collection of plant books, as well as a goodly amount of “pleasure” reading, my old wooden desk, desktop computer and scanner/printer, filing cabinets and last but not least my piano. Which I hope will figure more prominently in my own near future, as once it is properly settled in I will be able to resume playing, at last in a quiet corner all of my very own. I’m inwardly tremendously excited, though I show an outer calm. 😉

It’s been a very good winter to be off the roads, as the weather has been rather frightful – lots of snow, and warmer temperatures turning everything to ice, and then snow again. We’ve shovelled our roof off four times so far – a record – to prevent ice buildup on the eaves, and this morning I see it could likely use it again. A few inches of fresh snow yesterday morning, followed by above-freezing temperatures and slushy rain in the afternoon, and this morning minus 6 Celsius. Lots of icicles.

I should probably sign off. This quiet Sunday morning has left me feeling rather introspective, hence this rambling post. Both teens are sleeping in, and my husband is off at work. It’s snowing again, the dogs are sleeping in front of the woodstove, the bird feeders are topped up, my kitchen is relatively neat and tidy, and my plans for the day – a bit of paperwork, some puttering about in the construction zone, a bit of sanding, a bit of painting – are modest and manageable. An intriguing book is waiting for my attention as well, My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin. Teen angst in Australia, circa 1901.

Happy January, friends. A full fresh year stretches before us. I hope you are all feeling as optimistic as I am that it will bring good things, and that we will all have the inner resources to weather the inevitable storms as well.

Cheers!

January 2, 2014. Same spot as the idyllic picture at the top of the post, a short two days later, after the water has flooded the banks and receded, leaving much ice behind.

January 2, 2014. Same spot as the idyllic picture at the top of the post, a short two days later, after the water has flooded the banks and receded, leaving much ice behind.

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green mansions 1944 dj w h hudsonGreen Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest by W.H. Hudson ~ 1904. This edition: Random House, 1944. Introduction by John Galsworthy (1915); illustrations by E. McKnight-Kauffer. Hardcover. 303 pages.

My rating: 3.5/10

Memorable and deserving of its status as a literary classic? “Yes” to the first bit – it is definitely memorable – and “Sure, okay, I guess so” to the second. I can see how this one caught people’s attention, with its exotic setting and all. In 1904 deepest darkest Amazonia was still fairly blank on the world map.

Enjoyable reading? I am so sad to say that as far as I’m concerned, this is an emphatic “No!”

Ugh. It’s been a very long time since I read something that repelled me as deeply as did Green Mansions, glowing descriptions of Amazonian flora and fauna and Galsworthy’s effusive foreword aside.

Venezuelan aristocrat Abel gets mixed up in a failed coup and must flee for his life. He ends up in the interior of Guayana, someplace beyond the Orinoco River. As he wanders about, doing a bit of hunting here, a bit of gold prospecting there, he starts to gain an appreciation for the natural wonders of the jungle. He then falls in with a small tribe of “savages” and decides that maybe this would be a cool place to hang out for a while. Impressing the chief savage with the gift of a silver tinderbox, Abel slings his hammock in the corner of the communal shelter and settles down to being waited on by the women in between stints of building himself a guitar and condescendingly teaching the youngsters of the group to fence with wooden foils.

The E. McKnight-Kauffer illustrations in my 1944 edition of this book are lovely; the best part of the book!

The E. McKnight-Kauffer illustrations in my 1944 edition of this book are lovely; the best part of the book! Check out all the symbolic details that the illustrator has included here.

To condense greatly (which I wish the author would have) Abel encounters a mysterious girl in the nearby forest, in the taboo region where his host tribe will not hunt. She teases him with glimpses of her lovely self, all the while whistling and chirping like a mysterious bird. Eventually the two make contact, but as he embraces the elusive creature Abel is bitten by a deadly coral snake. He flees through the forest, expecting death at any moment, stumbles upon the camp of an old European man, and collapses. When he comes to, miraculously on the mend from the snakebite, he finds that he has found Bird Girl’s “grandfather”, a shifty-eyed elderly bearded type named Nuflo.

Much twittering about the forest ensues, Abel lusting after Rima (which turns out to be Bird Girl’s name) and Rima being all ethereal and hard to get. She’s the wood nymph protector of the forest creatures, etcetera. Meanwhile Nuflo daily sneaks off with his two dogs and surreptitiously kills the odd little animal, which he devours in a secret hideaway, joined by Abel who is getting rather famished living on the roots and berries which Rima feels are the only food needed to sustain life.

At some point all three go off to the place “twenty days away” where Nuflo discovered her wounded mother, on a quest to find Rima’s hypothetical vanished tribe. (Nuflo, “grandfather” title to the contrary, is actually no relation, but he had appointed himself guardian of the tiny child when her mother eventually died, some ten years before Abel enters the picture. Rima is now seventeen, making her ripe for love and hence fair game, as the author continually implies.)

Off to find the lost tribe.

Off to find the lost tribe.

Anyway, Abel convinces Rima that her mother’s tribe appears to be truly vanished, and Rima decides to return to the forest, leaving Abel and Nuflo to follow at their own pace, because she’s just so darned marvelous and ethereal (not to mention weather resistant in her spiderweb dress) and not requiring of any boring shelter or cooked food so she can travel so much faster than the menfolk. And she wants to prepare a lovely forest home for herself and Abel, as she has finally agreed to give in to his passionate entreaties, but she wants them to “do it” properly in nice surroundings.

So imagine Abel’s feelings when he and Nuflo come back home to find that the savages have chased Rima to the top of a tall tree and then burned it down, with her plunging to a fiery death. We don’t get to witness this, just hear about it from one of the savages, leading to the false hope that Rima may still be alive out there in the forest. (Spoiler: She isn’t.)

Rima's spirit lives on is the gist of this one, I think.

Rima’s spirit lives on is the gist of this one, I think.

Abel vows revenge, and goes to the next tribe of savages over (who are, naturally, sworn enemies to the first tribe of savages) and sets them to slaughter tribe of savages number one. Once everyone is dead (including Nuflo), Abel scrapes up Rima’s ashes, makes an ornate clay urn to contain them, and returns to civilization, where he spends his time pondering the wickedness of man, the glorious wonder of nature, and the sad fate of his bird girl.

I’m trying to think of one single character who didn’t make me want to vehemently cuff them at some point, but nope, can’t do it. Rima is just plain annoying, with her teasing girlish ways, her glowing red eyes, greyish-ivory skin, cloud of halo-like hair and spiderweb dress. Abel is a lout, living off the locals and rudely critiquing every detail of their morals, intelligence, appearance and lifestyle. Nuflo is shady to the nth degree, and the native tribespeople are paradoxically portrayed as universally unintelligent, deeply superstitious and highly manipulative.

I am glad I finally read this book, as it is so highly regarded by so many and so often referenced in literature, but I am even gladder to have turned the last page, and I have zero intention of ever reading it again.

Onward then, to something more palatable. I deserve something really good, I think, to take the taste of this one away. Let’s see now… maybe something by Elizabeth von Arnim? Of a similar vintage, to restore my faith in authors of this era.

This is how I felt after reading this book. (The illustration is actually from early on in the story, when Abel despairs at getting his hands on the elusive Rima.)

This is how I felt after reading this book. (The illustration is actually from early on in the story, when Abel despairs at getting his hands on the elusive Rima.)

And please don’t let my snarly review put you off. Thousands thrilled to this book, and you might well be among them. Here it is, online at Project Gutenberg.

Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson

Has anyone else read this? Loved it or despised it or felt completely ambiguous about it? Please do share!

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