Archive for the ‘1900s’ Category

on-the-other-side-of-the-latch-sara-jeannette-duncan-1901On the Other Side of the Latch by Sara Jeannette Duncan ~ 1901. American title: The Crow’s Nest. This edition: Methuen & Co., 1901. Hardcover. 266 pages.

My rating: 7/10

I am very fond of Sara Jeannette Duncan, or, as she is styled in brackets on the title page of this and a number of her other books, Mrs. Everard Cotes. Duncan was a world-travelling Canadian who confidently pushed the gender limits of her time, despite that traditionally matrimonial sub-name which appears on most of her earlier works.

I recently read her 1890 travel book, A Social Departure: How Orthodocia and I Went Round the World by Ourselves, in which our Sara embarks upon an unchaperoned journey round the world with a female friend. I thoroughly enjoyed that journey-book, so much so that I won’t say anything more about it now, saving myself for a future re-read and review.

Looking around for my next Sara Jeanette Duncan – for in addition to A Social Departure I’d already read An American Girl in London and The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib – this one jumped out as me, concerning as it does the author’s time spent out in the garden of a mountain house in Simla, India, as she undergoes a rest cure for tuberculosis.

Whereas the other books I’ve read by Duncan are hectic with social activity, On the Other Side of the Latch is almost comatose in comparison, and this makes a lot of sense, as the lively traveller and always-busy career writer was forced to sit quietly from morning till night, unable to take part in whatever social whirl there might have been in that Anglo-Indian summer retreat.

There is an attraction about carpets and curtains, chairs and sofas and the mantelpiece, which is hard to explain and harder to resist. I feel it in all its insidious power this morning as I am bidding them farewell for a considerable time; I would not have believed that a venerable Axminster and an arm-chair on three castors could absorb and hold so much affection; verily I think, standing in the door, it was these things that made Lot’s wife turn her unlucky head. Dear me, how they enter in, how they grow to be part of us, these objects of ordinary use and comfort that we place within the four walls of the little shelters we build for ourselves on the fickle round of the world! I have gone back, I have sat down, I will not be deprived of them; they are necessary to the courage with which every one must face life. I will consider nothing without a cushion, on the hither side of the window, braced by dear familiar book-shelves and the fender. And Tiglath-Pileser [Duncan’s whimsical nickname for her husband throughout the book; her sister-in-law is styled “Thisbe”] has now come, and has quoted certain documents, and has used gentle propulsive force, and behold because I am a person whose contumacy cannot endure, the door is shut and I am on the outside disconsolate.

I would not have more sympathy than I can afterwards sustain; I am only banished to the garden. But the banishment is so definite, so permanent! Its terms are plain to my unwilling glance, a long cane deck-chair anchored under a tree, over-head the sky, on the four sides the sky, without a pattern, full of wind and nothing. Abroad the landscape, consisting entirely of large mountains; about, the garden. I never regarded a garden with more disfavour. Here I am to remain — but to remain! The word expands, you will find, as you look into it. Man, and especially woman, is a restless being, made to live in houses, roaming from room to room, and always staying for the shortest time moreover, if you notice, in the one which is called the garden. The subtle and gratifying law of arrangement that makes the drawing-room the only proper place for afternoon tea operates all through. The convenience of one apartment, the quiet of another, the decoration of another regularly appeal in turn, and there is always one’s beloved bed, for retirement when the world is too much with one. All this I am compelled to resign for a single fixed fact and condition, a cane chair set in the great monotony of out-of-doors. My eye, which is a captious organ, is to find its entertainment all day long in bushes — and grass. All day long. Except for meals it is absolutely laid down that I may not “come in.” They have not locked the doors, that might have been negotiated; they have gone and put me on my honour. From morning until night I am to sit for several months and breathe, with the grass and the bushes, the beautiful pure fresh air. I don’t know why they have not asked me to take root and be done with it. In vain I have represented that microbes will agree with them no better than with me; it seems the common or house microbe is one of the things I particularly mustn’t have. Some people are compelled to deny themselves oysters, others strawberries or artichokes: my fate is not harder than another’s. Yet it tastes of bitterness to sit out here in an April wind twenty paces from a door behind which they are enjoying, in customary warmth and comfort, all the microbes there are.

And so on.

After a chapter or two of rather wallowing in ever-decreasing stages of self-pity, Sara Jeannette Duncan then turns her gaze to the garden in which she is exiled, and the gardener who oversees it, Atma.

Into my field of vision comes Atma, doinjg something to a banksia rosebush that climbs over a little arbour erected across a path apparently for the convenience of the banksia rosebush. Atma would tell you, protector of the poor, that he is the gardener of this place. As a matter of fact his relation to it is that of tutelary deity and real proprietor. I have talked in as large a way as if it belonged to Tiglath-Pileser, because he pays for the repairs; but I should have had the politeness at least to mention Atma whose claims are so much better. So far as we are concerned Atma is prehistoric; he was here when we came, and when we have completed the tale of our years of exile and gone away he will also be here. His hut is at the very end of the shelf, and I have never been in it; but if you ask him how long he has lived there he would say “Always.” It must make very little difference to Atma what temporary lords came and give orders in the house with the magnificent tin roof where they have table-cloths. Some, of course, are more troublesome than others, but none of them stay. He and his bulbs and perennials are the permanent, undisputed facts; it is unimaginable that any of them should be turned out.

I am more reconciled to my fate when Atma is in the garden; he is something human to look at and to consider, and he moves with such calm wisdom among the plants.

This is a memoir of description, not of action, as the writer remains in her prescribed chair, doing as little as possible. She reads – and oh! how soon the pleasures of uninterrupted reading pale! – she naps, she cranes her neck to see who is passing on the precipitous road down the mountainside, she watches the birds and the insects, and she writes in her journal the passages which will become this book.

The narrative soon turns itself almost completely over to a sometimes-pithy appreciation of the changing seasons in the green world; it becomes a decidedly fascinating gardener’s account, for, much as Duncan gives credit to Atma for being the overseer and hands-in-the-soil, she herself has more than a little input into the ornamental plantings, and she reveals herself as being an opinionated plantsperson with undoubted years of experience of floral cultivation, with an artist’s eye for the larger effect, as well as a fine attention to details of petal and pollen. Days, weeks, months fall into pattern, faithfully described with abundant digressions of a mostly humorous sort.

This memoir reminds us of the pleasures of our own small patch of ground, the joys of our own set of rooms inhabited by our familiar things, our books, our most-cherished belongings, the chair that we most like to sit in, the cup that we most like to drink from, and – not least! – the people whom we most love.

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Sara Jeannette Duncan, date unknown.

I found I liked this book more and more as it went along, and after finishing it I felt I knew this witty and confidently opinionated writer on a much more intimate level, and my readerly affection for her, already well established, has grown accordingly.

And regarding that rest cure, it appears to have been reasonably successful, for after seven months of sitting outside under a cedar tree, through all sorts of weather including the annual monsoon, Sara Jeannette Duncan was allowed back into the “micobe”-infested house, and a return to the greater world.

She was to live another twenty-one years, dying in 1922 in England, at the age of 61, of “chronic lung disease”.

Sara Jeannette Duncan’s literary legacy was a respectable twenty-plus novels, as well as numerous journalistic articles. In 2016 she was designated a Canadian National Historic Person, a recognition which is decidedly well-deserved.

 

 

 

 

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spinster-book-myrtle-reedThe Spinster Book by Myrtle Reed ~ 1901. This edition: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903. Hardcover. 222 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

Myrtle Reed, newly bestselling author in the second year of her ten-year contract with Putnam’s, turned from romantic fiction to advice-to-single-women, in what starts out as a light-hearted collection of essays to women on how to figure out men, and morphs into something quite a lot darker.

The mantle of spinsterhood looked like it was well settled over Myrtle Reed’s shoulders at this point, for at the age of 27 she was as yet unmarried, though she had been carrying on a long distance courtship mostly via letter for the past decade with the man whom she would eventually marry in 1905.

Myrtle Reed was cheerfully cynical regarding what she claimed were the predictable workings of the typical male mind, and her book is full of such as the following excerpt:

There is nothing in the world as harmless and as utterly joyous as man’s conceit. The woman who will not pander to it is ungracious indeed.

Man’s interest in himself is purely altruistic and springs from an unselfish desire to please. He values physical symmetry because one’s first impression of him is apt to be favourable. Manly accomplishments and evidences of good breeding are desirable for the same reason, and he likes to think his way of doing things is the best, regardless of actual effectiveness.

For instance, there seems to be no good reason why a man’s way of sharpening a pencil is any better than a woman’s. It is difficult to see just why it is advisable to cover the thumb with powdered graphite, and expose that useful member to possible amputation by a knife directed uncompromisingly toward it, when the pencil might be pointed the other way, the risk of amputation avoided, and the shavings and pulverised graphite left safely to the action of gravitation and centrifugal force. Yet the entire race of men refuse to see the true value of the feminine method, and, indeed, any man would rather sharpen any woman’s pencil than see her do it herself.

It pleases a man very much to be told that he “knows the world,” even though his acquaintance be limited to the flesh and the devil–a gentleman, by the way, who is much misunderstood and whose faults are persistently exaggerated. But man’s supreme conceit is in regard to his personal appearance. Let a single entry in a laboratory note-book suffice for proof.

Time, evening. MAN is reading a story in a current magazine to the GIRL he is calling upon.

MAN. “Are you interested in this?”

GIRL. “Certainly, but I can think of other things too, can’t I?”

MAN. “That depends on the ‘other things.’ What are they?”

GIRL. (Calmly.) “I was just thinking that you are an extremely handsome man, but of course you know that.”

MAN. (Crimsoning to his temples.) “You flatter me!” (Resumes reading.)

Girl. (Awaits developments.)

MAN. (After a little.) “I didn’t know you thought I was good-looking.”

GIRL. (Demurely.) “Didn’t you?”

MAN. (Clears his throat and continues the story.)

MAN. (After a few minutes.) “Did you ever hear anybody else say that?”

GIRL. “Say what?”

MAN. “Why, that I was–that I was–well, good-looking, you know?”

GIRL. “Oh, yes! Lots of people!”

MAN. (After reading half a page.) “I don’t think this is so very interesting, do you?”

GIRL. “No, it isn’t. It doesn’t carry out the promise of its beginning.”

MAN. (Closes magazine and wanders aimlessly toward the mirror in the mantel.)

MAN. “Which way do you like my hair; this way, or parted in the middle?”

GIRL. “I don’t know–this way, I guess. I’ve never seen it parted in the middle.”

MAN. (Taking out pocket comb and rapidly parting his hair in the middle.) “There! Which way do you like it?”

GIRL. (Judicially.) “I don’t know. It’s really a very hard question to decide.”

MAN. (Reminiscently.) “I’ve gone off my looks a good deal lately. I used to be a lot better looking than I am now.”

GIRL. (Softly.) “I’m glad I didn’t know you then.”

MAN. (In apparent astonishment.) “Why?”

GIRL. “Because I might not have been heart whole, as I am now.”

(Long silence.)

MAN. (With sudden enthusiasm.) “I’ll tell you, though, I really do look well in evening dress.”

GIRL. “I haven’t a doubt of it, even though I’ve never seen you wear it.”

MAN. (After brief meditation.) “Let’s go and hear Melba next week, will you? I meant to ask you when I first came in, but we got to reading.”

GIRL. “I shall be charmed.”

Next day, GIRL gets a box of chocolates and a dozen American Beauties–in February at that.

Zing! Direct hit, and score.

For woman-as-huntress features largely in The Spinster Book. General goal: a good time provided by a male companion. Ultimate goal: matrimony.

But once well started upon her topic, Myrtle Reed seems to have second thoughts, and much of the middle of the book is dedicated to the joys of independence, and the lucky state of those females who find fulfillment in career and public service, going home each night to a cosy little bachelorette suite, unsullied by masculine clutter.

She further pens what could only be described a an out and out rant regarding the societal expectation that woman unjoined to man is a creature to be pitied, a person incomplete, before flip-flopping once again to the original premise: that to be truly happy one must be mated.

Miss Reed’s theoretical permanent spinster, as described in the last chapter, is superficially content with her lot, but secretly yearns for Her Prince, even unto her deathbed, which is described with some pathos in the closing pages.

This book is chock full of neat little zingers, most at the expense of Man, but I couldn’t quite come to grips with what Myrtle Reed was actually getting at. Was she being pro-matrimony all the way through, or was she trying to make a legitimate argument for the possibility of a contented single life?

The earlier passages, which came across as something like, “Men, bless their simple, good-natured hearts! – we women can take ’em or leave ’em, our happiness is ultimately up to us”, a truly liberated point of view and most acceptable to our 21st century perspective, changed direction mid-stream, and an impassioned lament regarding the deep sadness of the single state came very much to the fore. “Conflicted” seems the only way to decribe it.

I wonder what readers thought of the book at the time of its publishing?

It appears to have been a successful sort of publication, with great “novelty” appeal, as we can see by its persistent reprinting even up unto the present day. But as an actual “advice manual”, well… I wonder how the target audience (unmarried women, one assumes) reacted to its ultimate message. Did the farcical bits outweigh the bemoaning? Or did it serve to strengthen the huntress’s resolve, and her technique? Some of the man-catching hints seem like they would be highly effective!

One can but speculate.

Despite its quotability and its frequently witty humour, I didn’t feel that this was a book that time travels particularily well.

It ended up depressing me, but that could be because I couldn’t help but keep thinking about the sad matrimonial fate of its writer.

For Myrtle Reed did eventually marry, in 1905. Matrimony didn’t come up to her expectations, however, and she committed suicide in 1911, leaving behind a damning note accusing her husband of emotional neglect. A tragedy, indeed, and not without considerable irony, this book considered.

For a further look at the complicated life story of Myrtle Reed, check out this article.

Something I didn’t know before I read The Spinster Book was that the Myrtle Reed, among her other novels and plays, wrote the well-known Lavender and Old Lace, which was successfully produced as both a stage play and, eventually, as a movie.

My own copy of the book, viewed as a physical artifact, is a lovely thing. One hundred and thirteen years old, bound in faded pink silk moire, with a gold-embossed cover, it feels wonderful in the hand. Putnam’s went all out on shelf appeal here!

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43afbca89d5f08d4ca98ecfee8af73d7Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome ~ 1889 and 1900. This omnibus edition: Penguin, 1999. Introduction and notes by Jeremy Lewis. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-043750-9. 362 pages.

My rating: 9/10

I’m sure everyone has heard of these two classics of light literature, and doubtless most of you have read at least the first one, so I’ll keep things superficial in my assessment below.

The takeaway: great fun, though the humour sometimes drops down into territory one can only designate as “lowish”. And occasionally exceedingly thought-provoking, as J.K.J. drops his farcical tone and muses on the serious things in life, like the sad plight of the hapless unwed mother, and the gathering clouds of potential conflict swirling round Europe during the German stage of the journeying.

In all, an enjoyable sort of mix, dished up by a thoughtful (dare I say professional? – I think that would be accurate) observer of the human race.

We meet our three clerk-class English adventurers in 1889 as they start off on a two-week boating jaunt up the busy Thames, overloaded with all the wrong provisions and baggage, and accompanied by a quarrelsome fox terrier, Montmorency.

Much discomfort ensues, as well as much beer drinking and slanging of each other, but there are occasional moments of happy camaraderie, too, and though the trip is prematurely abandoned to everyone’s mutual relief, the triumvirate remains firm friends.

So much so that they reunite for another fellows-only trip some ten years later. Two of the three are now married, children are much in evidence, but Montmorency is not mentioned. (Doubtless he is off and away wreaking terrier havoc in The World Beyond.)

The two wives, when tentatively approached with the idea of temporary abandonment by their spouses, express a cheerful relief at being so bereft, and, once recovered from the ego-bruising that this easy permission to go off with their chums engenders, the excursion turns from conjecture into reality.

This time the friends decide to take a month or so, and to visit Europe – the Black Forest region of Germany, to be more precise –  and the mode of transport is to be two-wheeled. Our intrepid and eternally bickering travellers make do with a single and a tandem bicycle, spelled off by train rides – “We’ll take the train UP the hilly bits, and ride our bikes mostly DOWNHILL.”

Well, you can guess how that bit turns out!

Of the two slim books, I found the second to be much the most interesting, and that is because it is not so much about the travellers and their many woes while coping with their bicycles – and there are many, starting with the expected blisters and running through all the other possibilities of grief-while-biking – as about the digressions of the narrator.

The best aspects of both books are the tangential excursions. The actual on-the-ground (or water) travels seem merely to provide a sturdy framework for adorning with elaborate anecdotes, and those anecdotes occasionally take on a life of their own, before the writer recollects his original purpose and comes back to the here and now. Very roundabout, it all is, and, yes, so similar to that titular bummel.

I will close with the oft-quoted description of what exactly a bummel is, courtesy of Jerome K. Jerome:

‘A “Bummel”,’ I explained, ‘I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are for ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk a while; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.’

Yes, indeed.

 

 

 

 

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Well, hello, 2017! You’re three days old, already. Racing right along, aren’t you?

Surfacing from a very quiet and blessedly peaceful Christmas season, marred only by a viral thing which has been going the rounds locally. We thought we’d dodged it, but no such luck! – it’s hopped gleefully from family member to family member, morphing merrily into an eclectic assortment of unpleasant symptoms.

We’re all still delicately sniffling, but the worst appears to be over (touch wood!) so holding onto the thought that our immune systems will be all the stronger for it.  I rather suspect 2017 will be much about finding silver linings, so this is an appropriate start, don’t you think?

Christmas brought books galore, a nice assortment of local history and horticultural tomes, with a dash of vintage fiction.

I won’t be talking about it quite yet, but I just want to mention to fellow Heyerites that I did indeed receive The Unknown Ajax, and, as you all promised me, it is utterly excellent. I read it immediately upon receipt – such a treat!

An Infamous Army is en route, too, though it appears to be hung up in the postal system. I hope to have my hands on it soon, and my expectations are high.

I did manage to start my Century of Books off quite appropriately with 1900, with a bit of what can only be deemed as literary “fluff”. About as challenging as candy floss to consume, and, expectedly, just as sustaining. But it did have a certain appeal, and it was a very quick read, and it gives me an excuse to perhaps further explore the works of this rather notorious writer.

Elinor Glyn it is.

You know:

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err
With her
On some other fur?

The reference is of course to the exotic and (for their time) shockingly erotic bestsellers penned by Mrs. Glyn, beloved by the female working classes as the epitome of “escape literature”, and deeply scorned by the literary critics for all the usual reasons.

The Visits of Elizabeth was Elinor Glyn’s first literary effort, and it is a mild little concoction compared to what came after. The book had an immediate success. My personal copy was printed in 1901, the ninth impression, which is indicative of an enthusiastic reception by the book-buying masses.

visits-of-elizabeth-cover-elinor-glyn-1900The Visits of Elizabeth by Elinor Glyn ~ 1900. This edition: Duckworth & Co., 1901. Hardcover. 309 pages.

My rating: 6/10

At some point at the close of the 19th Century – Victoria is still very much on her throne – 17-year-old Elizabeth sets off on a series of visits, accompanied by her maid Agnes, and the good advice (via unseen letters) of her mother.

It was perhaps a fortunate thing for Elizabeth that her ancestors went back to the Conquest, and that she numbered at least two Countesses and a Duchess among her relatives. Her father had died some years ago, and, her mother being an invalid, she had lived a good deal abroad. But, at about seventeen, Elizabeth began to pay visits among her kinfolk…

visits-of-elizabeth-elinor-glyn-frontispieceAs we can see by the delicately engraved “portrait” so thoughtfully provided as a frontispiece, Elizabeth is a lovely young thing.

She cultivates a strong line in unconscious naïvety, which supplies most of the humour throughout this otherwise rather cynical, one-sided epistolary novel. (We read all of Elizabeth’s letters to her stay-at-home Mama, but nary a one from her Mama to her.)

She’s always going on about the various quirks of personality, manners, dress and appearance of the people she bumps up against, and for a while we’re not quite sure if her outspoken assessments are meant to be as cutting as they at first appear, but it soon becomes evident that Elizabeth is not harbouring any particular malice, but rather merely a child-like propensity to burble on about the first thing that crosses her mind.

This rather astonishes the worldly, mostly wealthy people she finds herself among. The more experienced and hardened of the women generally find themselves rather jealous of her fresh beauty and unmarred reputation, while the men uniformly fall at least a little bit in love with her, to absolutely no avail, because Elizabeth isn’t playing the flirtation game.

Well, not very seriously, anyway. With the possible exception of one particularly “objectionable” man, whom she has turned off with a slap early on, but who keeps popping up when least expected.

No surprises in how this frothy story ends, and, though blatantly classist and occasionally racist (the French and the Germans come in for some serious slamming, not to mention the upstart nouveau riche Jews who dare to assault the ever-more-fragile glass ceiling of the British class system) in general our heroine settles herself down enough to become quite likeable by the turning of the final page.

Her Mama would undoubtedly be pleased.

There are little hints here and there of Elinor Glyn’s keen eye for the provocative moment which she evidently developed in her future novels, lots of to-ing and fro-ing in midnight corridors, and veiled glances, and double entendres, misunderstood to great comic effect by our innocent heroine.

Elinor Glyn herself led a rather fascinating life, and it is claimed that many of her amorous plotlines came from her own broad experience, including the tiger-skin novel itself, Three Weeks, which featured an anonymous woman-of-nobility enjoying a temporary erotic dalliance with a much younger man.

Elinor moved to Hollywood in 1920 to work as a screenplay writer. Her own novel It was made into a highly successful silent movie in 1927, propelling actress Clara Bow to super-stardom as “The It Girl”.

Glyn’s novels are probably of most interest to today’s readers in the “cultural literacy” sense alone, and I rather doubt that I myself would have chosen to track down and read The Travels of Elizabeth if it weren’t for the need for an interesting 1900 book for my Century. But its promise of light entertainment and my curiosity about a writer I had only known by reference combined to bring it into my hands, and I must say I would be very willing to read another of the later books, if only to see what all the fuss was about.

A small digression here about the antique (or vintage) book as an artifact in its own right. I do love to read books in as close to the original edition as I can find them. There is something deeply satisfying in handling a book in the form in which its author would have seen it go into the world. Dog-eared pages and marginal notes and affectionate inscriptions all add to the appeal, to the feeling of connection with fellow readers of long before our time. Never mind foxing or a bit of mustiness – if the pages are intact and readable I’m all for it no matter how tattered.

This is a handsome little production in the purely physical sense, its green cloth covers enhanced by silver embellishments. The end papers at first glance look to be merely of an interesting checkerboard pattern, but on closer examination proving to be made up of 4-book stacks with spines all reading “Mudie” in different fonts. (For the famous Mudie’s Lending Library, one assumes.There is also an embossed Mudie & Co. Limited stamp on the back cover.)

A really lovely engraving of the titular character is inserted opposite the title page, protected by a glassine sheet.

And, most intriguing of all, we find a page listing a tempting array of other Duckworth and Co.’s Novels, not a single one of which I have heard of, including In the Cage by Henry James. Is it the Henry James? Let me see…. Why, yes, it is. A novella from 1898, apparently.) But, oh! – how I wish I could get my hands on a few of these for their titles alone. Children, Racehorses & Ghosts, anyone? Or how about Omar the Tentmaker? The Crimson Weed? The Monk Wins?

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Potentially delicious book discoveries wait round every corner!

Cheerio, all.

And a slightly belated but most sincere Happy New Year!

 

 

 

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANovember. Here it is, and well on its way, too.

I cannot remember another period of time in my life when I have been so abstracted, so unfocussed, so just not there mentally. Things are coming from too many directions. And my reading has been what you might expect: abstracted as well. Ah, well, this too shall pass.

It’s been a great year, all things considered. A nice balance of (mostly) work, and (too infrequent but most enjoyable) play. But the busy-ness shows no sign of abating any time soon. I’m not even looking forward to snow, because the outside projects are due to continue regardless. Our best friends are our big tarps, covering construction projects in between working bouts.

What have I been reading? Nothing too exciting, mostly re-reads. Mamma, by Diana Tutton of Guard Your Daughters fame. Lafcadio Hearn’s The Romance of the Milky Way, from 1905, “studies and stories” from Japan. A whole string of O. Douglas tales. Reginald Arkell’s Old Herbaceous. Most of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, until I misplaced it. Monica Dickens – Joy and Josephine (ho-hum) and The Angel in the Corner (better). Ethel Armitage, and a host of other vintage British garden writers, combining pleasure with work, as I plug away updating our plant nursery website’s pages, in preparation for the too-soon-coming nursery year, which gets underway mid-December with the slowest-to-sprout perennials being optimistically seeded and subjected to their various germination-triggering temperature requirements – long warm, long cool, warm-cool-warm, cold-cool, cold-warm, very hot…

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So, instead of a book post, here’s a seasonal poem. And not the one you’re thinking it will be, from that misleading post title.

I’ve been worrying away at Rilke in the original German, keeping a volume of his collected works on my bedside table and wishing I had the self-discipline to actually study the language in an organized manner. Maybe next year!

In a slightly uneven English translation, here is one of my favourites, especially that third stanza. November, indeed.

Autumn Day

Lord, it is time. Let the great summer go,
Cast your long shadow on the sundial,
And over harvest fields let the winds blow.

Command to ripen the final fruits;
Grant them two more burning days,
Bring them to fullness, and press
A last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Who has no house, will not build now.
Who now is alone, will remain alone,
Will wake, read, write long letters,
And will the alleys up and down
Walk restlessly, in wind-blown fallen leaves.

Rainer Maria Rilke, circa 1902

 

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Not my personal copy, which is a rebound old school library edition with a boring green cover.

Not my personal copy, which is a rebound old school library edition with a boring green cover.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame ~ 1908. This edition: Scribner’s, 1954. Illustrated and with Preface by Ernest H. Shepard. Hardcover. 259 pages.

My rating: 10/10

What can be said about this book that hasn’t already been said, written, or recorded in some way? A true “classic”, in every sense of the word, beloved by children and adults the world over for the century-plus since its first publication.

Grahame’s anthropomorphic characters are most cleverly depicted. They are small humans in animal form, wearing clothes, walking upright when appropriate (though some find this easier to manage than others), and only sometimes following their animal nature. They interact with the humans in their world on a perfectly equal basis (or so they think) while the “real” humans seem to view them with a mildly patronizing attitude. The whole thing is rather complex, when one stops to think about it, and it says much for Grahame’s artistry that we accept his world immediately and without question.

The story itself is a series of linked adventures, starting with the subterranean Mole busily spring cleaning his rather dingy underground home, and throwing down his scrub brush in despair when the scent of Spring wafts through the air and catches the attention of his sensitive little nose. Wandering aimlessly out along the riverbank, Mole meets the cheerful Water Rat, who is appalled that his new acquaintance is unfamiliar with the joys of the river, and decides post-haste to initiate the ground dweller into the thrill of the liquid world, for

‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: ‘messing – about – in – boats; messing –‘

‘Look ahead, Rat!’ cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank at full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air…

The earnest Mole and the carefree Rat go on to have numerous adventures, mostly concerning their bumptious neighbour Toad, who is a wealthy creature much prone to following ever-changing whims full speed ahead until something new catches his short attention. A camping trip in a horse drawn caravan (with decent Mole walking along beside the Horse to keep him company and to try to make up for the fact that the Horse is doing all of the hot, dusty work while Toad lolls in the driver’s seat) goes awry as the group is run off the road by a Motorcar. Toad is seduced immediately, buys his own extra-deluxe motorcar, and with a war cry of “Poop! Poop!” (meant to mimic the klaxon horn of his newest Beloved) gets himself into much more serious scrapes and eventually into Court, where he receives a stern sentence for Driving to the Public Danger, and much more seriously, Cheeking a Policeman. Twenty years in the deepest dungeon of the best-guarded prison in all of England is the fate of Toad. How ever while he get out of this one?!

Good stuff. Read it for your personal pleasure; read it aloud to your children, and continue the long tradition.

That’s all I have to say. If you are looking for scholarly examination, it is freely available in great abundance here, there and everywhere. But not from me. It’s a grand book, undoubtedly an “important” book, and most crucial of all, a fun-to-read book. Go read it. It’s utterly perfect for Spring.

And oh, well, here is a link to a quite lovely blog post regarding it, the sort of thing which I would have liked to have written, but which has already been done to such perfection that I lazily thought, “Why do it again?”

Check this out: Behold the Stars: The Wind in the Willows

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Where-Angels-Fear-to-TreadWhere Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster ~ 1905. This edition: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1995. Hardcover. ISBN: not found. 208 pages.

My rating: 6/10

My relatively high rating of 6 is mainly for the quality of some of the writing. If judged by the appeal of plot and characters alone, this would get about a 4 or so.

I felt that the author lost his way towards the end, and I couldn’t abide any of the characters by the final chapter, least of all the main male protagonist, young Italiophile Philip.

So, has anyone else read this first novel by E.M. Forster? And if so, what did you think?

I found it rather uneven, with moments of sheer brilliance interspersed with numerous rather shaky bits. And the ending was not what I’d expected. I think that is possibly a good thing in a literary sense, in that I was shocked out of my readerly complacency – I thought I was reading merely a satirically humorous tale for the longest time – but I felt it (the final tragic occurrence and its aftermath) ultimately rather artistically troubling, as none of the responses of the characters to the contrived situation felt genuinely satisfactory. (Sorry to be all  mysterious as to the nature of the tragedy – I don’t want to spoil the ending, in case someone is half way through and wondering where it’s all going.)

This is a very slender novel, really more of a novella in its limited scope, and not up to the standard of Forster’s later, longer, more complex and much better-known works such as A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and A Passage to India. But as I’ve already mentioned, there are passages of wonderful writing in Where Angels Fear to Tread, which show what Forster was capable of at his best.

A widowed Englishwoman, very much under the thumb of her in-laws, departs for a year in Italy in the company of a much younger woman, whom she is to chaperone. It is hoped by the in-laws that the beauties of Italian art, architecture and culture will have a refining effect on the rather common nature of slightly foolish, slightly crass Lilia Herriton, and everyone concerned draws a sigh of relief when the train bears her away. Even her young daughter is content to see her go, and her mother-in-law is positively gleeful to have a free hand with bringing up her deceased son’s only child.

At first all is well, and Lilia writes gushing epistles home full of wonder at the beauties of Italy, leading her in-laws to hope that she will return a changed-for-the-better woman. But then a further letter comes, announcing Lilia’s engagement to an Italian “met in a hotel”. Shocked inquiries by telegram bring in return a brief explanation from Lilia’s companion, that the fiancé is “of the Italian nobility”. Something doesn’t seem quite right, and an immediate intervention is put into action, with the dispatch of Lilia’s young brother-in-law, Philip, with orders to set things straight and bring Lilia back home unencumbered with an Italian second husband, “nobility” or not.

Philip finds himself arriving too late to prevent the worst, for Lilia has actually married her Italian swain. Far from being a member of the nobility, he turns out to be the impoverished son of the local dentist, and Philip finds Lilia defensive and unrepentant and her young travelling companion in the throes of guilty despair, for she has encouraged the unlikely lovers in their wedding plans, and has now, with the arrival of the appalled Philip, realized the extreme unsuitability of the liaison and her own role in it.

Lilia is cast off by her exceedingly genteel in-laws back in England, and left alone to make do the best she can in her new life. Needless to say things are not quite as rosy as she has expected, and even the fact that she is comparatively wealthy and can afford a high standard of living for herself and her husband in the small Italian town where they establish their nuptial home does not compensate Lilia for her subsequent bitter loneliness and boredom as she finds herself isolated by nationality, language, and personality from everyone around her.

Lilia is not left to linger long, as she exits the Italian scene as impetuously as she entered it, triggering new complications which again cause the family of her first husband much hand-wringing and heart-burning. Philip finds himself despatched once more to attempt a resolution to an exceedingly awkward state of affairs, this time accompanied by his impetuous and outspoken sister Harriet. They are hot on the heels of Lilia’s one-time lady-companion, who, still wracked with guilt over the original scenario, has also departed post-haste to Italy in order to effect her own attempted rescue mission of the only true innocent in the increasingly sordid tale.

There is plenty of room for farce in all of these goings on, and Forster plays his characters for comedic effect well, but the story turns relentlessly from comedy to tragedy, and all of Philip’s (and the young author’s?) anguished philosophizing cannot turn back the course of events.

A tacked-on sort of romantic coda at the very end felt to me out of place. I’m not quite sure what I would have had the author do in its stead. Perhaps stop sooner and leave us to use our imaginations at the point of the tragedy? As it was, to my mind the story lost much of its poignancy because of what came after.

I doubt I’ll be reading this book again, though it has reminded me how good Forster can be, if in a slightly patchwork fashion. I may be looking at him again in the new year, and reading some of his later works once the Century project is all tidied up.

Where Angels Fear to Tread is an excellent title, even to its gentle warning to the reader not to expect a completely satisfactory tale.

My final verdict: I felt this was an “interesting” book, rather than a particularly “good” one.

 

 

 

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