Monday, February 16, 2015

A memoir of life in Australia

Thirty Years in Australia, Ada Cambridge

Reading Ada Cambridge's 1891 novel The Three Miss Kings sent me off in search of her other books.  The biographical note and the introduction to my Virago edition left me particularly interested in this memoir, published in 1903.  As with so much of her work, it has long been out of print, but I downloaded a copy to my e-reader (where it sat).  After I read another of her novels, A Marked Man, I was checking ABE Books, to see what else of hers I could find in paper.  It was perfect timing, because a copy of this book was available for a reasonable price.  It's an ex-library copy, and I don't usually buy those, because they tend to be beat up and marked up, but this one is in lovely shape for its 112 years.  It even has that delicious old-book smell.

I took to the three Miss Kings pretty much from the first page, and I had the same reaction to their author in her turn:
I knew nothing whatever of Australia when I rashly consented to marry a young man who had irrevocably bound himself to go and live there, and moreover, to go within three months of the day on which the wild idea occurred to me.  During the seven weeks or thereabouts of a bewildering engagement, the while I got together my modest trousseau, we hunted for information in local libraries, and from more of less instructed friends.  The books were mostly old ones, the tales the same.  Geoffrey Hamlyn was my sheet anchor, but did not seem to be supported by the scraps of prosaic history obtainable; we could not verify those charming homes and social customs.  On the other hand, cannibal blacks and convict bushrangers appeared to be grim facts. . . When we had assimilated all the information available, our theory of the life before us was still shapeless.  However, we were young and trusting, and prepared to take things as they came.
She married her husband, George Cross, in 1870, when she was twenty-six.  (She refers to him as "G." throughout the memoir, which reminded me of Vera Brittain's "G" in hers.)  A month after their wedding, they sailed from Plymouth for Australia.  They were bound for Melbourne, where her husband would serve for the next forty-two years as a priest in that diocese.  Her memoir is structured around the eight parishes that he was assigned to, seven in the bush and the last in Melbourne itself.  With each move, they had to re-establish a home and adapt themselves to the new community, which Cambridge usually enjoyed.  In these years, she gave birth to five children, losing two to disease before they were five (another son died at seventeen soon after she wrote this book).

Ada Cambridge was a hard-working wife and mother.  She was particularly proud of sewing her own and her children's clothes.  However, she was frequently in such poor health that she was confined to the sofa, and she often spent time recuperating with friends in Melbourne.  At one point she was left behind in a nursing home while her husband and children went off to a new parish, having been told by the doctors that she was going to die (of what, she never said).  In part because of her health, she refused to play the usual role of the vicar's wife, or what she called the "female-curate's post."  She was quite clear in her opinion that clergy wives were overworked, both by their husbands and the parish.  She included one story of a model wife and mother, who ended up in an asylum after her husband told her one Sunday that she would have to play the organ for the morning services; it was the proverbial last straw.  Cambridge for her part simply exempted herself from parish work, though not just because of her health. She also needed time for her writing, which she began "to add something to the family resources when they threatened to give out."  She wrote first for the Australasian, and her stories brought recognition and praise, as well as excusing what she called her "desertion" from parish work.  It also brought her friends, about whom she was very discreet, particularly those in high places.  I've been trying to figure out the identity of the young woman, "now on the roll of the grandees of England, by her marriage an aunt to Royalty." This grandee kept up their friendship over the years, "none of the usual arguments of the world against it having any effect upon that faithful heart."

I very much enjoyed this window into Australia in the late 19th century.  It was a completely new world to me, and while I know this is a limited view - and not just because the author hardly ventured out of Victoria - it is still a fascinating one.  On the subject of travel, I did note for the Travellin' Penguin that Cambridge took a cruise to Tasmania, fell in love with the place in just a few hours, and decided to retire there (her husband chose England instead).  After reading two of her novels, I was not surprised to find discussions of social and political issues, including a real estate boom and bust in 1886, and the Great Strike of 1889.  The Virago biographical note states that Cambridge "accepted her cultivated friends' views on Australian issues of which she had little firsthand knowledge."  It does concede that "Her interest in social reform, however, was often advanced for the Australia of her time."  She was not very concerned with the indigenous people, who appear only in the margins of her story.  But she very clearly condemned anti-Chinese prejudice, as well as government policies that treated "our coloured brothers as vermin unfit to live."

I've been fortunate enough to find paper copies of two more of Ada Cambridge's books, Sisters (in a very odd format) and A Woman's Friendship (recently reprinted from the original 1889 newspaper serial).  I am resigning myself to reading e-versions of the books that haven't been reprinted.  I do think though that Ada Cambridge would be a good fit for more Virago editions, or for Persephone.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The lure of re-reading & the end of the TBR Dare for me

I should have known better. I jinxed myself - saying that the TBR Dare was going well.  And here I am, giving up on it exactly half-way through.  Not because I want to read new books, but because I want to re-read. Specifically, Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò series.  I technically gave myself an exemption to re-read one book each month, but I've finished the first in the series, Niccolò Rising, and I'm not waiting two weeks for March, to start the second, The Spring of the Ram.  As James always says, the Dare is just for fun, and it should be fun - though I tend to get a bit competitive about it.

I know exactly how this happened.  It's all Toby Wilkinson's fault.  Reading the chapters on Cairo in his book The Nile reminded me of the fifth Nicholas book, The Unicorn Hunt, crucial scenes of which take place in Cairo.  I took that book down to re-read those parts, and then ended up looking for other favorites in the different books.  And I haven't been able to get the characters out of my mind since.

I thought about giving up the TBR Dare for Lent, but that definitely felt like cheating.  I'm still going to focus on reducing the TBR stacks, and I'm sticking with my "one in/one out" policy.  In the meantime, I am off to Trebizond.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A unique book of Civil War memoirs

A Black Woman's Civil War Memoirs, Susie King Taylor
 Patricia W. Romero & Willie Lee Rose, eds.

The original title of this book, privately published in 1902, is Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, Late 1st South Carolina Volunteers.  I can see why it was re-named for the edited edition I read, published in 1988.  As with Sarah Emma Edmonds' memoirs, the new title highlights what makes this book so special. Willie Lee Rose writes in her introduction,
There is nothing even vaguely resembling Susie King Taylor's small volume of random recollections in the entire literature of the Civil War, or in that of any other American conflict insofar as I am aware.  These are the memoirs of a black woman who was born a slave, who had the good fortune to gain her freedom early in the war, with the education and ability to observe and the will to recall in later years, the significance of the events in which she was a vigorous participant.
In an introduction to the original edition, the colonel of the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops wrote along similar lines:
Actual military life is rarely described by a woman, and this is especially true of a woman whose place is in the ranks, as the wife of a solider and herself a regimental laundress. No such description has ever been given, I am sure, by one thus connected with a colored regiment; so that the nearly 200,000 black soldiers (178,975) of our Civil War have never before been delineated from the woman's point of view.
Susie King Taylor was born in Georgia in 1848.  She was raised in Savannah by her grandmother, who defied the laws against educating slaves to send both the young Susie and her brother to an underground school.  This early education would prove crucial in her later life.  In early 1862, she was sent back to her owners' country plantation.  There her uncle took her with his own family as they escaped toward the Union soldiers then occupying the Georgia coast.  The coastal Sea Islands were full of cotton plantations, and as white southerners fled from the Yankees, the slaves stayed behind.  Though there was some controversy over their exact status, these African Americans were effectively free of slavery from that point on.  Susie King Taylor immediately found work in teaching both children and adults, though she was only 14 herself.

The small communities of newly free people were vulnerable to raids by Confederate forces, who took anyone they captured back into slavery.  The men gathered together what defenses they could.  Eventually they were recruited into the Federal army, as one of the first regiments of black soldiers.  Susie King Taylor married a sergeant in the regiment, Edward King, which led to her enrollment as a laundress.  But she did much more than that, in teaching the men to read and write, and in nursing them.  She traveled with the regiment on a campaign down to Florida, and she was with them when they marched in to occupy Charleston in February of 1865.  There, where the war began, black troops were among the first to enter the surrendered city, where they helped fight a raging fire set by the retreating Confederates.

After the war, Susie King Taylor settled with her husband in Savannah, where she opened a school for black children.  After her husband died, she supported herself and a child by teaching, but also by working as a cook and a laundress. Eventually she moved to Boston, where she lived the rest of her life.  She continued to devote herself to the soldiers of the war, both black and white.  She helped organize a branch of the Women's Relief Corps, the sister organization of the veterans' Grand Army of the Republic, which assisted vets in need.  She wrote quite scathingly about people who had forgotten the soldiers' sacrifices in the war.

This is a short book, certainly not an in-depth account of the author's experiences in slavery or in the Civil War.  I agree with the editors, though, that it is fascinating.  It is full of wonderful details, like Confederate attempts to frighten slaves away from the Yankees with posters in the streets, showing them as rattlesnakes and wildcats, too dangerous to approach. ("Certainly not!" her grandmother told her.)  I appreciated the editors' careful notes, which provide a lot of context for her account.  The last sections of the book deal with the state of race relations at the time, and I found those chapters very moving.  She wrote of the horrors of lynching (the editors note that at least 85 African Americans were lynched in 1902, the year her book was published).  Susie King Taylor also reported a trip she took to Louisiana, after learning her son was gravely ill there.  Living in Massachusetts for twenty years left her unprepared for the racism that she faced every moment in the south.  She was unable to bring her dying son home with her, because blacks could not travel on the sleeping cars and he was too weak to sit up in the regular seats.  "It seemed very hard," she wrote, "when his father fought to protect the Union and our flag, and yet this boy was denied, under this same flag, a berth to carry him home to die, because he was a negro."

Susie King Taylor ended her book with a plea:
[B]ut now, despite all the hindrances and "race problems," my people are striving to attain the full standard of all other races born free in the sight of God, and in a number of instances have succeeded.  Justice we ask - to be citizens of these United States, where so many of our people have shed their blood with their white comrades, that the stars and stripes shall never be polluted.

Let the people say, Amen.

Monday, February 9, 2015

4th anniversary & the TBR Dare

 

Well, I missed my 4th blogging anniversary.  I have some kind of blind spot about the date, I always think it's February 11th.  It's actually the 4th (ironically, this year).  Even though it's almost a week late, I'm still celebrating.  Last month I had one of those blogging crises that I've seen others go through.  Suddenly it all felt a bit pointless, and I began to wonder if it wasn't taking too much time away from actually reading.  But as I thought about shutting TBR 313 down, I kept coming back to why I started it in the first place: I needed a place to talk about what I was reading.  And I still do.  As much as I love visiting other people's blogs, collecting new titles & authors, joining the discussions through the comments, I still want a place for my books.  Just in time for the anniversary, I have a renewed appreciation for what this space means to me.

A belated happy anniversary to Katrina, hers is the day before mine.

On another topic, we are into the second month of the TBR Dare, and though I don't want to jinx myself, I think it's going pretty well.  I've read a couple of chunkster books, so the total number of books cleared so far (23) isn't as high as I'd like. (Some of those were abandoned unfinished.)  And I have been buying books as well.  But even before Christmas I started making myself discard one TBR book for every new one that comes in (most go to the library sale).  "One in/one out" is a classic technique for clearing out and organizing, and it is certainly making me think twice about buying more books.  Last year I weeded the TBR shelves pretty thoroughly, getting rid of books that no longer appealed, or what I think of as "aspirational" books ("I know I should read this book").  Those on the shelves now are books I want to read, or at least try.  So bringing home a new book makes for some tough choices.  I'll see how this goes, but I am encouraged.  Of course I did just order two more of Anthony Trollope's novels, because the 12 I already have unread just aren't enough.  At least I have some time before they arrive to decide who gets the chop in their favor.  Hopefully writing about this will keep me on track - and honest!

I do however get a free pass on the new Laurie R. King book this month, the latest Mary Russell adventure, and I cannot wait.  She will be the speaker at a luncheon hosted by Murder by the Book, as well as an evening signing.  I may well be at both.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

My introduction to Helen MacInnes

Pray for a Brave Heart, Helen MacInnes

I have rather lost my taste for John Le Carré's books lately, so I am glad to find another author of espionage and suspense.  I knew Helen MacInnes's name, but I thought she wrote neo-Gothics along the lines of Victoria Holt.  It was vicki who set me straight.  I found several of her books at Murder by the Book, in nice Titan Book paperbacks, and I chose this one based on the back cover summary:
     William Denning is determined to leave the army and his work with the Restitution of Property division in 1953 Berlin to return home to the United States, but his terminal leave in Switzerland could turn out to be true in more than just name when he is asked to close one last file during his trip. American Intelligence has learned that the Herz diamonds, which disappeared during the war, are being smuggled out of Europe, and they want him to intercept and recover them.
     Denning soon finds himself fighting for survival in a ruthless world of espionage and international conspiracy where loyalty can be bought and sold.
I won't say anything more about the plot, to avoid spoilers, except that the story also involves people being smuggled out of Europe, which was much more interesting to me than the diamonds.

I enjoyed this book, particularly its Swiss setting, though I wasn't always sure exactly what was going on.  I read a lot of mysteries, which I am not bright at solving, but spy stories can leave me even more confused.  I have to concentrate to keep the different groups straight, let alone who is working with whom, before the alliances and the double-crosses start. At the end of this one, I still wasn't sure who the villains actually were. It was clear what they were trying to do, though, and maybe that's all that matters.

Two things surprised me, in a good way.  First, most of the characters are amateurs, caught up in trying to help old friends or even new acquaintances.  Though the civilians may give the professionals heart palpitations, they aren't content just to sit on the sidelines, they want to do their part.  Second, I kept expecting a romantic development that never happened. There were undercurrents of attraction, and a very nice happily married couple, but I actually found the lack of romantic tension in the story refreshing.  It was certainly tense enough in other ways!

I see that Helen MacInnes has a long list of books written.  I was interested to learn that in writing them she undoubtedly drew on her husband's work in MI6 - which apparently continued even after they emigrated to the United States in 1937.  I will be looking for more of her books after the TBR Dare ends, though I think I will be just as happy to borrow them.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Two unsuitable matches in a Marquis's family

Marion Fay, Anthony Trollope

I decided to start my year celebrating Anthony Trollope with this book, one of the last published before his death in 1882.  As so often happens with his books, the first few pages captivated me, and I was deep into the story almost before I knew it.
     When Mr. Lionel Trafford went into Parliament for the Borough of Wednesbury as an advanced Radical, it nearly broke the heart of his uncle, the old Marquis of Kingsbury. Among the Tories of his day the Marquis had been hyper-Tory. . . Wednesbury had never been the Marquis's own; but his nephew was so in a peculiar sense. His nephew was necessarily his heir,- the future Marquis,- and the old Marquis never again, politically, held up his head. He was an old man when this occurred, and luckily for him he did not live to see the worse things that came afterwards.
     The Member for Wednesbury became Marquis and owner of the large family property, but still he kept his politics.  He was a Radical Marquis, wedded to all popular measures, not ashamed of his Charter days. . .
     But it came to pass that the shade of his uncle was avenged, if it can be supposed that such feelings will affect the eternal rest of a dead Marquis.  There grew up a young Lord Hampstead, the son and heir of the Radical Marquis, promising in intelligence and satisfactory in externals, but very difficult to deal with as to the use of his thoughts.  They could not keep him at Harrow or at Oxford, because he not only rejected, but would talk openly against, Christian doctrine; a religious boy, but determined not to believe in revealed mysteries. And at twenty-one he declared himself a Republican,- explaining thereby that he disapproved altogether of hereditary honours. He was quite as bad to this Marquis as had been this Marquis to the other. . . Lord Hampstead would not even condescend to sit for the family borough. . .
     But there was worse than this,- infinitely worse.
Two of Anthony Trollope's favorite themes there in the first pages: politics and father-son conflicts.  Then he adds two sets of mis-matched lovers into the mix.  The "infinitely worse" sin that Lord Hampstead commits is to bring his friend George Roden, a clerk in the Post Office service, to Hendon Hall.  There, in the family's house outside London, George meets Hampstead's sister Lady Frances Trafford, and they fall in love.  When her stepmother the Marchioness discovers that he has had proposed and been accepted, she instantly banishes him from the house and vents her wrath on Lady Frances.  Lady Kingsbury is equally angry with her stepson, for introducing such an unsuitable person into the family.  She disapproves of both her stepchildren.  She can't help wishing that her own eldest son, Frederic, was the heir instead.  It becomes a frequent topic of conversation with Mr Greenwood, the Marquis's nominal chaplain, who is eventually tempted to act in the matter.  Meanwhile, Lord Hampstead, visiting George Roden's home, meets a neighbor of his, Marion Fay, and falls in love in his turn.  The daughter of a Quaker, a clerk in a business house, she is no more welcome to the Kingsburys as a future daughter-in-law than the postal clerk is a son-in-law, and more blame is poured on Lord Hampstead.

By making one of his heroes a clerk in the postal services bureau, Trollope introduces another familiar theme, one of course based on his own years of service there.  The scenes set in George's office are some of the funniest in the book.  They feature a wonderful character, Samuel Crocker, who sits just across from George Roden. He is the worst employee, lazy and perpetually late, always on the brink of getting fired.  That's partly because he spends so much of his time and energy in social climbing.  Once he discovers George's friendship with Hampstead, he tries to build on his friendship with George to claim Hampstead as an auxiliary friend.  His maneuvers are hilarious, particularly because he is completely tone-deaf and never realizes how much he annoys pretty much everyone, starting with his "friend' George.  But there's also a little touch of pathos to how desperately he tries to latch on to people.

In Lady Frances and Marion Fay, Trollope wrote two strong female characters, who choose for themselves.  Lady Frances insists from the start that she will marry her postal clerk.  She is twenty-one, and though she has no money of her own, she knows that eventually she will get her way.

Some spoilers will follow:

Lady Frances is prepared to wait, as her furious stepmother carts her off first to Germany, and then to the family's country estate.  Eventually her father allows her to live with her brother at Hendon Hall, which I thought very progressive of him (and his author).  But her story comes to an unexpectedly happy (and somewhat farcial) ending: George's mother, who has a mysterious past, finally reveals that while living in Italy she married into a noble family.  Even though her husband turned out to be a rotter, her son is still the Duca de Crinola (the Oxford Reader's Companion to Trollope helpfully points out that this "comic title" means "Duke of Horsehair").  George inherits nothing but the title, yet that makes him acceptable to the Kingsburys and their circle (including the lovely Lord and Lady Persiflage).  However, George, a staunch Englishman, refuses to claim an Italian title, insisting that he will continue to work in the Post Office.  This scandalizes everyone except his future wife.  He is warned, ominously, that the Queen will have to be consulted.  It all dissolves into farce, with a wedding at the end. And poor Samuel Crocker goes slightly crazy when he learns that his office mate is a real live Duke.

All of this plays out against the story of the second couple, Lord Hampstead and Marion Fay.  While Lady Frances stands by her lover from the start, Marion rejects hers.  Though she loves him with all her heart, she argues that the distance between them is too great, that he should choose someone more fitting to be the future Marchioness.  The Republican Hampstead of course rejects this.  But she has an unanswerable argument in her health.  Her mother and all her siblings died of consumption, and she knows she will too.  And sure enough, she begins to decline into that picturesque consumption so beloved of Victorian novelists.  (Trollope himself of course lost a brother and sister to consumption.)  My only quibble with this book is that I found their story increasingly tedious and too maudlin for my tastes.  There are a lot of long noble speeches about love and happiness and Heaven, particularly when Hampstead tries to persuade Marion to marry him anyway. And the sicker she gets, the holier she becomes, until her soul just flits away one day to a better world (Trollope actually says it "flitted.") (It was in these sections that I felt the weight of my Penguin edition's 856 pages.)  All Hampstead's future happiness is buried in her grave, and at the end of the book, he is preparing to sail around the world, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.  Since he is determined never to marry another, the wicked Lady Kingsbury will get her wish, and one of her sons will eventually inherit the title and the family honours.  She is the worst stepmother I have met yet in his books, beating out Mrs Masters in The American Senator.

According to my invaluable Companion, the critical reaction to this book was mixed, and I can see why.  I certainly wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to Trollope.  But I agree with the critic of the Athenaeum, who wrote, "the reader will recognize with pleasure much of the brightness and lightness of touch which characterized his early work."

Friday, January 30, 2015

Anthony Trollope in 2015



I have been so looking forward to the bicentennial of Anthony Trollope's birth this year.  I know that the Trollope Society - which I keep meaning to join - is planning some events.  Closer to home, I am excited about two reading events hosted by fellow bloggers.  One of the great joys for me in blogging has been connecting with other Trollope readers.  Audrey is hosting a year-long read through the Barsetshire series, which I will join in April (after the TBR Dare ends), just in time for Barchester Towers and Mrs. Proudie.  That will tie in with the celebration of his birth on April 24th, for which Karen is planning a month-long party.

Looking at my own shelves, I have 13 books of his, still unread.  (Fourteen if you count Vol. II of North America, which I couldn't leave on the shelf even though there was no Vol I; I have yet to find a copy).  I also have two biographies, The Chronicler of Barsetshire, by R.H. Super, and Trollope, An Illustrated Biography, by C.P. Snow.  Audrey and JoAnn are currently reading Victoria Glendinning's biography, which makes me want to read it again myself.

I think that I will celebrate one of my favorite authors by reading something of his each month this year.  There will be some re-reading, I know, with Audrey's Barsetshire plan.  I've been wanting to read Doctor Thorne and Framley Parsonage again, and I feel I should give Lily and The Small House at Allington another try.  But I would also like to read from the TBR shelves.  To that end, I've started with Marion Fay, one of Trollope's last novels, published just six months before his death in 1882.  It reminds me a little of The Duke's Children (and reading about that book in the Oxford Reader's Companion to Trollope has made me want to take it down off the shelf)The young Lord Hampstead at the center of this story is a delight, at least so far - though his stepmother, the haughty Marchioness of Kingsbury, keeps thinking what a better marquis her own son Frederic would make.