Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Children of Pride, Robert Manson Myers, ed.

I spent the last week immersed in this book.  At times it felt like I was reading a classic Victorian novel, a family drama in an American setting rather than the more familiar worlds of Anthony Trollope or Charlotte Yonge.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading about real people - and that there was a large supporting cast whose voices were rarely heard.

The Children of Pride is a collection of the letters of the family of Rev. Dr. Charles Colcock Jones, written between 1860 and 1868.  A prominent Presbyterian minister, he lived with his wife Mary south of Savannah, Georgia.  The 129 slaves he owned worked the family's three plantations, raising cotton and rice.  One son, Charles, was a lawyer in Savannah.  The first letter in the collection announces his election as mayor of the city, in October of 1860.  A second son, Joseph, was a physician in Augusta, Georgia.  The only daughter Mary was married to a Presbyterian minister herself, who served a church in a small town close by.  All three children were married and had their own children.  They also owned slaves, who worked in their homes and on their own properties.  The letters mention different slaves by name, sending news or greetings between family members separated, echoing the news and messages shared by the white writers.  I was surprised to see older slaves referred to as "Daddy" (Daddy Andrew) and "Mom" (Mom Patience), rather than the more familiar "Aunt" and "Uncle."

This book, at 671 pages, is an abridgement of a much longer book.  The editor Robert Manson Myers chose the letters included here to highlight the Joneses' various experiences in the Civil War.  In one sense, the war dominates the book: the Joneses one and all hated the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln, whom they blamed for the war.  Devout Christians, they saw the North as a godless place filled with evil men who desecrated the sacred soil of the South simply by setting foot on it.  It has been a while since I read anything so virulently pro-Confederate, and I had to put the book down sometimes to get a break.  I eventually printed out Lincoln's second Inaugural Address and stuck it in the book, just for a bit of balance.  I know it is no use arguing with dead people, but I was surprised that the Joneses assigned the lowest possible motives to the North.  They apparently refused to consider that Lincoln and his army were fighting to save the Union.  They understood it only as a war by abolitionists, to crush not just slavery but the entire Southern way of life. Thus they were fighting a holy war, in which they fully expected God to give them the victory. To protect their human property from the Federal troops, the Joneses bought a plantation in northeast Georgia, planning to move their slaves away from the vulnerable coast (the previous owner sold the property so he could move his slaves to Texas).  Rev. Jones wrote indignantly to one son that the slaves were deserting the plantations to cross to the Union troops. "The temptation of cheap goods, freedom, and paid labor cannot be withstood. None may be absolutely depended on."  How dare they, sir!

Yet at the same time, the first three years of the war had little direct effect on the Joneses.  Union naval forces blockaded the coast but landed only a small number of troops.  The oldest son Charles became a lieutenant colonel in an artillery unit, but he was stationed around Savannah for most of war and apparently never fought in a battle.  The second son Joseph became an army surgeon, and he was later sent to investigate the notorious Andersonville prison camp, but he spent much of the war caring for civilians and carrying out medical research.  War came to Georgia with Gen. William Sherman's troops in late 1863.  The daughter Mary was then living in Atlanta, where her husband was pastor of a parish.  They fled Atlanta before it was taken, but by going down to the family's plantations they put themselves in the path of the March to the Sea.  Mary gave birth to her fourth child while Sherman's raiders outside ransacked the place and threatened the family.

Though the violence of the war came late, the war itself was a constant theme in the family's letters.  But they are also full of the events of their own lives.  Children were born, and some died, as did spouses.  The women writing often spoke of "expecting to be sick" at a particular time, estimating when a child was due.  There were constant outbreaks of disease, from "break-bone fever" (which may have been malaria or dengue fever) to scarlet and yellow fever, as well as heart disease and the degenerating health of the elderly.  Everyone wrote constantly about clothing - who was making it for whom, who was wearing what.  Trade and food were other frequent topics, with goods coming from the cities crossing with home delicacies being sent out.  There were also reports on the crops and other work carried out by the slaves (always referred to as "the servants" or "the Negroes").  Of course news was shared, from a large extended family.  And there were constant references to church work, to services and preaching.  Charles Junior was not a member of the church, though a believing Christian.  But his parents worried constantly that he had not been saved, and they wrote regularly about their fears for his soul - apparently to no avail, at least in the letters here.  I did note that no one in the family mentioned reading for pleasure.  The only books mentioned besides the Bible were the spiritual works in Dr. Jones's library.

I found these letters, and the Joneses themselves, fascinating (and sometimes really annoying).  Their personalities come through so clearly in the letters, which are well-written (though often verbose).  The book includes photos of the main writers, which made them even more familiar.  I was initially surprised at the lack of footnotes or of any explanatory notes, given how many people and places are mentioned in the letters.  In his preface, the editor explained that decision, quoting Samuel Johnson: "Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils..."  Dr. Myers went on to say, "I have preferred to keep the reader in the nineteenth century rather than force him to shuttle between the nineteenth and twentieth. I have let the story speak for itself."  And it does, very strongly.  I did appreciate his epilogue, where he tells us what happened to each of the family members, including the children born in those nine years.

This is a hefty books, particularly in the hardcover edition I read, but it held my interest to the very last page, because it is such a human story.  The original edition of the letters, which covers six more years (1854-1868), is massive, over 1800 pages.  I am looking for a copy - I want the fuller story.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Victorian Chaise-Longue, by Marghanita Laski

I came across this book on a list of forgotten classics, and I was immediately intrigued by the premise: Melanie in her modern drawing room falls asleep on her antique Victorian chaise-longue one afternoon, and wakes up in a different, frailer body, in a Victorian household.  What really caught my attention was the assertion that this book would cure its female readers of ever wanting to travel back in time to Barsetshire.  I am a sucker for any Trollope connection, and I was glad of an excuse to browse again at Persephone Books.  (Never mind that I already have Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost unread on the TBR shelves.)

While this book had no effect on my love for Barsetshire, I can say it was one of the most unsettling and horrifying books I have read in a very long time.  A great part of its effect is I think that so much is left unsaid, unexplained, for the reader and Melanie to figure out.  Yet at the same time, I saw some things more clearly than Melanie, confused and terrified by her experience.  I am on record as a fan of time-travel or time-slip books, but in those I have read, the characters either seek the experience or quickly adapt themselves to it.  I had never considered the horror of waking in someone else's body, not knowing who or where one was - and without the least idea how to get back.

I was very impressed with the ingenuity of Laski's story, the skill with which she slowly reveals Melanie's awakening and discovery.  Because we see through her eyes, we are caught up in her confusion and terror.  Laski links the stories of the two women together in such clever ways, some of which I didn't catch until after I'd finished the book and was thinking back over the story.  I felt Laski evoked a small corner of the Victorian world wonderfully well.  I don't think though that it is any kind of statement on Victorian women in general, but on the experiences of one particular woman and her circumstances.

And all of this in such a short book - only 99 pages in the Persephone edition.  Its impact is all out of proportion to its size.  I really appreciated P.D. James's introduction to this edition, which gave me some background information on Marghanita Laski, as well as the titles of her other books - hopefully also published by Persephone.

I am mortified however to learn that I have for years mistakenly called this particular piece of furniture a "chaise-lounge."  Which made sense in my mind because one lounges upon it.  But still - I blush for my long-ago French minor in college.  And after reading this, I doubt I will ever sit - let alone lounge - on one again.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander

There was a time, some years ago, when I was drawn to reading memoirs of loss - spouses, partners, parents, children.  My mother was suffering from a debilitating disease that no doctor could diagnose, let alone treat.  I recognize now that on some level I was trying to prepare myself for a loss I couldn't even contemplate.  I realized the futility of that when we lost her, suddenly, between one day and the next.  Nothing had prepared me for that, nothing could.

Elizabeth Alexander lost her husband just as suddenly.  Four days after his 50th birthday, he collapsed on the treadmill in their basement, where their younger son found him.  I read an excerpt from this memoir in The New Yorker, about the events of that night, and put the book on my reading list.  In some ways it follows a familiar pattern: a portrait of a loved one, an account of lives built together, of children and family; then of death, and those left behind trying to cope with that loss.

What sets this book apart for me is the language.  Elizabeth Alexander is a poet and an essayist.  According to Poets.org, she is currently the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, as well as a Professor of African American Studies at Yale.  She weaves poetry - her own and others - into her story, including a poem of her husband's that she found after his death.  Her beautifully-written chapters move back and forth in time, returning always to the loss at the center of her story, and for a long time, of her life.

Her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, was born in Eritrea (a country I couldn't have found on a map before reading this).  A war for independence from Ethiopia cost thousands of lives over thirty years, driving many people into exile.  He was one of them, walking to Sudan, traveling from there to Europe and then the United States.  He worked as a chef, opening restaurants with his brothers, before turning to the study of art.  The book includes some of his recipes, "legendary dishes such as shrimp barka that existed nowhere in Eritrea but rather in his own inventive imagination."  He never exhibited or sold his artwork, photos and paintings that Elizabeth Alexander describes so vividly and movingly.  I was happy to find that it can now be seen on a website she has set up here.  It was also moving to see a photo of this man that I felt I had come to know - and to mourn - through her words.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sunday miscellany: bookish connections, new books, books delayed

Good morning!  It is another hot summer day here in Houston, perfect for staying inside to read - but then most days are, for one reason or another.  We're supposed to top 95 degrees today, with no break in sight for a while, but at least the tropics are quiet.  We've had enough storms to last us!

I am still working my way through Richard III.  With Shakespeare I often end up reading scenes aloud, which helps me follow the language.  That means that I generally only read Shakespeare at home!  Yesterday evening I finished re-reading Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings, the first of the Lymond Chronicles.  Usually as I turn the last page I am already reaching for the second, Queens' Play, but I put it off for a while to read some other things.  I pulled this book off the TBR shelves, only to realize how it connects my recent reading.



Princess Alice was born Alice Christabel Montagu Douglas Scott, the granddaughter of the Duke of Buccleuch.  The Douglases and the Scotts are major characters in the Lymond Chronicles, particularly Wat Scott of Buccleuch and his son Will Scott of Kincurd in The Game of Kings. This book is filled with late Victorian and early Edwardian photos of the Scott family, and homes that I associate from the Chronicles with the Douglases, like Drumlanrig and Dalkeith.  In fact, I bought this at Half Price Books many years ago primarily for the pictures, and the Scott connection.  I had never made the connection with Richard III's title of Duke of Gloucester, however.  I don't know much yet about this Duke and Duchess, but I'm sure they were happier than Shakespeare's Richard and Anne. I've only read a few pages of the book, the first chapters of which describe a charming Edwardian childhood in a close-knit family, growing up between London and Scotland (Princess Alice was born in 1901).  It's funny (and sad) that I've had this book unread for so many years, but it does fit my theory that books unread "ripen" on the shelves until the right time.  And while I have been toying with the idea of a trip to Ireland next year, after following Somerville and Ross around Connemara, now I'm thinking of the Highlands and the Hebrides.

I don't follow Lois McMaster Bujold on social media, but I belong to an on-line reading group focused on her books.  For some time I've heard via the group that she has had a serious case of writer's block, with nothing published since the latest in the Vorkosigan saga, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, in late 2012.  Then came the exciting news of a new Vorkosigan book to be published next year - and focused on Cordelia, mother of the manic Miles and one of my favorite heroines.  The news of a novella set in her Five Gods series was a complete and happy surprise.  The three books of this series are set in an AU late-medieval Europe, with a Holy Family of Five Gods that frequently intervene in human events.  I love this series almost as much as the Vorkosigan books, and I have long been hoping for more.  The first, The Curse of Chalion, focused on the Daughter of Spring, and the third, The Hallowed Hunt, on her brother, The Son of Autumn.  The second book belongs to the Bastard, son of the Mother of Sumner, who also plays a big part in the other stories.  I was hoping for a book on the Mother, as well as the Father of Winter, but from this title of this novella, I knew we would be seeing more of the Bastard.


The Bastard, lord of demons and of untimely events, is such fun to read about, and I imagine to write about!  He does tend to take over the story a bit, when he appears, much like DEATH in Terry Pratchett's Discworld.  This novella is only available as an e-book, so I have made just my third purchase, and all novellas (I generally download free older books from Gutenberg and Google Books).  It's lovely to be back in this world, and I can already feel the pull to return to Chalion as well.

With so many good books to read, it feels churlish to whine about books that I can't have (yet).  But Hayley's review of one of the new British Library Crime Classics, Alan Melville's Quick Curtain, gave me that "I want to read this right now" feeling.  Unfortunately, there is a delay with their U.S. release.  I will be good and wait, but it does remind me again how spoiled I have become, with books so easily available.

And finally, our JASNA Houston group met yesterday, to watch Amy Heckerling's "Clueless," which some of our members had never seen.  I did, when it was first released, and I still remember when it burst upon me in the theater that I was watching a very clever adaptation of Emma.  Not having seen it in several years, I enjoyed seeing it again very much.  It certainly has some dated elements, like the massive cell phones the characters carry around, but overall we agreed the story itself doesn't feel too dated.  We were talking afterwards about how the bones of the story are there, even if the details don't always match up. Christian won't end up with a Jane Fairfax, but he turns out to be a much better friend to Cher than Frank to Emma.  And Cher has the kind of friend in Dionne that Emma herself lacks.  We may watch the Bollywood "Bride and Prejudice" another time. This was the first film viewing that I've been to, since I boycott the actual adaptations!

I hope that everyone has a lovely week!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Evil characters in literature

I am currently reading two books, or rather a book and a play: Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings, and William Shakespeare's Richard III. Both readings were inspired by Carola Hicks' book on the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, which led me to a book on the Paston family (A Medieval Family, by Frances and Joseph Gies).  I've also had Dunnett's Francis Crawford of Lymond in mind since I read an article by Marie Brennan, "Five Things Epic Fantasy Writers Could Learn from Dorothy Dunnett" (it's posted on Tor.com here).

Reading these two together is a weird experience, because they both include a great literary villain.  Moving from book to play and back again is like being caught in a call and response of evil.  And that got me started thinking about evil characters in literature.  I love making lists, but I can't come up with others who measure up to these two.

I have seen at least one production of Richard III, the 1995 film with Ian McKellan.  I can't remember if I've ever read the play before, though.  As a history major concentrating on British history, I read about the Wars of the Roses, and about Richard's reign, both in historical works and in novels.  Just the other day I was looking through Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, because I remembered a reference to the Paston Letters.  Of course I ended up reading through my favorite parts, marveling again at the passion Tey brought to her defense of Richard.  I remember Dorothy Dunnett taking a more measured view of him, when he appears as a character late in the House of Niccolo series.  But the pure evil of Shakespeare's Richard came as a bit of a shock.  When I read his aside on Clarence in Act 1, I felt a chill:
Exit Clarence
Richard:
Go tread the path that thou shalt ne'er return.
Simple, plain Clarence, I do love thee so
That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven,
If heaven will take the present at our hands.
And then he goes from there to court the Lady Anne, over the body of her father-in-law Henry VI, whom Richard cheerfully admits to having killed, as well as her husband Edward.  All for love of her, he says.  When she accepts his ring, I want to Cher-smack her.

Dorothy Dunnett's villain is a woman, like Richard based on a historical person: Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, the niece of Henry VIII and eventually the mother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots.  When we meet her in The Game of Kings, she and Lymond already have a history together, which is only gradually revealed.  Their relationship plays out across the six novels, to the very end of the series. "From her jealous concupiscence at twenty-seven for a boy eleven years younger had come all of the ills that dogged him."  And it's not just Lymond who suffers.  In this first book alone she is responsible for the death of three innocents, and the toll will continue to mount. (Two people that I talking into reading The Game of Kings have never forgiven me [me?] for one of those deaths, and have refused to read any further in the series.)  Margaret Lennox is such fun to loathe, and I always enjoy the last glimpse of her in the final pages of Checkmate.

So those two are my list of not just villains, but literary evils.  I haven't been able to think of any others to add to the list - and I'm not counting serial killers or psychopaths, because I don't read about them by choice.  I was considering Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park, who I do believe is evil, but she doesn't have as much scope for her talents (appropriating cream cheeses and green baize rather than crowns, and really with only Fanny to torment). Also smaller in scope is Charlotte Mullen, of E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross's The Real Charlotte, but then she is truly an evil woman, unredeemed even by her love of her cats.  Maybe I will complicate my list with a second rank, the lesser of two evils.  In the meantime, I will be keeping my eye out for other villains, and welcome any nominations.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

I'm going to start buying lottery tickets again

Through Connemara in a Governess Cart, E.O. Somerville & Martin Ross

I didn't intend to pick up another book by Somerville and Ross so soon, but the two books I tried after finishing The Real Charlotte were completely unsatisfactory and went quickly into the library donation bag.  I've had this book in mind for a while, because several people have mentioned finding copies, and because I felt I didn't do it justice the first time I read it.  I didn't even write about it then, because I found it a bit flat.

I think I must have been having a bad reading day at the time, because reading it now was a delight.  I laughed out loud more than once, at the adventures of the cousins and also at the narrator's sly asides.
We crossed Cork on an outside-car; and here, no doubt, we should enter on a description of its perils which would convulse and alarm English readers in the old, old way; but we may as well own at once that we know all about outside-cars; we believe we went to be christened on an outside-car, and we did not hold on even then - we certainly have not done so since.

Like their book In the Vine Country, this began as a series of articles for The Ladies' Pictorial.  (It was published in book form in 1893.)  This time, rather than traveling to France, they would explore Violet Martin's home county of Connemara in the west of Ireland.  With some difficulty, they hired a governess cart (like the ones you can see here) and a contrary jennet called Sibbie to pull it.  Loaded up with Bath Oliver biscuits, cheese, and Borvil, they set off.

They spent their nights at small hotels, crowded with fishermen drawn to the many lakes and rivers running through Connemara.  One of their last stops was on the Renvyle Peninsula on the Atlantic coast, where they stayed at the Renvyle House.  Once part of a large estate, it was turned into a hotel by its owner, Caroline Blake, after the upheavals of the Land League movement (something I've just begun to learn about).  Mrs. Blake was still running the hotel when Somerville and Ross stayed there, and she joined them for an afternoon of tea and conversation.  I was following the cousins' trip via Google, looking at the different places where they stopped, and I couldn't help gasping when I found that Renvyle House is still open.  Some of the photos that I found on-line look like the sketches in this book (which are based on Somerville's artwork).  I am now going to start buying lottery tickets again, because I am determined that I too will drive through Connemara to stay at Renvyle House - just not in a governess cart.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Somerville and Ross's masterpiece: The Real Charlotte

The Real Charlotte, E.O. Somerville and Martin Ross

Published in 1894, this is the second novel written by cousins E.O. (Edith) Somerville and Martin Ross (née Violet Martin).  I enjoyed their first, An Irish Cousin, and love their "Irish R.M." stories and travel accounts.  But this book is something else.  It's hard to believe that this was only their second novel.  In style, plotting, characterization, it is far beyond An Irish Cousin.  Somerville and Ross seem to have sharpened their skills amazingly in the five years between the two books (I have read that this one took them two years to write).  It also feels surprisingly modern - not of the 21st century certainly, but the story could be from the first decades of the 20th.  Neither the lack of technology nor the occasional descriptions of clothing anchor this firmly in the Victorian era (though I did learn the name for a familiar article of Victorian women's clothing, the dolman).

The Charlotte of the title is Charlotte Mullen, but before we meet her we are introduced to Francie Fitzpatrick, living with her cousins in Dublin, and already a confirmed flirt.  Then the story moves to a small town called Lismoyle in the west of Ireland.  There Charlotte lives, in a house inherited from her aunt, which is overrun with cats and kittens, on whom she dotes.  On her death-bed, old Mrs. Mullen reminded Charlotte of her promise to take care of Francie, her great-niece and Charlotte's cousin, though she has left no legacy in her will.  Charlotte finds that promise as inconvenient as John Dashwood did his.  Eventually she invites Francie to stay with her at Tally Ho.  That summer Francie meets again Roddy Lambert, an old friend and flirt from Dublin, now an estate agent for the Dysart family.  He is an even older friend of Charlotte, who has befriended his wife in turn.  Francie is also introduced to the Dysarts, whose son and heir Christopher takes an interest in her, though she prefers the company of Gerald Hawkins, an officer of the regiment stationed in the neighborhood.  She is less popular with the ladies of Lismoyle, who deplore her vulgar Dublin accent and her flashy clothes as much as her flirtatious ways.  Charlotte, who hopes that Francie may make an advantageous marriage that will cement her own social position, lets her go her own way.

There is so much to enjoy in this book.  The authors make the settings so real, from Charlotte's house at Tally Ho to Bruff, the estate of the Dysarts, to Francie's cousins' overflowing cottage in Bray.  But while the landscape is beautifully described, the homes are frequently dirty and squalid (Bruff being a notable exception).  Some reviewers at the time complained that two young gentlewomen had written about a "seamy" side of Irish life, and family members commented as well.  Somerville and Ross were apparently unfazed.  They always considered this their best book, and I can see why.

What really makes the book is the strength of the characters.  I was particularly taken with the Dysarts, the Anglo-Irish squire's family.  Christopher, the heir, has just returned from a diplomatic post abroad.  He lives at home with a brother and sister and their parents, spending his time sailing on the nearby lake and taking photographs.  His mother adds a lot of humor to the story.
Lady Dysart had in her youth married, with a little judicious coercion, a man thirty years older than herself, and after a long, and on the whole, extremely unpleasant period of matrimony, she was now enjoying a species of Indian summer, dating  from six years back, when Christopher's coming of age and the tenants' rejoicings thereat, had caused such a paroxysm of apoplectic jealousy on the part of Christopher's father as, combining with the heat of the day, had brought on a 'stroke.'  Since then the bath-chair and James Canavan [his attendant] had mercifully intervened between him and the rest of the world, and his offspring were now able to fly before him with a frankness and success impossible in the old days.
But it is Francie and Charlotte who really dominate the story.  Francie may be young, and badly brought-up, but she has a kind heart and a "staunchness of soul that was her redeeming quality."  Charlotte - oh my.  Few people know the real Charlotte, "the weight of [her] will, and the terror of her personality" - luckily for them.**  Somerville and Ross claimed that she was one of the few characters drawn from real life in all their fiction.  She was based on a relation who had bilked Somerville out of an inheritance, as Charlotte did Francie.  (Ross wrote Somerville about meeting people who knew the actual "Charlotte," to whom they also were related.  She panicked initially, but "They were enchanted about it...").

My only quibble with the book is its rather abrupt ending, which leaves the fate of one character hanging.  I really want to know what happens next, to several of the characters.**

N.B. After a long hiatus, I can finally add another year to my Century of Books.


**Some spoilers follow:

Mostly, I'd like to know that Charlotte gets her just deserts.  She commits two crimes in particular that shocked me.  First, she encourages Roddy Lambert's wife to break into his desk, looking for compromising letters from Francie.  Mrs. Lambert, who has a weak heart, suffers a heart attack in the process and is unable to reach her medicine.  Charlotte lets her die while reading Roddy's letters herself.  Later she cold-bloodedly helps the bereaved husband sort through her clothes, taking a good portion for herself.  In her second crime, she steams open Roddy's mail, discovers that he has been misappropriating funds from the Dysart estate, and informs Christopher Dysart, who then moves to fire Roddy.  She blackmails, she manipulates, she lies - and she gets almost everything she wants.  It's the one thing she doesn't get that brings tragedy, but not to her. Such a wicked - and fascinating - character!  I think she is also the earliest example of a "crazy cat lady" that I have come across. The fate of one of her kittens still haunts me, though that at least was not her fault.