The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. — Adam Gopnik

May 22, 2015

Back in Barsetshire

It was, we have said, the first of July, and such being the time of the year, the ladies, after sitting in the drawing-room for half an hour or so, began to think that they might as well go through the drawing-room windows on to the lawn. First one slipped out a little way, and then another; and then they got out on to the lawn; and then they talked of their hats; till, by degrees, the younger ones of the party, and at last the elder also, found themselves dressed for walking.
      The windows, both of the drawing-room and the dining-room, looked out on to the lawn; and it was only natural that the girls should walk from the former to the latter. It was only natural that they, being there, should tempt their swains to come to them by the sight of their broad-brimmed hats and evening dresses; and natural, also, that the temptation should not be resisted. ...
It was only natural that, after a little too much faux-Austen, one would find oneself wandering (gratefully) back to Mr. Trollope, and being perfectly happy to read this part of Doctor Thorne again to get back into the spirit of things. I like Patience Oriel a lot; I hope she stays around for a while.  Did I read somewhere that Mr. Trollope was influenced by Miss Austen, or is that only wishful thinking?

      Miss Oriel was a very pretty girl, a little older than Frank Gresham; -- perhaps a year or so. She had dark hair, a nose a little too broad, a pretty mouth, a beautiful chin, and, as we have said before, a large fortune, -- that is, moderately large, -- let us say twenty thousand pounds, there or thereabouts, She and her brother had been living at Greshambury for the last two years, the living having been purchased for him,,,during the lifetime of the old incumbent, Miss Oriel was in every respect a nice neighbour; she was good-humoured; ladylike, lively, neither too clever nor too stupid, belonging to a good family, sufficiently fond of this world's good things, as became a pretty young lady so endowed, and sufficiently fond, also, of the other world's good things, as became the mistress of a clergyman's house. ...
     'Miss Oriel was saying so much in praise of you before you came out,' said Margaretta, 'that I began to think that her mind was intent on remaining at Greshambury all her life.'
      Frank blushed, and Patience laughed. There was but a year's difference in their age; Frank, however, was still a boy, though Patience was fully a woman.
      'I am ambitious, Lady Margaretta,' said she. 'I own it. But I am moderate in my ambition. I do love Greshambury; and if Mr. Gresham had a younger brother, perhaps, you know --'
      'Another just like myself, I suppose,' said Frank.
      'Oh yes. I could not possibly wish for any change.'
      'Just as eloquent as you are, Frank,' said the Lady Margaretta.
      'And as good a carver,' said Patience.
      'Miss Bateson has lost her heart to him for ever, because of his carving,' said the Lady Margaretta.
      'But perfection never repeats itself,' said Patience.
      'Well, you see, I have not got any brothers,' said Frank; 'so all I can do is sacrifice myself.'
      'Upon my word, Mr. Gresham, I am under more than ordinary obligations to you; -- I am, indeed;' and Miss Oriel stood still in the path, and made a very graceful curtsy. 'Dear me! only think, Lady Margaretta, that I should be honoured with an offer from the heir the very moment he is legally entitled to make one!'
       'And done with so much true gallantry, too,' said the other; 'expressing himself quite willing to postpone any views of his own for your advantage.'
       'Yes,' said Patience, 'that's what I value so much. Had he loved me now, there would have been no merit on his part but a sacrifice, you know --' ...
      'Well,' said Frank, 'I shouldn't have said 'sacrifice;' -- that was a slip; what I meant was --'
      'Oh, dear me,' said Patience, 'wait a minute; now we are going to have a regular declaration. Lady Margaretta, you haven't got a scent-bottle, have you?  And if I should faint, where's the garden-chair?'
      'Oh, but I'm not going to make a declaration at all,' said Frank.
      'Are you not? Oh! Now, Lady Margaretta, I appeal to you; did you not understand him to say something very particular?'
      'Certainly; I thought nothing could be plainer,' said the Lady Margaretta.
      'And so, Mr. Gresham, I am to be told that, after all, it means nothing,' said Patience, putting her handkerchief up to her eyes.
      'It means you are an excellent hand at quizzing a fellow like me.'
      'Quizzing! No; but you are an excellent hand at deceiving a poor girl like me. ... What a pity it is that my brother is a clergyman. You calculated on that, I know,or you would never have served me so.'
      'She said so just as her brother had joined them, or rather just as he had joined Lady Margaretta  De Courcy; -- for her ladyship and Mr. Oriel walked on in advance by themselves.  Lady Margaretta had found it rather dull work, making a third in Miss Oriel's flirtation with her cousin; the more so as she was quite accustomed to take a principal part herself in all such transactions.  She therefore not unwillingly walked on with Mr. Oriel. Mr. Oriel, it must be conceived, was not a common, everyday parson, but had points about him which made him quite fit to associate with an earl's daughter. And as it was known that he was not a marrying man, having very exalted ideas on that point connected with his profession, the Lady Margaretta, of course, had the less objection to trust herself with alone with him.

{The painting, by Berthe Morisot, found here.} 

May 20, 2015

Emma {The Austen Project}

Sigh. I'm 0 for 3 with The Austen Project. In a way, that's a good thing, because I didn't have high expectations for this one any more, in the giddy way I did when it was first announced...and I liked it a little more than the A.P.'s Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.

Let me back up just a little and say that I don't mind or object on principle to books like these.  It's always a lot of fun to wonder what a modern writer will do with the story and the characters; it's just that these books don't seem to stand up as good books on their own.  A lot of the energy seems to go into finding 'clever' modern-day equivalents for the characters' situations (Mrs. and Miss Bates lost their money as Lloyd names, Mr. Woodhouse wants to ask his dinner guests if they've had all their immunizations, and so forth}, and in turn some of the characters and memorable scenes aren't given enough of an airing.  A.M.S. does give Miss Taylor {later Mrs. Weston} a more prominent place {I liked that}  but mostly there was Alexander McCall Smithish silliness without the flights and tangents that make his books so appealing to me. Fun to read, not very memorable, not Alexander McCall Smithish enough.  {There's a new Isabel Dalhousie novel coming out in July; with that, and if he would write more about Corduroy Mansions, all would be well. :) }

{Did you know that the 200th anniversary of the publication of Emma falls in December?  Let's all read it then, the real one, esp. because some of us will almost certainly be mourning the end of another bicentennial ...}

May 5, 2015

Henry James;

There is no mark of punctuation so upper-crust as the semicolon. A writer friend who was born in England summed up her feelings for the semicolon in a remark worthy of Henry James:  'There is no pleasure so acute as that of a well-placed semicolon.' I guess the opposite of that is there is no displeasure so obtuse as that of an ill-placed semicolon.
      In my observations, the semicolon is used best by the British. I believe it's a matter of education, and that a classical education will feature a lot of semicolons, perhaps because they are needed to translate Latin and Greek. Americans can do without the semicolons, just as they can give Marmite a pass, with major exceptions. William and Henry James, as internationalists, were brought up on semicolons. ...
      You can open a volume of  Henry James at random and find numerous well-tempered semicolons. I picked up The Henry James Reader, edited by Leon Edel. This is from The Aspern Papers:

'You must wait — you must wait,' Miss Tina mournfully moralised; and her tone ministered little to my patience, for it seemed after all to accept that wretched possibility. I would teach myself to wait, I declared nevertheless; because in the first place I couldn't do otherwise and in the second I had her promise, given me the other night, that she would help me.
      'Of course if the papers are gone that's no use,' she said; not as if she wished to recede, but only to be conscientious.
      'Naturally. But if you could only find out!' I groaned, quivering again.
      These semicolons don't exactly follow modern conventions, and the ones that are combined with conjunctions might be replaced by commas, but something would be lost. James's semicolons are like Melville's commas, raised to a higher degree:  the pauses seem to indicate facial expressions -- raised eyebrows, pursed lips, a puckered brow. They heighten the prose.
from Between you & me:  confessions of a comma queen
by Mary Norris

A book about punctuation and grammar?  Yes, but perhaps we will keep these things to ourselves.  A book about punctuation and grammar with silverware and Henry James? Shout it out loud. :)

      In James, the semicolon is often followed by a conjunction that shouldn't be necessary. From Washington Square:
She was bad; but she couldn't help it.
     Eleanor Gould [a legendary colleague at The New Yorker] had a rule about these things:  a semicolon could not follow a dash. The dash was too fragile to hold it up. Henry James did not follow Gould. For example:
Poor Catherine was conscious of her freshness; it gave her a feeling about the future which rather added to the weight upon her mind. It seemed a proof that she was strong and solid and dense, and would live to a great age — longer than might be generally convenient; and this idea was pressing, for it appeared to saddle her with a pretension the more, just when the cultivation of any pretension was inconsistent with her doing right.
      Is not that semicolon after generally convenient' priceless? Like Emily Dickinson with her dashes, Henry James uses semicolons for timing They accentuate in a way that can make sentiments feel simultaneous, although it's impossible to read two things at once. It's like a trio in opera.
      James also proves wrong my objection to semicolons in dialogue. The Doctor, in Washington Square, to Aunt Penniman (his sister):
'You have taken up young Townsend; that's your own affair. I have nothing to do with your sentiments, your fancies, you affections, your delusions; but what I request of you is that you will keep these things to yourself. I have explained my views to Catherine; she understands them perfectly, and anything that she does further in the way of encouraging Mr. Townsend's attentions will be in deliberate opposition to my wishes.'
      Mrs. Penniman replies, 'It seems to me you talk like a great autocrat.'

May 3, 2015

Reading with dinner

      Dashes, like table forks, come in different sizes, and there is a proper use for each. The handiest member of the dash family is the one-em dash. Think of it as the dinner fork, the one on the inside, which you use for your main dish. ... We who grew up using typewriters learned to type two hyphens, with or without space on either side, to form a dash. Most word-processing programs automatically fuse double hyphens into a solid dash, when you get to the end of the word following it — that is, the computer automatically compensates for old-fashioned habits. There is also a one-en dash, the width of a capital N. That would be your salad fork. Some clever writers type two one-ens instead of two hyphens to form the long dash, and it looks good, but it's brittle if it falls on a line break, it snaps in half. ...
      With Emily Dickinson at the table, my simplistic division of dashes into table forks and salad forks falls apart. She used dashes for everything, and sometimes for two things at once. If a different size and style of fork were assigned to each of her various dashes, the table setting would require not just dessert forks and fondue forks and those tiny forks used for teasing out snails but also tuning forks and pitchforks.

from Between you & me:  confessions of a comma queen,
by Mary Norris


May 2, 2015

Only connect: Elizabeth von Arnim and E.M. Forster

... The truth was, in many ways she was a tartar. She was high-spirited and gay, and all the fun began when she was about the place. Her children worshipped her; but then, she meant them to worship her, at the expense of their father, 'The Man of Wrath' as she nicknamed him. And then, for a great part of the time, she was simply invisible, to her children as to everyone else -- either typing in her summerhouse or studying seed catalogues, or away with her family in England. Moreover, she had a ferocious tongue and took the keenest delight in teasing and bullying; if you were a dependent, you could expect to be mauled daily. ... Hugh Walpole, who went as  tutor to her children shortly after Forster left, has left a scarifying account of her technique of harassment. She would wait until there was a full dinner-table of important guests and then say 'in a cold, clear tone', something like 'Oh, Mr. Walpole, I've had such an interesting letter from your father. Do you wear flannel next to your skin?'
from E.M. Forster:  a life, by P.N. Furbank

Something I love, when I'm reading, is to find connections like this between or among {sorry..I'm reading a book about grammar} the writers I'm fond of {it's acceptable now to end a sentence with a proposition, lest you sound like a pedant}. One of those moments came when I was reading the introduction to The Enchanted April, and learned that Elizabeth von Arnim had hired E.M. Forster as a tutor for her children. {Hugh Walpole, too, but I'm not as familiar with him.  But here he is...}

This can send me scurrying to the library or to my own bookshelves to find out more...and how much fun was that this time?
      Forster came as one of a long succession of tutors, none of whom had lasted more than six months. Having tried without success an ineffectual German tutor, a sadistic German governess, and two timid English ladies, one of whom lasted only two days, 'Elizabeth' had hit on the plan of inviting young Englishmen just down from the university, preferably from one of the smarter colleges, offering them hospitality and the chance to improve their German in exchange for an hour or two of teaching daily. Her system of engaging them was capricious. She once engaged a new tutor by letter, then took against him for some reason and told him not to write again till he heard from her, since her movements would be uncertain. The next thing he heard was a message saying that, since she had received no word from him, she must conclude he was not interested in the post.
    ... [Forster's] arrival at Nassenheide was disconcerting. The train dropped him out, with all his luggage, n the middle of a farmyard, in the pitch dark; there was no one to meet him, and he hadn't the faintest idea where the Schloss lay. Fortunately, the guard was helpful and found him a farm-labourer willing to act as guide. Splashing across the fields, the two finally arrived at the house, which was in darkness, and Forster rang. The bell pealed, a hound bayed, and by this time he was beginning to giggle.  He rang again, and at last a dishevelled boy opened the door, and he was grudgingly admitted, to a vast vaulted hall hung with the heads of small animals. After a further wait, the German tutor, who had been in bed, came down to greet him, telling him that he had not been expected till tomorrow and that the departing tutor was in the bed that should have been his. Eventually, a sleepy maid made up a bed for him in the state wing; the cold was appalling, and he lay awake all night shivering and listening to the ghostly clanking of a pump.
      'Elizabeth,' when he met her at breakfast the next day, was very cool about his misadventures. Such things lowered people in her esteem. (She told him afterwards, she nearly sent him back to England on the spot, and that he had been wearing a particularly ugly tie.)  'How d'ye do, Mr. Forster,' was her greeting. 'We confused you with one of the housemaids ... Can you teach the children, do you think? They are very difficult ... Ah yes, Mr. Forster, very difficult, they'll laugh at you, you know. You'll have to be stern or it'll end as it did with Mr. Stokoe.'... Later in the day he wrote to his mother that he found 'Elizabeth' 'pleasant but rather disappointing, having indifferent false teeth and a society drawl.' As for the famous garden, he claimed he couldn't find it; the house appeared to be surrounded solely by paddocks and shrubberies.

Lovely stuff.

April 29, 2015

For those who appreciate wistaria and sunshine...

... or colorful descriptions of houses and gardens, or beautifully imagined, fully painted characters, or gentle humor, or turns of phrase and bits of dialogue so wonderful that you want to stop and read them again, or those who like books that don't seem to need a plot twist until they have one, and it's delicious, or those who are rationing their re-reading of their Pyms or Austens so they don't run out, The Enchanted April is the perfect book to read, or listen to, or read and listen to.  As Mrs. Wilkins would say, 'I see us there.'

A nice sidelight from the edition I read was learning more about Elizabeth von Arnim from the introduction by Cathleen Schine {another writer I'm very fond of}. Von Arnim was born in Australia in 1866 and her family emigrated to England when she was a child. {The novelist Katherine Mansfield was her cousin.} On a trip to Rome with her father, when she was nineteen, Elizabeth was wooed and won by a 'considerably older' German count, Henning August von Arnim, and she went to live with him in a 'remote and beautiful old house' — an abandoned 17th century schloss on the Von Arnim estate in what was then Prussia. Her first book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, was published in 1898 and became 'a staple of the Edwardian lady's bookshelf,' enormously popular both in England and the U.S. The author was listed as 'Elizabeth,' and readers and the press enjoyed trying to guess her identity, which was only revealed a year or so later.  Elizabeth eventually  returned to England, and traveled to the U.S., Switzerland and other places in Europe, before her 'disastrous second marriage,' drawing on these experiences for the novels she wrote later. {Have you read any of them?} The Enchanted April was written in 1921, when, as Cathleen Schine notes, von Arnim was closer in age to the elderly Mrs. Fisher than to the three younger women in the novel. She was living in the U.S. when she died, and she's buried in Maryland.

{The painting is by French artist Henry Lebasque, found here,}