She has decided to forget, for the present, about being a character, much as they are needed in Boston's Indian summer, and just go on for another year doing what she always does — whatever that is. {Louise Andrews Kent, Mrs. Appleyard's Year}

May 27, 2016

Humor, and hunger, and compassion

      Lucy frowned and spoke up in disagreement. 'Everybody may be but I'm not everybody, my dear.' That should have shown Sara how grossly imperative she had been, but the woman had apparently been born without the appreciation for subtlety. Sara laughed, saying, 'Lucy, I'm talking to you especially. I hate to have you driving yourself up, painting at dawn, wearing yourself out.'
      She found herself softening as she remembered the tone of real concern and affection in Sara's voice. It was a pity that Lucy so thoroughly disapproved of the poor creature. This only showed that young people, even those as thoroughly repulsed as was Sara, were drawn toward Lucy's sympathy and understanding. Had things only been a little different...
      Last night! This was the reason she'd awakened feeling so excited and upset this morning. Even Nan would have to agree it was deliberate, how Sara had shooed them — as if they were old ladies, old! — off to bed, saying they were tired, then stayed until early morning herself, drinking and talking ...
      Now she heard a sudden slapping step on the path and Lucy lept into the shadow of her window. Francois, late as usual, was hurrying down from the village. Lucy's heart thudded with exasperation as she saw it was almost eight. This meant her breakfast would not be up until at least a quarter past the hour. She felt suddenly weak with hunger as she threw herself down on the detestable blue chaise.
      This was Sara's fault, of course. It was a ridiculous idea to have this lanky villager come clear from the village every morning to serve their breakfasts. And it wasn't that Francois was inefficient — indeed, he served very well and cleaned like a madman all morning and the few times he'd helped with dinner he'd done so beautifully.
      It was simply to feed Sara's outrageous vanity about her cooking that she refused to keep a servant in the house and instead made this poor man climb up and down the hill from the village, sometimes twice a day. Of course Sara was a good cook but it made Lucy almost laugh to see how Sara used this to attract attention.
      God knew, it was easy to build a reputation, she thought, with one or two excellent dishes. She herself enjoyed the tremendous successes of her own Sunday-night suppers and knew well the delight of having people ask for her recipes, but all this had come from years of experience, searching through ancient cookbooks and of traveling and above all from Lucy's deep understanding of people.
      To see this girl pretending to know something about gastronomy was too funny to bear, was, in fact, enraging.
      She heard her stomach rumbling and she began to stir uncomfortably. If Francois didn't hurry she might faint. She looked again at the clock, ten past. He likely wouldn't be up for another five minutes!
      Lucy moved quietly to the bureau and slipped open the top drawer. There, beneath her folded slips, there, toward the back, yes there! She crammed a handful of the little chocolate drops into her mouth, shut the drawer forcefully, then sat down again, now breathing faster in anticipation.
      The chocolate melted and ran deliciously down her throat and she was calmer, her breath steadying her and becoming more quiet.
      They were so good.
      Francois's steps sounded cautiously on the stone stairs and Lucy hurried back to bed, fluffing her hair out as she passed the mirror. She pulled the sheet up to cover half of her large chintz-emblazoned breasts just as he tapped on the closed door with early-morning discretion.
      'Yes?' She sang it gaily on two notes as she wiped a little chocolate from the corner of her mouth.

from The Theoretical Foot, by M.F.K. Fisher

May 24, 2016

Virginia Woolf’s 'Mrs Dalloway'

For all the time I regret spending (wasting) on Twitter and other social media, there are friends, and sometimes there's a gem, something I would have missed otherwise. This {a short film from the British Library} is just lovely, and now I'm longing to read the book again.

May 22, 2016

Only connect: Mrs. Appleyard and Mr. Trollope

      Mrs. Appleyard herself is at least half American. ... A good many of her ancestors came to this country in various small boats that tossed about the Atlantic before 1640, Her father, however, prudently waited and came on the Cunard. There are a good many nice people in this country whose ancestors missed the Mayflower. ...
      And he remembered Trollope.
      It was only a day or two before he died that he entertained Mrs. Appleyard with that story. He always treated her as if she were a delightful stranger whose acquaintance he was especially glad to cultivate. Really he had known her for fifty of his ninety years, yet he had never told her the story before. It was as if he had been saving it for her; producing it only now because he wanted her to have some last thing of his to keep and remember.
      'What have you been reading lately?' he asked.
      'Barchester Towers.'
      'Trollope! My darling, I, moi qui vous parle, have seen that great man...'
      There was an inn, it seemed, opposite the Markhams' house in Epping and the coaches changed horses there. On rainy days you pressed your nose against the glass and watched for the Epping coach. A long way off you heard the thunder of wheels and hooves. Then the horses steaming and smoking ad the hostlers shouting and the coachman stumping off stiff-legged in his caped greatcoat ...
      One Friday his father said:  'Watch today and you may see Mr. Trollope, the writer, go by. He drives down into the next county every week for the hunting of the fox.' ...
      For a moment it seemed to Mrs. Appleyard that she could hear the horn faintly blowing across green fields in the rain.
      'I thought,' Mr. Markham said, 'that a writer would be a lean pale man with black whiskers, but when my father said, 'There he is. That's Trollope,' I saw a big burly red-faced man, like a great farmer.He filled more than half the dog-cart, big arms folded, face rosy under a hat with a wide brim, tall hat, of course, covert-cloth coat, bird's eye vogel stock -- Know what that is?'
      'Blue necktie with white dots -- I've read Jorrocks*,' murmured Mrs. Appleyard.
      'Right. Good girl.  Well brought up....'
      'So I'd watch for him every week in the season coming down for the hunting of the fox. That great man. They'd come into our county sometimes. Our garden ran down to fields hedged in with dog roses and hawthorns. ... There was a mulberry tree at the end of the pleached walk -- they say Charles the First planted it. ... I used to stand under it and watch for the hunt, but it did not often come our way and I never saw him close until the meet at the Cat and Bells.
      'I was sixteen and I had my first hunter and the new and shiniest top boots you ever saw and black velvet cap, stiffened, you know, in case you fell on your head...'
      'My father took me up to Mr. Trollope and he nodded to me. My boots and my cap began to seem too new because everything he had on was so mellow with wind and rain and sun. It was like the difference between a piece of mahogany that's varnished and one's that's been rubbed with beeswax and turpentine for a hundred years.

from Mrs. Appleyard's Year, by Louise Andrews Kent (1941)

With all our conversations lately about biographical fiction {'The author asserts that any resemblance between Mrs. Appleyard, members of her family, or other characters in this book, any real person or persons, including the Scandinavian, is purely coincidental, and she can't think how it happened.'}, this is a novel that we can only hope isn't really one. :)

       'They started at the fox right away, and somehow I was in front at first, not too close to the hounds, but well up and my new horse...going sweetly. Then there was a fence. There was a gate in it and those with sense were going through it but that was too slow for me. ... There were dog roses feathering up over it with the red hips shining and the whole thing seemed to come up like a wave as I went over.'
      He was silent a moment, and then said with a twinkle:  'And when we went over, my horse stopped and I ... went on.'
      'Were you hurt?'
      'No. I was thrown clear, but with my wind knocked out and, as I lay there, gasping like a salmon on a bank, over comes another rider and the horse skims me where I'm lying and I can feel his hoof touch my new cap. ... My horse was two fields away by that time -- never trust a chestnut horse or a red-headed woman -- and I stood there in my shining boots looking pretty dismally at my new cap, when Mr. Trollope jumped the hedge on his big bay and came down beside me, landing, heavy horse, heavy man, as lightly as a leaf falling.
      'He bent his big rosy face over to see if I was all right, then sat back in the saddle.
      'Why don't you put your head in your boots?' he called out, just lifted his reins a quarter of an inch, touched his spur to his horse's side was gently as a man would touch a baby's cheek ... and was off across the green field, going hell for leather.

      'He had a big hearty roaring voice. That was all he ever said to me. I've often laughed since to think how I must have looked in my new clothes with the mud on them and my horse gone and staring at the hoof mark on my new cap. The stiffening saved my brain, I suppose, what little there was of it.. Without it, I'd probably not have had the happiness of knowing your mother -- how beautiful she was -- or you, my darling, and the children, and your husband. He's a good American ... and I can't, after all these years in this great country, say more than that ...Only spring comes late here,' he said. 'There would be snowdrops in England now.'

{*Jorrocks’s Jaunts and Jollities; or, The Hunting, Shooting, Racing, Driving, Sailing, Eating, Eccentric and Extravagant Exploits of that Renowned Sporting Citizen, Mr. John Jorrocks, of St. Botolph Lane and Great Coram Street}

May 18, 2016

The Lady with the Borzoi

A book that combines a biography with literary history is almost definitely my cup of tea, so I put this new one on reserve at the library as soon as I heard about it.

It was new and very interesting to read about a publisher (rather than an author), especially an unconventional, path-setting woman.  Blanche Wolf and Alfred A. Knopf were both bookish, socially awkward children who launched their publishing firm in 1915, a year before their marriage. The book's focus is on their quarrelsome, often unhappy but long marriage {and their difficult relationship with their son} as much as on their success and long (and often acrimonious) partnership as publishers {the borzoi is the dog in the Knopf colophon}. In Laura Claridge's portrait, Blanche is an astute judge of books, a nurturing friend to her often difficult and needy authors, chic and dramatic, famous for her parties and her eggnog, promiscuous but still loyal to her husband, and Alfred is self-centered and unlikable {there's a wonderful about his rudeness at a dinner party for Julia and Paul Child), less significant in the firm's success but determined to dismiss his wife's contributions. I enjoyed the glimpses of the authors she collected and nurtured, from Willa Cather, Sigmund Freud and Simone de Beauvoir to John Hershey, Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, and many others. {I remember being surprised to read that Elizabeth Bowen was a mentor and friend to Eudora Welty; she seems to have had a gift or friendship, and now I'm longing to read more about her.}

The trouble is that I'm spoiled ... I've read so many biographies written by gifted storytellers that I really miss that quality when it isn't quite there. I stumbled over some random references and other details and anecdotes that seemed a little like filler. {And this is a quibble, but I couldn't help noticing a sentence telling us how Blanche, in the 1930s, had a wall knocked down to join two 'condos' -- a word that wouldn't have been in use then, just something out of place,} Still, this book offered me a fascinating, if not especially uplifting, look at a woman who created, for herself, an important place in publishing, someone I'm glad to know more about.

May 13, 2016

May 12, 2016

The Year Without a Summer

On April 10 and 11, 1815, Mount Tambora, the volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, began thundering loudly from within its crevice, unleasing one of the deadliest eruptions ever recorded in history. Fire rose from the cone-shaped crater, while lava flowed toward the surrounding villages. Pumice stones flew out of its depths, followed by a funnel of thick ash, which ominously rose up into the stratosphere and mingled with the water particles found therein. ...
      But Indonesia was not the only place that experienced the misery of Tambora. As the tiny ash particles traveled into the stratosphere, they were carried away by the west wind. Also the cloud of gas that had formed continued to rise to higher altitudes and merged with the vapor found there, forming sulfuric acid. As the wind blew this across across the lands, it carried a faint sheen, a sort of thin most that covered the lands. In later months, peculiar climate changes began to plague the entire planet, followed by the unusually rainy and cold summer of 1816, what became known as the Year Without a Summer. 
     As far away as the northernmost regions of Canada as well as in New England, frost persisted well into the summer, quickly destroying the entire season's crop for many farmers. In China the weather was blamed for destroying trees and rice fields and killing farm animals used for transport and provisions. The rains there caused the country's rivers and lakes to swell up, overflowing into villages and encampments and carrying with them cholera and diptheria.  Europe fared no better:  Italy saw a particular yellow-tinted snow fall on its many villages and cities; potato fields died in Ireland, wheat in Germany, corn in France. Across the continent, prices rose with the riverbanks, as did riots, looting, anger and violence. ...
      Aside from the many traumatic deaths, climate changes, and economic impacts Tambora also triggered a strange effect on peoples' psyches.  The long days of incessant rains, whipping winds, and shadowy evenings, as well as the gray ashy snows, were not only alarming but also downright debilitating. For the members of Shelley's household, whose mental constitutions were already a bit weak, the foreboding weather only added to their woes.

from The Lady and her Monsters, by Roseanne Montillo

As much as I'm looking forward to reading Frankenstein {for the first time} with Frances and friends next month, I admit that I'm looking forward even more to reading about it. Partly because of the glimpses I've already had of the Byron-Shelley circle, and partly because of the connection to a place that I've grown very fond of.  And now there's this...something I'd never heard about, until I peeked into a library book on the way home. {This one, subtitled A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece, was very hard to resist.}  Can't you feel the stage being set? 

{The painting, mentioned here, is Weymouth Bayby John Constable, painted in 1816.}