As to the pretence of trying her native air, I look upon that as a mere excuse.--In the summer it might have passed; but what can any body's native air do for them in the months of January, February, and March? — Jane Austen, Emma

March 25, 2015

...because I could have been reading this.

          It is so pleasant to receive a fillip of excitement when suffering from the dull routine of everyday life! The anthems and Te Deums were in themselves delightful, but they had been heard so often! Mr Slope was certainly not delightful, but he was new, and, moreover, clever. They had long thought it slow, so said now may of the Barchesterians, to go on as they had done in their old humdrum way, giving ear to none of the religious changes which were moving the world without. People in advance of the age now had new ideas, and it was quite time that Barchester should go in advance. Mr Slope might be right. Sunday certainly had to been strictly kept in Barchester, except as regarded the cathedral services. Indeed the two hours between services had long been appropriated to morning calls and hot luncheons. Then Sunday schools; Sabbath-day schools Mr Slope had called them. The late bishop had really not thought of Sunday schools as he should have done. (These people probably did not reflect that catechisms and collects are quite hard work to the young mind as book-keeping is to the elderly; and that quite as little feeling of worship enters into one task as the other.) And then, as regarded that great question of musical services, there might be much to be said on Mr Slope's side of the question. It certainly was the fact, that people went to the cathedral to hear the music, etc. etc.
          And so a party absolutely formed itself in Barchester on Mr Slope's side of the question! This consisted, among the upper classes, chiefly of ladies. No man — that is, no gentleman — could possibly be attracted by Mr Slope, or consent to sit at the feet of so abhorrent a Gamaliel. Ladies are sometimes less nice in their appreciation of physical disqualification; and, provided that a man speak to them well, they will listen, though he speak from a mouth never so deformed and hideous. ... the damp, sandy-haired, saucer-eyed, red-fisted Mr Slope was powerful only over the female breast.
          There were, however, one or two of the neighbouring clergy who thought it not quite safe to neglect the baskets in which for the nonce were stored the loaves and fishes of the diocese of Barchester. They, and they only, came to call on Mr Slope after his performance in the cathedral pulpit. Among them Mr Quiverful, the rector of Puddingdale, whose wife still continued to present him from year to year with fresh pledges of her love, and so to increase his cares and, it is to be hoped, his happiness equally. Who can wonder that a gentleman, with fourteen living children and a bare income of 400 pounds a year, should look after the loaves and fishes, ever when they are under the thumb of Mr Slope?
Barchester Towers, Chapter 8

It's one of those delightful little {ok, let's be honest, annoying little} ironies that after years and years of an hour-long commute when I could almost never read, now I have a 15-minute commute where I almost always can. And maybe this is an old habit that I've just never broken, but I usually spend that time with a 'bus book,' something not too demanding, that I can pick up and put down, that would never take the place of my serious reading.  Today it was a new mystery, the first from a historian I've been wanting to read, that the blurb on the back cover promised would be 'wickedly funny.' It might have been, but somehow my inner self knew that my Kindle was also in my work tote, and therefore so were Archdeacon Grantly and Mr. Slope, even more 'hilarious, big-hearted, clever, whip-smart, and devious.'  I think it's time to rethink this old habit, because ... :)

March 23, 2015

Amherst {or, The Lovers of ...}


I've never read William Nicholson's fiction before, but I've seen it mentioned on the blogs we read, and when I read about Amherst, I was immediately interested.  I was planning to return it to the library this weekend, unrenewable and thus unread, but I found myself not wanting to let it go. In the end, I'm glad I read it, even though I think I like what the author wanted to do more than what he did.

The premise is wonderful.  Alice Dickinson, no relation, a 24-year-old copywriter living in London, wants to write a screenplay about Emily Dickinson, and plans a two-week trip to Amherst, the college town in western Massachusetts where the poet lived, to do some research. When she asks her Facebook friends for contacts in Amherst, her ex-boyfriend, Jake, hands her the phone number of Nick Crocker, a visiting professor now in his fifties who was his mother's first love.  Meanwhile, Alice has been reading,in diaries and letters, about the real-life love affair {fascinating to read about here} between Emily's brother, Austin Dickinson, and Mabel Loomis Todd, the beautiful young wife of a younger professor just arrived at the college, and trying to find the story she wants to tell in her film.

There's no question that Amherst is the work of an accomplished writer, but it's not the kind of writing I'm drawn to.  There are some writers who seem to write with very straightforward, not-overly-descriptive prose, and sometimes (as here) I find myself wanting the details, the descriptions, the color, the richer sense of who the characters are and where and how they live.  And even though it didn't have to be a sappy romance, there's something fraught, self-absorbed, something just unsympathetic about all four of the lovers (and something more than a little creepy about Mabel's husband David, who wants to share their love).

There is a devastating insight {one that reading about her in a biography seems to bear out, less kindly} that the great passion between Mabel and Austin could have been less about loving the other than about something else:

This is the passage that is on Alice's mind as she heads back up the interstate to Amherst. It's no answer to her puzzle over how to end her story, but it is something important nevertheless. ...
      What if we seek love not because we long to be discovered by another but because we need to affirm ourselves? This makes it a very different enterprise, and one that is not negated by death of the lover.'
      Alice is excited. New ideas swarm in her brain.
      I, just myself, and because it is I.
      Mabel was seeking to know herself and believe herself to be uniquely uniquely valuable. She was driven to assert her own worth against the greater meaninglessness of life. Did she delude herself? In her extreme need, did she fabricate a noble passion, and then call upon it to give her life a glory it otherwise lacked?

I'm not sure this will lead me to look for another of his novels (am I missing something if I don't?) but I do want to make a long-overdue day trip to Amherst {I've never been there}.

{Update:  But then, this morning on the bus, with this book in my bag so I could return it to the library at lunchtime, I read the Afterword, and found this:

The fictional characters in  Amherst have appeared in my earlier novels.  Jack and Alice can be met at the age of eleven in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life. Their tentative romance begins eight years later in All the Hopeful Lovers. The story of Alice's grandmother develops in Motherland and Reckless. Nick Crocker's past love affair with Jack's mother, Laura, and his attempt to rekindle that love, is told in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life. Attentive readers will find many more seeds which I've planted, waiting for their turn to flower.

Recurring characters are kind of irresistible, aren't they, so maybe I would be missing something...

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
A sidenote:  I was curious about whether William Nicholson was one of the Nicholsons {as in Harold}, but then I remembered that the Nicholsons are actually the Nicolsons.  Which means that Virginia Nicholson, whose books I've either read or want to, isn't one of the Nicolsons either, but is married to William. But I didn't realize that she's the daughter of Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf's nephew and biographer, and Anne Olivier Bell. This isn't name-dropping, I promise, but I met the Bells when they visited my college and I volunteered or was asked to walk them over to the bookstore. Every once in a while, I think of this and realize that I've met someone who knew Virginia Woolf, and I'm a little awestruck.

Another sidenote: I've been finding it interesting, once in a while, to compare our titles to the UK editions', and our book covers to theirs. In this case, I think I'd choose ours ... even though since this book isn't really about Emily Dickinson, it's not quite spot on.

March 20, 2015

[On} the [first day of] spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love...

Of the Rev. Mr. Slope's parentage I am not able to say much. I have heard it asserted that he is lineally descended from that eminent physician who assisted at the birth of Mr. T. Shandy, and that in early years he added an "e" to his name, for the sake of euphony, as other great men have done before him. If this be so, I presume he was christened Obadiah, for that is his name ...
      He had been a sizar at Cambridge, and had there conducted himself at any rate successfully, for in due process of time he was an M.A., having university pupils under his care. From thence he was transferred to London, and became preacher at a new district church built on the confines of Baker Street. He was in this position when congenial ideas on religious subjects recommended him to Mrs. Proudie, and the intercourse had become close and confidential.
      Having been thus familiarly thrown among the Misses Proudie, it was no more than natural that some softer feeling than friendship should be engendered. There have been some passages of love between him and the eldest hope, Olivia, but they have hitherto resulted in no favourable arrangement. In truth, Mr. Slope, having made a declaration of affection, afterwards withdrew it on finding that the doctor had no immediate worldly funds with which to endow his child, and it may easily be conceived that Miss Proudie, after such an announcement on his part, was not readily disposed to receive any further show of affection. On the appointment of Dr. Proudie to the bishopric of Barchester, Mr. Slope's views were in truth somewhat altered. Bishops, even though they be poor, can provide for clerical children, and Mr. Slope began to regret that he had not been more disinterested. He no sooner heard the tidings of the doctor's elevation than he recommenced his siege, not violently, indeed, but respectfully, and at a distance. Olivia Proudie, however, was a girl of spirit: she had the blood of two peers in her veins, and better still she had another lover on her books, so Mr. Slope sighed in vain, and the pair soon found it convenient to establish a mutual bond of inveterate hatred.
      It may be thought singular that Mrs. Proudie's friendship for the young clergyman should remain firm after such an affair, but, to tell the truth, she had known nothing of it. Though very fond of Mr. Slope herself, she had never conceived the idea that either of her daughters would become so, and remembering their high birth and social advantages, expected for them matches of a different sort. Neither the gentleman nor the lady found it necessary to enlighten her. Olivia's two sisters had each known of the affair, as had all the servants, as had all the people living in the adjoining houses on either side, but Mrs. Proudie had been kept in the dark.
      Mr. Slope soon comforted himself with the reflexion that, as he had been selected as chaplain to the bishop, it would probably be in his power to get the good things in the bishop's gift without troubling himself with the bishop's daughter, and he found himself able to endure the pangs of rejected love. As he sat himself down in the railway carriage, confronting the bishop and Mrs. Proudie as they started on their first journey to Barchester, he began to form in his own mind a plan of his future life. ...
      He, therefore, — he, Mr. Slope, — would in effect be Bishop of Barchester. Such was his resolve, and to give Mr. Slope his due, he had both courage and spirit to bear him out in his resolution. He knew that he should have a hard battle to fight, for the power and patronage of the see would be equally coveted by another great mind — Mrs. Proudie would also choose to be Bishop of Barchester. Mr. Slope, however, flattered himself that he could outmanoeuvre the lady. She must live much in London, while he would always be on the spot. She would necessarily remain ignorant of much, while he would know everything belonging to the diocese. At first, doubtless, he must flatter and cajole, perhaps yield in some things, but he did not doubt of ultimate triumph. If all other means failed, he could join the bishop against his wife, inspire courage into the unhappy man, lay an axe to the root of the woman's power, and emancipate the husband.

Barchester Towers, Chapter 4

March 15, 2015

The divine Mrs. P.

Dr. Proudie may well be said to have been a fortunate man, for he was not born to wealth, and he is now Bishop of Barchetser; but nevertheless he has his cares. He has a large family, of whom the three eldest are daughters, now all grown-up and fit for fashionable life; and he has a wife. It is not my intention to breathe a word against the character of Mrs. Proudie, but still I cannot think that with all her virtues she adds much to her husband's happiness. The truth is that in all matters domestic she rules supreme over her titular lord, and rules with a rod of iron. Nor is this all. Things domestic Mr. Proudie might have abandoned to her, if not voluntarily, yet willingly. But Mrs, Proudie is not satisfied with such home dominion, and stretches her power over all his movements, and will not even abstain from things spiritual. In fact, the bishop is henpecked.

Barchester Towers, Chapter 3

Wonderful to be back in Barchester again, and wonderful to be reading about Mrs. P and seeing and hearing the late Geraldine McEwan in my mind's eye. {Her voice!  Perfect.}  I always thought she was the best Miss Marple, too. :)

March 11, 2015

A Royal Experiment

'I assure you, from what I have lately heard ... that royalty, when closely inspected, has few charms for reasonable people. I do not believe there is a more unhappy family in the kingdom than that of our good king. They have lately passed whole hours together in tears; and often do not meet for half a day; but each remains alone, separately brooding over their misfortunes.'
Somewhere in the middle of reading a wonderful biography of Anthony Trollope, I saw or heard about this book somewhere, requested it from the library {first mistake}, started reading it a little {second mistake}, couldn't finish it in the three-week lending period, decided I needed to buy my own copy, and that was that for Mr. Trollope, at least for a while. {I'll come back, if only he'll have me.} It's just that this other book, which slipped in so quietly, was so endlessly engaging, fascinating, horrifying and wonderful.

As I've admitted before, I'm a little bit of a Queen Victoria groupie, and I've read a little about the royals who followed her, but I was never especially interested in the ones who went before. {I did read this wonderful book, a long time ago, about Princess Caroline, the wife of the detested Prince Regent {his sisters loved him, though}, so I knew a little about the wild story of that marriage, and about how their daughter was supposed to have restored the monarchy, but she died tragically in childbirth. The portrait of her in this book is a little more colorful. :) } But I remember being fascinated when I finally understood how Victoria became Queen:  in a nutshell, at the death of the P.R., by then George IV, none of his 12 remaining brothers and sisters had any legitimate offspring, and there was a race, filled with abandoned common-law wives, to be the one who could produce the heir to the throne. When you know about that, it's a little hard to resist finding out more about this family.

The 'royal experiment' {the title of this book in the UK is The Strangest Family, but for once I like ours better} was George III's 'enormous undertaking' to transform, and save, the monarchy by creating a new kind of family life with his wife and children and letting it demonstrate  and instill new values for his people. I also enjoyed reading about Queen Charlotte's craving for an intellectual life, and the interesting women she surrounded herself with. The descriptions of  'the madness of King George,' and its affect on his family, were harrowing. It's almost heartbreaking to read about how George and Charlotte wanted to make things better for their children, and how what they hoped to build fell apart through the force of their personalities and beliefs {his insistence on total conformity and 'emotional obedience,' and hers on submission}, making the experiment unsuccessful in the end, as 'his daughters suffered as much from their father's kindness as their brothers did from his misdirected intensity.'

I also loved knowing that this is Janice Hadlow's first book, one that took ten years to write as she worked at the BBC.  It's so well written, and reading it made me happy for her and what she accomplished. There's something so surprising and wonderful about expecting to like a book, and then liking it this much.  :)

{The image is 'George III and Queen Charlotte with their thirteen children'
by John Murphy, c. 1794, found here.}

March 8, 2015

Only connect: Mrs. Gaskell on Mr. Trollope

'I wish Mr. Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage for ever. I don't see any reason why it should ever come to an end, and everyone I know is always dreading the last number.' — Elizabeth Gaskell to George Smith, publisher of The Cornhill, March, 1860

I came across this snippet today {while, sigh, shopping for editions of the #6barsets with fonts that I can actually still read...} and I'm just noting it down now because I'll forget to in September, when this one comes up, and also in honor of my friends, the Trollopians. :)