— But you will be ready to say, what was your hope in doing this? — What did you look forward to? — To any thing, every thing — to time, chance, circumstances, slow effects, sudden bursts, perserverance and weariness ... Every possibility of good was before me, and the first of blessings secured ... — from Emma, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

November 20, 2017

How to feel better




. . . He had caught a violent cold, which fixed itself on his lungs and threw them into dire confusion. He had to give up work and apply, to the letter, the sorry injunction to take care of himself. At first, he slighted the task; it appeared to him it was not himself in the least he was taking care of, but an uninteresting and uninterested person with whom he had nothing in common. This person, however, improved on acquaintance, and Ralph grew at last to have a certain grudging tolerance, even an undemonstrative respect, for him. Misfortune makes strange bedfellows, and our young man, feeling that he had something at stake in the matter ... devoted to his graceless charge an amount of attention of which note was duly taken and which had at least the effect of keeping the poor fellow alive.

from The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James 

Huh. For my violent cold, my doctor just said to drink lots of fluids and call him if it got any worse. But noted for next time. :)

October 31, 2017

The Last Castle



I have always enjoyed visiting historic houses — I fell in love with Winterthur when I lived in Delaware, and there are many wonderful ones in the towns around Boston and further afield.  But whenever I visit one, I'm especially drawn to the stories that are told about the people who built or lived in them, hoping that the gift shop will have a biography or two.

I haven't been to Biltmore, but I still hope to visit someday, and even more so now because I've read this engaging book first. {Thank you, JoAnn, for letting me know about it.}  It's a fascinating story, how and why this 250-room French chateau came to be built in North Carolina, and even more so because what happens is often unexpected.  In a nutshell, the house and its estate were conceived and largely constructed while George Washington Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbuilt, was still a bachelor, and opened (though never completely finished) in 1895, soon after he married Edith Dresser, who was less wealthy but descended from an impressive Old New York lineage.  Unlike the mansions in Newport, for instance, it was planned as much more than a rich man's home  — Vanderbilt wanted to create a self-sustaining estate, and to practice new ideas about forest conservation.  Over time Edith also contributed, through her philanthropy and social programs and by creating Biltmore Industries, to showcase and sell traditional Appalachian crafts.

It's not really clear why George chose to build a house of so grandiose a size, but you do get a sense that he had a strong vision {'perhaps a wildly misguided one, but a masterpiece nonetheless'} for Biltmore, that went beyond it's being a showcase for unimaginable wealth. George and Edith had a happy and sustaining marriage, in the midst of many family tragedies. George only lived at Biltmore for about 20 years, before his early death in 1914, and their daughter Cornelia inherited the house and estate, bringing it into the Jazz Age and first opening it to the public before an unhappy marriage led her away.  The estate never really become self-sustaining; there's a wonderful story about the first year the estate turned a profit  —  of  $16.34. It was fascinating to read that Biltmore is still privately owned and managed by Cornelia's descendants.

This was a very readable book, the kind you can dip into from time to time without losing the story. Along the way, the author weaves in a lot of anecdotes about visitors to the house, and other goings-on that aren't strictly relevant to the story, but when the anecdotes are about people like Henry James and Edith Wharton, I'd never complain.  {It was also nice to read about Gifford Pinchot, who was involved early on in the forestry programs at Biltmore and became a leading figure in this field; I don't think he's a household name, but he's descended from the Enos, the leading 19th-century family in my hometown, and has his own tree there.}



The Last Castle:  the epic story of love, loss and American royalty in the nation's largest home, by Denise Kiernan
Touchstone Books, 2017
Borrowed from the library



October 24, 2017

(Grumpy) Henry-spotting: at Biltmore




February, 1905:
... [Henry] James had been living abroad, and the past several years had been professionally fruitful ones for him. In that time, he had published such novels as The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. These followed the success of titles such as The Turn of the Screw, Portrait of a Lady, and Daisy Miller. ... When he arrived at Biltmore, the weather, his mood, and his health combined to make a very gloomy experience. Keeping mostly to his room at Biltmore House, he wrote both to his nephew, Henry 'Harry' James III, and to [Edith] Wharton.
      James arrived during a snowstorm -- 'The land all buried, and the dreariness and bleakness indescribable,' he wrote Harry. Soon after arrival he had what he described as a 'sharp explosion of gout in my left foot.' He was adhering to a regime of bran footbaths and aspirin in hopes to stop the gout short. As to the house, he found little solace in its 'huge freezing spaces' and thought the creation to be 'based on a fundamental ignorance of comfort and wondrous deludedness (though now, I think, on poor George Vanderbilt's part, waked up (from) ...'
      'Pity the poor Biltmorean!' he wrote Harry, complaining that he was lonely, that his room was freezing -- with 'a hideous plate glass window like the door of an ice-house' --and devoid of curtains. James rung his bell in vain, but no servant came to call on him. He hobbled on his gout-ridden foot down the long hallways in search of hot water and a bath. But he was determined to see his visit through before heading south to the warmer climes of Charleston, South Carolina.
      'I shall weather through even the tortures of Biltmore.'
from The Last Castle:  the epic story of love, loss and American 
royalty  in the nation's largest home, by Denise Kiernan

Poor Henry. Poor Vanderbilts!

October 8, 2017

A year with our Jane: one old thing, and one new thing, in Mansfield Park




It will be a comfort to me to tell you how things now are, and what are my present plans, if plans I can be said to have.*
At a time when I''m definitely reading books, but only very slowly finishing them,  I'm glad that I'm at least trying to stick with my project to re-read all of Jane Austen in this 200th-anniversary year.  Last month and this, it was Mansfield Park, and though this one hasn't every been, and probably won't ever be, among my favorites, it has been steadily growing on me {now, even more so}.

My idea in this re-reading was that I would try to notice new things about each book, and I didn't pay enough attention to that with this one.  I'm struck again by how wonderful Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram are as characters, and how much they add to the story.  There's a great sentence near the end, when Tom Bertram's health is so uncertain, where Austen describes Lady B.'s letters to Fanny as 'a sort of playing at being frightened.'  (That seems perfect, both for the character and the author.)
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery, I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort,and to have done with all the rest.
As for something new, I read the last few chapters in the annotated coffee-table edition I've been collecting, and as side note pointed out, almost everyone (other than Fanny and Edward) are off-stage at the end, and almost everything is told at second-hand.  In fact, the whole ending -- especially the inevitable marriage, and the wrapping up of so much that happens to other characters -- is condensed into one chapter, told by the narrator.  I don't remember noticing that before; it seemed a little odd, a little like an after-thought, but there was enough humor, enough of our Jane, in it to make it work. {And as always in these novels, it doesn't matter that I know what's going to happen, I'm always still able to look forward to it when it does.}

Northanger Abbey is next, and it fits in the time of year perfectly; didn't I (ahem) plan that well?  But The Eustace Diamonds is also calling to me; I'm not as far along for our #PalliserParty as our friend JoAnn is {I'm working on that - I promise!} but fortunately it's very, very hard to put down once I get going.


Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen
Annotated edition, edited by Deirdre Shauna Lynch, Belknap Press, 2016; I also listened to the Naxos audiobook edition, narrated by Juliet Stevenson
From my shelves/on my Kindle


September 5, 2017

August 25, 2017

On such a footing...



      'I suppose I must help you, you devil,' said Maryon pleasantly, 'but what am I to say to Skipwith? I would like to be above-board with him as much as possible.'
      'Tell him I am a policeman on a holiday; you must not repeat anything about the drug.'
      Maryon got up and went to a bookshelf. There he fumbled about till out of a far corner he produced a dirty-looking book in an old-fashioned binding.
      'Here, listen to this,' he said, turning over the pages, he found his place and began to read: 'If I understand you rightly, you have formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to ... Consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What hav you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing; where every man is  surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everywhere open?' There, that's what I say to you, only much better put than I can do it.'
      'That's good,' said McDonald, 'very good. Who wrote it?'
      'A parson's daughter -- more than a hundred years ago.'
from The Incredible Crime, a Cambridge mystery, by Lois Austen-Leigh

What is passing around me is a new job, and going from freelancing to (happily) working full time again, and a reasonable amount of reading, considering ... all good things, just not much leftover energy to write about it. But this mystery set in 1930s Cambridge, one of Britishh Library Crime Classics, by the parson's daughter's nephew's granddaughter, has been a nice part of all that.  I hope the last few weeks of your summer are as nice.  :)

August 3, 2017

Only connect: Anne Brontë and Jane Austen



    ... Another novelist Anne probably discovered while at Thorp Green was Jane Austen. Charlotte famously hated Austen; 'the Passions are perfectly unknown to her', she said ... But Anne's writing has often been compared to Austen's/ They both value reason and wit, balance satire with empathy,; they both try to make their heroines happy. And in Agnes Grey, Anne both echoes and questions Emma.
      In Austen's novel, two governesses are saved by marriage. Jane Fairfax is saved before she even has to try 'the slavery' of governessing. But Miss Taylor has been Emma's governess for sixteen years before she gets caught in drizzle one day, a man fetches an umbrella and soon they are walking down the aisle. Anne might have questioned Austen's penchant for sending her heroines out into bad weather to find men -- as Anne was forever getting bad colds, this might not have been her most efficient strategy. I think that she also felt there was more to Miss Taylor's story than Austen was telling. She remixed it in Agnes Grey, signalling what she was about by giving Agnes' suitor the same name as Miss Taylor's; they are both called Mr. Weston.
      Miss Taylor's marriage is supposed to be true love, but is it really?  Her pupil has outgrown her, and she must be wondering how long she will be kept on as a paid companion. Maybe she doesn't want to uproot herself after sixteen years in one place. Maybe she knows, anyway, governesses have a shelf life, and she'll find it hard to get another job. Maybe fear drives Miss Taylor into the drizzle, and maybe that's why she lets herself be rescued.  Marriage is her exit strategy. Anne was careful nor to make it Agnes'.
      Agnes' Weston is a gentle, overworked curate. He has just lost his mother; his rented rooms don't feel like home and he had 'nowt to live on', but he still sends the poor widow Nancy Brown a sack of coals for her cold storage.  He is full of common sense, firm faith and unaffected sweetness. Oh, and he has a deep, cleat voice, a lovely smile, and he preaches well. I have quite a soft spot for Weston myself. In a riff on Austen's umbrella scene, Anne describes Rosalie and Agnes leaving church in heavy rain. They have begun a silent battle for Weston's affections. Rosalie is a dog in the manger; she doesn't want Weston, but she doesn't want anyone else to have him either. As they leave church, she haughtily sets off for the carriage, under the footman's umbrella, leaving Agnes to get drenched ... and then Weston appears with an  umbrella!  Agnes is so flummoxed that she says no thank you, she doesn't mind the rain. 'I always lacked common sense when taken by surprise,' comments the older Agnes, mouth twitching in amusement. Luckily, Weston walks Agnes to the carriage anyway, which puts 'an unamiable cloud upon [Rosalie's] pretty face' -- as if she has made the rain herself, and hoped it would soak her rival.

from Take Courage:  Anne Brontë and the art of life,
by Samantha Ellis


Love this {and this lively book, in general} ... I thought I'd be saying I'd only be interested in the biography, and not her novels, but I'm changing my mind.  Have you read Agnes Grey and/or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall?  Did you like them?  I haven't gotten to Emma yet, in my re-reading of Jane Austen, but I'm goiing to look more closely at Miss Taylor when I do.


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