— 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
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May 10, 2018

Persephone no. 90: The Winds of Heaven, for Monica Dickens, on her birthday

I  finally took out my calendar and made notes in it of some dates from our friend Jane's Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors so I could appreciate them :)  -- thankfully just in time for Monica Dicken's birthday, which is today. I read her 1955 novel, The Winds of Heaven, because it is also one of the very few Persephones that I own, so I had the added pleasure of reading one of their beautiful editions.  And among all their lovely endpapers, this book has my very favorite one.  I didn't read this book for that reason, but -- full disclosure -- that is probably why I bought it. :)  That turned out well, didn't it?

I thought that I may have read Monica Dickens before -- a memoir though, not a novel? -- although it was a long time ago. My reading notebook reminded me that I had:  I've read An Open Book {confusing it later with One Pair of Hands, which I haven't, but which drew on some of the same material}. And speaking of Persephones, this one reminded me, in the best possible way, of Greenbanks, by Dorothy Whipple, the last one I read.

The central character in The Winds of Heaven is Louise Bickford, a recent widow, almost sixty, who has been left essentially homeless and almost destitute after the death of her feckless, deceiving husband.  It has become necessary for her to live, in turn, with her three daughters, except for the winter months which she spends at a hotel on the Isle of Wight owned by her cheerful school friend Sybil, who lets her stay at a reduced rate because it's the off season. Louise is calm, mostly unruffled, clear-headed about her husband and her daughters, conscious of the slights and discomforts that her precarious situation brings, though always willing to find the good in most things.

During a day out in London, on which, typically, her eldest daughter Miriam has sent her off on her own because she is in the way, Louise escapes into a tea shop and meets Gordon Disher, a round, kindly gentleman who sells beds in a department store by day and churns out sexy thrillers by night. He presses his tattered copy of his latest book on her, urging her to write to him and tell her what she thinks.  'I picked up a man today,' she tells her daughter and son-in-law that evening, and her relationship with Mr. Disher becomes another reason for them to be kindly and belittling, although for Louise, he becomes a true and steady friend, especially in a crisis.

This is a charming, quiet, often funny, often sweet book, filled with small domestic events and wonderfully drawn characters.  It's not especially plot-driven, except for Louise's travels between her very different daughters' very different homes, and the untangling of an affair that her youngest daughter, Eva, is having with a married man.  So there's something dramatic that happens at the end (or just before the end) that seemed gratuitous,  unless it's a way of insisting that Louise's quiet, ordinary life is not ordinary at all, which is true.  I liked her, and this book, very much.

The Winds of Heaven, by Monica Dickens
Persephone Books, 2010 (first published in 1955)
From my bookshelves

May 9, 2018

Anticipation: fiction edition

I loved I Don't Know How She Does It: the life of Kate Reddy, working mother, Allison Pearson's first novel, which came out in 2002. It was funny and charming; there was a movie with Sarah Jessica Parker and Pierce Brosnan, but the book was much better {it lost something in the translation from London to New York}.

I just read that there's a sequel coming out soon, and how I found out is kind of funny and charming, too... I subscribe to My Little Book Club, a French email newsletter, because someday I really am going to practice reading things in French, and the book it featured today was La nouvelle vie de Kate Reddy..  I couldn't believe mes yeux, but I am très heureuse.

April 25, 2018

Victorians Undone

This book, as it turned out, wasn't what I expected.  Maybe it's that thing that happens in the time between when you discover a book and put it on reserve, and the time when it comes in and you've forgotten why you wanted to read it. Or maybe it's the subtitle:  'Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum.'  But it's OK, because I knew as soon as I read the introduction that I would like what it was even more than what it might have been.

Kathryn Hughes is a biographer; I remember reading and enjoying her book about Mrs. Beeton, and her book about George Eliot has been on my reading list for ages.  In the introduction, she talks about the fact that most Victorian biographers 'behaved as if their subjects had taken leave of the body, or had never possessed such a thing in the first place' -- in other words, it was rare for them to pay any kind of attention to how people looked, or talked, or any of their physical attributes or experiences.
In fact, in today's biographies the body barely makes an appearance at all. It might be there, in its cradle in Chapter 2 (Chapter 1 is for the forefathers and the Condition of England), at which point it gets a quick once-over and is assigned its father's brown eyes or its mother's long, loose limbs. From that point on  we hear little about the biographical subject's  physical passage through the world until the penultimate chapter, at which point he or she develops a nasty cough, or a niggling stomach pain, and someone calls the doctor. If the subject of the book is a woman there may be a bit of blood in the childbirth chapter, but there won't be any mention of menstruation, hiccups, a headache or any of those fluxy oddities that we all know about from our own bodily lives. Finally, in the closing pages, the subject takes to their bed, mutters a few last words, and is committed to the grave, whereupon they duly crumble into dust.
      As a result, even the most attentive reader may finish a biography of a Victorian, eminent or otherwise, feeling that they'd be hard pressed to pick them out in an identity parade. ...

So, this book, Hughes tells us, is 'an experiment to see what new stories emerge when you use biography -- which, after all, is embodied history -- to put mouths, bodies, bellies and beards back into the nineteenth century.'  She tells, or retells, five stories, each one focusing on a body part --  a stomach, a beard, a hand, a pair of lips, and the bits and pieces of a murdered and dismembered child -- and shows us how looking more closely at the subject's physical presence changes the stories told about them.  As it turns out, these aren't really tales of the flesh, as it were, but what I wasn't expecting, and loved, was how much Hughes focuses on the actual writing of biography.

The first example is one that I've read about several times:  the story of the very young Queen Victoria deliberately and cruelly creating a scandal by insisting that Flora Hastings, one of the ladies of the court, was pregnant, as the result of an affair with the hated Sir John Conroy. (As it turns out, Lady Flora was dying, possibly from an old illness that caused adhesions to build up in her abdomen and cause it to swell.) To prove that she is not pregnant, Lady Flora agrees to allow the court physicians to examine her, even insists on it; what this telling brought home to me was how new, and unthinkable, it was for a woman to undergo a pelvic exam, especially by a male doctor, and what a violation it would have been.

The section I enjoyed most {though they were all good} was the one about George Eliot's hand, because it was the part of the book that talked most about biography. Hughes describes how Eliot's biographers often collected random anecdotes, that were passed down to later biographers without further investigation, eventually taking on a life of their own.  In a nutshell, this one involved a family friend who described Eliot's concern over thinking that one of her hands was larger than the other, because it was stretched and broadened when she spent time as a child milking cows on the family dairy farm.  As it turns out, the significance of this story is not so much about her hand as the efforts made by her descendants to insist that Eliot had never milked cows, because of their urgent need to insist that Eliot, who lived in a common law marriage for many years, had never done such common work, or work that was sometimes associated with sluttiness.

All in all, this book was very readable, and completely engaging, and I'm so glad it was what it turned out to be.

Victorians undone:  tales of the flesh in the age of decorum, by Kathryn Hughes
John Hopkins University Press, 2018
Borrowed from the library

April 6, 2018

Twenty-One Days

As a devoted reader of series mysteries, there is a long list of writers whose books I look forward to, and a long list of writers who write long lists of books. :)  Anne Perry is one of them; I have greatly enjoyed her historical mysteries about Thomas and Charlotte Pitt and William and Hester Monk. Like most good series, in my humble opinion, the pleasure of reading them is as much (more, really) about the characters and their personal and family lives than about the mysteries they solve. So when I read the last, and apparently the last, Thomas Pitt novel last year, I liked the hint that Anne Perry was going to take the series in a new direction, bringing in some new characters along with the old.

Time has moved forward, to 1910, and Thomas and Charlotte's son Daniel is now a young lawyer, placed in prominent chambers through the intervention of his father.  As the book opens, he's in over his head, defending a roguish special agent accused of murder.  It's only a small spoiler to say that he succeeds, because he's immediately called away to assist a more senior lawyer in representing a famous biographer accused of murdering his wife. When there's a guilty verdict, the lawyers have only the statutory 21 days to file an appeal, or find another culprit, before their client is hanged.  When their client won't talk, the elderly head of chambers tells Daniel to "act like a detective" and investigate.

What Daniel finds could ruin the reputations, and the lives, of characters in the earlier series, and as a plot device in this one, it seems a little over the top. Daniel thinks and talks a little too much like his father to be an especially interesting new character, though there are other promising ones, such as Miriam, the daughter of the head of chambers, who has studied medicine and does autopsies in her basement.  But all in all, I didn't mind; the sameness in these books has always been part of their charm, this is a very creative way to continue a series, and I'll look forward to reading the next book.

Twenty-One Days is being published next week by Ballantine Books; it was a treat to read and enjoy it a little early, courtesy of NetGalley.

Twenty-One Days:  a Daniel Pitt novel
Ballantine Books, 2018
Advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley

March 26, 2018

Elizabeth and Nathaniel and Sophia

      Nathaniel Hawthorne did not come alone that Saturday night, but with 'a hooded figure hanging on each arm':  his two sisters, the older bookish Elizabeth (known as as Ebe) ...and the younger Louisa, now the most sociable member of the reclusive Hawthorne family. The image of the strikingly handsome author in black cape and silks -- he made a point of dressing well in public, Hawthorne later confided, in an effort to conquer his reserve -- flanked by two women would become an indelible one...
      On November 11, Elizabeth welcomed the three Hawthornes into the parlor where they sat stiffly in a row. It was dark, or her guests might have peered out the parlor window at the neighboring cemetery, where they could easily have seen the gravestone of their ancestor John Hathorne, the 'hanging judge' of Salem's long-ago witchcraft frenzy, a few yards off. ... Elizabeth tried easing their shyness by showing off a volume of drawings she had borrowed from a Harvard professor... Succeeding in engaging her guests' attention with illustrations of the Iliad, she left them turning the pages to run upstairs to Sophia in her sickroom, 'Mr, Hawthorne and his sisters have come,' she burst out, 'and you never saw anything so splendid - he is handsomer than Lord Byron.' As Elizabeth told the story years later she urged Sophia to dress and come down to meet the writer, but Sophia refused. 'I think it would be rather ridiculous to get up,' Sophia tweaked Elizabeth, impatient at being pressed by her older sister in yet another of her enthusiasms. 'If he has come once he will come again,' she predicted.

from The Peabody Sisters, by Megan Marshall

This biography, which I'm enjoying very much, opens with the wedding of Sophia Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and that wasn't a spoiler (I already knew about their marriage from other reading).  But if these three 19th-century Boston sisters and their fractious relationship wasn't enough to draw me in, there was a hint, early on, of a love triangle among the studious, zealous, irritating, earnest oldest sister Elizabeth, the delicate, artistic, headache-suffering, youngest sister Sophia, and splendid Mr, Hawthorne, and I've finally gotten to that part. :)

There's a fascinating glimpse of Hawthorne and his own odd, reclusive family (his widowed mother, his two sisters, and himself, eating their meals alone in their rooms and sometimes not seeing each other for months) and of course I'm now longing to read more about him, but during my bus ride into work and my bus ride home, Elizabeth has coaxed Hawthorne into visiting, she has offered to help the young author with introductions and reviews, he has confided in her about his family life, and over the course of a few months they have reached an understanding.
Elizabeth Peabody was an unconventional woman --not unattractive,shiny-haired, slim and small -- a woman who talked easily and could coax a shy man to speak freely as well. She was also messy, headlong and headstrong. But Nathaniel Hawthorne was accustomed to unconventional women, both independent-minded and willful ones, like his older sister Ebe, and passive, retiring ones, like his widowed mother. For much of his life, Hawthorne had found the pull of these women...undeniable. Elizabeth Peabody was like them, but perhaps not quite enough. The same qualities that allowed her to help him professionally -- her enterprising, almost meddlesome nature -- may have begun to put him off.

And of course she has been telling him about Sophia, with her 'beatific suffering' and her artistic sensibilities. Poor Elizabeth.

      By March,Sophia was feeling 'better than for a month' and ready to contemplate the journey downstairs ... she knew that soon the clematis vine climbing toward her window would bloom, and she wanted to  gather the blossoms herself. Downstairs, too, she would find this strikingly handsome writer -- 'handsomer than Lord Byron' --  that her sister had been telling her about all winter long.
      We cannot know on which of the first voyages beyond her room during the spring of 1838 Sophia Peabody finally met Nathaniel Hawthorne face-to-face.  But on that day Sophia dressed herself in a 'simple white wrapper' and summoned just enough strength to reach the parlor, where she sank into the couch reserved for her use, interrupting a conversation between Elizabeth and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  'He rose and looked at her -- he did not realize how intently,' Elizabeth later recalled. The startled older sister watched as each of Sophia's infrequent remarks, delivered in her 'low sweet voice,' was met with that 'same intentness of interest.' ... Elizabeth, who had once accused her little sister of being a hypochondriac, had always suspected Sophia of retaining the power to cure herself when she felt like it.

Oh, my. :)

March 18, 2018

Only connect: Elizabeth Peabody and Madame de Staël

      [The books she was reading] raised questions that Elizabeth would have to answer whether  or not she married.  Should she put forward her own genius, or simply cultivate talent in others? Should she leave home to pursue her ambitions, or stay behind with her impoverished family, accepting only the work she could find close at hand? ... Elizabeth would have to decide whether to follow her family wherever her father would take them -- most likely back again to Salem -- or to pursue her own ambitions in a city like Boston that could support them.
      These were questions more often faced  by oldest sons than by daughters in the New England of the 1820s.  For Elizabeth, the decision to leave home would go against every convention of daughterly behavior she'd seen around her as she grew up, All the girls she knew in Salem would stay at home until they married. And those who never married would continue to live with their parents, caring for them in their old age. Yet her relative poverty may have seemed a blessing to her now, when her inmost desire was to further her education, to experiment as a teacher, and, then, perhaps to write. Financial necessity was a good mask for a woman's ambition or even for simple wanderlust. ...

from The Peabody Sisters:  three women who ignited American romanticism
by Megan Marshall

After I read Claire Tomalin's memoir last week, I was longing to read a biography next, and this one has been languishing on my shelves for much too long.  The Peabody sisters -- Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia -- grew up in near Boston in the early 1800s. I haven't gotten far enough into this book to know much about them, except that Elizabeth,  the oldest, became a prominent educator, and Sophia, the youngest, married Nathaniel Hawthorne {though there's a hint that Elizabeth had eyes for him first}.
By the winter of 1822, Elizabeth was reading an author ... suited to her professional dilemma:  Madame de Staël. ...  Bonaparte had banished the writer as an outspoken critic of his regime.  De Stael's uncompromising nature, her politics, her salon and her literary career all captured Elizabeth's imagination.  As she read, Elizabeth was strengthening her resolve to leave home.
As if a biography with ties to Boston wasn't enough to make me happy, this is one of those connections that I love to find when I read. When she was banished from Paris, Madame de Staël lived in Coppet, the town near Geneva where my sister lived for many years (a place she -- MdS, not my sister --  described as "a tomb where you can get mail").  I visited her chateau and read a little about her during one of my visits there.  So it was a treat to meet her again as a figure in the intellectual life of a young, well-read, striving girl, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next {and to finding out more about the love triangle (?) with Mr. Hawthorne}.

Elizabeth Peabody was 17 at the time this passage describes, already teaching school and discussing German philosophy with her friends, but the only pictures of her that I could find were of her as an elderly woman, so we'll just have to look back at her younger self along with her. :)

March 15, 2018

Dream job...

      Working on a biography means you are obsessed with one person and one period for several years. Another life is bound up with yours and will remain so for the rest of your own life -- that at least is my experience. You have gone in too deep to cast them aside. You have looked into the context of their lives in every aspect, examined their family backgrounds, their beliefs, their tastes, their eccentricities, their friends and enemies, their ambitions, achievement and failures, their quirks and mysteries, their betrayals and unhappiness, their political allegiances, their medical histories,their finances, their children, their reputations both in life and posthumous. You will have been surprised by them, maybe disappointed, amused, amazed.

A lovely, moving, engaging book, and an extra joy to read about the life of a biographer, one whose books you've read and enjoyed, one you've met in passing before, and one who {best of all} only turned to writing full time when she was in her fifties. :)

A life of my own, by Claire Tomalin
Viking, 2017
Borrowed from the Harvard College Library

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