'How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare that after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.' No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement. — from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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.


July 31, 2017

Persephone no. 61: A London Child of the 1870s



      We were rich too in another way, so far as I can observe, than the average children of today Our parents had accumulated a large number of books, which we were allowed to browse in as much as we liked.  Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Lamb, George Eliot, Tennyson, Byron, Coleridge, Disraeli, these were not 'taught' at school, or set as holiday tasks, but became part of our lives. The elder ones discussed them at table, and quoted from them, till the Micawbers and Becky Sharp and Lamb appeared to my childish mind as some some former friends of mother's,whom I recognized with delight later on when I read the books for myself. ...
      Occasionally the discussions became acrimonious. My eldest brother was one day making disparaging remarks about Tennyson, and my mother, all agitated in defence of her idol, fetched his poems from the shelf, and with a 'Listen now, children' began to declaim Locksley Hall. When she reached 'I to herd with narrow foreheads' she burst out, flinging down the book, 'What awful rubbish this is!'

I finally made a list of the Persephones that I could find at the library, and I started to make a more concerted effort to borrow them.  The trouble is that the library that offers them lets me keep books for up to four months if no one else wants them (and no one else ever seems to!) and so they tend to sit at the bottom of the reading pile until it's too late.  I rescued this one just in time. :)

Molly Hughes was the youngest child, with four older brothers, in the Thomas family; her father was a London stockbroker whose fortunes rose and fell, and an imaginative man who created adventures for his children (especially his sons; Molly often describes them adding that she wasn't allowed to go with them}, her mother adopted a policy of 'Boys First,' so that her young daughter wouldn't be spoiled, but took Molly with her on long walks, and shopping trips, and calls to relatives and neighbors. Molly insists that 'We were just an ordinary. suburban Victorian family, undistinguished ourselves  and unacquainted with distinguished people,' but she paints a picture of a close-knit, unusual family, describing their love of books and paintings, their childhood mischief, her brothers' experiences at school, visits to Kew Gardens and long walks to St. Paul's Cathedral on Sunday mornings, and at the end, a long summer visit to relatives in Cornwall.  Molly and her brothers had a room to themselves, one that their parents never entered, called 'the study' and later, their 'library,' where they displayed their collections, wrote rules for themselves, and fined each other for infractions, using the money to buy books and magazines.

In itself, I found this book charming, entertaining, and maybe not extraordinary ...but I definitely enjoyed it all the more because of Adam Gopnik's introduction.  He tells a sweet story about how much he and his wife loved this book and the two that followed ...
I read Molly Hughes' life for the first time when my wife and I came to New York in the early 1980s. We moved into a studio on East Eighty-Seventh Street -- a single, nine-by-eleven room. Not an apartment, really, but a room out of a popular song of the twenties or out of Trollope's The Three Clerks:  a blue room, lodgings.
      In part because we had no choice -- our room was in one of those upper-East Side canyons that are as shut off from broadcast television as Lhasa, and we couldn't afford cable -- reading aloud became our favorite, our only diversion, and our favorite books the talky reminiscences and eccentric fictions of nineteenth-century London.

... but he also tells us how Molly Hughes, writing almost 50 years later, 'resolutely shook off despair,' changing a very important element of the story, at the very end.  Knowing this, I'm glad the library has the next two volumes too.


A London Child of the 1870s, by Molly Hughes
Persephone Books, 2005 (originally published in 1934)

Borrowed from the Boston Athenaeum

July 30, 2017

Only connect: Anne Brontë and Queen Victoria



      Anne realised that at some point you have to stop living in someone else's stories and write your own. She was sick of the way ... women were all 'blighted lilies' who lost their minds over men and swooned and moped and faded. Was this all women could do?  ... Instead, Anne and Emily decided to write heroines. Like Augusta Geraldine Almeda -- AGA for short -- who was a mash-up of Mary Queen of Scots and the future Queen Victoria.
      Both Anne and Emily were fascinated by Victoria, who was almost exactly between their ages. Their 1837 diary paper records that Charlotte is sewing in one room, their aunt is sewing in another, Branwell is reading to Charlotte, and 'Papa gone out, Tabby in the kitchen -- the Emperor and Empresses of Gondal and Gaaldine preparing ... for the coronation which will be on the 12th July. Queen Victoria ascended the throne this month.'  It's a jolt to go from the humdrum household routine to Gondalian royalty [in their stories] and then to a real queen and a real coronation. Ironically, while the Brontës were weaving stories about someone very like Victoria, the princess was longing for a life like theirs. Victoria was lonely, brought up strictly and separated from other children. At seven, the desolate princess and her governess would squeeze into a miniature phaeton, pulled by a pair of tiny Shetland ponies, and a footman would drive them round and round the empty grounds. Victoria's mother tied holly under her chin to make her keep her head up straight, controlled her access to books and newspapers, and read all her journals and letters. Victoria's first command as queen was to be left alone for an hour.  She would go on to choose a husband because she fancied him, to stay on the throne for six decades,  to have nine children, and to survive eight assassination attempts. She refused to carry the bulletproof parasol she was issues, with its chain-mail lining. She surrounded herself, in her long widowhood, with handsome young men, including a bluff Balmoral ghillie and an Indian servant who taught her to say 'hold me tight' in Hindustani. And she wrote. Sixty million words in all, sometimes two thousand words a night in her diaries, about everything from her pleasure at her husband putting on her stockings for her, to the state of her prime minister's teeth. She also wrote fiction. The heroine of The Adventures of Alice Laselles, a book Victoria wrote when she was ten (but which was only published in 2015), goes away to school, vanquishes injustice, and very poignantly, makes friends.
      Victoria would have been enraptured and maybe a bit shocked by Anne and Emily's stunning, ruthless queen who loves, uses and leaves men to die of broken hearts, or get killed by her other admirers, or go to prison, or commit suicide (there are lots of them, so they need various grisly ends). When her past catches up with her, AGA is murdered on the moors.
      At least I think that's what happens. ...

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


July 29, 2017

The Only Street in Paris: life on the Rue des Martyrs



     I can never be sad on the rue des Martyrs. There are espressos to drink, baguettes to sniff, corners to discover, people to meet. There's a showman who's been running a transvestite cabaret for more than half a century, a woman who repairs eighteenth-century mercury barometers, and an owner of a century-old bookstore with a passion for left-wing philosophers. There are merchants who seduce me with their gastronomic passions:  artichokes so young they can be served raw, a Cotes du Rhone so smooth it could be a fine Burgundy, a Mont D'Or cheese so creamy it is best eaten with a spoon. The small food shops on the lower end have no doors. That makes them cold in winter, hot in summer, damp when it rains, and inviting no matter what the weather.
    The shopkeepers enforce a culinary camaraderie that has helped me discover my inner Julia Child. What Child wrote in My Life in France resonates here as in no other place:  'The Parisian grocers insisted that I interact with them personally. If I wasn't willing to take the time to get to know them and their wares, then I would not go home with the freshest legumes or cuts of meat in my basket. They certainly made me work for my suppers -- but, oh, what suppers!'
      Like Julia, I interact personally, I work for my supper. I caress tomatoes, inspect veal chops, sniff ripe Camembert, sample wild boar charcuterie, and go wobbly over buttery brioche. The food sellers watch, bemused. I have been been introduced to a sweet turnip with yellow stripes called 'Ball of Gold'; I have been taught to liberate a raw almond from its shell by slamming it into a wall. Sometimes I even pretend to be Julia, who, like me, spoke strongly American-accented French. (I never, ever try to imitate her voice -- an odd blend of shrillness and warmth --- or her chortling laugh. That I leave to Meryl Streep.)

I remembered just in time that I had another book that I could read for Paris in July -- this one -- and it was a perfect way to spend a little more time there. The author, a New York Times journalist, comes to live on a street just off the rue des Martyrs, which winds uphill toward Montmartre, and sets out to get to know the street's history and its unofficial historians, its shops and merchants, and how the street is changing, for better or worse.  The people she meets, and the stories that she finds, are wide-ranging, from the best way to catch a mouse {with aged Gouda, the cheesemonger insists} to the story of St. Denis, the patron saint of France, and from a beautiful private street set behind tall gates, to the decaying church at the bottom of  the hill. Reading it is a wonderful way to explore a more everyday, less romanticized, less well-known Paris..



{40 Rue des Martyrs, found here}


{and rather dreamy apartment for rent, found here}


The Only Street in Paris: life on the Rue des Martyrs, by Elaine Sciolino
W.W. Norton & Company, 2014
On my shelves


July 21, 2017

A House in Flanders



      Since I was invariably the first person about in the mornings I had appropriated the steps to the terrace as a vantage point from which both to command a view over the plain and to follow what was happening indoors.  Beneath my feet a swastika, roughly carved with a soldier's knife, was a relic of the not so distant German occupation of the house. I would sit, with the stout black labrador Mardi stretched out beside me, usually reading a book recommended to me by one of the aunts, or gazing at the view while, like Mardi, keeping an ear cocked for sounds indoors. A creaking followed by a crash of shutters meant that Tante Lise was opening the house on her morning round; a rattle of the glass panes in the front door heralded the departure of her niece Madeleine to shop in the village; while the shuffling feet on the stairs signalled the descent of Oncle Auguste, anxious to swallow his coffee and escape into the garden before his wife, Alice, could find some uncongenial task for him.
      Mornings were elalways somnolent at the house. The aunts were not early risers and Zoe the cook would already be cutting up the vegetables for lunch, as one by one, they appeared at the door of the cavernous kitchen in search of sustenance. Only Lise was down before the others had stirred, preparing the first of several meals during the day for her cocker spaniel, taking fresh grass to her rabbits who had over the years progressively taken possession of the old stables in the courtyard, and laying a tray for her elder sister, Yvonne, with which she would painfully make her way upstairs at nine o'clock precisely.
It's set in Flanders, not Paris, but when I needed, to be honest, a more cheerful book for Paris in July than the one I had planned to read, I was happy that this one was still in my library pile. {And Paris does make a cameo appearance...it's the place that you come from if you are not quite who you should be, or where you go when you need a fresh start, although it's inevitable that you will come back home.} It's a short book, only about 150 pages, and part of me wishes it was much longer, while part of me thinks that it's perfect just as it is.

Looking back to 1951, when he was fourteen, Michael Jenkins (who, as it turns it, is a British diplomat and author of many other books) is remembering the first summer he spent with the Aunts, three elderly ladies who live with other family members on a farm in Flanders. Before he arrives, he knows that they are not really his aunts, but old friends of his parents, who visited them decades ago when they were newly married; as the summer unfolds, he learns more about how they are connected, and more about the siblings who were lost in the world wars and the ones that remain. Each of the book's chapters focuses on one member of the family, and young Michael's connection with them, with the house, and its gardens, and the village nearby described in wonderful detail.  A family, and a house, that it was lovely to spend time with.



A House in Flanders, by Michael Jenkins
Souvenir Press, 1992
Borrowed from the Boston Athenaeum



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