Paperbacks are perfect for reading in the horizontal position. I love my Penguins, Picadors, and Nancy Pearl Book Lust Rediscoveries.
Commenters at this blog, however, recently mentioned that used editions of the Folio Society books are available at eBay.
I do not frequent eBay. I was once outbid for a mid-twentieth-century blond wood dining room table I wanted for a desk. But many eBay dealers do sell for a set price. And so I browsed and bought this gorgeous Folio Society set of Chekhov’s The Collected Stories. The four books are very slightly oversized, but perfectly manageable for reading in “my nest.”
Published in 2010 to celebrate the 150th birthday of Chekhov, the books are beautifully bound and illustrated by Laura Carlin.
The translation is by Ronald Hingley, who translated nine volumes of Chekhov’s plays and six volumes of his stories for Oxford University Press. I have tried the Constance Garnett, and hope Hingley will finally illuminate Chekhov for me.
In the introduction, James Lasdun explores the alluring brevity of Chekhov by comparing him to three epic novelists of the 19th century and early twentieth century..
The canonized writers of the past have a tendency to assume a fixed expression in their readers’ imaginations. Dostoevsky always appears in the same aura of morbidly enthralling hysteria; Proust in the same velvety atmosphere of hyper-attuned sensory receptiveness. To think of Tolstoy is to conjure, at once, the note of impassive grandeur as of creation being set out in glittering ranks for inspection.
Anton Chekhov, whose short career was as momentous as any of these, has his own distinct tone and manner, but the impression it leaves is curiously elusive, offering reticence and hesitation in place of ‘personality, and a series of mods rather than a discernible attitude to life, even the attitude of uncertainty.
I look forward to reading The Collected Stories and will report back in a few weeks.
It is Anthony Trollope’s 200th anniversary, and all are frenziedly reading Trollope.
It is just like the nineteenth century!
I became a Trollope junkie after I saw The Pallisers on TV in the ’70s. Since then I have read 40 of his 47 novels. I recently reread the fifth book in the Palliser series, The Prime Minister. I love the mix of politics and doomed romance in this parliamentary pageturner: Planty Palliser, now the Duke of Omnium, becomes Prime Minister, and his wife Lady Glencora schemes to bolster his reputation by hosting extravagant over-the-top parties. Trollope also tells the story of the marriage of Emily Wharton, the daughter of a rich lawyer, and Lopez, an unscrupulous speculator who everyone knows is not a gentleman. The novel rambles, but I enjoyed the rambling.
So it is a normal year of Trollope at Mirabile Dictu. Well, almost. My Trollope consumption has not been entirely normal. I purchased a copy of the Folio Society’s complete edition of The Duke’s Children for $330 and then gave it to charity because it was too big to read in bed. I am as extravagant as Lady Glencora! only with less political effect. By the way, the book has received excellent reviews from the TLS, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Irish Times.
At The Guardian, in a roundup of writers choosing their favourite novels by Trollope, I was surprised that the Palliser books are so popular. Antonia Fraser chose Can You Forgive Her?, Roy Hattersley and Kwasi Kwarteng chose Phineas Finn, and Anthony Quinn and Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, chose The Prime Minister.
What are your favorite Trollope novels? Anybody for the Barsetshire series? My favorite is He Knew He Was Right. More on that later. I’ll reread it one of these years.
A new anthology from Dover, The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by WomenWriters, traces the development of women’s science fiction from 1873 to 1930.
The editor Mike Ashley provides a historical context for the 14 stories. He says in the introduction that it is commonly believed that women did not write
SF until recently. Here he has resurrected women who wrote for the pulps, including Clare Winger Harris, the first woman who wrote for science fiction magazines. And he reminds us “that science fiction is only about adventures in space and time, with alien monsters or mad scientists or superheroes.”
Certainly the stories here are usually centered on Earth. In E. Nesbit’s story, “The Third Drug” (1908), SF is combined with elements of horror. The narrator escapes a gang of thugs in the streets of Paris by rushing through a gate and barricading it. Then he falls into the hands of a mad scientist who has been experimenting with three very creepy drugs. An eerie, terrifying story. and a departure for Nesbit, who is best known for her children’s books.
My favorite story is Edna W. Underwood’s “The Painter of Dead Women” (1911). Underwood, a vividly offbeat writer, may have developed her bizarre imagination by the translation of Gogol which was her first book in 1903. In “The Painter of Dead Women,” she explores a horrifying premise: Count Ponteleon, a famous painter of dead women, kidnaps women and administers a poison developed by his ancestors which causes death and arrests physical decay. He has kidnapped the narrator on her honeymoon in Naples, because he lacks an Englishwoman for his collection. Very sinister, but fortunately the heroine is six-ft.-tall, athletic, and an invincible swimmer.
Are you ready for a humorous story? Elizabeth W. Bellamy’s story, “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” (1900), is charming and comical. The narrator buys two robot housemaids invented by a genius, Harrison Ely. “I had known him in college, a man amazingly dull in Latin and Greek and even in English, but with ideas of his own that could not be expressed in language. His bent was purely mechanical…” But t is difficult to program the maids to do just what you want them to do. If you don’t get the time right, they make the beds over and over. And you really don’t want your children to program mechanical housemaids. One of the funniest scenes is when both maids are programmed to sweep . They have a kind of sweeping fight with their brooms.
In general the women are not sanguine about the future. In Clare Winger Harris’s “The Artificial Man” (1929), a man becomes a cyborg. George Gregory, a brilliant student and football stars has a series of terrible accidents that reduce him from strong man with a bright future to a cripple with prostetic limbs. . Then he needs an artificial kidney, and eventually, like a plastic surgery addict, he has all of his body parts replaced by artificial materials. He becomes a cyborg to take revenge on the woman who dumped him.
M. F. Rupert takes a different tack. In this partly epistolary story, “Via the Hewett Ray” (1930), her heroine, the daughter of a scientist, travels to another dimension After her father develops a light ray device , he disappears and she goes to rescue him. She does not, however, end up in the right place. She visits a highly organized society ruled by unemotional women where men are the underdogs. There is much humor in this story: she finds her father, but also rescues a man who has been condemned for sedition against his female oppressors.. it’s as good a way to find a mate as any.
Are these stories good? Well, some are, and the others are historically important. It is a wonderful introduction to the history of women’s contributions to SF.
Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) was not commercially successful.
Nonetheless, it is one of my favorite books.
If this fascinating, addictive novel had been adapted for the BBC, we’d all have read it. The power-hungry heroine, Ethelberta Petherwin, leads a double life: she is a butler’s daughter who has jumped up a class due to education and marriage. At 21, she is the widow of a wealthy man. When she publishes a popular book of poetry, her mother-in-law disinherits her. Ethelberta moves to London with her invalid mother, brothers, and sisters to establish herself as a professional storyteller who performs for the rich. But she pretends her relatives are her servants, so she can socialize with the rich without their learning of her class. And with her “squirrel-colored hair,” dignified demeanor, and wit, she attracts men of all ages.
The novel begins with a disguised meditation on class and a quick precis of Ethelberta’s background.
Young Mrs. Petherwin stepped from the door of an old and well-appointed inn in a Wessex town to take a country walk. By her look and carriage she appeared to belong to that gentle order of society which has no worldly sorrow except when its jewellery gets stolen; but, as a fact not generally known, her claim to distinction was rather one of brains than of blood. She was the daughter of a gentleman who lived in a large house not his own, and began life as a baby christened Ethelberta after an infant of title who does not come into the story at all, having merely furnished Ethelberta’s mother with a subject of contemplation. She became teacher in a school, was praised by examiners, admired by gentlemen, not admired by gentlewomen, was touched up with accomplishments by masters who were coaxed into painstaking by her many graces, and, entering a mansion as governess to the daughter thereof, was stealthily married by the son. He, a minor like herself, died from a chill caught during the wedding tour, and a few weeks later was followed into the grave by Sir Ralph Petherwin, his unforgiving father, who had bequeathed his wealth to his wife absolutely.
Elegantly written, the novel is both comical and suspenseful. (The subtitle is A Comedy in Chapters.) Ethelberta tries in vain to keep her family separate from her wealthy friends. There is a crisis when she attends a dinner at the house where her father is butler. He pretends not to know her, but her younger sister Picotee, a junior teacher turned Ethelberta’s maid, visits her father in order to peep at Ethelberta in the dining room in all her splendor; she has the misfortune to make acquaintance with a maid who used to work for Ethelberta’s mother-in-law.
Ethelberta’s suitors in London are rich but unworthy. Her former sweetheart, Mr. Julian, is her intellectual equal, but she will not marry him because she is poor. (Her sister, Picotee, falls in love with him.) She does not respect the painter Mr. Ladywell : When his painting of Ethelberta, his best work, is hung at the Academy, it is much admired. In fact, she overhears Mr. Neigh, a rich young man of littler personality, say he wants to marry her.
There is a trademark Hardy morbid scene. Ethelberta and Picotee take an evening journey by train to the site of Mr. Neigh’s estate to check it out. At first they find the park beautiful; then they see an enclosure where skeletal horses are collected to be killed for a kennel of dogs. This ends her plan to marry Mr. Neigh.
Then there is Lord Mountclere, age 65, who is filthy rich. Ethelberta even loves the staircase in his house. But is she so greedy?
Although this was not Hardy’s most successful book, I am not alone in my admiration of Ethleberta. It is beautifully-written and entertaining. According to my handy Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy,
R. H. Hutton, in a representative review in the Spectator, declared: ‘A more entertaining book than The Hand of Ethelberta has not been published for many a year';he added that no one would read the novel ‘without being aware from the beginning to the end that a very original and a very skillful hand is wielding the pen.’
Hutton’s reference to “a very original and a very skillful hand” is clever: The hand of Ethelberta is skillful in everything she does.
Addendum: More ironic than I thought. According to the SongFacts website, “The title and chorus are based on a Chinese propaganda poster. The slogan “Shiny happy people holding hands” is used ironically – the song was released in 1991, two years after the Tiananmen Square uprising when the Chinese government clamped down on student demonstrators, killing hundreds of them. (thanks, Ali – Oxford, England)”
My mother was not bookish, but she encouraged bookishness.
She read to me day and night until I learned to read. I bounced into her room at 5 a.m. to beg her to read She read nursery rhymes (I was partial to Three Little Kittens), fairy tales, and Make Way for Ducklings.
How glad she must have been when I learned to read!
I owe my bookishness to Mom, whom I miss very much, so I am dedicating this List of Favorite Books of the Decades of My Life to her. I am listing only one per decade, so it is a bit arbitrary. Lists are fun!
My first decade (zero to nine): E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. This is a classic, my favorite of Nesbit’s fantasies. It is the story of the “magic adventures” of Gerald, Jimmy, and Kathleen (siblings), and a friend, Mabel. The three siblings wander into the garden of a castle and see Mabel dressed up like a princess and feigning an enchanted sleep. When she is kissed, she convinces them she is a princess and says she has a magic ring–and then, to her consternation, it becomes true. She wishes she were invisible–and becomes invisible. She doesn’t believe they can’t see her–and shakes them. The sight of their being shaken by someone invisible is terrifying. They clutch her invisible arms and legs. In each chapter, they have a different adventure with the ring. I especially remember a frightening chapter when the statues come to life.
My second decade (ten to nineteen): Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. The Nobel Prize winner’s powerful experimental novel centers on Anna, a writer and single mother whose life is fragmented because she no longer respects her fiction-writing. She has contempt for her best-selling novel about an interracial relationship in Africa, is a disillusioned leftist who once idealized the Soviet Union,,and can only fall in love with men who cannot love deeply. Lessing also chronicles a collapsed society, broken by the trauma of World War II, fear of the bomb, and emotional frigidity.
The experimental structure of the novel is bold. Lessing alternates sections of a short traditional novel about Anna, “Free Women,” with Anna’s writings in four notebooks–black, red, yellow, and blue–in which she tries to measure out the truth about her life of organized chaos, often writing in fragments, experimenting with different styles, chronicling her experience straightforwardly in the communist party in Africa, her marriage and love affairs, her difficulty with writing. She also writes a novel about an alter ego, Ella, who is more brittle than Anna, but undergoes similar emotional upheaval. Eventually she receives a golden notebook…
My third decade (twenty to twenty-nine): Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold. At the beginning of this fascinating, insightful, analytical, but ultimately cheerful book, Frances Wingate, a brilliant archaeologist, is in her hotel room suffering from depression. The next day she must give a lecture, and, having idly visited the city’s octopus research laboratory, she is thinking about the octopus who lived in a plastic box with holes for its arms. The female octopus is programmed to die after giving birth: what has Frances been programmed for? She wonders. What are middle-aged women supposed to do when they no longer have babies? Her children are fine. She has her work.
Frances has some non-biological reasons to be depressed. She broke up with her lover, Karel, a professor, adult education teacher, and misses him badly. She even carries a bridge of two of Karel’s false teeth, sometimes in her bosom to “protect her virtue.” He was married, and she was suddenly disturbed by the fact they had only managed to get away for four days away in the years of their relationship. She told him she didn’t want to see him anymore.
Thee novel is also a dark exploration of family, heredity, and “the landscape of the soul.” Frances is fascinated by herroots, and we learn about her relative Janet Bird, a trapped housewife in Tockley, France’s hometown. . There is something profoundly optimistic about Frances, the second generation away from Tockley. And that is why we like this book so much.
My fourth decade (thirty to thirty-nine): Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. The plot of OMF revolves around money: the effect of the inheritance of the riches of a miserly junkyard owner on his heirs, the Boffins who worked as his servants; they believe his son, John Harmon has been murdered. Members of the Boffins’ circle include John Rokeman, the mysterious secretary who dedicates himself passionately to their interests; the beautiful, greedy, witty Bella, whom the Boffins informally adopt; poisonous Wegg, the one-legged con man who hopes to blackmail Mr. Boffin; and Betty Higden, the independent old woman who refuses to accept money from the Boffins because she wants to stand on her own two feet and, by her own money, keep out of the workhouse.
There are also sub-Boffin circles: Lizzie Hexam and her father, Gaffer Hexam, a waterman, find the body of John Harmon in the Thames. Mortimer Lightwood, the Boffins’ lawyer, and his good friend and fellow lawyer, the witty, languorous Eugene Wrayburn, meet them when they come to identify the body. And thus they are all connected to the Boffins.
And there is a shallow monied sub-culture which is hilarious: the Veneerings, social climbers, invite everybody and anybody who seems to have money to dinner as part of their scheme to claw their way to the top of the precarious ladder of high society. Lightwood and Wrayburn are members of this group, though they seem not to know why they are there or want to be there. And Dickens’ portrayal of this group is an education in what kind of person not to aspire to know. In this whole layer of society, as we learn as the book progresses, there are only a few good souls.
My fifth decade (forty to forty-nine): Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. To a woman of a certain age, Bronte’s Villette, an unflinching report of solitude and isolation, is more interesting than Jane Eyre. This bold novel is tougher and yet more nuanced than Jane Eyre, and feminist readers and Bronte fans should give it another chance.
Lucy Snowe, the solitary narrator, is the invisible woman in triangular relationships. Attachments become triangulated without her realizing it whenever she has a relationship with a man.
When we first meet Lucy, she seems cold. There is something voyeuristic about Lucy’s cold scrutiny of her godmother Mrs. Bretton’, though she loves her godmother. As a teenage girl, Lucy has no interest in Graham Bretton, the handsome, lively teenage son. But in minute detail Lucy describes Graham’s friendship with Polly, a small child who becomes passionately fond of Graham when she stays with the Brettons during her father’s illness. Graham teases her and behaves like an older brother, while Polly is like a tiny woman. Lucy cannot understand the magnitude of the child’s attachment.
Lucy is shadowy. She tells us very little about her family, and there is a Gothic mystery about her intense solitude and taciturnity.
Then as an adult she is thrown on the world without money, and eventually ends up a teacher at Madame Beck’s school in Villette (an imaginary city like Brussels, where Bronte taught) and meets Graham Bretton (now called Dr. John) again.