When Print Is Too Small: Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere & Others


…the afternoon sun, about to descend before very long behind the hills dividing Long Whindale from Shanmoor, was still lingering on this May afternoon we are describing, bringing out the whitewashed porch and the broad bands of white edging the windows, into relief against the gray stone of the main fabric, the gray roof overhanging it, and the group of sycamores and Scotch firs which protected it from the cold east and north.”–A lovely descriptive passage from Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere

I was raised on Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Thomas Hardy, and cannot get enough of Dickens.

In recent years, after reading and rereading my favorite nineteenth-century classics,  I have turned to the “third-rate” Victorians.  Call them minor, but they are better writers than your average 21st-century computerized pisseur de copie. Mrs. Humphry Ward, the author of 25 novels,  is intellectually and stylistically in the same class as George Meredith, Mrs. Gaskell, and Mrs. Oliphant.   I recently read  and loved  Robert Elsmere, Ward’s most famous novel.

Yes, it is a religious novel, but don’t be put off:  the characters are vivid and surprising, love and marriage don’t always work out, and the plot doesn’t go where you think it will.  At the center is Robert Elsmere, an inspired but delicate clergyman whose body  breaks down when he works too hard.  He tells stories and lectures on history to the poor, nurses the sick with the help of his wife, and insists on the importance of good drains.  But his contact with an intellectual atheist changes his  own beliefs.

The print is small….

Women play a big role in this 1888 novel and are more sympathetic than the men.  My favorite characters are the Leyburn sisters, who really dominate the book:  Catherine, who marries Robert, a very bright and diligent but rigid woman whose vicar father entrusted to her the religious care of her mother and sisters before his death; Agnes, a smart, witty, tactful spinster who unfortunately drops out of the narrative far too soon; and the youngest, Rose, a wild, beautiful, talented pianist who worries Catherine with her penchant for the arts. Although there is much intellectual discussion of church history, Christianity, and atheism  (see the introduction!),  there is also plenty about love, art, and the value of social work.  What I love most:   the way Ward creates an atmosphere.  I love her country walks, idyllic woods and pastures, and later the ugly smoky vividness of 19th century London.

Alas,  the print in my out-of-print Oxford World’s Classic edition, which was large enough when I first tried to read it pre-bifocals, is now too small for me.  There is almost no space between the lines. I was exasperated.   I read much of it on an e-reader.  Do your eyes ache after hours on an e-reader? Mine do.

Old books last, but some of mine have seen better days.


A curly book!

J. B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement is a charming, lively novel,  but after one read my used paperback copy began to curl.  There is nothing wrong with it, but why do covers curl?   I loved the book, the story of a group of sad, desperate people who work in an office, Twigg & Dersingham.  (I wrote about it in 2014 here.)


Chewed by a cat.

The Moon-Spinners is my favorite book by Mary Stewart, though this 1964 paperback is  bunged-up.  My cat ate a corner of the cover,  but I love the photo of Hayley Mills in what the blurb calls the “spine-tingling Walt Disney motion picture.”

This has seen better days.

This has seen better days.

The binding of this nineteenth-century edition of An Old-Fashioned Girl, my favorite book by Louisa May Alcott, is falling to pieces.  Thank God paperbacks are cheap and e-books are free.

A Greek dictionary

A Greek dictionary

The cover of this scholarly nineteenth-century Greek dictionary, bought for $29 when I was in school, is turning from a book into wood and dust.  Just look at that cover.   The pages are still readable, though.


Held together with tape.

The Needle’s Eye is my favorite novel by Margaret Drabble.  My paperback is held together with tape.  I love the picture of Drabble on the cover!

Have your books suffered from small print, curled covers, etc.?  We can’t replace our books!

A Giveaway of Pamela Dean’s “Tam Lin” & Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s “Seasoned Timber”

seasoned-timber-canfield-fisher-51r8j2kiwqlIt’s time for a giveaway!

Tam_Lin_by_Pamela_DeanJust last week I wrote about Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, one of my favorite books. (I wrote about it here.)   If you would like my extra copy, leave a comment.

If you are a fan of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, author of The Homemaker, a 1924 novel about a woman who works while her husband stays home with the kids, or The Bent Twig, her entertaining novel about a likeable Vermont housewife, you might appreciate her last novel,   Seasoned Timber, published in 1939, the story of a headmaster at a boarding school in Vermont.   This edition is A Hardscrabble Classic, published by University Press of New England.  Leave a comment if you’d like it.

All in the U.S. and Canada are eligible, including those of you who have “won” books in the past.  I wish I could send books outside of North America, but the postage defeats me.

And thank you for taking these books off my hands, if you will.

Blog Catch-Up: Maria Semple’s “Today Will Be Different”

today-will-be-different-thumbnail_finalapproved_semple_todaywillbedifferent_revisemjp_1I am behind on book blogging!

It has been a chaotic week. After voting early I  worried all week that coloring outside the lines on a rectangle would break the scanner. I tried to hand-wash sweaters and gave up and threw them in the wash. I made a chicken noodle casserole which exploded in the knapsack while I was biking it over to a sick friend.  And I am typing the manuscript of a novel into my computer for NANOWRIMO (National November Writing Month), but, you know, it’s easier to write in a notebook.

But here’s good news:   I read and loved Maria Semple’s  Today Will be Different.

Being the cynic I am, I had very low expectations of thus well-reviewed novel.  Her last novel,  Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,  nominated for the Bailey Women’s Prize in 2013, was enjoyable but very slight

Perhaps Today Will Be Different is Semple’s breakout novel.  It has more depth, the structure is more intricate,  and it is slightly reminiscent of Barbara Trapido’s witty, charming novels,.

Narrated mostly in the first person, partly in the third person, and partly in an elliptical graphic memoir, it is witty, brilliant, alternately grumpy and effervescent.  The heroine, Eleanor Flood, a former  director of animation on a cartoon show in New York, is too sharp and introspective to fit in seamlessly as a Seattle housewife and stay-at-home mom. In laid-back, quirky, politically correct Seattle, she is neither the perfect wife to Joe, a hand surgeon, nor the perfect mother to eight-year-old Timby, and she never works on the graphic memoir she has a contract for.  But she tries to set simple goals:  she resolves to be more attentive and caring for one day.  She will play a game with Timby. She will initiate sex with Joe.

Semple’s own background is in TV, and it shows, especially in the dialogue:   the narrative is minimalist and the witty dialogue abbreviated but snappy.  Gradually Semple expands the story to reveal the stress as well as the humor of  Eleanor’s scrambled, tiring life. Eleanor glimpsed Joe with his head down on the breakfast table, and worries about what it means.  Timby puts on makeup in the car and runs out before she can stop him.  (She knows the principal of the expensive private school thinks Timby is “genderquerer.’) The one thing Eleanor lives for is poetry class, where she recites and discusses ONE poem a week at a coffeehouse with a poet. This also fits in with her past:  she relates it to her mother.

I got the big idea to sharpen my instrument by memorizing poems.  My mother was an actress; she used to recite Shakespeare soliloquies before bed.  It was amazing.  (There! Amazing! If my brain weren’t so bad I might have said, It was proof she was disciplined and properly educated and may have had an inkling of her terrible fate.)  So I did what anyone would do: I picked up the phone, called the University of Washington, and asked for their finest poetry teacher.

Naturally, during their discussion of Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” the school calls.  Timby is sick.  Eleanor doesn’t believe it for a minute–it has been happening a lot lately–but she interrupts the lesson to pick him up.  And Timby isn’t exactly sick.  The new girl has called him the “c” word:  cow.

When Timby overhears an artist at lunch saying he met Eleanor’s sister, Eleanor flips and denies it.  We are introduced to Eleanor and her younger sister Ivy in the elliptical graphic memoir, The Flood Girls.  Their actress mother dies of cancer, and then their alcoholic father moves them to a guesthouse in Aspen and pretty much disappear.  Mostly he is out drinking and doing deals, leaving Eleanor, a fourth-grader, to raise her little sister.For weeks they have to eat whatever they can buy in the drugstore.   Eleanor turned out tough; Ivy wispy and sad, a fashion model who became a trophy wife for a mad Louisiana rich man.

When Eleanor and Timby learn that Joe has gone rogue from his office–he told his secretary they were on vacation for a week–Timby, Alonzo the poet, and Eleanor go in search.  They do not find what they expect.

During this wild day, Eleanor learns about Joe, Timby, her poet Alonzo, and a former colleague she fired who is now a successful artist.  Life is not so much about being different as about finding out what the hell is going on.

And isn’t this how we feel in life?

Love this book!

Why I Voted Early: Thank You, Elizabeth Cady Stanton!

vote-now-55269177-pop-art-woman-with-vote-now-typographyI am a U.S. citizen and a third-generation Democrat. Today I voted early. Thank you, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and the other suffragists who worked so hard to win this right. The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified in 1920. And so I cast my vote for President, Senator, Congress, and more.

“Isn’t this the greatest country in the world?” a friend asked frivolously at the town center.

“Sure,” I said half-mockingly. “We’re living the dream.”

In 33 states and Washington, D.C, you can vote early without an excuse at various town centers, the auditor’s office, libraries, etc. Why vote early? No lines, lots of leisure, and your duty is done.

You go into a table-lined room, your identity is ascertained by a few quick questions, you fill in rectangles on the ballot, and then drop it in the unprofessional-looking plastic ballot box.

It’s over!

And now I feel relaxed.

It has been an ugly election. And if I had to take much more of it, I might not have voted at all. So I did it early.  The Republicans want to undo all the great work of Obama and generations of brilliant, well-educated men and women.  Every day I am horrified by Trump’s vile opinions of women, immigrants, race, war, abortion, etc.

Clinton was not my first choice for the Democratic candidate, but she is solid and has all the qualifications. So, yes, I supported Bernie, but now it’s Go, Hillary!  She will do a great job.  I laughed at Trump when he said at the State Fair in 2015 that he would build a wall between Texas and Mexico. How did he become the Republican candidate?

The Democrats are worried about getting the vote out. Do vote! It’s not just for president: we need good senators, congressmen and women, state senators, and state reps.

Why is it our duty to vote?

Well, I myself am thrilled by

  1. The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare
  2. The still affordable state university system, funded almost equally by federal and state money. Pell grants, loans, and scholarships made it possible for so many of us to get a great education.  May it continue!
  3. The national parks.
  4. The EPA and environmental awareness.
  5. Social Security (it’s still there: let’s keep it.)
  6. And so much more.

Hillary Clinton was one of my mother’s idols. She spoke often about hearing Hillary and Bill speak on the Pentacrest in Iowa City in 2008. She  gave me Hillary’s memoir because she thought “it was important.”

So fingers crossed, we are about to have our first woman president.

Nirvana in Northfield, Minnesota, the Setting of Pamela Dean’s “Tam Lin”


She could now turn right and follow the stream through the Upper Arboretum, emerging eventually in her own neighborhood; or she could follow the sidewalk between the lower lake and Dunbar Hall, climb a hill, scramble through the lilac maze, cross a highway, and plunge into the Lower Arboretum, from which, if one did not eventually retrace one’s steps, one would not emerge for three days.”–Janet takes a walk in the Arboretum in Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin

This weekend my husband and I hiked in the Cowling Arboretum in Northfield, a small town south of Minneapolis.  Northfield, Minnesota, is the setting of one of my favorite books, Pamela Dean’s fantasy classic,  Tam Lin, a splendid retelling of the Tam Lin ballad. (You may know the song “Tam Lin” by Fairport Convention.)

I can’t too highly recommend Tam Lin, a brilliant college classic set at Blackstock College, modeled on Dean’s alma mater, Carleton College in Northfield.  The heroine, Janet Carter, an English professor’s daughter, loves her picturesque hometown and is an English major at Blackstock, where her classics professor advisor, a “demon recruiter,” tries to lure her into classics. (She does take Greek.)  The classics majors are rumored to be crazy, and indeed, are very strange, especially a group of actors who speak Shakespearean English: “Cry me mercy, lady!” There is also a ghost who hurls Liddell and Scott and The Scarlet Letter out the window of fourth-floor Erickson on Halloween.

The classics department is full of eccentrics, headed by the  mysterious, intimidating Medeous, who has long red-black hair and a very controlling personality.   On Halloween, the classics professors and majors eerily appear on horseback in the Arboretum, where  Janet and her friends are walking.

And under the rustle of dry leaves in the light wind, the sounds came clearer now: not only the sedate thud of hoofs and the creak of leather, but a dim jingling that, as it grew louder, made a music purer”than the bagpipes. …They looked like fireflies, and then perhaps like lanterns; and then they were just an enormous greeny-gold glow that showed up the trunks and branches of the trees, the dead dry stalks of weed and a few late-blooming flowers, like things in a pencil sketch. The broad path on the other side of the bridge lit up, every stone and stick on it like a jewel; the light touched the rough wooden bridge and made it dazzling; and then they could see the riders.

As we drove into Northfield, we passed many picture-postcard-looking farms. (Farms don’t look like that in Iowa or Nebraska.) I told my husband Northfield would be magic.

It is certainly as idyllic a town as I have ever seen outside of New England.

The Cannon River

The Cannon River


The River Walk Trail

The first thing we saw was the trail beside the pellucid Cannon River. At the weekly market, the musicians were playing “Tupelo Honey.” (A ’70s time warp!) The downtown is quaint and charming, either  (a) because it has been restored, or (b)  never lost population and got run down like so many small towns. There are five coffeehouses, a couple of pubs, an olive oil and vinegar shop, a cooking store, a yarn store, a thrift store, a very solid-looking inn, and a bookstore, just to give you an idea. The sidewalks swarm with well-dressed upper-middle-class people, many of them middle-aged, some students. No ball caps! Well, almost none.  But I don’t think the 20,000 people in Northfield could possibly support  an olive oil and vinegar shop. Perhaps tourists come on the weekends.

The Malt-o-Meal Factory is blasting out cereal fumes.  It is the only Malt-o-Meal factory in the world.


Downtown Northfield

Downtown Northfield

We drove past Carleton College, which indeed looks magical. The campus is very peaceful and many of the buildings very old.

We hiked a little in what is known as the Upper Arboretum.  Carleton owns the 800-acre Arboretum.

img_3984Really lovely, lots of trees and bridges.

But we preferred the wild Lower Arboretum, which is actually above the Upper Arboretum. At the tip top of the Lower Arboretum, seven miles outside of town, is the McKnight Prairie.  Wild, hilly, a mix of trees, grasses and wild flowers.

Prairie in Lower Arboretum

Prairie in Lower Arboretum

According to Carleton’s Cowling Arboretum website, “the hilltops of McKnight were never extensively disturbed, and they remain intact native ecosystems with diverse assemblages of prairie species. ….The area around the hills was once cultivated, but has been recolonized by native tallgrass prairie species dominated by Andropogon gerardii (big bluestem) and Sorghastrum nutans (Indian grass). McKnight’s populations of native plants have served as an important local seed source for nearby prairie restorations in the Arb.”

What a perfect day! We’d love to live in Northfield.  All the Victorian houses, Tudors, and Arts-and-Crafts houses are in great shape.  A few modern houses, not many!

If you want to figure out the correlations between Blackstock and Carleton, check out The Emerald City Review’s fascinating guide to Blackstock!

Please Take It! A Giveaway of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man

joanna-russ-thefemaleman Joanna Russ (1937-2011),  a lesbian feminist science fiction writer who was as intent on challenging the male SF community as on writing novels and stories for women, won the Nebula Award in 1972 for her short story, “When It Changed.” She incorporated the story into her 1975 Utopian novel, The Female Man, which received a retroactive James Tiptree, Jr. award in 1995.

A male science fiction fan, not a female man, recommended this novel to me in the ’80s:  he read men and women writers with equal enthusiasm.  I enjoyed the postmodern structure of Russ’s text, and the Second Wave feminist ideas.   When I found a copy at Waterstones recently, I was thrilled to see it still in print. But…it is well-written but dated and dogmatic, like rereading one of those wild 1970s radical texts, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. (She says women will be inferior till they seize the means of reproduction.)  Only, mad as The Dialectic of Sex is, The Female Man purports to be a novel. (The women in one of Russ’s worlds control reproduction.)

The heroine Janet lives in an all-female world, Whileaway.  All the men were killed in a plague and the women live in peace, reproducing by splicing the eggs of the two women (or something like that!).  It’s not a perfect world:  the women work at dull jobs until in old age they are allowed to sit down and work at creative or analytic work.

Janet keeps popping in and out of alternate timelines in different worlds. The women of other worlds have very different values:   Joanna’s world is a 1960s version of our 1960s, where men dominate and women hope not to work, and Jeannine lives in a U.S.  where World War II never happened and the Depression is still going on.  Janet’s acceptance that women are not limited by gender and that lesbianism is natural is radical in these alternate worlds.  At a party in Joanna’s world, women coo at men, act stupid, and hope to find a man. Janet finds the whole thing hilarious.  In the Depression world, Jeannine works at a low-paying job and dreams of wearing the new fashions (constrictive corsets, push-up bras, etc.) and dreams of marriage, which her boyfriend cannot afford and anyway he’s far from her dream guy.

I find all the spouting about sex roles very tiresome, because other feminist writers of that time–Erica Jong, Sheila Ballyntine, Nora Johnson, Sue Kaufman–did this better.  But Brit Mandelo at Tor loves Russ,  as I found on scanning the internet (and Tor is a very good website).  Go here to read her essay, “Queering SFF: The Female Man by Joanna Russ (+ Bonus Story, ‘When it Changed’).

So please take this book!  Leave a comment if you’d like my copy. It is award-winning.  And I do think many of you would enjoy it.

The Real Mad vs. the Literary Mad

Mr. Dick flies kites for therapy.

Mr. Dick flies kites for therapy.

I empathize with the mad. They suffer.  “I have suffered more than Jesus Christ,” a  friend said during a bout of madness.  Shocking, but I understood.  The mad not only do mad things, but remember their madness and suffer. My cousin was escorted by the police from a grocery store for singing in the aisles about poisoned air. After her meds were adjusted she was humiliated by the memory, even though her psychologist assured her the air IS poisoned and she had told the truth during her mania.

Fritz Eichenberg's illustration of Heathcliff.

Fritz Eichenberg’s illustration of mad, suffering Heathcliff.

If only, my cousin said, she had literary madness.  It is easier, we agree, to understand the Literary Mad than the Real Mad.

For instance,

  1. Mr. Dick, Betsey Trotwood’s lodger in David Copperfield, cannot concentrate on writing his “Memorial” because  King Charles I’s head keeps popping up in his own head. He flies a kite for therapy.  He’s a sweet mad character.
  2. Mrs. Bertha Rochester, the mad wife of Rochester in Jane Eyre, is one of the most violent of literary madwomen.  She lives in her husband’s attic, bites a visitor, and, during an escape from the attic, sets fire to Rochester’s bed curtains.  Jane’s discovery of the mad wife destroys her wedding, but gives Jane ample time to reflect on her love for Rochester and for Rochester to repent. In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Jane Eyre, Bertha is not mad at all.
  3. The unstable Linda in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City has been on meds for years and lives in pain in the basement of her husband Mark’s house.  Gradually Linda realizes the pills are killing her psychic knowledge.  When she is off the pills, she is able to use her powers.  She’s a good witch!  Only more realistically presented.
  4. Miss Havisham in Great Expectations lives in tatters and chaos because she was jilted decades ago.  She raises her ward Estella to hate men.  Monomania!
  5. Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights  will do anything to get revenge.  Rescued by the kind Mr. Earnshaw, he was a member of the family until Mr. Earnshaw’s death. Then  Hindley Earnshaw trampled him under and made him a servant, and Catherine Earnshaw married Edgar Linton even though she loved Heathcliff because it would “degrade” her to marry him now that he was fallen so low. Heathcliff goes so far as to kidnap  Catherine’s daughter Cathy and force her to marry his son.    Madness!

With the exception of Mr. Dick,  Linda, and Bertha in Jean Rhy’s novel, these are thoroughly unpleasant characters.  And we meet some of the unpleasant mad in real life.

Fritz Eichenberg's woodcut illustration of Bertha examining Jane.

Fritz Eichenberg’s woodcut illustration of Bertha escaped from the attic examining Jane.

I love my mad cousin, but then she is so pleasant. Not all are so  kind.  When I taught an Adult Ed Latin class for three terms, I had students who loved languages, students who never cracked a book but came to socialize, and one megalomaniac student who had simply run out of people to annoy.   Today I ran into him/her at a coffeehouse, and after ten second’s conversation fled. He/she pretends he has found errors in Wheelock’s Latin, the highly respected first-year textbook he/she never mastered. (It’s complete nonsense:  he/she knows nothing.)  My husband copes by glaring at him/her and not speaking. Why oh why can men do that and I can’t?

In a literary novel, would this student would be one of the Bad Mad or one of Dickens’ mere addled characters?

Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook & the BBC Radio Four Adaptation

The Golden Notebook lessing orig paperbackThe other night I listened to a brilliant BBC Radio Four adaptation of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, dramatized by Sarah Daniels.  If you loved the book, or if you have meant to read Lessing but never gotten around to it, this two-part radio play will inspire or revive your interest.  There is a vividness to listening instead of looking at a stage, though the voices of the heroine Anna (Susanna Harker), a blocked writer, and her friend Molly (Fenella Woolgar), an actress, are not as I imagined. Why?  Apparently I read Lessing’s books with an American accent!  Who knew?  But Harker and Woolgar bring exactly the right mix of trust and impatience to this long-standing friendship:  they are truthful (to a point) and intense, witty and observant, sophisticated and yet raw.  Much of the dialogue comes right out of Lessing’s book.

In 2012, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lessing’s 1962 classic, I posted the following at my old blog about The Golden Notebook. This is a rerun.

Lessing, the Nobel Prize-winning writer whose brilliant novels rely as much on her interpretation of history as on the delineation of the lives of modern women, has always denied it is a feminist novel. But for many feminists, its publication dwarfed other historical events of 1962: it had more impact on me than did the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Rolling Stones’ debut, and The United Nations General Assembly’s resolution condemning South Africa’s racist apartheid.

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Her powerful novel centers on Anna, a writer and single mother whose life is fragmented because she somehow cannot write the truth. She has contempt for her best-selling novel about an interracial relationship in Africa, is disillusioned by the reports of communist torture and anti-Zionism in the Soviet Union, and seemingly falls in love only with men who cannot love deeply. But this painful, honest novel suggested alternative futures for women who had decided that society was breaking down, that marriage wasn’t viable, and that they needed to experiment. Lessing chronicles a collapsed society, broken by the trauma of war, fear of the bomb, and emotional frigidity.

So has The Golden Notebook stood the test of time?

It was my favorite novel when I was 15. For some reason, though I was a virgin and my giggling friends and I hung glittered tampons from trees in the yards of boys we liked, I identified with Anna. (A very immature Anna, I might add.)  When I reread it in my 30s I understood Anna’s difficulties with writing (I had sold out as a “pop-culture” freelance writer, and enjoyed writing trivial nonsense), her encounters with men (when you’re divorced in your 30s, you’re lucky if you ever meet a normal unmarried man again), and her radical politics.

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.

Musing on the post-war fragmentation, Anna observes:

But it isn’t only the terror everywhere, and the fear of being conscious of it, that freezes people. It’s more than that. People know they are in a society dead or dying. They are refusing emotion because at the end of every emotion are property, money, power they work and despise their work, and so freeze themselves. They love but know that it’s a half-love or a twisted love, and so they freeze themselves.

I recognize that emotional freezing.

Lessing newer edition the_golden_notebookIn some ways, this was a novel for its time. Anna’s quest for sexual freedom is commonplace in the 21st century, although it often occurs without intelligence or self-respect: just a “hook-up.” Freudian analysis–Anna has been in analysis with a psychiatrist she calls Mother Sugar, who keeps trying to get her to write–has been replaced by pharmaceutical remedies (at least in the U.S.). Anna’s portrait of her misogynistic gay lodger, Ivor, seems believable in the context of the book–he and his lover mock her, refer to her as a cow, use her makeup, and so she has to throw them out–but many would feel more comfortable if Ivor were rewritten as Paul Rudd’s character in that movie with Jennifer Anniston.  Which is true to the times?

Lessing’s Children of Violence series, about the heroine Martha Quest, treats similar material. The first three novels, Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, and A Ripple from the Storm are traditional in form, the fourth, Landlocked, is slightly experimental, and the fifth, The Four-Gated City, is so over-the-top that it makes The Golden Notebook look straightforward; parts of The Four-Gated City are science fiction. Martha is altogether a harder character than Anna–she leaves one unloved husband and daughter, then marries another man she doesn’t love just because they’re in the communist party together, works hard as a communist until the reports of concentrations camps come in, divorces her second husband, and then escapes to England…where I must say unexpected things happen.

Some of you will prefer The Golden Notebook. Political attitudes have changed in the last 50 years, and you have to respect those attitudes of the ’50s and learn from them while you inhabit the book.  Many of Anna’s experiences still ring true.

I can’t wait to reread the book.

Peter Stothard’s The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher

senecans-stothard-51dv9clhtalAlthough I look forward to voting for Hillary Clinton (our first woman president, yes?),  I am not particularly interested in politics.

Unless it’s ancient politics.

And I am a fan of Peter Stothard, so I picked up his new book.

In this lively new memoir,  The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher, he compares Margaret Thatcher to Nero and her advisors to Nero’s court, especially to Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who was Nero’s tutor and political advisor. As a deputy editor at the London Times, Stothard met often with Thatcher’s four main advisors, who gave him background for The Times’ political articles.  And they shared his interest in Seneca.

Stothard, an Oxford-educated classicist, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement (he retired this year) and  editor of The London Times from 1992-2002, is an elegant, lyrical, witty writer whose style transcends journalism.  He has written two brilliant memoirs, Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra (about his fascination with Cleopatra which I wrote about here and here) and  The Spartacus Road (which I wrote about here).

Even if you are not interested in English history and politics (and the only English history I know, she reveals self-mockingly, is the Tudors via Hilary Mantel and Jean Plaidy), this is a rich, complex, engrossing book. His account of the scenes behind the scenes of power are fascinating, if often grotesque, and I also learned much about the scenes behind the scenes in the newspaper business.  But the real hook for classicists and former Latin teachers like me? He organized a Latin class for the four men at a pub  and reviewed/taught conjugations and declensions and read and discussed Seneca.

Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard

The catalyst for The Senecans is a series of interviews in 2014 by a Miss R., a young historian researching the Thatcher era.  And Stothard was packing up his office for a move from Wapping, where he had worked for 30 years, so it was a good time for reminiscence.

Of the four main advisors in Thatcher’s court, Frank Johnson, David Hart, Sir Ronald Millar, and Lord Woodrow Wyatt, Stothard was most fascinated at first by David Hart, a playwright and film-maker as well as a politician. Stothard compared him to the Roman novelist Petronius’s famous character,  “a fictional tycoon called Trimalchio, a creation of a satire by one of Seneca’s own fellow courtiers in the age of Nero, a generous host who terrorized his guests with the theatre of food.”

Sir Ronald Millar disagreed with Stothard about David and Trimalchio.

David was not like Petronius’ monster.  Nor, however, Sir Ronald had to admit, was he quite unlike him either.  I was keen on Latin novels then. There are not many of them to read.  Gaius Petronius was one of the first comic novelists (his grander fans included T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence) and he wrote about food, drink, flattery, death and defecation.  He was Nero’s ‘arbiter of taste’, pet prose master and eventual victim.  Or, at least, some scholars think that he was.  Some think that there was more than one Petronius.  Gaius may not have been the name of either.  There is always uncertainty in distant history, almost always too in the kind that is close.


    Loeb edition

(Petronius’s Satyricon, or Satyrica, is one of my favorite books.)

All the advisors had very different backgrounds.  Frank Johnson, another writer at The Times, disagreed wtih Stothard’s journalistic philosophy: he disliked Stothard’s investigations of political corruption and scandals and thought The Times should only publish analyses biased in favor of Thatcher and the right.  (Later Johnson became an op/ed editor.)  But it was Frank who wanted Stothard to teach him Latin:  the two of them saved the Loebs (a series of classical texts with the Latin or Greek on the left page and the literal translation on the right) from a dumpster when the Times Library discarded them.

Frank wanted to read Cicero, but Stothard chose Seneca as their  subject.  They retired to The Old Rose, a pub, to “do” their Latin verbs and read Seneca.    Ronnie, a trained classicist and veteran playwright,  joined their Latin classes because he saw Seneca as a model politician who manipulated people and had lots of experience with cover-ups.  Woodrow Wyatt, a political journalist and former Labour MP turned right-wing, showed up soon, as did Hart…  They discussed Seneca’s philosophy, wealth, politics, and hypocrisy.

Stothard also writes about Beryl Bainbridge, literary cocktail parties, and collecting first editions and manuscripts.  He recommends Alan Hollinghurst’s  Man Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty as the best novel about the Thatcher Era.  (I read it and loved it.)

And he connects this book to Alexandria with more about his childhood and his friend V, a radical girl who was the daughter of Mr. V, a right-wing fanatic who had a sculpture of Seneca made from balsa wood…

What a good read!  Really colorful and enjoyable.  You can read it for the writing or the classics or the history or the politics.