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.