Reading the Victorians, Lost in Trollope, & Why I Don’t Read Their Modern Equivalents

He Knew He Was Right trollope 41RJjyDTOLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

If you wonder why I’m not writing more on my reading lately,  it’s because  I’m in a Victorian phase.  Some of the books are very, very, very, very long.  And you do not want to read me every day on the Victorians, because so many excellent books have been written, there are scholarly introductions to all the books, and there is not much for us bloggers to do except enthuse or condemn. Since I am so chatty, you will soon know all.

MY READING THIS WEEK:  I’ve been reading Swinburne’s poems, and I love his reinterpretations of myths, but mostly I let the poetry wash over me. Can I admit that?  Does anyone know a good book about the pre-Raphaelite poets?   I’m  also reading Trollope, and of course I can drone on about Trollope, because he’s so accessible:  we don’t really need notes on Trollope, who is one of the greatest storytellers of the nineteenth century. But I have read so many excellent introductions to his books, plus Glendinning’s biography of Trollope, that it’s overwhelming.

Last weekend I turned down a day trip to Iowa City and said I had do things around the house, which I did, but I actually was reading  He Knew He Was Right, his brilliant retelling of the Othello story.  This is my third reading of this stunning novel about Lewis Trevelyan, a jealous husband, and his strong-minded wife, Emily.  They separate because he goes mad from jealousy of a flirtatious friend of Emily’s father’s, who does try to egg him on. (I did jot some notes about the book here in 2015.)

Since I love the Victorian novelists, whether they wrote short (Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford) or long (Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right), I wonder why I don’t care much for today’s equivalent popular “literary” novelists. Were the Victorians better writers because they were  better-educated, even if they were not formally educated? I have a theory about why we all love Trollope.  It’s not just the engrossing stories and the vivid characters.  He read Cicero every day–he even wrote a life of Cicero–and his style reflects Cicero’s rhetorical skill:  for instance Trollope uses parallelism, tripartite structure, and anaphora (the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive phrases or clauses). Today’s stylists just don’t (can’t?) do that.  Do they?   Can they?  There are some great writers out there, but literature is very different.

Some of today’s prize-winning literary writers seem overrated, among them Jonathan Franzen,  Jeffrey Eugenides, Jennifer Egan,  Donna Tartt, Elena Ferrante, and even Ann Patchett (by far the worst of this lot).  It’s not that I dislike these writers–I don’t–but can we even begin to compare them to the great 19th-century novelists?

Perhaps these critically-acclaimed best-selling authors ARE the great writers of today.  Who am I to say? But will they be read in 50 years?  All right, my guess is yes, Franzen will be read, because he says something about American life.  (He is not my favorite: it’s just a hunch.)  Jeffrey Eugenides, ditto:  I loved The Marriage Plot, with all its references to Victorian novels, though honestly found The Virgin Suicides misogynist.  I think of Jennifer Egan as artsy dystopian–will that play in the future?  Everyone loves Elena Ferrante, and she writes insightfully about women’s lives and Euripidean emotions, so how can she go wrong?  But I prefer her earlier more “experimental” (if that’s the word) work.  Picky, picky, aren’t I? I am just getting ready to read Tartt’s The Goldfinch and it looks very good.  I waited for the hype to fade.  I would say Patchett, who is really in the pop category, absolutely not will be read, unless everybody’s brains have caved in.

Do you read these writers?  Whom should we read instead?  Are any writers like the Victorians?

There are many excellent contemporary writers, and I PROMISE to write about them soon.  I admired Laura von den Berg’s literary dystopian first novel, Find Me, though it is not a perfect book,  but it probably deserves a better reception than it got.  And I admired Elizabeth Tallent’s collection of stories, Mendocino Fires, last year, the first book she’d published in (I think) two decades.  And she is undoubtedly at the height of her powers, even if the powers are very different from those of the prize winners.

This or That? Multiple Copies

The Penguin or the teeny-tiny Oxford?

The Penguin or the teeny-tiny Oxford?

Many years ago, our calico kitten, Maxie, squeezed herself into a bricks-and-boards bookcase and scratched the top edges of many of our favorite books.  The tops of the pages of several Willa Cathers and Colettes are jagged.  But she was just so cute!   Eventually she grew too big to play with the edges as though they were her piano.

Books on the floor are also a problem.  Lulu, a black cat who did gymnastics and sang opera from the top of the refrigerator, ripped the cover off a big Webster’s Dictionary, and believe me, I need my reference books.  So the books live in boxes if there’s no room on the shelves.   This year I have  weeded dozens of books in an effort to display all our books.

But I have a problem.  Duplicates.  Sometimes I can’t decide which to keep.

I have two copies of Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right.  I love my Penguin and read it several times, but the cover is Scotch-taped on.  Recently I also acquired a teeny tiny Oxford hardback, whose print is actually bigger than the Penguin. But The Penguin has an introduction, and the tiny Oxford hardcover does not. And can the whole text really be in that mini-Trollope?  Well, I have done some beginning and end of chapter checks, and it seems to be.

Here’s the difference in print size:

Print size: Penguin (on bottom) and Oxford.

Print size: Penguin (on bottom) and Oxford.

Bizarrely, the Oxford print seems to be bigger.But the Penguin is close.  Do I want a bigger or a smaller book?  And will I need the biggest possible print someday?  Well, I must keep them both, because I can’t decide.

The Walter J. Black book club edition of Little Dorrit and an Oxford.

The Walter J. Black book club edition  and an Oxford of Little Dorrit

And what about Little Dorrit?  It is far from my favorite Dickens, but you will not be surprised to learn I have two.  When I was a teenager I bought a partial set of Walter J. Black hardcovers at Alandoni’s bookstore. Each title is divided into two volumes, with the original illustrations and huge print.   In the photo, you can see one slightly soiled (from many rereadings) volume of the Walter J. Black, complete with Maxie’s scratches.  As you can see, we also have a newish Oxford paperback, also with illustrations.

Here’s the print comparison:  Walter J. Black in top photo,  Oxford in bottom photo.



I had planned to get rid of the Walter J. Black, but you know what?  That big print might come in handy someday. And it has sentimental value.  My first Dickens set!

break-of-day-colette-2-copiesI have two copies of Colette’s Break of Day,  but the one on the right  HAS to go because the binding is broken.  I have hung onto it because of sentimentality, because I bought and fell in love with almost the entire FSG Noonday Press series of Colette series at the Union Bookstore and have read them multiple times.   OH, well, here I must stick with the new version, because the pages are all there!.

I tried to persuade my husband we need a bigger house for our books, but he says I must weed instead.  Too bad.  There are several in the area that have what I want:  three, maybe four floors.  Alas!

Abortion 1973-Now and in Ancient Rome: Ovid’s Poems about Abortion (Amores 13 & 14)

Women still marching after all these years (the Women's March on Washington)

Women still marching for rights after all these years (the Women’s March on Washington)

”Good job,” my professor said, smiling.

He was talking, thirtysome years ago, about a letter to the editor I’d written about abortion rights. He joked that I could count it as a publication. The department was big on publication. .

Having finished my master’s,  I was working as the volunteer coordinator of a state abortion rights organization, and I was standing at a table in the foyer of B—- Hall, collecting signatures for pro-Choice petitions and postcards, with the slogans,  “I’m pro-Choice and I vote” and “Keep abortion safe and legal.” Over a period of three months, we collected thousands of signatures. And then I packed a suitcase full of postcards and petitions and transported them to Washington, D.C.,  because I was going there anyway, and it saved the organization postage costs.

Who would have guessed that in 2017 women would still be marching for abortion rights and Planned Parenthood?

I am passionate about reproductive freedom.   I never had an abortion; I was good at  birth control: the diaphragm, because it wasn’t smart to take hormones. Many of my friends wisely chose abortion over dropping out of college.  While sharing a house, I brought cup after cup of Celestial Seasons tea to a housemate after her abortion. She was discreet about her sex life, which was conducted entirely outside our house, and one afternoon she wobbled into the kitchen to tell us she was “woozy” after an abortion and could we please sit with her. She soon fell asleep, and the next day she was completely fine and went to classes and work.

On a recent long walk, I thought about the Republicans’ plans to defund Planned Parenthood and criminalize abortion. In some ways, the attitude is very like that of men in ancient Rome.  Concerned about the low birth rate among the upper classes, the emperor Augustus  attempted to regulate marriage and the family with rewards and penalties. Starting at the age of 20, women were penalized for being single and childless; beginning at age 25, men were penalized for not marrying and childlessness.  Women were rewarded for having three children.  As Sarah B. Pomeroy said in her excellent book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, “Augustus’ marriage legislation was designed to keep as many women as possible in a married state and bearing children.” But Roman women did use contraceptives, some more effective (the barrier method) than others (charms and potions). And abortion was practiced, sometimes by drugs, sometimes by surgery.

Ovid Amores 419-MO1CbKL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_

Ovid wrote two poems about abortion (Amores 13 & 14). Other poets had written about their mistresses’ illnesses, but he is the first, to my knowledge, to write elegies about abortion.  The first elegy in Ovid’s diptych, though not quite pro-Choice, is certainly sympathetic to his mistress Corinna, whose abortion has gone drastically wrong.

He begins the first poem (and this is a literal translation, so don’t expect poetry):

While she rashly is overthrowing the burden of her pregnant womb,
Corinna lies exhausted in danger of her life.
Having attempted so great a danger without telling me
She deserves my anger, but my anger dies with fear.
But indeed she had conceived by me, or I believe,
It is often for me a fact because it can be.

In the next several lines Ovid writes a formal prayer, which is not unusual in ancient poetry. He prays to Isis, a maternal goddess and healer who had a cult in Rome, and assures her that Corinna honors her and has participated in her rites on given days. Then  he prays to Ilithia, the Greek goddess of childbirth. He assures her he will bring gifts and incense.  “I will add the label, Naso has given this for Corinna’s recovery.”  (His full name is Ovidius Publius Naso.)

He is frantic about Corinna’s illness.  He wants above all for her to live. He is not criticizing the act of abortion per se. But he ends the poem with a gentle rebuke,

If it is right to have warned in such great fear,
let it be enough for you to have struggled in this combat once.

The second elegy in the diptych is a raging attack on abortion.  It begins with a reference to Euripides’s Medea, who said, “I would rather stand in front of the shield three times than give birth once.”  Ovid writes,

What does it help for girls to loiter exempt from military service
and not to wish to follow the wild troops armed with Amazon shields
if they suffer wounds with their own weapons without Mars
and arm their blind hands in their own fates?

He brutally attacks women who have had abortions, saying the first to do so should have died as a result of her action. He adds that he himself, as well as Corinna,  mythological heroes, and the entire Roman population would not have been born if their mothers had had  abortions. He says Medea’s killing of her children was understandable because she wanted revenge on Jason; the tearing of an embryo from the womb is wrong, because it must naturally grow first and why deprive it of its life?   (Nothing about exposing babies, especially female babies on a hillside, which was sometimes done). As always, it is easier for men to deal with the fetus, just an idea to them, than with actual human begins.

Interestingly, the last two lines relent somewhat and echo the last two lines of the first poem.

Gods, concede that safely she has sinned once.
and it is enough: let her bear the punishment a second time.

I love Ovid.  Don’t get me wrong.  But he was macho and sexist, and in this case, at least in the second elegy,  he seemed to stand with the state.   But which poem did he mean?  The first is much gentler than the second.  The points of view are very different, almost contradictory.  Is he angry now that Corinna has survived, if she survived? But the name Corinna is not mentioned in the second poem.  Only the last couplet seems to link it to the first poem.

Well, it is fascinating.  Roman women did not necessarily want to have many children.  They did have abortions.

Corinna and I are still struggling.

Are You Reading New Books? and What I’m Reading

Too many old books?

Too many classics?

My husband and  I have switched genres.  For years we both read the classics.  We met in a classics class.

Then I switched to new books. (It was partly for my job.) He continued to read the classics.

Now he has switched to new books.  I’m back to the classics.

Recently he read the latest Erdrich and The Collected Stories of Barry Hannah. I’m dying to read the Erdrich.  Still, I have a bone to pick.  My wacky theory is that if you’re reading mostly books reviewed in The New Yorker (which I’ve often done), you’re not really reading “new” books.  When  you’re guided by the essays of James Wood, Hilton Als, or Alexandra Schwartz, you’re reading such a tiny percentage of what’s published that it is not “new” but  “New Yorker.” (I’m hoping I’ve deconstructed “new.”)  Every intellectual from coast to coast will read Ferrante, Rachel Cusk, and Katie Kaitamura.  We love Ferrante, but I am quite sure  you need to browse sometimes and try something strange.  Though maybe if I were guided by The New Yorker, I’d strike out less often.

My cousin recently put a hold on my library card (supposedly for fines) but actually because she was sick of my ordering “The Complete Books of Tedious Windbags” through interlibrary loan, as she said.

“Read something new!”

I adore Turgenev and Tolstoy (their names must begin with T), but  even I must take a break from “translatese.”   And I love James, but can’t always be ecstatic over his beautiful use of participles.

So what new books am I reading?

laura-van-den-berg-find-me1. Laura van den Berg’s Find Me.  This literary dystopian novel, published in 2015, is eerie and gorgeous.  A plague of forgetfulness has descended on the U.S. and wiped out much of the population, but the narrator, Joy, is immune, a survivor among empty streets and overflowing garbage.  She has no one:  she grew up in foster homes and group homes , and worked in a convenience store, taking Robitussin for highs.  One day a doctor approaches her and takes her with several survivors to a hospital in Kansas. They are locked in and can’t commune with the outside world, while the doctor and nurse supposedly work on a cure for the outside world.  But eventually Joy escapes, in search of her mother, whom she has googled on the internet.

Van den Berg is s stunning writer, and this is much, much better than most of the dystopian novels that have hit the market in recent years.

ann-hood-book-that-matters-most-268895212. Ann Hood’s The Book That Matters Most.  Ann Hood is a  “middlebrow” writer, and I very much enjoy her novels.  Her style is simple and clear, which I wish I could say for every writer.  A few years ago I loved The Obituary Writer, which I wrote about here. Recently, looking for a light read, I picked up a copy of her new novel, The Book That Matters Most.

Is it a light read?  Well, not so much.  It intertwines the stories of a mother and a daughter: Ava, a French professor, is grieving for her beloved husband, who has left her for an exhibitionist knitter who puts sweaters and mufflers on local statues and is often on the TV news. Ava joins an elite book group, run by her friend, for distraction, while her daughter Maggie, who has had many problems, is living in Paris as a kind of junkie hostage of an art dealer who supplies her with drugs.  Her mother thinks she’s in Florence.  She thinks Maggie is doing well.

It is a very odd, uneven book, and so I am stuck.  Why?  Because Ava doesn’t read the books for her book group.  When they read Pride and Prejudice, and she watches the movie, I am disappointed.  Will she eventually read one of the books?  And I am not that interested in Maggie’s story.

It is a bit rocky so far, but I will continue.  Hood will bring it together, I’m sure.

ARE YOU READING SOMETHING NEW?  And who or what is your guide?

Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove


Yet shall ye be like the wings of a dove, that is covered with silver wings and her feathers like gold.
—The Sixty-Eighth Psalm

Perhaps the most fascinating characteristic of Henry James’s novels is not his exquisite prose but the force of the plots. You don’t need the notes. You read greedily; there is no time for the notes. James is a bit like Dickens.  Both are masters of melodrama.  One will never quite tread the hyperbolically foggy streets of Dickens’ London (where is the fog?), but one glimpses reflections  as one stomps on a guided tour of Dickens’ London, and though there is no tour of James’ London, to my knowledge, you can imagine Milly Theale, the heroine of The Wings of the Dove,  as she wanders through the National Gallery, or Kate Croy and Merton Densher scheming on a bench in Kensington Gardens.

wings-of-the-dove-modern-library-17884be09381b5da747bc607da31b37aIn The Wings of the Dove, the melodrama unfolds like the symbolic wings so often referred to of James’ dove, i.e.,  the heroine Milly Theale. (There are other winged women in Wings: the wealthy Aunt Maud,  interested in Milly solely as the lion of the season, is said by her niece Kate to have the wings of a vulture.)  Milly, a dying American heiress, is a Dickensian orphan, curious and observant, traveling around Europe with Mrs. Stringham, her companion. She is dying of an unnamed disease; but she is determined to live as long as she can, and her doctor indicates that she will live longer if she does what she likes.

Odd as this may sound, and perhaps it is a stretch, I am reminded of Dickens’ orphan Esther Summerson in Bleak House.  Like Milly, Esther is modest, sweet, lively and charming, and though, unlike Milly, she know nothing of her parents, she is connected to wealth.  She  does not die, but is very ill with smallpox, contracted through an act of charity.   Both heroines have a razor-sharp wit beneath the sweetness and both capture the love of those around them. Both are in love with men they aren’t sure they can have.   Could James have written The Wings of the Dove without Bleak House? Well, yes: his cousin Minnie died young, and I think he knew a couple of other young sickly women.  (I’m not doing research:  I’m doing the New Criticism thing.)  But I love Milly and Esther equally.  And I can imagine some readers dismissing Milly as too good, just as they do Esther.

In this reading of The Wings of the Dove, I read an edition with no notes: I wanted the experience of reading as a 1902 reader would. Having just reread The Golden Bowl, I was struck by the similarity of the plots (I wrote about Golden here):   in Wings, Milly is almost the victim of a plot by her charming trusted English friend, Kate Croy, who, when she discovers that Milly is dying, persuades her boyfriend, Merton Densher, to court Milly . Densher does it only to please Kate, and doesn’t quite take in the enormity of what she asks. Milly’s companion, Mrs. Stringham, also wants him to propose, not caring what his motives are, just wanting Milly to get what she wants while she is alive.

A horrific plot! And yet we like Kate so much in the beginning. In the opening chapter, she visits her father, an impoverished middle-aged dandy, and offers to throw in her lot with him and share her small income.  She is living with rich Aunt Maud, who insists that Kate give up her father if she continues to live with her. But Kate’s father says to give him up with his blessing. Follow the money.

And so we see the morals of Kate. She struggles, but there is nothing to convince her of the greater good, or anything but the good of wealth.  She cannot marry Densher, her journalist boyfriend who has no money, if she wants her aunt’s money, and she has never liked anything so much as her rooms at Aunt Maud’s, so she must give him up, too. And so she hatches the plot.  Milly is going to die, so why shouldn’t she and Densher have the money?  That’s her reasoning.

As a young woman, I identified with Milly–I was so silly–and I simply loved her. I still do. Milly has a sense of adventure and a sense of humor and wants so desperately to live:  at the National Gallery in London, she sits on a bench, humorously studying the lady copyists.  And it is this passage that reveals the lonely Milly’s secret dash and fun.

Milly yielded to this charm till she was almost ashamed; she watched the lady-copyists till she found herself wondering what would be thought by others of a young woman, of adequate aspect, who should appear to regard them as the pride of the place. She would have liked to talk to them, to get, as it figured to her, into their lives, and was deterred but by the fact that she didn’t quite see herself as purchasing imitations and yet feared she might excite the expectation of purchase. She really knew before long that what held her was the mere refuge, that something within her was after all too weak for the Turners and Titians.

When Milly discovers the plot, she behaves beautifully, almost too beautifully. But when I was young, I very much hoped I would behave like Milly in similar circumstances.  These days I prefer The Golden Bowl, because  Maggie, who discovers a similar plot, lives.  The older we get, the more skeptical we are of our heroines’ demises.

But James  was traumatized by the deaths of beloved young women.  And so the text takes me only so far, but it is far enough.

Colette under Different Titles & a 1951 Anthology of Six Novels

short-novels-of-colette-good-pictureHave you ever discovered  a “new” book by a favorite author?  And then it turns out you have already read it—under a different title?

That was the case with one of the books in Short Novels of Colette, a 1951 omnibus including Cheri, The Last of Cheri, The Other One, Duo,  The Cat, and The Indulgent Husband.

I bought the anthology for The Other One, which IS new to me, but I was also unfamiliar with The Indulgent Husband.  Turns out it is just the third Claudine book (Claudine Married), under a different name–my least favorite Claudine.  It’s the one where Claudine has an affair with a seductive young woman who turns out to be her husband’s lover—ewwww!

Colette wrote the (slightly) risqué Claudine books for Willi, her first husband, who employed and exploited dozens of ghostwriters.  (He spent so much time commissioning work that he could easily have written it.)  The Claudine books were fantastically popular and adapted for the stage.

the-indulgent-husband-colette-cfee468a9027beb3623a24ac01456d46Oh, well,  it is worth having the anthology for The Other One, and  for Glenway Westcott’s 57-page introduction   He loves every word Colette wrote, good or bad.  Proust and Gide wrote letters to Colette about their great admiration of her work.  Westcott writes,” …now that the inditers are both dead and gone, Colette is the greatest living French fiction-writer.”

Westcott’s introduction is a mix of biography, separate sections with incisive criticism, and personal comments about his love of Colette. He gushes about her looks and the artistry of photographs of her.

“I wish we could have illustrated this volume with photographs of Colette; there are plenty, entrancing, at all ages. The first written description of her that I ever read was an entry in Jules Renard’s Journal, November 1894: her appearance at the first night of Maeterlinck’s translation of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, bright-eyed, laughing, ‘with a braid of hair long enough to let the bucket down a well with”; Melisande-like.”

The Other One was a first read for me, and if the translation by Viola Gerard Garvin is stilted, it still captures Colette’s originality.  It is rather stagy, which is appropriate, because the heroine, Fanny, is a  playwright’s wife accustomed to the intrigues of the theater. She is happy except for one problem:  Farou has affairs.

colette-the-other-one-101049Fanny lives  with Farou and her stepson, Little Farou.  It is summer, and there is much emphasis on her laziness, the heat, and  her Oriental eyes.  Contrasted with the dark Fanny is their cool ash-blond housemate, the efficient Jane, Farou’s smart secretary, who  helps Fanny with the housekeeping. The lives of Fanny and Jane revolve around Farou.  When he is away, they wait for word from him.

The novel begins:

The postman brought nothing at eleven o’clock. If Farou did not write last night before going to bed, it’s certain he had a late rehearsal.”

“You think so, Fanny?”

“I’m sure. ‘The House Without Women’ is not difficult to stage, but little Asselin isn’t at at all the type of woman to play Suzanne.”

“She’s very pretty, though,” said Jane.

Fanny shrugged her shoulders.

“My poor Jane, how does it help her to be pretty? No one ever wanted a pretty woman to play Suzanne. It’s a part for a Cinderella like Doriyls. Didn’t you see the play when it was first produced?”

Jane’s comment about Suzanne’s prettiness is the first clue to her  jealousy.  Jane is having an affair with Farou.   It is Little Farou, who has a crush on Jane, who tips off Fanny.  And when  Fanny sees her husband embracing Jane, and then a minute later Jane mimics Fanny and her habit of saying “oo-la-la,” we see the ugliness of an otherwise pretty woman.   Fanny realizes that her friend of four years is far from a friend. But she hides her knowledge while she figures out what to do.

The ending is abrupt, and not altogether believable to me, but in the world of Colette–who know?  And in a way it is the shock of the sophistication of the women that makes it true.

I so much love reading Colette, even if it’s not the best Colette

Reading the Dead & Dead Review Copies

Reading the classics.

Reading the classics.

I have been reading the dead.

Not the recent dead.

The long dead. Ovid, Turgenev, and Henry James.

It was not my intention to read the dead this year.  But it has restored a sense of normalcy .  It reminds me why I loved to read in the first place.

Why do we read?  We don’t read to keep up with the new best-sellers; we don’t read to review or blog; and do not feel the need simultaneously with everyone else to reread Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984, even if it is No. 1 on the best-seller list. I prefer  Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic realismCharlotte Bronte’s  Jane Eyre, and Ovid’s poetry of exile, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto.

I am on a temporary break from new books.

Tonight I even  scrolled down the list of titles on my e-reader to  delete last year’s unread review copies.  (I no longer accept new review copies.)  There weren’t as many as I thought.  Thank goodness!  And I may read some of them after all.


Alice Hoffman’s Faithful. It’s not bad, but it’s not her best.  The heroine Shelby and her best friend were in a car accident.  Shelby survives physically intact, but her best friend is in a coma for years.   Shelby turns to drugs, shaves her head, and has sex with her drug dealer,  but occasionally receives anonymous postcards that say “TRY.”  Eventually she finds redemption in a pet store and rescues animals… and  some people..  Why didn’t I finish it?  It’s good, but the words on the screen are not quite compelling enough. The physical books would have made me feel more connected.

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters by Laura Thompson. I love biographies of the Mitfords, but the formatting of this fee “review copy” e-book was off-kilter.  And anyway biographies are better as physical objects, so you can see the   photographs and family trees.

The Sea Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I enjoy Howard’s books and  forgot I had this one.   I also have a physical copy, so will try to read it this year.

The Photographer’s Wife by Suzanne Joinson.  I very much enjoyed Joinson’s novel  A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar.  I’m afraid I forgot all about this.

Siricusa by Delia Ephron.   Another badly formatted free e-book.  Lots of weird numbers inserted in the middle of sentences.

Well, so it went.  Deletion is done!

Not for Me: Samantha Ellis’s Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life

samantha-ellis-take-courage-1Last month I planned to read Samantha Ellis’s new bibliomemoir, Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life, and to reread Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. What could be more fun?  While waiting for Ellis’s book to arrive from the UK, I binge-read the Annes and my favorite Charlottes.   Well, I was thrilled when Ellis’s book finally arrived, but it has proved to be yet  another overrated new book.  It is a desperate mix of biography, trivial memoir, and pedestrian attempts at criticism.

The bibliomemoir is a strange genre. Who has succeeded?  Who has not?   I loved Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev, but then Dessaix is an award-winning Australian writer,  scholar, Russian professor, and novelist. Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is earnest and touching–she knows her Middlemarch and loves it–but the prose is clumsily journalistic.  Then there’s Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage:  Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence, which is a mainly the writer’s comic musings on why he can’t face rereading the novels to write his book on Lawrence and prefers the letters.

Did I expect  Take Courage to be in this class?  It was enthusiastically reviewed in The Guardian and elsewhere. The first hint I got of its possible flaws was  when Margaret Drabble in the TLS called it a “selfie memoir.” This was the death knell–though Drabble was otherwise very positive.

Ellis is all about voice, and if you like her voice you may like the book. You certainly don’t read it for her critical judgment.  Her  prose is spiky, slangy, and spare.  When she writes about herself, she is in control.  And she is probably an excellent playwright: she has a talent for sketching a vivid autobiographical scene in a few short sentences.

No, the problem is with her criticism. She does not write in a meaningful way for intelligent readers, though she desperately tries to prove herself.  This book might be appropriate in a high school classroom.

In Chapter 1, “Maria, or how to know who you come from,” which I call the origin myth (Maria, their mother, died when the children were young), Ellis writes, “Charlotte’s novels are haunted by perfect mothers.”  I was taken aback:  I would say they are  haunted by perfect spinsters.    She tries to force the theme of the perfect mother into Anne’s novel, Agnes Grey, a story of a governess which is based on Anne’s own adventures.

Ellis writes,

…when Agnes is trying to keep her pupils in line, she thinks the worst she can do is to threaten not to kiss them goodnight.  She’s astonished that they don’t care.  The passage just aches with Anne’s longing for a mother to kiss her goodnight.

But it isn’t all sweetness and light.  Agnes has to muster all her courage to fight her mother for independence.  She wants to go away and earn her own living.  Her parents think she’s too young.

A very odd reading:  Agnes is not looking for independence but to contribute to the impoverished household. She has not only to persuade her mother, but her older sister and their father.  All want to protect her: and her governess jobs are as bad as they had imagined.

Ellis also eccentrically interprets Charlotte’ Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  She wonders if Jane shouldn’t have stuck with Rochester after the wedding was interrupted by the fact of the mad first wife in the attic.

She fancies him.  She’s got no family to be ashamed of her living in sin, she’s already decided she doesn’t want to be a martyr like her (dead and perfect) friend Helen Burns, and she hates the hypocritical faith she was taught at school.  Maybe it’s time to throw off the shackles of religion and move into Rochester’s love nest on the shores of the Mediterranean.

She blames Jane’s decision to leave Rochester not on the force of her character, passion, morals, and commonsense, but on the appearance of her “mother,” i.e., the moon.  Jane loves Rochester, longs for him, but has a strong ethical  base and is horrified by the secret of the first wife .  And, oddly,  Ellis does not consider the case of the mad wife. Nowadays, the mad wife is often key.  (As in Wide Sargasso Sea in the ’60s!

I trusted the reviews too much.  The blurb on the front cover says it all.

“I was wowed and moved.”–Tracy Chevalier

Alas!  I was not.

Three Giveaways: D. E. Stevenson’s Katherine Wentworth, Tom Holt’s Lucia Triumphant, & Colette’s My Mother’s House and Sido

IMG_3630 D. E. Stevenson Katherine Wentworth

You know the drill.  If you would like one or all three of the books, leave a comment. I enjoyed all three of these very much.

1. D. E. Stevenson’s Katherine Wentworth.  I wrote here:

I love D. E. Stevenson, and I know she has many fans.  This charming book is narrated by Katherine Wentworth, a pragmatic, observant widow with a sense of humor. She is struggling to raise her twins and her teenage stepson alone since the death of Gerald, her archaeologist husband. The family lived happily in Oxford before; now they live in a small flat in her hometown, Edinbugh. She is very busy.

My Mother's House and Sido colette 0374512183.1.zoom2. Colette’s My Mother’s House and Sido.  If you’re a fan of Colette, you’ll love both these two novels and the art work on the cover.  Here’s a quote from the back cover:

In this pair of complementary novels…, Colette presents to the reader an anecdotal collection of family portraits and childhood vignettes which pay homage to the lost paradise of youth.  Central to both these works is the figure of her mother, Sido.

3. Tom Holt’s Lucia Triumphant.  If you’re a fan of the Lucia books, you’ll enjoy Tom Holt’s sequel.  It is very funny!


Smarties vs. Intellectuals: Jane Bowles and the New Nonfiction

Carrie at Waterstones

Carrie at Waterstones

Smarties are not always smart, and intellectuals are sometimes dumber.  Carrie Fisher:  smart.  Stephen Greenblatt:  intellectual.  Whom would you rather spend time with?   Carrie?  But  Greenblatt,  a brilliant,  accessible literary historian, is a close second (and he is alive).

In the rather withered, diminishing field of classics, you look for the smarties, not the intellectuals.  You don’t want to dine with anyone who quotes Cicero.  You will not be dazzled so much as discombobulated if you’re listening to Bruce Springsteen and eating pizza while trying to decipher a scholar’s Italianate pronunciation.  Why does he/she want to talk about Caelius and Cloidia? And can you have that last slice of pizza? If you are still coherent, which is doubtful, do defend the wicked Clodia:  it may rout another quotation, until  another intellectual shows up and quotes something.  They are so sweet together.

There are many smart bloggers, but few intellectuals.  (If you’re an intellectual, sorry!) The smarties write hilarious things at Goodreads, and the intellectuals trash Goodreads reviews in prim publications. I myself often fail to follow the example of Goodreads smarties, who read bits of everything, literary and pop. I’ve been reading the same  Maeve Binchy book since December, because I told my husband to check out all the books by Maeve Binchy and Rosamund Pilcher with “winter” in the title, and I lost my pop mojo.  Binchy’s  A Week in Winter is  sweet,and I do want to spend my next vacation in that fictitious  inn on the coast of Ireland, but I stopped reading on page 267, a week before Irene’s wedding…and that reminds me, I must take it back to the library.

maeve-binchy-51rv8a5t5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Smart bookishness often fails me. It’s not that I don’t understand what should be done. Smart  people buy books only at bricks-and-mortar stores, whereas I fail to do so. Smart people accept free review copies of  books and enjoy them, whereas I decline them because they are free and I prefer to buy my own books.  Smart people network, whereas I get notes from publicists wondering why I did not like my free books more. I vaguely wonder, Why don’t I use blandishments to smooth the way?


Jane Bowles

Smarties know the blandishments (even if we don’t always use them).  Oh, and we don’t blur the lines between reviews and marketing.  All right, perhaps we do blur them. Everybody gets co-opted, and the internet is like a giant Facebook page where everybody knows everybody. When Jenny Diski died, I deleted my criticism of her very bitter memoir of Doris Lessing because, after all, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum, and I simply am not vested in Diski’s work.  At online publications, I know it’s a serious review when I’m locked out along with the other non-subscribers.  I long to read a review at The Wall Street Journal with the title:

“Jane Bowles Was More Brilliant Than Her Husband “

But I don’t subscribe to the Wall Street Journal,  so I’ll never know why.  I do know exactly where my copy of Jane ‘s  Collected Stories is, so a headline persuades me finally to read her.

There are lots of smart publications, and I often enjoy them.  Well, even when the TLS dumbs down, it seems very smart to me. “Is non-fiction the new fiction?” reads headline on a free piece on the internet.  Oh, good,  I thought, they’re talking about Karl Ove! (Knausgaard:  I just think of him as Karl Ove.)

But the first paragraph informs me:

As ever with these things, there was some dumbing down for the sake of the tagline. Non-fiction is no more the new fiction than orange is the new black, Thursday the new Friday, or staying in the new going out; the “old” fiction, moreover, is in rude health – on cinema and television screens, and in genre publishing. But it is indeed the case that some of the most eye-catching literary fiction of recent years has eschewed the constraints of conventional storytelling, embracing subjectivity and fragmentation while also enlisting elements associated with Life-writing, philosophy and memoir. This ranges from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multi-volume epic My Struggle to critically acclaimed works by authors such as Rachel Cusk and Claire-Louise Bennett.  The technique is not new – it is at least as old as Proust – and yet the recent glut is sufficiently conspicuous to demand attention.

Well, I enjoyed the headline, and the article was smart enough.  It is about a seminar at City University, London, where four finalists for the Arts Foundation’s Creative Non-Fiction Award 2017 spoke about their work.

Catullus' Bedspread 61nE1tim0bLAny publication that writes about classics is intellectual, but it is smart?  Do you read The New Criterion?  Well, God knows I don’t, but I found a splendid review there of Daisy Dunn’s Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet.  Catullus is one of my favorite poets, and though I  don’t feel the need to read a new study of his  life, I am always happy to see a new book on him..   And the review by by Andrew Stuttaford, is very smart: it  incorporates personal writing with razor-sharp criticism, well, perhaps steak-knife sharp criticism,  And we do like our personal writing these days.

So I enjoy smart writing, intellectual writing, personal and pop, and it’s all online for us to read.  The internet may not be the best invention of the twentieth century, but we make the best of it.