Are Coffeehouses Bohemian?

Smokey Row in Oskaloosa

My relationship with coffeehouses goes way back.

Long before Starbucks arrived in Iowa, I knew how to rate a cup of coffee. And when Starbucks made its debut in Des Moines in 2002, David Letterman joked about it on Late Night. Yes, Iowa is square, but the real joke is that it didn’t need Starbucks.  It had thriving independent coffeehouses, among them Friedrich’s, Java Joe’s, and Grounds for Celebration in Des Moines; The Java House  in Iowa City; and  Smokey Row in Pella, Oskaloosa, and Des Moines.  (David Byrne blogged about  biking to Smokey Row after he gave a concert in Des Moines.)

Where did I get the idea that coffeehouses were bohemian?  It dates from reading books set in New York, especially in Greenwich Village. I lost my NY mojo eventually, when invited to interview for a posh teaching job that paid only $8,000 a year. I felt like blurting out over the phone, “But I don’t have a trust fund!”

Characters who drink coffee in literature often  long to be bohemians.  When Zane, the narrator of  Alix Kates Shulman’s  neglected novel, Burning Questions, moves from Indiana to Greenwich Village, one of the first things she does is check out the Figaro Cafe. Although artists and writers frequent it, it does not pave the way to friendship, jobs, or  fulfilling her desire to write.

Zane recalls,

I wandered among the Village streets noting addresses only of shops; and when I forced myself to return to the Figaro for a coffee on Tuesday and again, despite my discomfort, on Wednesday, I wondered why. It was a silly position to be in, sitting there all alone with a tiny, long-empty cup (in which I had dropped a swirl of lemon peel), waiting for something or someone unknown—especially when nothing came of it but a growing conviction of the essential futility of waiting.

Don’t we all know the futility of waiting? When  I moved from Indiana to Washington, D.C., a city much dowdier than New York , I was sanguine that a coffeehouse would be my gateway to friendship.  How could it not be?  I had bought preppie clothes at L. L. Bean, shaved my legs for the first time in years, and had dropped from a size 11 to size 8 due to anxiety.  Casual friendliness had been a big part of the coffeehouse scene in Bloomington.  People were always skootching their chairs up and making plans to go to Days of Heaven a second or third time (it was my favorite movie). When I moved to D.C.,  this was not the case.   I ate tasteless tofu dishes at a natural foods cafe in Bethesda, or walked  to Dupont Circle to buy books and drink delicious coffee at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe. I was out of my league among the hip clerks (were they really hip, or  was I just very, very  tired?) and the sleek lobbyists, politicos, and lawyers in their three-piece suits looked so dull.    Call it reverse snobbery, but I didn’t want to know them.  I wanted to go home to the Midwest!

There are many reasons to go to coffeehouses.  If you are poor, coffeehouses are a godsend.  First of all, they are very cheap: for the price of a cup of coffee, you establish squatting rights. Second, it gives you the illusion of having friends, even if you are just on nodding terms with the multi-tattooed barista.   Third, they are refuges for writers: every third customer is a writer looking for an excuse not to write.

But in my casual thirties, when I was a freelancer, I went to coffeehouses every day. At home the phone rang constantly, I gossiped with editors and was sworn to secrecy about scandals, did phone interviews, arranged in-person interviews, and spent hours at the typewriter (eventually, a computer). To get away from my work, I had to get out of the house. I would suddenly grab my keys and head for the neighborhood coffeehouse.

Lots of temperamental writers sat drinking coffee or reading a newspaper.    Writers like to brood or endlessly tell you why they cannot finish an article for an airline magazine.  They do not laugh when you ask if they have thought of writing about air.

In Henry James’s The Tragic Muse, there is much sitting and reading in coffeehouses in Paris.   Miriam, an aspiring actress, laughs when Peter Sherrington, an English diplomat, asks if she would object to  going to a cafe with him.

“Objection? I’ve spent my life in cafés! They’re warm in winter and you get your lamplight for nothing,” she explained. “Mamma and I have sat in them for hours, many a time, with a consommation of three sous, to save fire and candles at home. We’ve lived in places we couldn’t sit in, if you want to know—where there was only really room if we were in bed. Mamma’s money’s sent out from England and sometimes it usedn’t to come. Once it didn’t come for months—for months and months. I don’t know how we lived. There wasn’t any to come; there wasn’t any to get home. That isn’t amusing when you’re away in a foreign town without any friends….”

Reading  is a common coffee-related activity. Her mother reads there for hours.

…mamma was always up to her ears in books. They served her for food and drink. When she had nothing to eat she began a novel in ten volumes—the old-fashioned ones; they lasted longest. “

n Karl Ove Knausgaard’s’s My Struggle, Book 2, the narrator goes out for coffee every afternoon, but switches cafes every five days so he won’t have to chat with a barista. Most baristas keep their distance, but I know what he means:  you don’t want it suddenly to turn into Cheers.

There’s lots of good coffee in life and literature.  What are your favorite coffeehouses in life or lit?

Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan

Science fiction is my genre.  Or at least that’s what I always say.

Some of the best experimental American writing comes out of SF these days.

Lidia Yuknavitch’s s strange, haunting literary novel, The Book of Joan, has roots in science fiction. This  spare meta-fictional masterpiece, set in the year 2049, has a sophisticated two-tiered structure: it consists of a book and a book within a book, twin books, if you will, about a post-apocalyptic world.  Christine Pizan, the narrator, is an artist, a “skin writer,” a storyteller, and rebel.  She lives on CIEL, a space station-like structure that orbits a devastated Earth. And Christine’s heroine is Joan of Dirt, a post-apocalyptic Joan of Arc who led the Resistance on Earth.  There is a rumor that Joan is still alive, though politicians, including the populist dictator, Jean de Men,  claim she is dead.  Her burning was filmed, but Christine knows these things can be staged.

Post-apocalyptic life is as wretched as you might imagine. Humans have devolved.  They no longer have genitals.  They cannot reproduce. Christine  meditates on gender politics and resistance.

Christine writes,

I am without gender mostly.  My head is white and waxen. No eyebrows or eyelashes or full lips or anything but jutting bones at the cheeks and shoulders and collarbones and data points, the parts on our body where we can interact with technology. I have a slight rise where each breast began, and a kind of mound where my pubic bone should be, but that’s it.  Nothing else of woman is left.  Herein is the recorded history of Christine Pizan, second daughter of Raphael and Risolda Pizan.  I think briefly of my dead parents, dead husband, my dear friends and neighbors and all the people who peopled my childhood on Earth.

Lidia Yuknavitch

She  has two projects to finish before she is euthanized on her 50th birthday. (All on CIEL are euthanized at 50).  Skin grafting is the new storytelling and she is an expert:   she is carving on her body the text of the story of Joan.  Her other project is to record her own history and the history of Ciel, founded and ruled with an iron hand by Jean de Man.  She also must find a way to communicate with her best friend Trinculo, who is imprisoned and has been sentenced to death.

Yuknavitch subtly intertwines the many threads of the story.  And here’s a  little intellectual background:  the name Christine Pizan is a reference to Christine de Pizan, the medieval  poet and philosopher who challenged and reviled the anti-feminism of the Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose.  And the dictator Jean de Men?  Well, like de Meun he fancies himself a writer (skin grafter); he prefers romances.  And the pseudo-artist despot is  determined to find a way for the species to reproduce, through cruel experimentation.

I especially loved the book within a book about Joan.  Christine is all intellect; Joan is all action and instinct.  Joan is also the only person on Earth who still has genitals.  The chapters about Joan are part fairy tale, part war story: Joan is connected with nature and hears the trees and sea singing. One day she comes back from a swim with a blue light in her skull.  She is of the earth, but is also a brilliant general who has fought wars since childhood.   She does what she can to save the very few remaining humans and other species. While CIEL drains the few remaining resources on Earth through technology,  Joan and her companion Leone keep fighting.

This beautiful but disturbing book is short and complex.  Each word matters.  It is by far the best new book I’ve read this year.

I look forward to rereading this slowly.  It’s that kind of book.

Not Quite Art: Leonora Carrington’s Down Below

Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst

It is the centenary of the surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington’s birth.

Publishers have scrambled to cash in on the anniversary.  Mind you, I love Carrington (1917-2011).  Cash in all they want:  it’s art. But even from a Carrington fan’s perspective, the number of new books is staggering.  So far we have seen the publication of The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Dorothy, a publishing project), Carrington’s Down Below (NYRB), Carrington’s The Milk of Dreams (NYRB Children’s Collection), The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead (Virago), and Leonora Carrington and the International Avant-Garde (Manchester University Press).

I love Carrington’s brilliant, humorous, macabre sensibility. I read the short stories spellbound, sometimes laughing.

But her book Down Below is a very different story:  a memoir of madness more or less lost in translation.  (Some call it a novel.)  It was originally  written in English, then rejected by Janet Flanner, then lost by Carrington; then in 1943  she dictated it in French to Jeanne Megneb; and then n 1944 it was translated into English by Victor Llona  for publication.  (The NYRB  text was compiled from both the French and the English translation.)

Written in the form of a diary, Down Below is a brief account (68 pages) of Carrington’s nervous breakdown and painful stay in a Spanish mental hospital in 1940.  She had been living in the south of France with her lover Max Ernst, who was captured by the Nazis and incarcerated in a concentration camp.  She  fled  across the border from France to Spain with friends.  Terrified and exhausted, she suffered a complete psychotic break.

Although her description of terrifying hallucinations and delusions is poetic, the experience was traumatic.  She writes,

We were riding normally when, 20 kilometers beyond Saint-Martin, the car stopped; the brakes had jammed.  I heard Catherine say:  “The brakes have jammed.”  “Jammed!”  I, too, was jammed within, by forces foreign to my conscious will, which were also jamming the mechanism of the car.  This was the first stage of my identification with the external world.  I was the car.  The car had jammed on account of me, because I, too, was jammed between Saint-Martin and Spain.  At that time, I was still limited to my own solar system, and was not aware of other people’s systems, the importance of which I realise now.

If you or a family member have suffered from a mental illness*, you will find this book  painful.  You will wearily  recognize  the symptoms (though for what illnesses, is never clear:  major depression overlaps with bipolar disorder overlaps with schizophrenia overlaps with…).  Carrington sparely shows the reality of psychic wounds, yet her vivid account of illness and a scary hospitalization l seems almost unclouded by emotion.

There are better memoirs of mental illness.  Carrington’s lacks context.  William Styron’s Darkness Visible:  A Memoir of Madness is a classic; so is Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kesey’s psych hospital is also a metaphor for the machinery of society). Carrington’s  poetic yet realistic and muted description of symptoms is very upsetting:  I have never heard them described with such detachment.

Carrington reminds me of a relative  I will call “Zelda,” who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and did not speak, eat, or bathe for three weeks in the hospital after a complete psychotic break. She stood paralyzed, mute, in front of the locked glass doors to the courtyard, staring at the heaps of snow.  She believed she had caused the blizzard. Her mind was that strong (or weak, if you prefer).  While “solving” the catastrophe of “contaminated nuclear snow”, she drank water out of styrofoam cups,  hoarded them in her room, left different levels of water in each cup, arranged them on her bedside table like models of atoms (she said later), and tried to work out how to “decontaminate the snow.”

“I was a nuclear physicist and the cups were atoms,” she said later, laughing.  Do not show pain.  That is the Code of the Woosters.  Or do I mean ours?

And things did not go that differently for Carrington, though the facilities and treatment were more primitive then.  Having suffered a psychotic break, she was locked up in a mental hospital  in Spain.   She begged to move to the ground floor, which she called “Down Below,”and believed was, relatively,  Paradise.  Meanwhile, she had to solve the problems of the universe between injections and other  treatment.  LIke”Zelda,” she was responsible for the world and terrified of her power.

…back in my bed, I would sit up again very straight and examine the remnants of my fruit, rinds and stones, arranging them in the form of designs representing as many solutions to cosmic problems.  I believed that Don Luis and his father, seeing the problems solved on my plate, would allow me to go Down Below, to Paradise.

The treatment was dreadful:  she was given injections of a drug called Cardiazol that mimicked shock treatment. She did not quite know where she was.  She did not understand who the people were.   Undoubtedly pills are better these days.  Still inadequate, but better.

Eventually Carrington’s rich English parents sent her old nanny by submarine to Spain to take care of her; Carrington might have mouldered in the hospital forever had Nanny not arrived. The plan was to send her to another hospital in South Africa for the duration of the war.  Carrington ran away to the Mexican embassy in Lisbon and married in order to escape from Europe to New York and eventually to Mexico.

Down Under starts out strong, but the  narrative loses impetut and becomes repetitious:  even 68 pages is too long for a translated dictated remembrance of madness without context.

But look at Carrington’s paintings and read her fiction.  And when you run out, turn to this strange, uneven little book.  You might like it more than I did.


*According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 9.3 million adults, or about 4 percent of Americans ages 18 and up, experience “serious mental illness” every year.

A Brontë Bibliomemoir: Miranda K. Pennington’s “A Girl Walks into a Book”

Branwell Bronte’s painting of Charlotte, Anne, and Emily.

A bibliomemoir can be a fan’s unforgettable romance with books.  A Brontë bibliomemoir is always a kitschy Vegas wedding.

This year I have read two Brontë bibliomemoirs, both written in a quasi-“pop” style. The writers share their insights, but their humor borders on kitsch, and I can’t figure out who the intended audience is.

Smantha Ellis’s Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life, called “a selfie memoir” in the TLS, is jarringly uneven.   (I reflected on it in an earlier post.) Miranda K. Pennington’s new book, A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work, is a selfie celebration of lifelong Bronte fandom.  Of the two, I much prefer hers.

Pennington, a writer and teacher in New York,  boldly takes on all three Brontës in her first book. She especially loves Charlotte’s Jane Eyre; is almost equally fascinated by the  Sapphic elements in Shirley; and is more cheered than I am when Lucy Snowe in Villette settles for second-best boyfriend.

Pennington raves about the underrated Anne’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which deals with alcoholism and domestic abuse.   Like Branwell, the Brontes’ ne-er-do-well brother, Pennington was an alcoholic in college. She appreciates Anne’s urge to write the then-shockingly candid novel about the heroine’s flight and hiding from her alcoholic husband.  The biggest shock?  Pennington is not an Emily fan.  Instead of meshing her own reflections with a synthesis of critical views of Wuthering Heights, she writes an ill-advised  parody of the masterpiece.

Pennington’s writing is laced with humor and snarkiness, as well as sincerity. She entertains and educates subtly.  The writing is occasionally awkward, in a style reminiscent of rapidfire internet posts, but that is par for common readers, unless they are Virginia Woolf.  (And, by the way, I learned from Pennington that Woolf wrote an essay after visiting Haworth about her distaste for visiting writers’ homes.)  Although Pennington is neither a critic nor a biographer, she has done extensive research on the Brontës.

She is earnest, if verbose, as she describes the Brontës’ effect on her life. She rereads Jane Eyre every year, and  is inspired by the  heroine’s courage and independence.

I needed the Brontës to help me figure out how to function in the world around me, and their work is always up to the task. Even though their characters live, think, and speak in outdated and occasionally unwieldy prose, it still startles me to be reminded that they aren’t real. It seems much more likely they exist in the ether somewhere, fully formed and waiting for a reader to bring them to life again.  Believing that my favorite characters live outside their pages may be why I hear new messages with every read.

The book is arranged chronologically, following  Pennington from her first reading of Jane Eyre to the present.  Her history with Jane Eyre goes way back.  Her father gave her Jane Eyre when she was 10 (and isn’t that Jane’s age when we first meet her?), and, after hurling the book across the room with frustration, she picked it up, kept reading, and was forever influenced by Jane’s independence and unshakable moral code.

She also describes the act of reading.  In the following passage, she captures  the experience of falling into Jane Eyre. 

When I looked back at the clock, it seemed time had gone faster while I read, the cost of living two lives at once. It was almost as good as time travel. Anything outside those pages vanished until, all too soon, I reached the last page, the adventure ended, and I was back on my bed where I started. Learning to speak Brontë gave me a secret power that nobody else had. And Jane Eyre was the key—it’s what put me on the path to living my life in sync with the Brontës’ work. It inspired a quest to discover as much about Charlotte Brontë as I could. Each Bronte has in turn provided exactly the right illumination for my life, but only when read at the right time.

Miranda K. Pennington

The chronological structure is her greatest problem.  I kept thinking she should have started in medias res.  Her voice becomes more authentic in later chapters, when she delineates her struggles with alcoholism, bisexuality,  and unsatisfying jobs. The Brontës’ novels really do fit her needs at different stages of life.  She rightly says that the Brontes address many of her issues:   the  cross-dressing and conversations about feminism in Charlotte’s books, alcoholism in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and every level of dysfunction, albeit in a Gothic, poetic form antithetical to Pennington,  in Emily’s Wuthering Heights. 

The last chapter, “Haworth,” is a great travel piece.  Here she lets loose and describes the excitement of her  trip to Haworth. (Why haven’t I gone there?)  Naturally, her husband gets sick. Doesn’t somebody always get sick on vacation?  But she is thrilled by her research at the Haworth library, gets to handle (wearing gloves) the Brontës’ hand-stitched juvenile books,  and her husband recovers in time to walk the moors and see the Bronte Waterfall.

Will Bronte fans enjoy this uneven but entertaining little book? There is a Brontë industry, so surely it will sell.    Think of A Girl Walks into a Book  as a hand-stitched little book by an amateur, or a trip  through the personal realm of a modern Brontëist.  It won’t suit the needs of scholars, but may inspire you to return to the Brontës.

The Zany Reader: How We Got Here & Where We’re Going

I’m trotting out this picture again of Mother reading to me.

I have always been fascinated by books.  I was not a toddler prodigy: I was dying to learn, but only pretended to read.   I preferred the narrative to the pictures:  my eyes were focused on the print even before I knew the letters. I memorized the stories and recited them to my dolls. I often quoted the hilarious fairy Flora in the Golden Book edition of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty: “Silly fiddle-faddle!” I got in trouble for saying “Silly fiddle-faddle” at  Mass, in response to the priest’s intonation of Dominus vobiscum.  In my defense I was three.

My family was not bookish.  No one in my family “modeled” reading,  though my mother read to me:  she was a mother who neither chatted nor played with her kids, except an occasional board game,  and “No Monopoly, please, ever.” She knew books were important to me and saved money to finance my weekly jaunts to Iowa Book and Supply. My shelves were filled with Tolkien, Nancy Drew, E. Nesbit, The Chosen, Rosemary’s Baby, I Capture the Castle, The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence, Kurt Vonnegut, and Mary Stewart’s Gothic novels and Arthur books. While she indulged my reading, the Heavy Father used to bellow at me to put down that book and go out and play.

Did my parents read?  They had read.  They did not read while they were raising a family.  My mother’s favorite book was Gone with the Wind, but she’d read it years ago and we didn’t have a copy.  My father had a few paperbacks in the storage room, John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8, Updike’s Rabbit Run, and a few James Bonds.  I remember being surprised by the racy covers. Had he read them?.  My one literary conversation with him:  he told me Little Women was overrated. I burst into tears.  There was much bursting into tears when he was around.  My mother seemed to suffer a low-level depression when he was home, self-medicating with soap operas, movie magazines, and shopping the sales.  There was little conversation.  His goal seemed to be to cause as much chaos as was possible in the course of a single half-hour meal.

It was the era of newspapers and magazines. Yes, there were books, in other people’s houses, not ours.  Men hid behind newspapers when they didn’t want to talk. Occasionally my mother, grandmother, and I spent an afternoon reading McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Life, Look, and Reader’s Digest. I skipped the housekeeping tips and recipes, but was fascinated by the fiction, the columns about marriage problems, and the letters to the editor. My mother was also very fond of movie magazines, but these were too trashy for my grandmother.  Our neighbors had a magazine hoarding system:  they filled their  double garage with stacks of Time  and National Geographic.   What we remember from National Geographic:  African women with long breasts and elongated necks. What we remember from Time:  gory pictures of the Vietnam War.

This is a typical story of a reader, I would imagine.  I had the reading gene.  And yet I seldom admitted to reading.  I can remember huddling over Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles in homeroom  and refusing to tell a “popular” girl if it was “good.” “It’s all right.”  Heresy!  It was my favorite book. But you never knew with this cheerleader, whether she wanted  a real conversation or an excuse to mock you in the hall.  I moved in a gentler clique of poetry-spouting girls who wore John Lennon glasses.    Later, I went to a university lab school, where everybody was bookish.  I sat in front of  my locker reading Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Doris Lessing, and The Diaries of Anais Nin.

People were not as self-conscious about emotions then as now.  Parents had meltdowns.   They yelled and screamed and then forgot about it.  In general there was a lot of screaming on my street, at my house and around the corner. One of my favorite neighbors, Mrs. X, a professor’s wife and the mother of four children, had recently gone back to graduate school.  Now that was a very big thing:  she did not have a maid; she had a house, kids, and homework.  She needed time to study.  One day she lost it about the unmade  beds upstairs and  clothes that had been drop-kicked and were hanging from globes and bookcases:  a tie hung suggestively from a carved pineapple on a four poster bed.  Then there was the fact that she hadn’t seen her son W in days and it turned out he was in bed with his girlfriend.  “Get up and do some laundry, dammit.”  One of her kids said, “My retainer hurts like hell.”  “I don’t care–wear it!”  she would snap.  “And hurry up.  It’s time for your piano lesson.”  “I HATE PIANO!”

We were separate from the university, orthodontia, and piano lessons. We had a different life-style. My mother, it was true, had her bachelor’s, but she was not pushy about grades: she said  A’s and B’s, were fine, that she had gotten A’s and B’s. Then at my mother’s funeral, I was startled  when the  priest said she had been the valedictorian of her high school class. I can only think I would have known, and then I realized  my snobbish sib had made it up to raise his/her status, knowing no one was alive to challenge him/her.  This, yes, is the kind of thing that happens in our family.  If it does not happen in your family, you are lucky.

What I loved about my mother:  she thought I was beautiful, and in my later years even said I “looked good,” so I manage not quite to see what’s there, which is a blessing.  She also had the impression that I was a “born teacher,” when in reality I would take a nap after work because I was too exhausted after four preparations and five classes to do more than read a mystery and make dinner.  And then I’d be up at 5, correcting papers and making lesson plans, waiting for the weekend when I could get lost in a book.

When did I learn I was not the only intense reader in the world?  Honestly, I never quite believe others read with as much intensity as I do.  The evidence is there, but reading is solitary, and we do not have to concern ourselves with others’ readings.    Unfortunately in grad school, when I knew many readers, they wanted to keep up with classical scholarship, and, believe me, many academic articles are tedious and poorly written, so there was less time to read Golden Age mysteries, let alone Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood.  Oh, and forget those BBC Shakespeare plays they used to have on Sunday afternoon.  My fellow student were having nervous breakdowns and dropping out of the program like flies. I myself developed a “sleeping disorder,” i.e., insomnia, and foolishly refused to take pills, so I had trouble concentrating with my grainy tired eyes, and though I loved translating Greek and Latin, I rarely did the extra reserve reading.  I said “FUCK reserve reading and fuck scholarship!”indiscreetly at Nick’s Pub.  I was a rebel.

Well into adulthood and past a certain age, my husband and I are both avid readers.  Our backgrounds are similar,  classics and comp lit.  I wave him off to the beach on vacation and stay in the cottage and read Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger trilogy, while he runs, lolls, or flies a kite on the beach. I am happy if I get through one big book on vacation, usually a Victorian classic.  Oh, sure, some readers could read two huge Victorian classics.   Jo Walton the science fiction writer says in  What Makes This Book So Great that she reads six books a day. I can read six books in a week, if they are short books or if I’m skimming. But do I need to read more than one big book at the beach?

By the way, I just read Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, and it is the most stunning new novel of the year.  Does this mean the great writing is coming from the West not the East?  Now there’s a novel thought!

More later.

Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”

I love Jane Austen.  But Sense and Sensibility is my least favorite comedy of manners. Is it a comedy at all?  The satire is apparent, but S&S is the least humorous of her books. Yet she establishes her basic themes and tropes here: in later books, especially Pride and Prejudice, she refines and recycles her characters, plot elements, and themes: the devoted sisters and/or friends, the courtiers, cads, the preoccupation with (un)romantic love, and the almighty god of money.

By the way, I’ve been admiring these super-feminine covers of Sense and Sensibility.  I have a row of sedate Penguins, but rather like the pinks, greens, and yellows.   I was not the designers’ audience, but the covers have grown on me.   What do you think?

 On a recent rereading, I had a strange un-Jane-ish experience.  From the beginning I  felt a hair-raising angst.  The newly-widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, sensible Elinor, romantic Marianne, and silly Margaret, must move to a cottage on Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin’s land.  How will they survive on their scant inheritance?   John Dashwood, the girls’ half-brother, has inherited the entailed estate.   In a sharply comic but horrific scene, John’s shrewish wife talks him out of giving them a gift of money that might have made a real difference.

Four women in a country house:  how will the Dashwood sisters ever find husbands?  Sir John Middleton, their mother’s cousin, is jolly and sociable, but perhaps not quite the thing, and his wife, Lady Middleton, is a dull stick.  The heroine, sensible Elinor, who has a long-distance beau, Edward Ferrars, doesn’t dwell much on love:  she is busy.  She must organize the move, plan the finances, advise  her impractical mother, and gently temper the impetuosity of her romantic  younger sister Marianne. While everyone else expresses  emotions, Elinor has to hold everything in.

Much of the book centers on Marianne, as filtered through Elinor’s sensibility. Naturally, seventeen-year-old Marianne falls in love.  Running down a hill in the rain, she sprains her ankle, and a handsome stranger, Willoughby, who is walking the hills with his gun and pointers, carries her home.  It’s a good thing she’s a sylph-like girl, or that might have been awkward.  He is charming, well-educated, literary, and musical:  he and Marianne spend the next weeks together gossiping, reading aloud, playing music,  and taking walks.  But then Willoughby suddenly leaves for London.  Why did he leave?  Why doesn’t he write?

The course of love does not run smooth for the Dashwood women.  Edward Ferrars pays a brief visit, but is gloomy and does not propose.  The manipulative Lucy Steele, a guest of the Middletons, informs Elinor that Edward is her secret fiance.  Marianne has another suitor, Sir John’s suitable friend,  Colonel Brand, but she thinks he’s an old man in his mid-thirties, “old enough to be my father.”   (And isn’t he for someone of her age?)

But there are many hilarious minor characters to temper sense and sensibility: Mrs. Jennings seems absurd to the Dashwoods at first, with her constant teasing about match-making and boyfriends, but turns out to be very kind and much less “common” than is their first impression.  And their visit to Mrs. Jennings in London,  which is disastrous from a romantic point of view, proves to them the worth of Mrs. Jenning’s friendship and support.

Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s mother, was  a good humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy, and rather vulgar. She was full of jokes and laughter, and before dinner was over had said many witty things on the subjects of lovers and husbands; hoped they had not left their hearts behind them in Sussex, and pretended to see them blush whether they did or not. Marianne was vexed at it for her sister’s sake, and turned her eyes towards Elinor to see how she bore these attacks, with an earnestness which gave Elinor far more pain than could arise from such common-place raillery as Mrs. Jennings’s.

Of course, Austen’s books center on the marriage plot.  The ending is happy, or not happy, just as you like.   Happiness is not the top of the list.  Sense trumps sensibility. Elinor is sensible and rewarded.   Marianne is sensitive, and supposedly marries happily, but one wonders.  Certainly in my youth I was a Marianne, not an Elinor; and found Elinor’s perfect manners and middle-aged restraint irritating, even though she is always right.

But  I cannot quite imagine that either Elinor or Marianne will be very happy in this Comedy of Compromise.  Elinor gets her guy:  let’s hope for the best, as I don’t think he’s worthy of her.  Jane punishes Marianne, as she later punishes Emma–for what?  Being imperfect, being subversive, saying what they think, making mistakes?

But at least the sisters have each other.

Between Barton and Delaford, there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate;—and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.

How to Get Sloppy: Ovid in Exile

This spring I read and very much enjoyed Ovid’s The Black Sea Letters, Book 1 (Epistulae ex Ponto), in Latin.  Written in exile in Tomis on the Black Sea, this little-read collection of epistolary verse is brilliant and fascinating.

Exiled from Rome in 8 A.D. by Augustus for carmen et error (a poem and an error), the poet Ovid  wretchedly describes his imitation of life in a land assailed by  fierce storms and extremes of temperature.  He lives among the smelly Tomitae barbarians and their bellicose neighbors, the Getae. In his elegiac letters home, he reminds his influential friends that he is the only Roman exile in this barbaric land so far from Rome, and he hopes they will plead his case and hustle him back closer to Rome, if not to Rome itself. He reminds them he was exiled for a fault, not a crime.

Exile also means he has lost the will to write elegantly.  Circumstances are far from ideal.  It’s not as though he has poetry readings, the theater,  or dinner parties to keep him up to snuff.    He has no incentive to polish his writing now.  He is homesick for Rome and the life of a celebrity poet of equestrian rank; he misses his wife and daughter; and may he just mention the horror of  daily deadly faceoffs with bellicose men waving spears.  He reminds his highly-placed friends of their obligation  to him, even though association with him may put them in danger.  He reminds them that his books are not banned:  they are still in libraries in Rome.  Alas, there are no libraries in rough Tomis.   There are no poetry readings, either.

Many writers know what it is to be in exile–and I don’t mean literally.  Many are in exile in the 21st century from the 20th century, when publishing throve, and thus lose the incentive to polish.  Of course Ovid’s apology for his work is merely rhetorical: Roman poets conventionally apologize or their lack of skill, while meaning the opposite.  But many of us do take it literally.  The provincial publications for which gentle housewives wrote book and movie reviews between loads of laundry have “folded.” We may not live in Tomis on the Black Sea–we may live where we have always lived–and because we have always written, we continue to write, but this is the scribble-and-post age.  We polish less.

Anyway, as I read Ovid, I kept putting asterisks and writing “BLOG!” beside passages.

Here is one of my favorites.  In the lines below, Ovid  is depressed.  My translation is slangy, and, sorry, it doesn’t capture the poetry or the literary devices or the tone or reflect the sophistication of rhetorical devices.  It’s all I’ve got. We all do our best, but it’s poetry. Go get the Peter Green if you want elegance.

Publius Ovidius Naso addresses Maximus here (and refers to himself as Naso):

Your old friend Naso—once not the least of your friends—
asks you to read his words, Maximus.
Don’t look for my former flair
lest you seem unaware of/insensitive to my exile.
You perceive how idleness corrupts a slothful body,
just as water, if it is not moving, acquires a taint.
The skill I used to have at spinning poetry
is failing and lessened by neglect.
These things also, which you read, if you believe me, Maximus,
I write forced out with an unwilling hand.


Ille tuos quondam non ultimus inter amicos,
ut sua verba legas. Maxime, Naso rogat,
in quibus ingenium desiste requirere nostrum,
5cernis ut ignavum corrumpant otia corpus,
ut capiant vitium, ni moveantur, aquae,
et mihi siquis erat ducendi carminis usus,
deficit estque minor factus inerte situ.
haec quoque, quae legitis, (siquid mihi. Maxime, credis),
scribimus invita vixque coacta manu.