In Which I Flippantly Consider Venus’s Purple Buskins; & What Are Your Favorite Agatha Christie Novels?

Sarah Ruden’s translation of the Aeneid is the first in English by a woman.

I am obsessed with Virgil.  As  I’ve written many times since I began this blog five years ago, rereading the Aeneid in Latin is one of my guilty pleasures.  Virgil’s epic poem about the founding of Rome by Trojan refugees is partly a brilliant homage to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, partly a  celebration of empire to flatter Augustus, and partly an anti-war poem.

There are many critical interpretations of the Aeneid; hence comparing translations to the Latin can be illuminating.  This fall I am reading the English for the first time since Robert Fagles’ superb translation was published in 2006.  I am fascinated by two new (or newish) translations, the poet David Ferry’s and the classical philologist Sarah Ruden’s.

I love David Ferry’s spellbinding new translation, though occasionally he wanders from the Latin to perfect the beauty of his own lines.  But why, I lament flippantly, did he leave out Venus’s purple (or crimson) buskins (open-toed  boots with laces)? When she disguises herself as a huntress in Carthage to confront and advise her son Aeneas, she denies to him that she is a goddess and says she is just a normal Tyrian girl wearing the current fashion.

Before we look at Ferry’s, here is my literal translation of the Latin (and the Latin lines are below, at the end of the Virgil section of this post).  “Then Venus said: ‘Indeed, I am not worthy of such an honor./ It is the fashion for Tyrian girls to wear a quiver/ and purple buskins  tied high on the calves.'”

Venus as huntress (in  crimson buskins) appears to Aeneas in Carthage

Ferry is a very great poet, but he chooses to add a bow to the quiver and subtracts the purple from the boots.

Ferry writes, “Then Venus:  ‘I am not worthy of that honor./It is the custom of Tyrian maidens to wear/Such hunting boots and carry a quiver and bow.'”

Sarah Ruden, the first (and only?) woman to translate the Aeneid into English (Yale University Press, 2008), has a different, more literal approach. She lines up her  English lines of blank verse almost exactly with Virgil’s Latin , and  since Latin is much more concise  than English this is quite an achievement. Her translation is less poetic than Ferry’s, but equally effective. And, yes, she mentions the purple boots.  Here is Ruden’s translation of those three lines:

“She answered, ‘That would surely not be right./These quivers are what Tyrian girls all carry; /We all wear purple boots, laced on our calves.”

I love it!   And that famous purple dye, which ranged from violet to crimson, is worth a mention:  it was, later, one of the main Tyrian exports.

And here’s the Latin of those three lines:

Tum Venus: ‘Haud equidem tali me dignor honore;               335
virginibus Tyriis mos est gestare pharetram,
purpureoque alte suras vincire cothurno.


This weekend we saw and very much enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s new movie adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express.  It was so much fun!

It made me want to curl up with an Agatha Christie, so I found my copy of Murder on the Orient Express.  And then, looking around for more,  I found a charming article at the Barnes and Noble Reads blog about “10 Absolutely Essential Agatha Christie Classics.”

Here is the list, and do let me know your favorite Christies!  I have enjoyed the Jane Marple mysteries, but have many Hercule Poirots yet to read.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The ABC Murders
Murder on the Orient Express
And Then There Were None
Death on the Nile
Endless Night
Peril at End House
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
The Murder at the Vicarage

An Offbeat Women’s Novel: Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York

“What are you going to major in in college, Sheila?”
“Liberal arts.”
“I think teaching is such a good profession for a woman. Good starting salary. Good vacations, and it’s always something that a girl can fall back on. Even if you get married, it’s always something you can go back to when the kids are older.”
Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, by Gail Parent

How I laughed over the passage above!  I had the same conversation with my own mother. The narrator of this witty novel, Sheila Levine, is adamant about not wanting to teach.  She wants to do something creative after college, preferably something that will get her written up in Vogue.

I kept underlining passages as I chortled over Gail Parent’s 1972 novel, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York. (I ‘d never heard of it until it came up recently as a recommendation at Amazon.)  Written in the form of a suicide note, it reads like women’s stand-up comedy,  hilarious, poignant, and unabashedly unpolitically correct:   Sheila has problems with “women’s lib.” Unlike the beautiful heroines of ’70s feminist best-sellers like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen,  Sheila Levine is an overweight sexy girl who doesn’t attract the men she is attracted to.  She doesn’t mind being an easy lay:  she enjoys sex.   She is very funny, but we do feel her pain and grief increasingly as the book goes on.

Sheila is tired at 30 of being a single Jewish  woman in New York.  She wittily describes her history of bad dates,  her smashed expectations of  finding romance, the sharing of a one-bedroom apartment with two roommates and an impecunious gay man sleeping on the couch–and the scenes are familiar, though Parent’s language is blunter and brasher than is likely to appeal to the overly-sensitive ears of today’s delicate feminists. Don’t faint or swoon, okay?  Parent is a very good writer.   Although I am of a later generation than Sheila and never thought in terms of husband-hunting, we all had our hair-raising stories of single life, and were very happy to get married.  Those who didn’t marry cope in their own way, some very well, some very badly.

Sheila has a lot of sex at Syracuse University, never with men she really likes, but she enjoys the sex. And she cynically describes the ritual of smart women working as hard for  that Mrs. degree as for the B.A.  After sophomore year, if the juniors don’t have boyfriends, they transfer to another school, because they can’t compete with the incoming freshmen.  After transferring to NYU, where Sheila majors in drama/education, she can’t decide if she’s in love with Hinley, the  professor-director, who gives her a C- in children’s theater, or Joshua,  the star actor of all the plays. By the way, Sheila is their gofer. Hinley has given her the key to his apartment, and all three hang out.   Imagine her surprise when she finally figures out they are a gay couple.

After graduation, the employment agencies keep referring her to  typing jobs, though she specifically says she isn’t interested.  She finally finds a “creative” job through the Jewish community of friends and relatives of her parents.   Rose Lehman’s sister knows of a  children’s record company which is expanding, “owing to a Christmas hit he had where a lot of squirrels sang.”  (Oh my goodness, remember Alvin and the Chipmunks?)  All of Sheila’s Jewish friends get jobs through friends and family.  And it is a resource, with the competition in New York.

Housing is a huge problem in New York. I am horrified by the descriptions of the places she and her college roommate, Linda, see when they hunt for an apartment in the East Village.

Somehow they have believe they’ll find a cute place like an apartment in a Doris Day movie.

Sheila explains,

My roommate, Linda, and I decided way back in Syracuse that if weren’t married by the time we graduated, we probably would at least be engaged, and we would live together in Manhattan.  Why not?  Didn’t Doris Day always have a  precious, little two-bedroom  apartment, all yellow and light-blue and cuddly?  Nothing pretentious–just a modest fifteen-hundred-a-month apartment in a gorgeous brownstone that poor Doris paid for with her unemployment check.  The sheets and pajamas alone must have cost a fortune.  Four years of college apiece, and Sheila Levine and Linda Minsk didn’t know that Hollywood had been deceiving them all these years.  We thought that if we were good girls and looked hard enough, Doris Day, when she was carried off into blissful matrimony, would sublet her place to us.

I found this book fascinating:  it’s also blessedly short, so you can read it in a day.  Sheila is raised from toddlerhood to expect to get married, and is so depressed that the culture, including movies, revolves around that and then doesn’t deliver,  that she plans to commit suicide, even after she meets a man who gives her orgasms (he also gives her a fungus!).  The novel goes in a very odd direction.   I enjoyed this enormously, once I got into the mode of the style of another time!

Parent is a screenwriter who has won two Emmys, and her other books are out-of-print.   There’s not much information about them online, but if anyone knows a good place to start, let me know..

Popularizing Literature: A Revival of Edith Hamilton & an Unfortunate Review of a Roman Classic

Norton has reissued two books by Edith Hamilton, a popularizer of Greek and Roman culture.

In my thirties and forties  I reviewed for (mostly now-defunct) book pages,  but I have enjoyed blogging far more than reviewing.   My goal as a blogger/book journal writer is to popularize neglected classics, as well as an occasional striking new book.

Alas, critics seldom respect popularizers or bloggers. The received wisdom  is that bloggers’ opinions do not matter because they do not know the language of criticism.  But as book review publications change direction or fold  (and  as a lifelong reader of reviews, I’m very sad about this), critics have more to worry about than the competition of bloggers.  I am disturbed that  two of the daily critics at The New York Times,  Michiko Kakutani and Jennifer Senior, have recently resigned and transferred to  “longform journalism” (whatever that may be).  And in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, the review of David Ferry’s new translation of the Aeneid was written by April Bernard, a poet who does not know Latin.  Mind you, she is enthusiastic–a popularizer?–but the review is riddled with errors–and bullshit.  The NYRB usually assigns such reviews to classicists, among them Mary Beard and Daniel Mendelsohn.

On the positive side, I am  enthusiastic about an excellent article in the TLS about the revival of Edith Hamilton, a classicist who popularized Greek and Roman culture in her books.  And, by the way, the reviewer, thank God,  is a classicist, Donna Zuckerberg.  (N.B. At the end of this post I will write more about Hamilton.)

But first let me rant about the NYRB review of David Ferry’s translation of the Aeneid.

If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s good to establish your lack of credentials.  Bernard cleverly does this. She writes,

My own Latin education, which came too late to stick, required me to construe some lines from the Aeneid before a frowning, and then sarcastic, doorkeeper to a graduate program in literature. He seemed to regard my poor performance as no better than could be expected, and passed me on with a sigh. My point is that I am no scholar, and like the vast majority of readers I gratefully apprehend the likes of Virgil and Ovid through their English translators.

This is not false modesty–it’s hubris. It’s an attempt to get readers on her side.  Bernard manipulates readers into forgiving her ignorance, thinking, Oh, classicists are so stuffy!  But I would guess that quite a few classicists will read this  and wonder, as I did, How on earth did she get the job?

Bernard writes at length about poets influenced by, or responding to Virgil, and she does that very well.  But she has problems when she actually looks at Ferry’s translation and waffles unconvincingly about Virgil’s Latin.  She spends much time marveling at Virgil’s use of the “historical present,” a substitution of the present tense for the past tense.

If she knew more Latin, she would understand this is common usage. Roman writers frequently employ the historical present, i.e., present tense, instead of the  past  to emphasize the immediacy and vividness of the action, or even just to fit the meter of a poem.  Poets, prose writers, Virgil, Ovid, Tacitus, Livy:   all use the historical present.  In many languages this is common usage: think of the  present tense of the short stories of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Bobbie Ann Mason.

She illustrates the use of the historical present in the following passage from Book VI, when the Sibyl leads Aeneas travel  to the Underworld, guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog.

Ferry writes in his translation

Huge Cerberus, crouching there in the dooryard of
The cavern he was watchdog of, made all
The regions round reverberate with the loud
Barking of his three heads. Seeing the serpents
Bristling around his neck, the Sybil throws him
A drugged pellet of meal, drowsed with honey.
He catches it in his ravenous triple gullet,
Wolfs it down, and at once his monster body
Relaxed, and he sank down….

What Bernard doesn’t understand is that the shifting of tenses from past to present at which she marvels is not a literal translation.  The past tense of “made all reverberate” is Ferry’s own, not that of Virgil, who consistently uses the present in the passage (Book VI, lines 417-423, in the Latin.)  So when she writes the following, it is bullshit.

What results from this shuffling of tenses is a strange, accordion-fold relation to time. We sit far away, even farther away than the gods, since we in the future know that what Fate has decreed will come to pass. And yet much of the time we are “on the ground,” in the thick of the action in the present tense. Moreover, events from this historical present are constantly “predicting” the future—in addition to being given yet another famous shield covered in predictive panoramas, Aeneas is also peppered with auguries, omens, and more casual guesses, promises, and threats of consequence throughout the epic. His job, of course, is to see Fate realized in the most honorable of ways, to make his person serve as vehicle for the story that is so much larger than himself.

Oh, by the way, the present is also sometimes used for the future–but we won’t go there.

In Book IV, the monster Rumor walks.  Virgil describes Rumor  as a horrendous monster with feathers all over her body, and with as many eyes, tongues, mouths, and ears as there are feathers (the eyes, tongues, mouths, and ear are under the feathers),  Bernard translates  tot linguae, “so many tongues,”as “these tongues.” And she fudges about the reasons for Ferry’s modifications in translation, as so often, by comparing it to Latin she doesn’t know.

She quotes a passage from Ferry’s translation about Dido’s suicide.  Dido explains that she wants to die.  And then she stops speaking, and her companions see her  actual death, that she has fallen on the sword.

Then Bernard decides, for some odd reason, to show off her  inability to translate Latin.  She writes,

Here is an opportunity to compare translations. The Latin original, for those last five lines after Dido’s speech, is:

Dixerat, atque illam media inter talia ferro
conlapsam aspiciunt comites, ensemque cruore
spumantem sparsasque manus. It clamor ad alta

Literally, and clumsily, this translates as:  “Having spoken, in the midst of all that, her retinue sees/saw [Dido] fall/having fallen on the blade, the sword making a geyser of gore, hands awash in blood. The clamor rose to the roofs of the palace.”

Alas, Bernard is not skilled enough to write a literal translation. She confuses the pluperfect verb,  dixerat (‘she had spoken,” translated in English narrative as “she spoke,” perfect tense), with a past participle (“having spoken).” Since I am a classicist, let me share a literal Latin translation with you:   “[Dido] spoke, and in the midst of such words her companions saw her fallen on the sword, and the sword foaming with blood and her hands bespattered.  A cry goes up to the roofs.”

Bernard also waffles about fatum, “fate,” and does not understand the complicated attitude of the sophisticated literary Romans of the first century B.C. toward the concept.  Even the etymolology of the word “fate” is fascinating:  it comes from the Latin  fari, “to speak,” and literally means  “that having been said.” It comes to mean “prophetic declaration,” “oracle,” and”prediction.”  Does anyone feel up to writing about fate.   I do not.

Bernard does not know enough about classics to write the lead review for the New York Review of Books.  A much shortened form of this review might work in a lesser publication, even in The New York Times (barely), but never in the  NYRB, one of the most intellectual publications in the U.S.

And, by the way, I will blog about Ferry’s translation eventually.  It is absorbing, and I love it.  But honestly? For our Virgil readalong in January, I will read Robert Fagles’ or Mandelbaum’s translation.  They are closer to the Latin, and that matters to me.

Are you ready to move on?  In this week’s TLS, the classicist Donna Zuckerberg  has written a fascinating article about  Edith Hamilton, the author of  The Greek Way and The Roman Way,  which inspired generations of readers, including Robert F. Kennedy, to appreciate the classics and Greek and Roman culture. I became interested in Hamilton last summer when I read Yopie Prins’ Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedy,  a fascinating book about  Victorian women classicists, writers, and poets who translated tragedies, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf,  and Edith Hamilton.  (I wrote about this stunning book here.)

I was particularly interested in Edith Hamilton, an American classicist who dedicated herself to popularizing Greek and Latin. We never read her at the university,  because she wasn’t strictly scholarly,  but I’ve known people who became interested in classics through Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.

Donna Zuckerberg in the TLS considers  Hamilton’s  The Greek Way and The Roman Way  classics. Norton has reissued these two books, and she says with good reason.   She writes,

Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way and The Roman Way, originally published in 1930 and 1932, are classics in their own right. Praised for their lucidity and accessibility, her books served as an introduction to classical antiquity for the general American public for much of the twentieth century. Although less well known in Europe, Hamilton achieved such popularity in the United States that, when I tell people that I study Classics, most people over the age of fifty who are familiar with the subject tell me that Hamilton was their entry point. The Greek Way was a favourite volume of Robert Kennedy, and – he claimed – a text that helped him process his grief after the assassination of his brother. Hamilton’s works underlie one traditional American approach to the Classics. Do they deserve re-publication?

Hamilton herself is a figure about whom much has been written lately (for example, the excellent chapter by Judith Hallett in the volume Women Classical Scholars, 2016). She had two distinguished careers, first as headmaster at Bryn Mawr, then as a writer about the ancient Mediterranean. It is tempting to compare Hamilton to her British contemporary Jane Ellen Harrison, but while Harrison’s work on Greek mythology became the foundation of scholarship on the subject, Hamilton’s work on mythology and classical civilization was unapologetically popularizing.

I did read a bit of The Greek Way last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it, though it is a bit dated.  Good for the TLS for writing about this now neglected writer.

“Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee”: Tom Petty, Virgil, and I

Tigger, a bookish cat preparing to read Dostovesky.

We drove all night in a Honda Civic with five cats.   With the exception of Tigger, a four-pound tabby who would not be fooled by a sedative in Fancy Feast, I’d managed to administer sedatives to all the cats.  Cats do not like to travel. Our black-and-white, Emma, howled  even on two-block trips to the vet and then coyly  refused to come out of the carrier. The vet dubbed our reclusive cat Helen “Yellin’ Helen.”  She’s fine at home, but her idea of hell is other people.  Now Emma curled up sleeping in a large carrier with her inseparable companion, Lou May. I held Tigger’s small carrier in my lap.

We were very, very tired. Indiana was endless.  Illinois was flat.  In Iowa we stopped at Kum & Go (really!) convenience stores for bad coffee.

As we finally veered off the Interstate, the sun rose over the dome of the Capitol.  A good omen.

Then it began to snow.  A bad omen.

Mixed omens.  That’s the way moves are.

And then we pulled up into the driveway.  “That’s the house?” It was a minuscule three-room rental house.   You could practically sit on the couch  in the living room and reach across to the kitchen to turn on the stove.

Would that our garage had been this organized!

We stored our books in the garage behind the teeny-tiny house. We had given away 350 books to a public library before the move, but we still had 2,000 books.   I would sit in the garage  in my tweed coat and fingerless gloves, trying to find specific books.   I told my doctor, “I’ve read 120 books since I moved here five months ago.  Don’t you think that’s odd?”  “I just think it’s odd that you write them down.”

I knew no one, didn’t click with the very nice women at the Oprah book club at a bookstore, and I spent most of my time reading and writing a bad novel.  One day I went to a mall, stocked up on classics at Walden, and gave away copies of Willa Cather’s My Antonia (Signet) to two women who worked at the Clinique counter at a department store.  “We love books,” said the beautiful women.  And they refused to sell me the extra-special miracle cream that was supposed to erase wrinkles and rejuvenate my sunburned skin.  “It’s too expensive.  This will work just as well,” they said.  They were honest women.  Readers, unite.

After searching in vain for my lost Latin dictionary, I ordered a new one from Amazon.  Tada!  It arrived very fast. And then I spent days reading Virgil’s  Aeneid, empathizing with the hero’s horrible situation. When Troy falls to the Greeks, Aeneas is by default the leader.  He is the last man standing.  Everybody’s dead. And he has to lead the survivors to a new homeland.  Where?  He tries, and tries again, and they are always driven away…  And he so doesn’t want this job. He is  half man, half god, the son of Anchises and Venus, and  should be up to the task. But he needs lots and lots of guidance.  He would rather take orders from  his father, or  from Dido, the queen of Carthage, also a refugee, than complete his weary mission of founding Rome, via war in Italy.  Why can’t they stay put?  What does it matter if Carthage or Rome is built to last?

David Ferry’s new translation of The Aeneid is elegant and very close to the original. He captures the human side of Aeneas.  Ferry and Virgil don’t hurry the poem along, or lose their audience by making Aeneas seem psychotic, but it is clear that he has post-traumatic stress disorder. He is very depressed.  When Juno arranges for Aeolus to whip up a tsunami, Aeneas sees the waves torrentially rising and wishes he were dead.

In Book I, lines 129-137, Ferry translates,

O those others are three-times, four-times blessed
Whose privilege it was to meet their fate,
Watched by their fathers as they died beneath
The high walls of their native city, Troy!
Alas, Tydides, bravest of the Danaans,
That by thy hand I could not fall and pour
My life out on the fields of Ilium ,
Where fierce Hector, helpless, fallen, lies, brought down
By the spear of Aeacides…

Yes. Why did I ever leave the fields of Ilium (Troy), i.e., my hometown, for the ugly, dark northern city?  In his travel book, I See By My Outfit, Peter S. Beagle refers to these cities as Mordor

Escaped from Mordor, by Jove!  That’s difficult.  So why so sad?

Well, I missed our old house.  As the iffy urban neighborhood there got rougher, as a policeman told me not to wait for the bus on that block because the gangs were selling drugs, I switched to a bicycle. But we couldn’t stay. Everybody was moving   to the exurbs.  We moved to a beautiful, smaller, still viable city.

Virgil writes about what it’s like truly to be a refugee.

But Tom Petty’s “Refugee” can be applied to both Virgil’s and my situation.   I danced around the house singing along  to this song.  So I do recommend playing this video and singing along  because “you don’t have to live like a refugee.”


Here are the lyrics to “Refugee.” And, oh, they do apply.

Ain’t no real big secret, all the same, somehow we get around it
Listen, it don’t really matter to me baby
You believe what you want to believe, you see

You don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)

Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Tell me why you want to lay there, revel in your abandon
Honey, it don’t make no difference to me baby
Everybody’s had to fight to be free, you see

You don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
No baby you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)

Baby we ain’t the first
I’m sure a lot of other lovers been burned
Right now this seems real to you, but it’s
One of those things you gotta feel to be true

Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Who knows maybe you were kidnapped tied up,
Taken away and held for ransom
Honey, it don’t really matter to me, baby
Everybody’s had to fight to be free, you see

Don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
No don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
You don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)

I miss Tom Petty.  I feel that Aeneas and I have lots to learn here.

The Coolness Factor of Iowa City

Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City

Coolness factor of Iowa:  6-7/10

Coolness factor of Iowa City:  9/10

On a typical day my coolness factor is low. My cool thing is bicycling instead of driving.

My coolness goes way up when we visit Iowa City, my hometown.  As we drive up Dubuque Street, past City Park, past Tudor frat houses, past shabby old houses with cupolas and porches, my heart lightens. My husband says,  “You seem happier and more confident.”

It’s probably because we can walk everywhere.

The coolness factor of Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, is high.  It is a lovely university town, with tree-lined streets and a pedestrian downtown. The slightly tacky UNESCO effect is the installation of plaques with writers’ quotes on the sidewalk, which I try to ignore.  (The writers attended or taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.) The town used to be cooler a few decades ago when there were actually more bookstores.  The few surviving stores have smaller collections than they used to.

What we actually like to do is walk around town. We walked to Oakland Cemetery and looked at the Black Angel.  There was a legend about the Black Angel:  it turned black because of some eerie love story gone amok, or something else we made up as girls.  Actually, the statue turned black because of an outdoor oxidizing effect on bronze.

The Black Angel at Oakland Cemetery on a dark November day.

We discovered the grave of Mauricio Lasansky, an Argentine printmaker who came to teach at the University of Iowa and established the printmaking department in 1945. He was best known for the Nazi Drawings.  I love the sculpture on his gravestone.

Mauricio Lasansky’s grave.

Then we did our personal house tour of lodging houses, because both of us lived in rented rooms our senior year of college.  On the way to the graveyard, we passed the house where I lived in a minuscule room.  The house is even more run-down than it used to be, if that’s possible. They’ve put siding over the picture window, so the new lodger must  live in almost total darkness.  But I was happy there, and I liked the attic kitchen, where I ate ramen noodles with the rest of the lodgers.

I lived happily in this run-down house!

Across the street from the rooming house is an elegant private drive where we  walked to escape student life.

We used to do our laundry late at night at the apartment house (see pic below) across the street so as to avoid the laundromat.

The laundry…!

And then my husband and I walked on to the Iowa City Public Library, which is really a bustling community space these days. Although I preferred the old Carnegie library, this accommodates many more readers. And we enjoyed looking at this mural on loan.  It was originally commissioned for the Jefferson Hotel in the ’30s.

Another lovely day in Iowa City!  And we were very cool for a day.

The mural shows the building of the railroad.

Mrs. Humphry Ward’s “Helbeck of Bannister”

After I read Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Marcella in 2013, I wrote here:

Mrs. Humphry Ward (Mary Augusta Ward, 1851-1920) is my new idol:  she was very productive in middle age.   A niece of Matthew Arnold, she began writing  compulsively after her marriage to Thomas Humphry Ward, a tutor and fellow at Brasenose College, and after she had three children.  Fortunately she had hired help:  she spent her mornings at the Bodleian library and wrote three hours every night.

Like the popular Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Humphry Ward was a brilliant and prolific writer:  she was the author of 26 novels, and I can attest that three are excellent, Robert Elsmere (1888), Marcella (1894), and Helbeck of Bannister (1898).

I recently found a Penguin copy of Helbeck of Bannister, the novel considered her masterpiece and often described as Ward’s VilletteI curled up with it on a gloomy day, and found it very Bronteish.  In Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, the Protestant narrator Lucy Snowe teaches at a school in Villette (a fictitious city based on Brussels) and spars with  M. Paul, a Catholic teacher, who becomes her informal French tutor.   Eventually they fall in love, though Lucy will never convert to Catholicism. A similar drama unfolds in Ward’s Helbeck of Bannister, in which Alan Helbeck, a Catholic aristocrat, and Laura Fountain, an atheist, fall in love.

The novel opens on a chilly, desolate March day.  Helbeck has invited his newly-widowed sister, Augustina, and her stepdaughter, Laura, to live with him at Bannisdale. The weather is unwelcoming, and the house is cold and bare.  Helbeck, a devout Catholic, has gutted it of its valuables to support the Catholic orphanages he has established.

There is one valuable item left:  a gorgeous Romney portrait of a girl in white, one of the Helbeck ancestors.  And this painting becomes a symbol of the differences between Helbeck and Laura.  She believes it is wrong not to keep this beautiful portrait in the family, wrong to give everything away to charity.  What of beauty?  What of history? Does he not appreciate these?

The Catholic asceticism is oppressive to Laura, but she stays at Bannisdale because she is devoted to her sweet but silly stepmother Augustina.  Augustina has reverted to Catholicism now that her atheist husband is dead.

Ward is an intelligent writer, whose style serves but does not overshadow her narrative, and I especially like her interweaving of  keenly-observed nature writing with the momentum of her narrative.  In the spring Helbeck is surprised to find himself thinking so much of Laura, and when he comes upon her sitting with the dogs  he sees her almost as if she is his ancestress in the painting.

…Something in his own movement reminded him of another solitary walk some five weeks before. And at the same instant he perceived a small figure sitting on a stone seat in front of him. It was Miss Fountain. She had a book on her knee, and the two dogs were beside her. Her white dress and hat seemed to make the centre of a whole landscape. The river bent inward in a great sweep at her feet, the crag rose behind her, and the great prospect beyond the river of dale and wood, of scar and cloud, seemed spread there for her eyes alone. A strange fancy seized on Helbeck. This was his world—his world by inheritance and by love. Five weeks before he had walked about it as a solitary. And now this figure sat enthroned, as it were, at the heart of it. He roughly shook the fancy off and walked on.

Mrs. Humphry Ward

At first Laura loathes Helbeck and finds him very cold. But gradually she is drawn to the chapel, with its beautiful paintings.  And she becomes fascinated by Helbeck, though she dislikes the priests.

But she needs a break from religion, and insists on visiting her cousins. In a sort of homage to  Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Ward describes Laura’s visit to her rough country cousins, the Masons, who live seven miles away on a farm. They are of a different class, and are adamantly anti-Catholic, and do not speak to Helbeck.

Unfortunately, her cousin Herbert, who reminds me slightly of Hareton in Wuthering Heights,  becomes obsessed with her: when he gets a job in town, he persuades his sister Polly to bring Laura up for the day.  They tour his workplace, and then the steel mill, and observe a tragic accident where a man falls into the furnace.   Laura is strong–she takes care of the victim’s small daughter, who is brought to the factory bewildered and is terrified.   Laura stays with the child for hours, and then misses her train, and  has difficulty getting away from Herbert.  She takes care of herself and manages to find her way home, but it is this incident that leads her to admit her love for Helbeck.

Although this book is often compared to Villette, the mood is more like that of Jane Eyre.  Helbeck is a gentlemanly version of Rochester, and Laura a willful woman who refuses to conform to religious custom.  Of course Laura has a little money and does not have to work as a governess/teacher, but she is intelligent, independent, and scrupulous.

By the way, Ward’s own father converted to Catholicism and eventually deserted his Protestant wife and children.  As you can imagine, Ward had strong anti-Catholic feelings, but Helbeck is an attractive character and she is very fair, I think.  Some of her critics thought she made Catholicism too attractive.

It takes a while to get into this, but I absolutely loved it.

Three New Books & The Scarlet Letter: “B” Is for Bookish

Demi Moore as Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”

I was doing very well at not buying books.

And then the urge struck me.  I bought three books and smuggled them into the house, so as not to be lectured by Himself.

I am not a bookish Puritan, but I felt a bit like Hester in The Scarlet Letter, only with a scarlet “B” for “bookish.”

But really I enjoy books too much to wear the “B.”

Here’s what tempted me:

 John Crowley’s Ka.  Crowley’s books are fantasy/literary fiction, loved by critics Harold Bloom and Michael Dirda as well as by fans of brilliant, entertaining novels.  He has won the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Literature and the World Fantasy Award.

I have just begun his new novel, Ka.  It is the story of a crow, Dar Oakley, who is our guide through 2000 years of history.  If you loved Watership Down, you’ll find Dar’s account of crow life fascinating, and a bit  post-modern.

Here is a passage from Elizabeth Hand’s review in the L.A. Times.

So yes: John Crowley is a writer’s writer, the rare stylist whose stories can feature both downtown New York City bars and 16th century cosmologist and martyr for science Giordano Bruno. Yet Crowley is also a serious reader’s writer. As with Middle Earth, his imaginary worlds so enchant and entice that many fans read and reread his books obsessively, the closest we can come to inhabiting them. But, unlike Tolkien’s legendarium, most of Crowley’s fiction is resolutely set in our own world. Even those works that venture onto other planets maintain quicksilver ties to this one. Decades before George R.R. Martin’s series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Crowley’s first novel, “The Deep” (1975), recounted an ancient, seemingly endless conflict that evokes the War of the Roses and its precursors. In his second novel, 1976’s “Beasts,” humans and genetically engineered sentient animals make their way across a near-future U.S. devastated by civil wars and a totalitarian government.

Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by David Ferry.  Ferry, a National Book Award winner, is one of my favorite American poets.  He is also a brilliant Latinist who knows his Virgil:  his translations of the Eclogues and the Georgics are lovely.

I reread the Aeneid every year in LatinSo why buy Ferry’s translation?  His style is brilliant, and I am anxious to see how he handles problems in translation.

As I grow older I appreciate the Aeneid more and more, particularly Virgil’s brave characterization of the first weak hero.  (I am calling it the first, but I should say my first.)  I first taught the Aeneid as a T.A. many years ago, and many, many times later as a prep-school Latin teacher.

I’ve been thinking about Latin descriptions of passion.  Virgil often uses the words amens (pronounced ah-mens, and literally meaning “out of one’s mind”).  In Book II, during the fall of Troy, Aeneas is amens  when he loses his wife Creusa as they are running away during the fall of Troy.  Ferry translates it “in my frenzy.” (And that is an excellent, popular translation.)  But I keep visualizing the more pictorial amens   (“a” means “away from” and mens “mind”):  a diagram of  a man outside his mind.  Later, in Book IV, Dido, the queen of Carthage, is amens when she falls madly in love with Aeneas.  So perhaps Aeneas was only really passionate about Creusa?  Poor Aeneas.

Sara Maitland’s Three Times Three.  In Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller, he mentions  Sara Maitland.   Three Times Three was one of my favorite novels of the ’90s.  I ordered a cheap copy online, and it arrived today.  I can’t wait to reread it!



The First Woman to Translate Homer’s ‘Odyssey’

Don’t miss Wyatt Mason’s fascinating article in The New York Times Magazine, “The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English.” Emily Wilson’s new translation will be published by Norton on Tuesday, Nov. 7.

By the way, she is the daughter of the writer A. N. Wilson.

And here are the first two paragraphs of Mason’s article about Wilson and the translation:

Late in August, as a shadow 70 miles wide was traveling across the United States, turning day briefly to night and millions of Americans into watchers of the skies, the British classicist Emily Wilson, a woman of 45 prone to energetic explanations and un-self-conscious laughter, was leading me through a line of Ancient Greek. “Polytropos,” Wilson said, in her deep, buoyant voice, pointing to the fifth word — πολuτροπον — of the 12,110-line epic poem that I had come to her office at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss. On the wall hung pictures of Wilson’s three young daughters; the windows behind her framed a gray sky that, as I arrived, was just beginning to dim. The poem lying open before us was Homer’s “Odyssey,” the second-oldest text, after his earlier poem, the “Iliad,” in a Western tradition impossible to imagine without them.

Since the “Odyssey” first appeared in English, around 1615, in George Chapman’s translation, the story of the Greek warrior-king Odysseus’s ill-fated 10-year attempt to return home from the war in Troy to Ithaca and his wife, Penelope, has prompted some 60 English translations, at an accelerating pace, half of them in the last 100 years and a dozen in the last two decades. Wilson, whose own translation appears this week, has produced the first English rendering of the poem by a woman.

Tea & Tattle Podcast on Persephone Books & Readalong of New Translation of Virgil’s Classic

Do you love Persephone books?

I discovered them back in the zips, when Diana Birchall recommended Frances Hodgson Burnett’s adult novel, The Shuttle. In fact Diana recommended the book before Persephone published it.

I have read many Persephone titles since, and recently enjoyed a Tea and Tattle podcast in which  Sophie and Miranda discuss their favorite Persephone books.  The discussion is very calming:  I guarantee your blood pressure will go down!

WE INVITE YOU TO JOIN THE VIRGIL READALONG.  It may not sound sexy, but David Ferry’s new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid is so brilliant that Jen B. (an old friend from AOL) and I are organizing a Virgil readalong. Realistically, we hope that one,  or possibly two  may sign up to join us!   In January we will discuss Books 1, 2, 4, and 6, and in February discuss two or three of the last six books (to be announced).

WHY SHOULD YOU READ OR REREAD IT?  Virgil’s epic has awed and influenced generations of readers, including Dante, Christopher Marlowe, Milton, Purcell, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather, T. S. Eliot, and Margaret Drabble.  Some read the Aeneid as a celebration of empire, others (myself included) as an anti-war poem.  Virgil treats love and war, the horrifying fall of Troy at the end of a 10-year war, the reluctance of the hero, Aeneas, to take charge of the survivors and try desperately to find them a homeland, his tragic love affair with the powerful queen Dido, and a long war in Italy fought so the Trojans can stay there (and eventually found Rome).

I’ll be reading the Latin along with the English.  It might be hard to get me to shut up about it.

JEN will not be reading the Latin.  You don’t have to read the Latin.

FUN FACT ABOUT THE AENEID.  Did you know that Venus wears purple (or crimson) buskins in Carthage?

So leave a comment or email me at if you’d like to join us.