Classics for Non-Intellectuals: Who Is Your Favorite Victorian Writer?

The deepest book I’ve read all summer…

This summer I’ve written about effervescent classics by P. G. Wodehouse, Elizabeth von Arnim, and Patricia Moyes.  Where, you may wonder, are my rants on modern mores? Where my extravagant enthusings about Ovid’s epic? Well, the daily news is so dreadful that I now focus strictly on the light and whimsical. After skimming The New York Times, I want to quaff a Wodehouse cocktail, drink a von Arnim cup of coffee, or sip a liqueur at a 1960s party in a Moyes mystery.

Mind you, I haven’t abandoned the traditional classics. I am currently devouring (or quaffing) an 800-page Victorian novel by Anthony Trollope.

I am a mad Trollope fan.  He is, I always say, the greatest Victorian writer for non-intellectuals . He is not a master of rhetoric like Dickens, nor is he a an elegant stylist like Eliot, but he is consistently solid and intelligent. His understanding of politics, psychology, and finance is curiously modern. The best of his well-plotted novels never go out-of-date.

I am loving Trollope’s Orley Farm, a neglected novel about a lawsuit against a fascinating widow, Lady Mason, who was cleared of the charge of forging a codicil to her husband’s will 20 years ago.  She won the case, and her son Lucius, then a baby, inherited Orley Farm. Now the case has been reopened, and Lady Mason’s 60-year-old lawyer, who is half in love with her, realizes she is guilty, though he won’t admit it.  Her 70-year-old neighbor, Sir Peregrine Orme, is so outraged by the accusations and convinced of her innocence that he proposes marriage to her, hoping his own name will protect her.  Ironically, it is her Oxford-educated son, Lucius, the beneficiary of the forged codicil,  who caused the reopening of the case by revoking the tenancy of two fields long rented by Mr. Dockwrath, a lawyer.  Furious,  Mr Dockwrath reviews the legal papers in the case and digs up new evidence to get revenge.   And Mr. Mason, Sir Joseph Mason’s son by his first marriage, is eager to dislodge Lady Mason.

Orley Farm is Trollope’s Bleak House, and in a way Lady Mason is Trollope’s Lady Dedlock, though Lady Dedlock’s sin is that of having a baby out of wedlock, while Mason committed a financial crime.  Although we readers do not approve of Lady Mason’s actions, she is mostly a sympathetic character, and complex in a way that those on the right side of the law are not.  Trollope realistically describes her weariness, depression, fearfulness, and remorse, as well as her failure to act in any way that might hurt her son.  But there is a huge cast of characters, and love and marriage as well as money are at the center.

The novel is brilliant, if you can get past the first 30 rambling pages.  Trollope has a problem with beginnings, and I was dismayed by this one. But then he gets a grip, and suddenly his prose smoothes out and he fascinates us with his distinctive character portraits.   Doctor Thorne, one of my other favorites, also suffers from Bad Beginning Syndrome.

Although I know there are many, many Trollope fans out there, because we all went a little crazy during the bicentenary in 2015, we all have our own favorite Victorian writers.  Who is yours?

What to Read in a Power Outage: Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis

Thunderstorms make me jittery.  In recent years, there have been epic floods and power outages. During last night’s storm, it was positively Deucalion and Pyrrha out there.

Shrieking with terror and blinded by sheet lightning, I retired to bed to read under the covers.  I was in the middle of an excellent novel, L.A. Woman by Eve Babitz (much like her book Eve’s Hollywood), when the power went out.  There we were, sitting in the dark.  And can you read a book with a flashlight or lantern?  I cannot.

And so I turned to e-books.  Mind you, there was a snag.  I used the tablet, because the e-reader needed to be charged.  And it seems that the e-books had not “downloaded” on the tablet unless I had clicked on them before the storm.

Finally I “opened” Lindsey Davis’s witty new historical mystery, Pandora’s Boy, the sixth in a series about a wisecracking female P.I. in ancient Rome.  Like Steven Saylor and David Wishart, who also write mystery series set in Rome, Davis writes pitch-perfect dialogue and her comic timing is impeccable.  She also gets the historical details right:  she was even honorary president of the Classical Association in the UK from 1997 to 1998.

The narrator, Flavia Albia, is the adopted daughter of Marcus Didius Falco (the hero of Davis’s other mystery series), born in Britain, and an “informer” (a P.I.) in Rome during the reign of Emperor Domitian.  In Pandora’s Boy, she investigates the death of Clodia Volumnia, a 15-year-old girl who socialized with a set of wild, mostly well-to-do party-goers. Apparently Clodia was poisoned by a love potion, bought by her mother from Pandora, who is ostensibly a  seller of upscale cosmetics but has  a reputation for witchcraft.  Or at least that is Clodia’s father’s theory.  The mother denies it and moves out.

The dialogue is witty and the book is great fun.  Albia interviews a diverse cast of characters, including a Stoic family with a hippie lifestyle.   I especially enjoyed her first interview with Pandora, who, of course, denies that she is a witch–witchcraft is illegal.  Born in Britain, Albia tells Pandora that she herself is a Druid (also illegal in Rome), and spins an unlikely yarn about her divination spoons.

Albia’s wit and talent for improv during the investigation are very amusing.  I love the Druid bits, especially when Albia asks Pandora if she has a skull to sell.  After blabbing the question, she realizes she has gone too far.

Now I was stuck. This kind of situation was well known in my family. There was no need of a blood relationship to inherit crazy behavior. Falco was always coming up with mad schemes that led to near-disaster; now so was I.

It seemed unlikely Pandora would keep skeletons here in her expensive bower, though there were several painted cupboards with pedestal tops, little tombs that would normally be used for vases people had never liked.

“I don’t have a skull about me at present.” Relief! Perhaps Pandora feared that to harbor human bones was unwise in a city where soldiers could bang on your door at any moment, bent on a search after a poisonous tip-off. “What do you want it for, ducky?”

“Oh, classic necromancy,” I breezed, recovering my composure. “I thought I might impress you by conducting a spirit into it. My skills are not perfect, but I can conjure a soul from the Underworld to answer questions. Be warned, though. Because I was torn from my forebears too young, I never learned the right incantation to dismiss the spirit. It’s awful if the wrong one swans into your vessel, and you are stuck with a ghastly hanger-on who won’t go home to Hades.”

Funny?  Yes!  And Albia may be the only female P.I. character in ancient Rome,  This is not Davis’s most tightly-plotted book, but it is irresistible light reading.  And it was a distraction from the flash flooding here.

Mud and the Magnum Opus: In Which a Blandings Novel Gets Wet

This summer I am immersed in the eternal ’20s and ’30s of P. G. Wodehouse’s Blandings series.  Some prefer his Jeeves books, but I am enchanted by the characters at Blandings Castle. There is the dotty Lord Emsworth, who owns a prize pig, the Empress of Blandings; his bossy sister Lady Constance, who often thwarts young love; their brother Galahad, who spent his youth cavorting at the Pelicans Club; and we cannot forget the many star-crossed lovers and the many, many imposters lurking at Blandings Castle.  In one of the novels, Summer Lightning, their love-struck nephew Ronnie steals the Empress so he can then “find” the pig  and ingratiate himself with Lord Emsworth, his trustee.  But then the pig is stolen again.  And can the butler Beach fix everything?

And so, in the midst of comedy, you can imagine my chagrin when I almost lost a Blandings omnibus!

The sun was shining after days of rain, and I was riding my bike to a bench where I planned to read Wodehouse’s Summer Lightning, one of the three novels in the Blandings omnibus, Life at Blandings.  But I jolted over a bumpy section of asphalt trail, and alas! I had a flat tire.

There is only one way to fix a flat, and that is to have someone else do it.  I tried once to follow the directions in Anybody’s Bike Book.  Disaster!  (Even Carrie in Homeland takes her flat tire off the bike and puts it in the trunk of her car, I assume to take it to the bike shop.) Now my husband fixes flat tires. But first I had to wheel my bike back to civilization, chain the bike to something, and then find a pay phone and call him to rescue and retrieve.

Finally I made it to a park, chained the bike to a picket fence, and then cut across the mud back to the trail.  There was a big puddle, but who cared?  Alas, it was mostly mud, and I went flying and so did my Skoob bag with the Wodehouse book!

Well, the  bag was pretty much totaled, but the book was only a bit damp.  And as I waited for my husband, I was grateful for Wodehouse’s Summer Lightning, because there is nothing duller than sitting in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do.  Lady Connie and the Duke of Dunstable were plotting to steal Galahad’s memoirs, because they wanted to repress certain episodes…

I can’t recommend Wodehouse too highly.

Light Reading: Tara Isabella Burton’s “Social Creature” and Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Christine”

This summer I have done LOTS of light reading.  Since the middle of May, when we first saw the sun after a tenebrous winter, I have been soaking up rays (for Vitamin D!) and lounging and reading, if not beach books, very fast books.

There is a puritanical strain in the family that says it is a sin to read a book not reviewed in The New Yorker, but I have broken some rules.  While my husband was out of town, I read Tara Isabella Burton’s creepy thriller, Social Creature, recommended by Janet Maslin  in The New York Times.  Compared by reviewers to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, this racy novel comprises a sticky web of socialites, social media, and lack of social boundaries.  Louise, a mousy wannabe writer, is down-and-out in New York, and though she’s about to turn 30, she is determined not to return to New Hampshire.  She works three jobs, as a barista, an SAT tutor, and a writer for an online catalogue–and she never has money to go out.  Then she meets Lavinia, a rich, wild socialite who takes her under her wing.  They go to posh party after posh party, and are always drunk or stoned.   Louise makes contacts and begins to write for acclaimed publications.   But it can’t last:  Lavinia has a history of adopting best friends, and then dumping them.  The novel takes a horrific turn …  and I had to leave the lights on all night for a week.

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) may be more to your taste if you’re looking for something light and literary.   (I posted here about Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther.)  I recently discovered her out-of-print anti-war epistolary novel Christine, originally published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Cholmondeley (available under both names as a free e-book).

Twenty-two-year-old Christine, a violinist, moves to Berlin in 1914. She is there to study music with a famous violinist so she can make a living, not as a teacher, but as a musician.  In long letters to her mother every Sunday, she records the details of her life.  But she greatly misses her mother.

The worst of it is that we’re so poor, or you could have come with me and we’d have taken a house and set up housekeeping together for my year of study. Well, we won’t be poor for ever, little mother. I’m going to be your son, and husband, and everything else that loves and is devoted, and I’m going to earn both our livings for us, and take care of you forever.

At first she is unhappy.  Rude pedestrians actually knock her off the narrow sidewalks into the road when she takes a walk.   Her stout landlady and eccentric fellow roomers shun her  because of a strong anti-English feeling. Eventually they soften, because she is charming, but is music worth the price of loneliness in Berlin?  Yes, because Kloster, her music teacher, a short, chubby middle-aged violinist, becomes angelic when he plays the violin.  He tells her she is his most talented student, and she improves by long, joyful practice in her room. Kloster and his wife take her under their wing, and sen her to the country when it gets too hot and she looks pale.  He also introduces her to  handsome, musical Bernd, an aristocrat who, unfortunately, because of his class and tradition , is an officer in the army.  They fall in love and get engaged, though his family does not approve.

She knows something political is brewing:  the roomers boast about the strong German army.  And then Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated.  Everyone insists  that there will be war, though she can’t understand why.

Here day and night, day and night, since Wednesday, soldiers in new grey uniforms pass through the Brandenburger Thor down the broad road to Charlottenburg. Their tramp never stops. I can see them from my window tramping, tramping away down the great straight road; and crowds that don’t seem to change or dwindle watch them and shout. Where do the soldiers all come from? I never dreamed there could be so many in the world, let alone in Berlin; and Germany isn’t even at war! But it’s no use asking questions, or trying to talk about it. I’ve found the word “Why?” in this house is not only useless but improper. Nobody will talk about anything; I suppose they don’t need to, for they all seem perfectly to know. They’re in the inner circle in this house. They’re not the public. The public is that shouting, The public here are all the people who obey, and pay, and don’t know; an immense multitude of slaves,—abject, greedy, pitiful. I don’t think I ever could have imagined a thing so pitiful to see as these respectable middle-aged Berlin citizens, fathers of families, careful livers on small incomes, clerks, pastors, teachers, professors, drunk and mad out there publicly on the pavement, dancing with joy because they think the great moment they’ve been taught to wait for has come, and they’re going to get suddenly rich, scoop in wealth from Russia and France, get up to the top of the world and be able to kick it.

And frankly we are terrified for Christine.  The anti-English feeling is very strong.

Von Arnim writes brilliantly at times, at other times her prose is pedestrian, but overall this is an extremely moving anti-war novel.  Surely some press should reissue it!

A Charming Epistolary Novel: “Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther” by Elizabeth von Arnim

I confess I am not a fan of teaching English (too many papers to grade), but if I returned to teaching would enjoy planning a class on H. G. Wells’s mistresses.  Not only am I a fan of the progressive Wells’s feminist, socialist novels, Ann Veronica and The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman,  but I am fascinated by his affairs with the Edwardian novelists Elizabeth von Arnim, E. Nesbit, Rebecca West, Dorothy Richardson, and Amber Reeves.

I have been whiling away afternoons in an Adirondack chair with Elizabeth von Arnim, who was best known as the author of The Enchanted April.  Vintage Classics has  reissued four of her books in bright, attractive, summery-looking editions: Vera, The Enchanted April, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther.  My favorite is Vera, a dark comedy that is a  kind of predecessor of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.  The 22-year-old heroine, Lucy, marries a middle-aged stockbroker, who becomes more and more controlling after their marriage.    He isolates her from her friends, installs her in his first wife Vera’s creepy sitting room, and prevents her from reading (he actually locks up the books).  Soon she begins to  wonder about  his first wife, Vera, who “fell out a window.”   Was it suicide, or was she pushed? (I posted about this book here.)

The only one of the four Vintage Von Arnims I had  not  read was Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther, a charming epistolary novel.   It is light and  entertaining, a bit rambling, with many fine passages, but far from her best work.  But fans of von Arnim  will relish the  lively accounts of small-town life in Germany at the turn of the 20th century, the heroine’s beautiful observations of nature, her enthusiasm for poetry, and  meditations on the  pros and cons of marriage and the single life.

Written in the form of lively letters from Rose-Marie Schmidt in Germany to Roger Anstruther, her English fiance, it opens on a bright note.   In her witty letters, Rose-Marie teases him about his fondness for marmalade, thanks him for comparing her to Nausicaa , a princess in The Odyssey, muses on her scholarly father’s eccentricities, and recounts the malicious gossip at a women’s kaffee klatch which her very proper stepmother forces her to attend.  Rose-Marie can be funny but she also reports on the suffocating restrictiveness of the women’s social circle.

They were talking about sin. We don’t sin much in Jena, so generally they talk about sick people, or their neighbor’s income and what he does with it. But yesterday they talked sin. You know because we are poor and Papa has no official position and I have come to be twenty-five without having found a husband, I am a quantité négligeable in our set, a being in whose presence everything can be said, and who is expected to sit in a draught if there is one. Too old to join the young girls in the corner set apart for them, where they whisper and giggle and eat amazing quantities of whipped cream, I hover uneasily on the outskirts of the group of the married, and try to ingratiate myself by keeping on handing them cakes. It generally ends in my being sent out every few minutes by the hostess to the kitchen to fetch more food and things. ‘Rose-Marie is so useful,’ she will explain to the others when I have been extra quick and cheerful; but I don’t suppose Nausicaa’s female acquaintances said more.

The women gossiped about an illicit relationship between two people Rose-Marie very much likes, especially the woman, “the nicest woman in Jena.”   And when this woman arrives late, they greet her warmly and behave as though they haven’t been assassinating her character.   Rose-Marie hates their hypocrisy, and loves this woman whether the gossip is true or false.  But this episode explains why she does not have a place in the small town.

She and Roger met when he took lodgings in their house  and studied German with her father, but the engagement remains secret because he feels it is not the right time yet to tell his well-to-do father.  Soon it becomes clear that there will be no right time.  Roger falls in love with a woman he meets at a country house.  He and Rose-Marie break off their engagement.

But a few months later he writes to her again, and they embark on a second correspondence, though Rose-Marie now considers him only a friend, as she constantly assures him.  And Yet the letters constitute an intimate diary as she writes about her stepmother’s sad death, the financial necessity of  moving outside Jena to a tiny, inexpensive house on a mountain, and her friendship with a young woman who is stigmatized because she was jilted almost at the altar.

So will Rose-Marie and Roger marry or won’t they?  That is the question. Or is it?  Actually, we consider it less seriously as Rose-Marie becomes stronger and happier. An odd book, but very enjoyable–some of the letters are really polished essays on various topics.

Naïveté or Willful Misreading? Lara Feigel’s “Free Woman: Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing”

Doris Lessing

The Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing (1919-2013) had a powerful effect on my thinking when I read her at age fifteen, and nowadays, as a Woman of a Certain Age, I  continue to read and reread her work.  I began with  The Golden Notebook,  her famous experimental novel about “free women” (as she ironically says) and the breakdown of personality.  In her novels in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, Lessing illuminated aspects of women’s sexuality, radical politics, marriage, madness, and the break-up of the nuclear family.  Later, she  wrote experimental novels and science fiction about the consequences of war, nuclear power, pollution, and the disintegration of society If you’re a Lessing novice, don’t start with The Golden Notebook: The Children of Violence series, a  group of semi-autobiographical novels about the character Martha Quest, is her best work, and has stood up better over time.

As a Lessing fan, I recently picked up a copy of Lara Feigel’s new bibliomemoir, Free Woman:  Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing. I expected to love it.  But, alas, as with many bibliomemoirs, there is a crashing contrast between the stylistic powers of the memoirist and the Great Author.  Lessing is bold and outspoken, while Feigel is mousy and slyly querulous.  Again and again, Feigel professes admiration for Lessing only to turn around and conclude that her own choices are better.  And the structure of the book is very strange:  Feigel has pasted an ostensible study of Lessing on a the framework of her own memoir about miscarriage, motherhood, and trying to get pregnant.   The real paradox is that motherhood was not one of Lessing’s subjects.

Here is the premise of Feigel’s book.  When she rereads The Golden Notebook in her mid-thirties, she is envious of Lessing’s adventurous spirit.  She would like to be a “free woman,” like Anna Wulf, the heroine of The Golden Notebook.   It angers her that her friends keep getting married, instead of staying free.  Of course she, too,  is married, but she projects her anger on them.   She is  a disappointed wife and the ambivalent mother of a son, whom she claims she has trouble leaving at day care.  But she often retires to  a cabin by the sea to write her book while her husband cares for their son at home.  (Doesn’t that sound idyllic?)  She wishes she could have affairs like Lessing, but she waffles about the problems of open marriage.

Then she has a miscarriage and mourns because she can’t  conceive again.  Trying to have a second child becomes the focus of her life.  And so, driven by the imperative of her own emotions,  Feigel turns her attention to Lessing’s abilities as a parent.   Although Feigel repeatedly claims she is not one of those women who criticize Lessing’s performance as a mother,  she spends at least one-fourth (and probably more) of the book doing that very thing.  How could Lessing walk out on her husband and “abandon” her two children in Africa when she left their father?   If you read the second and third of the Children of Violence novels, A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm,  Lessing herself will provide the answers.  She married at 19, before she felt ready, and felt trapped by the traditional role of a suburban motherhood.  Both Lessing and the heroine Martha Quest leave the children with their prosperous, middle-class  father, a civil servant.

“Bad mother” accusations are hardly new, but they represent the height of sexism and hypocrisy.   Lessing  left her children with her husband, a middle-class civil servant, surely not abandonment. Can’t men raise children? Must every woman be a mother? Can’t some women be great writers:  surely it is accepted that it is tough to write when you’re doing child care.   Peter Stanford wrote an excellent article on this subject for the Telegraph, “Doris Lessing:  A Mother Much Misunderstood.” And in Lessing’s A Ripple from the Storm, Martha Quest (Lessing’s alter ego) describes her ambivalence about leaving her daughter Caroline.

Most of the time she was very careful not to allow herself to think of Caroline.  Once, missing Caroline, she had borrowed Jasmine’s car and driven several times up and down past the house, to watch the little girl playing in the garden with the nurse-girl.  The sight had confused her, for she had not felt as unhappy as she had expected.  She had continued to drive up and down past the house until she saw a female figure through a window and believed she recognized Elaine Talbot.

But damned if you do and damned if you don’t:  Feigel also fails to understand why Lessing had a third child at age 30.  Feigel wonders why bad mother Lessing didn’t “abandon” her son Peter in Africa.  (Lessing and Peter moved to London.). And then Feigel accuses Lessing of being a smother mother, because Peter lived with her till his death a few months before Lessing’s.  Peter had multiple health problems, diabetes, heart problems, and perhaps a mental illness.  So if Lessing hadn’t cared for him, she would have been the other kind of bad mother.  (Are you rolling your eyes?)

The alienation never stops.  Feigel even criticizes Lessing’s menopause.  At the smug age of 35, Feigel is convinced that menstruation is a sign of true womanhood. She  doesn’t believe Lessing didn’t grieve or suffer or feel any change when she stopped bleeding, though that is what Lessing said.  Let me assure you, menopause is painless for many of us!  My mother and I both “went through” early menopause at 42, i.e., we stopped having periods, never had a hot flash, and gleefully were free from tampons!  The thirties are tough:  hormones are out of wack, marriages are out of wack….  Menopause is a serene state.

The only flicker of life in this sad little book is when she flies to L.A. to interview Clancy Sigal, who was Lessing’s lover in the ’60s, the model for Saul in The Golden Notebook. Sigal doesn’t give interviews, buy said he’d  have coffee with her if she ever came to L.A.  The interview was very short, but he is by far the liveliest character in the book:  he mocks Feigel’s ideas of freedom and says he never read anything Lessing wrote.  Refreshing!

All right, I can’t spend any more time on this disappointing book.  But–spoiler alert–Feigel and her husband are divorced at the end and she has a daughter conceived (if that’s the right word) via IVF.  Freedom?

A Giveaway of Graham Greene, Mary Wesley, Lawrence Durrell, & Robert Graves

It’s the summer giveaway!  Here are four free books for anyone energetic enough to request them.  Leave a comment if you would like one or more, and do ask for as many as interest you.  I’ll do a drawing Wednesday.  (N.B.  The images show the editions I’m giving away.)

1 Graham Greene’s classic, The Quiet American. (You can read my post  here). In this tense, fast-paced novel, the narrator, Fowler, a cynical English war correspondent in Saigon in the 1950s,  has witnessed battles, bombings, and atrocities in the war between the French  and the Vietminh guerrillas.  The European papers are interested in very few of the incidents, so he regards himself as an observer, not an activist, until an American fanatic threatens the Vietnamese way of life and that of expatriates like Fowler.

Mary Wesley’s Part of the Furniture.  Mary Wesley published her first novel in 1983 when she was 71.    Here is the description of Part of the Furniture at Goodreads:  “Early in 1941, seventeen-year-old Juno Marlowe is hurrying down a London street. Planes thunder overhead; a battery of guns opens up. She is rescued from this nightmare by a gaunt stranger who offers her the protection of his house. Given this respite from the bleakness of an existence where she has no home and family, June encounters a series of events that take her to a house in the West Country, where war only occasionally intrudes, where she may find peace, and no longer just be part of the furniture.”

Lawrence Durrell’s Livia.  This is the second book in the Avignon Quintet, which I wrote about a few days ago here.  Poetic metafiction!

4.  Robert Graves’s Count Belisarius.  Graves’s most famous book is the brilliant novel,  I, Claudius, but I also enjoyed Count Belisarius, the story of the sixth-century general who repeatedly saved the Byzantine empire, including Rome, until the jealous emperor Justinian and other less gifted generals interfered .  I wrote in more detail about it here.