Friday, February 20, 2015

Seven Quick Takes, Vol. 3

1. Recently, I've been feeling stuck for reading choices. I'm too tired at night to tackle anything really highbrow, so a second effort to get through St. Augustine's City of God is off the table. But I also don't want my brain to turn to mush, so no catching up with Fifty Shades of Grey (besides, it's Lent). Pulling out an Edwardian mystery I began to work on a year or two ago prompted me to think of Edwardian literature to catch up on (mysteries in particular).

2. What's positive about Edwardian fiction: the era is more than the image we have of the cigar-smoking playboy Edward VII (it's those King Edward cigar boxes - remember how we all used to have an empty one in the house, regardless of whether anyone actually smoked cigars?!). If we take "Edwardian" to mean the period up until World War I, it's a period when many had visions of social change: socialism, women's suffrage, workers' rights and sexual freedom, to name but a few.  Detective fiction, which of course hangs on the details, and often deals with the 'hot topics' of its day, is a great source of historical information on the period.

What's negative? The style can be stilted, often Victorian (though sometimes surprisingly modern). Detective stories don't let us into the detective's head in the way we're used to, so we often don't have the chance to make the connections or even 'see' the vital piece of evidence. That aside, here's a brief pick of authors I've tried:

3. G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton stands between the Victorians and Edwardians in terms of style, but his critique of contemporary society is fascinating because the benefit of hindsight shows us just how accurate he was - and how relevant he still is - when describing the malaises of modern life. Yet, despite that, he still has a real joy in the fact of living. I've enjoyed his Father Brown detective stories, and his novels, such as The Man Who was Thursday, are on my to-read list.

4. Victor L. Whitechurch
I've just begun Whitechurch's railway mysteries, featuring a vegetarian exercise fanatic and "gentleman of independent means". The writing is a little stilted, but I'm enjoying its quirkiness. Plus, I found out what a "plasmon biscuit" was! Kindle has some cheap editions of his work.

5. Baroness Orczy
Orczy created one of the first female detectives in Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. Lady Molly's talent is her intuition, the ability to see the connections and motives that mere facts don't always make clear. Her appeal is that she had turned detective to gather the experience and information to free her unjustly imprisoned love.

6. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Really, how many people actually read the original Sherlock Holmes stories instead of watching or reading the spinoffs? Doyle's Sherlock is a fascinating anti-hero: smart, bored, with a general antipathy towards women and an addiction to cocaine.

7. For more, almost forgotten mysteries, and an analysis of the genre, read The Edwardian Detective, 1901-1915, by Joseph Kestner.  For more Seven Quick Takes, hop on over to This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Seven Quick Takes, Vol. 2

1. I meant to post every other week, and I'm already behind. In my defense, my husband is away and I'm running the show solo. My elder daughter did come home from boarding school last weekend, but helpfully had her wisdom teeth out, so she lay around on the sofa and almost cried when we ran out of macchiato caramel yogurt (I don't even know what a macchiato is, and neither, apparently, does my spellchecker).

So, here's a look at my reading week, to show you how eclectic (mixed up) it is.

2. For my early American literature class, I'm reading William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation and John Smith's account of the Virginia colony. They're interesting to me, because both men led their communities with similar principles and along similar lines, but their outlooks led to vastly different accounts of their experiences. To Smith, it's a big adventure, starring Smith; to Bradford, it's a long struggle in the wilderness against the wiles of the devil.

3.  To lighten up, we also began Ann Bradstreet's poetry. She was lucky enough to be supported by her family in her writing; not so other women of her time.  In 1650, one Rev. Thomas Parker wrote to his sister, "Your printing of a book, beyond the custom of your sex, doth rankly smell." Bet that was a good sibling relationship.

4. As part of a critique group, I may read a chapter from a Victorian cosy mystery, an eighteenth century cornish whodunnit, a 1930s soft-boiled American crime novel, or a story of London gypsies or Scottish pirates.

5. With my daughter, I'm reading The Canterbury Tales, currently the General Prologue, which is relatively uncontroversial.  Choosing tales to study with an eleven year old is harder - I'm opting for ones with lots of farting over lots of sex.

6. To relax (really!), I'm delving into Ina May Gaskin's Guide to Childbirth. She's the godmother of modern American midwifery. For those not in the States or Canada, be very grateful that midwifery is still the norm for prenatal care! She began as an English Literature graduate but fell by chance into the role of midwife at the Tennessee community where she has lived since the 70s. The book is as much story as women's health. For a taste, here's a Ted Talk she gave.

7. Inspiration of a different sort came this week from Elaine St.James's Living the Simple Life - I was familiar with all her ideas, but I needed some inspiration to give our bedroom a more drastic clear out. It's written in very small chunks - nice to peruse over coffee or when you're winding down at night.

For more Seven Quick Takes, hope over to This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday, January 2, 2015

7 Quick Takes, Vol I

As part of a New Year's experiment to try blogging again, I'm linking up with 7 Quick Takes - I think the title is self-explanatory.

1.  In keeping with the original plan for the blog, I'm starting with two 'neglected' classics that I got in Folio editions for Christmas.  The first is Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).  I fell under Lawrence's spell two summers ago when I visited Clouds Hill, his last home. I was immediately gripped by the mystery of why an educated, cultivated - and famous - man would choose to hide away under an assumed name in a such a primitive home.
I also love Seven Pillars because it's the sort of book that would never get past an editor today: a sprawling, 800-plus page mass of biography (real and 'elaborated'), history, military campaign, geography and topography. As I wrote on Facebook when I first finished it, "I feel like I've been through the entire Arab campaign with Lawrence. Plus I now know a lot about camels."

2. The second is my number one desert island book, Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. I even wrote a post on this some time ago. Sterne plays wild experiments with the novel as a written and physical form before the conventions we're so used to were even established. Poor Tristram Shandy sets out to faithfully record his life for his readers, from the moment of his conception, but can barely get a few pages in before he gets hopelessly diverted. Hovering in the background of this crazy, funny novel is the bittersweet knowledge that he'll never catch up with himself before he dies. By the way, since reading this novel, I can never look at a wind-up clock in the same light...

3. ...But I didn't get a chance to re-read either, since I'd promised myself the leisure to curl up with Royalist Rebel, written by a friend, Anita Seymour. Her book tells the story of Elizabeth Murray, heir to Ham House, during the English Civil War. I appreciated the skill with which Anita introduces a haughty, not altogether sympathetic, young English noblewomen and draws the reader to her as we experience Elizabeth mature through her wartime experiences and the struggle to hold onto her birthright.  I also loved seeing places familiar to me, such as Richmond and Hampton Court, through the eyes of the seventeenth century.

4. An interesting addendum to this came when describing the book to a friend here in the States. I explained it was set during the Civil War, and she asked, "Which one?". It was one of those 'culture gap' moments that comes from bring an expat. The Civil War means one thing only to the British, but of course she was also thinking of the Wars of the Roses. Come to think of it, one might add the wars between Stephen and Matilda, the conflicts among Henry II and his sons... the list goes on, but still, there's still only one "Civil War".

5. I've also been a beta reader for another friend's novel over December, and a question she had about publishing had me thinking - I now know people published across a whole spectrum: agented and unagented, with traditional (usually small to mid-house) publishers, e-publishers, self-publishing, and often a mix of all these. It's a wide-open market, and I can't decide whether that's confusing or exciting. I wonder which trends will grow in 2015?

6.  New books + moving a bookcase = several hours completely rearranging our library. My husband's  method would be to shove the books where they fitted, but my librarian background compels me to organize everything by subject and in chronological order. After an hour of angst, I was ready to admit I have a disorder...

7.  Happy New Year and Merry Christmas for those of us who hold grimly on to the twelve days of Christmas. Since we didn't get the tree up until the 23rd, at least it won't be sad and dead come January 6.

For more Seven Quick Takes, the linkup is hosted at This Ain't the Lyceum. In the interests of disclosure, as they say, its origins are in the Catholic blogosphere, but there's plenty of entertainment for everyone.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A modern approach to reading

It’s a fantastic concept.  No more bulging bookshelves, or buying anthologies created by other people, which are half full of texts you didn’t want and will never read.  Instead, you can be in charge of your library.  Just your favourite books, all together, your own personal and portable compendium.  And the name of this great invention?  A scroll…

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

And now for something completely different...

I just had to post this, so here are my flimsy reasons:

1.  It has gems of information useful to a historical novelist.

2.  It contains references to classic literature.

3.  It proves that if you 'suffer' from night time wakefulness, you shouldn't worry, but get up and read a historical novel or neglected classic!

The Myth of the Eight-Hour Sleep

Saturday, February 18, 2012

More than red flannel petticoats: Edith Nesbit Part 2

Edith Nesbit’s most popular children’s novels are still available; several, such as The Railway Children, have never gone out of print since their publication over a hundred years ago.  On the other hand few, if any, have heard of her adult novels.  It’s more than just an irony of fate, however, that this unconventional author, who longed for recognition of her serious, adult novels, should be remembered for works that celebrate the conventional Victorian family.  Through her young characters, she speaks for the new middle classes spreading out of London into the garden cities, and which would become the backbone of England after the First World War destroyed the ‘gentleman’ class that had previously dominated life and culture.  That is, she speaks for us.

I’m an ardent fan of Edith’s children’s books.  My favourites, in roughly descending order, are: Five Children and It; The Enchanted Castle; The Railway Children; The Treasure Seekers; and The Phoenix and the Carpet (sequel to Five Children and It).  Others, for instance the sequels to The Treasure Seekers, are more hack work.  Here’s a taste of why I find them so delightful:

The ‘It’ of Five Children and It is a Psammead, a sand fairy the children accidentally unearth in a quarry.  The Psammead (a squat, furry creature with eyes on stalks) must grant the children one wish a day, that lasts until sunset – and of course, the disgruntled fairy takes their words very literally.  The children get to discover the truth of the proverb “be careful what you wish for.”  What, for instance, is the point of being “as beautiful as the day” if your own friends and family can’t recognize you, or having a pile of gold coins if they aren’t actually legal tender?

The Enchanted Castle is another fantasy with roots in real life.  Imaginary games of enchantment take on new life when a group of siblings and their friend discover that their ‘magic’ ring really is magical – and that real magic can be both delightful and dangerous.  Apparently, Noel Coward had a copy of it by his bedside when he died.

In The Treasure Seekers, the five Bastables, eager to help their widowed father ‘restore the fortune of the House of Bastable,’ look for ways to get rich, from digging for treasure to selling sherry to trying their hand at being highwaymen on Blackheath.  This novel earns the distinction of being one of only a few books that make me laugh out loud.

There’s no need to introduce The Railway Children to most English readers.  To those who haven’t had the chance to fall under its charms:  this is the story of three children living in relative luxury in London, whose father suddenly has to ‘go away.’  Their mother is forced to move the family to a shabby home in the country.  They begin to make friends with the railway workers and commuters, leading to a series of coincidences that change the family’s fate.  Though a children’s book, it highlights the real plight of dissidents and those caught up in the spy fever of the early twentieth century.

What I love about Edith Nesbit’s work is her feel for the sibling dynamics of her large families that might bicker and quarrel, but know that family sticks together.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I also love the way she explores the consequences of magic colliding with everyday modern life.  It’s interesting, I think, that the children are most often thrown on their own resources due to an absent or deceased parent and reduced family circumstances.  Edith certainly understood the latter, but tended to be the child sent away to school while her mother concentrated on her other, invalid daughter.  Perhaps even the realism of her stories, then, is part the fantasy of a childhood she herself rarely got to enjoy, and perhaps why her heart shines through the distance of a century to make these stories real for us today.

Friday, February 3, 2012

More than red flannel petticoats: Edith Nesbit (Part 1)

When I was casting round for a literary detective for a cosy mystery novel, I came up with the idea of using Edith Nesbit, the author of some of my most favourite children’s novels.  Perfect, I thought –– until I did a little biographical investigation.  I found to my shock that the author who merged magic, fun and happy families, and penned such ‘immortal’ lines as “Get off the line, Bobby!” and “Daddy! My Daddy!”* was in fact a hard-left, swinging, smoking modern lady of the twentieth century.  Definitely NOT cosy material. 

To British readers and authors Nesbit is a friend and inspiration.  I’m filing her under ‘neglected classics’ because I’ve been surprised at – or perhaps educated by - how many of my American friends haven’t read her.  It’s made feel like she’s a well-kept British secret I have to divulge!

I’m not the only one to be surprised at the dichotomy between Edith’s novels and her life – the disagreements over detail and perspective on her life in various biographies speak, I think, to her fans’ struggle over Edith as narrator/writer and person.  So, some facts (to the best of my knowledge!):  Edith’s father died when she was only four, and her mother, left to deal with supporting her family and a sickly daughter, moved the family back and forth from England to the Continent, and sent Edith to various schools.  This instability may account for the rosy pictures of sibling life she so often portrayed in her novels – and for the often absent parent.

As a young woman, she became involved with the handsome, philandering Hubert Bland, marrying him when she was 7 months pregnant.  The couple’s socialist convictions, along with Edith’s intelligence and sociability, brought them into contact with influential people such as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb.  They were founder members of the Fabian society, a left-wing think tank – in fact, they named their second son Fabian.

Edith showed a proclivity for courting attention.  Unconventional, she took up smoking, cut her hair short and supposedly (some disagree about this) had an affair with Shaw.  She apparently more than tolerated her husband’s lover, Alice, living with them, and even raised the resulting illegitimate children as her own.

Edith had always loved writing; she published her first poems at fifteen and continued to write poetry and novels to support her family.  She courted three audiences – the conventional, moralizing crowd, those who loved popular, sensational works, and the new left intelligentsia.  But she found her voice in writing for children.  In 1899, the publication of the children’s book The Treasure Seekers at last brought fame and enough steady work to move to a grander house in the country.  House parties included the likes of H.G. Wells, Laurence Houseman and G.K. Chesterton.
Her husband’s sudden death in 1914, along with the First World War, brought a change in Edith’s circumstances (Fabian had also died shortly before when a routine operation to remove his tonsils went wrong).  Although she married again, the couple had to move to a more modest home in Dymchurch, characterized as “Lymchurch” in her work.  When she died in 1924, she requested that no tombstone be laid, and a simple, wooden panel marks her grave.

Nesbit was one of the first authors to develop fantasy novels for children, her strength being in fantasies that intersect, often to great comic effect, with everyday life.  She also very clearly writes from a child’s perspective.  For the researcher of the Edwardian period, her novels are a proverbial goldmine, full of the little details of everyday life and current slang.

Since I ran out of space here, I’ll talk about her novels in a follow-up post, but if you’re already interested, the E. Nesbit Society has an overview of her work, and Julia Briggs’s 1987 biography, A Woman of Passion is back in print.