Speaking freely

Quote from Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ as it appeared in many Everyman editions

“This is true Liberty where free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv’s high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What be juster in a State than this?”

Euripides, ‘The Suppliants’ (transl. Milton)

Social media, mainstream media and politics are all full of news, discussions, assertions about and denials of freedom of speech. But arguments surrounding it are nothing new, because John Milton – yes, that John Milton – waxed lyrical about it nearly four centuries ago.

Areopagitica; a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England. Milton wrote his tract Areopagitica after the passing of the Licensing Act of 1643, which had given Parliament the power to censor books before publication, a power he did not approve of.

Not a text I remember anything about when I was studying the Tudors and Stuarts for Advanced Level at school, I only really registered Areopagitica when reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (1978): she quotes a key sentence from the tract – “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life” – as justifying the availability of books expressing varying opinions. It remains a clarion call in 2022.

Continue reading “Speaking freely”

Coming to the boil

WordPress Free Photo Library

Dream House by Jan Mark,
illustrated by Jon Riley.
Puffin Books 1989 (1987).

“West Stenning is a sixteenth-century manor house set in rolling Kentish downland, four miles from Ashford and eleven miles from the historic city of Canterbury. Why not join us for a long weekend of writing, music or painting? Courses tutored by professional writers, artists and musicians run from…”

Dream House

West Stenning: a venue in rural Kent where schoolgirl Hannah helps with domestic chores between courses there; which celebrity-mad Dina haunts so she can glimpse or even meet famous people; where Julia, headstrong daughter of an actor tutoring on the course, heads to demand his attention.

Yet, unbeknown to all, Hannah’s younger brother Tom – who has visions of being a town planner and architect – is not only observing them all but, by sharing or withholding information, is also instrumental in deciding the outcomes of each girl’s hopes for the week, none of which are as they’d planned.

Having set everything up all Tom then has to do is to sit back and watch because, as we’re told, “Things were coming nicely to the boil on their own.”

Continue reading “Coming to the boil”

Peake Gothick

Moat at Raglan Castle © C A Lovegrove

I’m currently revisiting Gormenghast Castle – in the form of the second part of the trilogy chronicling the last of the Groan dynasty. Gormenghast is yet another instalment that encourages the reader to linger and relish successive vignettes, and I’m taking my time.

As with Titus Groan I’m drawn, weakly struggling, into the web Mervyn Peake has woven; and as with that title I’m (re)engaging with the distinctive names which so conveyed the grotesque nature of the castle’s denizens and the decayed atmosphere of the sprawling structure.

In a similar fashion I started (in this post) to jot down the peculiarities of Gormenghast itself and to consider from where Peake may have drawn inspiration. But right now I want to add a few extra observations in preparation for a summative piece when I’ve completed Gormenghast, and before I eventually move on to Titus Alone, and then Titus Awakes.

Continue reading “Peake Gothick”

The angel’s lyre

© C A Lovegrove

Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans
by Luis Fernando Verissimo (2000),
translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jill Costa.
The Harvill Press, 2004.

Edgar Allan Poe. Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Dr John Dee. Jorge Luis Borges. The King of Bohemia. How exactly are they and others linked? What does the angel Israfel’s lyre signify? And what precisely happened in Buenos Aires early in 1985 when a victim was found stabbed in a locked hotel room?

Brazilian author Verissimo (the surname translates as “very true”) has concocted a metafictional crime novel in which he – or rather his literary alter ego – conducts conversations with his idol Borges before the latter’s death in 1986, with a view to solving the riddle of how and why a certain Joachim Rotkopf was murdered.

As the novel abounds in literary and historical references, the fact that the murder happens at an Edgar Allan Poe conference naturally leads to discussions about Poe’s The Gold-Bug and The Murders in the Rue Morgue in Borges’s own library. Curiously, and perhaps notably, the Argentine’s own writings, particularly Death and the Compass, are rarely specified.

Continue reading “The angel’s lyre”

Doing sums

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

In my imagination August is always associated with books. It may be that, unless memory plays me false, I spent most school summer holidays cosied up with a classic novel; or that the relatively recent promulgation of August 9th as Book Lovers Day merely cements a traditional association.

I may also have Cathy Brown’s increasingly popular meme 20 Books of Summer (or 15, or 10) to blame. But whatever the cause, today may be a good time to take stock.

Continue reading “Doing sums”

#Narniathon21: Tales of Narnia

WordPress Free Photo Library

By way of extending our Narniathon for those who felt bereft after The Last Battle I suggested readers seek out Katherine Langrish‘s excellent study From Spare Oom to War Drobe, subtitled ‘Travels in Narnia with my Nine Year-Old Self.’

As you might guess, this then is “a personal reading of the Seven Chronicles, blending literary criticism with memories of childhood passion for the world of Narnia.” It discusses each of the instalments in chronological order and compares responses in childhood with those we might have as an adult.

As before I give readers the option – should they so choose, Mission: Impossible style – of answering three questions in the comments below, but feel free to add your thoughts on aspects you’d rather talk about.

Continue reading “#Narniathon21: Tales of Narnia”

All in the cards

Queen of Hearts card

The Cartomancer.
by Anne Spillard.
Pan Books 1989 (1987).

It’s odd how, re-reading this twenty-five years later, I find that I recall neither characters nor plot from that first reading other than that the narrator tells people’s fortunes from an ordinary deck of cards.

That and the fact that there are a few obscure Arthurian references thrown in.

This second rather more careful reading reveals there is a little more subtlety than at first appears from a cursory perusal, making it more satisfactory yet, curiously, curiouser.

Continue reading “All in the cards”

St Anne in the Wood, Bristol

Saint Anna. Wood engraving by Dalziel (1853) after W O Will Wellcome. St Anne spins while the Virgin Mary is visited by Gabriel.

Preliminary notes on a medieval shrine and holy well [1986]

Who these days, when ancient pilgrimages to Canterbury and Walsingham retain their renown, remembers St Anne in the Wood? And yet, even in the 19th century, ‘this spot is but little known even to many long resident in the neighbouring city’.¹ The ‘neighbouring city’ is Bristol which, by the 20th century, has swallowed up the village of Brislington in which lay this once famous medieval chapel and well.

The site is in a bend of the River Avon, bounded to the south by the Bristol-to-Bath railway planned by Brunel, and until 1957 travellers from North of the river crossed over by ferry. A stream has carved itself a rocky valley in what is now known as St Anne’s Park before emptying itself into the Avon.

Nowadays [1986] the situation is rather sad. The railings around the park are dilapidated, the stone steps down the sides of the valley overgrown. Dutch elm disease has ravaged 800 trees in what is marked on maps as ‘Nature’s Garden’, and bikes have mashed up the ground in St Anne’s Wood. In late summer 1985 some of the once grassy banks had been re-seeded but rubbish littered the stream.

Continue reading “St Anne in the Wood, Bristol”

Riches to Rags

A Little Princess:
Being the whole story of Sara Crewe.
by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Vintage Classics, 2012 (1905).

Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they might do at night, an odd-looking girl sat in a cab with her father, and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.

Chapter 1, ‘Sara’

With this atmospheric opening paragraph Frances Hodgson Burnett set her take on the Cinderella story in  the grimy capital of England’s capital, far away from India climes where the ‘odd-looking’ girl had spent her first seven years.

True to the story’s fairytale roots the author will introduce figures equivalent to the wicked stepmother, the ugly sisters and the fairy godmother, though the last will morph into a faint echo of the male lead in Beauty and the Beast.

But A Little Princess isn’t just a rags-to-riches story – even if for a while it appears to be mostly riches-to-rags – for Burnett clothed the skeleton plot with gorgeous details and imbued the ancient archetype with psychological insights. In so doing she created a classic that has scarcely dated, despite being more than a century old.

Continue reading “Riches to Rags”

Susan of Narnia: #Narniathon21

Illustration by Pauline Baynes

“Oh, Susan! She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”


“Grown-up, indeed. I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

Jill and Polly ¹

In successive books of the Narniad Susan Pevensie, Queen of Narnia, also known as Susan the Gentle and Susan of the Horn, slides from grace to such a degree that she is no longer considered a “friend of Narnia”. The consequence of this is that in The Last Battle she is not in the fatal train crash that ensures her siblings go “further up and further in” to enter the “true” Narnia.

In many ways this seems dreadfully unfair on the poor girl – not only is she not to know the joy of entering Aslan’s Country with the others, but she is to be left without a family. And this for many readers feels like a betrayal.

What is the reason Lewis denies Susan her reward at this stage, the culmination of his grand design? Do the persistent rumours, that he planned to write a further volume entitled Susan of Narnia, have any foundation in fact? Or is there a practical reason why she’s not on the roll call of the Friends of Narnia?

Continue reading “Susan of Narnia: #Narniathon21”

A necessary commodity

© C A Lovegrove

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Preface by Hermione Lee,
introduction by David Nicholls, 2013.
4th Estate 2018 (1978).

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

John Milton, ‘Areopagitica’

It is 1959, and Florence Green is minded to open a bookshop in Hardborough, a town on the Suffolk coast. She finds vacant premises for sale, a building of some antiquity but unloved and neglected, and proceeds to buy it with financial assistance from the bank.

However, as the adage goes, though you can lead a horse to water you can’t make it drink, and Hardborough proves resistant to her well-meant plans. In particular Mrs Gamart, who reigns among the town’s upper echelons, decides she wants the premises for an arts centre.

Florence, a war widow who wants to give people the benefit of the doubt, at first seems amenable to giving up ownership; but when she realises Mrs Gamart is trying to preempt what is Florence’s own decision she digs her heels in and sets up shop. Has she misjudged Mrs Gamart’s steely determination, along with where the town’s sympathies may lie?

Continue reading “A necessary commodity”

In a bind

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

Madame Maigret’s Friend
by Georges Simenon.
L’amie de Mme Maigret
translated by Howard Curtis.
Penguin Classics, 2016 (1950).

An anonymous message informs the Paris police that a certain Flemish bookbinder has been burning a corpse in his stove, and the accused man’s lawyer seems to have a vendetta against Inspector Maigret.

Meanwhile, the dinner Mme Maigret has prepared for her husband is burning to a crisp when a woman literally leaves her holding the baby – or rather toddler – in a park. Who is this friend of Mme Maigret, and what possible connection, if there is one, has this strange unexplained incident with Maigret’s case?

As ever the inspector’s investigations, with his team based at the Palais de Justice on the Quai des Orfèvres, take him all over Paris north of the Seine. For a while Maigret appears to be in a bind, but his steady piecing together of hints and clues from interviews and observations may yet yield solutions.

Continue reading “In a bind”

Illusory questing beast

durer
Albrecht Durer

Codex
by Lev Grossman.
Arrow 2005 (2004).

‘Codex’ is the name applied to a medieval book, one which was composed of sheets stitched together, in contradistinction to ancient scrolls or wax tablets on which texts were written in the classical period.

The novel Codex is about just such a tome, one which appears to be both unique and therefore much sought after.

Around this book Grossman weaves a modern thriller which, given that the times move on apace, may not be as modern as Grossman might have hoped it to be.

Continue reading “Illusory questing beast”

The hurtle of hell

St Paul’s Cathedral on the night of VE Day, 8th May 1945 (Daily Herald)

The Girls of Slender Means
by Muriel Spark.
Penguin 2013 (1963).

“The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?”

—Gerald Manley Hopkins, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland

With flashbacks to 1945, specifically the period between VE Day and VJ Day, Muriel Spark’s novella has one character – JaneWright, who’s now a news columnist – responding to news of the fate of another by contacting some of her former acquaintances for their reactions.

What starts off as a mildly askant look at a group of mostly young things in a women’s hostel slowly assumes a bleaker hue as we start to get their measure, but we never lose sight of Spark’s razor-sharp asides which, while encouraging us to sympathise with the principal actors, allow those of us dissimilar in age to these girls to view them with a degree of detached compassion.

One might ask how Spark achieves a sense of detachment. It’s essentially to do with the term ‘slender means’ referring here not just to their relative impecunity – this was a time of general rationing, after all – but also (another reflection of the times) to their limited horizons, goals, and even imaginations.

Continue reading “The hurtle of hell”

Twilight: #Narniathon21

WordPress Free Photo Library

For many readers The Last Battle in C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is either a triumph or a letdown. I’ve already given some of my thoughts on its successes and failures in a review, and intend later to look at Lewis’s vision of the world of Narnia as depicted in the previous six chronicles, before going on to that final Narnia which is further up and further in.

Lewis as usual draws his imagery and his themes from several sources: the Bible – of course – but also from myth and medieval cosmology, from history and archaeology, and from his favourite reading in childhood as well as academia.

In this post I intend discussing the aspects that naturally interest me, leaving those points that interest readers with a theological bent for them to expound on. In a future post, along with the several Narnias I’d like to examine the issue of the Pevensie child who never returned to Narnia and hopefully come to some conclusions regarding Susan; but now I want to consider Puzzle, Tash, and the end of Narnia.

Continue reading “Twilight: #Narniathon21”