In praise of innocence

Botticelli’s Primavera (1482), Uffizi, Florence

Henry James: Daisy Miller: A Study.
An International Episode. Four Meetings.
Penguin English Library 2012 (1879)

First published in magazine form in 1878, Daisy Miller is a novella that must strike modern readers very differently from their counterparts a hundred and forty years ago. Now, the very idea of a young lady seeking the company of pleasant young men seems unremarkable in Western society, but then for one such as Daisy to do so unchaperoned, and especially against all advice and convention, would have been regarded as not only unrespectable but also reprehensible.

In the outraged reactions of those who observed Daisy’s unconventionality James may have expressed closet anxieties over his own acceptance as an American in Europe, for he had only recently settled in England; his many extended stays in Europe — which included Switzerland and Italy — had given him plenty of opportunity for observing how New World visitors were received in the Old World. But of course Daisy Miller is much more than autobiography dressed up as fiction.

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Literary bookshelves

Lamb House bookshelves

You may remember among the photos I included in a piece about Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, the picture of some bookshelves as Henry James might have seen them (sadly the books pictured are not James’ originals).

I thought I might also share with you some images of other bookshelves I saw on a recent visit to places in East Sussex and Kent, shelves associated with a couple of other literary figures. You may care to imagine, as I did, the authors in these places scribbling away or reading the latest publication sent their way.

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Touching base

Crickhowell Literary Festival (http://cricklitfest.co.uk) 2018

Just touching base (and touching bass too, as it were) after a busy week of books and music has meant fewer blog posts than usual here.

As you can see from the header photo Crickhowell in southeast Wales has just had its fourth literary festival over the last week and a bit, and I’ve been involved stewarding a few of the events. These included authors as diverse as comic fantasy writer Jasper Fforde, debut novelist Katy Mahood (whom I used to teach music in Bristol) and stand-up comedian and broadcaster Robin Ince, as well as subjects ranging from Frankenstein to dry-stone walling and poetry featuring historic characters associated with a short stretch of our local canal.

I’ve also sung in an ensemble which took part in Open Day events marking the re-opening of a 15th-century Welsh farmhouse, singing medieval songs, madrigals and commissioned choral pieces within an ambient soundscape. Refined techniques involving dendrochronology established that Llwyn Celyn‘s framework came from trees first felled in 1420, with significant additions documented around 1690; the last owners only vacated the property recently so the range of music reflected its long history. The choral singing combined with homemade instruments and the ambient sounds of sheep, birds retiring for the night and high-flying aircraft to echo round the valleys in the Black Mountains of the Welsh borders as dusk fell.

Llwyn Celyn’s medieval farmhouse
Visitors to Llwyn Celyn

Other literary matters haven’t been neglected though. I’ve completed some books which are awaiting reviews — these include Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Gail Honeyman’s bestseller Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — and, in concert with Lizzie Ross, I’ve been helping prepare for this year’s Witch Week which this year has Feminism+Fantasy as it’s theme: look out for at least one more advance notice in the days to come!

Pre-owned, pre-loved

Display in The Rye Bookshop, East Sussex

Inverted Commas 4: Used Books

I have always enjoyed reading, but I’ve never been sure how to select appropriate material. There are so many books in the world — how do you know which one will match your tastes and interests?

Thus writes the titular character in chapter 32 of Gail Honeyman’s excellent Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017). A Latin graduate, she clearly has no problems with factual works but fiction confuses her.

The covers are of very little help, because they always say only good things, and I’ve found to my cost that they’re rarely accurate. ‘Exhilarating’ ‘Dazzling’ ‘Hilarious’. No.

For her, I suspect, novels may provide clues as to how ordinary minds work, because Eleanor is no ordinary person. The thought processes of most people are largely a mystery to her.

The only criterion I have is that the books must look clean, which means I have to disregard a lot of potential reading material in the charity shop.

I sort of understand that squeamishness. Luckily for me the secondhand books in the charity shops I frequent are often as good as new, but that’s not always the case.

I don’ t use the library for the same reason, although obviously, in principle and in reality, libraries are life-enhancing palaces of wonder.

Eleanor is anxious about library books touched by unwashed hands, read in the bath, sat on by dogs, or body effluvia and excess food wiped on pages. I’ve worked in suburban libraries in the past and can understand those worries, though she does exaggerate them: “I look for books with one careful owner.”

Is that the case for you too? What are your tolerance levels for pre-owned, even pre-loved reading materials? Is your motto secondhand bad, firsthand good? Or is the book’s condition a matter of indifference to you?

Another book display, The Rye Bookshop

Something witchy this way comes

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series is like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one of those secondary worlds that I’ve found I’ve needed to revisit every so often. I’m not the only one, I know, that — however familiar the outline plots — discovers something new each time I step into those universes, whether it’s an insight, a revelation or an emotion.

With the imminent arrival of Witch Week 2018, its theme this year of Fantasy+Feminism and focus on Ursula Le Guin (further details here and here, and also here), I’ve been re-immersing myself in Earthsea as I originally promised myself in a mini-review back in 2015.

Lizzie Ross and I will be co-hosting Witch Week (30 October to 06 November), with a week of posts celebrating the fantasy genre and Diana Wynne Jones.
We’ve lined up some exciting posts from guest bloggers, including a Top-Ten list of fantasy heroines, and a discussion of a Polish fantasy series.
AND don’t forget our readalong: Le Guin’s The Other Wind, the final book of her Earthsea series.

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Gormenghast reimagined

John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill and its Abbey (1823)

William Beckford (born 1st October 1760, dying in 1844 at Bath) is a truly quixotic character, notorious in the Georgian period and worth more than the brief notice I am giving of him now. I find however that he and I have, in a manner of speaking, crossed paths in the past, and you might be interested in the context of our latest encounter.

I have been making my slow and steady way through Elizabeth Mavor’s The Grand Tour of William Beckford preparatory to reading Beckford’s own novel Vathek (1782). I’ve had the novel in a compendium of three Gothic novels for a while, though had read only Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) up to now.¹

However, with Halloween and Christmas coming up I thought I might tackle at least one of the remaining two complete novels, Vathek of course and John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819). This last, as some of you may know, was Polidori’s plagiarising of Lord Byron’s tale which itself had emerged from the ghost story challenge — which had already culminated in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Vathek, however, was different from the other stories, modelled as it was on the tales in the collection we know as The Arabian Nights.

But I also knew that William Beckford was as famous for another enterprise he’d indulged in, and the arrival of the September issue of the magazine Current Archaeology was a timely reminder.

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Magic spells

Wandering Among Words 7: Gramarye

If, as Alice Hoffman is everywhere quoted, “Books may well be the only true magic,” then she is only following a tradition that has been acknowledged in all literate cultures: writing is magic, and magic is the written word.

We can point to the beginning of St John’s gospel to see this concept expounded:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Without getting into a theological discussion of what exactly John meant by Logos (‘the Word’), I just want to point out that the spoken word (and later the written word) is seen as the act of creation, and the creative act is magic, in its purest form.

All our language surrounding the concept of words, spoken or written, is closely bound up with magic.

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