Truth, terrible as death

aber tower

Philip K Dick The Man In The High Castle
Gollancz 2009 (1962)

Alternate history | given alternate history; | what’s true? What isn’t?

Authentic. Genuine. How often are these words used, and abused. Clothing stamped with ‘authentic’, meaning imitation US sports wear. Sweatshop items I remember seeing in the 60s labelled ‘genuine imitation leather’. Beguiling items sold right now for their ‘cosy faux fur’, as though faux was a kind of animal.

Authenticity is one of the big ideas residing at the heart of this haunting novel, one of Dick’s earliest and one for which he won a Hugo Award. Does authenticity reside in objects purporting to be historic relics or in the minds of humans who trade and purchase and use and treasure them? Who really won the last global conflict? What is the significance of the alternate history of the world written by the Man in the High Castle? Is there really a High Castle in the medieval sense? Indeed, are the characters we meet really who or what they say they are? Moreover, can writings such as the I Ching truly predict the future, or do they merely offer solace to the humans who use them? Continue reading “Truth, terrible as death”

Not living up to its promise

The Georgian House, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons) The possible model for the hero's family home
The Georgian House, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons) — the possible model for the family home of Inigo Bright (Brightstow was one early spelling of Bristol)

Christopher Wakling The Devil’s Mask
Faber and Faber 2011

Bristol was the English port that John Cabot sailed from to discover Newfoundland, and was a point of embarkation for the heroes of Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. It was also a key port in the slave trade, profiting for over a hundred years, until 1807, promoted by the Society of Merchant Venturers. It is a city I know well, having lived there for the best part of half a century, and so I was looking forward to reading this novel set there in 1810, a year after the opening of the Floating Harbour and a year before the Prince of Wales became Regent.

The Devil’s Mask certainly makes good use of Georgian Bristol as a backdrop to this tale of commercial shenanigans and casual inhumanity. The streets, the variety of buildings (merchant houses, coffee houses, speculative property developments) and the muddy and silted river Avon flowing through the city are all based on either real or typical topographical locations and to a large extent the novel captures the mix of genteel living and rank poverty that typified ports such as Bristol. However, Continue reading “Not living up to its promise”

Beauty is a curse

Lizzie Ross’ questioning review of this prequel of sorts to The Prisoner of Zenda brings out the challenges it has for us moderns. But I’m still looking forward to reading it, thanks to those questions! http://lizzierosswriter.com/2014/02/19/beauty-is-a-curse/

A review of The Prisoner of Zenda on Calmgrove’s blog inspired today’s post. At his urging, I found a copy of The Heart of Princess Osra, Anthony Hope’s prequel to his dashing Victorian romance about Ruritania. Zenda is set in the late 1800s; Osra 150 years earlier. The prequel is the story of a beautiful princess (the ancestress of Zenda‘s hero, Rudolph Rassendyll) whose task is to learn about love.

Lizzie Ross

200px-Osra A review of  The Prisoner of Zenda  on Calmgrove’s blog inspired today’s post. At his urging, I found a copy of The Heart of Princess Osra , Anthony Hope’s prequel to his dashing Victorian romance about Ruritania.  Zenda is set in the late 1800s;  Osra   150 years earlier. The prequel is the story of a beautiful princess (the ancestress of Zenda ‘s hero, Rudolph Rassendyll) whose task is to learn about love.

Osra has two brothers, Rudolph and Henry. Their father, King Henry, rules with the temper of a lion — slow to anger, but wrathful when provoked. Rudolph is a wastrel, Henry in love with the wrong person, and Osra so beautiful that gentlemen of the aristocracy do the masculine equivalent of fainting whenever they first set eyes on her — they fall to their knees and kiss her hand. Although she’s unable to understand or appreciate their love for…

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Doing nothing in Ruritania

Czar Nicholas II and King George V
The two cousins Czar Nicholas II and King George V wearing each other’s uniforms

Anthony Hope
The Prisoner of Zenda
Puffin Classics 1994 (1894)

“I wonder when in the world you’re going to do anything, Rudolf?” said my brother’s wife. “You are nine-and-twenty,” she observed, “and you’ve done nothing but–”
“Knock about? It is true. Our family doesn’t need to do things.”

The behaviour of Rudolf Rassendyll, younger brother of Robert Lord Burlesdon, appears to live up to his family motto, which is Nil quae feci (roughly translated as ‘I’ve done nothing’). But by the end of The Prisoner of Zenda Rudolf’s actions have belied that motto — at least according to this account supposedly penned by the young man himself. Continue reading “Doing nothing in Ruritania”

Traditional and other lore

Victorian Christmas Mummers Play
Victorian Christmas Mummers Play

Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud
A Dictionary of English Folklore

Oxford University Press 2001 (2000)

For me the best reference books are those which not only provide a entry matching your initial query but which also encourage you to browse and read other not always related entries. This Oxford Dictionary does it for me on both counts: authoritativeness and readability. Folklore here is rightly interpreted as including aspects of modern popular culture as well as topics beloved of antiquarians.

Authored by two stalwarts of the Folklore Society — who should then know what they are talking about — the Dictionary contains over 1250 entries covering a wide range of topics including seasonal customs, traditional tales, superstitions and beliefs. Key figures involved in the recording of lore are noted here, and evidence presented that folklore is part of a continually evolving process. What makes this book particularly worthwhile is that not all so-called traditional lore is accorded uncritical acceptance, a plus for any truth-seeker when Victorian speculation about origins and meaning often became spurious fact.

For those wanting more there are relevant references and a bibliography, and in common with many in this Oxford reference series, pretty pictures are excluded in favour of more text. Sometimes this is a disadvantage but in this case I’d rather have more entries than a limited number of select and maybe unrepresentative illustrations. (Having said which, I include a curious photo of 19th-century mummers acting out their seasonal play.)

From Atlantis to Troy

Athanasius Kircher's 1669 map of Atlantis (Wikipedia Commons)
Athanasius Kircher’s 1669 map of Atlantis (Wikipedia Commons) — north is to the bottom

Eberhard Zangger The Flood From Heaven:
Deciphering the Atlantis legend

Pan Books 1993 (1992)

Two nightmares haunt the field archaeologist. The first is the finds tray without a label. The second is the label minus its artefact. The former is the source, one suspects, of many an ‘unstratified’ reference in dig reports. The latter represents what one might call the empty treasure chest syndrome. Great therefore is the joy when, like the return of the prodigal son, the two are brought together again!

That is, unless the wrong suspect has been identified. For some time now a particular finds label has been kicking around the store. Many attempts have been made to match it up correctly, but since the original author of the report is long gone all such efforts have been speculative, many controversial and some, indeed, spectacularly misattributed. As with Utopia and Camelot this other famous site has been firmly located many times, and a book from a score of years ago claimed to have found a detour round the usual impasse and so solved the puzzle. This particular finds label reads “Atlantis”, the mythical landmass that perished beneath the waves, according to Plato, and which various historians and pseudohistorians have located in the Mediterranean, off Scandinavia, in Britain and the Americas, for example, as well as in the ocean named after it. Continue reading “From Atlantis to Troy”

A parfit gentil knyght?

Sir John Hawkwood by Uccello, Duomo, Florence
Sir John Hawkwood by Paolo Uccello, Duomo, Florence (Wikipedia Commons)

Terry Jones Chaucer’s Knight:
the Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary

Eyre Methuen 1982 (1980)

A most impressive fresco of a sculptured horseman in trompe-l’oeil perspective dominates the north aisle of Florence’s Duomo. Painted in 1436 by Uccello (best known perhaps for his painting of St George and the Dragon in London’s National Gallery) the Latin inscription indicates that it represents Ioannes Acutus Eques Britannicus Dux Aetatis Suae Cavtissimus et Rei Militaris Peritissimus Habitus Est. A rough translation informs us that this is “John Hawkwood, British knight, the most careful leader of his age and the most skilled in matters of war”. It is an extraordinary monument in an already extraordinary building and at first leaves us wondering why an Englishman from Essex is commemorated so prominently in a Tuscan cathedral. Continue reading “A parfit gentil knyght?”