Chameleon

http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-chameleon-images/
http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-chameleon-images/

Dear Reader, you will not be surpriz’d to observe that in recent days a steady consumption of Regency period and related writing may be persuading me to pursue certain patterns of speech in my writings. Having recently completed First Impressions, Charlie Lovett’s Austen-inspired cozy mystery, while simultaneously reading a selection of Jane’s letters to her sister Cassandra, I find that it is difficult not to chuse similar turns of phrase and even spellings.

I have also finished Black Hearts in Battersea, the second of Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite books, set in the 1830s in what might have been a pre-Victorian world … if Queen Victoria had in reality come to the throne. You will doubtless recall that Aiken was much enamoured of Miss Jane’s novels, even to the extent of penning some continuations. And now I am deep into Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a work which deliberately echoes — without straying into parody or pastiche — the writing of that late Georgian era.

But then, I cannot but observe that I myself have leanings towards overblown phrases, for I rarely eschew the liberal usage of the comma, colon, semi-colon and dash. The reason must be an obsession with qualifying every statement, so as to excise ambiguity and evade accusations of generalisation. Where are the instances when I heed the injunction “Write as you speak”? When will I cleave to the modern style of writing plainly? Can I ever cast off the clout of anachronistic circumlocutions? Will I further descend into the slough of circuitousness, the whirlpool of wordiness, the maelstrom of mellifluence?

I digress.

Continue reading “Chameleon”

The most beautiful play

Giovanni Strazza's Veiled Virgin is located in the Presentation Convent, Cathedral Square, St. John's, NL.
The Veiled Virgin by Giovanni Strazza, Presentation Convent, Cathedral Square, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada

A D Nuttall Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale
Studies in English Literature No 26
Edward Arnold 1979 (1966)

I studied The Winter’s Tale at school, and while I didn’t then really appreciate it fully it continued to linger for several decades in my subconscious. I’m not entirely sure why: it may be the hint of Sleeping Beauty in the ‘revival’ of a dead Hermione; it may be memories of the famous stage direction Exit pursued by a Bear that stuck in the brainbox, or the notorious ascription of a coastline to landlocked Bohemia that struck me. Whatever it was, this was a play that I felt I ‘ought’ to read again, though I never seemed to get round to it. I even acquired a secondhand copy of Nuttall’s study of The Winter’s Tale though it only ever served as a talisman — I never even got round to reading that either.

Shakespeare’s impending quatercentenary finally provided the spur I needed for both. Nuttall’s commentary is split into four sections, an introduction followed first by the scenes set in Sicilia (with jealousy and guilt as the main themes), then those set mostly in Bohemia (‘varieties of innocence’ is the note struck here) and finally a conclusion. He begins with a ringing endorsement of the play:

The Winter’s Tale is the most beautiful play Shakespeare ever wrote. It is a less intelligent play than Hamlet (but not much less intelligent). It is less profound than King Lear (but not much less). It is not (as some readers will have begun to conclude) a pretty play, of ‘merely aesthetic’ appeal. For it is far less elegant than Love’s Labour’s Lost and much more disturbing than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The beauty of The Winter’s Tale does not so much charm the eye as pierce the viscera. It does not divert the spectator; it turns him inside out.”

And so on and so forth, in glorious hyperbole as suited the style of esteemed academics of yesteryear. But is what he asserts true? Continue reading “The most beautiful play”

Soul of the age

Chandos portrait
Chandos portrait

… Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise! …
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.
— Ben Jonson To the Memory of My Beloved
the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare

This valedictory poem by fellow playwright Ben Jonson summons up a contemporary estimation of the worth of William Shakespeare, whose death-day (and possibly birthday too) is annually celebrated — if that’s the right word — on April 23rd, St George’s Day. There can’t be many lovers of literature who aren’t aware that 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of his departure from this world, leaving it a richer place for what he left to us.

I’ve discussed the man and works a few times in these pages, and now may be a fitting time to draw your attention to the occasionally dark but sometimes floodlit corners that I’ve explored over the years, with links to the posts that deal with these matters.

Continue reading “Soul of the age”

Playing the innocent

  • Repost of a review first published in April 2014, and now dusted off as we approach the fourth centenary of his death on 23rd April 1616

Scholars suggest that Cymbeline was composed by Shakespeare and an unnamed colleague between 1609 and 1610, and first performed in 1611 — though not appearing in print for a dozen years until the First Folio. I have no competency to discuss which passages are by him and which by his collaborator, so I’ll treat the whole text as though by a single author, whom I shall call … “the Author”. In this final post about the play — marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s baptism on April 26th 1564 — I would like to draw out some of the strands that make up the fabric of the play before discussing its merits as drama.
Continue reading “Playing the innocent”

Botheration on Bankside

southwark1859
Bankside, Southwark, London in 1859, not much changed from 1833. Bottom left: Rose Alley is where the Twite family lived, just to the west of Southwark Bridge; on the edge is Bear Gardens

Joan Aiken Black Hearts in Battersea
Illustrated by Pat Marriott

Red Fox 2004 (1964)

Late summer, 1833. The second in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles opens with Simon, the orphan who helped cousins Sylvia and Bonnie Green to regain Willoughby Chase, looking for his friend Gabriel Field in London: Dr Field has offered him space in his Southwark lodgings so that Simon can attend an art academy in Chelsea. But Simon is encountering difficulty finding Rose Alley, having been misdirected a few times. When he does eventually find No 8 it is to discover no sign of the good doctor, only a streetwise little urchin called Dido and her rather strange family.

The mystery of Gabriel Field’s disappearance is only one of several puzzles that Simon meets during the course of this inventive novel, a good example of a sequel that is not only the equal of the first novel but in some ways almost surpasses it.

Continue reading “Botheration on Bankside”

Opening the door on Jane

knocker

Penelope Hughes-Hallett ‘My Dear Cassandra’:
Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen

Collins & Brown 1991 (1990)

The late Penelope Hughes-Hallett (she died in 2010) had the great fortune to be brought up in Steventon in Hampshire, Jane Austen’s birthplace and where the future novelist herself lived between 1775 and 1801, so it’s not a surprise that she maintained a lifelong interest in the Regency author. In ‘My Dear Cassandra’ she makes a selection from the letters Jane wrote to her older sister, introducing key periods in Jane’s life (changing residences in Steventon, Bath, Southampton, Chawton and Winchester) and supplying a linking commentary. Hughes-Hallett clearly knew her stuff, highlighted by the way she elucidates obscure references in the letters and cross-references the numerous personages with whom Jane was acquainted.
Continue reading “Opening the door on Jane”

Uncomfortable cozy

window reflection

Charlie Lovett First Impressions Alma Books 2014

Murder is not nice, ever. And yet cozy mysteries — a popular sub-genre of crime fiction, often termed cosy crime in the UK — absolutely thrive on murder — their life-blood, as it were. Cozies are where violent death can be regarded with a polite shudder from the comfort of an armchair, perhaps curled up by a cheerful fire. Details are rarely visceral; the sleuth is usually a talented amateur; and the malefaction has a purely parochial significance. First Impressions certainly partakes of these aspects, but it also shares elements of the academic mystery: here the amateur detective is often a scholar, or the crime takes place in collegiate surroundings or some such bookish environment. In Lovett’s novel the deed is done close by the well-stocked library of a bibliophile.

But First Impressions includes yet another genre, the historical novel, because alternate chapters are set at the turn of the 19th century, focusing on the just-out-of-her-teens Jane Austen. But this is not a now fashionable mashup of Regency heroics and zombie apocalypse either: no, this is the follow-up to Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale, his first whodunit with a literary theme.

Continue reading “Uncomfortable cozy”

Richly resonant

Holman Hunt Scapegoat Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat (Wikipedia Commons)

Robert Silverberg Kingdoms of the Wall Grafton 1993

This is the book of Poilar Crookleg, who has been to the roof of the World at the top of the Wall, who has seen the strange and bewildering gods that dwell there, who has grappled with them and returned rich with the knowledge of the mysteries of life and of death.

So begins this richly resonant novel, set on some distant planet — well, all planets are distant, aren’t they? — in a part of that world which is dominated by a inconceivably vast mountain called the Wall. From a community which is made up of distinct villages surrounding the Wall forty youngsters are chosen periodically to attempt the scaling of the mountain. Despite the honour accruing to the chosen ones, few of them ever return, and those that do seem unable to give a coherent narrative. Poilar is determined to be the one who not only achieves the ascent but to return and give an account. Despite the very first sentence providing the most monumental spoiler ever, Silverberg’s novel maintains a very palpable will-he-won’t-he tension throughout: Poilar’s nickname, Crookleg, is just one of the most obvious obstacles to him ever making his dream a reality. Continue reading “Richly resonant”

Miching mallecho

Cover art from UFO Journal June 1950
Cover art from UFO Journal (June 1950)

John Wyndham Plan for Chaos
Edited by David Ketterer and Andy Sawyer
Penguin Books 2010 (2009)

Here is a curiosity: a novel by the author of The Day of the Triffids, written around the same time (1948 to 1951) but abandoned, only to see the light of day around sixty years later when it’s finally published. It’s not difficult to see why Wyndham gave up on it — its compound of different genres, disparate themes and mangled speech patterns make for awkward reading — and yet it’s an interesting experiment which, given radical tweaking, could have been made to work.

The basic set-up is that supporters of the Nazi cause have survived into the 1970s, somewhere in South America we deduce, where they have built a secret underground complex. Here their clandestine wartime experiments for perpetuating a master race have resulted in the successful breeding of human clones; all that is required is to fool the superpowers into annihilating each other with atomic bombs — the chaos of the novel’s title — after which the new Germans will re-populate the earth. Their technicians have also developed flying saucer technology and cloaking devices, causing international consternation and confusion in a world unaware of their existence.

Into this massive conspiracy stumbles Johnny Farthing, an American magazine photographer with a mixed British and Swedish background. Continue reading “Miching mallecho”

Storage solutions

shelfie

Alan Powers Living with Books Mitchell Beazley 1999 

Museum Selfie Day — when you post a picture of yourself on social media in front of a museum exhibit — has become hugely popular since it started in 2014. (Twitter account @MuseumSelfieDay has announced it will be on January 18th next year.)

Anticipating the success of Museum Selfie Day the New York Public Library promptly declared that the Wednesday following would be Library Shelfie Day (the 3rd annual event was on 27th January this year). The NYPL blog described how, after the inaugural event, “the stats were flooring: approximately 1,500 Instagram posts and 1,800 tweets from roughly 244 libraries/orgs/anything non-personal accounts.” Following the success of America’s National Library Shelfie Day, Britain’s National Libraries Day (this year held on Saturday 6th February) also celebrated with the #libraryshelfie tag on social media.

Naturally I’ve missed all this fun the last few years, being a latecomer to most parties. So here, on a date of no particular significance, is my shelfie, as I’ve been promising for some time now.

Continue reading “Storage solutions”

Mixing genres

the-planet-earth

Robert Silverberg
Tales of Majipoor
Gollancz 2013

“They came from Old Earth.” When a Prologue begins with portentous words like these you might automatically assume you’re reading a science fiction title. Especially when you’re told the colonists have migrated to Majipoor, a giant planet with low gravitational pull, three large continents to inhabit and expand into, an indigenous population to interact with and aliens from other worlds to transplant onto.

And yet, science doesn’t feature too much in these short stories, though fiction of another genre does. Of the seven tales, three are specifically about magic, one implies magic with the ‘sending’ of vivid and detailed dreams and another includes what can only be called magical talismans to call up images of past events. We are indubitably in the realm of fantasy now, albeit fantasy on another planet instead of a supernatural Otherworld, and with intelligent alien life forms instead of elves and fairies.

Then what are we to make of the faintly philosophical themes that Silverberg touches on, themes such as the ethics of restoring historical artefacts, or claiming ‘divine inspiration’ as your own creation, or the nature of sacrilege and how that conflicts with scientific truth? Continue reading “Mixing genres”

No Land is an Island

John Donne as a young man
John Donne as a young man

Yes, you read that right — I haven’t forgotten what John Donne really wrote (No Man is an Island, in case you need reminding). I’m referring to the EU Referendum vote that will be taking place a couple of days after Midsummer’s Day, when the people currently living in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be asked a simple Yes/No question:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

(or, as Welsh speakers will see it, A ddylai’r Deyrnas Unedig aros yn aelod o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd neu adael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd?)

I won’t go into the convoluted political details of why this question is being asked now. The steam coming out of my ears and the air being turned blue would thoroughly obscure any rational arguments for or against. But my concern is simply that the UK might throw the baby out with the bathwater because of the xenophobia that is being whipped up by some sections of the media.

Xenophobia is a nasty word for a nasty thing. Continue reading “No Land is an Island”

Mortal Coil Shuffled Off

Bard strip

Director: Action!
Great Actor: “To be or to not be –“
Director: Cut!

Director: Action!
Great Actor:To be or to be not –“
Director: Cut!

Mumbles off-camera.

Great Actor: OK …
Director: A-n-d action!
Great Actor:To be or not … to be:”

Muffled cheers off camera.

Great Actor:that is … the answer –“

Muffled swearing off-camera.

William Shakespeare died April 23rd 1616, having retired a couple of years earlier from the stage and from playwriting. Reportedly this scrap of manuscript was recently discovered concealed behind his monument in Stratford’s parish church.