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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Merely raw materials

Lamb House and garden, from the south

Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House
Jonathan Cape 1991

‘Perhaps we are nothing but the raw materials of a ghost story.’
— Hugo to Toby Lamb

A ghostly apparition, what does it signify? Misfortune? Death? Something lost or unfinished? Are inexplicable happenings evidence of a poltergeist or just the wild imaginings of the observer? Do houses, ancient sites and natural features attract supernatural entities like a genius loci, or perhaps preserve the memory of ancient associations? Will we ever fathom out true answers?

The Haunting of Lamb House is a ghost story unlike any other I’ve read. True, there may be more than one ghost (it appears) and there are three related stories: but if you’re looking for your spine to be tingled or expecting multiple bumps in the night you might be disappointed. Instead, what you’ll be offered is a sense of place and of the personages, real or imagined, that inhabited a three hundred year old house, so that the house becomes as much a character as the denizens that inhabit it.

What for me adds to the novel’s attractiveness are a couple of considerations: first, the house featured in it actually exists — and can be visited by the public — and second, the three narratives, with their different voices, give the novel a documentary feel, as though one was perusing transcriptions of actual historical artefacts. Their combination in one narrative thread somehow allowed me, Coleridge-style, to willingly suspend any sense of disbelief.

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When legend becomes fact

Crickhowell Castle, 1831

Leonardo Olschki: The Grail Castle and its Mysteries
Translated from the Italian by J A Scott
Edited, with a foreword, by Eugène Vinaver

Manchester University Press 1966

Graal: “scutella lata et aliquantulum profunda in qua preciosae dapes divitibus solent apponi gradatim, unus morsellus post alium in diversis ordinibus” (a wide and deep saucer, in which precious food is ceremoniously presented, one piece at a time in sundry rows)
Helinand de Froidmont (early 13th century)

If you were thinking the mysteries of the grail castle were to do with long-lost holy relics, Last Supper chalices, magical stones, Celtic cauldrons, secret occult societies, witches, extraterrestrial visitors or even the blood of Christ you will need to look elsewhere. (There are whole libraries in Babel to cater for each and every taste in such mysteries.)¹

First published in 1961 as ‘Il castello del Re Pescatore e i suoi misteri nel Conte del Graal di Chrétien de Troyes’ (The Castle of the Fisher King and its mysteries in Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail) this is not a publication aimed at a popular market: with a foreword by a foremost Arthurian scholar, key extracts from the medieval romance in the original French, and furnished with footnotes, endnotes and a select bibliography, this monograph (less than a hundred pages) is very much a closely argued academic paper from someone very familiar with the literature and theology of the period in question. The author also effectively — though very politely — demolishes alternative theories from his fellow scholars as to the nature of those mysteries.

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Childhood’s dreams

Vanessa Tait: The Looking Glass House
Corvus 2016 (2015)

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in far-off land.

That “childish story” composed “all in the golden afternoon” that has been the springboard for so many studies, films and novels receives a new treatment in Vanessa Tait’s The Looking Glass House: the wellspring of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Liddell sisters’ governess, Mary Prickett, about whom we know relatively little.

What gives added interest to this version is that the author is the great-granddaughter of Alice herself, with access to documents and family traditions from which to draw. Ultimately, though, the question is whether this stands on its own as a piece of fiction in its own right.

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Haunting tales

Anton Chekhov, photographed in 1889

Chekhov: the early stories 1883-88
Chosen and translated by Patrick Miles & Harvey Pitcher
Abacus 1982

This selection of thirty-five of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, covering a period of five years, is an object lesson in how one author can create variety in this small-scale genre. There are scarcely any false moves here: we’re presented with cheeky humour as well as deep emotion, and served up with well-observed portraits and dramatic episodes. Some pieces are really short — punchy, scarcely two pages long — others approach novelette length. All are quintessentially Russian, infused now by bureaucracy, now by irreverence, sometimes expansive as suits the country’s landscape or intimate as we focus in on a fireside scene. And, for the most part, these tales are about people in all their fragility and weakness — youngsters, old people, couples, bourgeoisie, soldiers, musicians, artisans.

It’s impossible to do more than suggest the range by reference to a few select examples, so I will endeavour to give a suggestion of Chekhov’s skill in the setting of mood. I can’t speak of whether the choices made by the translators are exemplary or not, but I can marvel how a young man in his twenties (born in 1860, he died at too early an age, in his mid-forties) was able to capture such a broad view of human nature.

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Skimble-skamble stuff

Wyvern rampant: a red wyvern is attributed to Owain Glyndŵr as the crest to his coat of arms

Today celebrates Owen Glendower, or rather Owain Glyndŵr in Welsh. September 16 marks the anniversary of when, in 1400, he was proclaimed Prince of Wales in Ruthin, in opposition to the English crown’s domination of the principality. After fifteen years of warfare he disappeared to history, the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales.

Paula Bardell-Hedley’s blog Book Jotter was the stimulus for this post with her reminder of Owain Glyndŵr Day here. Just now I want to give a little bit of background, some of which may be, as Shakespeare put it, skimble-skamble stuff.

The device adopted by Owain Glyndŵr for his banner and shield

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A wistful longing

Robert Macfarlane: The Gifts of Reading
Penguin Books 2017 (2016)

This short essay — just 34 pages of text in A6 format — is a paean or hymn to reading, giving, and books. In fact, one book in particular which he was given as a present, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. Macfarlane then uses this as a springboard to discourse on what moves him: teaching, talking and travelling, companionship, landscape and nature.

I can’t begin to grasp or comprehend all that the author has read, visited or achieved but there is no doubting that the writer of last year’s unexpected bestseller The Lost Words (illustrated by Jackie Morris) is someone who lives life to the full and exults in all he puts his mind to. In describing Leigh Fermor’s book he describes it thus:

I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles. It rang with what in German is called Sehnsucht: a yearning or wistful longing for the unknown and the mysterious. It made me want to stand up and march out — to walk into adventure.

It’s clear that he finds so much of what he comes across in his reading as inspiring. He’s not without humour; he declares that “not all books received as gifts are transformative, of course. Sometimes the only thing a book gives its reader is a paper cut.” But from being given books that expand both his mind and his horizons he makes it his habit to do the same, in the hopes that recipients will likewise find inspiration.

The back cover of this slim booklet tells us that all proceeds from its sale are donated to Migrant Offshore Aid Station. The charity’s mission is designed to provide desperately-needed search and rescue services to people attempting dangerous sea crossings while fleeing violence, poverty and persecution. Such migrants are travellers who don’t have the liberty to journey for leisure or pleasure. The purchase of this publication may therefore in some small way help a few of those who are in most desperate need of aid, one of the many ways in which reading can prove to be a gift.

Rye thoughts

Allan Ramsay: Thomas Lamb of Rye (1719-1804) painted 1753; National Galleries of Scotland

I promised some more Rye, but not wry, thoughts about that East Sussex town bordering Kent, where we’ve recently spent a very pleasant week.

Normally I wouldn’t post about holidays — they tend to be personal matters, after all, of little concern to the world at large — but in the case of Rye and further west in Sussex there is much of huge literary interest, as is appropriate for a bookish blog.

As it happens, this little town is well worth a pilgrimage: here I want to mention a particularly significant building, but I shall later also post about the town in general and later still about other selected sites in East Sussex and Kent.

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Witch Week 2018 is coming…

Ursula Le Guin

Fellow blogger and author Lizzie Ross and I are co-hosting Witch Week 2018. This is a yearly event, first aired on Lory Hess‘s Emerald City Book Review, named after the third book of the same name in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series.

The week runs from 30th October to 6th November, so it includes two great holidays: Halloween AND Guy Fawkes’ Day. The first is now mostly associated with witches and spooky goings-on, of course, while the second, commemorating the uncovering of a plot to blow up Parliament and King James, is an excuse to celebrate with bonfires and fireworks in the UK.

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.

This year, our theme is Feminism + Fantasy, so our read-along book will be Ursula K Le Guin‘s The Other Wind, the final book in the Earthsea series. You have plenty of time to get a copy and read it (perhaps the rest of the series as well) before 30 October. Then join the conversation as we discuss what happens when Le Guin throws a feminist dynamic into the fantastic world of Earthsea.

We’ll have guest bloggers, including this event’s originator and previous host, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, and other features to be finalised and announced as we get closer to the event. We do hope you’ll join in!

Mainline in miniature

Southern Maid

Simon Haynes and Tim Godden:
Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway Official Guidebook
Foreword by Ben Goldacre
RH&DR 2016

Combine our fascination with small-scale models, dolls and simulacra of all kinds with the romance of railways (especially steam engines) and what do you get? Miniature railways of course! These naturally range from toy train sets to model railway layouts and beyond, including quite small locos that can pull a couple of extended families round a circular track; but I want to talk about a more ambitious type of miniature railway.

Often described (and with initials in capital letters too!) as The World’s Smallest Public Railway, the RH&DR was from the start conceived and built in the first third of the twentieth century as a miniature version of its bigger siblings, running on 15-inch gauge, with engines and rolling stock roughly one-third the size we’d expect to encounter.

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Irrepressible transformations

Titania and Oberon from Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

Long Ago and Far Away:
eight traditional fairy tales
Foreword by Marina Warner;
translated by Nigel Bryant, David Carter and Ann Lawson Lucas
Hesperus Press 2012

We’re so used to canonic versions of fairy tales that it’s easy to forget (if we ever knew) that fairy tales come in all shapes and sizes, and have always done so. Those canonic versions are different for each one of us — they may have first appeared in translation from the Brothers Grimm; we may have been introduced to the bowdlerised retellings published by Andrew Lang between 1889 and 1913; or Disney’s animated films may have been our first encounter with them — but whatever the source these usually serve as our personal ur-texts.

So it is nearly always disconcerting to come across variations of our ur-texts, versions which may be so unfamiliar as to make us doubt they belong to the same family. Marina Warner introduces nine selections for this slim volume, giving us such standard fare as ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ — but in early literary forms that may puzzle and confuse.

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A pocket full of Rye

Church Square, Rye (1952) Credit: https://www.antiquemapsandprints.com/ekmps/shops/richben90/images/sussex-1952-rye.-church-square.-old-vintage-print.-190581-p.jpg

We’ve been holidaying in East Sussex, near the historic town of Rye, seeing sites, such as gardens and buildings, and sights, such as the sea and countryside. Amongst them all is beautiful Rye itself.

Rye is also a veritable literary mecca. Natives and residents have included playwright (and sometime Shakespeare collaborator) John Fletcher, Henry James (who completed The Spoils of Poynton near Rye, and then wrote his remaining novels in Lamb House, Rye), E F Benson (author of the ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels), and Conrad Aiken (poet and author), not forgetting Joan Aiken, his now more famous daughter, born here ninety-four years ago on 4th September 1924.

Aiken celebrated her birthplace in her fiction, sometimes obscurely. For example, the short stories in The Monkey’s Wedding feature towns called, variously, Rohun, Rune or Ryme. The Wolves Chronicle entitled Midwinter Nightingale, first published the year before her death, was partly set in marshland reminiscent of Romney Marsh, the coastal area between Winchelsea and Dungeness, and accessible from Rye. And, of course, The Haunting of Lamb House, her supernatural novel from 1991, is specifically set in Rye.

Forgive me but please be indulgent, for I shall in due course be posting a little bit more about this part of East Sussex and its literary links; for now it seems a good time to celebrate the genius of Joan Aiken and draw attention to her Sussex birthplace.


References
Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House. Jonathan Cape, 1991
~ Midwinter Nightingale. Red Fox, 2005 (2003)
~ The Monkey’s Wedding. Small Beer Press, 2011
Dorothy Eagle and Hillary Carell (eds): The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles. OUP, 1977
Henry James: The Spoils of Poynton. Penguin Classics 1987 (1897)

Rye’s literary links
https://www.ryemuseum.co.uk/literary-rye/
https://www.ryemuseum.co.uk/moe-local-writers/
https://jessicanorrie.wordpress.com/tag/rye/
http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/timeline_02.html

A heart-warming tale with a twist

First snowfall: Pembrokeshire road

Joan Aiken The Shadow Guests Red Fox 1992

Joan Aiken was one of those children’s fantasy writers who made the task of reading her books not a task at all, just a pleasure to slip between the sheets and lose yourself in the narrative. Her command of story and speech seems so effortless yet true to life.

The Shadow Guests opens in a 20th-century airport, Heathrow, with a youngster waiting to be collected by a relative, an opening so unlike many Aiken novels as to feel incongruous. There is a mystery surrounding Cosmo’s family back in Australia, a mystery which gradually unfolds itself but which sets up an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety which maintains itself right through to the end.

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