The end of March, and a quarter of the way through the year after the year. Many readers have reported a slump in their reading (like many authors have noted lethargy where their writing is concerned) and I do understand that: the current global situation makes us all anxious and that hits us in different ways.
I find though that I can only really keep up my positivity through books; if I didn’t have access to books I’m not sure how I’d cope mentally because I’m an inveterate reader — social media, newspapers, food wrappers — and even my fallback, playing the piano, involves me doing a fair amount of sightreading scores.
Apologies, then, to those who are finding your literary mojo dampened: I do sympathise — even as I seek out the next thing to read, for my tottering TBR piles seem at the moment to be inexhaustible.
Ghost of a Chance
by Rhiannon Lassiter.
Oxford University Press 2011
This, if it’s not too contradictory a description for a ghost-cum-detective story, is a delightful novel, often deeply satisfying and always captivating. The narrative is set within the span of a month, from April Fool’s Day to May Eve, and features the ghost of young Eva, who has to act as a kind of detective to uncover the details of her own murder.
Good detective stories include a cast of suspects and a shoal of red herrings, and we get plenty of both here. Ghost stories, by definition, must offer us a closetful of skeletons, spooks and denizens of the spirit world and there are enough here too for all the proverbial hairs on your neck.
Particularly memorable are the maid Maggie, the Witch and, most chilling of all, the Stalker, who feeds off other ghosts.
The Time of the Ghost
by Diana Wynne Jones, illustrated by David Wyatt.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2001 (1981)
Corn yellow and running, came past me just now, the one bearing within her the power to give life in the realms of death.
As with so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasies she weaves in so many strands — autobiographical, literary, supernatural and more — that it becomes almost like an ancient artefact or artwork, an object that mystifies as much as it magnetically draws one in, a magical narrative that repays a second read or more, and then a hefty bit of research and recall.
For example, the ghost of the title hears a voice from a longbarrow, the speaker mistaking a sister called Imogen for his long-dead daughter. This must surely be the Cunobelinus who was transformed in Shakespeare’s play into Cymbeline, who had a daughter called Imogen who was presumed to have been killed. And though the novel is set in North Hampshire the author draws from her childhood in Essex, the area with which Cymbeline and his family is associated.
So already we are seeing autobiographical and literary details being drawn together, but for the innocent reader what comes through most is a mystery story concerning a very strange family and a ghost who doesn’t know who she is.
Welsh Pirates and Privateers
by Terry Breverton.
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 2018.
Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum…
Who does not thrill to very mention of pirates? I do, for sure, and for all the usual reasons — the smell of open sea, the ship in full sail, the thrill of the chase, the bustle of action as other ships are sighted. I’m less enamoured of the usual clichés though — the pirate talk, the romantic notion of the sea thief with a heart of gold beneath their bluff exterior, the stereotyped clothing — though I blame that on an early addiction to documented history.
So you can imagine my delight in spotting this pocket-sized volume: over fifty named Welsh pirates, a profusely illustrated text on quality paper, a discussion on how Welsh seamen were a key element in the history of piracy and privateering, all by a writer who had already authored seven books on the subject, with this volume a revised and updated version of his 2003 title The Book of Welsh Pirates and Buccaneers.
But I was to discover there were two sides to my reaction to this acquisition: genuine delight mixed with some frustration.
Death of a Naturalist
by Seamus Heaney.
Faber 1999 (1966)
It’s fascinating to read this collection of nearly three dozen short poems, individually each a gem, collectively a story of childhood and young adulthood leading to marriage. It very much reminds me of an album of photographs, or even those selections of instrumental miniatures called Albumblätter or Feuilles d’Album.
What do we observe? Scenes of countryside activities from the author’s childhood in County Derry, glimpses of individual lives in Belfast, reminiscences of a honeymoon taken, a sojourn on the islands of Aran. Vignettes they may be but they’re vivid and intense, self-contained and demanding to be savoured.
I’ve met one or two of these before, for example Blackberry-picking, which inspired me to write ‘I Hunted Dragons Once’, but to encounter them in their entirety is a very different experience. Too many to comment here on each individually, it’s also hard to make a selection of favourites because each one has its own merits; but try I must.
The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Paul Kidby, afterword by Rob Wilkins. Doubleday 2015
In The Shepherd’s Crown Tiffany Aching may be said to come into her own, but in truth she has been coming into her own since she was nine, in the first of the Discworld novels featuring her life on the Chalk. Every couple of years she has come up against a testing adversary — the Fairy Queen, the Hiver, the Wintersmith, and the Cunning Man — and now, aged around seventeen, it seems as if she will have to prove herself yet again.
There is the added poignancy that this is also the last Discworld novel Terry Pratchett took a hand in completing (with the aid of Rob Wilkins and others) and, though not as adroitly finished as the previous titles were, Pratchett at his less than best is still an awesome beast.
At the core of this novel there is, as in all the Discworld novels I’ve so far read but especially in the Aching series, a big beating passionate heart, an organ symbolised by its very title.
“O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…”
—Hamlet: Act I, Scene 5
I began with Comus, Milton’s 1634 masque, the touchstone of which I identified as chastity ensnared. Its horrifying story of a young woman trapped by a villain — smiling or otherwise — the likely victim of perdition through seduction is distressingly all too familiar these days. In Milton’s drama she puts up a spirited defence, but if it weren’t for the intervention of her brothers and a third party she may have indeed been lost; rescue, tragically, is all too rarely at hand in real life.
Many tales where the female is menaced by a male figure are still seen as inferring that it’s the woman who’s the instigator of her own victimhood, the architect of her own misfortunes. Like mythical Pandora or Psyche, who succumb to what’s often referred to as ‘transgressive curiosity’, they may stray where they shouldn’t, open storage containers, shine lights in dark corners, enter locked rooms or go widdershins. The astonishing message appears to be that it’s their own fault that they find trouble by, for instance, dressing provocatively, walking alone, or just being a woman.
But not all narratives take this line; whether implicitly or explicitly they pin the blame fully on the predator, the male — and more often than not it is a male — who perversely sees women as deserving abuse, rape or death. Many scholars have discussed this aspect and in what follows I shall allude to some of them (because, of course, my argument is in no way original). I want then to take up a couple or more threads: the implication that women bring misfortune on themselves; the intervention of one or more rescuers; and instances when sisters are actually doing it for themselves.
As a man of a certain age myself, the titular character of Roddy Doyle’s Charlie Savage is a kind of blood brother even though we don’t have the obvious things in common — football, the pub, dogs; for in this collection of reminiscences Charlie (via the author) reveals his bewilderment at changes in the world even while he valiantly tries to come to terms with them, a state of affairs those born in the middle of the last century may well recognise.
As a Dubliner himself Doyle is in an excellent position to portray Charlie’s daily habits in Ireland’s capital with a sympathetic eye — it helps that he appears to share a birth year with his eponymous hero — though we mustn’t be misled into thinking this Charlie is coterminous with his author.
The fifty-two vignettes, written as weekly instalments for the Irish Independent, chart Charlie’s stumbles through 2018, two years into a man-baby’s presidency and another two years before a global pandemic. But many of Charlie’s observations continue to have contemporary and, even with their Irish perspective, universal relevance.
Comus (1634) by John Milton, edited by A W Verity. Cambridge University Press 1927 (1909)
Come, Lady, while Heaven lends us grace, Let us fly this cursed place, Lest the sorcerer us entice With some other new device.
With these words we’re taken to the nub of John Milton’s masque, which is that a wicked magician has entrapped a maiden, and that rescue may be at hand if nothing further awful happens. This is the stuff of fairytales, and we may expect a happy-ever-after ending, but this isn’t necessarily a given: after all it’s from the Stuart period, when nearly every bit of art had a political dimension, as it had been in the Tudor era.
And we may consider the audience of this intended narrative, the Earl of Bridgewater, lately ensconced in a castle on the Welsh borders where he might oversee a people possibly still uppity about being absorbed into English culture through new laws and a new official language. How would Milton bestride the fence between his Puritan leanings and the royalist sponsor it was written for?
This critical edition of the text has a certain historical value, it being more than a century old, but it still has much to say of worth, I think. Still, the play’s the thing, as another playwright wrote; and whomsoever’s conscience is caught Comus retains a certain curiosity for its poetry and for its concession to the masque genre with, admittedly, a rather sober frivolity.
So, Milton’s Comus is a masque, a curious piece of theatre to our modern sensibilities. In some ways masques are total theatre: there’s a story acted out, there are also fantastic costumes, music, dances, songs, along with visual and sound effects. Yet also there is high-flown language, and classical allusions, and frequent instances of what we’d now call virtue signalling (which may seem the whole point). And Comus has all this in abundance.
What’s the story? Comus is a sorcerer, the son of Bacchus and Circe, who has inherited his father’s debauched nature as well his mother’s skill for transforming humans into beasts. His name is from the Greek word for revelry which is one of the roots of our word ‘comedy’. When a Lady from Ludlow gets separated from her two brothers in a wood Comus tries to persuade her to swallow a potion, to no avail for she is virtuous beyond her years; her distraught brothers fortunately meet a spirit in the form of the shepherd Thyrsis who gives them a botanical charm to protect them from Comus’s wand.
However, when they rush forward to thwart the sorcerer’s design they fail to seize his wand, and so it is left for Thyrsis to invoke Sabrina, the nymph of the River Severn which flows past Ludlow Castle, to lift the stasis that keeps the Lady to her seat: she affirms that it’s “my office best to help ensnarèd chastity.” The Lady and her brothers are restored to their parents in the Castle and we are left with a dance, a song, and a moral from Milton in the guise of Thyrsis:
Mortals, that would follow me, Love Virtue: she alone is free; She can teach ye how to climb Higher than the sphery chime; Or if Virtue feeble were,Heaven itself would stoop to her.
This is a rare example of the use of trochaic tetrameter in Comus which, along with rhyming couplets is left to songs and scenes of a pastoral nature. Mostly, however, the masque consists of blank verse in iambic pentameter, as when the bespelled Lady says of Comus
I had not thought to have unlocked my lips In this unhallowed air, but that this juggler Would think to charm my judgement, as mine eyes, Obtruding false rules pranked in reason’s garb.
Such phrases as this suits its lofty subject and its characters, since the siblings being originally acted by the sons and daughter of the Lord-Lieutenant of Wales and the Borders, namely Lord Brackley, Thomas Egerton and Lady Alice Egerton. The one and only performance took place at Ludlow Castle in the Marches, on Michaelmas Eve in 1634.
As a drama Comus is as static as the Lady’s forced entrapment in her seat, and for this reason some critics consider this as belonging with Milton’s other poems of around the same period, at a time when the phoney war preceding the English Civil War was ratcheting up. However, though Milton couldn’t help moralising (he even added improving lines to later printed editions) the fairytale framework underlying the flowery diction shines through, with jeopardy and villainy, as in any fantasy script, moving the narrative forward to its eventual resolution. In the skilled hands of a professional company Comus might even work as a modern musical, with or without the original music by Henry Lawes.
I first read this some years ago as I thought it might be a counterpart to Shakespeare’s The Tempest — both have a magician centre stage, there is a young heroine in both and the action of both takes place in an enchanted locale (one an island, the other a “wild wood”). But any resemblance is superficial: Prospero is benign, Comus malign; Miranda is rather more than an innocent pawn but the Lady is both steadfast in her virtue and determinedly assertive in the face of Comus’s importuning; and Prospero’s Isle “full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not” is the obverse of Comus’s “adventurous glade”, described in the stage directions:
COMUS enters, with a charming-rod in his hand, his glass in the other; with him a rout of monsters, headed like sundry sorts of wild beasts, but otherwise like men and women, their apparel glistering: they come in making a riotous and unruly noise, with torches in their hands.
In his introduction to this edition Arthur Verity suggests a parentage for this tale of sister lost in a wood, trapped by a sorcerer and rescued by brothers, namely George Peele’s Old Wives’ Tales, the name Comus borrowed from a masque by Ben Johnson, and further details from a Dutch play called Comus written by a Puteanus. My mind went straight away, however, to the Scottish fairytale of Childe Rowland and his sister Burd Helen which, with its similar storyline involving the King of Elfland, hints at a traditional tale lost in the mists of time.
A final word about this edition is in order. Verity’s 1909 volume went through several printings before and after the First World War, attesting to its usefulness; forty pages of introduction plus notes, glossary, appendix, other critiques and an index means the student can fully immerse themself into the poem, its background and its import; and its small format means the reader can easily carry it about in order to increase their familiarity, as I have been doing.
I’ve reviewed this as a contribution to Lory’s Reading the Theatre this March; also its connections with Ludlow in the Welsh Marches make it of peripheral relevance to Paula’s Dewithon, the Welsh Readathon. More, this is a classic play from my Back to the Classics challenge, another book ticked off on my Classics Clublist and one more of my #21TBRbooksin2021
In this post, part of a series discussing Cold Shoulder Roadin Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, I want to focus on the county where most of the action takes place, namely Kent.
As we shall see, some of the places mentioned exist in our world while others do not, and some distances remain the same while others appear to be telescoped. But all these places, while principally the background to the action, are often imbued with a significance that almost makes them characters in their own right.
The discussion that follows is of course preceeded the usual warning notice. 🙂
Merlin and Company
by Álvaro Cunqueiro. Merlín e familia i outras historias (1955)
translated by Colin Smith.
J M Dent / Everyman 1996.
Don Merlin, the Magician of Brittonia and King Arthur’s counsellor, has retired to Galicia in the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula. Here, with Queen Guinevere, at a mansion called Miranda, he is visited by both high and low from the Old World for magical advice, dispensed spells and medical solutions. Surrounded by his books and furnace, well served by his household, he has a path beaten to his door even though it’s a rare occasion when he himself does travel a little further afield.
How do we know all this? Old Felipe the ferryman recalls his time as Merlin’s young page in a series of anecdotes and personal recollections collected together in 1955 by the esteemed Galician writer Cunqueiro, along with later additions published in 1969 included in this translation.
Told in an unadorned and rather rustic fashion, Felipe’s memoir may appear superficially whimsical; but its gentle tales of human hopes and anxieties are touching as well as enchanting, and they fit well into a long oral tradition of stories within stories, like The Arabian Nights, The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales.
Our son came to visit us at our former Welsh farmhouse, at a time when we kept hens and a cockerel. We were out at the time, but when we returned he told us how entertained he’d been by a particular hen we’d recently acquired: she’d been strutting around on her own, as was her habit, ejaculating what sounded like a sneezed obscenity at intervals, and that had had him in stitches. Oh, we said, that’ll be Fuckit!
A Tale of Time City
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Greenwillow Books / Harper Trophy 2001 (1987)
And it seemed to be true that all your life came flooding into you mind in your last moments. She thought of Mum and Dad and London and the War and Time City, and she wanted to shout at Mr Lee, Wait, I haven’t thought of everything yet!
Time certainly does play tricks on you; in my case I was certain I’d read this fantasy when I acquired it a decade and a half ago, but now that I’ve finished it very little seems familiar other than the initial premise. In a way, however, that’s quite appropriate for a novel about time travel in which the past is sometimes not only a different country but also not what you thought it was.
The first thing the title does is remind the reader of A Tale of Two Cities, and whether that was fortuitously arrived at or chosen from the start it does indicate that one of the themes the author intended to make use of was the trope of confused identities: young evacuee Vivian Smith escaping a London about to undergo the Blitz is of a kind with London barrister Sydney Carton during the period of the French Revolution. Dickens’ doppelgänger motif is one of a number of parallels Diana Wynne Jones plays with here, and you will note that as well as London being one of the cities of the Dickens novel there’s another city involved, Paris in one and Time City in the other: both are in turmoil from a Revolution, Time City almost literally so.
What is Time City? It’s a environment outside of time and space: its architecture takes inspiration from our own past, present and, presumably, future, and at times resembles Escher’s famous Relativity etching; and if Time itself can symbolised by a clockface, Time City is situate precisely at that infinitesimal moment represented when the clock’s hands all point to 12. Its function is to oversee Earth history, filled as it appears to be with periods both stable and unstable; meanwhile its functionaries patrol and where necessary intervene in history, tweaking events to ensure all is well. That is, however, providing that chronons — particles which destabilise time — don’t attach themselves to someone who then travels through time. Somebody like 11-year-old Vivian.
As you know I tend not to do weekly or other regular bookish memes, but here’s a spin on one I couldn’t resist, especially as it related to Lory’s prompt Reading the Theatre. It’s posed by Helen of She Reads Novels and this is how she introduced her recent post:
“This week’s topic for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) is “Characters Whose Job I Wish I Had”. As Jana says we can put our own unique spin on each topic and as I wanted to join in with Lory’s Reading the Theatre month, I have chosen ten characters who have jobs connected with acting and the theatre. These are not all jobs I would like to have myself, but some of them sound fun!”
So, without much further ado here’s my take on Helen’s take; quotes (with links) are from my reviews.
Peter Pan by J M Barrie, illustrated by Elisa Trimby (1986).
Puffin Classics 1994 (1911)
Familiarity breeds contempt, it’s often suggested, and with countless reiterations of the Peter Pan story, each taking more and more liberties with the original, I was ready to sneer at this, incredibly my first ever read of the 1911 novelisation of the play.
I was forewarned by Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) that I likely would be made to bristle at a grown man’s knowing attempt to enter into the mind world of a child; but then I remembered I’d done exactly that with children and grandchildren of my own, extemporising together imaginary narratives of adventures and dangers.
I modified the sneer then into an aspect indicating curiosity and was rewarded to find that the network underpinning the now hackneyed clichés and tropes was infinitely more subtle, moving and even troubling than I had expected. And Barrie’s characterisation of young children’s innocence and heartlessness is spot on, though empathy will not be far off sliding into many of their hearts.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.