Unostentatious Austen intro #AustenInAugustRBR

Blaize Castle
Blaise or ‘Blaize’ Castle, Henbury, Bristol, mentioned in Northanger Abbey © C A Lovegrove

A Brief Guide to Jane Austen
by Charles Jennings.
Robinson 2012.

For an Austen newbie like me, as I was early in the second decade of the 21st century, this Brief Guide – at over two hundred and forty pages not that brief, however – was an excellent introduction and summary, told intelligently and sympathetically.

Four succinct but readable chapters deal first with Austen’s life and novels, followed by an overview in ten sections of life in Regency England and a summary of Jane’s afterlife in criticism and the media.

Added to this core are a short introduction, a select bibliography and, finally, the indispensable index. While the map of southern Britain helps chart Jane’s travels (despite the central area being obscured by the binding) what would have made this Guide complete would have been a family tree, however simplified, to elucidate sibling and other relationships.

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The Dead Hand

Town Hall, Y Trallwng / Welshpool

A Mixture of Frailties (1958)
by Robertson Davies,
in The Salterton Trilogy.
Penguin Books, 2011.

Monica had heard all her life that Opportunity knocks but once. But when Opportunity knocks, the sound can bring your heart into your mouth.

Chapter Seven

Young singer Monica Gall is at the core of this novel but, as with all the Robertson Davies novels I’ve read (this is the sixth), there is a lot more to his narrative than – in this case – the musical education of an ingénue. The wider aspects of Davies’s mise-en-scène is equally important to him, as it must therefore be for the reader.

Thus the framing device involves a perverse Last Will read in Salterton, Ontario where the previous two instalments of the trilogy take place; as well as a cast of diverse characters we encounter many of Davies’s recurring literary motifs – literature of course, and drama, but also music, pedagogy, Europe, illusion, guilt, humour; and, rambling though the plot may feel at times, there is a sureness of touch and clarity of vision that comes from an author who knows why he wants to say.

And why does he want to say? The novel’s title comes from a passage written by George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax in the 17th century: in it Lord Halifax counsels a softening of personal arrogance and condemnation of others by remembrance of one’s own faults, one’s personal frailties: “they pull our Rage by the sleeve and whisper Gentleness to us in our censures.” And this is Davies’s theme too, the hauptstimme of the final part of his Salterton trilogy: temper judgement with compassion.

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Tolkien’s Sidmouth

Tolkien’s Hobbitonon-the-Hill

Many are the parts of Britain that are claimed as the inspiration for The Shire in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Sarehole in Warwickshire, where Ronald’s widowed mother moved in 1896, is a convincing part-model; then there’s Buckland in Powys, Wales where it’s argued the young Ronald and his younger brother Hilary later spent a holiday with their guardian after their mother’s death in 1904. A recent item by a trainee reporter for Devon Live caught my eye with yet another claim for primacy as the original Shire:

Although you may know that Tolkien had connections with Oxford, you may be less familiar with his affection for the Jurassic Coast. According to his biographers, Tolkien essentially turned Sidmouth into the Shire.

Toby Codd, Devon Live

My not being a Tolkien scholar in any shape or form this assertion was therefore news to me, since I was only vaguely aware of Tokien having been to Devon’s Jurassic Coast on holiday at some stage. But is Sidmouth really the Shire? What’s the evidence for this assertion? Or is it all down to lazy journalism?

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An insubstantial shadow

Howard Pyle: How Arthur Drew Forth ye Sword

The Figure of Arthur
by Richard Barber.
Longman, 1972.

Arthur of Albion, published in 1961 when the author was 20, was Richard Barber’s first book on Arthur. The present one is a reaction against the current vision,¹ among others, of a Cadbury-based Arthur:

“[T]he orthodox view of Arthur is in danger of becoming accepted as fact by default of a challenger. […] If it seems that all that has been achieved [in this book] is to offer a different but equally insubstantial shadow we can expect no more.”

This “historical Arthur” postulated by current opinion [1973] is an attractive theory but it has its difficulties, he says.

  1. Documentary evidence in itself is insufficient: the authority of the evidence has to be considered since the writing of history was formerly regarded as a literary activity and not as the objective recording of facts.
  2. Archaeology rarely supplements historical detail but instead “provides the forest which the historian cannot see for trees.”
  3. Psychological traps abound for the unwary; since history abhors a vacuum a shape-shifting figure must be created by each era to fulfil its aspirational requirements.
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Trailing the grail

© C A Lovegrove

Over Sea, Under Stone
by Susan Cooper.
The Dark is Rising Sequence Book 1.
Margaret L McElderry Books, 2013 (1965).

“You can search and search, in a quest, and in the end you may never get there at all.” — Barney

When I first read this in the late 1960s or early 70s I was on the lookout for stories featuring quests for the Holy Grail in modern times. It joined Charles Williams’ War in Heaven (1930), Arthur Machen’s The Great Return (1915), Alan Garner’s Elidor (1965) and other titles, some best forgotten, as examples of how the notion of a grail, as cup as well as symbol, could inspire so many different tales of quests and trails followed by those seeking it.

A more recent second reading revealed more subtleties than I remembered and now a third has raised the novel even higher in my estimation, for its pacing, its verisimilitude (for all that it’s a fantasy) and above all its characterisation of the three siblings who are at the core of the fiction.

Among other things that struck me was the fact that apart from one or two details that set it firmly in the sixties this was a narrative which had scarcely dated, meaning that it’s perfectly enjoyable by today’s readers whatever their age.

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Wishing Wells & Votive Offerings

‘Le Grand-Père’ mammoth with ibexes on the Grand Plafond. Grotte de Rouffignac, Dordogne.

In Southwest France the town of Rouffignac boasts a ‘cave of a hundred mammoths’. Or rather representations of them drawn or engraved on the walls and ceilings. Nowadays [1988] the visitor travels one kilometre or so underground on a small electric train. Every now and then there are isolated mammoths on the walls and claw marks of cave bears on the ceiling; the latter, luckily, are not contemporary with the artists.

Suddenly the train stops and there they are, a multitude of mammoths, horses, bison and other horned animals covering the vault of a low ceiling. One horse is about eight feet across. The artist or artists delineating it, lying on the floor about three feet below (as it then was) would not have been able to appreciate it all. It is all breathtaking, seemingly simple, but effective.

Why did prehistoric people travel so far underground to create pictures they could not enjoy in their entirety? The answer is close at hand: a large, natural but uneven pit descends below the cavern’s floor. From here, no doubt, the deities of the underworld could emerge to appreciate the artistic offerings of humankind and grant the wishes that accompanied them.

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A warm imagination

The Rice portrait, said to be a portrait of the young Jane Austen by Ozias Humphry, painted in 1788 when she was 13.

Catharine, or the Bower
by Jane Austen,
in Catharine and Other Writings
edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray.
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 1993.

“[When] the Bower began to have its usual influence over her Spirits, she contributed towards settling them, by taking out a book, for she had always one about her, and reading.”

‘Catharine, or the Bower’

Catharine, also known as Kitty, lives with her aunt Mrs Percival at The Grove, Chetwynde, five miles from Exeter, far from “the hot House of Vice” that is London. We may suppose that, as with her author at the time of writing, Kitty is sixteen years old; but we’re immediately told that, unlike her author, she “had the misfortune, as many heroines before her, of losing her Parents when she was very young.”

When we discover that her aunt is determined to preserve Kitty’s virtue by closely scrutinising, supervising and warning off any young man that crosses the girl’s path, we recognise that Austen is playing on common fairytale tropes; and so our task appears a simple one – to see how the story plays out. Unfortunately, we don’t get the joy of that because this, begun in 1792 as one of Austen’s first essays in novel-writing, remains incomplete.

Though there is evidence that, a score of years later, she was tinkering with this youthful fragment – removing outdated practices such as powdering the hair, and inserting references to the newly instituted Regency – she never did progress with this promising start. Yet, even at this stage, we can recognise some of her trademark themes.

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Speaking freely

Quote from Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ as it appeared in many Everyman editions

“This is true Liberty where free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv’s high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What be juster in a State than this?”

Euripides, ‘The Suppliants’ (transl. Milton)

Social media, mainstream media and politics are all full of news, discussions, assertions about and denials of freedom of speech. But arguments surrounding it are nothing new, because John Milton – yes, that John Milton – waxed lyrical about it nearly four centuries ago.

Areopagitica; a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England. Milton wrote his tract Areopagitica after the passing of the Licensing Act of 1643, which had given Parliament the power to censor books before publication, a power he did not approve of.

Not a text I remember anything about when I was studying the Tudors and Stuarts for Advanced Level at school, I only really registered Areopagitica when reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (1978): she quotes a key sentence from the tract – “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life” – as justifying the availability of books expressing varying opinions. It remains a clarion call in 2022.

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Coming to the boil

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Dream House by Jan Mark,
illustrated by Jon Riley.
Puffin Books 1989 (1987).

“West Stenning is a sixteenth-century manor house set in rolling Kentish downland, four miles from Ashford and eleven miles from the historic city of Canterbury. Why not join us for a long weekend of writing, music or painting? Courses tutored by professional writers, artists and musicians run from…”

Dream House

West Stenning: a venue in rural Kent where schoolgirl Hannah helps with domestic chores between courses there; which celebrity-mad Dina haunts so she can glimpse or even meet famous people; where Julia, headstrong daughter of an actor tutoring on the course, heads to demand his attention.

Yet, unbeknown to all, Hannah’s younger brother Tom – who has visions of being a town planner and architect – is not only observing them all but, by sharing or withholding information, is also instrumental in deciding the outcomes of each girl’s hopes for the week, none of which are as they’d planned.

Having set everything up all Tom then has to do is to sit back and watch because, as we’re told, “Things were coming nicely to the boil on their own.”

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Peake Gothick

Moat at Raglan Castle © C A Lovegrove

I’m currently revisiting Gormenghast Castle – in the form of the second part of the trilogy chronicling the last of the Groan dynasty. Gormenghast is yet another instalment that encourages the reader to linger and relish successive vignettes, and I’m taking my time.

As with Titus Groan I’m drawn, weakly struggling, into the web Mervyn Peake has woven; and as with that title I’m (re)engaging with the distinctive names which so conveyed the grotesque nature of the castle’s denizens and the decayed atmosphere of the sprawling structure.

In a similar fashion I started (in this post) to jot down the peculiarities of Gormenghast itself and to consider from where Peake may have drawn inspiration. But right now I want to add a few extra observations in preparation for a summative piece when I’ve completed Gormenghast, and before I eventually move on to Titus Alone, and then Titus Awakes.

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The angel’s lyre

© C A Lovegrove

Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans
by Luis Fernando Verissimo (2000),
translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jill Costa.
The Harvill Press, 2004.

Edgar Allan Poe. Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Dr John Dee. Jorge Luis Borges. The King of Bohemia. How exactly are they and others linked? What does the angel Israfel’s lyre signify? And what precisely happened in Buenos Aires early in 1985 when a victim was found stabbed in a locked hotel room?

Brazilian author Verissimo (the surname translates as “very true”) has concocted a metafictional crime novel in which he – or rather his literary alter ego – conducts conversations with his idol Borges before the latter’s death in 1986, with a view to solving the riddle of how and why a certain Joachim Rotkopf was murdered.

As the novel abounds in literary and historical references, the fact that the murder happens at an Edgar Allan Poe conference naturally leads to discussions about Poe’s The Gold-Bug and The Murders in the Rue Morgue in Borges’s own library. Curiously, and perhaps notably, the Argentine’s own writings, particularly Death and the Compass, are rarely specified.

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