Darkly shaded lives

Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, painted around 1834 by Branwell (who has erased his own image). National Portrait Gallery

Juliet Gardiner: The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth.
A Life in Letters, Diaries and Writings 

Collins & Brown 1992

We wove a web in childhood,
A web of sunny air;
We dug a spring in infancy
Of water pure and fair […]

For life is darkly shaded
And its joys fleet fast away!

— from ‘Retrospection’ by Charlotte Brontë (1835)

2017 marks the bicentenary of the birth of the least celebrated of the Brontë siblings, Branwell. As with the group portrait he painted of his surviving sisters and himself he appears as a ghostly figure, barely mentioned and then only with sadness. He left some poetry, youthful writings, a handful of paintings (on the evidence we have mostly of mediocre merit) and a record of a life wasted, an existence which brought him and those who knew him pain and distress.

But Branwell — for all his likely hidden talents — is not the gifted individual who springs to mind when the name Brontë is mentioned; more likely it will be Charlotte, Emily or Anne who commands our immediate attention. The World Within recounts the family history, from Patrick Brunty’s birth in County Down in 1777 to Charlotte Brontë’s death in 1855. There will be little I suspect to surprise Brontë fans so rather than give a synopsis of their lives and accomplishments I will merely point out what makes this title worth more than a brief look.

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Winterlude

In case you were wondering I’ve not gone away.

(Of course, you may not have noticed.)

Life has been a bit hectic. If I ever was in any doubt, being retired is no holiday — not if I want to live a little. Well, live a lot.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I’ve been involved in over the last few weeks.

1. Playing the keyboard part in a Haydn Mass for a Sunday service in a local medieval church. (PS: it boasts a hollow yew tree said to be two millennia old.)
2. Accompanying the local choral society for rehearsals, leading to a concert in Brecon Cathedral where I sang in the tenor section. (This featured the Mass in D by Dvorak, Haydn’s Te Deum and choruses from Handel’s Israel in Egypt.)
3. Attending Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsals, playing the piano part, and performing in two concerts. (Film music by John Williams — 85 this year — was the theme, including items from The Cowboys, Warhorse, Jurassic Park: The Lost World and E.T., plus selections from Episodes IV, V and VII of Star Wars.)
4. Accompanying a student performing for the opening of a Confucius Classroom in a local school. (The goal of this UCL Institute of Education initiative is to help local schools to start or strengthen the teaching of Chinese language and culture.)
5. Accompanying students for instrumental exams. (Cello, violin and euphonium, since you ask.)
6. Conducting the local choral society performing a capella carols around the town. (And if it wasn’t for a recent heavy dump of snow which led to cancellation, I’d’ve today been singing with another choir a concert of Advent music by Praetorius,  Gabrieli and other contemporaries, all accompanied by sackbuts and a cornett.)
7. Not all activities have been musical: I’ve been clearing a wild patch of ground of vegetation and rubbish so we can do something with it in the coming year, and we’ve attended a couple of events in Hay Festival’s Winter Weekend. (Hay-on-Wye is one of the globe’s Town of Books, running a famous literary festival every summer.)

There we have it: a busy few weeks which has precluded much blogging. I can’t guarantee there’ll be much literary blogging this side of Christmas, or anything but random following of fellow bloggers’ posts.

But I’ll try. 🙂

Irony and Ingenuousness

Blaise Castle
Blaise Castle folly, Henbury, Bristol

Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Oxford World’s Classics 2008

“Blaize Castle!” cried Catherine; “what is that?”
“The finest place in England – worth going fifty miles at any time to see.”
“What, is it really a castle, an old castle?”
“The oldest in the kingdom.”
“But is it like what one reads of?”
“Exactly – the very same.”
“But now really – are there towers and long galleries?”
“By dozens.”

The irony of this dialogue between the imaginative young ingénue Catherine and her would-be suitor, the boorish John Thorpe, is that Blaise Castle is neither the oldest castle in the kingdom (it was only built in 1766) nor are there dozens of towers and galleries (the three-cornered folly has only three towers and two floors). To these two themes of irony and ingenuousness are added the twin essences of parody and pastiche to furnish the reader of this Austen novel with gothic contrasts and dualities galore.

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: a Gothic story is regarded as the original ‘gothick’ horror tale; first published in 1764, it now seems rather tame and rambling with its over-the-top supernatural happenings (particularly the appearance of a giant flying helmet), its convoluted über-melodramatic plot and its unengaging characters. But it set off a trend for similar novels featuring creepy castles, hidden chambers, darkened passages, villainous father figures, fainting heroines and secrets waiting to be revealed; in fact, precisely the kind of novels that were eventually to be lovingly sent up by Northanger Abbey. Continue reading “Irony and Ingenuousness”

Mountain people

 

A Bridge near Brecon (1809). Image: public domain

Joan Aiken’s fantasy The Whispering Mountain (1968) is very firmly set in the early 19th century in mid-Wales. Having done her research she evokes placenames, legends, speech-patterns, history and people in this alternate/alternative history fantasy, all within the parameters of a tightly-plotted narrative.

In this post I want to introduce the Welsh characters who inhabit these pages, leaving outsiders, incomers and nobility to a related post. As with so many of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken has created a rich background for her story, including a large cast of characters, but so many of the main players are distinctive enough that it’s not too hard keeping track of who’s who. As is my wont, in these notes I aim to suggest possible inspirations for how the author created her alternative history timeline.

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Times out of joint

Godstow nunnery ruins 1784 (credit: http://thames.me.uk/s01860.htm)

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust,
Volume One: La Belle Sauvage

Illustrated by Chris Wormell
David Fickling Books / Penguin Books 2017

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead is an exceptional young man, bookish yet practical, hard-working yet imaginative. Living in a world parallel to ours, near an Oxford which is not quite the same us ours and in times very different to ours, he has to call on all his innate resources when the times prove to be out of joint. Will he prove instrumental in helping to set it right?

Pullman’s long-awaited new trilogy The Book of Dust, set in the same frame as His Dark Materials, in my view looks like living up to its promise. If we can accept the existence of daemons, those anima/animus beings in the form of animals that humans all have in this world, then at first this narrative starts off as a straightforward thriller. Those familiar with the earlier trilogy and its associated works will not be surprised to discover that this instalment provides further details of Lyra Silvertongue’s backstory; but new readers will not be unduly disadvantaged because our focus is almost entirely on Malcolm and the deep water — literally — he finds himself in.

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What the mountain whispered

I posted a review of Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain with a promise of further discussion based on copious notes I did a few years back, and with this post I’m starting to fulfil that promise. Expect a kaleidoscope of background info on this winner of the 1969 Guardian Award!

The first thing I want to draw attention to in this instalment of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence is the author’s use of themes, some of which link with other novels in the chronicles — with such a device Joan provides threads across the series which help to loosely bind them into a pleasing alternative history of the early 19th century.

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How to spot a reader

The surefire way to identify an eager beaver young reader is to listen to them.

How do they pronounce the words they’ve seen in print but never heard?

Do they — as I remember being sniggered at for doing — say “causal” instead of casual? Does that understandably precocious child pronounce “foregin” in place of that odd-looking word foreign? And — as I heard an adult enunciate when expanding his horizons into less mundane topics — does “esoteric”sometimes emerge (by analogy with “expectorate” perhaps — with the stress on the second syllable?

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