In praise of innocence

Botticelli’s Primavera (1482), Uffizi, Florence

Henry James: Daisy Miller: A Study.
An International Episode. Four Meetings.
Penguin English Library 2012 (1879)

First published in magazine form in 1878, Daisy Miller is a novella that must strike modern readers very differently from their counterparts a hundred and forty years ago. Now, the very idea of a young lady seeking the company of pleasant young men seems unremarkable in Western society, but then for one such as Daisy to do so unchaperoned, and especially against all advice and convention, would have been regarded as not only unrespectable but also reprehensible.

In the outraged reactions of those who observed Daisy’s unconventionality James may have expressed closet anxieties over his own acceptance as an American in Europe, for he had only recently settled in England; his many extended stays in Europe — which included Switzerland and Italy — had given him plenty of opportunity for observing how New World visitors were received in the Old World. But of course Daisy Miller is much more than autobiography dressed up as fiction.

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A publishing scoundrel

Lord Byron (1813) by Thomas Phillips

Henry James: The Aspern Papers
Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1888)

Miss Juliana Bordereau lives with her niece Miss Tina in a run-down Venetian palazzo; it is here that a literary researcher — nameless throughout this novella — manages to track the pair down and inveigle them into letting him stay as a lodger. His ulterior motive is to gain access to any papers rumoured to exist pertaining to the late American poet Jeffrey Aspern, all for eventual publication.

Nine chapters detail the narrator’s underhand machinations, first to pull to wool over the eyes of the elder Miss Bordereau and secondly to gain the confidence of Miss Tina. James conjures up a kind of apologue or moral fable from what initially appears to be a factual first-person account but which increasingly makes us suspect the researcher is an unreliable narrator.

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Beautiful schooldays and friendships

Vintage postcard of Achensee, Tirol, Austria

Elinor M Brent-Dyer: The New House at the Chalet School
Collins 1980 (1935)

Head Girl Jo Bettany returns to the Chalet School for the summer term, her last one, only to find she is based at a newly built annexe called St Clare’s. It will prove a momentous term for her, involving victimisation but also strengthened friendships, near death and hilarious goings-on, midnight escapades and chance encounters.

Boarding schools have long been a staple of children’s fiction, from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to the Harry Potter books, and enthralled authors such as Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens and Enid Blyton, to name writers from just the British canon. Elinor Brent-Dyer’s girls school was different: set up first in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1930s, it moved first to Guernsey and then to Herefordshire to escape the Nazis, next to Wales and then finally Switzerland in the 1950s.

Jo, the main focus of this particular title, happens to be the sister of the founder of this multinational establishment, but she will still have had to earn her place as Head Girl; no doubt this has been recounted in previous volumes, this being number 12 of some sixty volumes and published in 1935, three years before Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria in 1938. There is, however, no hint of such clouds on the horizon in these pages.

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No power upon the hour

My 1918 Pocket Library edition of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson: Fables
in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896)

THE PENITENT
A man met a lad weeping. “what do you weep for?”
“I am weeping for my sins,” said the lad.
“You must have little to do,” said the man.
The next day they met again. Once more the lad was weeping. “Why do you weep now?” asked the man.
“I am weeping because I have nothing to eat,” said the lad.
“I thought it would come to that,” said the man.

First published bundled up with Jekyll and Hyde by Longmans, Green and Company two years after Stevenson’s death, and then together in a pocket edition in 1906, this collection of literary fables ought to be better known than they are. Some, like ‘The Penitent’, are short, barely a page or two long, while others run to almost a dozen sides. Some are enigmatic, others cynical, others yet are Aesopian in that they feature animals, as in ‘The Tadpole and the Frog’:

“Be ashamed of yourself,” said the frog. “When I was a tadpole, I had no tail.”
“Just what I thought!” said the tadpole. “You never were a tadpole.”

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Hispaniola ahoy

Treasure Island map
Map of Treasure Island, as first published

R L Stevenson: Treasure Island
Facsimile edition Fabbri Publishing 1990 (1883)

There and back again:
pirates, gold and adventure!
The sea-cook’s the star.

Revisiting a classic first encountered half a century ago is like going back to a place first known in childhood: there are mixed hopes and fears, expectations and unknowns. Will it be as you remembered? Will you be disappointed? Above all, will you like it as much?

Treasure Island (and Treasure Island, the place) lived up to those memories and, with hindsight and experience and maturity, was even richer and more (there, I’ve said it) awesome. I was awed by Stevenson’s easy command of words (he was only just 30 when he began the novel) and his ability to re-imagine a world that existed 120 years before the 1880s, when the novel that sealed his reputation was published. And I was filled with real wonder that it came across exactly as I recalled: the language, the descriptions, the personalities; and the whole was made so much more vivid by a closer reading of the sections that I had passed over in a more desultory fashion: the action around the stockade and the passage of the Hispaniola around the island.

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Gawain and the jolly green giant

Winter's journey
Winter’s journey (Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, some years back)

Bernard O’Donoghue transl
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Penguin 2006

Simon Armitage transl
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Faber and Faber 2007

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most magical of Arthurian tales: a jolly green giant who intrudes into King Arthur’s Christmas court at Camelot invites Gawain to chop off his head on condition that Gawain allows the return blow one year hence; the year up, Gawain then travels through Wales to northwest England to face his doom. Has he bitten off more than he can chew or will he acquit himself well and bring honour to king and court? Continue reading “Gawain and the jolly green giant”

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”

The imaginist

Edmund Blair Leighton: The Piano Lesson

Jane Austen: Emma
Edited by James Kinsley and David Lodge
World’s Classics 1980 (1971)

How much more must an imaginist, like herself, be on fire with speculation and foresight! — Emma, Volume III Chapter 3

Emma thoroughly deserves its plaudits as an epitome of the author’s skills. Its status as Austen’s longest novel and the main product of her mature years ensures that any assessment I give is bound to be brief and inconsequential; but I’d be remiss if I didn’t add my own two-penn’orth of praise to the general applause.

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Utterly charming

Still from Emil und die Detektive (1931) showing the man in the bowler hat being shadowed by the 'detectives'
Still from Emil und die Detektive (1931) showing the man in the bowler hat being shadowed

Erich Kästner: Emil and the Detectives
Translated from the German by Eileen Hall
Illustrated by Walter Trier

Vintage Classics 2012
(English translation 1959; Emil und die Detektive was first published in 1929)

 It’s wonderful that this slight novel, nearly ninety years old now, is still a delight and a joy to read. Firstly, it goes clean against most of the highly didactic juvenile fiction of the day: the moral, such as it is, is directed to the grown-ups and not the young:

‘So you don’t think there’s anything to be learnt from all that’s happened?’ said Aunt Martha. ‘Money should always be sent through the post!’ said Grandma, with a merry, tinkling laugh.

Secondly, the pace and all the details are perfect. Things are described, things happen, they lead on to the next bit of action and so on; the suspense is maintained but is never unbearable; and there are no tricksy denouements as pretty much all the clues have been clearly and carefully signposted. The protagonist is both polite and likeable but not without mischief, and thus easy to identify with. While this is ostensibly a boy’s story, the adult females are strong characters, and the one girl to appear is especially proactive. I defy anyone not to be utterly charmed by this tale, its humour and its evocation of what it is to be young.

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Going up country

greek-persian_duel
Persian warrior and Greek hoplite, 5C BCE kylix, National Museums of Scotland

Xenophon The Persian Expedition
Translated by Rex Warner, introduction by George Cawkwell
Penguin Classics 1972 (1949)

This is a fascinating record of how ten thousand Greek mercenaries invaded what is now Iraq on an ill-fated expedition, and how after various vicissitudes they made it back almost to their starting point. But this is no blockbuster thriller, nor is it a narrative of an incident in recent history; this all took place nearly two and a half millennia ago, before even Alexander the Great made his extraordinary foray from Macedonia to India. It’s told in the third person by an Athenian noble who makes himself the hero of his own story, but he’s not an entirely reliable narrator and the reader is warned that not everything he presents is the whole truth and nothing but.

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Rereading revisited

bookshop
A corner of a secondhand bookshop in Brecon, Powys

I’ve touched on the pleasures of rereading a couple of times before, notably when I was contemplating a mammoth weeding out of books prior to moving house. I trust it’s something all us bibliophiles do, a delight like that of listening again to a well-loved piece of music or taking a favourite walk for the umpteenth time. As with that walk, different perspectives can present themselves depending on changing seasons, or moods, or circumstances.

A recent article by Julian Barnes focused on how maturity often ensured that rereading a book after some time — or maybe even reading for the first time a work by an author you’d assiduously avoided reading in your youth — caused you to think of it rather differently, sometimes for the better.

reading

Being young frequently involves the seeking out of novelty, of stimulation and so on, while older minds may well consider more, weighing things up in the light of experience. Human beings have the propensity (though they may not often use it) of retaining their youthful ways, of somehow staying young, sometimes because it’s in their nature and sometimes from a deliberate effort not to stultify. The best thing, of course, would be to retain the advantages of both youth and age in one’s approach to life, the universe … and literature.

rereading

I went through much of my youth and teens in a rather befuddled and bemused state. I suspect that a lot of it stemmed from being on the autism spectrum as much as being of that particular, and peculiar, age. One of things I stumbled into doing before the age of 16 was the study of dead languages: Ancient Greek and Latin. I failed an O level in the former and scraped a pass with the latter, heaven knows how. If the past is a foreign country (“they do things differently there,” opined the first-person narrator of Hartley’s The Go-Between) then I was the archetypal innocent abroad. What I do recall is some slight acquaintance with two war campaign classics, Caesar’s De Bello Gallico and Xenophon’s Anabasis.

Now, I neither have nor had the slightest interest in battles, nor, at that time, familiarity with more than the southwest corner of France, and still less — none in fact — of Mesopotamia. These battles were not only in the past (“old, unhappy, far-off things” I’d have thought, as Wordsworth might have put it) but also took place in foreign countries, fulfilling both of Hartley’s paradigms in one; and they certainly did things differently there. The study of these set texts was limited to extracts, with synopses of whatever action went on in between. I failed to gain insights into anything other than a very distant bird’s eye view of the overall narrative, and could never raise up any enthusiasm for the events depicted, especially after struggling through vocabulary, syntax, conjugations and so on.

Jump half a century: I’ve just completed a whole read of Xenophon’s narrative, translated as The Persian Expedition, and my older self has experienced both the shock of recognition and the dropping of scales from the eyes. Events in Europe and the Middle East — from the two Gulf Wars to the eruption of Daesh, the conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis — have heightened my appreciation of events in 401 BCE, which is when a bunch of around ten thousand Greek mercenaries invaded the region, marching through what is now Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Armenia before heading back towards the Mediterranean end of Turkey. Some of the parallels are enlightening, as are the differences, a few of which I may bring up in a future review.

It’s been a similar experience with many of my other rereads: fresh perspectives and fresh delights, not to forget appreciations and occasionally criticisms. It’s never ever been a waste of time. I agree with Barnes: rereading is definitely both a pleasure and a necessity of age. And I would in many cases emphasise the latter.

Feeling is the leitmotif

Regency young man (2)
http://www.sellingantiques.co.uk/243352/fine-regency-oil-portrait-of-a-young-man/

Charlotte Brontë The Professor Wordsworth Classics 1994 (1857)

Despite the fact that this is, by modern standards anyway, a very uneven novel and that the protagonist is a bit of a prig, there remains much to enjoy over its twenty-five chapters. The story of William Crimsworth’s struggles to find his métier and eventual happiness echoes parts of Charlotte Brontë’s own experiences but also points up her own unfulfilled hopes for combining a loving marriage with a successful career as an independent woman. The fact that aspects of this novel — unpublished in her own lifetime — were recycled in Villette (published in 1853) suggests that she knew that those experiences were worth recording, even in fictional form.

A bald outline of the plot reads almost like a fairytale.
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Tame by modern tastes

mist

Arthur Machen The Great God Pan Parthian Books 2010

Tame by modern tastes:
supernatural horror,
Victorian-style

When I was young I swore by H P Lovecraft while my friend Roger championed Machen. At the time I thought The Hill of Dreams pretty insipid compared to anything with Cthulhu in it. Several decades on I felt that I have to give Machen another chance, as it were, and this edition of The Great God Pan (and the two companion pieces in this volume, The White Pyramid and The Shining People) provided the opportunity.

I still now find Machen fin-de-siècle novels a taste I have yet to acquire. Continue reading “Tame by modern tastes”

Guilt and misery

mansion

Jane Austen Mansfield Park Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1814)

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

I’ve noted before Austen’s predilection for inserting her authorial voice into her novels: in Sense and Sensibility she speaks in chapter XXXVI, and in Pride and Prejudice she appears at the beginning of the final chapter. And here she is at it again in Mansfield Park, at the start of chapter XLVIII (yes, the final chapter again) giving a succinct if ironic set of observations about the previous forty-seven chapters. She says it’s about the ‘odious’ subjects of guilt and misery; and those who have suffered from such miseries, though not totally innocent, will come to some sort of happy ending, while those who have peddled the misery and turned the knife in feelings of guilt will get their more or less just deserts. Have I committed the unpardonable sin of introducing spoilers or, this being a classic romance, is this what readers of the genre hope for and expect?

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Confounding expectations

dunes

Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands:
a Record of Secret Service

Penguin Popular Classics 1995 (1903)

I don’t normally seek out thrillers, even classic ones such as The Riddle of the Sands, and though this has historic interest – set just before the Second Boer War and scant years before the death of Victoria – it’s not a period I’m particularly interested in. Add to this that it’s about sailing on the North Sea coast of Germany when dismal autumnal fogs abound and it sounds like a novel I would normally pass over. But after an initially slow but deliberately drab beginning the story picks up, starts to tease the imagination and, even for the recalcitrant landlubber, sparks admiration for the enthusiasm and bravery of the two protagonists. Continue reading “Confounding expectations”