Allegorical narratives

Maria Sachiko Cecire: Re-Enchanted.
The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century
University of Minnesota Press 2019

Described on the back cover blurb as a new genealogy for medievalist fantasy Maria Sachiko Cecire’s study is important for recalibrating — in literature, in other media, in philosophical outlooks — the assumptions of many of us admirers of this genre. Focusing on five areas, namely childhood reading, the Oxford University English syllabus, the fabricated enchantment of Christmas, so-called ’empires of the mind’, and developments in the 21st century, Cecire takes apart the foundations of 20th-century fantasy, examines them, finds what’s wanting but then also points out what remains of real worth.

She starts with her own childhood realisation that, as an American of Japanese-Italian descent she “would never grow up to be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed fairy-tale princess”; she later learnt that her experience of “racialized self-alienation [was] far from unique.” Re-Enchanted thus became a project searching for the origins of Anglo-American fantasy and, as she puts it, “its special relationship to ideas about childhood, modernity, and the raced, gendered self.”

I can’t emphasise how important this study is in helping not just academics but also a wider public to understand how white European medievalist fantasies adopted an imperialist and colonialist stance, one which has held sway for too long — but one which may yet have the capacity to evolve and change to suit 21st-century sensibilities, particularly where race and gender and culture are concerned. Tempting though it may be to quote extensively from the text (Cecire makes her points both succinctly and in depth, paradoxical though that may seem) I shall try to resist the urge — while simultaneously hoping my paraphrasing doesn’t misrepresent her argument.

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My brother’s keeper

Charlotte Brontë: The Story of Willie Ellin (1853)
in Unfinished Novels
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

This will be less in the nature of a review and more in the manner of a musing as I look over Charlotte Brontë’s several attempts at either rewriting or beginning a novel in the handful of years before her untimely death.

As I contemplate these five fragments called The Story of Willie Ellin I wonder at their cohesiveness or lack of it, their relationship to the then as yet unpublished The Professor, and their parallels with themes in Shirley, a novel which had already appeared in 1849.

And finally I discuss how Charlotte’s obsessions with sibling relationships and fairytale seem to coalesce in her various writings, as seems to be revealed in what remains of Willie Ellin’s tale.

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Thunk

WordPress Free Photo Library

Social-distancing and now self-isolating has given me lots of time to think, and so I’ve been doing some thinking.

And having thunk I have had some vague thoughts. Then, having turned them into a hypothesis — I won’t grace it with the label ‘theory’ — I thought I’d share that with you.

I can’t claim it’ll be anything new (because I’ve no doubt that it’s old hat to philosophers) but in view of the C-word that we all know about, and what with social media being awash with information and misinformation in equal measure, I offer this post as a public service.

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Step by step

Durer’s Knight

Anne Wilson: The Magical Quest.
The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance
Manchester University Press 1988

This book, though seeming of the mystical camp popular in the 70s and 80s, is rather more academic though nonetheless exciting for all that. It asks the question ‘Why are there so many apparent contradictions in medieval Arthurian romances?’

The answer is that the authors use traditional plots. And the rationale of these plots, like the closely-related fairytales, is that of a different order to that of so-called realistic novels. What, then is this rationale?

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Time is. Time was. Time is past.

Medieval manticore

“… a continual reminder of the consequences that can follow a single action.”

The Deptford Trilogy is my first — but not my last – foray into the world of Robertson Davies. How have I not been aware of his work up to now? Like many another convert to his writing I’m recommending him to anyone who will listen, and our household has now invested in two further trilogies of his. Yet how to explain his appeal in a few paragraphs when every page, sometimes every paragraph, offers some new delight?

The basic premise is easily told. This series introduces us to the lives of three men from rural Ontario over some seven decades, through the first world war, the interwar years and on into a Europe at peace. Fifth Business is recounted by one of the author’s alter egos, Dunstan Ramsay, who sees his life through the prism of a childhood incident when a woman gives premature birth because she has been hit by a stone inside a snowball. The Manticore, another first person account, narrates the story of the son of the boy who threw the snowball, as told to a Swiss psychoanalyst. With World of Wonders we’re back with Ramsay, who now reports the conversations which Paul Dempster – the boy born prematurely sixty years before but now, as Magnus Eisengrim, a world-famous illusionist – has with BBC personnel making a drama documentary, in which he plays the role of another great illusionist from history.

The problem the reader has is deciding when a narrator is being unreliable, which could well be most of the time. Reported speech is given in great detail which, if these were genuine memoirs, would require prodigious feats of memory. Nevertheless, such is the author’s skill and stylistic legerdemain we mostly buy into what is being spun, this despite the fact that Davies gives so many untrustworthy clues. In The Manticore David Staunton describes Ramsay’s creed: “history is the mass of observable or recorded fact, but myth is the abstract or essence of it.” This encourages us to doubt Ramsay’s account in Fifth Business, for how can we innocent readers distinguish between what is historical and what is mythical in what Ramsay tells us?

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Lost and found

“It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
— from the Parable of the Prodigal Son

I’ve written before and at length about that sense of bereavement when a treasured book is lent out, who knows when to who knows whom, and is then seemingly forever lost to view.

I felt this about Graham Anderson’s Fairytale in the Ancient World (Routledge 2000), a study which I was certain I’d lent to one friend or other but couldn’t for the life of me remember who; and all enquiries led down dim cul-de-sacs.

Great was the joy when on a recent visit to friends (no names, no pack drill) the long lost volume was discovered sitting snugly between studies on art, architecture and psychology. I can tell you that I did indeed make merry and was glad!

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Yorkshire lasses

Les Sœurs Brontë 1848

An intriguing photographic image, with Les Sœurs Brontë written on its reverse, was found earlier this decade in a private Scottish collection by Robert Haley from Lancashire while he was researching for a book on Victorian photography.

As Haley explains in detail on his Brontë Sisters website this monochrome picture of three young women, two of them facing a third who is looking directly at the camera — and at us — can tell us a lot about when and where it was taken, what processes the portrait went through and, most importantly, who these women really were.

Haley makes a convincing case that the woman with the very frank gaze (possibly because she’s short-sighted) is Charlotte Brontë and the other two her sisters, Emily and Anne. Equally, he argues — using visual evidence — that the woman in the middle with the Jenny Lind hat is Emily, and the figure with the aquiline nose Anne.

The collodion image is likely to have been copied from a daguerreotype taken between the death of their brother Branwell and that of Emily in, he calculates, late 1848, at a studio in York.

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The Alps, the Arctic and the Creature

Aurora Borealis (WordPress Free Media Library)

John Sutherland: Frankenstein’s Brain,
Puzzles and Conundrums in Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Masterpiece
(including John Crace’s ‘Frankenstein Digested’)
Icon Books 2018

Frankenstein is, despite its iconic status, so full of inconsistencies and plot holes that it’s a wonder it holds together at all. In fact, those weaknesses have meant that subsequent treatments of the narrative — in film, on stage, in comics, in parodies and retellings — have tried to gloss over, patch up or even reconfigure Mary Godwin Shelley’s story, with the result that those reading the novel for the first time are often confused, their expectations confounded. Where is the laboratory? Why are we caught up in Arctic ice? How come the monster isn’t called Frankenstein?

Literary critics of course have the answers, editors give lengthy details of history, chronology, context, differences in text and so on, but usually in academic language buttressed by obscure scholarly papers and archived documents. Up steps John Sutherland, an academic with a light touch making the inaccessible accessible with bite-size chapters, contemporary references and online links, and using humour to demystify a two-centuries-old classic.

Add to that an appendix with one of Guardian writer John Crace’s digested reads, meaning that if you’re still resistant to Mary Shelley’s original you can pretend you know all about it with a handy (and very funny) cheat.

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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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A little piece of Middle Earth

Looking towards Buckland Hill from the Black Mountains, with the Brecon Beacons beyond

Seamus Hamill-Keays
‘Tolkien and Buckland: An Analysis of the Evidence’
Brycheiniog: Cyfnodolyn Cymdeithas Brycheiniog /
The Journal of the Brecknock Society XLIX 2018

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote that The Shire of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is “more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee” — that is, around 1897 — and “based on rural England and not on any other country in the world.” And yet, in South Powys, Wales, there’s a persistent local tradition that Ronald based the easternmost outpost of Middle Earth’s Shire in the Vale of Usk, in particular between Brecon and Abergavenny. Buckland in LOTR was suggested to be based on Buckland near Bwlch, and Frodo’s house at Crickhollow was presumed to be inspired by Crickhowell.

In addition, Tolkien is reputed to have spent time at nearby Talybont in the early forties while putting LOTR together. When I examined the evidence, such as it was, I concluded that “if the Buckland and Crickhollow of The Lord of the Rings really were inspired by the Buckland and Crickhowell of the Usk valley then [the visit] happened before the forties,” when the trilogy was complete. But I had no real inkling when exactly that could be.¹

“The closest [Tolkien] admits to first-hand contact with everyday Welsh is on coal-trucks marked with placenames, railway station signs, a house inscription declaring it was adeiladwyd 1887 (‘built 1887’), all presumably from one or more holiday trips to places far to the west,” I wrote. “That Tolkien visited Wales at some stage seemed undeniable to me; but when?” A recent article by Seamus Hamill-Keays, kindly brought to my attention by the author, plausibly suggests the answer, buttressing his hypothesis with a wealth of supporting material.

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Ugly duckling to swan

“Shakespeare Droeshout 1623” by Martin Droeshout Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons http://shakespeare.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/files/2012/06/portrait-96-square.jpg

James Shapiro Contested Will:
Who Wrote Shakespeare? Faber and Faber 2010

Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James! — Ben Jonson

When I was nowt but a lad I read Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s Bacon is Shakespeare (1910) in the school library, which is when I first came across the notion that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. According to Sir Edwin the plays are full of cryptic clues asserting that Francis Bacon used Will as a mask for writing all those plays. Typical is the nonsense word in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “honorificabilitudinitatibus,” which Durning-Lawrence claimed was an anagram in Latin for hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi (“these plays F Bacon’s offspring preserved for the world”). For an impressionable young mind there was much to mull over, but I wasn’t gullible enough to be convinced, and especially not by that coded ‘message’ — how many other phrases or sentences, in Latin or otherwise, can be concocted from that word?

Yet the fancy that Shakespeare was too much of a country bumpkin to be capable of writing such gems was one I was to come across again and again, with a bewildering array of candidates paraded for acceptance. Where was the comprehensive and informed rebuttal which would take all the claims seriously while marshalling killer counter-arguments?

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“My hideous progeny”

Death mask of William Burke and life mask of William Hare (1828) in Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (March 2018)

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

“His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.

“He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”


— Mary Shelley’s walking dream, from her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

If Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) can truly be said to concern life and death, the afterlife of the Creature is one that continues to affect us two centuries later. For us moderns the Creature impacts as much as that of that waking dream she was later to describe. She’d been trying to think up a ghost story to rival those of Byron, Shelley and Polidori:

One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered — vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations.

Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.

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Promethean fire

Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

One can never say enough about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was published just two hundred years ago — certainly a short review can never do it justice. Those with an academic background will be in a position to expound at length about the many aspects of this superb Gothic novel. I’m not an academic, however, so I can only talk about what strikes me most after a reading of the first edition of 1818. And what better place to start than the frontispiece to the 1831 edition, an engraving heavily influenced by Gothick sensibilities and based on an illustration by the remarkable Theodor Von Holst.

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Jane and Charlotte

The doorway at High Sunderland Hall, Halifax in 1913, known to the Brontës (image public domain)

Juliet Gardiner’s illustrated biography The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth (Collins & Brown 1992) is a kind of companion to Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s ‘My Dear Cassandra’: Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen (1990) issued by the same publishers a year or two before. The two titles to me recall Charlotte’s reported antipathy to Austen.  It’s clear that Charlotte may have overreacted to gauche comments on the passion in her novels, but it’s nevertheless possible to identify in some of Charlotte’s more considered (if still lukewarm) assessments a sneaking admiration for her older contemporary, who died when Charlotte was only one year old.

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A useful prosopography

Silhouette of “l’aimable Jane” pasted in an early copy of Mansfield Park (http://wp.me/pCurp-1zS)

Glenda Leeming, Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës
Foreword by Phyllis Bentley
Elm Tree Books 1974

What’s not to like about prosopography? Conventionally this is defined as a description of an individual’s appearance or life, but in general a Who’s Who offers a collection of such descriptions. These days prosopographies cover not just real-life biographies (mostly of historical personages, in Ancient Rome, say, or Victorian England) but also cast lists of fictional characters from literary works.

In Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës Dr Glenda Leeming lists all the characters found in the literary canons of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Austen’s characters come first, plucked from the pages of Jane’s six novels (but not the juvenilia or unfinished writings like Lady Susan and Sanditon). They’re followed by seven of the best-known Brontë books — four by Charlotte, two by Anne and one by Emily (again, juvenilia is not included, nor Charlotte’s Angrian pieces written in her twenties). A short section on animals mentioned (particularly in the Brontë siblings’ writings) follows, and then a helpful list of characters book by book, noting the appropriate chapter when each first appears.

Phyllis Bentley’s foreword mostly renders any comments I might have perfectly superfluous. “This is a really intelligent and useful little book,” she declares, and praises Leeming’s notes for “vividly” presenting characters and personalities: “a nice tinge of irony, a very neat use of the novelists’ own words, a brevity decidedly marked by wit, make these notes pleasurable reading.” (Sadly, Bentley herself died just three years after this appreciation was published.) That brevity marked by wit is evident in the descriptions of the main protagonists, never longer than the equivalent of a page but containing everything you need to know.

Leeming also includes individuals mentioned only in passing, one line descriptions often providing no more than each writer herself offered. Opening at random I read of Goton in Villette (“Flemish cook in Mme. Beck’s school, with whom Lucy is a favourite”) or Miss Prince in Emma (“a teacher at Miss Goddard’s school”).

These days online sites freely and profusely provide such lists of characters; forty years ago though this would have indeed been “a useful little book” for readers losing track of which individual was being referred to, or what relationship they had to another individual. Here it is also done with sly humour, capturing the piquant observations of the novelists.

(By all accounts John Sutherland’s recent The Brontësaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë also treats the novels with wit,** but as this work omits Austen altogether I’ll happily make do with Leeming for a while longer.)


** I assume Sutherland penned his own description of himself in the Guardian, where he is distinguished as “Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL (“emeritus” being Latin for “scrapheap” and “Northcliffe” journalistic shorthand for “you cannot be serious”).” If so, then readers of The Brontësaurus (and indeed his other writings) must be in for a treat.