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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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.

Shopping malls and snow globes

Late medieval woodcut of Death with scythe and hourglass

Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
Discworld novel 11
Corgi 1992 (1991)

What happens when Death fails to claim humans who die? What happens to their bodies, their consciousness, their life force? And what are the consequences for a world in which this calamity takes place?

Terry Pratchett’s famous character Death, who only converses in small capitals, has been ‘retired’ by Azrael, “the Great Attractor, the Death of Universes, the beginning and end of time” — or the Angel of Death as our monotheistic religions see him. With his scythe and faithful mount Binky he descends on a Discworld farm; here, as Bill Door, he is taken on as a farmhand by Miss Renata Flitworth. Elsewhere on Discworld, and especially in Ankh-Morpeth, people are ceasing to die: witness Windle Poons, the oldest wizard in the world, who after death turns into a zombie. In trying to find a point to his new afterlife he joins the Fresh Start Club (other members include werewolves, vampires, a banshee and a bogeyman) and starts to note curious events unfolding — things like ovoid snow globes appearing, supermarket trollies multiplying and swear words taking physical form.

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Alienation versus destruction

From a photograph looking north toward The Cloisters, taken a month before it opened in May 1938

Timothy B Husband “Creating the Cloisters”:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 70, no. 4 (Spring, 2013)

Published in 2013 to mark the 75th anniversary of The Cloisters in New York, “Creating the Cloisters” documents the origins, development during the 1920s and ’30s and eventual opening of this ‘landmark’ museum, its unveiling taking place the year before war ripped Europe apart for the second time in two decades. The Cloisters is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art “dedicated,” as it proclaims, “to the art, architecture, and gardens of medieval Europe.” Sited at the city’s highest point on the northern tip of Manhattan, the museum overlooks the Hudson River and the Palisades on the opposite bank, and is regarded as a pre-eminent jewel in New York’s crown. But a little over eighty years ago this site was largely a bare rock with a scatter of unrelated buildings.

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Paradox

Rainbow Rowell Kindred Spirits Macmillan 2016

“Kindred Spirits” is a novella the bestselling US author wrote especially for World Book Day 2016 in the UK and Ireland. Its sixty-odd pages tell a sweet story of how teenage Star Wars fan Elena determines to show her independence of mind by joining a queue at her local cinema, in Omaha, for a first showing of Episode VII of the franchise. She has high hopes of being part of a tribe of fellow enthusiasts, sharing the bonhomie and exuberance that she anticipates from her understanding of such occasions. But she is disappointed that, four days before doors open, she is third in a line of only three, and that it remains so for a good many days. With so many things to contend with — her mom’s disapproval, the cold December nights, and anxieties about the call of nature and what she considers her “mid-trovert” temperament (being neither introvert nor extravert) — she fears she won’t last the four days and instead yield to the lure of home comforts.

Her fellow travellers are Troy and Gabe, with whom she has to establish a working relationship where she had instead expected the anonymity of the crowd. Troy is the garrulous confident one while Gabe is taciturn and self-contained. Elena, feeling as a newbie a natural loss of confidence, is concerned that not having seen Episodes 1 to 3 will result as well in loss of face. Everything seems to be militating against her attempt at independence. But the mini-crisis that arrives is not what she expected, nor is the fallout from that what she anticipated.

This is a delightful short story, exactly catching the angst of being a teenager, especially the sense of simultaneously being different while yet wanting to conform and belong. Balancing this paradox is, for Elena, both painful and yet delicious. For readers it must also be satisfying, as they decide whether they too feel kindred spirits with Elena and her new acquaintances — perhaps just like Star Wars fans feel they’re kindred spirits with Leia, Han and Luke.

Castelophiles only

Part of Cardiff Castle, its facade a mix of medieval, Georgian and Victorian Gothic Revival

Gerald Morgan Castles in Wales: A Handbook
Y Lolfa 2008

It’s often claimed that, per square mile, Wales has the largest number of castles in the world.¹ Whether it’s the Welsh bigging themselves up or one of those memes that’s just accepted, it’s certainly true that the country has over 600 examples. As Wales is over 8000 square miles — nearly 20,800 square kilometres — in area,² this means there is a castle for every 13 sq miles (35 sq km) of land. Nowadays that works out at around one castle for every 5000 head of population, whereas in the Middle Ages, when the inhabitants of Wales may have fluctuated between 150K and 300K, each castle was on average meant to overawe between 250 and 500 Welshmen and -women. That’s some comment on the fears of the mostly Norman and Plantagent overlords who built them and on the rightfully bolshie attitudes of the native peoples.

When we imagine castles it’s odds-on we picture something like Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, partly modelled on the 19th-century castle at Neuschwanstein, or perhaps one of the French chateaux of the Loire. The fact is that castles come in all shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of function. Gerald Morgan makes this point very clearly in his introduction to this Welsh castle handbook: while the simplest definition could be ‘a medieval European fortified stronghold’ (thus excluding prehistoric earthworks, Roman camps and Victorian follies and fancies, for example) it can include everything from ringworks and motte-and-bailey structures to fortified manor houses and walled palaces, as well as the great military showpieces that typify the Welsh castle in the popular mind.

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Scattergun execution

alice-liddell_
Alice Liddell in the 1860s

Gregory Maguire After Alice
Headline 2016 (2015)

The title is the absolute epitome of what this novel is: a kaleidoscope of conflicting contradictions. Is it a literal description of us readers following Alice and the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole? Is After Alice instead an acknowledgement that we can’t ever return to the state of innocence that was children’s literature before the world experienced Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Or rather is it a modern retelling based on Alice, a meditation on the themes the classic suggests but rewritten for a 21st-century readership? Perhaps it is all of these things, or even none of them.

In fact, is it about Alice at all? Was the Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland the historical Alice Liddell or merely a literary persona, and are any of these the same as the Alice of Maguire’s novel, whom we discover is actually one Alice Clowd? As Carroll’s Alice remarked, curiouser and curiouser. Lots of questions, then, in search of answers.

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