The reader in the midst of the action

sperm-whale

Nathaniel Philbrick:
In the Heart of the Sea
HarperCollins 2001

This is one of those rare non-fiction books that encourages you to continue reading in the same way that a good novel keeps you glued to the page. All the more remarkable, then, that this study gives the background to a true-life saga that inspired one of the great but arguably most difficult novels, Moby-Dick, a work that I’ve always struggled to complete.

In the Heart of the Sea (the title inspired by an extract from Melville’s book, as the end of the epilogue makes clear) has now made me all the more determined to tackle Moby-Dick again, but this time with more understanding, appreciation and stamina.

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A sad tale’s best for winter

Spider in amber (Wikipedia Commons)
Spider in amber (Wikipedia Commons)

Jostein Gaarder: The Ringmaster’s Daughter
(original title Sirkusdirektørens datter 2001)
Translated by James Anderson
Phoenix 2003

The Baltic Sea is well known for its amber, solidified resin from forests around 44 million years old, and frequently trapped in these deposits are various flora and fauna of the period. The most striking image in The Ringmaster’s Daughter, which symbolises one of its major themes, is of a spider caught in this matrix, just like its victims might be caught in its web.

The story that gives the novel its title concerns a trapeze artist who falls and breaks her neck. As the ringmaster bends over her injured body he sees an amber trinket on a slender chain around her neck, which he recognises as one he had given to a daughter he hasn’t seen for years.

The importance of this tale of the lost daughter is underlined by it being told, with variations, three times during the course of the novel, in the presence of each of the three most important women in the narrator’s life.

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Findism, not escapism

Kidslit: a random selection of children’s fiction

Katherine Rundell:
Why You Should Read Children’s Books
Even Though You Are So Old and Wise
Bloomsbury Publishing 2019

This insightful and beautifully written essay fits into a slim 63-page hardback but contains as many worthy gems as many a longer study. In nearly a dozen sections Katherine Rundell, herself a children’s author, makes a powerful case for juvenile fiction not being inferior to adult fiction but worthy in its own right; and, more than that, it can offer what much adult fiction can’t or won’t.

The author tries to put her finger on what those qualities are and, in my opinion, pretty much succeeds. All this review will aim to do is to give a flavour of the main points she enumerates.

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Willoughby tropes

Willoughby Chase by Pat Marriott (from the Puffin edition back cover 1968)

I’ve been recently reading (and reading about) a number of novels which increasingly, it seemed to me, to share memes, themes and tropes, though I’m also sure that the authors didn’t set out to consciously borrow from each other, if even they were aware of those shared concepts.

The first thing that had struck me was that they all featured a Yorkshire mansion, whether or not it was explicitly stated that the setting was in one or other of the Ridings that the county was traditionally divided into (North, East and West). But pretty soon it was evident that these novels shared more than setting in common, and I have been mentioning some of these in various posts in the last month or so.

Which are these novels? In chronological order they are — with links to my reviews or discussions — as follows:

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) and the same author’s Midnight is a Place (1974).

As we will see, while not all novels include all the themes that the final novel in my list displays, many of the elements recur time and again. Some themes are familiar from legends and fairytales, of course, while others reflect the kind of events and situations that recur throughout history, such as disastrous fires. As today sees the start of the Twitter event #WilloughbyReads it may be a good time to examine the elements that link The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to these other classics.

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Misselthwaite magic

Enclosed garden, Charleston, East Sussex

Frances Hodgson Burnett:
The Secret Garden
Parragon 1993 (1911)

“Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic… ”
— Colin, in Chapter 23

Acknowledged as one of the best children’s classics of all time and frequently filmed (the latest due in 2020), The Secret Garden is not a book I would have immediately taken to as a child. In fact, it was originally serialised in 1909-10 for a US magazine aimed at adults, and it’s as an adult that I appreciate not just the happy-ever-after narrative but also the nature writing, the period and geographical setting and the characterisation, aspects that would have mostly gone over my head as a pre-teen.

Sometime in the early 1900s Mary Lomax — nine going on ten years old — finds herself not just unloved but suddenly orphaned in India, a place she has lived in since she was born. Spoilt, and unbearably haughty, she is slow to adapt to the cold English climate, particularly when she arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, on the cusp of spring. The novel tells of her gradual warming — both figurative and literal — to Yorkshire and its people, and of her thawing from a cold Missie Sahib to a thoughtful, generous friend.

The catalyst for this change is of course the garden of the title. Prefigured early on in the novel when, still in India, she makes “heaps of earth and paths” for a pretend garden at the home of a clergyman and is taunted as Mistress Mary, quite contrary because she is “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived”. When she discovers and then tends the hidden Yorkshire garden she learns not just to lose that tyranny and selfishness but also to appreciate and love the natural magic that permeates life itself, thus living up to the more positive aspects of her nickname.

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Put through the mill

Blastburn illustration: Simon Bartram 2014

We continue our explorations (note: with *spoilers*) of Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) by listing those people mentioned as living in Blastburn, the town in the northeast of Albion that features in this alternate history fiction, set in 1842.

Though truly no justification is needed as to why I go into such detail, here is a brief summary, a kind of apologia, of my reasons:

  1. Art for art’s sake — these details are there to be enjoyed for anyone immersing themselves in the narrative.
  2. Personal satisfaction — literary sleuthing, such as digging out influences and parallels, is a deeply pleasing activity.
  3. Education, education, education — discovering the hows and whys, the whos and whats, and the whens and wheres of the plot and characters encourages one to range widely outside the confines of a book’s narrative, revealing gaps in this reader’s (and perhaps others’?) knowledge and understanding. No bad thing, in my book.

In fact all about Exploring the world of ideas through books!

And now, on with the show.

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A clever apparatus

Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea, South Devon

Agatha Christie:
And Then There Were None
HarperCollinsPublishers 2003 (1939)

“Ought to ferret out the mystery before we go. Whole thing’s like a detective novel. Positively thrilling.” — Tony Marston, not long before he becomes a victim.

Positively thrilling, maybe, but definitely chilling: quite possibly the Grande Dame’s most renowned whodunit, And Then There Were None is justly famous as a puzzler to end all puzzlers. Contrived? Yes. Gripping? Undoubtedly. Keeping you guessing till the end? In my case, absolutely, even though I knew the premise.

Eight decades on one can still appreciate the plot intricacies of how several unwitting people can be invited to an isolated rock and then be bumped off, one by one, according to the sequence determined by lyrics of a popular song. Their crime? To each be responsible for the deaths of one or more people and yet to have avoided justice for the part they played in cutting short those lives, whether from abandonment, reckless driving, wilful manslaughter, drunkenness or perjury.

As we discover, none are totally innocent; but do they deserve to die their gruesome deaths? As the tally rises towards its predicted end we have to admire the perverse dedication of whoever is responsible for judging, sentencing and executing this random set of individuals with such clinical efficiency — much as we of course condemn it.

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