Live free, or die

Engraving of ‘Liberty Leading the People’, by Eugène Delacroix (1830)

Malafrena, by Ursula K Le Guin.
Panther Books, 1981 (1979)

He would look unseeing out over Malafrena, with a heaviness in him. It was as if a spell was laid upon him here, which he could not break, though he might escape from it; a charm that grew strongest in certain hours, certain conversations.

The spell that binds young Itale Sorde to the family estate in Val Malafrena holds the same charm for this reader: but the French revolutionary motto, Vivre libre, ou mourir (“Live free, or die”), offers sentiments which tug him away from his mountain home. His progressive idealistic impulses draw him to Krasnoy, the capital of Orsinia, leading him to a sequence of events which impact not only on himself but on family, friends and acquaintances.

This restless, roving novel developed from the author’s early forays into writing fiction, fired up by her reading of Russian literature; it has proved to divide opinion, from those who expect something either more radical or in her later more speculative style, to those who relish her way with language and her ability to create a believable alternative reality and credible individuals.

Myself, I fall into the second category and one doesn’t have to go very far to find the reasons.

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A curate’s egg examined

Oakwell Hall, Birstall, W Yorks

Charlotte Brontë: Shirley
Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1849)

Charlotte Brontë’s follow-up to Jane Eyre turns out to be a curious affair, one in which I found enjoyment and boredom in equal measure. It’s a work that tries to have its cake and eat it and, as a result, fails to completely satisfy. But that’s not to say it’s not worth the effort — on the contrary.

Shirley was first published with the subtitle A Tale, and this I think was to distinguish it from Jane Eyre which had billed itself as An Autobiography. This third person approach proves to be a poisoned chalice (The Professor and Villette were first person narratives, like Jane Eyre) when the omniscient storyteller, unable to maintain a straight face, constantly and self-consciously undermines her ‘tale’ with humorous authorial asides.

But then I think the forced levity may be in reaction to a year of tragedy — her two sisters and her brother all died between September 1848 and May 1849 — and the humour may have been a way to distance herself from the enforced solitude she must then have felt. This dissembling I fancy is a key to unlocking the Chinese boxes which makes up the novel’s construction.

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Eighteen Nineteen

Contemporary engraving of Queen Victoria

Are you one of those people who loves seeing 12.34 appear on a digital clock, gazes delightedly at the mileometer (odometer) as it clicks over to all the same digits in a row, or got excited at one minute past eight in the evening of the 20th of January, 2001?

No? No matter; you clearly won’t be excited at the arrival of the year Twenty twenty (no vision, see). But this year at least gives me a chance to look back two centuries to 1819 — I do savour saying “eighteen-nineteen” — and a few greats, particularly literary greats, of the Victorian era.

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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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Dido and patterns

Over the past few weeks I’ve been exploring aspects of Joan Aiken’s alternate history fantasy Dido and Pa, focusing on chronology, places and people.

To complete most of the picture this post will look at the novel’s tropes and themes, motifs and memes (there are subtle differences between all these, I know, but I’m choosing to bundle them all up together) to see what the stand-out ideas are and how they might relate to what has gone on before in previous Wolves Chronicles.

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A fountain of youth

Natalie Babbitt: Tuck Everlasting
Bloomsbury 2003 (1975)

Who wouldn’t want to live forever? To extend one’s life so that one could savour life to the full, have new experiences, perhaps even be invulnerable to injury? There are no downsides, surely?

But a moment or two’s thought will soon reveal the drawbacks. Losing one’s friends as they grow old and die; witnessing perpetual change and not only for the better; being feared by other humans, becoming paranoid, lacking a sense of purpose or a reason for continuing. As many a fine mind has pointed out, death gives meaning to life.

This is the dilemma Winnie Foster faces when, constrained and restricted by her family, she determines to escape her bounds and go into the nearby woodland. This one act, determined on at the height of an oppressive summer, combines with two other coincidences to put Winnie in danger, the Tuck family at risk of exposure and to place the threat of Eternal Life for all in the hands of those who would exploit it for gain and unforeseen consequences.

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Lollpoops in London

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games (1560). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Joan Aiken: Dido and Pa
Illustrated by Pat Marriott
Red Fox 2004 (1987)

No sooner was Dido Twite back in London for the coronation of Richard IV (in The Cuckoo Tree) then she found herself back in rural West Sussex, and all this after long eventful years crisscrossing the globe. And now, no sooner has she met up with Simon — the boy who had taken care of her when she was a Cockney guttersnipe — then she is snabbled by no less a personage than her musical yet nefarious father … back to London! What plans does he have for her, and for what purposes?

On the banks of the Thames, in London’s East End, Dido is forced to associate with a rum lot of naffy coves, from the cigar-smoking slattern Mrs Bloodvessel via havy-cavy types with fungoid names to the slumguzzling nob the Margrave of Eisengrim, truly the most vulpine villain Dido has yet to meet. And then there are the fresh waves of wolves coming through the tunnel under the English Channel, overrunning Kent and nearing London with every day…

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Haunting tales

Anton Chekhov, photographed in 1889

Chekhov: the early stories 1883-88
Chosen and translated by Patrick Miles & Harvey Pitcher
Abacus 1982

This selection of thirty-five of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, covering a period of five years, is an object lesson in how one author can create variety in this small-scale genre. There are scarcely any false moves here: we’re presented with cheeky humour as well as deep emotion, and served up with well-observed portraits and dramatic episodes. Some pieces are really short — punchy, scarcely two pages long — others approach novelette length. All are quintessentially Russian, infused now by bureaucracy, now by irreverence, sometimes expansive as suits the country’s landscape or intimate as we focus in on a fireside scene. And, for the most part, these tales are about people in all their fragility and weakness — youngsters, old people, couples, bourgeoisie, soldiers, musicians, artisans.

It’s impossible to do more than suggest the range by reference to a few select examples, so I will endeavour to give a suggestion of Chekhov’s skill in the setting of mood. I can’t speak of whether the choices made by the translators are exemplary or not, but I can marvel how a young man in his twenties (born in 1860, he died at too early an age, in his mid-forties) was able to capture such a broad view of human nature.

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Dido Twite and HMS Thrush

1807 aquatint by Robert Dodd of a Brig-Sloop (British Museum)

An addendum — sorry! — to discussion of The Cuckoo Tree

Dido Twite has been sailing with HMS Thrush for a goodly period of time. At least, so we may gather from a close reading of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, particularly Night Birds on Nantucket, The Stolen Lake, Limbo Lodge (also known as Dangerous Games) and The Cuckoo Tree.

It’s very likely that, after 18 months on board a whaler — during which time she has sailed from the North Sea, through the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans north to the Arctic Circle, and then back around the tip of South America into the North Atlantic — she has subsequently circumnavigated the globe for another fifteen months on board the Thrush.

What do we know about this naval vessel, from actual history and from fiction?

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“The dark side of human nature”

Das Eismeer (1823-4) by Caspar David Friedrich

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
The 1818 text edited with introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler 1993
Oxford World’s Classics 1998

“[A] tale so strange, that I should fear you would not credit it, were there not something in truth which, however wonderful, forces conviction. The story is too connected to be a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood.” — Victor Frankenstein recounting the story so far, Volume III Chapter 6

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published on March 11th 1818,* and for two hundred years has never been out of print. Popular culture has led us to picture the Creature as portrayed by Boris Karloff (despite the name, an English actor called William Henry Pratt) in numerous films and parodies; but readers new to the novel might be surprised to first find themselves in the Arctic wastes, as revealed in a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Margaret Saville. He writes from St Petersburgh (sic), then Archangel (Arkhangelsk), and then from somewhere in the polar regions.

As we quickly discover, though, this is merely a framing device; the author then introduces us to Victor Frankenstein marooned on an ice floe. We no sooner get to what appears to be the meat of the story when we realise that Victor’s narrative is also a framing device, with the Creature’s story at the heart of it. And at the heart of the Creature’s story we read about a penniless French family, the De Laceys. Frankenstein is, structurally, nothing less than Russian matryoshka dolls, one nesting inside the other. Once we grasp this we can begin to rid ourselves of the popular modern stereotypes and start to come to grips with Shelley’s original, in its first incarnation as it were.

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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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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 novel of anticipation

Felix Nadar c 1860 self portrait by Nadar, (Gaspard Felix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, out of copyright
Félix Nadar c 1860: self portrait by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon 1820-1910); Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Jules Verne From the Earth to the Moon
translated by Edward Roth
Dover publications 2009 (translation 1874, French original 1865)

From the Earth to the Moon was Verne’s prophetic space romance about space travel. Set after the American Civil War — the conflict coincidentally finishing just as the novel was first published in France — the novel details the implementing of a concept by the President of the Baltimore Gun Club, namely the firing of a projectile to the moon. From concept, practice is attained in a little over a year: worldwide funding is raised, a site chosen, infrastructure established, a monstrous cannon or Columbiad cast, a giant refracting telescope built to track the projectile, and finally the projectile itself launched. Several of the details anticipate what was to happen in this part of the world nearly a century later but while this is interesting in itself what surprised me was how more engaged I was in the personalities involved and in the authorial asides than I remember being when I first read it a few decades ago.

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Books of the dead

Of course stories aren’t just to be read in the pages of books, magazines or papers; they can be found written wherever one chooses to interpret words strung together in phrases, sentences and chapters. And many such can be sought in the churchyards, graveyards and cemeteries of our villages, towns and cities, in memorial plaques on walls or embedded in church floors, and on markers placed in isolated spots to indicate the resting places of beloved pets or even Dark Age personages.

I like browsing in churchyards, especially early ones. Gravestones from the Victorian, Georgian and even earlier periods frequently have epitaphs and inscriptions which are more interesting, even more curious than modern examples. Pious doggerel, classical epigrams, Biblical allusions all have their place on these books of the dead, and very occasionally we have fragments of a tragic tale, as in the two instances I’ve culled from the memorials surrounding Crickhowell’s parish church of St Edmund, Powys, Wales.

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More Dido lingo

whale-ships
19th-century whalers processing whale blubber

In “Croopus! A Dido Twite Lexicon” I listed some of Dido’s colourful language in the Wolves Chronicles, some of it genuine — variously Cockney and from other parts of Britain — and some of it Joan Aiken’s own invention (which, oddly enough, often seemed perfectly genuine). There undoubtedly were the inevitable omissions and, as further novels in the series are read, there’ll naturally be additions. Here’s the first of what will probably be part of an ongoing exercise (expect more addenda as time goes by) listing terms used by Dido in Night Birds on Nantucket. Continue reading “More Dido lingo”