A richly tapestried life

Obituary: Gerald Cadman
by B(etty) F(isher).
Proceedings of the West Anglian Field Club,
Vol II No 5 (1911)

I’m an inveterate rummager-about in those baskets charity shops often have, filled with out-of-date street maps, antiquated local history guides, yellowing sheet music and miscellaneous postcards. I’m always on the look-out for curiosities so I thought I’d share with you this item I acquired last year before lockdown put a stop to all such browsing.

It’s a special eight-page issue of the apparently now defunct Proceedings of the West Anglian Field Club, dedicated solely to the obituary of one Gerald Cadman, written by one B. F. (whom I take to be Betty Fisher, who’s listed as Secretary among the Club’s officers).

Gerald Cadman turns out to be a colourful character despite his sober profession of accountant, so what I want to do is pick out certain key points buried in Mrs Fisher’s prolix prose, which rambles on over nearly eight quarto pages.

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The Ruin of Books and Sarcasm

Cover generator: https://nullk.github.io/penguin.html

Alex, who blogs on fantasy and science fiction at Spells and Spaceships and tweets as (at)BlogSpells, posted this fun tweet recently:

Create your YA novel title:

The _______ of ________ and _______

1) type of place you like travelling to most — forest, church, castle etc.
2) Last thing you held in your hand other than your phone
3) thing you’re most scared of

Mine, as you can see, came out as The Ruin of Books and Sarcasm which I fondly thought had the enigmatic feel of titles like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance.

I also used this cover generator to produce a suitably official-looking Penguin Classics title using a photo of part of a mural I saw in Bristol.

Here is a summary of the imagined blurb on the back cover, which may or may not encourage you to go out and buy it — virtually of course!

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Pretending to be grown-up

Eleanor Fitzsimons:
The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit
Duckworth 2019

There is only one way [to understand children]: to remember what you thought and felt and liked and hated when you yourself were a child. […] There is no other way.

Daisy Nesbit, Edith Bland and Mrs Tommy Tucker: just three of the many sides to one extraordinary character. One a fearful yet imaginative child, deprived of a father at an early age, shifting from pillar to post, to and fro across the English Channel; the second a dedicated socialist married to a prodigious womaniser, soon to become a successful writer of children’s fiction and friend to established and aspiring literati; the last a widow, remarrying for love but plagued by health issues, finally buried in a Kentish churchyard on Romney Marsh.

Edith Nesbit’s singular life — spanning over six decades, encompassing the late Victorian and Edwardian periods and witnessing momentous movements and events — is fully documented in this new Nesbit biography, the second in as many years, complete with references, a detailed index and a selection of some dozen images.

Exceedingly well researched, The Life and Loves of E Nesbit largely lets contemporary documents speak for themselves so that the reader may hear authentic voices and individual opinions, both so important in gauging the impact this woman had on those who met her, knew her, and read her.

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“Kind to his fellow creatures”

Andrew Crosse and his drawing of an acarus he noted during experiments on minerals

Peter Haining: The Man Who Was Frankenstein
Frederick Muller 1979

A review I read nearly forty years ago of Peter Dickinson’s The Flight of Dragons mentioned how the author used scholasticism, biology and chemistry “to prove how dragons could have physically existed, breathed fire, and flown.” This put me in mind of a discussion of dragon legends in the Quantock Hills of Somerset where, of at least nine dragons mentioned, only one breathed fire: the dragon of Kingston St Mary. Peter Haining’s The Man Who Was Frankenstein suggested to me why this might be so.

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Darkly shaded lives

Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, painted around 1834 by Branwell (who has erased his own image). National Portrait Gallery

Juliet Gardiner: The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth.
A Life in Letters, Diaries and Writings 

Collins & Brown 1992

We wove a web in childhood,
A web of sunny air;
We dug a spring in infancy
Of water pure and fair […]

For life is darkly shaded
And its joys fleet fast away!

— from ‘Retrospection’ by Charlotte Brontë (1835)

2017 marks the bicentenary of the birth of the least celebrated of the Brontë siblings, Branwell. As with the group portrait he painted of his surviving sisters and himself he appears as a ghostly figure, barely mentioned and then only with sadness. He left some poetry, youthful writings, a handful of paintings (on the evidence we have mostly of mediocre merit) and a record of a life wasted, an existence which brought him and those who knew him pain and distress.

But Branwell — for all his likely hidden talents — is not the gifted individual who springs to mind when the name Brontë is mentioned; more likely it will be Charlotte, Emily or Anne who commands our immediate attention. The World Within recounts the family history, from Patrick Brunty’s birth in County Down in 1777 to Charlotte Brontë’s death in 1855. There will be little I suspect to surprise Brontë fans so rather than give a synopsis of their lives and accomplishments I will merely point out what makes this title worth more than a brief look.

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Opening the door on Jane

knocker

Penelope Hughes-Hallett ‘My Dear Cassandra’:
Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen

Collins & Brown 1991 (1990)

The late Penelope Hughes-Hallett (she died in 2010) had the great fortune to be brought up in Steventon in Hampshire, Jane Austen’s birthplace and where the future novelist herself lived between 1775 and 1801, so it’s not a surprise that she maintained a lifelong interest in the Regency author. In ‘My Dear Cassandra’ she makes a selection from the letters Jane wrote to her older sister, introducing key periods in Jane’s life (changing residences in Steventon, Bath, Southampton, Chawton and Winchester) and supplying a linking commentary. Hughes-Hallett clearly knew her stuff, highlighted by the way she elucidates obscure references in the letters and cross-references the numerous personages with whom Jane was acquainted.
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The photographer and the beggar maid

Simon Winchester The Alice behind Wonderland
Oxford University Press 2011

A century and a half ago, in July 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in a limited edition by Oxford University Press — and then immediately withdrawn because Tenniel was dissatisfied with the reproduction of his illustrations. Although it wasn’t until November 1865 that the second edition appeared (approved by both author and illustrator, this time under the Macmillan imprint which had published Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies two years before) be prepared for a slew of media trumpeting and Wonderland brouhaha this summer. Nevertheless, it’s an opportune moment to review this short study of Alice Liddell, the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll’s two most famous fantasies.

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An unostentatious introduction to Austen

Blaize Castle
Blaize Castle

Charles Jennings
A Brief Guide to Jane Austen

Robinson 2012

For an Austen newbie like me this Brief Guide – though at over two hundred and forty pages not that brief – is an excellent introduction and summary, told intelligently and sympathetically. Four succinct but readable chapters deal first with her life and novels, followed by an overview in ten sections of life in Regency England and a summary of Jane’s afterlife in criticism and the media. Added to this core are a short introduction, a select bibliography and, finally, an indispensable index. While the map of southern Britain helps chart Jane’s travels (despite the central area being obscured by the binding) what would have made this Guide complete would have been a family tree, however simplified, to elucidate sibling and other relationships. Continue reading “An unostentatious introduction to Austen”