The missing hat

New York City 1926

The Glass Key
by Dashiell Hammett.
Orion Books, 2012 (1931).

For a classic noir thriller with laconic dialogue, dangerous secrets, and violence both threatened and actual, it’s interesting that what struck me more than the realistic and often visceral details in the story were two separate accounts of what I think are meant to be significant dreams. Whether the reader prefers Freudian or Jungian interpretations, the fact is both dreams reveal more clearly than actions or words the psyches of two of the protagonists.

One is of a fish caught by one character and taken and released by another, and the second concerns the release of a swarm of snakes from behind a locked door. Fish, snakes, a glass key – what in heaven’s name do they signify? It may take the diligent reader till the last pages of this 1930s thriller to get an inkling but I think it’ll prove worth it.

Of course the plot initially involves a murder. Ostensibly the mystery seems to invite the question of who did it, but with a few names in the frame the follow-up questions will also involve the how, the why and the when – means, motivation and opportunity – all with the ambivalent Ned Beaumont our psychopomp, albeit one with a compromised conscience.

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Intrinsic irrelevance

Nemesis (1502) by Albrecht Dürer

The Genius and the Goddess
by Aldous Huxley.
Vintage Classics 2015 (1955).

“The trouble with fiction,” said John Rivers, “is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense.”

“Never?” I questioned.

“Maybe from God’s point of view,” he conceded. “Never from ours. Fiction has unity, fiction has style. Facts possess neither.”

Though called The Genius and the Goddess this novella could equally have included the 28-year-old Virgin or the Self-pitying Egotist in the title. It recounts – in the form of a mostly one-sided dialogue – how John Rivers, a British scientist working under the gifted American quantum physicist Henry Maartens in the early 1920s, finds himself compromised, and how as the son of a Lutheran minister he continues decades later to suffer the resulting pangs of guilt.

I have to be honest and say I struggled to enjoy this cross between a Socratic dialogue and a drawn-out drone – warning, a spoiler follows, though it’s mentioned on the cover blurb – of how a jejune man loses his virginity on the night of Shakespeare’s birthday in 1922. Much of it is presented as a monologue describing delayed gratification which, though intriguing at times, verges on the unedifying even when it’s couched in dry intellectual language.

Having slated the novella, can I bring myself to give some more detail and perhaps even praise what came across as more successful? I’ll try.

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The untamed heart

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The House Without Windows
by Barbara Newhall Follett,
introduced and illustrated by Jackie Morris.
Penguin 2019 (1927)

This is one of the strangest books I ever remember having read: written a century ago by a precocious child of twelve, it doesn’t slip easily into any neat category. Neither fable or fairytale, morality tale or narrative of magical realism, it instead speaks of a yearning that supercedes any adherence to a life of accepted norms, a selfishishness that cuts itself free from social contact and familial ties.

And what is this windowless house? Why, it’s the great outdoors, Nature’s boundless domain; and this tale tells of a delight in the variety contained in the wild and — as the original subtitle announced — Eepersip’s Life There. Eepersip is a child of Nature, forsaking family and friends to dance and sing, and watch and listen, and merge with vegetation and living things and landscape in this house without boundaries, its ceiling the ever-changing sky.

In reality that yearning to be at one with wild creatures and natural elements was in part a reflection of the author’s own desires: after The House Without Windows was published, she even briefly tried the life of a cabin boy, using her experience in an adventure story (published as The Voyage of the Norma D.) on her return in 1928, when she was still just 14. The story of her own life reads as equally fantastical, but her first novel gives as good an impression of the vividness of her inner life.

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A thing more necessary

The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald.
Illustrated by Arthur Hughes.
Puffin Books 1996 (1872)

‘We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.’

‘What is that, grandmother?’

‘To understand other people.’

Chapter 22, The Old Lady and Curdie.

There are many key-notes in this most famous of literary fairytales but the one that impresses me most strongly after reading it is that of empathy. It’s not really a moral precept, more an ability to imagine oneself in somebody else’s place, particularly on an emotional or compassionate level.

To some such empathy comes naturally, though for Princess Irene and for her friend Curdie a reminder by way of an unfortunate sequence of events is sometimes required to reinforce a predisposition; but the goblins in this tale find empathy an elusive concept, with the almost inevitable consequences.

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A thimble for a kiss

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan (photo by J M Barrie 1906)

‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’
by J M Barrie, in Peter Pan etc,
illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1906/1902)

Before Peter and Wendy (1911) there was this, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), published with illustrations by Arthur Rackham; and before that there was the stage play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904) following on from The Little White Bird (1902), from which Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was later extracted.

Amongst all this convoluted literary history are mingled clues to Barrie’s own psychology, hints about his relationship with his mother and his deceased brother David, and his relationship with the five Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother, Sylvia. Fascinating though these aspects may well be to many readers I’m more interested in the story which unfolds in the six chapters and the impact it may have on the innocent reader.

I say “innocent” reader, but it’s hardly easy to banish from one’s mind the boy who wouldn’t grow up in Peter and Wendy and in the many versions and retellings that have sprung up in the century or so since the play first saw the light. Here, instead of a boy “clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees” we find a week-old baby who matures without getting older, and instead of the varied geography of Neverland the action takes place almost exclusively in one of London’s Royal Parks.

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Seeking an ideal in life

Charlotte Brontë: Emma (1855)
in Unfinished Novels
Introduction by Dr Tom Winnifrith
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

Not to be confused with Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), Charlotte Brontë’s fragment of a novel remained incomplete at her death in 1855, forty years after Austen’s saw the light of day. As Tom Winnifrith in his introduction reminds us, Austen’s Sanditon and Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood continue to fascinate us, getting us wondering what the authors may have intended had they managed to finish their tales; and the same applies to Emma. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess allegedly took Brontë’s broad hints for a plot and ran with them, but all we are truly left with in the original is that tantalising opening, the one beginning “We all seek an ideal in life.”

The first puzzle is the identity of Emma. Who is she? The narrator (who addresses us directly as “reader”) tells us she is the widow Mrs Chalfont, and we guess she is around forty (perhaps not coincidentally about Charlotte’s age). Thereafter she disappears from the fragment’s pages. Is she the titular character? We never find out.

The second mystery concerns the identity of the poor little rich girl called Matilda Fitzgibbon sent to a small girls school run by the Misses Wilcox. What’s the history of this taciturn girl? Who is her father, Conway Fitzgibbon, and why is there no trace to be found of him when the end of term arrives?

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Supported by experience 

Rebecca Solomon (1832-86) ‘The Governess’ (1851): public domain image

Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey
Wordsworth Classics 1994 (1847)

There is a stock image of the Victorian governess, isn’t there: the stern, plain figure in black who is given charge of the upper- or middleclass family’s children, shepherding them from classroom to drawing room, and thence to bed. It’s easy to caricature this figure, as Joan Aiken did with the figure of Miss Slighcarp in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, or to portray her as a dominatrix for men (and women) of certain tastes, but I suspect that mostly the romantic view of the governess will rest on the titular person of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847).

However, the life of many a governess is portrayed more realistically in Charlotte’s sister’s novel, the semi-autobiographical Agnes Grey, which even more than Jane Eyre exposed the circumstances which governesses were expected to tolerate without a murmur. Clues that much of the story of Agnes (“pure, holy”) is based on Anne’s own experiences come in the opening paragraphs: both their fathers are clergymen in the north of England; both young women are twice engaged as governesses, the first post being short-lived though the second lasts a few years; and both are involved in plans to begin a school with family members (though in only one case does it come to fruition). And, from what we know of Anne’s life, the circumstances of Agnes’ treatment parallel the author’s own.

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A book of delights

The Box of Delights (prop for the TV series: https://www.flickr.com/photos/danacea/491582034)

John Masefield: The Box of Delights
Illustrated by Judith Masefield
Mammoth 2000 (1935)

Imagine a child whose parents have separately died in tragic circumstances; a child who up to the age of ten is home-schooled, living with guardians who limit his reading so that he largely has recourse to just his own imagination; a child who has returned from his first term among strangers at boarding school, able to retreat back into that fantasy world of his own making.

Then imagine that child several decades later, successful in what he really wanted to do — to use his imagination in creative ways — looking back to that childhood. How would he recapture that wonder, the sense of play and the closet anxieties without turning his writing into autobiography?

Perhaps the way forward for John Masefield — given the accolade of Poet Laureate in 1930 — was to turn his past history on its head and make the dreamworld he’d conjured up more real than reality. This he appeared to have done in 1927 with The Midnight Folk, and this too is what he may have also done in 1935 with The Box of Delights.

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Jane’s relations

George Richmond’s initial portrait sketch of Charlotte Brontë

As promised, I’m continuing my appreciation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre with further discussions, based on aspects of the novel I’ve not noted mentioned elsewhere or viewed quite as aslant. This post aims to examine Jane Eyre’s relations.

I use the term ‘relations’ in a couple of principal senses here: first, in terms of humans (Jane’s relatives, and her relationships with suitors) and, secondly, concerning how Jane appears to structure her narrative, that is, how in terms of patterns she relates her ‘autobiography’.

I’m certain I’m not the first to observe Charlotte’s creation as very like herself in terms of physicality, temperament, interests and even occupation: Jane, like Charlotte, is small and very much ‘a plain Jane’, holds strong opinions, reads similar books and is a sometime governess. What is strikingly different is that Jane is an orphan and an only child, whereas not only did Charlotte’s father outlive her but she herself had three surviving siblings when Jane Eyre was published.

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Do children never learn?

psammead

Edith Nesbit:
Five Children and It
Wordsworth Children’s Classics 1993

E Nesbit does it
again: do children never
learn? Of course they don’t.

When the five children in this story ask what ‘It’ is, and It tells them it is a Psammead, the immediate comment is the stock phrase “It’s all Greek to me.” And of course that is the point: Psammead would be Greek for ‘sand fairy’, which is what It is.

This is perhaps a clear indication that Edith Nesbit was writing not just for children but also for adults, herself included, the kind of educated middleclass adults alive at the tail-end of Victorian Britain.

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“An independent will”

Charlotte Brontë by her brother Branwell, restored detail

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre
Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Mason
Penguin Classics 1996 (1847)

Charlotte Brontë’s breakout novel, first published in three volumes, is now such a well-known classic, its story often summarised, discussed, filmed, retold, that any attempt I now make to précis it is, frankly, redundant. So I shan’t even attempt to do that; what I will do is draw out themes and ideas that have struck me on a first reading, and sincerely hope that I won’t be doing the author an injustice by in any way misrepresenting her.

I shall here pass over any deep psychological analysis of the author’s possible wish-fulfilment in outlining Jane’s supposed ‘autobiography’ (a subtitle proposed by the publishers, not by her), a narrative that borrows freely from people and places that she knew, and from many of her own personal experiences: that’s for specialists to wax lyrically on.

What I shall instead concentrate on in this review is not Jane as a feminist icon — because that’s also beyond my competency — but as an individual with agency, one who asserts her individuality even as she struggles with the love of her life:

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me! I am a free human being with an independent will…

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Whale of a time

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In just a few days it’ll be time for Witch Week, but right now I want to look forward to a little beyond that. I’ve begun one particular classic a couple of times now, but was never quite in the right frame of mind for it.

But it’s a shame to let 2019 go without giving it another try. Why? Because its author was born exactly two hundred years ago, and because Moby-Dick is bruited to be more than a simple tale of a doomed quest. So, along with fellow blogger Lizzie Ross, I shall once again begin at the beginning.

But first, I shall now glance back at works I have read (links are to my reviews) that could almost have been preparations for this adventure, volumes that have owed a part of their existence to this great whale of a tale.

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Shirley’s neck of the woods

Gable of Gatehouse, Kirklees Priory (H P Kendall) 1937 © Calderdale Libraries

‘And that,’ asked Miss Keeldar, pointing to the forest—‘that is Nunnwood?’
‘It is.’
‘Was it not one of Robin Hood’s haunts?’
‘Yes, and there are mementos of him still existing.’
—Chapter XII ‘Shirley and Caroline’

Welcome to the most final post on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (the very last despite what I suggested in an earlier piece) and welcome, especially, to the greenwood that is Nunnely Forest.

Newly established friends Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar have walked from the parish of Briarfield and are now overlooking the treetops surrounding the Nunnely Priory estate. In this novel, set towards the end of the Napoleonic wars and during a period industrial unrest, the thing we might least expect to come across might be the legend of a medieval outlaw.

But perhaps this is not so unexpected. For the two have not long before been extolling the virtues of each being a native of Yorkshire, and an independent thinker at that. Given that some Robin Hood legends are set in Barnsdale (South Yorkshire, but formerly part of the West Riding) the mention of the outlaw’s baunts is not entirely outlandish.

And there’s more.

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For Madmen Only

Hermann Hesse (1907) by Ernst Würtenberger

Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf
(Der Steppenwolf 1927, author’s note 1961)
Translated by Basil Creighton (1929), revised by Walter Sorell (1963)
Penguin Modern Classics 1963

What is Steppenwolf about? The author’s own note, written in the year before he died, made clear that this novel is essentially about the author himself and the existential crisis he had in the years approaching his fiftieth birthday. Steppenwolf‘s magic realism holds a mirror up to a man not too different from the one we see in a portrait by Ernst Würtenberger, painted when the author was thirty: the pacifist intellectual, his hair cut en brosse, wearing a haunted look:

I am in truth the Steppenwolf … who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him.

The subject of this novel suffers from gout, depression and pains of the head and body; he feels alienated from the bourgeois world around him but can’t quite abandon it; he believes he has nothing to live for, and contemplates suicide with a razor. Is there anything more depressing to read about than a depressive’s mental state?

And yet Der Steppenwolf turns out to be more than this, to go beyond a reiteration of deep depression, and it all begins with a half-glimpsed neon sign over an ancient door:

MAGIC THEATRE
ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY

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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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