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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Voyage upriver

The ‘Roi des Belges’, the Belgian riverboat Joseph Conrad commanded on the upper Congo, 1889

‘BB’ (D J Watkins-Pitchford):
The Little Grey Men
Oxford University Press 2012 (1942)

“This is a story about the last gnomes in Britain,” begins the author’s introduction to this story, winner of the Carnegie Medal in the dark days of the second world war. The author, long the art master at Rugby School in Warwickshire, clearly based his tale on a countryside he knew well for not only is this an affectionate piece of nature writing set on and around a brook, ‘BB’ himself illustrated the text, and included a handful of songs with piano accompaniment credited to, perhaps, his father.

Two gnomes, Baldmoney and Sneezewort, set off one spring morning up the Folly Brook in search of the long-lost Cloudberry who, a year before, had himself gone in quest of the stream’s source. They leave behind the older, rather grumpy, Dodder who’d lost a leg to a fox many years ago; thus begins a voyage upriver, full of delights but also fraught with danger and mortal perils.

The Little Grey Men is charming and old-fashioned (with all that implies), a mini-adventure for us but a hardy expedition for the gnomes that undertake the journey. Will they achieve their goal or will it all end in disaster, not least from the prying eyes of Giants?

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Bad and dangerous

Lord Byron (1813) by Thomas Phillips

John Polidori: The Vampyre: a Tale (1819)
and a Fragment of a Novel by Lord Byron (1816)
in Three Gothic Novels (edited by E F Bleiler)
Dover 1966

Buttressed by an editor’s introduction, the author’s own introduction, an extract from a later letter to Polidori’s publisher, and Byron’s original vampire tale fragment, this — the first completed modern vampire story in English — already contains many of the clichés now expected from the genre. Here is the pale nobleman with a dark secret, and here the young female victims; not unexpected is the vampire’s resurrection after death and the connection with Eastern Europe and the Levant.

But you can forget any mentions of bats, sinister castles or pointy teeth, though there are allusions to stakes, peasant huts, antiquarian structures and blood all over a victim’s neck and breast. Whether these are enough to summon up a vicarious thrill in the reader will really depend on how much one empathises with the characters depicted and the degree to which one is susceptible or immune to High Gothick style and sensibility.

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In praise of innocence

Botticelli’s Primavera (1482), Uffizi, Florence

Henry James: Daisy Miller: A Study.
An International Episode. Four Meetings.
Penguin English Library 2012 (1879)

First published in magazine form in 1878, Daisy Miller is a novella that must strike modern readers very differently from their counterparts a hundred and forty years ago. Now, the very idea of a young lady seeking the company of pleasant young men seems unremarkable in Western society, but then for one such as Daisy to do so unchaperoned, and especially against all advice and convention, would have been regarded as not only unrespectable but also reprehensible.

In the outraged reactions of those who observed Daisy’s unconventionality James may have expressed closet anxieties over his own acceptance as an American in Europe, for he had only recently settled in England; his many extended stays in Europe — which included Switzerland and Italy — had given him plenty of opportunity for observing how New World visitors were received in the Old World. But of course Daisy Miller is much more than autobiography dressed up as fiction.

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A publishing scoundrel

Lord Byron (1813) by Thomas Phillips

Henry James: The Aspern Papers
Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1888)

Miss Juliana Bordereau lives with her niece Miss Tina in a run-down Venetian palazzo; it is here that a literary researcher — nameless throughout this novella — manages to track the pair down and inveigle them into letting him stay as a lodger. His ulterior motive is to gain access to any papers rumoured to exist pertaining to the late American poet Jeffrey Aspern, all for eventual publication.

Nine chapters detail the narrator’s underhand machinations, first to pull to wool over the eyes of the elder Miss Bordereau and secondly to gain the confidence of Miss Tina. James conjures up a kind of apologue or moral fable from what initially appears to be a factual first-person account but which increasingly makes us suspect the researcher is an unreliable narrator.

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No power upon the hour

My 1918 Pocket Library edition of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson: Fables
in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896)

THE PENITENT
A man met a lad weeping. “what do you weep for?”
“I am weeping for my sins,” said the lad.
“You must have little to do,” said the man.
The next day they met again. Once more the lad was weeping. “Why do you weep now?” asked the man.
“I am weeping because I have nothing to eat,” said the lad.
“I thought it would come to that,” said the man.

First published bundled up with Jekyll and Hyde by Longmans, Green and Company two years after Stevenson’s death, and then together in a pocket edition in 1906, this collection of literary fables ought to be better known than they are. Some, like ‘The Penitent’, are short, barely a page or two long, while others run to almost a dozen sides. Some are enigmatic, others cynical, others yet are Aesopian in that they feature animals, as in ‘The Tadpole and the Frog’:

“Be ashamed of yourself,” said the frog. “When I was a tadpole, I had no tail.”
“Just what I thought!” said the tadpole. “You never were a tadpole.”

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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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