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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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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