Just deserts

Lipizzaner horse and rider, from a vintage postcard

The Star of Kazan
by Eva Ibbotson.
Macmillan Children’s Books 2008 (2004)

‘Oh God, she had to believe that her mother was good. How did people live if they thought their mother was dishonest?’
— Chapter 37

Two striking images, among so very many, stand out for me in this novel: one is of a Lipizzaner horse and its rider, working together as one, and the other is of an armoured fist sometimes accompanied by the motto, ‘Stand aside, Ye Vermin Who Oppose Us’. And between the two uneasily sits the figure of 12-year-old foundling Annika who finds herself emotionally torn between the community which has raised her and the family she never knew she had.

Brought up at the turn of the 20th century in a Vienna then at the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she is raised below stairs in an academic household, loved and repaying that love in countless ways. She is quick to learn, to make friendships, to develop and enjoy skills such as cooking. But all the time she harbours dreams of her birth mother coming to claim her, explain her abandonment and then whisk her off to a new life.

But when that day does come and she is taken to North Germany to live in a castle, she finds that dreams are rarely the same as reality — and in her innocence she is unable to accept that people can be dissembling and not have her welfare truly at heart.

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Smiling villains

The Lady under the control of Comus: William Blake, 1801

“O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…”
—Hamlet: Act I, Scene 5

I began with Comus, Milton’s 1634 masque, the touchstone of which I identified as chastity ensnared. Its horrifying story of a young woman trapped by a villain — smiling or otherwise — the likely victim of perdition through seduction is distressingly all too familiar these days. In Milton’s drama she puts up a spirited defence, but if it weren’t for the intervention of her brothers and a third party she may have indeed been lost; rescue, tragically, is all too rarely at hand in real life.

Many tales where the female is menaced by a male figure are still seen as inferring that it’s the woman who’s the instigator of her own victimhood, the architect of her own misfortunes. Like mythical Pandora or Psyche, who succumb to what’s often referred to as ‘transgressive curiosity’, they may stray where they shouldn’t, open storage containers, shine lights in dark corners, enter locked rooms or go widdershins. The astonishing message appears to be that it’s their own fault that they find trouble by, for instance, dressing provocatively, walking alone, or just being a woman.

But not all narratives take this line; whether implicitly or explicitly they pin the blame fully on the predator, the male — and more often than not it is a male — who perversely sees women as deserving abuse, rape or death. Many scholars have discussed this aspect and in what follows I shall allude to some of them (because, of course, my argument is in no way original). I want then to take up a couple or more threads: the implication that women bring misfortune on themselves; the intervention of one or more rescuers; and instances when sisters are actually doing it for themselves.

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Bluebeard’s Castle

tower door

The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter,
Virago Press 1981 (1967)

Bluebeard’s Castle hides
a puppeteer of humans
who defy their fate

Though this is an early work, I found it a much more engrossing read than some of Angela Carter’s shorter stories in the collection The Bloody Chamber. One of the fascinating things about humans is their propensity for confounding expectations, and while it was possible to see where the narrative generally was going, I was drawn to these grotesques (despite their very obvious failings) by their surprising resourcefulness as they tried to cope with Uncle Philip’s cruel and despotic regime and almost overpowering psychic vampirism.

In fact, despite their clearly delineated and sometimes unforgivable vices (unsavoury habits, voyeurism, unmitigated cruelty, incestuous relationships and acquiescent victimhood) you can’t help admiring their positive, mostly creative attributes: Finn’s painting, Francie’s musicianship, Margaret’s jewel-like cooking, Jonathan’s model-making, Melanie’s needlework, even Uncle Philip’s sheer inventiveness and craft.

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My brother’s keeper

Charlotte Brontë: The Story of Willie Ellin (1853)
in Unfinished Novels
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

This will be less in the nature of a review and more in the manner of a musing as I look over Charlotte Brontë’s several attempts at either rewriting or beginning a novel in the handful of years before her untimely death.

As I contemplate these five fragments called The Story of Willie Ellin I wonder at their cohesiveness or lack of it, their relationship to the then as yet unpublished The Professor, and their parallels with themes in Shirley, a novel which had already appeared in 1849.

And finally I discuss how Charlotte’s obsessions with sibling relationships and fairytale seem to coalesce in her various writings, as seems to be revealed in what remains of Willie Ellin’s tale.

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From pathos to bathos

Oakleaf window, Tyntesfield, Bristol

Ransom Riggs:
Tales of the Peculiar
Illustrated by Andrew Davidson
Penguin 2017 (2016)

I really wanted to like this: a handsome book to look at and a pleasure to hold and handle, with extremely classy wood engravings by Andrew Davidson and a series of short stories of ‘peculiar’ people told purportedly in fairytale fashion. I do love convincing fakery in a novel, the kind that allows one to fully suspend one’s disbelief and immerse oneself in an alternative world where unnatural things happen and peculiar people exist.

However, with this instalment of Ransom Riggs’ popular series I found that the things which irritated me about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children were still present, but amplified, and that unfortunately led to me feeling let down and profoundly disappointed as I waded through the eleven pieces and a foreword.

But first, the Prologue, in which I enumerate the many facets which predisposed me to find this tome attractive.

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Muddling through

Penelope Lively: Uninvited Ghosts
Illustrated by John Lawrence
Puffin 1986 (1984)

This delightful collection of eight short stories aimed at young readers is perfect for a quick diverting read by those of more mature years too. At between ten and twenty pages each in this edition they share humour and fantasy in equal measure in ways that remind me of writers like Joan Aiken and E Nesbit — which should be all the recommendation needed.

The plentiful line illustrations by John Lawrence, heading as well as littering each story, are simple yet effective; in a style reminiscent of Peter Firmin’s cartoons they succeed in conveying a typical child as protagonist confronted by abnormal situations; they perfectly complement the author’s narratives in which it’s touch and go whether all will turn out well or not.

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Good tales well told

Daniel Morden:
Secret Tales from Wales
Illustrated by Brett Breckon
Gomer Press 2017

Enough for one,
Too much for two,
Nothing for three.
What is it?
— epigraph to Secret Tales from Wales

I always smile to myself when I see journalistic headlines like The Top Ten Secret Beaches or The Secrets Only Locals Know, because once those details are screamed out at you and tens of thousands other readers, whether in hard copy or online, by definition it’s no longer a secret. They become the Top Ten Best Known Beaches or Famous Local Facts All the World Knows.

So the title of this book doesn’t refer to tales never ever revealed before but to stories about secrets. And the tales are from Wales because the writer is Welsh, not because they are unique to Welsh tradition.

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“Strange things”

‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1818) attributed to George Cruikshank (British Museum)

Presentments are strange things! and so are sympathies; and so are signs: and the three combined make one mystery to which humanity has not yet found the key. — Jane Eyre, II/6

The climax to Jane Eyre, as most readers know, comes with the narrator hearing Rochester’s voice calling “Jane! Jane! Jane!” though he is many miles distant, and he in turn hears her answering, “I am coming: wait for me.” And Charlotte Brontë has, if we are aware of it, given us plenty of hints that “strange things” are part and parcel of the novel, as this example from the second volume shows.

Presentments, sympathies, signs — what are we to make of these? Luckily Jane characterises them thus:

  • Presentiments are when impressions are anticipated in the form of a dream.
  • Sympathies can exist “between far-distant, long-absent, wholly estranged relatives.”
  • Signs, “for aught we know,” she writes, “may be but the sympathies of Nature with man.”

She has dreams about one child or another, which she recognises as symbolic; the sympathetic bond she has with Rochester — expressed as a cord joining their bodies — finds its fullest expression in their telepathic communication; and the chestnut tree riven by lightning (though surviving) is Nature’s sign of their imminent but temporary separation. Magic and the supernatural thoroughly suffuses the pages of this classic.

As a novel Jane Eyre is full of balances and correspondences, as I’ve alluded to in an earlier post, another such one being orphan Jane’s religious education by Helen Burns in Lowood Asylum — as occurs early on — being matched by Jane’s cousin St John’s evangelical zeal towards the end. Indeed, as we may expect from a perpetual curate’s daughter, the pages are increasingly peppered with biblical phrases and references.

But running parallel with plentiful Christian images we have a contrasting concentration on the supernatural, almost pagan, world or plane, and especially on Faërie and fairytales, notably in the central Thornfield section. As always with these discussion posts there will be spoilers galore, so desist from further perusal if you’d rather not have revelations!

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Charlotte has a laugh

A romantic ruin by Emily Brontë

[…] At eighteen the true narrative of life is yet to be commenced. Before that time we sit listening to a tale, a marvellous fiction; delightful sometimes, and sad sometimes; almost always unreal. Before that time, our world is heroic; its inhabitants half-divine or semi-demon; its scenes are dream scenes; darker woods and stranger hills; brighter skies, more dangerous waters […]

At that time—at eighteen, drawing near the confines of illusive, void dreams, Elf-land lies behind us, the shores of Reality rise in front.
— Chapter VII

I’ve mentioned before now about humour in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (here) and I want to expand a bit on that in this post, but I also wish to draw attention to a curious feature in this novel that I’m not aware of being discussed elsewhere (though I’m happy to be corrected on that): fairies.

The adult novels of the Brontë sisters are not, as far as I know, associated with either humour or faërie, so you may understand why these two features stuck out like the proverbial thumbs in what is otherwise a romantic but realist historical novel, set before Charlotte was even born.

I hope to persuade you that, despite some appearances to the contrary, Shirley (1849) has much about it of the fairytale, and contains more laughs than expected even though Charlotte recounts all with a straight face: the passage of 170 years hasn’t hidden all its impish secrets.

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Flights of fancy

Illustration: Mackenzie Crook

Mackenzie Crook: The Windvale Sprites
With illustrations by the author
Faber 2011

That is when the thought struck him. ‘I’ve found a fairy.’ Just like that with no exclamation mark. […] Not wand-waving Tinkerbells but sinewy insect-men: wild creatures that must be secretive and hardly ever spotted.

A boy. A storm. An unexpected encounter. A library. Wild places. Classic ingredients for a children’s mystery, written and illustrated by Mackenzie Crook who knows how to spin a yarn that’ll draw in any imaginative young reader (and the odd adult too). Though this is a tale about fairies it’s not a fairytale in the conventional sense; while there are traditional elements this is essentially an adventure story involving young Asa Brown attempting to solve a centuries-old conundrum, and what he did after he found the answer.

What do we think of when we encounter traditional fairytales? Magical beings no doubt. Do they appear, only to disappear when humans burst in on them? Are they our size, only dressed in outlandish or anachronistic garb, or are they diminutive with butterfly wings? Do they grant wishes, or do they bring down misfortune upon our heads? Does time warp and change when you stray into their realms, or are there taboos which you must not contravene?

Asa will find some answers to these questions when investigating these sprites. But first he has to research the eccentric Benjamin Tooth, an eighteenth-century antiquary locally notorious for his flights of fancy, who has reputedly left some documents to the town which may or may not reside in the local library. It’s only just a matter of Asa somehow finding the key…

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Parallel lines

How many narratives are there, and how are they put together? Why are we often satisfied with some stories which, when described, sound trite or clichéd while other more complex tales, more diffuse or with an unexpected ending, fail to please or even prove unwelcome? Are we doomed to merely know what we like and to only like what we know?

I ask all these questions because I sometimes find different fictions I come across — and occasionally even non-fiction narratives — following parallel paths towards a similar conclusion even though they may not be obviously related in any way. And it turns out I may like them equally well even while unaware of those similarities, possibly because I’ve subconsciously recognised that they follow patterns that I find familiar. What might the impulse be that unites so many plots that superficially appear dissimilar?

I’ve read a few studies in my time about how stories are structured. There is the Aarne-Thompson tale types classification (named after Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, subsequently refined by Hans-Jörg Uther) which undertook to analyse folk narratives around the world, finding many commonalities; most discussion of folk- and fairytales refers to this system. There is Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) based on analysis of classic Russian fairytales, which I found strangely alluring despite its complexity.

I’ve also read Eugène Dorfman’s The Narreme in the Medieval Romance Epic: An Introduction to Narrative Structure (1971), which examines how many medieval romances appear to follow similar structural patterns. Then there’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) which tried to include all culture hero tales in a schema he called the monomyth. We mustn’t forget Christopher Booker’s often irritating study The Seven Basic Plots (2004) which attributed the success of many narratives to their following a limited number of templates, sometimes singly and at other times in combination.

So many approaches, so few answers in common. Is there another way to come at these conundrums, or at least suggest an alternative approach to why we seek out and enjoy particular patterns?

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Human yet deliciously alien

Neil Gaiman: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Headline 2014 (2013)

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.
— Shakespeare: Hamlet

Like all good fantasy books, what makes this novel outstanding is not so much the magic (of which there is enough to sate the most avid of fans) but the essential truths that it contains: of human nature, of joy and pain, of choices and consequences, of life and of death. It strongly evokes what it’s like to be a child trying to make sense of an adult world, learning through books and above all through bitter experience. My main criterion when judging a performance, a work of art or a book is: Would I want to experience it again? In this case the answer is unhesitatingly Yes! And why? Because it is life-affirming; while conversely — and, seemingly, perversely — affirming that the inevitable consequence of life is death.

I confess I shall be hard pushed to mention everything that struck me as I read this, so exquisite was the underlay below the equally rich surface details. The unnamed narrator has been attending a funeral in Sussex — for his father, one soon realises — and afterwards drives off to the site of the former family home, and then on to a farm, curious about the pond that he remembers being there. It instantly brings back childhood memories, specifically when he was around the age of seven; and what memories they turn out to be!

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Rabid dog bites girl!

Medieval dog (http://www.medievalists.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Medieval-Dog.jpg)
Medieval dog (http://www.medievalists.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Medieval-Dog.jpg)

Gabriel García Márquez
Of Love and Other Demons 
(trans: Edith Grossman) Penguin Books 1996

Rabid dog bites girl;
parents, priest, bishop, nuns not
bit but rabid too

I don’t regret having delayed completing Of Love and Other Demons for several years as I don’t think I would have appreciated this novella half of much when I first started. My impression then was that this was a slow-moving story with much description but little happening. How wrong I was! The title is so apt as this is an exploration of how obsessions can take precedence over basic humanity. The enigma that is Sierva Maria is the catalyst for upheaval in a coastal Colombian town (a fictionalised Cartagena) of a couple of centuries ago: bitten by a rabid dog but surviving against the odds, her very existence seems to infect all she comes into contact with. Many of these individuals then exhibit a rabidity that has nothing to do with a physical ailment and everything to do with diseases of the mind: irrational superstition, jealousy, inhumanity and, yes, love, but obsessive love akin to that of a stalker. Continue reading “Rabid dog bites girl!”

No peace for the wicked

Victorian-London
Victorian London, with St Paul’s Cathedral

Genevieve Cogman The Invisible Library Tor 2015

Take a love of books, add a dash of fairytale, blend in some steampunk, season with distinctive characters, add essence of danger and top it off with a garnish of wittiness and voilà! we have The Invisible Library, the first of a projected trilogy featuring the extremely resourceful Irene. She is a Librarian in an extremely unusual library, one which exists out of time and place. From its rambling corridors and innumerable rooms lined with shelved books one can access any number of alternate worlds in different dimensions. The purpose of the library is to acquire, by whatever means, one copy of every book of fiction published in those alternate worlds, even multiple versions of a book where, due to variations in developments in those worlds, the resulting editions may only differ in a word, a paragraph or a chapter.

To complicate matters, the mix of magic and the mundane in each world will be different, and the magic wielded by the Librarians of a different order again. The two worlds that we are introduced to in The Invisible Library have many of the tropes of steampunk embedded in them: technology largely operated by steam power or Victorian mechanics, quasi-Dickensian costumes, detectives and shady characters roaming streets blanketed in smog, structured if sometimes fluid class divisions and, woven through all, the red strand of danger and the blue thread of magic.

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A tale with a heart

snowscape

Neil Gaiman Odd and the Frost Giants Bloomsbury 2008

Published for World Book Day in April 2008, Odd and the Frost Giants was designed with youngsters in mind but can be enjoyed by oldsters as well. Part fable, part fairytale, with a dash of mythology, it features the resourceful Odd, son of a Norwegian Viking and a Scottish mother. Lamed when a tree trunk falls on his leg he is bullied — particularly, after the death of his own father, by his new stepfather. So in the midst of a prolonged winter which shows no sign of ending he heads off to the lone cabin in the woods where his woodcutter father stayed when he was out chopping down trees. And it is then that he is plunged into an adventure which begins to uncover the explanation of Winter’s continued grip.

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