A pocket full of Rye

Church Square, Rye (1952) Credit: https://www.antiquemapsandprints.com/ekmps/shops/richben90/images/sussex-1952-rye.-church-square.-old-vintage-print.-190581-p.jpg

We’ve been holidaying in East Sussex, near the historic town of Rye, seeing sites, such as gardens and buildings, and sights, such as the sea and countryside. Amongst them all is beautiful Rye itself.

Rye is also a veritable literary mecca. Natives and residents have included playwright (and sometime Shakespeare collaborator) John Fletcher, Henry James (who completed The Spoils of Poynton near Rye, and then wrote his remaining novels in Lamb House, Rye), E F Benson (author of the ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels), and Conrad Aiken (poet and author), not forgetting Joan Aiken, his now more famous daughter, born here ninety-four years ago on 4th September 1924.

Aiken celebrated her birthplace in her fiction, sometimes obscurely. For example, the short stories in The Monkey’s Wedding feature towns called, variously, Rohun, Rune or Ryme. The Wolves Chronicle entitled Midwinter Nightingale, first published the year before her death, was partly set in marshland reminiscent of Romney Marsh, the coastal area between Winchelsea and Dungeness, and accessible from Rye. And, of course, The Haunting of Lamb House, her supernatural novel from 1991, is specifically set in Rye.

Forgive me but please be indulgent, for I shall in due course be posting a little bit more about this part of East Sussex and its literary links; for now it seems a good time to celebrate the genius of Joan Aiken and draw attention to her Sussex birthplace.


References
Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House. Jonathan Cape, 1991
~ Midwinter Nightingale. Red Fox, 2005 (2003)
~ The Monkey’s Wedding. Small Beer Press, 2011
Dorothy Eagle and Hillary Carell (eds): The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles. OUP, 1977
Henry James: The Spoils of Poynton. Penguin Classics 1987 (1897)

Rye’s literary links
https://www.ryemuseum.co.uk/literary-rye/
https://www.ryemuseum.co.uk/moe-local-writers/
https://jessicanorrie.wordpress.com/tag/rye/
http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/timeline_02.html

Snowflakes and the Sun

On March 5th 2018 the so-called newspaper called The Sun made a rare foray into the literary world, only to shoot itself in the foot.

Writers Gary O’Shea and Thea Jacobs quoted a couple of academics who’d suggested — unsurprisingly to anybody who’d read Frankenstein — that the Creature was a victim whose actions could be understood even if not condoned.

According to the journalists (is that the correct description?) students who expressed sympathy for the Creature’s plight were to be dubbed ‘snowflakes’; for anyone not au fait with this term of opprobrium it means anyone who is, frankly, not a rabid gun-toting neoliberal who thinks the poor, the disabled, LGBTI campaigners, women and ethnics have only themselves to blame for being victims.

Sadly, it’s not at all obvious that the writers have read either the 1818 text or the 1831 edition, in which it’s abundantly clear that the Creature is the one who’s been wronged.

“The dark side of human nature”

Das Eismeer (1823-4) by Caspar David Friedrich

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
The 1818 text edited with introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler 1993
Oxford World’s Classics 1998

“[A] tale so strange, that I should fear you would not credit it, were there not something in truth which, however wonderful, forces conviction. The story is too connected to be a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood.” — Victor Frankenstein recounting the story so far, Volume III Chapter 6

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published on March 11th 1818,* and for two hundred years has never been out of print. Popular culture has led us to picture the Creature as portrayed by Boris Karloff (despite the name, an English actor called William Henry Pratt) in numerous films and parodies; but readers new to the novel might be surprised to first find themselves in the Arctic wastes, as revealed in a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Margaret Saville. He writes from St Petersburgh (sic), then Archangel (Arkhangelsk), and then from somewhere in the polar regions.

As we quickly discover, though, this is merely a framing device; the author then introduces us to Victor Frankenstein marooned on an ice floe. We no sooner get to what appears to be the meat of the story when we realise that Victor’s narrative is also a framing device, with the Creature’s story at the heart of it. And at the heart of the Creature’s story we read about a penniless French family, the De Laceys. Frankenstein is, structurally, nothing less than Russian matryoshka dolls, one nesting inside the other. Once we grasp this we can begin to rid ourselves of the popular modern stereotypes and start to come to grips with Shelley’s original, in its first incarnation as it were.

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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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Modest and accomplished

The Cobb, Lyme Regis 1892

Jane Austen: Persuasion
Introduction and notes by Elaine Jordan 2000
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1993)

William Walter Elliot of his cousin Anne, after she modestly claimed minimal understanding of Italian: “one who is too modest for the world in general to be aware of half her accomplishments, and too highly accomplished for modesty to be natural in any other woman.” — Persuasion: Volume II Chapter 8

Persuasion was the last completed novel by Austen, published posthumously in December 1817 in tandem with Northanger Abbey, one of her earliest completed novels. It’s likely that neither of these novels appeared with the titles Austen gave them (Northanger Abbey was provisionally called Catherine, and in an earlier draft Susan) but I wonder how the public would have viewed Persuasion if it had in fact been published as The Elliots, a handle which Austen family tradition asserted was her original choice of working title.

You might assume then that this is a story of a family from the landed gentry when in fact our focus is almost entirely on just one member of that family, Anne Elliot. Unusually for Austen novels there is a substantial backstory, which is that eight years before Anne was ‘persuaded’ to refuse young Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage on the grounds that he had few prospects ahead of him. She has since bitterly regretted her decision but, in common with many of women of her supposedly advanced age (she is 27 when this story opens), it’s more than just due the fear that she will never get another offer: it’s that she continues to have feelings for Frederick. On top of that, her father’s poor management of the Somerset estate has necessitated the letting out of the property so that the family can live in more straitened circumstances in Bath.

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Jane and Charlotte

The doorway at High Sunderland Hall, Halifax in 1913, known to the Brontës (image public domain)

Juliet Gardiner’s illustrated biography The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth (Collins & Brown 1992) is a kind of companion to Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s ‘My Dear Cassandra’: Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen (1990) issued by the same publishers a year or two before. The two titles to me recall Charlotte’s reported antipathy to Austen.  It’s clear that Charlotte may have overreacted to gauche comments on the passion in her novels, but it’s nevertheless possible to identify in some of Charlotte’s more considered (if still lukewarm) assessments a sneaking admiration for her older contemporary, who died when Charlotte was only one year old.

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Reading fantasy

Arundel Castle quadrangle, from an old postcard
Arundel Castle quadrangle, from an old postcard

In a sense all fiction is fantasy, isn’t it? Derived from Latin phantasia, ‘fantasy’ comes ultimately from the Greek word φαντασια, ‘imagination, appearance, apparition’, formed from a verb meaning ‘to make visible’. When we write we create images in the mind of the reader, ‘phantoms’ of what might be real but isn’t; indeed, even non-fiction is always a construct which, while trying to reflect reality, necessarily creates an illusion seen from the particular point of view of the writer.

Nowadays, though, fantasy is genre-specific: it implies magic, imagined new worlds, new eras, often contingent on our own but having no true existence. Sometimes literary snobs call their preferred fantasy ‘magic realism’, as if a different label fools anyone, but of course magic realism is fantasy, pure and simple. Fantasy is often dismissed as not only essentially unreal but also escapist, for people who can’t accept how the world actually is or even was. A shame, this, as fantasy fiction has a way of commenting obliquely on ‘real life’, by which I mean the life of our imagination through which we mediate all that we experience.

How do you read fantasy? Do you race through it for that sense of brief escape? Do you obsess about it, write fan fiction around it, role-play parts in costume, communicate with like-minded individuals and treat the key characters as if they are, indeed, real people? Or do you approach each work as a piece of literature and accord the author a bit of respect for their role as demiurge in the creation of a new world?

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