A Brief Guide to Jane Austen by Charles Jennings. Robinson 2012.
For an Austen newbie like me, as I was early in the second decade of the 21st century, this Brief Guide – at over two hundred and forty pages not that brief, however – was an excellent introduction and summary, told intelligently and sympathetically.
Four succinct but readable chapters deal first with Austen’s life and novels, followed by an overview in ten sections of life in Regency England and a summary of Jane’s afterlife in criticism and the media.
Added to this core are a short introduction, a select bibliography and, finally, the indispensable index. While the map of southern Britain helps chart Jane’s travels (despite the central area being obscured by the binding) what would have made this Guide complete would have been a family tree, however simplified, to elucidate sibling and other relationships.
“Where sky and water meet, | Where the waves grow sweet … | There is the utter East.”
I promised I’d discuss some of the possible influences on C S Lewis’s conception of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. You may remember that this instalment in The Chronicles of Narnia featured a journey by sea eastwards, ostensibly on a quest to locate seven missing Telmarine lords but which stopped at the World’s End before reaching Aslan’s country.
It is generally accepted that Lewis’s own Christianity played a large part in the symbolic import of the story: with Aslan as a parallel to Christ where else would he be found than in an Eden-like place to the east? That this would require some form of pilgrimage towards the dawn seems to be implied in Matthew’s gospel:
For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
Matthew 24:27, King James Version
But Lewis framed his Narnian pilgrimage to the east not as a trek but as a journey by sea; and he drew on a variety of exemplars from mythology, literature and history for the form and detail of his children’s fantasy. In this extended essay I want to mention a few of the concepts that fed into Lewis’s fictional odyssey.
The Water-Babies: a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby
by Charles Kingsley. Edited with introduction and notes by Brian Alderson.
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press 1995 (1863)
The Water-Babies first appeared in book form in 1863, more than a century and a half ago. Though I was probably aware of it when younger, I must have read it for myself in the early 1960s in one of those cheap Dent’s children’s classics editions. A decade later I was re-reading it and taking notes, spurred on by the challenge Kingsley issues in his dedication:
Come read me my riddle, each good little man: If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can.
Of course, The Water-Babies was written for his youngest son, Grenville Arthur, who was just five when the last chapter was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine, but I felt that I was included amongst the ‘all other good little boys’ of the dedication. But being from a hundred and more years later I could hardly be expected to get all the references, and so began decades of intermittent desultory research.
This 1995 issue with Brian Alderson’s introduction, extensive notes, select bibliography and chronology of Kingsley’s life both confirmed and hugely expanded my understanding of the novel; but to be honest I still feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating if flawed masterpiece. This review, therefore, can only hint at the solution to Kingsley’s sly riddle.
Visiting Bath Abbey in April this year  I chanced on this curious memorial on the east wall of the south transept.
Close inspection revealed the name of one Elizabeth Benet (sic), widow of William Bathurst Pye Benet (died May 4th 1806), who herself died at the age of 80 in 1826. Could Jane Austen, who lived in Bath between 1801 and 1805 (not to mention visits there in the 1790s), have met this real-life Elizabeth Bennet, clearly a grande dame in Bath society?
Hobbit to Hero: the making of Tolkien’s King
by Elizabeth M Stephen.
ADC Publications 2012
Aragorn son of Arathorn, the returning king of the third part of The Lord of the Rings, is as a character very familiar to us now from the Peter Jackson films, but he made little impression on me during my first reading of the trilogy in the late sixties, and not much more on subsequent readings. This, I’d imagine, was a very common situation until the turn of this century.
As is pointed out in Hobbit to Hero there has been, apart from a chapter in Paul Kocher’s 1972 study Master of Middle-earth, precious little extended discussion of Aragorn in any commentary, certainly not in Isaacs and Zimbardo’s Tolkien and the Critics (1968), Lobdell’s 1975 A Tolkien Compass (not, as twice in this text, The Tolkien Compass) nor even in Eaglestone’s Reading The Lord of the Rings collection of essays (2005).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Tolkien student — heaven knows I’ve tried and failed several times to read The Silmarillion, and I’m a stranger to most of Christopher Tolkien’s editings of his father’s incomplete drafts — so can’t vouch that this is so for all the scribblings of Tolkien scholars and fans. But Elizabeth Stephen is a lifelong student, so should know what exists on the subject of Tolkien’s king; and apparently “it is by no means unusual for the name of Aragorn to barely receive a mention”.
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
by J R R Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien.
HarperCollins 2010 (2009)
Middle Earth author | resets ancient Norse sagas | in Modern English.
One of the best-known heroes in Norse mythology, Sigurd is better known as Siegfried from German versions of the legends, and his exploits and interactions – from killing a dragon and re-forging a mighty sword, say, to his relationships with his wife Gudrún, with warrior princess Brynhild and with a host of other personages – characterise him as much as they echo the exploits and interactions of other heroes in other times and cultures.
Here Tolkien attempts a harmonisation of the various early tales, particularly those in the Poetic Edda, and versifies them in English as ‘The New Lay of the Völsungs’ (in ten parts) and ‘The New Lay of Gudrún’, using forms and alliteration modelled on those early originals.
This posthumous publication ought by rights to appeal to a wide range of readers, from hobbit-fanciers to Wagnerites, from poets to psychologists, and from medieval literature specialists to mythologists, but I suspect it will end up satisfying only those whose interests overlap a number of these categories; for any single one of those categories of readers it may well end up a disappointment.
King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend
by Rodney Castleden.
Rodney Castleden is well known as an investigator into prehistoric enigmas such as the Minoan civilisation, Neolithic Britons and giant hill figures, and has here turned his attention to Arthur. As expected, this is a widely researched book burrowing into scholarly literature, archaeological reports, fringe theories and texts both ancient and modern. There are photos of relevant sites and a generous helping of detailed maps, plans and figures mostly by the author himself (though, disappointingly, three illustrations by the present reviewer are uncredited and unacknowledged) and the whole is attractively laid out. There are a few typos, some of which didn’t seem to have been corrected for the paperback edition, but these don’t detract too much.
After setting the scene Castleden plunges into an examination of the nature of the available early documentation and what is known of the archaeology of post-Roman Britain; he then outlines the historical context before turning his gaze on the man himself, his possible power bases and his disappearance.
It won’t be giving too much away to say that he plumps for a West Country setting for Arthur, but that he places his demise and burial far away from Glastonbury and not at any of the expected sites.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tail 2019 (2018)
Anyone with a certain religious upbringing, be it Catholic or Baptist for example, will know how deeply a sense of guilt can be ingrained, and how much the gleeful reminder by elders God is watching you! may reverberate down the years. Add to that the concepts behind complicity theory, which postulates that in dehumanising an out-group one shares the guilt of what is done to them by others from the in-group, and one can imagine the febrile atmosphere that Sarah Perry conjures up in this haunting — in all senses of the word — novel.
Helen Franklin, 42, is working in Prague, and we meet her in the winter of 2016 as she comes to understand what is agitating her friend Karel Pražan. Already trying to escape an as yet unknown transgression in her past, she learns from the manuscripts Karel shows her of the figure of Melmoth, Melmotka, or Melmat, a woman who becomes the personification of all that dogs Helen’s current empty existence.
Through the streets of the Czech capital, through Brentwood, Manila, Heathrow, Cairo and the Black Sea we follow the trail of this mysterious woman who witnesses man’s inhumanity to man via those rendered complicit by association. Will Helen, punishing her body with anorexia, come to redeem herself, or will she submit to despair?
Collections of short stories are, I’ve found, tricky things to review compared to a solid novel or longish novella. The reasons are as various as the pieces in the collection can be:
there may be too many individual stories to cover them all in any detail;
mere listing of the contents doesn’t, in my view, constitute a review but often that seems to be main option, which is a disservice to those hoping to decide whether to read the volume;
the selection may be uneven in quality with any poor specimens bringing down the standard of the collection and thus one’s overall assessment;
the variety in terms of subject matter, tone, length and order also make an overall assessment difficult.
But without reviews how is one to tread the labyrinth of the Library of Brief Narratives? I have a number of such collections in my purview waiting for my perusal and assessment so I have those paths to follow.
In the meantime, here is an overview of some of the collections I have reviewed, with brief commentary, for those (like, I think, Cath Humphries) hoping for signposts to new pastures. For this first of two posts I look at collections with a realist slant (links are to my reviews).
The Man Who Was Thursday
by G K Chesterton. Introduction and notes by Stephen Medcalf,
Oxford University Press 1996 (1908)
Having enjoyed Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, a thriller about a projected German invasion of Britain published in the first decade of the twentieth century, I was drawn to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. After all, this first appeared in that same decade, in 1908, and ostensibly concerned an anarchist conspiracy, hatched in Britain, to cause disruption by assassinating the Russian Tsar in Paris. The very title promises us plots, codenames and derring-do. But I was to find that Chesterton’s intentions in writing this novel were rather different from Childers’ concern to highlight what he saw was a very real national threat.
The plot, convoluted as it is, can be reduced to a few sentences. Gabriel Syme is a poet who gets drafted in as a police detective by a mysterious stranger to investigate an anarchist conspiracy. He makes the acquaintance of another poet, Lucian Gregory, along with his sister Rosamond Gregory in the West London suburb of Saffron Park (Bedford Park by another name). Lucian calls himself an anarchist poet, and challenges the more conservative Syme to pay a visit with him to an underground (literally underground, as it turns out) anarchist movement.
The poet-cum-detective incredibly then gets elected to the inner cabal of seven Anarchs who answer to the name of the seven days of the week. Syme, as Thursday, gradually discovers the secret of each of the other Anarchs, with a final revelation taking place at the home of Sunday, the leader of the Central European Council.
If the basic plot appears to follow the precepts of the standard detective thriller, the same can’t be said of the content.
After Me Comes the Flood
by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tale 2017 (2014)
Sarah Perry’s debut novel is a mesmeric tour de force, mysterious but detailed, mythic but realistic, filled with distinctive characters who we nevertheless view as though through fingers. Set near the coast somewhere in East Anglia, perhaps in Thetford Forest on the divide between Suffolk and Norfolk, we could imagine ourselves in the long dry July of 2013 when the temperature averaged around 30°C.
And in this kind of sustained heat, when it’s hard to think, John Coles decides to shut up his London bookshop and head to the Norfolk coast and his brother’s family. When his car breaks down in the depths of a pine forest he comes across a dwelling, and in true fairytale style he is welcomed as a long-awaited visitor, though he knows no-one. Although he wants to correct their mistaken impression his overheated condition continually delays him, drawing him into the mystery of who they think he is, who the residents are, and what they are all doing there.
The novel’s dreamlike structure and atmospheric writing create the illusion of magic realism, heightened by underlying themes drawn from Anglo-Saxon literature, classical myth and the Old Testament, to which is added a sense that almost everything encountered is symbolic. The reader who’s unalert to these undercurrents may well be bamboozled by what they’re presented with and therefore liable to dismiss the novel as incomprehensible; but that would be a mistake.
John Ruskin: The King of the Golden River, or The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria (1851) Illustrated by Richard Doyle, E.P.Dutton / J.M.Dent 1925 Illustrated by Charles W Stewart, Edmund Ward 1958
“The King of the Golden River was written in 1841, at the request of a very young lady, and solely for her amusement, without any idea of publication…”
The very young lady was the twelve-year-old Effie Gray and the writer was John Ruskin, ten years her senior.
Ruskin was eventually to marry Effie in 1848 but the marriage foundered and was annulled, Effie then marrying the artist John Everett Millais. All that turbulence was in the future, however, and Effie must have been delighted with her present, along with later generations too after the tale was published in 1851.
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.
Five years on the Crickhowell Literary Festival goes from strength to strength, buoyed up by the small market town voted having the Best High Street in the UK and also rated the best place to live in Wales by The Sunday Times.
As usual the programme had a judicious mix of UK and Welsh authors and their books, some of which I volunteered to steward at, and all were curated by festival directors Emma Corfield-Walters of Book-ish and Anne Rowe, Visiting Professor at the University of Chichester and Emeritus Research at the University of Kingston.
Just to give a flavour of proceedings, these are the talks I was present at, along with brief summaries.
Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities Le città invisibili (1972) Translated by William Weaver Vintage 1997
In my late teens or early twenties I imbibed the notion of ‘holiday consciousness’ from something I’d read, I’m not sure what but it may have been from Colin Wilson’s The Occult, published in 1971. The concept I understood to be this: we become so familiar with personal rituals in the everyday places we inhabit that we become not only a bit jaded but in fact almost sleepwalk our way through existence. Holiday consciousness however involves the trick of seeing the familiar as though visiting it for the first time, as a tourist.
After this I took to travelling regular bus journeys and walking daily routes pretending I was not in my home town but in a different city, perhaps in a different country. I noticed new things that I hadn’t before: architectural details, pedestrian behaviours, the quality of light, a different awareness of spaces. It was like being on holiday while staying in one place, and awoke my tired senses and heightened my perception without the need of artificial stimulants or expending money on overseas travel.
I was reminded of this holiday consciousness when recently reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.