I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space…
I’m not great with self-imposed challenges, as you may have noticed: I didn’t complete an author alphabet challenge a couple of years ago, barely started on an attempt to read more authors not from an Anglo-American milieu, stalling on my task of reducing my to-be-read pile of books. In fact by instinct I’m a bit of a flibbertigibbet, strolling from one random title to another, as the mood takes me.
Only, my randonneur leanings may not be as random as I thought.
J A Hazeley and J P Morris How It Works: The Husband
Ladybird Books 2015
My guess is that this book is designed for anyone who is not a husband — the wife, the fiancée, the boy in need of a role model, extraterrestrial visitors and the like — but, speaking as a husband, I found much to enlighten me within these pages. Like many practical manuals it describes the subject’s strengths and weaknesses, gives insights into his interior workings and pictures him at work and play, following lone pursuits and attempting to socialise. What it doesn’t do, however, is to suggest ways to improve or maintain the husband; quite the opposite — in its otherwise comprehensive thoroughness it seems to implicitly advise a take-it-or-leave-it approach. It’s a rather fatalistic and bleak picture that’s painted.
Diana Wynne Jones Reflections: On the Magic of Writing
Foreword by Neil Gaiman
Greenwillow Books 2012
Where to start? Diana Wynne Jones was a very individual and distinctive voice within British fantasy writing, highly regarded and rightly so, though that recognition was perhaps long coming: for example, though I was aware of the name I only first read her work in 2004, on a strong recommendation, beginning with The Merlin Conspiracy. However, from then on I was hooked. She had a growing loyal following from the mid-seventies onwards, but perhaps the fillip to her popularity came with an audience keen for more fiction along the lines of the Harry Potter books, aided by the success of the Japanese animated film of her Howl’s Moving Castle. Sadly, within a relatively little time she discovered she had cancer, dying just two years later in 2011.
P D James and T A Critchley
The Maul and the Pear Tree:
the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811
Faber & Faber 2010
I deliberately began reading The Maul and the PearTree exactly two hundred years to the day that the horrific killing spree known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders began, on December 7th 1811. Four innocent people, including a babe in arms, were butchered in London’s East End that first night, stretching the rudimentary resources of the parish, the local magistrates and the Thames police based in Wapping. It inaugurated a period of terror, suspicion and xenophobia in St George’s and the neighbouring parishes and, through the medium of the press, a few weeks of morbid fascination in the public at large. It also led to questions in Parliament on the adequacy of current policing by neighbourhood watchmen, with a scornful analysis by the playwright Sheridan on the floor of the House of Commons.
Panic really set in when, twelve days later, a second attack resulting in three more horrific murders took place, also around the witching hour of midnight.
Glenda Leeming, Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës Foreword by Phyllis Bentley
Elm Tree Books 1974
What’s not to like about prosopography? Conventionally this is defined as a description of an individual’s appearance or life, but in general a Who’s Who offers a collection of such descriptions. These days prosopographies cover not just real-life biographies (mostly of historical personages, in Ancient Rome, say, or Victorian England) but also cast lists of fictional characters from literary works.
In Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës Dr Glenda Leeming lists all the characters found in the literary canons of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Austen’s characters come first, plucked from the pages of Jane’s six novels (but not the juvenilia or unfinished writings like Lady Susan and Sanditon). They’re followed by seven of the best-known Brontë books — four by Charlotte, two by Anne and one by Emily (again, juvenilia is not included, nor Charlotte’s Angrian pieces written in her twenties). A short section on animals mentioned (particularly in the Brontë siblings’ writings) follows, and then a helpful list of characters book by book, noting the appropriate chapter when each first appears.
Phyllis Bentley’s foreword mostly renders any comments I might have perfectly superfluous. “This is a really intelligent and useful little book,” she declares, and praises Leeming’s notes for “vividly” presenting characters and personalities: “a nice tinge of irony, a very neat use of the novelists’ own words, a brevity decidedly marked by wit, make these notes pleasurable reading.” (Sadly, Bentley herself died just three years after this appreciation was published.) That brevity marked by wit is evident in the descriptions of the main protagonists, never longer than the equivalent of a page but containing everything you need to know.
Leeming also includes individuals mentioned only in passing, one line descriptions often providing no more than each writer herself offered. Opening at random I read of Goton in Villette (“Flemish cook in Mme. Beck’s school, with whom Lucy is a favourite”) or Miss Prince in Emma (“a teacher at Miss Goddard’s school”).
These days online sites freely and profusely provide such lists of characters; forty years ago though this would have indeed been “a useful little book” for readers losing track of which individual was being referred to, or what relationship they had to another individual. Here it is also done with sly humour, capturing the piquant observations of the novelists.
(By all accounts John Sutherland’s recent The Brontësaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë also treats the novels with wit,** but as this work omits Austen altogether I’ll happily make do with Leeming for a while longer.)
** I assume Sutherland penned his own description of himself in the Guardian, where he is distinguished as “Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL (“emeritus” being Latin for “scrapheap” and “Northcliffe” journalistic shorthand for “you cannot be serious”).” If so, then readers of The Brontësaurus (and indeed his other writings) must be in for a treat.
March has been a bit of an unfocused month as far as the mainstay of this blog is concerned: books and reviews. A few excuses come to mind, but to be honest they’re not worth repeating. So, what have I achieved?
Gerald Morgan Castles in Wales: A Handbook
Y Lolfa 2008
It’s often claimed that, per square mile, Wales has the largest number of castles in the world.¹ Whether it’s the Welsh bigging themselves up or one of those memes that’s just accepted, it’s certainly true that the country has over 600 examples. As Wales is over 8000 square miles — nearly 20,800 square kilometres — in area,² this means there is a castle for every 13 sq miles (35 sq km) of land. Nowadays that works out at around one castle for every 5000 head of population, whereas in the Middle Ages, when the inhabitants of Wales may have fluctuated between 150K and 300K, each castle was on average meant to overawe between 250 and 500 Welshmen and -women. That’s some comment on the fears of the mostly Norman and Plantagent overlords who built them and on the rightfully bolshie attitudes of the native peoples.
When we imagine castles it’s odds-on we picture something like Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, partly modelled on the 19th-century castle at Neuschwanstein, or perhaps one of the French chateaux of the Loire. The fact is that castles come in all shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of function. Gerald Morgan makes this point very clearly in his introduction to this Welsh castle handbook: while the simplest definition could be ‘a medieval European fortified stronghold’ (thus excluding prehistoric earthworks, Roman camps and Victorian follies and fancies, for example) it can include everything from ringworks and motte-and-bailey structures to fortified manor houses and walled palaces, as well as the great military showpieces that typify the Welsh castle in the popular mind.