In praise of innocence

Botticelli’s Primavera (1482), Uffizi, Florence

Henry James: Daisy Miller: A Study.
An International Episode. Four Meetings.
Penguin English Library 2012 (1879)

First published in magazine form in 1878, Daisy Miller is a novella that must strike modern readers very differently from their counterparts a hundred and forty years ago. Now, the very idea of a young lady seeking the company of pleasant young men seems unremarkable in Western society, but then for one such as Daisy to do so unchaperoned, and especially against all advice and convention, would have been regarded as not only unrespectable but also reprehensible.

In the outraged reactions of those who observed Daisy’s unconventionality James may have expressed closet anxieties over his own acceptance as an American in Europe, for he had only recently settled in England; his many extended stays in Europe — which included Switzerland and Italy — had given him plenty of opportunity for observing how New World visitors were received in the Old World. But of course Daisy Miller is much more than autobiography dressed up as fiction.

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Infernal visions

Ruins of gatehouse and keep of inner ward, Ludlow Castle, Shropshire

Jeannette Ng: Under the Pendulum Sun
Angry Robot Books 2017

“Two-thirds of the way through Shirley Caroline Helstone’s eyes change from brown to blue. This is not an unparalleled phenomenon in a novel. In Shirley however it is unexpected, for here Charlotte Brontë is much occupied with the looks of her characters.”
— from the abstract to J M S Tompkins, ‘Caroline Helstone’s Eyes’ Brontë Society Transactions Volume 14, 1961, Issue 1

I very much wanted to like this novel. Described as a ‘gothic fantasy with a theological twist’ Under a Pendulum Sun paraded a magnificent range of tropes and themes for our enjoyment, all centred around that staple Gothick cliché, the mysterious castle. In the 1840s Catherine Helstone travels from her native Yorkshire into the North Sea, en route to the realm that her missionary brother, Laon, has chosen to proselytise. This realm is called Arcadia, also known as the land of the Fae, what we now call fairies. But forget the little people with gauze-like wings from nursery tales, these are more altogether more mysterious, even sinister: and do they even have souls to save?

Jeanette Ng has, uniquely it seems, wedded together two unconnected themes, fairyland and theology, to produce a hybrid that’s pregnant with possibilities. She’s added into the mix the age-old British imperialist dream which in the 19th century sailed under the flags of free trade and converting heathens; she’s then buttressed her narrative with faux extracts from 19th-century texts each prefacing a chapter. So far so intriguing. But then the more we hear of Catherine, the narrator of the story, her secretive brother, a companion Ariel Davenport, castle servants Benjamin Goodfellow and the housekeeper known as the Salamander, plus a rarely glimpsed woman in black, the more mysteries the plot reveals. That’s all before we come to Mab, the Queen of the Fae, and her subjects.

I had high hopes for this unconventional fairytale set in a land with its own out-of-kilter cosmology (the sun really does swing from a Pendulum, and the moon, well, let’s just say it’s unexpected). That I wasn’t entirely won over is not because of the multiplicity of themes — which in fact was what most entertained me and kept me going — but because of other crucially important aspects of successful novel writing. Before I come to those negatives I want to apologise for the longer-than-usual digressions which now follow.

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A slow smouldering

Old Place, Linfield, Sussex, one possible model for Poynton
(credit: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4639885)

Henry James: The Spoils of Poynton
Edited with an introduction by David Lodge, notes by Patricia Crick
Penguin Classics 1987 (1897)

This is an extraordinarily intense novella: intense in its use of language and intense in its unremitting focus on just two or three characters. First and foremost in the cast list is Fleda Vetch, a young woman whose superior quick-wittedness and taste are balanced by her apparent plainness and moral rectitude; next is the manipulative Mrs Adela Gereth, a widow to whom the unmarried Fleda becomes a companion. Owen Gereth, Mrs Gereth’s son, has lately inherited Poynton Place, thereby becoming a most eligible if rather vapid bachelor. Further down the cast list come Mona Brigstock, a philistine but strong-minded young woman, as manipulative as Mrs Gereth, and her mother Mrs Brigstock. Fleda’s sister Maggie and a scant handful of other individuals have even more minor parts, either walk-on/walk-off or completely offstage.

I use the phrase cast list intentionally: James apparently used his failed attempt at writing for the stage to better effect here. We have set ‘scenes’, played out on a limited number of stage sets; and — in the manner of Ibsen, for instance — all the attention is placed on the psychological drama. The main crises of the narrative, and the final climactic incident, essentially take place ‘offstage’; foregrounded are the ever-evolving to-and-fro of relationships and interactions.

And what are these relationships and interactions? Essentially they’re founded on the fact that Mrs Gereth’s impressionable son Owen has fallen for the pretty but rather vulgar Mona, who it soon becomes clear will have no intrinsic appreciation for the antique treasures that the elder Gereths have accumulated over a lifetime at Poynton. Under the terms of her late husband’s will Mrs Gereth will be forever separated from both the house and its possessions unless she can persuade Owen to fall for a more suitable young woman, one with taste and sensitivity, one who can cajole Owen into letting his mother continue in residence; in short, one Fleda Vetch.

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Feeling is the leitmotif

Regency young man (2)
http://www.sellingantiques.co.uk/243352/fine-regency-oil-portrait-of-a-young-man/

Charlotte Brontë The Professor Wordsworth Classics 1994 (1857)

Despite the fact that this is, by modern standards anyway, a very uneven novel and that the protagonist is a bit of a prig, there remains much to enjoy over its twenty-five chapters. The story of William Crimsworth’s struggles to find his métier and eventual happiness echoes parts of Charlotte Brontë’s own experiences but also points up her own unfulfilled hopes for combining a loving marriage with a successful career as an independent woman. The fact that aspects of this novel — unpublished in her own lifetime — were recycled in Villette (published in 1853) suggests that she knew that those experiences were worth recording, even in fictional form.

A bald outline of the plot reads almost like a fairytale.
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The lore of the ring

Buckingham Palace, with the Victoria Memorial (1911), from an old postcard
Buckingham Palace, with the Victoria Memorial (1911), from an old postcard

Kiki Hamilton The Faerie Ring Tor Teen 2011

Eighteen seventy-one was an eventful year, by many accounts. There was the disaster that was the Paris Commune, when thousands — maybe as many as twenty thousand — communards were massacred during ‘Bloody Week’ in May. But there were positives too, such as Queen Victoria opening the Albert Hall in memory of her late husband. In literature Edward Bulwer-Lytton published The Coming Race, a novel about the Vril-ya, winged super-humans who lived under the surface of the earth. This was the year too that Lewis Carroll published Alice Through the Looking Glass. 1871 is also the year in which Kiki Hamilton’s novel is set, the action taking place in a Dickensian London (Dickens had died the year before) of toffs and pickpockets. But this isn’t really a novel where social realism is to the fore, as the title strongly suggests.

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To savour, not hurry

Uttley garden
Alison Uttley photographed in her Buckinghamshire garden in the 1960s (www.alisonuttley.co.uk)

Alison Uttley
The Country Child
Illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe
Puffin Books 1981 (1931)

Alison Uttley, author of the Little Grey Rabbit picture books, was more than just a writer of sweet (some might say ‘twee’) tales of anthropomorphised animals for children. As well as a celebrated novel for older children A Traveller in Time she wrote a prolific number of non-fiction titles, as a glance at a list of her publications shows. Halfway between fiction and autobiography is The Country Child, which is in effect a true depiction of the author’s childhood but with the names changed. Continue reading “To savour, not hurry”

Let children be the judge

tower

Sarah Prineas The Magic Thief
Quercus 2009 (2008)

With a recommendation from Diana Wynne Jones (‘I couldn’t put it down. Wonderful, exciting stuff’) The Magic Thief (the first in a series with the same name and consequently re-titled Stolen) challenges the reader to dare contradict such a distinguished fantasy writer. Bravely, I’m going to try.

Yes, I too couldn’t put it down. Well, actually I did, but only to catch up on some sleep, but at nearly 400 pages that’s to be expected. The action pulled you along, aided by the almost breathless short sentences of both narrative and speech, and the manageable lengths of chapters, around ten pages on average and broken up by illustrations and change of narrator. The vocabulary, despite the odd Latin-influenced term, is expertly aimed at an audience aged around 10 or 11 and that target readership is the best to judge its success.

But this older reader is not so sure it totally succeeds Continue reading “Let children be the judge”

Thinly fictionalised unconventionality

E Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods
Puffin Books 1985 (1900)

Victorian kids
achieve ill when they meant good;
comes right in the end.

Edith Nesbit’s life was certainly unconventional by late Victorian and Edwardian standards, and it’s not surprising that her own childhood experiences and adult observations find themselves thinly fictionalised in her novels, particularly those written for children. Typical is her re-use of names of friends and acquaintances for the names of her characters in The Wouldbegoods. Continue reading “Thinly fictionalised unconventionality”