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Archive for January, 2012

To create an entirely charming girl is one of the rarest achievements in fiction.  Very few novelists have ever been able to do it.  Tolstoy, who could do everything, gave us Natasha.  But how many others are there?  Dozens, we say, until we have really tried to count them.  And then it appears that downright charmers are extremely rare.  Noble girls abound, and good girls, tragic, pathetic and touching girls; quiet, steady and constant girls – we love them, esteem them and weep over them – bu very seldom do we feel them to be as charming as the girl who lives next door but one, of whom we occasionally catch sight when she takes her dog for a walk.  For in real life there are plenty of them; they are always flitting past us.  But the ‘lovely April of her prime’ is one of the hardest things for a writer to catch.  It is gone so soon.

That a girl of twenty-one should have caught it is one of the most amazing feats of literature.

– discussion of Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen by Margaret Kennedy

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Having now read Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace, I can understand why it is such a beloved comfort read for many.  It is a story simply told and full of heart, a nostalgic, wholesome tale of an intelligent young woman’s struggles to build a rich, engaging life.  Emily Webster is one of the cleverest young women in Deep Valley but after graduation, when all her friends are heading off to university, Emily chooses to stay behind to care for the grandfather who has raised her since her parents’ death.  Without her childhood friends or the high school classes that brought her so much joy, Emily struggles.  She finds herself feeling isolated and depressed and, in the manner of all good children’s heroines, resolves to do something about that, to “muster her wits” as she calls it and create an exciting, enriching life.

The portion of the novel dealing with Emily’s difficulty in finding her place in Deep Valley as an adult, not a child, is fascinating.  A good section of the book is devoted to this and to her ensuing depression, happily for the reader if not Emily since this forms the most compelling, original portion of the novel.  Emily is conscious that she needs to change to stop her depression from worsening, but, for a long time, she struggles.  Lovelace has a rather perfect description of her feelings at this time that feels very true to the kind of oppression one feels when faced with depression, knowing that something needs to be done but not knowing how to do it:

‘A mood like this has to be fought.  It’s like an enemy with a gun,’ she told herself.  But she couldn’t seem to find a gun with which to fight.

Emily is a character any life-long reader can easily identify with.  She is intelligent and excited to learn but longs for other people who share her enthusiasm.  She was never the most popular girl in school, but she had friends and her debate team members, people who respected and admired her.  She was part of the school community and adored it.  Now, with all her friends gone, she is left with her grandfather and her books.  But even books aren’t enough: she doesn’t just want to read mindlessly but to debate ideas with others:

She did bring home books from the library, in armloads, replenishing them every two or three days.  She read avidly, indiscriminately, using them as an antidote for the pain in her heart.  But they didn’t help much.  There was no one to talk them over with.  They were almost as useless as the newspapers.

Cheerfully, though perhaps a touch unrealistically, it doesn’t take long for Emily to ‘muster her wits’.  Even before Thanksgiving, having spent on a few months without her high school friends, she has enacted a course of self-improvement and socialisation.  She starts a reading group with local women, returns to the piano lessons she had loved before school commitments forced her to abandon them, begins learning to dance, and befriends both a slightly older group of local young people and the Deep Valley Syrian community.  She still longs for more education and the friends who are away but as she becomes more and more absorbed in the work she has set for herself, she develops a busy, rewarding life that she is fully engaged in.

Emily’s relationship with the Syrian community is quite interesting and the novel’s most unique feature.  Having become intrigued by sociology and the ideal of social work while she was in high school, Emily is remarkably free of prejudices and it doesn’t take long for her to befriend a number of Syrian families and hatch plans to improve their lot.  Her first friends are a pair of young boys, Kalil and Yusef.  Cheerful, eager and polite, they become welcome visitors at her house, bringing joy to both Emily and her grandfather.  Yet the local boys tease and bully them.  Emily begins her efforts by bringing Kalil and Yusef together with a pair of American boys, forming a boys’ club that helps bridge the cultural divide.  After visiting Kalil and Yusef’s homes and seeing how little English the mothers’ in the community speak, living more isolated lives than their children and husbands, she also begins giving language classes. And she joins others in the Deep Valley community to advocate for adult education classes for the Syrians to help them adapt to their lives in America.  In doing so, she becomes close to Jed Wakeman, a young, new teacher at the high school.

Oh, Jed.  What to say?  The book’s illustrations of him as a slimmed-hipped, bowtie-wearing, bright-eyed all-American did not help at all.  He looked very good and very perfect but completely uninteresting, which is pretty much how he comes across in the text.  Their idyllic courtship is very reasonable, very logical and very boring.  Jed is too perfect, Emily’s mirror image rather than foil – they agree on everything.  He’s blandly inoffensive and serves mostly to support Emily’s growing confidence.  These aren’t bad things but I never got a sense of Jed as a person, just as a platform of ideas that match Emily’s.  Seemingly every time he appears, he’s introduced with some sort of reference to his stature (he’s large.  We get it) rather than anything related to his character.  He never develops enough to feel like a real person.  But, then again, Emily, though relatable, is pretty bland herself so there is a certain logic to their pairing.

Lovelace has an irritating inclination to drift into sickening nostalgic and/or patriotic passages that would have completely destroyed this book for me when I was younger and less tolerant than I am now.  The story was written in 1950 but set in 1912 and full of oh-so-conscious and unnecessarily detailed allusions to the fashions of the day.  I like hearing about a crisp shirtwaist or stylish sailor suit as much as the next girl, but there is a limit and it was quickly reached.  I suppose there is an audience who appreciates the unabashed flag-waving but, aside from pointing out Deep Valley’s fervent patriotism, it served no purpose.  It was generally not gracefully incorporated into the story and felt clunky and intrusive.

I don’t think I could face the Besty-Tacy books that Lovelace is famous for (the glimpse of Betsy here was more than enough for me) but I did quite enjoy this.  It’s not high-quality children’s literature but it is a very light, entertaining, wholesome story with fascinating central issues, Lovelace’s intelligent treatment of which should be enough to keep any adult reader engaged.  If the characters had been more complex and realistic, I’m sure I would have come away raving about it.  As is, it’s a book I’m now glad to say I own and which I’ll be happy to return to when I’m looking for an undemanding but thoughtful read.

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Library Lust

A swan is very high on my list of things I would never have thought of putting in my library/study.  But it does compliment its feathered friends perched on top of the bookcase, I will give it that.  This definitely has the appearance of a study-focused library, with what appear to be a number of reference books lining the shelves, and I love that.  It’s a simple room where I could actually imagine getting work done – though I feel like sharing an office with a stuffed swan might give me nightmares.

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Are you ever just left feeling ‘meh’ about a book, so indifferent that you don’t even care particularly to analyse why? That was my reaction to Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed by Life by Stephanie Staal.  But I shall attempt a half-way coherent review anyway and see where it leads…

I was pleasantly surprised to find this a very different book than what I had imagined going in: it is really a personal memoir, interspersed with literary analysis.  In her thirties, feeling rather adrift and unsure of her identity after marriage and motherhood in quick succession, Staal goes back to school to retake the feminist literature course she had studied in university, eager to revisit the books that had shaped her. Staal talks briefly about the books and touches all too fleetingly on her class discussions but mostly reflects on her life, how she got to be the woman she is now (with all her stresses, anxieties and frustrations) from the girl she was when she first took the class.

All this made for an interesting enough read, but it never excited me. Many of the books Staal touches on are women’s studies classics and I did not come away convinced that I needed to read any of them (nor have I been particularly taken with the ones I have read). Her classes have an anti-male bias that I find insulting and only once does Staal mention a classmate questioning what responsibility women hold for their inferior status and wondering about the burdens and expectations placed on males (the classmate’s point is momentarily acknowledged as intriguing, then pretty much ignored).

I liked Staal’s writing even if I frequently took issue with her opinions. She is intelligent and writes engagingly – clearly, engagingly enough to keep me reading even when I was bothered by her teachers’ arguments or her own descriptions of her dissatisfaction with her domestic roles. It wasn’t really her dissatisfaction that bothered me but rather its root in her idea that everything should be as easy as it was when she was single, as exciting as before she had her daughter; there’s not a lot of allowance for how do you rework your life with these new people in it, just how do you get the essence of the old one back. The experience of going back to school gives her a chance to reflect on the choices she has made and the ways she has changed since she first read these books, and she comes away seemingly more focused, having a new perspective on her life.  The format is a bit too tidy: the experience of rereading gives her one key insight per book and, when the course is over, the book and her problems are neatly wrapped up.

The highlight of the book, for me, came very early on when Staal described her passion for reading.  After reading this, I couldn’t abandon the book, not when it had been written by someone I could so easily sympathize with, at least in this one way.  It would have felt like the ultimate betrayal.  I know now that I could have easily skipped it without having lost out on anything, but there you are.  Still, I’m sure this is a quote many other readers will be able to identify with:

I read constantly – in cars, walking the dog, lying in bed with my legs resting up against the wall, yoga-style. At any given time, I am in the middle of several books at once, my place marked by whatever scrap of paper happens to be close by, whether it’s my latest credit card bill or one of my daughter’s crayon drawings. My bookshelves are three books deep, and piles of books spread and teeter on every open surface of my home. If reading has always been a journey of imagination, a means of escape, it has also been, perhaps at least as importantly, a way of absorbing the intricate complexities of life and experience. To me, books are like magic: They inform the mind and transform the spirit. I have finished a book and felt so bereft at taking leave of its characters that I have immediately turned it over to begin again from page 1. In a special section, old favourites, their pages by now soft as worn cotton, lure me again and again, sometimes just to savour a passage or two for a moment’s inspiration.

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The plan had been to write a nice, lengthy book review last night but, after a 13-hour work day, I just could not attempt that level of coherent thought.  Instead, I bring you something else entirely.

Over the last few weeks, Jane Austen has been making frequent and unexpected appearances in my reading material, proving that everyone, real or fictional, has something to say about her and her work.  And because I loved coming across these references, I thought you might enjoy them too.  There’s something very wonderful about finding authors and characters who share your reading tastes.

Did I expect a Jane Austen reference in an Angela Thirkell book?  Well, yes, that’s not particularly surprising but the wonder is the wealth of them (Mrs Norris and Frank Churchill both come up in separate conversations) and the charming novelty of a young man bemoaning Janeites in conversation with his beloved:

‘Well, it does my heart good to hear you say Miss Austen like that,’ said Laurence, ‘…people who say Jane or talk about Janeites revolt me.  The sort that can walk with kings and not lose the common touch.  ‘Miss Austen to you’ is what I feel inclined to say.’
August Folly by Angela Thirkell

And I certainly didn’t expect Austen to show up in Jo Walton’s alternate, fascist-friendly version of 1940s England, but there she is:

Mummy looked restless and I thought she was about to quote, ‘Mary has delighted us long enough,’ the way she used to do with me when she was tired of my recitals…
Farthing by Jo Walton

But my favourite Austen intrusion of all comes from Sylvia Townsend Warner, musing in a letter to William Maxwell about her long-standing acquaintance with Pride and Prejudice and the insight such familiarity gives in her:

…I go early to bed & read Pride and Prejudice.  Because I know it so well, I read it, so to speak, peripherally.  I realise that as time went on Wickham began to have a fellow-ly feeling towards his father-in-law.  But also, as I heard the wind out-crying the owls, that there were advantages about Mrs Bennet which Jane Austen was too young to appreciate.  She saw to it that there were good fires kept going, and no lack of rich soups, whereas Charlotte’s housekeeping grew bleaker & bleaker till poor Mr Collins lost all his sleekness & eventually was henpecked.
The Element of Lavishness edited by Michael Steinman

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

Marg has the Mr Linky this week!

2012 has, so far, been remarkable for my meager library hauls each week.  My restraint has been very practical, allowing me to read more from my own shelves than I might otherwise, but it has been very boring.  I have been dreaming of a trip to the Central Library and, on Sunday, I finally went.  I only picked up a small number of books but it was a glorious feeling – as was seeing the surprisingly large number of people crowded into the building’s atrium, waiting for the library doors to open at noon.  There are some very eager library users out there!

Lots of non-fiction this week, starting with some excellent-sounding memoirs: I picked up I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams based on Maphead’s recommendation and Love Among the Daughters: Memories of the Twenties in England and America by Elspeth Huxley after reading Danielle’s enticing review.

The only thing better than a memoir, is a diary.  I adore Charles Ritchie’s diaries.  I gushed about An Appetite for Life last year and began 2012 in the best manner possible, rereading The Siren Years.  But unlike those earlier volumes, which I know so well, I’ve only read Diplomatic Passport: More Undiplomatic Diaries, 1946-1962 once or twice and ages ago at that.  I can’t wait to see what I make of it now.

I read Farthing by Jo Walton last week and was…not precisely put off?  I was intrigued by the alternate history she created (the books are set in an England that made peace with Hitler in 1941) but so many other things bothered me (characters, plot, narration choices…).  It was a quick, easy read though and I grew attached enough to her troubled society to want to try Ha’penny for myself.  I’m about halfway through it now and am finding it far less irritating, I’m pleased to say.

Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941-1944 by Anna Reid is perhaps a little heavier in subject matter than what I’m inclined towards right now but it got such wonderful reviews when it came out that I can’t be anything but pleased that my turn in the hold queue arrived.  But I think after that I’ll be in need of something more cheerful and Three Houses, a slim memoir by Angela Thirkell, looks like it should fit the bill.  It has a singularly creepy cover though, with that demonic-looking child.

Finally compiling the Part IV of the Gardening Reading List a couple of weeks ago made me eager to actually track down some of the titles.  I picked up The Curious Gardener: A Year in the Garden by Anna Pavord (from Part I of the list) and The Laskett by Roy Strong (recommended by blog reader Margaret Powling).  I’ve already been dipping in and out of The Curious Gardener and it is wonderful.

But, so I don’t forget what season it actually is while I’m dreaming of the garden, I also brought home Winter: Five Windows on the Season by Adam Gopnik.

What did you pick up this week?

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Oh, this book.  When I saw Simon’s review of The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 edited by Michael Steinman I was intrigued.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell but I find it difficult to refuse any book of correspondence between well-educated, interesting people.  When I picked this up though, I had no idea just how deeply I would fall in love with it, with Warner, with Maxwell, and with their warm, affectionate relationship.

The letters begin in the late 1930s, when Maxwell takes over from Katharine S. White as Warner’s editor at The New Yorker.  Over the first decade or so, their letters slowly shift from strictly professional to something more friendly as they come to know one another better through the editing process and by reading one another’s works.  By the end of the 1940s, they are firm friends, sharing small personal details with one another, enough so that Maxwell feels comfortable in sending food and writing paper to his favourite author whose access to those items was restricted by rationing in England.  The early letters are full of mutual flattery, gracious thanks for whatever service one has done the other, and light-hearted quips, as in one of Maxwell’s cheerful notes:

I’m glad you think I am a good editor even though a still small voice tells me that there is no such thing for writers of quality and that they should be left strictly to their own devices.  I’m glad also that life in England is not as Spartan as the papers would lead us to believe.  I would have been perfectly miserable in Sparta, and I can’t help suspecting that the Spartans were also.  Otherwise they would have left the Athenians alone.  (13 June 1947)

But in the 1950s their letters deepen in understanding and sympathy, giving way to the lavishness of the title.  They become deeply entangled in one another’s work and domestic lives, with no detail too small, no thought too fleeting to be written down for the benefit of the other.  Seeing it evolve from a work relationship to a friendship to a deep love between not only them but also their families (encompassing Warner’s partner Valentine and Maxwell’s wife Emmy, and, later, Maxwell’s daughters Kate and Brookie) is incredibly moving.  I came to love them both and to love, more than anything, their love for one another.

They have such a deep respect for one another’s intelligence and work but, at the same time, there’s a wonderful sense of rivalry about some things between them.  Both gleefully share random facts they’ve come across, either in their extensive reading or in the course of daily life, in an almost child-like competition to amuse or amaze the other.  It’s very sweet.  Warner comes up with some particularly odd and wonderful tidbits:

The other day I said to a clergyman I met that though I always read in my bath, as all sensible people do, I disliked the moment when one has to decide whether to wash one’s hands or go on reading and respecting the binding.  He said that if I were to content myself with the burial and baptismal service, this problem would be overcome, as both of them are issued by some Church of England publishing house with waterproof bindings.  Did you know this? (11 April 1951)

Twenty-five years later, Maxwell is still trying to find something that will astonish her, but is now wise enough to recognize the futility of his task.  In his letter to her, you can see the intellectual curiosity that they shared, letting them glory over the most random bits of trivia, but, more than anything, you can see his touching affection and deep respect for Warner:

You remember the woman in Isak Dinesen’s story who sailed the seas looking for the perfect blue?  In somewhat the same way I search for an interesting fact for you that you do not already know.  When I find one that looks likely (viz: in Grove last night that as a small child Mozart had an ear so delicate and susceptible that he fainted away at the sound of a trumpet) and then shake my head; a musical fact that you are not conversant with? most unlikely.  And about Mozart, more unlikely still.  But someday I shall astonish you, as you astonish me every time I get a letter from you. (23 March 1977)

Maxwell’s letters tend to focus more of events – assassinations, elections, protests – things that no doubt would be of particular interest to students of American history.  And his perspective and experiences are fascinating but Warner counters with glimpses of domestic life (written in her Elizabeth Gaskell moods, she jokes) and writes such perfect vignettes that they become both more interesting and more enjoyable to read than Maxwell’s experiences of world events.  Maxwell shares plenty of his own trivial details, in his own wonderful style, but I loved Warner’s.  I was perfectly delighted by this simple story, and I don’t even like cats:

Pour Niou [their Siamese cat] has just had his first affair of the heart, and of course it was a tragedy.  As a rule he flies from strange men, cursing under his breath, and keeping very low to the ground.  Yesterday an electrician came; a grave mackintoshed man, but to Niou all that was romantic and lovely.  He gazed at him, he rubbed against him, he lay in an ecstasy on the tool-bag.  The electrician felt much the same, and gave him little washers to play with.  He said he would have to come again today to finish off properly.  Niou who understands everything awaited him in a dreamy transport and practising his best and most amorous squint.  The electrician came, Niou was waiting for him, and he rushed into the garden and disappeared.

He’ll get over it in time; but just now he’s dreadfully downcast.  (12 February 1952)

The letters during and following Valentine’s final illness really show what a close, familial relationship Warner and Maxwell had, that she could share the intimate, heart-breaking details of bereavement with him so unselfconsciously.  “One thinks one has foreseen every detail of heart-break.  I hadn’t,” Warner admits when writing to tell the Maxwells of Valentine’s death.  A month later, staying with old friends, the enormity of her loss is still overwhelming her when least expected and it is to Maxwell that she turns, trying to deal with her emotions by pouring them out to him:

With a heart as normal as a stone I went to spend this last weekend with friends in Berkshire because they wanted to change my air.  Their telephone rang.  It was a telephone on which Valentine had often rung me.  With an idiot intensity I thought, she will never telephone me again.  And for a moment the whole of my grief was comprised in that deprivation.  There is no armour against irrationality. (16 December 1969)

The letters during various illnesses or during the last decade of Warner’s life, after Valentine’s death, are full of questions about the other’s health, ideas for treatments, and, increasingly, the desire that they were neighbours so that the one could always be on hand to visit and nurse the other.  Separated by an ocean, most years the letters were the only way they had of keeping in touch and wonderful though they are, they don’t fulfill the longing both Warner and Maxwell had for the comfort of one another’s company.  How beautifully and how honestly they can communicate with one another after years of friendship, as in one of Warner’s letters to Maxwell in her last months:

I wish you could come in, and make a fuss of me.  It is one of the ironies of old age – that one longs to be made a fuss of, when one has built up a reputation that one doesn’t care for fuss.  I am grown very old, dear William.  I hobble about on two baddish legs, and cling to anything within reach.  And I have grown so small, I scarcely know myself.  And so slow.  But really I should congratulate myself that my wits are still about me.  When my mother was my age, she was senile.  And I am not that, and I can still see to read, & hear to talk; and if the weather were not so biting & blighting I might not feel so like a dead leaf (17 February 1978)

As a record of aging and loss, Warner’s letters in those final years are magnificent.  Frustrated, tired, and resigned, she has lost some of her wonderful energy and confidence but retained her intelligence and humour.  I love her best as an old woman, free of pride, betrayed by her body, longing to see William and Emmy one last time.

Both authors make frequent mention of books: what they’re reading, writing or reviewing.  Usually when I come across pages-worth of book mentions, I keep a detailed list, getting almost as much joy out of that as out of the book itself.  This reading experience was remarkable because I didn’t note down any titles; I was so focused on this book that I couldn’t spare a thought for any other.  It consumed me and surely this is the greatest proof of that.

The book is very intimate and I felt quite awed at being allowed to read such personal letters and witness the evolution of such a tender, honest relationship as existed between Warner and Maxwell (who I am desperately fighting the urge to call Sylvia and William as I write this, having grown so used to their first names).  I came to love and feel for them both and felt bereft when the letters finished in 1978 with Warner’s death.  Strangely, I don’t feel any particular need to read any of their short stories or novels.  I loved both of their writing styles but my interest is in them as people, not as authors.  Their personalities filtered through fiction would seem a sad, pathetic replacement for their real selves as revealed in these letters.

I honestly have no idea how any other book I read this year will manage to surpass the experience I had reading this.  It is exquisite and so, so precious.

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When is a children’s fairy tale not for children?  When is a comedy for adults also a tale for children?  Once On a Time by A.A. Milne was introduced by the author with the note that:

This is not a children’s book.  I do not mean by that…’Not for children’, which has an implication all its own.  Nor do I mean that children will be unable to appreciate it…But what I do mean is that I wrote it for grown-ups.  More particularly for two grown-ups.  My wife and myself…

It is a children’s book that any adult can enjoy, which I certainly did.  It’s not wildly brilliant but it is clever enough and certainly funny enough to be ranked well above most of the other fantastical stories meant to entertain adults as well as children.

The story is very simple: the neighbouring kingdoms of Euralia and Barodia go to war, leaving Princess Hyacinth to rule over Euralia in her father’s absence.  Princess Hyacinth is counselled by the clever Countess of Belvane, a beautiful, cunning woman who the King of Euralia is in love with and whom Hyacinth, somewhat jealously, cannot bring herself to trust.  So Hyacinth writes to the kingdom of Araby and requests that Prince Udo come to assist her.  Belvane, knowing that Udo has been called in, makes a very bad wish that something might happen to him on his journey.  It does.  When Prince Udo arrives, he appears not as a prince but as a cursed and very confused creature, unsure of what exactly he is.  This light, amusing tale develop delightfully and absurdly from there, with the war between Euralia and Barodia being waged in the background.

I loved everything to do with the ‘war’ between the two kingdoms.  The only casualty of this war is a pair of royal whiskers and the Euralian army, having set out with 500 men, comes back with 499 only because one stayed behind to marry the daughter of the Chief Armourer of the Barodian army.  The rest of the time is spent preparing or, even more wonderfully, sending both kings off under invisible cloaks to spy except, of course, they stumble across one another.  Each cleverly pretends to be a swineherd (well known for possessing magic cloaks) and they hold a learned discussion about swine herding (and milking) to conceal their true identities, greatly impressing themselves with their knowledge on the subject and their ability to communicate as an equal with the true swineherd they have stumbled across.  These sections were the most marvellous parts of the novel for me, perfectly skewering the dramatic and pointless posturing of armies.

Back in Euralia, Princess Hyacinth is a bit of a drip and Prince Udo, though he takes his misfortune very nobly, is too adaptable to be of much interest.  Belvane, on the other hand, is magnificent:

The Countess of Belvane!  What can I say which will bring home to you that wonderful, terrible, fascinating woman?  Mastered as she was by an overweening ambition, utterly unscrupulous in her methods of achieving her purpose, none the less her adorable humanity betrayed itself in a passion for diary-keeping and a devotion to the simpler forms of lyrical verse.  That she is the villain of the piece, I know well; in his Euralia Past and Present the eminent historian Roger Scurvilegs does not spare her; but that she had her great qualities, I should be the last to deny.

I must agree with Milne’s narrator rather than Roger Scurvilegs (respected though his opinions are): Belvane is fantastic.  Yes, she made up a fake, all-female army of Amazons who supposedly are there to protect Princess Hyacinth and takes all the funds allocated to them for herself but, I assure you, the money is put to very good use.  Belvane is vain and shelfish, but not greedy.  And she is only truly bad for a little while, the course of the novel in fact, turning good again once reunited with her beloved King.  She is a wonderful unsinister villain.

But the real fun of this novel though comes from the way it is told, rather than the story itself.  Milne’s narrator is very present in the telling and his prejudices and preferences, his quest to redeem Belvane in the public eye and his joy in correcting Roger Scurvilegs, that authority on Euralia’s history, gave me no end of delight.  Take, for example, his preamble before Prince Udo’s monstrous transformation from Prince to…something else:

This is a painful chapter for me to write.  Mercifully, it is to be a short one.  Later on I shall become used to the situation; inclined, even, to dwell upon its humourous side; but for the moment I cannot see beyond the sadness of it.  That to a Prince of the Royal House of Araby, and such an estimable young man as Udo, these things should happen.  Roger Scurvilegs frankly breaks down over it.  ‘That abominable woman,’ he says (meaning, of course, Belvane), and he has hysterics for more than a page.

All in all, I think Milne succeeded in writing a fairy tale with characters and situations developed enough and humourous enough to entertain adults as well as children.  It’s not a masterpiece but it is a very fun book to spend an evening laughing over and has only made me more confident that Milne’s style of humour is exactly suited to my tastes.

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Library Lust

Doesn’t this room feel lived in?  Broken down into its individual parts, there are so many things I don’t like but, all jumbled together, they give the sense of a comfortable room that people aren’t afraid to use.  The shelves looked like they’re crammed with all sorts of books and there’s nothing I love more than entering the library of a reader with ecclectic tastes.

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I loved Evelina by Fanny Burney.  It’s a silly, funny romp of a novel and I could not have been more delighted by its epistolary format.  I love fictional correspondence just as much as real-life exchanges and no correspondent, real or fictional, could be so reliably entertaining as young Evelina, writing to her guardian to tell of her adventures in fashionable London and her astonishment as she encounters absurd society folk, embarrassing family members, and first love.

The plot is absurd and many of the characters equally so.  This is clearly no attempt at social realism but instead a delightful satire intent on extracting as much enjoyment as possible from the exaggerated absurdities of late-18th Century England.  And how it succeeds!  As Evelina jumps from ball to party to picnic, finding more outrageous and incomprehensible behaviour everywhere she looks, her letters to Mr Villars only become more entertaining.  She is an innocent but shrewd observer of the world around her.  She makes no attempt to appear sophisticated or worldly and her astonishment at what she finds to be the norm in the city is charming:

We came home from the ridotto so late, or rather, so early, that it was not possible for me to write.  Indeed, we did not go, you will be frightened to hear it, – till past eleven o’clock: but nobody does.  A terrible reverse of the order of nature!

Though Evelina begins her adventures in the safe, comfortable company of her friends the Mirvans, she eventually moves on to spend time with the upstart grandmother she has only just met, Madame Duval, and her vile cousins, the Braughtons.   Poor Evelina, what a disturbing change for a girl used to educated, refined companions!  The arrival of the loud, jesting Captain Mirvan had been upsetting enough for her but the switch to the company of her unknown family is even worse.  Evelina is deeply embarrassed by her relations but is helpless to distance herself from them.  They are loud and boorish, unrefined and inconsiderate, and view Evelina’s reserve and astonishment at their behaviour as snobbishness.   I found this second volume almost upsetting to read.  Rather than enjoy the hearty comedy this section has to offer (and it is the most blatantly comedic volume), I could only feel the poor heroine’s distress at her situation.  I am a very empathetic reader and if there is embarrassment to be felt, as there surely was here at the rude behaviour of Evelina’s relatives and the innocent blunders of Evelina herself, I will flush just as red as the heroine and tremble to turn the page lest things get worse.

As befits the heroine of a light, fantastical romance, Evelina is not just good and young but also extremely pretty.  So much so that every young (or simply unattached) man she comes across must fall in love with her.  Lord Orville, he who is without peer in terms of virtue, meets Evelina at her first London social event, which is just the sort of thing that happens in novels (hello Mr Tilney) and must have raised giddy expectations among legions of young, female readers.  But Lord Orville, though the first and most worthy of Evelina’s admirers, is by no means the last.  Those who follow are varying degrees of awful and unsuitable but are all significantly more amusing than Lord Orville (romantic heroes are sadly too dignified to ever be truly entertaining).  But as much as I love Evelina, I did feel rather bad for Maria Mirvan, the dearest friend Evelina has in the world and her companion on her first trip to London, who seems to gain the attentions of no gentlemen at all.  Poor Maria, to be witness to the endless adoration of Evelina without provoking any similar attentions for herself.

While Evelina is a heroine I could not help but adore, Lord Orville is a frustratingly perfect hero.  Evelina’s letters to Mr Villars are full of gushing descriptions of Orville’s perfect manners and gentlemanly conduct but there is very little wit or vitality to him, at least during their early encounters:

The conversation of Lord Orville is really delightful.  His manners are so elegant, so gentle, so unassuming, that they at once engage esteem, and diffuse complacence.  Far from being indolently satisfied with his own accomplishments, as I have already observed many men here are, tho’ without  any pretensions to his merit, he is most assiduously attentive to please and to serve all who are in his company; and, though his success is invariable, he never manifest the smallest degree of consciousness.

Everyone who comes across him seems to agree that, yes, he’s quite perfect:

‘Certainly,’ said Mrs Selwyn, when he was gone, ‘there must have been some mistake in the birth of that young man; he was, undoubtedly, designed for the last age; if, if you observed, he is really polite.’

It was only in the third volume, when Evelina and Orville find themselves brought together during a visit to Bristol, that some of his frustrations and insecurities are revealed in his now much more determined courtship of Evelina.  And the poor man really is cruelly tested, between Evelina’s secretive relationship with the young Mr Macartney, Sir Clement Willoughby’s continuing impositions, Lord Merton’s crude overtures on the eve of his wedding to Orville’s sister, and Evelina’s own abrupt coolness towards Orville (on the advice of Mr Villars).  But, despite these obstacles, he pursues our heroine and, quite easily, wins her (as it was clear he was going to do from the moment he was introduced).  I wish more of the lover-like dialogue between the two had been included rather than simply alluded to but, given that it was all related in letters to Mr Villars, her father-like guardian, I can at least rationalise its exclusion.

The truly absurd family drama relating to Evelina’s father I’ll let you discover on your own.  To say it is complicated would be to vastly over-simplify the situation and it is truly the silliest part of the novel – I can’t help but laugh when I think about it.  When father and daughter finally meet, they have simultaneous hysterical outbreaks.  That scene may in fact have been the comedic highlight for me and I couldn’t help but think of how Jane Austen parodied such behaviour in her juvenilia.

I grew surprisingly fond of Evelina.  She is very innocent and very good and, in her letters to her beloved guardian Mr Villars, very honest, no matter how foolish her adventures make her appear.  But she is not silly or even stupidly naive.  She has some powers of discernment and a strong moral compass.  Most importantly (and often amusingly), she is able to correctly judge the characters of those around her.  Evelina values substance over artifice and her introduction to the world, after having spent seventeen years in a quiet country village, gives her the chance to test and develop the good judgement Mr Villars has instilled in her.  Indeed, it is when she finally acts on her own judgement (rather than merely reflecting on her instincts while allowing her actions to be guided by others), rejecting the advice of Mr Villars and trusting her judgement in welcoming the advances of the virtuous Lord Orville, that the reader can rejoice.  True, she trades the protection and guidance of one perfect man for that of another but she chooses to make that trade, she sees the honesty of her lover’s affections even when Mr Villars is warning her there is none.  She has grown into an independent, rational adult – which is more than can be said for most of the characters she encountered along her way.  A very satisfying ending to a wonderful entertaining novel.

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