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Archive for November, 2012

Noah’s Ark – Currier & Ives

I have not one but two books for you today that are essentially biblical fan fiction.  Both Before the Flood by A.A. Milne and Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle are (as their titles might suggest) based on the story of Noah’s ark but that is all they have in common.

Before the Flood by A.A. Milne is a one-act play but not, I think, the kind of play most churches would pick to perform at any of their events, despite the biblical origins of the story.  Milne imagines the domestic affairs in Noah’s home in the months between him receiving his divine instructions to build the ark and the day when the rains begin.  The question hanging over them all – Noah’s wife, his three sons and their respective wives – is whether the floods will actually come and be quite as extreme as Noah has been ‘told’.  It can be quite amusing at times, as the family debates the ark-related logistics that Noah’s divine instructions do not account for: how can they bring all those animals on board and prevent the predators from eating their natural prey?  If the animals aren’t going to eat one another, what are they going to eat?  Does the family need to bring extra animals on board for catering purposes?  On the whole though, it is not the best of Milne’s work and easily my least favourite of his plays.  I only laughed once, when, after Noah tells his family that they will be the only ones to survive the coming flood, one of the sons turns to his wife and says “Aren’t you glad now that you married into this family?” (or words to that effect).   The book ends when the rain starts to fall, leaving the question of whether Noah is a prophet or a madman unanswered.

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, on the other, leaves no doubt as to the veracity of Noah’s claims.  In fact, Noah is but a minor character and he and his ark are ignored for a large portion of the book.  The focus in this children’s book from 1986 is on the interaction between the earthly and divine in this imagined pre-flood world where angels walk among men.  As soon as I started reading, I remembered why I found this book so weirdly fascinating when I was young.  Not good, necessarily, but fascinating.  It is the fourth book in the “Time Quartet”, the series that begins with A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle’s most famous book, but it was the only one I ever felt compelled to reread.  The mechanics of L’Engle’s idea of time/space travel never appealed to me but seraphim and nephilim, for some reason, did.

Sandy and Dennys Murry, the teenage twins who find themselves transported back to (they eventually realise) biblical times after disturbing an experiment in their parents’ home lab, are not remotely interesting.  They are flat and really unbelievably stupid at times.  Stuck thousands of years out of their own time period, they are remarkably relaxed, even with their knowledge of what is about to happen.  Having befriended Noah and his family, they are perfectly content to work in the garden, help build the ark when the time comes, and pine after Noah’s youngest daughter, Yalith.  Yalith is far more developed than either of the boys – all the female characters are – but still not very compelling.  Still, she doesn’t need to be.  This is not a book that requires in-depth characterization.  Instead, we get to read a lot about sex, which some might find slightly surprising for such a religious book.  There is a worrying but not entirely consistent tendency to equate sexual promiscuity with evil but the real message is that sex is a good thing for those in a loving relationship (not necessarily marriage) and a lack of emotional involvement cheapens what should be an intimate experience between two people.  That, as well as a general opening of the twins’ minds to outlandish possibilities, seems to be the main lesson they learn over the course of the book.

Honestly, neither book is particularly excellent.  Many Waters can feel stilted in its need to over explain both its scientific and religious elements and Before the Flood, though it asks the questions any skeptic ponders while reading the story of Noah, does not do so with Milne’s usual energy and so the story drags along.  Both author’s approaches are interesting but their execution is lacklustre.

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For years, my favourite of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels has been Elizabeth and her German Garden.  It is such a joyous, entertaining, and comforting book that I can go back to it again and again and always be delighted.  I have loved many of her other novels, of course – The Pastor’s Wife, Christopher and Columbus, and Introduction to Sally stand out in my mind – but none of them have had quite the same magic.  None, that is, except Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther, which has now overtaken Elizabeth and her German Garden as my favourite.

An epistolary novel first published in 1907, Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther has only the barest of plots, which exists only for form’s sake, providing structure and a reason for Rose-Marie Schmidt to be writing these entirely wonderful letters.  And they are wonderful, just as Rose-Marie is wonderful.  Part of what usually attracts me to von Arnim is her talent for writing unsympathetic characters and having great fun at their expense, but Rose-Marie is a heroine in the same mould as Elizabeth, one who the reader can not only love but admire for her intelligence, independence, and wonderful sense of humour.

Rose-Marie’s letters begin when Roger (Mr Anstruther), a young Englishman who has spent a year boarding with the Schmidts in the small town of Jena while he was there studying German, confesses his love for her just before his departure.  The first flurry of letters – written every day, of course – reveal Rose-Marie’s amazement and joy that her feelings for Roger are returned.  They are silly, doting love letters but already Rose-Marie has revealed herself as an unusually funny and perceptive correspondent.  Her home life is dull and unpromising and Roger’s declaration brings with it not only the joy of love returned but the promise of a future away from her sour stepmother.  Forced to sit through one of her stepmother’s speeches about Roger in the wake of his departure, one in which she congratulates her step-daughter on being too old and, damningly, ‘sensible’ to have attracted Roger’s attentions, Rose-Marie cannot help but bristle:

 ‘I fear, though, he is soft.  Still, he has steered safely through a year often dangerous to young men.  It is true his father could not have sent him to a safer place than my house.  You so sensible –‘ oh, Roger! – ‘Besides being arrived at an age when serious and practical thoughts replace the foolish sentimentalness of earlier years,’ – oh, Roger, I am twenty-five, and not a single one of my foolish sentimentalnesses has been replaced by anything at all.  Do you think there is hope for me?  Do you think it is very bad to feel exactly the same, just exactly as calf-like now as I did at fifteen? – ‘so that under my roof,’ went on my stepmother, ‘he has been perfectly safe.’

Rose-Marie may not be the sensible spinster her stepmother sees her as but she is an intelligent woman, who, though happy to be in love, cannot see the point in defying convention and families – as Roger, the sentimental fool, is inclined to do.  She has read widely and knows the romance of rebellious love, of Tristan and Isolde, of Romeo and Juliet, only works if the lovers die at just the right moment, at the very height of their passion.  Living on to face the inevitable denouement and consequences of their folly would not do at all:

My point is, that if you want to let yourself go to great emotions you ought to have the luck to die at an interesting moment.  The alternative makes such a dreary picture; and it is the picture I always see when I hear of love at defiance with the law.  The law wins; always, inevitably.

Rather soon after their correspondence begins, you realise that Roger is regretting the rashness of his declaration and it is not long before their engagement is broken off.  This is when things start to get fun.

After a brief break, their letters resume again.  Rose-Marie has been ill but is now “…busy reading Jane Austen and Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth – books foreordained from all time for the delight of persons getting well…” and is happy to mend her friendship with Roger in the wake of their break.  These are the letters that make the book so very wonderful.  Rose-Marie writes friendly letters full of details of her own life, her philosophical ponderings, and her deliciously frank assessments of Roger’s character and actions.  They are amazing: candid, playful, witty, and, above all, intelligent.  Another character complains about Rose-Marie by saying “…there is something indescribable about her manners – a becoming freedom, an almost immodest frankness, an almost naked naturalness, that is perilously near impertinence” but it is that freedom and that frankness that makes her so marvellous.

Rose-Marie is entirely unlike the other people in Jena, having nothing in common with the rural hausfraus and their daughters that make up the rest of her social circle.  There is one girl who is her particular friend – a young woman whose fiancé broke their engagement, leaving her family shamed and poorer after all the expenses they had incurred preparing for her wedding – but though Rose-Marie loves her they are far from intellectual equals.  Jena is a town that prizes conventionality and sober respectability – no one who reads these letters could think Rose-Marie conventional or sober.  She reads widely and, most importantly, thinks about what she had read.  She delights in the natural world while maintaining a healthy skepticism of those who romanticise it.  She faces all her struggles with a sense of humour that is sharp but never cruel.  And she, no matter how upsetting the situation, never indulges in dramatics or sympathizes with those who indulge in dramatics of their own.  She calmly states or reasons out her arguments and there is a steadiness about her, a calmness and maturity that is very attractive.  She knows who she is and is content with the woman she has become:

At twenty-six I cannot pretend to be what is known as a young girl, and I don’t want to.  Not for anything would I be seventeen or eighteen again.  I like to be a woman grown, to have entered into the full possession of whatever faculties I am to have, to know what I want, to look at things in their true proportions.  I don’t know that eighteen has anything that compensates for that.  It is such a rudderless sort of age.  It may be more charming to the beholder but it is not half so nice to the person herself.

The point of this book is to get to know Fräulein Schmidt – Mr Anstruther’s character is revealed early on and found wanting – and she is a woman well worth knowing.

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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.

I had pretty much given up on the Eastern European Reading Challenge.  My focus the last month or two has been on making sure that I was on track to finish A Century of Books by the end of the year.  The Eastern European challenge I enjoy but – with an aim of only 12 books – it is not a point of pride for me like A Century of Books.  However, with only ten books now left to read for my Century, I realised that I might just be able to meet my goal for the Eastern European Reading Challenging as well.  Of course, on realising that, I immediately placed a number of library holds and here are the results:

The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of the War by Slavenka Drakulić – I read and love two of Drakulić’s non-fiction books for the challenge last year (How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed and Café Europa) so am looking forward to this.  Her writing is wonderful and I always feel that I learn so much from her books, about people and events I would never otherwise have known about.

The Birch Grove and Other Stories by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz – Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz’s work is familiar to every Polish reader, yet remains unknown to the outside world. The stories in this selection were all written in the 1930s, and provide an extraordinary evocation of Poland’s first brief era of independence between the wars. They are also timeless sonatas of love and loss.

When Eve Was Naked: Stories of a Life’s Journey by Josef Škvorecký – rather than write a conventional memoir, Škvorecký published this collection of autobiographical short stories featuring his fictional alter-ego Danny Smiricky.  Škvorecký had a fascinating life, from his childhood and early adulthood in Czechoslovakia to, after he immigrated to Canada in 1968, his work as a publisher and professor in Toronto.  But, as interesting as I find him, I do not always get on well with his writing so we’ll see how this goes.

Kafka’s Milena by Jana Černa – I knew nothing about this book when I placed a hold on it, except that I have no interest in Kafka.  But Milena Jesenska sounds like a fascinating woman – the flyleaf describes her as a “prominent journalist and translator, one of the most famous women in 1930s Prague” – so I am looking forward to learning more about her.

Silver Moon: Stories from Antonín Dvořák’s Most Enchanting Operas by Ian Krykorka (illustrations by Vladyana Krykorka) – I read this just as soon as I picked it up so I may as well give a mini-review now and check it off my challenge list.  This is a lovely children’s book from the Czech-Canadian mother and son team of Ian and Vladyana Krykorka, retelling the stories that Dvořák used as the basis for three of his operas.  They are all fairy tales with happy endings so it is quite natural to present them as stories for children this way – I wouldn’t necessarily do the same with La Traviata.  Silver Moon begins with “Rusalka”, the most famous of Dvořák’s operas.  It is a Czech version of “The Little Mermaid” about a water nymph who falls in love with a man.  Thankfully, it has a happier ending and a less suicidal heroine than “The Little Mermaid”.  The other two are stories I was not familiar with before: “The King and the Charcoal Burner” and “Kate and the Devil”.  “The King and the Charcoal Burner” plays with the always popular (especially with the Czechs) idea of a king wandering unrecognized among his people and then, revealing himself later on, rewarding them for the generosity they had shown.  Here he also manages to play match-maker, between a girl whose family had helped him when he was lost and hungry and a young man who saved his life in battle.  The final story, “Kate and the Devil”,  about a shrewish girl who is so irritating that even the Devil himself doesn’t want her in Hell, is the most amusing and I would love to see it performed.  The illustrations are more impressive than the text but this is still a charming book.

What did you pick up this week?

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The Playwright’s Predicament

La Première Sortie – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The advantage which a novelist has over a dramatist is that he is always there to explain his characters.  He can occupy twenty pages in analysis of his heroine’s thoughts as she wonders whether to wear the pink or the heliotrope.  On the stage you merely see her in pink.  If the hero is to commit a murder, his soul will have been laid bare before you in a couple of chapters.  On the stage, now that soliloquy is out of date, the hero can only tell a convenient friend about it; and even then it will be pointed out to the dramatist that one doesn’t usually discuss one’s projected murders with a friend.  In a book, the curate’s sense of humour and the politician’s sentimentality are their own, not the author’s; but, listening to them in a play, you may tell yourself that the author is not very funny and very much too sentimental.

For this reason, since so much is left to its intelligence, a dramatist relies upon his audience; hopefully, if not always with confidence.

Michael and Mary by A.A. Milne

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I have read a lot of A.A. Milne’s work this year.  I have read his autobiography, original plays and adaptations, a children’s book, articles from his days at Punch, even wartime poetry…I have not so much sampled his work as attacked it, attempting to conquer as much as I could as quickly as possible.  It has been a delightful assault but none of it quite prepared me for Peace with Honour.  It is shockingly different from the rest of his work and I think that it is his best book – certainly his most important.

Published in 1934, Peace with Honour is Milne’s plea for pacifism.  None of his other books can come close to matching the passion with which he pleads his cause, his earnestness as he attempts to challenge his audience’s belief in the usefulness and inevitability of war.  He had been a pacifist even before his experiences during the First World War but his time in France certainly brought home the pointless wastefulness of it all and the contrast between the sentimental attitudes in Britain towards the war and its soldiers and the horrifying reality influenced him greatly.  As the 1930s began, with fascism and its accompanying militarism spreading in continental Europe, he wanted to challenge his reader’s notions about the purpose and value of war and ensure that the attitudes that had propelled them into the First World War were routed:

It is because I want everybody to think (as I do) that war is poison, and not (as so many think) an over-strong, extremely unpleasant medicine, that I am writing this book.

Milne argues clearly, intelligently and even amusingly in the best rhetorical tradition, laying out what he views as the obstructions to pacifism and then slicing through them with a blend of factual and emotional arguments.  There is nothing particularly calm or cool about his writing: you have no doubt that this is a book he poured his soul into.  It is literally a matter of life and death and it roused all his emotions.  He knew his aim was idealistic and ambitious, that it would upset people and be next to impossible to implement universally, but he had to try.  With the lives of future soldiers and civilians on his mind, with their deaths on his conscience, he had to try:

Nations fight in order to bring about the complete surrender of the conquered to the will of the conqueror.  That surrender is obtained by deliberate ‘slaughter and ruin.’  The last war involved women and children and the accumulated wealth of civilisation in slaughter and ruin.  The next war will involve them in a much greater slaughter and ruin.  This seems to be a good reason for making the next war impossible.  It does not seem to be a good reason for saying: ‘Can’t we agree to make the next war a nice war like the last war?’

Milne looks at the reasons nations go to war (material gain, honour, prestige, pride), the doubtful role of religion and morality, and, what seems to gall him most, the romantic conventions that surround war, even after the senseless slaughters of the First World War.  People wishing to commemorate their fallen heroes at sanitized memorials, ignoring the lingering deaths and crippling disfigurements that moved far beyond the battlefields, rouse all his anger:

We know […] that, of the casualties of the last war, not all were killed on the battlefield; that hundreds and thousands died painfully of wounds – in bed; that hundreds of thousands died slowly of gas-poisoning or disease – in bed.  Yet the sentimentalist, knowing this, still visualises death in war as something which comes cleanly and swiftly and mercifully, leaving its victim no more time for awareness than is necessary for a last message to his mother.

Milne is horrified that such thinking could have survived the war.  That people can still find ways to justify war as noble when they know how ignobly soldiers died less than twenty years before shocks him.  He has no time for the heroes these people speak of and no stomach for tributes to the glorious dead, who in death have been named as heroes through no act of bravery or impressive accomplishment, simply by virtue of their having died while in military service:

A man is indeed a hero if, longing for life, he accepts death of his own will.  How many heroes do we commemorate each year?  How many of the ‘immortal dead’ have deliberately died for their country?

Neither in its origins nor in its conduct is war heroic.  Splendidly heroic deeds are done in war, but not by those responsible for its conduct, and not exclusively and inevitably by the dead.  Of the ten million men who were killed in the last war, more than nine million had to fight whether they wanted to or not, and of these nine million some eight million did nothing heroic whatever before they were killed.  They are no more ‘immortal’ than a linen-draper who is run over by a lorry; their deaths were no more ‘pleasant’ and ‘fitting’ than the death of a stockbroker in his bath.

Milne is adamant throughout the book that there is no such thing as a just cause for war.  Ever.   Oh, the irony.  At the end of the book, Milne accuses the world’s leaders and opinion makers of lacking the imagination to envision a world where all the nations of the earth could agree to universal peace.  But Milne also lacked imagination: he could not conceive of circumstances under which he would condone war and yet by the end of the 1930s, his hatred of Hitler was so intense that he was a full supporter of war.

What changed?  When Milne wrote Peace with Honour, he was thinking of and fighting against the idea of war as a way to resolve an argument between two or more nations, usually over territory or resources or – worse – a matter of pride.  These were wars where there was economic value at stake or emotional value but never anything of real worth – nothing that one could objectively judge as right or wrong.  One nation wanted something another had and so they tried to take it.  One nation wanted to appear stronger or become larger so they attacked another.  An oppressed group wanted freedom so they fought their oppressor.  Those were the only kinds of war the world knew and that was what Milne reacted against.  These were not causes worth dying for and, more importantly, they were causes that could easily (if perhaps more slowly) be settled by diplomatic rather than violent means.  If Hitler had just been another Napoleon, intent on creating an empire, I think Milne would have remained a pacifist.  But Hitler wasn’t another Napoleon.  For Milne, it became a battle of Good versus Evil.

Milne actually examines the rise of fascism here but his conclusions are very, very wrong.  He believed that fascism by definition requires a war-like mentality of aggression and absolute obedience – true enough – but he thought that Hitler’s intention was more to unite and control his population than launch attacks on other countries.  Instead, the only thing Milne was correct in thinking was that fascism in either Germany or Italy would not survive another European war:

…however completely Fascist leaders may seem to have forgotten the horrors of the last war, we may be sure that the supreme horror of war is vividly in their minds: the knowledge that those who lead their country to Armageddon have no chance of surviving defeat and but little hope of enjoying victory.  Nothing is more certain in the uncertain future of Europe than that, if Fascist Germany or Fascist Italy is involved in the next war, it will not  a Fascist Germany or a Fascist Italy which will come out of it.  Even if (which is unlikely) civilisation survives that war; even if Germany is still a nation and Italy is still a nation; it is absolutely certain that there will be no Hitler, neither will there be any Mussolini, who will direct their destinies.

Knowing the violence with which Milne opposed Hitler, it was fascinating to read this and attempt to reconcile Milne’s passionate pacifism with his later Churchill-esque zeal for war.  It is surprising how easy that is to do.  He lays out his arguments so clearly, illustrates them with such approachable examples and analogies, that you are never in doubt as to what he believes and what he thinks is right and it is easy then to see how he could have viewed the war against Nazism as just.

There were so many other passages I wish I could have quoted but that is the kind of book this is.  Milne’s arguments are extraordinarily well done, so passionate, so heart-felt and so well-written.  It is an idealistic and overly hopeful book, especially in light of what was going on elsewhere in Europe at the time, but it is persuasive.  If I could only pick one of Milne’s books to share with other readers, this would be it.

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Were I to hold a competition to judge the most difficult book to review from my reading this year, the winner would be, without a doubt, Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester.  I read it in April.  I have read almost 150 books since then and this one – this dreaded review – has haunted me the entire time.

The problem is this: I love Georgette Heyer but do not love Jennifer Kloester.  Since biographies depend on both the subject and the author, this made for a troubling situation.

First, let us get the unpleasantness out of the way and as quickly as possible: Kloester is a clumsy writer and makes no attempt at the kind of analysis that good biographies require.  The effort it took to make it through the charmless and plodding first chapter (with its important insights into such details as the infant Georgette’s “good appetite”) was considerable.  Kloester is obviously a great Heyer fan and her fascination with her subject did endear her to me somewhat, but that is what has made this review so difficult to write.  I love that Kloester feels passionately enough about Heyer to have written this.  For years, we fans have had to make do with Joan Aiken Hodge’s The Private World of Georgette Heyer, which does a wonderful job of discussing the novels and detailing Heyer’s research techniques but which is also, like Kloester’s biography, limited by the very private nature of its subject.  But once you move beyond some bizarrely structured sentences, a needless amount of detail, a few questionable speculations and a generally awkward style of writing, Kloester does an excellent job of giving her readers what they want: more information about Heyer.  That is why I kept reading and that is what, in the end, made this such a fascinating and enjoyable book.

Phew.  It only took me seven months to figure out how to say all that.

Part of what appeals to me about Georgette Heyer – beyond my deep affection for her as the author of some of the most delightfully amusing books in my collection – is the very serious way she approached her work.  She was not ones of those authors who waxed poetic about their “art” or made any attempts to romanticize it.  She had a formula – a very successful one – and she used it to write bestsellers.  Give me a writer who writes to get paid, a creator of “good bad books”, and more often than not they will earn themselves a place on my favourites list.  Heyer was certainly one of these, alongside my adored Angela Thirkell and the incomparable Agatha Christie, who, it turns out, were among Heyer’s favourite authors as well:

Georgette could be a tough critic and had no time for what she considered verbiage.  Her preference was for those skilled in the craft of writing and her favourite authors were those whose mastery of language or distinct voice set their writing apart such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Noël Coward, Angela Thirkell, Stephen Leacock, Agatha Christie, Alistair MacLean and Raymond Chandler.

(Simon will be pleased to hear that this just makes me that much more eager to read Ivy Compton-Burnett.)

Though Kloester sadly does not go deeply into Heyer’s research and writing process (though, to the best of my memory, the Hodge biography does a very good job of this), what glimpses she does give us are fascinating:

…her characters were often the starting point for her novels.  She would first imagine an individual, then spend hours thinking about him or her while playing endless games of patience, fleshing the character out in her mind and devising a suitable name.  Once created, a character’s behaviour and dialogue follow naturally.  Georgette found it impossible to force one of her creations to behave in a manner contrary to their established personality.  When writing a book her dramatis personae lived for her to the extent that they frequently determined the course of the story.

One of the main problems with Heyer for many readers is that, simply put, she was not an easy person to like.  Despite the sparkling wit and charm of her novels, Heyer was not a warm woman, nor did she particularly care about making other people like her.  She could be snobbish and anti-Semitic, had little patience for her fans, was possessed of a “sharp, all too accurate, caustic tongue” and was shy and impatient when forced to socialise.  A social butterfly she was not:

Georgette never sought to be part of a large social group.  She was happiest in her own company, with Ronald, or with a small group of intimates (Richard described his mother as ‘very, very shy’ and ‘to hide this, she would talk nineteen to the dozen to strangers’).  Although she was interested in people it was more often as an observer of human nature than as someone who wished to befriend them.  Those, like Pat Wallace, who penetrated her outer reserve found her a kind, caring and generous friend, but to the rest of the world she could appear grand and formidable – someone who could hold people at a distance with a word or a look.

For her, it was more important to have a small group of intimate friends and, above all, a close relationship with her husband, Ronald.  One of the strengths of this biography is Kloester’s portrait of Heyer’s marriage to Ronald Rougier.  Part of what makes Heyer’s novels so appealing is the strong understanding and admiration her heroes and heroines feel for one another, the understanding that “a successful relationship takes time and that true love requires mutual understanding and empathy and not mere physical attraction.”  There is love and attraction, certainly, but she is very clear that that alone does not a marriage make.  Love-struck supporting characters are humoured but not encouraged; if a match is made among these underlings, their happiness is never quite as certain as that of the leading couple who we know will be friends as well as lovers.  Kloester takes great care (and it is greatly appreciated) to illustrate Georgette and Ronald’s compatibility and their contentment throughout their marriage.  For many years, Heyer was the main breadwinner and, far from resenting her, Ronald served as her greatest supporter, chief critic and main research assistant:

They were great friends.  Georgette and Ronald shared many common interests and she endured his irascibility and outbursts of temper while he coped with her forceful personality and determination to be right.  When they did fight it was usually over a point of history (one of their more serious arguments was over the Divine Right of Kings) or a word or phrase in one of her manuscripts, rather than over more mundane things like domestic problems or money.

What does irritate me about Kloester’s portrait of the Rougier’s marriage (Georgette was very happy to be Mrs Ronald Rougier in private life) is her speculation about their sex life:

Whether Georgette herself ever experienced an overwhelming urge for sex is impossible to know, although a close friend described her as ‘not terribly interested’ in sex.  She and Ronald only had one child and for much of their married life slept in separate beds, giving little or no impression that physical lovemaking was an intrinsic part of their life together.  Georgette had her passions but they were not physical.  Her marriage to Ronald was first and foremost a marriage of two minds.

That, as far as I can find, is it: on the basis of one remark from a friend and the existence of separate beds, it is decided that Heyer did not like sex.  I am not convinced by such limited evidence and I wish biographers (since Kloester is hardly the only one guilty of this) would refrain from such speculation when evidence is so limited.

But limited evidence is rather a theme with Heyer.  She was an extremely private person (again, this just makes me like her more) and there were no revealing diaries or indiscrete personal letters for the hopeful biographer to pounce on.  Kloester had access to private letters and documents (which had not been available when Hodge prepared her biography) and uses them extensively, though not judiciously, but they are mostly business correspondence.  As a biography of Georgette Heyer the businesswoman, this is ideal.  As the biography of Georgette Heyer the woman, less so.  Kloester does the best with what she has though, even if she is given to quoting incredibly dull and pointless correspondence at length.

This is not a perfect biography but I still adored it.  Yes, I have my issues with Kloester but, in the end, she brought me more information about Heyer and, after that difficult first chapter, I found myself too fascinated to care much about any technical or structural flaws in her writing.  Whether you like her or not, Heyer is fascinating.

Of course, reading this made me want to reread all of Heyer’s novels.  In the spring I was able to resist that urge but reviewing this has brought it back.  I can’t help but notice that of the 12 years I have left to complete for A Century of Books, five could be filled with novels by Heyer…

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Library Lust

via Casa Vogue

Built-in shelving – especially in white – makes me so very happy.  The rest of the room doesn’t excite me, but I do love the autumnal-coloured throw on the end of that very ugly (though no doubt comfortable) chair.

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When I was little – eight or nine years old maybe – I was utterly fascinated by the idea of one-room schoolhouses.  Reading Glengarry School Days by Ralph Connor, published in 1902 but more likely set during the 1870s of the author’s youth, reminded me very much of that old fascination.  Its schoolroom scenes have much in common with those from some of my favourite childhood books – L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series – but offer a decidedly and irresistibly male perspective on growing up.

Set in a rural farming community in Ontario, Glengarry School Days follows the adventures of the boys of Glengarry.  The existence of females other than mothers is acknowledged but not encouraged – the dark days of the Glengarry school include the period when two “girl” teachers reign over it – so instead we hear quite a lot about the boys’ games, their rivalries, their friendships and also their lives away from school, including both their chores and their hobbies.  It is an episodic book, each chapter standing alone, offering glimpses into Glengarry and its youth over a period of some years.

Though the book really centers around Hughie Murray, the minister’s son, I was most intrigued by Connor’s portrait of Thomas Finch, who is slightly older than Hughie but still a close friend.  A large and awkwardly-spoken boy at the beginning of the book, Thomas unexpectedly becomes Connor’s way of discussing masculinity.  Yes, Thomas is large and strong but when his mother falls ill with breast cancer, he is the one who does most of the caring for her, not his sister.  He is as “gentle as a woman” in nursing her and everyone in the community admires him for it.  He plays hockey and works the farm – very masculine pursuits – but at no time is that presented as being at odds with his nursing of his mother.  Connor doesn’t belabour the point – I have made more of it here than he does in the entire book – but I still think it is an important one: tenderness is just as natural an aspect of a man’s character as it is of a woman’s.

Ralph Connor was the penname for Charles Gordon, a Presbyterian/United Church minister, which explains why the book has such a strong moral tone – but not an unpleasant one.  I found it far more palatable than, say, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s or Louisa May Alcott’s books.   Hughie, for example, struggles with keeping secrets from his adored mother but rather than let things come to a dramatic crisis point, Connor lets Hughie work through his angst in a much more natural, internal way.  It felt true to the sort of dilemmas children do find themselves in and Hugh came off as a normal child who dearly loved his parents rather than a saintly one who would never sin again.

But the moral and religious strength of Glengarry is not limited to improving its boys; it also gets hold of Jack Craven, the last in a string of teachers the school has during the course of the book.  Craven comes to Glengarry after his wild ways get him thrown out of college – just the sort of reject who all too often was in charge of such rural schools.  He is not a natural teacher and prefers to follow his own preferences rather than any well-rounded lesson plan.  He also does not bother to discipline the children, though they come to love him and so a sort of discipline does develop.  Slowly, under the influence of his admiring pupils, Craven begins to feel the duty to reform.  But it is really Mrs Murray, the minister’s wife and Hughie’s mother, who inspires his transformation.  She is one of those perfect, saintly women who always say exactly the right thing and who, without a word of reproach, with only their consideration and support, can shame one into wanting to be a better man.  Such Madonna-like characters used to be very popular – especially as minister’s wives – and are now terribly unfashionable (for better or for worse).  Regardless of current standards of political correctness, it is under Mrs Murray’s influence that Jack Craven is inspired to evolve from rakish youth to theological student.

I really loved this book.  I loved the descriptions of meals that could rival even the dinners in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books; I loved the excitement of the students over the “treat” of a spelling match; I loved that it addressed – intelligently – some of the challenges about growing up and the urge that even the most polite children feel to rebel.  Mostly I just loved the fun of it, of getting a glimpse into a childhood that felt very real and very relatable but still very different from my own experiences growing up a hundred years later.

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At the very top of the pile of books I took with me on holiday last week was High Rising by Angela Thirkell.  Thirkell is perfect holiday reading (though I am rather of the opinion that she is perfect for every situation and mood) and, after having read the twenty-one books that follow this, it seemed time for me to finally read the first of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, initially published back in 1933.  And there could be no more appropriate day to post my review as the beautiful new Virago Modern Classics editions of High Rising and Wild Strawberries are being released today.  (Can you guess what items one and two are on my Christmas wishlist this year?)

High Rising has a few minor differences from the later books in the series – some of the action actually takes place outside of Barsetshire!  A film actress other than the terribly prolific Glamora Tudour is mentioned! – but it is assuredly a Barsetshire novel, ending with not one but two engagements.

The book centers around Laura Morland and her friends in High- and Low Rising.  A widow with four sons, Laura took up novel writing as a way to pay the boys’ school fees after her husband’s death.  Now the author of a very successful series of thrillers aimed at women and with only one son (Tony) left at home, Laura is in her mid-forties and quite comfortable.  More comfortable, of course, when Tony is away at school, his presence being enough to shatter anyone’s nerves with his constant prattle (his obsession here is with model trains) and complete disinterest in the thoughts or feelings of anyone else.  Laura adores her son but has little patience with him:

When, for a quarter of a century, you have been fighting strong young creatures with a natural bias towards dirt, untidiness and carelessness, quite unmoved by noise, looking upon loud, unmeaning quarrels and abuse as the essence of polite conversation, oblivious of all convenience and comfort but their own, your resistance weakens.  Tony was no more trying than Gerald had been […] or John, or Dick, but she was older, and less able to deal with his self-sufficient complacency.  She had sent him to school at an earlier age than his brothers, partly so that he should not be an only child under petticoat government, partly, as she remarked, to break his spirit.  She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contemporaries.  But not at all.  He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly.  Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive.

Tony, it must be said, is incredibly irritating in this book.  I adore him in later books where his egoism and confidence is so advanced past that of any ordinary human being as to make him irresistibly fascinating but here he really is just an obnoxious schoolboy full of incredibly dull conversation.  It is a frighteningly accurate portrayal of the average prepubescent, right down to his longing for any kind of audience at all: he is just as happy to address his remarks to Sylvia the dog as he is to any human.

The book takes place between Christmas and Easter (allowing us to see Tony on his school breaks) and focuses on a small group of Laura’s friends as they gossip and try to organise one another’s lives.  The main focus of their concern is George Knox, a widower and author who Laura has been friends with for many years.  He is entangled – though he does not quite realise it – in a dangerous situation with his new secretary, Miss Grey (known to her enemies as “the Incubus”).  With the assistance of Laura, Amy Birkett (the wife of the headmaster of Southbridge School), and Laura’s own secretary, Anne Todd, the Incubus is routed and George is free to follow his heart – once he takes the time to listen to it.  Laura is also responsible for matching Sibyl Knox, George’s daughter, with Adrian Coates, Laura’s publisher.  It is an easily sorted affair – Adrian being very receptive to Laura’s guidance and occasional knocks over the head – but the exchanges between the love-addled Adrian and the exasperated Laura were some of the most amusing in the book.  When he, consumed by unspoken love for Sibyl, drinks too much at a New Year’s Eve party and crashes his car when driving Laura home, her wrath is magnificent.

For me, the real delight of High Rising was getting to know Laura Morland.  Honestly, I thought I had known her.  I had, after all, read twenty-one Barsetshire books and Mrs Morland shows up in at least fifteen of them.  I thought our acquaintance was pretty firm.  I knew her as the hair-pin dropping, slightly absentminded, self-deprecating but incredibly successful author of “good bad books” and, of course, as the frequently exasperated mother of the always trying Tony.  I adored her already but this book gave me even more reason to, delighting me by revealing new aspects of her character.  She can be direct and forceful, not just in dealing with Tony and his friends but also with her hapless male friends, specifically Adrian and George, who both do their best to try her patience over the course of the novel.  Any woman who can refusal a proposal by saying “You great mass of incompetence and conceit, you revolt me” is worthy of my admiration.

High Rising is a delightful introduction to Barsetshire and I am thrilled that for once I will be able to post a review of an Angela Thirkell novel knowing that other readers will easily be able to track down a copy if they so wish!

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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.

Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham – this is not the first time I’ve checked this book out but hopefully this will be the time I actually get around to reading it.  Graham’s Earth and High Heaven is an extraordinary book and this, her first book, was equally celebrated when it was published in 1938.

The Library Book – a collection of pieces from more than twenty British writers (including Stephen Fry, Alan Bennett, and Zadie Smith) celebrating libraries and librarians.

The Runaway Princess by Hester Browne – I read Swept Off Her Feet and The Finishing Touches by Browne last month, just when this title was being released.  I enjoyed them both so much that I placed a hold on this immediately, excited to have found a really good chick-lit author.

What did you pick up this week?

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