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Archive for the ‘Correspondence’ Category

Over the weekend I finished off P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe.  It’s less full of bon mots than you might expect (but rather full of balance sheet considerations) however it does contain some rather wonderful letters to or remarks about contemporary authors of Wodehouse’s acquaintance that must be shared.

My favourite letter was the one below, written to Denis Mackail on the publication of the entirely wonderful Greenery Street (still one of my favourite Persephone titles).  Whatever issues I may have with Wodehouse, his taste in books is not one of them!

Dear Denis,

I started the sale of Greenery Street off with a bang this afternoon by rushing into Hatchard’s and insisting on a copy.  They pretend it wasn’t out.  I said I had seen it mentioned among “Books Received” in my morning paper.  They said in a superior sort of way that the papers got their copies early.  I then began to scream and kick, and they at once produced it.

When I had got to page 42, I had to break off to write this letter.  No longer able to hold enthusiasm in check.  It is simply terrific, miles the best thing you have ever done – or anyone else, for that matter.  It’s so good that it makes one feel that it’s the only possible way of writing a book, to take an ordinary couple and just tell the reader about them.  It’s the sort of book one wishes would go on for ever.  That scene where Ian comes to dinner is pure genius.

The only possible criticism I would make is that it is not the sort of book which should be put into the hands of one who ought to be working on a short story.  Ethel [Wodehouse’s wife] got skinned to the bone at Ascot yesterday – myself present, incidentally, in a grey tophat and white spats – and I promised her I would work all day today at something that would put us square.  So far I have done nothing but read Greenery Street.

Yours ever,

P.G. Wodehouse (18 June 1925)

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sylvia-smoking-at-desk-cutI’m not sure, no matter how long or hard I search, that I will ever find a more perfect letter writer than Sylvia Townsend Warner.  I was half convinced of this after finishing The Element of Lavishness, a collection of letters back and forth between her and William Maxwell, but now, part way through Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner (edited by William Maxwell), I am convinced.

It’s not just her eloquence and style – she has an abundance of both – but her ability to transform the mundane into something both beautiful and memorable.  Her imagination never flags and she uses it to elevate small moments – a passage in a book she is reading, an encounter with a friend, a memory of her travels – into amazingly vivid scenes that would not be amiss in a novel.  What a delight it must have been to be one of her (many) correspondents.

I’m still near the beginning of the book but am enjoying it so much that I had to share my enthusiasm – and a few passages – right away.

Showing off her humourous side (on arriving back in England, having been in America when war broke out):

…Just when we were in port, and sitting waiting for the immigration officers to come and give us landing tickets, all of us sitting in glum patient rows in the saloon, the most terrible thing occurred.  For a fulsome voice with a strong Irish accent upraised itself in our midst and began to intone Land of Hope and Glory.  For a moment it was remarkably like being torpedoed.  And people who had looked perfectly brave and sedate during the voyage suddenly turned pale, and looked round for escape.  There was of course no escape.  The singing came from a large fur-coated white-haired lady surrounded (rather like Britannia) with a quantity of parcels.  And she sang all through that embarrassing stanza.  Then she paused, and looked round challengingly.  We all pretended we had heard nothing unusual, nothing, in fact, at all.  (12 October 1939)

Longing for southern climes during the first, brutally cold winter of the war:

I feel sometimes that my eyes will give out, perish, if they don’t rest on a Latin outline.  I would like to sit on a hot stone wall, smothered in dust and breathing up the smell of those flat-faced roses that grow along the edge of Latin roads, or perhaps the rich harmonious stink of a heap of rotting oranges thrown in the ditch; and look at oxen, and small dark men with alert limbs and lazy movements, such as cats combine.  And I would like to sit outside a café of atrocious architecture, drinking a pernod, and looking across at some Jesuit great-grandmother of a church that I shan’t go into.  And I would like to touch small hard dry hands like lizards, and hear people saying Tss, Tss, when a handsome girl goes by.  And see small proud boys making water against notices that say they’re not to.  And awful dogs of no known breed being addressed as Jewel; or alternatively as Bastard and Sexual Pervert. (16 February 1940)

Marvelling at Queen Victoria:

I have been re-reading that extraordinary woman’s Diary of Our Life in the Highlands.  Really…she and her Albert were an amazing pair.  They would go off, down an unknown road in the Highlands, in a strange pony-chaise, all by themselves, ford torrents, scramble up mountains, gather ferns and cairngorms and I should think all probability inaugurate some more heirs to the throne under a pine-wood or on the edge of a precipice, without a care of a scruple.  And with their faces still quite filthy, tufts of heather sticking to their clothing, a most unsuitable freedom still gipsyfying their countenances, they would return to be an example of wedded decorum to all the courts and homes of Europe. (7 December 1933)

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on-the-other-sideToday, continuing our week of World War Two diaries, we come to one of the most exciting and original offerings in the Persephone catalogue: On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg.

Born into a prosperous Hamburg family in 1879, Tilly (as Mathilde was known) had an upbringing suitable for the daughter of a prominent lawyer: she mastered “the gentle arts of music and painting, deportment and elocution, dancing and general social graces.”  She was sent to finishing school and in due time made her debut in Hamburg society as an accomplished and marriageable young lady.  So far, this sounds pretty standard for the daughter of the professional class and in fact identical to the upbringings of my great-grandmother and all my great-great-aunts.  But rather than settle down, Tilly convinced her parents to let her go to Italy to study singing and Italian.  There, she met and fell in love with a Dutch art historian and linguist, whom she married and had six children with (though one died in infancy).  It was an unhappy marriage (he sounds like the least-attractive Dutch person I’ve ever heard of) and the two separated during the First World War.  This history has little bearing on the book itself (aside from explaining the origins of the children to whom Tilly is writing) but I had to share it anyway.  Already her life would have made a good novel and she was just getting started.

By 1940 when these letters begin, Tilly was living in Hamburg with her second (and decidedly more stable) husband, Emil Wolff, a professor of English Language and Literature at Hamburg University.  Of her five children, only one was living in Germany.  Tightened censorship meant that she knew she could not write honestly to her children about her day-to-day life so she began these letters with the hope of sharing the truth with them once the war was over:

My beloved far-away children, everything I was not able to tell you in my letters during the first year of the war; was not allowed to say, because the censor waited only for an incautious word in order to stop a message from getting through to you, all this I will now put down on paper under the title “Letters that never reached them”; so that much later perhaps you will know what really happened, what we really felt like and why I had to reassure you repeatedly that the “organisation” was marvellous, that we were in the best of health and full of confidence. (10 October 1940)

There are hundreds of English diaries and memoirs about life during the war, countless entries and excerpts about normal life being disturbed by the Blitz and inconvenienced by rationing.  But, generally, life went on.  In fact, if you were really self-absorbed, you could pretty much act like there wasn’t even a war on.  When you start reading about life in Germany and its occupied neighbours, things get a lot more bleak.  Germans had been suffering under Hitler since 1933 but now, in addition to the fear and paranoia that had become commonplace for most citizens under the Nazis, there was the added horror of Allied bombings.  As sympathetic as I found Tilly, as much as I enjoyed her personality, it was her descriptions of these bombings and the resulting chaos that made this book so unique and memorable.

There is an excellent afterword by Christopher Beauman than summarizes the ongoing debate about the morality of the devastating Allied bombing strikes on German cities but it is Tilly’s powerful descriptions of living through the bombing raids that made the most impact on me:

I doubt whether there is a single undamaged city in the whole of Germany and most of them are sad ruins.  If one had a bird’s-eye view, one would see nothing but devastation, destroyed railway-lines, fields torn open by craters, burning factories and hordes of fleeing human beings.  A never-ending stream of fugitives is rolling from the east towards Berlin and Hamburg.  When they arrive, after days of toil in open farm carts through ice and snow, babies frozen to death at their mothers’ breasts, more bombs are showered on top of them.  It is unbelievably wretched and frightful.  (4 February 1945)

The July 1943 bombing of Hamburg was one of the largest raids of the entire war.  Over the course of several days, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people were killed.  (To put that in perspective, about 30,000 Londoners were killed during the Blitz – but those casualties were spread out over the ten months.)  With tens of thousands more injured and buildings and infrastructure destroyed, imagine the chaos of trying to live among that:

For days on end we have had a harmlessly blue and translucent sky above us, bringing out the colour of my gloxinias, red and white, growing in superb stillness on the balcony and hiding the ruins opposite, to the right and to the left.  But in all directions death and destruction are knotted together, ready to explode.  Can anyone fathom this?  I cannot.  There is hardly a town still left intact and yet one becomes indifferent even to these atrocious ravages, which must be beyond your powers of imagination.  For days we have had no water; everything is chipped and broken and frayed; travelling is out of the question; nothing can be bought; one simply vegetates.  Life would have no purpose at all if there weren’t books and human beings one loves, whose fate one worries about day and night. (7 August 1944)

Tilly and her husband were never members of the Nazi party (though Tilly’s ex-husband, the shifty Dutch fellow, was).  Hamburg, for centuries a free city, had a history of free-thinkers and opposition to the Nazi party, something that we’ll return to later this week when I talk about Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself.  But hating the Nazis, loathing all they stand for and all they do, is a far different thing from hating Germany.  Tilly struggled with the knowledge that the defeat of Hitler would also mean a crushing blow to her homeland:

…however much we strain with every nerve of our beings towards the downfall of our government, we still mourn most deeply the fate of our poor Germany.  It is as if the final bomb hit our very soul, killing the last vestige of joy and, hope.  Our beautiful and proud Germany has been crushed, ground into the earth and smashed into ruins, while millions sacrificed their lives and all our lovely towns and art treasures were destroyed.  And all this because of one man who had a lunatic vision of being “chosen by God”. (1 May 1945)

What was almost harder for Tilly than seeing Germany’s collapse – at least with that there was some hope of a better future – was seeing how completely her Anglophile husband’s affection for the English was erased.  She too cannot hold back her anger at times:

I do understand that W [Wolff, her husband] is deeply depressed, has little hope for his own particular world.  He was so passionately devoted to Great Britain and all it stood for.  Now he is disillusioned by the limitless arrogance and the dishonesty with which they treat us, proclaiming to the whole world that only Germany could have sunk so low in such abysmal cruelty and bestiality, that they themselves are pure and beyond reproach.  And who destroyed our beautiful cities, regardless of human life, of women, children or old people?  Who poured down poisonous phosphorous during the terror raids on unfortunate fugitives, driving them like living torches into the rivers?  Who dive-bombed harmless peasants, women and children, in low-level attacks, and machine-gunned the defenceless population?  Who was it, I ask you?  We are all the same, all equally guilty, and if my entire being was not straining towards a re-union with you, life would be nothing but torture and abhorrence. (17 May 1945)

Other reviewers (like Simon and Jane) have mentioned how this book gave them a new perspective on the war.  I find that intriguing since I certainly remember reading about life in the Reich and German-occupied lands during my school days.  I wonder if this is a cultural difference; it doesn’t seem likely to be a generational one since Simon and I are the same age.  Growing up in Canada, you are just as likely to have had relatives fighting for the Germans as for the Canadians or British.  At university, I used all of my electives (a pathetically small number spread between four years of finance, accounting, and marketing courses) to studying German and history – ideally, when possible, German history.  I started this way because I wanted to understand more what my grandparents’ lives must have been like under German occupation; I continued reading because I was fascinated.  I read dozens of diaries by women like Tilly, women who hated Hitler but loved Germany, who loved the English until they saw their families and cities destroyed by bombs, who, finally, exhaustedly, just dreamed of an end and a chance to start anew.  But so many of those diaries are not in print or translated so to have one like this – written with such poise by such a sympathetic  and articulate woman – so readily available is truly a gift.

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The Harold Nicolson DiariesWe all have our childhood heroes.  Some people spend their adolescence admiring athletes or film stars.  Some dream of growing up to be the next Austen or Hemingway.  In my case, I spent my teen years slightly obsessed with 20th Century diplomats and politicians.  At some point, my intentions to purse a diplomatic career waned (probably when I realised I lacked both the tact necessary to succeed in that field and the bilingualism that is a prerequisite for any kind of government post) but my fascination with the diaries of those whose lives were devoted to civil service has never faltered.  I suspect Charles Ritchie will always be my favourite diary-keeping diplomat but after reading The Harold Nicolson Diaries edited by Nigel Nicolson earlier this year, I must say that Ritchie finally has a rival for my affections.

For years, I have been reading history books about wartime Britain where Nicolson’s diaries were heavily quoted.  His career during that period I was familiar with: a diplomat turned writer turned politician, Nicolson was among a small number of MPs who spent the years preceding WWII believing and arguing that fascism needed to be confronted and defeated rather than ignored or appeased in an effort to ensure peace.  He was never a brilliant politician but he was intimate with those in power and his diaries offer a fascinating glimpse of the government in wartime.

To some of my readers, I suspect Nicolson is better known as the husband of the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West.  The two had a famously unconventional partnership, with both Nicolson and Sackville-West conducting homosexual affairs outside of their marriage, but if there is one thing that is clear from this book (and from their son Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage) it is how devoted they were to one another over the almost fifty years they spent together.  Though the book is titled The Harold Nicolson Diaries, it is actually a collection of both diaries and letters and most of the letters were written to Vita.  For a man who had, when very young, dreamed of “a little cuddly wife who wouldn’t talk”, Vita was an extraordinary choice for a partner but not one Nicolson ever seemed to regret.  His adoration of her is clear in his diaries, his letters to his sons and his parents, and very much in his letters to her:

I do not think that, except for Winston [Churchill], I admire anyone as much as I admire you.

I remember your saying (years ago) that you had never established a complete relationship with anyone.  I don’t think you ever could – since yours is a vertical and not horizontal nature, and two-thirds of you will always be submerged.  But you have established, with your sons and me, a relationship of absolute trust and complete love.  I don’t think that these things would be so fundamental to the four of us were it not that each one of the four is a private person underneath.

I have often wondered what makes the perfect family.  I think it is just our compound of intimacy and aloofness.  Each of us has a room of his own.  Each of us knows that there is a common-room where we meet on the basis of perfect understanding.

Though edited by his son, these diaries are not presented to entirely flatter Nicolson.  The less appealing parts of his character are there: he can be snobbish and unrepentantly racist. He sulks like a child after defeats and hungers for at times undeserved admiration.  He sometimes makes bad decisions, he allies himself with the wrong people, and he flip-flops on major issues.  He is easily flattered and easily insulted.  He is, in short, very, very human and more aware of his failings than most.  At the end of each year, he takes stock of his life and those entries show a man fully aware of what the world thinks of him and resolved, always, to do better:

I am thought trashy and a little mad.  I have been reckless and arrogant.  I have been silly.  I must recapture my reputation.  I must be cautious and more serious.  I must not try to do so much, and must endeavour to what I do with greater depth and application.  I must avoid the superficial.

Yet in spite of all this – what fun life is! (31 December 1931)

Yet despite the off-putting moods of self pity, Nicolson is for the most part charmingly aware of limitations and contradictory ways.  He knows his strength, however much he may like to dream of being dashing and a man of action, lies in solid, conservative competence:

We have a meeting of the sub-committee of the London Library to consider who is to be President.  We decide to separate the posts of President and Chairman and to choose for the latter, not a man of eminence, but a man who will attend meetings.  They therefore choose me. (25 October 1951)

And he is able to observe, delightfully, the workings of his own easily-flattered mind:

The Spectator this week suggests that I should be sent as Ambassador to Washington.  It amuses me to observe my own reactions to such a suggestion.  My first fear is that it will expose me to ridicule, since all we Nicolsons are morbidly sensitive to being placed in a false position.  My second impulse is to realise how much Vita would hate it.  My third is to feel how much I should loathe the pomp and publicity of an Embassy.  My fourth is to agree with the Spectator that I might do the job rather well.  But it will not occur. (21 April 1939)

But it is the family-minded side of him that is the most appealing.  Whether he is writing to welcome a new daughter-in-law into the family (“You will find us shy, eccentric, untidy, but most benevolent”) or advising his young son on how best to get his mother’s approval for the kind of dangerous adventures that are the stuff of every mother’s nightmares (“she is not in any way a narrow-minded woman”), he is perfection.   The book covers his life from 1907 (when he was just twenty) to 1964 and so we get to see not just the relationship he had with his wife but the ones he had with both his parents (his chatty letters to them show what a close, friendly relationship they had), his two sons, and, eventually, his grandchildren.  For all the other things he was in his life and for all the varying level of success he had, he was a wonderful family man.  I defy anyone to read this letter Nicolson wrote in 1954 to his freshly christened granddaughter and not think what  delightful grandfather he would have made (his granddaughter certainly thought so):

Now that you have been admitted into the Church and had a paragraph all to yourself in the Daily Telegraph, you should be able, if not to read, then at least take in, private letters.

I thought it noble of you to remain quiescent while your godfather and godmother promised such glum things on your behalf.  But I did not think it noble of you to sneak when I gave you a silver spoon and you went and bashed your own eye and forehead with it.  It is foolish, in any case, to bash oneself with spoons.  But it is evil for a girl about to be blessed by a bishop to sneak about her grandfather.  You did not see the look your mother gave me.  You did not realise the deep suspicion with which your nurse thereafter regarded me.  (What an ass that woman was, flattering you like that; and how weak of you to respond with a grin to her blandishments.)

And will you tell your mother that I really believe that you will have large eyes as lovely as she has and a character as sweet as hers, and that I really will not spoil you when you reach the age of 2, since I detest spoiled children.  And even if I do spoil you, I shall do so surreptitiously in order to avoid a look from her like the spoon-look.

I am so happy to have made the acquaintance of Nicolson the family man after having known for so many years only Nicolson the political observer.  He is wonderful in both roles but so much more interesting to me now that I have a clearer, more complete idea of his character.  Each page of this book was a delight; it is, without a doubt, one of the best books I have read this year and one of the best diaries I have ever read.  Nicolson has certainly earned his place alongside Ritchie on my bookshelf.

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Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, credit: National Trust

Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, credit: National Trust

I spent the weekend reading books off my own shelves, bouncing back and forth between High Wages by Dorothy Whipple and The Harold Nicolson Diaries: 1907-1964.  While High Wages was undoubtedly my most successful Whipple encounter to date, the diaries were what delighted me most.  I had enjoyed what I had read of Nicolson’s diaries and letters in the past (he shows up frequently in history books focused on wartime Britain) so was looking forward to this but enjoyed it even more than I had expected to.

I plan to write more about this wonderful book soon but for now I just wanted to share a snippet that I found charming and which reminded me of A.A. Milne’s wonderful “Margery” pieces from his Punch days.  It is a letter written by Harold Nicolson to his infant grandchild, Juliet Nicolson, shortly after her christening (July 31, 1954):

Now that you have been admitted into the Church and had a paragraph all to yourself in the Daily Telegraph, you should be able, if not to read, then at least take in, private letters.

I thought it noble of you to remain quiescent while your godfather and godmother promised such glum things on your behalf.  But I did not think it noble of you to sneak when I gave you a silver spoon and you went and bashed your own eye and forehead with it.  It is foolish, in any case, to bash oneself with spoons.  But it is evil for a girl about to be blessed by a bishop to sneak about her grandfather.  You did not see the look your mother gave me.  You did not realise the deep suspicion with which your nurse thereafter regarded me.  (What an ass that woman was, flattering you like that; and how weak of you to respond with a grin to her blandishments.)

And will you tell your mother that I really believe that you will have large eyes as lovely as she has and a character as sweet as hers, and that I really will not spoil you when you reach the age of 2, since I detest spoiled children.  And even if I do spoil you, I shall do so surreptitiously in order to avoid a look from her like the spoon-look.

Wouldn’t you love to have a grandfather who could write such letters?  The importance of and thankfulness for a close-knit family is something Nicolson mentions throughout his life, whether he is thinking about his relationship with his parents, with his wife (Vita Sackville-West), or with his two sons and, eventually, their children.  It was so nice to read an interview with Juliet Nicolson and hear how fondly she remembers him.

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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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I was fifteen years old the first time I read Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon.  I have lost track of how many times I have reread it since then but that first reading stands out in my memory.  We were studying Pride and Prejudice and, though it wasn’t my first encounter with Austen, I suddenly wanted to read everything about her that I could get my hands on.  So, not knowing that Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen really isn’t about reading Jane Austen, I picked up Weldon’s 1984 epistolary guide to writing and literature.

In it, Weldon writes letters to a fictitious niece who is quarreling with her parents, conducting messy love affairs at university, and dreaming of becoming an author, like her aunt.  Alice, forced to study Austen for one of her English courses, cannot see dear Jane’s appeal and so Aunt Fay takes up her pen to come to Miss Austen’s defense.  In doing so, she gives her niece some insight in Austen’s life and times as well as her works but mostly Weldon shares what it means to be a reader and a writer – the two are of equal importance:

You must read, Alice, before it’s too late.  You must fill your mind with the invented images of the past: the more the better.  Literary images of Beowulf, and The Wife of Bath, and Falstaff and Sweet Amaryllis in the Shade, and Elizabeth Bennet, and the Girl in the Green Hat – and Rabbit Hazel of Watership Down, if you must.  These images, apart from anything else, will help you put the two and twos of life together, and the more images your mind retains, the more wonderful will be the star-studded canopy of experience beneath which you, poor primitive creature that you are, will shelter: the nearer you will creep to the great blazing beacon of the Idea which animates us all.

I don’t always (or even frequently) agree with Weldon’s opinions, or even her presentation of historical facts, but that is not important.  Aunt Fay isn’t meant to be strictly obeyed; Alice certainly goes her own way over the course of the book, ignoring her Aunt’s advice and profiting greatly.  But what keeps me coming back and reading this year after year is the passionate way in which Weldon expresses her love of literature and what she calls the “City of Invention”, that “celestial city of the imagination”:

Truly, Alice, books are wonderful things: to sit alone in a room and laugh and cry, because you are reading, and still be safe when you close the book; and having finished it, discover you are changed, yet unchanged.  To be able to visit the City of Invention at will, depart at will – that is all, really, education is about, should be about.

That is it exactly.

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