An Alice Thomas Ellis Revival: Rereading “The 27th Kingdom”

I am planning an Alice Thomas Ellis revival this holiday. This means I will prominently hold one of her novels whenever I walk in front of the football game.  Since I am known as a reader—and some people annoyingly introduce me as “She-reads-a-lot”—I may mention Ellis over dessert.

Ellis’s extraordinary novel The 27th Kingdom was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1982.  Set in Chelsea in 1954, this witty, whimsical novel opens with the bohemian heroine, Aunt Irene (pronounced Irina and known by all as “Aunt Irene”), reading a letter from her sister, the Mother Superior of a convent.  She wants Irene to take in a postulant who doesn’t quite fit in with the nuns.

I must say I chortled as I read Irene’s reaction to her sister.

She read her letter again, and because it made her cross she ate another piece of toast, reflecting that it was always one’s family who annoyed one most and made one fat. Simply that her sister was now called “Reverend Mother” made Aunt Irene cross and inclined to put too much butter on her toast.

Every line is imbued with Ellis’s wit and brilliant insights. Her characters are often uncomfortably flawed, but accepted by Aunt Irene.  When Aunt Irene asks her beautiful but vicious nephew, Kyril,  to read the letter, he can’t be bothered.  He carelessly tells her to say No if she doesn’t want the girl, but  Aunt Irene, a Roman Catholic, has a sense of duty.  And she is exasperated with Kyril, whom she  knows she has indulged to the point of provocation and danger, but she loves his beauty too much to deny him anything.

A heterogeneous group of characters surround Aunt Irene.  There is Mrs. Mason, the spiteful cleaning woman who is the wife of an abusive alcoholic; shrewd, savvy working-class Mrs. O’Connor and her son Victor, who deals shadily in beautiful objects whose provenance is doubtful; and Mr. Sirocco, the mousy lodger who simply won’t leave. He is one of Kyril’s friends, perhaps a former lover.

Then the magical Valentine, who has disturbed the Mother Superior, arrives.  She is a fascinating  character, gorgeous, black, mysterious, and from a faraway island. She  has magic abilities, and  Aunt Irene wants to “touch her like a talisman.”  What upset the Mother Superior–Valentine’s talent for miracles- is a saving grace in Chelsea.   Valentine in part symbolizes the conflict between the Roman Catholic tradition of miracles and the new realism and drabness of faith in the 20th century.   (This is one of Ellis’s concerns in her essays.)

There is also a mystery.  The tax collector is after Aunt Irene and she gets phone calls from a heavy breather.  There is a sense of danger throughout the novel.

This strange book is entertaining and enigmatic, with elements of magic realism.  If I knew more Catholic church history, I would doubtless appreciate it more.  She is one of the best English writers of the 20th century, yet most of her books are out-of-print.  She deserves a revival.

A Month of Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit”

For over a month now, I have been lugging Martin Chuzzlewit around in my  bag. That’s me, sitting in the theater lobby reading Dickens and wondering if Marnie will ever end. (It’s the Met Live in HD at a local theater.) But to be honest, it’s a roll of the dice which bores me more, Martin Chuzzlewit or Marnie.

I am a great fan of Dickens, and I adored rereading  Bleak House this fall.  But instead of reading Martin Chuzzlewit straight through, I keep setting it aside for other books. As a result I have read a lot of light fiction this month, including E. M. Delafield’s The Way Things Are, an undistinguished novel about a disenchanted housewife, and Kate Carlisle’s bibliophile mystery, Once upon a Spine (don’t bother!).  Not that I didn’t enjoy these books, but talk about mediocre!

On Oct. 28 I wrote in my journal:

Am making progress in Martin Chuzzlewit. Love the Pecksniffs! They’re so horrible, but really funny. Martin’s adventures in America, however, are dull, though he does get scammed and buys land in Eden, which turns out to be a swamp. Wow, the American values ARE SO BAD. I did know Dickens hated his tour of America. I didn’t remember Martin as so unlikable, but the Chuzzlewits and their relatives the Pecksniffs are all NO GOOD in different ways.

And since Oct. 28…nothing!

I have so many complaints about this excellently-written, weird book. First, the heft of it! The edition I’m reading: 839 pages. Not as long as Bleak House, but it seems longer. And I have to wrestle it it out of my handbag before I can get to my money, brush, memo pad, British Library pen, or trail mix. So whether I am at Dillard’s or Walmart, it is a huge production. “What a big book!” people say in a sprightly way.

(I silently raise my eyebrows.)

Perhaps Martin Chuzzlewit was unpopular in its day (and none too pop now) for a reason. There is no real plot, and the character sketeches don’t really hang together. The good characters are much less interesting than the wicked.  I can take the Pecksniffs–and the affected daughters are eventually radicalized by learning the secrets of the Pecksniff men– but every time I read a scene about the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Assurance Company, I tune out. Who could find that funny?

At its worst, there are beautifully weird sentences.  But I am not enjoying it, and can’t wait to finish.

The weird thing is that I enjoyed MC on a camping trip in the ’90s.  That’s probably because there was nothing else to do while shivering on a rocky beach on Lake Superior.

How the Internet Ruined Jane Austen

The internet ruined  Jane Austen.

It has ruined:  attention spans, rock album playlists (I’m sure the songs on albums were deliberately arranged in a certain order), newspapers, book reviews, and respect for expertise.  That’s what happens when you depend on Facebook.

I’m  not exaggerating about Austen.  When I first got wifi, I joined a Janeites group.

Fanny Price (Billie Piper) and Henry Crawford (Joseph Beattie) in TV movie “Mansfield Park”

And what a long, strange trip that was.  Though there are many brilliant fans and scholars in the group, some read Austen like Georgette Heyer.  I was never crazy about Mr. Darcy, but all romance fans “heart” Mr. Darcy.  Mind you, I’m not a fan of Austen’s heroes anyway.  My favorite is the immoral Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park.  I know he’d  make a horrible husband, but I can’t help it:  he’s so much fun!

My real problem is not with Mr. Darcy, though.  It’s with the more literal readings of Emma, my favorite Austen.

I fell in love with Emma in college.   The 19th-century lit professor dismissed a timid student who asked why we weren’t doing Pride and Prejudice:  “It is so much done.”  She was right, though we hadn’t done it much!

And we all loved Emma.  She is witty and her misconceptions are hilarious.   Though the marriage plot is in earnest, as always, Emma is more independent than most of Austen’s heroines.  She is handsome, clever, and rich, as Austen says in the first sentence, and since she doesn’t have to marry, she can do as she likes.

The professor thought Austen was a  horrible snob and couldn’t see any satire in the book.  I find Emma comical from beginning to end:  Emma’s kindness to her ridiculous but sweet valetudinarian father, her conviction that her friend Harriet must be the bastard daughter of a well-connected gentleman, thinking Mr. Elton is in love with Harriet rather than with herself, and complete misunderstanding of the characters of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.

I am not saying my reading of Emma is the “right” one.  Even Jane Austen wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”  Yes, Emma has faults but I can’t imagine  thinking her malicious, as some Janeites do.  She is conceited, often mistaken, and gossips like most young women, but becomes a nicer person by the end of the book.  So why the wrath?

For a few years after reading the Janeites posts, I  could not read Austen.  And the 200th anniversary of her death in 2017 was so much written about in both professional and amateur publications that I overdosed on Austen.  (I now limit the number of online publications I read, because, what am I, a media critic?)

Austen and I recently got back together, now that I’ve had a break from the internet.  She is the greatest writer, well, except for Charlotte Bronte maybe.

So perhaps I’ll read Austen as my women’s fiction this Thanksgiving. Nothing like reading a good book while the guys are watching football…

Thanksgiving Prep in the Tiny Kitchen

There is no stress on my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving: no gifts, no (or little) disappointment about the holiday, no crying into the Scotch afterwards. It’s all about having dinner at your house, so you can act like a control freak and shoo everyone out of the kitchen.

Our kitchen is the tiniest in the world. There is no room for holiday helpers. I can’t imagine what they were thinking  in the 1920s when they built this house. Were they thinking, A servant will do all the cooking? Were they thinking, Let’s make this the most uncomfortable place for women?  The refrigerator is miniature because it has to fit under a low built-in cupboard. It is really too tiny to hold a week’s worth of food.  Every time you take out the broccoli several apples fall out, sometimes on your head. “I AM NEVER EATING AN APPLE AGAIN.” I had this conversation with an apple!

There is also little counter space. You can’t make eggplant parmesan unless you assemble it on the floor. As I recall, not only does one chop eggplant but one also grates cheese, dips the eggplant in bread crumbs and milk, and makes a tomato sauce. The bread crumbs fall off the eggplant despite the milk. And so I rarely make anything that requires more than two bowls and one pan.

I like Thanksgiving dinner. Roasting turkey is no stress—put the bird in a pan and baste—but I can no longer deal with poultry. (I’m a vegetarian who used to make holiday exceptions.)  So this year I’ve decided to have all the fixin’s sans turkey. There must be a fabulous substitute for turkey I can pick up at the market!   Any suggestions?

There are good things about Thanksgiving and bad things. The greatest thing: my husband is finally out of his sling! (A car turned into the bike lane and hit him a couple of months ago.) Another good thing: I have banned a truly horrible relative from my house.

Do you have any truly horrible relatives? Can they compete with mine? The last time we saw the Most Horrible Relative, he informed us he could only stay an hour because he was using us as a beard so he could meet some woman. I have never been so furious. Should I have told his wife?  I decided it was not my business.  But I will certainly never see him again!

The other great thing about Thanksgiving: I get to read women’s fiction! In the past I have read Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls while basting the turkey. What will I read this year? Something truly pop and sensational, I hope. Nothing comes to mind at the moment…

There are only two  bad things about Thanksgiving: it’s way too early this year (Nov 22), and it’s going to rain!

Was Helen Enamored or Abducted?

Who exactly was Helen?

Some poets portray Helen as a slut, others as a victim of rape. The usual story is: she committed adultery with Paris, a Trojan prince, and ran away from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta.  Helen, not Paris, is considered the cause of the Trojan War. It’s a pre-feminist thing.  But Homer is sympathetic: in the Iliad, Helen feels her disgrace deeply, and the Greek tragedians vary, with Euripides portraying her differently in two different plays. Modern writers similarly struggle with her character.

In Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls, the Iliad is retold from a woman’s point of view.  The narrator, Briseis, a princess enslaved by the Greeks during the Trojan war, does not have a voice in her fate. She is assigned first as a chattel to Achilles, then to Agamemnon. She is raped by both: the best she can say of Achilles is that he is quick, and she suffers  extreme violence at the hands of Agamemnon.

Surprisingly, Helen, a friend of Briseis, and also a friend of King Priam, does have a voice. She is much hated by the Trojans, but she retains her dignity, boldly observing the battles from the ramparts, and  painting the war scenes in her room:  she is a talented artist.   One day, Helen and Briseis walked through the marketplace with only one maid, and Briseis is surprised by her daring.

…she said, “Well, why not?” There was no point in her worrying what people might think. The Trojan women—“the ladies,” as she always called them—couldn’t think any worse of her than they did already, and as for the men . . . We-ell, she had a pretty good idea what they were thinking—the same thing they’d been thinking since she was ten years old. Oh, yes, I got that story too. Poor Helen, raped on a river bank when she was only ten. Of course I believed her. It was quite a shock to me, later, to realize nobody else did.

I am particularly interested in the portrayal of Helen in Roman classics.  Among Roman poets, Ovid is perhaps most sympathetic. Though not a feminist, he portrayed many strong women, especially in Amores, a collection of elegies about love. And I recently read Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of poems in the form of letters between mythological lovers. The correspondence between Paris, portrayed as an attractive dum-dum prince, and Helen, a smart, flirtatious queen with a sense of decorum, is extraordinarily vivid. Helen  declines his invitation to run away to Troy: she cannot be bribed with the gifts, and she wonders what could possibly have given him hope of tori (bed, or if we’re prim, the marriage bed).  Helen asks, “Was it because Theseus took me by force? Once abducted, do I seem twice to deserve rape?”

She goes on to say she returned unharmed except for a few stolen kisses from Theseus.  And Theseus apologized. She asks, “Did Theseus repent so that Paris might succeed him, and my name be always on men’s lips?”

Helen, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

She tells him bawdily how attractive she finds him, and teases him about their flirtation at a dinner party.  If only they had met earlier…but being a king’s wife is not to be taken lightly.  Menelaus went away on business, leaving Helen as hostess.  But she points out that if she left Menelaus there would be war, and that Paris is a beauty, made for love not war.

Helen has said no.

Whether Paris persuades her or abducts her is not treated in the poem. But I have never read a more sympathetic portrayal of Helen.

What We Learned from Our Mothers & 10 Books about Aging

Gray Panthers

“Would you like to learn to knit?” I asked when my mother unwillingly moved into a nursing home.

“No.” She gave me a hostile look.

I felt maternal toward her. What was I thinking? Now that she had health problems, now that I had watched her shrink from a size 12 to size 2, now that I’d rolled her in the movie theater’s wheelchair out to a taxi after she got ill at Bridesmaids (the last film she saw in a theater), I thought I should counsel her. Just as she had encouraged me long ago to go to Paper Doll, a junior high dance at the Recreation Center, I felt she should try some new activities. Just as I’d been miserable at Paper Doll—my rebellious friends and I wore cute miniskirts and big hats but were not asked to dance—so my mother hated the idea of wielding knitting needles and yarn.

I wished she would leave her room more, but the activities were lame, I admit: doing jigsaw puzzles, making your own sundaes, and selling handmade crafts. “Who would want a bead bracelet?” Mother hooted. She explained that you never feel old, that you remain the same person, only eventually have health problems. And I remembered the Gray Panthers, founded by Abbie Kuhn in 1970, a group of activists who lobbied  for nursing-home reform, the creation of a government-subsidized, single-payer national health insurance program, and against mandatory retirement age.

I do not yet belong to the AARP. They’ve been sending info since my forties. A friend joined in her fifties and got discounts at hotels. But my husband shudders over the idea of the AARP.

Mother loved the AARP discounts. “But then nobody can believe how old I am.”

As old age approaches, it is good to be vain. “We look great,” Mother said. Of course!  Our Bodies, Ourselves!  One day, while grooming herself in a hand mirror, she pulled back her face with her fingers and said, “See how much better I’d look.” “No, you look perfect.”

Of course we are shocked to see friends age.  When my mother’s most popular friend visited, I was surprised by her drooping face and posture. One minute of conversation and i’d forgotten it. “Do I look beautiful? I just had my hair done.” And she invited me to have dinner in the hospital cafeteria.  Finally I was a popular girl!

It’s not that I like aging or look forward to old age, but we will remain exactly the same people.  Let’s hope the Gray Panthers have luck  in making our lives better.

And here are 10 great books aging, with links to Goodreads pages.

  1. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age.  A study of aging over 1,000 years.
  2.  Doris Lessing’s Love, Again.  A novel about a 65-year-old woman who falls in love during the production of a play.
  3. Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn.  A novel about four old people who work in an office and what happens when they retire.
  4. Florida Maxwell-Scott’s The Measure of My Days.  Am 86-year-old Jungian analyst on the experience of aging.
  5. Cicero’s On Old Age (De Senectute).  The Roman orator’s philosophical treatise on old age.
  6. Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing. A collection of humor pieces and essays.
  7.  Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. Heilbrun is a scholar but you may know her as Amanda Cross, the pseudonym under which she wrote the Kate Fansler mysteries.
  8. Kingsley Amis’s Ending up.  An outrageous novel about a group of aged friends.
  9. Mary Wesley’s Jumping the Queue.  An elderly widow is about to commit suicide, but when she encounters a young man about to kill himself in the same spot, she saves him and changes her mind, too.
  10. Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises.  A brilliant novel about the fates of different characters as they face old age.

Do let me know other favorite books about aging!

Against Anxiety: Beat Your Reading Slump with Three Fun Tomes

In all probability, the “reading slump” was invented by a non-reader. “I can’t read Proust, baby;  I’m in a reading slump.”  Someone must have tweeted it, and then everybody had the syndrome.  Pity the poor person with retro-major depression.

Here’s what we know:  honey,  you’re not in a reading slump.  You are (a) lazy, (b) anxious and depressed, or (c) having a full-fledged nervous breakdown.  The reading slump is not in the DSM!

At the hospital I don’t read Proust.  I sit beside my husband’s bed, trying to persuade him to sit on it. He is on the floor picking up the phone charger he dropped.   And he wants to go to the Starbucks down the hall, though his robe is untied–he can’t use one of his arms–and he has no money.  I rush out and stand in a long, long line to get us coffee and tea.  When I get back, he’s pacing.

It is hard to get much reading done, period, because people are in and out of the hospital room.  Blood pressure, menus, the whole bit.  Between trying to get him to take it easy and my own selfish existential crisis (I never knew his existence was fragile!),  I metaphorically chewed my fingernails,

He’s almost cured–a few more weeks, they think–and now everything is back to normal.  But I’ve done a lot of escape readings, and here are three fun books to help you beat anxiety, though I shall never call it a reading slump!

1. Daphne du Maurier’s The Parasites. Yes, du Maurier’s Rebecca is a classic, but The Parasites is almost equally brilliant.  This fascinating story of three siblings, Maria, an actress, Niall, a songwriter, and mousy Celia, who has a  talent for drawing,  begins on a Sunday in the country when Maria’s husband explodes with rage and calls them parasites. As du Maurier tells the story of the tight-knit talented brother and half-sisters, who are the children of an actress and singer, we have our own opportunity to judge.  Du Maurier narrates the novel in the first-person plural–and we never know quite who  the “we” is!

2.  Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch.  Goudge’s writing is sometimes breathtaking, other times sentimental, and I love her vivid Dickensian characters.  I recently reread The White Witch, a historical novel set in England in the 17th century, during the English civil war between Charles I and the Puritans.  Most of the novel is set in a village temporarily left to its own peaceful ways since the not-very-bright Puritan convert Squire, Robert Haselwood, has gone to war.  In the opening chapters, we meet his cousin  Froniga, who is half-gypsy and a white witch with healing powers and benign spells;   the Haselwood twins, Will, a very ordinary little boy, and his unusually percepitve sister, Jenny; Francis Leland, a traveling artist who paints the twins and is secretly one of the king’s men; Yoben, Froniga’s long-time boyfriend and a gypsy with  a mysterious past; and the eccentric, very wise village priest, so kind he tries to help the black witch in the village, an evil soul who digs up graves and casts obscene spells.  How will they all come together?  This is not her absolute best, but I enjoyed it very much and some people love it.

3. Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America.  This 1971 satire, set in New England, Paris, and Rome in the 1960s, skewers American innocence and hypocrisy, and I think it’s McCarthy’s best work.   You don’t have to know about the 1960s to be amused by her mockery of frozen foods, a pious Thanksgiving abroad (which the hero calls “a harvest fest”), the faux-historicism of New England villages, and tourism in Europe (the protagonist thinks tourists should be licensed to go to art museums).