“Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond” by Margaret Oliphant

I am a great fan of the Victorian writer Margaret Oliphant.  Her Carlingford series, set in a country town, is as brilliant as Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  But somehow she doesn’t get her dues. Critics used to complain that Oliphant was too prolific to write well.  Few of her books are in print.

Fortunately for us, Broadview has published a new edition of Oliphant’s superb novella, Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond.   In the introduction, the editor explains that  by the 1930s Oliphant’s work had fallen out of favor.   Her prolificacy was rooted in the need to support her family of three children, a terminally ill husband, her two older brothers, and two nieces and nephews. Both J. M. Barrie and Virginia Woolf regretted Oliphant’s need to be so productive.  In the introduction to a posthumously-published collection of her stories in 1898,  J. M. Barrie wrote with equal parts admiration and condescension about the uneven quality of her books:  “…but whether they would have been greater books had she revised one instead of beginning another is to be doubted.”

In this stunning novella, Oliphant takes on the subject of bigamy. She has written a clever 19th-century retelling of the legend of Rosamond, whom Eleanor of Aquitaine allegedly murdered after learning she was King Henry II’s lover.

The heroine of this novella, of course, is not murderous:  Eleanor Lycett-Landon is a devoted mother of six children, and the supportive wife of an  easygoing, upper-middle-class businessman who works mainly in Liverpool.    Oliphant writes, “She had money enough to help him in his business, and business connections in the West of Scotland (where the finest people have business connections), which helped him still more; and she was a good woman, full of accomplishments and good humour and intelligence.”

And shouldn’t that be enough for any man?

But at the age of 50,  Robert claims the London branch of the company is in trouble.  He spends months in London, seldom coming home to visit. When  Eleanor offers to move the family to London, Robert adamantly refuses.  Eventually,  an old family friend gives Eleanor  a tip: something is amiss, and she must go to London.

As you can imagine, Eleanor’s trip to London with her oldest son, Horace, is devastating.  Imagine a quiet, contented woman discovering that her husband is living with a young wife in the suburbs.  Imagine her experiencing compassion for the young woman.

She is devastated, we are devastated.  But it is not the kind of drama we are used to in the sensation  novels of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. (Excerpts from their novels are quoted in the back of the book.)  It is the subtlety of Oliphant’s writing that most impressed me.

A fascinating novella,  and the material in the back of the book about the reception of the book, bigamy laws, and other versions of the legend is invaluable.

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862), Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

“in celebration of surviving” by Chuck Miller

We’ve been reading Good Poems, selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor, and were thrilled to find “in celebration of surviving,” by Chuck Miller, a  poet who lives in Iowa City.

Chuck Miller

in celebration of surviving
by Chuck Miller

when senselessness has pounded you around on the ropes
and you’re getting too old to hold out for the future
no work and running out of money,
and then you make a try after something that you know you
won’t get
and this long shot comes through on the stretch
in a photo finish of your heart’s trepidation
then for a while
even when the chill factor of these prairie winters puts it at
fifty below
you’re warm and have that old feeling
of being a comer, though belated
in the crazy game of life

standing in the winter night
emptying the garbage and looking at the stars
you realize that although the odds are fantastically against you
when that single January shooting star
flung its wad in the maw of night
it was yours
and though the years are edged with crime and squalor
that second wind, or twenty-third
is coming strong
and for a time
perhaps a very short time
one lives as though in a golden envelope of light

And here’s a brief interview with Chuck Miller on his thoughts on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  (He’s an alumnus.)

Tea or Coffee? Top Five Ways to Alienate the British

APOLOGIES IN ADVANCE TO MY ENGLISH FRIENDS.

Xenophobia thrives on the net. Well, it’s not always chauvinism:  sometimes it is mere mischief. I don’t do social media, so I don’t encounter much hostility. What I detect in comments is often in the mischief category. Sometimes I let it pass, sometimes I delete.  Do you know who is exasperated by my blog?  English bloggers!

Yes, this makes me laugh, too. I am an anglophile. I have taken four trips to London, where I spent my time in awe at Ai Weiwei exhibitions and on self-guided tours written up in my guidebook. Yup, I’ve been to the art museums, the Dickens Museum, Buckingham Palace, strolled in very green parks, shopped at bookstores, eaten fish and chips, and been impressed by the efficiency of Heathrow security. (In Chicago I was patted down for holding a Kleenex!)

In spite of the fact that I venerate English literature,  English bloggers sometimes complain in comments. And that, I conclude, is  because of my flippancy.  So here are the

TOP FIVE WAYS TO ALIENATE THE BRITISH.

  1. Be flippant about Virago Week or Virago Month. I am a Virago fan, but I once wrote, “Every time I turn around it’s Virago Week.” That did not go over well.
  2. Suggest that a line be drawn between marketing and reviewing. English bloggers informed me that of course they were promoting books. Yeah, I knew that.
  3. Write a post about correct usage of indefinite pronouns. Who got angry?  You guessed it, the English.  The U.S. and Canada seem to be on the same page:  many Americans and Canadians added their own pet grammar peeves.
  4. Suggest that Anne is the worst writer of the three Brontes. Wow, what an outpouring! Okay, one American was also angry.
  5. Suggest that the British should “deal with” the fact that Americans are now contenders for the Man Booker Prize. It’s not that I personally like it, it’s that the writers’ petitions and letters have been ignored.
Illustration by Pierre Mornet

So are the English xenophobic? Or am I a xenophobe?  Honestly, at this point, who knows? At least I’m not leaving mean comments at their blogs!

But don’t we all agree that the British writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century are incomparable?

Deal with it!

Do You Keep a Book Journal? & Revisiting “Daniel Deronda”

My five book journals.

On a social media break a few weeks ago, I started musing about book journals.

I kept a journal in a notebook, but I also enjoyed a Goodreads account.  Goodreads is fun but, well, there’s too much data.  Did my “friends”  (whom I don’t know at all!) really want to know the percentage of an e-book I’d read, or that I’d voted in the Goodreads Choice Awards?   Plus I had a TBR list of at least 300 books.  I get carried away.

I’m not a Luddite…  but I decided I prefer paper.  (At least for a while.)

I do love a pretty notebook!

I started my first book journal in 1995 or 1996.  I  read fiftysome books.  It seemed a great number, but meaningless out of context.  So many ephemeral books…  but some great ones, like Wright Morris’s Plains Song.

And then there was a hiatus until the 21st century.

Fast forward to book journal fidelity.  My journal takes the simplest form:  I record the title, author, and the date finished.  I have used a Paperblanks journal, a Moleskine, a Miquelrius, a Nava Notes, and something offbrand from Walmart.

I enjoy looking  at the journals.  In the first decade of the 21st century, I read Trollope and middlebrow novels by Pamela Hansford Johnson, Dodie Smith,  Hugh Walpole, and Rose Macaulay.  Many of these “forgotten” writers are back in print now.

But when I asked a friend, Didn’t she find it strange I had finished 174 books?, she said, “What’s strange is that you keep track.”

Keeping the book journal may have been the most normal thing that year.  The feat of reading 174 books reflected a high boredom index. Very high.  I love to read, but I’d felt exhausted all year.  Turned out I had a health problem.  Wouldn’t you know?

Still, it is satisfying to look back at that long, long list. Two of my favorites were Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife 49’ and Joyce Dennys’s Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front, 1939-1942. The former is a fascinating diary written by Nella Last for the Mass Observation Archive in England;  the latter a charming novel in the form of the heroine Henrietta’s letters to a friend during the war.  (It’s a bit like Diary of a Provincial Lady, only epistolary.)

My reading has changed in the last few years. I’ve become a damned scholar. All right, I’m joking.  I’m an enthusiast.  But I do read more classics.  Read enough long books and you don’t have the embarrassment of reading 174 books.  This year I’m down to 138.  That’s a LOT of books, but not ridiculous.

How do you feel about electronic data vs. notebooks?

REVISITING GEORGE ELIOT’S DANIEL DERONDA.  In December I reread Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s last novel.  In this strange novel, Eliot inverts the myth of Diana and Actaeon, and describes a man’s search for identity and his study of Judaism.

At my blog Mirabile Dictu, I wrote last year:

The heroine of Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen Harleth, is a spoiled, haughty young woman who marries the wrong man. Gwendolen is over-confident, beautiful, witty, snobbish, and rather lazy, and very much reminds me of Austen’s Emma. Gwendolen is accomplished, but she could be more accomplished if she practiced or studied.  She wins a golden star at an archery contest, but the golden arrow goes to someone else. She is a pleasing singer but hasn’t practiced enough to be proficient. She is a Diana, a chaste huntress, who rides to hounds wildly, and at first seems as cruel and powerful as Diana.  When her male escort falls from his inadequate mount and strains his shoulder, she appallingly thinks it funny and has no sympathy. She does not want to marry, and dreams of doing something great. But her mother loses her money, and Gwendolyn must give up her dreams. She marries the wealthy Grandcourt beause she thinks she will be able to control him–but it is the sadistic Grandcourt who controls her.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Numerical Madness and an Insanely Good Book

On the last day of 2018, my husband was downcast about the Goodreads challenge.  Writers and bloggers were yakking online about the impossibility of meeting their goals.  And now our breakfast conversation mirrored online madness.

“I’m two books short,” he said.

I almost spat out my oatmeal. I’m the pop culture one, he’s the intellectual.   This was all my fault.  I’d told him about the Goodreads challenge. “Well, the whole thing is kind of dumb, isn’t it?”  And I confessed I’d canceled my Goodreads account.

“Now you tell me!”

Well, we soon recovered our sense of humor,  and I accumulated a pile of short humor books he could power through.  But he didn’t bother.

I did the Goodreads challenge for two years, and then I went rogue.  In some ways, I fear the numerical challenge represents the ultimate American loneliness.  Spend enough time online and you get the idea that reading is about speed and pages per hour, not satisfaction or bliss or language or vital information. There is no distinction between the demands of poetry and  romance novels, picture books and philosophical treatises.  Some of us read 1,000-page Victorian novels, others  Y.A. books; yet all are equal in the Goodreads challenge.  Stats up!

AN INSANELY GOOD BOOK.  I am devouring Stuart Nadel’s novel, The Inseparables.  I have had it on the shelf a couple of years, and I finally decided on a whim to begin it on New Year’s Day.  Such a good call!  Nadel, who won a 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation, has written an elegant, entertaining book about three generations of women trying to navigate a society hostile to women’s sexuality.  Henrietta Oliphant, a recent widow, is the feminist author of a popular novel about a woman’s sexual exploits, The Inseparables, which was trashed by the critics when it was published in the 1970s.  Henrietta, who taught women’s studies in New York before she and her husband moved to Massachusetts, has been ashamed of the book for years.  But since she is financially strapped, she has allowed the publisher to reissue it for an anniversary (in its original pink cover, no less).  And subsequent generations are  fascinated by the book, including her daughter Oona, an orpthopedic trauma surgeon who is in the process of getting a divorce and has moved back home, and her granddaughter Lydia, suspended from boarding school after a boy posted a nude photo of her on the internet.

The characterizations are superb and I am thoroughly enjoying this book!

Happy New Year! My Favorite Books of the Year

You wonder, What’s next?  She has already listed her Favorite New Books of 2018 and written about her Year in Reading.

Well, here is a list of my Favorite Old, Older, and Very Old Books of the Year.

1.  East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  I have never been a fan of Steinbeck–too much The Pearl and Grapes of Wrath in school–but  I fell in love with East of Eden, one of the best novels I’ve read in my life.   The fascinating characters are from two very different families, the wealthy Trasks, whose father made a fortune but tormented his two sons and two wives, and the Hamiltons, an impoverished but happy family living on a poor farm: Samuel Hamilton, an  inventor, his strict but fair wife, Liza,  and nine children.    Both families struggle against the horrified knowledge of sociopaths and murderers, especially the unhappy Adam Trask, who must work especially hard to overcome the misery of his murderous wife’s deceptions.  In many ways it’s a modern Genesis, with a frightening take on Adam and Eve.  The description at Goodreads says:  “Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.”

2.  Maureen Howard’s The Rags of Time, an American woman’s Ulysses, and the last in Howard’s quartet of novels on the seasons.  There are many references to Howard’s memoir, Facts of Life. Her double, Mimi, an 80-year-old writer , reflects on American history, personal history, and  the design of Central Park.  She and her husband also muse on the new take on American holidays like Columbus Day.  Some of the chapters retell Columbus’s stories: Mimi has done research in Italy and even quotes from Columbus’s journals.  In addition to writing about historical characters, Howard interweaves stories of characters from the first three novels in the quartet.  A difficult novel, but absolutely gorgeous.

3. The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis.  Ellis’s extraordinary novel 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, asking her to take in a postulant who doesn’t quite fit in with the nuns.   A heterogeneous group of characters surround Aunt Irene.  There is her nephew, Kyril, a gorgeous but nasty young man she has indulged from childhood; 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.  And then  the magical Valentine, who has disturbed the Mother Superior, arrives.

4.  Procopius’s The Secret History reads just like a novel. Best-known as the author of two histories which celebrate the achievements of the eastern Roman emperor Justinian, Procopius did a complete reversal in this gossipy little book. Was this page-turner in the literary form of a Greek invective an articulation of what he really thought, or was it written because he changed his mind? The translator of the Penguin edition, Peter Sarris, explores the possibilities.  He  writes in the introduction, “…Procopius comes across as an extraordinarily creative author who was able to take the inherited literary forms of antiquity and rearrange, recombine and reappropriate them in ways that look novel.”

5.  Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.  What can I say?  It is one of my favorite novels ever.  I posted about it here.

6.  Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel.  She won the Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Stories in 1970, but my favorite is The Catherine Wheel.   Brace yourself: the heroine of The Catherine Wheel is a well-bred spinster, with more than a  dash of Miss Havisham and Cousin Bette in her personality.  And Katharine has a secret:  she is having an affair with her cousin Maeve’s husband, John Shipley, the man she has loved since her teens. And all these years she has been furious that he preferred the insipidity of  Maeve to her brilliance.  The effect on John’s children, who stay with her every summer, is chilling.  As complicated as a book by Henry James.

7.  Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? is one of those novels which critics name-drop but no common reader ever reads. I was utterly entranced by this complex political novel about radicals who experiment with co-ops and free love. The Russian politics reminded me of America in the 1960s and ’70s.

8.  Queen of Hearts by Susan Richards Shreve.  What can I say?  It’s one of my favorite books. If Scheherazade were cast as the heroine of a contemporary novel, she might be a lot like Francesca Woodbine, the pop singer with second sight who stars in Susan Richards Shreve’s enchanting novel.  But Francesca is no ordinary pop singer. It takes an artist as intuitive as she to penetrate “the secret lives of ordinary people.” Thwarted composers, teenage Don Juans, would-be snake charmers, and lion tamers range the streets of her seemingly humdrum hometown in the guise of housewives, sexy boys, harmless booksellers, and cat lovers. In her songs, Francesca unveils their hidden passions and crimes.  Like her fortuneteller grandmother, Francesca is reported to have second sight, yet her insights are equally rooted in her own violent secrets. A fantastic novel!  Out-of-print, though.

9.  The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett.  Bennett’s masterpiece centers on two sisters, Constance, who inherits the family drapery shop in Bursely, one of Bennett’s “Five Towns” and Sophia, who moves to Paris and first runs a boarding house and then a hotel.  It begins in the 1860s, and follows the lives of the Baines sisters from their teens till death.  Bennett brilliantly divides the book into four different chronological tales, beginning with the sisters’ roots in Book I,  called “Mrs. Baines” (who is their mother); Book II, “Constance,” and Book III, “Sophia,” detail  their work and relationships through middle age;  and Book IV, “What Life Is,” their old age and deaths.

10.  An After-Dinner’s Sleep by Stanley Middleton.  Middleton won the Booker Prize for The Holiday in 1974.  His remarkable 1986 novel, An After-Dinner’s Sleep, is compelling in a buttoned-up Anita Brookner fashion. The protagonist, Alistair Murray, a 65-year-old widower, has a lot of time on his hands.  He loves music and plays Bach on the piano, reads widely, and takes long walks.  He is a retired Director of Education who was once a powerful man in the Midlands. Now he must shape his days by routine activities.  And he is sitting alone one night when Eleanor Franks, with whom he had a brief sexual affair years ago, shows up at his house.  You’ll want to read on about their surprising on-again, off-again friendship.

And now on to a new year of reading…

Why You Don’t Want to Know People in the News

You don’t want to know the people in the headlines:  people are not the heroes or villains you read about in the news.

This year I recognized the name of a former student.   There she was in a photograph dramatically accusing someone of sexual harassment.  I said with disbelief to my husband, “Is that Bunny?”*  Sure enough, it was.

Her accusation was plausible, and I felt compassion. l remembered her as a genial girl, a bright, if not brilliant, student. From the little I knew of the students’ social lives– English teachers, appalled by their essays, gossiped about their precociousness and promiscuity–the incident she described could have happened.

In my own school days I would have avoided Bunny, though. Popular girls could be kind one day, vicious the next.   And Bunny needed attention.  She needed to be the center of attention.

One day Bunny came up after class and accused a new student of cheating.  The new girl was smart in a quiet way, and her grades were good. I told Bunny she was mistaken.  I’d sat on my desk and had a clear view of the front of the room where the new girl sat, eyes on her test.   But Bunny reported her to the administration.  I  assured the principal and the counselor that the girl had not cheated. I called the girl’s mother and said she had not cheated.   Yet she was called in front of some student council to be sentenced—to what I don’t know. But I had forgotten the incident entirely until I read the news about Bunny.

What am I to think all these years later? Bunny is an adult now.  Doubtless she has endured sadness and grief. And carried away by the #metoo movement, she probably did not anticipate negative news coverage.

When you have even a slight acquaintance with someone, you realize he or she is not the hero or villain you read about. It’s complicated. It’s difficult to know what direction his or her life has taken.  It’s just a story.  And after a while nobody really cares.

*I have changed her name.