Charlotte Bingham’s “Coronet among the Weeds” & Celia Brayfield’s “Rebel Writers”

Are you looking for a fascinating read?  I recommend Celia Brayfield’s Rebel Writers:  The Accidental Feminists, an astute study of seven  writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s,  Shelagh Delaney, Edna O’Brien, Lynne Reid Banks, Nell Dunn, Charlotte Bingham, and Virginia Ironside, and Margaret Forster.   In their groundbreaking early work, these women questioned assumptions about sex, class, work, female friendships, and marriage. Brayfield says this spontaneous women’s literary “movement” is parallel to the “Angry Young Men” (Kinglsey Amis, John Osborne, John Brayne, Alan Sillitoe, etc.).  And I have gobbled Brayfield’s delightful book like a cookie, because I am a great fan of five of the seven writers.

I was also lucky to find a copy of Charlotte Bingham’s charming coming-of-age novel, Coronet among the Weeds, published in 1963 when she was 20.  This autobiographical novel was billed as an autobiography when it was first published.

I thoroughly enjoyed it:  it’s like Nancy Mitford meets Dodie Smith and J. D. Salinger.  Like Charlotte, the narrator of Coronet is the daughter of an impoverished lord and a playwright mother.  

She doesn’t worry about the future, but her parents do:  she is too busy with droll observations of people and dissecting society and class.  Some of her friends want to marry and are very romantic, but Charlotte is holding out for a “superman.” She  divides the men she knows into three types:  weeds, drips, and leches.  The only superman she knows is an actor, who, alas, is older and has other commitments.

Meanwhile, she unenthusiastically dances with “weeds” (the dull chinless men she knows), enjoys a year in Paris after leaving convent school,  becomes a Beatnik in London (she finds it boring), then a deb (just as boring), and then a secretary (hardly fulfilling for a bad typist). She worries about being fat and having no chin–typical!–and at one party wakes up in a closet and crawls out into a darkened bedroom full of couples making out, while her friend has already put on her face cream and climbed into bed, ignoring them.  Despite bad parties and horrible jobs, she is buoyant and funny.  “I’ll tell you another corney thing.  I’d like to write a love poem to the whole world.  Really I would.  Sometimes I love it so much I could die.”

Light, bubbly, comical, realistic, cheerful, and occasionally a bit sad.

Here is a delightful quote from Coronet about debs who hide out in the loo.  (Who hasn’t?)

Loos are very important during the season.  I should think they’re practically the most important bit of the season for some girls.  I know one girl who did her whole season in the loo.  She used to take this small edition of War and Peace about with her in her evening bag.  She got through it seven times in one season.  She was quite a slow reader.  Migo had a copy of Gone with the Wind she hid in the Dorchester loo.  There were a terrible lot of dances at the Worcester, so she just curled up with it till it was time to go home.  They couldn’t go home straight after dinner because their mothers would be furious and say they were failures.  It’s one thing to be a failure.  But it’s a hell if your mother keeps telling you.  And some of them could go on for hours.

The Future of Education: Why Is It Trendy to Trash the Classics?

Although I am trying to be peaceful and positive— avoiding the crowd, steering clear of argument, making chitchat for the greater good, bicycling to save a devastated planet—I have decided to respond to an irresponsible, depressing article published at the Millennial blog, Book Riot“When You Hate the Classics, But You’re an English Teacher.” 

First, let me say I have known many splendid, well-read English teachers.  And yet I have been appalled by others who have not cracked a classic since college.

The writer Lily Dunn may well be of the latter persuasion.  She begins, “Hello, my name is Lily and I hate the Classics. Also, I am an English teacher.”

She writes,

I know what you’re thinking.…but wouldn’t it be more hypocritical if I made my students read books I pretended to love while secretly wishing I could bring the dead author back to life just to tell him (it’s usually a him) how overrated he is? 

Indeed, Dunn is an equal-opportunity enemy of the classics: she spares neither sex in her ravings.  She despises Hawthorne’s The  Scarlet Letter, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Melville’s Moby Dick,  Mark Twain (she finds the dialect too challenging), Joyce’s Ulysses, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  

One does wonder if she has finished  any of these books.  She writes of her loathing of Thomas Hardy, “I can’t expect a 17th century author to be all woke.”  Can’t you imagine her professor writing gently in the margin, “Victorian”? 

I am sure Book Riot has some talented, bright contributors who could have written a thoughtful essay about the classics.

When you click on Dunn’s bio, you will discover that she is not a high school English literature teacher, as she implies, but a literacy teacher in Hong Kong.   

Whew!

Visiting the Charles Dickens Museum and Revisiting “Great Expectations”

The Charles Dickens Museum

I traveled to London last month to visit the Dickens Museum.

Very, very foolish, I know. Even with a cut-rate deal on a flight, no American flies to London to visit the Charles Dickens Museum.  

Still, I felt exhilarated as I walked briskly through the Holborn district to 48  Doughty Street, where Dickens lived from 1837 to 1839.   After buying a ticket, I euphorically explored the Georgian house, using the self-guided tour pamphlet.  The dim autumn light poured through the windows,  and it was easy to imagine Dickens returning from one of his 10-mile walks on a cool day and picking up his pen. The museumgoers all had the look of Victorian guests, albeit in modern slacks and jacket, eager to listen to Dickens read aloud in the drawing room from his manuscripts, which he reputedly did.

The Dickens Museum is both authentic and commercial: the perfect blend, honestly, for museumgoers with different tastes.  In the dining room, the table is set with  plates bearing the names of famous guests,  like Thackeray and John Forster.  The first time I visited, I thought the plates a little corny.  But lo!   This time, I wondered who would dominate the chat at the table.  Would Dickens be in competition with Thackeray? 

Dickens’s desk.

Upstairs,  I looked with awe at the desk where Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and began Barnaby Rudge.  (The desk followed him to other houses:  he wrote all his books on it.) I squinted at first editions and manuscripts in his library.   I admired the desk he designed for his public readings.   And I learned he didn’t cut his hair on his American tour because fans kept asking for locks of hair, and he was nervous about it.

And then I decided to read more Dickens.  I had recently finished Little Dorrit (which I wrote about here).  I considered The Pickwick Papers, but instead picked Great Expectations, a short book I had somehow never returned to.

I wondered, Can I read this in a week? (Yes, because it’s 400-some pages, as opposed to 800-some pages.)  And then I realized, Oh dear, I was doing Internet speak:  conflating the “anxiety” of finishing a  (self-)“challenge” with real anxiety over crucial issues like climate change and war.  The real issue we consider on the internet is, I think, how to get control.  And so the focus is tiny.

And, yes, I finished Great Expectations in a week (by the skin of my teeth!), by reading half of it yesterday.  It is “compactly perfect,” as Shaw said, but, in my view, not the equal of the dark but flamboyant Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.   Dickens needs  room, I think.

Still, Great Expectations is perfectly structured, following two parallel lines of narrative.  The narrator, Pip,  an orphan raised by an abusive older sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her kind but slow-witted blacksmith husband, Joe, is astonished when Miss Havisham, a weird, wealthy old woman who  has never left her cobwebby house since she was jilted, invites him to come over to “play.”  Here, she wears her wedding gown and is raising an orphan girl, Estella, to hate men and hurt them. Of course Pip falls in love with beautiful Estella, who  cannot love Pip—or anyone.  

Illustration of Miss Havisham by Harry Furniss

But something traumatic and much darker, or darker on the surface, happened to Pip when he was very young, sitting in the graveyard contemplating his parents’ tombstones.  (He never met his parents.) An escaped convict named Magwitch accosted him and threatened him with death if he did not bring him food and a file to saw off his manacles. Magwitch, however, has a sense of justice:  when he is caught hours later, he calls out that he himself stole the food and the file, to save Pip from trouble.

Which of these two adults has committed the greater crime?  Miss Havisham or Magwitch? As the novel progresses, we learn more about their histories (which do intersect).   And when Pip is told he has an anonymous patron, who wants to raise him from blacksmith’s apprentice to gentleman, he ascends into hubris.  He does not visit Joe, because he is ashamed of him.  And he assumes that Miss Havisham is the patron and intends him for Estella.  

Pip is annoying and silly, but we all remember foolish things we did when we were young.  And we didn’t inherit a fortune.  

Great Expectations is exciting, suspenseful, and, of course, often comical.  You must read the scene where  Pip and Herbert see a very amateurish production of Hamlet in which an old neighbor of Pip’s plays Hamlet.

Here’s an excerpt:

Several curious little circumstances transpired as the action proceeded. The late king of the country not only appeared to have been troubled with a cough at the time of his decease, but to have taken it with him to the tomb, and to have brought it back. The royal phantom also carried a ghostly manuscript round its truncheon, to which it had the appearance of occasionally referring, and that, too, with an air of anxiety and a tendency to lose the place of reference which were suggestive of a state of mortality. It was this, I conceive, which led to the Shade’s being advised by the gallery to ‘turn over!’ –a recommendation which it took extremely ill.

Dickens is so much fun.

Dreaming in Latin: My Affair with Cicero & Chortling over Ovid

Every autumn I sit under multiple blankets, drinking cups of chai, surrounded by dictionaries, poring over my favorite literature in a foreign language. I swear the comfort of dictionaries—a word can change its meaning entirely when combined in different phrases, in different contexts—makes it possible to escape from the gloom of chilly fall days.  Recently, reading in another language distracted me from my fierce fights with 25-mile-per-hour winds on my bike, and a wish that our leaves would blow into somebody else’s yard.

 Thank God for the charm of languages!  Hipsters read French, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish, travel, and perhaps join the Peace Corps, while nerds read classical languages and often stay home.   Much as I love Latin, you will not get social points for spending the summer reading Statius.  And claiming you dream in Latin is, in my opinion, always going too far. That is not to say that I have not gone far: and yet, one does not want to be a don or a scholar (unless you’re Mary Beard).  A language is more than words: it shapes the culture and the structure of thought.  It is difficult to translate this reality to people who do not know a foreign language. And in the U.S., where we seldom bother to learn other languages, xenophobia grows.

I hide the fact at dinner parties that my  “affair” with  Cicero, a binge-reading of his speeches and letters, turned into a sympathetic imaginary dialogue with this brilliant, annoying, insecure orator.  In a flash,  I understood his character and the politics of the first century B.C. as I had never experienced through reading history.  I flashed on the elaborate networking, the insane politics, the chances Cicero took with prosecuting mobsters:  he wanted political fame so desperately that he wrote letters begging  friends to write the history of his suppression of Catiline’s conspiracy against Rome. 

I see Latin poetry through scrims of different readings and interpretation over the decades.  Is Ovid’s myth of Daphne and Apollo in Metamorphoses humorous or tragic? Is it about unrequited love or rape? Probably both. Cupid shoots the god Apollo with an arrow of love and shoots the nymph Daphne with an arrow of repulsion.  Daphne runs away, and the out-of-shape Apollo chases her,  begging her to run more slowly, promising he will run more slowly, too.  She is dedicated to the chaste goddess Diana, and begs her father, Peneus, the river god, to  save her.  He turns her into a laurel tree, which Apollo obnoxiously claims as his own.

As an undergraduate I scribbled the following irreverent remarks in the margins: 

  • Couldn’t Peneus have done better? Why a tree?
  • Is she a lesbian?  Is that the arrow of repulsion? 
  • Why does Prof think this erotic?  The wreath holds her rumpled hair “without law.”  She  is a mess and prob stinks from running.  Unshaven legs, I’m sure.  A modern feminist.  (N.B. We didn’t often shave our body hair back the.)

I could have garbled on like this forever, but I doubt it went into my paper on Ovid. 

Or perhaps it did. 

Resting Your Eyes: Sir Walter Scott’s “Kenilworth” and D. H. Lawrence’s “Kangaroo”

You mat wonder why I bought this Heritage Press copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth ($3.50).  I haven’t read Scott in years, and I did not particularly want to read it.   The illustrations by Clarke Hutton are charming but that’s not the reason, either.  The thing is, these oversized books have crisp pages and biggish print. After reading a 19th century reference book with small print cover-to-cover, I need to rest my eyes.

Anyway, Kenilworth is billed as a “historical romance.”

“I love ‘hist-roms,’ ” I said to my husband.

“Hist-roms?”

“Jean Plaidy.” He disapproves of Jean Plaidy on account of the covers, but I do enjoy her novels about the Borgias and the Tudors.

Before I started Kenilworth, however, I decided to read some D. H. Lawrence.  I declared not long ago that he is my favorite writer.  So I curled up with  a small red 1960 hardback copy of his 1923 novel Kangaroo, which I bought  for $6.50.

It is not Lawrence at his best.  Last summer I reread Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent and found it silly and surreal.  Well, Kangaroo is more of the same.  In The Plumed Serpent, set in Mexico, Don Ramon, a wealthy Mexican landowner, founds an Aztec cult and claims he is the god Quetzalcoatl:  one of his goals is to drive Christianity out of Mexico.

In Kangaroo, set in Australia, a man named Kangaroo wants ” to be with men who are sons of men, not sons of women.  “Man that is born of woman is sick of himself.  Man that is born of woman is tired of his day after day.  And woman is like a mother with a tiresome child:  what is she to do with him?  What is she to do with him? –man that is born of woman.”

This has been going on for pages now.

And then Kangaroo talks about ant-hills.

“But the men that are born like ants, out of the cold interval, and are womanless, they are not sick of themselves. They are full of cold energy, and they seethe with cold fire in the anthill, making new corridors, new chambers–they alone know what for. And they have cold, formic-acid females, as restless as themselves, and as active about the ant-hill, and as identical with the dried clay of the building. And the active, important, so-called females, and the active, cold-blooded, energetic males, they shift twig after twig, and lay crumb of earth upon crumb of earth, and the females deposit cold white eggs of young. This is the world, and the people of the world. And with their cold, active bodies the ant-men and the ant-women swarm over the face of the earth.”

I love Lawrence, so I will finish this.  But do you see why I need Kenilworth?

Does Voting Matter? One Can But Hope

Do you ever wake up and feel like this?

“Oh no.  No, no, no,” I thought after Bernie Sanders had a heart attack two weeks ago. “If he doesn’t run, I won’t vote.”

I have felt increasingly ambivalent about the power of my vote. That is to say, I feel powerless. I elected precisely two politicians in the last election. The state has gone red, and my vote no longer counts.

I  supported Bernie in the last presidential election, and he is still at the top of the pack, as far as I’m concerned. I agree with his socialist policies:  the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, free college tuition, eliminating college debt and medical debts, and banning advertising during presidential debates.  

The other candidates have made little impression on me.  I can’t see jumping out of bed and running to the polls to vote for liberals with spotty voting records.  And then there’s the image thing.  I think Elizabeth Warren’s PR people made a huge mistake in squandering several thousand dollars on a Facebook ad, in which they posted fake news, in order to show how easily misinformation can be promulgated.  Wouldn’t it have been more effective  to cancel her Facebook page in protest?  It’s not just the fake news problem, it’s the sad fact that people have been seduced to post all their private information at Facebook.  

Bernie

Okay, every candidate has “borrowed” Bernie’s policies for his or her platform, so everyone is all right, right?  But the media are pushing only three of them:  Biden, Warren, and  Bernie.  No one else has been able to climb up from the middle or the bottom of the pack.  And that seems improbable.

I will vote next year, whether I like it or not.  The world is a mess.   I no longer have the option of not voting.  One votes in case it counts.

And I’m relieved Bernie is back:  he will participate in the debate on Tuesday. (Check his voting record:  he does what he says.)

Go, Bernie!