Madeleine Moments: E. M. Delafield’s “Diary of A Provincial Lady”

I have been productive lately – and it is exhausting. My usual routine comprises reading English or Latin lit, while drinking coffee and listening to my Album of the Month at low volume (Rubber Soul). But this summer I am also making my way through a long, long list of classics. There ARE “Madeleine moments” of bliss in my reading, but quite often it is sweaty work. I cannot fathom why I thought it necessary to read Thucydides, but now I have checked him off the list.

Naturally, I am also relaxing with some favorite books, like Elizabeth Taylor’s superb novel, The Soul of Kindness. Oddly, Taylor’s occasionally bleak novels transport me to a place of comfort. The characters struggle with money, have complicated love affairs, are gorgeous but shallow busybodies, closeted gays in love with the wrong person, old people terrified of the future, and yet the details about domestic English life somehow fascinate and balance the quiet desperation.

I am always on the lookout for English women’s fiction, and so was absolutely delighted to find an essay by Sarah Lonsdale in the TLS (July 9, 2021) about E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. Sarah Lonsdale reports that, while others read War and Peace during lockdown, she enjoyed the six-volume Provincial Lady series.

tAlthough I do not agree with Lonsdale that the narrator of Diary of a Provincial Lady is a liar (she is diplomatic, but fantasizes in her diary about speaking her mind), I was inspired by Lonsdale’s enthusiasm about Delafield’s genius. “I must reread these!” It took an hour, with queries of husband’s knowledge of bookshelves and the use of a flashlight to find the books at the back of a double-shelved shelf.

In a way, reading the TLS was a case of deja vu. In 2005, Cynthia Zarin wrote a lively essay for The New Yorker about Diary of a Provincial Lady. I adored this uproariously funny six-novel series, written in the form of a diary by a middle-class English woman who finds herself at the beck and call of a taciturn anti-social husband, Robert; two precocious children, Robin and Vicky; Mademoiselle, a sensitive French governess; Lady B, the bossy wife of Robert’s employer; and the grumbling cook who blames lumpy porridge on the stove. Household management is somehow very funny, though there is also despair.

I am sure many of you have read these books, but in case you haven’t, here is the opening passage of Cynthia Zarin’s brilliant 2005 essay.

In September of 1925, the English novelist E. M. Delafield, who in private life was known as Mrs. Elizabeth Dashwood, was interviewed by the Western Morning News, Devon’s leading newspaper. The occasion was her appointment, at the age of thirty-five, as the first woman magistrate on the local Cullompton Bench. When the question turned from jurisprudence (Should women justices be required to attend hangings?) to women and fiction, she remarked, “As regards the difference between the male and female point of view in novel writing, I don’t think nowadays there is a great deal in it.” The only distinction remaining, she added, was that women writers lacked a sense of humor. She did not admit it was a lack she shared. Delafield began her career as one of the generation of primarily female writers who appealed to a primarily female audience – the so-called “middlebrow” novelists…. It wasn’t until four years later that she found her metier, in the diaries of a Provincial Lady – a chronicle of the foibles, domestic and otherwise, of an ostensibly ordinary woman – and became one of the most trenchantly funny writers in England.

Are you a fan? I have never cared for Delafield’s other novels, but adore the Provincial Lady series.

Two more in the series.

A Psychedelic Experience: Thucydides & Thackeray

Barry Lyndon (A Stanley Kubrick Film)

It was a psychedelic experience to read Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War and Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon the same week. The pairing is not what I call ideal, but at least the drunken revels of Barry Lyndon temper the graves and gore of Thucydides.

“Twenty-seven years!” I jotted at the bottom of a page of Thucydides. Yes, the war between Athens and Sparta lasted twenty-seven years (431- 404 B.C), and a careful reading might take even longer. Maps have been involved: “Athenian Naval Raids,” “Origins of the Plague; Athenian Raids in the Peloponnesus.” I imagine myself still dragging this book around in my dotage (in 27 years). I am fascinated, however, by Thucydides’ description of the Plague, which he caught and survived. Many were less lucky. “On the one hand, if they were afraid to visit each other, they perished from neglect: indeed, many houses were emptied of inmates for the want of of a nurse: on the other, if they ventured to do so, death was the consequence.”

I was very happy to turn from Thucydides to Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon (or The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.). But, Dear Reader, It is nothing like Vanity Fair, his comic masterpiece. Barry Lyndon is mildly funny, somewhat bawdy, and a relatively fast read at 311 pages in the Oxford edition (349 counting endnotes). It grew on me, after a slow start.

Written in the form of a witty autobiography, boastful Barry Lyndon, who is born Redmond Barry, relates his swashbuckling adventures from Irish boyhood to impecunious old age. Set in the eighteenth century, this picaresque novel is reminiscent of Fielding’s Tom Jones: the sensibility is eighteenth-century, not Victorian. Barry is most sympathetic as an idealistic youth in love with his flirtatious older cousin. When he learns she plans to marry an English soldier, he challenges him to a duel and goes on the run after killing him. (So he thinks: the cousins substituted fake bullets so he wouldn’t interfere with the wedding) .

And then things go wrong. It is one mishap after another. In Dublin, he falls in with a bad crowd, who swindle him until he has run up many bad debts he doesn’t understand he has to pay. From there, he escapes into the British army to fight in the Seven Years’ War, which he confesses he doesn’t understand. (Thank God! I’d already done Thucydides 27-year-war!). He deserts, befriends one of the enemy, becomes a spy, and then a successful gambler, who learns about cards from a renegade uncle. Traveling around Europe together, they are popular at many courts.

Amusing as Barry is, we are aware that he tweaks the truth, and if we don’t suspect, we are interrupted by footnotes to that effect by the (fictional) commentator G. S. Fitz-Boodle. But am I interested in Barry’s exaggerated accounts of sword-fighting and gambling? No, not particularly. What I like is the voice of the narrator. And then since I always like love scenes, even when they go badly, I was thrilled by his courtship of the rich and beautiful Lady Lyndon – while her husband is still alive! When she is a widow, he bullies her favorite suitor so he daren’t go near her and tricks her into agreeing to marriage. And from this point, things go downhill for Barry -who now calls himself Barry Lyndon.

I do find Lady Lyndon a sympathetic character, even though she is pretentious and haughty. But Barry simply beats her down pyschologically. Thackeray’s wife apparently went mad after five years of marriage, so I wonder if he gave Lady Lyndon some of her characteristics . It is truly horrible to see Barry change from a sunny young man into a callous, brutal middle-aged man, and Lady Lyndon into a wreck.

A perfect book! I realized only at the end that this will become one of my rereads.

Any thoughts on Thackeray or Thucydides?

Happy Weekend!

Sneakers or Tennis Shoes? The Ray Bradbury Life-Style of the Mid-Twentieth Century

Before the age of clunky running shoes, circa 1975 – and by the way, my first running shoes were Brooks Villanovas, recommended for beginners because of the cheap price – I never ran a step in my life. God, no. What was I, a jock? I walked around the track in gym. My friends and I walked to class, we walked downtown, we walked to the mall, and we walked to the park. Every summer we shed our loafers, Earth shoes, or whatever and slipped into canvas shoes, known as tennis shoes or tennies. Oh, we didn’t play tennis. But tennies were ideal for our kind of walking.

Keds tennies or sneakers?

In other parts of the country such shoes were called sneakers, as I was aware from reading literature set in New York. But in the midwest the term tennis shoes prevailed. You can confirm this by Ray Bradbury’s sentimental novel, Dandelion Wine (1957), which is set in a midwestern town. The first chapter is a paean to tennis shoes.

…Douglas saw the tennis shoes in the bright store window. He glanced quickly away, but his ankles were seized, his feet suspended, then rushed. The earth spun; the shop awnings slammed their canvas wings overhead with the thrust of his body running. His mother and father and brother walked quietly on both sides of him. Douglas walked backward, watching the tennis shoes in the midnight window left behind.

Although I prefer Bradbury’s science fiction, I certainly know the magic of tennis shoes. In our family, buying tennies was an exciting summer ritual. My mother took us to Kinney Shoes, a long-defunct chain, to buy Keds tennis shoes. These shoes, as I remember, came in white, red, navy blue, or light blue. Mother begged me not to buy white. Though they could be washed in the washing machine, she thought they looked dirty after a few days’ wear. (She was right.) But after donning our tennies, we mothers and daughters had a spring in our step as we did yard work, walked to the small neighborhood store, or dragged lawn chairs from the car when we attended ghastly Little League games. Cousins and male friends wore black canvas shoes with white rubber toes – they were usually Keds, but I do not know if they were called tennis shoes.

Are tennis shoes and sneakers the same shoe? Perhaps, perhaps not. According to a 1980’s Webster’s Dictionary, a tennis shoe is “a sports shoe with a rubber sole (usually pebbled) and a stitched canvas upper that laces over the instep (1890-95).” A sneaker is “a high or low shoe, usually of fabric, such as canvas, with a rubber or synthetic sole (1590-1600).” It’s a fine line, isn’t it?

This summer I am wearing tennis shoes for the first time in years. They are so light, and perfect for going out in the yard or a quick trip to a store. No arch support, of course. You don’t go hiking in tennies. But they are more practical than sliders, flip-flops, or sandals, through which small branches (and where do they come from?) seem to wedge themselves when you take a walk.

Any thoughts on the difference between tennies and sneakers? What do you/did you call them?

My Geekish Old Greek & a New Greek Dictionary

This crumbling Greek dictionary needed a replacement!

Ancient Greek is a bit like a crossword puzzle, perhaps more like a double acrostic. It is economical: in general, it takes four Greek words to translate eight English words. If you are a fan of Homer, Hesiod, Sappho, Aristophanes, and Euripides, you adore the poetry and are also intrigued because the Greeks are not like us. We read from the perspective of Americans in the twenty-first century, so our interpretations do not always match those of the Greeks.

Classics geeks have the advantage of reading the real thing in the real language. At some point, every Greek student reads Euripides’s Medea (in Greek). And not only were we hypnotized by Euripides, we thought we might like Medea as a person. At one point she affirms, ” I would rather stand in front of the shield three times than give birth once.” Very dramatic. We feminists loved it! She delivers brilliant speeches, but along the way we forgot she was a wicked witch: she cut up her brother into tiny pieces and scattered them on the ocean to slow down her father in his pursuit of Jason; and she killed her own children. And more.

These days, I prefer Greek comedy, but I must say the experience of unraveling the jokes is weird as well as surreal and funny. You don’t sit down and read Greek. Oh, no. You pore over dictionaries and commentaries and work to find the right words. I was tickled pink, as my mother would say, when a note in a commentary explained that “Tartessian eel”(now there’s a baffling phrase!) is “a delicacy for Athenian tables” (from Tartessos, Spain). Then the commentator refers us to Thompson’s Glossary of Greek Fishes. These notes are so much fun – and I especially enjoyed the reference to Thompson.

Greek dictionaries are a source of entertainment this summer. My inspiration for reading comedy is the new Cambridge Greek Lexicon, a much-needed supplement or alternative to Liddell and Scott, the scholarly Greek dictionary written in the nineteenth century which is still used by scholars – and the rest of us. The Cambridge Greek Lexicon is a beautiful two-volume boxed set, and the books have blissfully biggish print and modern definitions. Mind you, Liddell and Scott is useful, but the print is tiny and the definitions of the words often quaint. I am thrilled to have both “brand-name” dictionaries now!

The Cambridge Greek Lexicon has a brisk, business-like approach to to updating definitions. For instance, my old Liddell and Scott defines the word kobalos as an “errant knave” or “impudent rogue.” Love it! But the Cambridge is concise: the definition is “scoundrel.” And isn’t that better English?

The Cambridge print is the right size for near-sighted readers.

Like Netflix, Greek comedy abounds with vulgar jokes. The Liddell and Scott obfuscates the meaning with circumlocutions – and then they make no sense. The Greeks love toilet humor, but don’t look to Liddell and Scott for enlightenment. The word engkezo was new to me. First I consulted Liddell and Scott, who use the phrase”to be in a horrid fright at.” The Cambridge comes right out and says: “shit oneself.” Now I know.

There is also a joke with the word kusthos. My abridged Liddell and Scott does not include this word, so shocking is it. And the complete Liddell and Scott dictionary defines it with the Latin pudenda muliebria. Thank you, Liddell and Scott, for your wisdom! Fortunately, the Cambridge straightforwardly defines it as “female genitals” or “cunt.” Personally, I prefer the word vulva… but now I understand the smutty joke.

And so the Cambridge Greek Lexicon facilitates my journey through Greek. If, like me, you wear bifocals, I recommend the Cambridge with its larger print – yes, size matters! – but hang on to your Liddell and Scott, too.

The Blog As Performance Art: Are Critics Cool with Us Now?

When did my blog become performance art? Not today; it was definitely not yesterday. The years have rolled by swiftly, like an interlude in To the Lighthouse, only with less glamour and sophistication – so much less.

Perhaps the performance art aspect began in 2012 when, annoyed by the glut of attacks on blogs by critics, editors, and writers who regarded book bloggers and Goodreads reviewers as amateur rivals from hell, I decided to fight back. Gently.

The word “gently” meant, for the most part, ignoring them. First, we were not necessarily reading the critics; second, we could not comprehend the oddity of a witch hunt launched upon their fellow readers; and third, we had no intention of competing with them. Heavens, I wrote my heart out almost every day, rapidly and often awkwardly, at a goofy (now defunct) blog. I sincerely doubt this blog (700 subscribers) had any effect on the future of criticism. The subtitle: “A BOOK BLOG.”

Though I do not write literary criticism, nobody can say I am not a friend of the book. I may not love every book, but I love plenty of them. Mostly I read books by the dead, who are never offended by what I say. But I soon learned that no hint of negative criticism went unpunished. Someone emailed me about the death of a favorite writer but then went on to deride my blog. I was devastated by the writer’s death but did consider the bearer of bad news fucked-up.

Sometimes writers “like” my reviews. Cool, cool! Another time a writer sent me a card. Cool, cool, cool, cool! but then it was a disappointment. Neither my husband nor I could decipher it but we thought we caught the word “mean.”

“Take it as a compliment,” Mr. Nemo said.

Well, the critics, writers, and editors have forgotten about blogs now – they have bigger things to worry about. Other social media have taken over and blogs are now “old-school.” And so we reside in peace together – at least I think we do.

Before I end this post, you will want to know what I am reading: Robert Graves’s The Reader over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose. Patricia T. O’Conner in the introduction calls this “the best book on writing ever published.” So far, it is very good indeed, and more about this later.

Happy Fourth of July! & Reading Elaine Dundy’s “The Dud Avocado”

Today many Americans will arrive at parks at dawn, having reserved a shelter if they’re smart or snagged a picnic table if they’re lucky. They will spend the day barbecuing chicken and eating potato salad, driving people crazy with their bad music, maybe taking a dip in the lake if they’re brave enough to face the pesticide run-off, or walking in the woods with their bird lists until the fireworks begin at 9:30 or 10.

No, I’m sorry, but I’m too tired to go. Wilted, rustling around in a tattered “Bookish” t-shirt nightgown and slippers, I plan to spend this very hot day alternately napping and reading Elaine Dundy’s witty novel, The Dud Avocado. I adore this smart little book! Published in 1958, it has been reissued by Virago and NYRB Classics, both heavy hitters in the reprint game. Dundy (1921-2008), an actress and writer, wrote brilliant comic dialogue, and her voice is slightly reminiscent of that of the witty Eve Babitz. Elaine Dundy, however, is more “relatable,” not quite as outlandish and “arty.”

I keep giggling at the antics of the quirky narrator, Sally Jay Gorce, an aspiring American actress in Paris who has thrown herself into the bohemian life. She even has a middle-aged lover, Teddy, Alfredo Ourselli Visconti, so she feels triumphantly that she has left behind the stuffy mores of women’s colleges. And she doesn’t consider herself a tourist until she runs into Larry, a handsome American actor she worked with in a stock company. This time around, Sally falls in love with him at first sight, but he is less impressed with her. She has dyed her hair pink and and happens to be wearing an evening gown in the morning (everything else is at the laundry). Larry lectures her on the perils of “going native” and then tells her about the the different types of tourists. Sally won’t admit she is one.

“….the last type is the Wild Cat. The I-am-a-fugitive-from-the-Convent-of-the-Sacred-Heart. Not that it’s ever really the case. Just seems so from the violence of the reaction. Anyhow it’s her first time free and her first time across and, by golly, she goes native in a way the natives never had the stamina to go. Some people think it’s those stand-up toilets they have here – you know, the ones with the iron footprints you’re supposed to straddle. After the shock of that kind of plumbing something snaps in the American girl and she’s off. The hell with all that, she figures. The desire to bathe somehow gets lost. The hell with all that, she figures. Then comes weird haircuts, weird hair-colors, weird clothes. Then comes drink and down, down, down. Dancing in the streets all night, braying at the moon, and waking up in a different bed every morning.”

Sally calls him a bastard and furiously goes on, “It’s a pretty safe bet I bathe about sixty times as often as you…” But then she remembers: “To accuse the American male of not bathing in Paris is merely to flatter him.”

Such a charming book. I hope you, too, have an entertaining book for the holiday. And don’t forget the bug spray if you go to the fireworks!

Happy Fourth of July!

Modernist Moods & Cozy Mysteries: Lawrence Durrell’s “Balthazar” and Catherine Aird’s “Henrietta Who?”

Life in the summer is different nowadays. There is less sitting on porch swings as Climate Change steals our creaky traditions.

The summers were always hot – I tossed and turned and sweated and was cranky for the duration of many past droughts and heat waves- but now the heat waves are longer, and air conditioning is a requisite of everyday life.

My reading has been lighter (and cooler?) this summer. I recommend turning on the AC and flinging yourself on the couch with a cozy mystery or something moody and poetic. We all need a portal to an exotic landscape or a different culture. Mine is usually through books.

So here are two novels I’ve recently enjoyed: Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar, set in Alexandria, Egypt; and Catherine Aird’s cozy mystery, Henrietta Who?, set in Calleshire, an imaginary county in England.

LAWRENCE DURRELL’S BALTHAZAR. When I talk about Lawerence Durrell, I talk about The Alexandria Quartet, a masterly tetralogy which comprises Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. After I finish one of these books, I cannot tell you “what it is about.” I absorb the mood, the heat and exoticism, the rich language, the absurd and grotesque characters, from the anemic exotic dancer to the transvestite cop, and the nearly psychedelic dissociation rendered by the steamy nature of Alexandria.

Our perceptions keep changing as we read these books: Durrell’s portrait of Alexandria is always in flux. In the first book, Justine, we meet the narrator, Darley, an English writer in Alexandria. He is madly in love with Justine, a beautiful, troubled, intelligent, promiscuous, canny, deceitful, exasperating woman who attracts men and women alike – and has sex with everybody, while deceiving her husband and lovers – and is not particularly concerned about the consequences. And at the same time we have compassion for her: she is a lost soul, searching for her missing daughter.

All men are in love with Justine, except the gay men, and she especially is attracted to writers . Justine’s first husband wrote a novel about her, which mostly centered on the Freudian analysis that did not work on her. Now Darley, living on an island, has written about her in the context of a portrait of the city of Alexandria.

I recently reread the second novel, Balthazar, which Durrell refers to as a “sibling novel” rather than a sequel to Justine. Darley learns that he has been mistaken about almost everything he thought he knew. Justine did not love him – she loved another writer (of course), and this writer adamantly did not love her, and told her so! Balthazar, a doctor with a mystic bent, has scribbled corrections and notes on Darley’s manuscript, which he refers to as “the Interlinear.” Darley has a sense of humor: the affair is over, and the new interlinear fascinates him. And the interlinear clarifies the story of Justine’s husband, Nessim, who is as haunted as Justine, and Nessim’s brother, Narouz, a very shy man with a harelip, who visits the city once a year during Carnival, always searching for Clea, a woman he has seen once. She has no idea who he is.

Steamy, surreal, tragicomic – it’s all there!

CATHERINE AIRD’S HENRIETTA WHO? is the second in Aird’s Inspector Sloan mystery series. It has all the elements of Golden Age Detective Series, except that it was published in 1968, which is perhaps too late for the Golden Age. Yet the crimes are committed off-stage, so we are spared the violence; Inspector Sloan stays calm and methodical, however ghastly the crime; and it turns out that the people of Calleshire have many secrets.

This thoroughly enjoyable mystery begins with the postman’s discovery of the corpse of Mrs. Jenkins, who was apparently killed in a hit-and-run accident on a country road. Nothing is as it seems: from the tire marks, the police realize that somebody deliberately killed Mrs. Jenkins, running over her twice. And when the post-mortem shows that Mrs. Jenkins never gave birth, the problem of her identity and that of her daughter Henrietta, about to turn 21, become the center of this quietly effective who-dun-it.

Waiting for the Cambridge Greek Lexicon

I can’t wait for this to arrive in the mail!

“This is my Ph.D. summer. I’m off the grid. Tell everyone I’m studying.”

I would love to put a Do Not Disturb sign on the door, except nothing would keep out the cats. They like to lounge on top of dictionaries and chew corners of my folders. And Mr. Nemo keeps popping in and wondering if I wouldn’t like to take a bike ride on the T-Bone trail. The T-Bone takes you to a small town with a statue of a cow, in case you’re wondering. I refuse to ride the T-Bone, but I do limit my “study” to an occasional hour or two.

The Ph.D. summer involves no actual Ph.D.: I am simply catching up on my reading. I have a master’s in classics, and have been reading Latin prose and poetry for decades – so many decades – and I love it. I have, however, had less time for Greek: something had to give so I would have time to live.

But when I read that Cambridge University Press published a new Greek-English Lexicon, I started rereading one of my favorite Greek plays. I cannot wait for the mail carrier to lug the new dictionary out of the truck.

Why am I so excited about an ancient Greek dictionary? Well, not much changes in ancient Greek – there are few discoveries, except an occasional fragment of Sappho – and so we all still use the Greek-English Lexicon compiled in the nineteenth century by the scholars Liddell and Scott.

I have two Liddell and Scott dictionaries. The abridged edition is portable and popular, and has what I need most of the time. Sometimes it is necessary to consult the complete 1,7774-page Greek-English Liddell and Scott monster. I scored a crumbling copy, published in 1883, at a used bookstore . And it is disintegrating, as you see I should have anticipated.

An aged Greek dictionary.

You’ve got to love it, though. It is not only scholarly but amusing. Circumlocutions are adopted by Liddell and Scott to describe what I shall call “rude” words. And they love a quixotic phrase: the definition of the word kobalos is “an impudent rogue” or “an arrant knave.” Isn’t that charming?

Please, God, let the new Cambridge dictionary arrive on my doorstep soon! I will never give up my Liddell and Scott, but I need a modern take. I am still amused by the old quaintness, but look forward to seeing what Cambridge does.

Do You Appreciate or Avoid Movie and TV Tie-ins?

One day, at Barnes and Noble, I was looking for a copy of my favorite Balzac, Cousin Bette. The only edition on the shelf was a Penguin movie tie-in, with Jessica Lange on the cover. Lange is beautiful – too beautiful for Cousin Bette -and I prefer a Penguin with a cover design based on a detail from a painting. But I bought the tie-in, because I wanted to reread it immediately.

Some like movie and TV tie-ins. They must, or the publishers would not bother with them.

Below are some images of movie and TV tie-ins juxtaposed beside regular book covers. What do you think?

There are so many versions of Anna Karenina. Oddly, I missed the movie with Keira Knightley, though I did see a Masterpiece series of AK, though perhaps not this one, which starred Nicola Pagett. As you see, the design of the Modern Library paperback (right) is dignified and neither too dramatic nor too distracting.

I own a copy of the 1980 Masterpiece Theater tie-in (left). You will be surprised to learn that the actress Cheryl Campbell’s face is artfully portrayed within the sky of the cover. If you have a chance to watch this 1980 Masterpiece Theater (BBC?) production, I recommend it. The second cover portrays actress Alicia Vikander, who plays Vera in the remarkable 2014 movie. Great movie, but the cover doesn’t do it justice.

Actually, the middle one – a tie-in! – might be the prettiest. What do you think?

I prefer the 1980 cover (right), because the art is clever and reflects an actual ball scene in the book. The cover on the left (2021) looks vaguely sexual, doesn’t it? and does not at all fit Nancy Mitford’s intentions. The middle cover (2001) is fine, but means nothing to me because I don’t know the actress. That’s the problem with TV tie-ins.

I prefer the cover of the book on the right, but also like the TV tie-in (middle). The movie tie-in does show us Emma Thompson and the other actors (unknown to me ), but it doesn’t capture the mood. The TV series is also better than the movie, I think. But that’s just me. And the TV series was so long; it had much more time to develop characters and scenes.

Do you have a favorite movie or TV tie-in of your own? Or one that you absolutely hate? Do tell!

Why Readers & Actors Love “Nicholas Nickleby”

Imagine an idealistic couple just out of graduate school, dazed by long years of performing arcane tasks like translating the Gettysburg Address into ancient Greek, and distressed by the discovery that their degrees have prepared them for only the lowest-paid jobs: teaching, writing for non-profits, or working as a paralegal.

It seemed that one minute we were reading the pre-Socratics and scanning the odes of Horace, and the next we were living in a dowdy dump and recovering from our commutes by attending exercise classes and binge-reading Henry Fielding.

One weekend we left our seedy digs to splurge on the eight-and-a-half hour play, Nicholas Nickleby. This adaptation of Dickens’s novel was charming, but I wished I had brought a pillow. I still remember the opening scene: enthusiastic actor/muffin vendors roamed the aisles and tossed muffins at the audience – which we never caught, unfortunately. We enjoyed ourselves but so exhausted by sitting that we left after four hours. “We could have read the book faster,” my mate murmured.

Roger Rees (Nicholas Nickleby) and David Threlfall (Smike) in the Royal Shakespeare Company production

Having just read Nicholas Nickleby for the third time, I am charmed by Dickens’s vibrant characters, bewitched by his hyperbole, thrilled by his witty dialogue, and grieved by the death of a favorite character. I see why it is perfect for the stage. For one thing, many of the characters are actors, and we see them both on- and off-stage. Nicholas Nickleby and his sidekick, Smike, fall in with a traveling theater: at an inn, they meet Mr. Vincent Crummles, who is directing his two sons in stage swordplay. And Mr. Crummles, always plotting new prospects for his theater troupe, hires Nicholas to write a play, and suggests Smike might be a good actor.

I love the adorable Mr. Crummles.

…Mr. Crummles looked, from time to time, with great interest at Smike, with whom he had appeared considerably struck from the first. He had now fallen asleep, and was nodding in his chair.

“Excuse my saying so,” said the manager, leaning over to Nicholas, and sinking his voice, “but what a capital countenance your friend has got!”

“Poor fellow!” said Nicholas, with a half smile, “I wish it were a little more plump, and less haggard.”

“Plump!” exclaimed the manager, quite horrified, “you’d spoil it for ever.”

“Do you think so?”

“Think so, sir! Why, as he is now,” said the manager, striking his knee emphatically; “without a pad upon his body, and hardly a touch of paint upon his face, he’d make such an actor for the starved business as was never seen in this country. Only let him be tolerably well up in the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet with the slightest possible dab of red on the tip of his nose, and he’d be certain of three rounds the moment he put his head out of the practicable door in the front grooves O. P.”

“You view him with a professional eye,” said Nicholas, laughing.

“And well I may,” rejoined the manager. “I never saw a young fellow so regularly cut out for that line, since I’ve been in the profession. …”

This novel is really about family, biological families and found families, and eventually the Nicklebys have a large extended family of kind-hearted friends not related by blood. How else can an impoverished Dickensian family survive ? Nicholas, his mother Mrs. Nickleby, and his sister Kate go to London after their father’s death to seek help from Uncle Ralph Nickleby. He wants to be rid of them – and wants to kill off Nicholas.

Ralph acts on the “divide-and-conquer” strategy. He sends Nicholas to teach at a horror factory of a school directed by the sadistic Wackford Squeers. Nicholas rebels, whacks Wackford for beating his students, and is followed by the adoring Smike, a simpleton who has worked at the school for years as a slave. Meanwhile, back in London, Kate first works for a milliner (it doesn’t work out), then as a companion. Unfortunately, she is sexually harassed by friends of Ralph and is actually in danger .

Before I end this post, let me mention the magnificent Mrs. Nickleby, mother of Nicholas and Kate. She is one of Dickens’s stock characters, the silly middle-aged woman who, always confused, makes coy or absent-minded remarks which, in Dickens’s view, are more appropriate for a younger woman. Think of Flora Finching in Little Dorritt. I do not agree with his view of middle-aged women, and yet they are comic, brilliantly-drawn.

This is one of Dickens’s brilliant early books.