The Flibbertigibbit’s Weekend Reading: Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust,” “Vile Bodies,” “The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfield,” and “The Loved One”

“Don’t disturb me, darling:  I’m reading Evelyn Waugh.” Ensconced in a comfy Barcalounger chair, I was madly trying to lose myself in short satires.

It was bitterer course of reading than I’d expected. From time to time, I looked up from my novels to beg my husband for a cup of tea.  He also found two delicious asymmetrical homebaked cookies for a snack.

Although I am a great fan of Waugh, I prefer his serious, longer novels, Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy.  The appeal of the satires has somehow eluded me.

Bravely I began. My advice: don’t start with A Handful of Dust.  It is too dark and too long for the fllibbertigibbit’s weekend reading. The gist:  an English gentleman tries to distract himself from grief by joining an expedition to the Amazon.  After falling ill and delirious in the jungle, he recovers in a primitive village where his nightmarish fate is to read Dickens over and over to an illiterate chieftain.

Far better to start with Vile Bodies, a novel about the Bright Young Things who party rather too ardently in the 1920s – with dramatic consequences.  I was struck this reading by a gossip writer who comes to a bad end.  Gossip doesn’t pay – very well! 

One wonders what why I chose The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfield.  It turned out not to be a comedy at all, but a bleak autobiographical novel describing the details of Waugh’s bout of hallucinatory psychosis when he was on a cruise to Ceylon at the age of 50.  

The hero,  Gilbert Pinfold, is a middle-aged novelist who suffers from insomnia, gout, and other maladies.  He forms the habit of boozing and mixing two strong sleeping draughts at night to render himself unconscious and numb himself to the nightmare of a family Christmas. Later, on a cruise to India, which he takes because his wife is concerned about his health and “doping,” he hears nonstop abusive voices that are the product of mixing phenobarbitone and alcohol.  

This elegant narrative is painful and disturbing – a masterly account of madness – but not funny.  Ann Slater Pasternak writes in the introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition, Four Novels, that this account closely mirrors Waugh’s experience. A sympathetic passenger on the cruise recalled Waugh’s odd behavior in a letter.  “People were saying there’s something funny about that man, he’s talking to the toast-rack.  There were little lamps on the table with pink shades and he’d have a long conversation with those…”

I ended with The Loved One, a witty satire of Hollywood and cemeteries.  Everything is glitter and gilt- nothing is real – and there is a morbid fascination with death. The culture of garish Hollywood  cemeteries for pets and humans is the logical terminus of the fickle movie studio culture – which kills one of the characters.

Dennis Barlow, a British poet, has let down his coterie of British compatriots by working as as an embalmer at  Happier Hunting Grounds, a pet cemetery.  They wonder why he can’t do something serious, like writing screenplays or working in a studio’s publicity department.  But Dennis doesn’t mind selling fancy coffins,  urns and religious rites to grieving owners of dead pets, who deserve solace as much as mourners of the human dead.  The outlandish, pricey options please the vulgar rich.  One “Grade A service” option:  “A white dove, symbolizing the deceased’s soul, is liberated over the crematorium.”

Dennis is even more fascinated by the gaudy human cemetery down the road, Whispering Glades, which vaunts 300 acres of park land, a Tudor-style Administration building, replicas of English manors, and countless radios “which ceaselessly discourse the ‘Hindu Love-Song.'”  He has an opportunity to explore Whispering Glades after  his friend, Sir Francis, commits suicide after being fired from his 20-year job as a studio publicist. 

Decadent and ridiculous, Whispering Glades employs a beautiful, soulful young woman, Aimee Thanatogenos, a cosmetician who works on the corpses’ make-up and hair. She worships Joyboy, an artistic embalmer, but Dennis is her own age – and she gets engaged to him, though Joyboy is also interested – and she also gets engaged to him.  Aimee is the only character who is really soulful – who even has a soul – but, as you can imagine, the embalmers don’t  see her for who she is. A cold comedy and satire – yet humorous. 

These satires are funny but also exhausting.  Things don’t turn out well in Waugh’s world, whether we’re Bright Young Things, explorers of the Amazon, passengers on a cruise ship, or Hollywood writer/embalmers. 

From the Retold Myth Desk: Claire North’s “Ithaca”

On a dreary winter night, I went to the bookstore to escape from the Three Sisters.  (I do not mean Chekhov, I mean the Brontës.)  I had Gothic burn-out from rereading six of the Brontës masterpieces and loitering too long at Wuthering Heights, Grassdale Manor,  and Thornfield Hall.  

Feeling out of sorts, I browsed in the new books section but found nothing of interest, probably because I was coming down with a nasty respiratory virus. 

As always when I’m ill, I lowered my expectations.  It was time to consult the display tables that tell us what the publishers want us to read.  My eye was caught by a Retold Myths table, featuring a dozen or more attractive, brightly-colored books with feminine titles like Phaedra, Ariadne, Clytemnestra, and Daughters of Sparta.

When a genre gets its own table, you know it is in demand.  For centuries, the poets, playwrights, and novelists have tinkered with Greek myths and recreated them for new audiences.  These latest novelistic transformations are marketed as women’s fiction, a cross between romance and historical fiction.  They tend to be feminist reinterpretations of the lives of unlikable, underestimated, or misunderstood goddesses, demi-goddesses, mythic queens, and princesses.

By chance I picked up Claire North’s smart, entertaining new novel, Ithaca – one of the best I’ve read in this genre –  a take on Homer’s Odysssey.   Her reimagining of Penelope’s story focuses on Penelope the politician, left behind in Ithaca while Odysseus fought in the Trojan War. 

 As in the Odyssey, Penelope, queen of Ithaca, is a female trickster.  Suitors have occupied the palace during her husband Odysseus’s long absence and she fends them off by refusing to choose a husband until she has finished weaving her father-in-law Laertes’s shroud.  She weaves the shroud by day and unravels it in her room at night. 

In North’s version, Penelope also has a Machiavellian intelligence, hidden behind layers of politeness.  Behind the scenes with the women, she is an able politician and formidable queen.  She has many trusted councillors, most of them women, a few of them old men, and a secret army of women is training to defend their shores from raiders. Women have dominated the economy since the men left to fight in the Trojan War.  They are farmers, carpenters, soldiers, and mothers.   

I raced through this novel.  It’s not just the plot, it’s the structure. North smoothly changes perspectives:  the gods weigh in, as well as the humans.  Juno is in the shadows, watching over Penelope and making ironic observations about her husband Zeus’s dalliances. Athena is also present, keeping an eye on Telemachus, the sulky teenage son of Penelope and Odysseus. 

And Greek tragedy fans will marvel over the strange, unexpected appearance of Orestes and Elektra, who come to Ithaca searching for their mother, Clytemnestra, who killed their father, Agamemnon. Clytemnestra is Penelope’s cousin, and they think she may be hiding out on the island. It’s not the way Aeschylus wrote it, but this is one more headache for Penelope. The revenge is political.

Claire North isn’t flashy but she’s smart, and I prefer her approach to some  of the more literary ventures into mythic retellings.  I can’t wait to read her sequel, House of Odysseus, which will be published in August.

An Excavation of “Eight Cousins”

 We were not in the best of health, and it was not the best of times. It was because of the unreality of smoking cannabis,  and the discovery on a hot, sticky day of a musty old copy of Eight Cousins, by the nineteenth-century writer, Louisa May Alcott – an edition of her 1884 classic reissued in 1927.  We found it in Great-Aunt Andrea’s attic in a trunk that held unraveling Fair Isle sweaters and mismatched mittens. We made our delvings during the summer we house-sat for Great-Aunt Andrea, who was “going on tour,” as she put it ironically, to do “field work” in the rubble of war.  (It does not matter which war:  there are always wars on our benighted planet.)

Joan, my loquacious roommate, was delighted by our find of the treasured Alcott book.  Our newly-excavated 1927 Grosset and Dunlap edition had a cute orange cover, adorned with an illustration of the graceful, seemingly grown-up heroine, Rose, who wears her long hair flowing down her back and dresses simply in a dark orange dress.  She perches on a green chair next to a round table covered with a matching green velvet cloth.  And above the table hover portraits of Rose’s seven male cousins.

Joan shrieked over the art work.  “How amusing!  But why would Andrea have this book?” 

We sat on the floor flicking the pages, waiting for the cannabis to wear off, which we had unwisely bought in an alley behind a suburban Starbucks “What is this stuff?” I asked tiredly after a couple of tokes. “It’s laced with something.”  And then I was unable to talk; I was in a very dark place. Eventually I fell asleep, while Joan sang old Beatles songs, and then she fell silent, too.

We awoke with a start, showered and changed into clean shorts and t-shirts, and went downstairs, chatting about Alcott.   Eight Cousins was not the kind of book one expected G.A. – as Great-Aunt Andrea preferred to be called-  to keep in the attic, even for sentimental reasons.  Her shelves were crammed with 19th-century travel narratives, botany books, anthropology tomes, diaries of authors and politicians, biographies of the Tudors (for light reading), and The Complete Works of Cicero.  We didn’t know quite how old G-A was – but still  young enough to read Eight Cousins in 1927, we thought.

And yet we could not imagine G-A getting lost in a volume of  Louisa May Alcott.  Even her conversation at breakfast, while sipping the bitter coffee that no one else would drink, was inveterately intellectual and dry: we had never heard her mention a book of fiction, nor the weather, nor the movies playing at the theaters.  That morning she’d asked us at breakfast if “young people” still read Margaret Mead.” I said no. I wondered, Was this Jeopardy? Should I say, “Who is Margaret Mead?”

“It is imperative that you read these feminist classics of anthropology,” she growled.  “Indeed, you will enjoy  Ms. Mead’s work.  There are similarities between anthropologists and war correspondents.  Your horoscope, Gertrude,” she went on, looking at me, “indicates that you will be a journalist for a time.”

Trying not to laugh and determined not to read Margaret Mead, Joan and I segued into the topic of Eight Cousins.  Had the book been hers?  G-A looked at us with surprise; then said indifferently that perhaps she had read it, she couldn’t remember; but that it might have belonged to her sister, Mildred, who became a schoolteacher and was more likely to enjoy such things.  

As so often, we wondered if G-A wouldn’t have been better off reading Wuthering Heights, John Updike, or Tama Janowitz, like other mortals.   My nerves tingled because she never used  contractions.

And we could not keep up with her talk of the war. She found it strange that we were not out protesting every day.  Joan and I were not, at that time, concerned with the latest war; we had just finished our strenuous junior year at X College, a women’s college that resembles Smith or Wellesley, except that it is “less user-friendly.”  Every spring, one quarter of the students collapsed with the vapors, commonly labeled in the modern style as Anorexia, Depression, or Borderline Personality.  Joan was anorexic, still pale and skinny from overwork; I was depressed, nearly silent even when not stoned, after  laboring over  a 25-page paper on autobiographical elements in Jane Bowles’s enigmatic fiction, which eluded me after page 10.  I tried to wax lyrical and kept repeating myself till I reached the end of page 24.  But the professor approved the paper, another unlikely educational hurdle I’d passed.  (Query:  would I have been happier at a less intense school? )

That night, G-A left for the war zone. “Try to get out of the house.  Go to the protests.,” she said

“And if I were you,” she went on, leaning out the window of the taxi, “I would try to find a more valuable edition of Eight Cousins than the Grosset and Dunlap.  This is the kind of book you sell rather than read.  Nobody reads Alcott.”

But we read her. Eight Cousins is a slight, charming novel about a vain, prim orphan, Rose, who, under the auspices of her guardian uncle, two great-aunts, three (or four?) aunts, seven male cousins, and her friend Phoebe, a maid, becomes a mensch. This is not one of Alcott’s best, but we love it because it is Alcott.

 The sequel, Rose in Bloom, is much more intersting, about Rose as an adult. 

N.B.  The 1927 Grosset and Dunlap edition of Eight Cousins sells for $15 at Abebooks.

A Woman’s Diary: “Forbidden Notebook,” by Alba De Céspedes

Forbidden Notebook, a layered, hyperrealistic novel by the Cuban-Italian writer, Alba De Céspedes, takes the form of a woman’s diary. Published in 1952, it is newly-translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, best-known for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s superb novels.  Every sentence in Forbidden Notebook is spare and graceful, but the narrative itself is torturous and depressed. The narrator struggles to evade knowledge of her desolation even as the emotions pour out on the page.

The diary itself is purchased on impulse. One day the perennially-exhausted narrator, Valeria, is at the tobacconist’s buying cigarettes for her husband when she decides to buy a shiny black notebook.  Her daughter writes a diary, and Valeria decides to begin one.  

Valeria realizes she must hide the notebook- to tell the truth about herself is forbidden. But she has no hiding place: her daughter hides hers in the only locked drawer in the apartment.

The diary is an odyssey into her feelings. Valeria has never had time to think:  she works at an office and spends the rest of her time shopping and doing the housework.  Her family does not appreciate her efforts:  her husband, Michele, lounges around listening to Wagner, and her adult children, Riccardo and Mirella, have an active social life. Valeria seethes with fury about her children’s bad choices:  the brilliant, studious Mirella is secretly dating a 35-year-old married lawyer, while Riccardo studies less than he should and dates an unintelligent teenager.

Writing becomes Valeria’s secret vice. She stays up late, sometimes till 3 a.m. so she can write.  She realizes that the “effort to forget myself  for 20 years has been in vain.”  And as she describes her problems and misery, we are distressed and even shocked:  Valeria is a slave. The family had enough money before the war, but the economy is bad now and they barely get by. Valeria manages the household. 

Valeria has no privacy. One thinks of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.  If anyone needs a room, it is Valeria.  They do not even have a living room in their cramped, cheerless apartment: it was converted into a bedroom.

Finally she cannot bear the lack of privacy. She takes her diary to the office on Saturday, but her boss interrupts, because he, too, needs time away from his family.  And then a romantic relationship begins.  Finally she seems happy. 

But Valeria constantly feels guilty, because the family is splintered. “Today was torturous,” she writes when her son makes a life-changing mistake.  She begins to respect her daughter, but also resents her opportunities.

Her husband, Michele, is completely self-centered:   he hates his job at the bank, but feels entitled to his time off and is oblivious to Valeria’s feelings.   

Valeria writes,

The need to earn money, to read the newspaper to follow  political events, gives him the privilege of isolating himself, protecting himself; whereas my job is to be devastated.  Because when I write in the notebook, I feel I’m committing a serious sin, a sacrilege:  it’s as if I were talking to the devil.

 The strict socialization of woman as helpmeet has quelled Valeria’s sense of autonomy.  The role of women is changing for her daughter’s generation, and Valeria is half-pleased, half-jealous.

Valeria’s forbidden notebook is is brilliant, but tragic. Wait till you’re in a good mood: it is a sad, depressing read.

Bookish Pet Peeves and Unsavory Typos

Ron Charles, the editor of the Washington Post Book World and a sharp critic, is often comedic in his approach to books.   He recently queried readers of his book club newsletter to report what annoyed them most in books.  He writes, “Apparently, book lovers have been storing up their pet peeves in the cellar for years, just waiting for someone to ask. Hundreds and hundreds of people responded, exceeding my wildest dreams.”

As the queen of pet peeves, I was eager to curl up and read other people’s complaints. It turns out that I am not the only cranky, picky, bitchy reader.             

Many readers were indignant about dream sequences in books.  Though I agree that few writers are up to the task , I must recommend Emily Bronte’s excellent dream sequences in Wuthering Heights. Mr. Lockwood’s nightmare of the long-dead Catherine’s attempt to claw her way back into her old room at Wuthering Heights is chillingly Gothic. 
The Washington Post readers wince over typos and grammatical errors.  I, too, am a traditionalist. I was briefly a target of cancel culture for attacking a pronoun error now defended as “the singular they.”  These days it is apparently a matter of sexual politics.

One avid reader, Jane Ratteree, said “If those who write and publish the book won’t make the effort to get it right, the book doesn’t deserve my time and attention.” 

I thoroughly agree!

And I was chuffed to see that many of these readers are infuriated   by  foreign language typos and errors. 

I have a long history of fussing over Latin errors in novels.  In 2009, A. S. Byatt deserved the Booker Prize for her novel,The Children’s Book (it went to Wolf Hall), but that did not prevent my irritation over a Latin error in a quotation in the British edition.   In 2016, The Booker Prize winner and National Book Critics Circle Award winner, Paul Beatty,  made so many Latin errors in the first few pages  that I put his comic novel aside.  Let me stress that it was the editors’ responsibility to check the Latin. They should have consulted a freelance Latinist. 

Such errors are common in literary fiction, and it is distressing. But here is some good news:  science fiction and fantasy writers are more diligent, or possibly more attuned to ancient languages.  Some SF/fantasy writers majored in classics, among them Ann Leckie, C. J. Cherryh,  and Jo Walton.

And let me cite two brilliant fantasy writers who get their Latin right.   In the Acknowledgments of her best-selling  novel,  Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo, a Yale graduate, thanked the classicists she consulted for double-checking her Latin.  In the Acknowledgements to the recent critically- cclaimed novel, Babel, R.F. Kuang also thanked classicists for proofreading.

Let us hope that literary fiction writers and editors will copy their diligence.

The Fate of a Genteel Career Woman: Lucy Snowe in “Villette”

In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, the narrator, Lucy Snowe, a poor, genteel young woman, is lucky to find a job teaching English at a girls’ school in Villette (a fictitious city based on Brussels).   

Brontë’s masterpiece, Villette, is a dark take on her more popular novel, Jane Eyre.  Like Jane, the penurious Lucy is an orphan.  She is plain. She has no relatives or connections. And the  kind old woman to whom she was a paid companion has died.

Most of the women characters in Villette – all except the teachers and servants – have the opportunity to  marry. As for Lucy, her prospects of marriage are scant.  Remember Newsweek’s notorious claim in 1986 that women over 40 were “more likely to be killed by a terrorist than find a mate”?  This famous line was not based on statistics – it was printed to sell magazines – but much the same thing was probably gabbled in the 19th century about poor genteel English women over, say, 20.  Lucy is only 23, but seems doomed to spinsterhood.  (The sell-by date was younger then.)

Like modern women, plain or pretty, Lucy lived under the shadow of this future Newsweek scare.  Unlike the heroines of BBC costume dramas, she would not be discovered at a ball or weekend party by a dazzling, charming, preferably rich gentleman.  Lucy wishes she could marry and have a home, but knows how unlikely it is.

Modern women have the same problems.  As for the marriage prospects of single or divorced women in the late 20th century and the zips, we cannot pretend they were sanguine.  Love scenes did not unfold like a Netflix comedy:  you would not meet the ideal man at a club, i.e., a dimly-lit, gritty warehouse with black walls, loud bands, and terrible acoustics, nor would you metamorphose into Meg Ryan and end up with Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle.  And the darling friend who urged you to place a personals ad was a fantasist:  she was sure you could meet the owner of a baseball team (“We’re not Jane Fonda!”), the director of an orchestra (dubious, as we did not listen to classical music)  or the wealthy director of a private charitable foundation (our reaction was blank, because we couldn’t imagine such a person).              

Single, solitary Lucy courageously travels to Belgium, thinking it will be an adventure and that she might as well starve there as in London.   Arriving in Villette at night, she has two experiences with men, one comforting and the other terrifying.  An English gentleman gives her directions to an affordable hotel and accompanies her part of the way; but then she is stalked by two intimidating men, runs away, and ends up serendipitously in front of the school where she finds a job. 

And so Lucy becomes a career woman.  She has 60 students in a class, all of whom are ready to rebel at any sign of weakness.  She establishes her dominance on the first day by pushing an unruly girl into a cabinet and locking her in.  This is not an acceptable practice, of course,   but even the other girls empathize with Lucy, because they dislike the troublemaker and respect Lucy for quelling a riot in her class.  (Ah, this would make a great film, like Up  the Down Staircase, The Emperor’s Club,  To Serve Them All My Days, To Sir with Love, and maybe even Bad Teacher!)

Much is made of Lucy’s quietness, her grey dresses, her uneasiness when she is given a pink dress, and her general invisibility.  

But she isn’t quite invisible. By chance, Lucy meets and falls in love with Dr. Graham, a young doctor who is called in when the girls at school are sick.  He likes Lucy  – he saves her life when a priest finds her collapsed on the street with delirium and illness – but he certainly doesn’t love her.  When Lucy regains consciousness, she is in a bed in a strange room, and yet not totally strange, because she recognizes the furniture of her godmother, Mrs. Bretton.  Lucy learns that Mrs. Bretton has  moved to  Villette and that Graham is her son.  And so Lucy becomes their pet and is frequently invited to concerts and theater.

But Lucy is Graham’s pal, not his girlfriend.  He confides in her about the two women he falls in love with.

It is difficult to maintain the role of buddy, and it doesn’t help that Graham regards her as the perfect friend. 

At one point Graham says,”I believe if you had been a boy, Lucy, instead of a girl – my mother’s god-son instead of her god-daughter -we should have been good friends:  our opinions would have melted into each other.”

Basically he is saying they are soulmates, but he doesn’t want to think of her as a woman. Later, she wonders if  Graham would have regarded her differently if she had had money or was of a higher class, like the two women he falls in love with.

Perhaps Lucy is more attractive than she thinks.  She has a suitor, M. Paul, the literature teacher at the school.  He is ugly, bossy, histrionic, snoopy – he goes through her desk – and I find him exasperating, even though he gives her books and chocolates.  Lucy finds him ridiculous at first, but gradually comes to appreciate his good qualities.  He is definitely second-best.

Villette is a brilliant novel, with a surprising ending that shows you Charlotte doesn’t always aim to please.  This novel isn’t exactly about work, or love, or triangulation (so many triangles!), or marriage:  it is a portrait of the messy, scraped-togethr lives of poor, genteel women in the 19th century.

Question of the Month: What Was Your Brontë Gateway Drug?

I am puzzled by the fascination of pop culture tabloids – the racy, muddled archives of cinema and celebrity.   

Our own pop culture archives are less extensive: we delve into old books and reflect on them.  Lately I’ve been reading  the Brontës, and since we Brontë  devotees are less cultish than Jane Austen fans, I’ve been wondering: “What is the Brontë gateway drug? Does everyone start with Jane Eyre?” One dark Brontë book leads to another, and soon you’ve read the complete oeuvre – and then what?  There’s always the secondary literature!


My gateway drug, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, is not necessarily the best of the Brontës’ books. That would be Villette, Charlotte’s mature autobiographical masterpiece. 

But almost every reader starts with Jane Eyre,  her brilliant bildungsroman about an orphan’s upbringing, work, and thorny love affair.

Passion and madness dominate Jane Eyre, which can be read as a psychological autobiography. After a rocky childhood and education at a poorly-run charity school (Charlotte attended such a school),  Jane becomes a governess and falls in love with Mr. Rochester, the master of Thornfield Hall.  He is adorable, in a sarcastic, teasing way, but there are strange doings at night at the hall.  Jane saves Mr. Rochester’s life when a strange woman sets his draperies on fire in the dead of night.   

Say what you might, you cannot marry a man who keeps a mad wife in the attic. (Rochester’s wife set the fire.)  But after Jane leaves, the novel becomes even darker:  St. John Rivers, a fanatical minister, tries to mesmerize her into marrying him and accompanying him to India, where Jane, who is not strong, would die, as his sisters, Diana and Mary, tell them both. I believe that St. John is every bit as mad and destructive as Rochester’s wife.

Some read Jane Eyre as a Gothic novel. Others read it as psychological voodoo.  Here is how the psycho stuff works. If Jane is  Charlotte, then Rochester is her moody, alcoholic brother, Branwell, and Jane’s friends, Diana and Mary Rivers, have to be Emily and Anne.  Does that make sense?  Maybe if you’re on a gateway drug! 

No, I’m joking. It does make sense.

Branwell Brontë’s portrait of his sisters.


I am fascinated by the lore of the Brontës.

The lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë  have been transformed into myth over the years. And I can’t help but think I’ve got some of it wrong myself. Did I really read that, in her governess days, Anne once tied her unruly charges to the legs of a table so she could write? It seems most improbable.

Biographers and critics, too, delve into their archives with varying reliability and appeal. Juliet Barker’s biography, The Brontës, is fascinating and scholarly, and worth dipping into even if you can’t face all 1,000 pages. But my favorite is Mrs. Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, because Gaskell is a spellbinding storyteller. Critics grumble about her inaccuracies and mythologizing, but she had the advantage of a close friendship with Charlotte.

We readers visualize Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as prototypes of their fictional characters, walking on the windy moors, falling in love with brutes (some of their dissipated heroes, like Emily’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, were probably modeled on their alcoholic, drug-taking brother Branwell),  and struggling to survive as poor, genteel women, working as governesses and teachers.

The Brontës, who lived most of their lives at Haworth Parsonage, published seven of the most exciting and controversial novels of the 19th century – under men’s names.  All three wrote explosive narratives about dark love and separation, though their personal experiences of romance were limited. Emily in particular was reclusive and did not thrive outside the home; both Anne and Emily worked briefly as teachers or governesses, but were too sickly to survive in the workplace.  

Charlotte, the most robust sister, drew on her experience in Brussels as well as on her home life and imagination.  Charlotte studied languages in Brussels with Emily in 1842. Then she herself returned in 1843 and  taught there.  She fell in love with M. Heger, the married owner of the school. (Her mature autobiographical novel, Villette, is based partly on these experiences.) 

Charlotte was the only sister who married.  She married her father’s curate, Rev. A. B. Nicholls, in 1854, and died the next year of an illness contracted during her pregnancy.

In their novels, they were ambivalent about marriage, and it does seem that Charlotte’s marriage killed her.

I love all of the Brontës. I am a great fan of Emily, the wildest and most poetic of the three , though I don’t admire Wuthering Heights as much as I used to. And Anne, who is in vogue now, is my least favorite. But however you rate them , they are three of the most remarkable writers of the nineteenth century.

Confusingly Similar Titles: “Death of My Aunt” and “The Murder of My Aunt”

I was browsing at a foundering used bookstore when I came across two mysteries by C. H. B. Kitchin, Death of My Aunt and Death of His Uncle, in scruffy 1980s Perennial paperbacks.  The bookstore owner, who favored a hard sell and attached the word “classic” to every book I scrutinized,  claimed they were crime “classics.”  Whether true or not,  I was intrigued by the clever titles, and once home stacked them in the place of honor on the bedside table.  That night I perused a few (slightly foxed) pages of  Death of My Aunt and put it aside.  Ditto with Death of His Uncle

 Could books with such whimsical titles actually be dull?

Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood, I thought cheerily the next morning.  I was sure I would read them someday.  And indeed, I thought someday had come when I snapped up a  British Library edition of The Murder of My Aunt.

The Murder of My Aunt is a a mildly entertaining mystery – but a third of the way through I realized that it was not Kitchin’s aunt  mystery at all – it was by Richard Hull! Kitchin’s book is called Death of My Aunt.

I felt cross. “How dare they screw around with titles, and wasn’t this some kind of plagiarism?” (though perhaps that doesn’t apply to titles).  Kitchin’s aunt book was published in 1929, and Hull’s followed in 1934.

Feeling cheated, I consoled myself with the prospect of reading  Kitchin’s aunt book and comparing it to Hull’s.

But Death of My Aunt has vanished.  Perhaps I donated it to the library.

So here I am, with my cup of tea, ready to read Kitchin’s Death of His Uncle instead.   Book open, pages ready…  and the first sentence is brilliant.  “Had it not been for my inability to mash potatoes on Thursday, June 10th, I think it quite possible that I might never have embarked on this third case of mine.”

Bur there is further exasperation.  This aged paperback of  Death of His Uncle is too tightly bound: I can barely read the words near the center of the book.  I’ve tried pummeling it, folding back the cover, but nothing works.

I’m ready to read C.H.B. Kitchin – and now this! 

Which is better? His aunt book or his uncle book?

I hope Kitchin is worth reading. He also wrote literary fiction: he was a close friend of L. P. Hartley.

Reluctant Roommates: Angela Lambert’s “A Rather English Marriage”

I love 20th-century culture – especially novels. My latest discovery is A Rather English Marriage, by Angela Lambert (1940-2007), an English writer whose clever, lively novels unfold with precision and simplicity. 

Old age and obligatory friendship are her themes here, as she depicts an awkward friendship between two old men, Roy, a retired milkman, and Reggie Conynhame-Jervis, a former RAF pilot, whose wives die on the same day at the same hospital.  At the prompting of the vicar and a social worker, the men become roommates. Depressed Roy moves in with Reggie, a blustering, pompous, well-to-do man who likes to be addressed as Squadron Leader and  tell rambling stories about his glory days during World War II. 

 These aged roommates are have vastly different attitudes toward marriage.  Roy grieves incessantly for his wife, who was also his best friend.  Reggie, who barely noticed his wife, and did not have sex with her for decades, does not miss her at all, though he is miffed to discover that she had made a fortune on the stock exchange without telling him.

 And then there is the lack of boundaries regarding Reggie’s treatment of Roy. Reggie regards Roy as an unpaid servant, but Roy continues to do the housework to keep busy.  One night he agrees to serve dinner to Reggie and his date, a relatively young woman in her fifties (20 years younger than Reggie).  Roy is angry when Reggie and his Liz call him Southgate, as if he is the butler.

The characters of these two men of different classes illustrate their antithetical principles and philosophies. Roy is grounded in duty to his family, preoccupied with a ne’er-do well-son who is in prison for bigamy, and with his rowdy grandchildren, whose listless mother is not raising them well. For the sake of his grandchildren, Roy works to maintain the relationship. On the other hand, the boastful Reggie has no friends except those he pays for, like the pricey prostitute he visits in London, and Liz, a chic shop owner who goes out with him in case she goes broke and needs to marry money.  

And yet when circumstances change, the two old men do become friends.  It is, after all, when disaster happens that one finds out who one’s real friends are.

This book was a delight to read.  It is out-of-print, but is available as an e-book.  Does anyone recommend any other books by Lambert? 

 Reading in Public and Elsewhere: The Indie Bookstore Trend

“Where are all the independent bookstores?”  I wondered every time I read in a glossy magazine about the new independent bookstore trend.   

 Ten years after the rest of the world – a typical time lag for a trend to reach the midwest – independent bookstores are springing up on the landscape.  There is Dog-Eared Books in Ames, Iowa, a university town that, tragically and improbably, lacked an independent bookstore for 15 years after Big Table Books, a co-op bookstore, closed in 2006.  Dog-Eared Books, which opened in 2021, specializes in new books, with a small selection of used books.  It also has a coffee bar and a dog.

I was thrilled and intrigued to learn that another new indie bookstore has arrived on the scene.  Reading in Public opened this month in a sleek, streamlined new building in Valley Junction in West Des Moines, Iowa.

“Read books and be kind to people” is the Reading in Public motto.  I have it on a bookmark.

Walk into  the chic urban space and the polite bibliophiles step back and part like the Red Sea.  There were no walking crashes, just a couple of narrow squeeze-bys, when three or four people tried confusedly to pass in different directions. (The store was crowded.)

The owner, Linzi Murray, a graphic designer who moved back to Des Moines from New York to start the bookstore, has a zealous philosophy of bookselling.  She told a local newspaper, “For me, curation is my No. 1 priority. It’s [about] getting the books in front of the people that may never find them because you never know what book is going to meet the person at the right time and what impact it could have.” 

I am impressed by the collection of books.  A  carefully-curated display on top of low shelves enticed me to examine books I had not heard of. And you can sit on comfortable stools in front of these shelves, so you can see the books at eye-level.

Of course, I was mesmerized by the floor-to-ceiling shelves.  There were so many books I wanted.  Should I buy Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch, I wondered. Or Geraldine Brooks’s Horse, which I was unable to find before Christmas?  I also considered a Mexican novel by a writer I had never heard of.  

One customer clutched a copy of Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer-winning The Night Watchman. (“Good choice,” I almost said.)  Another browser intently perused anthologies of short stories.  A couple waited at the coffee bar while the barista fussed over the brand-new espresso machine. 

My one complaint:  I wish Reading in Public and Dog-Eared Books had better backlists.

But these booksellers probably know their audience. People do like to keep up with the latest books.  

I’ll be back.

 And, let’s face it, a good backlist isn’t built in a day!

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