Cultivation

‘I found quite quickly that nothing bored people so immediately and completely as botany.’ — Nan Fairbrother, An English Year

 

 

 

At the risk of being boring… botany and macro-photography of the plant world is something I enjoy. I am just a keen amateur, of course, but when the photography suggestion for the week was ‘Order‘… I immediately thought of seed pods. These are some recent pictures I took of my faded peony. The flowers were stunning–and I did get many pictures of those–but, to me, the seed pods are even more fascinating. (They suggest to me fuzzy slippers, strewn with the limp confetti of spent petals and popped balloon detritus, and a warm and cozy morning after a really good party the night before, which can now be endlessly discussed at leisure and over several cups of coffee while we ponder Who Came and What Was Said.)

But what, I wondered, was inside? So I sliced one in half to peek into the busy command central of future flower production.

Within these tiny packets is an irony. There are few things more DIS-orderly than an untended garden. Yet seed production in the world of plants is an example of order in the most breathtaking sense of the word.

Where the seeds go, and how they are tended is where the hand of man comes in.

‘Each family of flowers—rose, daisy, buttercup—is like a theme of music, and the different species are variations on it.’ — Nan Fairbrother

FairbrotherEnglishYearI am currently re-reading excerpts from Nan Fairbrother’s An English Year.  I return to this book often, actually, as it’s the sort of book not easily absorbed in just one sitting.

When it comes to plants, we connect quite sympathetically:

‘It was on these days that I came to know and love the country. I travelled for miles around, for an active child can go a long way on a bicycle in eight hours. I became so familiar with the trees and flowers that they were nearer and far dearer than any people. I saved up and bought Johns’s Flowers of the Field… I learnt to run down in a flora the flowers I did not know. I struggled with botany books on osmotic pressure and the history of flowering plants and the difference in structure between monocotyledons and dicotyledons.’

And perhaps, if she were alive today, she might also be slicing seed pods, arranging them in the best light, (perhaps while balancing them on her knees) and holding a little phone camera as steadily as possible to best capture an interior world and glimpses of a colorful future.

IMG_0741

Nan Fairbrother

Legal Tender

When tender is legal
It becomes less interesting
As the history of the novel
Might suggest


Next up, Barsetshire–Angela Thirkell’s version–where marriages abound, and romance is given the funniest treatment ever.

410oowhkegl-_sx322_bo1204203200_‘Mr. Downing, slightly intoxicated by talking about himself and the delightful evening he was having, had a curiously empty feeling in the arm nearest to Mrs. Turner and was vaguely conscious that the one thing that it needed was something exactly the right size to go round, say something about the size, shape and consistency of his hostess, but this thought did not get beyond a very nebulous and unpractical stage.’ — from Northbridge Rectory, 1941

A tender moment, as only Angela Thirkell could write it.

 

The Rose Garden Husband

IMG_1946
‘Well, she had everything that she had wished for on that wet February day in the library. Money, leisure to be pretty, a husband whom she “didn’t have to associate with much,” rest, if she ever gave herself leave to take it, and the rose garden. She had her wishes, as uncannily fulfilled as if she had been ordering her fate from a department store, and had money to pay for it.’

That may sound like an odd recipe for happiness, but, for me, The Rose Garden Husband was a particularly good choice of novel to read on a fine day in this first of June, with my roses blooming abundantly in the garden.

The novel of choice having been written in 1915, it also had fair chance of being endowed with a fairytale happy ending. And that also sounded very nice.

45B56D88-7E2D-4C21-9E8E-DA120E622A9A-1926-000004F0866621FC

Margaret Widdemer

The book was a recent gift to me from a sweet friend who knows I like ‘old books and obscure authors’. And indeed, this writer is new to me, but I was delighted to see some lovely reviews of her work online.

Margaret Widdemer was prolific in output. Her writing career spanned from 1915 to 1968 (or so), and during this period she produced a whopping forty novels, plus many other works such as poetry (winning an early Pulitzer Prize), children’s stories, and essays. The Rose Garden Husband, published in 1915, was her first novel, and it continues to be a fan favorite.

Just say ‘Victorian era romance’, and it might bring to mind selfless heroines who go into declines, a room stuffed with horsehair sofas and stiff conversation, and, oh yes, maudlin sentiment. Widdemer’s novel brings some fresh air to this genre, and while the ending is predictable and a bit neatly packaged, it still delivers on charm and surprisingly humorous narrative. The heroine is every bit as selfless and full of New England backbone as we might have foreseen, but she is also energetic, witty, and comes with a few surprises.

‘I’d marry anything that would give me a rose garden!’

I liked this character a great deal, particularly when I read her list of things she wanted. I took a picture of the page (my copy is a 1915 reprint) because I was charmed by the neat little notes a former reader had written in to accompany the list. Likely the same former reader who had written her name ‘Harriet Rose’ in the flyleaf. Obviously, a desire for jewelry, poetry, and a plethora of shoes will charm ladies of any generation.

IMG_1964

Phyllis’ wish for ‘Ever so many Maxfield Parrish pictures full of Prussian blue skies’, and ‘A room big enough to put all father’s books up’ resonated with me.

Phyllis Harrington gets all this and more, though in the beginning she had only wished for a rose garden with a gentleman husband she wouldn’t have to ‘have any association with’.

She laughs at herself for this wish, however, and pulls herself together from her reverie. (Phyllis does not go into declines but she does go into reveries now and again.)

This sweet story is all about wish fulfillment, but there is an amusing curiosity not lost on the modern reader. Volumes of feminist erudition have been written on the plight of a young woman’s prospects in the fiction of Jane Austen and others of her era and beyond. To marry was a career move, and often the only way to advance in one’s life.

“Marriage is indeed a maneuvering business.” ― Jane Austen

Margaret Widdemer puts it baldly in this story, and in more modern terms—Marriage is a job opportunity.

IMG_1955

In the narrative, Phyllis has resigned herself to becoming a careworn spinster. Although she loves her career as a librarian, she has no time for social outings or opportunities to meet men. She also sees no way out of her constrained circumstances in life.

“I’m just a battered bisque doll!” she repeated to herself, bitterly.

(This struck me as a bit odd, to tell the truth, as Phyllis, though tired much of the time in the beginning, is described as very pretty with masses of honey blonde hair…more of ‘a pretty bisque figurine’ than a ‘battered bisque doll’, the author wants us to know… surely someone would have noticed her getting on or off the trolley on her way to and from work? Men are so resourceful that way… I would think potential suitors would have been lining up at the library feigning an interest in Modern Literature.)

A visit from a lawyer friend, Mr. De Guenther, sets the stage for a surprising offer for Phyllis.

“I have—we have—a little matter of business to discuss with you tomorrow night, my dear; an offer, I may say, of a different line of work…” [Mr. De Guenther hems and haws around the matter for a bit more, finally concluding, inconclusively: ]“Because the line of work which I wish, or rather my wife wishes, to lay before you is—is a very different line of work!”

The Different Line of Work, as Phyllis comes to realize, is a proposition of marriage from a future-mother-in-law, who is dying. The marriage, as old Mrs. Harrington hopes, will secure the compassionate care of her invalid son after she is gone. Phyllis may have only five or so years of ‘work’, supervising Allan Harrington’s care; then, it being likely he will die by that time, Phyllis will inherit the plump retirement of his entire fortune.

From rags to riches, from spinster to bride. From tweeds to satin, from sturdy librarian’s brogues to satin slippers. A career move, indeed.

Phyllis—a practical girl who is organized and makes lists—has few reservations. Likely she will need to interact with him very little, he has a fleet of servants and caregivers; her only responsibility is to see that they all do their job. Her career as the serious Miss Braithwaite, “Assistant for the Children’s Department, Greenway Branch, City Public Library“, with a background as manager of the Circulation and Cataloguing Departments, has equipped her admirably for this job.

She accepts.

‘It feels partly like going into a nunnery and partly like going into a fairy story,’ she said to herself.’

IMG_1951And what of Allan Harrington, the invalid with a death wish who is about to become the hero of the story?

The ‘scientific’ explanation of his condition, as expressed in 1915, was this:

“You see, it was found that the shock to the nerves, acting on an already over-keyed mind and body, together with some spinal blow concerning which the doctors are still in doubt, had affected Allan’s powers of locomotion.”

Ah, we get it. His paralysis isn’t an inability to walk. He just has no incentive. He wants to die. But Allan is about to meet his new incentive, and find his ‘powers of locomotion’ are capable of being revived.

Phyllis first meets Allan in his darkened sickroom. Her impression is:

‘A Crusader on a tomb. Yes, he looked like that. In the room’s half-dusk the pallor of his still….face and his long, clear-cut hands was nearly the same as the whiteness of the couch draperies. His hair, yellow-brown and waving, flung back from his forehead like a crest, and his dark brows and lashes made the only note of darkness about him.’

In spite of his obvious invalidism and tremulous voice, Phyllis finds him quite beautiful as a man.

‘Somehow she could not think of Allan Harrington’s dying. He was too beautiful to be dead, where nobody could see him any more….He must have been delightful,” she thought, “when he was alive!”

You might guess what is about to happen. We know it as soon as she sees him, and the next scene has her out shopping with Mrs. De Guenther buying:

‘… a heavenly white crepe thing with rosy ribbons and filmy shadow-laces—the negligee of one’s dreams.’

Oh, yes. Phyllis has plans. Plans that involve ‘a heavenly white crepe thing’. Her dream of a rose garden is about to come true, but that dream of ‘a husband whom she “didn’t have to associate with much”—? Dashed forever.

Oh yes, good things happen in this story. Good things delightfully told.


Additional notes:

Many of Margaret Widdemer’s books are available as ebooks, or can be read online. Other than that, I don’t know if she is actually ‘in print’, except perhaps print on demand copies.

I enjoyed Jane’s review of this book; as usual she describes the story in thoughtful detail, and I love her comment: ‘If you’d like to be captivated, if you have an uncynical heart that needs lifting…this is the book for you.’

I can only add to that it is nice to read a book that highlights unselfishness and kindness in people.

A nice article here, that gives us more insight into the character of Widdemer via her poetry–Read more about Margaret Widdemer as a poet here (Widdemer was one of the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry before it was known as the Pulitzer Prize)

For a possible likeness of the ‘Crusader on a tomb’ here is a fascinating account of one–and this particular knight ended up in New York at the Met Cloisters, oddly enough…but I’m thinking that Margaret actually saw this knight (a year before she published this book in 1915) and was taken by his quiet strength in death’s repose, for the website of the Cloisters gives us this tidbit on the history of the collection:

‘Much of the sculpture at The Met Cloisters was acquired by George Grey Barnard (1863–1938), a prominent American sculptor, and an avid collector and dealer of medieval art. Barnard opened his original Cloisters on Fort Washington Avenue to the public in 1914.’

Crusader

 

Greetings, Mr. Lear

Imaginary
When your imagination
Is controlling you

1862ca-a-book-of-nonsense-edward-lear-001

An imaginary world, when created by a truly gifted, conflicted mind, has the vexatious tendency to outlive its author. An author/artist who, perhaps, had dreams of accomplishing something more weighty is remembered by Quangle-Wangles, Pobbles, and Jumblies.

As a curious word devotee, I have to give a nod to imaginary worlds as they have given us some of our greatest (and most curious) neologisms.

Edward Lear was an artist who dipped his brush heavily into nonsense. And, for the most part, that is how he is remembered. Fancible verbal creations of his such as ‘runcible spoon’, even made its way into many dictionaries (with various attempts to define this imaginary object).

But Lear’s own story is a sad one. His imaginary world grew as the real world became more painful and lonely. Stricken with epilepsy–which terrified him and caused him to withdraw from company for long periods of time–and increasing blindness, put an end to his hopes of being the artist and illustrator he dreamed of.

1920px-masada_28or_sebbeh29_on_the_dead_sea2c_edward_lear2c_1858

“He had a lifelong ambition to illustrate Tennyson‘s poems.” [wiki]

Throughout his life Lear kept painting, and even with his diminished eyesight, his work as a ‘naturalist’ bird artist and landscape painter had him compared favorably with Audubon.

barnards

From ‘Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae’ by Edward Lear

Many of his earlier pieces of landscape art are lovely and intuitive, and one can only regret his failing eyesight.

But Mr. Lear, we thank you that, despite despair and illness, you kept creating habitable worlds of your own that would bring a strange rush of delight to generations to come.

oldlear

 

Further:


A delightful page devoted to Edward Lear here.

As I’ve written about here, on my Margery Sharp blog, this vexatious habit of imaginary creations taking on a life of their own was true of that lovable bear named Winnie the Pooh, and the warm and fuzzy vice-like grip it kept on the life of author A.A. Milne.

No Made Up Tale

As usual, when I sit down to write upon a topic, that topic immediately becomes much vaster than the ‘brief paragraph or two with accompanying picture’ will give justice to. I am a long-winded writer because…well…things are just interesting. Right?

cloudwalking2

Or not. You see, ‘portion control’ is what I have been striving to achieve with my blog. Most people relate portion control to food, if they tend to overeat. For me, it is related to what I choose to read and write. Some reading is just downright depressing, even if they are classics. Or perhaps the fact that they are classics and have survived this long with that much baggage is enervating to think about. I don’t know, actually. I just know that portion control in reading is a must for me to keep my psyche running lean and fit.

As to that, long-winded blog posts that I tend to write need portion control. I so love interesting side trips and digressions. All too often, though, they don’t fit the appetite of today’s reader.  So, if you have been following this blog for awhile, you may have noticed that my blog posts are shorter, and more infrequent.

Today’s post is a classic (pardon the pun) example of what I fight constantly as a reader and writer. It was to be about a simple parallel between a classic story—the Iliad—and an old-fashioned story set in Kentucky that I believe is one of the finest stories I’ve ever read.

But one doesn’t just quickly set about doing brief blurbs when it comes to some of the finest words ever put to paper. And one doesn’t just spin off a quick sentence or two about the strangely connected worlds of Homeric Greece and the Southern States without thinking of ‘Oh Brother, Where Are Thou’, the fabulous song ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’, and the generally often shrill insensibleness of epic heroes.

At this point I will just remind myself: Portion Control.

While I can get carried away by the sheer beauty of the poetry, the muscular power of imagery in books like the Iliad and The Odyssey, the weirdness (for lack of a better word) of the ancient mind can get a bit trying. It’s a similar kind of emotionally erratic journey I experience in reading the literature of ‘olden times’ in Appalachia, or the Kentucky hills, with all their quaint ‘dreamy-drunken’ expressions, as I call it. A lyrical poetry in the expressions, a sing-song seduction of narrative carries me along and before I know it I am similarly ‘cloud walking’ or caught adrift amidst the ‘fingers of rosy-colored dawn’.

Odysseus was ‘a man of many sorrows’—his tears became their own sort of character in the narrative, yet it is interesting that Man of Constant Sorrow is also an Appalachian folk song with a heritage that goes back hundreds of years, maybe more. Intense tribal loyalties, coupled with unbalanced vendettas against petty trifles–bringing on a cycle of war and feuds–these also share the same patterns of crazy quilt imagery both from the ancient Greek world to the southern hills of rural America.

These themes can be traced endlessly, and, especially when it comes to the folk songs and those indescribably erratic folk tales…are endlessly fascinating. Yet…for this not to go on for pages (or even be written at all) here is a simple comparison. It’s not even the best one–just the one I could access and distribute the fastest….

The book? Cloud-Walking, written in 1942 by Marie Campbell. As I said, one of the finest books I’ve ever read. I am not sure its unique power would be for everyone–for one thing, it resonates with me because I have a family history that relates to the Appalachian Mountains and Kentucky hills, and all those wild-hearted, stubborn, delightful people. But oh, this woman could write. (more on this book later!)

MarieCampbell

Marie Campbell

The second book needs no introduction: Iliad, by Homer. The tragic tale of heroic deeds and, yes…oh brother killing brother where art thou? (too close to home, I’m afraid).

‘For as long as it was morning and the holy day was waxing, the weapons thrown by both sides reached their mark and the men kept falling. But when a woodcutter makes his dinner in the mountain glens, when his hands are tired with cutting the tall trees and weariness has touched his heart, and desire for the pleasure of food takes over his mind–then the Danaans showed their worth and, calling to each other down their ranks, they broke the enemy line…Agamemnon was the first to spring through and kill his man, Bienor, shepherd of his people…’ [Iliad]

And back to the mountains here…

‘Back in other settlements they was killings aplenty over politics. Way over on Lone Creek five persons was killed and three more looking to die from ‘lection troubles. One place two brothers shot each other over who to vote for, and Uncle Blessing’s woman’s boy killed his woman’s pap and hisself over politics. From the time politics started in the spring to make ready for the primary voting till the candidates was picked and politics settled agin Nelt counted up about thirty persons shot to death in settlements about the country.’ [Cloud Walking’ 1942]

As Marie Campbell says in her forward, ‘this is no made up tale’. Sad but true.


More on Marie Campbell coming soon. (yes I really think it will happen this time!)

For yesterday’s visual of my fanciful Odysseus tears, see here.

 

 

 

Pink is Deep

garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

A selection of garden books by Louise Beebe Wilder

Louise Beebe Wilder has a lot to say on the subject of pink. The writer (in this house, the beloved writer) of Color in My Garden and later, The Garden in Color, is something of an authority.

I read her words on the subject of pink with a mingling of modern amusement (thank our snarky age of disbelief) and respectful awe.

There is a chapter on ‘Rose Pink’, but her chapter entirely devoted to the strangely unloved ‘Magenta the Maligned‘ is not to be missed. If you’re a gardener, or even an artist who works from, and is inspired by, color, there are some eye opening opinions here.

Besides, perhaps, the mysterious ‘puce’, made famous by Georgette Heyer’s books, (oh, the intrigues of a ‘puce sarsinet’)….. I had never known a color to be so despised. Apparently it is the undertone of purple that causes the problem? The problem described by Wilder as:

‘the horror of great masses of magenta phlox and tiger lilies…’ planted in old ladies’ gardens…

At any rate, ‘rose pink’ is beyond reproach in the June garden, whereas ‘magenta’? Viewed with suspicion and distrust. There is not much that raises the ire of a pleasant writer such as Louise Beebe Wilder, but she certainly vents against those, as she terms it, ‘the sins of our nurserymen who try to pass off magenta as rose pink’.

As you can see, strong terms are used against this shade of pink.

The pictures I have chosen to accompany this post are ones I took just yesterday, from my own garden. Pink is very much the color of the season around here, and I would like to think we are all innocent fluffiness in our pink associations. Nothing ‘horrible’ or ‘tasteless’.  I would like to think that Wilder would have felt safe having tea in my garden, and highly approved of this color; it is closer to what she would call ‘rose pink’, than the virulent magenta.

But in case you’re curious about the magenta prejudice from other gardeners, here are a few quotes from Wilder’s book:

‘Nearly every writer upon garden topics pauses in his praise of other flower colors to give the despised one a rap in passing.’ [the ‘despised one’ i.e. magenta]

Mr. Bowles: ‘That awful form of floral original sin, magenta.’

Gertrude Jekyll: ‘Malignant magenta’.

Mrs. Alice Morse Earl: ‘usually so sympathetic and tender toward all flowers, says that, “even the word magenta”, seen often in the pages of her charming book, “makes the black and white look cheap.”‘ — From Color in My Garden

So there you have it. Who knew? Pink is deep.