Placid Surface

‘The best of a country’s history is written on its rivers.’ H.E. Bates

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After the brutal fire season here in the Pacific Northwest, we have been trying to spend more time than usual in our beloved Columbia River Gorge. Not all of the trails and viewpoints are open yet–many will takes years to recover from the fires–but there is a reassuring amount of untouched beauty still to be had.

As is often the case, when I think of rivers, and their strangely mesmerizing power, I call to mind the words of H.E. Bates, in his work Down the River.  Bates is primarily beloved as a novelist, and perhaps even more praiseworthy in the short story category, but I do treasure his nature essays. He has that same wonderful sense of recall as poet Laurie Lee, and the simple pleasures of the natural world–the streams, rivers, fields and trees around them–nurtured the artist in both men.

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woodcut illustrations in my edition of Down the River by Agnes Miller Parker

Bates makes this interesting observation about the lure of water, and one I thought paired well with the idea of ‘serene‘:

‘Water shares with woods some power of tranquilizing the spirit, of quietening it almost to a point of dissolving it away; so that nearly all the best enjoyment of a piece of water comes from the mere act of sitting near it and doing nothing at all. It must surely be this power which attracts human beings in thousands to narrow strips of sand and shingle all over the world, which lures them to sit there… and gaze for hours at the expanses of sea and sky….’

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For more on H.E. Bates:IMG_9452

The Drowsy Heart of Autumn

Winter Intermezzo

 

 

 

 

 

Book and publishing notes: this cover is borrowed from the web, as it shows the British publisher page (Victor Gollancz, ltd, 1937) and my 1937 edition is identical except it is the American edition by Henry Holt and Co.

Grannies in the Wainscot

“In all their time as such close neighbors they never exchanged a word.”

Bring up the topic of neighbor, and one story comes to my mind.

Grannies in the Wainscot, as short story—an essay of remembrance—is included in the sublime collection Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee. If it seems strange to have written a memoir of one’s life at age 23, as did Lee, his tender recall of the story of two enemy grannies is even stranger.

The setting could not be more romantic, with or without Laurie Lee’s lush prose. An old seventeenth century Cotswold manor house, had, by the late nineteenth century become a sagging but picturesque relic, and subdivided into three living quarters for poorer, less exalted folk. In the pre-war years of his childhood, young Lee and his family inhabited one section, while the other two parts of the home were each dominated by an old crone.

‘Granny Trill and Granny Wallon were rival ancients and lived on each other’s nerves and their perpetual enmity was like mice in the walls and absorbed much of my early days. With their sickle bent bodies, pale pink eyes, and wild wisps of hedgerow hair, they looked to me the very images of witches and they were also much alike.’

There is nothing lovable in this description of the two old ladies, and yet, with Lee’s gift for nostalgic writing, you feel you recognize this pair, and a curious warble of affection begins to play.

Laurie Lee, poet

‘They communicated to each other by means of boots and brooms—jumping on floors and knocking on ceilings. They referred to each other as ‘Er-Down-Under’ and ‘Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint’.

Yes, a stranger pair of neighbors you never did ‘hear the like of’ as my grandmother would have said. And speaking of my grandma Josie, she knew how to wield a broom with a fair bit of precision. I can also remember her little ‘war’ going on for years with the old neighbor lady in the back of the property.

So perhaps such stories of neighbors resonates a bit with all our memories. Lee’s recounting of the old beech tree I found particularly beautiful.

‘“Me dad planted that tree,” [Granny Trill] said absently, pointing out through the old cracked window.

‘The great beech filled at least half the sky and shook shadows all over the house. Its roots clutched the slope like a giant hand, holding the hill in place. Its trunk writhed with power, threw off veils of green dust, rose towering into the air, branched into a thousand shaded alleys, became a city for owls and squirrels. I had thought such trees to be as old as the earth; I never dreamed that a man could make them. Yet it was Granny Trill’s dad who had planted this tree, who had thrust in the seed with his finger. How old must he have been to leave such a mark? Think of Granny’s age, and add his on top, and you were back at the beginning of the world.’

The poignant part of Lee’s recounting, comes, of course, at the end.

One day Granny Trill stumbled and broke her hip.

illustration by John Ward

“She went to bed then forever.”

Granny Wallon came a’crowing… “her’s going you mark my words.”

But Granny Trill’s death knell was Granny Wallon’s, too. In the oddest, most neighborly act between the two rival crones in the decades they had lived next to each other without speaking, Granny Wallon soon went, too.

‘Granny Wallon had triumphed, she had buried her rival, and now there was no more to do. From then on she faded and diminished daily, kept to her house and would not be seen. The wine fires sank and died in the kitchen, as did the sweet fires of obsession….there was nothing, in fact, to keep her alive. No cause, no bite, no fury. Er-Down-Under had joined Er-Up-Atop, having lived closer than anyone knew.’

Lucy Carmichael, Part Two

‘She is incautious and intrepid. She will go to several wrong places, and arrive at the right one, while I am still making up my mind to cross the road. She is my opposite in character. She is cheerful and confident and expects to be happy.’ Lucy Carmichael, by Margaret Kennedy

lucy-carmichaelIf this description makes you think of Elizabeth Bennet, then you will enjoy noting several such Pride and Prejudice references throughout this novel.

I enjoyed reading Lucy Carmichael. (This is Part Two of my review of Lucy Carmichael, Part One is here, and for more on the Margaret Kennedy reading event hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, click here)

I think, perhaps, that I enjoyed it more because of knowing the little tidbit given by Violet Powell, in her biography of Margaret Kennedy:

‘Margaret dedicated it to her daughter, Julia. Suitably, as it is a book about the troubles of young girls in coming to terms with life and love.’

This gave me insight into the overall tone of the novel—a loving mother wrote this, with her daughter in mind.

Lucy Carmichael is strong young woman–‘cheerful and confident’, as mentioned at the outset–with many winning character traits. She doesn’t really need a man, but doesn’t realize this until the end. In spite of the fact that she begins rather shockingly as the poor jilted bride, Lucy has a number of men who want to offer her consolation.

‘This,’ (mother might be saying to her daughter), ‘is not the kind of relationship you want. You’re better than that.’

The crux of the matter is quickly given at the outset, so it’s not a spoiler to point out that Lucy is left at the altar. Thus we begin with a once-vibrant young woman, crushed and brought low.

It’s where Lucy Carmichael goes from here that makes the story interesting.

To some extent Kennedy distances the reader from Lucy’s extreme suffering. When Lucy moves away to get a fresh start, we learn of her new life via letters. In this, we are given more side helpings of insight and the notion that she is doing her best to put on a brave face. Still, we are kept at a distance. Some examples:

Oct. 4
‘This letter is so sour I think I had better finish it. I had meant it to be sparkling with wit and humor but it hasn’t turned out that way. I’m not sorry I came, and I think that Slane Forest looks most enticing. I mean to explore it.’

Nov. 1
‘On Sundays I explore Slane Forest on a bicycle or go to read to Mr. Meeker who is blind and has nobody to read to him. I am quite all right, only my hair is falling out. Do you know of a good tonic?’

‘A letter from you has just arrived. What on earth has my mother been saying? I have not been ill. But my hands and feet went numb. I couldn’t feel anything in them. So Emil said I had pernicious anaemia and would die. I pointed out that people don’t die nowadays; they take liver extract.’

Dec. 24
‘I can’t go home for Xmas. I have got shingles. What do you know about that? I didn’t know anybody my age could have them, but they can for I have, or something of the sort. It came on at a horrible party they have at the end of term, after a most depressing Nativity play.’

But we feel for Lucy, very keenly, with these little revelations. And the brilliant aspect of this method results in us wanting to know more of her thoughts and feelings. The reader welcomes the slow revealing of Lucy’s inner world, as the heartache begins to ease. She is a kind, dynamic, ‘can do’ sort of person. As she begins to heal and grow into her new life—indeed, to regain her former brilliant sparks of life—we enter more of her direct conscious thought, experience more of her life as it is happening, and are no longer at one remove by means of secondhand information or letters.

It was almost as though Kennedy (once again, in a kind motherly fashion) kept us at a polite distance from this strong-minded young woman and protected her while intensely vulnerable.

As mentioned, there are many delightful references to Jane Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice, for we have none other than a brooding, supercilious Mr. Darcy character sketched for us, under the name of Charles Millwood. He is quite above Lucy in social station—a girl he barely notices at first and then describes as ‘unabashedly middle class’—but he cannot help but be moved by her fresh beauty and strength of character.

‘She lifted her eyes to Charles, who was asking her some question. He thought that he had never in his life seen such beautiful eyes, though he could not put a name to the light which shone in them. The turn of her head, her smile, and this luminous tenderness of her glance, made him feel quite giddy; they tingled through his nerves like a shock.’

I can only quote (as Margaret Kennedy actually did in the book), ‘Are the shades of Pemberley thus to be polluted?’

In her book Jane Austen, Margaret Kennedy gives high accolades to Jane Austen’s premier creation of fiction, Pride and Prejudice, while admitting:

‘Darcy exists only to play in scenes with Elizabeth….Nor can we believe that rude young men of good family, met at balls, turned out later to be as amiable as was Fitzwilliam Darcy.’

Kennedy does not make this mistake with her fictional Charles Millwood.

In the end, we know Lucy has found happiness with herself, that all-important inner self worth that no one can take away.

‘Her restlessness was all gone. A bliss, an ecstasy, came to her, which she had known constantly in childhood but which she had thought to be lost. It came again, the overpowering joy, from the fields in the yellow winter light it came, from the huge sky, from the hard ice beneath her singing skates.

‘She wanted nothing more of life than the moment held…’

Now would be a very good time for Mr. Right to show up, just when he’s not needed, and looks all the better for it. Does he?

‘To create an entirely charming girl is one of the rarest achievements in fiction.’ 

So wrote Margaret Kennedy, in her comments on Pride and Prejudice. In Lucy Carmichael, she created a very charming, very believable heroine. And gave her happiness. Which is always nice to have, in the end.

 

 

Lucy Carmichael: A Preamble

The book of the moment is another gem by Margaret Kennedy — Lucy Carmichael, published in 1951. 

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I am always happy for a chance to explore a Margaret Kennedy book, and Jane at Beyond Eden Rock is hosting a reading event for Margaret Kennedy today.

This is a warm-up to my own review of the book, and likely the best way, as I am sure this review would need to be a Part One and Two, anyway!

There are always riches to be had in a Kennedy novel, so I am trying to linger over it and not rush through to the end. Margaret Kennedy builds her stories in delicious layers, each one needing to be savored.

That being said, at first I was a bit put off by the distance I felt from the main character Lucy–learning of her story secondhand or in a quick rush that felt a bit choppy; and then only hearing of her inner world via letters to her friend. (I’m not always a fan of the epistolary novel) However, this resolves itself beautifully, and there is more to be said on that score, for I was soon left in awe of Kennedy’s sleight of hand. She is a superb technician when it comes to structuring her novels!

Like The Feast, Lucy Carmichael begins with a climax. You know the worst at the outset, so to speak, then it is aftermath, sifting through rubble, and building character, finding what people are made of, or what choices they will make when affliction strikes.

I really enjoy this aspect of Kennedy’s novels–how she creates character. Even seemingly unimportant characters are built in with a solid foundation and story. This gives the impression that you are entering a real world–warts and all–and a social environment that, while not one I have actually experienced, is still believable as though I know these types of situations and the personalities that give them life.

Even as I say that, I have to make an exception of her ‘Bohemian’, characterizations, which I find to be rather over-stated and overblown in their amoral drama and lifestyle, with their larger than life talents and inability to be true to anyone other than themselves and their ‘Art’. And they talk ‘like zis‘. She has included a colorful one in this story as well, and he is slightly more sensible than her characters in The Constant Nymph. At least he offers Lucy a bit of kindly wisdom now and again.

‘He opened the door when I arrived, clutching a frying pan in
his hand, I can’t think why, for he can’t cook. And he looked at
me very, very sadly and said: ”Zis is terrible!”

It was, rather, because they had made no attempt to get my
room ready, though they knew when I was coming. Mrs. A. is The
Bottom as a housekeeper. She is an apple-cheeked little ninny with
humble brown eyes and a blue plastic hair slide in the shape of
three daisies. They have a baby which she calls *’baby” and he *’ze
child.” It is a dribbly object; I wish I was a womanly woman and
could think it sweet.

Well so I cleaned this room I am to have, for the first time in
its life, and wrote home for some bed linen as the A.s have not got
any— their other pair is at the wash. It’s not a bad room; a big attic
with a view east over Slane Forest, which stretches all the way be-
tween here and Severn ton. And at about 9 we had a meal in the
kitchen: tea, stale Swiss roll, 5 sardines, 4 tomatoes, and some cold
porridge. Why this house should reek of cooking I cannot think.
Nobody cooks.’

But that’s a small quibble, and one that reminds me of reading Angela Thirkell, with her various and amusing ways of rendering ‘foreigners’. Kennedy obviously had a fascination with ‘the artiste‘ who lived outside the rules of society, not to mention basic standards of cleanliness.

In The Constant Novelist, Violet Powell’s biography of Margaret Kennedy, she gives some interesting background information to Kennedy’s writing of Lucy Carmichael.

‘Lucy takes her broken heart to teach at a cultural Institute situated in an approximation of the Forest of Dean. This is the first book in which Margaret used that part of the country for the background of a novel, and also the first in which she introduces the rotting manor house of Slane St. Mary where the family of Knevett had once lived for several unlucky generations. Both house and family reappear in two later novels.’

The setting is beautifully portrayed. The scene in Lucy Carmichael that involves this rotting manor house and the weirdly neurotic Ianthe–a ‘grisly picnic‘–was very dramatic and a turning point for Lucy. In real life, Margaret Kennedy must have been deeply moved by a similar setting in the actual Forest of Dean, (that she calls the Forest of Slane) for she returns to this ancient Knevett family, and enlarges upon the story, in her later novels Night in Cold Harbor and Not In The Calendar.

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Violet Powell also writes:

‘Lucy Carmichael was a Book Society Choice, which still carried some distinction, if less that it had before the Second World War. It was praised by the late Daniel George, and by Marghanita Laski, who found that the flashbacks to the Oxford life of Lucy and Melissa recalled her own career at Somerville…..Her daughters had brought her up to date with contemporary Oxford, and [Margaret] had used the knowledge to good effect in Lucy Carmichael.’

As I was writing this, I found that there is an online version of the novel here.

Thanks to Jane for hosting a Kennedy reading event, and if you would like to read more reviews of Margaret Kennedy’s books, click here to visit Jane’s site. As well, some of my own reviews can be found here.


The Constant Novelist, a biography of Margaret Kennedy by her friend Violet Powell, was published by William Heinemann, 1983.

 

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.

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Nan Fairbrother

Greetings, Mr. Lear

Imaginary
When your imagination
Is controlling you

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.