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.

 

 

Crossriggs

‘Her thoughts were very far away, for she had the happy power of forgetting the outer world altogether when she read anything that interested her.’ —Crossriggs, 1908


A good novelist knows how to begin an absorbing chain of events, and signal to the reader, in effect ‘settle in, I’m going to tell you a story‘. In a Victorian era novel, a beloved formula might commence with a sleepy village. The villagers and their dwellings are sketched out–they are ‘much of a piece’, as they say–but you just know the wonderful fodder for a good narrative is beginning to build.

Next might be mentioned—a brief mention, lest the reader make too much of it—the sad affair of a good-for-nothing relation who is connected to the Big House; a relation who has had the sensibleness to take himself off to parts unknown before the story begins where he can then die offstage without troubling the reader. The good news is, he leaves behind a handsome young heir, who then moves back to the sleepy village and intrigues everyone with his slightly foreign manners. And then… well, let the authors tell us:

‘Then and there happenings began.’

Crossriggs, written in 1908, is a novel I knew I would enjoy after reading just the opening lines. A story doesn’t have to be great literature for us to get lost in it, or care about the characters and what happens to them.

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I like to break up my reading periods with a walk outdoors, if weather permits. In the fresh outdoor air the scenes and conversations continue to play in my mind, though with a feeling of being slightly offstage. My walk the other day (and accompaniment to this book) took me along mossy, overgrown paths and the recent scars of a fierce windstorm that toppled quite a few beloved old trees around town. It was a storm that—for our typically mild Pacific NW weather—seemed very ill-suited to an April day.

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Freshly fallen tree, giving me a chance for close-ups of lichen and blooms

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But for all that, it did make the rugged Scottish landscape of Crossriggs seem not too far from my own, and I came home to become easily immersed in the world cleverly crafted by the Findlater sisters. (Thanks to the excellent reviews of a few book bloggers, previously Liz and Ali, and most recently, Jane, I was moved to finally get down to reading a book I’ve had in my library and on my TBR pile for quite some time.)

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If you’re in the mood for a good period piece, with well-drawn characters, and one that is not too mawkish, sentimental or wordy (like some Victorian literature can be) you should give this one a try.

The Findlater sisters had a vigorous intellect, a lively curiosity, and a shrewd sense of humor. They also had an aunt who, as a biography informs us, was ‘well remembered in Edinburgh society as “a fascinating creature who sang Gaelic songs and wrote verses.”

The aunt sounds delightful. I would be curious to know if her presence made its way into any of the Findlater characters.

For the story of Crossriggs, this sisterly writing duo pairs two fictional sisters, Alex and Mary. The two sisters are of very different dispositions, which provides some interest (with the winning gold star of personality going to Alex, of course, because it is mainly her story), and they live with an eccentric, kindly old father. He provides some entertainment, being a Victorian age vegan, a pacifist with dreams of living off the land, and never far from his well-thumbed copy of the Iliad. Homer, while glorifying war and bloody deeds of valor, made it all so poetic.

‘Old Hopeful was reading aloud to them all. The arrival of a family of five was nothing to him , and an hour or two had sufficed to restore him to his full flow of benevolent optimism.

“Delighted to see you, Robert!” he exclaimed. “We were just having an hour of Homer before the boys went to bed. Tales of windy Troy! Brave days—brave days! These youngsters are to be envied, hearing them for the first time.”

The Hope household is poor, but they are genteel. The fires, in this cottage, die out early on frigid evenings for want of fuel, but a candle stays lit while tired eyes and restless minds read eagerly into the wee hours.

I became utterly immersed in my visit to the village of Crossriggs, and enjoyed being transported back in time; even as the porridge was inevitably scorched, the pudding became watery, the long evening walks across the green became bitter cold, the candles sputtered out, and Old Hopeful fell asleep once again with his worn copy of Homer.

The Findlaters had an eye for detail, and of course, a woman’s knack for conveying the homely bits of information that make a story come to life.

How well I remember it all!” they wrote… and, with that, introduce us to the main characters and tone of the village that was Crossriggs.

We meet the crusty Admiral Cassilis, his handsome nephew Van, and an unusual creature of animal vitality named Dolly Orranmore who wears the wrong shade of green but still manages to look fiercely attractive while she strides about with a whip and a pack of dogs. We also meet the inscrutable Robert Maitland, and Maitland’s aunt, the venerable Miss Elizabeth Verity Maitland with her ramrod back. It is she of whom the authors wrote nostalgically…’we shall never look upon her like again.

‘It was a sight to see her walk down the street of Crossriggs, with head erect, her unflinching green eye looking here and there, observant of the life around. The village trembled before her…’

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The quaint village of Crossriggs might take a page from an Austen novel or even bring in a whiff from the Cranford tea tables. Although there are far too many men in Crossriggs to be Gaskell’s Cranford, Alexandra Hope would have fit in very well with a female dominated society. She runs their small, impoverished household with efficiency and spirit, has high ideals, a restless intellect, and never lacks for opinion. She can be ruthlessly critical of people she doesn’t like, but generous to those she does. I can’t say I always liked Alex; her criticisms of other people were often harsh and repetitive, her high-mindedness could be a bit much at times, but she also came crashing down into periods of self-doubt and outright depression. In short, she is painted in real life tones, and just like any of us, she had her strengths and weaknesses. Alex surprised me—she was a refreshingly honest character for this era of novel.

There is a love interest throughout the book, with more than one face. The truth from her own heart Alex can barely think of, and there is no internal dialogue on that subject until later in the book.  The reader is not fooled, but is never quite sure how things are going to work out. (Those clever authors had me jumping through a couple of hoops, bless their hearts…)

The dusk was falling, and the air was very still…. How many times, Alex thought, she had walked down that avenue in all weathers! She knew it now under every possible aspect, from the frosts of winter to the green delight of spring and the sleepy warmth of summer—here she was round again to another winter! How quickly the last year had gone; would every year of life glide past at this astonishing pace now! She remembered when the years were long, when a child’s joy in April was un-shadowed by the thought that spring would be over in a few weeks, when a childs’s wonder at winter was untouched by any hope of spring…. ‘Perhaps the child’s is the true way of living—it makes a sort of eternity while it lasts.’

Through it all, the disappointments, the grieving, and the small triumphs, Alex kept a firm hand on her integrity, and an immovable stance on her high moral ground.

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‘O cold north wind from the sea, did you ever then blow through the tree-tops without the twang of a musical note in your sound…Was the winter sunshine not suffused with some magic even on the fallow fields, or when it fell across the broad, irregular street? Did ot the first snowdrops that struggled up to the light from under that iron sod sigh out indescribable promise in their faint suggestive breath? Even the enveloping veils of mist, the grey distance, the low hills that stood beyond the village seemed a fitting background for the lively scene of human life that was enacted there.’

As a side note, I noticed with interest the dedication of the book to Kate Douglas Wiggin and her sister, Nora Archibald Smith.

Kate Douglas Wiggin,  is the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. If you were born anytime between 1910 and oh, say… the 1960’s… and you were named Rebecca, you might remember this book with impatience, or perhaps affection. Either way, I have no doubt this book was often invoked in your life and conversations. All of my growing up years I could never be introduced to an older person without ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’ coming immediately into the dialogue, along with a cheeky, albeit kindly, smile. (I have since forgiven, and even own a copy plus the sequel now.)

Sisters who write...

I would like to read more Findlater stories, in due time. What I am particularly interested in are the collaboration stories they did with Kate Douglas Wiggin and Allan McAulay (aka Charlotte Stewart). The Affair At the Inn, one of these, is available as a free e-book. Apparently each author would take turns writing a chapter and advancing the story line. Sounds like a fun exercise–perhaps not good for the novel as an art form, but as a time capsule of the past? Intriguing.

 


Notes: Crossriggs was reprinted by Virago in paperback; I believe all the rest of the Findlater output is out of print, but that is changing as of this year. The copyright protection on Jane’s works (not Mary’s) is ending this year. So any works written solely by Jane Findlater are now in the public domain. The exciting news is that the National Library of Scotland will be making digitalized versions available online. Read here for more.

Here is a list of their other works:

Book Titles:
1895. Sons & Sonnets – Mary Findlater
1896. The Green Graves of Balgowrie – Jane Findlater
1897. Over the Hills – Mary Findlater
1897. A Daughter of Strife -Jane Findlater
1899. Betty Musgrave – Mary Findlater
1899. Rachel – Jane Findlater
1901. A Narrow Way – Mary Findlater
1901. Tales that are Told – Mary and Jane Findlater
1902. The Story of a Mother – Jane Findlater
1903. The Rose of Joy – Mary Findlater
1904. Stones from a Glass House – Jane Findlater
1904. The Affair at the Inn – Findlater Sisters with Kate Douglas Wiggins and Allan McAulay (Charlotte Stewart) [note: available as a free e-book]
1905. All that Happened in a Week – Jane Findlater
1906. The Ladder to the Stars – Jane Findlater
1907. A Blind Bird’s Nest – Mary Findlater
1908. Crossriggs – Mary and Jane Findlater
1911. Penny Moneypenny- Mary and Jane Findlater
1911. Robinetta – Findlater Sisters with Kate Douglas Wiggins and Allan McAulay (Charlotte Stewart)
1916. Seen and Heard Before and After
1914 -Mary and Jane Findlater
1916. Content With Flies – Mary and Jane Findlater
1912. Seven Scots Stories – Jane Findlater
1914. Tents of a Night – Mary Findlater
1921. A Green Grass Widow and other Stories – Jane Findlater
1923. Beneath the Visiting Moon – Mary and Jane Findlater


 

“We Must Bring Her Forward”

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” ― Thomas Gray

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Today we take a short excursion of thought whereby Gray’s Elegy, Mrs. Elton, and my roses will be connected for the briefest of time.

You see, I can now say ‘my roses’. They are my cherry on the top of what has been a long —and long hoped for—move.

(The WordPress photo challenges are always fun to try and incorporate into a literary theme. This week’s challenge relates to ‘the cherry on the top’ motif; in other words, some extra nicety that makes a good thing even better.)

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The 1959 home we just moved into came with a garden that someone…years ago…once tenderly cared for. Sweet old shrubs and cherry trees; a plethora of apples and dreams of apple pie. This house would have been wonder enough. But the cherry on the top? Two little bedraggled rose bushes. In the words of the beloved garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder, my ‘thoughts are alight’ with them, my heart aglow with a surge of motherly feelings toward my new charges. They shall be given a bath, some nourishment, and a nice pruning. (I will also be adding to their ranks!)

These roses, blooming alone and lovely on neglected bushes for who knows how many years, brought to my mind the well known verse of Thomas Gray, quoted above from Elegy In A Country Churchyard.

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One thing leads to another. As I can never think of those lines without thinking of Jane Austen’s character Mrs. Elton, there is another, even more subtle ‘cherry on top’ with this post.

We have, in large part, the memorable Mrs. Elton to thank for bringing Thomas Gray’s poetry into modern circulation.

In her novel Emma, Jane Austen created a small masterpiece within a masterpiece in this characterization. Every time Augusta Elton opens her mouth, she relates far more about herself than she intends.

‘Miss Woodhouse, we must exert ourselves and endeavour to do something for her. We must bring her forward. Such talent as hers must not be suffered to remain unknown.—I dare say you have heard those charming lines of the poet,

‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
‘And waste its fragrance on the desert air.’

We must not allow them to be verified in sweet Jane Fairfax.”

The intent of Mrs. Elton, as she addressed these words to Emma—her greatest rival for power in the social arena of Highbury, has been seen by scholars as a pointed insult. A slight taunt, a challenge, as it were, borne along by dulcet tones speaking ‘those charming lines‘. Of course there was nothing charming about Mrs. Elton, and of course Emma, as a cultured young woman of her day, would have been quite familiar with Thomas Gray. By Austen’s day he was considered The Poet of the English. And Emma the novel, is essentially, Austen’s paean to all English-ness.

The fact that Mrs. Elton mis-quoted (did Austen intend butchered?) such a well known, beloved poem of England hands the veiled insult right back to the giver. Jane Austen’s brilliance in characterization extended to even the slightest nuances of conversation.

In reading Jane Austen, there is always deliciousness to be found. Sometimes, though, she gives us that extra little cherry of genius on top.

And my two rosebushes will no longer blush unseen.


 

Miss Bates: In Praise of Thick Shoes

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‘It is the ambient air of Highbury which most charms us in this book. The little town and its inhabitants are so real, so actual, that it is hard to believe we have never been there. The very cobbles, glistening after a sharp shower, are nearly solid enough to walk on….Miss Bates is somehow a vehicle of this ambience.’  —Margaret Kennedy, ‘Jane Austen

In my reading life, I am never far from Jane Austen. Even when reading the works of other authors, there she is. While reading a novel that might seem completely unrelated to Jane Austen—she appears. The hero or heroine is reading her, or refers to her, and the narrative device thus employed is almost always used as a character statement of approbation. That last word, by the way—approbation—entered my vocabulary by way of Jane Austen.

In social media, there is Jane, looking fresh and updated. This morning my newsfeed greeted me with the happy declaration that a movie adaptation of Sanditon is currently being filmed. Lady Susan is on its way to a theater near me. I am very excited about Sanditon—with the usual caveats and hoverings of motherly concern. How will they cast the indomitable hypochondriac Diana Parker? Or the robustly sickish Arthur? Sidney with an ‘i’ had better be good…we’ve waited a long time to meet him. (It’s very important to get it right; this is the novel Jane was working on just before she died.)

Were I inclined to be interested in zombies and vampires, there too, even so, I would find Jane.

“One man’s style must not be the rule of another’s.” Mr. Knightley, Emma

Most prefer finding Jane via the usual routes. Her words. As if millions didn’t already know this…her words are superb.

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Recently, I’ve been revisiting her novel, Emma, in both annotated and abridged forms. The annotated was by treating myself to this beautiful edition, pictured here. (published by Harvard University Press.)IMG_1095

Plus I’ve just finished the absolutely stellar audio version of Emma read by Jeremy Northam. This is an abridged version, (sad to say) but so worth feeling cheated! His rendering of Mrs. Elton, …“Maple Grove…” “….barouche landau…” gave me many laugh out loud moments.

A very good reason to brush up on my Emma is the lovely series going on right now at sarahemsley.com. Called Emma In The Snow, it is in celebration of the fact that this year marks 200 years since the publication of Emma. There are fascinating angles from a wide range of authors being discussed on Sarah’s blog, and even a diehard ‘Janeite’ will find new insights and reasons to love her novels.

For me, Emma has many attractions. One of them seems undervalued by many, and that even goes as far back as Austen’s lifetime, when Emma was first published.

‘…the faults [of Emma] are said to lie in the minute detail of the plan, and in a certain tedium in the presentment of such ‘characters of folly kind simplicity ‘ as Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates.’ (Quarterly, Jan. 1816)

While Austin Dobson wrote, in his forward to the novel:

‘Yet a genuine admirer may perhaps allow that some of the excellent Miss Bates’s speeches, even though they should be taken by the reader in double-quick time, would no be the worse for curtailment.’

Oh, but we could not have it so! The charms of Miss Bates are certainly more appealing given the distance of 200 years and the fact that she’s not in my living room right now swallowing up all breathable air. Yet, she is, for all that, ‘a loveable creature’. When Emma hurts her in a fit of spite, we feel it keenly.

But in terms of plot device? Miss Bates is extraordinary. In her, Jane Austen has created an efficient information delivery system. The kindly old spinster is to the ordinary chatterbox what the diesel engine is to the electric toy train. With rushing speed, a lot of ground is covered. Much vital information is conveyed, to those who are actually paying attention. This is the secret to Miss Bates. She is a brilliant contrivance and her effect cannot be reduced by a single syllable.

“So very obliging of you!—No rain at all. Nothing to signify. I do not care for myself. Quite thick shoes.”

On a side note, this style of running conversation, which is honed to perfection in Emma, Jane Austen also gives to Mrs. Augusta Elton. In Augusta’s case, though, it is more of a self-congratulatory rodomontade, and she reveals mostly her own self in ways that do not flatter her. Again, a brilliant device for helping us get to know the ‘charms’ of the new bride in the briefest possible time.

Miss Bates is all about other people and her lively interest in the goings on of Highbury. A useful person for the narrative, indeed, when you have clever little deceit mongers afoot like Frank Churchill, or the murky, convoluted doings of the superbly self-deceived Emma.

To be honest, the first time I read Emma, I was inclined to read over these verbal passages swiftly, anxious to get back to the ‘action’. I have had real life talkers in my family that could give Miss Bates a run for her money, so I am used to the exasperated tune outs one must resort to in an effort to keep things moving. It’s only in recent years and retrospect that I have begun to appreciate this clever literary device used by Austen.

Recently, while enjoying Margaret Kennedy’s discussion of Jane Austen’s works, I was delighted to read of her own thoughts in this regard. Margaret Kennedy calls Miss Bates ‘a vehicle’ of the marvelous ambiance Austen has created in Highbury.

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Kennedy took the time to list some of the information that Miss Bates conveyed during her two monologues at the Highbury ball. An impressive feat. Miss Bates, we’ll remember, comes in excitedly talking: (I’ve left Ms. Kennedy’s intensively worded paragraph as is because it is something of a marvel, in itself!):

‘[Miss Bates] is frequently used by Austen to convey the scene and to tell us what everybody else is doing so that her speeches are highly informative although a general impression of triviality and incoherence is preserved. One monologue from her saves pages of narrative. She makes, for instance, two long speeches during the ball at the Crown, during which we learn that: It is raining. That the landlady of the Crown is standing in the passage to watch the guests come in. That Mrs. Weston is probably expecting a baby. That Miss Bates’s mother is spending the evening with Emma’s father. That it is in order to hold an umbrella over herself and Jane Fairfax that Frank Churchill has been hanging round in the passage all this time. That he has spent much of the day with them under the convenient and standing excuse of mending old Mrs. Bates’ spectacles. We learn also the names of many of the guests and that Mr. Elton is not the only clergyman present, the names of Jane’s partners for the first four dances and that none of them has been Frank Churchill because he means to secure her for supper and must not be dancing with her too often. That the long passage to the supper room has been covered with matting and a draughty door nailed up. That Frank Churchill is so eager to put Jane’s tippet on her shoulders and march her off to the corner he has selected in the supper room that he nearly takes her out before anybody else. That Mrs. Elton will have none of this and firmly takes place of everybody. That Mrs. Elton is still wearing her bridal lace and consequently claims a brides’ privileges. That Frank does maneuver Jane into his chosen corner at supper. That the Hartfield supper has consisted of tea, baked apples, biscuits, wine, and a fricassee of sweetbreads with asparagus which poor Mrs. Bates has not been allowed to eat because of Mr. Woodhouse thought it indigestible. That the two old people played backgammon. That Miss Bates herself for all her chatter has managed to slip out unobserved after the first four dances, has run through the rain in thick shoes to Hartfield, taken her old mother home, put her to bed and returned without disturbing anybody.

‘If people had ever listened to Miss Bates they would have known a great deal more of what was happening at Highbury.’

You see how useful Miss Bates is?

Margaret Kennedy concludes her marvelous summation with the opinion:

‘Emma is not a better book than Mansfield Park but it is a worthy successor. It has a smaller canvas, a less ambitious theme, but it has this almost miraculous reality.’

 

 

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“Yes, Virginia, There Really Is A Bruce Buttfield Pouf”

 

Even while taking a break from blogging, I am always reading (or listening) to something of the written word. As the picture might hint at the current state of my desktop, both wooden and digital, I am often occupied with either writing, reading, or attempting to craft the perfect sentence. Failing the latter drives me to chocolate. Often I indulge in kitchen remodels in the middle of winter, which is now.

The connections of thought or sympathy I find with writers throughout all generations never ceases to amaze. Don’t you find that is true? This recently occurred with E.B. White, and Jane Austen, and suddenly it felt very familiar. Oh, yes, dear absent-minded blogger…you wrote about this before…get your nose out from underneath that stack of books…

So it seemed a very good opportunity to indulge in that luxury called ‘reblog’. I will no doubt be returning to this subject, but for now here is: ‘Yes, Virginia, There Really Is A Bruce Buttfield Pouf’.

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 ‘It has never been my desire to diminish by so much as a crumb of information the charming wonderment of a lady.’
[E. B. White; from a sketch published in The New Yorker]

(Thank you, E.B. White; that’s a relief. And thanks for calling my wonderment ‘charming’. Not that I am the lady who wrote in with a query about pigeons; nor am I even of your generation. Yet I have wondered for years about Bruce Buttfield and the pouf.)

Perhaps, if you have enjoyed White’s little masterpiece of writing Dusk In Fierce Pajamas, you’ve wondered about Bruce Buttfield and the pouf, as well.

E.B. White wrote the short sketch from his bed of illness, from his fierce pajamas, and straight away from his contemplation of the four perfect evenings of Mrs. Allen Ryan, Jr., busy socialite.

[‘They are perfect little crystals of being–static, precious.’]

Thanks to the perceptive irony of E.B. White, Mrs. Allen Ryan, Jr. and her preoccupations live on for us. As do Rose Hobart, the Harold Talbots, Monsieur Charles de Beistegui, and the knowledge that Mrs. Chester Burden uses only white in her table settings.

Dusk In Fierce Pajamas [published in the New Yorker, 1934] is a perfect gem in miniature. It is not just the humor of a bored convalescent, idly flipping through fashion magazines. It is irony, pathos, insight and satire of the best kind. It well illustrates how humor is a type of genius that not only Knows, but more importantly, Understands. It chronicles, even through the self-deprecating moments, the fierce desire to keep one’s mind alive and active through illness and isolation. A log is not a raft, a raft is not a boat, a boat is not a cruise liner, but they all float. They are all life preservers. The adornment of Rose Hobart while dining at the Waldorf might not have been the normal stuff of E.B. White’s cerebral preoccupations in his job as contributor at The New Yorker, but ‘the haunting dusk is shattered by the clean glint of jewels by Cartier’.

Even the attempt to describe what it is about a piece like Dusk In Fierce Pajamas that is affecting, feels as though I were serving it up as Mrs. Cecil Baker did her perfectly overwrought hard-boiled eggs, olives, celery and radishes all preciously compartmentalized on blue and white Spode china.

(‘No, that’s wrong. I am in chiffon, for it is the magic hour after bridge.’)

What White himself said about “durable humor”, though, is revealing:

“I find difficulty with the word “humor” and with the word “humorist” to peg a writer…. the durable humor in literature, I suspect, is not the contrived humor of a funnyman commenting on the news but the sly and almost imperceptible ingredient that sometimes gets into writing. I think of Jane Austen, a deeply humorous woman. I think of Thoreau, a man of some humor along with his bile.”  [E.B. White, interviewed in 1969, printed in ‘The Paris Review’]

That ‘sly and almost imperceptible ingredient’ —Humor— will never be completely understood. It has been described as one of the muses, a spark of genius, an art— and as such remains elusive. As Clifton Fadiman expressed it, humor

“[makes] quietly despairing men suddenly catch a vision of the surprisingness of life, the breakability of rules, the spirit-cleansing power of the irrelevant.”

It is significant that White gives Jane Austen the honor of a mention in his definition of humor. Jane Austen wrote one of her comic masterpieces, Sanditon, when she was at her most ill. She died before she could finish it. In creating her characters, and the hilarity of their various occupations, did she feel, as E.B. White expressed,

in them I found surcease from the world’s ugliness, from disarray, from all unattractive things.’?

Given E.B. White’s statement I included at the beginning of this post, he might forgive me for having put aside the enriching read of his Poems and Sketches and wasting an hour or so on the internet while I indulged in what he called a ‘charming wonderment’. The exact look of the ‘pouf’, by the way, is still in question.

As to Bruce Buttfield’s existence, my curiosity was readily satisfied. He was an interior designer to the rich and famous, and became rich and famous for his interiors.

What I really wanted was a picture of the Bruce Buttfield pouf, but it was not to be had. I suspect the use of pouf was a deliberate choice by White–a term richly suggestive of lack of substance rather than an actual description of a firm, upholstered stool for seating.

[‘It is dusk…I am with the Countess de Forceville over her bridge tables. She and I have just pushed the tables against the wall and taken a big bite of gazpacho.’]art-deco-circular-interior-design

Another curiosity, and one that kept me from getting back to ‘Owen Johnson over his chafing dish’, is that Wikipedia has a separate heading and comprehensive definition for both pouf and tuffet, with side trips over to ‘ottoman’ and ‘hassock’. There is also a helpful redirect in case you accidentally type in pouffe; this being a more accurate term to describe what Bruce Buttfield might have devised. But pouf is where E.B. White immortalized himself, and there we shall leave him. Sitting at dusk.

[‘For it is dusk.’}

There is an anthology of humor writing from The New Yorker entitled ‘Fierce Pajamas‘.

Blue Stockings and Muddy Petticoats

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“The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Henry David Thoreau was a great walker. His walking was directly linked to his ability to think. Directly linked to his philosophy. If Thoreau did not walk, Thoreau could not write.

Thinking about this made me realize why I have been unable to finish up this post from my series that has been given the quizzical name ‘Perambulations.’ A post that was beginning to drag on as long as Ben Jonson’s epic walk to Edinburgh in 1618.

I have not been walking. The ground has been as frozen and inhospitable as a Bronte moor, and the wind has been bitter cold. There are, in this house, enough knitted and crocheted hats and scarves to clothe an army, but I am a fair weather walker.

“Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

Yesterday the sun returned with brilliant apologies and warm entreaties. The earth was still frozen, our porch and stairs still a solid pool of ice, yet something of an ambient flow was beginning to stir.

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Encouraged by the dazzling rays of light we immediately ventured out to experience the truth of writer Rebecca Solnit’s observation

‘…walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.”

What she said. And what Thoreau said. I began to think about perambulations, pedestrianism, peregrinations; all those lovely, fascinating words relating to the philosophy and exercise of walking. Like sweetmeats to the wordsmith, they animate the curiosity, savor of possibility, and my eager thoughts begin to rise like puffs of steam in warm sunlight.

“The distance is nothing when one has a motive.” Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)

This is the magic of walking; though our steps may be regular, our chosen path familiar, linear or even slightly curved, our thoughts are left free to wander far away from our feet. The same tree on our customary path looks different in all types of light, and radiates new possibilities. In elliptical, soaring patterns, our imagination makes great loops of thought in the sky, connecting philosophical dots, shooting across eons of space to create galaxies of fantastic dimensions and people it with drama, conflict, resolution. Perhaps our thoughts take us back to the past or weave us ever more tightly to the dizzying matrix of the present.

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Our eye catches sight of a beautiful bird, spiraling upward, or a flock of birds forming V patterns etched in thin silhouette, and our thoughts travel with them in after image, chasing similar shapes and spirals, or arcs in fractal waves like starlings.

Wherever we go in our mind, the beauty of it is that our feet are still on solid ground. There is comfort in that; we drop to earth with a soft thud to match our pedestrian gait and soon enough we are back to the warmth of the fireside and the well-rooted chair. Time enough to think about blue stockings and muddy petticoats, and wonder if anyone else would find such a subject interesting? And as to that, have you ever thought about the inherent contradiction in a word like pedestrianism?

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Writer Margaret Lane alluded to this dichotomy of preference. In the foreword to her lovely collection of essays Purely for Pleasure *, she writes:

‘There is no unifying theme to be found in this handful of essays. They are personal excursions indulged in purely for pleasure—perambulations, so to speak, in chosen company.’

A happy life often consists of many small moments like this—curious bursts of pleasure that no one else might understand, let alone anticipate. I was thrilled to see that she thought of ‘perambulations’ in the same way I did. [for more on the wordsmith aspect of this, I refer you to The Curious Word]

In recent months, via this blog we have strolled through several gardens with several writers, taken brisk walks with poets, pondered John Muir’s epic mountain ramblings, and explored why Mary N. Murphree didn’t walk the heights and depths of the Blue Mountains but cleverly wrote as if she did.

Most of the famous walkers from history that come to mind are usually men. But have you met The Bluestockings? As a group, they fascinate. One particular Bluestocking, however, relates more specifically to my recent perambulations. Continue reading