“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

“Walk With Me” Said A Thousand Poets

 “Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn–that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness–that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”

― Jane Austen, Persuasion

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The first tempestuous storm of autumn is over. We ventured out last night to talk a walk in our immediate neighborhood to survey the damage and get a breath of that freshly scoured air. It was more of an early evening, really, when the air had grown calm and a bit of sun began to peek out to give us a spot of cheer before dusk.

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‘Listen! the wind is rising,
and the air is wild with leaves.
We have had our summer evenings,
now for October eves.’

~Humbert Wolfe, 1936

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I was afraid of what we would see—of what we know is inevitable. Part of the ambiguity we feel during this time of year comes from the startling changes to the landscape, when the winds strip the trees of color, and our lovely, leafy neighborhoods become a wasteland of soggy leaves and twisted limbs. The view that greets our eyes might resemble the ‘Aged warriors’ of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s tone poem, ‘thinned of half their tribe’:

‘When reeds are dead and straw to thatch the marshes,
And feathered pampas-grass rides into the wind 
Like Agèd warriors westward, tragic, thinned 
Of half their tribe; an over the flattened rushes, 
Stripped of its secret, open, stark and bleak…’

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used a warrior imagery, as well, in the awesome beauty of a piece simply titled ‘Autumn’:

‘Magnificent Autumn! He comes not like a pilgrim, clad in russet weeds. He comes not like a hermit, clad in gray. But he comes like a warrior, with the stain of blood upon his brazen mail. His crimson scarf is rent…. 
The wind…. wafts to us the odor of forest leaves, that hang wilted on the dripping branches, or drop into the stream. Their gorgeous tints are gone, as if the autumnal rains had washed them out. Orange, yellow, and scarlet, all are changed to one melancholy russet hue…. 
There is a melancholy and continual roar in the tops of the tall pines…. 
It is the funeral anthem of the dying year.’  

Then again, our altered landscape might be more George Meredith in poetic scope with all his grim, Victorian melodrama, of which the following is just the merest snippet:

‘Behold, in yon stripped Autumn, shivering grey,
Earth knows no desolation.
She smells regeneration
In the moist breath of decay.’

Thus we ventured out after the storm, expecting all of the above. How pleasantly surprised we were to find, no gothic drama, no melancholy Millay, no stain of blood, no shivering gray, but vistas of a curious, tousled charm at every turn.

There was color around every corner.

Tiny vignettes of moist, sparkling abundance.

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The squirrels were busier than ever in their new windfall of riches; they scarce had time for even a disapproving glance in our direction, and I missed their usual scold.

Perhaps the poet of our current landscape was a bit more William Blake in tone?

‘Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.’

~William Blake (1757-1827), “To Autumn”

I could even see the ‘delicate textures’ of John Burroughs, who was apparently more of an early riser for his autumn walks…:

‘Once more in our morning walk we tread upon carpets of gold and crimson, of brown and bronze, woven by the winds or the rains out of these delicate textures while we slept….’ ~John Burroughs, “The Falling Leaves,” Under the Maples

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Since Austen wrote the above quote in the header, in her novel Persuasion, over 200 years ago, there have been many anthologies of poetry—spun from the ‘minds of taste and tenderness’— that showcase the poet’s love for autumn days. We need not rely on memory alone, though the whispered cadence of poets past murmuring along our steps is not unpleasant.

Some of these gems are sprinkled in and around the scenes from our walk after the storm.

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‘Songs of continued years I sing.’ ––Walt Whitman, Autumn Rivulets (note the river view through the iron circle; courtesy of a thoughtful neighbor whose garden borders our narrow path)

‘Wild is the music of autumnal winds;
Amongst the faded woods.’ ~William Wordsworth
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“That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay…That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.” ― Ray Bradbury

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“At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds.” Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cézanne

I hope you enjoyed your walk with the poets!

The Stupefying Ways of Bees: Reading August Folly

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“It was going to be a real sweltering day, a day for laziness and books, and noble, melancholy thoughts. He took his books into the garden, and read there steadily till lunch-time, when he walked over to the Woolpack and ate bread and cheese and drank beer. After lunch he worked again in the garden for some time. The sun was benignantly hot, the newly mown grass smelt sweet, bees were humming in a stupefying way, Gunnar was purring beside him, and Richard could hardly keep awake. He fetched a few cushions from the drawing room and lay down on the grass for a short refreshing nap…’

Today our garden tour takes us to an island. The book we are bringing along takes us to a literary island, of sorts—the ‘cloud cuckoo land’ of the Barsetshire stories. This fictional island still exudes a bemused air of charming unchangeableness, that rarely disappointed even during the days of British wartime and rationing.

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What better book than August Folly, by Angela Thirkell, could accompany these August days, this haze of heat and the sound of bees ‘humming in a stupefying way’…?

It was Jane at Fleur In Her World, a delightful blog for readers, who reminded me that I want to get back to my Angela Thirkell collection of novels and rediscover the delights of Barsetshire. Actually, it was back in June that I wanted to start again with her seminal work, Wild Strawberries. Well, of course in June I was all caught up with reading Louise, and before I could open my eyes to July possibilities, it was August.

‘So many books, so little time’ is actually a good problem. The solution is always the same, and pleasurable. Read more.

August Folly is one of my favorites of the Barsetshire series, and it can be read quite satisfyingly as a stand-alone novel if you have no intention of pursuing the rest of the Barsetshire goings-ons. It is where we first meet the Tebben and Dean families, who crop up in the later books.

August Folly, as with most of Thirkell’s novels, has already been exhaustively reviewed and discussed. Before the days of the internet, and quite popular in the 1950’s, there were ‘Thirkell Circles’. Now, via the web, there are some marvelous discussions of Thirkell’s work. The best resource is the official Angela Thirkell website.

Specific to August Folly, I have included links to excellent, well-written reviews below.

I love this blurb from my old copy: (Knopf Borzoi edition, fourth printing, 1947)

“Long after [the reader] has finished the book he will chuckle over its richly comic situations and the author’s kindly but sardonic asides on the peculiarities of human nature.”

This, in a neat summation, is the key to Angela Thirkell’s charm as a writer. It is also suggestive of why Thirkell was compared so often to Jane Austen. As August Folly, in particular, contains a few outright, admiring references to Jane Austen, we can assume that Angela Thirkell did not mind the comparison.

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A folly, of sorts–an artistic giant chicken at the fabulous Cistus Gardens Nursery on Sauvie’s Island

The two hundred year anniversary of Austen’s Mansfield Park is being celebrated around the blogosphere so therefore I have Jane Austen, Mansfield Park and its various characters more fresh in mind. Particularly here, at Sarah Emsley’s blog, there have been some fascinating insights given by some worthy authors.

While Thirkell makes many Austen allusions in this novel, when it comes to Mrs. Tebben, Thirkell leaves no doubt for the reader. She clearly points the arrow and connects the dots.

Poor Mrs. Tebben is the only character, by the author’s own admission in the narrative, modeled after a specific Austen character. The comparison is made by her daughter, Margaret. And while it’s not a good one, it’s a link that hints at the true dysfunction behind the Tebben household.

“Your respected Mamma,” said Laurence to Margaret, who was just finishing her omelette, “is telling my Aunt Palmer exactly where she gets off at about the veils for the chorus.”

“Just warm the rum, will you,” said Margaret, pushing a saucepan towards him. “Yes, mother is a little like Mrs. Norris sometimes.”

Ugh. Mrs. Norris, of Mansfield Park, is of Jane Austen’s most hated characters. (She is discussed in depth here.)

“I am of some use I hope in preventing waste and making the most of things.” [Mrs. Norris, Mansfield Park]

Add an Oxford degree to this description, along with a bit of intellectual obtuseness, and you have a fair sketch of Mrs. Tebben’s character.

While most readers would not put Mrs. Tebben in nearly the same category of manipulative hatefulness that they would Mrs. Norris, this comment did highlight why Mrs. Tebben is not popular. She is landlocked in her small, often petty world of grasping economies and inept domesticity. Her mothering skills leave her children more exasperated than fond. She has respectable intellect but is short on common sense and comfort.

Yet her sweet daughter Margaret, being Margaret, softens the comparison by saying,

a little like Mrs. Norris sometimes.”

As to the other Austen comparisons, they are implied, rather than stated.

Rachel Dean, for example, is languid, lovely, and adored. She blows dreamy kisses from her lounging chair, and is something of a miracle, for she has had nine children, and still looks stunning draped in a clingy white silk gown. Her many children—‘the impossibly glamorous Deans’— become fodder for the gristmill of future romances in Barsetshire. If elements of her description remind you of Lady Bertram, sans pug, it is likely Thirkell had that in mind.

There are the amateur theatricals, the subject of so much comment in Austen’s Mansfield Park.

In August Folly (the name of the novel obviously being a multi-meaning play on words), the busy enterprises of Mrs. Palmer in this regard—so aptly described as ‘indefatigable’—are quite entertaining. She is determined to put on a Greek tragedy by Euripides; a lumbering Behemoth of a scheme that is alternately exhausting and hilarious as the plans and disagreements proceed.

Mrs. Palmer—as the figurehead at the top of the social ladder in the county, as well as the wealthiest resident— has installed herself as something of a ‘summer activities commando/troop leader’, and everyone is expected to tow her line and know their cues. Doris Phipps, housemaid with a rash, with a tendency to dissolve into giggles or hysterics, sounds particularly promising in her Aphrodite role. (not)

It goes without saying that no housemaid would have been invited to perform at the Mansfield Park theatricals. And, for the Greek play in August Folly, this is a community-wide event. Even the ancient, deaf rector of the parish—a respected Greek scholar— is an enthusiastic supporter.

There are some brief but memorable appearances of a Mr. Moxon, the incurably optimistic curate whom no one likes. He is terribly impressed with himself, and peppers his self-approbations with effusive descriptions like ‘ripping’. Here is another example of Thirkell’s brilliant turns of phrase, telling, but simple:

‘Lunch at the Dower House fell alive into the hands of Mr. Moxon.’

Mr. Moxon has Mr. Collins written all over him.

In another Pride and Prejudice tie-in, there is the prideful response (initial rejection followed by effusive acceptance) of Margaret Tebben to the proposal of marriage from the ‘catch’ of the neighborhood—wealthy and handsome Laurence Dean.

“Of course she didn’t really love Laurence, in fact she hated him, and would like to see him and tell him so.”

Margaret is my favorite character in the book, although I see her as more of a Jane than a Lizzie. The elder Tebben, Margaret’s father Gilbert, could bear a resemblance to Mr. Bennett; kindly but obtuse, scholarly, buried in his study and hoping to keep it that way. (see below for a description of Angela Thirkell’s father; obviously he provided much of the model for Mr. Tebben.)

But I believe the food references in August Folly are entirely Thirkell’s own! Surely, in their authentic rendering, they must spring from the inspiration of actual experience.

I knew full well, in re-reading this novel, that I would be returning to the repugnant dinner table at the Tebben house. August Folly has the distinction of being the only novel where I actually became nauseated while reading it. As a ‘foodie’, I would call the experience traumatizing, as a writer I am in awe of Thirkell’s ability with descriptions. I have always prided myself on having a strong stomach, but the Tebben’s cook, Mrs. Phipps, almost did me in.

The Tebben family resides at Lamb’s Piece, and though not well off, are considered part of the gentry of the country. Their formidable cook, Mrs. Phipps, (mother to the above mentioned giggling Doris) dishes up meals of culinary deplorability and expects no back talk.

‘Mrs. Phipps, a born cook only in the sense that she had brought up a large family chiefly on tinned foods. She had a natural gift for making meat appear gray….’

Mrs. Phipps’s salads from the garden consists of undressed tough lettuce leaves served lying in a pool of gritty water. Honestly, Mrs. Phipps almost put me off of salads for life.

“When I eat green stuff,” said Mr. Tebben, chewing away at a well-grown lettuce, “I understand why cows have four stomachs.”

Everything served at the Tebben dinner or tea table is tasteless, tough, tepid, flaccid, limp, lifeless, overstewed, underdone, quivering, slightly revived, and generally revolting.

It is not completely Mrs. Phipps’s fault. Mrs. Tebben (aka Mrs. Norris) prides herself on her domestic economies, which means scrimping on everything, and where comfort is equated with dispensable luxury. She pretends to be serving the needs of her family, when really it is her own obsessive need to save a penny that dominates her thinking.

But Mrs. Phipps’ meals did give rise to some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Are there any pickles?” asked Mr. Tebben, though without hope.’

I don’t know why that is so funny. It just is. In the pathos sense of funny. Poor long suffering Mr. Tebbens, wistfully wishing for something at his table that might be crunchy, tasty and delicious. But no, there are never any pickles.

Or this musing from Richard Tebben:

‘As the parents were away he could do what he liked all morning and needn’t stay in for Mrs. Phipps’s horrid lunch, whose composition he could, from his memory of last night’s dinner, accurately guess.’

I do love August Folly. It is delightfully funny and engaging. Professional reviewers always describe it as ‘light entertainment’, ‘frothy’, and so on. All true.

But it is a gold mine of hilarious human interaction, cultural curiosities, and humor both intelligent and twee. Just prepare yourself—after reading it, you are going to want to take a reactionary dive into a big dish of your favorite comfort food.

How about raspberry lemon cupcakes with plenty of extra big helpings of luscious lemon cream?

Raspberry lemon cupcakes with lemon cream; something that Mrs. Phipps was constitutionally incapable of making.

Raspberry lemon cupcakes with lemon cream; something that Mrs. Phipps was constitutionally incapable of making.

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Additional notes:

Editions….Anna Zinkeisen illustrated the cover for the first British edition. It is very rare, and I want one.

The incredible wealth of literary allusions in Angela Thirkell’s books have fascinated readers for decades. Thirkell’s father, J.W. Mackail was an Oxford Professor of Poetry, Virgil scholar and translator of Virgil’s works into English, authority on the Icelandic Sagas (surely the model for Mr. Tebben) prominent socialist, friend and biographer of William Morris, and married to the only daughter of Edward Burne-Jones. Those are just the high points.

One can only imagine the fascinating dinner table conversations that must have flowed around young Angela’s ears. (and yes, I do wonder what sort of food was served, and were they tyrannized by an atrocious cook that they couldn’t afford to replace?!) For a wonderful resource that explains many of these literary allusions specific to August Folly, read here.

Links to reviews of August Folly:

http://thecaptivereader.com/2012/02/17/august-folly-angela-thirkell/

http://shinynewbooks.co.uk/reprints02/august-folly-summer-half-and-the-brandons-by-angela-thirkell/

http://theliterarysisters.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/summer-half-and-august-folly-by-angela-thirkell/

https://www.littlebrown.co.uk/books/detail.page?isbn=9781844089680

http://www.librarything.com/topic/163123

Curious Word: My reading of August Folly yielded another Curious word: Scrobbling.

“Aunt Palmer is really the outer limit,” [Laurence] said, “scrobbling your cook and then coming for dinner.”