Starting From Anywhere

‘If you came this way,
taking any route, starting from anywhere
at any time or any season
It would always be the same
you would have to put off
sense and notion’ — T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

Oh, to have traveled with Helen Bevington to Little Gidding.

Likely you have heard of T.S. Eliot. And perhaps, from there, you might have heard of Little Gidding and Nicholas Ferrar. It is less likely, though, that you have heard of Helen Bevington. If not, I hope (if that is, you enjoy witty, articulate literary essays) you will track down her book and discover this delightful author.

The book Beautiful, Lofty People is now a treasure in my personal library but I found it, quite by accident, while browsing through an old bookstore. I had no idea who the author was, if she could write or had any credentials that frankly don’t matter… but from the first few lines I read I was charmed. And, as it turned out, she did have credentials. A host of them. Professor Emeritus in English at Duke University. Respected poet and author. Published in journals such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. That should be sufficient to establish credentials, but really can’t begin to explain the light-hearted subtlety, or her evident love for people ‘warts and all’ that I enjoy in her essays. That quality of style only comes from outlook and integrity, not education.

As a premise for this particular book, she takes her cue from Yeats in his poem “Beautiful Lofty Things”, and writes of her own search:

‘The idea of the men and women one loves for their own sake caught in a lofty moment, intense with life.’ — Helen Bevington

She became known, in the words of one critic, for taking “artful notices of life’s comedies.”

As mentioned, Bevington was a poet, as well, although she did not take her own poetry seriously. In this book, she often follows up her essay with a poem that wittily sums up the essence of her notions on the subject.

‘I had a perfect confidence, still unshaken, in books. If you read enough you would reach the point of no return. You would cross over and arrive on the safe side. There you would drink the strong waters and become addicted, perhaps demented – but a Reader.’ — Helen Bevington

With Jane Austen-like deftness and wit, Bevington can find a treasure of mirth in the subtlest of themes. From her affectionate irritation with Cassandra Austen—that unrepentant burner of letters— to the whimsical notion of comparing Fanny Burney’s shoes with those of Dorothy Wordsworth, to Lord Byron’s battle with pudginess, to Aunt Mary Emerson’s delightful life preparing for death, her honesty at being ‘caught out’ by E.E. Cummings at a party in New York; these essays are a fascinating compendium and represent a very different angle on literary life.

From the Little Gidding UK website

Reading her essay ‘The Way to Little Gidding’ transported me to another time. Who wouldn’t want to have joined her on this amusing quest to find a gem of geography immortalized in T.S. Eliot’s poem?

‘We rode on in the rain into Huntingdonshire, passing again through the little village of Godmanchester I had visited on this same bus only last week. I didn’t yet know how to pronounce Godmanchester whether the accent was on man or God. But I reflected I had now traveled in England to Chester, to Manchester, and to Godmanchester, which should bring me to the end of the prefixes unless there was a Goodgodmanchester somewhere as well.’

And on she goes, with her quietly humorous and humane commentary sprinkled throughout. On this journey to Little Gidding, she is amused to find that no one in this rural community seems to have heard of it, or has a notion of how to get her there. It is delightfully strung out, this journey, full of wrong turns and rutted roads, and when we finally arrive, we are ready for that pint she is longing for in a pub spotted a few miles back.

‘The man from Sawtry, relieved as I was to find the place and complete the quest, stepped inside and couldn’t believe his eyes. Dumbfounded he swore he would bring the wife next time to have a look. I returned to Cambridge that afternoon by Bus No. 151.’

The Way to Little Gidding’ is a metaphor for something much more profound and it is testimony to Bevington’s mastery of prose that this depth of tone is not lost in the witty travel journal style of the essay. Her desire is more than to pursue a trophy for her memory book. She ends the essay with a touching postscript that suggests the emotional journey–the underpinnings–of her need to visit this little spot is to feel for herself what might inspire a great poem, and to walk in the footsteps of worthy people. Clearly, she was there to kneel–for it is she who inserts this telling quote from Eliot’s poem:

‘You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.’



 

Additional notes:

For the full poem of T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, here.

Helen Bevington’s work was valued in her lifetime. As another sort of legacy she has left behind, her eldest son David Bevington is among the preeminent Shakespeare scholars in the world.

Helen Bevington: more bio here and yes, even wiki.

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


 

The Ladies of Lyndon: Margaret Kennedy

‘Copy Lyndon?’ … My dear girl, I couldn’t! It can’t be copied, that’s just it. One man didn’t make it; it’s been the work of generations!…. Pity it should go…’

“Why do you talk of it going? Nobody wants to burn it down.”

“A house dies with its family. Lyndon has come to an end.”’

My own idea of a modern book cover

My own idea of a modern book cover, created with Canva app, from a Rossetti drawing

The fiction of Margaret Kennedy suggests a fall/winter kind of mood for me, so tonight, with the wind sculpting crispy piles of leaves into undulating drifts, (hold off rain, please, just one more night!) a warm fire going and a glass of amber scotch in hand, I finished up The Ladies of Lyndon.margaretkennedyvignettephoto

Generally, I enjoy a good ‘English country house novel’. The Ladies of Lyndon is that, but this engrossing story is really much more than the appealing romance of setting. Perhaps what is suggestive to me of fall/winter reading is that the world Kennedy creates reminds one of a heavily embroidered tapestry to burrow into. There are warm depths and lavish layers and unexpected sheen and a richness of texture; a faintly exotic perfume has been woven in with the silken strands, no detail is too slight, no stitch is wasted.

Other reviewers have commented on the warmth and richness of Kennedy’s style; her lovely heroines remind us of a Rossetti painting, some of her scenes created as ‘extravagantly grand’ as a Watteau composition.

‘A house dies with its family… Lyndon has come to an end.’

We can’t stop thinking about that passage. Besides the fact that The Ladies of Lyndon is an engrossing novel of plot and excellent characterizations, and can be enjoyed on that level alone, there is something Margaret Kennedy was trying to say with this, her first novel. She does seem to have moral underpinnings to her stories that I have read so far. Yet there are no judgements passed with heavy hand, ladling on the gravy of philosophy, as it were; her characters are not drawn in clear black and white tones, good and evil; her eye for folly is keen, still she is sympathetic to all, and renders her conflicts with beautiful subtlety.

Even her buffoons can engage your sympathies, in a curious way. (Sir Thomas Bragge is quite a lavish creation!)

But Margaret Kennedy does explore probing questions, through the dialogue and difficulties of her characters. The period she grew up in, and the period she writes from, was one fraught with change; politically, morally, socially, economically.

The scene set, in this case, is a gracious country house and its wealthy inhabitants. The time period is the close of the sleepy, decadent Edwardian age, just before the first World War. If this makes you think of Downton Abbey, it’s a good comparison; both in time period, and the ‘remains of the day’ aspects of life for the privileged classes in England.

At the apex of these kinds of stories, there is always the big house, the country house; for life under the roof of the English country house was considered a microcosm of all England.

‘There’s nothing in England so English as a house like Lyndon.’  — (Hubert)

Margaret Kennedy, with a mix of irony and pride, lovingly describes this piece of England she created.

via wiki commons; an example of Capability Brown in landscape design

via wiki commons; an example of “Capability Brown” in landscape design

“Lyndon, architectural and complacent, gleamed whitely against the somber green of ilex and cedar. Its classical facade stretched in ample wings to East and West. The grounds, originally laid out by the famous “Capability Brown” and improved upon by successive generations of landscape gardeners, were admirably in keeping with the dwelling house they guarded. They maintained its note of assured artificiality: they belonged to an age which had not read Wordsworth and which took for granted that nature could be improved upon. The measured, decorative mind of man was everywhere apparent.’

This ‘assured artificiality’ provides the perfect setting, like a velvet jewel box, for the lovely Agatha, the newly installed Lady Clewer. Her beauty is described in terms that make you think of the afore-mentioned Rossetti painting, as, ‘a siren’….

… ‘lovely, indolent, and exotic; [she had] achieved that air of expensive fragility which is beauty’s most precious setting.’

The family name attached to Lyndon is Clewer, and at one point, there are three concurrent Lady(s) Clewer. Quite cleverly, for her purposes, Kennedy has drawn them from three different strata of English life.

via wiki commons, Dante Gabriel-Rossetti

via wiki commons, Dante Gabriel-Rossetti

The eldest Lady Clewer, the widowed Marian, is from the manufacturing class; a.k.a. trade, middle class, wealthy. She is brisk, efficient, and takes a practical view of what is involved in the managing of a great house. She has her flaws, but is not unlikeable.

Agatha, young Lady Clewer, as mentioned, has been groomed for nothing else but to grace such a home as Lyndon. She has a kind, sympathetic nature, and wants to see herself serving some greater purpose in life. In spite of this, she has no concept of work, or, for that matter, has the least idea of how to manage a large house. There is always someone to do things for her.

For all her ample, serene beauty, she is ‘fragile’; a word continually used to describe her. She is unable to produce a living heir to continue the Clewer traditions. (This increasing sterility of the privileged class is a familiar one in literary works from this period.) She marries John Clewer for what she thinks is love, but upon consideration, and after a few disappointing years, she realizes she loves her cousin Gilbert even more, and should have married him. She agonizes, through much of the book, over her failed marriage, over what to do, and what is ‘right’. We soon tire of Agatha; she becomes dreary, self-serving, and predictable in the choices she makes.

Her comments, toward the close of the book, are revealing of the overall thrust of the book:

“Dolly, I think you are much too feudal. You want to put the clock back. You want to revive a state of things which is past and gone for ever. What did I do for Lyndon when I had it? I enjoyed it very much; it suited me to live in it, but I did nothing for it and in the end I disgraced it. I know I belong by race to the ‘Bless the Squire and His Relations’ galley, but it’s out of date, all that sort of thing. I never made the smallest attempt to uphold it. It’s [Marian], with all her modern activities, and her dairies, and her laundries, and village institues, who is ready to shoulder responsibility. I know she domineers, but think how she works! Think of all the dull hard work she’s done since she came to Lyndon! She’s what is called middle class, but she’s ready to take on all the unpaid public work, she and her like. Lyndon’s hers. I belong to a class which is of no account now.”

“They do say that these people, what made their money in trade, are getting into all the old houses nowadays,” agreed Dolly.

The last Lady Clewer—Dolly— is the dark horse; enter the new, up and coming working class. Dolly was a maid whose family had served at Lyndon for decades. She marries James, the ‘slightly queer in the head’ brother of John Clewer. It turns out, in the course of things, that James isn’t really mentally deficient, he’s a gifted artist…..which conveniently explains his bursts of brutality, his extreme anti-social behavior, his sardonic unconcern for hurting people he doesn’t respect, and his unexpected acts of kindness toward those he does. (If you have read any of Kennedy’s other books, like The Constant Nymph, you know she gives a unique and yes, exasperatingly exalted status to artists. They live outside the common bounds of societal rules and graces in order to create art that all common people avert their eyes from, because they don’t understand its significance. See The Moon and Sixpence for a similar treatment of this subject.)

But we’re talking about the Ladies here, so back to Dolly. She becomes the next Lady Clewer, which the reader saw coming. Dolly is eminently likeable—she is self-assured, unselfish, and has a kind of practical wisdom and moral grounding that will ensure the survival of her and ‘her kind’. As she immediately begins producing healthy, robust Clewer children—something Agatha has been unable to do— it is clear that types like Dolly are seen as stabilizing the future of the privileged class with an infusion of new life, new thinking, work ethic, morals, and permanence.

‘”Well, I don’t know, Agatha…. It seems a pity…Sort of like this. The way we go on now, people act silly and then find out new ways so as not so suffer for it. They don’t study not to be silly. That isn’t going to make the world any better, not in the long run.” — Dolly

The rest of the women of this novel, all of them related to each other by birth or marriage, are all powerful characters in themselves. Kennedy does not create wimpy sketches of character. They all feel real, authentic, with lives of their own. John Clewer is an exception to this; but he is clearly meant to be ‘a type’. The wealthy squire, who soon ‘thickens in the neck’ and becomes more ruddy by the day; this is a kind of personality that Kennedy apparently feels is already well-known through literature. He needs no ‘fleshing-out’, he is already well-fleshed. So, beyond a few descriptions, such as his prize cattle, his desire for a beautiful, compliant wife, and his one explanation of himself, we are left to surmise about John Clewer.

‘“I’m not an aristocrat who has left off being really useful. I spent most of today in a stuffy court-house fining people for riding their bicycles on the pavement, don’t you know. And what do I get for it? Somebody has to do it.” — John

(Poor John. The world is too complicated for him.)

There’s a fair number of marriages that happen, and you might think you were in Barsetshire for a day. But each union is thoroughly intriguing on its own, and each relationship between the pairs is much more complex than those in an Angela Thirkell novel.

Lois and Hubert are particularly engaging and believable as a couple. Lois is John Crewer’s step-sister, so she is one of the lesser ladies of Lyndon. Lois longs to escape Lyndon, and her knight errant is the self-consciously adorable Hubert.

‘[Hubert] was seized with a tremor of panic as his car turned off the high road, with its flanking hedges and telegraph poles, through lodge gates into Lyndon Park. It was the first time in his life that he had ever felt shy and he did not like it at all. He tried to key himself into the temper of bold and daring raider snatching a bride from a hostile stronghold. This descent upon Lyndon ought to have a sort of “Young Lochinvar” swoop in it. But the illusion was destroyed by his slow and spasmodic progress down the park. The swoop was barred by innumerable gates, for Sir John, who bred pedigree cattle, had divided the park into a series of fields…’

Lois and Hubert are well-matched in love and talk endlessly together—Kennedy’s novels are nothing if not rich in dialogue—and by the end of the novel these two are still talking. They are quite useful in conveying information important to the flow of the story, but by the end the (impatient) reader is ready to distill the intensity down into brief, simple narratives, minus dialogue and interruptions to dress for dinner, in order to trundle along more quickly to the inevitable conclusion.

Of the male characters, the most interesting is James Crewers, previously mentioned. He is another product of the same class Agatha is from, and just as helpless in many ways, but for different reasons. He needs Dolly to take care of him, keep his clothes clean and pressed, raise the children, decide what knick-knacks go on the mantel, and even choose where they’ll live. She knows nothing of art, but she just knows her husband is an artist and a gentleman and as such, must be given every possible space in life to create something that the world must need. The endearing thing about these two is that they are devoted to each other.

‘Agatha’s heart was as bleak as the skies outside and she wanted to escape from Dolly and James, and their insufferable security in each other.’

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Gilbert Blair, the ‘brilliant cousin’ of Agatha. He is not meant to be an attractive character; merely an enigma, a tantalizing shadow to Agatha of what might have been. The amusing thing about Gilbert—although he himself is rarely amused by anything and takes his seeming lofty views much too seriously—is that he is considered by everyone else a Socialist. He’s an ‘unruly element’. (That makes Kennedy’s choice of how to deal with Gilbert all the more piquant, and surprisingly current.) He despises the opulent way of life that Agatha and the Clewers live, but is often there enjoying their generous hospitality. He likes to be known as one who provides health care to the poor and needy, but makes no secret of how he despises the filthy ‘scum’. He is morose, and seems to only take pleasure in pointing out how everyone else is living their lives all wrong.

“You can’t do what you think wrong,” [Agatha] said doubtfully.
“Oh, yes I can,” he assured her.
“But it must be right,” she argued. “We were meant for each other. It was my marriage that was wrong.”
He agreed, but said that he would, he thought, condemn behaviour like theirs in anyone else. He reminded her, a little shamefacedly, that he had accepted John’s hospitality and was returning it by stealing his wife.’

Although this novel explores relationships a great deal—what works and what can go wrong, what leads to happiness and what does not—I think of this more as a country house novel in the overview. Perhaps not in the grand tradition of writers such as Henry James, or Aldous Huxley, or Elizabeth Bowen, or Evelyn Waugh, but it should at least be on the list.

In considering The Ladies of Lyndon in this light, it is worthy of note what Richard Gill wrote in his book Happy Rural Seat: The English Country House and the Literary Imagination:

richardgillbookcover‘…We may conclude that the gravitation of a number of Edwardian novelists toward the country house for their themes and symbolism was neither arbitrary nor coincidental. In a changing world, the country house offered to some, like Wells, and Galsworthy, the possibility of dramatizing the failures of a whole social order; for others, like Forster and Ford, it provided an emblem of what might be restored or at least a clue to what might be conserved.’

Margaret Kennedy’s The Ladies of Lyndon, though written in 1923, on the other side of the war, fits more closely in intent, I believe, to the latter category of Forster and Ford. In the strangely cobbled together Clewer family, and their varying fortunes and walks of life, she attempted to posit a future, not just for houses like Lyndon, but for England itself.

“I do love Lyndon. Living in this house makes me realize how much I love it. When I’m at Lyndon I have a feeling sometimes it doesn’t matter what follies we perpetrate because it will survive us. It was made by more sensible people than we are. And sensible people will live there again some day.” — Agatha

ladies-of-lyndon


For further reading on Margaret Kennedy, please see Jane’s blog where she has introduced Margaret Kennedy to a new audience; there are links to excellent reviews from her site. As well, the Kennedy novels I have reviewed so far on this site can be found by using the search box. Or:

Troy Chimneys
The Fool of the Family
The Feast

Rare Bird of a Different Feather

“I see wonderful things.” — Howard Carter

bookshop

The concept of rare applies to so many things in a book lover’s world.

These days it is less about finding a rare edition (the internet makes it so easy), a rare illustrator, a rare signed copy, than it is finding that other vanishing gem—the shop that sells the used books.

The crusty old proprietor who hides behind the antique cash register is another vanishing gem. A rare bird, if there ever was one. A rather hobbit-esque gentleman who looks, in demeanor and hygiene, as though he hasn’t stirred from behind the counter in days.

Why would he? He has what he wants right there. An old coffee pot begrimed with blackened arabica patina has pride of place at his elbow, transforming what was once a hearty brew into something that smells like charred wood, next to it sits a jar of coffee mate—it doubles as a fly trap; stacks of books encircle the counter like a Roman army’s palisade, and you find yourself being examined from behind this fortification of ancient knowledge by a suspicious glare. (There is strange music coming from a dusty radio. It might be classical but it’s not like any classical music you’ve ever heard. It sounds like Wagner on a spinet having a light-hearted go at Hayashi’s national anthem)

rarebookshop2

I like the faint suggestion of exercise here

The crumbs of lunch still cling to his stubble as he reluctantly puts aside his tattered copy of Ginsburg—hard to believe he has the fire of poetry in his soul—and sums you up.

You’re not quite sure what your shoes have to do with it, but, after wrenching his gaze away from the offending footwear, it is apparent this Ben Jonson of retail has found you wanting. He waits, in resignation, for the lady apparition wearing Nikes made in China to ask if he has any cookbooks ‘in stock’? Or, innocently inquiring, “Do you have any copies of Diary of an Edwardian Lady? It’s written by a lady who lived and wrote in the Victorian era…?”

I love that book, but I already possess a copy and know better than to ask the question. So after discreetly disappearing for a time into the dark tunneled bowels of the shop — tip: make very little noise to distract him from his reading and remember to cough occasionally so he can keep track of you without having to put down his book — finally, gather up your newfound treasures in a stack as high as you can carry, and approach the counter again.

Beyond the tower of books in your arms, your shoes are all he can see. So far they have not served you well.

Tired, hungry, euphoric at finding a British first edition Thirkell with dust jacket design by Anna Zinkeisen, unquestionably you have breathed far too much mildew effluvium, and now you’re afraid to ask ‘is there a restroom?’

Because there might be, and you won’t want to use it. (Trust me on this one.)

You could venture to ask, “do you take Visa?” and be met with another snarl of disdain. What follows is a lecture on the evils of the modern age and how all that’s wrong with the world can be traced back to the invention of Molded Plastic.

But it’s all very interesting  and actually…incredibly…the two of you begin to bond. Pretty soon we’re all Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, eager politeness on one side and surly enthusiasm and opinion on the other.

‘I require a book of love poems with spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley, send me poets who can make love without slobbering—Wyatt or Johnson or somebody, use your own judgement. Just a nice book preferably small enough to stick in a slacks pocket and take to Central Park. 

Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! I swear I don’t know how that shop keeps going.’                  — 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

This marvelous guy who speaks with medieval-laced diction and rolling vowels has begun to recognize you as a book enthusiast. You recognize him as A Man Who Knows Everything About Books. For all his misanthropic air, he loves to talk with a fellow librophile and ‘wax expansive’ on all he knows. The conversation begins, coalesces with light speed and he is soon regaling you with tidbits regarding everything from Hemingway’s favorite typewriter to the real story behind Gertrude Bell’s death. Why the Arkwright translation of Memoirs of the Duke de Saint-Simon is particularly good. Milton’s Paradise Lost was a riff right off ol’ cowherd Caedmon’s Paraphrase. What makes the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica so collectible. Who the first far-seeing publisher was to print John Donne’s works as a collection and change the history of poetry. Why you should study seventeenth century French literature and where you should start. (…confession…I never did follow his advice) Why Anthony Trollope fell so hard from public opinion.

Irascible, opinionated, and unapologetic.

If you ask the right questions or are looking for a serious edition he approves of and happens to have—which, sometimes, serendipitously, happens—then this man becomes your new ally.

‘Gentlemen:
The books arrived safely, the Stevenson is so fine it embarrasses my orange-crate bookshelves; I’m almost afraid to handle such soft vellum and heavy cream-colored pages. Being used to the dead-white paper and stiff cardboard covers of American books, I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch.’ — Helene Hanff  — [84 Charing Cross Road]

I remember one such bookseller, in particular…the wine would come out, the dusty armchairs would beckon, and oh I learned ‘wonderful things’ about books, printing, publishing, lore of lost authors and so much that I wish I could remember now…none of it, of course, being relevant to modern life…but isn’t that, in essence, the secret to its fascination? When something can be memorable, without needing to be remembered? We may not recall everything that was said, but we’ll remember how the experience made us feel. Such memories stay with us, not as lifeless data, but as emotional seed sown, or like powerful, insistent tides that continue to reshape our settled paths.

That bookstore, and the living, breathing story-telling human encyclopedia behind the counter? Long gone. The influences remain.

One day I walked in on the death-in-progress of one of my favorite book haunts. This time the old proprietor gave me a sheepish, sorrowful look, and the suspicious gaze came from two strange men who were boxing up precious—and by that time familiar to me—contents. Everything from seventeenth century parchment documents, leather bound collections of Carlyle, Essays of Elia, to maps, first editions of Faulkner, eccentric but fabulous 1960’s art and art magazines…it was all coming down from dusty wooden shelves and being hurriedly stuffed into boxes.

Proprietor looked at me, and I asked the obvious question.

“They bought me out,” he said simply. “It’s all going on the internet. I can finally travel to Asia like I always wanted.”

Rare birds still fly.

Lists To Dream On

IMG_3376What to read next? New lists forming daily as I unpack my library and rediscover old ‘friends’…in the meantime, a poem that lists several of my to-be-read, or currently being read; all books having to do with the cooling atmosphere of water, rivers, or bridges. (It seemed like a good summertime theme!)

Reading
Quiet pools
warm words lapping
Sound of turning pages
sticky with sand
of seaside Sanditon
dappled, light-strewn
amber beaded
with the sparkle
of Jane

By Homer’s amplitude
we Odyssey
with mighty ones
For journeying
on the wine dark sea
“is the thing”
that maddens
While we search
for friends worth dying for

Frenchman’s Creek
shall you lure me
to your quiet shoals
insistent on romance?
Stay your swashbuckled
wandering feet
Free your thoughts
To pirate instead
amongst the stars
Boldly you pillage
Sweet contentment

Captured heart!
lovely oh lovely web
of gauze-like frailty

To The Lighthouse we go
There are words enough
for connoisseurs
and dabblers alike
Grooming my middlebrows
I’ll smile as Virginia
once smiled

What mind next allures me?
Shall we seed these books
In lists cascading  
Layered in waterfalls
Of refreshment
Or shall they be stacked
To suggest
some dreaming spires
of Barchester Towers?

I don’t know
It shall play out
that’s the beauty of it
For you or I
The learning comes easy
In Sweet and Twenties
and summer days
For Still Glides the Stream
When words pool deliciously
In dreamy rivulets
Reading


 

Virile Strokes of Ink

Smoky20Mountains-20Spring

‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’
Michelangelo

You’ve heard of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. You know who George Eliot really was. Likely you know about Shirley.

Do you know Charles Egbert Craddock?

‘ON March 4, 1885, the Boston Evening Transcript printed the following paragraph : “Last evening Dr. Holmes and Mr. Howells received a genuine surprise at the hands of the editor of the Atlantic. Mr. Aldrich invited these gentlemen to dine with him, to meet Charles Egbert Craddock, the author of ‘In the Tennessee Mountains,’ ….and the remarkable novel now publishing in the AtlanticThe Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains’. The surprise lay in the fact that Charles Egbert Craddock is a pseudonym which for the past six years has veiled the identity of a very brilliant woman…’

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Mary Noailles Murfree was the ‘very brilliant woman’ to whom they refer. Charles Egbert Craddock was the unlikely nom de plume of this petite young writer, who happened to enjoy writing gritty, masculine depictions of life in the Tennessee mountains. Though delicate in health, slightly crippled, her physical writing style was with a bold hand, using such virile strokes of ink that it was conjectured she went through a bottle of ink per page.

Hardly the usual mode for the cultivated lady novelist of the late nineteenth century.

Or was it? As I’m reading through the sometimes numbing dialogue of the rugged Tennessee mountaineer that Miss Mary Murfree has rendered so abundantly, I’m reminded of other such moments of difficulty; yet these are books I loved:
Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Mary Barton; and That Lass O’Lowrie’s, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

I could also mention Huckleberry Finn as having taxed my love for local dialect, but then Mark Twain might take it amiss if I included him in a discussion of ‘feminine authors’. (Huckleberry Finn was published the same year as Murfree’s In the Tennessee Mountains.)

Likely, Elizabeth Gaskell influenced younger writers such as Murfree and Burnett. In choosing to write of a rugged, dirty city setting rather than the pastoral countryside, and chronicling ordinary lives rather than romantic heroes and maidens, Gaskell expressed her motivations this way, in her prologue to Mary Barton:

‘Living in Manchester, but with a deep relish and fond admiration for the country, my first thought was to find a framework for my story in some rural scene….when I bethought me how deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided. I had always felt a deep sympathy with the care worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives…’

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Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester, England—the setting for Gaskell’s stories of working class characters. Burnett later moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in 1865, bringing her memories of the sights and sounds–as well as the pungent speech–of the English north country with her. Where she settled, and wrote her first novel of the Lancashire miners, was, by curious coincidence, not far from where Mary N. Murfree was writing her first stories of the rugged Tennessee mountain people.

That Lass O’ Lowrie’s won Burnett good reviews and a fan following. This novel would be a strange prelude to her later works The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, but Burnett was praised for her deft handling of the difficulties of a Lancashire dialect and sympathetic but not sentimental depiction of the care worn Lancashire miners.

What of Mary Noailles Murfree, with her ‘hard-headed and pure-hearted’ mountaineers? Did her characterizations fare as well in the backward glance through time? Did she receive any credit for ‘sympathetic but not sentimental’ depictions?

As with any writer of antiquity, Murfree arrives to our modern and ‘all-knowing’ age with a full complement of both adherents and detractors of her work. One complaint leveled at her work is that she glorified the landscape while trivializing its inhabitants as ignorant and uncouth.

The lyric scenes of mountain beauty are described as a lover might speak of his beloved, then, for many, once the characters open their mouths it breaks the spell.

Later writers and defenders of Appalachian life would complain that Murfree’s use of dialect was not authentic, and too ‘dense’.

‘For a northern audience unfamiliar with the actual dialect, Murfree’s technique may have contributed to a mistaken impression that her representation of speech was more realistic than it actually was. In any given passage of dialogue, Murfree used two or three times as many nonstandard features as writers who portrayed other regional dialects such as James Whitcomb Riley, Hamlin Garland, or Sarah Orne Jewett. Murfree used four to five times as many nonstandard features as Mark Twain did in Huckleberry Finn, published the same year as In the Tennessee Mountains.’

(Encyclopedia of Appalachia—Appalachian English in Literature)

Murfree had a keen, observant mind and a musician’s ear for capturing the unique patois of her mountain neighbors. There is a euphonious quality to their speech that is strangely haunting; she even describes it as ‘a slow, singing monotone’. It is a lyrical beauty that pairs well with her descriptions of ‘the vaporous shimmer of the distant mountain summits’ and ‘the sea of shining white mists in the valley’.

In this telling passage from her short story, The Star in the Valley, Chevis, in spite of himself, continues to find himself drawn to the lovely mountain girl, Clarie.

’Truly the ethereal woodland flower seemed strangely incongruous with the brutal and uncouth conditions of her life, as she stood at a little distance from this group, spinning at her wheel. Chevis felt a sudden sharp pang of pity for her when he glanced toward her; the next instant he had forgotten it in his interest in her work…’

This would seem to echo the sentiments of Elizabeth Gaskell, quoted earlier, who ‘felt a deep sympathy with the care worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives.’

Murfree does not flatter the Tennessee mountaineer by any means, but neither does she despise them. She describes them—as a class, or culture—as being ‘scrupulously clean’, honest, noble, and unfailingly hospitable. This is often in contrast with the city born outsider, who is cast in the role as the ‘superior [read: small-minded] observer’, to the quaint ways of the mountaineers. There are many instances throughout Murfree’s writing where it appears she is questioning her own ‘lofty’ viewpoint of culture and education. Thus, again in the words of her character Chevis, we sense her conflict:

‘Chevis flattered himself that he entertained a broader view. He had not even a subacute idea that he looked upon these people and their inner life only as picturesque bits of the mental and moral landscape; that it was an aesthetic and theoretical pleasure their contemplation afforded him; that he was as far as ever from the basis of common humanity.

And this curious comment from Murfree in The Romance of Sunrise Rock:

‘In this day of over-education, when every man is fitted for any noble sphere of intellectual achievement and only inborn talent survives, might it not be that he had mistaken a cultivated aspiration for latent power?…There is something so ludicrously contemptible in a great personal ambition and a puny capacity. Ambition is the only grand passion that does not ennoble. We do not care that a low thing should lift its eyes. And if it does, we laugh.’

Mary Noailles Murfrees admired this ‘latent power’ in the Tennessee mountaineer. Perhaps she, like Michelangelo, saw the angel in the marble.

The Charles Egbert Craddock stories endure, even if no one actually reads them today except as a social document. I cannot read them as a critic might. I find them fascinating, even poignant at times, because some of my ‘people’, shall we say, inhabited the land around Murfreesboro, and lived at the base of those very same mountains Murfree wrote of. I grew up on the West coast, but thanks to my grandparents, I heard a slow, deliberate, graceful pattern of speech that came from a similar world to the one immortalized in Murfree’s books. (My grandfather was born in Tennessee in 1872)

My wise and witty grandma Josie had many colorful expressions; it wasn’t until I read Murfree’s works that I actually saw them in print. This was strangely moving to me, to see my grandma’s odd little homey expressions in the pages of a book; spoken by a lithe,’slip o’ willow’ girl with large, dreamy eyes, all ‘wild and gentle’.

Little wonder then, when reading passages such as the following that I felt a sense of kinship, not only with the writer, but with the people she wrote about.

‘When Evander was half-way up the steep slope, he turned and looked down at the
embowered little house, that itself turned its face upward, looking as it were to the mountain’s summit. How it nestled there in the gorge! He had seen it often and often before, but whenever he thought of it afterward it was as it appeared to him now: the darkling valley below it, the mountains behind it, the sunset sky still flaring above it, though stars had blossomed out here and there, and the sweet June night seemed full of their fragrance. He could distinguish for a good while the gate, the rickety fence, the path beneath the trees. The vista ended in the open door, with the broad flare of the fire illumining the puncheon floor and the group of boisterous tow-headed children; in the midst was the girl, with her bright hair and light figure, with her round arms bare, and her deft hand stirring the batter for bread in a wooden bowl. She looked the very genius of home, and so he long remembered her.’

‘The vista ended in the open door’….and we long to enter. Here Murfree merges landscape, cabin, and inhabitants into one lyrical passage, into one moment in time; inviting us in to share the beauty of the ‘darkling valley, the sweet June night, and the girl with the bright hair’.

It is a beautiful piece of writing that resonates, in a particular way, with my own heart and heritage. Perhaps I shouldn’t try for eloquence but I can certainly tell you what my grandma would have said:

“It ‘peart me up quite considerable”.