Firstly (yes I have been avoiding book blogging despite living in a cosy half-snowed in cottage with nothing to do but read and play with my kitten and husband — I wanted to get more reading in and have even started a bit of writing again! A Victorian Woman in White and Jane Eyre inspired story…)
Ahem, secondly: (yes, I’ve now finished Jane Eyre from last year and ended up loving it again. Phew. For a while I wasn’t sure about Mr. Rochester there, but he and Jane did bring a tear to my eye in the end and Charlotte Bronte is allowed back on my list of favourite authors, in fact I’m becoming quite taken with her and managed to acquire, from a grocery store no less since there is no decent bookshop in the nearest town, A Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan, a historical novel about the Brontes! Move over, Jane Austen.)
So now it’s thirdly: just read Diana Wynne Jones already, you at the back who have not yet done so. I finally finally got around to Howl’s Moving Castle yesterday and hand on my heart, what a treat. I must of course thank Jenny enormously for the book recommendation, that got the book off the library shelf and into my hands a few weeks ago and yesterday into my brain, heart and many smiles too. It reminds me most of The Princess Bride (my favourite movie as a teenager), a funny fantasy with romance and wonderful adventures along the way. I loved the camaraderie of all the characters living in the castle together, Calcifer the talking fire demon, Michael the wizard’s apprentice, Howl the vain wizard himself (he’s in his bathroom several hours a day and always comes out smelling of flowers) and of course Sophie, who’s been bewitched to look like an old woman. I may have pulled a different Diana Wynne Jones book off the shelf at random last year and thought it a bit silly and odd too, but from the first sentence of this I was hooked:
In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.
Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success.
I’m also the oldest (of four luckily, one sister and then two brothers) and as a not-domineering oldest (honestly! My mother wouldn’t let me be!), I could so relate to Sophie and loved her journey of learning to have confidence in herself.
I’ve also reread Possession by A.S. Byatt, my first book of the year and finally got through all the pseudo-Victorian poetry that I only skimmed last time and while I enjoyed each part of the book, all the letters and biographies cramming lives of the mind from past and present together, I so wanted the present day story of the two scholars discovering a surprising literary secret about the poets they study to keep unfolding, that all the other stuff, the poems and so forth, were sometimes an unwelcome obstacle. The framing story of the scholars is written as a mystery and I love to fly through mysteries but then there was all this other stuff, invented primary sources about her two invented Victorian poets, that I had to stop for and wade and ponder through, before being able to get back to the flying Roland and Maud parts (I still like them better for reasons below, despite the more heightened romance of the older story). It was a bit annoying, even though I learned to appreciate the poems — really an amazing achievement of Byatt’s — this time around.
There’s so much to think about in Possession that I definitely took my time over it, as I say, the (err, sometimes long-winded?) primary sources out of the past, the diaries, letters and poems of her poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash and their friends and then all the fascinating secondary sources, bits of biographies and literary theories that now overlay them from the scholars’ perspective, seeing these Victorians through Freud, Lacan and lots of liberated sex.
Just in case, primary and secondary sources were terms used in my history classes to denote the material that’s actually from the past versus scholarly speculation about it since then, that builds up over time. You can see the difference between a novel of Elizabeth Gaskell or Charlotte Bronte, actually written in the Victorian era versus a historical novel written about that time now, like Possession or The Crimson Petal and the White, which may be well researched but has a different feel, a more modern sensibility about the past. Then there’s also Charlotte Bronte’s poems and novels and letters versus Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of her, which was still written in the Victorian time period, but is also a secondary source, with the necessary speculation and reputation boosting, about Bronte. But perhaps a primary source about Gaskell, hmm… Perhaps this is just a nerdy side-progression here, but I love how Byatt has used both forms to tell her story, creating a distinct voice for her Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash through his letters and poems and also creating another voice for his obsessively lost in the details biographer, instead of just telling it all in streamlined single authoritative point of view as most historical fiction does. It really shows how academics have to work, picking between the original writing of the person they’re studying and everything that’s been written about them since, gradually covering them in a plaster mold that hardens over time into certain unquestioned stereotypes — Jane Austen the fussy old maid, the Brontes wildly bounding over the moors. Byatt shows her Victorian characters fresh and alive in the moment and also stiff and stuffed inside the cultural labels they are later given, their literary remains slowly dissected or decaying. She reminds us that all these acclaimed biographies and theories are still only just speculation next to the real life once breathed.
I also liked the section of Christabel’s feminist fairy tale poem about Melusine, a fairy fish or serpent thing somewhat like a mermaid and who actually exists in mythology and wanted to be able to read more of Ash’s epic poem Ragnarök (inspired by Norse mythology, as were Lewis and Tolkien) as well. Even though it doesn’t exist outside of the sections A.S. Byatt wrote for him.
And I loved the echoes of Victorian fairy tales that continue to bounce around in the scholars’ world and the quieter love that develops between the modern day couple, in contrast to the passion of the past. I could so relate to Roland and Maud feeling absolutely overwhelmed by all of the sex that surrounds every aspect of our culture, even literature, and wanting to find a simpler connection with someone, that is meaningful but also gives them privacy, respect and calm without it being drenched in the cultural layers of passionate demands and analysis. She implies that our being so aware of sex and everything it can mean, every moment, can stiffen and mold us into mere sexual stereotypes as we are still living, we can become lost in analysis of every sort instead of creating art, something new and original, out of the mess of the subconscious. Byatt wonderfully juxtaposes the imaginary poets wanting to break free of society’s restraints to find passion with the modern academics who want to break free of society’s sexual madness to find something more personal.
They were children of a time and culture which mistrusted love, “in love,” romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language… They were theoretically knowing…
They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a bench, and not removed.
One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.
They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night. It was important to both of them that the touching should not proceed to any kind of fierceness or deliberate embrace. They felt that in some way this stately peacefulness of unacknowledged contact gave back their sense of their separate lives inside their separate skins. Speech, the kind of speech they knew, would have undone it. On days when the sea-mist closed them in a sudden milk-white cocoon with no perspectives they lay lazily together all day behind heavy white lace curtains on the white bed, not stirring, not speaking.
Bliss. I don’t have a white bed, but I do have a white view as the snow continues to come down in thick flakes.