Those Gorgeous Georgians

I’ve been drafting my next blog post in my head for what seems like weeks now, so I’ll try to keep it short so I don’t keep putting it off! (I have made it up with British literature, if you’re wondering. I reread North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell for the third time, after my brief dip into Chinese books.) After that, I ended up watching Ballet Shoes one night on Netflix after feeling rather down and thoroughly enjoyed it (I so wish I’d seen it or read the book by Noel Streatfeild when I was younger as it encourages girls to have ambition and to work hard to do what they love, whatever that may be and also has so many great strong female characters in it, who like a lot of different things, from dancing and acting to math and flying airplanes), which got me thinking that instead of feeling I must only ever strive to read the most difficult and punishing books so I can prove what a smart person I am, I could try to read what I love for a bit. And by that I didn’t mean the recent British comfort books I’ve discovered this past year through blogging, I meant my first book love, stories with ‘romance and adventure’ as I’ve always thought of it, or what they mostly were, historical fiction.

I got a stack of books from the library and ended up finally reading my first Georgette Heyer (The Corinthian) and there it was again: that romance and adventure. I was so teased by my brother for reading what he called ‘soppy romance novels’ when I was a teenager and later after taking advanced English in high school and then studying English in university I wanted to learn more about the classics that I often regretted ‘wasting’ my teenage reading years on these christian historical novels, when I could have been reading Austen or the Brontes or Dickens or even Dostoevsky as I’ve heard others brag of. But the thing is, much as the classics truly are great books and profoundly worth attention… I also like what I like. My experiences have shaped me and it seems foolish to ignore that, to deny myself the type of books and reading experiences I still yearn for (and the kind of books I’ve always secretly wanted to write, which is historical fiction, with romance and adventure!). I’m tired of the elitism which seems to go on, where ‘thinking women’s fiction’ is judged better than ‘feeling and emotional women’s fiction’ — why do women put other women down at all? This was the only problem I had with the Heyer novel, the heroine who’s particularly boyish puts down a more girly romantic character. Is this necessary in books or real life? Why is acting more like the male stereotype, being less emotional and focusing more on the intellect, automatically better? Why is it I’ve always felt ashamed of being romantic and emotional and tried to hide it behind proving I was smarter than the boys (not that difficult since smart boys are often just giant nerds who like having fun and don’t feel bad about it, much more difficult are all the other girls trying to seriously prove themselves too)? Why not feel ok reading both types of books (if that is one’s inclination), blending thought and emotion, and not like I have to justify myself like this?

Georgiana, with her crazy fashion hat

Anyways, past all that, I discovered something. The Regency era, which I’d previously viewed with some distaste due to all those crazy Jane Austen fans (so not like me, I’d tell myself, since I like her for her great writing not just the romance and the spin-offs and movies!), was actually quite fun to read about. There was lots of wit and humour in Heyer, which is also one of the things I like most about Jane Austen and there was an emphasis on fancy clothes, which I’ve realized I have a weakness for in books. I also thought the 18th century might be worth checking out, since I’ve always thought Jane Austen was most a product of the rationalism and satire of that time and not of the romanticism of the early 19th century. I ended up reading the biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (which the movie The Duchess was based on) and now I really want to learn more about the 18th century. The Georgians are a bit crazy and many of them gambled horribly (Georgiana was never able to clear all her debts in her lifetime or to fully stop gambling for decades, if ever), but they’re just more interesting and colourful to me than the Victorians. Their clothes are prettier! I may have found something I like for myself and not just because others like it. My interests in Jane Austen, Marie Antoinette and the age of sail all collide at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th in a way I hadn’t considered before.

So I’ll see what comes of this but hopefully I can finally settle down with a time period long enough to be able to research and write about it. The interesting thing about Georgiana’s biography was how much the movie had made her life only about sex (cold Ralph Fiennes of a husband scares her in bed, she meets sad friend who then sleeps with cold husband, but cold husband must produce an heir and then she finds true love Dominic Cooper only to have to…) when really, she was a remarkable woman in so many other ways, mostly for her involvement in the Whig (liberal) party politics. She kept the party together by hosting many meetings at her house and through close friendships with different leaders when male rivalry and ambition threatened to destroy it. Not only did she set fashions for decades, but she used her popularity for what she believed in, canvassing strenuously for the Whig leader, Charles Fox and as Foreman says, “should be credited with being one of the first to refine political messages for mass communication. She was an image-maker who understood the necessity of public relations, and she became adept at the manipulation of political symbols and the dissemination of party propaganda.” She was a very close friend of the Prince of Wales and often tried to keep him from doing anything too stupid. She was also a writer who published an anonymous novel as well as some popular poetry and songs and she even experimented in chemistry and mineralogy later in life. She also lived in Europe for a year or so during the French Revolution (while giving birth to an illegitimate child), not an easy feat!

I’ve now jumped into Fanny Burney’s Evelina and understanding the time period more (it’s an epistolary novel and as Georgiana herself wrote hundreds or thousands of letters to many friends which are quoted throughout the biography, it becomes easy to see the popularity of that form for many early novels then — with no phones or telegraphs the communication between friends seems to be much richer for all the letters written — could blogging now be a way to recapture that?) finally helps me to get past the first few slightly dull pages to what inspired Jane Austen herself.

Once on a Moonless Night, by Dai Sijie

So many ways to begin — first, isn’t this book cover gorgeous? I’ve begun to take an interest in China and Chinese fiction/literature/culture/movies/etc since picking up Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang (which also has a gorgeous cover, although I haven’t finished reading it yet) and being enchanted by another culture that called out to me through her poetic prose. The eastern culture of China is far from my own safe in western Canada, yet as Chang described how it felt to be treated as a colonial in Hong Kong, with the culture and people subordinate to the British, I could relate. I’ve read mostly British literature for years now, perhaps all my life. Canadian literature is never as good, I think to myself. I know more about British history than I do about Canadian history. And all this Britishness began to feel slightly samey, stale and soggy as mushy peas. I love female authors like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf, but must they endlessly nostalgically hover over the lost class based British way of life? It wasn’t an innocent past — it destroyed the hopes and families and traditions and cultures of untold numbers of women and men in so many other parts of the world, just to uphold a few people in decaying ruins. Yes, English women didn’t have the rights of English men. But the girls in Hong Kong (or Africa or India or Canada) were reduced to far worse.

So on my next trip to the bookstore, I began to look for Chinese authors and I found Dai Sijie, author of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, who now writes from France but was born and raised in China. The story in Once on a Moonless Night reminds me somewhat of a Chinese Possession (A.S. Byatt even wrote a review of it, saying it “is full of tales within tales and worlds within worlds, ranging from ancient Chinese empires through communist China to modern Beijing”), as it’s the story of a quest to find a torn silk scroll that contains an ancient text in an unknown language and there’s also a love story attached. But it is more subtle and unending than Possession, almost like a dream, there aren’t two clearly defined time periods and sets of characters, there are many that weave in and out, or appear once and then disappear. I was often wondering what was true about Chinese history and what made up for the sake of the story. For instance, is the mysterious language the scroll is written in, Tumchooq, real? Did the country it came from ever exist? What about the Frenchman who eventually decodes it? And the last emperor of China, Puyi, and Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty who was a great calligrapher, poet and artist in the eleventh century, what were they really like? And the Empress Cixi and British involvement in China, when did it start, and I realize I know almost nothing about Chinese history and wish I knew much more than that. Towards the end of the book, the development of Chinese culture and language is filtered through Marco Polo’s (perhaps somewhat falsified?) accounts of his travels and the rise of Buddhism, showing the swamp of intertwining cultures and languages in the east that influenced each other, from India to China, and how unreliable what we think we know about history can be.

The book had a modern narrator (a Frenchwoman in love with languages, who studies not only Chinese, but also Tibetan, an African dialect and Hebrew) and as I say, a love story, with a greengrocer named Tumchooq (for the unknown language his father translated) who also has a mysterious connection to an exiled aristocrat and the Forbidden City. It also describes the harsh conditions of the work camps so many, from common criminals to ‘thought criminals’ (which could include famous authors), were sent to, in Mao’s time. Later on the story moves to a quiet Buddhist monastery and printing press in Burma (or Myanmar), where “mango, orange and avocado trees with cocoa pods peeping from beneath them” flourish. As I read, I suddenly wish to see these things (which now thanks to modern transportation, can be shipped from the tropical climate its grown in to sanitized western grocery stores, completely cut off from where it’s come from, just as tea is now seen as quintessentially British but was in fact originally from Asia), as well as the sun coming over the golden roofs of the Forbidden City.

I want to experience a different culture, to smell and hear and learn new things, although perhaps I’m only succumbing to Orientalism, the lure of the supposedly exotic unknown, and perhaps I’m too late for that anyway, as China now is becoming more capitalist and the past there as here is disappearing. Once on a Moonless Night does not resolve these differences between east and west, the past and present, it merely raises the issues and my curiosity with it. Here is the first half of the text on the torn piece of silk that the characters quest to translate and to find the ending to:

Once on a moonless night a lone man is traveling in the dark when he comes across a long path that merges into the mountain and the mountain into the sky, but halfway along, at a turn in the path, he stumbles. As he falls, he clutches at a tuft of grass, which briefly delays a fatal outcome, but soon his hands can hold him no longer and, like a condemned man in his final hour, he casts one last glance below, where he can see only the darkness of those unfathomable depths…

This is the story of all our lives — we are lost somewhere on a dark path, hoping to survive.

{By the way, I’ve changed my blog name from A Few of my Favourite Books to lilac tea, which better reflects my interests and the direction I hope to take this blog in — away from being rigidly in the book blogging mould and more meditative and casual. I’ve been happy to discover that not only is tea a more international drink than I’ve seen it as, but lilacs, my favourite flower, also show up in Chinese literature! So I’ll be sure to share quotes soon.

To those still interested in reading along, thanks for bearing with me while I change things around a bit. I was considering quitting this sort of blogging all together, but finishing this book earlier today showed me that all I wanted to do was discuss it with anyone who might be interested. I don’t want to rush to finish the books everyone in my corner of the internet is reading just to say I’ve read them anymore, I want to look for the books that personally matter to me, so I will likely be less involved online just so I can feel less overwhelmed and more able to read at my own pace and to figure out the other aspects of my life — I’m wanting to watch more movies and see them as a valuable art form too, as well as figuring out my career and what lies ahead on my own path.}

Such are the visions

I’m thinking about trying to write shorter posts here, at least occasionally. We’ll see how it goes here. I’ve also been playing around with fixing the blog up a bit, using this painting on the left in my new header, it’s by Harold Knight, who’s best known for the painting on the cover of the Persephone Classics edition of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. I really love that painting and finding more of his work just seemed to fit with my blog, especially since I am once again back into the early 20th century.

I’ve also been thinking about why I read and how to read and what to read and then how to write about what I read… venturing beyond only comfort reading, I see there is a whole world of challenging and enlightening reading available. Now I wish I was back at my old big city library, where Virago books were available right next to NYRB Classics and all kinds of literary criticism. At least my small town library has two books of Anne Fadiman’s and two Italo Calvinos, even if not Why Read the Classics? But I am busy making lists of what I do want to read and have a TBR page for the first time and someday I’ll have access to more books again. (In the meantime, I am trying to clear our paths of packed down snow that’s beginning to melt and then freeze again.)

Mrs. Dalloway is a difficult book to pin down. People assume that Virginia Woolf is a feminist writer, but she’s so much more than that. Going into her book with those assumptions, even for the second time, I felt a bit bewildered and out of place. She portrays the life, the visions, the thoughts in all of us. We see the good and bad sides of the characters, we see their thoughts and then other people’s thoughts about them as well. Despite the book’s title, Clarissa Dalloway is not the ‘heroine’ of the book in the way that Jane Austen’s women are, somewhat invulnerable to the real criticism she dishes out to the other characters, perhaps especially her introverts who seem to do no wrong, Elinor, Fanny and Anne. I know Austen’s heroines have flaws, but the books are their stories. They are the centre, the point, they are in some way the ones in the right while others must adjust to their truth (except perhaps her self-deluded characters like Emma and Catherine?). Can you read Pride & Prejudice outside of the perspective of Elizabeth? She has a strong interesting marriage plot, what does Mrs. Dalloway have, a party. Which she floats in and out of, not even a proper host of the book that takes her name.

I like Mrs. Dalloway despite her lack of true heroine status, she may be old fashioned, conventional or even a snob, but thankfully she’s not feisty. She’s real. She’s older, she wonders if she’s too cold, she reads memoirs late in bed, she remembers a moment long in the past, passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Then there’s her old friend Peter Walsh, I don’t like him as much, especially the way he’s always playing with his pocket knife whenever he feels insecure around women, but there the story is off following him now. Woolf wanted to show that regular women were a worthwhile subject for fiction (I think — is this idea developed in her essay Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown?), but here’s Peter. There’s another sort of boring, sort of self justifying character who never really does much (he keeps a notebook full of phrases for the time when he’ll start to write, but he never does, just ends his time out reminiscing vaguely) like Peter, narrating the end of The Waves and that also annoyed me. Are these just my expectations that Woolf be more of a feminist author and only portray women? Or does she not write men well or sympathetically or maybe that’s the point, oh help. She certainly accurately portrays the uncomfortable prickly yet nostalgic relationship between a man and a woman, when both have hurt the other years ago, let them down, the self justifying that goes on inside both still.

Now it is late and this isn’t short. But I’m wanting something different with my blog, my reading. When I raise possibility controversial questions about books like yesterday, I feel awkward discussing these ideas without thinking them through enough first, I want to use the blog as a way to explore the sudden thought, but then I wonder if it gets mired in arguments that may miss the point of what I was originally wondering about. I’m just thinking as I write, I don’t have it all planned out beforehand. Maybe it gets muddled. This isn’t my job, just a hobby and yet if people come here, this is what they read, what they know of me. (Am I even using my time best to be blogging so often and at such length, along with lately very extended comments? Why am I blogging at all instead of working on a longer more personal writing project? For community, support in difficult reading, endless book recommendations, a sharing of exciting moments with books and how to understand them and life itself, mutual enlightenment? Or just wasted time spent on too much self promotion?)

Such are the visions which proffer great cornucopias full of fruit to the solitary traveller, or murmur in his ear like sirens lolloping away on the green sea waves, or are dashed in his face like bunches of roses, or rise to the surface like pale faces which fishermen flounder through floods to embrace.

Feminism & Jane Austen

Well, now that I’ve tried to recover from all the excitement of Virago Reading Week (I was staying up late and waking up early, eager to read what everyone had posted!) and have only spent the time with my thoughts about literature and feminism jumping about more and more in my head, it seems time to discuss a few more things.

There are still a few Virago reviews popping up, including this one by Rachel at Flowers & Stripes, about Pat Barker’s first novel Union Street, which she tried for ten years to get published and was constantly turned down because it was considered too bleak and depressing. It’s about working class women living in poverty and violence, from what I can gather. But haven’t men written about the working class before, why should this have been so unpublishable? Angela Carter was the one who encouraged Barker to submit it to Virago and so began her career, as a Booker winner! (Though she won the Booker for writing about men and male themes, namely soldiers and war. I’d like to read the Regeneration trilogy, I’m just saying.)

I was amused and awakened by this part of the review:

It’s the story of seven girls/women who live on Union Street. It is definitely not a comfort read. This is real poverty. Not the ‘we used to be rich but now we’re living in a tumbling pile, at least we have Granny’s fur stole to keep us warm’ type poor. This is ‘thank my lucky stars I hopefully will never live like this and what can I do to make sure other people don’t too’ type poverty.

As a matter of fact, I did read a bit of I Capture the Castle recently (comic yet heartfelt coming of age in tumbling pile), which I enjoyed more than I expected to and most of Diary of a Provincial Lady, which I didn’t really enjoy. Horrors, but it seemed that her life was actually unfulfilled, with a husband who doesn’t pay attention and endless envy of those better off, or else that it’s just British humour exaggerating things, in either case, the life described seemed small and I couldn’t see the meaning in it. Or maybe I was just in a bad mood and feeling restless?

To be fair, I’ve also got a library stack of more feminist books like Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir and Beloved by Toni Morrison and Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood and honestly… I’m not reading them either. I considered Elizabeth Bowen, since I own most of her books in beautiful editions and have only read two (but what fantastic two: The Death of the Heart and The Last September. I highly recommend her as another great early 20th century female author! Darlene of roses over a cottage door is also reading and loving To the North right now.) — I really want to read and promote more of her books, but none of them were quite right just now.

I tried to read some Proust again, since I keep longing to think more deeply and privately like that, but it began to seem too ornate and also too male, with his mother obsession. (I have read In Search of Lost Time before, I’m just not always in the mood for that much neurosis!) I tried to read Thoreau’s nature journals and fell asleep. They are beautifully written in places and I do enjoy good nature writing on occasion, but better for skimming than linear beginning to end reading, is all I can conclude. (I’ve tried to read them before and was even then, quite rightly distracted by Virago books!)

As for Virago books, I’m definitely wanting to read more, especially Rosamond Lehmann and so was happy to find this article by Jonathan Coe about her and other Virago authors and how he discovered them and is inspired by them in his own writing.

Thinking further about Dusty Answer, I realized it has many of the same basic elements as Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — both extremely nostalgic stories about a lost upper class British way of life, with the outsider main characters completely enamoured of a rich and glamorous troubled family. Both main characters also go to one of the big British universities, Judith Cambridge, Charles Oxford. They also both form sudden and extremely intense relationships with one beautifully charming person, who takes a liking to them for no real reason. These relationships both hint at going beyond simple friendship, and indeed both of their charming friends are involved with other homosexual characters. What else, other love affairs don’t work out as well as hoped, although for different reasons. And let me add… Lehmann’s book was written in 1927. Waugh’s? 1945. Waugh’s novel has never been out of print, while Lehmann’s was and remains almost forgotten. Personally, I wasn’t quite a fan of Brideshead (more horrors?), the religious theme drove me nuts with its ending of ultimate conservatism, propping up the past, the sterile old British way of life. Dusty Answer has a more uncertain ending, but also one that gives freedom and opportunity to women. The future is open, not reigned in by platitudes and dead duties.

I’ve now picked up Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which seems to be what I want. I read it for the first time last year without ever knowing how to properly write about it, there was so much beauty but also so much sadness. As someone who’s been through an at times suicidal depression, I didn’t know what could be said that wouldn’t seem too personal. I’d like to explore it more here this year, there’s so much that is fresh and joyful and so lyrical about it. It seems I could read the first few pages over and over, for sheer pleasure. Woolf was very influenced by Proust, but there is nothing overly ponderous or self pitying about her work, there is such a celebration of life. And yet she shows the darkness too. I have a lovely Mrs. Dalloway Reader, edited by Francine Prose, which also includes the short stories that developed into the novel, as well as selections from her diary about writing it and essays by other critics about it, of her time and ours, I keep wandering into these parts and learning more about Mrs. Dalloway instead of reading it at times!

The real unedited Jane Austen. Deal with it.

I’m still thinking about how to see Jane Austen as a feminist, although I’ve been a bit hesitant to write about it, for fear of feathers and ruffling and all that. But the gist of my idea is — what if Jane Austen didn’t marry not because she never met a man who could be her Mr. Darcy but because… she wanted her freedom? To continue writing and thinking for herself. My romantic self would think it so sad she remained single and yet wrote these classic romances and yet, that image of her as a pining romantic didn’t gibe with the lively sharp witted and even at times spiteful author I sensed in the books themselves, who would never tolerate any such sentimental nonsense. The truth is, if a woman did marry in that time, they’d be worn out from having babies All The Time. They wouldn’t be able to write and they wouldn’t be having endless fancy love times either! Sex would likely be frightening because of the endless pregnancies. And Jane gave up in a large and poorer household, she knew what it would be like for her.

Being single and relying on her male relatives for support wasn’t easy either, but at least she had that metaphorical room of her own. The other idea I had is that maybe she did slip the reality of women’s lives into her novels, but it was hidden under the necessity (for a woman writer at least) of a happy conventional ending. Most men then and now, are more likely to be either like her bad men, and Wickham, Willoughby, Crawford, Mr. Collins etc do seem completely realistic in their self-centeredness or they’d be a more realistic version of her heroes. In reality, Darcy would continue to be an arrogant snob, Tilney a know-it-all tease, Knightley a scold, always wanting to fix Emma, just as she wants to fix others, Wentworth is resentful, Edmund Bertram blinded by infatuation. And both Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars are nice, but bland. (Honestly, read the book, Colonel Brandon is never sexy. I’ve tried and tried to read him that way and it just won’t work.)

I think the realistic sides of these men are shown in the first three quarters or so of the books before their completely abrupt turn arounds, with often very sudden and unlikely proposals all around at the end. (Tilney and Catherine, really? Fanny and Edmund, come on. Also anyone, have you ever heard of a real Mr. Darcy changing that much?? Well, have you, I’d like to know! Usually they are far too aware of their elevated positions to go after anyone less than perfect. In women’s novels the richer man tends to love the poorer woman. In men’s novels the hard to get girl suddenly falls for the nerd. It’s all a fantasy without any equality, and equality, a meeting of equals, is what’s needed in a balanced relationship. It’s just not as exciting…)

Dead inside Jane Austen who never actually existed.

If you read Austen’s juvenilia, she satirizes romance and romantic expectations in novels to no end. I can’t stand it that she’s seen as being the grandmother of chick lit when she’s so much more than that! Also that movie Becoming Jane? What kind of sentimental tosh is that, that her doe-eyed princess diary juvenilia was sloppy and horrid trash until a man came into her life?! This trivialization and infantilization of female authors is truly appalling (you can bet if there was a bio pic of Hemingway the facts wouldn’t be so badly distorted). Go read Searching for Jane Austen by Emily Auerbach (rare link to actual book included, because it really is that good), where she discusses how Austen’s image has been tampered with over the years, from the first memoir written about her by her nephew, to make her look more pretty and safe and sweet, just good old Aunt Jane. The actual painting of her by her sister Cassandra, which looks cross and fed up and but also perhaps privately amused, looking critically at the world behind her folded arms (the first picture above), has even over the years been changed into things like the second picture I’ve included, which wasn’t an actual painting of her, just a prettified tidying up of the first and only painting of her!!! Now she wears nicer clothes, she’s not critical or even laughing, she just looks bored.

Similar things have happened to the Brontes to downplay that they knew how revolutionary their writing was (fancy women writing about alcoholism and revenge and madness, how shocking), their misery and seclusion on the moors was played up to heighten belief in their docility and innocence. The book to read there is The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller and now I’m done. I know it’s fun to read and watch Jane Austen (and the Brontes) as escapism, but it’s also good to look more deeply sometimes too and I think there are plenty of hints in the novels that lead towards that idea, that the Regency era wasn’t one glamorous party time of romance and that women were, as usual, getting the short end of the stick. Just a thought.

Perhaps — just one further thought! — she does hold out some hope that men (and women) can change and that women can have more equal and satisfying marriages built on love and mutual respect. But to my mind the transitions between her selfish ‘heroes’ suddenly becoming good men ready to marry the poor but plucky heroines are far too quick and unlikely. Perhaps in time, when more women refuse to be blinded by social conventions and write more openly about reality and are less willing to jump through sexist hoops, just as Jane Austen tried to do, then these kind of equal relationships can happen.

VRW: Elizabeth & Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

I was moved to immediately begin reading this lovely book at last by Danielle’s sensitive and moving description of von Arnim’s sequel to Elizabeth and Her German Garden, The Solitary Summer. (And now I want to read that one too, because Elizabeth and Her German Garden was over all too soon!) But I’ve had a bit of a hard time thinking about how to write this review. I absolutely adored the first half or two-thirds (or maybe it’s three-fourths?) of this book, so much so I even considered typing them up to keep forever as my very own because I’m only reading from a very tattered library copy. I love flowers and gardens, even though I am definitely not a gardener, they are my safe place and I’ve always felt that trees and flowers were my friends, just as Elizabeth does. And she mentions all my favourite flowers (lilacs, sweet peas and roses) and it was idyllic and so relaxing and private, describing just the sort of place I’d love to live in (with my very sweet and lovable husband however, not the Man of Wrath!)

There were a few feminist bits, actually, she sees peasant women who’ve just given birth and then go back to work that very same day and feels sorry for them (and definitely doesn’t agree with her husband, the Man of Wrath, who argues that it does women good to be beaten, oh my word!!) but then in the last bit, she has two women come to visit, one of whom she and the other guest make fun of extensively. This girl’s from Britain and keeps taking out a notebook just to jot down whatever strange things these Germans talk about or do, in order to throw them together in a little book, which would get annoying I suppose, especially as she is oblivious to their hints to stop it.

Perhaps it’s the whole making fun of obnoxious Britishers at travel (looking down at everyone else, because of their bigger empire? This attitude of course, provoking Germany in particular which eventually led to a lot of trouble), which E.M. Forster also does in A Room With A View (Forster was, incidentally, the tutor of von Arnim’s children!) and especially the British travel writer type, like his sentimental novelist, Eleanor Lavish. But the thing is, both Elizabeth von Arnim and E.M. Forster were writers themselves and writers about the Englishman abroad too, what gives them the right to criticize their fellow travelers and fellow writers? Von Arnim at least actually lived in Germany, but she’s the one who’s actually written what seems like a rather autobiographical novel about the people around her, did she steal all her copy from them? (As they keep teasing the girl in the book.) Do they make fun of writers in their books to distract the reader from thinking of them as the same kind of writers? I’m not sure, but I found it an odd ending to such an otherwise delightful book and I definitely want to read more of her books now, The Enchanted April too. What a great wealth of richness this reading week has given me!

Here are some lovely bits:

On some very specially divine days, like to-day, I have actually longed for some one else to be here to enjoy the beauty with me. There has been rain in the night, and the whole garden seems to be singing — not the untiring birds only, but the vigorous plants, the happy grass and trees, the lilac bushes — oh, those lilac bushes! They are all out to-day, and the garden is drenched with the scent. I have brought in armfuls, the picking is such a delight, and every pot and bowl and tub in the house is filled with purple glory, and the servants think there is going to be a party and are extra nimble, and I go from room to room gazing at the sweetness, and the windows are all flung open so as to join the scent within to the scent without; and the servants gradually discover that there is no party, and wonder why the house should be filled with flowers for one woman by herself, and I long more and more for a kindred spirit — it seems so greedy to have so much loveliness to oneself — but kindred spirits are so very, very rare; I might almost as well cry for the moon. It is true that my garden is full of friends, only they are — dumb.

(Lovely lilacs, how I should love to have a house full of them!)

But while admiring my neighbour, I don’t think I shall ever try to follow in her steps, my talents not being of the energetic and organising variety, but rather of that order which makes their owner almost lamentably prone to take up a volume of poetry and wander out to where the kingcups grow, and sitting on a willow trunk beside a little stream, forget the very existence of everything but green pastures and still waters, and the glad blowing of the wind across the joyous fields.

Oh how I can relate! I’m afraid I’m much less organized than many book bloggers and much prefer being spontaneous, I try to finish more books to keep up with all of you speedy readers and then just wish I could do more wandering about, reading randomly! (I’m an INFP in the Myers-Briggs personality scale, if you were ever wondering, just that kind of daydreamy idealist.)

In the summer, on fine evenings, I love to drive late and alone in the scented forests, and when I have reached a dark part stop, and sit quite still, listening to the nightingales repeating their little tune over and over again after interludes of gurgling, or if there are no nightingales, listening to the marvelous silence, and letting its blessedness descend into my very soul.

This reminded me of a summer I spent working in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, at Lake Louise near Banff, a glorious deep green blue lake with the mountains all behind it and such stillness in the air at times, especially in the evenings, with the moon overhead — go if you are ever in the area (and then visit me too!), it will take your breath away. The air there is so fresh and pure, like glaciers and pine trees, I am always longing to breathe it in again.

Go read Claire’s review from earlier in the week if I’ve got you longing for more from this delicious book! And then read it and smell flowers and breathe deep and enjoy the last day of Virago Reading Week!

(I will admit I’ve read two Elizabeths this week, Taylor and von Arnim, partly because in Nancy Pearl’s book Book Lust her first entry is all about recommending authors whose first name is Alice. I began musing last year, after adding Elizabeth Gaskell to my list of favourite authors which also includes Elizabeth Bowen, that surely there must be more Elizabeth authors I would love! My first official Virago read last year was Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare and that made me think more Viragos would be worth reading. And these two have been great novelists I’m glad I’ve finally read, with Elizabeth von Arnim sure to become a firm favourite. Any other Elizabeths you can recommend to me?)

Rachel will be doing the round ups today and tomorrow and then we’ll have to announce our prize winners, she’s got one for the person who can convince her that their favourite Virago is most worth reading, I have the photo contest so I can see all your lovely Viragos, and we’re both going to be picking one of our favourite reviews each for two more awards and then we’re thinking of the last award for one overall great participant, that’s the hardest one to choose as you’ve all joined in so heartily this week and it’s been such a pleasure.

VRW: Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

So here I am, reading Angel by Elizabeth Taylor next to a cosy fire (at my parent’s place), amused and able to spend the week doing nothing but reading and blogging and drinking tea… I will add, my eyes are starting to get sore from using the computer so much (and I still have a cold), so it’s not complete perfection!

As for Angel, I completely enjoyed it. On Sunday night before Virago Reading Week started, I carried my stack of 15 Viragos through the snow from our cottage into my parent’s place and next to the fire just before settling in to watch Downton Abbey, hoping it would inspire me to pick something good to read. I browsed through a few books (after watching Downton, I certainly wouldn’t do that while watching!) and finally started reading Angel — from the middle! I’d already seen the movie, so read from there to the end, then back to the beginning. I stayed up quite late reading by the fire, then quickly raced through the rest of it on Monday.

Despite my lovely co-host Rachel, who usually loves all books and people, calling this book (or the character of Angel in particular) ‘infuriating’ and also ‘odious’, I was quite entertained. Angel Deverell is teenager at the very start of the 20th century (her aunt is mentioned as being in mourning for Queen Victoria at one point), who is determined to leave the poverty of her common life and become a famous romantic novelist, through the power of her imagination. And she does. This may seem like a simple feminist success story, but it is so much more than that.

For Angel is vain, narcissistic, and what’s more, completely short-sighted about all her faults. (Literally and metaphorically and she refuses to wear glasses throughout her life, declaring it’s only a matter of will power.) Despite her writing being full of wild romantic inaccuracies, she refuses to change one of them. And she is shocked when trumpets do not hail her genius, but instead she is criticized! This portrait isn’t just satiric though, Elizabeth Taylor shows Angel’s humanity and frailty. She shows how completely lonely she is, always lying to make her life sound better than it is (early on when a teacher asks her what she does in her spare time, she says, “I play the harp mostly”) and is utterly unaware of how to behave properly around people. She has a strong character, she has made a success of herself as a published author, she’ s worked hard, followed her passion, etc, as so many still strive to do. Isn’t that enough?

Elizabeth Taylor is possibly examining what a true artist is really like. Angel meets a painter and falls in love with him, more for his looks than his talent and gets him to paint a portrait of her. This is the result:

The portrait lacked exuberance and he had painted her in her darkest clothes against a banal background; the empty window behind her, the bare wall, emphasised the suggestion of loneliness. He had been tempted to scrawl a title upon the blank side of the canvas: ‘Study in Solitary Confinement.’ Her eyes and the dog’s looked mournfully out of the picture; Sultan’s dully, hers reflectively. …people thought the portrait dreary and tactless and wondered why Esme had not the wit to modify the arch of her nose, the eccentricity of her clothes and correct her slight astigmatism, and if she would not disguise her own pallor, he, on canvas, might have done so.

Angel, at first shocked, soon grew used, from constant looking, to seeing only what she chose, especially the narrowness of her bare hand with its emerald ring. She would gaze at this detail for a long time each day.

Of course Esme’s clear-sighted art is not acclaimed the way Angel’s self indulgence is, in the short term. Angel had begun writing after spending years in her imagination, pretending she lived in an endlessly beautiful place called Paradise House, not because she loved books themselves (in one scene she comically refuses to get a library membership when all she wants is the address of a publisher out of the inside of a book):

She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her, and she thought that she would rather write a book herself, to a pattern of her own choosing and about a beautiful young girl with a startling white skin, heiress to great property, wearing white pique at Osborne and tartan taffetas at Balmoral.

When she goes to Greece on her honeymoon, she doesn’t like it — after writing many glamorous books about it! The image that comes up several times in the book to describe her is a cactus:

Once he saw a large cactus-plant in a flower-shop window. From one unpromising, barbed shoot had sprung a huge, glowering bloom. It looked solitary and incongruous, a freakish accident; and he was reminded of Angel.

Later, the cactus reappears:

She had found one living thing there among the flower-pots, a great cactus which had surprisingly survived, gross and bladdery; it looked as if it could keep itself going on its own succulence for years to come. She pinched its fleshy pads with curiosity.

Angel lives off her excessively romantic imagination, relying on nothing else, she has nothing else to feed her art but desperate fantasies. She has survived and succeeded where others have not, but she doesn’t see the true horrors she brings to herself and everyone around her, through her own blind selfishness. She collects pets, claiming to be a great animal lover, but even they are never very happy, because she doesn’t know how to properly care for anybody or anything, even herself.

This is why she hides from the truth, because she knows women in her world are mostly powerless:

At other times she was menaced by intimations of the truth. Her heart would be alarmed, as if by a sudden roll of drums, and she would spring to her feet, beset by the reality of the room, her own face — not beautiful, she saw — in the looking-glass and the commonplace sounds in the shop below. She would know then that she was in her own setting and had no reason for ever finding herself elsewhere; know moreover that she was bereft of the power to rescue herself, the brains or the beauty by which other young women made their escape. Her panic-striken face would be reflected back at her as she struggled to deny her identity, slowly cosseting herself away from the truth. She was learning to triumph over reality, and the truth was beginning to leave her in peace.

I was powerfully impacted by this novel, perhaps because I can see some similarities with Angel — I often made up stories in my head as a child to forget my unhappiness and still want to be a writer. I’ve sometimes thought of trying to write the way Angel does, putting down the inaccurate romantic visions that come to mind, uncensored. I’ve wanted to escape into the romance of the past, forget about the truth of people’s lives then or now. I’d looked at so many old fashioned black and white pictures of Paris that when I finally did go there on my honeymoon, I too was a little disappointed to find that Paris had not lived up to all of my fantasies… (although Marcel Proust also wrote about experiencing that with people he thought he loved and going to Venice, so maybe I’m not quite the only one).

This novel showed me that art has got to be about more than imagination, romance, or fantasy, it also has to involve seeing the truth clearly. Elizabeth Taylor portrays Angel’s rise and fall with an accurate grace, relishing in the details that Angel herself would rather overlook. It was an eye opening read and one I highly recommend, especially to anyone hoping to become a writer themselves!

Also — why not announce our first official chance to win one of those mystery book prizes we’ve got? (They’ve been sent to Rachel, but she hasn’t received them yet. Not an intentional mystery, but they are meant to be five books!)We thought, since we love seeing pictures of everyone’s books anyways, why not give you the chance to win one of the books in a photo contest? It can be any kind of photo to do with Virago books and the more creative the better. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a fancy camera or not, just show us your books! (Or you reading them, maybe in an unusual or thematic location, anything goes…) Since I’m only mentioning this now, any photos from the beginning of the week on count.

I’ll also be doing today’s round up later on tonight (since I’m near the end of the time zone, I guess I’m likely to be a bit behind the rest of you and would have had this post up earlier if I hadn’t gotten a headache after trying to write it earlier), so send me any links for today and especially your pictures for the rest of the week! Here’s my stack of Viragos, all collected from one secondhand bookstore in Calgary (so glad I started imitating some of you and buying them while I still lived there!), interspersed with books from the Virago Modern Classics in other editions. I’ve already started on another gem of a book, can anyone guess which one? It’s a coming of age story and the author is already becoming a favourite.

Howl’s Moving Castle & Possession

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.

Merry Bookmas!

Merry Christmas all, first off! My husband is finally out of the hospital, so that is my main Christmas present. 😀 We also went book shopping last night, our own Christmas tradition, where we set a limit and pick out what we want within that, rather than trying to guess about what the other might really want. We’d rather get the books we want together than be surprised! I picked out Neil Gaiman’s collection of short stories and poems, Fragile Things and the Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake, a gothic fantasy classic that I’ve been curious about, but then found both books a bit too dark for Christmas reading and was feeling low until I remembered I had a copy of Little Women from the library and that it opens at Christmas.

And although I haven’t read it in about 15 years and had been avoiding it because it seemed too darn moralising, this morning I absolutely loved it. I cried and laughed and felt at home once again with the four good hearted March sisters. I loved Jo, the tomboyish bookworm (I used to like Amy best when I first read it and now can’t imagine why, what a little twit) and treasured sweet and quiet Beth. I had to stop when AMY BURNS JO’S BOOK AND THEN THE MORAL IS JO IS SUPPOSED TO FORGIVE HER. Oh my goodness, I wanted to slap Amy or worse. She’s not punished for what she does! Obviously I’m still a little irked at the preachy tone, especially their father telling them to be ‘good little women’ — I’ve heard that women tend to have depression more often than men because they try to be too internally perfect rather than focusing on outward goals and achievements as men do and Jo wants to, was echoing through my mind — but the reminder to be happy with what I have was also good. Our apartment is very bare this morning since most of our things have already been moved off to my parents’ place and we’ve been having internet tribulations trying to get it working on my laptop and then trying to use the library computers (all full), so now we’re at an internet cafe, but we have each other and our cat. And we’ll be with my family for Boxing Day and perhaps in Florida before the new year!

I’ve loved getting to know so many of you this year and will properly reply to comments at some point when I have normal internet again, for now though, Happy Christmas one and all.

A Fantastic Discovery

I think, just in the interests of sanity, that when I have a few free moments on a library computer, I may continue a skeleton level of blogging here going. As and when I can, since today without internet in my apartment, I ended up cleaning my windows and some walls and door frames and blinds and well… with my husband still in the hospital, there’s only so much of that I can take. Everything is looking good with him, they’re just keeping him a few more days to make sure the new medication he’s on works well and doesn’t bring back his infection.

I have been reading The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller, which I was curious about since Eva blogged about it recently. (You know who Eva is. I don’t have time for links, this is skeleton blogging!) I grew up reading and loving the Narnia books — they, along with Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables were all given to my siblings and I in box sets over our childhood years and Narnia was my firm favourite of the three. The Chronicles of Narnia are the only books I remember my mom reading aloud to us (in the car on our way to church on Sunday evenings) and I loved them for the imagination and adventure they opened up to me. The only fanfiction I wrote as a child (long before the term was invented) was a short story of finding myself in Narnia one night, amid the dwarf drums and all the rest of those things my child heart thrilled to. I haven’t read the books in years, although I did enjoy the first movie when it came out (but since fantasy is the one genre my husband really dislikes, I felt a bit too silly to show it to him) and over the weekend went and saw Voyage of the Dawn Treader with my mom and sister. I quite enjoyed it and loved reliving memories with my sister of where it differed from the book, but I’m still hesitant to return to the books themselves. As many people have pointed out, they are sexist, racist, and elitist. Luckily, Laura Miller’s book doesn’t try to overlook those problems as merely lack of ‘political correctness’ and indeed reveals several shocking facts about C.S. Lewis’s personal life (he may in his 20s have had an affair with an older married woman, for one).

The one children’s British fantasy series that I have been heavily indulging in this year is Harry Potter, which I’ve briefly mentioned here now and then but haven’t really reviewed, as I don’t really see a pressing need to promote them further! The interesting part of my visit with my mother over the past week was that I finally got her to watch the first Harry Potter movie with me. She is extremely christian and loves Lord of the Rings and Narnia (she has pictures of Aslan all over the spare bedroom), but seemed to see Harry Potter as nearly satanic. I found the book A Charmed Life: The Spirituality of Potterworld by Francis Bridger, about the christian morals that can be found in HP, at my library and gave it to her to read. Then we watched the movie and while she didn’t say much about what she thought of it, I was glad she gave it a chance. (Yes, I am amused at giving her a book about christian themes in Harry Potter while reading a book about how to enjoy Narnia without being a christian at the same time myself!)

Rediscovering a childlike enjoyment in both the Narnia movies and all things Harry Potter this year (books, movies, even soundtracks and and my husband’s parents live in Florida and keep saying they’ll fly us out anytime for a visit, which we may end up doing next week or in early January, in which case, I will be going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park! Yes, excited. Very.) made me think that I might enjoy exploring more fantasy. Besides those series I’ve also read at least two of the Lord of the Rings books (our family went nuts over the movies but somehow only bought the book set of the mass market editions which we all proceeded to fight over and eventually each grabbed one of the books to hole up with over Christmas. I got the middle book first, which proved problematic. A few years later I read the first one, but I’m never sure if I read the last one or not and it’s really not a recommended way to try a series!) and a sad Robin Hobb book to impress a boy. He constantly raved about it, I found it not that great. Thankfully I can approve of my husband’s taste in books, even if I don’t share it!

So any good fantasy recommendations are welcome, although I’d rather it was more like classic British fantasy and not… you know… silly. I have bought my own copy of Good Omens now and clearly Neil Gaiman is one place to start, as well as His Dark Materials (the beginning never grabs me though and I’ve tried to read it several times) and I’ve also got Hogfather out by Terry Pratchett, his version of a Christmas book and it is charming and funny. I tried the first of his Discworld books, The Colour of Magic (? I believe) and found it a bit too — well, maybe old school fantasy is the word? It’s a satire of fantasy, but since I don’t read the genre much, it can be hard to appreciate right away.

I’ve tried to read chick lit this year (before blogging — the only ones I managed were Jane Austen themed ones and weren’t entirely satisfying so I gave that up) and historical fiction (again, mixed results. Sarah Waters and Rose Tremain, great but still not as good as writers from the actual time period. All others, cringe-worthy to decent but not spectacular. My favourite writer in this category remains A.S. Byatt.). I did not set out to give fantasy any sort of a try (I didn’t even sign up for the Once Upon a Time reading challenge), but it does seem more my thing, at least some of it. I love the imaginative side of it and the symbolism, the older values and settings. Above all, I love the heroism required of the characters, that was one thing I loved reading as a child and still do. The whole hero’s journey complete with black and white battles may be simplistic, but I don’t care, it thrills me. (The first longer story I wrote as a teenager was fantasy, titled simply ‘The Journey’, haha. There was a girl and a horse and some sort of quest. Of course.)

Perhaps one of the things that I am drawn to in fantasy is that women do not have to be stuck in women’s roles, they have the chance to be brave and heroic and lead exciting unconventional lives for a change. As much as I love Jane Austen, I have to admit to being a little sick of the easier reading women’s fiction focusing mostly on romance. Where is the adventure and imagination, I keep asking. I’ve also been drawn to fairy tales and may try a few of those next year. Perhaps I am old enough to start reading fairy tales again, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis.

Well, the library is closing so I’ll wrap this ramble up. Thanks for listening.

Reflections on Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

Yesterday I wrote about my experience of reading hundreds of pages of this novel on the last day (yes, I did finish it in bed at midnight!) and today I’m writing more of a review for the Classics Circuit Trollope Tour, or as I’m beginning to think of it, just sharing a few of my thoughts and reflections on it, as right now it’s rather intimidating to think of reviewing a massive 800 page book I only finished late last night! (Thankfully this is not university.)

Can You Forgive Her? is the first of Trollope’s political Palliser series, which seems to be slightly less popular than the more churchy Barsetshire books, but as I’ve only read the Palliser books (my intro to Trollope took place earlier this year, in an emergency room with The Eustace Diamonds, book 3 of the Palliser series although it stands well on its own and has a nice mystery by the end), I like them better and am now quite committed to moving on with the whole series. It can be intimidating to look at his two long series which contain most of his best known (but quite thick) books, but once you start, you’re hooked in (at least I am) and then the pleasure of watching the characters develop over time begins. (This is also one of the great things about Proust and I will say again, despite how intimidating both authors may look, they do have good stories!)

The story begins with Alice Vavasor, who starts off engaged to the noble and kind (maybe too much so) John Grey, but then is talked into breaking off her engagement because despite loving him, she doesn’t want to be trapped at his quiet country estate and never do anything worthwhile with her life beyond the traditional womanly duties. She doesn’t want to live in London to go to society parties and gossip like most women, she wants to be involved in politics (although Trollope cautions: “She was not so far advanced as to think that women should be lawyers or doctors, or to wish that she might have the priviledge of the franchise for herself; but she had undoubtedly a hankering after some second-hand political manoeuvering.”), she wants to be a politician’s wife. And who should also be interested in becoming a politician but her cousin, George Vavasor, to whom she was once engaged years ago… Alice swears she’s only going to help him get elected since she has money and he doesn’t and that she’s not going to become involved with him again (she was the one who broke off their engagement before because he was up to some sketchy behaviour), but her cousin Kate, George’s sister, is determined to do anything to bring George and Alice back together. John Grey, however, has not given up on Alice either.

Then there’s also Lady Glencora, another cousin of Alice’s, who has been forced to marry the boring rising politician star Plantagenet Palliser instead of the man she really loves, whose name is (hee) Burgo Fitzgerald. Between Glencora and Alice, Trollope plays with his themes of what does true love really look and more importantly act like; women who long for a purpose in life but are caught by society’s expectations; can rather boringly good men make good husbands or is it better to go for the dashing and dangerous choice? Burgo (heehee, he’s described as some kind of Adonis but really) is trying to entice Glencora to run away with him and she is slowly succumbing to the idea as her husband ignores her late each night to prepare for Parliament (they are obviously not making babies or any marital closeness there) and only comes out of his political discussions to scold her when she behaves imprudently by driving her horses too fast, waltzing too recklessly or walking out in the snow too long during a full moon! Glencora was a very rich heiress, but the weight of her money has pulled her down as all the old society ladies try to tell her exactly how to behave properly and though her spirit longs to fly away, she is caught up in what seems a loveless marriage. Is there hope for all these people with their funny names?

Trollope also weaves in a third couple to further work on his themes, this time comic. Kate and Alice’s aunt Mrs. Greenow married a rich old man and since he died she’s got the cash and despite all of her constantly crying into black lacy handkerchiefs, she somehow ends up with not one but two suitors, Captain Bellfield and Mr. Cheeseacre, a prosperous farmer at Oileymead. (Yes I’m giggling.) Mr. Cheeseacre is the safe bet, he’s got lots of money as he is constantly reminding everyone, but Captain Bellfield has that touch of romance and a pile of debts. Mrs. Greenow continues to declare they’re courting her niece not herself as she pretends to mourn her dead love, but she’s got enough vivacity to housebreak either one of them when she chooses.

I loved this book more than I expected because of the sensitivity and insight Trollope shows in developing his characters, especially those quiet decent men who are sometimes infuriatingly proper, with everything for their wives and life all planned out. (My dad’s like that and so’s my husband sometimes, so perhaps it was especially meaningful to me.) I also think, despite the one quote above about Alice not wanting to be a lawyer or doctor or have the vote, that Trollope is very sympathetic to these women who want some measure of control and voice in their lives, who want a purpose and just a little more than calm and quiet affection. And I will hint that things end up better for Glencora and Alice because they dare to voice their true feelings. Trollope is a realist about romantic relationships (there’s even one scene of physical abuse in the book), but somehow he’s comforting too.