…and on we go

I am completely moved, lock stock and two fat kitties. I have been moved for over a month now, so there’s really no excuse for my shameful lack of posting except that I was enjoying myself reading books instead. The local library here is lovely, although more for the view of beautiful water and trails outside than for the content of their catalog. I also renewed my university alumni library card, with strict instructions to myself to return the books on time (eh, it’s worth a try). So, with library books and the 80 or so titles I managed to smuggle over to my mother’s house, I’m set for awhile.

I meant to start out with Jane Duncan’s Reachfar series, of which I am more than a little obsessed, but first comes At Boarding School with the Tucker Twins, because a friend is itching to borrow it.

This is the first of the Tucker Twins series by Nell Speed, who also wrote the Molly Brown books which I am so fond of. While interesting, this book is not of the same caliber. It follows Page Allison who, like Molly Brown, is also from the south. She and her physician father live alone, looked after by black servants including Mammy Susan, who is the archetypal mammy figure. Page’s older cousin Sue, who was a belle in her day but spurned marriage to work as a librarian for the Congressional Library (lovely detail), decides that 15 year old Page needs more education and to be among girls her own age. So Page writes away for a prospectus and heads off to boarding school.

Sadly, like most American boarding school or school books of the time, there’s very little about the school itself. The book is mostly concerned with the friendship between Page and the twins, Dee and Dum Tucker, known collectively as the Tweedles. Page meets the Tweedles on the train as they are being escorted by their youthful father, known as Zebedee. The Tweedles explain that he’s so nicknamed because, “You know the old gag: ‘Who is the father of Zebedee’s children?’ No one ever believes he really is a parent.” I hope that’s more useful to you than it was to me, because I don’t know the old gag and I’m still as clueless as ever. No matter, Zebedee he is and he is as odd as his name. Much is made of how young he is, how fun, how handsome, how he raised the twins when his child-bride died. This is all very important because it’s clear from early in the book that they’re setting the story up for Page to marry Zebedee in a later book. Moving swiftly past the ickiness of this, because it’s hard not to like the Tweedles or Zebedee. When Zebedee spots a childhood friend who is now teaching at the school, he breaks out into song and they all join hands, teacher included, dancing and singing the words to the Lobster Quadrille from Alice in Wonderland. It is just this kind of daftness that makes the book work, because otherwise it’s a disconnected series of events involving the obligatory mean girl, the equally obligatory poor girl who is secretly the granddaughter of an English baron, a kitten smuggled into school, and various other bonkers plots. I wouldn’t necessarily go looking for the rest of this series, but like Nell Speed’s other books, it has just enough humor and interesting female characters of all ages to pull the plodding narrative along.

I can’t end this post without a link to Franz Ferdinand’s deliciously creepy rendering of the Lobster Quadrille.

Moving Madness

I’m in the midst of moving back home with my mother. This process is going a lot faster now that I have all the books packed up, both in my study and in the living room.

It’s a strange feeling putting books away, knowing I won’t see them for some time. I’m lucky to have a very lovely friend who did some kind of magical computery goobledygo that turned my LibraryThing catalog into an Excel spreadsheet. Now I know exactly where each book is, and should I feel the urge to read it, I can go straight to that box in the storage unit. I’m also lucky that my mother is as book-obsessed as I am, and indulgently turned away when the “tiny” selection of books to go to her house turned out to be more like 80 titles. So I probably won’t be around much until August, but I’ll be back with lots to say about the incredible books of Jane Duncan.

And for Darlene, who loves Agas as much as I do, here’s the picture I told you about. It was a surprise from a friend (the same computer genius mentioned above) who knows my love of Agas is matched only by my domination by cats. It’s named Aga Louts, and it makes me smile whenever I see it.

Molly Brown Series

I try not to cross my knitting and book blogs too much, but this was just one of those weekends when the two worlds collided. I’ve been madly busy lately, and have also had a lovely friend from the UK visiting, so I spent most of the 4th of July weekend sprawled out on the sofa, alternating knitting with reading. I’ve worked out a very effective technique, one which requires very little sacrifice on my part yet still makes me feel virtuous. For every two rows I knit, I get to read a chapter. It’s kind of embarrassing how much wool I can get through when there’s a book at stake.

I’ve read the Molly Brown books at least a dozen times since discovering them in my dorm library during my freshman year of college. In some ways, it’s hard to explain why I find them so appealing, because they’re formulaic, sentimental, dated, and occasionally uncomfortable to read. But they’re also completely wonderful, so I’ll try. Written between 1912-1921, they follow Molly Brown of Kentucky through her first four years of university, on to her post-graduate year, another year spent traipsing through Europe, and then back to Kentucky to be wooed and wed. There’s a final book, about Molly’s friends from college and what they get up to, but since I’ve never been able to find a copy I wouldn’t have to sell a kidney to afford, I’ve just made up endings for all of them in my head.

It doesn’t matter anyway, because as delightful as those last three books are, the best are Molly’s four years as an undergraduate at Wellington (closely modeled on Wellesley perhaps?). Molly arrives at this prestigious eastern university from Kentucky, poor, tired from travel, and unfamiliar with the reserve and rules of New England. Her gentle disposition and friendliness, combined with her penchant for feeding her friends southern smoked ham and Kentucky cloudbursts (from the sound of it, a brown sugar meringue), overcome her poverty and inexperience, and make her universally loved. Along the way she has adventures, conquers personal adversity, quells her enemies, and falls in love. All jolly good fun, but the books are also quite interesting for a few other reasons.

First, it’s one of the few American girls’ series that’s primarily set in a same-sex school or university. In fact, I’d say this series is the closest we get to a proper boarding school series, the older American cousin of Angela Brazil’s British schoolgirls. While Molly goes home for vacation and the girls entertain men at dances and dinners, the majority of the action centers around the studies, ambitions, competition, and friendships of the college set. There’s discussion about the classes they’re taking, the books they’re reading, and their many individual pursuits. While there’s occasional discussion of women’s rights, with one of Molly’s beloved set being an active and majestic suffragette, there’s also an undercurrent of feminist thought running subtly through the books:

Queen’s Cottage seemed destined to shelter girls of interesting and unusual types.

“They always do flock together, you know,” Miss Pomeroy had remarked to the President, as the two women sat talking in the President’s office one day. The question had come up with the subject of the new Japanese student, the first of her nation ever to seek learning in the halls of Wellington.

“They do,” said the President, “but whether it’s the first comers actively persuading the next ones or whether it’s a matter of unconscious attraction is hard to tell.”

“In this case I understand it’s a matter of very conscious attraction on one side and no persuasion on the other,” replied Miss Pomeroy. “That charming overgrown girl from Kentucky, Miss Brown, although she’s as poor as a church mouse and last year even blacked boots to earn a little money, is one of the chief attractions, I think. But some of the other girls are quite remarkable. Margaret Wakefield lives there, you know. She makes as good a speech as her politician father. It will be interesting to watch her career if she only doesn’t spoil everything by marrying.”

The two spinsters looked at each other and laughed.

“She won’t,” answered the President. “She’s much too ambitious.”

No bitter virgins, these. The girls are there to learn, to either teach or write or become artists or politicians, or to become useful and knowledgeable wives and mothers. It’s only the antagonists who play their way through college, wasting their opportunities, and like any good school story, they get their come-uppance.

This series would be a gold mine for scholars, there’s so much to play with. Issues of race are the most obvious, as Molly is from Kentucky and frequently refers to her family’s loyal old servants in a way that is definitely outdated and occasionally deeply uncomfortable. And then there’s Otoyo, the diminutive Japanese student who becomes one of Molly’s closest friends. But there’s an interesting force at work, where the antagonists of the stories are the ones who are overtly racist and hurtful, whereas the racism of Molly and her friends is more a product of the time. I cringe even writing that, but it’s the distinction between dated stereotypes (such as thinking of Otoyo as adorable in her foreignness, like something out of the Mikado) and racial dislike. In fact, Nell Speed even brings up this issue in one of the books, when Otoyo’s father visits and the girls’ amusement at his pidgin English gets back to her and her friends have to realize what they’ve done. Then there’s the close friendship that grows between two girls (hello, queer theorists), the issues of class that were so frequently ignored in American children’s literature, and some really surprising regional distinctions.

For those of you who fell asleep during the last paragraph, believe me when I say that these books are mostly good fun. There are a few available on Project Gutenberg, but the first four are also fairly easy to find on second-hand book sites. They’re really worth a look. And now I’ve earned at least 3 chapters before I have to get back to my knitting.

Ahem. Silly title, but so is the title Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. But the book is anything but silly. The number of post-it tabs I went through while reading attests to that (note to self: remove before returning or risk cross librarians!).

I indulge in a lot of metaphorical (okay, and actual) eye-rolling at the plethora of authors jumping on the Austen bandwagon. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a granddaughters of Pemberly series by now, but I can’t resist picking up biographies and criticism of Jane Austen and her work.

This book is slightly harder to define. In some ways, it is a biography of the author. But, still more, it’s the biography of the Austen industry, the history of how Austen and her novels were received, revisited, canonized, mythologized, and ultimately merchandised. And it’s chock-full of fascinating items. Did you know Jane Austen was part of a reading society? As in all her letters, she is humility herself:

Later in her life, Austen was proud of the book club she helped run in Chawton, and on hearing that the Miss Sibleys of West Meon wanted to establish one “like ours” wrote to her sister, “What can be a stronger proof of that superiority in ours over the Steventon & Manydown Society, which I have always foreseen & felt? — No emulation of the kind was ever inspired by their proceedings.”

Much of what makes this book so interesting is the reaction of her family, particularly her siblings, to her success. Her deep love and respect for Cassandra has been well documented, and vice versa, but it’s the relationship with her brothers that stands out. As her first biographers, they’re responsible for painting her as domestic and quiet, unordinary and undemanding. But Harman probes a bit deeper, looking closely at the text of these brotherly documents to see profound rivalries between the siblings. Harman notes that James, who for many years had been considered the author of the family, writes of his sister:

…not a word she ever pen’d

Which hurt the feelings of a friend

And not a line she ever wrote

“Which dying she would wish to blot”…

The poet suggests that this was all the more remarkable given the subject’s natural inclinations:

Though quick and keen her mental eye

Poor nature’s foibles to descry

And seemed for ever on the watch

Some traits of ridicule to catch

The evocation of Jane’s vigilance over other people’s “traits of ridicule” is very much in keeping with what Miss Mitford had said privately about Austen turning into “a poker of whom everyone is afraid” in the years after her books began to be published. James makes his sister sound like a cat watching over a mouse hole, recreationally malign. Subsequent family reminiscences steered well clear of anything as unflattering as this, but its appearance here, in the first of all of them, is revealing. Coming from a brother, it could seem almost too coldly objective and “watchful” itself.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop and suggest you go find a copy for yourself. My one complaint would be that the author spent pages and pages detailing masculine reactions to her work, from her own family to famous scholars, admirers, and critics, but with a few exceptions, gave very little about female reaction to her work, and only devoted two pages to the feminist and queer theory that has exploded in Austen studies. But the very touching section on how soldiers turned to Austen’s work during the first world war is alone worth the price of the book.

Making Conversation

I failed spectacularly at Persephone Reading Week, both reading for myself and reading other posts. It was just one of those weeks when everything happened all at once, but from the look of my blog reader, I have lots of bookish posts to look forward to.

I did, however, read Making Conversation. I’d been planning on reading Few Eggs and No Oranges, but wanted something light and frivolous instead. And if not frivolous, it was definitely light. I found myself wishing through the whole book that Edward Gorey could have illustrated it. I would have paid good money to see his depiction of Martha Freke. Since he’s far too dead to illustrate it now, I’ll have to make do with Gorey’s Sophia, who, like Martha, was not overly enamored of her school.

And I have to say, I wasn’t terribly enamored of this book. The descriptions describe it as light and dry and witty, all of which are true. Martha is a funny child, and the novel is full of brilliant one-liners, but it’s never more than the sum of its parts. Martha is an observant, awkward girl, constantly stumbling in conversation and life because she’s unable to comprehend the absurdities niceties of distinction in class, sex, race, and money. This makes for some interesting encounters, but the premise starts to fall apart when she gets older. Martha ages, and so experiences university life and encounters with the opposite sex, but there doesn’t seem to be any kind of emotional development. What was funny as a child is just pathetic and unbelievable when she’s an adult, because we’re no longer laughing at ourselves and our absurd conventions. What was gentle enjoyment becomes cheap laughs at the expense of a silly woman. There was one shining moment when Martha gets to Oxford and realizes things are not what they seem, before she, and the novel, are whirled along in a rush of busy nothings. Bit of a disappointment, really.

Persephone Reading Week

With truly classic timing, almost every book I had on hold at the library came in at once. I have a feast of riches before me, and I’m enjoying looking at the stack in front of me and deliberating which to start first. But, as they made me wait, it’s their turn now. Because tomorrow is the first day of Persephone Reading Week, something I’ve been looking forward to since Verity first mentioned in on her blog.

I have three and a half unread Persephones to choose from. I started Few Eggs and No Oranges last year but never finished it. In true happy geek fashion, I was enjoying looking up the war bulletins for each day of her entries, but somehow the book got buried in the blitz of new ones. But I’ve excavated it and plan to start from the beginning. I’ve also got Katherine Mansfield’s Journals, which I won on Verity’s book draw; Making Conversation, which I spent my Christmas tokens on; and Someone at a Distance, which has been sitting on my pile of unread books for longer than I care to admit. I doubt I’ll read all four…Persephones are rare finds this side of the Atlantic and I like drawing out the fun as long as possible. But I’m looking forward to opening a few and seeing what the rest of you are reading this week.

Public Service Announcement

I’m possibly the last person to discover this, but just in case there’s one more reader out there who doesn’t know yet…Noel Streatfeild’s The Whicharts has been republished! My twitter page went nuts at this news. A “new” Streatfeild – a new way to read Ballet Shoes – it doesn’t get much better than that.

Woolfe-ish Ramblings

I first encountered Virginia Woolf in the cafe at Barnes & Noble, where she was hanging out on the wall with Steinbeck and Mark Twain and Mary Shelly. [Click here if you’re worried I’ve gone round the bend]. I was 15, and I’d accompanied my older sister and some of her friends to this new store, where books were displayed like art, splayed across tables like so much colorful confectionery, and where you could sit and read for hours. Or, if you were my sister and her friends, where you could talk earnestly and with compelling ignorance over chocolatey drinks. Then, as now, my sister’s friends bored me, and I found my attention wandering again and again to the mural on the wall, and to one woman in particular. She was angular, wistful, and looked less than pleased to be drinking with the suburban hoi polloi below. I eventually wandered off to browse the store again, and found myself looking for Woolf in the fiction section. I bought a copy of Mrs. Dalloway that day, because it was the least expensive title, and I took it home and read it curled up on my bed. I didn’t know anything about stream of consciousness, or about the Bloomsbury set, but I knew that I felt an instant affinity with Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, and I loved them with the fierce intensity of a geeky adolescent bookworm. A few years later, I took a class in college on women and the law in literature, and I fell in love with Woolf all over again.

Which is a long-winded and self-indulgent way of saying that, if you are lucky enough to be in or around Cambridge, you should really take the opportunity to go view the new archive of letters by the Bloomsbury Group that’s now available for public viewing. And then tell me all about it!

Despite having immersed myself in a few incredible biographies of Jane Austen and studied her in grad school, and having loved her work for even longer, I had never read the first biographical accounts of her life, accounts written by her family members. I’d seen them used as sources, but generally in such a dismissive vein (They Who Started The Myth of Gentle Jane) that I never bothered digging further. But a combination of factors – PBS airing the new version of Emma with Romola Garai, getting into an argument with a friend about Mansfield Park (as you do when you’re both nerdy English major types), and stumbling across a cheap edition of Jane Austen – Her Life and Letters – A Family Record – all contributed to getting whirled back into the rabbit hole that is Austen-mania.

And it’s a curious thing, reading backwards like this. It does feel a bit like I’ve stumbled into another world, one where Jane Austen was revered for being pious and docile, unschooled and unambitious, when we know now how piercing and acute was her wit and how fierce was her intelligence. I found muttering ‘good grief’ and ‘you silly ass’ helped soothe where revisionist biography was its most exasperating. And I have to admit to a certain irritation with the author of the introduction. At one point she stated, “Her Life and Letters remains the gold standard of biographies of Jane Austen because it does not fall victim to ‘a post-Freudian compulsion to scrutinize, analyze, and explain’ as more recent biographies do.” I loathe this kind of ridiculous statement, because unless the book is a bald presentation of facts succeeded by facts (what I believe is commonly known as a timeline), every biography is an analysis and a scrutiny of a life. And more, because a statement like that supposes there is something wrong with an analysis or scrutiny of a life. And, since I’m already being rude (see how that argument on Manfield Park got started), how on earth do you get to be a professor of literature today and make a statement that baldly dismisses any form of analysis or application of criticism to biography.

Ahem. Moving along…

But I was silly to wait so long to read it, because while the narrators are acknowledged to be unreliable, the whole scope of it is fascinating. I knew little of the fact that an aunt was tried (and acquitted) for shoplifting, and I find myself wishing more was known of Martha Lloyd, Austen’s close friend. And, as always, I find myself wishing for more Austen. Or that I had somehow been able to make it to New York to see the incredible exhibit, A Woman’s Wit, that The Morgan Library and Museum is currently hosting on Jane Austen. If you get a chance, check out this wonderful video.

A London Child of the 1870’s

Several years ago, roughly the same time I first heard of Persephone Books, I read Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York. For those who aren’t familiar with him (and if you’re not, you should really rectify that), Gopnik wrote Paris to the Moon about the experience of living in Paris with his wife and small son while working as a foreign correspondent for The New Yorker. Through the Children’s Gate soon followed, with Gopnik’s return home to raise his children in Manhattan. While the first book is obviously about being an outsider looking in at a different country and culture, the second isn’t really that different; as a parent, he’s still somewhat of an outsider, observing his children growing up in a constantly changing city and culture of internet speak, wheeled shoes, and play dates. In many respects, it’s a world apart from the childhood of Molly Hughes, but it’s because of Gopnik’s essays on his family life that I first heard of A London Child of the 1870’s and her remarkable family:

Out of the blue, a letter arrives from the granddaughter of Molly Hughes: I’ve been asked to write a new preface to A London Child of the 1870’s. I’m stunned. It has been years since I thought of Molly. When Martha and I first came to New York, we lived for three distant, disquieting, and now very long-ago-seeming years in that tiny basement room, nine feet by eleven feet, whose only conventional attraction was that its high-up window looked past a playground onto the back of the stained-glass windows of the Church of the Holy Trinity on Eighty-eighth Street. In that room, only blocks away from this room where I write now, Molly Hughes’s book had become our favorite, our only, reading. It tells the story of an ordinary family in London from the 1870s to World War I, as related by the one daughter – Molly – in the 1930s. I read it out loud to Martha every night in those first couple of New York years.

Naturally, I was intrigued and made plans to get the book the next time I was in London. But the next-time-I-was-in-London turned out to be madly busy and I couldn’t fit in a trip to Persephone, so it remained the top on my list of books to buy. (Speaking of which, am I the only reader who numbers and renumbers their Persephone wishlist with each new catalog?) But I was lucky enough to have a good friend visiting from the UK after Christmas, and she brought me both A London Child of the 1870’s and A London Home in the 1890’s. She kept the second book in the trilogy, A London Girl of the 1880’s, a move I more than understood after reading it, but I found a used copy on the web and spent several happy days immersed in Molly’s story.

Molly Hughes was the only daughter of a very close middle-class family living in London at the end of the 19th century. She had four older brothers, an unconventional mother, and a father she clearly adored. She started the book by stating, “I hope to show that Victorian children did not have such a dull time as is usually supposed.” I’m not entirely convinced – the broom of a sweep emerging from a chimney while she lay in bed may have seemed magical to her, but I’m sure the grubby urchin plying it probably had quite a different take on the dullness of life. But quibbles aside (quibble quibble), the book does describe what sounds like a truly happy and liberal childhood. She grew up without a nurse or governess, was encouraged to read and paint and explore, and while her early education seems to have been slotted between her mother’s housework and watercolor painting, she did share an adult-free study with her brothers and access to a library of books. Molly appears to have been aware of how isolated her life was, with few companions beyond her family, but it seems to have been enough. She was content, and her brothers occasionally took her for trips to the theatre, to explore the upper decks of the omnibus, and she walked each Sunday through the streets of London to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, playing a version of I-spy for points along the way.

But the best bit of the book is set in Cornwall, where Molly’s family goes to visit relations and get away from London. Along with her brothers and numerous cousins, she played outdoors, ate fresh food, and hid in trees to avoid having to spend time with dull callers. It’s extraordinary how fresh and vivid her recollections of her time in the country remain, and fascinating to see how her life opened up with the freedom to run and explore as she liked:

A churn was never seen at Reskadinnick. it had been heard of, and actually used by my aunt who lived up in the town, but Tony, my golden aunt of Reskadinnick, tossed her head at the idea. She had her own ritual of butter-making, and many a time I used to curl up in the corner of the kitchen window-seat to watch it. Her hands had to be elaborately washed first, and dipped in cold water to be cool. The wooden tub with the cream in it had to be held at a special angle on her lap. With fixed eye and stern mouth she then began to swirl the cream round, and you mustn’t speak to her till the butter ‘came’. One day I was allowed as a great treat to make a little butter all by myself, with no one even watching. When it ‘came’, behold, it was very good, and the joy of creation was mine.

The book ends sadly, as Molly said it would on the first page. But there’s something indomitable about Molly, and it’s impossible to pity her. Adam Gopnik wrote, “As Martha and I neared the end of the trilogy, we realized that Molly had written all three books as an old lady, living alone in the 1930s in a cottage in the country, though she had kept to the end all the clarity and mischief of a happy child. I suppose there is something sentimental in Molly’s writing, but sentimentality in such circumstances seems a way of organizing harsh and perplexing experience, as worthy and admirable as classical stoicism or medieval chivalry or modern irony.”