True Stories

True Stories: Hasselbald Award 2010

Another interesting dip into Sophie Calle’s work, this one part of the Hasselblad Award from 2010. She layers her photos with text, or vice versa. I find the words more interesting than the photos, but as she says, everything originated with photos; she was living in a photographer’s house in Northern California and decided to take up photography, returned to Paris to take a class, showed up once and then never to another class after the teacher took them up to the Eiffel Tower to shoot, Calle realizing she didn’t need this type of teaching.

The autobiography she wrote for Victor Hasselblad is just a few sentences but she conveys the complexity of being single and without children, the freedom and absolute delight in not having them. “I sigh, ‘Poor things…’ ” as a couple with child walk by. This is fitting because Victor was able to fund the award she got since he had no heirs.

Natural History: A Selection

Natural History: A Selection (Penguin Classics)

Pliny the Elder has some interesting observations about the world in first century AD. This is a simplified version of his work, and I bopped around to various sections finding bits of interest instead of reading cover to cover.

Re: wine in Book XIV. Here we find proof that wine was combined with water.

  • Homer states that Maronean wine was mixed with water in the proportion of 1:20 (Iliad, XI 639 and Odyssey, X, 235).
  • Mucianus discovered on a recent visit to Thrace that it is the practice to mix this wine with water in the proportion of 1:8, and that it is dark in colour, has a bouquet, and improves with age.

Women were not allowed to drink wine; a husband was acquitted of murdering his wife for drinking from a large jar of wine. Overindulging in wine leads to all sorts of trouble, like telling the truth (in vino veritas).

There’s a whole section on hangovers: “Even in the most favorable circumstances, the intoxicated never see the sunrise and so shorten their lives. This is the reason for pale faces, hanging jowls, sore eyes and trembling hands that spill the contents of full vessels; this the reason for swift retribution consisting of horrendous nightmares and for restless lust and pleasure in excess. The morning after, the breath reeks of the wine-jar and everything is forgotten – the memory is dead. This is what people call ‘enjoying life;’ but while other men daily lose their yesterdays, these people also lose their tomorrows.”

Book XX is about drugs obtained from the garden. He suggests that onions provide a cure for poor vision through tears caused by their smell; “even more effective is the application of some onion-juice to the eyes.” Hmm, no thanks. The praises of cabbage are sung briefly. There are several other sections on medicines made from plants and trees, magic, incantations, benefits of sex and asses’ milk. Oysters “are extremely good for bad colds.”

Across the Commons

Another Elizabeth Berridge book delivered up from ILL (thanks University of Oregon!), this one published in 1964 and thus streaked with modern horrors such as pharmaceuticals and televisions. Louise leaves her husband, Max, and storms off with a suitcase to her elderly aunts’ home where she grew up. There she finds them unsurprised to see her and she’s welcomed into the fold of Aunt Rosa and Aunt Seraphina along with their faithful housekeeper, Gibby.

It’s rather a stupid tale. Louise is summoned to the solicitor’s office in London where she finds an unexpected income of £750 from oil shares her father left, along with a letter that was scheduled to reach her at age 30. In the letter, she learns that her grandfather committed suicide, and she starts to pick apart at the ancient mystery. Turns out that he shot himself a few months after a young woman was found murdered nearby, mostly because he was ashamed of having seen it via telescope? Another more capable aunt arrives, albeit in a wheelchair, and takes control of the house, installs a TV. Max comes and scoops her up after the aunts call him for the rescue.

It Won’t Be Flowers

Elizabeth Berridge’s 1949 war novel has minor victories of capturing perfectly the grind and terror of entering the work force for the first time. She follows three girls, Laura, Fiona, and Helen, on their first day working for the Bank of England. Helen bursts into tears at the dreary prospect of what awaits her for years and years. She ends up escaping first, giving notice after only a year’s service, to move in with a man and start working as a journalist.

Fiona is the artist who also struggles to deal with the staid reality of life at the bank, especially when they’re evacuated to the countryside and must live in huts with other employees, the bank work being deemed “essential” to the war effort. She spends her money on canvases and oil, and escapes the dull work of the bank through sketching. She eventually vaults out the window and runs away, intending to head to America where her father and stepmother await, but she winds up back at the bank after a week of wandering, resolute to save her money and be able to depart for real some day.

Laura is wooed by John but finds him cold hearted when she expects sympathy after her parents die in a London bombing. Instead she finds comfort in his friend Max’s arms, and marries the schoolmaster, producing daughter Ursula. There’s no great wind-up to the tale, just that Fiona’s gone, Helen’s somewhat happy, and Laura is a bit bored as a housewife in the country.

***
Got the book via ILL, thank you Minneapolis Public Library!

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial

I like Maggie Nelson’s work. This is her 2007 memoir about 2005 the cold case murder trial for her aunt Jane’s 1969 killing. She spent five years working on a book of poems about her aunt’s murder, all while a detective in Michigan was working on the cold case, unbeknownst to her. This memoir is an exploration of grief, understanding violence against women, uncovering things deeply buried.

“How does one measure the loss of anyone? Is measurement a necessary part of grief? Is a life less grievable if its prospects for the future… don’t appear bright?”

During the trial, she has drinks with an old friend and walks home to the rented home her mom waits in after a stop by the railroad tracks to lay down and listen to the quiet world. “For as long as I can remember, this has been one of my favorite feelings. To be alone in public, wandering at night, or lying close to the earth, anonymous, invisible, floating… To make your claim on public space even as you feel yourself disappearing into its largesse, into its sublimity. To practice for death by feeling completely empty, but somehow still alive. It’s a sensation that people have tried, in various times and places, to keep women from feeling. Many still try. You’ve been told a million times that to be alone and female and in public late at night is to court disaster, so it’s impossible to know if you’re being bold and free or stupid and self-destructive.”

She finds comfort in the arms of the same lovers I do: Schopenhauer, Winnicott, and various literary lions. Winnicott’s quote, “Fear of breakdown is the fear of a breakdown that has already been experienced,” was solace for Nelson (shoe’s already dropped!) until she realized that it’s not that breakdowns don’t recur but that the fear of the past may cause its repetition.

A Little Dinner Before The Play

A Little Dinner Before the Play

As someone who doesn’t eat meat and doesn’t spend a lot of time preparing elaborate meals, I still found this slim volume of chatter plus recipes engaging reading. It reminded me tremendously of M.F.K. Fisher’s work, lyrical writing describing mouth-watering meals to someone who will never make them (nor care to eat all those beef-chicken-egg-veal-laden dishes). These kitchen essays were first published in a collected volume in 1922.

There’s lots of odd mixtures, something that foodies with a historical bent will slurp up gratefully. She suggests mixing salad with whipped cream, for example. There’s also some fairly Herculean effort required, which is all smoothed over by her silky words making it seem so easy! “Clarify 1 lb. butter. When cold beat to a cream, ad 12 oz. sugar, 1 lb. potato flour (sieved), 4 whole eggs and the yolks of 2, the zest of 1 lemon. Beat the whole mass for 1 hour, when it should form bubbles.” Right. An hour of beating something by hand. These were the days when electric appliances were absent from the kitchen.

I did find the only vegan recipe in the book, which gave me some ideas. Her potato salad boils waxy potatoes in their skins, then peeled while warm, cut thickly, and pour 1 TB vinegar with 2 TB stock gradually over the potatoes so they can absorb it. Then add oil, salt, pepper, and a small finely-chopped onion, let stand for an hour.

A sample morsel of her engaging prose:

Breakfast is the most difficult meal of the day, whether from its social or its culinary aspect. Many of us feel like that man who, meeting a bore, said, ‘If you have got anything to say to me I wish you would kindly say it to somebody else.’ Our reluctant consciousness, but newly returned from a dream world, shrinks from all but the gentlest contacts. ‘Praise me not to much,’ as Odysseus said to Diomed, ‘neither find fault with me at all,’ and the greetings of melancholics and dissatisfied individuals can, like the cry of the curlew in Miss Barlow’s Irish idyll, set our whole mental landscape into a minor key for the rest of the day.

 

Top Picks of 2016

I read a lot of books last year. 286, to be exact, a 33% increase over last year. If my reading project was a startup looking for investors, this up and to the right chart would guarantee a unicorn horn’s worth of funding. In 2013 I ditched my office job and my consumption of books skyrocketed accordingly. Freelance work agrees very, very well with me.

My most gluttonous month was December, binging on 47 books, taking full advantage of the fact that work for clients dries up considerably the last few weeks of the year. I read over 25% of the entire year’s worth of books post-election as I retreated inward to absorb the shock.

Of the books consumed, 78% were by women writers, 22% by males. This skews slightly more than last year’s 77% women writers. I was surprised to find that 58% of the books were non-fiction, 42% fiction, especially as I am wallowing heavily in mid-20th century British fiction as the only solace I’ve found post-election. Since 11/8/16, this ratio has flipped and I’ve read 56% fiction.

Top Picks of 2016

It’s not easy to sift through almost 300 books to figure out which were the best. After several failed starts, I just closed my eyes and went down the list and tried to remember if the book sparked joy or not (note: Marie Kondo’s book will not be on this list although I did read it).

Newly discovered author: Dorothy Whipple has become a life raft for me as I read 13 of her largely forgotten books. If I had to pick favorites: Greenbanks, The Priory, They Knew Mr. Knight, and High Wages. There is something deeply comforting about the world of mid-20th century Britain that appeals to me when our world seems to be falling apart. These are distinctly middle-brow books and I make no apologies for this.

Epic work: Dorothy Richardson’s 13 book Pilgrimage is a delightful bog of female stream-of-consciousness to get lost in. I read the 13 books across four volumes last summer. My favorites of the bunch were The Tunnel, Oberland, Dawn’s Left Hand, and Clear Horizon.

Short story collections

  • Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson. “Strong writing, highly recommended.”
  • Tell it to a Stranger: Stories from the 1940s by Elizabeth Berridge- “upstanding British tales that lead you through strange twists and jerks and gaps.”
  • Like Life – Lorrie Moore’s 1990 collection of short stories does not disappoint.
  • American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell from 2009. “Quiet, disturbing tales of life in Michigan, hard women and hard men, metal-workers, junkyard workers, meth-heads, marginal living.”

Longer fiction

  • The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch… Beautiful, haunting, magical “love” story by an awesome writer.
  • Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton.
  • On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light by Cordelia Strube. “Holy hell, another Canadian woman who can write the boots off a snake. “
  • So Big. “Holy fuck, Edna Ferber. Why is the entire English-speaking world not reading her books and worshiping her for the fantastic fiction she wrote? When I finished reading this minutes ago, I actually held it in the air and shook it.”
  • Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) by Eileen Myles. “Nearly ever page is filled with inspiration.”
  • The End of the Story by Lydia Davis. “Utterly graceful and mesmerizing writing, she weaves a tale of love, breakup, and loss while more importantly showing us how to put together the bones of a novel.”
  • I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. “I could write a book about reading this book.”
  • The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield; “Spectacular book from 1924 about a woman whose talents are concentrated on raising three children and housekeeping for a husband who barely makes enough money.”
  • The Old Man And Me by Elaine Dundy:  “wonderfully weird and compelling story.”

Biography

  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin. I’m including this bio instead of listing every single thing by Shirley Jackson that I ended up reading because of this bio. (Hint: Jackson is terrific)
  • Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin. “A lovely biography of a writer on whom we’ve all more or less turned our backs on this century.”
  • Zelda by Nancy Milford. “Amazing and heartbreaking biography of Zelda (Sayre) Fitzgerald’s creative and unusual life, pub’d in 1970.”
  • The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme. “Engaging and delightful book about Jane and Thomas Carlyle based mostly on letters that witty Jane penned through her life. I never had much interest in Carlyle until reading this; perhaps great men are sometimes better reached via a more oblique angle.”

Memoir

  • Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski – Hermione Lee called this “a typically uncategorizable mixture of travel journal, childhood memoir, and Melvillean meditation on whiteness and oblivion.”
  • M Train by Patti Smith. Especially good for a re-read after seeing her at the Nourse Theater.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “As good as everyone says it is.”
  • I Blame Dennis Hopper by Illeana Douglas. “So much fun to read.”
  • An American Childhood. “I am firmly under the spell of Annie Dillard’s magical way with words.”
  • In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution by Susan Brownmiller. “This is the best book I’ve read on the Second Wave.”

Travel

Other non-fiction

  • Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class . Barbara Ehrenreich’s book charting the shift in consciousness of the middle class is eerily spot-on reading for someone trying desperately to understand what went wrong in the 2016 election.
  • The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Robert Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses was published in 1974 after seven years of research, interviewing over 500 people, and writing.
  • Ravens in Winter. I couldn’t wait to get back home to finish this real-life detective story by “sociobiologist” Bernd Heinrich, who seeks to discover why ravens share their finds of large meat carcasses instead of gorging on them by themselves.
  • We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction. I never imagined I’d love a book so much about women trying to break into the construction industry. Susan Eisenberg interviewed 30 women about their experiences as the first women in their union locals in the five trades: carpenters, electricians, ironworkers, painters, and plumbers.
  • The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. An entertaining and informative look at diminishing species due to human involvement.

Classics rediscovered and appreciated:

Books to raise your blood pressure:
It’s true. I actually mention my blood pressure rising in these reviews.

Others of note

The Nix

The Nix: A novel

This is a terrible book. I sped through 600 pages out of curiosity, looking to articulate exactly why I hated it.

Long-winded, interminable descriptions. The boy needs an editor. Someone to shape this lumpy sack of clay into a slenderized version that has the necessary tension that makes us want to turn the pages.

Cardboard characters. I think I was 500 pages into the book before I met a single character I cared about, which ended up being the radical hippie, Alice.

Saccharine-induced loopy unbelievable happy endings tied with a giant red bow. What a miracle that Faye (the mother who walked out on her son) winds up at the bedside of her father (who had abandoned a separate family in Norway before having Faye). How perfect that the judge from 1968 was also the judge in charge of the 2011 case against Faye. And of course Periwinkle (Samuel’s editor) ends up being Sebastian from 1968. Perhaps the most unbelievable tie-up at the end is when Samuel asks Bethany for a place to stay for awhile in NYC and she hands over the keys to her 8 bedroom apartment.

Books like this make me mad because it showcases the downward trajectory of publishing standards. The fact that this is mentioned as a great book, and even whispered as “DFW-esque,” is a tragedy. There is nothing clever here, no good writing, only a monkey doing donuts in the empty cul-de-sac of an abandoned suburb. We clap because we’re surprised that a monkey can do this.

The Heart of Boswell: Six Journals in One Volume

The Heart of Boswell: Six Journals in One Volume

Perhaps this should be called The Genitals of Boswell instead of The Heart. I’d forgotten that Jamie Boswell was such a distasteful horny cad/ spoiled trustfund kid and that Samuel Johnson was an idiotic misogynist (“a woman’s preaching like a dog walking on hind legs… not done well but surprised to find it done at all”). Thank god for this distillation of his six volume diary into one, although perhaps the editor Mark Harris only wanted to include his racier bits, through which I have developed an antipathy towards Bos. This book covers the 12 years between 1762 and 1774, beginning with Bos as a 22 year old who matures under our very eyes, the result perhaps of rubbing elbows with so many illustrious men like Johnson, Rousseau, Voltaire? He ends by settling down in Scotland, marrying, and practicing law, all while continuing the journal and grabbing bits for the Life of Johnson (and the Hebrides journal) he’d later publish.

On his liaisons with prostitutes
“I had now been some time in town without female sport. I determined to have nothing to do with whores as my health was of great consequence to me… I was really unhappy for want of women. I picked up a girl in the Strand; went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour. But she had none. I toyed with her. She wondered at my size, and said if I ever took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.” A few days later, he’s entertaining lewd thoughts in church: “what a curious, inconsistent thing is the mind of man! In the midst of divine service I was laying plans for having women, and yet I had the most sincere feelings of religion.”

He then lays his plans to entrap an actress, woos her for a few weeks, loans her money, has several missed opportunities for consummation but the actress’s landlady or brother approaches, then lies to a friend and says he’s married and that he’s bringing his wife to the inn. They eventually have a night of it at the inn, and a few days later his old friend Gonorrhea is back. He storms into the actress’s house and accuses her of giving it to him, then writes a letter demanding his loaned guineas back. This is his third bout with it, and he’s lain low for weeks recovering; his doctor bleeds him as part of the treatment. Then he’s up and about, a few weeks later taking to prostitutes again, for the first time with “armour” (protection?) which he “found but a dull satisfaction. She who submitted to my lusty embraces was a young Shropshire girl, only seventeen, very well-looked, her name Elizabeth Parker. Poor being, she has a sad time of it!” After this he’s gathering up “little girls” for rendezvous all the time, “dipping his machine in the Canal,” and “gaining entrance.” He dresses up like a miscreant and attends to various prostitutes sometimes trying not to pay them. Someone steals his handkerchief (“I was shocked to think that I had been intimately united with a low, abandoned, perjured, pilfering creature”). Walking home, he’s tapped on the shoulder by a “fine fresh lass” who he went home with, excusing his behavior since she was already an abandoned woman. All of these liaisons are carefully detailed, and surprise surprise, a bastard son is born who later dies when he’s in Utrecht. There, a doctor convinces him that once you’re used to having sex  then it’s necessary, otherwise “retention will influence the brain.”

While he’s hatching his plans for sex, he’s busy nosing into drawing rooms of the upper class, scouting out potential widows to have assignations with, and plotting on how to get a commission to the Guards because he doesn’t want to study law. He calmly takes his allowance of £200 a year and saunters around town.

On journaling
“I do think the keeping of a journal a very excellent scheme if judiciously executed.” Later, he determines to show respect to the journal, to “never set down the mere common trifling occurrences of life, but say nothing at all, except when I have something worth while.” Hilariously, his next entry is “I just read, eat, drank, and walked.”

“I had sitten up all night to journalize. As usual I felt myself immediately bettered by it.”

Odds and ends

  • Another word found appropriate for our time: rhodomontade (or rodomontade) – bragging speech, a vain boasting or bluster.
  • Sometimes there are clever bits: “I got up as dreary as a dromedary…”
  • One of his dress suits is a “suit of flowered velvet of five colours” which I wish desperately for a photo of.

Commonwealth

Commonwealth

I can’t think of why I haven’t read any Ann Patchett before this. A well-written, intense tale told from various perspectives in various points in time, but always clear and spare words leading the story forward. This is the story of two families that become intertwined when one father runs away with the other’s mother, stepsisters and brothers abounding, trips from California to Virginia and getting away with shenanigans like feeding the youngest boy, Albie, with the oldest boy, Cal,’s Benedryl to make Albie sleepy but that ends in Cal’s death by beesting. Beverly and Fix are the original parents of Caroline and Franny, then Beverly runs away with Bert, the father with Teresa of Cal, Holly, Jeanette, and Albie. We see Franny dropping out of law school and cocktail waitressing at the Palmer Hotel in Chicago, Holly dropping out of life and meditating in Switzerland, Jeanette with a baby and husband in Brooklyn, Albie floating around from bike messenger job to bike messenger job and then into handyman work. Franny has a relationship with a previously successful author who steals the story of Cal’s death and turns her family into a book. It’s an IV drip of family drama, life stages, births, deaths.

Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read

Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read

This book by Barbara Lounsberry is an incredibly interesting look at VW’s early diaries, layered in with descriptions of other journals and diaries she was reading during this time (from 1897 at age 15 to mid-1918 at age 36). I read this one closely, carefully, devouring each well-written and non-duplicative footnote, whisking off to the library for Boswell’s journals and making a list of others to imbibe. If I start now, read everything she read, can I possibly hope to attain a fraction of the intelligence she had at age 20? Instead of genius-envy, I have only genius-awe.

Early Diary Influences
This section mainly focused on her 1897 diary and exploring those diaries she was exposed to at the time: Sir Walter Scott, Fanny Burney, Pepys, and William Johnson Cory. Lounsberry asserts that at age 14, Virginia found her “diary parents” in Sir Walter Scott and Fanny Burney, adopting stylistic traits and ways of seeing the world from these notable foremother/fathers. “The influx of influence begins,” says Lounsberry. And we’re off! Burney shows VW how women are treated, but with her happy example bucking the usual “self-abnegation, modesty, and silence present in most English women’s diaries.”

Pepys 1.25 million-word diary is consumed completely in the twelve days leading up to step-sister Stella’s wedding, and Virginia notes in her diary, “My dear Pepys… the only calm thing in the house.”

She reads Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides in 1903. Interestingly, Boswell’s papers only surfaced in 1925 in Ireland, causing a new edition of the Hebrides to be issued in 1936. The footnote quotes the editor of the 1936 version by saying that the version V read in 1903 “remained one of the most indiscreet books ever given to the world (did it not bring its author to the verge of a duel?).” Boswell lets us know that Dr. Johnson favors speedy prose, “I would advise every young man beginning to compose, to do it as fast as he can, to get a habit of having his mind to start promptly; it is so much more difficult to improve in speed than in accuracy… But, if a man is accustomed to compose slowly, and with difficulty, upon all occasions, there is danger that he may not compose at all, as we do no like to do that which is not done easily…” (emphasis mine). Boswell is also potentially credited with inspiring V to start a reading notebook, one of his 1773 entries noting books he has read: “This is a very slight circumstance, that every man should keep minutes of whatever he reads. Every circumstance of his studies should be recorded; what books he has consulted; how much of them he has read; at what times; how often the same authors; and what opinions he formed of them, at different periods of his life. Such an account would much illustrate the history of the mind.” She’ll return to Boswell (and the rest of her mentors) for the rest of her life; in 1934, depressed over Roger Fry’s death, Leonard advises her to read. V reports “I am as slack as a piece of maccaroni: & in this state cant shake off a blackness, a blankness. Now (10 to 1) after writing & beginning to read an old life of Boswell I feel the wheels grinding”.

Embracing the Unconscious
In 1907 V discovers Lady Dorothy Nevill’s Note-books, which Lounsberry nods to as influencing the character of Mrs. Hilbery in Night and Day. V writes a review in 1908 quoting lines from the Note-books: “People of original character and brilliant intellect were undoubtedly more frequently to be met with some thirty or forty years ago than is now the case, when almost every one seems to be cast in a mould of a more or less mediocre kind. Society in old days cannot in any way be compared with the motley crowd which calls itself society today… The general level of conversation in the so-called society of modern days must, of necessity, be low, for society, or what passes for it, is now very large, whilst wealth is more welcome than intellect. Good conversation, therefore, is practically non-existent.” This, speaking of life mid-19th century seems woefully too real to someone in the early 21st century.

Lady Charlotte Bury’s Diary of a Lady-in-Waiting is another source of delight and learning for V in 1908. Lounsberry asserts that V got her conviction that women and women writers were despised mostly from primary sources, including diaries. She includes an excerpt from a letter included in Bury’s Diary written by an apoplectic male writer, so delightful I must quote in full here (“plaguy deal of mischief”!!!):

“I wish [Susan Ferrier] would let such idle nonsense alone, for,… as as rule, I have an aversion, a pity and contempt, for all female scribblers, The needle, not the pen, is the instrument they should handle and the only one they ever use dexterously. I must except, however, their love-letters, which are sometimes full of pleasing conceits; but this is the only subject they should ever attempt to write about. Madame de Staël even I will not except from this general rule; she has done a plaguy deal of mischief, and no good, by meddling in literary matters, and I wish to heaven she would renounce pen, ink, and paper for evermore… In a word, … I hate a blue; give me a rose any day in preference, that is to say, a pretty woman to a learned one. What has made you inflict this long harangue upon me? you will exclaim, and I must beg your pardon for so doing; but the fact is, I am full of the subject, being at the present moment much enraged at Lady [__], for having come out in the shape of a novel; and now, hearing that Miss F is about to follow her bad example, I write in great perturbance of mind, and cannot think or speak of anything else.” — letter from Matthew Lewis to Lady Charlotte Bury, early 19th c.

Lounsberry makes an interesting case that the lack of diary entries signified that V was working productively during that time, not that she was done under by sickness or laziness. V takes several solo trips, including one in August 1908 to Wells in Somerset, where she attempts to continue making progress on her first novel. She’s forced to leave her lodgings after a week, but without regret: “The Close has filled itself with theological students, & I am not sorry to leave. The cheery male voice is as the drone of bluebottles in my ear.” A footnote includes comment that V’s attitude toward the “male” was known to her sister Vanessa, who writes her about her Scotland visit and reports horror after her husband kills three rabbits: “There is an atmosphere of undiluted male here. How you would hate it!”

The Problem of Description
V flirts with travel diaries for a few years but struggles against the too-easy pull to write like a guidebook. “I begin to distrust description… the fault of most of my descriptive writing is that it tends to be too definite… Descriptive writing is dangerous & tempting… It is easy, with little expense of brain power, to make something. One seizes some broad aspect, as of water or colour, & makes a note of it. This single quality gives the tone to the piece. As a matter of fact, the subject is probably infinitely subtle, no more amenable to impressionistic treatment than the human character. What one records is really the state of ones own mind.”

She reads Lady Elizabeth Holland’s journal, Lady Hester Stanhope’s diaries, Mary E. Coleridge’s diary extracts, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s early journals (which she defines herself against). I loved the reiteration that surfaced in Emerson to keep a reading journal: “The best of all ways to make one’s reading valuable is to write about it.”

The Diary Coalesces
There’s an unfortunate gap between 1909 and 1915 when V takes up diary writing again (unless there are missing/destroyed diaries for those years). In 1915, she’s now married to Leonard for 2 years and finds the steadiness needed to balance out her routine. During this time she reads the collaborative journals of the Goncourt brothers, Mary (Seton) Berry’s journals, Stopford Brooke’s diaries.

The Diary of a Nobody

Diary of a Nobody

Although I’m knee-deep in reading about diaries that Virginia Woolf read or kept in her early years, I randomly began reading this book when it cropped up in Family Roundabout, Mrs. Fowler deciding to spend the afternoon reading George Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody. It’s a slender volume that I wish had shrunk even more—the joke is prolonged and becomes shrill over all the extraneous pages. It’s the tiresome recounting of an average London clerk’s life with friends who take advantage of his hospitality and a son (Lupin) who’s kicked out of school and comes to live at home again while stirring up mischief. The title headings are the best bits, summarizing the contents within and usually containing some self-praise like “I make one of the best jokes of my life” or “I make another good joke.”

The Making of a Marchioness

The Making of a Marchioness

Oh boy oh boy oh boy! Frances Hodgson Burnett’s best novel for adults is a dazzler. Masterful expansion of tension to keep you on edge, not knowing where the tale would turn. I had to put it down a few times and walk around in circles just to get enough courage to continue. The first part is all sweetness, where blue-blooded Emily Fox-Seton is a poor spinster in her mid-thirties who runs errands for people in London to make ends meet, happily resigned to her lot although sometimes waking in terror in the middle of the night about what would happen when she got old and could no longer do the odd jobs to make rent. She’s invaluable to Lady Maria Bayne, who needs her daily services so much that she takes Emily with her to her summer home in the country. At Mallowe, Lady Maria’s cousin, the widowed Marquis, is being ogled by three potential brides. Emily goes about her efficient and hard-working business, and ends up with the large ruby engagement ring on her hand.

In the second part, she unfolds her petals into a beautiful and confident Marchioness, still bestowing many gifts and kindness wherever she goes. Here we meet Alec Osborn and his Indo-Anglo wife, Hester, who are enraged that Lord Walderhurst (the Marquis) married again, thereby making it more unlikely that Osborn inherits the title and estates. Emily is blind to their hatred and does them thousands of kindnesses, including fixing up a house on the estate and installing them in it close to her. The author drops several hooks into the story that make you believe Emily will have an accident while riding; and indeed Alec trains a horse to throw its rider at a particular spot on the road. Luckily, Emily finds out she’s pregnant right around then, and decides not to take up riding. Enter Hester and her Hindu maid, who begins haunting Emily at night, cutting out the wood of a railing she leans against at the lake, poisoning her milk. Hester catches wind of the plot and gets Emily to flee, which she does, heading to London although telling Alec she’s gone to Germany. Oh — the Marquis leaves his wife for a long trip to India after only a few months of marriage, so he’s not here while the murder plots are all going down. He returns to find Emily on her deathbed having delivered a healthy son. James is able to whisper her name enough to bring her back to life, and she recovers.

Alec and Hester head back to India with their daughter, and he continues to drink and beat her. One night he shoots himself with what he thought was an unloaded gun, which Hester reveals at the end was loaded by her faithful servant.

Family Roundabout

Family Roundabout

Another great title re-issued by Persephone! Richmal Crompton gets added to my list of people to read more of, especially as I closed the book with a laugh, reading how Mrs. Fowler teases her old adversary, Mrs. Willoughby, on the eve of her 70th birthday, about how she’d like to “encourage” the baker’s man to make eyes at her.

Mrs. Fowler is a great character—we open with her sitting in a shabby wicker chair in 1920, six years into widowhood, recognizing that she had stifled her intelligence in her marriage to become a replica of her husband’s mother, self-effacing, ready to defer to his judgement, essentially becoming “Milly” and biting her comments that Millicent would say. Her children only know her as Milly, and Millicent comes forth at odd moments, surprising them all, like at the end as she sasses Willoughby.

Having five children seems to be the British norm of this period, and Milly’s are: Matthew, Peter, Anice, Helen, and Judy. Widow Willoughby’s are: Max, Florence, Gertrude, Oliver, and Cynthia. Helen marries Max, uniting the families. Matthew’s away in Kenya; Peter has made a terrible match in Belle who throws fits and tosses him into the arms of their child’s nurse, Rachel; Anice is horribly jealous of Helen, who’s been more beautiful and now more rich than she is; Judy waits years for Oliver to escape from his mother’s clutches before chucking it and marrying an older writer who gives her entrance into London circles.

The Children Who Lived in a Barn

The Children Who Lived in a Barn

Eleanor Graham’s children’s book from 1938 is an earlier “Home Alone” tale—a family of five children left to fend for themselves when their parents disappear in a plane accident. Sue’s the oldest at 13, and sets the whole family to rights doing the drudgery of house keeping plus cooking plus laundry plus going to school and keeping the books for the baker in exchange for stale bread. Bob’s 11 years old, then the twin boys, then youngest is Alice, at 7. They’re driven out of their house by a greedy landlord and find refuge in a farmer’s barn. The kids fix it up into a home and proceed to live as they can for a few months, the village sending a woman to check up on them and threatening to toss them all into an orphanage at the slightest sign of dirt or misbehavior. Fairly flimsy plot, quite unbelievable that the parents would leave, and also that the village wouldn’t do more for them. At the end, with orphanage threatening, Sue “goes on strike” for a day and wanders the countryside, meeting a journalist by chance to tell her story to the world. Parents (amnesia?) arrive shortly after.