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Posts Tagged ‘British Literature’

Several years ago I found both The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett on the local library’s book sale shelves. The paperbacks are huge and heavy, and I suspected I’d want to read them back to back, so I’ve been waiting to have time to do that. I read one and have started the other over the past week, as well as a Christmas gift, The Book of Margery Kempe.

My edition of Pillars has a preface by Ken Follett about how he came to write about the building of a medieval cathedral. He grew up in Wales, and writes, “When I was a boy, all my family belonged to a Puritan religious group called Plymouth Brethren. For us, church was a bare room with rows of chairs around a central table. Paintings, statues, and all forms of decoration were banned. The sect also discouraged members from visiting rival churches. So I grew up pretty much ignorant of Europe’s wealth of gorgeous church architecture.” He goes on to describe living in London in his twenties, and buying a book to learn about architecture. This led him to visit the cathedral in Peterborough while he was waiting for a train on a reporting trip; he was so amazed that he says, “Cathedral visiting became a hobby for me.”

Eventually, he read The Cathedral Builders and The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel and learning this background planted the seed of an idea for a novel. He first sketched it out in 1976, but his agent didn’t think there was enough “melodrama.” He became a very successful writer of thrillers, including Edgar award winner The Eye of the Needle. But the cathedral book was still on his mind. He was on to something, because when he eventually wrote The Pillars of the Earth it became one of his best-selling books; he credits readers for this in the preface, explaining that word of mouth was what made it so popular.

I found it hard to put down. I definitely liked the story of Philip, Prior of fictional Kingsbridge (a different place than the real market town in Devon, apparently), the building of the cathedral, the running of the monastery, and the sections of the plot about the village, the wool business, and the community. The political, historical and social contexts are very interesting, as are the details of various building techniques and inventions. Follett hired Gimpel as a consultant when he was finally writing the book, around ten years after he thought of the idea. I didn’t care for the violence and brutality, realistic though it may be for the times (between 1123-1173).

But I think one of the appeals of The Pillars of the Earth is that Prior Philip, as Follett notes, has “a very practical, down-to-earth religious belief, a concern for people’s souls here on earth, not just in heaven.” To me, Philip represents the potential of the church to help people — especially people without much status, power, or money — thrive and live harmoniously, becoming their best selves despite human tendencies towards greed, revenge, and selfishness. That’s the overarching theme of the book, that even in a world full of unknown and unpredictable threats, as well as the more predictable and not always so benevolent dominance of a wealthy ruling class, true faith and the selfless love that grows out of it will see people through.

As heroes go, Philip is unusual: a celibate man of God who tries his best to atone for his wrongs and forgive his enemies. Also appealing are Ellen, who lives self-sufficiently in the forest for much of the book, and Aliena, who deals with numerous setbacks, mainly caused by men, but manages to live mostly as she wishes. None of these “good” characters are perfect; they sometimes do the wrong thing, which makes them more realistic. There are plenty of villains (and as I think about, they rarely do anything good) including other clerics, and reading about the civil and religious maneuvering and strife and the suffering they caused makes one marvel that mankind persisted.

Or that the church persisted, which brings me to Margery Kempe. Her Book, which covers much of her life (around 1373-1440), although it focuses on the period in her adult life when she received what she felt were revelations from God, is considered the first autobiography in English. Technically, she dictated it because she was illiterate, like many people (especially women) of her time, but it is considered her own account. The Computer Scientist thought I would find her interesting. I read her Book (actually, two books, published together) before starting World Without End, which starts in 1327, so overlaps with her lifetime.

I say she felt she was receiving revelations, because the translator (from Middle English) of this edition, Barry Windeatt, makes clear in his introduction and notes that her “assumption of a direct and special link with God” is in his view “a spurious claim, because her main concern, despite the attempts at visionary writing, would seem to be with the view others held of her as a person of particular religious capacity.” He goes on to say, “I don’t think there is any evidence of a continuing psychotic process at work here. The most satisfactory description would be of a hysterical personality organization; her behaviors served as a constant source of attention and, in her own terms, of confirmation from others around her.” He says “continuing” because by her own report, she had at least two breakdowns: one, probably post-partum depression and the other late in life for a period around two weeks long. Keep in mind that Windeatt comes to his scholarly conclusions after studying many other mystics, including some who claimed to have holy crying fits.

If someone acted like Margery today, no doubt people would suggest mental health treatment (or maybe she’d be running for office?). She had what many people in her time felt was a delusional sense that God, primarily in the person of Jesus, was speaking directly in her mind, and one manifestation of this was uncontrollable crying and “roaring” fits, often in churches. Margery even notes that she felt depressed “because of the dread that she had of deceptions and delusions,” but that God assured and comforted her. She also felt she heard directly from Mary and a number of saints. She was certain that she was persecuted for her mystical experiences, and honestly, seemed to relish this persecution because she felt is ensured her reward in heaven. And while there were many people who did harass, arrest, mock or threaten her, and she was often accused of being a fake at best or a Lollard at worst (a follower of John Wycliffe, whose views influenced later reformation figures), there were many others who thought she was telling the truth.

Either way, her book is an interesting view of the times and of an extraordinary life. She lived in and around Lynn in England, and was the child of a successful businessman who also served in many municipal offices. She married, had fourteen children, and had her own brewing business for a while. And during the times when she received her communications from God, she traveled all the way to Jerusalem, and took other pilgrimages in Europe, often setting out without much of a plan or many resources and managing to make her way. She annoyed her fellow travellers (some of whom claim they wouldn’t even take money to keep traveling with her, others of whom make up to her as soon as they see she’ll help them eat or travel better). She befriended a number of monks and priests, who read scripture and theology to her. She seemed to have what Windeatt believes in an excellent memory and an eye for detail. And when her husband was old and seriously injured in a fall, he “turned childish and lacked reason” so she “looked after him for years afterwards.”

Whatever you may think about her religious experiences, she seems to have genuinely believed, devoted herself to prayer, and acted generously towards others, both materially and in sharing what she learned and what she felt God was saying to her. She’s a fascinating character. And she would have known some of the places and possibly some of the people (she met a number of bishops) in Ken Follett’s books.

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Summer is the final book in Ali Smith‘s seasons quartet. I have enjoyed each one (here are my posts on Autumn, Winter, and Spring). Now that I’ve read the whole series (and, I admit, looked at some other reviews) I’m aware that Smith mentions a different Shakespeare play, a different Dickens novel, and a different woman artist in each book. Summer opens with a sort of prelude about a film by Lorenza Mazzetti about “a man carrying two suitcases” “balanced on a very narrow brick ledge which runs round the edge of a high building.”

Just before Smith tells us about this film, she describes how “millions and millions” of people protested “lying, and the mistreatments of people and the planet” but “the people who knew the power of saying so? said, on the radio on TV, on social media, tweet after tweet, page after page: so?” We who are alive in this moment in time are the man, balanced on the precipice, carrying the baggage of partisanship and selfishness.

This sets us up to meet Grace, mother of two teens, Sacha and Robert, who link the people in this novel together. Grace is a Gen X mom, painfully self absorbed, and a leaver (in terms of Brexit). Sacha and Robert are slightly stereotypical as a teen worried about climate change and a younger bullied teen who kind of admires fascism, but really loves Einstein.

Sacha can’t understand why Charlotte (Arthur’s fellow blogger and missing girlfriend in Winter) is taking the siblings to see where Einstein stayed in rural England before emigrating to America. She warns Charlotte that Robert really likes her. Charlotte replies:

“If people think you like them . . . it can go either way. There’s a lot of powerplay in liking and being liked. Such powerful connection. It’s a chance to make the world bigger for someone else. Or smaller. That’s always a choice we’ve got.”

Throughout the seasons novels, Smith shows us characters who are making the world bigger or smaller for others. Sacha writes to a refugee she calls Hero. Robert reveals his admiration for Einstein to Charlotte. That was one of my favorite chapters, when Charlotte and Arthur stumble onto helping Sacha and meet her family. Charlotte’s chapter, where she is stuck in a huge old house with Iris, Arthur’s aunt, while Arthur goes to be with Elizabeth from Autumn, is also excellent.

Iris, ever practical, plans to have a bigger septic tank put in so she can take in refugees let loose from detention camps because of COVID (including Hero). And leaves soup outside Charlotte’s door when she is unable to deal with the world and Arthur’s betrayal all at once. I also loved hearing more from Daniel, the old man from Autumn, and learning about his sister’s work with the Resistance during WWII. Smith captures perfectly the pain, anxiety, and fear of our times, and of humanity generally.

This book, and the whole series, is about Brexit, and COVID, and fascism, and art, but also most of all, about humanity. Charlotte notes, “What art does is exist . . . . And then because we encounter it, we remember we exist too. And that one day we won’t.” Smith’s series does that — reminds us we exist in this dysfunctional world, that we’re connected to each other, as her characters are.

What Smith does is manage to write about the worst of human nature, all the ways we harm each other and the planet, all the ways power is corrupted, all the ways we twist love to suit our purposes, take nature for granted, and yet still somehow manage to get through, to carry each other, resist, and overcome. Charlotte, Iris, and Sacha, Daniel and Elizabeth, even bumbling Grace and damaged Robert and fickle Arthur, we’re all in this together. Somehow, as we stumble towards grace (the state, not the character), leaving our imprint on the world in the form of literature, music, and art. We come closer to what’s possible.

I thoroughly enjoyed these books and imagine I’ll re-read them in years to come.

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Some Tame Gazelle was Barbara Pym‘s debut novel, published in 1950. I thought it was a postwar book, because there are a number of unmarried women, but she started writing it in the 1930s, when she was still very young. It’s about two unmarried sisters, Harriet and Belinda, in their 50s but still hoping for love. Belinda has been in love with a man for thirty years, Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve (who had a cameo appearance in A Glass of Blessings), but he married someone else. He also happens to be the priest at their village church and a rather vain and self-important man. Harriet fusses over every curate that comes to work with Henry. She receives regular marriage proposals from an Italian count who lives in the village, a kind man who loves to garden and is working on a collection of letters written by his late friend, a gentleman diplomat well known to all in the village who died in the Balkans.

Belinda and Harriet, and several other unmarried women in the village, lead quiet lives that revolve around church, books, knitting, and what to have for luncheon, tea, and supper. Belinda, despite her thwarted love, is a dependable friend to the Archdeacon and his wife, Agatha. While Pym is clearly commenting on gender roles, and on the differences among high and low church Anglicans (including a moment when Belinda muses that it’s easier in the city where clergy can move in theri favorite circles, whereas in their country village the Archdeacon and his neighboring Anglo Catholic colleague make subtle digs at each other), her social commentary is understated.

Pym’s humor is also gentle — her characters are decent people even when they act in humorous ways, and she makes no one ridiculous. And some of what I found funny might not have been as she was writing it. Harriet has to hide the corsets she’s mending when someone comes to the door, Belinda worries over whether “cauliflower cheese” is a fine luncheon for the woman seamstress who makes and then after taking so much care, faces the fact that it goes uneaten because a caterpillar has stowed away in the cauliflower. There are also some archly funny bits about Belinda’s friend Nicholas Parnell, now librarian at their old University. Reading a letter from him:

“Belinda sighed. Dead Nicholas was really quite obsessed with the Library and its extensions. She wished he would remember that the two things which bound them together were the memory of their undergraduate days and our greater English poets.”

If it seems frivolous to read this kind of thing while our world is falling apart — while people are dying of COVID, black people are dying at the hands of police because legislators’ promises about change have faded away once again, our President is trying to prevent a free and fair election and our government systematically lies to us, well, maybe it is. I think it’s more of a defense mechanism. There are more Barbara Pym novels on Hoopla so I look forward to continuing to seek refuge in them.

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Human Voices is a short novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, set during the blitz at BBC headquarters. Fitzgerald worked there herself at that time, when she was in her 20s.  She writes about one department where Sam Brooks is “RPD” (Recorded Programme Director) and he has a young staff of assistants who manage much of the work while he signs endless piles of letters prepared by the motherly Mrs. Milne and designs field equipment for the time in the not too distant future when he expects BBC teams will be sent into Europe to cover the war on the ground. His longtime friend Jeff Haggard is “DPP” (Director of Programme Planning), higher ranking and often in a position to defend the somewhat eccentric and self-absorbed RPD.

Against this backdrop of the men in charge, Fitzgerald also weaves in the stories of the young programme assistants who work for the RPD of the younger people, like Willie, who is constantly planning for a future ideal society; Vi, who comes from a large family and is waiting for her boyfriend in the merchant marines to come home; Lise, a half-French girl who only works a short time in the RPD’s office and has one of the most dramatic scenes in the book; and Annie, still a teen and recently orphaned, who stands up to the RPD in ways none of the others has.

The DPP has another good friend, the American broadcaster Mac McVitie, who breezes in and out of London with gifts. There’s a scene where he’s given out oranges and the assistants in the Recorded Programme office are dividing them among themselves that makes clear how unusual McVitie’s presents are for the Londoners. When he’s there, he records at the BBC and goes out looking for a drink or a chance to meet ordinary people on the street with the DPP.

What’s most striking is that quirky as they are — one team sent into the countryside to preserve quintessential English sounds come back with hours of recordings of a church hall door opening, creaking louder when it’s opened wider — Fitzgerald portrays the entire enterprise as devoted to truthful broadcasting. And despite the tone, which is mainly breezy and focused on the younger people’s cares, which are much like young people’s cares anywhere, anytime, Fitzgerald shows very skillfully how the tension of the time creeps into every aspect of life. Relationships, work, leisure — everything is impacted by the struggle to overcome the daily strain of working in a war zone.

I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, and this was just as enjoyable. I happened across it on Hoopla, when I was going through a list of books I’d hoped to find at the library at some point. Entertaining, but with enough humanity and pathos to keep me thinking about it long after I got to the end.

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Yes, this seems like something completely different. I’m a discerner in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, and this novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, is on the reading list. It was Salley Vickers‘ debut, and tells two stories: one about Julia Garnet, a retired schoolteacher whose longtime friend and housemate, Harriet, has recently died, and the other, the Book of Tobit. Tobit is found in Catholic and Orthodox bibles, and in the Apocrypha in Anglican bibles, as well as in the Septuagint, which is the oldest translation (into Greek) of the Hebrew scriptures.

Julia decides to sublet her apartment and spend a few months in Venice. She is a British communist (like Vickers’ parents) with few friends and no living relatives. As her story unfolds, she comes out of her longtime shell and in a process of self-examination, socializing purely for enjoyment (rather than school functions or party meetings), and immersion in the art and music of Venice, she softens. And regrets the strictness that prevented her from being as kind as should could or should have been, and that has left her lonely.

One of the first things she sees in Venice is the facade of the Chiesa dell’Angelo Raffaele, and carvings of the Archangel Raphael with a boy carrying a fish, and dog in front of them. You can see it here. She later visits the church to view the art inside (including a series of paintings featuring this boy and his dog and the angel), and learns that the boy is Tobias, son of Tobit. A friend she meets, Carlo, tells her the whole story of Tobit, a Jewish exile in Nineveh, and Tobias, who cures Tobit’s blindness and saves his betrothed from a demon, with the help of the Raphael and a dog.

Vickers interweaves a retelling of the Book of Tobit alongside Julia’s story, and adds to the narrative of her personal growth some small mysteries Julia works out, about a painting in another church (Chapel-of-the-Plague), and about the English twins she meets there who are doing restoration work, as well as a mystery about her friend Carlo. It’s not a cozy novel — Julia’s self-reflection is painful at times, and the mysteries she deals with are as well. There are references to the plague years in Venice, to anti-Semitism, and to WWII. It’s not a light read. The story of Tobit is also on the surface just somewhat fraught. There is also a somewhat abrupt and bittersweet ending.

But there is a deep vein of truth running through both, and Julia’s transformation is ultimately uplifting, as is the story of the boy who with an angel’s help, overcomes evil. Vickers’ research shines through and is fascinating, without being “in your face” — it’s woven neatly into the story because Julia has an affinity for learning more about the things she is seeing from books and from friends (including an elderly Monsignor who is, like all of the supporting characters, interesting).

And there is a longing for meaning, for faith in something beyond humanity, something that surpasses the imperfect execution of ideals that Julia realizes she’s observed in British communism. I think that makes Miss Garnet’s Angel a timely read, despite the somewhat quaint circumstances of Julia’s life. As we look at the not-so-solid — in some cases actually crumbling — edifices of our ideals as they crack open to reveal the long history of willful ignorance on the part of many people and outright greed on the part of the powerful, don’t we too long for meaning, and healing, and love?

I enjoyed this and I will look for Vickers’ other books.

 

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I first read Sarah Moss‘s memoir about living and teaching in Iceland, Names for the Sea, and then her novel Night Waking. I really like Moss’s writing, and admire the research and connections with history that go into her books as well as the recurring theme of gender roles. So when I saw she had a newish (I thought it was new, but it turns out it came out in the US in January 2019, and in 2018 in the UK) short novel set in the north of England, Ghost Wall, I got on the eBook waiting list at my library.

Ghost Wall has the characteristics I cited above. It’s really creepy and tense, however, which I didn’t realize, and which isn’t a) what I’m looking for these days — no more tension, please! nor b) my cup of tea, normally. Still, I stuck it out to the end, which is still pretty tense, but slightly hopeful. Kind of like real life.

The story centers around Silvie, a teenager in 1970s England whose dad is a self-taught prehistory buff (for reasons, Moss implies, that are not entirely academic, but possibly xenophobic). He’s also an opinionated bully who controls what Silvie and her mother do. Including accompanying him on a field trip with a college professor and a handful of his students to live as if they are in the Iron Age. They wear scratchy tunics, forage for nuts, berries, roots, and mushrooms, butcher rabbits, gather mussels, and cook what they hunt and gather in a cauldron over a fire. Silvie and her mother do, that is. The men make plans for further reenactment activities.

Silvie admires the only female student, Molly, and even possibly develops a crush on her. Molly is strong, educated, and comfortable stripping down to her lacy — and matching! — undergarments to go swimming. Silvie, repressed, afraid, without any idea of her future, is enchanted. Her father’s disapproval manifests itself in a belting, and from there, the plot centers around his and the professor’s darker reenactments, Silvie’s inability to extricate herself from their plans, and Molly’s interference.

In between, you may learn a thing or two about subsistence (which Moss does not romanticize a bit), bogs (which you don’t want to fall in), and the depressing idea that mankind has always been nationalist (or at least tribal) and pretty brutal (especially to women). It’s a gripping story, that would provide plenty for a book club to discuss and is a quick read. Just be ready for tension.

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Remember when I said (in my last post) that I don’t usually like novels with multiple viewpoints? Frankisstein not only tells the story from different characters’ views (primarily Ry, a trans doctor in contemporary England and Mary Shelley) but also fictionalizes real people (besides Shelley and her friends and family, Ada Lovelace, I.J. Good) and even a fictional character (Victor Frankenstein, imagined as an inmate of Bedlam, and later a guest at a party where he approaches Mary Shelley).  Jeanette Winterson even plays with Shelley’s characters’ names, naming her modern characters Dr. Mary Shelley (Ry) and Victor Stein, an AI researcher.

The book weaves (veers?) between the 1800s, starting around the time Mary Shelley is writing Frankenstein while staying in Switzerland with her husband Percy Blythe Shelley, Lord Byron, her stepsister Claire and a doctor, Polidori, and the present, when Victor Stein is predicting (and working towards) a future when brains can be scanned, and “Once you are pure data you can download yourself in a variety of forms.” Ron Lord, a Welsh man who sees his Sexbot business as a public service, and Claire, an evangelical American who convinces him that a line of Christian companions is just what his business needs, join Ry in helping Victor bring his plans to fruition, even as they have no real understanding of what those plans will entail, while a dogged reporter, Polly D, tries to uncover whatever he’s up to.

The name play alone would ordinarily be enough to make me give up, but this book was pure fun, clever without being cute, and full of interesting ideas about how humans have viewed each other’s natural gifts, physical and intellectual, over the last two centuries, and how we use our own gifts to get what we need. The book also explores perceptions of gender, class, beauty, intelligence, sanity, and sex appeal. Its really hard to explain, but as Mary Shelley creates her story, and her countercultural life, and Ry, Victor, and Ron create their stories and countercultural lives, the ideas converge: that who we are is our hearts and minds, our spirits, not our frail physical shells. Or as Victor tells Ry, Ron, Claire and Polly: “And from here follows the story that we all recognise in some form or another. The story told by every religion in some form or another; the earth is fallen, reality is an illusion, our souls will live forever. Our bodies are a front — or perhaps more accurately, an affront — to the beauty of our nature as beings of light.”  Or as he said earlier, “pure data.”

Frankissstein defies easy description. Literary and yet full of shtick, cerebral but sexy, brimming with poetry and yet rooted in the notion that everything is 0s and 1s. It’s a story, on the one hand, of two Mary’s two centuries apart, both defying their roles as women, both loving men who respect their brains but also long for their bodies, both sure that in the end these men will leave them. On the other hand it’s the story of human hubris, of our certainty that we can manage whatever we create, and that we are capable of thinking our way out of anything.

In short, it’s a hoot.

 

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This is the last of the seven books I downloaded so that I wouldn’t have to take any physical books with me on vacation. Unless you don’t follow book news at all you probably know that Bernardine Evaristo was co-winner, with Margaret Atwood, of the Booker prize this year. As with “best of the year” lists I have a love-hate relationship with literary prizes. Sometimes I just don’t get the winner at all. Sometimes I think the whole system is rigged and under-appreciated books are further under-appreciated when prizes pass them over, all because of the limited number of giant, wealthy media companies who dominate publishing.

Sometimes I just think the whole idea of picking “winners” is silly. That said, some readers I respect liked Girl, Woman, Other and the reviews I read made it sound appealing. Plus, one of my reading goals is to read work by diverse authors, so, conflicted feelings about literary prizes aside, I wanted to read this.

I’m not always a fan of the multiple viewpoint narrative. Girl Woman, Other features twelve different main characters, and spans several decades. So, I had some difficulty because in eBook format, there is no easy way to flip back to previous chapters about a character, which for me is helpful when a book changes viewpoint several times.  And that is one of the reasons I prefer print books — they are not a technology that needed to be improved upon (paraphrasing Robert Darnton in The Case for Books) and for this reader, work better! Anyway, I think I would have been able to manage the changing perspectives more easily — key when you read in snatches of time during breaks at work, before bed, etc. rather than sitting down to read for a long time — if I’d had the book in print.

Still, Girl, Woman, Other is excellent, and any issue with the multiple viewpoints was my own. The narrative brings these women’s very different stories and lives together, showing how, when, and why they intersect, and where they diverge. The connections grow as you read, so that eventually you get how they all relate to each other. Evaristo writes with warmth and humor and where she examines social issues she is both smart and compassionate. Even though this is fiction, I feel like I learned a good bit about modern British social history, or dusted off what I may have learned in college in some cases, and I appreciated that Evaristo wasn’t afraid to examine feminism’s evolution and divisions.

My favorite characters had slightly less air time than the others (or so it seemed to me): Dominique, because by the end of the book she is feeling a little irrelevant but still wants to keep learning (I can identify), Morgan, because she genuinely cares about her gran and because she is almost an accidental influencer but is trying to use that power well, and Hattie, because she just kicks ass and anyone who sees contemporary Christmas as “Greedymas” and embraces her nonbinary trans grandchild even though she admits she cannot fully wrap her 93 year old mind around “they” is my kind of lady.

The writing is lovely, and there are so many beautiful musings on parenthood — and how painful it is to love children — that killed me. Also so many gorgeous conversations.  And thoughts, like this one: “Bibi replied that dreaming wasn’t naive but essential for survival, dreaming was the equivalent of hoping on a large scale . . . .” Which is helpful, just now in this world. Also, the ending of this book, which brings a few of the characters together in a way I didn’t really anticipate but when it happened made complete sense, absolutely slayed me. I love a book that makes me laugh AND cry, teaches me to be a better human, and enlarges my world.

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This was an impulse buy — I saw The Towers of Trebizond at my local independent bookstore and immediately thought I’d always intended to read it, so I should get it (it was a nice used copy, so I even felt virtuous about my purchase). Little did I know the devotion some readers, such as Joanna Trollope, feel towards this book and its author, Rose Macaulay. I am still reeling from the ending, which I read a couple of hours ago. I can see why this book might bear re-reading well, because I am so caught up in the end that I’m struggling to describe my overall feelings about it.

Essentially this novel is the story of Laurie, a young woman (Probably? I struggled to find any gender reference and Laurie can be male or female. The only indication I find is that when Vere, Laurie’s lover, comes to stay, her Aunt Dot’s servant Emily is not shocked, because Laurie’s sister is also at Aunt Dot’s house. Regardless, I think it doesn’t matter which gender Laurie is.) traveling with Aunt Dot, a woman in her fifties, and Father Chantry-Pigg, a recently retired Anglo Catholic priest. The trio are in Turkey in the fifites, where Aunt Dott and Father Pigg want to convert people to Anglicanism and bring attention to the plight of Turkish women (Aunt Dot’s special interest is the condition of women). They seem to be losing the opportunity to convert people because Billy Graham’s people precede them by a week or so as they travel.

Laurie is along to help Aunt Dot with a book she is working on. Most of the their circle of friends are working on some version of a book about traveling in Turkey, and Macaulay pokes gentle fun at this tendency of a certain class of British traveler to write about their journeys. At a certain point, Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear — I’ll leave the details for you to find out yourself — and Laurie is left with their gear and luggage and the camel Aunt Dot has brought along from England for the journey. (Again, would a young woman be left to travel alone? I’m not certain.)

So — eccentric British people, a lot of musing on and analysis of Anglicanism, subtle humor, exotic locales. So far, so good. But this book goes way beyond being a funny send-up of British travelers and missionaries. Laurie struggles deeply with “adultery” — Vere is Laurie’s lover, and Laurie refers to not wanting to give that up, but clearly feels it would be right to. Father Pigg seems to know of Laurie’s struggle, even counseling that a return to church would be a solution. So readers have an incomplete picture, but understand there is something forbidden about Laurie and Vere’s relationship.

As the book unfolds, Laurie thinks a great deal about faith, religion, and the state of each in the mid twentieth century. That part of the novel is interesting — Laurie is curious and well spoken about various Christian denominations, and learns more about Islam. There is a lot of reflection on why church and faith diverge and while claiming not to know much, is actually quite wise. Laurie tells a friend who thinks Christianity odd, “The light of the spirit, the light that has lighted every man who came into the world. What I mean is, it wasn’t only what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago, it wasn’t just local and temporal and personal, it’s the other kingdom, the courts of God, get into them however you can and stay in them if you can, only one can’t. But don’t worry me about the jewish Church in Palestine, or the doings of the Christian Church ever since, it’s mostly irrelevant to what matters.”

There’s a lot to think about in that one reply, and it sums up Laurie’s crisis — Christian faith is everything, but is at the same time beyond reach. Readers (at least this one) might pass this off as troubled youth (Laurie is young, although how young is also unclear) in a post-war world, where communism and baptists both draw off Church of England members, until the shattering end of this novel, when the enormity of Laurie’s struggle comes into focus.

I loved The Towers of Trebizond. It’s neither a quick nor a simple novel, and I suspect I’ll be mulling it over for some time.

 

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My church is offering a 19th century British literature book club. The first choice is Adam Bede and I figured I’d give it a try — summer is a good time to take on a thick classic. I didn’t realize this was George Eliot‘s first novel. I’ve read both Middlemarch and Silas Marner each a couple of times.

Eliot really dives into the time and place of her her novels — when Adam Bede opens, she tells us, “With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.” And then with a great deal of evocative detail, she describes to us exactly what the room looked, smelled, and felt like, who was in it (including our hero, Adam Bede, and his brother, Seth) and what they were doing and saying.  “A scent of pinewood from a tent-like pile of planks outside the open door mingled with the scent of the elder-bushes which were spreading their summer snow close to the window opposite; the slanting sunbeams shone through the transparent shavings that flew before the steady plane, and lit up the fine grain of the oak paneling . . . . ” And so on.

Throughout the novel this level of detail enriches the story and takes modern readers into Hayslope and its environs. Adding to the clear view of Adam Bede’s world are the  asides from the narrator filling in views on the Methodist church, realism in Dutch paintings, the annual harvest dinner at Hall Farm and the society found there, the loss of leisure as best exemplified in “a sunny walk through the fields from ‘afternoon church,” lost in a world where “Even idleness is eager.” Eliot’s dialogue, from the local gentry Arthur’s “. . . dip my cravat in and souse it on my head” to Adam’s mother Lisbeth’s patios, “An what wut do when thy mother’s gone, an’ nobody to take care on thee as thee gett’st a bit of victual comfortable i’ the mornin’?” Gorgeous. Hard to read, though, which is why it took longer than a contemporary book.

The story itself is a dramatic one, based partially on real people in George Eliot’s life and a story her aunt told her. Adam loves Hetty, a silly young woman living with aunt and uncle, the Poysers, at Hall Farm and helping in the dairy. Hetty and Arthur fall in love, even though Arthur can never marry down. Adam demands Arthur quit toying with her, and believes Hetty will recover and might eventually love him. A dramatic twist to the story, a tragedy, and time lead Arthur eventually to care for Dinah, a young Methodist preacher, also related to the Poysers, who is as smart and kind as Hetty is selfish and shallow. But, Seth also loves Dinah, and Dinah only wants to care for the poor and the godless. I won’t give away how it all works out, but it’s a satisfying tale, with a great variety of characters.

While none of the women ends up defying convention quite as much as their author, several of them have their say, which I enjoyed. There’s a scene where Mrs. Poyser tells off Arthur’s grandfather, the Squire, who is her landlord on the estate, and then tells her husband (who Eliot describes as “a little alarmed and uneasy, but not without some triumphant amusement at his wife’s outbreak”) ” . . . I’ve had my say out, and I shall be th’ easier for ‘t all my life. There’s no pleasure i’ living, if you’re to be corked up for ever, and only dribble your mind out by the sly, like a leaky barrel. I shan’t repent saying what I think, if I live to be as old as th’ old Squire. . . . ” Between Hetty’s ignorance of what is happening to her and Mrs. Poyser’s tart truth, Eliot seems to sum up the polar extremes of women’s positions in nineteenth century society.

I also love Mr. Irwine, the local rector, and Eliot’s description of how he’d been the subject of some criticism for being a little too comfortable to be a good clergyman. She allows that he has no “theological enthusiasm” and “felt no serious alarms about the souls of his parishioners” but “He was one one of those men, and they are not the commonest, of whom we can know the best only by following him away from the market-place, the platform, and the pulpit, entering with them into their own homes, hearing the voice with which they speak to the young and aged about their own hearthstone, and witnessing their thoughtful care for the everyday wants of everyday companions, who take all their kindness as a matter of course . . . .” That’s an apt description as we see Mr. Irwine care for both Adam and Arthur, Hetty, and his own elderly mother and ailing sister.

Adam Bede is a wonderful read, and I’m looking forward to discussing it next week.

 

 

 

 

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