Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Making of a Marchioness ~ by Francis Hodgson Burnett

Having recently read and loved 'The Shuttle' by Frances Hodgson Burnett, moving on to 'The Making of a Marchioness' was a natural progression.  This is the story of a pre-Edwardian lady, Emily Fox-Seton, who has fallen on hard times and who is left to live in London on her wits, being as she is, orphaned and penniless.  She has a small annuity, but is reliant on the charity of well-to-do acquaintances, who allow her to visit them. In return, Emily acts as personal assistant, running errands and helping keep house for these lady 'friends'.  The story is Cinderella-esque in genre, as honest, kind and large-eyed Emily dazzles all with her good sense and kindly ways, none more so than the most marriageable bachelor of them all; the Marquis Lord Walderhurst.  Apparently a Marquis ranks in between a duke and an earl, and his wife, or widow, is titled, marchioness.  Indeed, it is the ranking of the various classes in society, that made this book such an interesting read for me. We witness how marriage allowed a woman skip through many levels in society in one fell swoop and how one's whole family was reliant on one's ability to marry the right man.  The 'right' man, in this time period, has nothing to do with Bridget Jones's definition of 'Mr Right', but rather whether or not one's future husband could provide the right credentials to allow you and your future children move in the 'right' circles of society.
We hear of the beautiful Lady Agatha Slade whose family seat in Ireland lies in limbo, as there is not enough money to keep the estate functioning, or enough money to pay the debtors and sell up.  The family's fate resides with their eldest daughter.  She must marry well at the end of this social season, for they cannot afford to send her out in society again, having spent their last penny on her gowns and jewels.  It is heartbreaking to read of her despair and to consider how so many young women have been married-off in this way, without knowing love or without reference to their own feelings in any way.
So, while the 'Making of a Marchioness' may seem just a simple pre-Edwardian rags to riches story, there is much more gritty realism bubbling away just below the surface than you might think.  Indeed, it is the balance between fact and fiction that I found most compelling about this book.
Written in 1901, in the late-Victorian period,  Hodgson Burnett is perfectly placed to give us a first hand account of what life was like for both ladies and their servants before the social changes that came about with the outbreak of World War One. We witness first hand the dire situation facing cash-poor women who were too gentile to get an actual job and too poor to live in decent society.  When Emily begins her ascent up the social ladder, she enlists the services of a ladies maid.  She tells the girl that she will pay her a salary of £35 a year, plus beer!  This novel is full of such factual detail, that tells us much about life at this time in history.  The world of the book seems so alien to us, but we must remember that women did not achieve the right to vote in general elections, until 1928, and while it is irksome to hear how Emily longs to please the men in her life, treating Walderhurst as lord and master, literally, we have to allow that this is a book of its time and move on.
In a similar way, we are uncomfortable reading about the servant from India, who is portrayed as an evil 'witch' character.  We wonder if it is because of her skin-colour that the ayah Ameerah cannot be trusted? However, Emily tells others in the book not to be so narrow-minded when they reveal their racism.   It is interesting to note that some fifteen years later, Hodgson Burnett would return to the world of India, at the start of her novel 'The Secret Garden' and this time the ayahs were shown to be more caring than the child's own mother.
 The character of Mrs Osbourne is equally compelling.  She is an Anglo-Indian girl, born in India of English decent, but who longs for a life in England.  Hers is a loveless marriage, unlucky as she was to have been married-off to a cad and a thoroughly bad man.  Her family sold her to the devil, thinking that she had made a good match.  She is torn between goodness and evil throughout the novel.  She seems to dwell in a limbo world, being neither Indian, nor English, neither good, nor bad.  In this way, she is surely the fore-runner of Mary Lennox, the Indian-born English girl and the central character of 'The Secret Garden'. The angry Anglo-Indian wife, Mrs Osbourne, would later morph into the angry child, Mary Lennox, and both of them would come to make a home in the strangely soothing English countryside. There is no doubt that there was something in the circumstance of the British colonials living in India which captured the imagination of Hodgson Burnett.
The 'Making of a Marchioness' is half of what was originally two books, and the second, follow-up, novel, 'The Methods of Lady Walderhurst' now makes up section two of this novel.  Here we continue Emily's story, an enter into a melodramatic tale, complete with a dark brooding villain, murder plots and strange shadows in the dark.  The mood is verging on the gothic in this section and delightfully so.  Of course, Hodgson Burnett would later perfect her gothic style in 'The Shuttle', a book I urge you to read as soon as may be, but 'The Making of a Marchioness', is a welcome tale to wile away the hours in the golden light of pre-war, pre-Edwardian bliss.

P.S.  Both 'The Making of a Marchioness' and 'The Shuttle' are both available free on Kindle due to lapse of copyright.

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Distant Hours ~by Kate Morton

Edith Burchill, the main character in Kate Morton's latest novel, 'The Distant Hours', tells us that when writing a book, an author should only write to please herself; that that is the most important thing.  It is clear that Morton follows her own good advice and this novel is simply decadent in its dreamy, past-caring, pace.  It is true that there are pages and pages of detailed descriptions, which some readers might find too slow-moving, but on balance, I have concluded, that when the language is this scrumptious, what is the point of rushing?

Morton has once again, succeeded in writing a book that takes the reader on a journey into the mysterious world of forgotten stories and burning secrets.  For anyone who loves the books of the Brontes, this will be an enjoyable read for you.  The references to 'Jane Eyre' are manifold as are the similarities.  Here we are presented with a mad man in the attic instead of a mad woman.  Abandoned weddings and children are central to both plots, as is the fire motif that cleverly balances the images of water in Morton's text.  Madness, too, and the plight of inherited mental instability, features greatly in each of these dark, gothic tales.
Indeed, both plots are also greatly influenced by a mishap with letters: a cruel aunt keeps news of a fortune from reaching an impoverished Jane, while a lost post-bag delays vital news from reaching Edith's mother for some 40 years. We are told too that the main character loves 'Jane Eyre' and never travels without it.  It is her favourite book.  It seems that she and author Kate Morton have a lot in common.  
Morton herself tells the reader in the introduction that the idea of the story began with three women living in a castle.  Like the witches in Macbeth, these characters have a huge part to play in the story.  Yet this is the story of Edith Burchill, who is researching Milderhurst castle, home of the three Blythe sisters, where her mother was placed during the evacuation of London children during the Second World War.  The plot moves back and forth between the modern day and the early 1940s, as we try to piece together the events in the lives of the castle inmates.
Key to all of this is the father of the three women; Raymond Blythe, the eccentric author who wrote his famous book entitled 'The Mud Man' in the Milderhurst Tower.  And here we find another important theme of the novel; the love of books and how important books can be in a person's life.  Edith has been inspired to follow a life as a publisher because of this children's book, and the lives of all three women are directly altered because of it.  It is the one thing that links all the main characters in the book.  This journey into meta-fiction is one that will please any avid reader immensely.  The book is mostly about the power and joy of books, about what it is to be a writer and  to be gifted with words.  It considers how books and stories can change your life, pull families together and drive them apart.
For some uncanny reason, this is the third book in a row that I have recently read that features a set of twins in the storyline.  This time we are presented with Persephone and Seraphina Blythe; the practical and the artistic twins, much in the same vein as the Jane Austen 'Sense and Sensibility' sisters, Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood.  They are joined by a younger sister, Juniper, whose long-lost love is the great mystery at the heart of this novel. These three characters, along with Edith and her mother, make up a matriarchal cast of characters.  As such this the novel can be viewed as a girl 'buddy novel', with little room left for romantic sub-plots.  Female relationships, especially those between mother and daughter, and between sisters, is at the heart of this novel.  But isn't that what we love in a good read?
This is a great book to sit back and wallow in. Nothing is skimmed over and it is clear, from the detailed descriptions and languid prose-style, that Morton is following her own advice and writing the book that she would like to read.  The delicious thing is that we get to do the same and join her in this scrumptious feast.  If you like to gobble-up books  in a rush, then the slow-thrill of Morton's number-one-best-selling-novel will be simply lost on you.  Literary gorging is not recommended here.  Take your time and enjoy it. And when the stones of Milderhurst tower finally hold forth their secrets, they will find you dawdling around the old castle moat savouring the delight that is the unspoken promise of 'The Distant Hours'.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Heavenly Guide to Book-Clubbing with 'The Book Club Bible'

So you have joined a book club and this month it is your turn to select the next text.  What do you choose?  You don't want to pick a book that you have already read, because that goes against the whole point of joining a book club, but you want your book suggestion to be a hit with your friends.  Do you rely on the tastes of the person working in your local book shop, or search on-line for recommendations from book-bloggers like me?  It might be worth a try, but there is an alternative:  'The Book Club Bible', published by Michael O'Mara Books.  
Inside you will find a two-page spread on each novel consisting of a short, non-spoiler synopsis; opinions from a reviewer or 'ordinary' reader; discussion points; focusing on themes, characters and writer's style; background information and suggested companion books.  What could be more simple, or more useful?  
The books are listed alphabetically under the author and they range from classics, such as 'The Scarlett Letter' and 'Catcher in the Rye', to modern texts, like 'The Book Thief' and 'The Lovely Bones'.  Believe me, if you love books, you will want to curl up on a sofa and devour this delicious paperback. 
Alongside the various book suggestions are page-long lists of recommended texts under various headings, such as: 'Top Ten Crime books' and 'Top Ten Quick Reads'.  These are invaluable lists, especially if your reading group selects books based on genre or theme. With over 200 suggestions inside, this handbook is a must for anyone in a book club and for simply anyone who is searching for that perfect book.  
And if this book inspires you to set-up your very own book club, here are some tips to get you started:

  1. You don't need to know everyone in your book club.  You could ask four of your friends to join and ask them to each bring a friend.  You will get to know each other soon enough. About eight or nine people is enough.  Any bigger and you run the risk of people breaking up into smaller groups during the discussion and the overall meeting collapses into a free-for-all.
  2. Avoid turning your meetings into a cooking competition by establishing a simple routine: the host provides a light cheese and wine supper, although alcohol is not obligatory and can lead to some very passionate debates!  
  3. Each member should read the book - make this a must from the outset.  Stimulating conversation depends on it.  If there is one 'rule' that needs to be agreed from the start, this is it!
  4. Books should not have been read before - this ensures that members do not get offended if you did not like the book they selected. If nobody knew what the book would be like beforehand, then no one can be blamed for selecting it.
  5. Meeting on the last Thursday of the month say, or the first Tuesday, gives the club a regular routine that people can plan their lives around.  
  6. Effort should be made to ask each member what they thought of the book at some point during the night.  This will ensure that no one person will dominate the meeting.
  7. Make a schedule for the first eight or nine months, depending on the number of members, so that each person knows what month they will be hosting ahead of time.  
  8. Call your friends over and get reading!
While book clubs may be seen as being purely in the domain of women, I do know of one male book club where the members meet in a quiet upstairs room at a pub, thereby avoiding all the hassle of hosting, cooking and frantic house-cleaning.  How ingenious.  That way, it becomes all about the book and if I were to ever begin a book club in the future, that is certainly how I would do it.  So what is stopping you?  With these suggestions and 'The Book Club Bible' to get you started, your meetings will surely be blessed!

Friday, 13 April 2012

April in Paris~ With Nicholas and Madeline

Perhaps it has something to do with that romantic idea of Paris in the spring, but my most recent children's book-purchases are both set in France.  The first, is called  'Madeline', by Ludwig Bemelmans.  The heroine of the title is a little girl who lives in Paris with eleven other petite filles, under the care of a Miss Clavel.  Although the book describes 'tweleve little girls in two straight lines', Madeline is anything but straight-laced.  She is feisty, determined and inventive.  She laughs at the tigers in the zoo and delights in walks in the rain.  She knows how to terrify the grown-ups and shies away from nothing. What an antidote to the 'princess-perfect' female characters so prevalent in today's media.  

For 'Madeline' is a book of its time.  Published in 1939, it cannot escape our attention that this book is set in Paris, at the outbreak of the Second World War.  There is no mention of the invading Nazis, but it is heart-breaking for the grown-ups reading this book to think that in reality, a child like Madeline, living in Paris, would have suffered much during this period. It is with extra pride then, that author Ludwig Bemelmans must have completed the illustrations that are so central to this book, for almost every one features the famous architecture of Paris; the Eifel Tower, Notre Dame, The Louvre etc.  These images dominate every page, sometimes being accompanied with just a word of two.  The effect of this is to immerse the reader in the golden world of Madeline, for many of the images consist of  a 'butter-yellow' background with highly-stylised charcoal characters, creating a warm, cheerful tone to the book.  
As with so many children's books, there is a distinct absence of parents.  Madeline's papa does send her beautiful flowers when she is in hospital, so she is not technically an orphan, but that is all we learn of him.  Perhaps he is a Resistance fighter?... but we never learn for sure.  In loco parentis is Miss Clavel, a nun, going by her quaint habit, who runs the little boarding school that is covered in vines.  Once again, this is a book of its time as it depicts a world that has almost disappeared out of memory.  Yet, there is something charming about a world where the family has been replaced by a group of school girls, and it allows Madeline, who is the littlest of them all, the freedom to have adventures and gain independence.  So, in Bemelamns' tiny character we see someone with great gumption, indeed she has survived these seventy years, and so was a fine match for the Nazi's after all.  

The second French book is 'Nicholas' by René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé. If I tell you that the former is also the author of the 'Asterix The Gaul' books, and that the latter is an illustrator for the New Yorker, then you have some sense of the tone of this book.  Simply put, it is hilarious.  First published in France in 1959, just fourteen years after the end of World War Two, this book is also a book of it's time.  The children seem to spend forever playing out of doors and have little in the way of toys.  They have to make their own amusement, which usually involves getting up to all sorts of mischief, but mainly joining in a great free-for-all and hopping on eachother.  Before the advent of hyper-vigilant parenting, the children are only a moment away from being 'thumped', berated or worse.  But still the old rules of fair play still apply, and that means that you never hit a kid wearing glasses. Of course when he takes off the glasses to give them a wipe, then he is fair game!

The main character is a boy called Nicholas, who narrates the story.  This first person narrative is ingenius, as it allows us to hear first hand how things go pear-shaped for Nicholas. Indeed it is his ability not to say what is really going on that is so endearing.  The reader dwells between the lines, imagining what is actually happening and that is where most of the humour is found.  
One of the funniest stories in the book is about a simple football match after school. One boy begrudgingly offers his coin for the toss-up has to spend the entire game trying to find it when it has been lost in the long grass.  We are not told directly about his aimless wanderings, but see him, appearing in the corner of the scene, eyes bent, searching... for the entire game.  Another boy, Rufus,  the police man's son, is the only boy with a whistle - a perk of the job - He refuses to be referee, that is Cuthbert's job, who is not good at games and is top of the class.  He refuses to share his whistle with Cuthbert.  This causes momentary difficulty, until the boys find a solution:  Cuthbert,the referee, will tell Rufus, to blow the whistle whenever there is a foul.  This causes great confusion and hilarity as you can imagine.  

While Nicholas himself is a delightful comic creation, the book is overflowing with great characters.  Each boy has a 'trait' that identifies him as a character-type: the rich kid, the thug, the brain-box, the hungry-Horace.  This is completely different to 'Madeline' where the other eleven girls are nameless and only the main character gets to have any real adventures.  'Madeline' is also very much a French book, but 'Nicholas' could be set anywhere, the irony being that the latter was the book originally written in French.  Indeed, it owes much to the skilled translation by Anthea Bell, whose understanding of comedy has made it a must for every child's collection.  

And so, I will leave you with a short taste of the world, as Nicholas sees it, taken from the beginning of a story called 'Louise':
'I don't like girls.  They're soppy, they only play at dolls and going shopping and they're always crying.  Well, I suppose I sometimes cry myself. but only for something serious like when the sitting room vase got broken and Dad told me off and it wasn't fair because I didn't do it on purpose and anyway it was an ugly vase and I know dad doesn't like me to play football in the house but it was raining outside...' 
 Sound familiar?  For laughs out load at bedtime - or anytime - get your hands on a copy of the 'Nicholas' books.  I would strongly advise that you read them with your child - you don't want to miss out on the fun.  Both 'Madeline' and 'Nicholas' are the first book of a series, so the pleasure will just go on and on.  Not a bad way to start the year.  Amusez-vous bien!

Monday, 9 April 2012

Time travelling and W.B. Yeats: to Infinity and Beyond

The real world that Yeats lived in was often the subject of his poetry.  He did not shy away from discussing personal events in his life and even named names of those he knew and loved,  immortalising them forever in verse.   However, he was not bound to this ‘real world’ for inspiration.   He could be transported to another reality in his poetry, and the act of travelling through time and space is often the very theme which so attracted Yeats.
Yeats uses the tension between the real world in which he lived and the ideal world of his imagination, to create drama in his poetry.  In the poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, the speaker describes a real island in Sligo and colours it for us in a  glimmering ‘purple glow’.  He tantalises our senses with details of ‘the lake water -lapping with low-sounds’ and the delicate music of crickets singing.  It’s an ideal world, a paradise of tranquility, where ‘peace comes dropping slow’.  It seems a very real place indeed.  The poet’s opening refrain, and the repetition of the words, ‘go’ and ‘there’, only serve to increase the sense of urgency and arouse the reader’s desire to make the journey to Innisfree too.  

However, the drama comes to a climax when we realise, at the penultimate line, that the speaker is far away from the land of his heart’s desire and is not really seeing the island.  It is an imagined, ideal world.  The contrast could not be more startling when he says, ‘While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavement grey...’  Only now, does it become clear to the reader, that the journey being undertaken by the speaker, is one of the imagination, creating a sense of anti-climax and disappointment.  The use of the colour detail here, or the lack of it,  is in stark contrast to the purple hues of the second stanza.  By juxtaposing the two landscapes in this way, Yeats creates dramatic tension between the real world of the city, where the speaker actually is,  the imagined, ideal, world of Innisfree, where he would like to be.  

‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is another poem whose theme deals with the notion of escape and travel through the world of the imagination.  However, here Yeats creates dramatic tension by contrasting the world of mortal men; the real world, with that of the world of art; the  ideal world of the imagination, primarily through his use of opposing imagery. In this poem, the real world of nature no longer  satisfies the speaker, and instead he seeks solace and immortality in the world of art.  The image of the singing birds of line two and three, ‘at their song’, is maligned by the fact that it is merely singing for ‘those dying generations’, a pointless activity.  In doing so, Yeats highlights the tragic flaw of the real world: everything that lives, must die.  

He describes an old person as ‘ a tattered coat upon a stick’, a brutal image indeed, and his own soul as a thing, ‘sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal’.  This bleak, anti-Christian idea graphically illustrates Yeats’s dislike for the real world at this point in his life.  Instead, he seeks an alternative, ideal world, where immortality is guaranteed.  The ideal, imagined world that the speaker chooses is the world of Grecian art: ‘such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make...’.  

He imagines being re-born as a beautifully crafted, golden automaton, ‘set upon a golden bough to sing’.  This is in stark contrast to the real singing bird of the opening stanza.   These opposing, yet linked, ornithological images serve to highlight the tension in Yeats poetry between the real world in which he lives, and an ideal world that he imagines.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Jane Austen and the Curious Case of the Missing Chocolate Bar.

On this Easter Sunday, spare a thought for poor Jane Austen who would not have known the joy of a Cadbury's bar of chocolate, let alone an Easter egg.  It was as far back as 1687 that an English doctor, Sir Hans Sloane, tried a chocolate drink while travelling in Jamaica .  It didn't taste very nice, until he added milk.  That was a turning point in confectionery history.
His drink was initially sold as a medicine - no doubt Mrs Sloane and her daughters could appreciate the calming effect chocolate could have on the female body and convinced their father to bring chocolate to the masses... Well maybe not.  But, thankfully, Cadbury's eventually entered the market with their own special recipe, and established cafes and drinking houses where you could go and have a cup of the dark stuff and a chat.

However, it was not until the mid-1800s that Cadbury's altered their recipe and began making 'eating chocolate'.  So, the Georgians and poor Miss Austen, never got to take a bite of chocolate.  And neither, for that matter, did Elizabeth Bennet or any other of Austen's characters.  I think a little square or two of Cadbury's finest would have settled Mrs Bennet's nerves  no end and even given Lady Catherine something, other than her ailing daughter's marriage-prospects, to mull over.  In a house containing six women, not counting the servants, a little chocolate would have gone a long way towards securing domestic harmony.  Indeed, if chocolate had been readily available in Austen's time, perhaps the entire plot-line of 'Pride and Prejudice' would have been altogether different. So, after all, in a world without proper chocolate, it is Mr Bennet who really deserves our pity this Easter!

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Dickens: Experience Versus The Imagination

Literary Blog Hop - Question of the Week:  How do you feel about fictional characters who are obviously closely based on the author? Is this an example of authorial superego? Or just a natural extension of the "write what you know" advice?
Well, if you consider the works of Charles Dickens, one of the best author's to have written in the English language in my opinion, his novels invariably contain something of his own life and experience.  The squalor of Victorian London, that so brilliantly captured in novels like 'Oliver twist' and 'Our Mutual Friend', was something that had shaped him as a boy.  He wrote from first hand experience of what the Debtor's prison did to a family at that time.

His own father was incarcerated there for running up debts, a fact which Dickens kept to himself all his life, only speaking of it to a couple of  friends, and never to his close family.  Up until this point, no gentleman writer had experienced the hardship endured by the lower classes, they not having had a voice themselves in literature, and this partly explains Dickens's popularity.  He told the story that only he could have told, having secretly lived thorough it himself.  So it is difficult to separate Dickens's story form that of Nicholas Nickelby or David Copperfield; to know where Dickens ended and they begun, so complete are their stories intertwined.

Literary Blog HopBecause of this, I would have to conclude that it is from our great life experiences that the finest novels come, be it consciously done or not. Of course depth of feeling and a fine imaginative mind also served Dickens well, as evidenced by his wonderful plot lines and memorable characters, but that is another day's topic!  It is not that Dickens could not make up a good story, but rather that he had lived so many interesting and wonderful adventures, that he could dip into past experiences to tell tales that are all the richer and more vivid because of it.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility: Screenplay and Diaries ~by Emma Thompson

In 1995, Emma Thompson did a very good thing.  Not only did she devise, write and act in a film adaptation of Jane Austen's wonderful romance novel, 'Sense and Sensibility', but she also published the diaries that she kept during that time.  And what a delightful collection of anecdotes and  observations they are.

As you might expect from Emma Thompson, this is a hilarious book, full of witty, self-deprecating remarks that we have come to expect from this clever, entertaining and funny woman.  A taste: 'Bed with the script, Austen's letters, a sore back and wind.  Inside and out.'  This book is awash with wonderful one-liners.   
 She describes the first rehearsal with Kate Winslet and Gemma Jones (Mrs Dashwood), and director, Ang Lee: 'Rehearsals with Gemma and Kate.  Both surprised to find that Ang begins with meditaion and exercises - this is not usual. We sit on cushions and breath... Loud screams, particularly from Winslet.'

It strikes me that Thompson is very much like Elizabeth Bennet who is described by Mr Darcy as taking great enjoyment 'in professing opinions that are not (her) own'.  In fact, Ms Thompson's tongue is firmly stuck in her check most of the time.  And, in this regard, she is the sister that Jane Austen should have had.  Her style of writing mimics Austen's own gentle ironic style, as she forces the reader to focus on what is not said and what is communicated only between the lines.  Thompson seems to have an innate understanding of Austen's feelings and brilliantly captures the vulnerability of these women in reduced circumstances and also the passion and depth of feeling that the sisters embodied.  And after all that she still manages to demonstrate their lively intelligence and that of the author.

Thompson tells us in the book that she edited and re-wrote certain scenes of the film with the voices of the actors ringing in her ears, once the roles had been cast.  You can easily imagine this with such distinctive actors as Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Harriet Walter (Fanny Dashwood) and Imogen Stubbs (Lucy Steele). But it is Kate Winslet who, rightly, steals the show.  After the first day of shooting Thompson says of her:
'Kate looks a bit white.  The bravest of the brave, that girl.  I can't imagine what sort of a state I would have been in at nineteen with the prospect of such a huge role in front of me.  She is energised and open, realistic, intelligent and tremendous fun.'

As for her old friend, Hugh Grant, Thompson is forever teasing and flatteringly unkind.  Consider her remarks of him:
 'Hugh Grant arrives tomorrow but I've nicked the prettiest room'. Or, 'Hugh grant walks in... repellently goregeous, why did we cast him? He's much prettier than I am.' 
In truth, she loves him dearly and often comments on his fine acting performance.  The more astute  of you may notice the anomaly in the photograph opposite, which shows a kiss that never took place in the edited film version.  But it does happen in the screenplay.  As Edward and Elinor finally come together and reveal their mutual feelings of love, there occurs a tiny, beautifully written scene, complete with a kiss.  If you want the tantalising details, you must go to the book!  
For Emma Thompson walks the oddly uncomfortable yet fine line between the grown-ups and the children, the production team and the acting talent.  She has a foot in each camp and it is very enjoyable to observe  her lady-like efforts to maintain the balance between the two.  Here is just one example.  Director Ang has gathered the cast together at the end of the day's shoot.
'We're asked to do written homework for Ang. This is also unusual, he wants character studies and sets a list of questions, mostly addressing..."inner life... imogen Stubbs (Lucy Steele) wins prize for best effort..". '  
 You can just about hear the suppressed laughter bubbling to the surface in this sentence.  Like a school girl, trying to be good really, but succumbing to the infections giggles of her classmates, Thompson remains serene but at any moment you just know she is about to explode in uncontrollable fits of laughter. And this light-hearted giddiness is the overall tone of this most beautiful of books.

The diary is also interesting in that it recounts Thompson's burgeoning relationship with actor Greg Wise,
 the man who Thompson would later marry and have a child with.  His first mention in the diary is particularly worth a closer look:

'Sunday 30 April 8:20 a.m..... Greg Wise (Willoughby) turned up to ride, full of beans and looking goregeous.  Ruffled all our feathers a bit'.  

How wonderfully inderstated. (They fell in love on the set apparently.)  Gone are the comments about the freezing cold weather and the miserable outdoor shots.  Her next notes says:
 'Sunday 30 April 7:30 p.m. ... 'fantastic outing, sunny drives, five courses at ... hotel and skinny dipping in the river.'  Sounds like love to me.  Go Emma! 
'Sense and Sensibility, the Screenplay and Diaries' by Emma Thompson, is one book that just would not work on a Kindle.  The stills alone, some of which you can see here, are to die for.  They are taken by gifted photographer Clive Coote who succeeds in creating little portraits that look just like paintings; framed moments of beauty, that are quite breath-taking and very much in-keeping with director Ang Lee's artistic sensibilities.
 I do not keep this book shut-up tight on my bookshelf, but have it sat upon a book stand, open at various pages during the year, depending on my mood.  It is a work of art, made for dispaly, so display it I do.

And here I will leave you, with a very Austenesque line taken from the Thompson diary, as parting gift.  Emma writes:
 'Ang wants sheep in every exterior shot and dogs in every interior shot.  I've suggested we have sheep in some of the interiors as well.'  
If you do not own this book by tea-time,  as any self-respecting Austen fan should, 'I shall swallow my own bonnet!'  Go buy this wonderful object and enjoy every picture and every word.  It is all the chocolate you will need this Easter!

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Cutting for Stone ~ Abraham Verghese

This book would better be titled  'Cutting for Sand', because that is the texture that I am reminded of a day after having finished this book.  There is a grittiness to this novel, a novel that I should have, in theory, loved.  The story is a compelling one: an Ethiopian surgeon is searching for answers about his parents; a British surgeon and an Indian nun.  To add spice to the story, the narrator, Marion Stone is one of a set of conjoined twins, abruptly separated at birth in an attempt to save their lives.  Shiva, the narrator's twin brother, grows up to be nothing like his identical sibling, although they maintain an intense relationship and share many experiences.   Strangely enough, this book has a number of similarities with 'The Twin' by Gerbrand Bakker, which I recently read and reviewed, including, very oddly, a bit about killing a sack puppies with a car!  As you would expect, connections, the choices that we make and the things that make us individuals are central themes in both texts. 

And here is the beginning of my difficulty with this book.  At thirteen, the boys become fixated with sex but act upon their desires in different ways.  What I had a problem with was the way in which women were throwing themselves at these young boys, who, although they were tall and lean, were, after all, just boys.  Why would women in their thirties do this?  It seems hardly believable.  I think it was because the author needed to have Marion's life messed-up good and early, so that he could find redemption later on and still be young enough to enjoy it.

One thing I did like was the 'missing' motif that ran through the book.  Indeed 'Missing' could have been the book's title: each character is missing something, a part of themselves, a parent, a loved one... but mostly a parent.  Verghese describes a fragmented society with broken people desperately trying to make themselves and others whole.   As a result, the adults spend all their time trying to find what is lost.  The narrator tells us, at the start of the book, his theory about doctors: they are all trying to heal their own sickness, to make themselves whole again.  This is a very interesting idea, and so every character has some 'lack' that they are struggling with.  Hema, the twins foster mother, is career-driven, until, after a near death experience, she discovers a powerful maternal instinct.  Thomas stone, the twin's father, lost a beloved mother when he was a child and is an emotional recluse as a result.  It is not lost on the reader that the hospital in Ethiopia, where all of the main characters work and live, is called 'Missing', a mispronunciation of 'Mission' which is a very fitting moniker for this motley crew of lost and broken.  

“I will not cut for stone,” the Hippocratic oath states,  “even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.”  It seems that the cryptic title of the book, although poetic in its own sense, refers to the act of surgery, in terms of 'cutting' out a kidney or gallbladder 'stone'.  Also, the writer is punning on the name of the main character's family name: Stone.  This is fitting because, ultimately, this is a book about medicine and the life of a surgeon.  I felt like I had gone through a medical degree by the end of this novel.  Every page is full of medical Latinate terminology and consulted the dictionary regularly.  Still, I do not think that this diminished the book's appeal  in any way, but added to it.  It is obvious that the author is himself a surgeon and his passion for his work is undeniable. 
I also enjoyed the way the world of Ethiopia was described, through  the senses.  It reminded me of 'Purple Hibiscus' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, with it sights, tastes and smells of exotic Africa.  I felt as if I was breathing the high-altitude air of the mountain city of Addis Abeba, and really felt close to its clever and beautiful people.  Surely that is the true measure of a good book, whether or not it takes you on a journey, and that is something that Verghese easily has accomplished.  As an Ethiopian, living in America, we can sense the love of his native country, despite the poverty and violence there.  We follow the narrator as he travels to New York, straight from a war zone, and it is shocking to see the difference between the developed and developing worlds, and very disturbing too.  

Thematicallt, this  is a book about men and their relationships with women; how they adore their mothers, fall in love, and how they deal with sex.  Central to the plot is how people can be haunted by their relationships with their mothers.  The most heart-breaking image in the story is of four year old Marion Stone, sitting on his mother's chair, wrapped in her cardigan, in the operating room where he was born, and his mother died, calling to her to come for him.  'When are you coming mother?', he quietly asks.  The mother-son relationship is at the heart of this book and all other relationships with women dwindle in comparison.  The women in this book suffer greatly and it was one thing I had difficulty with.  So many of them are brutalised and mutilated, but none more than Sister Mary Joseph Praise as she gives birth to her sons.  I wonder why Verghese treated this angelic, beautiful character in this way?  I am sure he wished to create a martyr out of her, but the violent nature of her demise was too extreme in my view and quiet out of the middle ages in its barbarity.   And so you understand why this book reminds me of the texture of sand: it can be pleasing to touch, but it just lingers on, annoyingly, between your toes, and in your teeth, spoiling any initial pleasure.  With his depiction and destruction of women in this text, Verghese took 'Cutting for Stone' too far at times and crushed it to the consistency of sand.  I recommend this book but add a proviso: not for the squeamish or those that cannot abide the sight of blood.  

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Irish Superstitions and Lore ~ Kim Lenaghan

This is a very little book about Irish folklore and superstitions and should be all the better loved for that.  It is stuffed to the brim with ill omens and curses that could come in very handy if there was an annoying neighbour you wanted rid of, or a rich man you wanted as a husband, but you first needed to get rid of his persistent wife. Indeed, this pocket-sized book is a very useful for many reasons.
For example, did you realise that it is very unlucky to do any of the following: kill a robin redbreast; have a woman cut a boy's hair or first see a full moon, especially if through glass.  You can see the logic in some suspicions, but I wonder about the reasoning behind a woman not cutting a boy's hair: surely it was invented by a man who was scarred for life by memories of his mother's poor hairdressing skills?
Similarly, the warning about the full moon makes me smile: does 'glass' here refer to the bottom of an empty glass of Guinness I wonder?  I suppose, for the sake of sobriety, there were many such 'bad omens' concocted, particularly after a wild weekend of drinking and debauchery.  I imagine so. 

There are some good omens too in the book.  For example: it is very lucky for a hen and her chicks to stray into your house, or to meet a white lamb in the early morning with the sunlight on its face  There! Such encouragement for the man who gets himself out of the house and off to work early.  There is logic to the superstitions after all.  
But my favourite piece of lore is the way to predict 'Mr Right', which involved gathering snails at dawn on May Day and placing them on a dish of flour, and watching them spell the name of the man you should marry.  I imagine the smiles and giggles the accompanied this particular 'game' and wonder how many marriages followed as a result. 

This is an enjoyable book for those of us who are interested history and enjoy reading about the the folk traditions of the past.  One can only imagine the source of such superstitions, whether they be logic, sense or pure honest malice.  Still, it is easy to understand, going by this treasure trove of folk-myths, why the luck of the Irish is so renowned the world over and why, poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote:
'For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.' 
(from Canal Bank Walk, 1958).

Sunday, 1 April 2012

'The World of Downton Abbey' ~ by Jessica Fellowes

There is something about Sunday nights that makes me long for a proper period drama.  If, like me, you were enthralled by the epic drama 'Downton Abbey, and are still suffering withdrawal symptoms, then I think I have found something that might help you.
The niece of the talented Julian Fellowes has written a beautiful book to accompany the series that was so cleverly created in the style of 'Gosford Park', the movie that won him his Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay back in 2002.  While Julian Fellowes writes the book's foreword, this is not a book about the making of the series, although there are some photos showing camera crew etc.  This, on the other hand, is brimming with information about the Edwardian period.  With clippings from contemporary magazines and sketches of the time, we can see how the show's costume designer Susannah Buxton, dressed the three sisters, their mother and aunt to suit the period.  It is so delightful to learn that Lady Mary actually wore a dress that had been worn by Lucy Honeychurch in the film, 'A Room with a View' and that some of Sybil's dresses were actually vintage.
We also learn a little more about life below stairs and are given entire lists of duties for servants, the likes of Mrs Patmore, William and Mr Carson, for example.  The piece entitled, 'A Day in the Life of Daisy', is certainly an eye opener, lasting from half past four in the morning, until about 10 o'clock at night.
There is an interesting section on running a big house and estate like Downton, with delights such as detailed descriptions of the interior decoration of various rooms in the house, and the rules of inheritance for such estates, which has been the source of so much drama in this period piece.  One of the most interesting sections of the book was the one which dealt with Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey, where the dramatisation is set.  We learn that it has many things in common with the fictional Downton, in that the estate was saved by the fortune's of an American Heiress, and was even used as a military hospital during the First World War.
There is an entire chapter in the book dedicated to Romance, and each of love story is touched upon, but let's face it, it is the story about Mary and Matthew that has us enthralled.  Let me quote from the book, and you can make up your own mind about what the future might hold in store for our young lovers:
 'When Mary and Matthew Crawley finally kiss, it seems that their complex relationship has at last found a resolution.  In that moment they certainly intend to be together.  However, the complications of their situation, from the expectations of their families to the issue of class... mean that the conclusion to their story is, as yet, far from being reached.'
Now, what is that supposed to mean??  Of course they will live in happiness ever after Mr Fellowes... or you will have me and thousands of other Downton fans to answer to!

So, for those who would like to know a little bit more about the characters in the book and the type of life that they lived, this beautifully produced, sumptuous book is the perfect thing for that Sunday evening feeling, until the real thing returns to our screens in the autumn.

Life's Rich Pageant: a journey through the poetry of Adrienne Rich.

When a poet begins writing critically acclaimed poems at the tender age of twenty, and keeps to her craft writing continually for a lifetime, there is vast collection of poems left behind to ponder and enjoy.  Adrienne Rich, poet and essayist, died earlier this week, and although she was eighty-two years old, I was still shocked by her passing.  It seems we assume the great artists amongst us, who are so clever and insightful, can somehow cheat death.
Of all the poet's I have studied, Rich is the most mercurial.  Indeed, she seems to be the Scarlet Pimpernel of the poet world, a title I think she would have enjoyed, being so elusive and ever changing in her style of writing and themes.  It seems that just as we feel we can glimpse her between the lines, or in a phrase, she disappears again and is gone.  It is not for nothing that the theme of identity and the motif of masks recur in her work.
And so I have come to journey back into the past, to consider some of the poems of Adrienne Rich, that in themselves, trace the journey of a lifetime, from young novice to acclaimed and respected

One cannot consider the work of Adrienne Rich without considering power and gender.  
These are the themes that she is most commonly associated with.  Yet, even here, the elusive Rich is not so easily pinned-down,as she considers gender inequality from many angles.

In one of her earliest poems, 'Aunt Jennifer's Tigers', we are presented with the image of a woman so subservient to the will of her husband that the very wedding band that symbolises their marriage, is like a dead weight to which she is tethered:
'The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.'
It is interesting that the woman of the poem's title is busy embroidering 'a screen', which in itself is an object that one often conceals and disguises.  Yet, the subject of the tapestry reveals the ardent spirit of Aunt Jennifer: she embroiders fearless tigers, who 'do not fear the men', but prance 'proud and unafraid'.  It seems Aunt Jennifer has a secret life.  Here is the act of rebellion that is so surprising in this very traditionally-structured poem.  Rich seems to be commenting of the power of art and the artist, to challenge the status quo in society.  In her small way, Aunt Jennifer is attacking the very power structures of society which suppress her: the right of a husband to control and dominate his wife.  

Aunt Jennifer seems like a woman from a bygone age, most probably because of the antiquated act of embroidering a screen. Yet, the anti-marriage theme of this poem suggests its modern provenance and gives us just a hint of Rich's feelings about the inequitable distribution of power in society in general and between men and women in particular.
In 'Living In Sin', Rich takes away the wedding band, and considers the relationship between a modern, liberated couple living together without the obligation of legal marriage-contracts.  The poems deal with the startling realisation by the woman in the poem, that love has a practical side and that living with a man, involves taking on various duties that society expects a woman to undertake; such as the dusting, the cooking and the 'home-making'.  Even when no marriage occurs, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that the female in the relationship will act as domestic, and see that 'there is no dust upon the furniture of love'.
The woman in this poem is not a natural home-maker, letting 'the coffee pot boil over', serving cheese and wine for supper instead of a proper meal, and 'finding a towel to dust the table-top'.  She does not seem to have the tools for the job.  Yet even she is 'jeered by minor demons' in her head and urged to keep cleaning, to be a good 'house-wife' and do what is expected of her.
And here is the central idea in this poem: society seems to have pre-programmed her behaviour, expectations and way of thinking.   Simply 'living' with a man automatically dictates that the female is subservient to the male and the inequality of the relationship is engrained deeply in society and, even more worryingly, in our own heads.  Rich seems to be a woman who has deep concerns about gender inequality and the reader wonders how happy she was as the wife of a successful academic, the mother of three boys.

Although she does not wear her heart on her sleeve so much as, say, Sylvia Plath, it is possible to read between the lines and know that Rich is trying to make sense of the world she is living in.  Where Plath is all emotion and sensibility, Rich is more analytical and militant.  She is prepared to remove feeling, forget about sentiment and nostalgic romance, and to focus on the facts.  

By 1961, Rich had come to a decision.  In her poem 'The Roofwalker' she asks the vital question: 'Was it worth it to lay... a roof I can't live under?'  It is as if the girl from 'Living in Sin' has come to a final decision too.  She may be about to 'break (her) neck', but she has to do it anyway.  The key image in this poem is that of men building houses, silhouetted against the sky.  But these are unfinished houses, places not fit for human habitation.  They walk dangerously along the rooftops and Rich feels akin to these men: 'I feel like them up there: exposed...I am naked, ignorant, a naked man fleeing across the roofs'.  Here, in a telling choice of words, Rich wishes she were a man, something other than a woman.  Yet, I do not think that is is her femaleness that she wants to get rid of, but the social expectations that come along with being a woman.  She says, 'even my tools are the wrong ones for what I have to do.'  She can no longer live as a woman in the way that society wants her to.  Regardless that she may get hurt, may break her head and fall, this is something that the speaker must do: she must escape, she must flee.
I cannot help but smile to think that the speaker is in some way connected to Aunt Jennifer, and the young woman in 'Living in Sin', and rejoice that Rich's poetic voice can now declare that she has had enough and is leaving 'a roof I can't live under'.  As such, 'The Roofwalker' is a vital poem in understanding the working of Rich's mind.  In it we can capture a glimpse of the poet as she moves into a new phase of her writing and her life.

And does Rich break her neck?  Well, perhaps not, but she certainly suffers greatly, if the 1969 poem 'Our Whole Life' is anything to go by.  The poem is so full of pain that it is palpable: 'it hurts... burning... a cloud of pain... no words for this...'  Rich expresses her agony through the horrific image of a man on fire: 'The Algerian... burning'.  It is interesting that she again opts to write of her pain in male terms, describing it as a man.  Is it a random choice?  I think not.  The irony is that while she is railing against the power that men have over women in society, her central characters are often male: the uncle who speaks in the drawing room, the roof walker, the Algerian man on fire.  Perhaps Rich felt that she was akin to these men or that, as a poet, her imagination was not and should not be limited to any particular gender.  At least there, in her mind, she could be any gender she liked.
However, by the time Rich came to write 'Trying to Talk with A Man', in 1971, she was separated from her husband and then widowed.  Freed from her unhappy role as wife, Rich speaks with a liberated, clear female voice.  In this poem the speaker has comes out into the desert to break up with her male partner.  They have been together a long time and have collected a lifetime of memories: 'whole LP collections, films... Jewish cookies... love letters... suicide notes, afternoons on the riverbank pretending...'.
But for the speaker, the loudest thing of all is the 'silence' that they have brought with them.  It seems that he does much of the talking, but to her it 'feels like power' and his eyes 'reflect lights that spell out: Exit'. The origin of the Exit sign is ambiguous here:  she could see it in his eyes, or his eyes could be reflecting back what is in her eyes.  Either way, it is the end of their relationship and again I think of the unhappy non-bride in 'Living in Sin', and consider, with some relief, that they have finally decided to part ways.
And this leads me to reflect, how little love features in this collection of Rich's poems, selected for the Leaving Certificate Syllabus.  Nowhere do we feel that she is loved or loves in return.  This lack of emotional connection with the characters in her poems prevents us from grieving at the break up in 'Trying to Talk with A Man' as we feel that little has been lost and there is even less to regret.  Perhaps this is due to the analytical way that the poet goes about dissecting her relationships.  Of course, Rich was capable of writing very beautiful love poems and in 1976 when she began a relationship with writer Michelle Cliff, she wrote a whole collection of love poems celebrating lesbian love.  In one very sensuous, evocative verse she wrote:  

"Whatever happens with us, your body
will haunt mine – tender, delicate
your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond
of the fiddlehead fern in forests
just washed by sun."

Prior to that, in 1972, Rich wrote her famed poem, 'Diving in to the Wreck', in which she describes the experience of going deep-sea diving.  Here, Rich uses metaphor to describe the experience of going beyond gender, beyond the norms dictated by society, literature and culture, to a world where words like 'male' and 'female' no longer hold any sway:
 I am she: I am he ... the mermaid... the merman...We are, I am, you are... the one who find our way...'.
Rich tries to erase all gender difference and creates a landscape where androgyny is possible.  Her clever use of myth here, which she usually finds so loaded with gender inequality, enables us to enter an imaginative space, alive with mermaids and mermen.  It is a small step from this, to imagine a world devoid of gender and all the preconceptions that that entails.  The thing of genius in this poem, for me, is the use of the element of water itself.  It acts as some kind of vortex, where time stands still and is warped into some new dimension.  The image of 'the mermaid whose dark hair streams back', captures the slowed-down tempo of life beneath the water.  Here, 'you breath differently... I have to learn... to turn my body without force in the deep...'.  Rich creates a different world, beyond what we all know, beyond gender.  This is a complete antidote to 'Trying to Talk with a Man', where the landscape is an arid, dry desert, with its 'deformed cliffs'. The only source of water being the 'underground water' that the speaker sometimes feels.  

Both of these poems compliment each other so well because they use their strange landscapes to mirror the poet's theme of gender and power; one showing how relationships can dry you up and suck all the life blood out of you; the other showing how wonderful and refreshingly free the world would be without gender differentiation.  Of course, Rich later concluded that androgyny was not the solution to the age long problems of gender inequality.  For why should women have to give up their femaleness just to have access to power?  Surely we had enough of that with Margaret Thatcher.  But that is what we expect from Adrienne Rich, who was not afraid to contradict earlier statements and was constantly revising and changing her opinions and points of view.    

It seems extra-poignant that a poet who has travelled so far in terms of her poetic style and themes, should finally have come to the end of her journey, in life, as well as in poetry.  And so we go back to the beginning, to 'Aunt Jennifer's Tigers' and take solace in the fact that, like the tigers on the tapestry screen, for Adrienne Rich, her poetry will be her eternal legacy and 'will go on prancing, unafraid'.