Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’

Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London (book #166)

26 February 2018

Picture of Mary Lamb

Susan Tyler Hitchcock, 2005.

Review by Nigel Leary.

I knew very little about Mary Lamb’s life, though whenever I am in the kitchen with my mother and a bread knife I am compelled to mutter “Mary Lamb”. I enjoyed Charles’s Essays as a child, and their joint poems in The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse.

This is a good biography, though there are a couple of imagining sections near the start which are a bit annoying.

I did not know that Mary’s murder of her mother was acknowledged at the time to be linked to Mary’s caring role – as the only surviving daughter, not only was she working as a mantua-maker, but also looking after her paralysed 60-year-old mother, her 70-year-old father, who had dementia or a stroke or both, her elderly though reasonably healthy aunt and her brother John, who did not normally live with them but had injured his leg and moved back home. In addition, her brother Charles, who did live at home, had had a mental breakdown the year before and spent some time in a private madhouse, and Mary had a new apprentice, aged 9.

The family were poor and had no servants. Charles describes their mother as responding to Mary’s love with “cold and repulse“. A newspaper wrote about the murder that “As her carriage towards her mother was ever affectionate in the extreme, it is believed, that to the incresed attentiveness which her parents’ infirmities called for by day and night, is to be attributed the present insanity of this ill fated young woman”.

The year after the murder, when Mary was still in another private madhouse, Hitchcock describes Charles’s difficulties in looking after his father. “What Charles really needed was some time to himself, but circumstances did not allow it.”

Hitchcock writes about the inter-dependency between Charles and Mary that Mary “cycled through the pattern over and over: caring, finding herself overwhelmed, retreating and detaching, recovering herself, and then returning to the situation in which she must start caring again”. Charles’s alcoholism and mental health issues, in his words, were “wasting and teazing her life”.

I was interested to know that the Lambs were friends with John Rickman, discussed in my last post. “Charles called [him] ‘the clearest headed fellow,’ ‘fullest of matter with least verbosity,’ ‘hugely literate, oppresively full of information,’ and in general ‘the finest fellow to drop in a nights about nine or ten oClock, cold bread and cheese time, just in the wishing time of the night, when you wish for somebody to come in, without a distinct idea of a probable anybody’.” Data people – there with the matter and up for bread and cheese of a night.

Much later, Mary became a children’s writer. Hitchcock quotes from Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s book for three- and four-year-olds:

The sky is very black: the rain pours down. Well, never mind it. We will sit by the fire, and read, and tell stories, and look at pictures. Where is Billy and Harry, and little Betsey? Now, tell me who can spell best. Good boy! There is a clever fellow! Now you shall have some cake.

The Lambs objected to this type of writiting as not fostering imagination.

There’s a comment about Charles not liking William Godwin’s life of Chaucer because of Godwin “‘filling out the picture by supposing what Chaucer did and how he felt, when the materials are scanty'”. Given Hitchcock’s passages of imagining, I found this amusing.

There is a good account of the Lambs’ living arrangements, as described by Mary:

We still live in Temple Lane, but I am now sitting in a room you never saw. Soon after you left us we were distressed by the cries of a cat which seemed to proceed from the garrets adjoining to ours, and only separated from ours by a locked door … We had the lock forced and let the poor puss out from behind a pannel (sic) of the wainscot, and she lived with us from that time, for we were in gratitute (sic) bound to keep her as she had introduced us to four untenanted, unowned rooms, and by degrees we have taken possession of these unclaimed apartments.

They set up one of the rooms as a workroom for Charles, but

he could do nothing he said with those bare white-washed walls before his eyes … [so we] almost covered the walls with prints, for which purpose he cut out every print from every book in his old library, coming in every now and then to ask my leave to strip a fresh poor author, which he might not do you know without my permission as I am older sister. There was such pasting – such pasting – such consultation where their portaits and where the series of pictures from Ovid, Milton & Shakespear would show to most advantage and in what obscure corner authors of humbler note might be allowed to tell their stories … – the poor despised garret is now called the print room and is become our most favourite sitting room.

And let’s end on a relatively cheery note – an account of the Lambs’ holiday in 1803. Mary was not long out of a stay in a madhouse. This is written by the Lambs’ friend Captain James Burney, brother of Fanny.

We do every thing that is idle, such as reading books from a circulating library, sauntering, hunting little crabs among the rocks, reading Church Yard poetry which is as bad at Cowes as any Church Yard in the Kingdom can produce. Miss Lamb is the only person among us who is not idle. All the cares she takes into her keeping. At night however we do a little business in the smoking line [Mary also smoked, unusually for a woman], and Martin [James’s son] endeavours to make Conundrums, but alas! he is not equal to the achievement. Such is the edifying life we lead at the Isle of Wight.

The Lambs’ Poetry for Children is online here. Their letters are also online, in a coupld of editions: here and here.

There is another biography of Mary Lamb, published the year before this one, which I would like to read: The Devil Kissed Her: the story of Mary Lamb, by Kathy Watson. Review here. There’s also a double biography from the year before that, A Double Life: a biography of Charles and Mary Lamb, by Sarah Burton. Review by Hermione Lee here.

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The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker: The story of Britain through its Census, since 1801 (book #165)

14 January 2018

Cover of The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker

Roger Hutchinson, 2017.

Describes John Rickman, who in 1800 pushed through the legislation for the first census, and then carried out the first three censuses and planned the fourth. From 1802 he was Secretary to the Speaker of the House of Commons. The post came with a house in New Palace Yard in the precincts of the mediaeval Old Palace of Westminster. Hutchinson writes that it was “among wooden buildings which date from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, some of them so close to the River Thames that, as Rickman’s daughter Ann would recall, ‘at Spring tide there was great pleasure to us children in dipping our fingers down into the waters from the sitting room window … ‘”

Ann described the garden as “‘a bright, pleasant piece of ground with a terrace and rails to the river, and the roses and other flowers grew luxuriously’, while at the end of Keeper of the Exchequer Mr Wilde’s house on the terrance ‘there was a Hamboro’ grape; and we had gooseberries too and a Morella cherry beside a very pretty Bird cherry tree … and there was a corner and a mound to bury the kittens and canaries in … ‘”

“‘Papa very often in warm weather stretched himself down on the slope of turf that formed the terrace, in the centre of which were four stone steps: he generally went to sleep and we made daisy chains to dress him up, and looked at his pigtail, but we never quite made up our minds to pull it.’ The lighthearted polymath Papa Rickman in his turn insisted that at the family dinner table his children should order their desserts in Latin.”

Guardian review.

Review and information about the author from the Skye Reading Room.

Lab Girl: A story of trees, science and love (book #164)

6 October 2017

Hope Jahren (2016).

Book cover, showing trees

Read this for the book club.

Time has also changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me and didn’t.

Hope Jahren on Wikipedia.

Interview in Time.

Guardian review.

Mrs Miles’s Diary: The Wartime Journal of a Housewife on the Home Front (book #153)

3 January 2016

ed SV Partington (2013).

miles 2
Image is of Constance Miles.

Constance Miles was a journalist and novelist who kept a diary from 1939 to 1943, and sent the typescript of it to the Imperial War Museum. It was over 400,000 words; the IWM has cut it down, I guess to about a quarter (apparently a lot of the length was extracts from newspaper articles) and published it.

Miles’s father was William Robertson Nicoll, a journalist and writer who founded the periodicals British Weekly and The Bookman. One of her friends was Barbara Euphan Todd, novelist and children’s writer who wrote the Worzel Gummidge books. Miles herself wrote, with her brother Maurice Nicoll, a novel Lord Richard in the Pantry (1911), which became a play and then a film (it’s on the BFI’s list of 75 lost and most wanted films). The book is credited to Martin Lutrell Swayne, Maurice’s pseudonym, in the BL and the Bodleian, so I’m going on the authority of Partington’s introduction in saying that Miles co-wrote it.

She is credited alone, however, for what I guess is a sequel, Lady Richard in the larder: an extravaganza (1932), and something called Coffee, Please: the story of a lover’s dream (1933). Furrowed Middlebrow has a post talking about these and also her work as Marjory Royce, which Partington doesn’t mention. There also seem to be some manuscripts of hers in the BL: “Anthology of Letters, taken from printed biography including a few private letters” (1950), “The Springfield Diary between the Wars” (1951) and “Brief Lives. Consisting of pen portraits of people well known to the writer, etc” (1954). I would like to get in there and have a nose, and also to her half-sister and father’s archives at Aberdeen … Most of her books are too expensive but I have ordered Dinah Leaves School (written as Royce) and will endeavour to report back. I do have resolutions / ambitions / plans to update this blog more frequently (and have a pile of books waiting to be “done”) but then I’ve planned that before and then I get under the weather and things go to pot.

Anyway – here are some bits from the diary I liked. Rather a focus on cats as you will see. Miles’s own cat was soft grey Muff, who had to subsist on “chicken’s ‘eads fourpence a pound” at times in the war.

Barbara [Euphan Todd] says Miss J, ruler of the Children’s Hour on the BBC, returns her engaging story of a mouse air warden who dealt with bats (and spoke in rhyme all the time), saying that she hopes that children don’t know anything about raids. ‘I suppose their gas masks are to keep fairies in!’ cries the irritated author. (01/12/1939)

Interesting to see that the focus on food being thrown away is not new. “Before the war about a million tons of foodstuffs were thrown into dustbins every year, Sir Ronald reminds us [Ronald Storrs in The Second Quarter, an account of the progress of the war]!” (10/08/1940).

As a war-time companion Barbara has a small black kitten. It likes cheese straws and cabbages and it spends most of its time purring as mine does. It fitted itself into a blue glass vase the other morning and went whirling round and round. It was in an ecstasy. I should like to meet it even more than Goebbels. (24/01/1940) … I hear that one of the survivors of the torpedoed Transylvania came on shore with a cat in his arms, purring contentedly. Good! (15/08/1940) … Went to call on a Paddington evacuee cat in the village, a sweet whitish kitten. The two dressmakers accompaning it are humbly grateful for their one room, where they can just squeeze in (29/10/1940).

Southampton, that pleasant town, has had two dreadful air raids. When you know all the main streets, it makes your heart turn over. (02/12/1940) May wrote that Southampton is a sad sight. Many forsaken cats sitting on the rubble, and piles of stones and bricks. (10/12/1940) At Southampton I again gazed sorrowfully at the once hospitable little hotel opposite the bus stop. It is an ugly ruin. (06/06/1942)

Miles and her husband riffing on the subject of a War Fare Cookery Week. Her husband invents a dance battle between General Slackness, with team members Stomach-ache, Nightmare, Hiccoughs and Collywobbles, and General Efficiency, with members Delight, Health, Taking Trouble and Comfortableness. “I thought of the Nourishing Soup Dance, to be performed by Mesdames Potato, Mutton-broth and Lentil.” (22/12/1940)

She mentions in passing a discussion in the House of Lords about juvenile offending increasing during the war. “From January to August 1940 they increased by 41 per cent among children under fourteen and by 22 per cent among those between fourteen and seventeen. There are many waiting to be taken into special schools.” (20/02/1942). This does seem to have been the case. Kate Bradley, “Juvenile delinquency and the evolution of the British juvenile courts, c.1900-1950”, says that

Corporal punishment on boys aged under 14 increased in the course of the Second World War. In 1938 and 1939 there were 48 and 58 cases of whippings respectively in England and Wales; this rose to a high of 531 in 1941, gradually dropping to 165 by the end of 1943 before returning to pre-war levels in 1944 when 37 cases were handled in this way. This rise has been attributed to the need to deal with increasing juvenile crime during the war in combination with retired magistrates being reinstated to cope with the dual pressures of an increasing caseload and younger magistrates serving on war duty.

There’s also an interesting article from 1944, “Juvenile Delinquency in Britain during the War”. Some lovely and dubious stats about the % of juvenile delinquents whose parents are not providing a normal home life, and speculation that the increase in delinquency is caused by the blackout, disruption of home life –

Children not only lost their homes, but ruined buildings gave endless opportunities for adventure and play which sometimes became rather wild. Toys, candies and innumerable other things attractive to children were buried under rubble and remained there, sometimes for days, until the area could be cleared.

– wartime restlessness, disruption of school life, an increase in young people working and in the amount they earned, and lack of space in approved schools, remand homes and Borstals. One of the solutions proposed is more use of foster care rather than approved schools – experience of evacuation apparently having indicated that this could work.

This is a rather sad passage:

I discover an advertisement in today’s Times about a job I think I am able to fill. If only I could! They want gentlewomen for portresses at University College, London; no manual work, but answering enquiries, phones, etc.
Robin throws water on it firmly. ‘You would always be ill,’ etc. I can do nothing, of course, as my duty lies at home. A nuisance. (24/02/1942)

Miles does mention that she has been asked to be the area Billeting Officer, but it’s not clear if she did take this on. I think probably not, or there would be more about it.

In June 1942 she and her half-sister (Mildred Robertson Nicoll – also a writer) went to see the ruins of Paternoster Row near St Paul’s, the printers’ and booksellers’ area, “a pious pilgrimage … [to] where the British Weekly was started”. “The desolation at the back of the great cathedral is truly frightful. Yes, it frightened me, as I stood looking across the great space full of ruins. … What kind and gentle people have been killed, what tidy office arrangements have been blasted, what valuable papers destroyed!” (25/06/1942).

In the introduction, Partington quotes Miles saying “I want it to be clear … that I got through the war as I did simply because I had this secret life of reading”.

There’s a good review of the diary at I Prefer Reading.

Oh, and I must say that the cover picture is annoying. It’s a young woman hanging out washing – too young to be a good representation of Miles, who in any case would be better represented reading or writing.

This England (book #145)

25 August 2015

Mary Ellen Chase, 1936.

I had not heard of Chase before seeing a mention of In England Now (1937) in Juliet Gardiner’s comprehensive The Thirties: An Intimate History. Despite the slightly different name and date, from the quotations Gardiner gives I think In England Now and This England are the same book, a collection of essays about England by Chase, an American novelist and academic.

Image from endpapers:

England

Wikipedia says she is regarded as one of the most important regional literary figures of the early twentieth century. There is a 1995 biography by one of her students, A Lantern in the Wind by Elienne Squire. There is a 1962 article about her here (PDF) and a 2003 thesis about her life and work here (PDF, 272 pages, mostly about her family background and early life, and the themes of her books, rather than her later, professional, life). I was particularly interested in the sections in the thesis about Chase’s character Mary Peters’s creation of art through rag rugs:

She became an expert in dyeing bits of wool, working hours to get the exact shade she needed. When her piecebags and closets were exhausted of old material, she bought odds and ends from factories and coloured them to suit herself. The knuckles of her fingers and the palms of her hands grew rough and calloused by hook and burlap, but she had never in her life felt more free.

(from Mary Peters, 1934).

Chase was apparently much influenced by Sarah Orne Jewett, whose The Country of the Pointed Firs I was amazed by when I read it. I have not read it since as I’m not sure how well it would stand up to re-reading.

Anyway, about This England. I must say it is a rather irascible book. Chase, spending two years in England, based in a cottage in Grantchester (not clear whether her companion, the historian Eleanor Duckett, was with her, but if so Chase wrote her out), was unhappy about many things:

The English weather and its associated travails: “chilblains … demand more resignation and humour than is the capital of most steam-heated Americans. The woollen underwear which one must wear or perish harbours and transmits its manifold vexations … this dismal monotony of discomfort … unspeakable irritation”.

No ice: “Ice simply is NOT … the English consider ice an extravagant and unnecessary commodity”.

Wasps: “There is hardly a breakfast or lunch, surely never a tea, from May to October which is not copiously attended by wasps.”

The lack of good service: The American expects “that when his trousers need pressing, they will be pressed well and quickly; that when dry cleaning is imperative, it will be perfectly accomplished in a short space of time; that when he gives his orders for immediate delivery to the grocer, the chemist, or the tailor, these men will jump to execute them. … [When this doesn’t happen] he is at first amazed and then annoyed. If he stays long enough in England … there is a chance that he may become partially converted to this incredible manner of living.”

Shops in the north of England: “miserable shops displaying through grimy, unwashed windows pink rock candy, drill overalls, tinned sardines, sticky kippers, sucking dummies for babies, garish underwear, impossible hats.”

People who visit museums and galleries on Sundays: “there are few pastimes less agreeable in London as elsewhere than Sunday visits to such places. Among the crowds who throng them on that day there is, on the one hand, too much consciousness of self-improvement, and, on the other, too little appreciation or intelligence.”

Luggage: “sundry cases of fibre or pasteboard or worn leather, baskets with lunch and bathing-costumes, umbrellas, tennis racquets, boxes and bundles of sorts. English luggage in general rarely delights the fastidious eye and never less so than when it is carrying the family clothing to the seaside.”

Having said this, there is more positive stuff. She likes the English countryside and she is even almost persuaded at times that there are good things about the weather. She feels that the northern cities with the terrible shops have more life and welcome in them than the sleepy south. She is transported about “the Yorkshire puddings which my housekeeper for two years has constructed for me [and which] rise like the turrets of some castle at sundown, crisp and golden, and with an appeal to the imagination perilously akin to that inspired by cooking across the channel”. But overall she sounds judgmental about people who are just going about their life, with their ugly luggage and hats and their attempts at self-improvement, and annoyingly patronising when she believes she can read people’s feelings (such as the woman on the ‘bus whom she decides is heart-broken about the flowers she is taking to a friend being less sophisticated than those another friend is taking).

I would like to know when parish churches stopped tolling for the dead (funeral tolling; death knell, passing bells, the latter apparently technically being hand bells rather than church bells). I know this custom best from The Nine Tailors (1934), where the ex-sexton and current bell-ringer, Hezekiah Lavender (good name), says “We got to ring her for every Christian soul dyin’ in the parish … That’s set down for us”. Chase notes that in the West Country, church “passing bells still toll for the dying and the dead, the initial strokes of one, two or three signifying whether a man, a woman or child has died”. And did they toll for all parish inhabitants or only for church members? What Hezekiah says implies everyone except possibly the odd atheist.

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England’s Schools: History, architecture and adaptation (book #144)

23 August 2015

Elain Harwood, 2010.

Short but nicely written and illustrated book published by English Heritage about schools’ archicture. The whole book, with pictures, is now available online as a PDF from English Heritage – worth having a look at if you are interested in social history.

This is a good image of Aynhoe School (Northampstonshire) in about 1845.

Aynhoe

You probably can’t see the detail all that well but I was struck by the number of texts. One knows of course that Christianity would have been a huge part of education but to see so much of the space covered with religious exortations emphasises it. A few I can read: “The Lord you must always obey” on the left under the black and red GIRLS sign; “Remain faithful to The Commandments” in the corresponding place on the right; “FEAR YE GOD” on extreme right; “GOD IS A SHIELD TO US” on blackboard.

I particularly like the colourful duffel bags hanging on the cupboard. There is another image of what looks like the same school (other end of the same room?) on Dawn Griffis’s website. Both show the galleried seating clearly. I like the animal pictures below the GIRLS and BOYs sign on that one – elephant to the right, ?lion to the left.

The painter, Maria Elisabeth Augusta Cartwright, née von Sandizell (1805-1902), has had her watercolours of Aynhoe House published, with some extracts from her diaries, which I would be interested to see. (Lili at Aynhoe: Victorian Life in an English Country House). There’s some discussion of it here, though the blogger’s focus is on another family. A Google images search will show you some of the watercolours of the interior of the house. There is a portrait of the artist in the NPG, but not online.

I had not realised that some London schools had roof-top playgrounds. Makes sense, of course, even though one’s modern health and safety sense tingles. Here is Catherine Street School in Hackney, 1887.

Catherine Street School

That can’t be the whole school gathered there – too few, and too many girls. I like the man with his hand on the gate. (My image has come out rather greener than the original; that is not grass.)

This picture of a reading class at an open-air LCC school in 1907 (at Bostall Wood in Woolwich) is interesting. Several of the children look pretty slumped in their desckchairs.

Open-air

Bostall Wood School was the first open-air school in the UK, and was only open as an experiment for a few months in 1907. It was successful and further permanent schools were opened. This site has more detail, including that many of the children were malnourished when they arrived, and, on average, gained nearly a stone each over the few months the school was operating. This site is good on another open-air school, or series of schools, in Regent’s Park. The clerk, trying to recruit a teacher for it in the 1930s, said “all backward children, throw-outs. No one will touch it”. Not come across throw-outs in this context before – OED has “anything discarded or rejected”. The Muncipal Dreams blog has an interesting post on Aspen House Open-Air School in Lambeth in the 1930s, with pictures of the architecture. There is also a post here about Thackley Open-Air School, also of the 1930s, with good detail about routines, food etc.

And finally, a quotation from George Widdows, architect to Derbyshire Education Committee from 1902, who was committed to school buildings that improved the health of both children and teachers: “secondary buildings require just as much revolutionising as elementary. “All one can say is there are not so many children in each class and their clothes do not stink” – an insight into what it might have smelt like in some of these schools. Elain Harwood uses the quote again in a separate article on Widdows – apparently he “collapsed from overwork in 1911, and went on a cruise round the Mediterranean”. He did return to work, however, until his retirement in 1936.

The Victorian Woman (book #131)

28 November 2014

Suzanne Fagence Cooper, 2001. SFC is the author of the biography the film Effie Gray is based on.

This is a picture book using the collections of the V&A.

TVW

The Dinner Hour, Eyre Crowe, 1874. There is a good Eyre Crowe site here.

TVW 001

Photograph by Paul Chapuis, Woman painting portrait, c 1860. See this on the V&A site here.

TVW 004

Poster, Convicts and Lunatics … , c 1900, Emily J Harding Andrews. There are some really interesting notes on the artist’s life at Woman and Her Sphere.

TVW 005

The Slade Life-Class, magazine illustration, 1883.

TVW 006

Paul Martin, photograph, Girls Paddling at Cromer, 1892. There is a similar picture here and some other pictures by Paul Martin here.

TVW 007Photograph, 1898, from family album.

Doreen Wallace (1897-1989), Writer and Social Campaigner (book #130)

17 August 2014

June Shepherd, 2000.

Wallace was one of the Somerville School of novelists. I can’t find much online about this group (most links are to lists of all novelists from Somerville, not this more specific group) but Shepherd says they comprise Vera Brittain, Muriel Jaeger, Margaret Kennedy, Holtby and Sayers as well as Wallace. They are discussed in Susan J Leonardi’s Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists, which I would like to read.

Wallace wrote 48 novels, starting with A Little Learning in 1931 and ending with Landscape with Figures in 1976. I came across her through How to Grow Food, 1940, recently republished.

Sayers probably caricatured Wallace in Gaudy Night in the person of an old student, Catherine Freemantle / Bendick, who had been brilliant at university but then married a farmer, had children and sunk into domesticity: “a Derby winner making shift with a coal-cart”. Wallace certainly felt this was a depiction of her and was angry about it. It seems odd though as Wallace was already publishing novels by this time – I guess Sayers must have seen this popular writing as of no account weighed against academia.

“It was some three years after her son’s birth [which was in 1927] when, in the later stages of her third pregnancy, Doreen sat down … to start the novel that had been in her mind for months. ‘I was too hefty to do much gardening or other physical work … [ellipsis in text] I felt that by now I had enough experience of life, though limited, and knowledge of country people, though limited, to have something more to say”.”

I like Wallace’s implication that she was “too hefty” to garden so might as well write.

Wallace was very involved in the 1930s Tithe Wars – these were protests by landowners in East Anglia and Kent against paying the church tithe. Again, there’s not much online, but see the summary of this paper, The Tithe War in Kent 1925-36: an Example of English Militant Agrarianism and this article about an East Anglian man’s memoirs, North Suffolk man’s autobiography recalls tithe wars and Mosley’s blackshirts. The Tithe Wars lost their importance when the Second World War started, but compulsory tithes were not ended until the 1970s. Wallace said that it was this issue that ended her friendship with Sayers, who as a vicar’s daughter and Christian was on the other side of the argument.

The biography includes some of Wallace’s poems as an appendix. I don’t think most of them are very good, though I quite like this one, the first verse anyway, for its focus on a mundane activity (and the suggestion of Marvell’s mower):

Cutting the Grass

He is cutting the grass, and it flies like spray
On following wind, in a brilliant bow
With light white bubbles bestarred, the day
Prisoned by trees in this narrow plot,
Bright, scented, hot,
Rings with the noise of the blades that mow
Their ribbony pathway to and fro.
Like bubbles of foam the daisies fly
Before the speed of his industry.

It is done: there lies the impeccable sward,
Silkily striped like a party-gown.
A crushed sweet silence creeps abroad
And night’s first veil comes down.
The cutter is being taken away,
A dwindling tune of jangles and jars:
But the myriad daisies, where are they
That were more and whiter than summer stars?

There’s also this one:

Wireless

A valedictory whisper, high and rare,
The last note of a hidden violin,
Steals from another world discreetly in
And quietly flowers on the heated air.
Thin is the wall that sunders Here from There,
A membrane only of the mind, so thin
That I can watch the conversation spin
Its web about the room from chair to chair.

And still be drawn by that frail note away
To the unbounded world beyond the wall
Where I can see the littleness of day,
The timely grace of seasons at their fall,
Can see the light go down, the darkness climb,
And hear the cadence of the feet of Time.

As with the mowing one, she’s reaching for deepness in the second stanza, and I don’t think pulls it off. But some of the first verse is more successful, the amazement at the here-and-there-ness of the radio sound.

I want to scan in a picture of Wallace in a wonderful 1920s hat, but my printer won’t let me as it’s out of ink (even though I don’t need ink to scan), and as this is an inter-library loan book I’ll probably have to return it before getting more ink. I’ll photocopy the picture and scan it if it comes out at all usable.

Read since last post:

Jan at Island School, Ethel Talbot
The Case of the Gilded Fly, Edmund Crispin (re-read)
Private Scandals, Nora Roberts
Key of Light, NR (reread)
All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Born in Ice, NR (re-read)
Blue Smoke, NR (re-read)
Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold (re-read)
One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming

Wanderings in Anglo-Saxon Britain (book #129)

2 August 2014

Arthur Weigall, not dated but the Bodleian catalogue has it as 1927, and the inscription in my copy is also 1927. The book is online.

I’d not heard of Weigall before but he seems to have had a fascinating life: worked with Flinders Petrie, was concerned about the export of archaeological items from Egypt, wanted to support Egyptian involvement in archaeology. Is described as having some sort of breakdown and then becoming a set designer and novelist. I would like to read the biography by his grand-daughter. Would also like to read some of Weigall’s novels.

This book fits well with the books by Jessie Mothersole I’ve been reading. Weigall, who was a journalist, expresses more definite views than Mothersole about what we can or should infer about the British from archaeology. He says in the first chapter,

our school books have so incorrectly spread the belief that the English have no relation to the British, and we have been credited with a purely Germanic ancestry. Actually, however, we are a blend of the two races; and thus while our English ancestry takes us back only 1,500 years or so to the darkness of a rather stormy life in Denmark, Schleswig, and along the neighbouring German coast, our British blood, apart from the “Roman” strain, carries us right back into the four centuries of our connection with Rome, and thence back for at least another 1500 years of more or less civilized life in Britain, and links us at length with the men who built Stonehenge.
As descendants of the British we have at least 3,500 years of civilization in our own land behind us; but though our English history covers less than half that period it, too, presents, even in its early phases, a very creditable tale. The conditions of life in England in early Anglo-Saxon times were at any rate far superior to those in France under the contemporary Merovingians.
Thus, if my purpose is achieved, I shall put forward in these pages a picture of our forefathers’ history which, on the whole, will give us cause for much pride of race …

I love the idea that we should be looking for a creditable tale in archaeology. Here are some more of his thoughts on the British, with more slaps at foreigners:

In spite of wars and tumults, a remarkable and gradually increasing refinement of mind is to be observed in these early [Anglo-Saxon] ancestors of ours, contrasting them very favourably with their contemporaries on the Continent. …

Is it the influence of Britain, rather than that of any one strain in our blood, that has made our race the most orderly, the most magnanimous, and perhaps the most kindly in the world? Is there some quality in the land itself, some unchanging spirit of gentleness brooding over our countryside, which tames all men who come hither, whether they be Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, or Normans, and moulds them into one undying type? What is the nature of this miracle wrought by Britain time after time upon the minds of those various peoples who have come home-hunting to her shores, so that to call a man British is to denote his character? …

the Anglo-Saxons, the English as we now say, became a people different from their Germanic kin, gentler, more magnanimous, more kindly, more idealistic, yet of greater common-sense, more nearly approximating in certain ways to the Celt than to the Teuton …

[The Anglo-Saxons] generally displayed that same tendency towards domestic exclusiveness, privacy, and independence which has remained a national characteristic ever since, and which is now exemplified in the saying that an Englishman’s home is his castle. …

[In Bede] we may fully study the childhood of the English nation, and it may well be a matter of deep satisfaction to us that, thanks to this great old Englishman, our country is far ahead of any other in western Europe in the knowledge of its early history. Through Bede’s labours it may be said that the English race makes its appearance on the world’s stage in both a more vivid and a more reputable manner than does any other western nation; and at a bound, so to speak, we thus take our place in front of all other peoples. …

On the Continent it is proverbially said that “the English are defeated in every battle except the last.” Now this exaggerated but witty saying need cause us no offence, for it means simply that the steadiness of our nerves and our powers of endurance are deemed to be greater than those of other peoples, and that though at first we may receive a terrible gruelling, owing to our national dislike of the attitude of being prepared for war, we may be expected to survive the first shocks and to come out at last on top. …

Weigall is concerned to correct the “Dark Ages” stereotype, writing that “the story of Britain . . . maintains its detailed course through the Anglo-Saxon period, full of interesting and romantic matter, rich in recorded events, and never once falling back into the darkness and vacancy of an unchronicled epoch”.

He ends like this:

the crowds upon it [the road of British history], viewed in the mass, move forward in the same traditional spirit of goodwill, toleration, and compromise which are the historic characteristics of our age-old race. From incalculable distance, augmented by innumerable strains of type and breed, the British people come thronging along this immeasurable way, pressing forward towards the vision of the future, generation succeeding generation, moving from strength to strength, until the Past merges into the Present and we of to-day see ourselves inseparably part of the progression, part of old England, part of Britain that was, and is, and is to be.

Books read since last update

A Fountain Filled With Blood, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Out of the Deep I Cry, Julia Spencer-Fleming
To Darkness and To Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Treachery in Death, J D Robb

Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900 (book #128)

27 July 2014

Bestsellers: Popular Fiction since 1900
Clive Bloom, 2008.

This is the second edition, revised from the 2002 edition, and reads at times as if the revisions were done rather hastily.

Talks about the difficulty of establishing what the bestsellers actually were. “The British lists were only regularised in the late 1970s.” Before that, he quotes a 1969 article, the lists “‘were produced on a whim by a panel of bibulous bookmen‘, using booksellers whose ‘cynical’ replies were sometimes merely an attempt to sell slow movers”. “There are also no cumulative bestseller lists”, so there is a difficulty about books which over time sell in bestseller numbers, but do not achieve bestseller numbers in any one year.

Bit simplistic at times about reader response – for instance, saying Cartland and Miss Read “attracted women to whom liberal values did not appeal”.

Rather a misogynist comment about Blyton.

Sometimes badly written or edited – this second sentence is hard to understand: “Perhaps hard and fast category distinctions [between adult and child literature] are breaking down in some areas. The growth of teenage literature, R. L. Stine’s extraordinary success in the field of horror is certainly indicative and Philip Pullman’s work, a complex web of ideas and imagination challenges adult beliefs as well as moulding children’s imaginations.”

Bloom seems to dislike commas, as in “The story follows Eragon a poor boy who finds a blue stone in the forest that turns out to be a dragon’s egg”. There are some longer sentences that become breathless because of this.

About half the book is short entries, alphabetical by period, on the bestselling authors. I need to read Berta Ruck.

There are some slightly random comments. For instance, he talks about James Hadley Chase and other paperback thriller writers of the 40s and 50s setting books in America though most of the writers hadn’t been there. ” … few travelled outside the UK. This is still the case with authors today. Stef Penny was prevented from going to Canada by agoraphobia but it did not prevent her from winning a major prize for The Tenderness of Wolves, set in Canada.” Not sure how useful it is to compare the first group of writers with the contemporary Stef Penney (not Penny) who had a different reason for not travelling.

There are a lot of typos, including the splendid “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is the story of a bird who files for the love of it rather than the necessity.” I can visualise the photographs – JLS against faded vintage office cabinets and wooden library index card drawers.

Books read since my last update:

A Stepmother for Susan of St Bride’s, Ruth Adam (which has some kittens that save the day, which is always good).
Margaret Finds a Future, by Mabel Esther Allan.
Thai Dye, Monica Ferris.
A Lady Awakened, Cecila Grant.
Treachery in Death, J D Robb (re-read).
In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming.
I’m Taking My Eggs and Going Home, Lisa Manterfield.