‘Death is your prince, you are not his patron; when you think he is engaged elsewhere, he will batter down your door, walk in and wipe his boots on you.’ – Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d been eagerly anticipating this sequel to Wolf Hall, a novel that enraptured me from start to finish, and that I would place along side the works that are, at least for me, supreme achievements in the art of historical fiction:
Rather to my dismay, I initially had trouble getting into Bring Up the Bodies. Perhaps the weight of expectation was too great. Right up through the first ninety pages or so, I kept picking it up and putting it down, in favor of other reading matter. (This definitely did not happen with Wolf Hall.) Then, on page 93, I encountered this paragraph:
He looks closely at Anne the queen, the day he brings back his report; she looks sleek, contented, and the benign domestic hum of their voices, as he approaches, tell him that she and Henry are in harmony. They are busy, their heads together. The king has his drawing instruments to hand: his compasses and pencils, his rules, inks and penknives. The table is covered in unscrolling plans, and in artificers’ moulds and batons.
Some random observations first: it was a pleasure to come across the word ‘artificer;’ it immediately brought me back to my first reading of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the last line of which is one of my favorites in all of literature: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Second, as I’m transcribing this passage, I seem to detect a problem with subject verb agreement, in the first sentence….Ah well, let it go, this time around, at least. It can be a curse, this being a fuss pot grammarian! Fact is, I didn’t notice the first time I read it, I was so enthralled by the image conjured by Hilary Mantel: Henry and Anne, huddled together in congenial conspiracy. I can almost see the king nudging her, or attempting to nudge her, in her brocade-encased rib cage.
From that point on I was hooked.
The ‘He’ in the above paragraph is Thomas Cromwell, King Henry’s Master Secretary, a wily and resourceful man who, although of lowly origin, has nonetheless achieved a position at court of enormous power and influence. (In her list of the cast of characters at the front of the book, Mantel identifies Cromwell as ‘a blacksmith’s son.’) His report on this particular occasion concerns the displaced queen Katherine of Aragon. She is languishing under a sort of house arrest. Henry and Anne both wish fervently for her death, but they must tread carefully; though discarded by the king, she has powerful friends, both in England and abroad.
In fact, the two of them need only exercise patience; ill and suffering, Katherine does not have much longer to live.
As for King Henry and Queen Anne, this moment of amity and common purpose proves all too ephemeral.
I’ve asked myself what are the particular features of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies that have made them so riveting. For one thing, Hilary Mantel writes terrific dialogue. The syntax and the vocabulary seem exactly apt, for the time and place. You can almost believe that these are actual conversations, faithfully, or nearly faithfully, transcribed.
Here is Thomas Cromwell’s report to Henry and Anne on the substance of his visit to Katherine of Aragon. Katherine has expressed to him her wish to see Eustache Chapuys, the ambassador to Henry’s court sent by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Chapuys is a staunch champion of Katherine’s cause; at the same time, he bears an unyielding enmity toward Anne Boleyn, whom he refers to as the Concubine:
He makes them his reverence, and comes to the point: ‘She is not well, and I believe it would be a kindness to let her have a visit from ambassador Chapuys.’
Anne shoots out of her chair. ‘What, so he can intrigue with her more conveniently?’
‘Her doctors suggest, madam, that she will soon be in her grave, and not able to work you any displeasure.’
‘She would come out of it, flapping in her shroud, if she saw the chance to thwart me.’
You can see from this exchange how fierce Anne is in her efforts to protect herself. She needs to be. (I love it that Cromwell “makes them his reverence.”)
Hilary Mantel has chosen to write these novels in the present tense. This is a device that I don’t always like, but she deploys it very effectively in these books. For me, it adds to the sense of immediacy, and of omnipresent danger. Speaking of which, the scene in which Anne arrives at the place of her execution is not for the faint of heart; as I read it, my own heart was pounding.
Hilary Mantel’s tremendous achievement in writing Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has been recognized by her winning both the 2009 and 2012 Man Booker Prize. The Guardian begins its coverage of the 2012 award by informing us that “Hilary Mantel has made Man Booker prize history by becoming the first woman and the first British writer to win the literary award twice.” There’s a lovely video embedded in this article; I enjoyed this one on YouTube as well:
In her Author’s Note at the back of the novel, Mantel states of the following: “This book is of course not about Anne Boleyn or about Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell….” One appreciates the author’s loyalty to this character, and he is an interesting man to be sure, but for me, this book was about Anne Boleyn – much more so than Wolf Hall was. As I reached the conclusion of Bring Up the Bodies, I felt an increasingly urgent need to penetrate further into the mystery of what happened to her and why.
Roberta goes to the library to pick up a few items and, finding herself surrounded by riches (in several formats), avails herself of them liberally, then runs out of steam…
One sunny Saturday morning, Roberta decided to visit the library. Her intent was to pick up two books she had reserved, perhaps one or two additional mysteries, and a volume on art history.
Miller is Roberta’s local branch, a repository of more fabulous stuff than you can shake a stick at. (Please pardon the recourse to clichés – one is not up to much else, at present!) Roberta headed straight upstairs, where the new books for adults awaited her. I mean, why pass up a chance for some serendipity thereabouts? And lo: serendipity there was – in spades (those pesky clichés again). Her resistance held firm on the fiction side but broke down around the corner in nonfiction. Why here was Every Good Endeavor, a new work by Dr. Timothy Keller, Senior Pastor at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, whose wisdom, compassion, and eloquence had so impressed her in The Reason for God.
Okay – I am now officially switching to the first person. Writing about yourself in the third person is just too weird! (Who is that woman, anyway?)
I am also currently reading The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. For 21 years, Rabbi Sacks has been Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. In this book, he attempts to reconcile the claims of faith and science; indeed, he believes that the perception of a schism between the two is erroneous in the first place. Rabbi Sacks writes with wit and elegance. Me, I am happy to receive good counsel from wise men and women, whatever their affiliation!
Moving from the 200s (religion and spirituality) to the 500s (science), I found several items of interest. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of writers who are able to explain exciting new developments in physics and astronomy in ways that are accessible to what one might term the lay reader. For example:
Here I must confess to a tendency to take such books home with the best intentions, only to return them to the library unread. I did, however, finish – and greatly enjoy – those last two titles. (Before the Fallout is as much a history book as a science book and made for really riveting reading. Preston begins by describing what happened to one woman when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. I reads Before the Fallout when it came out in 2005 and that scene has remained vivid in mind, in Preston’s measured retelling, a true horror story. “Silver treasure” indeed….) Mirror Earth currently resides on my night table – or one of my several night tables. Wish me luck.
It’s the kind of book I love: you can just dip into it from time to time and get your fill of wonder. Isabel Kuhl begins her survey with the great pyramids of Egypt – that chapter is subtitled “The First Houses Built for Eternity” - and ends with some spectacular structures by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Liebeskind, and others:
And in between these two astonishing extremes of time and place, one jaw dropper after another:
[Click here for panoramic views of Chambord.]
Whew! I’m just about done in. And I so wanted to explain about the mysteries and the DVD’s – almost exclusively British mysteries….Ah well, it will have to wait. But I do want to mention a CD that I picked up: This was true serendipity, aided by prominent placement on a display of audiovisual materials on Miller’s richly endowed first floor.
Among the musical selection on this disc is one I especially love, Handel’s coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest.” I plugged the title into the YouTube search box and got some marvelous results. Here are two of my favorites.
First, the 2004 wedding of Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik and Mary Elizabeth Donaldson of Australia (by way of Scotland, as can be seen by her father’s attire);
I was thrilled by this one. It’s an Anglophile’s dream – this Anglophile’s, at any rate:
I owe a debt of gratitude to the good people of the Miller Branch, a place that, in my retirement years, has become a home away from home!
In February 2008, drunk on a new found – or rather, reawakened – love of Britain that was the byproduct of two terrific trips, I took out a subscription to Country Life Magazine. Country Life is a weekly, and if I got it every week, I’d be buried (albeit happily) in a mountain of back issues. Instead, I receive one issue per month.
Here are some highlights from the April 4 Easter issue. To begin with, this cover image sent me scurrying to find the artist. He is Edgar Hunt. Biographical information on this painter is somewhat hard to come by. There’s a brief bit about him on Artnet, where we learn that he was ‘of retiring disposition’ (such a felicitous phrase!).
Country Life does not place much of its content online. A pity, really. “Creating a Poultry Paradise” by Matthew Rice was utterly delightful, featuring exceptionally beautiful photography and art work. The following are images of several of the breeds highlighted by Rice in his article.
This exercise brought back happy memories of our sojourn in the Hudson Rover Valley four years ago. Our B & B was located next door to a farm, so we took the opportunity to “…make the acquaintance of the local poultry.” More recently, we encountered some attractive fowl at the Shrine of Saint Anthony. (“A Little Assisi in Maryland,” this lovely and peaceful haven is but a short distance from our house.)
In this issue of Country Life, we learn of the dire situation of the Wedgwood Museum. This distinguished institution may have to sell off its priceless collection in order to raise funds to satisfy a pension related obligation. This seems a somewhat bizarre and complicated quandary, but the danger is real enough and was made more so by a legal ruling that was recently handed down.
The article is entitled “Is This the End of the Wedgwood Museum?” It begins thus:
It would take a novelist to do justice to the disaster that has engulfed the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. In the words of the Minister for the Arts, Ed Vaizey: ‘We are almost, as it were, walk-on parts in an obscure Dickensian novel, in which a complicated piece of legislation has the most dramatic and unintended consequences.’ The sequence of events to which he refers recalls the nightmarish legal web of the great case Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, which pervades Dickens’s novel Bleak House. The consequences of these events are, however, brutally simple: the Wedgwood Museum, one of the most significant collections and archives of its kind in the world, must be sold.
A vigorous campaign to save the museum has been launched.
While searching for news on this topic, I came across a review of a newly released title that sounds quite wonderful: The Potter’s Hand by A.N. Wilson.
It’s worth noting that over the years, in addition to master potter and patriarch Josiah Wedgwood, the Wedgwood family has accrued many distinguished members, the most famous among them being Charles Darwin. (You’ll also find Geoffrey Keynes, brother of economist John Maynard Keynes, and a composer much beloved by Ron and me: Ralph Vaughan Williams.) Here’s a family tree provided by the ever helpful folks at Wikipedia. If you click on it, you should be able to read the names without too much difficulty:
A piece entitled “The Shrines of Saints” features that of Thomas Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford from 1275 to 1282. We had the great privilege of viewing this shrine last year, when we visited Hereford Cathedral, which also houses the Mappa Mundi and the Chained Library.
A regular feature that I always enjoy is “My Favourite Painting.” The work highlighted in this issue, Portrait of the Artist’s Family by Hans Holbein the Younger, was selected by actress Anna Chancellor. (For each issue of Country life, a different person chooses the work of art; then art critic John McEwen provides additional commentary.)
Last year, one of the feature works, Simone Martini’s Annunciation, dated 1333, was selected by Rory Stewart.
Stewart, an amazingly accomplished individual, is just shy of forty years old and looks to be about half that. (See the Wikipedia link above.) Here are his comments on the painting:
Country Life have, this week, published a brief description of my favourite Painting – The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Asano by Simone Martini. Martini portrays the resistance of the Virgin, the angel Gabriel moves towards her like a hawk, his damask plaid alive like a third wing behind him. I remember a sheet of flat gold, the filigree columns and the metal blaze of the gothic arches and the etiolated elegance of the olive and the lillies. But above all it is the Lady turning away, drawing her cloak across her as though rejecting an importunate suitor. So much was lost with the Renaissance.
Priceless, that last sentence.
There’s an invariably insightful essay by Carla Carlisle at the back of each issue. Naturally I was exceptionally pleased to find that this time she’d written about her idol and mine, Dorothy L. Sayers. Writing about Sayers’s depiction, in Gaudy Night, of the first wave of females to storm the barricades of Oxford in the early years of the last century, Carlisle exclaims, “Oh, those brainy, educated women.” They are indeed a joy to spend time with, both in the novel itself and in the film version starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter. Happily, “Goodness gracious gaudy nights” is available online.
The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie: a book discussion. Part One: background (but first – a heartfelt digression)
As last Tuesday night’s meeting got under way, we members of Usual Suspects were treated first to a recap of Marge’s recent and rather fabulous trip to England. Not only did she savor the many joys of literary London, she also attended a star studded Crimefest Convention in Bristol. This is the same event that we both enjoyed last year, but this year’s Crimefest was truly stellar: Lee Child! Sue Grafton! And most amazingly, the reigning queen of British crime fiction, P.D. James! Marge’s tour also took her to Oxford, where she fell in love with the city of the dreaming spires and got to spend some time in the company of Colin Dexter, author of the peerless Inspector Morse novels.. (Ron and I enjoyed this same memorable experience in 2006, while on the Smithsonian Tour, Classic Mystery Lover’s England.)
All right – I must stop myself getting sad and dreamy-eyed, as I invariably do when remembering this, and proceed to the matter at hand…. Oh but first, I really must offer up a soundtrack. This video tribute to Barrington Pheloung begins with music he composed for the film Shopgirl. You’ll hear the Morse theme at about two minutes and twenty seconds in:
I began Tuesday night’s discussion of The Pale Horse began with a brief survey of the life of Agatha Christie. It was not my intention to delve into too much detail, as the general facts of her life are fairly well known and easy to access. Still, I admit I was knocked sideways by the fact that Carol rattled off from memory the name Roedean, this being the boarding school attended by Agatha’s older sister Madge. She was also well up on the arcana of Agatha’s complex familial antecedents. Well done, Carol!
Agatha Christie was born in 1890 in Torquay,on Devon’s south coast.
Lovely Torquay - Ron and I were first there in 2006, and then again, last year. (The first photo is of the lobby of the Imperial Hotel, where we stayed in 2006.)
Madge was eleven years older than Agatha; brother Monty was ten years older. So in some respects, Agatha’s upbringing resembled that of an only child. In addition, her father, the American born Frederick Alvah Miller, died in 1901, when Agatha was eleven years old. As a result, she and her mother Clara, already close, grew even closer. Clara had some eccentric notions concerning education; hence, Agatha’s was something of a catch-as-catch-can affair. As Agatha grew to young womanhood, her chief aim was to get married. As Joan Acocella tells it in her 2010 New Yorker profile: “All she wanted was a husband, and when she was twenty-four she got one: the dashing Archie Christie, a member of the Royal Flying Corps.” After a rather turbulent courtship, Archie and Agatha were wed. Archie went off to fight in France; Agatha went off to work in a hospital dispensary in Torquay, a fateful job choice as it later turned out.
When Archie came back from the war, he and Agatha at first settled into a comfortable domesticity. Agatha gave birth to their daughter Rosalind. But Archie was proving to be a less than ideal husband. In her autobiography, Agatha quotes him as saying : ” I did tell you once, long ago, that I hate it when people are ill or unhappy-it spoils everything for me.” Unfortunately for both of them, Agatha’s mother Clara died in 1926. As Joan Acocella wryly observes, this devastating loss had the effect of “…plunging her daughter into the kind of sorrow that Archie found so obstructive to his happiness.” Sure enough,Archie sought consolation elsewhere. He soon informed Agatha that he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. This crisis in her personal life prompted Agatha Christie to decide on a strange course of action, one which has been endless scrutinized and analyzed for decades: she disappeared.
She was gone for eleven days. Eventually it transpired that she had absconded to the Old Swan Hotel in the spa town of Harrogate, in Yorkshire. She checked in under an assumed name, giving as her surname ‘Neele,’ the last name of Archie’s new love. Her disappearance was sensational.
The Surrey constabulary, enlarged to five hundred men, combed the downs and dragged the ponds in the area around her abandoned car. When the weekend came, they were joined by a mob of volunteers, plus bloodhounds. Ice-cream venders set up stands to serve the crowd. Most of the major newspapers carried a daily story on the matter. Christie’s fellow-guests at the hotel looked at the photos of her in the papers, but none of them made the connection. Indeed, she later recalled playing bridge with them and discussing the strange case of the missing novelist.
Christie was eventually identified by members of the hotel’s band. What followed was a great deal of speculation. Had Christie experienced some kind of amnesia? Was this a desperate bid to regain Archie’s affection? Or was it a publicity stunt, pure and simple? Again, Joan Acocella:
….if Agatha’s flight was an effort to get the attention of the public, it was successful. She had produced six detective novels by that time, the last of which, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” (1926), was extremely popular. That success, in part, was why her disappearance received so much attention. Conversely, her disappearance, with its interesting link to detective fiction, made her a celebrity. Her earlier novels were reprinted, and they sold out.
(The publicity stunt rationale was deemed unlikely by the Suspects. The feeling was that Agatha’s natural shyness would have prevented her embarking on this gambit with such a calculating purpose in view.)
A word about Harrogate before we leave this subject: I’ve visited there twice. once in 2005 and again in 2007. It’s a lovely place in and of itself, and also an ideal base for investigating the nearby attractions of North Yorkshire:
Naturally I wandered through the lobby of the Old Swan Hotel, soaking up the ambiance, as Agatha Christie must have done all those years ago….
More about the life of Agatha Christie in a subsequent post. For now, I’d like to make a start on: . I first read this novel (and wrote about it in this space) in 2010. When I asked the Suspects if they’d discussed a Christie work lately, they replied in the negative. The Pale Horse struck me as a good bet for a discussion – though just how good, I hadn’t anticipated.
In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran states that The Pale Horse is one of the high marks of the last fifteen years of Christie’s writing life. He goes on to say that the novel “…has a horribly plausible plot, a very unusual poison and a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.” And in The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, Charles Osborne comments: “The Pale Horse is a remarkably fresh and imaginative creation for a writer entering her seventies.”
The Pale Horse possesses a beautiful structure, like an edifice rising in a slow and stately manner from bare ground. This dark tale of a fiendish conspiracy involves numerous disparate players, and Christie places the various components before the reader with extraordinary skill and timing. She’s certainly an expert at misdirection, but here she does something even more subtle: she embeds crucial facts in the most prosaic statements and situations. The names of characters who will ultimately play a major role in the story are sandwiched between those of comparative unimportance. Vital clues appear right from the beginning, in the most innocent-seeming settings. It’s so easy to miss them. I certainly did, on my first encounter with this novel.
A word at this juncture about the “very unusual poison” alluded to above by John Curran. In an effort to avoid ‘spoilers,’ I’m not going to name it here. I will say that it occupies an entire chapter in Deborah Blum’s terrific book The Poisoner’s Handbook. (We Suspects had a great time discussing this work at our June meeting.) In addition, on her blog Speakeasy Science, Blum tells the fascinating story of a crime committed just last year in Princeton, New Jersey, that involved the use of this same substance.
There’s quite a bit more to be said about our discussion of The Pale Horse. Part Two of this post will, I hope, not be long in coming. Meanwhile, I’d like to say a bit more at this point about sources and background.
The full text of Joan Acocella’s New Yorker piece on Agatha Christie can be found at Gale’s Biography in Context. This database can be accessed through the library’s website. Go to the home page; there, you will see the ‘How Do I’ drop box’ at the upper right, beneath ‘New & Hot Items’ and ‘Classes & Events.’ Click on the downward arrow and select ‘Use Electronic Resources.’ (You’ll find it about halfway down the list of options.) Select ‘List of Databases’ near the top of the page. Select ‘Biography’ at top left. Then select ‘Biographies’ at the top of the page. Type ‘Agatha Christie’ into the search box. Joan Acocella’s article is entitled “Queen of Crime;” the link to it is in the left hand column, second from the top. At some point in this process, you may need to enter your library card number. (One must jump through all these hoops, alas; the New Yorker keeps nearly all of its content behind a pay wall.)
What you won’t see is the rather startling photo that accompanied the article. It was taken by Lord Snowden in 1974, two years before Christie’s death:
There are other items of interest at Biography in Context’s Agatha Christie page. Right under ‘Queen of Crime’ you’ll find a link to the NPR piece about the tapes made by Christie that were found at Greenway in 2008 by her grandson Matthew Prichard. (What treasures were unearthed while Greenway was being readied to hand over to the National Trust!) You can go directly to the NPR segment, where you can listen to portions of those tapes. If you do so, you’ll note that the possibility is raised of a meeting between Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. One senses that the very idea irritated Dame Agatha. “But why should they meet?” she exclaims indignantly. ” I’m sure they would not like meeting at all.” Commentator Lynn Neary adds: “And no doubt, Agatha Christie knew exactly what she was talking about.”
Ah, but we Agatha aficionados know differently. They did meet – in Torquay in 1990, at the Agathe Christie Centenary Celebration. You can see for yourself. The meeting of the two famed fictional protagonists occurs about eighteen minutes in on this promotional video:
This video also made we wonder whether an annual Agatha Christie Festival has in fact been successfully established at Torquay. Judging by this next video, the answer is yes:
When you’ve been immersed in a massive, intricately detailed biography, you feel a sense of loss at its conclusion. You bid farewell not only to the book’s specific subject, but to the cast of characters that enlivened the story, and in many cases, to an entire era. This happened to me with Candace Millard’s riveting Destiny of the Republic, with Donald Worster’s lovely homage to John Muir, A Passion for Nature, and most recently with Robert K. Massie’s magisterial biography of Catherine the Great.
Last night I finished reading The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination. Fiona MacCarthy’s sweeping depiction of a now vanished world has for weeks held me in its thrall. I said good-bye with a heavy heart.
One of the many gifts given me by this book has been an insight into the wellsprings of Edward Burne-Jones’s unique and inimitable genius. Early in his creative life, he fell under the spell of the great artists of Europe’s Middle Ages, especially those who flourished in Italy:
Te next two works, by Luca Signorelli, are from the fresco cycle in the San Brizio Chapel of the Orvieto Cathedral:
The following two works are illustrations of the life of St.Ursula, by Vittore Carpaccio:
Below are two detailed views of the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, by Michelangelo:
These works were specifically commended to Burne-Jones by his mentor and friend, the great art historian John Ruskin. It is easy to see how Edward Burne-Jones came to hold beauty as a value worthy of the highest esteem. (For more on these great painters, I recommend the Web Gallery of Art.)
I’ve already done one post on the life and work of Edward Burne-Jones. There is more to come – and more about other riches contained within the pages of The Last Pre-Raphaelite.
As a result of this recent reading, my fascination with Victorian Britain has been reawakened. I’ve written before of the pleasure I derived from listening to The Teaching Company’s course by that name, as presented by Professor Patrick Allitt. In the past, I’ve borrowed this item from the library. Now, however, I have purchased these fine lectures and the richly informative material that comes with them. Once again I am immersed in all things Victorian, starting with the Queen herself!
Last November, there appeared in Harper’s Magazine an article entitled “Broken Britain” by journalist Ed Vulliamy. Written partly in response to the rioting that occurred in August, the piece had virtually nothing good to say about the current state of things in that beleaguered island nation:
On the worst day of street violence, stock values plunged to their lowest all year. A few days after the riots had ended, it was revealed that one in five Britons between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four are unemployed, and that more applicants for university and college would be turned away than ever before. Cameron spoke of a “slow-motion moral collapse” of the country he used to call, when in opposition, “broken Britain.” He insisted on the need to confront “the attitudes and assumptions that have brought parts of our society to this shocking state,” including “irresponsibility, selfishness, behaving as if your choices had no consequences.”He was as virtuous as he was four-square, despite his porcelain complexion and weak chin. But he himself has been tainted by scandal….
On it went, page after page of unrelentingly negative reportage. As well as government officials, members of the royal family were included in the smack down. I would say it was an almost gleeful piling on, were the tone not half so bitter:
Britain itself is a corporate mediocrity, a place where the customer is almost always wrong and people always seem to be working but not much gets done very well. Ineptitude is packaged with a wrapping of present participles, as though an advertising agency had taken over the government and the economy alike,which, in a way, it has: British Gas is“Looking after your world,” British Telecom is “Bringing it all together for London 2012,” while the Metropolitan Police are “Working together for a safer London.” But behind the silly slogans, a combination of greed, incompetence, and increasing authoritarianism is making Britain not only an inefficient but a disagreeable place in which to live—a country now characterized by lost good manners, opportunism and prying.
After reading this article, I was depressed for days. Did this mean that as a visitor to Britain four times in the past eight years, I was merely a starry-eyed, gulled tourist, one who’d come away with the impression of a people who were alive and vibrant, and a countryside whose beauty was almost unearthly?
Now here comes Niall Ferguson, writing in a recent issue of Newsweek, to answer my question somewhat regretfully in the affirmative. Ferguson doesn’t come close to matching Vulliamy’s vituperative, excoriating tone. Nevertheless, he is anxious for, and bewildered by, his homeland, which he compares to fin-de-siècle Vienna in its last throes of ‘nervous splendor:’
In particular, Ferguson declares himself astonished by the lavish plans for the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee:
Last week I watched an astonishing number of bandsmen in bearskin hats and bright red tunics rehearsing for the jubilee celebrations, which culminate next month. Stuck in the resulting traffic, I had time to ponder why, at a time of deep cuts in defense spending, Britain can still afford the world’s finest military bands.
“Austerity” has become the watchword of David Cameron’s premiership as he grapples with the huge deficits run up by his Labour predecessors. Yet there is nothing austere about the Diamond Jubilee. On June 3, according to the official website, “Up to a thousand boats will muster on the river as the Queen prepares to lead one of the largest flotillas ever seen on the River Thames.”
Ferguson does make this concession: “Like Vienna a century ago, London today is one of the world’s most creative cities.” He goes on to name Ian McEwan as his favorite novelist. Fair enough; I too am a McEwan fan, though Solar by and large did not work for me. At the moment, I’m trembling with anticipation at the prospect of reading Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s sequel to the harrowing and spectacular Wolf Hall. (In Slate, William Georgiades posted a review entitled “Hilary Mantel’s Heart of Stone;” the piece is subtitled: “A brilliant follow-up to Wolf Hall from an author whose anger would rip a roof off.’”)
Meanwhile I’m still working my way though The Last Pre-Raphaelite, Fiona MacCarthy’s splendid biography of Edward Burne-Jones. At the same time, I’m happily immersed in Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison. Oh – and I am having the jolliest time with John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists – about which more, in a later post.
Fact is, I’ve read so many fantastic books by and about British authors lately that I could not begin to enumerate them. How do I love the British writers? Let me count the ways:
Of course, this is merely a modest selection from a prodigious list. A good source of information about British and Commonwealth authors can be found at the British Council’s Literature site. (I’d also like to suggest my post entitled Six Gifted Englishwomen.)
I would have to be very naive and oblivious not to acknowledge – especially given the riots of last August – that there is plenty of grief and anger in Britain today, for a variety of reasons. I just got upset all over again by several of the opinion pieces at the site What England Means To Me. It is heartbreaking to read articles like these; their authors are so nearly despairing. So I offer what I hope may act to some small degree as a counterweight to this pain. Here is a sampling of art, music, and film from the British Isles, a place I love deeply:
Finally, there’s some fascinating material in my post on The History of British Art by Andrew Graham-Dixon.
Sir Laurence Olivier as Henry V, in Shakespeare’s history play:
(The Yorkshire adventure was actually my adventure, in 2005 – my first trip to the UK in twenty years. The music is “The Lark Ascending,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.)
Scenes from our recent trip to the Welsh borders, a place off incredibly, unspoiled beauty:
For Royal watchers, here are two sites you might enjoy visiting: The Monarchist, and the official website for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.
The sleep of Arthur in the unknown region of Avalon has…been related to Plutarch’s invocation of the old British belief that the great god Cronos still sleeps upon an island surrounded by waters. This in turn has been related to the myth of the original Albion, which has been associated with the legend of Atlantis; the Druids were supposed to believe that Albion, the spirit or embodiment of the English, was an original portion of the lost continent.
Ackroyd then cautions: “It is a very rich, not to say heady, brew. Any attempt to drink it will inevitably lead to numbness and disorientation.” This comes later in the same chapter:
The story of Arthur has always been striated with sensations of loss and transitoriness, which may well account for its central place within the English imagination; the native sensibility is touched with melancholy…and the sad fate of Arthur and his kingdom corresponds to that national mood. There is something, too, of determination and endurance within this dominant sensation….That combination of bravery and fatalism, endurance and understatement, is the defining mood of Arthurian legend.
Finally, on a lighter note: a clip from one of my favorite episodes of Chef! - my favorite British comedy, and a short, gently satirical comedy entitled Duel at Blood Creek.
D.J. Taylor’s Derby Day has to do primarily with racetrack shenanigans in mid-nineteenth century England. Taylor has assembled a raffish and thoroughly entertaining cast of characters, both equine and human. Where the latter are concerned, each has his or her scheming eye on the main chance. (A possible exception is Miss Ellington, a young governess who finds herself unwittingly embroiled in the devious machinations of those far more worldly wise than herself.)
Part of what makes Derby Day so much fun to read is the author’s effortless mastery of the lingo of mid-Victorian England. This goes for race track touts and aristocrats alike. Their world comes vividly and memorably to life: its sights, sounds, and peculiarities. The novel puts one in mind of Charles Dickens; indeed, mention is made of ‘Mr. Dickens’ on several occasions.
Taylor’s writing is spiced with wit and colorful imagery. In one scene, during a light repast, the gentle and rather hapless Mr. Gresham is attempting to discourse on matters of importance with his daughter. For her part, Rebecca Gresham is anything but hapless: “…the daughter crunched up her toast like some white-armed siren feasting on the bones of drowned mariners….”
Taylor possesses a vivid feel for the history of specific locales. Several scenes in the narrative take place in the Lincolnshire countryside; they concern two adjacent estates, Scroop, which belongs to the Davenants, and another belonging to Mr. Glenister, a bachelor:
This is an ancient part of the world. There are people here, in this corner of England, next to whom the Davenants are brazen interlopers, people who have farmed land for six hundred years. ‘Scroop’ itself is Old Norse, but there were settlers here before that. A year since, one of Mr. Glenister’s men found a coin in an upturned furrow, which a Lincoln antiquary dated to the reign of the Emperor Constantine. It sits on the study mantelpiece, along with a tobacco jar sporting the arms of Mr. Glenister’s Cambridge college and the portrait of his mother.
One of Taylor’s sources for his vivid recreation of things past was My Autobiography and Reminiscences by W.P. Frith. William Powell Frith was an artist of the Victorian era. The Derby Day is one his most famous paintings:
David John Taylor is a writer new to me, whose acquaintance I’m happy to have made. He’s not only a novelist, but also a critic and a biographer (of Thackeray and George Orwell). In other words, he’s yet another of those literary prodigies that Britain still regularly produces, for the delight and edification of the rest of us. (Derby Day made the long list for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.)
Lately I have been in need of reading that is somewhat less fraught and more lighthearted than the usual fare. Not altogether frivolous, mind you – the same requirements apply as always: excellent writing, great sense of place, memorable characters, compelling story. By Jove, Derby Day was just the ticket, on all counts!
Yes – I know….
You see, I’m reading The Last Pre-Raphaelite by Fiona MacCarthy. About a third of the way through her narrative, the author informs us that in 1865, Alice, the elder sister of Burne-Jones’s wife Georgiana – Georgie to all who knew her – married a young artist named John Lockwood Kipling. Kipling had secured a teaching post in Bombay, so he and Alice relocated there shortly after their wedding:
John Lockwood’s career prospered, and on 30 December 1865 they had their first child, the boy who was named Rudyard after Lake Rudyard in Staffordshire, hallowed place where his parents had first met.
I love discovering interrelatedness among great artists and thinkers. My favorite instance of this felicitous phenomenon concerns Ralph Vaughan Williams. His mother Margaret Susan Wedgwood was the great-granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood of pottery fame; Charles Darwin was the composer’s great-uncle.
The Last Pre-Raphaelite is subtitled, ‘Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination.’ Some of us can never get enough of those Victorians: their natures seem so varied, so contradictory, so extremely pragmatic and yet oftentimes downright dreamy. In her preface, Fiona MacCarthy says this of Burne-Jones:
He had become the licensed escapist of his period, perpetrating an art of ancient myths, magical landscapes, insistent sexual yearnings, that expressed deep psychological needs for his contemporaries. His paintings released forces half-hidden in the deep recesses of the Victorian imagination.
The artists who comprised the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were in revolt against what they perceived as the rampant materialism and the relentless moralizing of the age in which they lived. One of their chief aims was to reclaim through their art the spirit, if not the substance, of the Middle Ages – in other words, to go back in time to a period before Raphael, one of the supreme artists of the High Renaissance in Europe. Woven in with this love of the past was a fascination with a past that never was: myths, fairy tales, and legends.
In his art, Edward Burne-Jones strove constantly to attain an ideal of beauty:
‘I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can define or remember, only desire – and the forms divinely beautiful.’
The Last Pre-Raphaelite is a leisurely stroll though the life of an artist and the era whose esthetic proclivities he helped to define. I’m on page 208 out of 536 pages, and I wish the book would never end. Fiona McCarthyis a marvelous writer; she’s also done a biography of Burne-Jones’s lifelong friend, fellow artist, and business partner William Morris.
By the by: the American cover (the first one, below) is lovely; the British one, even more so.
As you view these works, I suggest the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams as an accompaniment. This is ‘Romanza,’ the third movement from Symphony Number Five:
Did Burne-Jones achieve his goal of depicting his ‘beautiful romantic dream?’ You decide:
Burne-Jones began work on The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon in 1881 and did not complete the painting until 1898, the year of his death. Many consider it to be his supreme masterpiece:For a comprehensive survey of the works of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, go to the site of the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. Burne-Jones was born in Birmingham, England, in 1833.
‘The sense of being trapped in a box-like compartment….’ – Murder in the First-Class Carriage, by Kate Colquhoun
These are the main elements of a story told with exceptional skill by Kate Colquhoun. The year is 1864. The crime is both violent and perplexing. And one of its most baffling aspects, both for those who were reading about it and the investigators, is contained in the book’s title. How on earth could such a dastardly deed be done in a First Class Carriage?
Murder in the First-Class Carriage reminded me in many ways of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. As in Kate Summerscale’s fascinating narrative, we learn from Colquhoun about advances being made in the art and science of police work in mid-Victorian Britain. For instance, in 1842, Police Commissioner Sir Richard Mayne and another highly placed official in the force, Charles Rowan, were tasked with creating a different kind of policeman:
No longer concerned primarily with the prevention of crime and without the visible authority of a uniform, these were the first detectives: eight conscientious men were selected, including Stephen Thornton and Jack Whicher. Encouraged by the adulation of writers like Dickens, Britain had broadly allowed itself to be seduced into a belief in the brilliance of these perspicacious, dogged, plain-clothed detectives.
Colquhoun then appends this cautionary note: “Scepticism…was growing, and admiration was balanced by distrust and delays and irresolution from the elite investigators emphasised their fallibility.” Ironically, it was doubts like these that were responsible for derailing Jack Whicher’s investigation of the murder at Road Hill House. (The suspicions of Mr. Whicher concerning this terrible murder, which occurred in1860, were ultimately proven to be only too well founded.)
Victorians were both fascinated and repelled by the triumphant speed and ruthless efficiency of the railroads:
Woven into the excitement of railway travel, a corresponding nervousness had developed about the loss of individual control. The sense of being trapped in a box-like compartment, whirled along at speed and treated like just one in a stream of disposable, moveable goods was, at best, disorientating and, at worst, threatening.
Colquhoun cites the fears of Dombey, as articulated by his creator Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son:
‘The power that forced itself upon its iron way…defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it…was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.’
Murder in the First-Class Carriage is subtitled, “The First Victorian Railway Killing.” This raised the question in my mind as to how many more such crimes had occurred. Helpful information on this topic is provided by the British Transport Police, in the history section of that organization’s website. (Really, one can only be grateful to the British for their obsession with the minutiae of their own history. It benefits all of us Anglophiles no end!)
Murder in the First-Class Carriage lacks the element of pathos that made The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher such a riveting and affecting read. Still, Kate Colquhoun’s writing, by turns incisive and lyrical, is every bit as good as Kate Summerscale’s. In addition to the telling a riveting story, Murder in the First-Class Carriage is a rich compendium of the mores and folkways that characterized the denizens of mid-Victorian England. I loved it.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits* and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
*According to Wikipedia: “An ait (or eyot) is a small island. It is especially used to refer to islands found on the River Thames and its tributaries in England.”
February 7 marked the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. In honor of the occasion, Carol selected The Mystery of Edwin Drood for discussion at the next week’s meeting of the Usual Suspects. During the run-up to the meeting, she’s been forwarding us some interesting material:
From the New York Times: “The World of Charles Dickens, Complete with Pizza Hut”
A ten question quiz in USA Today.
From NPR Weekend Edition: “A Tale of Two Centuries: Charles Dickens Turns 200″
Dickens 2012 lists a variety of events celebrating Dickens’s birthday. The recently refurbished Charles Dickens Museum is housed in the only extant domicile in London known to have been lived in by the writer.
Oh, to be in London….
The Dead Witness, an excellent new anthology, is subtitled “A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories.” Editor Michael Sims has included the inevitable heavy hitters in the genre, but in assembling this collection, he had an additional purpose: ‘I looked for a lot of forgotten things by big-name writers and lost, wonderful stories by people no one remembers.’ Included in The Dead Witness is a fascinating nonfiction piece by Charles Dickens entitled “On Duty with Inspector Field.” Apparently Dickens frequently toured London’s sordid underbelly by night, in the company of a policeman. Then, as now, the regions of the city blasted by poverty and despair were hidden from the eyes of ordinary people.
In a similar anthology, Masters of Mystery, you’ll find a terrific story called “Hunted Down.” The following brief excerpt demonstrates Dickens’s keen understanding of the subtle nature of criminal investigation. (It’s also a good example of his seemingly effortless yet extremely effective use of figurative language):
An observer of men who finds himself steadily repelled by some apparently trifling thing in a stranger is right to give it great weight. It may be the clue to the whole mystery. A hair or two will show where a lion is hidden. A very little key will open a very heavy door.
In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale, we learn that Dickens joined the fevered speculation concerning the sensational murder at Road Hill House in 1860. (Dickens’s close friend and collaborator Wilkie Collins did likewise.) Jack Whicher is frequently cited as the real life precursor of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, though it’s worth noting that Michael Sims makes a similar claim for Inspector Field.
I love Simon Schama’s tribute in this week’s Newsweek. He begins with a series of questions:
Two hundred years on from his birth, how close is Charles Dickens to you? Do Pip and Peggotty, Carton and Copperfield, Pumblechook, Squeers, and Creakle have a place in your mind? Do you need Dickens as you need food and drink?
He hopes fervently that your answer is yes, He then proceeds to remind us of the linguistic gifts bestowed on us by the author:
We make much of the collapse of English into the squawk of the tweet and the text. To read Dickens, now more than ever, is to experience its opposite: to be caught up in an abundant tumble of words—and in language juicy with the flux of life.
Dickens was great with first lines. My favorite has long been the opening sentence of David Copperfield:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
On February 7, there was a wreath laying ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Dickens is buried there, along with so many of the greats of English arts and letters, in the South Transept, popularly known as Poets’ Corner. Prince Charles and Camilla were in attendance.Ralph Fiennes read the passage from Bleak House in which Dickens narrates the death of Jo, the crossing sweeper.
Here is the video. (A commercial must be viewed first.) Gentle suggestion: Have some Kleenex handy.