A joyous romp with a megalomaniac: The Fall of Troy, by Peter Ackroyd

December 11, 2007 at 2:44 pm (books, History)

troy.jpg peter-ackroyd-1.jpg I have two words for this novel: What Fun!! In The Fall of Troy, Peter Ackroyd has imaginatively re-created Heinrich Schliemann’s famous archaeological expedition in search of Troy. In the process, the author gives us a joyous romp with a megalomaniac. By the time you finish this novel, you’ll be more afraid of the wrath of Schliemann/Obermann than of the celebrated wrath of Achilles!

The year is 1869. Heinrich Obermann, a man in his mid-forties, has just married seventeen-year-old Sophia Chrysanthis and is preparing to travel with her to the dig in progress at the mound known as Hissarlik, in Turkey. Once there, it becomes immediately apparent to Sophia – and to the reader – that Obermann will not be second-guessed on any aspect of the project. Every find made at the site must either ratify his preconceptions – or be thrown out (sometimes quite literally!). He is imperious, arrogant, narrowminded and controlling, and if you cross him or dispute his conclusions (many of which are arrived at a priori), he’ll erupt like a volcano. Still, believe it or not, he can also be irresistible. For one thing, his enthusiasm is boundless, and he is an incorrigible optimist. He is capable of tremendous generosity and affection toward his wife and his colleagues. But mostly, you cannot help but admire – almost envy – his passion for the gods and heroes of The Iliad.

When the Obermanns arrive at Hissarlik, workers are already busy at the dig. Also present is Leonid Pluyshin, Heinrich’s Russian assistant; Lineau, a French professor who is blind; and Kadri Bey, the Turkish overseer. There are also various gofers – and several spies. At first, things go supremely well, with one impressive find following another. Then trouble comes to this paradise of archaeological discovery in the form of visiting scholars. The first, William Brand, is an American. Brand is neutralized in a very strange way. The second visitor, Britisher Alexander Thornton, is not so easily disposed of. In addition to the threat posed by these two men to Obermann and his undertaking, other tensions are percolating to the surface at the site.

And how does Mrs. Obermann fare in all this? When she finds out that she’s going to be living in a crude hut located on the actual site of the dig, she sits down, has a good cry – then rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. At first, Sophia endeavors to match Heinrich’s ardor. As is the way with men like Obermann, he blithely takes her loyalty for granted, assuming that nothing could impinge upon it as long as his personal magnetism holds sway. But though young, Sophia is no fool, and Heinrich has been keeping a secret from her…

There are some vivid, poetic set pieces in this novel. My favorite is the description of a journey undertaken on horseback by Heinrich, Sophia, Thornton, and the Reverend Decimus Harding, an occasional visitor at Hissarlik. They are traveling to Mount Ida:

“The sun was now setting, and the clear atmosphere presaged a cold night. He [Harding] had not expected their journey to last so long, and did not greatly welcome a night in the Turkish countryside. Sophia, however, had been taken up by Obermann’s spirit of adventure and relished every moment on the mountain. Thornton pointed out to her the waning sunlight shining upon the rock face, so that it seemed like some furnace glowing in the heart of the mountain.

‘Now,’ said Obermann, ‘we may visit the three goddesses.’ They retraced their path a little way, then took a narrow track leading down through the rocks and gorse bushed into the trees. It was darker and more sombre here, away from the vista of the mountain range and the sound of the rushing water. The travellers were quiet. Then they came out into a small clearing, where three tall alder trees rose close together. ‘Holy ground,’ Obermann said.

They dismounted and tethered their horses to oak trees on the periphery of the clearing. ‘The trees grow where the goddesses once stood. The alder trees love water. They love the Scamander, as the goddesses did.’

To Harding’s amazement, Obermann then went down upon his knees and bent his head in prayer.”

He was, as you can see, a true believer.

In the chapter on King Arthur in his book Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd describes what can happen when you immerse yourself in the Arthurian legends: “It is a very rich, not to say heady, brew. Any attempt to drink it will inevitably lead to numbness and disorientation.” In The Fall of Troy, he shows how the same mysterious forces can overpower the imagination of one who immerses himself (or herself) in the Homeric legends. I can testify to this effect in my own small way. I just finished listening to Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Iliad, read by George Guidall*. Upon hearing the final words – “And so they buried Hector, tamer of horses” – I felt as though I were re-entering the world after spending time submerged in another medium. That’s it – that’s all? I kept asking myself. It seemed an abrupt ending; I was reluctant to bid farewell to that strange enchanted place.

*(Yes, by the way, that is the same George Guidall who is the delight of so many fans of recorded books – the very one who reads, among other things, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries. Is the guy versatile or what?!)

I leave you with this amazing picture of Sophia Schliemann, decked out in the “jewels of Helen,” part of a cache of valuables purportedly found at Hissarlik and called by Schliemann “Priam’s Treasure.”

sophia_schliemann_treasure.jpg

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The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne: a book club discussion

December 8, 2007 at 4:33 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

In life, one is sometimes glad to be proved wrong.

ghost.jpg berne.jpg When our book club chose The Ghost at the Table for its next selection, I groaned inwardly. Oh no, here we go again, another earnest, dreary slog through a dysfunctional family’s dirty laundry. But I was in for a pleasant surprise: Suzanne Berne’s lively writing, laced with irony and humor, and her skill at creating believable, three-dimensional characters won me over early on.

There is tension and conflict aplenty in the Fiske family, largely brought about by the unacknowledged envy and resentment felt by the narrator, Cynthia, toward her older sister Frances. Initially, Frances exhibits the persona of the Woman Who Has It All: beautiful home, two daughters, loving husband, a successful career as an interior designer. But it’s a brittle surface, and cracks appear in it at a moment’s notice. For her part, Cynthia has an unattractive tendency to exploit those fissures.

Sibling rivalry is not exactly an unusual subject for a novel, but Berne brings these two women to life in such a way that the reader experiences their problems as unique to them. As is so often the case with other people’s problems – the foundation fodder for most gossip, after all – two relatively ordinary people become extraordinarily interesting. (All happy families are alike; all unhappy families, etc.)

In the course of the novel, Cynthia engages in plenty of bad behavior . Our group’s members tried to understand and empathize, rather than merely render judgment, but the sheer perversity of this pigheaded, extremely intelligent woman – she writes historical fiction for children – makes that a tall order. Sorry, “Cynnie,” no matter how much you resent your sister, you do not make a deliberate effort to seduce her husband!

Cynthia has come East to join her family for Thanksgiving in response to Frances’s entreaty. Frances has alluded obscurely to marital problems and other conflicts; she seems to feel that Cynthia’s presence at the holiday celebration would in some way alleviate her big sister’s unease. Thus does hope continually triumph over experience! (And which of us has not experienced dashed hopes in much the same circumstances?) While Cynthia lives a breezy, unattached life in California, she can distance herself from family squabbles – and her own confused, unresolved feelings about them. But coming home forces her to confront the entire untidy mess. Rather than being helpful and soothing. her presence serves only to exacerbate existing difficulties.

Ghost at the Table has a host of supporting characters, all of whom add in varying degrees to the distracting hubbub of the holiday. In particular, there is the ailing patriarch. To say that Frances and Cynthia both have ambivalent feelings toward their father is to understate things by a long chalk. For one thing, when they were still young and living at home, he installed his young lover Ilse in the family home directly upon the sad premature death of their mother. Now, not wanting to expend what’s left of her youth on the care of a sick old man, Ilse unceremoniously disposes of her husband by handing him back to his daughters.

This situation is yet another cause of strife between Frances and Cynthia. Can they resolve their differences in a meaningful way? Are decades-old conflicts amenable to resolution through the genuine, if intermittent, good will of those involved, coupled with the well-meaning intervention of sympathetic onlookers? And just who is the Ghost at the Thanksgiving table?

The action of this novel takes place primarily at the home of Frances and her husband Walter. They have the great good fortune to live in one of my favorite places in the continental U.S.: Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is positively soggy with history! I’ve been there twice, and each time I felt deeply grateful to be walking in the footsteps of louisa-may-alcott.jpg orchardhouse2.jpg Louisa May Alcott (Orchard House), emerson_rw.jpg emerson_house.jpg Ralph Waldo Emerson (whose house is preserved and open to the public),

thoreau.jpg walden-pond.jpg Henry David Thoreau (Walden Pond, of course, and so much more),

and nathaniel_hawthorne.jpg old-manse.jpg Nathaniel Hawthorne ( the splendid, though modest, Old Manse). At the time in which the events of the novel take place, Cynthia Fiske is working on a book about Mark Twain and his daughters. At first, I was impatient with all the Twain lore, as I am far more interested in the aforementioned group of worthies whose spirits remain so vividly alive in Concord. But I have to say, Berne piqued my interest in the Twain family, which was apparently far more troubled than I had hitherto realized. (Unhappy families are all different – or words to that effect, pace Tolstoy!)

Our discussion leaders kicked things off by asking each group member about her own family Thanksgiving celebrations, both present and past; we were asked to relate these recollections, if possible, to the people and events in the book. Well, that question opened the floodgates and led to a stimulating exchange of views on many facets of this fine novel.

( god-in-concord.jpg If you would like to read fiction that takes full advantage of its Concord setting, I highly recommend Jane Langton’s delightful mystery God in Concord.)

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Roberta Recommends: Best of 2007, Part Two

December 6, 2007 at 2:57 pm (Best of 2007, Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Favorite Crime Fiction: Mysteries, Thrillers, etc.

indian-bride.jpg The Indian Bride, By Karin Fossum. I’m cheating a bit on this one; it was published in 2005 in the U.K. as Calling Out for You! and was acquired by the library under that title, at which time I read it.calling.jpg But it was “officially” published here this year as The Indian Bride, so I’m considering it as a 2007 title. At any rate – whatever the pubyear or the title, it is well worth reading, featuring as it does one of the most poignant love stories I’ve encountered in quite some time. And of course it benefits greatly by being set – vividly – in the author’s native Norway.

arsenic.jpg The Arsenic Labyrinth, the third in Martin Edwards’s atmospheric series set in England’s Lake District;

fall.jpg A Fall from Grace by Robert Barnard an author that always delivers the goods;

suffer-children.jpg Suffer the Little Children by Donna Leon, an author who is also reliably excellent. IMHO, this is one of the best of the Guido Brunetti novels.

raven.jpg Raven Black by Ann Cleeves, whom we had the pleasure of meeting while touring the U.K. in September. This mystery has a uniquely remote, exotic setting: the island of Shetland, off the Scottish coast.

hangman.jpg The Secret Hangman by Peter Lovesey, an author of police procedurals set in Bath. I read them all; they never disappoint;

broken1.jpg The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. Granted, it took me a while to get into this book by one of Australia’s premier crime novelists, but once I did, I was fairly riveted.

savage5.jpg The Savage Garden by Mark Mills. Italy’s glorious art heritage and the beautiful, mysterious countryside surrounding Florence are the real stars in this tale of love, betrayal – and murder.

tinderbox5.jpg The Tinderbox by Jo Bannister. A community of the homeless living beneath London’s highway overpasses becomes realer than real in a novel peopled by completely believable and immensely sympathetic characters.

water-stone.jpg Water Like a Stone by Deborah Crombie. Okay, it was a bit too long, but it’s always a pleasure to spend time with Gemma James, Duncan Kincaid and company. And I especially enjoyed the canal boat lore that was liberally salted throughout the novel. (Plus Crombie was a such a delight at the National Book Festival!)

bad-quarto.jpg The Bad Quarto by Jill Paton Walsh. Yet another delightful academic mystery! Though set in Cambridge rather than Oxford, this novel, with its redoubtable protagonist Imogen Quy, put me happily in mind of Gaudy Night by the formidable Dorothy L. Sayers.

zugzwang.jpg Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett. I haven’t quite finished it, but already I know that this thriller set in St. Petersburg in 1917 belongs on this list.

I was trying to decide on one title in this category as THE best of the year – but it was too hard! And I’m glad of that fact – glad that I enjoyed so much high quality crime fiction published in 2007. So…in addition to the excellent novels enumerated above, these four were, for this reader, truly outstanding:

whatdeadknow.jpg What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman. Basing her story on the actual disappearance of two sisters from a mall in suburban Maryland in 1975, Lippman has written a novel filled with the pain of irreparable loss.

water.jpg The Water’s Lovely by Ruth Rendell. What can I say except – she’s still got it! – “it” being the knack for creating volatile, unstable, injured characters, throwing them together, and mesmerizing the reader as the pressure builds and builds… One of this amazing author’s best, IMHO – and that means the best, period.

fat.jpg Death Comes for the Fat Man, By Reginald Hill. I can never stop singing the praises of this writer, especially with regard to the Dalziel/Pascoe novels. They are literate witty, and superbly plotted.

careful1.jpg The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith. My only hesitation in placing this novel in this category is that the plot features only the barest hint of a mystery. Otherwise, I absolutely loved it! The author combines a great cast of characters with an intriguing story and a setting – Edinburgh – brought vividly to life. Who would have thought it would be so stimulating to spend time with a woman – Isabel Dalhousie – who evaluates everyone’s actions, including her own, as to their ethical and moral implications? (Notice I said evaluate, not judge.) Add to this the fact that at the age of forty-two, she is a new mother and is still embroiled in a passionate love affair with the infant’s 28-year-old father. Who could resist this set-up? And the writing is gorgeous.

[There are some good book discussion candidates on this list, in particular The Indian Bride, The Arsenic Labyrinth, Suffer the Little Children, Raven Black, The Tinderbox, and The Careful Use of Compliments. ]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Roberta Recommends: Best of 2007, Part One

December 5, 2007 at 6:16 pm (Best of 2007, Book clubs, books)

snowy.jpg It is the first snowy day of the Winter of ’07. And is it ever beautiful out there, white and silent and serene, putting me in mind of Ezra Jack Keats’s classic picture book.

I have no idea how many parts “Best of 2007” will consist of, so here goes:

Favorite Fiction Published in 2007

Well…here’s a surprise: There’s not much of it! Or maybe it’s not a surprise. I started many books that reviewers liked and friends recommended, only to put them down in frustration. The fault may have been with me; I don’t know. Anyway, these made the cut:

dr-moses.jpg The Museum of Dr. Moses, Joyce Carol Oates’s wonderfully creepy story collection;

canasta.jpg Cheating at Canasta, by that master of the short story William Trevor;

elephanta.jpg The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux;

chesil.jpg On Chesil Beach by “the Magus of Fitzrovia,” Ian McEwan

And finally, a novel that haunts me still – and may do so forever:

other-side-of-you.jpg The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers.

[Any of the above fiction titles would make an excellent book club selection.]

 

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A Fall from Grace, by Robert Barnard

December 3, 2007 at 8:28 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

fall.jpg barnard.jpg It’s always a pleasure to have a favorite author who you know will not disappoint you. For me, Robert Barnard is one of those authors. A Fall from Grace is the third mystery by Barnard that I’ve read this year. His novels are set in Yorkshire; Death by Sheer Torture and The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori were on the reading list for the trip to Yorkshire and Scotland that we so enjoyed this past September.

Barnard’s current protagonist is Charlie Peace. Although Charlie is attached to the Leeds Constabulary, he prefers to live with his wife Felicity and his daughter Carola in one of Yorkshire’s smaller villages. As A Fall from Grace begins, Charlie and his family have recently settled in Slepton Edge. Felicity’s father Rupert Coggenhoe has also come to live in the village, though not with Charlie and Felicity. Rupert is a difficult man – too difficult to live in the same house with. In fact, Charlie and Felicity are not sure they’ll be able to survive living in the same village with him! This worry, however, soon proves to be a moot point…

What sets Charlie Peace apart as a policeman in northern England is that he is black. His wife Felicity, an aspiring novelist (like Ellie Pascoe in Reginald Hill’s series), is white. While this fact at first takes some getting used to for the residents of a small village in Yorkshire, they tend by and large to be welcoming and friendly toward Charlie and his family. Charlie Peace’s ethnicity infuses a refreshing new element into the traditional English village mystery, a greatly treasured (by me, anyway) subgenre of of British crime ficiton.

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Private Splendor: truly splendid!

December 3, 2007 at 1:20 pm (Anglophilia, books, History)

splendor.jpg alexis.jpg Private Splendor: Great Families at Home, with text by Alexis Gregory [pictured above] and photography by Marc Walter.

This is quite possibly the most beautiful book I have ever seen. In it, eight European estates are profiled and photographed:

kasteel2.jpg kasteel.jpg Kasteel De Haar in the Netherlands

pilatos2.jpg pilatos.jpg Casa De Pilatos in Seville

harewood_house_seen_from_the_garden.jpg Harewood House in Yorkshire

gangi.jpg Palazzo Gangi in Palermo, Sicily

sacchetti-galleria-138.jpg sacchetti-149.jpg Palazzo Sacchetti in Rome

scloss2.jpg schloss.jpg Schloss St. Emmeram in Bavaria

palacio_dos_marqueses_da_fronteira_e_de_alorna.jpg Palacio Fronteira in Portugal.

And Chateau De Harque in France.

Despite enormous challenges, mainly financial, the families to whom these magnificent homes belong have managed not only to stay connected to their vast properties, but to reside there part or full time. How have they pulled off this daunting feat? From the jacket flap (which serves as the book’s introduction):

“Solutions involve compromises ranging from opening the houses to the public during established visiting hours to renting out the great salons for social occasions and business events, from marrying demanding and unattractive heiresses [!!] to receiving government grants or selling the family jewels.”

This is one of those rare coffee table books in which the text is well worth reading; that is, after you’ve recovered from the jaw-dropping experience of looking at the photographs. The families attached to these homes have fascinating histories. Their struggle to hold on to and maintain these properties is not just a matter of family pride, though that in itself is a force to be reckoned with. Often the family’s history is intertwined with that of the land they inhabit.

I had the great good fortune to visit Harewood House in 2005. The audio tour was narrated by George Lascelles, 7th Earl Harewood and Queen Elizabeth’s first cousin. Okay, yes, I’m a sucker for this kind of thing! Maybe it takes one whose grandparents traveled in steerage to this country with not much more than the clothes they were wearing to appreciate real lineage in others. On the other hand, the debt I owe to my grandparents for undertaking this journey (in order to escape the pogroms that were a fact of life for Russian Jews in the early part of the 20th century) can never be overstated.

At any rate – Harewood House is simply breathtaking, as are its gardens. See for yourself…

dscn0043.jpg dscn0041.jpg dscn0045.jpg

[Photos by (gasp) Yours Truly!]

ingilby.jpg ingilby2.jpg When I returned from Yorkshire in 2005, I purchased online a book entitled Yorkshire’s Great Houses: Behind the Scenes, by Sir Thomas Ingilby. Around the year 1306 the first Sir Thomas Ingibly aquired an estate at Ripley, a tiny village near Harrogate, through marriage to its heiress. His son, also named Thomas, is supposed to have saved the life of King Edward III in the year 1355. It seems that they were hunting in Knaresborough Forest, and the King was threatened by a wild boar. Sir Thomas speedily dispatched the beast, thereby acquiring favor – and more land – from Edward. Since the fourteenth century, Ripley Castle has been continuously inhabited by the Ingilby family. The present Sir Thomas offers this anecdote in the book’s introduction: “I hate form filling, but there is nearly always a question that asks, ‘How long at present address?’, so I write, ‘697 years,’ just to test the system. It happens to be true in our case, but you would think that the answer would be sufficiently unusual for someone to raise an eyebrow. Clearly not. In thirty years of writing this answer, I have never received a single query.”

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Roberta REALLY Recommends: Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939, by Katie Roiphe

December 1, 2007 at 3:04 am (Anglophilia, books, History)

uncommon.jpg I just came across a rather intriguing phrase: “ludic reading.” In an article in last week’s Newsweek, “The Future of Reading,” Steven Levy attributes the coinage to Victor Nell, author of Lost in a Book. Ludic reading can be defined as “…that trance-like state that heavy readers enter when consuming books for pleasure.” Those of us who read compulsively will know exactly what Nell is referring to: that state of altered consciousness from which one ultimately emerges blinking, like a mole exposed to sudden sunlight.

That was me this past Thursday when I finished Uncommon Arrangements. This book was the most delicious fun to read! The seven portraits of married life read rather like extended People Magazine feature pieces, only the celebrities are from the world of letters rather than show business.

The commonality among all the profiles in the book lies in the attempt to broaden the concept of marriage so that it can encompass not only extramarital affairs but sometimes a menage a trois, with everyone living in some degree of amity under the same roof. Why this push toward unconventional lifestyles? The early 1900’s in Britain saw the avant garde in full revolt against Victorian proprieties. This was true in many areas of life, not just the purely personal. but it was in that arena that the gauntlet was most flagrantly thrown down. I found Roiphe’s introduction a tad windy – yes, marriage is an institution full of mysteries and contradictions; I think this is something we can all stipulate. But when she begins describing the lives of her various subjects, the book really takes off.

wellsh.jpg rebecca-west-200x287.jpg The first section on H.G. Wells begins with his young mistress, Rebecca West, in the north of England giving birth to his son. Naturally, H.G. is not there; he is with his wife Jane and their children in his country house, Easton Glebe, in Essex. In fact, the husbands in this book have a tremendous talent for not being there for their wives and mistresses. I was quite annoyed at H.G. – that is, until I got to the next chapter on Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry.

km-portrait4.jpg jmurray.jpg Suffice it to say that John Middleton Murry made H.G. Wells look like a model husband. If ever a woman needed a supportive husband, it was Katherine Mansfield. Yet she and Murry spent most of their married lives apart. What makes this fact especially galling is that Katherine’s health was extremely precarious. To be fair, she wanted her independence as much as he wanted his. They both had literary aspirations, but it was clear from the outset that Katherine was the truly gifted writer. Murry may have genuinely loved her, and been basically well-intentioned, but he comes across in Roiphe’s descriptions of him as weak and self-involved. One thing is certain: his conspicuous absence from Katherine’s life while she became increasingly ill with tuberculosis was unforgivable.

Katherine Mansfield died at age of 34. Roiphe describes the moment in which she succumbs, with Murry, as always, ceding the field to others. It’s a devastating scene.

I was trying to think who it was that John Middleton Murry reminded me of, and then I remembered: Percy Bysshe Shelley. He too did not know what it meant to be a supportive spouse; Mary Shelley’s various tribulations regarding illness and childbirth were usually met by a recitation of his own ailments and complaints. Like Murry, he was not mean-spirited or cruel – just largely useless as a husband.

There were many moments while I was reading this section when I could have cheerfully strangled Murry. What a worthless twit! thought I; surely the worst husband I’m going to encounter in these pages. But… oh no! Next came Frank Russell, older brother of mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. elizabeth-arnim.jpg Elizabeth Von Arnim had the extreme ill fortune to be wife to this dreadful man. Only it wasn’t really a matter of bad luck, because she knew what he was like and, smart and sophisticated though she was, she married him anyway. Oh well – go figure. Perversity in choices, especially those made by women, is one of the principal themes that emerges repeatedly in these narratives.

One of the many pleasures of this book is the way in which personages from previous chapters put in appearances in later ones. H.G Wells and Rebecca West in particular appear and re-appear. And of course, members of the Bloomsbury group – Clive and Vanessa Bell, Vanessa’s sister Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, et. al. – weave their way in and out of the lives of their contemporaries. The chapter on the Bells was positively dizzying; a flow chart might have been useful! Everyone thinks of the drama of the Bloomsbury group playing out in London, but many crucial events in their personal lives occurred in Vanessa and Clive’s country home, Charleston. This house is filled with Vanessa’s exquisite painting. Charleston is profiled, not to mention gorgeously photographed, in the book Historic Arts & Crafts Homes of Great Britain, by Brian D. Coleman.

artscrafts.jpg charleston2.jpg charleston.jpg

One can hardly escape the irony of the fact that, despite all their efforts to establish the parameters of what in later years would be called an open marriage, the best intentions of the couples in this book foundered repeatedly as the green-eyed monster reared its ugly, inevitable head. Some basic emotions, it would seem, are virtually impossible to legislate out of the human heart!

In summary, here’s my reaction to the seven portrayals set forth in Uncommon Arrangements:

The most absorbing and intriguing: Jane and H.G. Wells and Rebecca West;

vanessabell.jpg The most complex, richly woven tapestry: Clive and Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and their circle (though I was rather surprised that Roiphe chose not to address the subject of Virginia Woolf’s suicide in this chapter). As I was reading this section of the book, I kept asking myself what attracted all these men to Vanessa Bell; then I found this photograph, and stopped asking…

radclyffe.jpg The most astonishing: Una Troubridge, Radclyffe Hall, and Evguenia Souline;

morrell2.jpg prmorrellp.jpg The least compelling story: Ottoline and Philip Morrell, though to be fair, the competition was very stiff. (Actually, I thought the most interesting fact about Ottoline Morrell was that she was six feet tall!)

veranurse.jpg The most affecting meditation on love and loss: Vera Brittain, George Gordon Catlin, and Winifred Holtby;

The single most odious character: Frank Russell, hands down! (No picture, and it’s probably just as well).

katherine2.jpg Finally, the single most poignant and haunting story: Katherine Mansfield.

Katie Roiphe has appended a comprehensive bibliography as well as a fascinating chapter of notes in which she details the voluminous reading and research she did in preparation for the writing of this book. I’m not promising I’ll read them – I never promise anything to anyone regarding what I might read! – but I’m intrigued by the following works:

fountain.jpg The Fountain Overflows and The Young Rebecca, by Rebecca West;

H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life by Anthony West, Rebecca’s son;

“Mother and Son,” a rather amazing essay by Anthony West in which he heaps vituperation upon his mother (You have to ante up for this. I did, and I sure got my money’s worth!). If you’re curious as to how the children of these irregular unions sometimes fared, West’s piece is a real cautionary tale.

Katherine Mansfield’s short stories (Several, like the devastating “Miss Brill,” are available in full text online.);

enchanted1.jpg Elizabeth and Her German Garden and Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim;

bloomsbury.jpg Bloomsbury Recalled, by Quentin Bell;

well.jpg The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall;

Radclyffe Hall at the Well of Loneliness: A Sapphic Chronicle, by Lovat Dickson;

testament.jpg Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain.

roiphe190.jpg Katie Roiphe is the daughter of novelist/memoirist Anne Roiphe; she shares with her mother a rich, fluid prose style. I especially admire this passage in which she comments on Elizabeth Von Arnim’s Enchanted April:

“In this fantasy that a place will change the deep-seated pattern of a relationship lay a wish: That brusque, moody husbands are literally transformed into tender devoted lovers; that they return to their true selves. What, she was asking herself, would have happened if Russell had changed? In this implausible, lovely, silly romantic universe, one sees much of Elizabeth: a sense of adventure so unusual, a sensitivity to nature so resplendent that it can alter the course of a marriage. There is a beautiful place, a house and garden in the world that can affect its magic on human relations: a vista out to the sea so inspiring that it opens the heart.”

april.jpg Reading this really made me wish that I could have known Elizabeth Von Arnim. Enchanted April was made into a lovely film in 1992 starring, among others, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Joan Plowright, and Michael Kitchen.

Finally, there is this memorable line about H.G. Wells: “He was protective of his wife, and did not like her to be abused by his mistresses.”

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