Isabel Dalhousie’s mind is a wondrous place in which to spend time. I love the way quotations from her beloved W.H. Auden invariably come to mind on apt occasions. At one point in The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, she spies a banner reading “We must love one another” draped across the facade of a church. She is immediately put in mind of Auden’s poem “September 1939,” in which the last line of the penultimate stanza is “We must love one another or die.” Auden subsequently altered that line to read “We must love one another and die.” (Italics mine.) He then repudiated the poem altogether, calling it, in Isabel’s words, mendacious. She hastens to add that in her view, the work still retains “a grave beauty.”
In my view, the revised version of the line in question achieves a whole new level of profundity. Click here to read the entire poem, and here for an article that appeared in the New York Times in December of 2001: “Beliefs; After September 11, a 62-year-old poem by Auden drew new attention. Not all of it was favorable.”
The Isabel Dalhousie novels invariably feature expressions of love for Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside. Early in the novel, Isabel finds herself driving out of the city. Her route takes her past Stirling Castle and the monument to William Wallace. It seems that Scottish rugby fans are wont to sing the praises of Wallace, even though his triumph over “the English army of cruel Edward” is seven hundred years in the past. Asking herself why this custom persists, the answer that comes to her first in an unwelcome one: “Because we may not have very much else, apart from our past.” But she immediately rejects this rationale as untrue and unworthy:
We did have a great deal else. We had this land that was unfolding before her now as she turned off towards Doune; these fields and these soft hills and this sky and this light and these rivers that were pure and fresh, and the music that could send shivers of pleasure up the spine and make one so proud of Scotland and of belonging.
She concludes: “We had all that.”
(The musical accompaniment is from Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.)
As is usual in these novels, the mystery is of a mild nature; though intriguing, it generates little actual suspense. A painting by Nicholas Poussin has been stolen from an avid art collector; a mutual acquaintance enlists the assistance of Isabel, who is herself a collector, primarily of Scottish paintings. In the course of the investigation, she mentions having been to exhibit entitled ‘Poussin and Nature.’ That was in fact an actual exhibit: I saw it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and will never forget it.
Isabel Dalhousie not only thinks deeply, she feels deeply as well. Putting Charlie to sleep, she feels as though she could break down in tears: “…she could have wept for the love of him, as any mother might while watching over her child” (and any grandmother, I might add).
Finally, one of the great pleasures I’ve experienced in following this series is watching the love of Isabel and Jamie grow and mature, seeing Isabel gain confidence in Jamie’s devotion to her, and seeing Jaimie himself increasingly amazed by what a treasure he has in Isabel.
He looked at the clock; Charlie would have to be fetched in half an hour or so. He put his arms about Isabel and embraced her, pulling her to him. Her hands were on his shoulder blades. It was warm in the house and the sound of a mower drifted in from over the road through an open window, bringing with it the smell of cut grass.
Ron and I were deeply moved and impressed by our 2007 visited to the newly opened Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh. I’ll be interested to see if, in upcoming installments in this series, McCall Smith treats specifically of Scotland’s push toward independence. A referendum on the question is scheduled to take place in 2014.