Although witches had been accused and executed prior to 1692, it was in that year that the accusations and executions reached a fever pitch. Twenty people were convicted of practicing witchcraft and put to death for it – nineteen by hanging and one, Giles Corey – by being “pressed to death.” Because he refused to enter plea, this is what was done to him:
As a result of his refusal to plead, on September 17, Sheriff George Corwin led Corey to a pit in the open field beside the jail and in accordance with the above process, before the Court and witnesses, stripped Giles of his clothing, laid him on the ground in the pit, and placed boards on his chest. Six men then lifted heavy stones, placing them one by one, on his stomach and chest. Giles Corey did not cry out, let alone make a plea.
After two days, Giles was asked three times to plead innocent or guilty to witchcraft. Each time he replied, “More weight.” More and more rocks were piled on him, and the Sheriff from time to time would stand on the boulders staring down at Corey’s bulging eyes. Robert Calef, who was a witness along with other townsfolk, later said, “In the pressing, Giles Corey’s tongue was pressed out of his mouth; the Sheriff, with his cane, forced it in again.”
Three mouthfuls of bread and water were fed to the old man during his many hours of pain. Finally, Giles Corey cried out “More weight!” and died. Supposedly, just before his death, he cursed Sheriff Corwin and the entire town of Salem.
from the Wikipedia entry
At the time that this extraordinarily cruel procedure was carried out upon him, the resolutely brave Giles Corey was eighty-one years old. (Sheriff George Corwin, by the by, was a major beneficiary of the Salem witch hunt, as he eagerly confiscated the property of the condemned souls and parceled out the booty to his confederates and to his own bulging coffers.)
The devil was loose, all right. But the sanctimonious judges, in thrall to a group of shrieking, convulsing girls, had, it would seem, gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick.
The death of seventy-one-year-old Rebecca Nurse was similarly appalling. A blameless woman of exemplary character and piety, she was very nearly acquitted. But one of the judges – William Stoughton, I believe, a man with much to answer for – gave the jury a pointed warning, and they ended by convicting her, probably because they were afraid not to. She, along with eighteen others, was hanged in 1692, a year in which the devil enjoyed an exceptionally rich harvest of souls in Salem Town, Salem Village, and nearby Andover.
As Schiff describes them, the Puritans of New England were almost fated to experience this dire (as perceived by them) onslaught of malevolence:
The Puritan was wary and watchful. His faith kept him off balance and on guard. And if you intended to live in a state of nerve-racking insecurity, in expectation of ambush and meteorological rebuke–on the watch for every brand of intruder, from the “ravening wolves of heresy” to the “wild boars of tyranny,” as a 1694 narrative had it–seventeenth century Massachusetts, that rude and howling wilderness, was the place for you.
(You’ll note the exclusive use of the male pronoun in this passage. Women were ostensibly powerless, able neither to vote nor to serve on juries. However, as is often the case in such situations, they found other ways to exert their influence.)
And what of the accusers? They were for the most part in late adolescence, though Elizabeth “Betty” Parris and her cousin Abigail Williams were ten or eleven at the time, and Mary Warren may have attained the age of twenty. The core group was composed of eight girls. In the course of their testimony before the Court of Oyer and Terminer, they came up with some remarkable scenarios: spectral evidence; witches perched in the rafters; diabolical convocations in moonlit meadows; bites in the flesh of a number of the girls, the wounds supposedly inflicted by the accused witches; and much more. But perhaps most astonishing of all was the credence of the judges. That, and an almost incomprehensible laxity in the judicial proceedings, virtually assured the disaster that was to follow:
Hathorne [Judge John Hathorne] never asked saucy Abigail Hobbs to produce the finery the devil had promised. Nor did he quarantine the girls or interview them separately,, as every legal manual advised. He made no attempt to match teeth marks to dentistry, which would have yielded some surprising results, one of the accused having, noted a contemporary, “not a tooth in his head wherewith to bite.”
To get at what motivated these young women, it helps to have some idea what their lives were like. Schiff has synthesized this description of the ideal Puritan young woman from the writings of a number of contemporary clergymen:
She was a sterling amalgam of modesty, piety, and tireless industry. She spoke neither too soon nor too much. She read her Scripture twice daily. Her father was her prince and judge; his authority was understood to be absolute. She deferred to him as she would to the man she would marry, in her early twenties.
Sound like any teen-age girls you know – or have ever known? It seems likely that they were desperate for an outlet – any outlet – and this, unfortunately, was what they came up with. Some of their inventions, ironically, probably emanated from the world view that the adults around them had helped to create. This was especially true of the household of Samuel Parris, where the trouble began:
The talk around Betty and Abigail was fraught, angry, apocalyptic. The house was cold and growing colder. Disaffected churchmen thumped heavily in and out of the parsonage to air powerful resentments.Betty and Abigail had no escape from those furies in early 1692, the dark, bleak, and confined months when death felt closer, when witchcraft accusations tended to peak. It helped that the girls occupied the kind of small, sealed-off place that makes good theater (and good detective fiction); witchcraft charges less often emanated from urban addresses. In an isolate community, in a tightly would household, the people who observed and conceivably caused the girls’ distress were the only ones to whom they could appeal.
Schiff concludes: “Whether precipitated by a visit from Sarah Good, a message from the pulpit, or an interior anguish, something disabled them.” Add to all this the severe New England winter, with its extreme cold, fierce storms and impenetrable dark, plus the threat of Indian attacks, and it becomes clear that the pressure must have been well nigh unbearable.
Stacy Schiff’s tone throughout this book is an interesting mixture of compassion and irreverence. One reviewer called it “glib.” I can see where some readers might be disconcerted by it, but I personally was grateful. An opportunity to smile, however short-lived, provided relief from the almost unrelenting horror of this narrative. When I told a friend that I was reading this book, she said she was not planning to do so because she feared it would be too disturbing. It is disturbing, all right. It is also enraging and frightening. One thing it isn’t, is dull. The Witches tells a fascinating and very complex story, replete with a large cast of characters. (A list of these characters at the front of the book is extremely helpful, especially since there’s an inordinate number of females named Mary, Sarah, Abigail, or Ann; also quite a few mothers and daughters with the same first names.)
As I was reading Schiff’s book, the works of two other writers kept coming to mind: Arthur Miller and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In The Crucible, Miller meant the witchcraft trials to serve as a metaphor for the House Un-American Activities Committee‘s efforts to find and root out Communist subversion. But the subject matter and Miller’s treatment of it were so compelling that the play now stands on its own merits as a powerful record of a terrible time in our history.
When I read The Crucible in my student days, I remember being filled with wonder and dread. I haven’t revisited that famed drama for many years, though now I think I’d like to. Hawthorne, on the other hand, I have long loved. I return to the stories again and again. Unlike Arthur Miller, Hawthorne dealt with the long shadow of Salem indirectly and obliquely. His stories are infused with the supernatural aura of a world that is not quite real, in which good but naive souls are menaced by an unseen, unnamed evil. Among my favorites are “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”
Born in Salem in 1804, Hawthorne was a direct descendant of John Hathorne, one of the judges in the witchcraft trials. He added the ‘w’ to his last name on purpose to obscure the kinship. (I, on the other hand, have felt a sort of kinship with this author, having visited his home in Concord, Mass. on several occasions.)
Stacey Schiff appeared – in costume, no less! – on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to talk about The Witches:
Here she is again on CBS This Morning:
I found two documentaries on the witchcraft trials on YouTube. I haven’t had a chance to watch either of them and so cannot attest to their quality. One was shown on the History Channel; the other, on the Geographic Channel.
Finally, here is the trailer for the 1996 movie version of The Crucible, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder, and Joan Allen.
I’ve not seen this film, but from the above I gather that heavy emphasis is placed on the supposed illicit love shared by John Proctor and Abigail Williams. To my knowledge, this relationship was Miller’s invention. There is no intimation of it in the historical record. But then, as Stacy Schiff would be the first to tell you, there has got to be plenty that never made it into that record.
Throughout my reading of Gods of the Morning, I’ve been astonished over and over again by Lister-Kaye’s gorgeous descriptions:
Like molten gold from a crucible, the first touch of sun spilled in from the east, from the glistening horizon of the Moray Firth, so bright that I couldn’t look at it, flooding its winter fire up the river, right past me and on up the valley. The river trailed below me, like a silk pashmina thrown down by an untidy teenager. Strands of mist over the water were fired with yellow flame, as though part of some mysterious ritual immolation. The new-born light raked the steep glen sides, floodlighting every rocky prominence and daubing deep craters of black shadow so that the familiar shape of the land vanished before my eyes. I was in a wonderland, strange to me and a little unnerving. The dogs sat uncharacteristically silent at my feet, noses lifting to test the air, but stilled as though they, too, could sense the moment.
And yet, even in the midst of all this beauty, there appear certain disturbing vignettes. One concerns an almost sacrilegious act committed by Lister-Kaye when he was eleven years old.
His grandfather had shown him the customary roosting place of a tawny owl in a yew tree on the family property. Earlier that year, young John had been gifted with an air rifle:
It was the most exciting birthday gift I had ever received. In the short space of a birthday afternoon I became Davy Crockett, Kit Carson and the Lone Ranger all rolled into one ill-disciplined puberulous youth bursting to tangle with danger and adventure.
You can probably guess what happened next:
The head-hanging truth that still torments my soul is that when no one was looking I crept out and shot that owl. For a moment it seemed not to move; then it tipped forward and fell like a rag at my feet. I picked it up, hot and floppy in my hands. Its cinnamon and cream mottled plumage was as soft and silky as Angora fleece. One owl, one boy, one gun. Two burst hearts, one with lead, the other with guilt. I had never held a tawny owl before and its lifeless beauty hit me in a withering avalanche of instantaneous remorse and shame. I have never forgotten it and never forgiven myself. To this day I ask myself why I did it.
The very definition of remorse.
Several works came to mind when I read this passage. Foremost among them, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bowI shot the ALBATROSS.……………………………………And I had done a hellish thing,And it would work ’em woe:For all averred, I had killed the birdThat made the breeze to blow.Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,That made the breeze to blow!
Surely there is no more dramatic and meaningful moment in life than when you realize that an action you’ve taken – whatever the reason – is profoundly, morally wrong. Almost always that action is an irreparable transgression, against God, nature, or one’s fellow human beings. Sometimes that action involves the taking of a life. In a chapter in A Sand County Almanac entitled “Thinking Like a Mountain,” the great conservationist Aldo Leopold recounts such a moment in his own life:
We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
John Lister-Kaye’s sense of wonder at the nesting and migratory habits of birds – indeed, at their very existence – shines throughout in Gods of the Morning.
A willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus – the cascading leaf-watcher) is an unexceptional little bird, often our first summer migrant, an arrival announced by the male birds rendering a rippling, descending peal of pure notes tinged with mild complaint, but as pretty as a summer waterfall. It’s a refrain that rings through the spring woods, repeating over and over again, lifting to a brief, pleading crescendo, then slowing as it falls and, diminuendo, fades away at the end. It seems to be calling out, ‘Now that I’ve arrived, what am I going to do?’
Like the blackcap, it resides in that large family of typical warblers that come and go every summer without any fuss, unnoticed except by ornithologs like me and a few thousand binocular-toting others to whom these tiny creatures assume an importance far greater than their size. If they’ve heard of a willow warbler at all, the vast generality of people don’t know that it has just completed a global marathon, back from wintering in southern Africa, a migration of three thousand miles of skimming arid plains, dodging desert sandstorms and leap-frogging seas and mountains, and they probably wouldn’t care much either. ‘All little brown birds are the same to me,’ I’m told, over and over again. But not to me: for me they all carry meaning and I thirst to know more. Sylviidae, the family.
I’m here to tell you, it takes a rapturous devotion like Lister-Kaye’s to keep all this warbler lore straight! But if anyone can do it, he can.
Reading this skilled and eloquent observer’s descriptions of his almost mystical encounters with avian species put me in mind of a piece I read some years ago: Loren Eiseley‘s “The Judgment of Birds.” There’s a bit in this essay about a close encounter with a crow that has remained vivid in my imagination:
This crow lives near my house, and though I have never injured him, he takes good care to stay up in the very highest trees and, in general, to avoid humanity.
His world begins at about the limit of my eyesight.
On the particular morning when this episode occurred, the whole countryside was buried in one of the thickest fogs in years. The ceiling was absolutely zero. All planes were grounded, and even a pedestrian could hardly see his outstretched hand before him.
I was groping across a field in the general direction of the railroad station, following a dimly outlined path. Suddenly out of the fog, at about the level of my eyes, and so closely that I flinched, there flashed a pair of immense black wings and a huge beak. The whole bird rushed over my head with a frantic cawing outcry of such hideous terror as I have never heard in a crow’s voice before and never expect to hear again.
He was lost and startled, I thought, as I recovered my poise. He ought not to have flown out in this fog. He’d knock his silly brains out.
All afternoon that great awkward cry rang in my head. Merely being lost in a fog seemed scarcely to account for it—especially in a tough, intelligent old bandit such as I knew that particular crow to be. I even looked once in the mirror to see what it might be about me that had so revolted him that he had cried out in protest to the very stones.
Finally, as I worked my way homeward along the path, the solution came to me.
It should have been clear before. The borders of our worlds had shifted. It was the fog that had done it. That crow, and I knew him well, never under normal circumstances flew low near men. He had been lost all right, but it was more than that.
He had thought he was high up, and when he encountered me looming gigantically through the fog, he had perceived a ghastly and, to the crow mind, unnatural sight.
He had seen a man walking on air, desecrating the very heart of the crow kingdom, a harbinger of the most profound evil a crow mind could conceive of—air- walking men. The encounter, he must have thought, had taken place a hundred feet over the roofs.
At the conclusion of Coleridge’s poem, the mariner offers this moral:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.He prayeth best, who loveth bestAll things both great and small;For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
I’ve been a faithful reader of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series for quite a few years now, so that when I began preparing to lead a discussion of The Girl of His Dreams, I did not expect much in the way of previously unknown facts to emerge in the course of my research. Nevertheless, they did. I’m not speaking of perception altering revelations, but rather of subtle, belated realizations. These cast both the novel and the author in a somewhat different light, for this reader.
I started out with Donna Leon’s life. Now, this is a subject where details are notoriously thin on the ground. In 2010, the blogger at About “Donna Leon” queried, rather peevishly I thought:
There’s no information about her education; when, where, and if she went to college or university, and if so, how far she got before she quit? Her last employer says she wrote on her application that she had been in a doctorate program, had completed all the required coursework but had not submitted a dissertation. But again, no indication of dates or institutions. Why not? What’s so secret about where and when you went to college, and what degree-level you attained?
(There’s more along these lines. The blogger, who gives his name as Ken Kellogg-Smith, seems almost to cherish a sense of personal injury over Leon’s steadfast withholding. He wouldn’t be the only one who feels this way.)
There’s a bit more on offer in My Venice and Other Essays, published in 2013. In this collection, Leon affirms that she was born (in 1942) and raised in Montclair, New Jersey:
“My father read The New York Times, my mother did secretarial work, we had a dog, we had a garden, I had a brother.”
The above is actually a quote from an interview with Tim Heald of The Telegraph in 2009. It’s obvious that Leon wishes this brief statement to be the end of the story. In the essays she dilates somewhat on the subject of mildly eccentric aunts and uncles. She does not seem to harbor a particular animus toward any one of them.
As for her education, Leon states that she did graduate work in Massachusetts, but she doesn’t specify exactly where. In his article, Tim Heald states that she “did a doctorate” in Indiana, her specialty being 18th century novelists. (Again, no specific educational institution is named.) So did she tell him this at the time of the interview? Is what we have here a bit of deliberate misinformation?
I must confess that what I was really hoping to gain from the essays was some disclosure regarding Leon’s personal life. It was a vain hope, however, and I can’t say I was surprised.
[An almost entirely irrelevant aside: I was born in 1944 in West Orange, New Jersey, only a short drive from Montclair, where my grandparents owned and ran a confectioners shop. I like to think that as kids, Donna Leon and I might have been there at the same time, browsing the aisles for favorite candy – mine was candy dots – and hearing mischievous boys asking the proprietor – my grandfather – if he had Prince Albert in a can. “You do? Well. let him out!” ]
What is fairly certain is that Leon knocked about teaching English in various places – Iran, Saudi Arabia, China – until the 1980s. She then decided it was time to put down roots somewhere. She had close friends who lived in Venice, so that is the place she too chose to live.
Before zeroing in on the books in general and The Girl of His Dreams in particular, I provided some brief information on several relevant aspects of Italian civic structure and society. The Brunetti novels being police procedurals, I reviewed the way in which law enforcement entities function in the country. Then, because Gypsies – or Rom, or Romani people – figure prominently in the narrative, we talked a bit about the origin and present status of this famous but little understood (by me, anyway) ethnic group. Finally, because the parents of Brunetti’s wife Paola are referred to as the Count and Countess, I provided some background as to the history of titled nobility in Italy. (All three subjects are covered in detail in their respective Wikipedia entries.)
Donna Leon’s career as a writer of crime fiction happened almost accidentally – certainly incidentally. Leon, a passionate lover of baroque opera, was chatting backstage with some musicians after a performance. They were engaged in bad mouthing a certain prominent conductor (purportedly Herbert von Karajan). Speculation arose as to how such a person could be cleanly removed from the world stage. It occurred to Leon, an avid reader of crime fiction, that this would be a great premise for a murder mystery. Thus, in the pages of Death at La Fenice did Helmut Wellauer come into existence, if only to be quickly dispatched backstage. Commissario Guido Brunetti has proven far more durable.
Mystery novelist Donna Leon continues the long tradition of foreigners writing about Venice. No other city has been so celebrated by its expatriate writers and visitors, from Ruskin’s glittery tributes to Henry James’s hesitant adoration to Thomas Mann’s fatal seduction.
Dr. Toni Sepeda, literature and art history professor and close personal friend of Donna Leon
In The New Republic, Peter Green sums up the Brunetti series this way:
…the audience [Leon] aims at (as she cheerfully admits) is educated, civilized, well-read, morally alert, and intellectually curious: quick to catch allusions or arcane literary jokes, involved in the political and social problems of the modern world, humane and liberal in the best sense of those much-abused terms. She has a weakness for aristocratic virtues. Guido Brunetti himself relaxes with Aeschylus or Marcus Aurelius; his wife Paola not only teaches Henry James (among others) at a Venetian university, but when last seen was re-reading The Ambassadors for the fourth time.
When I first began my re-reading of The Girl of His Dreams, my confidence in my choice for the reading group of this particular title in the series was somewhat shaken. The novel opens with the presence of the entire Brunetti family at the funeral of Guido’s mother. It is a deeply poignant scene.But Leon pulls back from this sadness as Brunetti returns to his official duties. The first of these involves looking into the activities of a non mainstream religious leader who may be scheming to bilk his followers of their money and possessions.
This investigation is not especially compelling and may lull the reader into thinking that this will be a gentle read. Just shy of the midpoint of this short, tightly structured novel, that expectation is shattered.
The body of a young girl is discovered floating in one of the canals. The scene in which she is pulled from the water is harrowing in more ways than one. Vianello, Brunetti’s second in command, does most of the work. Brunetti stands close by ready to grab him. It is pouring down rain.There is a danger that he’ll slip on the seaweed, possibly striking his head on the hard stone or going into the water.
She was small with fair hair that fanned out from her head. Brunetti looked at her face, then back at her feet, and then her hands, and finally he accepted that she was a child.
Vianello struggled to his feet like an old man. Suddenly there was a surge of noise, and then silence and only the sound of the rain hitting the water. They looked up, and there was Foa, the boat floating silently a hair’s breadth from the embankment.
The image of the girl, fair hair fanned out and clothes sopping wet, will haunt Brunetti throughout the novel. His sense of personal anguish over this cruel death will not leave him. At the same time, thoughts of his mother come from to time, but these are of a far more benevolent nature.
In The Girl of His Dreams, the character of Guido Brunetti shines forth in all its vulnerability and humility. One feels that his quest for justice is of the old school. He has no illusions about the possibility of achieving this goal, in Venice or anywhere else on Earth. But the effort must be made, especially on behalf of those who have no one to speak for them. (In the back of my mind I’m hearing Linda Loman’s beseeching cry, echoing down the corridors of time: ” …attention must be paid!”)
In the end the sadness, the ephemeral quality of human life that was so vividly bodied forth at Guido’s mother’s funeral, has reasserted itself. There is one small ray of consolation, though, and it comes from an unexpected source, about which I will say no more at present.
Paola Brunetti, no shrinking violet when it comes to asserting herself, is deeply appreciative of her husband’s rare and fine qualities. At one point she calls him her shield and her buckler. As strong a woman as she is, she knows how much she depends on him. (The domesticity of Guido and Paola, with their son and daughter frequently joining them for delicious meals, is one of the major selling points of the series.)
It has been noted that Donna Leon minces no words when she trains her gimlet eye on contemporary Venetian culture (not to mention the scourge of tourists that regularly descend in hordes on the city). You get plenty of this in the above mentioned essay collection. And yet, you’ll have moments like the one in which Guido and Paola are strolling the city at night, and she turns to him and says, “We live in paradise, don’t we?” This moment of supreme savoring occurs in Falling in Love, the latest entry in the series. And in The Girl of His Dreams, Vianello asks if Brunetti if her could even conceive of living somewhere else. He answers, inevitably, in the negative.
(Donna Leon has thus far not allowed her Brunetti novels to be translated into Italian. It’s been alleged that she’s afraid of alienating her friend with her sharp critiques if the city. She claims that it is simply a desire not to be famous where she lives.)
The members of AAUW Readers who attended this discussion were uncommonly perceptive in their comments and observations. I doff my cap to you, ladies – Thanks!
I prepared a reading list for the group. Here it is:
DONNA LEON and GUIDO BRUNETTI
My Venice & Other Essays, by Donna Leon
Brunetti’s Venice, by Toni Sepeda
Brunetti’s Cookbook, by Roberta Paniaro
Venetian Curiosities, by Donna Leon
OTHER NONFICTION TITLES ABOUT VENICE
City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt
A Venetian Tale and Lucia, by Andrea Di Robilant
The Venetians: A New History from Marco Polo to Casanova, by Paul Strathern (not read by me)
OTHER FICTION SET IN VENICE
Don’t Look Now, by Daphne Du Maurier
The Aspern Papers, by Henry James
Alibi, by Joseph Kanon
The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan
OTHER MYSTERIES SET IN ITALY
Aurelio Zen series by Michael Dibdin (set in various locales in Italy)
Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia series by Magdalen Nabb (set in Florence)
Salvo Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri (set in Sicily)
The Guido Guerrieri series by Gianrico Carofiglio (set primarily in Bari, in the Apulia region of southern Italy) This author has also written several standalone novels. I was especially impressed by The Silence of the Wave.
The Carnivia Trilogy by Jonathan Holt (I have not read these):
Remember to consult stopyourekillingme.com for information about books in a series and Italian-mysteries.com for books specifically set in that country.
The Girl of His Dreams is the seventeenth novel in the Guido Brunetti series. There are currently twenty-four Brunetti titles, with the twenty-fifth, The Waters of Eternal Youth, scheduled for publication in March of 2016.
“An American in Venice,” the most recent feature piece I’ve found on Donna Leon, appeared in Publishers Weekly in March. It provided me with a very pleasant surprise; namely, that she and I have a favorite mystery writer in common: Ross MacDonald, creator of the private eye Lew Archer:
“Macdonald’s prose is wonderful, his sentences are sometimes serpentine, sometimes as balanced as anything Alexander Pope wrote,” Leon says. “I also like the way the past always comes along to haunt and destroy the present in his books.”
Like Macdonald, Leon’s evildoers are not psychopathic serial killers or rapists. She, too, delves into the more interesting territory of moral corruption, in all its forms.
Leon adds that Brunetti could be seen as “Lew Archer with a wife.”
I recommend this video interview with Donna Leon:
Many are the cultural riches that Venice has bestowed on us all. I recently created a post illustrating some of the art work that’s featured in The Girl of His Dreams. Now here is some of the music.
First: Il Complesso Barocco is a performing arts organization that’s dear to Donna Leon’s heart:
The Baltimore Museum of Art has just emerged from a multi-year $28 million dollar renovation process. This august institution – it turned one hundred last year – looks great. More space, more light – and more art on view.
Here are some of my favorite works from their collection:
Master of the View of St. Gudule?
A bonus on this fine autumn day was the sighting of the Harper Dairy, located at the western edge of the museum’s grounds. (It is known there as the Spring House.) Robert Goodloe Harper, a lawyer and U.S. senator, was uncle to the Caton sisters, whose lives were so vividly portrayed in Jehanne Wake’s book Sisters of Fortune.
Another bonus of this visit was the companionship of my dear friend Robbie. We attended Goucher College all those years ago, and we’ve since been know as “the two Robertas.” An art lover like me, Robbie is soon to become a first time grandmother. It could not be happening to a sweeter, better person!
Each day, just before the Central Branch Library opens to the public, a short tune is played over the public address system. I was subbing there this morning, and I was shelving books in the Young Adult area, the PA system came on. The strains of La Marseillaise reached my ears.
I stopped what I was doing and stood still. Tears filled my eyes.
I can think of nothing to add, save this:
Vive La France!
The above quote (on the subject of the ghost) is from The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough. It is cited by Michael Newton in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories.
This recently published anthology of ghost stories is assembled and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger. In addition to being a writer, Ms Niffenegger is an illustrator and printmaker – a sort of latter day William Blake. In this volume, she has selected fifteen of her favorite tales of the supernatural, plus one that she herself has penned. It’s entitled “Secret Life, with Cats,” and I found it quite effective.
There are many collections of ghost stories and supernatural tales. There are two that I especially recommend. First, the aforementioned Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. Published in 2010 and edited by Michael Newton, it contains a wondrous variety of stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell; “The Cold Embrace” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (author of the mesmerizing Lady Audley’s Secret); “No.1 Branch Line:The Signal-man” by Charles Dickens; “Green Tea” by Sheridan Le Fanu; “The Moonlit Road” by Ambrose Bierce – these and more are here included. And there is much added value in this small volume: Newton has constructed a chronology of the ghost story; in addition, there is an extensive list of titles suggested for further reading.
I’m indebted to Michael Newton for introducing me to Catherine Crowe and Dorothy Scarborough, both authors and literary critics of distinction. Crowe’s Night-Side of Nature (1848) and The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) by Scarborough are each available in full text on the Internet Archive. The latter title was submitted by Dorothy Scarborough as her doctoral thesis at Columbia. She went on to teach creative writing at that university; Carson McCullers was among her students.
I am rather amazed, and somewhat vexed, that I’ve not previously been aware of the existence of these two highly accomplished women.
If you’re going to buy just one book of this type, I highly recommend Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. Edited by Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise, this hefty compendium first came out in 1944 and has remained in print (courtesy of Modern Library) ever since. “Fifty-two stories of heart-stopping suspense” chortles the Amazon.com write-up, and that is most definitely true. The usual suspects are present and accounted for: Poe’s “The Black Cat” (also the lead story in Audrey Niffenegger’s collection); “The Boarded Window” by Ambrose Bierce; “Sredni Vashtar” by Saki; and a particular favorite of mine, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Many others are present for your reading pleasure – though you may be seriously unnerved by certain among them!
As the Washington Post’s Michael Dirda here avers, “These Great Tales of Terror Live Up To their Promise.”
And by the way, Mr. Dirda has given us a wonderful gift for this Halloween season in an article replete with excellent ghostly reading suggestions.