A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846, by Alethea Hayter

January 14, 2018 at 1:51 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, France, London 2017)

While in London, I had the good fortune to find myself in the vicinity of the London Review Bookshop. (Sister-in-law Donna figured this out courtesy of the mapping function she employed with admirable dexterity on her iPhone.) Naturally that meant that I soon found myself inside the shop.   The cash register was at the back; there, I found issues of the venerable London Review of Books. I informed one of the young people staffing the desk that I subscribe to the review ‘back home in Maryland, USA.’ He immediately exclaimed, with booming gusto: “Cracking good mag, innit?!” Yet another wonderful British moment….

As it happened, I had a new issue waiting for me when I got back home. In it was a review of One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli ad the Great Stink of 1858, by Rosemary Ashton.

Reviewer Rosemary Hill observes that aside from the choking stench emanating from the Thames River, nothing else of great moment happened in London in the year 1858. It is therefore, she concludes, “the perfect subject for a microhistory.”

Hill continues:

Great events cast shadows over details which in an undramatic year, or season, can be more clearly seen. Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month, published in 1965, was one of the earliest and best examples  of what has become a popular  genre. Set in another heat wave, in 1846, Hayter’s account weaves together the famous, the obscure and the forgotten.

Hill enumerates just a few of the writers and artists who are featured in Hayter’s slender volume – Samuel Rogers, Jane Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett,  and Gräfin Hahn-Hahn (that’s her name alright – no mistake!). Hayter documents their lives and interactions so closely that “…from day to day and street to street, the sublime and the ridiculous appear in the proximity they occupy in life.”

Hill then goes on to make further observations on the microhistory subgenre:

This is surely one reason for the rise of microhistory, that it brings the texture of the past closer. It illustrates the ‘human position’, the way the momentous occurs ‘while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’…When it is done well, microhistory opens out from its immediate subject matter and  the result is like looking through a keyhole and seeing a whole landscape.

Meanwhile, I had developed a strong need to get my hands on A Sultry Month. There is no e-book available; the physical book is out of print. I bought a used copy from Amazon.

I’m now about two thirds of the way through it. I am deliberately reading as slowly as possible, as I do not want it to end. I love it.

While Haydon was walking out of the northern fringe of London, Browning was sitting on the grass in the garden at New Cross, and was conscious of the immensity of the whole round earth under him, and saw it as an image of  the love that now supported all his life. At the same time Elizabeth Barrett was sitting on the drawing-room window seat in Wimpole Street, writing to him while he was thinking of her.

(Those of my generation may recall watching the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street on television in 1956. I was twelve years old at the time, and that production made an indelible impression on my  nascent romantic imagination.

Katharine Cornell as Elizabeth Barrett)

I had never heard of Alethea Hayter before this. Her obituary in The Guardian – she died in 2006 at the age of 94 –  says this of her works:

In all these books, she manages to unite the narrative sweep and urgency of a novel with impeccable historical and social research and a uniquely elegant style.

I will certainly be reading more books by Alethea Hayter. I’ve  already downloaded this one: 

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I can recommend yet another microhistory: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. This book came out shortly after the release of a terrific film Le Retour de Martin Guerre starring Gerard Depardieu. (And while you’re  at it, seek out Janet Lewis’s novelized version of this true story, The Wife of Martin Guerre.)

 

 

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Escape with me to the Twelfth Century….

January 9, 2018 at 2:14 am (Anglophilia, archaeology, Film and television, London 2017)

So this small fellow came to us a few days ago, courtesy of the British Museum Gift Shop:

He is a replica, fashioned in clay, of one of the Lewis Chessmen; specifically, the King piece. Below is a three quarter view of the King:

And here is the back, courtesy of the British Museum’s image gallery:

He is about four inches tall.

In her 2015 book Ivory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown advances the theory that the famous chess pieces were in fact the work of a woman, specifically an Icelandic carver named Margret the Adroit.   Well, adroit she must have been, to have created these little marvels made from walrus ivory. (For more on this intriguing story, see The Economist article, “Bones of Contention.”)

Here’s the picture I took of the Chessmen at the British Museum:

Why did I feel the need to own a replica? Author Nancy Marie Brown, who got to handle the eleven Chessmen currently housed in Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, expressed their allure nicely:

Out of their glass display case, they are impossible to resist, warm and bright, seeming not old at all, but strangely alive. They nestle in the palm, smooth and weighty, ready to play. Set on a desktop, in lieu of the thirty-two-inch-square chessboard they’d require, they make a satisfying click.

The British Museum puts out a myriad of publications. Among them is a series of booklets entitled Objects in Focus. I bought and read this one:

It’s beautifully illustrated and tells not only the story of the discovery of the Chessmen but also the history of the game of chess (a game, I should add, that I’ve never learned to play).

It turns out that there exist several versions of the story of the finding of the Chessmen. I particularly like one that originated in  book entitled The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, written by Daniel Wilson and published in 1851. Wilson describes the way in which the action of the sea demolished a portion of a sandbank, thereby “exposing a small stone chamber.”

A local peasant investigated the structure and was alarmed to discover ‘an assemblage of elves or gnomes upon whose mysteries he had unconsciously intruded.’ Shaken and fearing for his safety, the peasant described what he had discovered to his fierce wife, who made him return to the spot and gather up the ‘singular little ivory figures which ad not unnaturally appeared to him the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore.’

(Naturally I addressed our new acquisition thus: “What about it? Are you a pygmy sprite of Celtic folklore?’ He remained judiciously mute.)

Nancy Marie Brown notes that the Chessmen are clearly identifiable in the first Harry Potter film. Now I’m one of the few humans on the planet who have not seen this movie, but I was able to verify her statement with this YouTube clip:

All of the above has put me in mind of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. In this film, made in 1957 and set in the Middle Ages, a disillusioned Crusader Knight challenges Death to a game of chess. The stakes could not be  higher.

Ingmar Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister, and Bergman recalled visits they had made when he was a boy to various historic churches. Many of these contained distinctive wall and ceiling paintings; this was particularly true of Taby Church  in Taby, Sweden:

Brown says that the chess pieces used in the film were modeled on the Lewis Chessmen.

Here is the opening sequence of The Seventh Seal.

 

 

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A suggestion for ‘paired reading’

January 6, 2018 at 9:12 pm (Book review, books)

 

I found Robert Harris’s inside-the-Vatican scenario as engrossing as any thriller I’ve read lately. This should not have surprised me; Harris is a master at generating suspense through creative use of setting and the placement therein of believable characters operating under duress.

Thomas Kenneally employs similar techniques to great effect in Crimes of the Father. This novel tackles head-on the exposure of cases of abuse by priests and the subsequent action (or lack of same) undertaken by the church. This will be a sensitive subject for many people, and they may or may not agree with the way in which Thomas Kenneally has handled this material.

Kenneally has placed a four-page Author’s Note ahead of the novel’s text. In it, he reveals that he was raised Catholic and attended seminary for a period, but upon realizing his unsuitability for the priest’s vocation, dropped out.

I just want to say a few more things about Crimes of the Father. The writing is excellent; I loved the conversations between  and among the various dramatis personae. The story is mainly told through the eyes of Father Frank Docherty. This is an entirely believable man – not just believable, but human and vulnerable, as assailed by doubts as are the rest of us, in this life. Above all he is a person of genuine integrity. He is a gentle Irishman by heritage, with an Irish sense of humor that’s never exercised at someone else’s expense. You may have been lucky enough in your life to know someone like him, either in the clergy or in some other walk of life.

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For more on paired reading, click on the post entitled “The Pleasures of Paired Reading.”

 

 

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London, Day Three: Beauty and riches beyond belief

January 5, 2018 at 2:45 pm (Art, London 2017)

That is what I encountered at London’s National Gallery.

Somehow in the course of my lifelong Anglophilia, I’d never been to this museum. This past May, my friend Jean and I attended a Smithsonian lecture entitled “A Day at the National Gallery and the Tate Britain.” Ron and I then watched “Museum Masterpieces: The National Gallery, London,” a set of DVDs accompanied by a book length insert with, among other things, a terrific bibliography. The professor, Catherine Scallen, is outstanding. (This set of Great Courses is produced by The Teaching Company.)

Just as my longing to visit this storied institution was reaching its peak, the opportunity arose for me to spend a week in London. I naturally took it.

The British Museum was about a half a block from my hotel. I was there once, many decades ago. It was the first place we went to – “we” being my sister-in-law Donna and myself. We spent an unforgettable day attending to its enchantments.

And speaking of enchantment….

Coronation of the Virgin, by Jacopo di Cione 1370-1

 

The Wilton Diptych 1395-99

 

Saints Jerome and John the Baptist 1428, by Masaccio (1401-1428).

Look at those dates! What a tragedy, the early loss of one so greatly gifted. His real name was Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone; Masaccio was a nickname bestowed upon him Giorgio Vasari. In his ground-breaking work Lives of the Most Excellent (sometimes translated as ‘Eminent’) Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Vasari describes the architect Filippo Brunelleschi‘s reaction to the news of Masaccio’s death:

It is said that when he heard the news Filippo Brunelleschi, who had been at great pains to teach Masaccio many of the finer points of perspective and architecture, was plunged into grief and cried: ‘We have suffered a terrible loss in the death of Masaccio.’

Vasari also says the following:

Although Masaccio’s works have always had a high reputation, there are those who believe, or rather there are many who insist, that he would have produced even more impressive results if his life had not ended prematurely when he was twenty-six. However, because of the envy of fortune, or because good things rarely last for long, he was cut off in the flower of his youth, his death being so sudden that there were some who even suspected that he had been poisoned.

Two Watermills and an Open Sluice, by Jacob van Ruisdael at Singraven  1560-2

Really brilliant landscapes like this one put me in transports. I want to be in that very place, or at least to powerfully imagine that I am.

A Man and a Woman, by Robert Campin ca. 1435

 

A Scene on the Ice near a Town, by Hendrick Avercamp ca. 1615

 

The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, 1483-86

Two versions of this painting exist: the one above, and one in the Louvre in Paris:

Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre 1483-86

 

Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery, London 1495-1508

I read somewhere that the National Gallery version features ‘John’s traditional cruciform reed staff’ in order to differentiate between the two infants, as to which was John the Baptist and which, the Christ Child. (For more on this subject, see the Wikipedia entry.)

For whatever reason, I’ve never heretofore been able to respond to Leonardo’s art. Perhaps because of its iconic status and media overexposure, the Mona Lisa has never moved me. Of course I acknowledge its greatness, but for me this has always been an intellectual response rather than an emotional one. The same is true of Ginevra de’ Benci, though I well remember the excitement caused by the acquisition of this work by our own National Gallery in 1967.

(Demand, not to mention price, for Leonardo’s paintings remains stratospheric. Salvator Mundi, in recently restored condition, was just sold to a Saudi prince for $450.3 million dollars.)

Virgin of the Rocks affected me profoundly: the atmosphere created by the rocky seascape, the aura of holiness and stillness, the infants exchanging blessings, and above all, the beauty and serenity of the face of the Virgin – I found this painting incomparably beautiful. And deeply haunting as well.

 

 

 

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Best Books of 2017: Contemporary Crime Fiction, Part Two

January 3, 2018 at 3:11 pm (Best of 2017, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

We’ve slipped over the finish line into 2018, so it behooves me to finish posting my “best reads” in crime fiction of the past year:

Old Bones by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. A series that, by virtue of its wit, sympathetic cast of characters, and above all its self-effacing hero Bill Slider, has been an unadulterated delight since its inception back in 1991.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Dungeon House Martin Edwards. Another winning series, by an author who’s also a distinguished scholar of the genre.

Skin and Bone by Robin Blake. An historical series of superior quality in which Blake narrates the exploits of Titus Cragg, coroner, and Luke Fidelis, a physician in 18th century Lancashire, England. People need to discover these marvelous novels!

Robin Blake

Stone Coffin by Kjell Eriksson. This Swedish series featuring Detectives Ann Lindell and Ola Haver is exceptionally well written and at times, genuinely moving. (Although Stone Coffin is the most recently published book in this series, it’s actually the earliest that’s been translated into English and is therefore a good place to begin.)

Kjell Erikkson

A Fine Line by Gianrico Carofiglio. I continue to champion this little-known high quality series set in Bari, Italy, and featuring the extremely appealing ‘avvocato’ Guido Guerrieri. (Carofiglio’s nonseries novel The Silence of the Waves is also very much worth reading.)

Gianrico Carofiglio

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. For sheer delicious enjoyment, this one was the big winner.

Trace by Archer Mayor. This is number twenty-eight in a series I’ve been following for years. Also I’ve felt a special bond with this author ever since I stood right next to him while ostensibly browsing the magazines at Onsite News in BWI  Thurgood Marshall Airport several years ago. (Sighting was later confirmed by means of a subsequent email exchange with the ever congenial Mayor.)

Archer Mayor

Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller. I was deeply touched by the sufferings, both noble and ignominious, of the people of Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. I can do no better than  to quote the Kirkus Review of this novel: “Keller’s prose is so pure that her exploration of the desperate scourge of drugs and poverty and her forecast of a grim future for her heroine are a joy to read.”

Julia Keller

Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adam. Recently reviewed by me in this space.

 

 

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