Sunday, July 31, 2011

Favourite Novelists: GK Chesterton and What He Taught Me


This is a difficult one, because there is so much to learn from GK Chesterton. What about the part in Heretics where he gave a tightly-reasoned argument for the fact that bigots are those without clear beliefs? What about the part in The Napoleon of Notting Hill where he made a strong case for religious wars as the only defensible kind of war there is?
There are just two things I’d like to focus on for now, though. I still vividly remember the first time I read a GK Chesterton novel. It was The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and it began, “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong…”

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Favourite Novelists: Edmund Spenser and What He Taught Me


If you do not appreciate Edmund Spenser, you cannot appreciate CS Lewis. If you do not understand Edmund Spenser, you cannot understand CS Lewis. The two are tied together in many ways; though they lived four hundred years apart and had vastly different careers, beliefs and aims, they speak together, almost in unison, on some of the most contentious matters of modern fantasy.
Lewis was neither a Calvinist nor a Puritan. Edmund Spenser was both these; in fact, the very greatest Puritan poet that ever lived—and Puritans were famous poets, and produced practically everything of note that was written in Great Britain between the 1500s and the 1700s (save perhaps for the plays of Shakespeare; and there is evidence that the Earl of Oxford, who may have written under that name, had at least some Puritan sympathies).
I was surprised when I heard that CS Lewis is looked at askance in some circles for his use of pagan Greek imagery. He portrays wise centaurs, argue these critics, which were in the Greek myths lawless and lustful. What business had they in this supposedly Christian work?
But if you ask that, you must dig further back, and ask Edmund Spenser, who also used pagan imagery. If you ask why Christians should write fantasy at all, Edmund Spenser stands in your way. If you ask how it is possible to redeem pagan imagery, from Elves to satyrs, Edmund Spenser is waiting for you. Why write? Why tell stories? Why such gaudy tales of passion and fantasy? Your road, inquirer, leads to Edmund Spenser, and though his voice is muted by the grave, it is full beauty and authority. Edmund Spenser wrote the epic of the Reformation, the greatest Puritan literary work. He cannot be discounted.
Until I read Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward, I did not fully understand why Lewis chose to use the pagan imagery he did. I understand now, and learning the reason behind his choices has raised some new and tricky questions. It would be easy to say that Lewis made a few unwise literary decisions…if it weren’t for Edmund Spenser.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Favourite Novelists: PG Wodehouse and What He Taught Me


G.K. Chesterton died yesterday. PG Wodehouse is now the greatest living master of the English language.
--TH White
It's so hard to talk about Wodehouse, because he was a strictly comic writer. His books contain absolutely nothing intended to give offence or even to approach it. The list of subjects he avoided is probably longer than the subjects he touched upon. He handled everything deftly, lightly, with a disarming charm. Everyone loves Wodehouse: when Douglas Wilson, Reformed theologian, went on a debate tour with Christopher Hitchens, bigoted atheist, they found common ground in this writer. The lowbrow love him and the highbrow do not exclude him from the canons of greatness on account of his popularity. Communists love him. Libertarians love him. The Americans love him, the British revere him, and the Indians go crazy for him.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Favourite Novelists: John Buchan and What He Taught Me


I have already written a lot about Buchan, so I shall keep this brief.
John Buchan taught me that decent men, ordinary men, boring men are heroes. Most of his heroes are boring in a worldly sense; which is to say they are disciplined, virtuous, and shy around women. They believe in God. They are hard workers, commonly in trade or one of the professions. To these men alone come adventure:
It is to those who seek only peace and a quiet life that adventures fall; the homely merchant, jogging with his pack train, finds the enchanted forest and the sleeping princess; and Saul, busily searching for his father's asses, stumbles upon a kingdom. (Salute to Adventurers)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Favourite Novelists: JRR Tolkien And What He Taught Me


Though he was the man who wrote my very favourite book, The Lord of the Rings, I haven't spoken about Tolkien much in these pages. It's odd, because as much as I love this man's work, I have never had the slightest urge to reproduce it. For one thing, I couldn't possibly reproduce it: I have neither the formidable linguistic know-how nor the dedication and perseverance to build a world from scratch. For another thing, the body of Tolkien's work seems too perfect: imitating Tolkien seems an endeavour as unnecessary and fraught with embarrassment as starting life with the avowed intention of painting a series of portraits with all the elusive qualities of the Mona Lisa. For yet another, there are already far too many Tolkien-lite fantasies out there, and the mere thought of reading them has always bored me profoundly. And finally, while I love his writing style to death and pieces, in my own writing I have humbler aims. I am not a writer of grand epics; I haven’t the right mindset, and if I tried, I should fail miserably.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Favourite Novelists: CS Lewis And What He Taught Me


I was four, and fitted sideways on one couch cushion, when Mum first read The Chronicles of Narnia aloud to my brother and me. I could get deep into a discussion of Lewis's themes and creative choices here, but that would matter very little compared to the practical things I learned which have always stood me in good stead since. Such as:
Don't trust vegetarians, non-smokers, teetotallers, and progressives in general.
Books about dragons will be far more useful in the long run than books about grain elevators and foreign schools.
If you fall into water in your clothes, you should kick your shoes off.
If you've had nothing worse than a wetting, it is quite unbecoming to cry.
Be thoughtful of others. For example, do not offend a Talking Mouse by trying to cuddle it.


Monday, July 25, 2011

Feature Week: Favourite Novelists


Hello and welcome to another (somewhat belated) Feature Week at Vintage Novels! For those newcomers among my readers, this is my quarterly week-long chance to post daily on a single theme. Though it’s supposed to occur only every three months, I have to say it feels like only five minutes since the last Feature Week…
This week I’ll be saying something about each of my favourite six authors. Originally I had only three favourite writers—Tolkien, Buchan, and Wodehouse. Incidentally, CS Lewis is on record (see Humphrey Carpenter’s book The Inklings) as saying that these three would be the only novelists of any note to emerge from the 20th century, so right there you can see what excellent taste I’ve got...To this list I eventually added three more writers: GK Chesterton, Edmund Spenser, and Lewis himself. Apart from Edmund Spenser, it’s chronologically parochial, but as I hope to show during the week (and at the risk of repeating myself, especially where Buchan is concerned!) these men deserve to be on someone’s favourite list.
Enjoy!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Poem: Credo by James McAuley


On my holiday I was introduced to the work of an Australian poet named James McAuley, and I haven't stopped being excited since.

You see, Australia's a nice place to live, and we have some neat things in our history. But we don't have a lot of history. The first British Australian colony began in 1788, the same year that came the first rumbles of the French Revolution: in other words, the same year that modernism came of age. Britain's history reaches far back to the earliest Christendom. Even the United States can look back with fondness on Puritan and Huguenot settlers (though it rarely does). But what does Australia have? Not a whole lot. Our entire history has taken place during the modernist era; we have, as the chap said of twentieth-century Scotland, "no gods and precious few heroes."

No Beowulf poet for us; no Edmund Spenser; not even a Chesterton or Tolkien to our name. Up till now, I had believed that Banjo Paterson was the acme of Australian letters, and it's been downhill ever since.

Not entirely, as it turns out.

James McAuley (1917-1976) started life as an extreme left-wing anarchist. It seems to have been early on, however, that he became annoyed with modernist poetry--nonsensical free verse without rhyme or reason. In 1944 he masterminded the Ern Malley Hoax: randomly selecting lines from encyclopaedias, he slapped together a set of meaningless poems and sent them off to a prominent modernist literary magazine. He was, he told them, the old maid sister of a dead poet, who wished the dead man's work to be recognised after his death. The modernist establishment went gaga and Ern Malley was hailed as the new great voice of modernist poetry in Australia. When McAuley tore off his whiskers and announced that it was all mockery, the literati seethed with resentment.

In 1952 McAuley sealed his fate by converting to Roman Catholicism and publishing A Letter to John Dryden in a prominent literary magazine. In it he systematically insulted everything he could lay his hands on, starting with modernism ("Neurotic modern mind...loud, indistinct, moronic") and riding gaily on to tilt at TS Eliot ("To drift, and flutter, hesitate, opine/Hint at a meaning, murmur that God knows/And gently settle in a soup of prose"), public schooling ("This specious monster"), universities ("Where Christ, Augustine, and the Stagirite/Lie dead and buried, neither wrong nor right/Under a sneer of silence cold as arctic night"), communism, and so on. Even worse, he held up Christianity as the truth--here alone the poem declines vicious satire:
Not seldom men in seeking to defy
Their Lord have seen the pity in His eye;
Many a one has held the clothes like Saul,
And risen not long after to be Paul.
Worst of all, McAuley wrote his poem in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter which rhymed. Quelle scandale! To introduce structure and discipline into art! Even McAuley's choice of poetic form was a slap in the face of modernism.

James McAuley went on to write several volumes of poetry, including Captain Quiros, an epic about the discovery of Australia. He was also prominent in the founding of Quadrant, Australia's most prominent conservative magazine, and the Democratic Labour Party which to this day is one of the strongest pro-life political parties in Australia. In his later years he went to become the Chair of English at the University of Tasmania, an institution which would probably like to hush it all up now. After his death in 1976 from cancer, a peculiar thing happened: a soft and impenetrable veil of silence fell over James McAuley. It was as if his name and works suddenly became taboo. His books went quietly out of print. His poetry was firmly hushed up and ignored. But what about Ern Malley, one of the most famous literary pranks in the world? Ah, McAuley's only important work...his greatest modernist poetry. And so James McAuley passed not only beyond life but also beyond knowledge.

Folks, meet James McAuley--an Australian poet, and a Christian, and my new hero.

This poem reminds me strongly of JRR Tolkien's Mythopoeia.

Credo
That each thing is a word
Requiring us to speak it;
From the ant to the quasar,
From clouds to ocean floor--

The meaning not ours, but found
In the mind deeply submissive
To the grammar of existence,
The syntax of the real;

So that alien is changed
To human, thing into thinking:
For the world's bare tokens
We pay golden coin,

Stamped with the king's image;
And poems are prophecy
Of a new heaven and earth,
A rumour of resurrection.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Books for Boys

Here I am, back from my sojourn in the Isle of Apples.
Actually, no, not that one. Although there were certainly harps involved...
While there I was asked to provide some reading suggestions for boys. Here's a list, followed up by suggestions for children and reading generally. I hope it will be useful to you.
Some readers might ask why I have not also provided a list of basic reading for girls. My answer is that there are heaps of wonderful girly books out there, and they should be chosen wisely, but while it is essential for a boy to read more manly than feminine books, I believe that it is also essential for a girl to read more manly than feminine books—why, I explained in a previous post. So boys first. I might add that of course I am a girl myself, and there are very few books on this list which I have not read and loved.
This list is not exhaustive—but then, what is? If you need something a bit better than this list, Canon Press has the fabulous The Book Tree; and similar books abound. This list is roughly arranged, beginning with books suitable for younger children and working up to books with tougher content or chewier themes:

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Time to Say Goodbye

...but only for a fortnight!

Yes, I am going on holiday to one of my favourite places in the world. I'll be back in a couple of weeks with another Feature Week! See you then!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Should Girls Read Boys' Books?


One day in conversation I recommended a whole squad of books to a young lady. John Buchan would certainly have featured among them, but I'm sure others would have included The Prisoner of Zenda, Journey Through the Night, Biggles or even some Chesterton or Scott. Her reply amazed me. She would love to read all those books, she told me. There was nothing she loved as much as tales of thrilling adventure in far places. Unfortunately, her mother didn't wish her to read many books like this and preferred her to read mainly 'ladylike' books like those of Louisa May Alcott.
Since I never had any reading guidelines, I was surprised to hear about this one. However since then I've noticed that lots of parents are trying to guide their children into good reading that will, in the short years of their youth, prepare them well for the days ahead of them.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Rosary by Florence L. Barclay

I had never heard of Florence L Barclay until one day, I mentioned on Facebook that I was in the market for a really sensational novel. It was Mrs Smith who immediately suggested one of this lady's works: The Following of the Star. Alas, I was unable to find it available as a free ebook, so instead I decided to read The Rosary, which was the 1910 bestseller.

As The Rosary begins, we meet the Honorable Jane Champion. Jane is an unusual woman--plain of face and speech, thirty years old, admired and liked by a large circle of male friends...but unmarried, and likely to remain so forever; although, as Mrs Barclay assures us, her plain exterior conceals an ocean of feminine love and affection and general sterling worth.

One of Jane's friends is Garth Dalmain, the famous artist. Unlike Jane, Garth is extremely good-looking and makes no secret about his love of beauty, especially feminine beauty. Like all her other friends, Garth has never seen the true beauty of Jane's character. Then one night at a house-party, Jane is asked as a special favour to sing a popular song called "The Rosary". The song reveals a part of Jane's soul which Garth has never known before, and he falls madly in love with it--and her. Later, on a moonlit balcony (naturally), he declares his love and proposes a merger. But Jane, bewildered by this sudden turn of events, is not certain that this is more than a momentary impulse. Could Garth really love her plain face...even after twenty years? She turns him down and goes to Egypt, to try to forget. Soon she realises that she made a mistake--that she should have trusted Garth. But is it already too late to start again?

This book is a lot better than it should be. It should be a little embarrassing. It is, after all, awash in oceans of Edwardian sentimentalism. The plot moves at a leisurely pace, spending much time on the characters' feelings (yearning! lonely! tormented!). Yet Mrs Barclay is a good enough writer to make it work, with lashings of dry humour; and no book containing a character as fundamentally prosaic as Jane Champion will ever be too sentimental.

The really pleasant thing about this book, however, was not so much the romance as the context of the romance. I have written before about the failings of Edwardian romance novelists. It's interesting that of all the genres of novel, none deteriorates so rapidly under the influence of bad theology as does the romance. The reason The Rosary is worth bothering with is simply that its author, an Anglican vicar's wife, has rock-solid theology (spoiler warning ahoy for those who do not know how romances normally end):
"'Lead us, O Christ'—It was He who led us safely through the darkness, and has brought us to this. And Garth, I love to know that He is Lord of All—Lord of our joy; Lord of our love; Lord of our lives—our wedded lives, my husband. We could not be so safely, so blissfully, each other's, were we not one, in Him."
Well, and there you have the true foundation of earthly happiness--and the only thing that can rescue a romance novel from awfulness! But that's not the only worthwhile theme from this book. I just loved this quote:
[Garth's love] would have meant less liberty, but it would also have meant no loneliness. And, after all, the liberty to live for self alone becomes in time a weary bondage.
"The liberty to live for self alone becomes in time a weary bondage." I have heard many times before that it is a Very Bad Thing for a woman to be 'defined by a man.' This is nonsense. Naturally a woman should be defined primarily by her Father in Heaven, but as one great Christian said, "no man is an island." People are always defined by other people; we have a word to describe those who are not: "selfish". If the greatest commandment is "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God," the second is "and thy neighbour as thyself." This is true for men, but for women, it is an all-encompassing raison d'etre which cannot be ignored or explained away. At the creation of the woman, Our Lord said she was to be a helper; and and a helper of men--her own man specifically.

And yet the "don't be defined by a man" mantra is everywhere today. For that reason alone books like The Rosary--a Christ-centred romance--should be treasured up and read.

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