Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Savoy Operas by Sir WS Gilbert


This is a bit of an odd one to review. It's not a novel by any means—it's a collection of librettos. And librettos without their music! It's a testament to Gilbert's skill that they still manage to be readable.
The operettas produced by WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan at the Savoy Theatre in London between 1875 and 1896 were sparkling comic gems set to unforgettable tunes. It wasn't a perfect partnership—Gilbert and Sullivan didn't get on, and Sullivan's real ambition was always to compose real masterpieces, not frothy comic operettas. Yet their names, now almost inseperable, have come to mean something really important, both culturally and artistically. You see, the Savoy operas were good as well as popular.
Sullivan's undeniable musical genius was of course a large part of the partnership's success. But as that doesn't lend itself well to being read out of book for fun and profit on a Sunday afternoon, this review is going to focus on Gilbert. Like so many of the great men of letters, Gilbert was in fact a lawyer before he turned his hand to writing. Like so many lawyer-writers, he then became extremely good at it, in a distinctively legal manner. Indeed he could rightly be dubbed the poet laureate of the legal profession. His songs are peppered with legal jokes, and usually there's a plot twist that depends on some kind of legal quibble. There's plenty of satire, plenty of obscure cultural references, and plenty of daft British humour.
Most of Gilbert's librettos were collected in one volume under the name of “The Savoy Operas” in 1926 and are, I believe, still in print. It contains thirteen operas, containing all the lyrics and hilarious banter, of which the most famous are HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, and The Mikado. The plots are really not important, generally involving obstacles thrown up in the path of true love by the zany supporting cast. For example, in Iolanthe, the half-fairy hero's engagement is disrupted by the attentions of the entire House of Lords, the fact that she's a ward of Chancery, and the fact that she witnessed him kissing his mother, who as a fairy appears to be a pretty girl of about nineteen. Or in The Mikado, where Prince Nanki-Poo's grand love for Yum-Yum appears to be hopeless, seeing that her guardian Ko-Ko (Lord High Executioner) intends to marry her himself, and that the fearsome lady Katisha intends to marry Nanki-Poo. Shenanigans, naturally, result.
This book is a must-have for any fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, and not a bad investment for just about anyone else who likes good music and a bit of a laugh.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Heidi by Johanna Spyri


This was one of my favourite books when I was little—one I read many times. I knew it well because it was among my mother's favourite books when she was small. Thinking about it these days, I must wonder if it is so well-known these days. I so rarely hear people talking about it.
The book was originally written in German by the Swiss Johanna Spyri. It's the story of little five-year-old orphan Heidi, who is left to live with her reclusive grandfather after her grandmother dies. The Alm-uncle, as her grandfather is called, is full of bitterness because of his son's early death, but when Heidi comes to live with him, he begins to thaw.
Heidi makes friends with Peter, a shepherd-boy, and his blind grandmother. But then one day her Aunt Dete comes back to collect her. Dete has work in Frankfurt as a maid in a big house, where there is a lame little girl who needs a companion. Before she knows it Heidi has been whisked away to live in a gilded cage.
I haven't read this book for quite some years now. I remember it being a perfectly delightful, heartstring-tugging story. Now as I look back through it I wonder if it might not be a little cliched, a little sentimental (after all, just how many stories of plucky little orphan girls melting hard-hearted guardians are there?) but I really think there's more to Heidi than that. There's a lot of...well, you might call it moralising, but I really think it's more theologically sound than that. For example, the most memorable part of the whole book when I was little, was this:
But if somebody thinks that nobody knows about a wicked deed, he is wrong; God always knows it. As soon as He finds that a man is trying to conceal an evil he has done, He wakens a little watchman in his heart, who keeps on pricking the person with a thorn till all his rest is gone. He keeps on calling to the evildoer: 'Now you'll be found out! Now your punishment is near!'”

I have always thought of the conscience as a little man with a pointed stick in consequence of this passage! And indeed, Heidi isn't without a good spice of humour, ranging from the worst case of bad conscience the Alps have ever seen, to the Sesemann family servants sitting up late to catch their ghost.
Heidi is a great little book—a beguiling story, wonderful descriptions of Switzerland, and an eager desire to edify. Recommended for little girls of all ages.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Books for Girls

Edited 19 February, 2014--now with many more recommendations, and divided into categories based on maturity level of the reader!

Following on from my post on Books for Boys, another friend asked for some girls' book suggestions. Once more I should reiterate that I don't believe in segregated bookshelves, with the girls having to read the books over here, and the boys getting to read the books over there. Girls need to read boys' books. Girls need, very badly, to see the world through the eyes of men. And if a gentler, sweeter book is any good at all, then a boy ought to get some profit out of it as well. Let's hear it for "mixed reading"!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

I Am Not Going to Be a Lawyer

My sisters and I have started a little personal blog over at Three Chicks and a Hen. Crafty suggestions from Elizabeth; musings on life, books, and sewing from me; and maybe even the odd homeschooling and childrearing tips and hints from Mum.

I bring it up because in the few months since I started In Which I Read Vintage Novels, my thinking has undergone a surprising change with regards to what I'm going to do with my life. I started this blog nearly a year ago (already!) as I was getting to the end of full-time legal study, looking for a job, moving out of home...
I Am Not Going to Be a Lawyer

I did move to Melbourne for a while to look for work, and found the prospect depressing. Meanwhile I had time and enough of an internet connection to catch up on some interesting-looking blogs. One thing led to another and before long I was researching a relatively recent movement among the Calvinist homeschooling large-family Rushdoony-reading lovables I call my friends. The (very unofficial) figureheads among this movement, Anna-Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin, call it “visionary daughterhood”. It’s more widely known among detractors and supporters as “stay-at-home daughterhood”. I still remember the day early in November last year that I realised I was thinking seriously about it. I had first heard of it way back in 2009, and thought it was a pretty crazy, legalistic sort of idea. Now, somehow, I was considering it for myself.

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday Poem: The Strange Music by GK Chesterton

GK Chesterton is definitely among my top 5 favourite poets--as you probably know by now! This is one of my absolute favourites. Sappy of me? You decide...

THE STRANGE MUSIC
by GK Chesterton

Other loves may sink and settle, other loves may loose and slack,
But I wander like a minstrel with a harp upon my back,
Though the harp be on my bosom, though I finger and I fret,
Still, my hope is all before me; for I cannot play it yet.

In your strings is hid a music that no hand hath e'er let fall,
In your soul is sealed a pleasure that you have not known at all;
Pleasure subtle as your spirit, strange and slender as your frame,
Fiercer than the pain that folds you, softer than your sorrow's name.

Not as mine, my soul's annointed, not as mine the rude and light
Easy mirth of many faces, swaggering pride of song and fight;
Something stranger, something sweeter, something waiting you afar,
Secret as your stricken senses, magic as your sorrows are.

But on this, God's harp supernal, stretched but to be stricken once,
Hoary time is a beginner, Life a bungler, Death a dunce.
But I will not fear to match them - no by God, I will not fear,
I will learn you, I will play you and the stars stand still to hear.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis


This was a quick Sunday-afternoon reread of an orthopraxic classic. CS Lewis is always a pleasure to read—he was a fine stylist, and his prose would be interesting even on the label of a can of baked beans. That Screwtape Letters—stuffed with some very fine philosophical points—is as readable as it is is quite an achievement.
It's been a few years since I first read the book, and found it pretty useful and enlightening this second time around. If you haven't read it, go and do so—it's witty, engaging, and very edifying. It's part epistolary novel, part discussion of the Christian walk; but it takes the form of letters from a senior devil (Screwtape) to a junior tempter on his first assignment (Wormwood). The Patient: a new Christian, a young man living through the early years of World War II and his first true love. It's Wormwood's mission to make sure the Patient never makes it to Heaven—instead being swallowed into Hell to provide delicious suffering for the sustenance of demons. In a bizarre, morally-reversed world in which God is The Enemy and Satan known as Our Father Below, Screwtape ponders at length the uses, kinds, and effects of sins and temptation.
There was one thing about the book which really niggled at me this time. I think I barely noticed it last time I read the book. But I have just returned from a very nice prolonged visit with some very good friends of mine, a highlight of which was a long-running series of discussions on the doctrines of grace; I, of course, pro, and they generally con. I was thinking like a Calvinist, and like a particularly sharp and aggressive Calvinist at that, when I re-read Screwtape Letters.
The thing I kept coming back to was the fact that Lewis does not appear to believe in the perseverance of the saints. Granted, he is writing strictly from a demon's perspective, with all sorts of misguided ideas (played for comedy), but nevertheless his assumption seems to be that a Christian can lose his salvation—that life, for a Christian, is lived on the brink of the Pit and only death can render a Christian 'safe'. Indeed, Screwtape does say at one point, vis-a-vis the Christian “patient”, that “the safest path to hell is the gradual one”.
Am I saying that there's no such thing as spiritual warfare? Well, no—although as a postmillenialist, it might be more accurate to say that we're enforcement, not shock troops. But let me put it this way—in most wars, the battle isn't about trying to get the combatants to change sides. It's about winning the field and planting the flag. It's about who gets to make laws—who gets to be King. This war is no different; sure, hearts are the most important battleground, but not the only battleground. And the Christian life isn't about staying out of Hell and getting into Heaven. It's about bringing Heaven to earth, about glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.
In such a view, devils just aren't all that important. Flies to be swatted away. Maybe even thorns in the flesh. But not a threat to our salvation.
That leads to something else about The Screwtape Letters. Lewis says a lot about sin—a lot of good things. For example, that many people go to Hell on a flood of “tiny” sins, believing themselves to be good people. Quite true, but as an Arminian, Lewis doesn't have the full picture. Sins—in the sense of law-breaking—don't damn anyone. A state of rebellion against God, and refusal to give glory to Him—that's what damns you. That state of rebellion, that total depravity, is what makes you sin. I believe it was RC Sproul who said, “We aren't sinners because we sin—we sin because we are sinners.” It's not a trickle of minor infractions that take you to hell, any more than it's one or two big ones.
Reading The Screwtape Letters might be calculated to make one more paranoid than holy—might make one fear that sin might snatch one away from salvation. Happily, to a Calvinist, it's a flawed but still worthwhile discussion of many different areas of the Christian life. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Dragon and the Raven by GA Henty


Last week I had the pleasure of re-reading a favourite GA Henty book, The Dragon and the Raven. What a trip down memory lane! This was the very first GA Henty book I ever read--in fact, my mother read it aloud to us--and while this must be at the very least the fourth time I've read it, I found it just as good this time around.

Of course I wanted to read this because I'd just finished with Ben Merkle's The White Horse King, and I hadn't had quite enough of thinking about that great king, Alfred. I already knew something about Alfred, mainly from this book and another, The Namesake, by C Walter Hodges, which I didn't enjoy much.

The Dragon and the Raven refers to Alfred's Golden Dragon standard, and the standard of the Danish kings, which was a raven. The story opens in the year 870 in the marshes of East Anglia, where an Anglian ealdorman, his kinsman Eldred, and his son Edmund have been driven in an attempt to hide from the Danes. The Danish advance is resisted one last time by an East Anglian army led in part by Edmund's father, but the resistance is crushed and Eldred and Edmund fly south, to Wessex. But even Wessex, the last Saxon kingdom, won't defy the Danes forever...Ever mindful of his homeland's fall, young Edmund determines to fight his hardest against the brutal, bloodthirsty Danish invaders. From the marshes of Athelney, to the heart of Danish territory, to the siege of Paris and even the invasion of Sicily, Edmund and his good ship the Dragon fearlessly sail in search of adventure. Throw in a pretty Danish girl, her honourable (if piratical) father, and her wicked suitor, and you have everything else you need for a gripping yarn.

The subtitle of this book is Or, the Days of King Alfred. Strictly speaking, it's an accurate title: the book is less about King Alfred than about the time in which he lived, the wholesale onslaught of the Danes against the entire civilised world, from England to France to the Mediterranean. Unusually for a Henty book, most of the memorable bits of the story are not based on history at all; though if you're paying attention you will hear all about the battle of Ashdown, the battle of Ethandune, and the great invasion of 893.

At first I thought this was an unusual way of doing things--Henty usually spends far more time on historical detail than he does here--but I believe his intention was to give the reader the biggest picture possible. It wasn't just England that tottered before the heathen attack. It was Europe. The Vikings plundered, pillaged, slew, and sacked from the Orkneys to Palestine and everywhere in between, using rivers to strike quickly into the heart of Italy, France, and Spain as well as England. One of the most interesting parts of the book is Henty's detailed account of the year-long siege of Paris in 885.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Dream of the Rood


Recently I've been reading Ben Merkle's book on King Alfred the Great – The White Horse King. Alfred was a truly remarkable man; it's hard to imagine a man facing worse odds than he did; and reading about him has reminded me once more why I love the Anglo-Saxons so much.

Thinking about Alfred inspired me to go back and reread an Anglo-Saxon religious poem, The Dream of the Rood. One of the reasons why I'm so keen on reading is that it is the best way to travel back and experience the thoughts, worldview, and flavour of an earlier time. Beowulf, for example, may not be an intensely factual description of Anglo-Saxon life – but it will teach you more about their character than any history book.

As the Venerable Bede records in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Anglo-Saxons were among the Proud Warrior Races that came from the Germanies after the fall of Rome. After the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain, the Saxons invaded and pressed the Celts and remaining Romans deep back into Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, nearly extinguishing the spark of Christianity that remained. The Saxons had a reputation for cruelty, ferocity, and barbarism and they ruled England with an iron hand.

Then something strange happened. Beginning in the kingdom of Kent, the seven Saxon kingdoms were evangelised. One by one they fell to Christianity. Over the next few centuries, something truly wonderful emerged from savage Saxon England: a culture of learning, literature, songs, bravery, and nobility. England became so safe that it was said a woman could travel alone across the country with a purse full of gold in perfect safety. One of my favourite stories tells about a king who married a young princess from a neighbouring kingdom. It was the ambition of this girl's life to remain a virgin and join a nunnery. Even though the succession and security of his kingdom was at stake, the king agreed and allowed her to go into the nunnery. Even though I think the princess was a silly goose, I love that story because it shows how Christianity had turned the Saxons into a kind—though far from a weak—people.

The Dream of the Rood is an excellent example of how these remarkable Christians viewed their faith. The narrator tells how the cross of Christ appeared to him in a dream to recount the story of the Crucifixion. Unless you've made an in-depth study of the Saxon people, the first thing you'll probably notice about this poem is the strangeness of how the Saxons viewed the same faith that you celebrated in church this morning.

Some of the theology is a little hazy. For instance, the part where the narrator “prayed to the cross with friendly spirit”--that sounds unusual to us modern-day Protestants, and that's as it should be.

However the most obvious point of difference between modern religion and The Dream of the Rood is probably the contrasting view of Jesus. After all, in the last hundred or so years, we've had Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild; we've had Radical Revolutionary Jesus, we've had Hell, What's That? Jesus, we've had Wise Human Teacher Jesus, and we've had Only Wants Your Personal Fulfilment Jesus.

Well, this is Anglo-Saxon Jesus:

The young hero stripped himself then (that was God Almighty)

strong and resolute. He ascended onto the high gallows,

brave in the sight of many there, since he wished to release mankind.

Warrior, Mighty King, Lord of the Heavens, Wielder of Triumphs--this is what the Dream of the Rood calls Christ. The Anglo-Saxons, coming from the cold hard myths of the North into Christianity, probably could not help seeing Christ as the epitome of what was honourable and good in their own eyes: the self-sacrificing warrior-king who will enjoy fellowship in the mead-hall of heaven with his faithful thegns. Even after “the King's fall” the poet speaks of the dead Christ in terms that hint at more to come:

They laid him down there, weary-limbed; they positioned themselves at his body's head,

there they gazed at the Lord of heaven, and he rested himself there for a while,

weary after the great battle.

Strangely, I've heard criticisms of this particular view of Christ as the conquering King. Now it's perfectly true: Christ is also the prophet and the priest, also the sacrificial Lamb, and there was certainly defeat in His triumph. But can anyone say this view of Christ is wrong? Incomplete—maybe. But was it meant to be complete? Can you fault the Anglo-Saxons for their delight in one aspect of Christ that so often goes overlooked? Can we not rather say that the Saxons had a much healthier, a more full-orbed idea of kingship than we have?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism has one marvellous question that addresses this issue well:

Q. 26: How doth Christ execute the office of a king?

A. Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.

Christ the King was the particular joy of Anglo-Saxon Christians. We're embarrassed by the idea these days. It makes Christianity seem so...well, so manly. Or even worse – such a view might lead one to think that God hasn't planned on the Church's ultimate failure...that maybe, after all, Christ won the decisive battle on the Cross and the rest of history is just cleanup.

And you'd have to be crazy to believe that, right?

Modern English translation of The Dream of the Rood

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