Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best of 2012

The tradition of the year-end list, especially for reviewers, is an ancient and hoary one which I can hardly overlook on a blog like this. And so I have gone over my Goodreads page with a fine-tooth comb and a squint, looking for those particular gems which will make my end-of-year most-highly-recommended list. 

This year I read a grand total of 89 books, averaging out at nearly two per week and beating last year’s record of 75. However this was something which, I felt, came naturally. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Poem: Down in Yon Forest

I must apologise that, what with one thing and another, I haven't had time to post much in the last month. When I am reading, there's little time for posting, and vice versa!

Still, once the holidays are over, there will be some exciting reviews coming up. Over the last six months I have been slowly reading through Saint Augustine's venerable tome The City of God, which I just finished a couple of days ago. Interesting, engaging and informative, De Civitate Dei (its original title in the Latin) was written as the curtain went up on the decentralisation of Rome and the dawn of Christendom, and was enormously influential on Western civilisation as we know it. It will take some reviewing.

Meanwhile, as usual, I intend to take the next couple of weeks' holiday to read another great epic poem. I couldn't be more excited about this epic, which is one of the greatest artistic works of the Reformation. A thrilling, richly allegorical tale of knights, ladies, dragons, witches, traitors, monsters, handsome princes, damsels in distress, Elves, Satyrs, jousts, perils, epic battles, evil lairs, tangled forests, enchanted castles, and magic weapons, this story is also about sound doctrine, the epic war of good versus evil, the beauty of virtue, and Reformation history.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, and if you're wondering how on earth you might have missed such a gem, then do check back in January for a comprehensive review!

And in the meanwhile, I'd like to post one of my favourite Christmas carols, an old song from Derbyshire:

Down in yon forest there stands a hall:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
It's covered all over with purple and pall
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

In that hall there stands a bed:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
It's covered all over with scarlet so red:
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

At the bed-side there lies a stone:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
Which the sweet Virgin Mary knelt upon:
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

Under that bed there runs a flood:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
The one half runs water, the other runs blood:
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

At the bed's foot there grows a thorn:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
Which ever blows blossom since he was born:
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

Over that bed the moon shines bright:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
Denoting our Saviour was born this night:
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

And of course, my favourite recording of this lovely song is the one made by my friend Christina of Baehrly Reading.

Monday, December 10, 2012

All Hallows' Eve by Charles Williams

Like Lewis and Tolkien and many of the other great authors of the last century--Chesterton comes to mind immediately, as do Flannery O'Connor and John Buchan--Charles Williams's work is rooted in the past. While other authors drank stright from the cultural zeitgeist--Tolkien's popularity spawned thousands of equally-huge, superficially-similar, deeply modernist imitators--the great authors of the last century seem almost obsessed with the past; not the trappings of the past (historical fiction still belongs to Scott, Stevenson, Henty, and the like in the 1800s) but the ideas of the past. But these authors were not simply nostalgists, sighing over the ideals of chivalry and Christendom. Instead they declared Christendom to be the cure of the ills of the modern age. Chesterton, Lewis, and above all Williams saw the world in terms of antithesis. They knew they were on the right side; they did not care greatly that they were on the old-fashioned side. And so in all their books lay a challenge to the modernist world.

In Charles Williams's books perhaps more than any. Of all the Inklings, his books are the most inaccessible, making few allowances for folks who aren't sure what "the City" is or what's so important about a "roseal glow". But although they require patience and thought, Williams's books are closely related to the life that we know. They are at once the strangest and the most mundane of the books of the Inklings, and perhaps their strangeness stems from their otherwise mundanity.

All Hallows' Eve is an excellent example of Williams's work and perhaps one of the best places to start reading. At the book's opening, a woman named Lester Furnival  is standing on Westminster Bridge in London waiting for her husband. Around her the City seems empty and quiet; then, it occurs to her that she is dead, killed in a plane crash with her friend Evelyn. As she wanders through the City, Lester realises that she is all alone except for Evelyn, one of the few people she ever had a use for. Evelyn, terrified by the loneliness, whimpers--
"Why are we here like this? I haven't done anything. I haven't; I tell you I haven't. I haven't done anything."
And Lester, realising that she hasn't done anything either, sets out on her journey to redemption:
"Evelyn, let's do something now."
Meanwhile, in the living world, Lester's husband Richard is drawn into his friend Jonathan's strange predicament. Jonathan hopes to marry the domineering Lady Wallingford's daughter Betty (an old school friend of Lester and Evelyn's); but when Lady Wallingford sees the painting Jonathan was commissioned to make of her spiritual mentor Simon LeClerk, she is so offended by it that Jonathan enlists Richard to smooth over the breach. Unexpectedly, Simon himself approves of the painting which shows him dominating insect-people in a wilderness, though he dislikes another recent painting showing the City full of, and possibly even made of, Light. Feeling that Jonathan and Richard may be useful to his plans, Simon decides to initiate them into his group of acolytes, but though he promises to bring back Lester and make Lady Wallingford give up her jealously-guarded daughter, what he has in mind for Betty and Lester is something even more sinister than necromancy.

As Lester and Richard fumble towards salvation, Simon the sorcerer puts the last touches to a plan centuries old. And, unlike another 'sorcerer' years ago--'the son of Joseph', as Simon calls Him--this plan will lead not to death but domination.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

When You Rise Up by RC Sproul Jr

(Re-posted from Goodreads)

My parents started home educating me in the early '90s, when the movement was still in its first generation. We were 'movement' home educators, doing it not as a choice among equally valid choices, but because we knew it could offer us something no school could: high consistency with Biblical commands to parents to teach their own children.

Yet, by my late teens, I had somehow swallowed a certain definition of home education success. Success meant knowing more than the school children. I was already teaching grammar and literature to my peers when they called for assignment help and I simply couldn't imagine living the intellectually-stunted life of the public-schooled. To me, not being able to read Shakespeare easily was like missing a head.

Over the next few years, I began to be really challenged about this rather stuck-up viewpoint. As I and the little home educators I played with grew older, I began to realise that character was better than facts and wisdom better than trivia.

As I look around me today, I still see home educators paranoid that their children should be academically irreproachable. Some of them opt to shoot the moon with a classical education, others feel safer with a school-at-home package. But at the same time I see more and more parents realising that academics is not all there is; that academics is not the chief end of education.

 RC Sproul Jr's book is thus a timely reminder of what academics is for. We have been treating it as an end, but it is really a means. The aim is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever; the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Instead of teaching academics here and a bit of religion there, says Sproul, we should start with the fear of the Lord and go on to knowledge as a means to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The educational commands in Scripture are heavily weighted towards teaching children to know and use the law-word of God. The periodic table doesn't even get a mention.

One might commit the opposite error and say that academics is not important, but this is not what either Scripture or Sproul teaches. Sproul even admits to teaching his children Latin and phonics and buying textbooks. I happen to know that he's written articles for classical-school-curriculum-catalogues. That's not what he's saying.

In Scripture, we are told that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Yet Solomon, the wisest man till Christ, was learned in just about everything one could be learned in--from great literature to natural science. If there had been a periodic table back then, he'd have known it backwards. The fear of the Lord, I am convinced, will ultimately result in a formidable standard of academic excellence.

But, says Sproul, let's not sacrifice the commands of God and our children to the gods of academe. Are you qualified to teach? If you have children, he says, the answer is yes. Just as if you are married, you are qualified to lead. The command to teach one's children is foundational to Christian living. If you have 'em, you teach 'em. Even if you can't hold a pencil and never read a word in your life.

This is a hard thing for us to swallow, after a century of compulsory state schooling. However, side-stepping for a moment the fact that no if any parents in the home-ed world are utterly illiterate, consider this: If God thought you weren't competent to teach your children, He'd have given them to someone else. Like a husband that won't lead, incompetence is not a license to quit trying. It is a command to get whatever it is you need to teach your children. At the very least this would include a Bible and the ability to read it (Christianity has always been a formidable force for literacy, given its emphasis on the Word). And once you can read, you can learn anything.

Learning--of any kind--is a spiritual discipline, argues Donald Whitney in his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. We have turned it into a way to prove that we can do the school thing at home better than the schools. And it's the wrong aim.

Sproul's thesis is one that needs to be heard by as many home educators as possible. However I do think you need to read the book with the tacit understanding that Sproul does, in fact, value academics. He just doesn't idolise it.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Bellarion by Rafael Sabatini

Rafael Sabatini is one of the great swashbuckler authors, and I read quite a number of his books as light reading during university. I began with his most well-known works--Captain Blood, Scaramouche, The Sea-Hawk--and found them loads of fun. Unfortunately, some of the more recent reading I've done in Sabatini's works has been a let-down: badly plotted, with uninspiring themes, weak characters, and lazily-drawn settings, all of which detracts from the fun melodrama.

And so it was a pleasant surprise to read Bellarion, one of Sabatini's best.

Bellarion, sometimes called The Fortunate, starts out as a young novice from an Italian monastery who is sent to study in Pavia, the great city of learning near Milan. Then in Casale, the capital of Montferrat, an unexpected adventure sends Bellarion fleeing for his life right into a garden where he finds the Princess Valeria, who, plotting against her evil usurper of an uncle, is in danger of going in over her head. Bellarion, somewhat to his own surprise, immediately puts all his learning, trickery, and boundless cheek at her service, and in the adventures that follow, as he goes on to Milan, is adopted by its governor, and rises quickly to become one of the most cunning and powerful mercenary captains in Italy, the secret he keeps from everyone else is the fact that he is still in Valeria's service.

This was an excellent adventure story. Some failings included Sabatini's secular humanist worldview, which acts condescendingly towards faith and the Church, and his superstitious belief in Fortune--a theme running through all Sabatini's books and in evidence here.

While Bellarion is a sympathetic character and a good deal more honest than many of the other characters, his modus operandi is basically trickery. He speaks about this at the end of the book--
It is not what a man does or says that counts; but what a man intends. I have embraced as a part of my guiding philosophy that teaching of Plato's which discriminates between the lie on the lips and the lie in the heart.
While one can have no sympathy for this philosophy, it was very interesting to hear it explained, especially in the setting of Renaissance Italy. Plato was quite an influence on medieval thinking. St Augustine saw him as the one pagan philosopher closest to Christianity, and therefore chose him as the representative pagan philosopher to refute. It seems that as history went on, Augustine's refutation was forgotten and his endorsement was remembered, so that Plato was taken a good deal too seriously. I knew that Plato thought governments lying to their people was a great idea, and this "lie of the lips/lie of the heart" sophistry shows how he justified it. I suspect that this philosophy lies under a bit more of history than the fictional history of Bellarion, and now I know about it, I'll be looking for it. But I digress.

Although Bellarion, being bold, is favoured by Fortune, the presence of that capricious lady in this book is not allowed to justify laziness in plotting. I was amazed how good this book was. The characters are more nuanced than usual, and Bellarion himself is an interesting character: cunning and unscrupulous, he excels in military strategems as well as negotiations, but is almost physically a coward.

The plot is also well done. Although it contains no big surprises, it does contain the fun of watching Bellarion outwit the villains, along with many military maneuvers, conspiracies, plottings, treacheries, poisonings, et cetera (this is Renaissance Italy, after all). The setting is vividly drawn, all over the geography, history, and politics of Northern Italy, amidst the feuding of Guelphs and Ghibbelines.

Bellarion had a good deal more substance than the usual Sabatini novel, though it should still be read with a grain of salt. I quite enjoyed it.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Poem: Dolores Replies to Swinburne by GK Chesterton

I like to keep my Collected Poems of GK Chesterton handy, and browse through it occasionally, because there's always a new gem to turn up. A month or two back, I found this one, Dolores Replies to Swinburne, in a series of poems titled "Replies to the Poets".

Those whom God wishes to destroy, He first gives really bad taste in hair. Also see: Hitler.
I hadn't read Swinburne's original poem, Dolores. Now I have read about half of the thing, which does go on "for several pages", and while the verse has some of the crash and glitter of a Chesterton poem, the effect is more diseased. Algernon Charles Swinburne was an anti-Christian poet of the 1800s, of the "decadent" school, although Oscar Wilde found his claims to vice pretentious! And here, to give you a taste, are a couple of stanzas of Dolores:

Cold eyelids that hide like a jewel
Hard eyes that grow soft for an hour;
The heavy white limbs, and the cruel
Red mouth like a venomous flower;
When these are gone by with their glories,
What shall rest of thee then, what remain,
O mystic and sombre Dolores,
                Our Lady of Pain?

[...]

Could you hurt me, sweet lips, though I hurt you?
Men touch them, and change in a trice
The lilies and languors of virtue
For the raptures and roses of vice;
Those lie where thy foot on the floor is,
These crown and caress thee and chain,
O splendid and sterile Dolores,
               Our Lady of Pain.

[........................]

Ad infinitum. Chesterton's delightful poem is a little more to the point!


Dolores Replies to Swinburne
GK Chesterton 

Cold passions, and perfectly cruel,
Long odes that go on for an hour,
With a most economical jewel
And a quite metaphorical flower.
I implore you to stop it and stow it,
I adjure you, relent and refrain,
Oh, pagan Priapean poet,
               You give me a pain.

I am sorry, old dear, if I hurt you,
No doubt it is all very nice
With the lilies and languors of virtue
And the raptures and roses of vice.
But the notion impels me to anger,
That vice is all rapture for me,
And if you think virtue is languor
               Just try it and see.

We shall know then the critics discover
If your poems were shallow or deep;
Who read you from cover to cover,
Will know if they sleep not or sleep.
But you say I’ve endured through the ages
(Which is rude) as Our Lady of Pain,
You have said it for several pages,
               So say it again.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Huntingtower by John Buchan (re-read)

This seems my year for re-reading Buchan books. The latest I had a hankering to re-read was Huntingtower, a delightful novel full of wonderful characters. I reviewed it before, but at that point it had been several years since I'd read it. And now, while it's fresh in my mind, might be a good moment to go over it again.

Huntingtower is about Dickson McCunn, retired Glasgow grocer, businessman, and romantic. On holiday in Carrick, he stumbles across something he has only ever dreamed about: Romance, in the sense of adventure. Together with a not-quite-as-disillusioned-as-he-appears realist poet, a gang of hardened Glasgow street boys, a lame laird and his battered henchmen, and (not to be forgotten) the capable and pious old lady Mrs Morran, Dickson McCunn faces the challenge of a lifetime: rescue an honest-to-goodness princess from a dark tower and Russia from the Bolsheviks.

Three genres are seamlessly blended into this wonderful book. First, the fairy-tale: the princess, the tower, the ogre, the handsome prince, all present and very much correct. Second, the shilling shocker: the gorgeous international lady of mystery (complete with chaperone); the seedy Bolshevik conspiracy; the stolen jewels which must not fall into the wrong hands; the deadly villain, the square-jawed hero.

These genres are both well-worn and Buchan breaks no moulds spinning his story; his book examines and justifies the hoary tropes, rather than deconstructing them. But the unique appeal of this book lies in the third genre Buchan adds. What would one call it? Literary fiction? Light comedy? At any rate, the fairytale shocker has a hiccup: the handsome prince is delayed coming to the lady's rescue. And into the breach step a handful of the most motley bystanders you can imagine.
"Five laddies, a middle-aged man and an auld wife," he cried. "Dod, it's pretty hopeless. It's like the thing in the Bible about the weak things of the world trying to confound the strong."
These characters are drawn lovingly and vividly, from the battered and desperate Gorbals Die-Hards who have never known love or comfort to the respectable and stolid Mr McCunn and Mrs Morran who handle everything as it comes to them with unfailing pluck. It would be cozy to read about Mr McCunn selling hams and writing dutiful letters to his wife at the Neuk Hydropathic. But reading about him outwitting Bolshevik spies and occasionally injuring respectable lawyers is something on the heady side of delightful.
"I haven't been doing badly for an old man," he reflected with glee. What, oh, what had become of the pillar of commerce, the man who might have been a Bailie had he sought municipal honours, the elder in the Guthrie Memorial Kirk, the instructor of literary young men? In the past three days he had levanted with jewels which had once been an Emperor's and certainly were not his; he had burglariously entered and made free of a strange house; he had played hide-and-seek at the risk of his neck and had wrestled in the dark with a foreign miscreant; he had shot at an eminent solicitor with intent to kill; and he was now engaged in tramping the world with a fairy-tale Princess. I blush to confess that of each of his doings he was unashamedly proud, and thirsted for many more in the same line.
In the meantime I realised what this book reminds me of. Mr McCunn, a law-abiding homebody with a poetic streak, is pulled (protesting at every step) into the wildest kind of adventure, which interferes with his quiet enjoyment of comforts such as pipes and second breakfasts. Indeed: Dickson McCunn is a Hobbit, and probably a Baggins. Like Bilbo, he becomes the head of operations and opines that the really necessary thing in a wild adventure like his is good solid business sense.

Then you have the Gorbals Die-Hards, who are just as delightful. There's Dougal, their leader, who may be any age between twelve and fifteen, and is without a doubt the best military head in the book. There's the smallest, Wee Jaikie, who cries in moments of excitement--"When ye see Jaikie begin to greet, ye may be sure that Jaikie's gettin' dangerous." And there's Thomas Yownie, the un-fickle-able:
Into the hall from the verandah limped a boy. Never was there seen so ruinous a child. He was dripping wet, his shirt was all but torn off his back, his bleeding nose was poorly staunched by a wisp of handkerchief, his breeches were in ribbons, and his poor bare legs looked as if they had been comprehensively kicked and scratched. Limpingly he entered, yet with a kind of pride, like some small cock-sparrow who has lost most of his plumage but has vanquished his adversary.
With a yell Dougal went down the stairs. The boy saluted him, and they gravely shook hands. It was the meeting of Wellington and Blücher.
The Chieftain's voice shrilled in triumph, but there was a break in it. The glory was almost too great to be borne.
"I kenned it," he cried. "It was the Gorbals Die-Hards. There stands the man that done it.... Ye'll no' fickle Thomas Yownie."
The theme of Huntingtower is Romance--in the sense of adventure and drama. The story, after all, is not so much about the adventure itself as it is about the effect of the adventure on its prosaic cast. The Princess, the Ogre, and the Prince are at all times clearly distinguished from the rest of the cast: they are larger than life; they belong to a world which none of the other characters can touch.
That everybody should be in love with her appeared to him only proper, for he had never met her like, and assumed that it did not exist. The desire of the moth for the star seemed to him a reasonable thing […] He wished he were twenty-five himself to have the chance of indulging in such sentimentality for such a lady. But Heritage was not like him and would never be content with a romantic folly. […] But it was hopeless; he saw quite clearly that it was hopeless. […] He recognised that the two belonged to different circles of being, which nowhere intersected.

When we meet Dickson, he considers himself a romantic; when he meets Heritage, the Poet, that young man talks about Communism and declares himself a realist. But then when adventure does come to them, the surprising thing is that both desert their previous convictions. Dickson, self-avowed romantic, is deeply disturbed by the thought of danger and adventure and desires nothing more than to get out of the adventure with his self-esteem intact. His thirst for adventure having failed him, he is brought up to scratch by his lifelong sense of duty and a certainty that what the Princess really needs with her is a hard-headed businessman. Before long, he finds himself facing death, and not liking it much:

Last Sunday, he remembered, he had been basking in the afternoon sun in his little garden and reading about the end of Fergus MacIvor in Waverley and thrilling to the romance of it; and then Tibby had come out and summoned him in to tea. Then he had rather wanted to be a Jacobite in the '45 and in peril of his neck, and now Providence had taken him most terribly at his word.

Romance, the romantic discovers, involves the cold and chilly business of walking into death. On the other hand, the Realist has an easier time of it, because Realism, unlike Romance, is a phantom. A catch of music sung in the evening air, and suddenly the whole world changes:

A week ago he was a cynical clear-sighted modern, a contemner of illusions, a swallower of formulas, a breaker of shams—one who had seen through the heroical and found it silly. Romance and such-like toys were playthings for fatted middle-age, not for strenuous and cold-eyed youth. But the truth was that now he was altogether spellbound by these toys.

At the end of the book, the Grocer and the Poet make their peace:

"The trouble about you, Dogson," says Heritage, "is that you're a bit of an anarchist. All you false romantics are. You don't see the extraordinary beauty of the conventions which time has consecrated. You always want novelty, you know, and the novel is usually the ugly and rarely the true. I am for romance, but upon the old, noble classic lines."

Romance is not novelty and liberation. Romance is duty and convention, faith and perseverance. This is Buchan’s eternal theme: the man faithful in little who is faithful in much. It’s Dickson’s sense of duty and responsibility that goads him back into the fight. Princesses, jewels, and spies are all very well, but in Huntingtower the true romance is located right where it always has been: in the common things, the little things, the everyday things.

As a coda, I also want to note that that Buchan also locates romance within Christendom and the Church. As usual in a Buchan novel, the adventurous life is only lived within the context of faith. Providence and the Kirk are everywhere. Dickson is an elder of the Guthrie Memorial Kirk, and the literary society of which he is a guiding member is operated under the Guthrie Memorial aegis. In fact Dickson’s life in his kirk is evidenced within the story in two ways. First, his activities in the literary society are noted; he gives addresses upon life and literature, and at one point reflects that having tasted a bit of real adventure he will now be able to provide much better teaching; the insinuation is that his adventures fit him better to fill his duties as an elder of the kirk. Second, while in Glasgow, he visits a gun-maker to arm himself; the gun-maker is a fellow elder at his church. The weapon eventually passes to Heritage’s use; it might not be going too far to say that the Church symbolically provides the means for the characters to arm themselves against evil.

Then, as always in Buchan novels, the larger cultural context is Christendom. Dickson gets tips from the Covenanters on how to survive in the wilds with enemies hunting you down. And as always, there are the odd coincidences, flashes of divine grace in the plot which assure the characters that Providence is on their side.

Huntingtower is one of those books that only gets better each time you read it. I loved it more than ever this time, especially the characters. Dickson, who could be Bilbo Baggins’s long-lost  and more bloodthirsty brother. Mrs Morran, who may be a prim old lady but doesn’t let that stand in the way of saving the day. Dougal and his “men”, the first to go to the Princess’s defence and decidedly the most capable. Sir Archibald Roylance, Buchan regular, who spends two chapters worrying about Dougal giving the orders to start firing on the enemy too soon and then forgets all that “coyness about shooting” the moment the siege starts. And even Saskia, the Princess herself, and her handsome and romantic fiancé Prince Alexis Nicolaevitch, alias “Mr. Alexander Nicholson of the rising firm of Sprot and Nicholson of Melbourne”.

Sprot and Nicholson! Ladies and gentlemen, Huntingtower, a joyous experience.

Arthur's Classic Novels etext
Librivox recording

Monday, November 19, 2012

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I first began reading this novel about ten years ago, and never got beyond Part 2, not because it was slow-moving but because my attention was distracted. Be that as it may, I always intended to finish it off sometime, and this (entirely unaware of the imminent Joe Wright/Keira Knightley motion picture extravaganza) I have now done.

Tolstoy's acclaimed novel--It's a work of genius! It's daringly realistic! It's shorter than War and Peace!--follows the mirror lives of two impulsive, passionate, but ordinary people. Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, the wife of a wealthy St Petersburg bureaucrat twenty years her senior, is gifted with intelligence, beauty, and the ability to make almost anyone love her. Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a rural landholder hopelessly in love with Princess Yekaterina "Kitty" Alexandrovna Scherbatskaya, struggles both in an effort to improve his estate despite the laziness and wastefulness of the peasantry and in an effort to understand the meaning and purpose of life in the face of death.

Our story opens in the Oblonsky household, where Kitty's elder sister Darya has just been devastated by the knowledge that her husband, the cheerfully amoral Prince Stepan Oblonsky, has been unfaithful to her. The prince's sister Anna Karenina soon arrives in Moscow to heal the breach at about the same time that Oblonsky's friend Levin arrives to propose to Kitty. Unfortunately for Levin, the handsome and rising young army officer Count Alexei Vronsky has been carrying on a flirtation with Kitty which the young girl believes is serious, so she turns down Levin's awkward proposal. Vronsky meets Anna by accident at the train station and is immediately fascinated by her charming manner, but the moment is cut short by a spot of tragic foreshadowing. Later that week, at a ball, Kitty is heartbroken when Vronsky spends the night paying court to Anna and then follows her to Moscow.

Kitty realises that Vronsky never had serious intentions toward her despite doing all he could to gain her heart, but it's too late to recall Levin, who has returned home to bury himself in farming. Meanwhile, Anna flees home to St Petersburg, surprised by the strength of her feelings for Vronksy, who follows on the same train. At first she determines to resist Vronsky's advances, but cannot help finding her husband, Alexei Karenin, repulsive, or intentionally going into society where she knows she will meet the besotted count. Soon Anna forgets her scruples and begins a passionate affair with Vronsky; gradually, both of them discard everything they valued in life: family, career, social standing. Meanwhile, Levin tries to make sense of his life in the face of heartbreak, frustration with farming and the economy, and the approaching death of his brother.

Anna Karenina is, in genre, usually described as a realist novel. I'm not sure if this is the best description of either the genre or this specific book. In my experience the realism or otherwise of a book is usually judged by reference to a materialistic, secular view of life that fails to see the inherent poetry of existence. Realist literature often seeks to make the author's hand in the novel as invisible as possible, on the mistaken assumption that real life does not involve an Author Who uses foreshadowing, irony, and coincidence. The result is chaotic, meaningless, and depressing, since it reflects the unbeliever's experience of reality. Anna Karenina, with its flashes of divine grace, its skilful use of foreshadowing and drama, its juxtaposition of the two major characters, and its romantically idyllic view of the agrarian life is not realist in this sense.

On the other hand realism in literature can take the form of a desire to reflect created reality as faithfully as possible, without romanticising or demonising any part of it. This is a worthy effort. ND Wilson has pointed out that escapism can occur in two directions: it can be escape out of God's created order into a secular world, or it can be escape from the modernist dungeon into the fairytale world God made. And for a good discussion of this, I highly recommend GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, the chapter entitled "The Ethics of Elfland." But I digress.


As for the themes, I’m not sure I could do justice to Anna Karenina on so brief an acquaintance. But here are a few observations.

The first thing to say, of course, is that Anna Karenina is not—as the trailer for Keira Knightley’s new movie assures us—“An Epic Story of Love”—at least, not in the way the trailer suggests. Anyone who comes out of this novel thinking an affair would be grand and noble has missed the point despite 700 pages of evidence to the contrary. Anna is not a free-spirited woman caught in the shackles of a cruel society as outdated as it is artificial. She is a guilty woman made miserable and petty by sin, and the book chronicles the horrifyingly destructive effect of that sin. Over and over she insists that she cannot be happy without Vronsky, but from the very beginning it is certain that she cannot be happy with him, even at the moment of surrender:

“A moment before this happiness…”
“What happiness?” she cried, with contempt and horror.

Indeed the entire Anna plot demonstrates one truth: “the eternal error made by men who imagine their happiness lies in the accomplishment of their desires.” While social restrictions, such as the difficulty of getting a divorce (without solid evidence of the affair, Anna’s husband cannot divorce her, unless he should admit falsely to being unfaithful himself; meanwhile, Anna herself does not want a divorce since it would mean losing all rights to her son Serozha) and the impossibility of an openly “fallen” woman being accepted in society do add greatly to Anna’s misery, the real problem lies in the fact that she is entirely incapable of being happy in a guilty liason. At every turn, even the mercies and kindnesses granted her only make her more unhappy. Eventually, it boils down to this: Anna knows it would be as easy for Vronsky to dispose of her as it was for him to win her. Her predicament is the same as that of every woman who gives herself without the minimum protection of an absolute lifelong covenant: once the first rush of infatuation is over, only the ability to be prettier and more agreeable than every other woman in the world will protect her.

“Just think! I am not his wife; he will love me just as long as he loves me; and how, by what means, am I to keep his love? It is by this.”
And she put out her white arms in front of her beautiful body.
With extraordinary rapidity, as always happens in moments of emotion, all sorts of thoughts and ideas went rushing through Darya Aleksandrovna’s mind.
“I have not tried,” she reasoned, “to attract Stiva to myself; he deserted me for some one else, and the first woman for whom he sacrificed me did not retain him by being always pretty and gay. He threw her over and took another. And will Anna be able to fascinate and retain Count Vronsky? If that is what attracts him, then he will be able to find women who dress even better and are more fascinating and merry-hearted. And however white, however beautiful, her bare arms, however beautiful her rounded form, and her animated face framed in her black hair, he will be able to find still better, more attractive women, just as my abominable, wretched, and beloved husband has done.”

In the end, it’s Anna’s jealousy that begins to destroy her relationship with Vronsky. Because she has no other hold on him and has given up so much for him, her enjoyment is spoiled by the knowledge that she may lose it at any moment. The crowning irony is that this begins to destroy the relationship even before he becomes indifferent to her.

At the climax of her story, Anna looks out at the world and decides that all social constructs and relationships have been elaborately constructed to conceal that fact that everyone is evil and everyone hates each other. After so much time spent looking at her through the lens of other characters or even the narrator, to see the world through Anna’s eyes is chilling. She is already in Hell, having followed her own desires there.

The plot dealing with Konstantin Levin follows a very similar person on a very similar quest: seeking happiness through the accomplishment of his desires. Levin also seeks happiness through love: a happily married family life is his ideal, but even the realisation of this ideal fails to satisfy him. Of course, marrying for love with the intention of fidelity already puts him in a happier position than Anna, but even as Levin struggles with his own jealousy, it is his secure position as a married man that allows him to deal with it; his relationship with Kitty is one of trust and understanding. Meanwhile, Kitty’s sister Dolly, having made a “brilliant” rather than a wise marriage, has lost all respect for her husband and can only lapse into indifference as a coping mechanism for her own jealousy.

Eventually, as the plot unfolds, Levin finds himself living out the dilemma of the book of Ecclesiastes. Faced with an impending death, Levin realises that all his efforts in this life are meaningless unless something beyond the material world gives meaning to them. He wrestles with philosophers and dusty tomes for a long time before the simple words of a peasant cut through the Gordian knot and illuminate him. Then he reflects:

“What should I have been, how should I have lived, it I had not absorbed these beliefs…if I had not known that I must live for God, and not for the satisfaction of my desires?” … And, though he made the most strenuous efforts of his imagination, he could not picture to himself what kind of a wild creature he might have been, if he had not really known the aim of his existence.

The answer, mutely provided by the structure of the book itself, is that he would have been like Anna—as gifted, as accomplished, as doomed.

This is, I suppose, the major theme of Anna Karenina—live for God, not for one’s own desires, because happiness does not come from one’s desires. There are also other themes, of course: most obviously, the theme comparing agrarian with cosmopolitan life, the comparison of various kinds of Christian religiosity from pietism to spiritualism; the long discussions of philosophy, economics, and war. There are faults in the application of the theme: Tolstoy’s Christianity is a vague, inclusive thing which I suspect to be unitarian and thus unable to save or to speak authoritatively into history; and the whole Levin plotline suffers from authorial lecturing.

A hundred and thirty years after its publication, Anna Karenina is remembered mainly for its eponymous heroine and not Levin. The reason, beyond the title, is fairly simple to discover. Anna’s plot is more immediate, more dramatic, and more authoritative. Tolstoy simply is better able to depict the ennui of evil than he is able to display the romance of goodness. His idea of goodness is too vague. To convince us that Anna is wrong one only has to tell her story. But to convince us that Levin is right somehow requires a series of tracts.

In GK Chestertion’s critique of Tolstoy in his book Twelve Types he made the observation—

The narrow notion that an artist may not teach is pretty well exploded by now. But the truth of the matter is, that an artist teaches far more by his mere background and properties, his landscape, his costume, his idiom and technique--all the part of his work, in short, of which he is probably entirely unconscious, than by the elaborate and pompous moral dicta which he fondly imagines to be his opinions. The real distinction between the ethics of high art and the ethics of manufactured and didactic art lies in the simple fact that the bad fable has a moral, while the good fable is a moral. And the real moral of Tolstoy comes out constantly in these stories, the great moral which lies at the heart of all his work, of which he is probably unconscious, and of which it is quite likely that he would vehemently disapprove. The curious cold white light of morning that shines over all the tales, the folklore simplicity with which 'a man or a woman' are spoken of without further identification, the love--one might almost say the lust--for the qualities of brute materials, the hardness of wood, and the softness of mud, the ingrained belief in a certain ancient kindliness sitting beside the very cradle of the race of man--these influences are truly moral. When we put beside them the trumpeting and tearing nonsense of the didactic Tolstoy, screaming for an obscene purity, shouting for an inhuman peace, hacking up human life into small sins with a chopper, sneering at men, women, and children out of respect to humanity, combining in one chaos of contradictions an unmanly Puritan and an uncivilised prig, then, indeed, we scarcely know whither Tolstoy has vanished. We know not what to do with this small and noisy moralist who is inhabiting one corner of a great and good man.

That is a fair comment, I think, to make about Anna Karenina, although fortunately in this book the fault is kept to a reasonable minimum.

In the end, I recommend that you read Anna Karenina not so much for what it teaches but for what it teaches against. Many writers have tried to depict sin in both its attractiveness and in its destructiveness, and have failed—either by making the sin so repulsive that it becomes impossible to see how a rational person could embrace it, or by making the sin so enticing that the moral is compromised or lost. In Anna Karenina Tolstoy appears as the rare success. There’s no denying the sympathy one feels for the main characters; there is no denying the ugliness of their sins. Equally, there are moments of divine grace, unexpected and unpredictable, that retrieve the wreckage being made of the some characters’ lives. The result, despite abovementioned flaws, is well worth while.

Gutenberg etext (trans. Constance Garnett)
Librivox recording

I have not seen any of the various film adaptations of Anna Karenina, none of which (I am reliably informed) treat the story properly. The 2012 movie looks sumptuous, and I never yet met the elaborate visual conceit I didn’t like, but its whole point seems to be that Anna’s trouble stems from the artificial restraints of a society held in place only by the willing suspension of disbelief of its members. A typically contemporary way of looking at it, and not remotely what Tolstoy was saying.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Works of N D Wilson

Well, I haven’t been around much for the last week or so, because I have been having a bit of a rest and reading Anna Karenina. I’m enjoying it, and looking forward to writing the review, but as I’m only about halfway through the book that will have to wait for now!

Instead I’m going to do something rather unusual and talk about a contemporary author.

Classically educated, a lecturer on the forgotten art of rhetoric, and the son of a Presbyterian minister and theologian whom I’ve been reading for years, N D Wilson was one novelist I was always going to be interested in.
In this story, the sun moves. In this story, every night meets a dawn and burns away in the bright morning. In this story, Winter can never hold back the Spring... He is the best of all possible audiences, the only Audience to see every scene, the Author who became a Character and heaped every shadow on Himself. The Greeks were right. Live in fear of a grinding end and a dank hereafter. Unless you know a bigger God, or better yet, are related to Him by blood.
Leepike Ridge: In this standalone book eleven-year-old Tom, facing the grisly prospect of having his widowed mother marry a skinny man with no chin, takes a midnight ride down the nearby river on a Styrofoam raft. When he wakes up, he’s in a black cave underground with a man who’s been living on crawdads since he got trapped there in the same accident that killed Tom’s father, except that it was no accident, and now even Tom’s mother is in danger as well. A great read, and a lovely riff on the Odyssey and Tom Sawyer.

100 Cupboards/Dandelion Fire/The Chestnut King: Henry York’s parents get kidnapped bicycling in Bolivia, so Henry goes to live in Henry, Kansas with his Uncle Frank, Aunt Dotty, and cousins of whom the most important is named Henrietta. Before too long, Henry discovers a hundred cupboards in the wall of his attic bedroom, all leading into strange and sometimes terrifying places. Then Henry accidentally releases the terrifying Witch of Endor and uncovers a family heritage far stranger and wilder than he could have imagined.

Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl: This non-fiction book—but by the end you’ll wonder if there’s really any difference between fiction and non-fiction, or whether a better name for the latter might be “literary criticism”—is a whirling stream-of-consciousness meditation on the nature, glory, and terror of creation and creation’s God.
Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shenikah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag.
The Dragon’s Tooth/The Drowned Vault/(To be continued): Wilson’s current Ashtown Burials series, projected at five books, tells the story of siblings Cyrus and Antigone Smith who unexpectedly find themselves drafted into the Order of Brendan, a secret society of dominion-taking explorers, scientists, and scholars. Then Cyrus loses the powerful weapon left to him by a renegade member of the Order, wakes a terrifying evil, and uncovers a family heritage far stranger and wilder than he could have imagined.

Although I was disposed to like Wilson’s works, it took me a number of years to finally cave in and become a fan. His books never quite grabbed me, though I enjoyed them, until he started the Ashtown Burials series and kicked into high gear. By then I had a better handle on his writing style and main concerns; possibly it was reading Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl, his authorial manifesto, that helped me understand his work.

There are some things I dislike about N D Wilson. He includes plenty of gore, vomit, and squids, usually with a boylike appreciation for them. The language in The Drowned Vault surprised me—it was pretty strong, even for a YA book, and it’s officially classified as a “children’s book” I believe. His characters sometimes have bad attitudes, and I didn’t feel they were very clearly dealt with. Finally, on the technical side, I feel like Wilson tends to include more characters than he knows what to do with, and there were some missed opportunities in the 100 Cupboards series.

But how about what’s good about Wilson? Oh, so much. For one thing, Wilson is a writer’s writer. This is kiddie lit fic, a bit more ornamented and conceited than I like, but when it’s good, undeniably so.

One thing Wilson does well, and nobody else, is to write strong masculine characters. While his female characters, especially in the Ashtown books, are a little bit too similar to the guys, the books are—all of them—stuffed with wise male authority figures and young boys and men learning to be men themselves.

Another thing Wilson does very successfully is point readers toward the strangeness and adventure of the world they inhabit. G K Chesterton breathes out of every book, especially the 100 Cupboards books. I believe the very purpose of fantasy is to remind people that they live in a fantastic world. Wilson constantly does this in everything he writes.
All the normal noises of life were gone, leaving behind the secretive sounds, the shy sounds, the whispers and conversations of moss disputing with grass over some soft piece of earth, or the hummingbird snoring. 
But he does it through the fantasy elements of his world as well. When reading The Dragon’s Tooth it hit me that the Order of Brendan is a big old metaphor for…the Church. Divided, confused, and weak, the O of B is nevertheless the communion of saints, the storehouse of the wisdom of the ages, and the nourisher of its families and members. At the same time, casual Christianity peers out of the pages:
“Desperate for my life, I cast prayers into the sky, to the one who wove the world. And my prayers were heard. For the first time, spiders came to me. They were my loom and my silk, and as I wove, holy power flowed through me, a touch reserved for creatures outside this world. What I wove shimmered like a pond at dawn, and in it a sun rose and set, and men and women moved as if alive. I wove them voices of holiness to curse Minerva and her kind, and to sing of the beauty that once was in the world and that would come again like morning…That day, Minerva died. Now I never can.” 
Finally, two major themes twist into everything that Wilson’s ever written. The first theme is fathers and father hunger. The second is death.

All Wilson’s characters start out with dead or lost fathers. All of them end up discovering and taking on their father’s work. All of them find their fathers again or find father figures in friends of their fathers. Older brothers grow up to become the protectors and guardians of their younger siblings. Unlike just about every other book on the marketplace, Wilson’s books celebrate and encourage not just responsible masculinity but actual fatherhood. Along the way Wilson touches on related matters: baptism, the passing on of a vision from one generation to another, family heritage, ancestry, uncles and cousins. To a generation that largely despises or doesn’t even know its parents, Wilson depicts the beauty of faithful and loving father-child relationships.

Death may turn out to be Wilson’s favourite theme. And don’t think of this as a morbid fascination. Like Tolkien, Wilson knows that death is double-edged, and is a gift as much as it is a curse. It is our curse, but for those of us who do not fear the second death—the eternal death of body and soul together—death is gain; death ushers us from the endless toil of this world. All Wilson’s books are full of death and resurrection; mortality, immortality, and the other side of death:
She glanced at Nolan. “We two still feel like mortals, like death was stolen from us. We are like you, the dying.”
George Livingstone adjusted his short blond bulk on the ground. “So…you want to die?”
Arachne nodded. Her ancient blue eyes were lightless and still. And then, slowly, a sun rose within them. She smiled at George. “Just not today. See, I am like every other mortal.”
Nolan climbed to his feet, watching loose pine needles slide off his trousers. His face and body still belonged to a boy, but to Cyrus, he seemed as burdened as the oldest man. When he spoke, his voice was low. “There are things on the other side of death that we may never see. Thirsts we may never quench. Tastes these mouths cannot consume. But down here, under the sun, there is nothing new.” 
The same theme lies scattered throughout Wilson’s other works. Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl is almost a book-length meditation on it. His next non-fiction book, Death By Living, sounds even more so. And always the same theme:
Caves and darkness can't hold you when you die, they can only hold your bones. 
I’ve now read all six of ND Wilson’s Random House books, as well as his hilarious little parody, Right Behind. From humble beginnings misbehaving for Credenda/Agenda magazine, Wilson has emerged as a powerful writer in his own right, and he’s improving. God willing, the trend will continue, and by the time he’s done, Christian letters won’t know what hit it.

NDWilsonmutters on Twitter. Rare sightings occur on his blog. In 2009, Kevin Swanson lured him onto the airwaves in a discussion on whether Christians can write good stories. But if you’ll be guided by me, you’ll run off to Youtube and download ND Wilson’s session, “Trouble Makers” from the 2012 Grace Agenda Conference.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Harvest of Yesterday by Emily Sarah Holt

On this day, October 31 1517, a German monk protesting the sale of indulgences nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of a church in Wittenberg, a university town, sparking an astonishing hundred-year revitalisation of Christendom known today as the Reformation. October 31 has been celebrated ever since as Reformation Day by all those who remember the remarkable sacrifices and service rendered not just by Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Martin Bucer, Ulrich Zwingli, Philip Melancthon, and the others but also by thousands of common men and women across Europe who humbled their hearts before the clear word of God and, in many cases, lost their lives.

Today is Reformation Day, and tomorrow is the older festival of All Saints’, so today I want to commemorate the Reformation with a very interesting book by a very interesting author: The Harvest of Yesterday by Emily Sarah Holt.

Emily S, or E S Holt as she is sometimes known, might best be described as a female GA Henty. Like Henty, she wrote primarily detailed historical novels set around the Reformation and other important periods. The Harvest of Yesterday is the first of her books I’ve been able to read, as they are basically out of print today. I found this one at a book fair in New Zealand among the antique books: a battered but beautiful old hardback, the presentation plate at the front dates it to 1895, two years after it was published.

The Harvest of Yesterday is a fictionalised biography of Anne Brandon, Baroness Grey de Powys, eldest daughter of that Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk who is remembered by all Tudor history buffs as the man who so romantically married Henry VIII’s youngest sister Mary after her first husband, the aged King of France, had died. Anne was the Duke’s daughter by a previous wife, a woman whom he’d married at common law and then repudiated in order to marry a wealthy widow. A few years later, he got an annulment for the widow and remarried Anne’s mother, who died the following year. He then sent Anne to Flanders to be raised by the Archduchess Margaret of Savoy, one of the most powerful women of that period, with whom he was carrying on a flirtation. When the Duke married Queen Mary of France, she begged him to bring Anne back to live with them and later, when she was about twenty, Anne was married to the by all accounts rather horrible Lord Grey de Powys. They separated a few years later and were eventually divorced. Anne went to live in Bethnal Green, near London, and eked out a dull existence being continually insulted and passed-over by all who knew her.

Emily Holt draws a sympathetic picture of a prickly, much-suffering woman, resigned to a life of obscurity and dullness right in the middle of some of the most exciting years of the Reformation. As well as being the gentle story of a much-wronged woman whose own inability to hope is her worst enemy, this book is a fascinating look at the period, filled with painstaking detail and thoughtful analysis of the people and the times. As in a GA Henty novel, some passages read like a history book; others like a novel, although the novel is gentle domestic fiction instead of thrilling adventure.

One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about this book was the theology discussed within its pages. At one point, a character is having a conversation with Bishop Latimer, who counsels as follows—
“Madam, the least sin that can be done is high treason. The value thereof is not reckoned by the import of the thing done, but by the majesty of Him against whom it is done. All sin deserveth the pains of Hell.” 
I was surprised to see this articulated so clearly, with so little hedging, in a book written in the 1800s when reformed theology of this calibre was not at all in vogue. Shades of John Piper, and also of the evangelistic approach of Ray Comfort, in a book written in 1893? Incredible—yet also profoundly encouraging.

The book was also full of fascinating historical detail about the times of the Reformation. We seem to be living in a bit of a Tudor craze right now—everyone’s lapping up salacious biographies of scandalous Tudor lives like anything, but missing out on the point of the whole thing, which was one solid knot of political unrest, religious rediscovery, and almost a panic revolving around covenant succession. If it was an age when a man like Henry VIII could get drunk on the beauty of a woman like Anne Boleyn, it was also an age in which men like Latimer, Ridley, and Knox could get drunk on the beauty of God—it was an age of gigantic sins and gigantic obedience, often coming from the very same people.

Then, you just have to look at the family lives of these people to realise that something was going on deeper than mere lust. Covenant and succession are the two main themes. Henry VIII’s constant covenant-breaking in the desperate search for a successor was no aberration. Charles Brandon had at least five wives. Divorce, annulments, separations, and widowings were common. Succession—and there can be no succession without covenant—drove further dissolution. Emily Holt makes the cogent point that at this period, just a generation out from the Wars of the Roses, England had no guarantee that without an heir she would not fall back into a ghastly series of wars. An heir was the only way to ensure peace, everyone thought, and that may explain why Henry was able to divorce the popular Katherine without losing the allegiance of his people.

But, just as in the royal family, families all over England were obsessing over succession. Like Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, Anne Brandon experienced the uncertainty of never knowing whether she was currently considered legitimate. Meanwhile parents like Anne’s half-sister Frances and her husband Henry Grey saw their children as a path to power. Sons and daughters were married off to wealthy aristocrats who otherwise were obviously terrible matches.

Out of all this a surprising trend emerged. After her husband Lord Powys died, Anne Brandon remarried—a humble squire, Randal Haworth. After Charles Brandon, her father, died, his young widow Katherine Willoughby married her gentleman-usher, Mr Richard Bertie. After Henry Grey lost his head, Frances Grey married her stableman, Adrian Stokes. And of course, Mary, Queen of France, had married Charles Brandon, who Margaret of Savoy had been told was beneath her. Throughout this period, women who had married for advantage went on to marry to please themselves.

As regards the central character, Anne Powys, herself, the book is endlessly informative and interesting. I certainly found myself wanting to know more about her. Emily Holt portrays her as prickly, unloveable, but with a great thirst for love and the story follows her attempts to find peace and hope in a hostile world.

I was interested to read the Wikipedia article on Anne Powys, but surprised to note its disapproving tone. The Wikipedia article states that the reason Anne was left out of her father’s will was that she had caused a scandal by living openly with Randal Haworth (which the book does not mention), and that she conspired with a judge of Chancery to defraud her brother-in-law Henry Grey. It’s possible that new historical research has brought new records to light as regards Anne’s relationship with Haworth but as far as the ‘conspiracy to defraud’ goes, Emily Holt addresses this in her Historical Appendix: at first, she says, she believed Anne to be a party to the fraud:
Thus at first I understood it and […] for some time I thought very badly of her. A few entries on the Rolls led me afterwards to question this view of the case; and the result of careful research and investigation was to prove it wholly untenable. […] Differing views may be taken of Beaumont’s fraud; but after weighing the evidence, I see little reason to doubt that Anne was either altogether ignorant of the fraudulent part of the transaction; or that she was deceived into supposing that something was being done to recover for her lands to which she believed she had a right. The punishment which fell upon Beaumont was not shared by her. 
 She further shows that Anne, already quite poor, was disadvantaged by the transaction and concludes that the reason Anne was left out of her father’s will was that she was being treated as illegitimate, “since it was only on that head that she could be so treated.”

Whatever the truth of these matters, the Historical Appendix also contains Anne’s will, a very moving testament to this woman’s true character and eventual (early-Protestant) faith:
“I, Anne Lady Powes, one of the daughters and coheirs of the high and mighty Prince Charles, late Duke of Suffolk, by the license, assent, and consent of my loving husband, Randall Havworth Esq., do make this my last will and testament, being in perfect mind and memory, in this manner and form following. First, I do bequeath my soul unto Almighty God, beseeching him of his holy glory to forgive me all my trespasses in this world by me done and committed against his Majesty. And I repent me and lament me therefore, and am hartily sorry from the bottom of my heart, trusting verily in thy promises, good Lord, to be one of the partakers of thy blessed presence in heaven, and to have a saved soul; most humbly beseeching thee, good Lord, for pity and mercy sake, to redress my tedious, long, and wonderful sutes, pains, sorrows, and troubles, and that they may be a part of penance for my sins, so that with my said pains, wrongs, and grievous troubles being patiently taken for thy name sake may be to the salvation of my soul, bought with thy precious blood. Amen. And all the whole world, both poor and rich, that ever I have offended, I ask forgiveness, and also forgive all creatures that ever offended me.” 
The Harvest of Yesterday is a wonderfully detailed picture, remarkably accurate, of Anne Powys and her world. I enjoyed it, especially the historical detail and the firm Reformed perspective, and I look forward to reading more of Emily Sarah Holt’s books in the future.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

Yesterday I took a break from the other vintage novel I'm reading to breeze though an early shilling shocker--Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men, published in 1909.

The Four Just Men exist for one purpose: to pass and execute sentence of death upon men whose crimes have not or cannot be addressed by the justice system. Brilliant, ruthless, and dedicated, they have never yet known defeat.

Now, they take on their biggest job yet. A Spanish revolutionary determined to topple a corrupt Spanish government has fled to England for sanctuary--but time is running out, for Sir Phillip Ramon, the English Foreign Secretary, is pushing an extradition bill through Parliament. The Four Just Men arrive in London and create a media sensation when they announce that unless Sir Phillip withdraws the Bill, he will be killed. As journalists and detectives throw themselves into a fever of activity, a cordon is put around Sir Phillip, and the Four Just Men make their sinister preparations, it seems impossible that the murderers can succeed. But as they overcome every other obstacle in their path, it seems impossible that they should fail...

This was a very odd book. The most obvious thing was that there was no distinct protagonist through whom to experience the whole story. There are the Four Just Men, of course, but they are hardly protagonists. There's Sir Phillip Ramon, a well-drawn but unlikeable character. There's the detective, Falmouth, but he's not in enough of the story.

The other obvious thing was the dubious morality of the plot. I don't consider the Four Just Men at all justified in their actions, of course. Quite apart from the justice of killing a Cabinet Minister, only the civil government has authority to execute evil-doers. Private individuals have no authority to kill except in self-defence. So the Four "Just" Men are revolutionaries, using revolutionary tactics, and (in this instance) with revolutionary aims.

Perhaps Edgar Wallace understood that the Four "Just" Men were the bad guys (although he does not deal with them either as protagonists or antagonists), and that is why there is no unifying protagonist for the confused and alarmed forces of law and order in London.

This was an interesting and unusual, but ultimately unsatisfying book. I recommend it to people who like to treat a mystery story as a solvable riddle--the book originally appeared without the final chapter which holds the solution, and a prize was offered to those who could give the right explanation. But I have never enjoyed reading puzzles, and with so little encouragement given to hope that the good guys won and the villains got caught, the book was difficult to care about.

Gutenberg etext

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Novels of Mary Stewart

As Mary Stewart’s novels are a little more recent and a little less substantial than the books I usually like to review on this blog, I haven’t mentioned them so far. But the time was bound to come sooner or later, and here goes.

I first stumbled across Mary Stewart while browsing the Goodreads shelf of Douglas Wilson, one of my favourite theologians. Like him or loathe him, you can’t deny that Wilson says what he says with flair; he is endlessly readable and endlessly quotable, which can be attributed to his excellent taste in reading, especially the influences of Wodehouse, Chesterton, and Lewis. And so because I knew that Wilson has excellent taste in reading, when I noticed a book on his shelf titled The Moon-spinners by Mary Stewart, an author I’d never heard of before, I sallied happily out and secured a copy from the library.

When I read the book, however, it did not interest me enough to make me want to read more until, on holiday in Tasmania, Mrs Sonnemann nudged me gently in the direction of her copy of The Ivy Tree. I was hooked, and from then on, I have been reading Mary Stewart at the comfortable rate of two or three per year, hoping to stretch out the experience as long as possible.

Mary Stewart is a writer of romantic suspense, with an emphasis on the suspense. She does for the 1950s and 60s what other authors did for the medieval, or Renaissance, or Restoration, or Georgian periods: she transforms it into an artform. In Mary Stewart’s Europe, as in Stevenson’s or Scott’s Jacobite Scotland or Dumas’s seventeenth-century France, adventure is always just around the corner, though it wears silk frocks instead of farthingales and drives fast cars instead of a coach-and-four.

The formula goes like this. A sophisticated, pretty, and erudite woman takes a holiday or a job in some sumptuous, lovingly-depicted location—Provence, Corfu, the Alps. Before long, she finds herself swept off her feet by some frightfully dangerous mystery, usually along with some sophisticated, erudite man who is mixed up in it somehow, and finds herself in a suspenseful battle of wits for her own survival. Clothes, scenery, weather, food, and horses are lovingly described, though not to boredom, and many allusions are made to classic literature or music.

There’s plenty to love about Mary Stewart. I usually hate descriptive writing, but hers never gets tiring; she can sketch a scene so well you can see every detail, without it bogging down the story. The setting of the story—whatever glorious location it is—is always one of the main characters. Then there’s the air of sophisticated femininity that undergirds all the novels. I am always wary of sophistication, but it’s so much fun to read about girls who know how to dress, where to take a holiday, and what book to read when they get there. In addition, Mary Stewart heroines are no action heroines. They may sprint to their car after distracting the mysterious man who has been hunting them across the South of France; but their main weapons are wit and charm. If anyone needs to be thumped, they will get the mysterious man to do it. Mary Stewart understands (as many authors and screenwriters do not) that it is difficult for the average woman to successfully assault a man. Her heroines rarely, if ever, try it. Instead they rely on their wits, their knowledge of their opponent’s personality, and what skill they may have.

This creates suspense far more effectively than violence, which is better suited to a visual medium like film. And Mary Stewart builds suspense very effectively. This is difficult for anyone to do, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve groaned over a book, “John Buchan would have done it better!” Mary Stewart’s books are mainly about personalities, clues, missed shots in the dark woods, mystery, and misguidance rather than action, but because she’s such an excellent writer, the books quickly become—and stay—gripping.

But perhaps the thing I like best about Mary Stewart is that she writes about ordinary people rising to the occasion under extraordinary pressure. I just found this quote:
"[I] take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal everyday people with normal everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not 'heroic' in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary with great physical bravery, what they held to be right." 
 If there is one overriding, deep theme in Mary Stewart’s books, this would be it.

There are, of course, some things to dislike about Mary Stewart. When I read The Moon-spinners, I was repulsed by something under the surface glitter—a facility, a soullessness. Mary Stewart’s characters move through a world of wonder and enchantment—a cat curled beneath a tree becomes Nidhung at the roots of Yggdrasil—but these symbols are empty of meaning, and the wonder is essentially unknowable. Stewart’s books are not themselves postmodernist, but they lean in that direction.

There are also some morally objectionable things in her books. The books don’t usually get too crude in their language, but casual blasphemy is commonplace. As far as morals, while the heroines are personally well-behaved, in a couple of books they have husbands and make use of them; while it’s not uncommon for someone to be suspected of an affair. But the only book I’d suggest avoiding on this score would be Touch Not the Cat.

The Mary Stewart books I have read, in the order I have read them, are as follows:

The Moon-Spinners: Nicola Ferris goes on holiday in Crete, and stumbles across a young Englishman hiding in the hills and convinced that he’s in terrible danger.

The Ivy Tree: Mary Grey, visiting Northumberland, is amazed when an angry young man at first mistakes her for someone else, then insists that she impersonate her. Mary agrees, and is drawn into a tangled, brooding web surrounding the mysterious, long-dead Annabel , her family, and the man who loved her. But not all is what it seems. One of Mary Stewart’s most complex and intriguing novels.

Nine Coaches Waiting: Linda Martin travels to the Chateau Valmy, near Lac Leman, as governess to its nine-year-old heir. His uncle, a crippled yet oddly charming and dynamic man, dominates the Chateau and everyone in it but his equally dynamic son. As sinister happenings pile up, Linda is sure her pupil is in danger—and only she can save him. This is my favourite Mary Stewart novel of all, possibly on its own account—or possibly because it’s so obviously intended to be a mesh of Jane Eyre and Cinderella in the style of John Buchan.

Touch Not the Cat: Bryony Ashley inherits three things from her father: a crumbling manor, the family ‘gift’—a telepathic link she shares with a man whose identity she does not know, apart from the fact that she’s in love with him--and one last message: a warning.

This Rough Magic: Lucy Waring goes to Corfu to visit her sister, and is charmed by the locals and the dolphin playing in the cove below her house, to say nothing of the possibility of meeting her sister’s neighbours, the famous actor Sir Julian Gale and his son Max. But then a local boy is drowned, someone tries to kill the dolphin, and Lucy becomes sure that Max Gale is behind it. This one was particularly enjoyable.

Thunder on the Right: Jenny Silver goes on holiday in the Pyrenees, and decides to investigate why her cousin Gillian suddenly decided to join a convent there. When she visits, the nuns tell her that her cousin is dead—but not everything adds up, and Jenny decides to investigate. Mary Stewart thought this was her worst book, and although it’s serviceable and showed some interesting ideas, I agree that stylistically it’s not up to scratch.

Airs Above the Ground: Vanessa March, who believes that her husband is in Brussells working prosaically for Pan-European Chemicals, is surprised to see him in a newsreel reporting a fire at a circus in Austria, with his arm around a blonde. Together with the horse-mad youngster she’s asked to escort to Vienna, Vanessa sets out to discover just what Mr March might be up to—and uncovers a mystery involving a circus, smuggling, and a long-lost Lipizzaner horse from the famous Spanish School of Vienna. Definitely one of my favourites.

Madam, Will You Talk?: Charity Selborne takes a holiday in Provence, but her peace is shattered when she meets an engaging young boy with a terrible secret weighing on him, and soon finds herself being hunted by a murderer intent on covering his tracks. Mary Stewart’s first published novel loses points for the unconvincing romance, but gains them all back again because Charity Selborne, though just as ladylike as any of her other heroines, can drive a car like a racing-driver, and it is lots of fun.

Mary Stewart’s novels will likely be best enjoyed by women in their twenties or up. I’ve enjoyed them very much so far, and look forward to working through the rest of them gradually over the next few years.

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