Sunday, December 22, 2013

I Return from Abroad

Ahem. Has it really been almost three months since I posted?

I believe it has been.

I have a good excuse, though! For the last three months, I've been living with and helping out a small Australian family transplanted to rural Tennessee. It was my first trip to the Northern Hemisphere, and quite an adventure.

I got the autograph of a hero of mine--Dr George Grant.

I attended the NCFIC's Worship of God conference--and strongly recommend everyone to go get themselves the mp3s of that, although common consensus appears to recommend not bothering with, ahem, certain parts of the panel discussions!

I met a fellow bibliophile, writer, and book blogger whom I've had the privilege of working with over the last year, Schuyler of My Lady Bibliophile.

I made the acquaintance of many wonderful people--and also of pneumonia.

And I came back with a really remarkable load of books:

I also came home with some new ideas for where I can be taking Vintage Novels in the future--which I'm looking forward to working on in the New Year.

I hope to be back as soon as possible with more posts on the books you love--and till then, Merry Christmas!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Guest Post: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

This week's post comes from another guest and a very old friend, Joshua Grubb. I was excited when Josh offered to review Les Miserables for Vintage Novels--partly because I'd already read the book, but didn't remember it clearly enough for a review--and partly because I knew Josh would do a fantastic job of digging into the book's deeper themes. I so enjoyed reading his review, and hope you will be just as interested and edified as me!

Les Misérables: How miserable can you get?

Les Misérables (by translation, the unfortunates or miserable ones), was published in 1862 – after the French Revolution, the fall of Napoleon and the 1832 and 1848 revolutions. It tells the story of several ‘misérables,’ brought or kept in a low station by “a social condemnation, which… complicates [with human fatality] a destiny that is divine.” However, before discussing the ‘social condemnations’ and the ideas in this quote, a summary of the story would be in order.

*Spoiler Warning*

The book moves slowly at first, detailing the life and circumstances (in some detail) of M. Myriel, a philanthropic bishop, who aids Jean Valjean to escape ‘justice.’ Jean Valjean is a convict sentenced to the galleys on the evidence of the implacable police inspector Javert, who thinks he has stolen apples. Partly through the bishop’s help, Jean Valjean escapes the galleys and establishes quite a lucrative business by inventing a new, cheap method of making jet. Through his prosperity, he promotes the wellbeing of other ‘unfortunates’ in the region around his factory by providing well-paid jobs and through charity. One person that does not prosper, however, is Fantine, who is brought to prostitution in an attempt to provide for her daughter, Cosette. Cosette is being ‘cared’ for by the despicable Thénardiers (a family with two daughters and three sons, one of whom is called Gavroche), who cheat Fantine of her money and treat Cosette as a slave. However, Jean Valjean promises Fantine on her deathbed to care for Cosette. Before he can fulfil his promise, Jean Valjean is hunted out by Javert and is forced to leave his business, though he escapes justice and retires in seclusion on a fortune of six hundred thousand francs. While escaping, he manages to rescue Cosette from the Thénardiers and brings her up in comparative luxury.

The next character to appear on the scene is Marius, a young man with revolutionary sympathies.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by A Square (Edwin Abbott Abbott)

In 1884 an English schoolmaster named Edwin Abbott Abbott (or A ^ 2) wrote a novella exploring various concepts of geometry and mathematics, whose hero, a Square inhabiting a two-dimensional world, through a series of visions and visitations, comes to discover the secret the oppressive masters of Flatland have been concealing for centuries: the existence of a three-dimensional world.

Flatland is, in many ways, delightful. Abbott exercises wit and imagination to depict what it would be like to live in one two, three, or no dimensions--and what it would be like for an inhabitant of one to visit another. I learned quite a bit.

But in addition to being a mathematical story with plenty of insight on geometry, it's also a rather pointed satire. Some of it is quite funny. The King and sole inhabitant of Pointland is unable to imagine anything in the cosmos except himself, and when the Sphere from Spaceland descends from outside Flatland to enlighten our hero to the existence and wonders of Spaceland, and the humble Square (finally acknowledging the existence of a third dimension) posits the existence of a fourth, fifth, sixth, and infinite additional dimensions, the Sphere immediately disapproves.

There is also much political and social commentary, surprisingly for such a short book on such an esoteric subject. 

Flatland is only a very short and amusing read, full of geometry and irony, as well as being a classic of science fiction. I enjoyed it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Guest Post: Dominion-Oriented Bibliophiles

Dear friends--
This week's post is from a dear friend of mine and fellow bookworm, Schuyler of My Lady Bibliophile. I asked Schuyler to write on a topic she addressed a few months ago on her blog, only not to pull her punches this time. I loved what she sent me and have great pleasure in presenting this knockout of a post on fiction and dominion!


Most of us, if we were asked about our reading, would relegate it to the category of a favorite hobby--something we do after we clock out from our real work, when the kids are in bed and it's almost time to go to sleep ourselves. It's not important, we say, or particularly earth-shattering. It's just something we've always enjoyed--no different than gardening, or putting old cars together, or collecting stamps. Those who blog about books obviously take their love a little more seriously. But in all the conversations I've had with fellow bibliophiles, I haven't met one who calls their reading a mission--a vital part of their calling a Christian, and an indispensable activity that they would never dare to call trivial. A hobby implies that the activity in question can be dispensed with, and for bibliophiles, reading should be anything but dispensable.

With every book-lover I have met, there is one prevailing obstacle that prevents us from acknowledging that books are vitally important to us. It is a false understanding of passionate dominion.

This dangerous idea that we suffer from began just after the 1500 and 1600s, when the Church went through a sweeping era of Reformation. To counteract great transformation, the Devil often brings an equally prevailing error to infiltrate the Church. The counteract, of course, in this case, was the Age of Enlightenment. During this era, famous philosophers taught the ideas of religious tolerance, man-centered science, and skepticism of the unseen world.

Committed Christians reject religious tolerance and man-centered science. But even the conservative Church swallowed the Enlightened definition of realism. And this taught us that passion was foolhardy--hard-headed observation of the world around us was much better. Zeal was for children; rational adults moved into the hard-headed, emotionless, 'common sense' realm of industry and making a living. We're left, of course, with a guilty idea that we mustn't take anything in our lives too seriously, unless it's the daily grind of putting food in our mouths; certainly not curling up with a novel. And as making a living replaced dominion, so reading is no longer a vital activity, but an idle entertainment.

Today, non-readers scoff that reading, especially reading fiction, is a waste of any good Christian's time. So bibliophiles live a passionless life. Books are dispensable, stories are just that--stories. In the grand scheme of things, 'real' life is way better than anything we can find between the pages of a good novel.

And lack of passion is the biggest obstacle holding back bibliophiles from taking dominion for the Kingdom of God.

Why We Read With Passion

Dominion requires passion. Not just an acknowledgement that literature can occasionally be useful: but an out and out abandon in preaching its merits and its uses. If something is worth doing, then we must do it with all our heart and soul, and if we're truly committed to being Christ-honoring readers, we need to realize that much more is at stake than wiling away a half-hour with a good yarn. Until we acknowledge that reading is a vital part of the Christian life, and one worthy of excitement, dominion falls pretty flat.

The written word is powerful; some say it has triple the power of the spoken word. Certainly it lasts longer than any conversation, and therefore its potential for good or evil is that much greater. A novel is not merely a novel; a biography is not merely a biography; a book is a powerful unit of worldview indoctrination that will last far beyond an author's lifetime. Think about it: a man can get up and give a speech; half the audience will remember it for a few weeks, and then it will be forgotten. A man can turn that same speech into a book, and adults will still be reading it centuries later. I might add as well, that a man can turn the principles from that speech into a story, and entire families will be repeating it until the end of time. Clearly books have power. And if they have power, we should take dominion of that power for the Kingdom of God. Reading is so much more than putting words together. It's intellectual stimulation, the preserving of doctrine in lasting form, and a battlefield between God and the Devil for the minds of human beings.

When you put it in perspective like that, reading should require a lot more than casual interest on our part.

When we immerse ourselves into our favorite stories with infectious enthusiasm, we're abolishing two major strongholds: first, we're showing others that there is no such thing as a small issue in God's Kingdom; second, we're showing the world that literature is a living, breathing gift from our Lord.

Scripture, the very word of God, is a compilation of documents that shows us He takes a strong delight in the things that we have relegated to mere entertainment. Beautiful love poems, tales of conquering warriors, nations rising and falling, and mothers and fathers raising their families are all part of the Word, and were used as powerful teaching tools. Kidnappings and slavery, shipwrecks and runaways, every theme we find in man's literature, we find first in the Book of Books, wrapped up in God's plan of redemption for mankind.

Why get excited about books? After all, aren't they just a reflection of God's writing in His Book? Yes, and that's the exciting thing! We're called to be mini-Christs, imitators of God, and communicators for his Kingdom. He has graciously allowed us to participate in His dominion, and bibliophiles are given the special mission of taking dominion through the written word.

If our calling is to teach and reform in the area of literature, then we need to have zeal in doing so. Not the fan-girly kind. I'm talking about the earnest kind. A swift and earnest intensity that loves what God loves and hates what he hates, and realizes that if we are using our precious time to advance His Kingdom, than truth is at stake in every book review we write.

Romans 12:11 says "Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord." We are to be fervent, 'boiling over in spirit' about the business God has called us to--in this instance, the business of reading--having a mindset that in our book lists and recommendations, we are serving the Lord, not only with the reading we do, but also with the intensity in which we do it.

It is not wrong to have strong feelings about books. Nor is it wrong to get excited over them. When we refuse to have strong feelings in the first place, we miss so much joy and beauty that God wants us to partake in. Why do we have such a hard time throwing ourselves with passion into anything? Perhaps because, when we give way to zeal, to absolute abandoned commitment, then we lose control, and since the foundation of the world we have succumbed to the idea that man controls. Zeal and passion are forces so potent that they are beyond our ability to handle; and therefore, we must put them straight into the hands of Almighty God.

Certainly the excitement of reading itself is not the end goal. If we are to take passionate dominion, we must read what will best equip us to be more like Christ. The goal of dominion, after all, is to take something and make it obedient to the standards of God. This also means we read fiction passionately as well as nonfiction. The joys of fiction are often considered illicit ones by the Church at large, and it's an area of misunderstanding that needs some serious re-building to arrive at a biblical understanding of it. Even stories affect souls, teach worldviews, and shape minds. Those who consider fiction 'non-essential', or 'alternate reality' desert the field of battle and hand the victory straight to the Devil. Satan and his minions love to use the tools we leave for them.


God isn't honored by indifference. If we view one area of our lives as less valuable than another, we clearly need a different perspective on what living for Him really means. The sacred and secular divide is sucking out the life of the Church, and turning out a generation of young people who lack vision for the grand adventure the Christian live really is. We need a generation of confident bibliophiles, who recognize and value the love of good literature inside them. To have a zeal for something, we have to go out on a limb with it; to go against all the indifference that has infiltrated our cautious, reserved, and complacent blocks of pews, and show that God is just as anxious to have books conformed to His glory as he is any other area of life.

As a Christian, our goal is to read books that are good, with the kind of goodness that originates from God. But we are not to hold books loosely--to be afraid they will call us away from the Father. We are to be irrevocably attached to every good thing that He sends us. This is not idolatry. This is a fellowship with God that loves what He loves, abhors that which is evil, and irrevocably clings to good.

Books are not a playground; they're a battlefield. Reading is a vital exercise--it's the key that unlocks the gateway to the intellect, and that's a weighty door to open. Only the greatest excitement, the greatest commitment, the highest enthusiasm will enable us to accomplish such a glorious mission of taking it back for the glory of God.

Many thanks to Suzannah for hosting me today, and letting me talk about my favorite subject: the written word. :) Literature has always been a passion of mine from a young age, and I talk about it every chance I get. I hope this post has inspired fellow book-lovers to take their interest in reading even more seriously, and love books even better than before.

-Schuyler McConkey, My Lady Bibliophile.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Masked Bridal by Mrs Georgie Sheldon

Those of you who follow me on Goodreads may have noticed a sudden spate of obscure and, it must be confessed, rather trashy vintage novels on my book log. This is because I recently bought a second-hand Kobo Glo which opens up the whole huge world of public-domain ebooks to me. Needless to say, I'm enjoying it immensely!

My latest vintage read is Mrs Georgie Sheldon's sappy melodrama, The Masked Bridal. Edith Allandale is our heroine, and like most other Victorian heroines she is sweet, beautiful, and adored by all and sundry, from the heroic young lawyer who briefly employs her to the dastardly Italian sculptor whose steps are dogged by a mysterious woman. After her mother dies, Edith discovers a secret of her own that sends her flying from New York to Boston, where she finds a position as a companion to the brilliant socialite, Mrs Goddard. When both Mr Goddard and Mrs Goddard's villainous brother fall in love with Edith, the jealous Mrs Goddard comes up with the perfect scheme to punish the erring husband and console the spurned brother. Family secrets, mysterious beauties, women scorned, and dastardly schemes seem ready to trap Edith in a horrible deception--but of course her guardian angels are hard at work.

This book was fun, but not particularly deep. I felt the writing style was a little choppy and superficial. Also, the point of view flits lightly from character to character with little warning, which provokes literary hiccups.

As to the book's message, it revolves around the damage done when, to quote, "girls will be so foolish and headstrong as to go directly contrary to the advice of those who love them best, and run away with men of whom they know comparatively nothing!" There are a number of ways Mrs Sheldon could have discussed this worthy moral. She could have, for instance, taken a rather harsh line and come across as heartless. She did not, and I really appreciated how the novel held out grace to repentant sinners. However, there was a double standard that disturbed me. When Edith and a female relation discuss their plans to live together and enter society, the following resolve occurs:
"Let us pledge ourselves never to admit within our doors any man who bears the reputation of being immoral, or who lightly esteems the purity of any woman, however humble; while, on the other hand, let us never refuse to hold out a helping hand to those poor unfortunate girls, who, having once been deceived, honestly desire to rise above their mistake."
Perhaps I am over-sensitive, since it is certainly more appropriate for two single ladies to help members of their own sex, but given the Victorian emphasis on the superior piety of women as opposed to men, this felt like a tacit presumption that women are generally the poor deceived victims while men are generally the cold-hearted villains in such circumstances, undeserving of pity. While, at the end of the novel, grace is finally extended to a man with this kind of sin in his past, it seems almost a grudging concession when compared with the glowing description of a woman who has risen on the stepping stones of her dead self to higher things to an almost Mary Sue-like level.

Once more, this was an enjoyable book, but I think I have had enough Victorian melodrama for now!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

St Elmo, by Augusta Jane Evans

I couldn't resist Lady Bibliophile's description of Augusta Jane Evans's hugely popular 1866 melodrama as "Elsie Dinsmore meets Jane Eyre." I had the opportunity of reading it lately, and indeed there was plenty of guilty fun in this novel.
Our heroine is named Edna Earl. I had better admit that the average Australian will never take anyone named "Edna" seriously again, so that's unfortunate. (Not that I know much about Dame Edna, mark you--I think Australians just come from the womb associating the name with purple wigs. Where was I?)

As a girl in a small Tennessee town, pure, sweet Edna is traumatised first by witnessing a duel and then by the sudden death of her grandfather. Orphaned, Edna decides to go the city for an education, but after a tragic train wreck she is taken in by the stern, worldly, and wealthy Mrs Murray. Meanwhile Mrs Murray's only son, St Elmo, immediately antagonises Edna with his sneering cynicism, snappishness, and bad character. Edna grows into a devout and beautiful young woman, pursues her dreams of becoming a world-famous novelist, and trips over the sighing suitors piled up at her feet, but her life is not all sunshine. Long nights at the writing-desk begin to destroy her health, but worst of all is the wicked fascination which St Elmo holds for her. Before you can say "brooding bad boy" Edna is suffering from the pangs of love, very much against her will! But even if he returned her feelings, surely St Elmo's dark and troubled past would tear them apart? Now read on...

Yes, you guessed it--this is a sentimental Victorian novel, apparently inspired by Charlotte Bronte's vastly superior Jane Eyre. Generally, it was lots of fun. I enjoyed the melodrama, found the peek into the author's times and opinions very interesting, and thought that the her handling of the inevitable reform of her wickedly fascinating hero was more believable than most. But there are three things in particular that I'd like to discuss in this review.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Song of the Strange Christian, by Moi

A recent conversation on Facebook about how this article doesn't go far enough in condemning the childless life (or as the article says, the childish life) reminded me of a poem I wrote a little while ago.

I do soar to artistic heights occasionally, and poetry is like writerly push-ups. Even when it's bad (and I apologise for that) it still makes you better.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge

When I was introduced to Elizabeth Goudge's novels, they came with a disclaimer: Don't just read any of her books, because some of them are not quite right. I managed to read three good ones, and found them so very good that I have gone on collecting them, in a quiet sort of way, ever since.

The Castle on the Hill takes place in England during the Blitz, in the darkest days of World War II when only England seemed willing to resist the Nazi threat and the people lived in constant fear of an invasion which they felt was both inevitable and inexorable. In these dark days, the lives of eight or ten people become subtly entwined. Miss Brown, a middle-aged spinster, loses her home to falling bombs and almost by accident is invited to become the housekeeper of the ancient Birley family's castle-home, populated by an elderly historian, a young airman, and a sensitive pacifist. There's the derelict violinist who also winds up haunting the castle, the two little girls evacuated from the Blitz in London, and the local doctor's niece who loves Richard Birley.

Under the shadow of death, each of these eventually learns to set aside self and fear and lose himself in the task at hand.

I'm afraid that even now, I don't have a real taste for books like this, in which the plot is merely an ethereal thing, serving only to faintly illumine character growth. Somehow The Rosemary Tree, the other of Elizabeth Goudge's grown-up books that I've read, held my interest far better; the stakes seemed higher. This one, despite the rather dark and desperate setting of the Blitz (written as only someone who lived through it could have) doesn't hold the same immediacy.

There are a number of themes winding through The Castle on the Hill. One of them has to do with continuity: the Castle itself is almost a burden on the characters: it belongs to the family, like they do, and in fact it would be more specific to say that it owns the family rather than the family owning it, since it contains all their history and experience throughout the ages. Although it is a burden, especially in an age of modernism and mounting bills, it's a treasured thing as well. It's an interesting thought that a past, like any other possession, requires work and can be a burden.

The major theme of the novel, though, has to do with life and death, selflessness and fear. It's here that the book is most profound, and here that it stumbles most badly. One character is haunted by the Apostle Paul's words, "If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable." He, and others, eventually come to a realisation that, to paraphrase, "life is too big to be contained in this mortal existence." But this is a subtle twist to Paul's words. His actual words were, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."

The book emphasises the need to take what life offers and forget one's self in service of others. A love for others casts out fear, and it's the secret of the characters who find peace that they die to themselves and recognise their essential oneness with the universe and with life. And, in the book's closing words, "Life is God." While there is a Christian veneer and a Christian flavour to everything that Elizabeth Goudge says about faith, life, and dying to one's self as the path to real life, at bottom she seems to be promoting some kind of Christian-inspired monism, in which the path to happiness lies in self-obliteration before the faceless One and everyone is part of everyone else; a kind of panentheism.

This is, of course, a serious flaw in what the novel has to say. Still, it was a valuable look at Elizabeth Goudge's worldview, and if you prefer gentler, quieter novels, you might like this one.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

I read all or most of Dorothy Sayers's detective novels a good ten years or so back, and didn't touch them again until this week. When I read the books for the first time, I did not really take my time and digest them as I am trying to do now, and so I am still only just getting to grips with Sayers.

And I've found she takes a bit of gripping. On the one hand, she was an apologist, medievalist, and Christian who was a lifelong friend of CS Lewis, a fan of Charles Williams and GK Chesterton (to say nothing of Wodehouse and Gilbert and Sullivan), whose essay The Lost Tools of Learning has had a major impact on the current-day home education and classical school movement, a gifted writer of detective novels, a gifted translator of The Divine Comedy, and the copywriter behind one of the 20th century's most iconic advertising campaigns--Guiness is Good for You!

On the other hand, Sayers has become (intentionally or not--in 1938, she stated that the time for "feminism" had gone past) a mascot for Christian feminism. Her most popular work, her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, while in many ways excellent and delightful books, centre on a character with morals and opinions which I sometimes find lax to repellant. And I always seem to find plenty to disagree with in her more serious works.

While I will have to postpone any serious critique of Sayers until I have a stronger grip on her worldview (her books The Mind of the Maker and Are Women Human? will most likely answer some of my questions) Strong Poison is pretty illustrative of this tension--as well as being a tremendously enjoyable murder mystery laced lightly with romance.

We open in a courtroom. Harriet Vane, popular detective novelist, stands in the dock charged with the murder of novelist Philip Boyes. Boyes had badgered Miss Vane into becoming his mistress, arguing that he didn't believe in marriage, but when he eventually did propose to her, she angrily broke up with him, declaring that he had made a fool of her. A few months later, Boyes drops dead of arsenic poisoning, Harriet Vane is found to have made a number of large and secret purchases of deadly poison, and everyone believes her to be guilty...

Everyone except two people. Miss Climpson, an elderly spinster in the jury, persists in believing that Harriet is innocent. And Miss Climpson's employer Lord Peter Wimsey (ostensibly a rich idiot, actually a formidably intelligent amateur sleuth), who not only believes Harriet is innocent, but has also decided to marry her. When Miss Climpson's adamant refusal to return a verdict of guilty saves Harriet from the gallows, and the case is scheduled for re-trial, Wimsey gets his chance: just one month in which to find the real killer.

Strong Poison is, like all Sayers's Wimsey novels, an excellent whodunit. Perhaps the two most enjoyable aspects of the book are the characters and the satire. Sayers enjoyed poking fun at regnant follies in all her novels, and this one has a number of memorable cracks at spiritualism on the one hand, and modern art on the other--
  "You should hear Vrilovitch's 'Ecstasy on the letter Z.' That is pure vibration with no antiquated pattern in it. Stanislas—he thinks much of himself, but it is old as the hills—you can sense the resolution at the back of all his discords. Mere harmony in camouflage. Nothing in it. But he takes them all in because he has red hair and reveals his bony structure."
  The speaker certainly did not err along these lines, for he was as bald and round as a billiard-ball. Wimsey replied soothingly:
  "Well, what can you do with the wretched and antiquated instruments of our orchestra? A diatonic scale, bah! Thirteen miserable, bourgeois semi-tones, pooh! To express the infinite complexity of modern emotion, you need a scale of thirty-two notes to the octave."
  "But why cling to the octave?" said the fat man. "Till you can cast away the octave and its sentimental associations, you walk in fetters of convention."
   "That's the spirit!" said Wimsey. "I would dispense with all definite notes. After all, the cat does not need them for his midnight melodies, powerful and expressive as they are." 
As for the characters, I never yet read a detective story for the mystery. In some ways, the well-known tropes of the detective story allow a truly character-driven plot--things happen, which prevents the book from becoming tiresome, and we get to enjoy the antics of Wimsey and Miss Climpson and Harriet Vane attempting to solve a puzzle and investigating other people's peculiar characters.

Strong Poison is the first book to feature Lord Peter's sidekick and love interest, Harriet Vane, and the questions of women and "gender politics" (distasteful phrase!) form a major, though not obtrusive, theme in this book. There are Harriet's two friends, both keen to see her acquitted, one of whom is a modern feminist of the straw variety and the other of which is a nice girl mildly smitten with Wimsey (which seems to happen once per book). There's Miss Climpson and her "typists", really a collection of elderly and out-of-work ladies employed by Lord Peter to handle sensitive investigations, women "of the class unkindly known as 'superfluous.'"

Then there is Harriet Vane herself. From previous reading, I remembered getting rather tired of Harriet, who, according to my first impressions, spends five years within the novels' continuity refusing to marry their hero because of a childish fit of pride and pique. (If you come back tomorrow and find Vintage Novels burned to the ground with the foundations sown with salt and my blackened skull stuck on a stake in the midst of the smoking ruin, it was the Harriet Vane fans, and they went that way). Harriet wasn't so bad in Strong Poison, however. There are sly digs at the expense of Harriet's very unsympathetic boyfriend--he was the kind of man, for example, who would have expected her to give up writing on her own behalf in order to help him in his calling, how ghastly.

It's probably worth noting that Harriet's story is loosely based on Sayers's own relationship with a novelist called John Cournos. Sayers later strenuously denied that Harriet was a self-insert character, after various busybodies began spreading nasty (and untrue) rumours about her personal life. Oddly enough, years before I knew this, simply from reading the novels I was convinced that Sayers had one of the most visible cases of an author crush on her main character that I had ever seen, and felt sure that Harriet--whom he spends years devotedly pursuing--was a self-insert.

Well, it has been a number of years since then, and I can honestly say not only that Sayers is no longer the worst example of author-crush-relieved-through-self-insert-romance I have seen, but also that she is several thousand miles away from being the worst. This perspective also makes me less ready to write Sayers--or Harriet Vane--off as tiresome feminists. I was almost surprised to find myself agreeing with Harriet in her quarrel with Philip Boyes--being hounded into an affair with arguments against marriage, and then being offered marriage as, in Harriet's words, "a bad-conduct prize", the whole thing having been a paltry test of devotion, would make me hopping mad too. Hopefully this is a good sign, and when I go on to re-read Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night I will like Harriet Vane just as much as anyone else.

It's probably time to start reading Sayers properly, and while I must apologise for not being able to do her justice in this quick post, I hope to spend some more time reading what she has to say and thinking it through.

If you like clever, witty detective novels flavoured with fun literary allusions, set in Wodehouse time, and containing many lovable characters (how did I get this far without mentioning Lady Mary Wimsey and Chief Inspector Parker?), Dorothy Sayers may not just be an excellent choice--she may in fact be the best choice. Next time you're laid up with the flu, don't just take panadol--take Strong Poison.

Read the book:

Carolyn McCulley's thoughtful review of Are Women Human?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Autobiography by John G Paton

In 1858, a young Scotsman left his beloved family and thriving city mission to travel with his bride to the other side of the world. The cannibal islands of the New Hebrides, known today as Vanuatu, were among the most dangerous missionary destinations in the world: just twenty years prior, in 1839, two missionaries landed on the island of Erromanga had been clubbed to death, cooked, and eaten as soon as they reached the shore. Warned that he would be eaten by cannibals, Paton--with the calm audacity that characterised him--responded that his interlocuter would undoubtedly be one day eaten by worms, and what difference did it make?

The Patons settled on the island of Tanna. Within the first few months, Mrs Paton and their newborn child had died of fever. By the end of four years, the natives had determined to kill their missionary and drive the worship of Jehovah out of their land, blaming Paton for bad weather and illness. On Erromanga, a missionary couple were murdered and natives from that island travelled to Tanna to stir up the natives there to similar deeds. After a year of constant vigilance and many close shaves, Paton finally escaped with his life, in the company of two other missionaries whose health was so ruined by their experiences that they died within months. Paton, however, went to Australia and Scotland to raise support and money for a mission ship, the Dayspring. In 1866, Paton returned to the New Hebrides with his second wife and settled on the smaller island of Aniwa, where in a few years he led the entire population to profess Christianity. They also began to wear clothes, observe the Lord's Day, and entirely cease from killing, strangling, and eating one another.

The Paton grave in Boroondara Cemetary
The name of John G Paton is not often remembered or recognised. Christians who grew up on short popular biographies of David Livingstone, or Mary Slessor, or Hudson Taylor, or occasionally even George Muller or Adoniram Judson, have often never heard of Paton. In recent years, since the reprinting of his once-famous Autobiography by Vision Forum under the title Missionary Patriarch: The True Story of John G Paton, some Americans have made his acquaintance. I, however, heard of him as a young teen when my parents joined the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, of which he was a member for much of his life, and which still keeps an echo of his legacy alive. The PCV Sunday School mission periodical, for instance, was called Dayspringers in his honour, and many years ago I read a child’s biography of Paton, King of the Cannibals, by a local minister, Jim Cromarty.

My interest in Paton was revived when I was involved in organising the Australian Building a God-Centered Family conferences with Scott Brown and Kevin Swanson. We were keen to show these men around some notable historical sights in Melbourne, especially from a Christian perspective. Being a young country, however, Australia has precious few John Knoxes or Alfred the Greats to honour, and we racked our minds in vain. Then I remembered--wasn't John G Paton buried in Melbourne? Sure enough, his grave is in Kew, in the Boroondara cemetary (corner of High Street and Park Hill Road).

Our guests were even more thrilled than we expected, and you can watch their excited speeches at Scott Brown's website here. Suffice it to say that after having witnessed their excitement, and listened to John Piper's excellent talk, You Will Be Eaten By Cannibals! Lessons From the Life of John G Paton I decided I really should buy the autobiography.

It is a magnificent book. Paton writes engagingly and well. His hair-raising adventures--both in the New Hebrides and in the more "civilised" lands of Scotland and Australia--drag you in, often with white-knuckle tension. His later account of the evangelisation and transformation of the Aniwan cannibals is thrilling in a different, more uplifting way. Meanwhile his personality shines through saintly and kind, but uncompromisingly, tenaciously courageous with an added helping of what can only be called cheek. From his short way dealing with bullies as a young schoolmaster to the many occasions on which, having just foiled an attack on his life in the Cannibal Islands, he lay down and enjoyed the sound sleep of the righteous, Paton shows a delightful pluck, or moxie, as John Piper calls it!

John G Paton and family
The book is interesting on many fronts. It is interesting as a yarn of danger and adventure in the South Seas. It is interesting as the life story of a remarkable saint. It is interesting as a snapshot of Christian missions in the mid-1800s. It is interesting because he records his travels through my own country, including studying Aboriginal religious customs, and falling into a bog not far from the home of a friend of mine! Especially in the section dealing with the conversion of Aniwa, it is full of fun and laughter. Still, for many Paton fans, it is the story of his family life as a young man that is most inspiring. John Piper says:
The tribute Paton pays to his godly father is worth the price of the Autobiography, even if you don't read anything else. Maybe it's because I have a daughter and four sons, but I wept as I read this section, it filled me with such longing to be a father like this. 
While this is not the major focus of the book, Paton also left an impressive family legacy behind him. By the end of the Autobiography he mentions a "Mr Frank H L Paton" settled in mission work on Tanna; too modest, perhaps, to mention that this was his third son. Paton had ten children and many grandchildren, most of whom settled in Australia. Among his children and grandchildren are numbered 7 ministers, 4 ministers' wives, 1 Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, missionaries into the second and third generations, 1 or 2 medical doctors, a Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, and an influence reaching from my little rural home town to Canada and Korea.

In the Publisher's Introduction to my beautiful Vision Forum hardcover edition of John G Paton's Autobiography, it is called "the greatest missionary story ever written." I could not say whether this is true. But it's the best I have ever read.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Asterix the Gaul by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo

Book 1
Last year I reviewed the cartoon adventures of Tintin. Back in the day, when no trip to the library was complete without raiding the comic book section, it was not just Tintin books that we were after. It was always Tintin and Asterix, and the two are still oddly inseparable to my memory.

Back then, this was probably an accident of shelving. It was not so much the comic-book section: it was the Tintin-and-Asterix section, or, on odd-numbered days of the month, the Asterix-and-Tintin section. With the passing of years, I began to notice other similarities. Both series were originally written in French (one by a Belgian and the other by Frenchmen), for example. Both series featured the global adventures of a diminutive, yet invincible hero with his larger and more boisterous companion, and were accompanied by a little white dog.

On the other hand, what about the differences? I could mention the more caricatured artistic style, or the outrageous puns (which Tintin's author, Hergé, famously sniffed at), or the setting, but I'd rather discuss Asterix on his own merits. Withour further ado, then...
THE YEAR IS 50 BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely...One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrison the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum, and Compendium...
Asterix the Gaul is so many, many things. Let me try to stab at it.

First, it's the thrilling adventures of Asterix, the smallest and by far the cleverest and sanest (with the possible exception of Getafix the Druid) of "the little village we know so well"--or, as the Romans call it with a shudder, "that village of madmen." The village, full of colourful characters (from Cacofonix, the village bard who sings so badly that he has occasionally been used as a weapon, to the perpetually squabbling Fulliautomatix [blacksmith] and Unhygienix [fishmonger]) remains free from the Roman yoke only through the cunning and daring of Asterix, and the magic potion brewed by the druid Getafix, which makes the drinker invincible.

On his many missions to the world outside the village, Asterix takes along a gourd of magic potion, and also his huge and lovable friend Obelix, a menhir delivery man who fell into the cauldron of magic potion when he was a baby and consequently was permanently affected, along with Obelix's tiny pet, Dogmatix. Asterix's wit and Obelix's strength make them the village's most honoured warriors, all dangerous missions being entrusted to them. No matter how far they travel, or what thrilling adventures they encounter, however, Asterix and Obelix always make it back to the village for the traditional celebration banquet, complete with roast wild boar and a gagged bard...
Note bard, upper right.

On the technical side, Asterix the Gaul is a series of approximately 35 comic books, give or take a few, depending on where you draw the line. The first book in the series was published in 1961, written by Rene Goscinny with drawings by Albert Uderzo. Sadly, Goscinny died in 1977 in the middle of volume 24, Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo continued to write and illustrate new Asterix albums until 2011, when he passed the baton to a new writer and illustrator: their first album, Asterix and the Picts, is due for publication in October this year. Though an excellent illustrator, Uderzo's stories never attained the sheer brilliance of Goscinny's; they became increasingly far-fetched, and I found his last two or three albums particularly bad. Will the new author/illustrator team, Ferri and Conrad, take Asterix back to his roots? Yet to be seen...

In English, Asterix the Gaul is one of the most remarkable translations the world has ever known, right up there with the Authorised Version of the Bible. The sublime Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge had the unenviable task of translating around 50 pages per album from French into English--pages packed with every kind of pun, many with visual cues in the pictures. Faced with this task, Bell and Hockridge simply decided to count up the number of jokes and puns on the page and try to make sure the translation included the same number, not necessarily present in the original (indeed, many were entirely untranslatable). For just one small example, the name of the village bard in the original version is "Assurancetourix", a pun on Assurances tous risques, all-risk insurance. In English, it's Cacofonix, even more apropos to the bard's ghastly music.

Asterix in Britain reveals the true reason for the Roman conquest of Britain...
Finally, Asterix comes packed full of information, satire, and jokes. I like to say that I learned half of what I know from Asterix (the other half, I learned from PG Wodehouse). The volume I have sitting on my desk, for instance, Asterix the Legionary, follows Asterix and Obelix to Africa during Julius Caesar's campaign against Scipio (real historical background). We get a look at Roman military tactics ("Hey, isn't this Caesar's tortoise?"). There's a hilarious parody of Gericault's painting The Raft of the Medusa on page 35 ("We've been framed, by Jericho!"). There's fun with national stereotypes (a Briton who loves terrible cooking, a Belgian with a suspiciously Tintinesque hairdo, an Egyptian who speaks only in hieroglyphics). There's satire of bureaucracy and the military ("Where do I find the information bureau, please?" - "No idea. Apply to the information bureau. They'll inform you.") There's a Gaulish spy, Vitriolix, codenamed H2SO4. And there are tons of Latin tags ("Alea jacta est, as I always say"). And that's just one volume.

Just five of the my favourite Asterix albums are listed below:
Cleopatra, on a typical day.
  • Asterix and Cleopatra is undoubtedly one of the greatest Asterix books of them all. Stung by Caesar's comment that the Egyptians have become decadent, Cleopatra bets Caesar she can build him a magnificent palace within three months. This is not good news for Edifis the architect, who will be fed to the crocodiles if he fails. Fortunately, he's an old friend of Getafix the druid, who decides to travel to Egypt with Asterix and Obelix to help.
  • Asterix and the Normans: Just as Vitalstatistix's cowardly teenage nephew Justforkix arrives in his super sports chariot for some much-needed character training, a gang of ferocious Vikings led by Chief Olaf Timandahaf and his right-hand-man Nescaf drop anchor on the beach near the village, determined to learn the meaning of fear from the local Gauls. Unfortunately for Jusforkix, the Normans scare him senseless, so they decide he's an expert and kidnap him...
  • Asterix the Legionary: Obelix falls in love with Panacea, a local girl just returned from studying at Condatum--but is heartbroken to discover that she has a fiance recently drafted into Caesar's army and sent to Africa. Obelix and Asterix vow to bring Tragicomix back, and join the Roman army in order to do so. I'm not sure why this is one of my favourite Asterix books of them all; I came to it late, and it knocked me into stitches for a week.
  • Asterix and the Cauldron: A tightfisted neighbour chieftain comes up with the perfect way to pay his taxes--and Asterix is dishonoured and exiled from his village as a consequence, until he can make enough money to repay the debt he owes. A slightly more serious adventure than most, some have argued that this is the most complex, profound, and well-written Asterix book of them all. It is certainly unique, as well as touching on the economic principles which come into play in...
  • Obelix and Co. The Romans, constantly trying to come up with ways to conquer the Gauls, decide to try the most lethal weapon yet: capitalism. Roman economist Preposterus starts buying Obelix's menhirs at ever-inflating prices, causing the other Gauls in the village to go into competition with him. Preposterus and Caesar manipulate the Roman economy, and the menhir bubble floats for a while. This 1976 book is a fantastic economics lesson, and, believe it or not, a critique of Jacques Chirac, a recent president of France, who served as the model for Preposterus.
There are plenty of things to love about Asterix. I still find the books as hilarious as I did as a child. These days, I particularly enjoy what the books capture about small village life and the way even the best friends can get on one's nerves occasionally.

I've always loved the punning names in Asterix. All the Gauls have names ending in -ix, the Britons in -ax ("Selectivemploymentax, I say, what!"), the Romans in -us (from Nefarius Purpus to Crismus Bonus), the Egyptians in -is or -et (Edifis, Artifis, and Ptenisnet), and the women in -a (Impedimenta, Bicarbonateofsoda).

This said, there is a certain drawback to all this fun. A friend of mine, reading the book Asterix appears to be loosely based upon--Caesar's Gallic Wars--decided it would be fun to read it to his family. Unfortunately his mother, a lifelong Asterix fan, lost her composure entirely at the first-paragraph mention of the historical Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix. And that was it for the Gallic Wars. But if you ask us, much better to stick with Asterix.

It's hard to believe, but the French love Asterix the Gaul so much that they have made a number of films based on the books, both live-action and animated. The live-action films even star Gerard Depardieu as Obelix. I've seen one or two, but don't remember any of them being as good as the books...

Friday, July 12, 2013

Farmer Giles of Ham by JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien, having shot into well-deserved fame for his Lord of the Rings and even, by now, The Hobbit, continues to baffle publishers. On the one hand, it is their benevolent and entrepreneurial duty to introduce as much of the reading public to as many of this great man's works as possible. On the other hand, how does one drum up a perfect fever of PR excitement over, shall we say, an unfinished Anglo-Saxon-style alliterative-verse retelling of an almost entirely forgotten legend? (It's true, if somewhat beside the point, that the Vintage Novels blogger is in thrilled about getting a copy of this work someday). Or what about a slim, jolly children's book featuring a rotund farmer, a wily (but easily-tamed) dragon, a handful of sly scholarly jokes, and charming illustrations by Miss Baynes...with not a Hobbit nor an Elf nor an epic and cinematic battle scene in sight?

Oh, all right. To those who know of his existence, Farmer Giles is irresistible.

Long ago, and not too far away--in the Thames valley, to be precise--lives a comfortable hard-headed farmer rejoicing in the name of Aegidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo...or, in the vulgar tongue, Farmer Giles of Ham. When an accidental midnight encounter with a giant who has lost his way makes Giles a local hero, the King of that country sends him by way of recognition an ancient and unfashionable sword from his armoury which nobody remembers the use of. Until, that is, the fearsome dragon, Chrysophylax Dives, hears of the rich and easily plunderable lowland country where Giles lives, and arrives in a blaze of fire. While the King and his knights discuss points of etiquette and postpone their involvement until after Christmas, Giles discovers that his sword is the legendary Caudimordax (or, in the vulgar tongue, Tailbiter), which will not remain sheathed if there is a dragon within five miles. And the village of Ham begins to think that if the King won't help, Farmer Giles might...

This little story is, of course, wonderful. Giles himself is the type which hobbits were invented to evoke: comfortable, a homebody, unlearned, but with a certain native wit and entrepreneurial know-how. Chrysophylax the dragon is a less terrifying cousin of Smaug, and Tailbiter has a lot in common with Anduril, Sting, Glamdring, and Orcrist (the last even nicknamed Biter). Then there is all the fun had with an almost forgotten high-toned language (Latin) as contrasted to the common (or 'vulgar') language of the day. But this is as Lord of the Rings-ish as the story gets. Far from being an epic, it's a rollicking tale in the lowest vein of humour of which Tolkien was capable. From Garm, Giles's dog, by turns cowardly and boastful, to the farmer's grey mare which has a claim to being the smartest character in the book, the farmer's wife Agatha, around whom there was no getting--"or at least it was a long walk" and his cow Galathea, squashed as flat as a black-beetle, Farmer Giles of Ham demonstrates wit, satire, and low punning...

Meanwhile the story comes lavishly illustrated by Pauline Baynes, perhaps best known for her iconic Narnia illustrations. Her Farmer Giles work, however, is quite unique: smooth, flowing line drawings in the style of medieval manuscripts, beautiful in themselves, but brimming with impish humour and adding substantially to the wit and satire of the story (in fact Tolkien famously remarked that they had "reduced [his] text to a commentary on her drawings").

I look forward to the day when an annotated Farmer Giles is published, with explanations of all the jokes. Meanwhile, for your enlightenment, here are a few:
  • Tolkien's tongue-in-cheek Foreword parodies his fellow scholars by waffling on about the historical significance of the Farmer Giles of Ham manuscript, and then adding as an afterthought that some readers might enjoy the story on its own account. Tolkien's famous essay on Beowulf, "The Monsters and the Critics", argued that scholars should stop mining that poem for historical significance and just enjoy it as the corking good story it is.
  • In explaining what a blunderbuss is, the author of Farmer Giles refers to the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford for a suspiciously dictionary-type definition. This is a double joke: it refers not only to Geoffrey Chaucer's Clerk of Oxenford, but also to the four editors of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. 
  • The parson of Ham, a learned man, is called "a grammarian, [who] could doubtless see further into the future than others." Tolkien-lovers agree that grammar is a pun on the related words glamour and grimoire, both of which referred to magic in medieval times. The parson also serves for a sly joke at the expense of linguists like Tolkien himself: faced with language he can't read, the parson breaks out into professional-sounding polysyllabics to stall for time.
  • When Chrysophylax strikes a bargain with the village of Ham to return at the feast of St Hilarius and St Felix, the village's pessimistic smith grumps, "Ominous names! ... I don't like the sound of them." Hilarius means happy and Felix means lucky.
  • Many of the characters' names have some hidden or punning meaning. Chrysophylax Dives means "Gold-watcher the Rich" and refers to the traditional name of the rich man in the parable of Lazarus. Aegidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola, our hero, literally translates as "Giles Red-Beard Julius Farmer". The pessimistic blacksmith, Fabricius Cunctator aka "Sunny Sam", is a parody of a famous Roman general, Fabius, surnamed Cunctator ("the delayer") for his brilliant cat-and-mouse guerilla tactics used fighting Hannibal and the Carthaginians. Fabricius, though, means "blacksmith"; the smith's name roughly translates as "slowpoke smith". Meanwhile, the lengthy signature of the King of Farmer Giles's country can be translated as:
"Augustus [common name of Roman emperors] Bonifacius [common name of Popes] Ambrosius [well-lettered saint, Tolkien probably liked him] Aurelianus Antoninus Pius et Manificus [A few more Roman emperors’ names run together and a ’hotshot" tacked onto the end for good measure] king, king, king, and [yet another Greek word for] king [just in case you didn’t get the idea] of the Midlands." (source)
Naturally, I highly recommend Farmer Giles of Ham to just about anyone. Children will love the story and humour; adults will relish the wit; linguists and Latinists will whoop at the word-play; while Tolkien fans will enjoy the distinctive flavour. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Poem: Uphill by Christina Rossetti

To be honest, I haven't been reading an awful lot of vintage novels lately, which might account for the actual sparseness of vintage novel reviews around here. The fact is that when I want to relax and read something that requires little effort these days, I usually turn to non-fiction. More and more, I put off reading fiction until I'm wide awake and ready to work at reading it.

And no, I didn't accidentally get that the wrong way around. I'm hesitant to say it based on my own experience, but I'm inclined to believe that if you're reading fiction to relax, you might not be getting your money's worth out of it. I love what Clayton Hamilton says in his A Manual of the Art of Fiction:
The purpose of fiction is to embody certain truths of human life in a series of imagined facts. The importance of this purpose is scarcely ever appreciated by the casual careless reader of the novels of a season. Although it is commonly believed that such a reader overestimates the weight of works of fiction, the opposite is true––he underestimates it.
All this aside, I shall certainly be digging into some more vintage books in the upcoming weeks, both non-fiction and fiction. Meanwhile, it occurred to me that I haven't posted a poem in a little while.

Christina Rossetti is one of my favourites, and her poem Uphill is one of my favourites among her poems. Although it is short, simple, and easy to understand, it has the deep sort of simplicity you get in haiku. Without further ado:
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

 I want to begin by apologising for the infrequent posts over the last couple of months--I was busy helping organise an international conference, and then recovering from same! It was wonderful to meet some of my readers at the Building a God-Centered Family conference in Melbourne and make the acquaintance of a few new people.

And now for the review. Mary Elizabeth Braddon's 1862 novel Lady Audley's Secret is described on Wikipedia as a "sensation novel"; and after stumbling across the title a number of times, I had no difficulty in finding a modern reprint of it in a second-hand bookshop. It was not difficult to see why this specific Victorian novel remains in print. Phrases like "Victorian anxiety", "female motives", and "moral alarm" attend every 2010s reference to the novel.

The plot is as follows: Robert Audley welcomes his long-absent friend George Talboys back from Australia, where he fled three years ago to make his fortune. The meeting turns tragic when George goes to find his young wife--and finds only a poor grave.

To console his grieving friend, Robert proposes a trip to the ancestral home, where his uncle Sir Michael Audley dwells in newfound domestic bliss with a young and beautiful wife, Lucy Audley, who seems determined to avoid them. Shortly after the friends obtain a view of Lady Audley's portrait, George disappears, and Robert Audley becomes obsessed with the idea that she had something to do with his friend's murder...

Although a perfectly competent sensational melodrama, I didn't find Lady Audley's Secret a particularly engaging book. It was slow-moving in places; the titular secret was obvious from the beginning apart from a not-that-shocking last-minute revelation which had not been foreshadowed previously;  the characters were difficult to like, and the hero seemed rather dense.

If anything, the most interesting aspect of the story is the discussion of what it means. Lady Audley's Secret, like many sensational nineteenth-centry novels (The Count of Monte Cristo springs to mind) comes with a thick veneer of technical respectability. Robert Audley starts life as a lazy good-for-nothing who finds a life purpose in bringing justice to his departed friend and even undergoes a mild conversion experience. Lady Audley, as the villainess, descends further into vice in her attempts to keep the titular secret, but suffers the consequences of her actions at last.

But in this case, I'm with the feminist literary critics. Not with their perverse insistence on admiring the villainess of this piece because of her unscrupulous self-interest, but with the fact that Lady Audley's Secret is subversive under all that surface respectability. Perhaps most telling is the fact that Lady Audley's Secret was written by a woman concealing a similar secret. Be that as it may, with her flaxen hair and blue eyes, her doll-like beauty and fragility, her appearance of goodness, and her ultimate status as a victim of fates beyond herself, Lady Audley only just misses out on being a Victorian heroine as sweet and melting as Dickens's Esther Summerson. Her portrayal strikes a chord of bitter irony, a parody of the ideal of the Victorian woman as "angel in the house"; it subverts the very idea and expectation of domestic bliss.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Defence of Poesy by Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney has always been remembered as one of the greatest figures of the Elizabethan age, despite the relative humility of his accomplishments and the brevity of his life. As a courtier, statesman, soldier, and poet, he was hard-working and moderately successful, but his continuing reputation seems to lie more in who he was than in what he accomplished.

People loved him. If there was one perfect knight of the Elizabethan court, one Sir Galahad, it was Sir Philip Sidney: sincere in religion, brilliant in intellect, generous and impulsive in battle. During a three-year tour of the Continent in the early 1570s, he was discipled by the Huguenot Hubert Languet and witnessed the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris. Later, he returned to England to take up the Puritan political cause, rebuking the Queen for considering a marriage to the Duke of Alencon (a brother of the Romanist French King) and working hard for a grand European Protestant alliance against the Roman Catholics.

Meanwhile he became a patron of the arts. His essay The Defence of Poesy, which I'm going to review today, is now considered the greatest work of Elizabethan literary criticism in an age stuffed with literary giants. It is a defence of the art of fiction against its detractors; and I was interested to read it.

Let me begin with a definition of "poesy", or poetry, since the definition is not quite what it is today. Sidney explains that he does not mean rhyme and verse, but fiction. Indeed, the scholar of ancient literature will soon realise that song and fiction were almost indistinguishable up until the Enlightenment.
[I]t is not riming and versing that maketh a poet—no more than a long gown maketh an advocate, who, though he pleaded in armor, should be an advocate and no soldier—but it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by.
In response to some current literary objections to the art of fiction, Sidney set out to provide a legal-style defence of the art. Amazingly, most of the Elizabethan objections to fiction are the same as those made today; and much of Sidney's response still rings true, although I could wish it appealed more often to Scripture and less often to Homer and Virgil.

Sidney begins with his arguments in favour of poetry. First, he argues, stories and songs exist across the world, in all societies. This fiction and song are the only learning which primitive cultures know, and will provide the key for future learning among these people. Then, turning to the Romans, he explains that the Roman word for storyteller was vates, which he translates to mean "prophet, diviner." This, he believes, is a just reflection of Scripture: the psalms of David are poetry, and the psalmist is a prophet:
For what else is the awaking his musical instruments, the often and free changing of persons, his notable prosopopoeias, when he maketh you, as it were, see God coming in His majesty, his telling of the beasts’ joyfulness and hills’ leaping, but a heavenly poesy, wherein almost he showeth himself a passionate lover of that unspeakable and everlasting beauty to be seen by the eyes of the mind, only cleared by faith?
This alone, Sidney says, demonstrates that poetry "deserveth not to be scourged out of the church of God."

Sidney then goes on to the Greeks, and demonstrates that the Greek word for a poet can be translated as "maker." Like Tolkien after him, Sidney argues for a subcreative right: as God created the world, so man may imitate his Creator, and subcreate new worlds. I'm a little suspicious of Sidney's reasoning here: he says that creation, or nature, is "brazen", while the creations of the poets are "golden." A similar problem crops up later, when he argues that fiction is better than history.

Then Sidney makes his argument for poetry as mimesis:
Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation, [...] that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth; to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end,—to teach and delight.
Fiction, in this definition, is imitation of life with the double purpose of teaching and delighting the reader. Sidney classifies it into three categories:

1. Poetry written to praise God, such as the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and so on.
And this poesy must be used by whosoever will follow St. James’ counsel in singing psalms when they are merry; and I know is used with the fruit of comfort by some, when, in sorrowful pangs of their death-bringing sins, they find the consolation of the never-leaving goodness.
2. Poetry dealing with philosophical, moral, or historical matters.

3. Fiction. Instead of depicting reality as it is, Sidney explains, the task of fiction writers is to depict reality as it might or should be. This is the kind of poetry the essay is written to defend, since, as Sidney argues, no other kind of teaching has such power to move us to virtue:
For these, indeed, do merely make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach, and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger; and teach to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved:—which being the noblest scope to which ever any learning was directed, yet want there not idle tongues to bark at them.
For Sidney, the primary use of fiction is to teach, and the aim of all teaching is "virtuous action". Therefore the question arises, is fiction useful for teaching virtuous action? Isn't moral philosophy a much better means of teaching? Or if we must have stories, what about the stories we find in history?

But neither, according to Sidney, can teach as well as fiction can teach:
The philosopher therefore and the historian are they which would win the goal, the one by precept, the other by example; but both not having both, do both halt. For the philosopher, setting down with thorny arguments the bare rule, is so hard of utterance and so misty to be conceived, that one that hath no other guide but him shall wade in him till he be old, before he shall find sufficient cause to be honest. For his knowledge standeth so upon the abstract and general that happy is that man who may understand him, and more happy that can apply what he doth understand. On the other side, the historian, wanting the precept, is so tied, not to what should be but to what is, to the particular truth of things, and not to the general reason of things, that his example draweth no necessary consequence, and therefore a less fruitful doctrine. 
Philosophy falls short because a man can describe a bird in flight, or Westminster Abbey, to you in hundreds and thousands of words without you getting an inkling of what he means; while if he were only to give you a picture of the thing he means, you could grasp it in an instant. "The poet is indeed the right popular philosopher," Sidney explains. His words "strike, pierce, possess the soul." Fiction has a power which nothing else can attain to.
Certainly, even our Saviour Christ could as well have given the moral commonplaces of uncharitableness and humbleness as the divine narration of Dives and Lazarus; or of disobedience and mercy, as that heavenly discourse of the lost child and the gracious father; but that his thorough-searching wisdom knew the estate of Dives burning in hell, and of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, would more constantly, as it were, inhabit both the memory and judgment.
History, too, Sidney says, falls short. And it falls short because history is not as "doctrinable" as fiction: in works of history, we must depict men as they are or were, but in fiction we are free to depict them as they should be. On the face of it, I agree with him--I think there's a great need for reading fodder designed to give people an ideal to live up to. Howard Pyle did just this sort of thing in his awfully good yarn, Men of Iron, and GA Henty did it in everything he wrote. Other authors write more flawed characters for the purpose of showing how that flaw can be addressed. Fiction, as opposed to history, does make the work of teaching through story easier, since if it is difficult to find a person who thoroughly embodies all the lessons we wish to teach, we can much more easily make him up--just as the prophet Nathan, in rebuking King David, was obliged to invent a rich man and a ewe lamb.

However Sidney's argument becomes shakier as he alleges that historians can't show any reason behind the flow of events in their stories, but that too often in history we see good people punished and evil people promoted. This ignores the sovereign rule of Providence over history and makes the study of history futile. It's also a self-defeating argument. If we give history up and turn to fiction as the only place to see vice punished and virtue rewarded, then we may learn virtue, but we will have little reason to want to apply it to our lives if we are not trained to see Providence punishing vice and rewarding virtue throughout history. The argument scrambles onto firmer ground when Sidney states it in terms of our inability to say for sure what the meaning of a particular historical event is. However, Scripture gives us an interpretive lens for history and a reason to believe in Providence.

Fortunately we readers of fiction don't need the argument from history to prove that fiction has a place in the Christian life. As Sidney points out, the Lord used fiction all the time to teach doctrine, and he mentions the story of the prophet Nathan a couple of times:
The application most divinely true, but the discourse itself feigned; which made David (I speak of the second and instrumental cause) as in a glass to see his own filthiness, as that heavenly Psalm of Mercy well testifieth.
By this Sidney concludes that fiction is the best way to teach virtue:
I think it may be manifest that the poet, with that same hand of delight, doth draw the mind more effectually than any other art doth. And so a conclusion not unfitly ensueth: that as virtue is the most excellent resting-place for all wordly learning to make his end of, so poetry, being the most familiar to teach it, and most princely to move towards it, in the most excellent work is the most excellent workman. 
From here, Sidney proceeds to dismiss five common objections to fiction:

1. That there are better ways to spend one's time. Sidney's answer is that there's nothing better one can do with one's time than to be moved to virtue by fiction, which is more powerful to do so than any other tool.

2. That poets are liars. Sidney replies that poets never pretend to be telling the truth, but plainly admit that they are spinning fictions.
And therefore though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true he lieth not; without we will say that Nathan lied in his speech, before alleged, to David.
3. That fiction trains readers to escapism, or as Sidney puts it, "abuseth men's wit, training it to wanton sinfulness and lustful love." He admits that yes, fiction can do this, but this is an abuse of fiction: used properly, fiction is just as powerful in training men to virtue:
Nay, truly, though I yield that poesy may not only be abused, but that being abused, by the reason of his sweet charming force, it can do more hurt than any other army of words, yet shall it be so far from concluding that the abuse should give reproach to the abused, that contrariwise it is a good reason, that whatsoever, being abused, doth most harm, being rightly used—and upon the right use each thing receiveth his title—doth most good.
4. That fiction diverts readers from real-world, gainful employment. Sidney, quite rightly, points out that all peoples in all times have had fiction, including many vigorous and enterprising societies, and adds that if this is an objection to fiction, then it must also be an objection to every kind of book-learning.

5. The fifth objection is that Plato intended to outlaw fiction in his Republic! This is very interesting--it shows the extent to which even the early Reformers (of the kind objecting to fiction) still leaned on pagan philosophers with repugnant ideas like Plato's. Sidney handily disposes of this objection by pointing out that Plato's objection to fiction was based on its use in his days to 'defame' the gods--a nice historical point, but not relevant enough to talk about here. Still, I think it's very interesting that the Great Authority called on in opposition to fiction is Plato, while the Great Authority upon whom Sidney calls in support of fiction is Our Lord.

In conclusion, I found Sidney's The Defence of Poesy a really interesting discussion of some, but not all, of the questions surrounding the right uses of fiction. One rather amusing tid-bit was the historical detail that the ancient Romans used to play what's known today as "Bible roulette"--you know, the thing where you let the book flop open, and whatever verse you come up with is The Lord's Word To You For Today! Only, the ancient Romans played this game with Virgil's Aeneid, not with Scripture. Sidney calls it "a very vain and godless superstition"!

Personally, I disagree with Sidney that fiction is the best way of teaching virtue. I entirely agree with him that it is a powerful and important tool for teaching virtue, but one simply cannot do away with moral philosophy either. The Lord Christ used both in His ministry on earth, from the moral philosophy contained in the Sermon on the Mount to the fictitious parables previously mentioned. Both are equally important, complementary, and indispensible. etext

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lady Sybil's Choice by Emily Sarah Holt

Recently I got the chance to read another one of ES Holt's fascinating and painstakingly-researched historical novels. Lady Sybil's Choice, set in twelfth century France and Jerusalem, follows the early fortunes of Guy of Lusignan through the eyes of a young fictional sister, Elaine of Lusignan.

Elaine of Lusignan is precocious, fiercely intelligent, and passionately attached to her elder brother Guy. When he travels to the Holy Land to fight the Saracens and make a name for himself, Elaine comforts herself with the promise that she will one day go to join him, at the same time that she tries to quiet the appetite in her soul for something more than this life can give. When she finally arrives in Jerusalem with her foppish brother Amaury, Elaine finds that she has already been supplanted in Guy's affections by the lovely Sybil, sister of the leper king of Jerusalem. She learns to love Sybil, but how will her frail peace of mind, which depends on earthly things, cope with the looming storms on the horizon?

I was interested in reading this book because the history of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, also known as Outremer, is one of the most romantic and hopeless last stands in history. While a lot of attention is given to the Third Crusade, dominated as it was by those larger-than-life, legendary personalities of Richard Coeur-de-lion and Saladin, hardly any attention is paid to the hundred-year reign of the kings of Jerusalem over a feudal colony of men who, at vast expense and for the purpose of freeing the once-Christian lands of the Near and Middle East from the oppression of Islam, travelled far from their homes and native climates to settle and raise families on the frontlines of East and West. The conquest of the Christian East by Islam in the 600s was tragic, but so was the fall of Outremer in 1187.

Lady Sybil's Choice is set in the years leading up to Queen Sybilla's accession to the throne of Jerusalem in 1186, and the political intrigue surrounding that event which threatened her marriage to Guy of Lusignan, who she devotedly loved. It's a fascinating snapshot of many of the attitudes of the times, and the narrator--clever, iconoclastic, and questioning Elaine--is engaging to read about. However the book is not primarily about the history of the period, which I found a little disappointing. It's primarily about the spiritual journey of Elaine--hampered by the idiosyncracies of the church of the day--to repentance and saving faith. To this all the other personages and events of the story take second place. For example, why was ES Holt (a formidable and discerning historian in her own right) such a fan of Guy of Lusignan (whom most historians credit with weakness, indecision, and a hand in the bad tactical decisions which lead to the defeat at Hattin), and so antagonistic to Raymond of Tripoli? I most eagerly read the Historical Appendix at the end of the book to glean the few clues she left.

In the end, I felt that the story of Elaine's spiritual journey in pre-Reformation Christendom had been told against a too brilliant and tantalising backdrop. Although the book wraps up well with a fascinating and (surprisingly) historically factual climax, which ties the story and backdrop together neatly, I was left with more questions than answers about this historical period.

This said, the treatment of pre-Reformation Christendom by a well and truly Protestant novelist is very interesting in this book. While I'd be surprised if true belief was as difficult to find in those days as ES Holt suggests in the novel, I generally found the novel even-handed and historically well-founded. One of the things I most appreciated about this was that although the medieval Church is depicted with all its faults (and perhaps with too few of its virtues to outweigh them) the characters who are really Christians remain part of the Church of the day; they are not time travellers from the 1500s.

ES Holt also does a good job of evoking the piquant and distinctive way the medievals viewed history:
There was the legend of Monseigneur Saint Gideon, who drove the heathen Saracens out of his country with a mere handful of foot-soldiers; and that of Monseigneur Saint David, who, when he was but a youth, fought with the Saracen giant, Count Goliath, who was forty feet high.... The story that Amaury liked best of all was about Madame Esther, the Queen of Persia; and how she intreated her royal lord for the lives of certain knights that had been taken prisoners....
This is, of course, not the way that we have been brought up to read Scripture, and while ES Holt intended to point out that the stories had passed into oral tradition by this time, becoming distorted, I still can't help wondering if ready access to Scripture would have made the medievals more prosaic about their Bible heroes. I doubt it! "Certain knights that had been taken prisoners" does seem roughly analogous to "the enslaved Jewish nation"!

In the end, there was a lot to like about Lady Sybil's Choice. But I'm still looking around for a good history or novel on Outremer.


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