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?


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