Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Border Country

51-XpOD0BKL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

 

I have fairly sloppy reading habits these days, moving randomly from one book to the next, choosing them for the slightest of reasons. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Wales, and I stopped in a bookstore. This bookstore was not in Hay-on-Wye, which is noted for its bookstores and its annual literary festival; frankly, I found Hay-on-Wye to be too commercial and couldn’t get out of there soon enough. Rather, it was a small bookstore in Crickhowell, in South Wales, which, it turns out, was a place that Tolkien visited on a holiday as a young adult and whose influence can be found in The Hobbit.

Whenever I go into a bookstore, I feel obligated to purchase something. For me, it’s like getting a table in a restaurant: you wouldn’t go in at all if you didn’t mean to buy something. And, because I was in Wales, and because the bookstore had a wonderful collection of Welsh books written in English, I picked up a novel by Raymond Williams called Border Country. I chose it because I am a retired English professor and am familiar with some of Williams’s critical work. I was hoping it would be a good book, because I always root for scholars who write fiction, being one myself.

I will simply say here that Border Country surpassed any hope I had that it would be an interesting book to read on vacation. It really is a fine novel, a beautiful and thoughtful narrative in which Welsh village life is depicted against the background of labor struggles, the clash of generations, and the difficulty involved in leaving one’s home and then returning to it.

Williams creates a subtle story with a strong narrative pull, largely because of the lively, interesting characters he presents. The protagonist is a professor of economics who lives in London with his wife and two sons; he must return to the Welsh border country, however, because his father has had a stroke. But “border country” also refers to the space that Matthew Price (called “Will” back in his hometown of Glynmawr) occupies within his own world: neither fully in the cosmopolitan world of London intellectuals (we get only a glimpse of his life there) nor in the village of his birth, Matthew is caught between worlds and a strange, palpable dysphoria ensues.

Yet the novel does not dwell on this unease. Rather, it provides flashbacks to an earlier time, when Matthew’s father Harry first arrives in Glynmawr to work as a railway signalman with his young wife Ellen, and in doing so it recounts the struggles involved in making a life in that beautiful and rugged country. The novel, true to its form (and no one would know that form better than Williams, who was a literary scholar of the highest merit), presents a varied and beautiful mix of narratives, woven together so subtly and with such artistry that the reader moves effortlessly between them.

I am new to Welsh literature, but I have learned this from Border Country: reading Welsh novels means reading about the Welsh landscape, with its rough yet welcoming mountains, where life is difficult but well worth living. Williams manages to get that feeling across to the reader in his simple, almost elegiac tone. The threads of the story keep us turning the pages, but the message of the book will stay with us long after we finish reading.

This is a novel that deserves to be read. It is both a pleasure and a pain to say that: a pleasure to discover a hidden gem, and a pain to realize that this gem has been obscured by newer, less deserving but flashier novels, and has only been revealed by the undisciplined, random choice of a reader strolling into a bookstore looking for something to read while on holiday in Wales. So I’m doing my part to gain it the readership it deserves by saying here: get this book and read it. You will be glad that you did.

Border Country, Raymond Williams

Parthian, Library of Wales, 2017

 

 

I

Leave a comment

Filed under Criticism, Historical Fiction, Literature, Politics, Reading, Travel, Writing

New Feature: Book Reviews

The title is a misnomer of sorts: most contemporary book reviews, I’ve noticed, are little more than marketing ploys designed to get you to buy the book they’re reviewing. If the reviewer is quite brave, the review might actually critique the book, but the point remains the same: to weigh in on a book that has grabbed, or wants to grab, the attention of a large body of readers.

That is not my goal in writing book reviews.

Am I alone in wailing and moaning the lost art of reading? Certainly not. Yet I am advocating here a certain kind of reading, a way of reading which demands thoughtful yet emotional responses to a book. This kind of reading and critiquing is not systematic, like a college paper; it is not formulaic and profit-generating, like a Kirkus book review; and it is certainly not aimed at gaining a readership for a book, or for this blog, either, for that matter. I am simply modeling the behavior I would like to see in other readers. I want to log my emotional and intellectual responses to certain books, to join or create a critical discussion about the the works I’m reading. Some of these works will be current, but many more will be older. As I used to tell my literature students, I specialize in works written by long-dead people. Long mesmerized by the works from the nineteenth century and before, I have, one might say, a severe case of century deprivation.

But today I am starting with a book by Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover: A Romance. Published in 1992, it is a historical novel set in Naples, Italy, at the end of the eighteenth century, focusing on Sir William Hamilton and his second wife Emma, destined to become the mistress of Horatio Nelson.

The_Volcano_Lover_(Sontag_novel)

Image from Wikipedia

Let me say that I have never read many of Sontag’s essays, and now I feel I don’t really have to, because this book seems in many ways much more a essay than a novel. There’s a good story in the lives of Sir William, Lady Hamilton, and Lord Nelson, but Sontag pushes this story into the background, eclipsing it by allowing her narrator’s cynical distance to diminish the reader’s ability to connect with the characters and events portrayed in the novel. Sontag gets in the way of the story a great deal too much. Egotism has no place in the act of telling a story; unfortunately, this lesson is something many writers are slow to learn, and indeed, some writers never learn it at all.

The true protagonist of the novel emerges only in the last eight pages. Sontag has had her revenge on the prurient reader who has picked up this novel only to delve into the lurid details of one of the most famous threesomes in British history. She pulls out a minor character, one that has had only the most fleeting reference given her, and gives her some of the best scenes to narrate. By playing hide-and-seek games with her story in this way, Sontag regrettably implodes her own narrative.

In the end, Sontag is much too clever a story-teller, and this hurts her novel–irreparably, in my view. There is one sentence in the novel that I think is worthy of remembering, however. Describing Sir William long after her own death (yes, Sontag does this, time-hopping with impunity, apparently), his first wife describes him like this in a single-sentence paragraph: “Talking with him was like talking with someone on a horse” (376). That’s a clever description, and I will give Sontag her due by calling attention to it.

In the end, though, I am left feeling frustrated and annoyed by The Volcano Lover. I have no idea how it can be construed as a romance, just as I have no idea why this novel, with its sly undercurrent of critical attitudes–towards the characters, the actions, and perhaps even the very nature of novel-writing–should hold a reader’s attention. Sontag’s work, described on the jacket as “a book of prismatic formal ingenuity, rich in speculative and imaginative inventiveness and alive with delicious humor,” is in reality a self-absorbed narrative, filled with annoying commentary, strained attempts at originality, and a smug disregard for its readers’ desire to like the book they’re reading.

2 Comments

Filed under Criticism, Historical Fiction, History, Literary theory, Literature, Publishing, Reading, The Arts, Writing

My Literary Discovery of the Year: Laughing Whitefish

For me, discovering an important book that I’ve overlooked is one of the most pleasurable parts of the reading life.  I used to use the classroom to share my findings with students–who, I’ll admit, for the most part didn’t really care about my discoveries–but now, since I’ve retired, I’m forced to use The Tabard Inn to record them for a posterity which probably doesn’t really exist. That’s ok, because I feel it’s my duty, if not my destiny, to read forgotten books, to encourage these literary wallflowers and buried masterpieces to take their place in the spotlight, so to speak, even if no one is in the audience.

I’ve discovered a number of fine books through having absolutely no discipline in my reading the last few years. But I count Laughing Whitefish, by Robert Traver  (McGraw Hill, 1965), among the most significant of my discoveries. My readers may recognize Robert Traver as the author of the book Anatomy of a Murder, which was made into a racy film starring James Stewart in 1959: the star’s father, believing the film to be immoral, actually took out an advertisement in his paper to ask people not to see it. You can see the unusual trailer for the film below:

Much attention has been given to Anatomy of a Murder, but I’ve seen virtually nothing about Laughing Whitefish, which is actually a great deal more important than Traver’s earlier book. In fact, I will make the claim here that this novel is every bit as important in its way as To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published five years earlier. Laughing Whitefish is based on real events and is based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; it takes place in the late nineteenth century and focuses on a lawsuit in which a Native American sues a mining company for breach of contract. Like Lee’s mythic condemnation of the inequalities between blacks and whites in the first half of the twentieth century, Traver’s book addresses the evils done to Native Americans during the settlement of the United States. And it does this in impassioned language. Take, for example, these words spoken by the first-person narrator:

It seems passing strange that we whites in our vast power and arrogance cannot now leave the vanishing remnants of these children of nature with the few things they have left….Can we not relent, for once halt the torment? Must we finally disinherit them from their past and rob them of everything? Can we not, in the name of the God we pray to, now let them alone in peace to live out their lives according to their ancient customs, to worship the gods of their choice, to marry as they will, to bring forth their children, and finally to die? Can we, who for centuries have treated the Indians as dogs, only now treat them as equals when they dare seek relief from injustice in our courts?….I am the first to concede that whatever you may decide here will be but a passing footnote in the long history of jurisprudence, that the pittance we are jousting over is but a minor backstairs pilfering in the grand larceny of a continent. (202)

These are difficult words for a white person to read, but I believe it is important for every American to read them, because they present the situation as clearly as Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird. The question is, why is it that we know Lee’s work, but not Traver’s? I would suggest that Laughing Whitefish be made required reading in public schools, because it is just as important a book as To Kill a Mockingbird.

No one has a monopoly on misery in this country. But the first step in solving a problem is admitting it exists. The second step is exploring its origins. What a different world we might be living in today if, instead of making a film of Anatomy of a Murder, Otto Preminger had made one of Laughing Whitefish.

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Criticism, Historical Fiction, Literature, Reading, Writing

How I Procrastinate

Bert Walker, from Wikipedia

Bert Williams, from Wikipedia

For the past few months, I’ve had lots of time on my hands. I left my full-time teaching job in May, so now I am no longer burdened with course preparation, grading, and committee meetings. I can read whatever I want whenever I want, and, despite doing quite a bit of traveling, I have plenty of time to devote to writing my  second novel, to researching topics of interest to me, and to developing whatever musical talent I have.

Of course, I’ve made very little progress on any of these things, because when time stretches out in front of you, it’s very hard to accomplish significant things on a daily basis. However, I’ve accomplished a number of insignificant things, and, by way of tallying up my achievements this year, I thought I’d make a list of the things that have taken me away from what I once considered the important things in my life. So here’s how I spend my time when I’m not doing what I should be doing:

  • Knitting. It’s become an obsession for me, which is kind of pitiful, because I’m really not that good at it. But, as I once told a friend, the lack of artistry in a pair of mittens does not affect its status as mittens: they still function as mittens. My inability to keep my tension constant, or my lack of talent at picking up stitches for the thumb, do not detract from the “mitten-ness” of the mittens I’m producing. I can always sew up holes and fill in gaps with a yarn needle, anyway. Still, I’m not sure it’s healthy to need to be knitting at all times. I’ve actually wondered whether one can knit while riding an exercise bike, although I’m happy to say that so far I have resisted the urge to try it.
  • Which brings me to another time-sink: Exercising. I’ve joined a gym in the apparently vain hope of losing some serious poundage that has accrued as a result of indiscriminate eating and ready access to good wine and beer while spending a month in a cramped camper in Europe earlier this year. So I have been spending a good deal of time on an elliptical machine or a stationary bicycle, sweating away. On the bright side, I’ve listened to an Audible recording of The Martian in its entirety, and am presently making my way through the history of Broadway musicals.
  • That last bit has led me to searching the internet for old clips of Bert Williams and the Nicholas Brothers so I can understand what the musical scene was like in the first part of the 1900s. There are some great clips on YouTube, and account for a couple of hours of completely wasted time. The picture above is a portrait of Bert Williams, described by legendary comic W.C. Fields as “the funniest man I ever saw–and the saddest man I ever knew.”
  • Once you enter the world of the small screen, it’s hard to back out of it. I won’t mention all the time I’ve spent on social media sites, because even I have my limits when I’m in the confessional mode, but I will admit to watching several episodes of The Supersizers (Victorian and Restoration periods), whole seasons of Call the Midwife, The Politician’s Husband, and Broadchurch (season 2). All I can say is that it’s a very good thing that season 2 of Les Revenants is not available on Netflix yet. Most embarrassing, perhaps, is my compulsion to watch every single episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show. I can think of few activities in life that are less relevant and more pointless, but then again, someday I might actually put together a course on the history of the situation comedy. Then all I’d need is some college crazy enough to want to run it.
  • I’ve also been finishing up some MOOCs (Massive Open On-Line Courses) I started months ago. If you haven’t tried these and have some time on your hands, I recommend them. They’re worth at least three to four hours of generally impractical but interesting edification a week. I’ve been indulging in Wordsworth on FutureLearn and Historical Fiction on Coursera. Both sites are very good, and I’m glad I left teaching before I became completely redundant and unnecessary as an educator.
  • I still have my old standby of reading. What kinds of books have I been reading since my time is all my own? The usual miscellaneous mish-mash: Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart (a very different book from her Pippi Longstocking tales), Far from the Madding Crowd, Three Men in a Boat, The Life of Pi, Wordsworth’s Prelude (the long version), and P.G. Wodehouse’s Picadilly Jim and Something New. I mustn’t forget Mrs. Edith Alec-Tweedie’s A Girl’s Ride in Iceland, published in 1895, and full of interesting and completely outmoded information on Iceland.

So that’s it. It turns out you can do a lot of procrastination when you really set your mind to it. I pride myself in achieving a great deal in the way of procrastination this year, and offer this list not only as evidence, but as a public confession of my inertia. Here’s to hoping that in the new year my list is much less diverse, and that I can actually make some progress on my next novel.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction, Literature, Reading, Retirement, Television, Writing

A Teaser

Tomorrow, I leave for London on a trip that is mostly for leisure but partly to research my newest novel, as yet untitled, and only two-thirds written. Here is a short preview of that novel, which, a kind of ghost story, is really not much like my first novel, Effie Marten, at all. Take a look, and leave a comment to let me know what you think.

 

Chapter One

I’m not sure when the noises began, or why I first began to pay attention to them. All I know is that one morning, tired and hung-over, I hunched over my cup of coffee, breathing in its bitter odor, regretting the fact that I hadn’t been to the stores to buy any milk, or cream, or even non-dairy creamer, wondering how I would spend my day, when I heard a sigh so sad and plaintive it made me forget my own misery, and I sat up to look around, thinking Andrew hadn’t left yet for work.

“Drew?” I took a sip of the coffee, clenched my teeth at its unaccustomed bitterness, and swallowed. “Is that you?” There was no answer, so I stood up and walked to our tiny bathroom, pulling my robe tight around my nightgown. Flannel alone, I have learned, is not enough to keep out the chill of a January morning in England, especially when one lives in a sprawling mansion that has been converted to flats.

“Are you still here?” I glanced in the bathroom, took a quick peek into the spare bedroom we used as a study, and, cradling my cup in my hand, walked back to the kitchen. “I guess not,” I said aloud. Talking to myself was becoming a habit these days, one that I had not yet grown alarmed about.

I sat back down, set my cup down on the chic black dining table, and rubbed my pounding temples. What could that noise have been? Probably heating pipes or something like that. Back in the States, I’d lived in a variety of places that made sounds: shifting foundations, stiff winds, even small earthquakes could account for a lot of normal creaking household noises. England, too, must have its causes for these things, especially when one considered that everything was about a thousand years older here than in the United States.

Let’s face it, I told myself: there’s no chance at all that this beautiful old building is situated on top of an Indian burial ground, so just forget about it. I nodded, as if I’d said the words aloud, as if someone else had said them to me and I was agreeing with them, and lifted my cup to my lips. Drinking deep, I now welcomed the scalding bitterness of the coffee. It was real, unlike the sound that had set me on edge. It was something that appealed to the senses, something you could count on, something predictable and knowable. I took another sip, thinking that milk would have made the coffee better, but somehow less real. Sometimes, I said out loud, my voice echoing in the empty flat, bitterness was just what you needed to get you going.

 

 

I hadn’t been in England all that long, had been married even less time. My life up to this point had been pretty boring, in fact. A childhood in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. A stint at a large public university, followed by a meltdown of sorts—the usual kind, which consisted largely of wondering what I was doing with my life, how I was going to support myself, an in fact, what the point of life really was—during which I dropped out of school, relinquished my career goals of becoming a history professor, and moved back home in utter desperation. My parents were nice enough about it, but we all knew I couldn’t stay there long, couldn’t keep working as a secretary, no matter how noble (read: underfunded) the non-profit organization I worked for was. The money just wasn’t there, and although I wasn’t greedy by any means, I needed to have enough to live on my own. At 22 years old, I just didn’t want to be living in the bedroom I grew up in. After mulling it over for a year and a half, I decided the only solution was to return to school. It would buy me another year or so while I figured out how to manage the age-old problem: what would I do in order to make ends meet?

So I enrolled in a computer programming school—it wasn’t an academic program, but rather a training school of sorts designed to get people into the workforce quickly—that was located just across the freeway from my house. Actually, it was across several freeways, all of them crowded with SUVs and luxury sedans, it seemed to me, wending their way through traffic to make it to the next soccer game, or board meeting, or shopping trip.

I’d picked computer programming solely because I needed to be sure of getting a job after college. I’d had enough of the nobility of the liberal arts and how they prepared you for life, not work. Maybe if I’d been sure of getting into a fine graduate school and finding the funding to support me, I’d have been less bitter, but I’d spent too much time poring over placement data, and I knew how many history majors were out pounding the pavement looking for work. Many of them were finding it, too: as baristas, and convenience store clerks, and cell phone sales personnel.

But I’d done my research, and all the data suggested that the best field to enter was computer programming, the wave of the future. It had been the wave of the future for three decades now, and apparently was only just now coming into its own. That sounds kind of sketchy to me now, but at the time, I was desperate, and it was good enough for me. I have a good head for languages, and once I convinced myself programming was just another language, it seemed to work. I learned just enough and no more to become barely competent as a programmer, and that only by the end of the training module. Luckily, I had a job offer with a large oil company, which I took immediately, without listening to my conscience—or my heart.

So, by age 26, I finally had my first job and my career all laid out for me. True, I had no real love for what I did, but it was a solid paycheck, it was regular, and it was ample for my needs. All I had to do is make it the next 41 years to retirement, and I was set.

I actually got myself to believe that.

For a few weeks, anyway.

Within two months, I had had to sit myself down and give myself a stern talking to. Listen, Meg, I said. You have just what you’ve been wanting, what you decided you needed in life: a steady paycheck and time left over after the work day to pursue your own interests, whether those interests reside in medieval history, or knitting, or raising miniature pot-bellied pigs. After all, I insisted, it’s ungrateful to be bored, to yearn for something more. It was stupid to think that my work life should be fulfilling in the way that my daydreams dictated they should be. That was in books, in fantasies, in movies or television series, I told myself: real people, women with mothers who were medical transcriptionists and fathers who were accountants, people like that just didn’t get the kind of jobs that make them actually want to get up in the morning and go to work. I told myself to buckle down and settle in for a long ride.

So that’s what I did, and I was pretty much failing miserably at it when I got selected for a personnel training program, which entailed six months of further schooling, culminating with three weeks in Kansas City, all expenses paid.

I jumped at the chance.

True, Kansas City isn’t Las Vegas, or Orlando, or San Francisco. I suppose it’s a measure of my discontent that I was so enthusiastic about going to a place that lacked the glamor of the usual convention cities, but there it is. I enrolled in the training program, attended each class dutifully, learned my trade, and at the end of the six months, packed my bags, dropped my cat and my apartment key off at my parents’ house, and headed to Kansas City, which is where I met Andrew Markham.

How I met Andrew and ended up marrying him is another story altogether.

2 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction, Literary theory, Literature, Publishing, Reading, Writing

My War with Westerns

If you’ve read this blog for a while, or just snooped around a bit, you will remember that one of my earliest posts was on movies that I couldn’t finish, which is available here. But recently I’ve found another film to add to the list, and perhaps an entire genre as well.

The film in question is 3:10 to Yuma. I actually walked away from the television about halfway through the film, bored with and tired of what seemed to be a predictable plot with lots of violence to keep it moving. But I’m not sure the film itself is to blame. Maybe it’s actually a good film of its kind; maybe I just don’t like Westerns. When I talk about genre in my classes, I always point out that genres, like clothes,  are subject to fashion trends through the years. For example, remember leisure suits from the 1970s?

leisurebirth

From the website Plaid Stallions: Reliving the 70s a Catalogue Page at a Time

Truly awful, right? Consider literary (or film) genres as if they were clothing, and you’ll see what I mean about trending fashions in genres. If 1970s was the decade of horrors like the leisure suit in terms of clothes, the 1590s were the decade of the sonnet in England. Everyone who was anyone was writing them–kind of like children’s books in the last decade or zombie/vampire/supernatural stories today.

What does this have to do with Westerns? While I’m not an expert on film or on Westerns, it seems safe to say that the heyday of the western film was the 1950s and 1960s, spilling over to television in those years as well, with shows such as Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, The High Chapparel, and of course Bonanza. Doing any Western film today kind of seems like revisiting an older art form, but in this case, it really is a remake: 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 version of the film starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, a version I haven’t seen, but which I strongly suspect I would not like either.

Why? The answer is simple: I’m a woman, and the Western is a man’s genre.

I realize that is a loaded statement to make today, in an era of gender liberation, an era of liberation from gender itself. But let me point out why I left the couch last Saturday night to go play my guitar when confronted with another 45 minutes of watching a film I couldn’t connect with. It wasn’t the violence, or the cynicism, or even the sexist attitudes of the characters: these are things that I can understand and accept, given the plot and setting. Rather, it’s the fact that there are no women in the movie for me to identify with. In other words, while watching 3:10 to Yuma, I was left with the  choice of identifying with either  the prostitute or the faithful wife, neither of whom get a lot of time on screen–unless I wanted to do some cross-gender fantasizing, which is fine when it isn’t forced down your throat.

It kind of makes me want to slap the director. “Really?” I want to say to him.  “We wait fifty years for a remake of a movie, only to duplicate the sexual stereotypes that probably made it a B-grade movie on the first go-round?” It seems like a monumental waste of time to me. I kept hoping that the boy William, who follows his father off into the sage on his mission to deliver Ben Wade to justice, would turn out to be a girl. I even concocted this whole story about how William’s parents created this switched gender for her in order to protect her from marauders and would-be seducers. In the end, I realized that the story I was making up to get me through the movie was, in fact, far more interesting than the movie itself, which is why I stopped watching it in the middle.

The truth is, I can accept a film that has gender stereotypes when it’s made in the 1950s and 1960s; we don’t quit teaching The Taming of the Shrew just because it’s antifeminist, after all, because we can explain its outlook from a historical perspective. For much of recorded history, women have been given the short end of the stick, so to speak, and it does no good to deny this. In fact, studying such depictions of women might even help us understand other forms of oppression, so I get the idea of tolerance for gender stereotypes in older films. But I expect more from a contemporary film, and I’d love to hear from readers out there if there is, in fact, a Western that does not demand we step into a mental straitjacket when we watch it.

Any takers? Leave your comments below, and I’ll start expanding my Netflix queue.

5 Comments

Filed under Criticism, Films, Historical Fiction

My Life as Queen Margaret

tumblr_maidfgmo1L1racd4ro1_500

Brian Bedford as Richard III; Maggie Smith as Queen Margaret,
Stratford Shakespeare 1977, from Guilded Butterflies http://shakespeareishq.tumblr.com/post/31742477738/brian-bedford-as-richard-iii-and-maggie-smith-as

A couple of weeks ago, my Shakespeare class read Richard III. Since the last Plantagenet monarch’s remains were found just about a year ago, it seemed only fitting to delve into the play that has since become known as a Tudor spin job. The play is just as I remembered it, only perhaps a little worse–definitely not Shakespeare’s best. There’s no deep insight into human nature, no acute depictions of suffering (although the scene in which Queen Elizabeth speaks to the walls of the Tower, begging them to protect her sons, is pretty good). True, the Duke of Clarence is quite a cool guy, but he gets drowned, famously, in a butt of Malmsey wine, which makes for an interesting demise but unfortunately occurs offstage.

To be blunt, Richard III is an uninteresting story of unmotivated evil versus unwitting–indeed, absolutely clueless–good, which only wins out in the end because it has to in order to be historically accurate. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that it’s a dog of a play. Still, I do have a favorite character in Richard III, although it’s occurred to me that I may be the only person who actually likes Queen Margaret.

Queen Margaret is a character who really has no business being in the play at all: she is the wife of the previous king, a ruler who, before the action of the play starts, had already been deposed and killed, along with their son. By all rights, this woman–the remnant of the previous regime– should be under lock and key, if not in a tomb herself. So why is she  free to wander around the court, cursing people at will, popping on stage at various moments to call forth doom and destruction on pretty much everyone? There’s really not a good explanation for her presence in the play, and that intrigues me, although you can read a very good undergraduate analysis of her function here.

Actually, I like Queen M out of sheer perversity: I  love the fact that she’s a cranky old anachronism. In fact, I’ve noticed that my 20-year-old cat is very much like Queen Margaret. Most of the  time, Blackie is quiet, sleeping in the warmest spot she can find. But every so often, she slinks around the house, howling at the top of her feline lungs, just as Margaret stomps across the stage, hurling curses. Perhaps in creating Queen Margaret, Shakespeare was making a comment about the impunity of old age. After all, survival against the odds, whether calculated in terms of regime change or just in extensive years of a cat’s life, endows one with a certain freedom of speech that exists solely to make other people uncomfortable.

Blackie

Blackie, aka Queen Margaret

Sometimes, I feel like Queen Margaret myself. There are days that I wander around, making outrageously pessimistic comments that few people listen to. “Climate change is going to destroy civilization as we know it,” I announce, and no one bats an eye. Or, on a more personal note, “Don’t worry about your student loans–global economic meltdown will occur in the next ten years. You’ll never have to pay them back!” People just stare at me, then make the obvious choice to ignore me, and life goes on.

So, let me pay tribute here to the Queen Margarets out there, those of us who go about cursing, muttering, hollering, and generally making pests of ourselves. The world needs our nasty, incisive comments from time to time, even if it takes no note of them. After all, without Queen Margaret, Richard III would be just another play about a dead king–and heaven knows we have enough of those.

4 Comments

Filed under Criticism, Historical Fiction, Literature, Reading

Why I’m Not an Austen Fanatic

I am not crazy about Jane Austen. Don’t get me wrong: I like Jane Austen very much. I’m an English professor, so I’ve read all of Austen’s novels (my favorite is a tie between Emma and Persuasion), as well as a few biographies of her. But I don’t share the infatuation with Austen that seems quite prevalent in this generation, to which I referred in my reblog of last week (check here if you missed it). Many years ago now, when I was teaching at a small Catholic liberal arts college, a fellow professor told a story to demonstrate how popular Austen had become. “I was at a Jack-in-the-Box,” she said. “Two teenaged girls were eating burritos, and they were talking about a third friend’s boyfriend. ‘What’s wrong with him?’ the first girl asked. The second girl replied, ‘I don’t know–her parents hate him. It’s a Jane Austen thing.'” Austen-mania had begun, back in the 1990s. It would only get worse in the coming years.

Austen-mania is a lot like Downton Abbey mania, which is a lot like royal-baby-mania, which is the reaction to the imminent birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s baby (happening even as I write this blog: check here. Yet for those of us who are truly enamored of British culture, it’s a bit annoying to find everyone else jumping on our own personal, slightly rickety and not-too-stable bandwagon. I mean, we were the ones who always knew that Austen was cool, that monarchies make for much more interesting history than boring old democracies, and that the British aristocracy is not nearly as stuffy as it’s made out to be.

What I find particularly annoying is that there’s plenty of other good literature out there that goes undiscovered. Consider this: Austen is the mere tip of the iceberg as far as women writers go. There are many, many other good and not-so-good women writers that go unread simply because we are hyper-focused on Austen. We all know, for example, that Mary Shelley, 21-year-old author of Frankenstein, wrote what became perhaps the most important novel of our modern era–it’s a story we are reliving now, in this era of climate change, genetically modified foods, and other critically dangerous corollaries of modern scientific discoveries. But how many people know that Shelley also wrote what must surely be one of the first end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it novels (The Last Man)? Check out this Wikipedia entry on apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature: and you’ll see that she can claim to be the originator of that genre, too.

My point is this: there are lots of interesting writers out there. Austen is surely one of them, but she’s not the only one. Likewise, Shakespeare wrote some beautiful sonnets, but out of 154 of them, how many are really memorable? Less than 10 percent, surely. I’m all for falling in love with a writer and reading everything they ever wrote, but there’s plenty of other works out there that deserve to be read, too. Let’s hear it for the women writers out there who aren’t Austen: Mary Delarivier Manley, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth. And Downton Abbey is fine, but if you really want to be drawn into a great British story set around WWI, try reading The Forsyte Saga. You might even go back to the original television series about British life, above and below the salt, in WWI: Upstairs, Downstairs.

Leave a comment

Filed under Criticism, Historical Fiction, Writing

Walter Scott, Literary Bad-Ass

Raeburn's portrait of Scott, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Raeburn’s portrait of Scott, courtesy of Wikipedia.

I love Sir Walter Scott, but I think I’m the only person who bothers to read him any more. Scott was an innovator, lawyer, writer, scholar and not-so-astute businessman who changed the shape of literature as we know it. And yet most people have no idea why he is such a literary bad-ass. They think he’s important only because he wrote Ivanhoe–you know, that story about that Saxon knight who fell in love with that Jewish girl and fought against those Norman overlords in medieval England. But Scott is really so much more than this one story, which is not even his best novel.

How do you teach a classroom of students that it’s worth while cultivating the patience and skill, and yes, the vocabulary–Scott uses a good deal of Scots dialect in his dialogues, and most good editions of his Scottish novels contain glossaries–to read Scott’s novels? It’s a hopeless cause, but I’m not going to let that stop me. (One blogger who also hasn’t let it stop her is Sydney, who posted on Waverley in her blog, which you can find here: “http://sydneyreadseverything.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/waverley/”>)

Here’s a little tidbit for you: Scott didn’t start out writing novels. His first success came with poetry. That wonderful quote that goes “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive” and that most of us attribute to Shakespeare? That was Scott (Marmion). He was really big stuff in the first few years of the nineteenth century. But just when he was really beginning to settle into his popularity as a poet (and this was at a time when poetry was a big deal; think Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge), Byron hit the scene, and Scott realized he had become outmoded and upstaged in just a couple of years. So, being multi-talented, he switched to writing novels, and thank heavens he did. His last collection of poems was published in 1817, and it was entitled Harold the Dauntless. I think we can say it was probably a good thing he switched to prose. By the same token, Byron never wrote a novel (although we might say that Don Juan is kind of a novel), so Scott wins the literary-decathlon award of his day.

More importantly, Scott’s novels changed the face of literature. First of all, he used dialect freely (something he borrowed from the Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth and which Mark Twain would use in Huck Finn, to the confusion and disgust of generations of American students), which invested his characters with life-like realism and linguistic freedom, and secondly, under his hand, novels gradually assumed the shape that we recognize today as the Victorian novel. And sure, Victorian novels might really be “loose, baggy monsters,” as Henry James charged, but try reading 18th-century novels, and you’ll see they are a lot less loose and baggy than they had been. Without Scott, whom nearly every Victorian novelist pays homage to in one form in another, the novel would look a lot different than it does today.

Scott even had the good sense to write a very positive (although unsigned) review of Jane Austen’s novels in the Quarterly Review, which you can read in this blog: Only a Novel. Bear in mind that Scott’s novels exist on the opposite end of the spectrum from Austen’s: Scott takes dramatic, historical events and gives them an everyday feel, while Austen invests quotidian events with a momentous and dramatic aura. Yet different as they are as novelists, Scott can still appreciate and applaud Austen’s work–and this at a time (1815) well before the world had discovered who she was.

Appreciation for Scott may have died off, but historical fiction remains popular. I believe that all historical fiction writers should read Scott, and yet I’d be surprised if many really do. Alfred Hitchcock once said that it was impossible to fully understand film without going back and studying the films of the silent era, but how many directors today really do that? Like Scott, the age of silent movies seems to be disposable, suitable only for libraries, vaults, and graduate school syllabi. This is a real shame, because in tossing Scott, readers miss great novels like The Heart of Midlothian, Waverley, and Redgauntlet.

However, in 2010, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch (a name that will sound familiar to Scott readers, if there are any out there) established the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. This is a big deal in literary prizes: not only is it among the largest purses for literary achievement at well over $25,000, but it also works to wrench historical fiction out of the realm of consumer literature and place it in the category of serious literature. So hats off to the Duke and Duchess for understanding the value of historical fiction and finding a way to legitimize it.

And hats off, too, to a literary bad-ass extraordinaire–Sir Walter Scott–who may not have single-handedly invented the genre, but who certainly did his part in developing it, while helping to shape the novel as we know it today.

1 Comment

Filed under Criticism, Historical Fiction, Writing