Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Jane Eyre Meets the Sensation Novel: Mrs. Henry Wood's "Anne Hereford"


 Will the Summer of '21 be remembered as the Summer of Love?   We wandered freely through the world, ripping our masks off, peacefully riding our bicycles, taking walks with less fear, and, on one occasion, abandoning al fresco dining for the bugless indoors.

Back to caution and masks.  The Fall (Demise) of Love?


 Charlotte Bronte and Mrs. Henry Wood practiced wildly different genres. Wood, the author of 30 novels, including the popular East Lynne, was a master of the Victorian sensation novel.  Ghosts, murderers, screaming maidens, and vengeful villains explode out of the pages. There are sensational elements in Charlotte Bronte's Gothic classics, Jane Eyre and Villette, but they are subtler, the mad wife excepted.  Yet Wood's neglected novel Anne Hereford (1868) has much in common with Jane Eyre.  Wood, who had a professional eye for what sells, borrowed from it and made it her own.

Though the racy Ellen Wood is a variable stylist, I enjoyed this book.  And I was interested in the parallels between the characters. Both Jane and Anne are orphans who become teachers and then  governesses. Both fall in love with rich men who are barred from marriage for secret reasons.  Mr Rochester deceives Jane, but the milder Mr. Chandros says openly that he loves Anne but can never marry.  (A family secret.)  Wood's characters tend to be nicer and milder than Bronte's. There is depression, but not unbridled passion.  Jane leaves in disgust when she learns Mr. Rochester's secret, walking for days until she faints on a minister's doorstep.  Anne screams more than once when she sees strangers - or ghosts? - in the woods.  She wants to leave after hearing horrible rumors about Mr Chandros, but she must wait to be paid by her employer, Mr. Chandros's sister, who is in France.  (Of course money did not stop Jane.) 

The quiet Anne Hereford may be a milquetoast compared to Jane, but her childhood trauma as a witness of violence was deeper.  At age 11, after her mother's death,  she went to live with 21-year-old Aunt Selina, a wild, heedless woman who
flirted with a guest, George Heneage, and  excited the jealousy of her middle-aged husband and he indignation of Philip King, his nephew and heir.

And then there is a tragedy.  Anne witnesses the killing of Philip King in the woods, though she does not see who fired the shot.  And Aunt Selina, who caught a chill  during her search for George (who completely disappears), dies a few weeks later. And so the dead bodies seem to mount up.  Luckily, Anne is sent to two good schools, where she does well and is neither starved nor humiliated.    

There seems to be a fine line between sensation novels and Gothics. In Bronte's Jane Eyre we have a mad woman in the attic; in Villette we have a ghost and an opium-fueled dream; in Wood's Anne Hereford we have murders, ghosts, mysterious strangers, a vengeful woman plotting character assassination, and the strange seclusion of Lady Chandros in the west wing of the house.  Is it a matter of quantity?

There are ghostly facets of horror in Anne Hereford. A
Halloweencoincidence: I was not reading for the holiday.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Real Estate Is Not Proust's Madeleine


 In Hilma Wolitzer's witty short story, "Sundays," the narrator has to coax her depressed husband Howard out of bed every Sunday morning.  To cheer him up, they drive from Queens to the suburbs to tour model homes. 

Wolitzer writes,

Not that we want to live in the suburbs. How we laugh and poke one another at the roped-off bedrooms hung in velvet drapery, the rubber chickens roosting in warm refrigerators. The thing is, places like that confirm our belief in our own choices. We’re safe here in the city, in our tower among towers. Flyspecks, so to speak, in the population.
I love the Paulie and Howard stories, and I know the feeling of looking down on the suburbs.  It is unlikely that I will ever live in a development.  Nonetheless, I am enthralled by real estate. "I would love to live there," I exclaim as I pass a Victorian house with a wraparound porch, or a Mid-Century Modern Home from the '60s.  Even if the house is for sale, it is just a fantasy, though.


I see myself living here in an alternate life.

Every Sunday the newspaper publishes a pictorial feature on a glamorous house for sale.  By glamorous, I mean shockingly expensive.  One week they highlighted a suburban house that appeared to be a group of angular out-buildings stuck together with rocks. It reminded me of a Middle Eastern compound on the TV show Homeland.  (The price: $1,000,000.)  

Looking at real estate online is more entertaining than the newspaper. You can find the perfect
pied a terre in San Francisco or a cottage near Niagara Falls. You can even take a virtual tour of your grandparents' house, though it is not for sale at the moment.  "What have the new people done to the sunroom?" you lament.  "Why did they paint Mom's room black?  Who would rip out built-in bookcases?"   

A virtual tour of your childhood home is even less satisfying.  The style has changed from maximalist '70s kitsch to play-it-safe minimalist: wooden floors as slick as a roller rink, wooden kitchen cabinets inexplicably replaced by white particle board,  a futon in every bedroom - and no trace of the nuclear family.

You can disapprove of change, but you cannot recapture the past by real estate. 

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Reading When You're Sick: Colette's "Break of Day" and "Letters from Colette"



 Is it a cold?  Or is it the flu?  How do we get through it? 

During a horrendous illness, I turned to Colette, the lyrical French writer best-known for the autobiographical Claudine books. She ghostwrote the series at the bidding of her rakish first husband, Willy, who ran what Colette called a "factory" of  ghostwriters.  The Claudine books were so popular they were adapted for the stage and heavily "merchandised." (The Claudine quintet consists of Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married, Claudine and Annie, and Retreat from Love.)  

Colette was a celebrity writer, an actress, a music hall artist, and a bisexual beauty, married thrice, who had many affairs.  After her separation from Willy in 1906, she wrote some of the most brilliant novels of the twentieth century. Would that more of her books were available in translation.  Just a handful are still in print by Farrar Straus Giroux and Vintage. 

Two of her books kept me alive during this illness, Break of Day  and Letters from Colette.  Written in her fifties, Break of Day is a meditative novel, a record of the rich experiences of daily life at her house at Saint-Tropez on the Cote d'Azur.  She also muses on her changing attitudes toward love and sex in middle age.  Her sulky, charming 35-year-old neighbor, Vial, is in love with her, and she certainly likes him.  But does she want to go through the agonies of love again?  She studies the letters of her self-sufficient mother, who in her seventies gardened, tended to the poor, and slept in an out-building because she could no longer bear to sleep next to a human being.  Colette, recently divorced from her second husband,  wants to follow her mother's example.  She writes,

Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the possibility that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power or a pain the keen edge of its bite,  I can still hold my head up and say to myself:  "I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter - that letter and so many others I have kept."

The narrator of Break of Day is called Colette, but she reminds us that her double in the novel is much stronger and has more integrity than the real woman.  In old age, Colette was still attractive and had a young husband.  So much for giving up love.

I am also reading Letters from Colette, a new discovery, though it has been on my shelf for years.  Selected and translated by Robert Phelps, this charming collection covers half a century, 1902 to 1952.  Colette is witty, original, and impish about her "adorable bulldogs, with faces like frogs," business contracts for her stage career (she played Claudine in some productions), her love affairs, wartime experiences (her husband Maurice Goudeket spent six weeks in a concentration camp), and the tragic death of her friend the poet Helene Picard.  "Like the most romantic of poets, she died in the hospital, unknown, unrecognized....  For ten days I have been working on a little study of Helene's work, which the Revue de Paris has asked me to do.  But I have never tried anything quite like this, and I'm making no progress... "    

Colette is the subject of several biographies.  The biographer Judith Thurman writes in the introduction to the 2001 FSG edition of Break of Day: "Colette has always been admirable for reasons that have nothing to do with political correctness... Accessible and elusive; greedy and austere; courageous and timid; subversive and complacent; scorchingly honest and sublimely mendacious; an inspired consoler and an existential pessimist - these are the qualities of the artist and the woman.  It is time to rediscover them."

Colette is not PC - she despised feminism and the suffragists - and we can only imagine what she would have said about twenty-first century cancel culture.  I believe her emphasis on the personal life brings us back to our own feminine longings.   I am a feminist, but haven't we forgotten that personal experiences are as important as careers? 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A Twentieth-Century Classic: Elizabeth Bowen's "Friends and Relations"


 One of my favorite reads this fall is Elizabeth Bowen's Friends and Relations, a twentieth-century masterpiece, and for that reason I was reluctant to "review" it.  I felt I should reread all her books and a biography or two before I put pen to paper.  But  my job as a blogger is to appreciate or grumble without unnecessary research, thank goodness.

The book begins with a wedding, and what better way to start? Laurel Studdart, the bride, is radiant, while her younger sister, Janet, hovers on the edges of the reception. The groom, Edward Tilney, is little more than a woman's accessory, but his flamboyant mother, Lady Elfrida, complains about his choice of bride.  She prefers Janet, who is also in love with Edward, she claims.  

And it seems possible:  shortly thereafter Janet gets engaged to Rodney Meggatt, the nephew and heir of Considine Meggatt, who was Lady Elfrida's correspondent in a divorce case. The news  causes an uproar.  Lady Elfrida doesn't care, but Laurel does not want Edward to be unhappy.  Edward, a spoiled child-like man consumed with hatred of Considine, condescends to allow the marriage, on the grounds that Considine is never present when they visit the Meggatts at their great house, Batts. 


Bowen's style is subtle and her dialogue so witty and precise that she accomplishes more in 158 pages than others do in twice that.  Every brief sentence provides stunning details. Bowen's formidable portrait of the sisters, so strongly attached yet so temperamentally different, reveals the skeleton of the relationship.  Laurel is conventional, none too brainy, and absorbed in her marriage and children, while Janet is concerned with "home economics," making gooseberry fool and gardening rather than showering affection on her daughter and husband. Rodney is refreshingly balanced, but doesn't every family have a spoiled child-man like Edward, who makes silly ultimatums based on his likes and dislikes?

And then there are the "bad" friends of the family, the ones who are jealous of the sisters.  Evil fairies at the weddings?

All in 158 pitch-perfective pages, beautifully done. I admire it immensely. You will want to read it again.

Nobody Bought My Viragos! And a Look at "The Caravaners" by Elizabeth von Arnim


The Book Sale

We went to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale on Half-Price Day. Surely we would find one or two books, we thought. And yet... we did not.  If your book club wants to discuss Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Sue Monk Kidd's The Mermaid Chair,  this is the place to get multiple copies.  You read them years ago? I thought so.  Too bad they did not have Sue Monk Kidd's latest, The Book of Longings. a fascinating historical novel about a rebellious Jewish woman who is a writer and a scholar during the first century A.D., in the reign of Tiberius.

One happy note:  I found at least 10 Viragos, all of which I have read.  Oh, how wonderful, I thought.  Someone will love these.   Then I realized they were my books.  I HAD  DONATED THEM.  I hastily arranged them attractively at the front of the table, so somebody might find them.    

The volunteers ran hither and thither, but did not stop to neaten the books.  As a result, by this fourth day of the sale, there were leaning hardcovers with cocked spines and paperbacks with bent covers.  Old book club editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald and W. Somerset Maugham dominated the classics section.  I did see  some very nice annotated University of Nebraska editions of Willa Cather, but we have annotated Library of Americas of Willa at home. 

When the only book you consider is a 25-cent first edition  of Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine, you know it's time to go home.  Valley of the Dolls is one thing.  I suspect The Love Machine is going too far. 

SPEAKING OF VIRAGOS.  You may have read Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April, a delightful novel about a group of women who share a house on vacation in Italy.  But have you read The Caravaners,  Elizabeth von Arnim's charming feminist novel about a vacation in England?

Here is a short precis of this delicious book.  A  German couple decide to take a caravanning vacation in England with a small group. Cheapness is the operative motive of the pompous narrator, Baron Otto von Ottringe, a Prussian officer who keeps his wife Edelgard on a tight rein.  Although the travelers have their own horse-drawn caravans, the weather is wet and dispiriting: it rains every day and  is  muddy.  Instead of sitting inside the caravan in relative luxury, the Baron must trudge through the mud beside the horse. He also finds himself holding umbrellas over the cooking pots and washing up.  And he does not at all like the English. 

 Meanwhile, Edelgard blossoms.  She loves walking through woods and fields, despite the rain, and is stimulated by the  conversation of her progressive Anglicized German sister, Mrs. Menzies-Leigh, and Jellaby, a socialist.  Edelgard shortens her dresses so she can move more freely.  The freer she becomes, the more the Baron sulks. 

A light, lovely, humorous book, my favorite by von Arnim.  I have an old Virago edition, but  Handheld Press has also reissued an edition with an introduction by Juliane Römhild.   

What is your favorite book by von Arnim?  I have read quite a few of her books, but more and more keep being reissued by small presses.  

Friday, October 8, 2021

The Planned Parenthood Book Sale Goes Modern


The Planned Parenthood Book Sale, Oct. 7-11, 2021

 Founded in 1961 and located at the 4-H building on the Iowa State Fairgrounds, Oct. 7-11, The Planned Parenthood Book Sale is a gathering for collectors and common readers, who squeeze between church supper-style tables to compete with book scouts for obscure Mrs. Oliphants and omnibus editions of Bess Streeter Aldrich.  

We were nostalgic for the sale when it was canceled last year. But, honestly, the appeal of the sale has faded in recent years.  The emphasis has shifted from the sale of old books to newish best-sellers.  As early as 2011, my book group was reminiscing about the Days When the Sale Was Still Great.  

This year I didn't feel like being disappointed, so  I sent my husband with a list of books.  He found none.  "No John Dryden? No Quincunx?" And he says there is no longer a section for early-twentieth-century books.  I am dumbfounded.

He brought me gifts,  a Penguin of Wilkie Collins's Armadale and a Dover edition of Trollope's Miss Mackenzie.  Brilliant books.  I already have them.

So you see my dilemma.  At this point, I'd rather write a check to Planned Parenthood than do pity buys.  Most people seem to prefer newer books, and you can always find something light.

My New Favorite Book: J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "The Rose and the Key"


For years I thought I was the only fan of the Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu, who is best-known  for his ghost stories and Gothic novels.  As an adolescent I discovered his masterpiece, Uncle Silas, and decades later I enjoy it just as much.  But until I got Wifi, I never met anyone who had heard of Le Fanu. Most of his books are out-of-print in the U.S.

Having raved about Uncle Silas, you will hardly be surprised to learn that my new favorite book is Le Fanu's little-read The Rose and the Key. Mind you, I do not claim it is a great novel.  Parts are brilliant, parts are draggy and dull. And yet I loved it from the beginning, with its ornate description of "a summer sunset, over a broad heath." Maud, the impulsive heroine, and her good-humored elderly cousin, Miss Max, are enjoying a sketching tour.

 But Le Fanu is an expert on withholding information. He teases us with the question of Maud's identity.  Early on he asks whether the shabbily dressed Maud might be a governess or an artist.  Maud idly wonders aloud if she could earn a living by sketches and water colors.  Miss Max is wildly indulgent and laughs at Maud's whimsy. 

Nothing is as it seems, and the idyll is interrupted.  They are shadowed by a stalker, an "odious, ill-looking" old man who follows them from inn to inn.  Miss Max angrily confronts him on the heath, but they cannot stop him.  And a romantic young gentleman, Charles Marston, pursues Maud after falling in love with her at first sight.  She chides him and challenges him with the information that she is poor and must earn her living.  Miss Max thinks Maud is much too hard on him.

Le Fanu has postponed telling the truth about Maud's identity.  He is a tease.  We soon learn that she is not poor.  She is the daughter of the fabulously wealthy Lady Vernon, a cold, pale woman who hates her beautiful daughter.  This is a mother-daughter relationship we seldom see in 19th-century novels.  (But tell me if you think of others.)

There are many twists and turns - you are in suspense till the very end, because Le Fanu withholds information and we are misled as to motives.


This is one of several 19th-century novels, among them The Woman in White, in which  a sane woman is committed to a lunatic asylum.  There are some terrifying scenes.

Since I read two eerie 19th-century novels with this trope almost back-to-back, I wonder how many other such novels I've missed out there.

Let me know if any come to mind.