This rather charming painting, by the French artist Pierre Edouard Frere (1819-1886) is actually called 'At Her Lessons'. It's one of series of so-called cottage paintings which, though Wikipedia calls them sentimental, are very evocative of life in the French countryside in the mid-19th century. In fact I like them so much that I'm going to show you another one right now.
Many years -- even decades -- ago I was co-opted into the study of 'women's writing'. At first a little dubious, I soon became a fully paid up member, both in my working life (teaching, writing) and in my private reading. I never wholly abandoned books written by men, but by far the majority of my reading was of female-authored books. Initially I lurked in the Victorian period, then, largely owing to the influence of blogging friends, I started reading the wonderful Persephone-style reprints of mid-20th century women novelists, and that's where I've stayed for a few years now.
But suddenly my focus has shifted again, and now for the first time for many years I find myself wholly absorbed in the writings of people we learned to call Dead White [European] Males. As you will know if you've been on here much lately, I'm passionately involved with Trollope at the moment -- have also recently had a long fling with William Boyd (though of course he isn't dead, thank goodness). And, on my recent holiday in Sicily, I betook myself to Kindle on my iPad and while I was there I read The Aspern Papers. It didn't take very long to read, as it is what people call a novella (horrid term, in my opinion, but it does describe what it is, I suppose).
I knew all about this book, and thought in fact that I must have read it, but no, I had not, though it's always been of great interest to me. The reason I knew about it was that, though cunningly concealed in a fictional disguise, it is clearly based on known facts about the life of Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley's step sister and Shelley's supposed mistress. I've always had a huge soft spot for Claire, as I said in my review of A Treacherous Likeness earlier this year, and clearly parts of that novel were influenced by this one by Henry James. Claire, who never married, had an affair with Byron and gave birth to his daughter, who died tragically at the age of five. But the love of her life has generally been supposed to be Shelley, and she lived in a rather curious household with him and her sister (to whom he was married) for a number of years. The rest of her life was spent mostly abroad, working as a governess or companion to various illustrious families. Her last years were spent in Florence, with her niece.
So much for the bare facts. Now, in this novel, Henry James creates a woman called Juliana Bordereau, who is clearly based in many ways on Claire. Ancient and reclusive, she lives in a crumbling palazzo in Venice (and how we do love those crumbling palazzos!). Her only companion is her niece, the shy middle-aged Miss Tina. But she is rumoured to have in her possession a collection of letters written to her by the long-dead and hugely famous poet Jeffrey Aspern. As the novel begins, the narrator, a scholar and admirer of the poet, arrives in Venice with the intention of winning Miss Bordereau's confidence and somehow acquiring the letters. He manages to persuade her to rent him a room, at an exorbitant price, and to befriend the timid Miss Tina, and at one point it seems possible that he will get his hands on the letters. But things go badly wrong, and his desire is eventually thwarted.
The plot is certainly interesting, but for me the real strength of this was the characters. There's the ancient, unpredictable Juliana Bordereau, of course, who always wears a large green eye-shade in public, said to be to conceal the terrifying beauty of her eyes -- something the narrator finally gets a chance to verify for himself. Then there's the narrator, who is never named. He is dishonest and self-deceived, constantly trying to convince himself that his duplicitous behaviour is excusable in the light of his search for such valuable historical material. And then there's Miss Tina, at first so timid as to be hardly noticeable, who finally comes to hold the balance of power in the situation. She really comes into her own almost at the end, and though at first it seems necessary to feel sorry for her, her last action shows great bravery and she ends up as the real heroine of the story.
Henry James has the reputation of being a tough read, and so indeed he can be -- I was defeated last year by The Golden Bowl. But this story is highly readable, and highly recommended. I downloaded it for free from Project Gutenberg , and so could, and should, you. What are you waiting for?
I simply cannot get enough of Anthony Trollope. Dr Thorne, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, has been closely followed by Framley Parsonage, and now I am reading, or in fact re-reading, Barchester Towers. These are all, of course, novels in Trollope's six-novel set known as The Chronicles of Barsetshire, and I have no intention of stopping till I have read, or re-read, them all.
One of the many many great joys of the novels is that characters you have met elsewhere pop up again, often in quite minor roles. Here, for example, we encounter again Dr Thorne, Frank and Mary Gresham, and Miss Dunstable, all from Dr Thorne, and the Proudies and the Grantleys, who figure in the earlier novels. But then we are introduced to new people too, and here we have a country vicar, Mark Robarts, his wife Fanny and his sister Lucy. Mark's living has been conferred on him by Lady Lufton, whose son Ludovic has been Mark's friend since childhood. In fact Mark has been more or less brought up with Ludovic, although his social standing and financial resources are markedly lower than those of his friend. This is, indeed, an important contributory factor to the troubles that Mark encounters during the course of the novel. Although by no means a bad man -- he is a loving husband, father and brother and seemingly (though we don't see much of this) a perfectly adequate vicar -- Mark has acquired a taste for high living which is to lead him into trouble soon after the novel begins. Not only does he enjoy hunting, and owns several fine horses, but he accepts an invitation to stay at the grand country house of an MP, Nathaniel Sowerby, although he knows that Sowerby is a compulsive gambler and has earlier had some unfortunate and dishonest dealings with Ludovic. The whole thing backfires terribly, as Mark kindheartedly agrees to sign a bill for Sowerby and soon finds himself up to his ears in debt with the bailiffs at the door.
But this is only one of several interwoven strands of the plot. The other primary one concerns Lucy Robarts, Mark's sister. Quiet and shy, but with a sharp intelligence, she draws the attention of Ludovic and soon they fall in love. But Lady Lufton is completely opposed to the match, having much grander ideas about who her son should marry. She cannot imagine Lucy becoming the next Lady Lufton, and does everything she can to prevent it, and Lucy refuses to consider accepting Ludovic unless she is asked to do so by his mother.
Naturally enough all this sorts itself out in the end. But I found these, and the other sub plots, totally absorbing, and was more than delighted to encounter again the wonderful millionairess Martha Dunstable, a plain-spoken, witty, and wholly sincere woman who is constantly being proposed to because of her money. She vows she will never marry until she finds someone who is completely indifferent to it, and that seems to be an impossibility. But happily just the right person does come along in the end...
Although this was the fourth of the Barsetshire novels it was apparently the one which really set Trollope on the road to fame and success. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote of the book that “I wish Trollope would go on writing Framley Parsonage for ever. I don’t see any reason why it should come to and end”, and I can see what she meant. Yes these are ordinary people in ordinary situations, but Trollope writes so wonderfully, so wittily, so satirically, so compassionately, that you just can't help being swept up in the whole story of their ups and downs, their pleasure and their pains.
I'm slightly dreading coming to the end of Barchester series, as I've tried a couple of the Palliser novels and one or two of the standalone ones and not taken to any of them as much as I have to these ones. But maybe something will turn up? Anyway I still have a couple of these still to go.
This weekly spot - or as near weekly as I can manage - started life as a way of showing nice pictures of women reading or writing, and I still try to stick to that most of the time. But sometimes I find paintings that I just love and so they get in there too. And I was very taken with this one, called Flower Arranging, by the German artist Albert von Keller (1845-1920). I think it's charming and oh how I wish we could go around in dresses like that nowadays.
And by the way, I have been very absent from here for ages -- work and then a lovely holiday being to blame -- but hope to be back with a few overdue reviews soon.
"Poor girl," he whispered. His face looked strange, as if for a long time she had not seen it, the deep eye sockets spaced wide, the strong spring of the nose, the lean cheeks with lines past the corners of the wide, mobile lips. Quite suddenly it changed, and she knew it in her fingertips, the feel of the forehead, fine skin over hard rounded skull, up to the v's in which dark hair grew over the temples. Geoffrey. Hand still shut in his, she moved slowly in the file past the casket. She felt his grasp quicken: he knew about death, its anger and its fear.
There's nothing more exciting for readers like me than discovering a new and wonderful author. And Helen Hull is one such, at least if this novel is anything to go by. Published in 1932, this is a novel about love, about marriage, about parenting, about families -- but it's also about the melting pot of America, about social class, about morality and about belief. Quite a lot to encompass in a mere 327 pages, but Helen Hull does it with the utmost subtlety and skill.
This is the story of Amy Norton who, at the start of the novel, has arrived in the small mid-western town where she grew up. It is high summer, and Amy has left her home in New York City and her troubled marriage to pay a visit to her parents. But though Amy has been hoping for a period of peace and quiet to help her get her thoughts straight, she finds herself instead plunged into the midst of various serious family dramas. A reprobate cousin has made the maid pregant, another is having problems with her lesbian partner, an uncle is in severe financial difficulties, and an unexpected death flings the whole family into panic and overdrive.
Contemplating the problems of her own marriage, Amy looks hard at those of her relatives, finding numerous points of comparison -- what works, what doesn't, and why. A cousin has married a girl of German extraction, from a lower social class than his own, and the family looks down on her and her mother -- but the marriage works, and Amy can't help but admire the girl for her open enjoyment of her sexuality. Amy's brother has a French wife, whose alien status enables her to look on the family dramas with a clear and philosophical eye. In fact overall it seems to be the new Americans who are doing better than the old families -- Amy's uncle's financial disasters seem to be due to his wife's insistence in living way above their means.In the midst of all this, Amy's parents at least offer a safe haven of sorts. Her mother, in particular, has a quiet wisdom which, towards the end of the novel, she puts into words. Her two principles are, first, 'acting so I don't feel ashamed of myself, so I feel comfortable with myself', and second is 'People. Loving them. Not a general, vague love for everybody. But for your special ones'.
So as the week goes by, Amy comes to an important realisation:
If she could have patience, could watch these shifting scenes with sympathy enough, out of them would come the wisdom she needed. It would, far more potent than any Aristotelian tragedy, constitute a personal catharsis, a purging of herself of blindness and other faults of vision -- distortion, perhaps.
This passage is really the key to what goes on in this excellent novel. While her world seems to be deteriorating into chaos around her, Amy slowly comes to form her own code. Though conscious of how much she is hampered by her lack of any kind of religious belief, she practices a severe form of self examination, and gradually her thoughts and feelings become more settled and clear. Nowhere is this more evident than in the remarkable episode in which she finally learns what her absent husband has been doing, and is forced to confront the reality of her deepest fears. Rather than causing a split between the couple, or leading to bitterness and defeat, the revelation brings her to a deeper understanding of Geoffrey's feelings and a rigorous comparison with her own, which she sees to be not as different as she first believed.
In her excellent review of the novel earlier this year, Rachel of Book Snob calls Helen Hull an American Dorothy Whipple. And yes, there's certainly some truth in that -- the domestic setting, the examination of unspoken thoughts and feelings. But think I'd rather call her an American Elizabeth Bowen, whose superb To the North was published in the same year as Heat Lightening. Bowen is notoriously challenging to read for the intensity of her prose and the subtlety of her observations of women's lives, and Hull seems to me to fall into that category. I am so glad I read this great novel and look forward to discovering more of Helen Hull in the future.