Saturday, 29 December 2012

My Favourite 12 of 2012

Looking back over my list of Books Read in 2012 I am surprised by how much difficulty I seem to have had in recording my thoughts for the books I enjoyed the most.  Of the twelve books on my favourite of 2012 list, I was only able to put thoughts to paper (or screen, as the case may be) for five of those.  My books choices this year were completely delight-driven and in no way reflected any sort of reading scheme.  As a result I discovered a great many new to me authors who have impressed and thrilled me.  Other than Elizabeth Gaskell and Margaret Laurence the authors on this list are all new to me, and I will be searching out their other titles for future enjoyment.

Here then, are my Favourite Books of 2012, in the order in which they were read:

1. The Diviners by Margaret Laurence

Having only ever read one of Margaret Laurence's Manawanka series (The Stone Angel), I decided I needed to get with the game. I loved the character of Morag Gunn - her resilience and tenacity.  I loved the breadth and scope of the work as Morag changes and matures.  I am now a devoted Margaret Laurence fangirl.

2. A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence

 The character of Rachel and her internal dialogue are the two aspects of this story that really resonated with me.  Every summer on our drive to the cottage I stop at Margaret Laurence's home - now a museum - in Neepawa, Manitoba (the town upon which Manawanka is based).  It has never been open, but I always stop and admire the building.  When I read A Jest of God, I felt that the setting was very real to me, as that was Rachel's home in the novel.

Read it.  It is brilliant.

3. The Fire-Dwellers by Margaret Laurence

After getting to know Rachel and Mrs. Cameron, I was fascinated to get to know Stacey, Rachel's sister who lives with her husband and children on Canada's west coast.  Stacey is mentionned in Margaret Laurence's other Manawanka books, but her life is not exactly as it appears in her letters home.  Breaking free from her stifling role as a housewife in 1960s Vancouver is just one of the manifestations of the themes of liberation in this fabulous novel.

4. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Blockbuster bestseller titles are normally very far down my list of books I feel compelled to read, but I was hearing such contradictory reports of this one, and the favourable reviews from trusted reading friends tipped the balance.  Although the trilogy really is three parts of one story and should be read together to see the author's message fully realised, the first book was definitely stronger and more enjoyable reading than the two sequels.

 5. Atonement by Ian McEwan

A new favourite author?  I believe so.  Atypically, I had already seen the movie based on Atonement when I read the book.  I try to avoid this situation as often as possible.  I also try to avoid Keira Knightly as often as possible, so I'm not sure what I was thinking.  I did love the movie, and I loved the book even more. I am still at a loss to explain why or how I loved it, but it may have been my favourite new book and author of the year.

6. Wheels Within Wheels by Dervla Murphy

This is the first of Dervla Murphy's books I have ever read, and it was a wonderful introduction to a fascinating woman.  I loved reading about her interest in self-education after she could no longer attend school, and the stark honesty with which she relates both the flattering and not-so-flattering aspects of her life.

7. Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

My introduction to Molly Keane.  Written in the first person, Aroon St. Charles tells her life story as a member of the Irish Ascendancy within a family as disfunctional as any to be found in literature.  Under the veneer of good behaviour all manner of nastiness and neglect occur - the very best sort of dark comedy.  Although I never grew to love Aroon (I'm not sure we are meant to), I did understand her much better by the end of the story.


8. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

A short novel with a small cast of characters in a limited time and space, this novel introduced me to a new favourite that I will be revisiting again and again.  Written while the First World War was ongoing, and published in 1918, The Return of the Soldier is a captivating study on the nature of class, memory, adult responsibility, love and loss.  There is so much packed in to this tiny book.  I literally turned back to the first page when I finished it and read it all over again straight away - twice!

9. Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

I spent some time in Enniscorthy, co. Wexford, in Ireland many years ago, where I have relatives who took me in and fed me after I had been backpacking around Ireland for a couple of months.  It is a place dear to my heart.  But while the setting drew me to the story, it was Tóibín's calm and gentle story of a young Irish girl's acceptance of the path her life was taking that made me love it for itself.  The descriptions of homesickness are the most realistic and poignant I have ever read.

10. The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

This brilliant little book was such a pleasure to read.  I went into it with no expectations and no notion what it would be about.  The characterisation was so strong that Freda and Brenda are still clearly delineated in my mind.  Bainbridge's power over her craft is something awesome to behold. I am adding Beryl Bainbridge to my list of Must Read Authors.

11. City of the Mind by Penelope Lively  Matthew Halland, a successful architect, lives in London and is going through the final stages of a divorce.  He is a man who lives in his mind most of the time, so although not much happens in the way of a plot, this novel is rich and rewarding to read.  I especially enjoyed the way Penelope Lively plays with the themes of time, and the investing and divesting of objects with meaning that happens constantly in the lives of the characters.  City of the Mind was not the easiest read of the year, but it was a lot of fun to read.

12. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
(Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four)

As often as I have read North and South, I feel I could never reach the end of learning from this book.  I know that many readers find Margaret Hale a difficult heroine to like.  I do not.  I admire the grace with which Margaret makes a very difficult transition from girlhood to womanhood; I envy her ability to soldier on when all the adults in her life flake out on her; I identify with her family circumstances; I love how she learns how to open her mind and her heart to ideas and people who were previously abhorent to her.  Like all the best characters, Margaret teaches me how to be a better person.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Janette Turner Hospital

Janette Turner Hospital

"Here and Now"

As it happened, Alison was wearing black when the phone call came; black velvet, cut low in front with a thin silver chain at her throat.
Thus begins an evocative little sketch of Alison as she receives news from her home in Australia.  Surrounded by ice and snow in Canada, the coldness of the weather is contrasted with the warmth of the celebration she attends for a retiring professor.  But whilst the champagne corks are popping all around her in the joyous environment of the Faculty Club, Alison denies the reality of the news she has just received.  She can trick herself into believing that it hasn't happened yet because of course Brisbane time is in the future for her in Canada.  This denial helps her to get through a speech and some small talk, until she encounters Walter, a type of  "Ancient Mariner" who stops her from leaving and shares his story of woe.  When grief collides with grief the lid is blown from her denial, just as the sewer lids are popping in the streets of Toronto (a puzzling image).

Knowing that Janette Turner Hospital lived in Kingston, Ontario at the same time I did, and imagining this story set at the Queen's University Faculty Club (which does indeed overlook the water) I felt an immediate connection to the setting of this story.  The icy windshield, getting the car out of the driveway before the snow plough comes past, and the slippery parking lot are just a few of the pitch perfect details that contribute to the verisimilitude of a winter in Canada for Alison, the Australian.  In this very short story, just four pages long, Janette Turner Hospital has evoked a shock so disorienting as to unhinge Alison in time and space. Her body and her mind are separate as she returns in her shock to the land of her childhood, and looking out the car window she sees not Lake Ontario, but the Brisbane River.

A Quote:

At the Faculty Club, Alison's car slewed a little on the ice, nudged a parked Toyota, hesitated, then slid obediently into the neighbouring space.  She sat trembling slightly, her hands on the wheel, the engine still running, and stared through the windshield at the Brisbane River.  Here, on the lip of the campus, a membrane of ice already stretched across the water for as far as she could see.  The membrane was thinner than a fingernail, milky white.
Janette Turner Hospital's writing:

The Ivory Swing (1982)
The Tiger in the Tiger Pit (1983)
Borderline (1985)
Dislocations (1986) short fiction
Charades (1988)
Isobars (1990) short fiction
A Very Proper Death (1990) crime thriller, under the name Alex Juniper
The Last Magician (1992)
Collected Stories (1995) short fiction
L'Envolee (1995) novella in French
Oyster (1996)
Due Preparations for the Plague (2003)
North of Nowhere, South of Loss (2003) short fiction
Orpheus Lost (2007)

Monday, 24 December 2012

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

Vanka Zhukov, a boy of nine, who had been for three months apprenticed to Alyahin the shoemaker, was sitting up on Christmas Eve.  Waiting till his master and mistress and the workmen had gone to the midnight service, he took out of his master's cupboard a bottle of ink and a pen with a rusty nib, and spreading out a crumpled sheet of paper in front of him, began writing.
Waiting to go to Christmas Eve church service I had just enough time to read the next story in my anthology.  The synchronicity tickled my fancy.  So did the story.

The pathos of little Vanka, a young boy without parental support or friends calls out for aid in a letter to his grandfather.  Vanka is another incarnation of Andersen's "The Little Match Girl".  In his desperation, Vanka calls up the image of his grandfather, a jovial prankster as he gives snuff to ladies and dogs just to laugh at their reactions. The pathetic is piled onto the pathetic; poor Vanka would run away from his horrible situation but he has no boots.  He is suffering the onset of Nature Deficit Disorder in his urban environment.  He pleads with his grandfather to rescue him from his wretched life.

But, unlike the match girl, there is no kindly grandparent who comes to the rescue (even as an envoy from heaven).  The ending of the story assures us that nothing will change for Vanka; his hopelessly mis-addressed, unstamped letter is the last element of pathos that rescues the story from sentimentality, but we know that it can never reach its intended recipient. However, the paradox is that the undeliverable letter has, in a certain sense, been delivered.  For we, the readers are made aware of Vanka's plight, but are as unable to rescue him as his unnotified grandfather.

Anton Chekhov's Plays:

The Seagull (1896) - a comedy in four acts
Uncle Vanya (1899-1900) - a drama in four acts
Three Sisters (1901) - a drama in four acts
The Cherry Orchard (1904) - a comedy in four acts

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Carol Shields

Carol Shields

"The Orange Fish" (from The Orange Fish)

The narrator of this story is a 39-year old man, unhappy in life and marriage, and suffering from an ulcer.  He and his wife are transformed when they purchase a lithograph of an orange fish and hang it in their kitchen.  But of course, this story is not really about a man and a woman and a fish lithograph.  Carol Shields makes some big statements about consumerism, youth worship and the fear of aging, and the healing power of creativity.  If we allow art in all its forms into our lives, it will reveal truth and its potency will transform us.  The irony of the story also reflects another truth: when we try to capture and replicate the originality and power inherent in original expression, it is diluted and becomes meaningless.

Carol Shields strikes a chord.  She is able to take a simple act (the purchase of a piece of art for a bare wall) and make it a profound, life-altering act without reducing it to sentimentality or the ridiculous.  Rarely has a work of short fiction felt so much like a door into an entire world that is fully realised in a few short pages.
Writings by Carol Shields:

Small Ceremonies (1976)
The Box Garden (1977)
Happenstance (1980)
A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982)
Various Miracles (short fiction, 1985)
Swann: A Mystery (1987)
The Orange Fish (short fiction, 1989)
The Republic of Love (1992)
The Stone Diaries (1993)
Larry's Party (1997)
Unless (2002)

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Ethel Wilson

Ethel Wilson

"We Have to Sit Opposite"

Two married Canadian women travelling from Salzburg to Munich are forced to share a train carriage with another family.  The rudeness of their carriage-mates, as well as the arrogance and aurhoritarian manner of the man brings out the worst in the women, and they retaliate in a creatively deceptive , and uncharacteristic manner.
Her eyes were tightly closed, but her mind was greatly disturbed.  Why had they permitted themselves to be baited?  She pondered on the collective mentality that occupied the seat near to them (knees almost touching) and its results which now filled the atmosphere of the carriage so unpleasantly.  She had met this mentality before, but had not been closely confined with it, as now.  What of a world in which this mentality might ever become dominant?  Then one would be confined with it without appeal or relief.  The thought was shocking. 
 The Ethel Wilson Prize is awarded to the best work of fiction by a resident of British Columbia, and is named in honour of this author.  I enjoy her style of writing, her evocation of place, and character with few well-chosen words.  I look forward to exploring her longer fiction.

Writing by Ethel Wilson included in the New Canadian Library:

Hetty Dorval (1947)
The Innocent Traveller (1949)
The Equations of Love (two novellas, 1952)
Swamp Angel (1954)
Love and Salt Water (1956)
Mrs. Golightly and Other Stories (short fiction, 1961)

Friday, 21 December 2012

O. Henry

"The Furnished Room"

A young man searching five months for his lost love in the city rents a furnished room from a landlady.  There is very little characterisation of either the unnamed young man or the woman for whom he searches.  O. Henry withholds crucial information from the young man, and from the reader, which makes this story seem like a bit of a trick, rather than just a surprise ending.  I did enjoy his powers of description as the young man searches the room.  O. Henry is able to create a quite believable setting through his use of careful observation and evoking all the senses.

Here's a quote:
No.  Always no.  Five months of ceaseless interrogation and the inevitable negative.  So much time spent by day in questioning managers, agents, schools, and choruses; by night among the audiences of the theaters, from all-star casts down to music halls so low that he dreaded to find what he most hoped for.  He who had loved her best had tried to find her.  He was sure that since her disappearance from home this great water-girt city held her somewhere, but it was like a monstrous quicksand, shifting its particles constantly, with no foundation, its upper granules of today buried tomorrow in ooze and slime.

"The Ransom of Red Chief"

I read this humorous short story to my daughter (age 10) who hooted with laughter at all the right places.  Written in the first person by a hapless entrepreneur who, along with his beleaguered partner decide to make some money by kidnapping the son of a wealthy man.  What they hadn't counted on was the character of the boy they were dealing with.  One of my favourite aspects of this story for me is the attempt at literary, or elevated language used by the kidnapper who very often, but not always, misses the mark with his malapropisms.

Here's a bit of the story:
Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred dollars, and we needed just two thousand dollars more to pull off a land scheme in western Illinois.  We talked it over on the front steps of the hotel.  Philoprogenitiveness, says we, is strong in semi-rural communities; therefore, and for other reasons, a kidnapping project ought to do better there than in the radius of newspapers that send reporters out in plain clothes to stir up talk about such things.  We knew that Summit couldn't get after us with anything stronger than constables and, maybe, some lackadaisical bloodhounds and a diatribe or two in the Weekly Farmers' Budget.  So it looked good.

L. M. Montgomery

Lucy Maud |Montgomery
"The Quarantine at Alexander Abraham's"

I found this story in my copy of The Oxford Book of Stories by Canadian Women in English, but it was originally published in Chronicles of Avonlea (which is available online here).  A stand-alone story, it is only loosely tied to the other stories in the collection through setting, and minor characters.  Those familiar with the "Anne" books will recognise the names of the Reverend Mr. Allan and his wife, and Dr. Blair from Carmody who play minor roles, along with a mention of Anne Shirley herself.

"The Quarantine at Alexander Abraham's" is the story of Miss MacPherson, a cantankerous unmarried lady, and lover of cats who is thrown together with Mr. Alexander Abraham, a cantankerous bachelor, and lover of dogs.  Miss MacPherson tells the story just as though she were relating the experience to a friend, with a strong and distinct narrative voice.  The story is well paced and humorous, slightly farcical, slightly sentimental, but wholly enjoyable.

The first paragraph:
I refused to take that class in Sunday School the first time I was asked.  It was not that I objected to teaching in the Sunday School.  On the contrary, I rather liked the idea; but it was the Rev. Mr. Allan who asked me, and it had always been a matter of principle with me never to do anything a man asked me to do if I could help it.  I was noted for that.  It saves a great deal of trouble and it simplifies everything beautifully.  I had always disliked men.  It must have been born in me, because as far back as I can remember, an antipathy to men and dogs was one of my strongest characteristics.  I was noted for that.  My experiences through life only served to deepen it.  The more I saw of men, the more I liked cats.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

James Thurber

James Thurber
 "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Now why does this title sound so familiar?  I have never read this story before - or anything by Thurber, for that matter, but the name is one I have heard before.  A quick search led me to the movie made of this little short story starring Danny Kaye (which Thurber apparently hated).  Even more surprisingly, apparently a remake is currently in post-production starring Ben Stiller and Sean Penn.

Walter Mitty, a beleaguered husband drives his wife in to town to run some errands.  The drama in the story is limited to a very dull afternoon in which Walter Mitty drops his wife off at the salon, parks the car, attends to some purchases and meets up with  her after her hair appointment.  On their walk back to the car they stop off at a drug store for another purchase.  That's it!  I haven't given anything away here; the actual action is only the backdrop on which the real story occurs.  Emasculated by his nit-picking wife, his social awkwardness and his absentmindedness, Walter Mitty creates for himself an adventurous, heroic (and very masculine) inner fantasy life.  His daydreams and his reality intersect and we are given a glimpse into this "secret life." This story reminds me of nothing so much as Calvin and his alter-ego Spaceman Spiff, and makes me laugh in the same way.  I wonder if Bill Waterson was influenced by Thurber?

A wonderful story, tightly packed, and short with perfectly timed flow and humour.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this little gem.  I liked it so much that I will avoid the movies!

James Thurber created cartoons for The New Yorker.

Catharine Parr Traill

An immigrant to Canada, Catharine Parr Traill and her husband settled near what is now Lakefield, Ontario in 1832.  She wrote many stories and sketches of life in the bush for both British and Canadian publications and is most weel known for her book The Backwoods of Canada.

This sketch begins on a beautiful day of spring melt - a new beginning as old winter is casting off his coat of snow.  This is a transitory period of waiting for the ground is too soggy to make venturing out an easy venture, and the author is still recovering her health from a winter cold.  We are on the cusp of a new life, and the re-awakening of the sleeping world when into this hopeful picture comes news of the seriously ill neighbouring baby.

The harsh realities of life for the early settlers of Upper Canada is captured in this documentary narrative style vignette by Catherine Parr Traill of the death of an infant.  Far from medical help, a young mother, the wife of the manager of the nearby sawmill, sends for her neighbour to help her with her ill baby who is just 8 weeks old.  By the time she arrives the author sees that there is little hope for survival and remains so the mother can have some much-needed rest from her vigil.  But, as was so common in that age and place, the baby dies the following day.

Catharine Parr Traill's writing reveals a Christianity with a stark division between man and nature. As she stands in the doorway (which she does twice in this short narrative), she looks out on the "beauty and magnificence" of a Garden of Eden, whilst behind her in the house lay the effects of original sin - "human suffering and human woe."  She (and all humans) are trapped, like prisoners, in the human condition.  It is the lessons from nature, she instructs us, that show us how to be filled with gratitude, even at such a time.  Learning to read God's bounty in nature is an extension for Catharine Parr Traill of the lessons learned by reading the Bible.  It is not surprising that she is almost as well know for her botanical studies of Canadian flora as for her sketches of life in the bush.

Favourite quote:
'Tis a sweet quiet spot, that burial ground in the woods.  A few rudely sculptured stones - a heap piled here and there - a simple cross of wood, or a sapling tree planted by some pious hand, are the only memorials, to point out where rest the poor emigrant or his children.  But the pines sigh above them a solemn requiem, the wild birds of the forest sing their lullaby, and the pure white lily of the woods and the blue violet, grow as freely on their green mossy graves, as though they slept within the holy shadow of the sanctuary.  Their resting place is indeed hallowed, by the tears and humble prayers of their mournful relations.
Related Books:

Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters From the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America (1836)
Canadian Wild Flowers (1868)
Studies of Plant Life in Canada; or, Gleanings from Forest, Lake and Plain (1885)
Forest and Other Gleanings: The Fugitive Writings of Catharine Parr Traill (1994)

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Stephen Leacock

I have decided that from now until the new year, I am going to devote myself to reading short fiction.  I have several anthologies that sit and sit, and I never seem to pick them up.  Well, now is the time, and what better place to start than with Stephen Leacock!

Stephen Leacock

Have you watched this lately: My Financial Career?  I remember that every year when I was a girl we would set up a projector and play rented NFB shorts all day in the darkened choir room whilst the parents were busy with the baked goods, the chicken barbecue and the used clothing tables at the church bazaar.  I have such good memories of The Log Driver's Waltz and The Blackfly Song and of course, the wonderful Paddle to the Sea, and of demanding, "Let's watch it again!"  Now there is a walk down Memory Lane!

But back to Stephen Leacock.  I went through a long Leacock phase when I was a teenager but have not read anything of his since.  I get the impression that his style of humour has fallen somewhat out of favour, but based on these two stories today, and watching the video of My Financial Career (which is the entire text of the short story), I'm still as keen on his writing as I was back in the day. 

"We Have With Us Tonight"
(from My Discovery of England)

After a lecture tour of England, Stephen Leacock wrote about his experiences in My Discovery of England.  "We Have With Us Tonight" deals with various introductions he was given to his audience by chairmen not always as tactful as one would hope.  Here is a sample:
A still more terrible type of chairman is one whose mind is evidently preoccupied and disturbed with some local happening and who comes to the platform with a face imprinted with distress.  Before introducing the lecturer, he refers in moving tones to the local sorrow, whatever it is.  As a prelude to a humorous lecture this is not gay.

Such a chairman fell to my lot one night before a gloomy audience in a London suburb.

"As I look about this hall to-night," he began in a doleful whine, "I see many empty seats."  Here he stifled a sob.  "Nor am I surprised that a great many of our people should prefer to-night to stay quietly at home - "

I had no clue to what he meant.  I merely gathered that some particular sorrow must have overwhelmed the town that day.

"To many it may seem hardly fitting that after the loss our town has sustained we should come out here to listen to a humorous lecture - "
"What's the trouble?"  I whispered to a citizen sitting beside me on the platform.

"Our oldest resident" - he whispered back - "he died this morning."

 "A, B, and C: The Human Element in Mathematics"
(from Literary Lapses)

Erin is preparing for a Math exam tomorrow, and for a little interlude I read this story to her.    Leacock writes about the hard-working men in school mathematical texts named A, B, and C who are constantly digging ditches, driving locomotives in opposite directions, racing in regattas and stacking piles of wood.  It was just the break we needed in the middle of all the graphs and charts and equations.  After a few laughs it was back to the books.
The first time that ever I saw these men was one evening after a regatta.  They had all been rowing in it, and it had transpired that A could row as much in one hour as B in two, or C in four.  B and C had come in dead fagged and C was coughing badly.  "Never mind, old fellow," I heard B say, "I'll fix you up on the sofa and get you some hot tea."  Just then A came blustering in and shouted, "I say, you fellows, Hamlin Smith has shown me three cisterns in his garden and he says we can pump them until tomorrow night.  I bet I can beat you both.  Come on.  You can pump in your rowing things, you know.  Your cistern leaks a little, I think, C."  I heard B growl that it was a dirty shame and that C was used up now, but they went, and presently I could tell from the sound of the water that A was pumping four times as fast as C.

Monday, 17 December 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (Part Four)

Please see here for my thoughts on Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Oh, Elizabeth Gaskell!  What a tale you have woven!

Part exploration of labour relations in the cotton factories of industrial England, part love story, part manifesto on the rights and responsibilities of the individual in a market-driven society, part treatise on the persistence of change and the importance of adaptation, North and South is all this and so much more.  It is the story of Margaret Hale, who is bit by bit deprived of all her material attachments (all the people who care about her, her home, her status) yet still she retains her values, her faith and her good nature to the end.

The message that resonated most poignantly with me in the concluding portion of North and South is the importance of each individual taking responsibility for the helpless in society.  This is a theme that has already appeared in the novel - most notably in relation to Frederick Hale's involvement in the naval mutiny that led to his exile; Mrs. Hale is more proud of her son for doing what was right at great cost to himself in standing up for the helpless crew members than she would have been for honours and accolades.  Individual duty to the less fortunate is also a frequent topic of conversation between the Hales and both Nicholas Higgins and Mr. Thornton

Margaret has always used her social position and relative wealth to ease the burden of those less fortunate.  In Helstone, she visited with baskets and gave of her time and energy to make life easier for the inhabitants of the parish.  In Milton, she is made aware that such overtures would be negatively construed as charity, but she is still driven to provide whatever is acceptable.  Her companionship to Bessy, although initally a charitable act, develops into a real friendship in which both parties benefit.  In London, Edith is puzzled about Margaret's desire to ramble about in the poor district, with the implied purpose being charitable work.  Although mentioned only in passing, she is obviously continuing her efforts to ease the suffering of the poor.

These little actions, although seemingly insignificant grow and gain power and influence as the positive effects reverberate.  Nicholas Higgins has seen how Margaret's visits to his daughter Bessy has given her peace and comfort in her last days.  She comes to them as an equal, and as an equal shares her views with Higgins on the labour unrest that consumes the energies of so many Milton workers and mill-owners.  Similarly, Margaret voices her opinions, mainly through leading questions to Mr. Thornton.  During the riot, Margaret places herself in danger with the purpose of protecting both Mr. Thornton from the wrath of the strikers, and also the strikers themselves from their own destructive behaviour.   Through these interactions the ground work has been laid for the transformational change that occurs when Higgins and Mr. Thornton come together (with Margaret as catalyst) and work toward greater harmony and understanding in their industry.  Many families in Milton have been blessed by the changes that Margaret set in motion.  In the concluding chapters of the novel, the small acts of questionning and the equality demonstrated first by Margaret are being discussed by Mr. Thornton and an attentive and interested member of Parliament!  From the small acorn mighty oaks are born, indeed!

Elizabeth Gaskell
The power struggles which fill the pages of North and South create the dramatic tension.  Like a tug-of-war with each side pulling to have their own way, there are many struggles both small and large at play in the novel.  Some of these tensions are resolved when one side submits to the greater powers, and dies (Boucher relinquishes his will to live, as does Mrs. Hale), or moves on (Frederick gives up his efforts to clear his name), or when one side is  clearly the victor (Margaret tells Aunt Shaw that she will be in charge of her own life after their return from Cromer).  Sometimes the tension is eased by the combatants stepping away from the tug-of-war rope and on to common ground; Higgins and Thornton have met in the middle to the benefit of many.

Margaret Hale and Mr. Thornton have maintained an unspoken antagonism from their first meeting; Mr. Thornton was over-awed by her superior manners and appearance, and Margaret was as disinterested of him as she was of all "shoppy people" whom she felt were beneath her notice.  Until the marriage proposal Margaret retains her attitude of superiority, and Mr. Thornton struggled against his feelings of inferiority.  Afterward, Margaret slowly begins to see and acknowledge his nobility of character.  After she discovers that he is aware of her lie to the police inspector, she obsesses over her fallen status in his eyes, and the balance of the scales has tipped to his side.  Concerned that her offer  to lend him money will be interpreted as an insulting act of charity, Margaret attempts to assert their equality as business partners:
Mr. Thornton did not speak, and she went on looking for some paper on which were written down the proposals for security; for she was most anxious to have it all looked upon in the light of a mere business arrangement, in which the principal advantage would be on her side. (394)
Finally, both Mr. Thornton and Margaret Hale are equals - bound by their feelings of subservience to the other.  The scales are balanced!
"Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!"
 "Not good enough!  Don't mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness." (395)

And that sounds like the perfect recipe for a long and happy marriage!

Although the writing in Volume One is much more refined and subtle than in Volume Two, and the ending is somewhat rushed, this is amongst my Top Five Favourites of All Time.  North and South is a masterpiece.  Elizabeth Gaskell has created such honest, and real characters and woven an intricate tale with layer upon layer which will no doubt delight for many, many re-readings. 

Suggested related reading:

Sybil, or The Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli (1845)
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell (1848)
Shirley by Charlotte Bronte (1849)
Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854)
Felix Holt by George Eliot (1866) 
Nice Work by David Lodge (1988)

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (Part Three)

Please see here for my thoughts on Part One and for Part Two.

The third quarter of North and South covers a dark time: each of the three Milton families featured in the novel suffers loss and emotional upheaval as a result of death, labour unrest and the trials of unrequited love.  It is the characters who are able to rely on their inner fortitude who are most challenged: Mr. Thornton, Margaret Hale and Mrs. Thornton are each faced with such adversity that even at certain moments their strength fails them.  Elizabeth Gaskell demonstrates the real advantages of the training of the habit of mind in each of these characters.

At the end of Volume I, Mr. Thornton's marriage proposal was rejected by Margaret Hale, and he is overwhelmed by pain and emotion.  He vows to overcome these physical manifestations of his love for Margaret: "He stood still a moment, to make this resolution firm and clear."  After walking off the worst of his anguish, "the accustomed places brought back the accustomed habits and trains of thought." (192)  With the habit of successfully overcoming his emotions, Mr. Thornton is able to do what must be done.  He habitually holds himself erect and walks in a purposeful manner.  Without having to make the choice, he easily slides into the good habits that he has trained himself to do.

Mrs. Thornton is so pained by what she perceives as the loss of her son's love (when he leaves to propose to Margaret), that she is anxious.  "She wrenched herself away from the contemplation of all the dreary changes that would be brought about to herself by her son's marriage; she forced her thoughts into the accustomed household grooves." (193)  So, the apple does not fall far from the tree!  Mrs. Thornton has given her son the benefit of habits she herself follows.  They are both able to set aside their strong emotions and attend to their responsibilities.

Although this method of habit training helps both Mr. and Mrs. Thornton to get on with the duties of life, this repression of emotion can lead to a denial of those feelings altogether.  Mr. Thornton is so successful at hiding his feelings that he tricks himself into believing they do not exist.  When he sees Margaret after his visit to Nicholas Higgins not only is she convinced of his utter disinterest, but has also convinced himself.  Mrs. Thornton, is unexpectedly awakened to the remembrance of her dead infant when she visits Mrs. Hale's sick room.  This momentary softening of this hard woman does much to humanise Mrs. Thornton.  Perhaps we will also see Mr. Thornton's awakening again before the end of the novel?

Nicholas Higgins is faced with great loss in his own family, with the death of his daughter, and in his social life, with the death of his neighbour Boucher.  Higgins has in the past been known to turn to alcohol as a way of coping with such suffering; he has never found a path to salvation that suits his personality.  Margaret sets him on the path of self-control when she uses her body (as she did during the riot) to bar the door so he is unable to go drinking after Bessy's death.  She takes him home to her father where all three have a frank discussion and then kneel in prayer.  He admits that the strike failed because the men let their human passions get the better of reason.  This action of Margaret's sets Higgins on the path to self-discipline (he gives up drink), and responsibility (he takes on the care of Boucher's family).  He humbles himself by asking Mr. Thornton for work, and no longer rests on his theories of what should be, but does what needs doing.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Margaret Hale, until now feeling superior in every way to Mr. Thornton is quite thrown off balance by her own potential for deceit (in lying to the police inspector), and by her inability to offer a satisfying explanation of her behaviour to Mr. Thornton.  Buffeted by loss, she once again feels the burden of being the only responsible adult in the house.  Each of the losses she suffers would disorient any person, but that she endures the loss of friend, mother and brother in quick succession compounds her suffering.  We leave Margaret at the end of the third quarter of North and South even more off-balance than she was at the beginning.  She is exhausted - the demands on her strength have been too great.  Even in her state of near-collapse she continues to try to divert her thoughts.  Even the frequently obtuse Mr. Hale notices her attempts at merriment and her inability to control her fluctuating emotions.  She learns Edith is returning to London and looks forward to a return to Harley Street where she an "regain her power and command over herself." (299)

Whilst Mr. Thornton is able to overcome his emotions, Margaret continues to struggle with hers and the balance of power is swinging like a pendulum: it began all on Margaret's side with her beauty, her superior manners and confidence which dazzled Mr. Thornton.  He felt like a great rough brute around her.  Now, through her own self-examination, she begins to see his more subtle but noble qualities, and is ashamed for her own earlier arrogance.  She is humbled to feel that she has fallen so far in his estimation.  The pendulum has swung far to Mr. Thornton's side - which is, incidentally just where Mrs. Thornton would have it remain when she imagines saying to Margaret: "If John and you had come together, he would have had to keep a tight hand over you, to make you know your place." (289)

Please see here my thoughts on for Part Four.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Because Reading Matters

Have you seen these incredible creations? Or heard the mysterious tale of the books transformed to art being left in various libraries around Scotland?  For more photographs of these amazing creations, link here.; or watch the Scottish television report here

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Quotable Virginia Woolf

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist's arm-chair and confuse his "Rinse the mouth - rinse the mouth" with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us - when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.
                                                                           Virginia Woolf, "On Being Ill"

Monday, 3 December 2012

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

I was distracted for the first three-quarters of the reading of Mrs. Palrey at the Claremont by the oddest sensation that I have read this book at some time in my past.  I rarely forget books I've read, and never once I have them in my hands.  But there is something familiar and cosy about this story; it is almost as though I know it from a dream I once had about getting old.  Elizabeth Taylor has created such a real space with such real people, that I feel as though I know it intimately.  The spaces the characters inhabit are so vivid, without being overly described, that I can smell the smells and feel the textures in my mind of the stately but aging hotel, the rain washed street, the bustle of Harrod's.

We begin at the beginning, with Mrs. Palfrey arriving at the residential hotel in London where she choses to retire.  A woman of independent spirit and comfortable financial means she holds herself emotionally apart from the inhabitants of the hotel who are mostly older and quirkier, and with a smaller mental sphere than her own.  Observant of the emotions and physical details around her, Mrs. Palfrey quickly finds her place at the hotel, learning to identify the faults and foibles of her fellow residents. 

An old lady in a modern age, Mrs. Palfrey works to keep her mind fresh, to adapt to new ways of living.  She forms an association with a young writer named Ludo, and has more desire of his companionship than with the old folks with whom she lives.  She walks every afternoon for the pleasure of being outdoors, and keeping active.  There is a scene when a few of the residents share a taxi to a party, and Mrs. Palfrey considers the best modern manner of sharing the tab, rather than allowing the man to cover the bill.  She is conscious of never being a burden on another, of providing for herself, of never being a nuisance.  She learns from those around her how not to behave as an elderly lady.

It is her young, open mind that keeps Mrs. Palfrey from being a character we pity.  She approaches old age with grace and without self-pity, with a self-awareness many others seem to lack.  She is does not want to join the league of dotering old folk who are crippled in mind or body, she wants to rise above all that.  And in her pride, she invents a deception that both amuses her and sets her apart from everyone else.  I thoroughly enjoyed her relationship with Ludo, who joins the deception and pretends to be Mrs. Palfrey's negligent grandson Desmond.  She is never so lonely as to accept friendship (or romance) indiscriminately, and is independent to the end.

Elizabeth Taylor

I enjoyed the interesting twist on the book-within-a-book motif.  Ludo is writing a novel throughout Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont and he obviously draws information and material from his friendship with Mrs. Palfrey.  Was it just my imagination, or are we meant to see the novel we hold in our hands as Ludo's creation?  I thought this might explain so much of Ludo's own story being included, although his girlfriend and mother's characters are never fleshed out enough to be totally successful.  I imagined Ludo including his negligent behaviour in the text as a guilty confession that he should have been a better friend.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont was a delightful read.  Elizabeth Taylor's ability to make you feel as though you are in the room with these characters shows the skill of a real master.  She's often compared to Jane Austen, and although it didn't strike me whilst reading the book, as I look back over the real strengths of the writing, I see that the comparison is an apt one.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

December 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (Part Two)

Please see here for my thoughts on Part One

Rumours of a possible strike circulate around Milton and Margaret is the perfect vehicle for Elizabeth Gaskell to explore both the mill owners', and the workers' perspectives. Through Mr. Thornton, Margaret learns the hard stance of those in authority, and through Nicholas Higgins we hear the arguments of the workers.  In her novel Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell was criticised for favouring the workers' perspective and excluding that of the owners.  In North and South, she puts this right, giving full voice to each economic class.

But even within each group there is not always full accord.  Mr. Thornton is not in line with some of the fast moves pulled by Mr. Slickson, another mill owner, when he intentionally tricks his workers by promising them a raise of pay, and then renegging.  We also see Boucher's opposition to the union as a cruel tyrant for insisting that he not break the strike even though his children are starving.  The strike is a complicated matter, and the sides are not clearly delineated as wholely right and wholely wrong.  Each side, and indeed each individual bears responsibility to industrial progress.

Defiance against authority is a strong theme in this section of the story.  We already know the story of Frederick's refusal to accept the authority of his cruel naval captain, and Mr. Hale's rejection of church dogma.  Both of these instances of defiance lead to loss of liberty, and ostracism from familiar and well-ordered society.  So too are the punishments for defiance against the economic authority (in the form of the mill owners).  These authority figures are collective rather than individual forces, and the behaviour we can expect from groups, Elizabeth Gaskell seems to be saying tends to be less benevolent and often far from humane than we might expect from individuals, even from the same individuals that together make up the group.  It is only the individual that can save society through individual action.

Is assisting the strikers by providing them with sustenance prolonging the strike, as the mill owners believe?  Margaret believes it is the right thing to do, and her action supports Elizabeth Gaskell's assertion that it is our moral imperative to help the helpless.  There is no clear-cut villan in this strike.  It is a stalemate, with both sides having powers and responsibilities, and neither willing to budge in its position. The real victims are Boucher's starving children and Bessy Higgins, dying at nineteen from a workplace-caused disease. Although we cannot absolve Boucher from his share of the poverty faced by his family, his children are "colateral damage"- metaphorically those innocent bystanders caught under the hooves of the triumphal emperor's horse

As the danger of a strike increases, the sound that Mrs. Thornton had bragged to Mr. Hale that she loved to hear only one chapter previous - the buzzing of the hive full of worker bees - has turned into a swarm and is gathering power. As the power of the crowd grows, it morphs from a swarm to a storm, with a "low distant roar" that develops into a "rolling tempest" with "slow-surging waves," to its "threatening crest."  And from a storm of emotion, the crowd transforms again into a ferocious animal.  When they hear Thornton, his voice is "like the taste of blood to the infuriated multitude" and when they see Thornton, "it was as the demoniac desire of some terrible wild beast for the food that is withheld from his ravening." (161).  A thousand angry eyes greet Mr. Thornton as he faces them, "men, gaunt as wolves and mad for prey."

Margaret, acting as an individual but also as a representative of her gender positions herself as a barrier between the two opposing forces during the riot.  Her womanhood tames the wild beast enough that the violence is curtailed.  She was brave enough to try to right the wrongs of the situation and to take action where she could to ease suffering.  Trying to communicate to both sides, Margaret is able to peel away the collective power of the crowd, and as individuals they respond by retreating.  But the irony is rife: Margaret speaks to the crowd as individuals whilst defending one man, yet caring less for that one man than for any of the men in the crowd.

The aftermath of the riot is all about the release of passion by those who have most valiantly been able to keep self-control throughout the events of the afternoon.  Thormton, a master of stern resolve collapses in romantic passion for Margaret and general agitation at her return home:
[Mrs. Thornton] was a little startled at the evident force [Mr. Thornton] used to keep himself calm.  She was not sure of the nature of the emotions she had provoked.  It was only their violence that was clear.  Was it anger?  His eyes glowed, his figure was dilated, his breath came thick and fast.  It was a mixture of joy, of anger, of pride, of glad surprise, of panting doubt; but she could not read it.  Still it made her uneasy, - as the presence of all strong feeling, of which the cause is not fully understood or sympathised in, always has this effect.  (164)
 Margaret too is in a passion, but her's is an overwhelming sense of shame at having exposed herself in public in such a manner:
I, who hate scenes - I, who have despised people for showing emotion - who have thought them wanting in self-control - I went down and must needs throw myself into the melee, like a romantic fool! (172)
 Both Mr. Thornton and Margaret have already been well established as characters who are fully in control of their own emotions and actions.  Mr. Thornton scorns those who lose their self-control, while Margaret fears, or shys away from any evidence of indigence or slovenly behaviour.  After their greatest triumphs of bravery, they each give way to their emotions.  When Margaret goes to bed, "she releases her strong will from its laborious task.  Till morning she might feel ill and weary."

The day after the riot, passions are still running high.  Mr. Thornton is filled with romantic passion for Margaret, and with encouragement, ironically from his mother, he proposes.  Margaret's anger is enflamed, and when she strikes out, they both try with difficulty to conceal their powerful emotions.  He succeeds in keeping control of himself until he expresses his love for Margaret and then he lays claim to the emotional side of his character, a part he has too long repressed; "I am a man.  I claim the right of expressing my feelings."  For almost any other man this would be a statement of fact.  For Mr. Thornton, it is a manifesto for the new manner in which he is going to live his life.  "Now I love, and will love." (178)  Now that his emotions have taken their rightful place in his life, he will have to work even harder to keep them below the surface, as he promises Margaret he will do.

At the conclusion of Part One, we are left with the Victorian equivalent of a Hardy boy trapped in a breached submarine with one inch of air and a snagged pant leg.  We have a rejected marriage proposal, two dying invalids and a potentially life threatening visit from an exiled son.

Tune in next time...

Please see here for my thoughts on Part Three.