From a long-dead publisher, that is. As you might know, the doctor-hat-wearing me is working on a postdoctoral project on Punch, the famous Victorian British magazine. I love researching 19th-century periodicals — it’s such an exciting field and so much wonderful research is getting done right now. (Case in point: Patrick Leary’s The Punch Brotherhood, which is simply brilliant!) But since I have a lot of catching-up do, I spent yesterday afternoon looking at different digital projects and online archives of old periodicals and publishing houses. Thereby I stumbled across two very sweet letters written by John Murray to his wife Annie in 1808 while he was staying in Scotland.
On September 27 he was Edinburgh and wrote:
Upon my word thou art the most impudent baggage to write so little to thy husband for whom I conclude, out of sight out of mind, you think very little about. In your letter to your mother today you say that as you have written me so many letters, & pray Miss how many more letters have you received from me? This the Eighth I believe in return for which I have got only Three—and moreover as you never condescend to ask me to write again I am inclined to suppose that you find the postage too heavy a tax upon your private purse and so I have half a mind to trouble you no more in this & to give you no further account of your husband’s (if you have not forgotten that you have one) operations—write me this instant you saucy rogue or expect to hear from me no more.
On October 5 he was back in Edinburgh after a visit to Sir Walter Scott. All that time, his wife Annie, it seems, was never far from his mind as he writes:
When Mr Ballantyne & I left Mr Scott & Mr Heber at Melrose & travelled to Kelso—my first attention was to secure the room where my dearest love and & I rested once before, & I did not sleep, she will believe me, without a thousand thoughts of her whom I now love a thousand times more dearly than when we were there together.
Awww! Isn’t that sweet?
He ends this letter with
My most dear Girl
Your faithful husband
All in all, I found these two letters rather charming and just couldn’t help sharing them with you. If you like to have a look at the full-length letters, head over to the correspondence archive of the Quarterly Review.
And thinking about my library this morning, made me realise that, for somebody teaching English Lit at university, I have rather plebeian tastes. Sure, I love Ludwig Tieck’s “Blond Eckbert”, and I adore E.T.A. Hoffmann’s KATER MURR as well as Gaskell’s NORTH AND SOUTH and CRANFORD. I have read and enjoyed Austen’s novels (yet I don’t like all of them). I prefer Thackeray to Dickens, and thought THE NEWCOMES a lot of fun. I’m very fond of Anna Seghers’s DAS SIEBTE KREUZ, which I once knew by heart (years I helped to prepare the centennary edition and had to read the whole novel about six times in as many weeks…). I have always enjoyed medieval literature, and thanks to Dorothy Dunnett I have fallen head over heels for late medieval and Renaissance poetry as well. Despite his suicidal maidens, I’m also very fond of Tennyson, and love a score of other poems and ballads.
Modern literary fiction, however, leaves me stone-cold. As a student I gave up on a seminar on Virginia Woolf because I considered her books tedious in the extreme. Robert Musil – dear heaven, when I struggled to get through DER MANN OHNE EIGENSCHAFTEN, most of the time I didn’t have the faintest, foggiest clue what the author was talking about (if any novel ever deserved the title of “loose, baggy monster” it’s this one!). Ondaatje, THE ENGLISH PATIENT – uhmm …. what’s the point??? And A.S. Byatt’s POSSESSION bored me to tears because I thought it was so utterly predictable. I’m currently reading Alan Bennett’s THE UNCOMMON READER, which is funny, sure, but IMO, a short story would have done the trick just as well, or rather, even better. I’ve reached about the middle of the book, and I’m already getting impatient and wonder what the point of this story is. Where does it go? Indeed, I find that this is my biggest problem with a lot of mainstream as well as literary fiction: a story that kind of ambles along without a clear goal (e.g., solve the crime, get the two lovers together, kill off the hero, etc.) makes me itchy. What’s worse, a lot of it is pretentious and utterly depressing. Why the heck would I want to read a book that’s utterly depressing? If I want to get depressed, I switch on the news, thank you very much.
I wonder why literature written by dead people works so much better for me. Probably because said dead people were dependent on writing stuff that actually sold (don’t get me started on publishers‘ policies in regard to advances for literary fiction vs advances for popular fiction! sufficient to say that it makes my blood boil). Hence, they had to be entertaining. Moreover, I can more easily stomach the world view of dead white men, whereas I really don’t see the point of involving myself with the world view of living white men.
See? I admit it: when it comes to reading I’m a shameless sexist, with only a few exceptions, among them Terry Pratchett and Guy Gavriel Kay
This might not be so very obvious in my study, where the classics live and all my books on literature and British history. The other, the older, half of the inhabitants of the study are, perhaps, much more interesting: there, books on on doll houses and on building castles huddle next to books about wolves, dogs, and snails. There are books about nineteenth-century fashion, cooking and historical erotica, about Roman plumbing, mythological creatures, the history of gardening and about European china. This is the collection that goes back the furthest into my own history, the collection that was started twenty years ago or even more. No wonder then that I always get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I stand in front of these shelves and contemplate their contents.
Though the study contains the majority of classics I own, traces of classics can also be found in the library: Louisa May Alcott lives there as well as Frances Hodgson Burnett. WINNIE-THE-POOH hangs out somewhere, too. But for the most part, the library is filled with rows upon rows of romance novels (which can hardly come as a surprise to anybody who reads this blog!), some fantasy novels and mysteries. There’s Christie, of course, but also Sayers (a more recent addition) and Kerry Greenwood’s wonderful Phryne Fisher series. Next to Phryne, you’ll find some old green Penguins squeezed into the shelf. I got them secondhand a few months ago and thought about starting a collection of green Penguins, but quickly abandoned the idea once I saw how grubby the copies were that I got (and they had been deemed to be in good condition on abebooks!).
On another shelf rests a string of Mrs. Pollifax novels (written by Dorothy Gilman). I got the first of them ages ago on a holiday in Spain back in the 1980s. It was so hot that summer that all you could do was sleep or read, and naturally I chose to do the latter with the result that after a few days I had run out of reading material. So I snatched one of the novels Dad had brought with him. Now, THE PERFUME is a book that’s not exactly meant to be read by young teens, and so, not surprisingly, my parents took it away once they figured out what I was reading (that was the one and only time they forbade me to read a particular book). The very next day the family drove to Benidorm in search of suitable books for me. There wasn’t much on offer, really, that might interest an adolescent girl. I chose an anthology with short stories about cats, I believe (or was it an anthology about hobgoblins and ghosts?) (anyways, it obviously didn’t make much of an impression), and an omnibus edition of the first three Mrs. Pollifax novels. The subtitle read “3 heitere Romane in einem Band“, i.e. “three amusing novels in one volume“. “Amusing” sounded nice enough, if slightly old-fashioned, and the book certainly didn’t disappoint. A few years later I was thrilled to discover that Gilman had written even more Mrs. Pollifax novels, though none of them, imo, is quite as charming as THE UNEXPECTED MRS. POLLIFAX
Several of my favourite novels are grouped together in a cabinet in my hallway, right next to the dining table. It contains some childhood favourites – Rosemary Sutcliff, Auguste Lechner, and Henry Winterfeld, who made me fall in love with historical fiction. There are the German editions of Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthur trilogy and her BEACON AT ALEXANDRIA, Diana Paxon’s WHITE RAVEN, Penelope Williamson’s KEEPER OF THE DREAM, and Margaret Hodges’s AVENGER. On a lower shelf you can find Anne Rice’s vampires, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and German translations of Susanna Kearsley’s novels (for some strange reason, I’ve never read her in English). But the best-loved shelf of this cabinet is that which houses Dorothy Dunnett’s novels. I simply love the sight of the bright, colourful spines of the Penguin edition of the Lymond Chronicles (another sight that is bound to give me warm fuzzies). On top of her Johnson Johnson mysteries rest Tom S. Hall’s TRAMPING HOLIDAYS IN SCOTLAND, which I bought because it once belonged to Dunnett’s husband, Alastair Dunnett, and Mary Stewart’s THE WIND OFF THE SMALL ISLES, which I bought because it came with a letter from Dorothy Dunnett: in 1974 she had sent the book to a friend after a dinner invitation. “I don’t know anyone else,” she wrote, “with such a gift for sending their friends away at the end of a dinner not only full of lovely food and drink, but pleased with themselves in the bargain! Bless you both.” Judging from the letter, Dorothy Dunnett, bless her heart, was just as charming in real life as her novels lead one to believe. 🙂
Each month the arrival of the credit card statement tells me that I’m spending too much money on books. It could be worse, I guess. Like other women, I could have a serious passion for shoes. Or bags and purses. Or jewellery. Books are relatively cheap by comparison (welllllll, if you love buying rare 19th-century editions of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, you might find that books can be horrendously expensive, too!).
So the piles on the top of my piano continue to grow and make me smile with satisfaction whenever I enter my little library-cum-music-room. (The Kitteh is less satisfied, I’m afraid, since the piles tend to be in her way when she climbs about on the piano and the lower bookshelves.) The sight of books has always filled me with warm, fuzzy feelings and thoughts of happily snuggled up on the couch with a cup of tea and a nice book (and a Kitteh).
Of course, at the moment I don’t really have time to actually read all these new books thanks to the Dratted Exam that will hit me over the head in three or four weeks’ time (*gasp* so soon??? Waaaargh!). So for now I regard those lovely piles as my winter hoard to be enjoyed over Christmas and in the new year. 🙂
Which reminds me of this lovely story:
Not that I would ever need an excuse to drool over the lovely Mr. Armitage. 🙂
A child’s nursery rhyme books does not have the language in which to speak to a Latin dictionary. Chaucer does not know the words in which Henry James communicates but here they are forced to live together, forever speechless. […] Does Elizabeth Bowen find Swift congenial company? Ah yes, surely, they were both Irish, they have a lot in common. I should like to sit here on the landing in the last glimmer of daylight and listen to them whispering together. […] Can books learn from one another? Can they change as a result of sitting on a shelf beside another for years?
Not that Burnett’s heroine isn’t any less angelic – in fact, she’s a much better person than Helen: always smiling, always being grateful to other people, always happy to run errands for others. No, in The Making of a Marchioness you have to turn to the secondary female characters to get women with some more bite (and, eventually, one dead beastly husband).
Reading both At Mrs. Lippincote’s and The Making of a Marchioness has finally convinced me (if I needed any convincing at all!) to teach a course on women writers of the early 20th century. Next winter, perhaps?
In former years this was done entirely unconciously – first there were Enid Blyton, Auguste Lechner, Rosemary Sutcliff, Helen Cresswell, Joan Aiken, Tamora Pearce, and Susan Cooper; then Anne Rice, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley (of course!), Mercedes Lackey, Jennifer Roberson, Dorothy Gilman, and Victoria Holt; eventually Diana Gabaldon, Susanna Kearsley, and Dorothy Dunnett; and then I discovered the world of romance fiction.
By now, though, it is a conscious decision. I know I prefer the way women tell stories to the way men go about the business. Women’s stories are much more relevant to my experiences and to how I see the world than men’s.
A few weeks ago I read Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Literature, and it made me feel sick and angry all at once because the same mechanisms she describes in that study are still at work today. And so, I decided to act. Inspired by Jane Brocket’s The Gentle Art of Domesticity, I’m now collecting books by forgotten women writers which I intend to read once the Dratted PhD Exam Thingie (DPHET) is over and done with.
Among the authors on my list are:
- Nancy Mitford
- Elizabeth Taylor (not the movie star!)
- Jan Struther
- Dorothy Whipple
- Marghanita Laski
- Winifred Watson
- Julia Strachey
- Barbara Euphan Todd
In addition, I’m thinking of offering a course on “Lost Voices: Forgotten Women Writers” next winter.
Yup, I’m still at N&S (and am quietly freaking out about that final oral exam *sob*) (No, I’m not exaggerating: I’m already having nightmares about the stupid thing! As in, I’m in the exam and they’re asking me questions for which I’m totally unprepared. Or questions about books I haven’t read. Like Dickens. (I’m not a huge Dickens fan; I’ve read Oliver Twist ages ago + Mystery of Edwin Drood + beginning of Pickwick Papers + that’s about all I remember.) Or questions about those big, fat 18th-century novels, which I haven’t really read either. In other words: they’re going to find out that I’m a fraud. *sob sob sob*)
Okay, so I’m still reading N&S (and lusting after Mr. Thornton) (especially when I think of Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton!!! Yum!). You can, of course, read the novel as a romance, and if you do, the dynamics in the relationship of Margaret and Thornton make so much more sense. In many ways, the relationship resembles that in Pride & Prejudice: At the beginning, the hero is attracted to the heroine (against his better judgment), while she thinks he is some kind of lower life form that has crawled out from beneath a stone. Consequently, his first proposal comes as a shock for her and she rejects him (and takes the chance to tell him exactly what she thinks of him). Yet almost immediately afterwards, our heroine begins to wonder whether she has misjudged the poor hero (who’s broken-hearted; poor thing). Despite her rejection, he still cares for her, and when she / her family / her idiotic siblings run into trouble, he tries to help her. She realises that she has utterly, utterly, UTTERLY misjudged the poor man and herself (for she’s actually quite in love with the hunky hero), but she assumes that her hunky man now detests her and thinks she is the lowest of the lowest and will never ever speak to her again. But he does! (yay!) And proposes again!!! And they lived happily ever after. 🙂
But Margaret & Thornton’s story also reminded me of Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. As with Jessica and Dain, sparks fly whenever M. & Mr. T. meet. They’ve got these very intense discussions, arguments even, but Thornton simply can’t stay away and always comes back for more 🙂
When I went through the blog listings of Sew, Mama, Sew!‘s May Giveaway Day, I was struck how extraordinary this all is: here we are, in the middle of a world-wide economic crisis, when you hear nothing but more bad news on the news, and yet over 400 women from all over the world got together in order to give away handcrafted goodies and/or bits and pieces from their sewing/knitting/paper-crafting supplies. They gave away cute bags, adorable children’s clothes, frilly tutus, pretty aprons, sweet stuffed toys, old lace and buttons, and brightly patterened fabrics for quilting. Many of these 400 women didn’t even know each other, but they all hopped from blog to blog, left encouraging comments, praised each other’s crafting results, and create warm, fuzzy feelings all around.
Female communities rock. 🙂
The big May Giveaway Day organised by Sew, Mama, Sew! has been wonderfully life-affirming, and I felt that in a way all the participants thumbed their noses at the flow of bad news that constantly surrounds us these days. You can bet that I’ll take part in the next big Giveaway Day. Embroidered napkins, anybody?