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All posts for the month September, 2009

A Little Princess

Published September 29, 2009 by Kat

A Little Princess

And now, I shall blog about my favorite book. A daunting task, no? Given its far-reaching repercussions in my internal world, though, this is not likely to be the only time I write about this book.

In my memory, my mother and I watched a television adaptation of this book some time in the 1980s. In my memory, Charles Dance played Mr. Carrisford and Maggie Smith played Miss Minchin. IMDB begs to differ–in the 1986 adaptation, Carrisford was played by Nigel Havers and Miss Minchin by Maureen Lipman. Ah, well, so much for memories.

Some time in my childhood I was given a paperback copy of the book. I know that I had it for some time before finally, around the age of ten, reading it. It was probably, if you’ll call Frances Hodgson Burnett a Victorian author, my first Victorian novel–and it is the one to which every other novel has had to stand up. In the twenty years since I first read this book I have pretty well exhausted Victoriana’s stock of fiction, and I must say that while there are plenty of gems, there is still no other book that gives me more pure pleasure in the reading.

A gifted little girl is left at a boarding school by her rich father. She is doubly blessed in being a Very Good Girl, the kind that a Victorian novel needs as a heroine, and being alternately Very Rich (which Victoriana likes) and Very Poor (which makes Victoriana slobber all over itself). Sara Crewe is gifted in precisely the way a little girl reading this book is likely to be. She loves to read, she loves to pretend, she is solemn and affectionate about dolls, she is sensitive about sharing the things she imagines, and she never (bless her, and may we hope to be the same!) has cause to be ashamed of her behavior. She is not uniformly sweet, but when she angers, she does so for the right reasons, at the right person, to the right degree, for the right length of time. In short, she is a goddess.

And oh, the domestic accoutrements. Perhaps I got my luxurious materialistic ways from the early parts of this book. It includes a “shopping sequence”, which always makes me love a book:

There were velvet dresses trimmed with costly furs, and lace dresses, and embroidered ones, and hats with great, soft ostrich feathers, and ermine coats and muffs, and boxes of tiny gloves and handkerchiefs and silk stockings in such abundant supplies that the polite young women behind the counters whispered to each other that the odd little girl with the big, solemn eyes must be at least some foreign princess—perhaps the little daughter of an Indian rajah.

There are also plenty of lists of tantalizing food, which again make me love a book:

It’s got cake in it, and little meat pies, and jam tarts and buns, and oranges and red-currant wine, and figs and chocolate.

This is the description of Ermengarde’s “hamper” from her nicest aunt. As a result, I have spent many happy hours in my life imagining what I would send in a hamper to a child at a boarding school. Alas, no opportunities have yet presented themselves–but I encourage you to try the exercise. It’s especially lovely around Christmas time.

Another feature of this book that is calculated to make me love it is the aspect of dolls. Sara gets her doll Emily right at the beginning, and the central event of the story arc features Sara’s “Last Doll” at her eleventh birthday party. Of course there is yet another delightful list:

There were lace collars and silk stockings and handkerchiefs; there was a jewel case containing a necklace and a tiara which looked quite as if they were made of real diamonds; there was a long sealskin and muff, there were ball dresses and walking dresses and visiting dresses; there were hats and tea gowns and fans.

Anyone who was a little girl in the great era of American Girl, before Mattel bought it and ruined everything, remembers that the delicious descriptions of each doll’s historically accurate clothing and accessories were almost more enjoyable than having the things would have been. At eight and nine and ten I snagged the catalogues and read them again and again and again, with the keenest delight I have ever felt. To be a child, and to want and admire a doll, is a magical thing.

Just around the same time that I first read A Little Princess, Christmas of 1990, when I was ten years old, my mother bought Samanatha for me for Christmas. She bought the doll, all of the books, and the folio of patterns for Samantha’s clothes. She and my aunt together sewed all of Samantha’s outfits that were available at that time (the school dress, the Christmas dress, the sailor’s middy, the birthday dress, and the cloak with muff and hat). Every summer I went to a day-camp where we sat and sewed quilts and other little things for American Girl dolls. In the early 2000s, when I began to make some real spending money of my own, I bought most of the other available outfits. And my aunt made me one more dress for Samantha–a dark blackish-brown velvet one, made from an 18″ doll pattern rather than Samantha’s own, and which is a little tight and short on her.

This girl had her doll, her Emily, and by gosh–the doll had its own sumptuous wardrobe and its own “short, tight black frock”. Though I hadn’t explicitly connected the two in my mind until a few days ago when I began to re-read the book, it’s true that the two put together created a wonderful synergy in my childhood that follows me even today.

I didn’t play with Samantha very much. Mostly, I took her out of her box and changed her clothes every now and again. However, she means the world to me. She is the greatest Christmas of my childhood–my Red Rider BB gun, if you will. Every time I open her box and go through her things, I remember the delicious elation that I used to feel when reading the old catalogues. I get quite silly over dolly tea sets and doll’s dolls and bears. I even just bought myself a set of doll-sized chest of drawers and washstand, which I will convert into jewelry boxes, but oh–the desire to stuff Samantha’s things into those drawers is so very strong.

Ermengarde quite beamed with delight.
“Oh, Sara!” she whispered joyfully. “It is like a story!”
“It IS a story,” said Sara. “EVERYTHING’S a story.”

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After the Funeral

Published September 29, 2009 by Kat

After the Funeral

Gazing at my lovely rows of Agatha Christie Mystery Collections, I began to ponder over the several of them that are really famous. Not only are her half dozen very famous books so because they are better written than the rest, but they tend to move outside of the box, in terms of solvability. I won’t name names but you won’t mind if I tell you the devices… in one there is no murder at all. In another, one of the victims is the murderer. In another, the narrator is. In yet another, the detective is. In yet another, everyone is. Old AC must have really enjoyed herself.

There were a few I read, though, that stuck with me not because of cleverness but because of pure charm. In one, for instance, the murder weapon is a fish paste sandwich. In another, everything in the end comes down to tea shops and Vermeer. I so enjoyed remembering these “charming” books that I decided to re-read one of them, After the Funeral. There was, in the end, both less charm (and much more of the business of murders) than I remembered, but also much more, as it turned out that I had remembered it as being about three separate books. This is a confusing, fun, classic Agatha Christie mystery, written pretty shortly post-war when she was at the height of her game, both an experienced writer but not yet losing her edge. What a delightful confection of a book. Do read it.

The Agatha Christie Mystery Collection

Published September 25, 2009 by Kat

There exists a uniform printing of most of Agatha Christie’s work; it comes in dark-blue hardcover binding with gold embossing, and it’s called The Agatha Christie Mystery Collection. As far as I can work out, there are 88 volumes in existence, though a couple of them are reprints of the same work under different names.

About three years ago, I got a set of 84 of them on eBay, all at once. There is one repeat. I spent the next year–my last year in the university town where I had lived for so long–reading them all. I have read all of Agatha Christie’s novels, as well as many of her short stories. Her travelogues I tried and was bored with.

What a blog experience that would have been, reading each and reporting on them as I went. A reader’s equivalent of The Julie/Julia Project, perhaps. Of course, it would have been so difficult to report on mystery novels without giving them away…

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I remember that I was living in my rented house for the second year. I bought my bedroom furniture around the same time, and for the first time in my life, tasted the delights of sleeping in a queen-size bed, on a pillowtop mattress. For the first time in nearly a decade I had all of the drawers I could possibly want, and a huge mirror too. I remember sitting up in my queen-sized bed till late at night (or early in the morning), devouring the Christie mysteries. I would read them in one or two days, I think.

My friends had graduated and left town, I was finished with my degrees and so had to classes to attend or teach, I worked from home, and I sometimes went a whole week without talking to anyone at all. I’m sure there were spans of two and three weeks when I never talked to anyone face-to-face, except cashiers. I lived in my sweat suits, I gardened, I cooked, I read, I knit, I patchworked, and I dreamed. I became very odd, for a while.

Since then, I have gotten a full-time job that (usually) involves going to an office for most of the day. I remember some time during that year, when it became clear that an academic position wasn’t going to come through and that corporate-world was where it was at, crying for the coming end of my solitude and leisure. I remembered feeling that, if I couldn’t live my life in unstructured dignity, life would be cold and hard and depressing. I remembered wondering how I could cope going for most of the day without seeing anything pretty, smelling anything nice, or handling anything lovely.

I did take a full-time office job. I moved. I bought a house. I made new friends, and found that–for a while, while the company was still a green startup and people were still a little bit interested in what they did–I actually enjoyed having somewhere to go every day. I enjoyed seeing people, and found that I was thoroughly sick of solitude. I joined clubs for every night of the week, and dogged my friends to spend time with me on the weekends. I got Pudding. I got a new car. And then I got Sparks.

My conclusion is that days filled with mostly-idle solitude are not something I want to do again. If I have children I will stay home with them while they’re young, and when they go to school I’ll find something to do. Somewhere to go. Something to stop me from brooding–from spending money on silly things–from taking it too hard when Sparks is a little late getting home. Something to stop me, dear god, from reading so very much.

The luxury story

Published September 18, 2009 by Kat

What is it about “luxury” that so beguiles us?

In my recent trip to Florence, where there are so many expensive and luxurious things, I really began to think about it–though I have been fomenting an anti-consumerism rebellion for a while now, while at the same time being on a pretty severe spending bender. What is it about the story of luxury that is so fascinating to us? What do we expect to get out of it? Why is it so hard to break free of?

I have always known, since the first time I tried to write a story at maybe seven or eight years old, that the very best stories are the ones that don’t have to be explicitly told. Think, for example, of Sense and Sensibility. The most poignant–the most romantic–the sexist part of it is, I think, the un-narrated duel between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby. Sensible as Austen’s prose is, I think she knew that the best way to make this incident into a powerful draw on the imagination was to not write it at all. The reader is left with a feeling, an apprehension, perhaps some vague empathetic feelings with the men or the women who loved them, and that is that. It’s certainly more satisfying that Mr. Darcy’s stiff second proposal.

Anyone who has tried to write knows that the best way to smash apart a great idea is to put it into words. I used, as a child who was prone to daydreaming, to cure myself of my most recent fantasy by sitting down at the typewriter or word processor and trying to narrate it. Every time, without fail, the magic was dead to me and I was free to get on with my life. Only sometimes, late at night when inhibition is low and emotion is high, can I write something that satisfies my idea of it. I think the great romantic writers must all have written at night… Hemingway’s passionless prose, for example, absolutely confirms for me that he wrote from 6 a.m. to noon every day. The Bronte sisters, on the other hand (with the possible exception of Anne), must have been night owls. The most passionate and disgusting hypochondriacs I have known all had regular 8 a.m. bedtimes.

Nowhere has the charm of the unspoken been grasped and magnified as it has in the world of advertising. When I am away from magazines and television and, heaven forbid, the internet, I become a very unromantic sort of creature, content to have three pairs of jeans, ten tshirts, and a sweater. When bored and web-surfing all day, though, I become the very kind of consumer I despise most: the one who grabs onto trends simply because they’re trends, and buys simply because I want to buy the feeling portrayed by the advertisements, not because I need, want, or will even use the item in question.

At one time, I had my cashmere sweater fantasty. In a cashmere sweater I was protected, wrapped up in a fluffy coccoon, safe from the world and from the nasty things it would do to me.

The pashmina shawl. Wrapped in a pashmina shawl I was similarly protected in milder weather; also while traveling, I like to wrap myself up and protect myself from the discomfort and inconvenience going on around me.

Jewelry. What do I expect to get out of jewelry? I have drawers and drawers full of it, yet I sometimes go for months without wearing anything but my pearl studs. When I do wear it, though, it is to feel special, unique, as if it picks me out and marks me as a privileged person. This fantasy is perhaps the most useful of all of mine, because I can’t deny that mascara and a pair of long earrings go a long way towards making male strangers feel well-disposed towards one.

Perfume. Perfume is either The Good Stuff, in which case its scent begins to irritate the wearer, or The Cheap Stuff, in which case it wears off a couple hours after application. When wearing perfume I have always felt as if I was trying to get into a world that I don’t feel I’m a member of–the world of mature, sophisticated women; the world of beautiful women; the kind of women who can have love-affairs with strangers, who stories are written about, and who attract attention on airplanes. Feeling as I do that I am eternally ten years old with regard to my attractions, the story of perfume is something I want very badly to be a part of.

When I am on a spending bender I have a new story to chase every week. For a while it is essential that I have a working assortment of vintage celluloid jewelry, so that I can be vintage and chic and plump and warm and wonderful. For a while I need pearls, so that I can be refined and mysterious and earthy. A few days or a couple of weeks later I start to think that if I wear white blouses, I will inevitable become willowy and slim and clean-cut. Then, if I have an address-book from a certain famous stationery company, and a Waterman pen, and some embossed stationery, I will be a great letter-writer and a famous society woman. With a dozen English coffee cups I will have great dinner parties full of women in silk evening-gowns and men in dinner jackets. With cut-crystal glassware I will always serve liquor in the correct vessel to my large circle of discerning and enlightened friends (this fantasty, incidentally, has very nearly come true, though people find the correct glass with a dismaying sense of awe and gratitude, rather than cool expectation. Perhaps my friends are too lovable). And so on.

My current fantasty is about Pandora charm bracelets. I can tell myself that the “charm” bracelet satisfies my unreasonable desire for everyday, practical magic. I can tell myself that I have been looking at different kinds of charm bracelets for years, and that is true. I can tell myself that it will provide my husband an admirable means of touching my heart on gift-giving occasions, though I doubt he’ll agree to jump on that bandwagon (being a person who is completely free from the bonds of advertising, bless his noble heart). I can tell myself that I will wear my silver Pandora-style bracelet with my silver Swiss Army watch–last weekend’s mania, found for half the retail price–every day that I’m not wearing some other jewelry, which is quite a lot of days. But ah. Though all of these thoughts may be spot on, in a week’s time, I will probably–unless this bender ends, and I enter a period of chastened thriftiness, as I am wont to do–wear the bracelet a few times and then carefully tuck it away in a jewelry drawer, yet another dream–another story–told to myself briefly, inflamed gloriously, and occasionally treasured forever.

The village market

Published September 16, 2009 by Kat

My very favorite Christmas book is The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden, and though the text is wonderful, I can’t deny that Barbara Cooney’s illustrations are what makes it extra-special to me. Once a year, around Christmas, I pull this book out and slowly, leisurely read it, savoring every last little morsel (and getting teary at the end).

Every bit of the book is enchanting, but recently I have been mulling over the Christmas market. Barbara Cooney draws a charming village square lined with tiny, gas-lit shop windows full of wonderful things.

Sparks and I have been watching a BBC series called The Hairy Bikers Food Tour of England (if you can get your hands on it, do, it’s absolutely wonderful), and the episode we most recently watched was Shropshire. The little glimpses we got of Shrewsbury moved me–in my weakened and jetlagged state–almost to tears, they were so charming. Buildings are half-timbered and streets (I didn’t actually notice, but I’m imagining, so indulge me) are cobblestoned, and the bikers visited several shops that were straight out of Holly and Ivy–a sausage shop, a cheese shop, a jams and preserves shop. They went on a pheasant hunt. They gathered wild berries. They mentioned a poultry farmer who writes the name of the mother-duck on each package of duck eggs he sells.

Why on earth, I ask myself, can’t I live somewhere so charming…

And then, during our recent honeymoon in Florence, we spent much time walking around the Piazza Duomo and the street that connects it to the Piazza della Santissimi Annunziata, which is lined with again this very kind of tiny, exquisite shop. The shop that sold stationery with Florentine illumination–the pipe shop with a window full of Meerschaums that drew Sparks like a moth to a flame–the window full of beautiful watches, their backs popped open so we could see the workings–the store full of tidy prints of Florentine architecture–it went on and on.

I was reminded of a movie I saw once. I can’t remember what it was, though because it was in color and in Russian I think it was Eugene Onegin. There is a scene in which a woman walks along just such a row of shops in St. Petersburg, all shining wood and sparkling muntined panes of glass and gaslight, filled with hand-crafted, obscenely priced treasures.

So here is what I am imagining, today. A village square lined with small stores, architecturally beautiful, lighted, cheerful. Each one sells something specific and special; each one sells something locally made or imported at great expense and in small quantities. Shopping, in this village square, is a million miles removed from Wal-Mart. You have to really think about what you want to buy. Though the shops are designed to breathe out an air of refined taste, richness, sumptuous care, and exquisite quality, you still don’t make impulse purchases. You think about what you need. You think about what you will really use. When you finally do buy, you treasure. No BOGO, no three-for-ten-pounds, no clearance sales and no ordering from the outlet the next town over. No back-ordering.

Cheese. Meats. Jams. Fruit. Paper. Leather. Watches. Pipes and tobacco. Wonderful.

His Grace of Osmonde

Published September 4, 2009 by Kat

His Grace of Osmonde

It took me a while, but I have finished reading His Grace of Osmonde. If you recall, this is… not quite a sequel or prequel, but rather a simultaneous novel. Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote A Lady of Quality and, it seems, so fell in love with Clorinda Wildairs that she wrote a second novel about Clorinda’s “mate”, Gerald Mertoun, also known as the Duke of Osmonde.

As a book it wasn’t very interesting. Burnett wanted opportunities to instruct the reader on how to feel about Clorinda’s story, and took the Duke’s lifelong interest in her as a way to do so. She also, apparently, wanted to smooth over some kerfuffles that were caused by the original book. What was going on in Clorinda’s head? Were her good manners entirely put on, and underneath was she still the raving, selfish, lordly creature of her youth? Well, no, Burnett explains to us. Clorinda actually made a quick transition from wildcat to pussycat, and really is a tender and loving person. Well, we’re glad we got that straight, Fanny.

Secondly, and more largely, there was the issue of manslaughter, and of keeping the secret from her husband. No doubt as Burnett wrote the first novel she was thinking of how brave and noble Clorinda was to save her loved ones from her own moral burden, but there are other ways to interpret her actions: as cowardly, self-serving, and dishonest towards her husband. Burnett makes quite sure that we understand that this is not the case, and writes an additional scene–beyond the timeline of the first book–in which the Duke lets Clorinda know that he knows, and that everything is cool between them.

While I think that both books would be immeasurably improved by combining them into one (though the exciting breakneck pace of the first book would be tempered by doing this, many of its faults and mysteries would also be more comfortably explained… also, it would make the important material in the second book more palatable), I am also a little disappointed by the fact that the second book was written at all.

I sympathize with Burnett, who, like Thomas Hardy and his Tess, seems to have fallen in love with her character. Of course one wants to write more about the lady Clo. Of course one wants to read more. However, what was so exciting about the first book is the way that it completely flaunts Victorian prescriptions about what a novel and a heroine should be, while actually following the rules. Clo swears, drinks, hunts, fights, screams, screws, sells herself, and kills… and yet she is a noble and gentle heroine who accomplishes all of the tender domestic things we’d like to see her accomplish. The second book mitigates her. It tames her, explains her, softens and tenderizes her, anoints and forgives her.

Quite frankly, I could have done without. Oh well.