Posts from July 2010

July 26th, 2010

The Duchess of Newcastle’s Memoir!

Our book today is the sprightly, weirdly honest wish-it-were-longer memoir of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, who’s near the top of a list of those oddball historical personages I’m always surprised to find isn’t better known. Better known in this case would be a distinct improvement over totally un-known, which is the current state of affairs with this remarkable woman, who in her own day was a trailblazer noteworthy even in an age of trailblazers.

It isn’t just that she was brought up by her loving mother in a family atmosphere of trust, support, and encouragement – although that was still a rarity in 17th century England; and it isn’t just that she intended to cut a dash in her life quite independent of the men around her – although she did indeed do that, designing her own unique style of clothes, fashioning her own unique style of speech, and cultivating her own unique brand of personality entirely separate from her powerful, equally vibrant older brothers or her easy-going husband, William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle; and it isn’t just that she was impatient of the second-class restrictions put on women in all walks of life – although she was, even going so far as to be the first woman to attend a proceeding of the Royal Society. No, the superlative that concerns us today regarding Margaret Cavendish is bookish, as she would have liked it to be: she poured herself into an endless stream of books, at a time when even the most educated women dared not parade that fact.

She was born Margaret Lucas in 1623 to a wealthy royalist Essex family, and she was writing scenes, monologues, and fantasies from the moment she could first make her letters (a moment postponed perhaps a bit by the rather lax emphasis her delightful mother put on drilling children in their lessons against their will – her mother’s first question in virtually any situation was “Well, what would you like to do?”). When Civil War broke out in 1642, young Margaret volunteered her services as a lady in waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, and two years later she went with the queen into continental exile, where she met William Cavendish and fell in love.

He fell in love with her as well, although not for her looks – despite what worshipful portraits might want to sell you, Margaret Cavendish was a short, homely woman with a pug nose, an underbite, and stringy brown hair – but rather for her leaping, darting, restless mind, and for a fact that most men are too stupid to prize: life with her was never boring.

As soon as Charles II was restored to his throne, the couple returned, reclaimed the bulk of Newcastle’s seized estates, and promptly retired to the countryside of Nottinghamshire to write and read and talk with each other. Margaret disliked the superficial frenzy of the court, and she and her husband very much liked the quiet, invigorating routine they developed. During her time in exile, Margaret had already begun publishing works of wildly varying natures under her own name, gaining just exactly the mixture of cheering fans and serial deriders such public figures have always had. Her Poems and Fancies and Philosophical Fancies were fresh, effusive, often silly, ultimately invigorating – and provocative, because she readily admitted she was no scholar (although she resented the inevitable speculation that her husband guided her hand while she wrote – there’s a hot denial of that innuendo in virtually all of her works).

That’s the trail she blazed that interests us today: she was the first woman in modern times – indeed, one of the first writers of either gender in modern times – to make herself not just the narrator of her various intellectual investigations but also the subject of them; she dramatized her own process of perpetual inquiry, never for a moment doubting that it was of intrinsic interest to her readers. For some reason, it’s hugely gratifying to see how often, how happily, she makes reference in her various works to “my readers.” There’s a particular quiet pride that comes with being able to say that, and surely for most of her life Margaret was the only woman in England who would say it (needless to say, if she were alive today she would be blogging to beat the world).  Even the redoubtable Aphra Behn only followed in her wake.

All her works contain threads of fascination (not nearly enough such fascination, if you listen to her most illustrious critic, Virginia Woolf – or too many threads), but perhaps the most fascinating thing of all is her brief memoir, in which she openly divulges all kinds of personal quirks and habits of her own and, in the what has since become the grand tradition of memoir writing (although you could make a case that it started here), she lies her face off on virtually every page. It’s an indelibly charming work, as precipitate and immediate as anything Pepys ever wrote.

Typical of the woman and typical of the time, she spends a good portion of the memoir’s scanty page-count defending its very existence against anticipated charges of willful flightiness:

I desire all my readers and acquaintances to believe, though my words run stumbling out of my mouth, and my pen draws roughly on my paper, yet my thoughts move regular in my brain for the several tracks or paths that contemplation hath made on my brain, which paths or tracks are the several ways my thoughts move in are much smoother than the tongue in my mouth, from whence words flow, or the paper on which my pen writes: for I have not spoke so much as I have writ, nor writ so much as I have thought …

A good line, but the book scarcely bares it out – those acquaintances of hers would not have recognized a Margaret who placed any control on what she spoke, writ, or thought. Her sentences often mirror the endless cascade of talk she could be in person, sometimes rambling for entire pages without a single breath of a period:

As for my breeding, it was according to my birth, and the nature of my sex; for my birth was not lost in my breeding, for as my sisters was or had been bred, so was I in plenty or rather with superfluity; likewise we were bred virtuously, modestly, civilly, honourably, and on honest principles: as for plenty, we had not only for necessity, conveniency, and decency, but for delight and pleasure to a superfluity; ‘tis true we did not riot, but we lived orderly; for riot even in the kings’ courts and princes’ palaces, brings ruin without content or pleasure, when order in less fortunes shall live more plentifully and deliciously then princes, that live in a hurlieburlie, as I may term it, in which they are seldom well served, for disorder obstructs; besides, it doth disgust life, distract the appetites, and yield no true relish to the sences; for pleasure, delight, peace, and felicitie, live in method and temperance.

She could pause and be quiet when it suited her; the memoir’s sweetest, softest notes are sounded when she’s remembering her mother:

Her beauty was beyond the ruin of time… one might think death was enamoured with her ,for he imbraced her in a sleep, and so gently, as if he were afraid to hurt her …

But this is definitely the Margaret Show, and her protestations are everywhere, for the gullible to believe:

… whatsoever I was addicted to, either in fashion of cloths, contemplation of thoughts, actions of life, they were lawful, honest, honourable, and modest, of which I can avouch to the world with a great confidence, because it is a pure truth.

Modesty seldom entered into things with her, but one part of this is most certainly pure truth: her dialogue was conducted with the world. And the world listened – often hooting in derision, but listening just the same, and buying her books as fast as she could issue and re-issue them. Penguin Classics used to make a slim volume of those books, but it didn’t include the memoir; some enterprising publisher ought to craft a tiny, gorgeous (and fully annotated, of course) edition of just that one remarkable work, so people could bring the Duchess everywhere they go.

July 25th, 2010

Act One!

Our book today is Moss Hart’s boisterous, utterly unforgettable 1959 autobiography, Act One, not only one of the best American memoirs but one of the best theatrical memoirs ever written. Hart fell in love with the theater as a boy, reading back issues of Theatre Magazine and dreaming of that world before he ever saw it, and the book opens with the story of his Bronx employer sending the yearning, dreaming 12-year-old Hart on an errand to Broadway, where his dour, unimaginative parents had previously forbidden him to go. He steps off the subway into a world of wonder, and he’s forever convinced that he’s found his home. As he sardonically puts it, he’s caught a sickness:

There is no point whatever in writing or reading a book of theatrical reminiscences if either the writer or the reader is to be hampered by incredulity, an aversion to melodrama, or even the somewhat foolish glow of the incorrigibly stage-struck. Like it or not, the credulous eye and the quixotic heart are part and parcel of the theatre. The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection.

It’s not a sickness for which he wants a cure (except in his darkest moments, and Act One does have them – like most theater folk, Hart was prone to mood swings), and the book chronicles his unceasing efforts to move his life (and the living quarters of his family) closer and closer to the world of his dreams. He gets work as an errand boy and starts hammering out plays, learns the practicalities of his craft in the Borscht Belt circuit far from New York lights, and eventually makes writes and directs his way back to the glorious, petty, heartbreaking, wonderfully human world of New York theater. It could be a catty world too, naturally, and Hart wouldn’t have it any other way:

The most exhilarating theatrical discussions are usually those denigrating success, and I am certain that in al the little restaurants and bars that dot the theatrical district of today, just such groups are stirring their coffee and pouring their spleen into the hides and reputations of the successful. It is a game as ageless and fascinating as the theatre itself, and each time one of the mighty falls, the glad cry of “Bingo!” is joyfully voiced with all the resonance of a hallelujah chorus.

The stinging mention of those little bars and restaurants that dot the theatrical district will be the present-day reader’s surest tip that we’re dealing in ancient history here. When Hart was directing and writing such delightful war-horses as You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came To Dinner, and My Fair Lady, Broadway was still a place that could not only inspire a 12-year-old Moss Hart but actually also nurture him; shows cost at most an hour’s pay, not a month’s mortgage, and errand-boys were kids with the fire to learn the craft, not Choate waiting-listers with resumes to fatten. In other words, Hart is clearly writing about pre-Cameron Makintosh Broadway.

There’s a lot of great theater in this book, understandably, from the gallery of great portraits of the legends Hart encountered (his long-time collaborator George Kaufman being a frustrating exception, as vague and elusive in these pages as he so often was in real life) to the hilariously self-aggrandizing final scene where an exultant Hart, with great notices and three runaway hits suddenly to his credit, takes a cab out to his family’s squalid one-bedroom apartment at dawn, wakes everybody up, and tells them they’re all leaving for a hotel in Manhattan in an hour with nothing but the clothes on their back – none of their grimy old furniture, none of their shabby old utensils, not even a toothbrush … they’ll make a totally clean start in the City with the money he’s bringing in. I doubt Brendan Behan could have improved the business (and as you’d expect, there’s quite a lot of great theater that’s left out, including all hint of Hart’s illicit second life as a clandestine and self-loathing gay man; during his heyday in Broadway, Hart spent a great deal of money and time with an astonishingly beautiful young actor named Gordon Merrick, who would go on to pen some of the most forthright gay novels ever written – there’s a Hart character in virtually every one of them, seldom, alas, written sympathetically).

And in addition to being an accidental hymn of praise to the Broadway Cameron Makintosh destroyed, Hart’s book also manages quite often to describe perfectly some aspects of theatrical life and stagecraft that will never change. There are long passages throughout Act One that would have had Shakespeare – or Sophocles – nodding fondly in recognition:

The initial performance, the raising of a curtain on a play before its very first audience, is for me at least the worst two hours of that play’s existence, whatever its subsequent fate may be. No one really knows anything much about a play until it meets its first audience; not its directors, its actors, its producers, and least of all its author. The scenes he has counting on most strongly, his favorite bits of fine writing – the delicately balanced emotional or comedic thrusts, the witty, ironic summing up, the wry third-act curtain with its caustic stinging last line that adroitly illuminates the theme – these are the things that are most likely to go down the drain first, sometimes with an audible thud. The big scene in the second act, or the touching speech that reflects all of the author’s personal philosophy – that cherished mosaic of words on which he has secretly based his hopes for the Pulitzer Prize or at the very least the Drama Critics Award – such things the audience invariably will sit silently but politely through, patiently waiting for the reappearance of that delightful minor character, who was tossed in only to highlight the speech, or for an echo of that delicious little scene which was written only as a transition to the big one.

Hart of course did win his Pulitzer, and many awards besides – but for all us bookish folk (and even those of us who came late to books after – ironically enough – the theater), his greatest achievement will always be this heartfelt, hammy marvel of a book.

July 21st, 2010

New York Jew!

Our book today is Alfred Kazin’s chatty, superbly eloquent and altogether magnificent 1978 memoir New York Jew, which is, to my amazement, still in print at something like a reasonable price. This assuages my usual default of anger when it comes to incredible volumes like this, which are so often completely forgotten by the very reading public who need them most (we won’t talk about the fact that there are no Penguin paperbacks of Kazin’s work, nor any attention from the Library of America or such houses …).

Every time I re-read New York Jew, I’m freshly amazed at how vigorous it is, how encyclopedic. The Second World War is here, as is the Holocaust and the psychic shockwaves it sent through the whole world, including the humanist intelligentsia of which Kazin was already a paid-up member:

Late one Friday afternoon near the end of the war, I was waiting out in the rain in the entrance to a music store. A radio was playing into the street and, standing there, I heard the first Sabbath service from Belsen. In April a British detachment had stumbled on Belsen by accident, had come upon forty thousand sick, starving, and dying prisoners. Over ten thousand corpses were stacked in piles. Belsen was the first Nazi camp to be exposed to the world, and the London Times correspondent began his dispatch: “It is now my duty to describe something beyond the imagination of mankind.” Now I heard the liberated Jewish prisoners in Belsen say the Shema – “Here O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One.” Weeping in the rain, I said it with them. For a moment I was home.

That home is also a recurrent theme in this book. As you could guess from the title, Kazin here grapples in wonderfully contradictory and human ways with what his own Jewishness and what it means to be Jewish in the hurtling, flinty America of the postwar generation. The well-worn words of the psalm can prompt a gorgeous aria that is complicated and yearning and irritated all at once:

If I forget thee! We never forgot anything; our holy book, our book of laws and commandments, was a history book, a recital that went back so far and was repeated so fondly that the history of this people seemed magical, unreal, improbable to everyone but themselves. How could one possibly justify the return to Eretz Israel by secular, rational, “normal” reasoning? How could one explain the inordinate zeal of the Socialist Prime Minister Ben-Gurion who said of the “ingathering” of so many “exiles,” “We are living in the days of the Messiah?” There was no justification for any of this except the divine wisdom to the Jews of their mad perpetuation. There was a sacredness that the Jews had made part of their existence, but often understood as little as others understood them. The God who first disclosed himself as fire was, as usual, an impassable barrier. He could not be encompassed in words. We were, above all, creatures of culture, idolaters of words. Words were our culture; culture had to do everything. God did not seem much connected with “culture.” Certainly nothing had so betrayed us as culture, humanism, the fine professions of European civilization.

And his own creative struggles are here as well, captured with clarity and appealing fictionalization. This is more than anything else a writer’s book, especially a New York writer’s book. The city bright avenues and endless weathers exercise Kazin at all times – he calls it warfare, but on every page it reads like love:

Those sleepless hours in the morning dark were difficult and beautiful. The harbor was all around me as I lay in bed listening to tugs hooting a block away. By dawn I would get up to find my painter’s skylight and great north windows awash with sea light. I had coffee with Bach as I struggled my way to the typewriter. I had started a loose unwieldy book about New York-at-large, based on my hypnotized walking of the city. Walking was my way of thinking, of escape into myself, of dreaming the details back. The book was all externals, buildings, loneliness, my daily battle with New York.

(The “loose unwieldy book” would of course end up being A Walker in the City, as odd and lyrical a masterpiece as American letters has ever produced)

But the main attraction of New York Jew – at least in this latest re-reading of mine (check with me in three or four years, and I’ll likely have an entirely different main attraction to crow about) – is the gallery of portraits that unfolds as the book goes on. Kazin excelled in describing people, and he lavishes his best gifts toward that aim in this book. Here he talks about Edmund Wilson’s red, fox-hunting squire’s face, and the nervous, not-quite-sincere self-deprecation of John F. Kennedy, and the febrile animation of Randall Jarrell, and the fact that Mary McCarthy got prettier when she talked about books. He half-jokingly laments the mandarin ways of some of his older colleagues in the glory days of The New Republic:

They had a conscious air; they were the voice of tradition. They came out of their studies with an air ironic, faintly burdened, as if determined to meet the world only halfway.

And he fondly remembers another colleague who came alive for audiences big and small:

He looked, he looked – how much he looked! He seemed as finished, as rounded-out as a character in a novel. I knew him as a performer in conversation, where he played many parts and imitated many other performers. He seemed to keep himself afloat by the comic fixity of his eye even as he grew more and more seductive.

Too often memoirs are mere datebook-jottings coagulated into a mass of unfeeling, unmoving verbiage (if any of you have ever contemplated reading David Rockefeller’s Memoirs, for instance, don’t bother: just stare at a cinder-block for two hours, and you’ll get the gist of it just fine), but oh! How glorious they can be when they seize their own dual nature – the weave of history through the wanderings of memory – for all it’s worth! A once-lionized American statesman once said that the best possible memoir was the one where the writer pens ‘that’s all I can remember’ and then immediately dies. I’m not sure Kazin would have disagreed, although I’m grateful he didn’t have the guts to try it out – after all, I look forward to talking about his other books here at Stevereads some day!

July 18th, 2010

Two Park Street!

Our book today is Paul Brook’s utterly enchanting 1986 memoir Two Park Street, about some of the glorious times he had in his forty-plus years of association with the storied old Boston publishing house Houghton Mifflin. Brooks started in the business in the early 1930s, when it was still run in an inefficient, ramshackle, and thoroughly human way, and back then, nobody could have foreseen the immense and horrifying changes that would sweep over the whole industry by the close of the 20th century. Those changes would leave nothing whatsoever intact of the publishing world Brooks entered, loved, and – as manager of Houghton Mifflin’s immensely influential trade division for decades – lead for so long. Books are still published in this country, on printed paper in English, but that’s all Brooks would recognize of the world he once loved as passionately as anybody.

He opens his wonderful book (it’s 150 tantalizing pages, and you wish it were five times as long) by describing a meeting the house’s executive committee had with Wall Street investors in 1967 shortly after Houghton Mifflin “went public” … a meeting at which those investors and analysts wanted to know what books the firm had coming out and what profit they expected to make – in actual dollars and cents – from each of them. Brooks had no answer, of course, and said something about how publishers must simply try to make the best cookies they could and let the fortunes take care of themselves. At the time, he was greeted with patronizing smiles and a free lunch. Today, saying such a thing to the stone-cold illiterate 23-year-old Bertelsmann power-suited executives (all wearing their sunglasses indoors, all with bright pink coke-nostrils), he would have been punched to the floor and beaten until he was dead, right there in the conference room.

Years ago, Ursula Le Guin wrote a wonderful essay for Harper’s on the state of book publishing, in which she urged big corporations to simply divest themselves of the troublesome ‘literary’ divisions of the publishing houses they’d acquired, since those divisions can’t reliably make money and the serious reading public is shrinking anyway. It was a funny plea with a twinkle in its eye, since Le Guin knew perfectly well she was pulling a Br’er Rabbit, scornfully advising corporations to do the one thing she and every serious reader prays nightly they’ll do: get out of the book business, let it go back to the “muddle” it once was, stop pauperizing publishing divisions by forcing them to pay 18 kazillion dollar advances to people like Stephen King or his anointed successor, so that the money can be “plowed” back into the finding and encouraging of waves of new writers, developing writers, struggling writers, or meritorious writers who’ve yet to find their audience.

Of course, Le Guin’s calls will go unheeded. As long as there’s any money to be made in publishing, by any methods at all, corporations will be interested – and as long as they’re interested, they’ll run things as corporations, with managers rewarded for being assholes, with every single activity or procedure graphed out along an continuum from ‘needs work’ to ‘totally unacceptable’ (in such a mind frame, nobody ever actually does anything well anymore), with allegedly fluent grown-ups using fad-phrases like “going forward” … and with ‘investors’ pushing for million-dollar paydays for a tiny handful of authors, as if making a parking-garage full of money was ever the reason why anybody worthwhile ever wrote a single word (with apologies to Johnson).

Brooks writes with unabashed, amber sentimentality about that now-lost “muddle.” Here are the ‘characters’ who went about their various rituals in Houghton Mifflin’s old offices at 2 Park Street in Boston (with conference room windows overlooking the Old Granary Burial Ground); here are actual human receptionists answering calls and chatting with customers and authors alike; here are the celebrated three-martini publisher lunches over which so much good business managed to get conducted; and here at Houghton Mifflin was the annual buying-trip to England, where many useful publishing contacts were made and much trans-oceanic dreaming was done.

Here also were the editors, a battered, valiant, monstrously overworked crew who tackled the vast piles of manuscripts that came to Houghton Mifflin every year. These editors had the enviable job of trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, and in my opinion this house had a better track record than virtually any other. How thrilling it is, to read Brooks give credit where it’s due to one of those editors, a wise and soft-spoken woman named Anne Barrett, who wrote this note in one of her editorial reports:

A rich book and a deadly serious one. I think it is wonderful, but it has its drawbacks. Who will read 423 pages about an unfinished journey undertaken by mythical creatures with confusing names? Probably no one, but I still say it is wonderful and – with my heart in my mouth – to publish. October, 1937.

The book was Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, and it and its sequels have done fairly for Houghton Mifflin ever since.

Brooks makes the point over and over in his chapters: back when publishing was an artistic endeavor rather than a financial investment, editors and writers enjoyed a relationship that’s largely vanished from the industry. They were friends and business colleagues, almost co-conspirators, and the results could range anywhere from the editor offering the author a night’s lodging and ending up with Thomas Wolfe sprawled all over their guest room for a month to perhaps even more sketchy incidents. Brooks relates the story of how he and his wife ‘volunteered’ to re-enact the canoe-journey Henry David Thoreau and his brother took on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, all to help one of the house’s authors research his biography of Thoreau:

From Billerica the Thoreau brothers turned off on the Middlesex Canal, but since it had long ago dried up, we had to portage around a formidable mill-race before paddling downstream to the center of Lowell and thence up the Merrimack River, with highways resounding from both banks most of the way. By nightfall we had reached our objective: Nashua, New Hampshire. But how to get home? At length we found a broken-down taxi that took us and our boat back to Lincoln by 2:00 a.m. Here we learned that someone had reported to the Concord police seeing a couple in a canoe depart but not return. Presumably they were about to drag the river. On receiving my report of our journey, Dr. Canby decided that this was sufficient research for his purposes. I mention it merely as one small example of routine service by editors to their authors.

Those authors included such legendary figures as the immensely likeable, down-to-earth Esther Forbes, the haughty-but-personable Anya Seton, the aforementioned larger-than-life Thomas Wolfe, the great trinity of Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger, and Benny DeVoto, the wildlife-guide guru Roger Tory Peterson, the great Rachel Carlson, and the bombastic Winston Churchill (Brooks also mentions a one-time publicity director for Houghton Mifflin, a writer – if such a term isn’t too generous – called Jack Leggett, about whom the less said the better), and the loving portraits Brooks draws of dealing with each of them leaves the reader with the distinct impression that we have wandered into dwarfish times here in the 21st century, when the point of the exercise anymore isn’t to write a great book or even a good one – or indeed any kind of book at all. The point for all the sad young literary men these days is to write the Future Source-Material for the Screenplay, and to get paid $15 million dollars to do it. Caring about the quality or craft of that Future Source-Material is just wasting time that could be spent talking about yourself in faux-humble terms at a podium at the 92nd Street Y. And caring about your subject matter? Please. Either make it lyingly autobiographical or make it about vampires – who cares? The point is selling it as soon as it’s done, selling it for more money than the last fifty generations of your family have seen collectively – for more money than you or anybody else in the world could possibly need. Yeah, that’s the writer’s dream.

Brooks wouldn’t recognize this landscape, nor would he want to. It’s a stump-studded wasteland populated by mindlessly avaricious Future Source-Material Generators whose goal is not to provide coming generations with immortal prose but to provide their little daughters with horses who can be given pretentious names. If some equivalent of Brooks’ Houghton Mifflin were to approach one of these Future Source-Material Generators and say, “We can pay you $15 million for your three-book series about sexy androids who fall in love with clumsy high school girls, but it will mean we’ll have to close our lists to all other fiction authors until your series is done in 2021; if you take the money, you’ll be the only fiction author we can afford for that period – we’ll be publishing you and crossword puzzle books and nothing else,” the Future Source-Material Generator would not only take the money, they would punch Brooks to the floor and beat him until he was dead.

But at least we have gemlike little books like  Two Park Street, to remind us that it wasn’t always so.

July 17th, 2010

Sir John Vanbrugh!

Our book today is Kerry Downes’ big, thorough 1987 biography of that hustling, bustling Restoration polymath, John Vanbrugh.

Vanbrugh was one of those masterful thinkers they don’t seem to make anymore – a relic from a time before specialization was expected of every intellect. He was a soldier, a diplomat, a wine merchant, a book dealer, and two more things, the two that most deeply mark his life and legacy: he was a playwright, and he was an architect. The typical easy English major dichotomies – “so-and-so-wrote works of art that will outlast the greatest monuments of his age” – fall to pieces when dealing with somebody like Vanbrugh, since in addition to his works of art, he also built some of the greatest monuments of his age, and they’re with us still. It’s as if Hawksmoor had taken time out to write the sonnets of Shakespeare, or Christopher Wren had put aside his architectural notebooks just long enough to dash off Handel’s Water Music.

The plays – The Confederacy, The Relapse, The Provok’d Wife and many others – stand at the pinnacle of Restoration stagecraft for their wit, their intricacy, and their sheer animal force (Vanbrugh counted both Dryden and Pepys among his fans, although not at the same time). And the monuments – Seaton Delaval, Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace – are as gorgeous as they are inexorable in sweep and odd delicacy of design. The man himself lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in English history – the Dutch wars, the Plague, the Great Fire, the sudden-feeling shift from old-style monarchy to a land ruled by Parliament – and he lept into its currents with more energy than later ages would find it convenient to summon.

It’s amazing to me that figures like Jack Vanbrugh aren’t revisited frequently by biographers. The material is so enviably rich and voluminous, whereas the would-be writer on Shakespeare or Jane Austen has just the same old small stack of index cards with which to conjure. And yet: Wren has had only two full-dress popular biographies in English in the last century, and Hawksmoor and poor Vanbrugh have had only one apiece – and they were both written by the same guy, Kerry Downes. Not that I’m characterizing this as a misfortune for Vanbrugh: Downes is an incredibly thorough and thoroughly entertaining biographer, and his enormous book , Sir John Vanbrugh, would likely stand unchallenged as the definitive work on its subject even if it had any challengers. Downes is unabashedly old-fashioned in his approach: he likes his subject. “Some critics have found something particularly unfortunate or even unbecoming in Vanbrugh’s blank verse,” he tells us at one point, “but in literature as in architecture his is the kind of genius which no aesthetic theory dependant on a rigid system of categories will accommodate with fairness.” I’d hope a biographer of mine would strike just that kind of note!

And as noted, in addition to sympathy, Downes has one further strength for his thankless job: he’s a heck of a story-teller. A life like Vanbrugh’s makes that somewhat easy (anecdotes like the time he and Congreve and Lord Halifax dropped their britches on a particularly hot day and ‘sopped their arses’ in the fountain at Hampton Court are not hard to come by), but much still depends on the writer’s verve, seen, for instance, here in Downes’ description of the harrowing ‘Great Storm’ that swept through the south of England on 26 and 27 November of 1703:

A great wind came from the south-west, accompanied by thunderstorms. Orchards were destroyed, many thousands of oak trees were felled in the New Forest and the Forest of Dean, their roots often raising huge mounds of earth as they were wrenched out of the ground. Many of the surviving trees in agricultural areas were festooned with the remains of haystacks caught up in the whirlwind. Church spires were blown down, and in the City pinnacles were taken off some of the new churches and the roof works of the still unfinished St Paul’s were damaged. Houses lost their roofs or were even blown down, and the sheet-lead roofs of churches were rolled up by the gale. Falls of soot were everywhere, and at Wells the Bishop and his wife were killed as they lay in bed when a chimney stack collapsed on them. In the Channel many ships were sunk or damaged and sailors drowned. London was filled with rubbish of all kinds, while the center of Bristol was clogged with wrecked ships raised from the port basin by the combined forces of high wind and high tide. Congreve wrote to a friend that at Whitehall some of the big sash-windows, only recently installed in the Banqueting House, were sucked out and blown away.

Downes’ book is full of line-drawings of Vanbrugh’s various surviving blueprints and sketches, and it’s generously supplied with photos of his surviving architectural masterpieces (which yet have their own second life in film, Blenheim most recently starring in Kenneth Branagh’s wretched “Hamlet” and Castle Howard, of course, doing magnificent stand-in duty for Brideshead in “Brideshead Revisited”) – and best of all, Downes himself is there at every crucial juncture, always with a spirited opinion or an inspired interpretation (his reconstruction of the years Vanbrugh spent captive in France – including a stint in the Bastille – are particularly strong). So all in all, if a great figure in history is going to be ignored by the panty-waist popularity-hound ‘lite’ biographers of today, Vanbrugh is at least lucky he got such a marvelous volume before his fame went silent.

July 13th, 2010

Blue Remembered Hills!

Our book today is Blue Remembered Hills, Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1983 childhood memoir about growing up in England shortly before and during World War II, and even that brief description raises two possible strikes against it in the minds of many readers. First strike, it’s by a “children’s author” and so might be strident or unpleasantly didactic. Second strike, it’s a childhood memoir, and so might be prey to saccharine myth-making.

These apprehensions increase when the reader learns that in childhood Sutcliffe was diagnosed with a rare form of juvenile arthritis – one immediately fears the appearance (let alone repeated use) of the word ‘plucky.’

But readers should cast aside such worries – and readers who are actually familiar with Sutcliff’s books won’t have worried in the first place. This is a flat-out fantastic author who never put pen to paper without rigorously exercising the result into something eminently worth reading. Her “children’s” books are for any reader childlike enough to favor clear, strong prose, well-drawn characters, and rousing, memorable plots.  And Blue Remembered Hills is nothing less than enchanting.

Sutcliff’s physical affliction, and the fact her father, a life-long naval man, was usually away from home, threw her into great dependence on her mother, by far the most remarkable character in this book. She’s a kind, strong-willed woman, and she and her daughter are often at loggerheads in the book (and there are consequences of outright, unreasonable defiance: this was back when parents were still allowed to slap their children if their children staged screaming, stomping, crying, manipulative fake-hysterics in public). And yet the book is over-brimming with daughterly affection – Mrs. Sutcliff could scarcely have dreamt of a more touching partial biography, even once she knew she had a writer for a daughter.

It being a childhood memoir and thus intimately concerned with loss, Blue Remembered Hills has quite a few other touching parts, and all of them are rendered with the same lyrical prose line and lack of sanctimony that characterizes her novels. One story about a stint in convalescent care seems to float and ramble – until the final two-tap punch is expertly delivered:

As before, there was a spell in the nursing-home for me, to shut off one chapter from the next, or maybe to make a kind of bridge between them. It was a big nursing-home in Hampstead. I don’t remember a thing about the treatment I underwent there; I only know that I was there for six weeks, and that during that time two things happened. One day, one of the nurses, in their free time and bless their kind young hearts, took me to see Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House; and one night there were strange noises and much coming and going in the eight-bed ward, and I was scared and could not sleep, and the woman in the next bed told me stories and talked to me softly all night long, so that I should not know that at the far end of the ward an older woman was dying and dying hard.

And even that most shopworn of childhood traumas, the death of a beloved pet, is rescued by dint of the author’s sheer craft. Here it isn’t the final coda but instead a great little juxtaposition, one perfect little ‘childlike’ line inserted quietly amidst all the practical, physical (and lovely) description:

The boy from a nearby farm who occasionally did some gardening for us, our veteran of the leeks and white alyssum having long since retired, dug him a grave alongside [earlier dog] Don’s, just outside the gate into the wood, and we put his collar on, that he might not run stray and nameless among the stars, and wrapped him in his blanket, like Sir John Moore, and put his beloved blue rubber ball in with him. And when the boy had shovelled back the earth and gone away, and we were left standing over the new grave, my mother read bits of the Burial Service over him, and pushed little wild daffodil bulbs from the bank into the soft earth, ready for the spring. It was Hallowe’en, with a cold grey mist dripping from among the trees. And all the while we both cried with quite desolation, the tears trickling down our noses, for Mike who had come to us at six weeks old and been a part of us ever since.

The reader gets the impression that the Sutcliffs were a family fond of a nicely-done anecdote or quip, and all of them are here, carefully preserved, in Blue Remembered Hills, which covers the years from the author’s childhood until the start of her publishing career. That start comes when an early manuscript is bought (for the princely sum of 50 pounds), and there’s much family pride on the occasion, with a perfect quip to hint at the greater fame to come:

My father made no attempt to be humble at all. If he had not been such a quiet man, I would have said that he crowed.

In old age, he invented a joke. ‘Once, Rosemary Sutcliff used to be my daughter; but I’m Rosemary Sutcliff’s father now.’

Several of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels have recently been given spiffy re-issues in the United States, and her ‘profile’ is about to get an added boost, since Eagle of the Ninth is about to be released as a big-budget movie staring that prime slab of beef, Channing Tatum. Even given the extra attention, it’s unlikely Blue Remembered Hills will be re-issued, but it’s well worth reading just the same. It  will touch your heart, and as Rosemary Sutcliff herself would have said, there’s nothing wrong with that, from time to time.

July 12th, 2010

Mountbatten!

Our book today is Philip Ziegler’s massive 1985 biography of Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Battenberg, better known to history as ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten. Ziegler’s book is superb, but even so, that ‘better known to history’ line is trembly: Mountbatten might very well be the greatest unknown man of the 20th century.

Friends of mine who’ve seen the Mountbatten books on my shelves (I have four biographies of the man – including one very good one that remains unpublished – and several books in which he features as a key player, such as Collins & Lapierre’s Freedom at Midnight, previously reviewed here at Stevereads) have all wondered at the weirdly obscure people whose biographies occupy so much of my time. Usually, I don’t protest, since there’s an element of truth in the comment. But the truth is relative as well: in 1950, casual observers of my bookshelves (same books, different dogs) would have noticed far fewer obscure names – but the books would be the same. The reason is obvious: the observers have changed, or rather, their schooling has. In 1950, every single active reader looking at my shelves would have recognized the names of Cellini, Fremont, or Gaskell. Today, with active readers under the age of 60, I’m lucky if Custer gets an ‘ah, yes.’ Schools don’t teach history anymore, and schools have never properly taught biography. It’s a shame, but we can make up for lost time right here!

And the irony is, Mountbatten has the excuse of neither antiquity nor obscurity to warrant his neglect: he was one of the architects of the world we now inhabit, and his life was of the larger-than-life variety that the public ought to eat up. Queen Victoria was his great-grandmother (he knocked off her spectacles at his christening), his nephew Philip married Queen Elizabeth II, and he was college chums with the future Kings Edward VIII and George VI. During World War Two he helped plan the epic combined-force ventures that eventually retook Fortress Europe from Hitler, and in the years afterward, he was the Supreme Commander of the British forces in Southeast Asia and the last British Viceroy of India (before it calved Pakistan and gained its independence). And for the last four decades of his long and vigorous life, he was the driving, unifying force – the living game-plan, as it were – behind the very idea of the modern British monarchy, largely through his very close advisory relationship with Prince Charles (look at any random public shot of the Royals during those years and you’re likely to see him, sitting or standing right behind Charles in a disconcerting imitation of Edgar Bergen). He was still vigorously going strong when an IRA bomb planted on his fishing yacht detonated directly under his feet, killing him instantly. Regarding roughly 100 men and 10 women, we can honestly say: “the 20th century would have been very different, had they not been alive,” and Mountbatten is certainly one of those people.

So why the neglect, especially considering the fact that Ziegler’s biography is utterly engrossing, as jauntily readable as the best kind of fiction (it’s an ‘official’ life, but the royal family, perhaps knowing how lucky they were to have a writer of Ziegler’s caliber interested in the job, wisely put no restrictions on him – as a result, there are many passages that would have infuriated Mountbatten, but none, I think, that would have moved him to call a lawyer)?

Oddly enough, I think it may have to do with the subject’s weird brand of humility. That’s not a word anybody who knew him would have associated even distantly with Mountbatten, and in its more pietistic meanings it definitely doesn’t apply. He was tall, extremely handsome, bottomlessly tough despite nagging health problems, and thoroughly entitled in the most literal sense of the word (the Battenberg line of the royal family changed their name to Mountbatten during the anti-German hysteria of World War One, at the same time the Saxe-Coburgs became the Windsors). As Ziegler points out time and again, Mountbatten was childishly vain and apt to preening – hardly humble in the normal sense of the word.

But he had a way of disappearing into the enormous, historical tasks that he took on as a matter of course; he was a team-builder, a consensus-former, and once he had a goal in mind, the goal became more important than his individual part in achieving it. The ruthlessly egalitarian 21st century will be loath to admit it, but these are royal traits, when royalty is at its best (and the overwhelming implication about Mountbatten – made in whispers even in the halls of Windsor – was that he made a far more impressive king than either of his college chums, even though he was never crowned).

Ziegler is an old hand at chronicling royalty; he uses the same techniques here, shifting from grand to simple, from wry to sympathetic as the occasion warrants. When summarizing the Japanese attack on the desperate, outgunned British outpost of Arakan in 1944, he hits his notes quickly and surely: “’Hold on, and you will make history,’ was Mountbatten’s message. They held on, and they did.”

When detailing his subject’s typically merciless sense of humor (a Windsor trait, alas), he assumes the more relaxed gait of a raconteur:

He relished the royal tours in Britannia above all; the jokes and informality when the ship was at sea, the grandeur and consequence of the state occasions. He had always been a devotee of funny stories and used to bandy them over the table with George VI, each provoking the other to fresh excesses. When the King died, Princess Margaret inherited his mantle. She shared with Mountbatten a passion for perverted proverbs, such as that inspired by a team of pelota players who all tried to get out at the same time through the revolving doors of the hotel in which they were staying. Their impatience was very properly punished when the door collapsed on top of them and killed them all. Moral: never put all your Basques in one exit. One of the royal tours was believed by Mountbatten to have given rise to another of these monstrosities. A tribal chief had two thrones which had last been used in the days of King George V. As his grass hut was rather small, he had them pulled on ropes into the roof. Unfortunately, when the time came to use them again, the ropes broke and the thrones crashed down on top of the chief. As he died, the moral no doubt flashed through is mind: people in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.

All the portraits in this magnificent book are as perfectly rendered as that of its star. The glamour of 1920s Hollywood, the high-strung sensibilities of Edward VIII, who became the forlorn Duke of Windsor, the bombast of Winston Churchill, the no-nonsense force of old Queen Mary (she gets the best quotes for the first quarter of the book and dominates its events even after she’s, as Ziegler puts it, “safely dead”), the grubby purity of Gandhi, most of all the driven, passionate, and illusion-free pillar that was Mountbatten’s wife Edwina … all are given three-dimensional life in the course of a rolling, fast narrative you don’t want to end.

Those 21st century friends who see this book on my shelves and wonder openly at the weirdly obscure folk I read about really ought to read it; Ziegler wrote for them, and Mountbatten certainly hoped his life would fascinate people long after he stopped living it. Of course, it would help if it were readily, easily in print, but in this day and age of electronic marvels, that matters less and less: everything is obtainable. And if you’re stumped and still really interested, of course I’ll send you a copy. All part of the service, here at Stevereads.

July 11th, 2010

Comics: The Children’s Crusade!

Comics this week held lots and lots of interest, but surely the most interesting – and best-executed – item on the list was the first issue of the new Avengers mini-series “Children’s Crusade,” written with extremely appealing understatement by Allan Heinberg and penciled with his usual eye-catching mastery by Jim Cheung.

The plot revolves around two members of the so-called Young Avengers, Billy Kaplan, code-named Wiccan, a young mutant magic-caster, and Tommy Shepherd, code-named Speed, a young mutant super-speedster. Something in the confluence of those descriptions will strike old-time comics readers as familiar, and that’s the plan: Marvel readers have seen the sibling-mutant-one-does-magic-the-other-runs-really-fast combination before, in long-time (grown-up) Avengers Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (we won’t belabor the obvious fact that Stan Lee could think up ten code-names in his sleep that were better than ‘Wiccan’ or ‘Speed’ … yeesh …).

The aforementioned plan hauls in so much back-story that it literally can’t be effectively summarized here (suffice it to say a) the similarity in powers leads young Billy to think he and Tommy must share some kind of connection with the Scarlet Witch, b) the Scarlet Witch’s powers recently drove her homicidally crazy, and c) both Billy and the grown-up Avengers are very curious to know if there is a connection and what dangers it may pose for everybody) – this is most certainly a mini-series for long-time in-depth Avengers fans to savor and discuss, but it will almost completely baffle every other person on Earth (this is the signature flaw of the Young Avengers in general – the whole thing is very much an ‘insider’ series and always has been).

But that’s OK. Fans need their bon-bons too, right? And for those fans (among which I count myself, since a) I’ve been reading  Avengers forever, even during its most wretched eras, and b) the plot could bring about some major changes in some very big, very good story-lines), this series looks to be the treat of the summer. Not only are Cheung’s pencils full of his trademark detail and gentle, almost implied feel of motion (he always uses a more low-key tempo when drawing these characters, who clearly fascinate him), but Heinberg’s dialogue wonderfully straddles the line between sounding authentic and crackling with drama.

From first to last, this is a quintessential ‘Marvel’ production: there’s an opening ‘splash’ page, lots of character-driven conflict, some smile-inducing humor, and a hum-dinger of a final cliffhanger page. But the interest-factor here is amped just a bit by one thing Stan Lee and Don Heck never got around to showing us in the original Avengers: the gays!

Because in addition to being a magic-wielding mutant with mommy issues, Billy is also gay (perhaps there’s something causal? After all, many of the young gay boys I know are also magic-wielding mutants with mommy issues …). And the book doesn’t just archly hint at it – Heinberg confronts it directly, mainly because Billy’s boyfriend Teddy (no Bill and Ted jokes, please) is also super-powered and also a member of Young Avengers. At one point in this first issue, he gets all protective of Billy with Captain America, no less (Cap turns out to be wonderfully tolerant, of course, which is odd for somebody who grew up in 1930s Brooklyn, but he’s the artistic type, so …). In the first few issues of their own comic, the relationship between Billy and Teddy was pretty clearly implied but virtually never given the kind of direct exposition it’s given here, and if that’s a sign of the times, it’s mighty refreshing.

There are two roads open to this mini-series: it can either fiddle around on the margins of one of Marvel’s biggest story-arcs of the last twenty years (the reality-altering Scarlet Witch despairingly uttering those three words: “No more mutants”), or it can confront that story-arc directly and perhaps fundamentally change Marvel’s current continuity. I’m guessing it’ll do the former, but there’s always hope for the latter. Either way, I’ll be watching.

July 8th, 2010

Penguins on Parade: The Princess Casamassima!

Some Penguin Classics are a bit guilt-inducing, even with the best of intentions. Surely there’s no author in the last century who induces guilt quite so readily – if unintentionally – as Henry James? We sense at once how formidable he is, but we cannot love him as we know he wants us to, and we feel guilty about that. Plus, his novels don’t tend to be idle strolls in the park – not only are they full-blown college lectures, but they’re lectures at which you have to wear a tie.

This is true for everything the torturous old windbag wrote, but surely it reaches its peak in his strangest, weirdest, and least successful major novel, The Princess Casamassima? Here is the Henry James guilt-trip doubled, tripled, and squared: a massive political novel from a mandarin social observer who was seen to pale visibly whenever politics came up as a topic at a country house dinner. If Henry James had lived in the era of Youtube and decided to make a rap-video, the result couldn’t be any more awkward than this.

And yet, as I’m gradually, belatedly coming to realize, there’s a softly shining charm woven through everything James wrote – even this ungainly behemoth of a book.

The plot is pure mechanics: young Hyacinth Robinson is brought up by a poor-but-honest seamstress after his mother kills his nobleman father (just in case you were afraid James would take us all the way into Dickens territory with no trail ‘of bread-crumbs back). He’s a good boy, a hard worker, and he’s entered on the book-binding trade when he falls into bad company (worse company, that is, even than the bookish trade): political radicals who lead him on with heady talk of valorous actions against social oppressors. Hyacinth makes a vow to assassinate one such figure (he’s not picky about which one) when suddenly the plot intervenes and he’s befriended by the title character. The Princess sees only the good in Hyacinth and invites him to her manor for an evening.

Predictably, it has the Brideshead effect: Hyacinth becomes aware, has his awareness opened to the broader spectrum of life (including the fact that actual fallible three-dimensional people inhabit all those spectra), and he stops wanting to be a fire-breathing political radical. Because James himself was easily and instantly intoxicated by the world Princess Casamassima represents (so much so that he abandoned his own country when that world but merely beckoned)(but I’m gradually coming to like the man’s books very much, so that’s the last word you’ll hear from me on that touchy subject), he portrays Hyacinth’s seduction as something that happens quite literally overnight. Here’s the transforming moment, and because this is Henry James, it’s eighteen friggin pages long:

The night before, at ten o’clock, when he arrived, he had only got the impression of a mile-long stretch of park, after turning in at a gate; of the cracking of gravel under the wheels of the fly; and of the glow of several windows, suggesting in-door cheer, in a façade that lifted a variety of vague pinnacles into the starlight. It was much of a relief to him then to be informed that the Princess, in consideration of the lateness of the hour, begged to be excused till the morrow; the delay would give him time to recover his balance and look about him. This latter opportunity was offered him first as he sat at supper in a vast dining-room, with the butler, whose acquaintance he had made in South Street, behind his chair. He had not exactly wondered how he should be treated: there was too much vagueness in his conception of the way in which, at a country-house, invidious distinctions might be made and shades of importance illustrated; but it was plain that the best had been offered him. He was, at all events, abundantly content with his reception and more and more excited by it. The repast was delicate (though his other senses were so awake that hunger dropped out and he ate, as it were, without eating), and the grave mechanical servant filled his glass with a liquor that reminded him of some lines in Keats –in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. He wondered whether he should hear a nightingale at Medley (he knew nothing about the seasons of this vocalist), and also whether the butler would attempt to talk to him, had ideas about him, knew or suspected who he was and what; which, after all, there was no reason for his doing, unless it might be the poverty of the luggage that had been transported from Lomax Place. Mr. Withers, however (it was in this manner that Hyacinth heard him addressed by the cabman who conveyed the visitor from the station), gave no further symptom of sociability than to ask him at what time he would be called in the morning; to which our young man replied that he preferred not to be called at all – he would get up by himself. The butler rejoined, ‘Very good, sir’ while Hyacinth thought it probable that he puzzled him a good deal, and even considered the question of giving him a glimpse of his identity, lest it should be revealed, later, in a manner less graceful. The object of this anticipatory step, in Hyacinth’s mind, was that he should not be oppressed and embarrassed with attentions to which he was unused; but the idea came to nothing, for the simple reason that before he spoke he found that he already was inured to being waited upon. His impulse to deprecate attentions departed, and he became conscious that there were none he should care to miss, or was not quite prepared for. He knew he probably thanked Mr. Withers too much, but he couldn’t help this – it was an irrepressible tendency and an error he should doubtless always commit.

“Is it really true,” the Princess asks him later in the book, animated by her customary wide-eyed and non-judgemental nature, “that you have never seen a park, nor a garden, nor any of the beauties of nature, and that sort of thing?”

That sort of thing. Hee. Yes, Hyacinth informs her, it’s really true: he was raised by a seamstress in Lomax Place. The Princess is delighted, not disdainful: she’s never had a chance to show anything real to somebody before, and she’s always wanted to.

And there you see the book this might have been, poking at the fraying seams of the book it is: if you go through The Princess Casamassima with a black pen and strike out all the political content – for which James was almost ridiculously ill-suited – there remains  a quite lovely story of two alien worlds finding each other, being gifted by each other. Of course you’d have to change the clunky, tragic ending of the present story, but vast heaps of James’ trademark baroque verbiage could remain untouched.

As it is, we have the vast, haltingly ambitious Nonesuch that is The Princess Casamassima. In the gorgeous Penguin Classic edition (adorned by Sargent’s quite thrilling portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, which shows that the Penguin Classic art department cannot be surpassed in its quiet knowledge of what it’s about; in real life, the sitter was as perfect an illustration of the meeting of those two worlds as you were ever likely to find), the huge editorial chores are undertaken by Derek Brewer, and the extensive, invaluable notes are by Patricia Crick. As is so often the case, the Penguin version of this work is so much better in every way than any other version (precious few other versions, in this case) that the comparisons aren’t worth making.

No, if you’re in the mood for Henry James at his most fallible – if you find yourself less intimidated and more charmed by a work of genius that’s nevertheless a failure as a novel (this is certainly how it worked on me, to the betterment of my understanding of all James’ books, eventually), the Penguin Classic of The Princess Casamassima is the book for you.  Everything James wrote gives the impression of those vague pinnacles rising into the night at Medley, but at least this book has foundations of clay, to aid the overawed visitor.

July 6th, 2010

The Master’s Violin!

Our book today is The Master’s Violin, a heartfelt and sure-footed novel published in 1904 by Mrytle Reed – and the book is chosen in part because so many of you responded to the entry on Cowardice Court with a kind of jet-lagged incredulity that active, enthusiastically read and reviewed book-publishing was actually happening 100 years ago.

It’s the strangest thing: we’re naturally willing to think about publishing in Johnson’s day, or even to debate the state of the business in Shakespeare’s day. But when we think about the dawn of the last century, our thoughts jump in a preconditioned way to Henry James, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce … we tend to forget that bookstore shelves were as full then as they are now, that midlist authors then, as now, had to publish in order to eat and send their kids to school, and that then, as now, the best-selling books were almost never written by the immortals.

Booksellers at the time would have had at their mental fingertips dozens and dozens of writer-names that are now entirely unknown to the reading public. Just as today a good bookseller will only need a portion of an author’s name, a part of a book title, or a snatch of the plot to divine what the customer is looking for (since then, as now, the customers themselves can’t be expected to remember what it is they want), so too then – only with an almost entirely different cast of likely suspects.

One of the most likely suspects, at the beginning of the 20th century, was Myrtle Reed. She wrote fast and published frequently – two books a year wasn’t uncommon – and although the mandarin voices of the day decried her as just so much hyperventilating claptrap (one anonymous reviewer for the Boston Transcript called her gazillion-selling novel Flower of the Dusk “a brambly patch of deadly nightshade in the garden of Arcadia”! Yes indeed, they pulled no punches back in the Edwardian era!), the books sold like crazy.

It’s easy to see why. The key to their success was the key to the whole era: not just naked sentimentality, but buckets and buckets of naked sentimentality – blankets of it, piled higher and higher on the reader until no movement or thought was possible except to sigh and remember when (this trick hasn’t exactly gone out of style – both the financial empire of Thomas Kinkade and the current ‘Tea Party’ political movement are wholly based on manipulating the public’s natural, sentimental semi-belief that a warm, fuzzy golden age has only just ended, must be endlessly savored, might even be reclaimed, if we work fast to disenfranchise women and bus all the uppity niggers out of town).

All of Myrtle Reed’s bestselling books make liberal use of this tactic. They open on a setting of relative tranquility, they introduce a small cast of characters who are all nursing some hidden sadness, and then they lay on the sentimentality with a trowel. And before the modern age rejoins such an enterprise with its customary irony, two things should be remembered: a) millions of readers found deep, genuine satisfaction while absorbed in these books, and more importantly, b) the books work. They don’t aim for the heights of Olympus, but what they try to do, they do very nearly to perfection.

Any one of them would serve as a good enough example (Reed scarcely ever broke formula), but The Master’s Violin is my favorite. The plot is easily summarized: the lovely, two-hundred-year-old East Lancaster home of grand old lady Peace Field and her lovely young adopted daughter Iris Temple is suddenly disordered by the arrival of her estranged relations, the widow Margaret Irving and her boyishly handsome son Lynn, who’s come to East Lancaster in the hopes of studying with the village’s world-renowned violinist, Herr Franz Kaufmann (there wouldn’t have been quite so much disorder, but the letter Mrs. Irving sent seeking permission to come has been sitting in the East Lancaster Post Office for days, with nobody from the house going to retrieve it – and no telephones or Internet to take its place).

There, in two or three quick strokes, you have all the dramatic scaffolding you’ll ever need in a Myrtle Reed novel: the cast is riddled with dark family dissatisfactions and hidden passions. Not only does young Lynn fall for Miss Temple in about ten seconds, but we gradually, heartbreakingly learn that Margaret herself carries a secret sorrow: she once loved young Franz Kaufmann but was forced by her blueblood family to marry a man she ‘only respected’ (when she first hears the instrument of the book’s title – an ancient and gorgeous Cremona – after twenty-five years away, she’s struck speechless).

The visitors quickly insinuate themselves into the routines of Aunt Peace’s household, including the weekly visits by Doctor Brinkerhoff (the next town over, West Lancaster, is positively teeming with German immigrants to the area, lest all these Teutonic surnames give you the vapors), who’s entertained with great hospitality despite the oft-repeated fact that he ‘has no social position.’ There is longing here too, deftly implied by the author and quickly perceived by the reader: it’s possible that Aunt Peace’s frequent reminders to anybody who’ll listen that Brinkerhoff is a wonderful and a good friend but simply not ‘our kind of people’ start to look like the codified justifications of a love long denied. The patiently repeated rituals of his weekly visit – from which there is no deviation – looks like the kind of quite mania only love could inspire.

It’s a mystery to me why Myrtle Reed didn’t call this book “Aunt Peace” (but then, authors’ choice of titles for their works have almost always bewildered me) – the serene old lady utterly dominates the first half of the book and casts a long shadow over the second half, whereas Lynn’s apprenticeship with the Master is a sub-plot only infrequently emphasized (and Lynn doesn’t even get to look at the Master’s prized Cremona) at the book’s beginning. Aunt Peace, on the other hand, is a marvelous creation – a kind, tranquil old lady who’s not much given to controlling people, even though she holds all of her opinions with the unchallenged certainty of being life-long mistress of her little world. She values the elegant, simple chores of upkeeping her ancient house (chores she’s taught to Iris with a patient crushing of her original wild spirits – for her own good, of course), and she has no use for the modern innovations of society outside her untroubled valley. This was the dawn of the women’s rights movement, but when the subject of “the shrieking sisterhood” comes up, Aunt Peace expresses a rare note of intolerance:

“I have no patience with such foolishness,” Aunt Peace observed. “Since Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden, women have been home-makers and men have been home-builders. All the work in the world is directly and immediately undertaken for the maintenance and betterment of the home. A woman who has no love for it is unsexed. God probably knew how He wanted it – at least we may be pardoned for supposing that He did. It is absolutely – but I would better stop, my dear. I fear I shall soon be saying something unladylike.”

Needless to say, she’s brought up Iris to think entirely differently about a woman’s place in the world – and yet, Iris is young and can’t help dreaming! This is especially true when she starts receiving passionate, anonymous love letters at the Post Office (it will take the reader about a nanosecond to discern that they’re written by Lynn, although Iris herself virtually needs to read it on a highway billboard before she figures it out), but it’s a wayward bend of imagination that Aunt Peace has inadvertently encouraged by giving Iris full access to the old house’s wonderful library. As our narrator rightly tells us, “Ten years of browsing in a well equipped library will do much for anyone,” and the subject sparks one of the book’s many apostrophes:

Of the things that make for happiness, the love of books comes first. No matter how the world may have used us, sure solace lies there. The weary, toilsome day drags to its disheartening close, and both love and friendship have proved powerless to appreciate or understand, but in the quiet corner consolation can always be found. A single shelf, perhaps, suffices for one’s few treasures, but who shall say it is not enough?

A book, unlike any other friend, will wait, not only upon the hour, but upon the mood. It asks nothing and gives much, when one comes in the right way. The volumes stand in serried ranks at attention, listening eagerly, one may fancy, for the command.

Is your world a small one, made unendurable by a thousand petty cares? Are the heart and soul of you cast down by bitter disappointment? Would you leave it all, if only for an hour, and come back with a new point of view? Then open the covers of a book.

Readers may snicker, but extended asides like this one – which serve no dramatic purpose and tend to jolt – were once the standard stock-in-trade of novelists high and low. Fielding would be stripped bare without it, Trollope and Dickens indulge in it shamelessly, and the Brontes would be lost without it. It only looks tinny or artificial in this case because Reed’s works are forgotten, and forgotten novels always appear vaguely ridiculous (because we assume, hugely erroneously, that there must be a good reason why they’re forgotten – when in Reed’s case, as in so many cases, there are reasons, but none of them are good).

Say what you want about her more lachrymose tendencies, but Myrtle Reed knew what she was doing. Her books were meant to be a refuge from the grit and bustle of the world, and the peaceful summer evenings she crafts are surpassingly gentle and welcoming:

Midsummer moonlight made enchantment in the garden. Merlin himself could have done no more. The house, half hidden in the shadow, stood waiting, as it had done for two centuries, while those who belonged under its roof made holiday outside. .. . The tall pine threw its gloom far beyond them, and the moonlight touched Aunt Peace caressingly. Her silvered hair gleamed with unearthly beauty and he serene eyes gave sweet significance to her name. All she cared for were about her – daughter and friends.

“Nights like this,” said the Doctor, dreamily, “make one think of old fairy tales. Elves and witches are not impossible, when the moon shines like this.”

The reading public was utterly shocked to learn that Myrtle Reed had killed herself (her suicide note – phrased beautifully, of course – was published as news in all the nation’s papers, and editions that carried it sold out repeatedly), but going back and re-reading her novels, it’s perhaps not such a surprise. She had her own passions and her own mangled reasons for her suicide, but quite apart from that, there breathes in her books a sureness, a hope, that the 20th century would soon crush beyond any chance of reclamation. Aunt Peace couldn’t live in such a new century, and Myrtle Reed couldn’t write in it either. Even in The Master’s Violin, that tone of hope is vaguely embattled; it’s on just such a beautiful summer evening that Aunt Peace asks Doctor Brinkerhoff the quintessential question of the 19th century. He gives the quintessential 19th century answer, but the 20th century is lurking in Margaret’s well-meaning rejoinder:

“Do you think, Doctor, that the world grows better, or worse?”

“Better, madam, steadily better. I can see it every day.”

“It is well for one to think so,” observed Margaret, “whatever the facts may be.”

On the whole, I think that crusty old Boston Transcript reviewer was wrong about Myrtle Reed; I bet if he were around today, he’d admit it.