Posts from November 2011
November 30th, 2011
Our book today – the last in our batch of what turned out to be mostly very superannuated musty old biographies cleared out of church basements in Iowa (ah, the wonders of Stevereads) – is Andrew Marvell, a slim, sparkling 1929 volume by the great Vita Sackville-West. It was supposed to be the first volume in a new series called, somewhat unfortunately, “The Poets on the Poets,” although I’m not sure the series ever really took off, poets being so notoriously awful about deadlines. The first curiosity of the thing today is the governing identification of Sackville-West as a poet at all: it would have been routine in her own day, but to the very limited extent she’s known to the common reader today, it’s as a novelist or even a biographer of her ancestral home, not as a poet.
Still, 90 years ago she was well enough known to kick off this “The Poets on the Poets” series (as far as I know, it petered out almost immediately), and she chose to write a very slim volume on Marvell by concentrating almost exclusively on reading through his poems rather than retailing the facts of his life and times. She states up front that she won’t be indulging in more than a scraping of biography, intent instead on concentrating on the poems. In a brochure for next summer’s series of seminars at the National Humanities Center, we’re told: “Scholarship over the last fifteen years has made it plain that Andrew Marvell’s poetry cannot be adequately studied apart from his life” – and it’s safe to say Sackville-West knew that even in her own day (one of her cited sources, a life of Marvell by the great Edwardian critic Augustine Birrell, specifically makes that same National Humanities Center claim). Her pose of aesthetic purity – just the poems, not the tawdry life – is just that: a pose, an old and trusty trick to let a freelancer off the hook of doing a load of extra research. And at least she’s eloquent about it:
The apparent facts of a man’s life are rarely absolute, even to himself; he draws the strokes, one by one, and is surprised at the final design of the picture. What hope is there, then, for the reconstruction of the biographer? It is no reconstruction that he can hope for, but merely interpretation – a rather more well-intentioned form of fiction.
The reader – if this thin volume had any readers anymore, which I doubt – can more readily tolerate such stuff because a) it speeds us to Sackville-West’s thoughts on the poetry, and b) she doesn’t really ignore biography anyway – some of her comments are almost admonishing in their personal tone:
Two strange reflections her suggest themselves. The first, that Marvell should never have published any of these poems – did he not know how good they were? The second – which appears almost to grow out of the first – that so true a poet should have abandoned the writing of poetry and turned, as the old lady said, to writing sense instead. From first to last, it was certainly a cavalier way of treating so pretty a muse. Marvell’s muse, indeed, if her spirit survives, has much to complain of. Not only did Marvell himself behave towards her with the utmost ingratitude and nonchalance, but posterity for well over a century did very little better.
Like many critics before her, Sackville-West locates the bulk of Marvell’s first-rate poetry early in his life, during the usurpation of Oliver Cromwell, dismissing most of the later work and implying that most work of all poets should be likewise dismissed:
Poets vary, but most are more prolific than they should be; less fastidious than they might be, that is to say, in the chosen residue of their work that they expose to the judgment of the world. (Yes fecundity in itself is often a measure of a poet’s greatness, provided the quality maintain a sufficient, even though intermittent, standard; and no poet, as experience proves, can be expected to act as his own editor. Wordsworth and Tennyson, not to mention Swinburne, were their own worst enemies.) Time and posterity, fortunately, act as sieves, and in the end it is often for a few pages of print, at most, that a poet is remembered; a few moments distilled out of all the years of his life.
It’s hard not to read a note of personal experience into lines like those, but then, Andrew Marvell is a very personal essay, an informal and somewhat unstructured reflection of one writer on another – with perhaps more attendant ironies than Sackville-West herself ever saw. She tsk-tsks at how long it took the literary world to realize the worth of Marvell’s work – and her own work is waiting for exactly that kind of realization. And we won’t even hold our breath for poor Birrell.
(One last thing: my own much-battered copy of this particular book didn’t come from a church basement in Iowa – it was a gift from an old friend, who formally bestowed it on me only after he noticed that I’d pinched it from his shelves without his knowledge)
November 28th, 2011
Our book today is a hefty two-volume life of the 1st Earl of Leicester (of Holkham, that is), Thomas William Coke by that unsinkable Edwardian chronicler of the better sort, A.M.W. Stirling. She wrote these two volumes from 1908 to 1912, taking full advantage of her first-name familiarity (in this case, she was the great-granddaughter of her subject) with the top tiers of England’s landed gentry, to whom Coke of Norfolk and His Friends is essentially one enormous love-letter. Anna Marie Wilhemina Stirling was fond of country houses and gossip and pearls, a living concordance of stereotypes who was nonetheless an entirely real and surprisingly wonderful person. She wrote earnest letters, sought through drafty country house archives, questioned old servants and farm hands all around Norwich, and in the end she produced these two fat volumes about a man described without embarrassment as “the indefatigable and disinterested friend of mankind.”
Coke was a hale, outspoken kinsman of a tight-fisted earl whose wastrel son is viewed with a fishy eye by Stirling, who’s not that much keener on the vain, vapid young woman who became that lecherous lord’s bride:
Alas for the misguided Duchess! Lady Mary went to the altar playing the part of a weeping reluctant bride, but apparently forgot to pronounce her refusal to marry the man she professed to loathe, and so passed from imaginary into actual persecution. Still with the airs of a tragedy queen, she prepared to submit to the hated caresses of her husband; but Lord Coke promptly informed her that she had little to fear from his affection, and leaving her upon her wedding day, openly rejoined his boon companions, whom he regaled with a graphic description of the incident, making exceedingly merry over the airs of the deserted lady.
As Stirling puts it (without the slightest shred of first-hand experience), “Married life begun under such conditions was not likely to be harmonious.”
In rapid succession, both old kinsman and young cousin died, and then Coke’s mild-mannered father followed them, leaving Thomas William in possession of vast properties. Coke himself led the normal life of the Georgian landed gentry. He rode to hounds, he fowled, he tramped every inch of his family estates, and while he was still a strapping, handsome young man he did the Grand Tour in high style, bringing along valets, dogs, friends, and a stack of promissory notes for every major banking concern along the way. He’s entirely forgotten today, but Americans once knew his name because he was an early and ardent champion in Parliament in favor of American Indpendence and stridently against the bottomless pit of expense represented by the Crown continuously pouring money and manpower into suppressing the American colonies. When Coke lost his seat in Parliament in 1784, he returned to his beautiful estates and to the magnificent splendor of Holkham Hall with its towering marble columns and enormous paintings on every inch of wall space (when young Princess Victoria stayed at Holkham shortly before she became queen, she found herself ‘quite overwhelmed’ by the ostentation of her rooms). Like many of the landed plutocrats of his day, Coke was an avid agriculturalist, constantly conferring with his tenants, constantly fiddling with ways to improve both his livestock and his land:
He also, like his ancestors, devoted his thought to reclaiming land from the sea. Laboriously, and at enormous cost, he reclaimed seven hundred acres which had previously been covered by the ocean, and began to prepare them for cultivation. Within two years, corn was growing upon soil which had been shingle swept by daily tides.
Stirling is careful to balance her long account; another chronicler of Coke would probably be tempted to slight his rural life in favor of the hurly-burly of his long stints in Parliament and the various excitements he had there (or else in favor of the more lurid aspects of his later life – in his old age he married a much, much younger woman and embarrassed everybody by immediately beginning to father children with her), but that rural life was the main focus and joy of Coke’s life – and it was the world Stirling herself knew most closely. She’s certainly aware of how transitory it all is – her volumes are full of mentions of how rapidly the world is changing, how increasingly ubiquitous rail travel is annihilating some old traditions and prompting people to forget what was so special about others. For instance, Holkham hosted many annual gala events, none more fun than “the Clippings,” a great sheep-shearing festival that could rival just about any other social event – including, in 1821, the upcoming coronation of King George IV, which was briefly upstaged by the forty-third “Clippings” (which was attended by, among many others, the Dukes of Bedford and Norfolk). Stirling does a typically energetic job describing what she saw as a better, vanishing world:
In days when locomotion was slow and expensive, to many this gathering was the one occasion on which they met friends whom otherwise they would have been destined never to see. The greetings which were eagerly exchanged, the excitement of expected or unexpected encounters, the task of discovering and watching the celebrated men who were present, the vast hum of conversation,the whirling wheels and clattering hoofs which momentarily heralded fresh arrivals, the interest of recognising these new-comers thus ceaselessly appearing to swell the crowd – all formed a scene which the genial spirit of good-fellowship that had always constituted the keynote of the meeting was never lost sight of.
Late in his life, in 1837, Coke, called by many “the greatest commoner in England,” got the kind of letter most of us will never find in the morning post:
My dear Mr. Coke,
I am very much obliged to you for your letters upon the electioneering prospects in the County of Norfolk; but I have now another matter to write to you upon, and which I have some satisfaction in referring to you. It is unnecessary for me to go into any details of the circumstances which have hitherto prevented that which has been eagerly desired by the Whigs and expected by the whole Country, namely, your elevation to the Peerage. I have now the pleasure of acquainting you that I have Her Majesty’s commands to offer you an Earldom and to accompany the offer by every expression of Her Majesty’s personal regard and esteem.
If this is agreeable to you, you have nothing to do but to send me back by return of post the titles which you are desirous of taking, and I can only add for myself that, if you accept this honour, it will be to me a source of great pride and satisfaction that it should have been conferred by my advice and under my administration. I beg to be remembered to Lady Anne.
Yours ever faithfully, Melbourne
And so, once again, an earldom of Leicester was created (this one specified as “of Holkham,” so as not to confuse it with the other surviving earldom of Leicester), and Stirling is quick to advise us of its historical provenance:
Thus, after having been offered a peerage seven times, Coke was at length created Earl of Leicester. It was a curious coincidence that the first peerage created by Queen Elizabeth was an Earl of Leicester, whose nephew was Sir Philip Sydney, while the first commoner raised to the peerage by Queen Victoria was an Earl of Leicester, whose nephew by marriage was Lord De L’Isle, the representative of Sir Philip Sydney.
The sheer sparkling energy of that snooty clarification never deserts our author, not in close to a thousand pages of highly detailed and copiously footnoted prose. She follows her hero right to his peaceful grave, and she illustrates her book with some stunning old photographs of Holkham Hall and its environs. This is a grand, sweeping biography of a friendly man who was the center of all the world’s attention while he was alive. These two volumes – heaven knows where you’d find your own – bring that man to life again in all his laughter and gaffes and generosity, and that’s an amazing feat, even if it appears no longer to be grounds to keep a book in print, or reprint it.
November 25th, 2011
Our book today is a little thing from 1898, Charles Lamb and the Lloyds by E. V. Lucas, and it illustrates how little has ever been needed in order to justify the appearance of a new book. In this case, a cache of letters discovered in 1894, letters between members of the prosperous Lloyd banking family (the imperious father, brother Charles the fourth-rate poet, sister Priscilla who married Christopher Wordsworth, Robert Lloyd the nonentity brother) and such luminaries as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey. The Lloyds were intellectually undistinguished – when Coleridge took on young Charles as a student in 1796, he very quickly went from writing the boy’s father about a communion of like-minded intellects to writing the boy’s father apologizing that he wouldn’t really have the time to instruct the boy in anything (and laying out very clearly the terms of his room and board). Coleridge demurred only partly because he was afraid of the enormous outlay of energy it takes to shepherd a young man to intellectual awareness (although that fear alone is usually what stops would-be preceptors in their tracks); the rest of it was the result of his up-close estimation of Charles: underneath the languid ‘Romantic’ pose of philosophical questing, there wasn’t a whole lot going on (“no birdsong in the hedgerow,” as one contemporary put it).
Still, Lucas didn’t require much to justify writing about Lamb. Not only was Lamb a special favorite subject for him (his biography of the man is still eminently readable), but also: Lucas didn’t require much to justify writing about anything. He wrote a book review of every book he read, new or old (his friends were forever commenting on the compulsion, but he claimed it kept him in fluid form), and he sold book and theater criticism to paying journals by the yard. The appearance of a new group of letters, no matter how inconsequential in the larger scholastic picture, was guaranteed to prompt him to write something new about it for the presses.
Luckily, he’s a delightful companion on the page, as this little volume proves over and over. He has to be, since the only alternative is to watch almost all the leading lights of the age desperately try and fail to strike more than a passing flash from the flinty commonality of the Lloyd mind. Seventeen of these new letters are between Charles Lamb and Robert Lloyd, when the former was twenty-three and the latter nineteen, in the autumn of 1798. Lamb – that most patient of souls – did everything he could to encourage the boy, even when circumstances with Lamb’s tragic sister were bringing him nothing but trouble:
My Dear Robert, I am a good deal occupied with a calamity near home, but not so much as to prevent me thinking about you with the warmest affection – you are among my dearest friends. I know you will feel very deeply when you hear that my poor sister is unwell again; one of her old disorders, but I trust it will hold no longer than her former illnesses have done. Do not imagine, Robert, that I sink under this misfortune, I have been season’d to such events, and I think I could bear anything tolerably well. My own health is left me, and my good spirits, and I have some duties to perform – these duties shall be my object. I wish, Robert, you could find an object. I know the painfulness of vacuity, all its achings and inexplicable longings. I wish to God I could recommend any plan to you. Stock your mind well with religious knowledge; discipline it to wait with patience for duties that may be your lot in life; prepare yourself not to expect too much out of yourself; read and think. That is all commonplace advice, I know. I think, too, that it is easy to give advice which in like circumstances we might not follow ourselves. You must depend upon yourself – there will come a time when you will wonder you were not more content.
Indeed, the main joy of this volume lies not in anything the Lloyds themselves have to say but rather in Lamb’s sparse but characteristically wonderful contributions.
Let them talk of lakes and mountains and romantic dales – all that fantastic stuff; give me a ramble by night, in the winter nights of London – the Lamps lit – the pavements of the motley Strand crowded with to and fro passengers – the shops all brilliant, and stuff with obliging customers and obliged tradesmem – give me the old bookstalls of London – a walk in the bright Piazzas of Covent Garden. I defy a man to be dull in such places – perfect Mahometan paradises upon earth!
Lamb was never really one to attack a man’s dreams – indeed, his congeniality shines through these pages just as it lives in every chapter of Lucas’ biography – so there’s a good deal of very tactful restraint in his dealings with young Charles Lloyd (“I don’t know if you quite comprehend my low Urban Taste,” Lamb tells him at one point, uttering the early Romantic version of “It’s not you, it’s me”). And not just the younger Lloyd, either! The book’s most schadenfreudy chapter – fit to make just about anybody laugh out loud – details some of what happened when Charles’ father decided to have published some of his translations of Homer, complete with the rhymes of Pope but lacking the actual talent of Pope. Even Lamb’s tact had its limits – and Lucas’ too.
Charles Lamb and the Lloyds will never be reprinted – its entire life now is to be a quick, inconsequential footnote in any soup-to-nuts biography of Charles Lamb and his literary circle. But in trifles we sometimes find fascinating details too small for inclusion in bigger, more ambitious works. Those works – biographies of Lamb, Coleridge, or Wordsworth – might tell us, for instance, that the latter two poets probably detested young Charles Lloyd’s bumbling literary pretensions, but they would hardly pause to make a case for the defense (even though Lamb himself certainly always would have). And Lucas? Well, he tells us “Hypersensitive natures are apt to misconstrue …” So maybe his tact is equal to the task after all.
November 25th, 2011
Deafened still by the ongoing kettle-drum of DC Comics’ “New 52″ media phenomenon, I almost missed Marvel Comics’ recent re-launch of “Uncanny X-Men” with a new first issue. And I might have given the whole thing a miss in any case, except the artwork is by one of my favorite working comics artists, Carlos Pacheco.
This issue is written by Kieron Gillen and takes off right where a recent mini-series left off: Cyclops and most of the few remaining mutants left on Earth (in the wake of the still-seminal events in “House of M”) are gathered together in Utopia, their city/stronghold in the bay off the coast of San Francisco. Cyclops is determined that mutants will no longer be the meek targets of non-mutant aggression, but he’s equally sure that the way to turn that aggression around is for his core team (for some mysterious reason perhaps known only to Gillen, he dubs this his “extinction team”) to function more as a standard save-the-world superhero team, ala the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. It’s an interesting idea – mutants using PR to sway public opinion (to my recollection, it hasn’t been used since the launch of the original “X-Factor,” many moons ago) – and Gillon bungles it right from the start.
If it’s any consolation, he bungles it in the exact same way DC has bungled all but a couple of its own much more headline-grabbing first issues this summer (winter on the calendar, but I’m in shorts with the ceiling fan going in Boston, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s summer until it’s actually cold): he picks up a game in mid-play, tweaks it here and there in ways that may or may not be good ideas (“extinction team”?), but never pauses for even a moment to give new readers any reason to care about any of it. First issues are – at least theoretically – about providing a ‘jumping on’ point for those new readers, and yet in the many wide open spaces so helpfully provided by Pacheco’s artwork, Gillon never bothers to explain anything, never bothers to catch us up on anything. In short, he makes the same mistake that’s been plaguing the various X-books for decades now: he assumes every single reader is chapter-and-verse familiar with every jot and tittle of the X-catechism. The X-Man Colossus is intermittently possessed by the spirit of the old X-Men villain Juggernaut? Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner wears a modified X-Man costume and for some unaccountable reason takes orders from the team leader’s girlfriend? Magneto too? It would have taken five minutes to write dialogue and monologue-boxes that grounded new readers on all of this, but Gillon doesn’t do that. Instead, he assumes the worst thing you can assume about the opening of any drama: that his audience is already interested.
The result is as insular as most of what’s been going on at DC lately, a first issue devoid of drama, meaningful only to the insider crowd, full of ‘payoff’ moments comprehensible only to a thousand people on the planet. I bought it for Carlos Pacheco’s artwork (which didn’t disappoint), but if his past is any indicator, he won’t be around more than a few issues. Let’s hope Kieron bothers to ground his story in that time.
November 24th, 2011
Our book today is Roger Wolcott’s gigantic 1925 volume The Correspondence of William Hickling Prescott, 1833-1847, featuring not only heaping piles of letters and notes by the great Boston historian but also a great deal of exposition, scene-setting, and explanatory footnoting – easily enough to constitute a life-and-times, despite the book’s unassuming title.
The fact that there’s so much Prescott correspondence to assemble is a testament not only to the man’s die-hard Yankee work ethic but also to the long-suffering forbearance of his friends and associates – Prescott maintained the typical 19th Century voluminous flow of letters, but he was never able to simply sit at his writing desk and dash off a quick three pages. Instead, he was a member in good standing of that odd literary sub-set: historians who persevere despite near-crippling ailments.
In Prescott’s case, there was no gradual decline: the fateful change happened in a moment – a moment neither he nor anybody else present would ever forget. During a raucous and very hard-fought food-fight with some of his fellow students at Harvard in 1812, Prescott was hit hard directly on his open left eye by a knot-tough little crust of bread. The pain and impact stunned him, and for the rest of his life, that eye was very nearly useless. According to the legend that sprang up around that day, the accident changed Prescott from a feckless boy to a conscientious adult, but even if that weren’t true, when illness threatened his other eye three years later, the near chance of total blindness galvanized him as nothing else would have. He came from a wealthy family and wasn’t expected to do much beyond the socializing he loved (and the production of some heirs to the line, which he loved perhaps less), especially since his eyes were crippled and often painful. But he decided to become a historian. He chose Spain as his subject and attacked the task with a will.
Wolcott’s impressive volume here reprints a vast chunk of his correspondence from his working years, and it’s fascinating to become reacquainted with all the routine impediments that were once a part of active scholarship. Prescott is forever importuning correspondents to hunt down certain obscure volumes for his research, constantly hectoring foreign friends to ransack their local libraries for works of possible interest to his researches. When such treasures are found, he’s always obliged to shell out money for scriveners, hordes of scriveners, to make copies of the material – after which needs to find reliable couriers to get the material all the way to his library at Beacon Street in Boston (or his wonderful seaside house, Fitful Head, at Nahant). After publication, there are all sorts of new problems: international copyright is in its infancy, for example, and friends are needed in foreign countries to watch over the work at every stage. The world scholars take for granted in 2011 – a world of computerized libraries, searchable databases, scanning and photocopying – would have seemed to William Prescott to be the very secular image of paradise.
Likewise our ophthalmology departments. The horrible state of Prescott’s eyes forced him to live big stretches of his life in darkened rooms, the tedium broken only by his sister reading to him (she often had to lay down on the floor and read by the light coming in at the foot of the closed door, and she never once complained about it). Even at its strongest, his good eye became painfully fatigued after more than an hour or two of reading a day. He had a zestfully powerful mind and a prodigious recall, luckily, and for much of his correspondence he used a device called a noctograph – a writing-slate with horizontal wire guide-lines designed to align handwriting the writer himself couldn’t see … essentially, a means of writing legibly in the dark. The noctograph gave Prescott a palpable (though illusory – he still needed copyists) sense of independence, and it was besides an oddly elegant-looking thing (it was a prized possession of Wolcott’s for years).
The noctograph, helpful friends, many an unstinting amanuensis, and boundless amounts of self-discipline: through a combination of all these things, Prescott got his work done (needless to say, he would have been less than charitable to all those poor 21st century writers and would-be writers who moan over how hard it is to generate prose, despite having youth, perfect vision, ample leisure, and 24-hour access to the greatest research library in the history of the world). His History of Ferdinand and Isabella appeared in Boston bookstores on Christmas Day 1837 and promptly sold like griddle-cakes. There followed his The Conquest of Mexico, The Conquest of Peru, and he was working on his monumental work on Philip II when he died in 1859. His books set research standards on much the same level as Gibbon’s – so high as to be virtually unimpeachable even in later, more politically correct ages. And his literary ability was nothing short of mesmerizing – whenever I find a young reader willing to tackle such obscure old volumes, they’re always surprised to find such life in the pages (I get the same reaction about Francis Parkman as well, of course). They tend to have the same reactions as did priggish old Charles Sumner, who wrote about it to Prescott in 1843:
I hardly know how to express on paper the delight and instruction with which I have read your work. Since I first devoured the Waverley Novels, I have read nothing by which I have been so entirely entraine; sitting at my desk for hours, then trimming my lamp and still sitting on, and finally with the book under my arm adjourning home, where I read on until after midnight. The introduction was interesting and instructive, exciting thought and requiring attention, at the same time that it was clear and copious. Perhaps this will afford to enlightened minds a field of interest of a higher character than the other portions of the work; but these cannot fail to charm everybody.
Prescott’s ability to make the past come alive is vividly on display in these letters, naturally. In 1840 he writes to a correspondent about his famous grandfather Colonel William Prescott, who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill:
The moral courage demanded for the opening of the war of the Revolution was of a much higher order than what is required for an ordinary conflict, where the memory of the brave if he falls is covered with glory; but an unsuccessful rebellion brings only ignominy, and in case of capture an ignominious death. Yet strange to say historians have hardly touched on these circumstances. It is so true however that my grandfather even expressed his own determination before going on the field not to fall alive into the enemy’s hands. It happened, singularly enough, that my wife’s grandfather was a commander of a British ship of war, lying in an arm of the sea and firing on Bunker Hill, which my own ancestor was defending. The swords of the two belligerents are now peacefully crossed over my book cases, and there tell me silently, but not ineloquently, the tale of other years.
He adds a note that might make Bostonians smile: “A granite obelisk to be two hundred and twenty feet high is now erecting on the battleground, and it will be completed in a couple of years, probably …”
Wolcott does a wonderful job mixing business with pleasure. For every two letters detailing text-corrections or making manuscript-requests, there’s one of a purely chatty nature, catching up on the activities of friends, like the quick aside to Fanny Calderon de la Barca in 1841:
Summer divides friends as far asunder as politics or religion, or any other good cause for quarreling. Mrs. Ritchie is staying at Roxbury with her children. Her caro sposo has gone to France again. He usually touches at home on his peregrinations. Le pauvre homme, where is his home? His boys are in Germany at school. The Ticknors are at a place called Woods Hole, near Martha’s Vineyard, where I propose to pass next week with them. The Appletons you know are in England …
(Fanny wrote a little book of her own – a travel memoir, if memory serves – and the chivalrous Prescott tirelessly pushed its interests with every literary person he knew … poor Charles Dickens got the worst of it, and in this instance he bore up magnanimously under the pressure)
And in addition to the personal and the professional, there was also the political, since despite the isolating nature of his eye-problems, Prescott was very much a man of the world. His letters are peppered with invaluable asides on the events of the day, and they often prove Prescott as shrewd a judge of the present as he was of the past. He certainly sizes up his commander-in-chief in 1846 rather tellingly:
We don’t comprehend here the politics of President Polk. It is probable he doesn’t perfectly comprehend them himself. He seems to be playing at fast and loose, and I rather think that it will prove a loosing game with him. HE stands on two crutches. the South and the West, but they will not walk the same way it seems. The South dreads a war with England as much as the North, though in the North there may be a warmer feeling of sympathy for our fatherland.
Prescott married a timid wife whose greatest delight was to help him with his work (and he genially adored her, starting several letters with variations on “My dear Wife, It is after ten and I am as tired as a cat. But I don’t like to go to bed without telling you where and how I am …”), and he was surrounded by friends and friendly rivals in the all-things-Spanish vogue that was then sweeping England and the United States. Prescott corresponded with Washington Irving while that gentleman was researching his big biography of Columbus, and of course Prescott kept up close contact with his fellow Boston Atheneum patron George Ticknor, who was also engaged in a massive, life-long work about Spain (his was a huge study of Spanish, Portuguese, and Castilian literature, a marvel of easy-going erudition that’s now entirely forgotten) – indeed, the quasi-rivalry between the two of them is the basis for an entertaining novella called Ticknor that you should read if you can find it.
Needless to add, you should read Prescott too. I’d direct you to the pertinent Library of America volumes, but although there exist many volumes for such artistically negligible figurines as Saul Bellow and Philip K. Dick, there don’t appear to be any for poor squinting Prescott, one of the greatest historians America has ever produced. There was a Modern Library volume from years ago, but I believe it only contained The Conquest of Mexico. No, the best volume to find is even older still: Irwin Blacker’s fantastic 1963 Viking Portable edition, a compression of (what Blacker, that irrepressible man, called “the essence of”) all four histories he called The Rise and Decline of the Spanish Empire. If you can read that abridgement and not come out of it hungry to read more Prescott, there’s something medically – even spiritually – wrong with you.
November 24th, 2011
By now it should hardly need saying that every issue of National Geographic is wonder-park of astonishment (or words, you know, to that effect). It’s a continuous source of confusion to me why every thinking person I know isn’t a lifelong subscriber, doesn’t eagerly await each new issue and put everything on hold to pore over it like I do. Of course, that very same abundance makes a regular feature like Geographica feel almost redundant, since virtually every issue of National Geographic is so bursting with fascination that it feels nearly misleading to point out any one thing. My only justification is that some things strike me more than others in my reading of each issue. And in this current issue, Stevereads recidivists might be expecting the talking-point to be Adam Nicolson’s wonderful, fast-paced overview of the King James Bible – its history, its ‘reception’ as a text, etc. And it was indeed a joy – as was the photo taken by Jeffrey Chua de Guzman on the sea-bed off the coast of Manilla: he spotted something moving and saw a broken soda bottle (it’s standing upright in the photo – my inner Suspicious Aloysius wonders if the photographer didn’t find it on its side and stand it up himself, for dramatic effect) – with an octopus leisurely canted inside.
But for me, this time around, the highlight was Caroline Alexander’s tough but hopeful article “A Cry for the Tiger,” in which she writes about both the plight of the world’s wild tigers and (in the magazine’s long tradition) the fight to save them. The article opens with an incredibly enheartening sight: a trip-wire camera’s midnight shot of a tiger walking by in the forests of northern Sumatra, a magnificent creature caught for one instant in the middle of its invisible life. But then the very next image is discouraging: four hopeless little felons apprehended outside Chandrapur trying to sell a tiger skin (pretty discouraging too the shot in this article of a terrified puppy being used as live bait in a tiger-trap). I lived for a while in Chandrapur many years ago, and I saw tiger-articles – pelts, claws, teeth, tails – in the bazaar all the time … it was immediately saddening to know it still goes on, even in today’s far more eco-conscious atmosphere.
Sill, at least Alexander’s prose is an unmixed joy. Her article bogs in statistics or exposition, and her narrative is always sharp with awe:
Consider the tiger, how he is formed. With claws up to four inches long and retractable, like a domestic cat’s, and carnassial teeth that shatter bone. While able to achieve bursts above 35 miles an hour, the tiger is built for strength, not sustained speed. Short, powerful legs propel his trademark lethal lunge and fabled leaps. Recently, a tiger was captured on video jumping – flying – from flat ground to 13 feet in the air to attack a ranger riding an elephant. The eye of the tiger is backlit by a membrane that reflects light through the retina, the secret of his famous night vision and glowing night eyes. The roar of the tiger – Aaaaauuuuunnnn! – can carry more than a mile.
The perfect accompaniment to the article: a pull-out poster with a beautiful Fernando Baptista illustration of a lion on one side and a gallery of incredible Vincent Musi photos of the world’s big cats on the other.
Of course it will come as little surprise to any of you that I find these animals extra disturbing – pretty tough for a confirmed dog-person not to find the idea of a 600-pound cat with linoleum-knives for claws disturbing. But the article left me tensely hoping there’s a future for these magnificent animals. National Geographic does that to you: it broadens your reactions to everything in the world.
November 23rd, 2011
A generation of fantasy readers soared on the wings of her dragons. Rest in Peace.
November 21st, 2011
Our book today is Emma, Lady Hamilton, a big fat 1905 volume by steadfast biographer Walter Sichel, who spends an eager amount of time at the outset of the book carefully detailing for his readers just why they should opt for his book on Lady Hamilton as opposed to any of the others. He stresses both the new content (letter caches, mainly) of his book and also his vigorous new interpretations of old content, all with a sharp commercial eye toward making his product stand out.
It seems an odd anxiety, from the viewpoint of 2011. Amy Lyon, who changed her name to Emma Hart and then became Lady Emma when she married the elderly and ultimately mysterious Sir William Hamilton, became famous all over the Western world not only as a sexual provocateur (her hair and clothing styles were lamentably imitated by beefy matrons from Venice to Vladivostok) but as the open mistress of England’s famous naval hero Horatio Nelson. Despite the fact that Nelson was short, pock-marked, balding, dumpy, one-armed, rheumatoid, and gap-toothed, an entire long generation of Victorian young men desperately wanted to be like him – most especially in two respects: they wanted to be the victor at the Battle of the Nile, and they wanted the love of Emma Hamilton. Even in 1905, therefore, her name could still sell books and generate cutthroat competition between rival biographers.
Mainly this was because Emma Hamilton represents the beau ideal of the mistress. She was vivacious but not annoying, smart but not educated, a good enough singer and dancer but not so good that the singing and dancing commanded attention on their own, and she was beautiful: long eye-lashes, a gorgeous smooth voice, and breasts out to here. And added to this was one extra, crucial point: her husband didn’t mind. A floundering little pansy like Nelson would have been reduced to a puddle of tears if Sir William had called him out to meet with pistols at dawn – but instead, Sir William admired him. It’s the ultimate guilt-free fantasy.
Sichel realizes all this and goes at it with a true professional’s gusto. This requires the production of vast job-lots of what is referred to, in technical literary terms, as drivel:
It has been well said that apologies only try to excuse what they fail to explain, and any apology for the bond which ever afterwards united them would be idle. Yet a few reflections should be borne nervously in mind. The firm tie that bound them, they themselves felt eternally binding; no passing whim had fastened it, nor any madness of a moment. They had plighted a real troth which neither of them ever either broke or repented. Both found and lost themselves in each other. Their love was no sacrifice to lower instincts; it was a true link of hearts.
Luckily for his readers, Sichel is every bit as energetic a guide even when he’s not talking about body parts linking up, as when he sets the scene in 1798:
Nelson was in chase of Buonaparte’s fleet.
Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition was, perhaps, the greatest wonder in a course rife with them. He was not yet thirty; he had been victorious by land, and had dictated terms at the gates of Vienna. In Italy, like Tarquin, he had knocked off the tallest heads first. Debt and jealousy hampered him at home. It was the gambler’s first throw, that rarest audacity. For years his far-sightedness had fastened on the Mediterranean; and now that Spain was friends with France, he divined the moment for crushing Britain. But even then his schemes were far vaster than his contemporaries could comprehend. His plan was to obtain Eastern Empire, to reduce Syria, and, after recasting sheikhdoms in the dominion of the Phraraohs, possibly after subduing India, to dash back and conquer England.
Biographies of Lady Hamilton (who fell quickly into squalor and desperation after Nelson died his famous hero’s death) aren’t nearly so numerous as they were in Walter Sichel’s day, and they’re necessarily a bit more strained than any note he ever struck. Professional historians of our self-righteous modern era find it worrying to celebrate a woman whose main claim to fame was her sexual pliability – it lets the side down. Feminists can’t claim Emma because she slept her way to fame and fortune and lost both when she lost her lovers, but neither can they excoriate her, because we have enough of her letters to know she was a genuinely kind-hearted little ignoramus. Once the last generation to hero-worship Lord Nelson finally died off, the kind of popular interest that could animate a long, baroque work like Emma, Lady Hamilton died off as well.
But if you should feel a bit of that interest, this is the book to satisfy it. If a biographer is going to spend 500 pages writing about another man’s mistress, the least he can do is embarrass himself for our amusement.
November 21st, 2011
It looks like Santa isn’t too fond of the ultra-photogenic Tommy Hilfiger crowd, if we can judge by the steaming pile of you-know-what he left under their Christmas tree this year:
November 20th, 2011
Our book today is from 1910: Bess of Hardwick and Her Circle by Mrs. Matilda Carbury – I beg your pardon, Mrs. Stepney Rawson, a bustling literary lady from the beautiful Berkshire countryside who ingratiated herself to various book-column editors in Edwardian London to look kindly upon her various and numerous productions – some of which needed all the friends they could get. In a later generation, the author of such works as Journeyman Love, The Apprentice, and The Stairway of Honour would inevitably turn out to be a sham persona concocted by Bertie Wooster (and given ample form by the unfailing Jeeves)(and a generation after that, she’d take the form of Miss Amelia Nettleship and rob poor Rumpole of his sleep), but in the early years of the 20th century, she was all too real, and her letters to prospective reviewers – smilingly imploring them to look kindly upon her poor efforts – have a decidedly Carburyesque tone to them that the reader might wish had been deliberate parody on her part.
Alas, no: Mrs. Rawson was nothing if not earnest, whether organizing the church theatricals and musicals of which she was so fond or writing the books for which she was known and somewhat celebrated in her own time, though she’s entirely forgotten in our own. Sic transit gloria Mudie’s.
Her best-selling book was a frothy piece of fiction called A Lady of the Regency, for which she managed to obtain quite a few favorable (though often somewhat grudgingly so) reviews. Romance novel fans might note it now for one main reason: it was one of the earliest of the archly formulaic Regency novels that would later account for such staggering swaths of the Western world’s book-production (if you took away Regencies, whodunits, and westerns, the total number of books every published would drop by half). Nearly a decade after the success of that novel, Mrs. Rawson finally realized a long-held ambition to write a big, serious work of biography, a serious “exploration” (as she put it) of history.
She chose as her topic that most fascinating of Elizabethans, Elizabeth Hardwick, “Bess of Hardwick,” the feisty, pretty daughter of a prosperous Nottinghamshire squire who took unusual care that all his children were well-schooled in letters and literature. The crucial formative fact that her parents took her seriously as a person gave Bess a steel rod for a personality, and she’d no sooner hit puberty than she was helping her mother (and her mentor, Anne Gainsford, a beautiful beaker of pure poison who’d warrant a biography of her own if any reader could be found to stomach it) find her a likely husband. The first of these, a handsome local heir, coughed himself into an early grave before he could even deflower Bess, which infuriated her. An intense amount of lobbying and odds-handicapping followed, the fruit of which was a marriage much higher up the food chain: fifty-something Sir William Cavendish, a very prosperous courtier and landowner who’d already lost two wives to the childbearing bed. With Sir William, Bess became Lady Cavendish, she became a mother many times over (Sir William was a vigorous man), and almost accidentally, she fell in love with her husband.
Who died ten years later and left Bess on the marriage-market once again. She waited a decent two years and then married an even wealthier landowner, Sir William St. Loe, who (mincing, beady-eyed) was the exact opposite of Sir William Cavendish in all ways but one: he also quickly came under the spell of his new wife, taking her opinions exactly as he would those of a man, watching in wonder as she whipped his various estates into shape (many of the letters we have in Bess of Hardwick’s hand are hot-tempered instructions to wayward stewards – even now, their words snap: they can’t have been pleasant to receive), trying to keep up with her in the banquet hall and bedroom. Sir William was only human: he died after about five years in the whirlwind. He was also immeasurably grateful for the ride: he left Bess everything, making her a stupendously wealthy woman.
Her next and last husband was her worst: George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury – an even wealthier landowner than her previous two husbands, an intimate friend of the Queen, one of the great powers in the realm, and the mother of all humorless pricks (actually, considering the remorseless slab of beef his son Gilbert turned out to be, probably more accurate to call him the father of all humorless pricks). Through George Talbot, Bess finally had access not only to vast wealth and land but to the electrified cables of actual power, and the proximity worked its customary dark magic on her. She conceived dangerous ambitions – not for herself but for her daughter Elizabeth, whom she pushed into a marriage with Charles Stuart, the brother of the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots (who was later quartered on the Talbots for large chunks of her house arrest in England, a discreet form of punishment meted out by an unforgetting Queen). Such a marriage was of course treason without the Queen’s consent, and when Elizabeth I found out, Bess was ordered to report to London and explain herself. But she was ambitious, not crazy: she stayed on her impregnable country estates and waited for the Queen to calm down. And the Fates remembered her insolence: she was to have a grievously tempestuous relationship with Elizabeth’s stunning daughter, Arabella Stuart.
Naturally, all this is catnip for Mrs. Rawson – how could it be otherwise, when she’d spent her entire literary apprenticeship as a novelist trying in vain to cook up plots half so enthralling? She goes at her subject in Bess of Hardwick and Her Circle with the same zeal she used in writing her novels – the exact same zeal, so this big, enjoyable book is full of ‘my lady’s and ‘my good lord’s and even a couple of brief dramatic scenes complete with stage-directions, which our author breathlessly defends:
The orthodox may be affronted at two brief incursions into fiction … Let them skip these judiciously, magisterially. For my own part, I needed consolation at times for certain hard and bitter facts of history. Therefore, since the way was sometimes long, and the wind, in my imagination, very cold – as it whistled in and out of the ruins of those manors and castles, where the Scots Queen and her married gaolers dwelt, or as it drove the snow across the splendid facade of Hardwick (to say nothing of the draughts of the sombre, public research libraries) – I first drew my Countess down from her picture-frame to marshal her household, and then lured her child and her child’s lover after to gladden your road and mine.
Well, how can you argue with that?
The ‘orthodox’ will find a great deal to object to in these pages other than amateur theatricals, but no matter: the romantic at heart, the dreamer, and especially anyone who’s ever visited Hardwick Hall will very likely love this florid, heartfelt book. Certainly much better biographies of Bess of Hardwick have been written (Mary S. Lovell‘s is not to be missed), but none more passionate. If you can find a library that still stocks it, borrow a copy without delay! Mine came from this one, but they’re no longer in business, unfortunately: