Posts from April 2013
April 30th, 2013
Our book today is the inimitably-titled little 1896 masterpiece by Eugene Field, The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac, and you only have to open it at random to any page in order to be ushered immediately into the living presence of its quirky, funny, utterly adorable author. Should ill chance ever land you in Denver, Colorado, you can go to the quaint house Field occupied while he was editor of the Denver Tribune (although it’s not where he occupied it, since, in a bit of a long story, the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown had it moved after his death); you can politely walk through its rooms and peer at its placards, and you can do the same thing with half a dozen other sites throughout the Midwest dedicated to Field’s memory, and if you’re the perceptive type (this would make you a rarity among those forlorn folk who find National Historical Sites interesting, but you never can tell), you’ll readily intuit from the number of such sites that the man was well-remembered, possibly even well-loved. You’ll have no idea how right that intuition is, however, until you go not to where he used to live but to where he lives still: his books.
He was most famous in his day for his gently funny newspaper columns (he poked more fun at Boston than any Amherst man should be allowed to do, but he knew every street and bookshop of the Hub, and his teasing was done with affection) and especially his children’s poetry such as “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” and “Little Boy Blue.” But all the while he was turning out such stuff, he was also writing essays about the world of books, and those essays, collected in Love Affairs of a Biliomaniac, form his most charming work. Not his most personal – that would be Notes from the Sabine Farm, his antiquated but utterly convincing meditation on his beloved Horace; and not his most enduring – those silly little poems are all of him that endures; but his most charming.
In these pieces, he rambles through the Republic of Letters as his fancy takes him, now talking about book-collecting, now recounting the time he failed to buy anything at a particular shop because Gladsone had come in right before him and bought every single book in the place, now eulogizing some one of his favorite writers, be it Izaak Walton or Cicero or Boswell. Like many a book-person before and after him, he had quiet (sleepy?) praise for one particular reading habit:
Observation has convinced me that all good and true book-lovers practise the pleasing and improving avocation of reading in bed. Indeed, I fully believe … that no book can be appreciated until it has been slept with and dreamed over.
And since he himself was hopelessly infected with what he called the “bacillus librorum” – and since he lived long before the advent of the electronic reader (an invention he would have hailed as a godsend, as all real readers must do), he also did his full share of the activity that’s been associated with bibliomania from the beginning – lugging around:
As for myself, I never go away from home that I do not take a trunkful of books with me, for experience has taught me that there is no companionship better than that of these friends who, however much all things else may vary, always give the same response to my demands upon their solace and their cheer.
At several points in Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac, he simply stops what he’s doing and launches into a passionate address, as besotted lovers will tend to do, and they not only always ring true, they’re always delightfully dorky:
And thou, homely little brown thing with worn leaves, yet more precious to me than all jewels of the earth – come, let me take thee from thy shelf and hold thee lovingly in my hands and press thee tenderly to this aged and slow-pulsing heart of mine! Dost thou remember how I found thee half a century ago all tumbled in a lot of paltry trash? Did I not joyously possess thee for a sixpence, and have I not cherished thee full sweetly all these years?
It’s impossible to read an outburst like that and not glance immediately at one’s own homeliest volumes, rescued from lots of trash and treasured for years. Nothing would have pleased Field greater than to know that one of his own books could be among that number.
April 25th, 2013
Our book today is James Milne’s soft-spoken, charming 1925 book A London Book Window, which poses for its readers one simple, irresistible question: “Do you like to hear about the little things which go on in the book world?”
Milne was a lifelong writer about books, a smart, unassuming man capable of making just about any subject interesting, and A London Book Window is as cheerful a miscellany as you’re likely to find among the products of our Ink Chorus. Our author’s attention is sharp, but it wanders at will, flickering over its chosen subjects with so many digressions that the impression is one not of looking through a window but of wandering in a garden.
He wrote for whoever in the book world was paying, and there were long seasons during which he only seldom got to pick his own subjects or his own deadlines. There have been countless hundreds of such writers since the rise of printed newspapers and magazines, and early on Milne understood what comparatively few of those writers ever seem to: gathering your rosebuds into books is the only shot you have at having somebody write about them on an obscure book-blog in a hundred years. An odd kind of immortality, certainly, but in the end even such miserable creatures as deadline critics will take whatever kind of immortality is on offer. The lazybones who just leave their various clippings moldering in newsroom file cabinets (or the electronic equivalents) don’t even get Stevereads – fire, flood, and worms consume their words forever.
Milne understood this, which is why he was always industriously making books, including his puckish News from Somewhere and My Summer in London. He understood the importance of presenting the reading public with an appealing variety of writing – and he understood the how personal it could all be:
Somebody read a newspaper review and learned that here was a particular book worth getting. Most likely, however, that somebody did not get it until a friend was met at a dinner-table who said: “I have just finished that book, and it is splendid. Order it at once from the library.” Advice like that was acted upon, because it came directly, because it was individual.
That antic variety is certainly visible in the Table of Contents for A London Book Window. We get chapters on bestsellers, happy endings, first novels, the history of Mudie’s in English literature, and a dozen other things, all complete with the aforementioned digressions – including some in which Milne had the courage to pipe up with some then-unfashionable opinions, including one on the era’s greatest fashion-victim:
A much nearer person, Anthony Trollope, as come along again with his Barsetshire novels of a Victorian England which has almost passed away. He has been made welcome, a little out of curiosity about himself, for he could write at the rate of a thousand words an hour, and he made nearly seventy thousand pounds, and also a little out of curiosity about the England which he describes. Anthony had no genius, and perhaps prided himself on the fact, but he took uncommon trouble to build stories of plot and character, and he is worth looking up in the new editions of him.
The best mini-essay in the book is one hilariously titled “Were the Victorians Dull?” And again, our author has the courage of his convictions, rightly ranking the age among the greatest in English history: “We see definitely what some of the Victorians were prophets enough to claim in advance, that theirs was a time linkable for its riches with that of the Elizabethans.” That took nerve to write in early 20th century literary circles.
Most of A London Book Window is gaiety rather than anything as forbidding as courage, however, and it’s all as effortlessly readable today as it was the hour it was written – which is just how Milne would have wanted it, of course, and just want he was trying to do.
April 22nd, 2013
Some Penguin Classics have been a part of the mental landscape for so long that finding a Penguin edition of them seems like a foregone conclusion, and surely high up on the list of such books would be Il Principe, the slim, explosive manual Niccolo Machiavelli wrote around 1513 as a dutiful, hopeful submission to Lorenzo de Medici, whose family junta had recently regained power in Florence, driven Machiavelli from his government job, tortured him, and rusticated him to his family farm about seven miles from the city.
It was most likely while recuperating at that farm and enduring the more or less pleasant boredom of that small village life that Machiavelli composed The Prince, his quick, businesslike dissertation on the mechanics of princely rule. It’s not given to many books that you can truthfully say about their appearance “and the world was never the same again,” but The Prince is one of those books: it has been parsed, mangled, and misinterpreted more often and more vigorously than virtually any other document this side of the New Testament.
Naturally, it’s also been reprinted countless times (indeed, long before it was printed at all it was circulating in copied manuscripts everywhere by 1516 – even minor pensioners at the court of Henry VIII could readily get their hands on an untranslated copy) – and Penguin chose to join that long tradition with what they euphemistically refer to as the “clear, unambiguous” 1961 translation by George Bull (in an earlier paperback, the cover was a painting of Machiavelli himself, looking merry and ratlike; in a later paperback, the beak-nosed bookworm has been supplanted by the epicene toff in Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man).
What this really means is that Bull’s translation is dull but serviceable, and it’s a bit surprising that no newer version has bumped it from its status as a standby version. The more recent paperbacks feature an Introduction by a slightly off-his-game Anthony Grafton, who makes the excellent point that a big part of what Machivelli was doing in The Prince was in fact nothing new, except that he was one of the first people to think of writing it down as is:
Long before The Prince could reach the book-stands of Renaissance princes who might scan its pages eagerly for the secrets of effective political action, the patricians of Florence had discussed politics in a fully realistic way, appreciating that the diverse interests of states and individuals, rather than the ideas they cited, drove their actions.
This was realpolitik centuries before Bismarck, and it was hard-learned by Machiavelli in a busy career of diplomatic missions. He was hoping it would be of interest to Florence’s new master – he says so right at the outset, declaring that he has no swords or horses to offer a new prince but only the practical knowledge he’s assembled over the years. Machiavelli had been an active champion of Florence’s old Republic, and as such he had suffered the strappado and dismissal. But he craved employment, and he was clearly hoping the Magnificent Lorenzo would prize that hard-won wisdom so highly he’d be willing to overlook its source. This gambit on Machiavelli’s part was desperate and sordid, but it was hardly the mystery Grafton makes it out to be:
Anyone who wishes to deal with the full development of Machiavelli’s thought must, above all, explain what this loyal servant of the Republic meant by his praise of tyranny.
(Besides, Machiavelli doesn’t praise tyranny – he simply doesn’t outright condemn it; it’s the landscape around him, and he was enough of a realist to see that … as the quote goes in The Lion in Winter, “There’s no use wondering if the air’s any good when there’s nothing else to breathe”)
The book is just the same a revelation, almost an entreaty to be misunderstood and mis-applied. Our author makes it his point not to recite the bland pieties of earlier statecraft manuals but rather to talk about things as they really are, even if he must therefore time and again rank evil over good:
Everyone knows how praiseworthy it is or a prince to honour his word and be straightforward rather than crafty in his dealings; none the less contemporary evidence shows that princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning, and who, in the end, have overcome those abiding by honest principles.
Readers coming new to the Penguin Classic The Prince will see even by a quick glance at the above excerpt that the Bull translation is fairly heavy sledding. Unfortunately, it’s that way throughout – lumbering where Machiavelli is light, ponderous where he’s pithy. This is a shame, since Il Principe is, among many other things, a delight to read (Lorenzo the Magnificent may very well have been the only person since the book’s appearance who didn’t make it all the way through). Those who buy this old Penguin (a newer, more energetic translation has since replaced Bull’s), perhaps to complete a collection, won’t see much of that delight – but if they’re attentive, they’ll certainly see what all the fuss was about.
April 21st, 2013
Our book today is The Rebel Bride, originally published in 1979 by that tireless romancer, Catherine Coulter. When it appeared back in ’79, it was one of those thin Signet Regency romances, the ones with the decorative covers and the filigreed script, this time a courteous, predictable story about Kate Brandon, a fiery-tempered and independent redhead who sets her world of 1814 London abuzz with her free spirit and her unconventional ways. When she comes to the attention of the book’s Darcy figure, Julien St. Clair, the handsome, brooding, easily-angered earl of March, sparks fly between them, and Coulter, now a veteran of hundreds of romance novels, handles the expected developments with smooth skill even though The Rebel Bride first appeared very early in her career.
Then it got a second life, resurrected as part of Signet’s “Topaz” line in 1994. The marketing types at Signet had observed, as had the whole American romance novel industry, the unexpected success of long-haired Milanese cover model Fabio – if he appeared on a book’s cover, shirtless, with his tresses flowing, that book sold, regardless of its author. Marketing types pay attention to such things, and the best of them are nimble to adapt.
Hence, “The Topaz Man” – a rather obvious attempt to clone Fabio in a laboratory. The publisher crafted an entire line of books under the Topaz imprint, united by one thing: the presence of the same luscious male model on all the covers. The model was gorgeous, toned Steve Sandalis, one of the most easy-going and laughter-prone hair-tossers you could hope to meet in a lifetime of RITA conventions. He was handily more attractive than Fabio – leanly chiseled, muscular, and with facial beauty given only to Greek bloodlines. He appeared on hundreds of covers; he was the Topaz Man.
Although the strategy didn’t quite duplicate the unexpected sensation of Fabio, it nevertheless worked: Topaz books, lavishly presented to customers in their own special floor displays (and with Sandalis himself, always a contractual prince, appearing at dozens of promotional events), sold extremely well. So well, in fact, that Signet was happy to dig up old properties and give them Topaz makeovers. By the time the line was in full swing, Coulter had already become a bestselling author in her own right. She seemed a perfect fit for a little opportunistic reprinting.
There was only one problem: the book chosen, that 1979 version of Rebel Bride? Well, it wasn’t exactly Topaz Man material. Instead, it was a perfectly acceptable specimen of that once-upon-a-time staple of the romance genre: the Austen-esque Regency novel in which sharp word-play and scrupulous historical accuracy (not only in matters of dress and transportation and food, but also – perhaps more importantly – in matters of psychology) were all-important, in which author after author professed her life-long love of the Divine Jane and would no more sully that pure Austenite world than she would turn to penning porn.
You knew porn would turn up eventually, didn’t you? In Coulters original version of the novel, Kate is a delightful spitfire who thinks nothing of accosting a ‘peasant’ when she sees him whipping a poor work-horse:
“You probably deserve the kicking. You probably deserve much more. And if you fed her properly she wouldn’t be so mangy. You should be shot.” From long experience facing Sir Oliver, ranting and waving his cane at her, she now felt no fear. She, quite simply, wanted to kill him.
(and when words fail her, she hauls off and punches him, which perhaps Emma Woodhouse never did, but you just know she must sometimes have been tempted). In the brief Afterword she adds to the 1994 version of Rebel Bride, Coulter deploys key euphemisms with the precision of a spin master:
The Rebel Bride was my second novel. Although it was originally published as a Regency, I always felt that it was a historical romance at heart. So I’ve rewritten this story of two stubborn, strong-willed people, and Topaz is bringing it out again for you – this time as the historical it could have been.
Newcomers may find that a bit odd – after all, the original Rebel Bride was set in 1814, and so is the updated version; they’re both clearly historical novels set in the Regency period, so doesn’t that make them both Regency novels?
Not quite, and you can guess why: in her rewrite, Coulter mainly added one thing that had been missing from her earlier version – one thing that’s scrupulously missing from all true Regency romances – and it wasn’t more, um, historical detail:
She repeated his name over and over, arching her hips to draw him deeper into her. He found he couldn’t control himself. It had been too long. He covered her lips with his hand and felt long-awaited release, moaning his own pleasure into her mouth.
In other words, Steve Sandalis wasn’t hired to stand around polishing his boots – and maybe he had a little help making those Topaz books sell so well. As a calculated strategy, it couldn’t have been any plainer, and although the makers of the Topaz line might not have known it at the time, their strategy would eventually be adopted by every romance publisher in America. The old-style prim and witty Regency romances are hardly published at all anymore in the 21st century – all those rather stately covers with their statuesque women and their noticeably older men have been as thoroughly transformed as the books themselves have been. Now not only do we get much younger male models with smoldering good looks, but we get sex, sex, sex, even starting on the front cover.
The irony is that two-thirds of the new romance novels crowding the shelves at the nearest evil chain bookstore are technically set in the Regency period – there’s an argument to be made that Regencies are flourishing as never before. But if that’s true, it came at a price: these are all Topaz Regencies now, moaning in pleasure in every heaving chapter and only engaging in witty banter in the brief intervals while the maid changes the sheets. The painstaking research is often gone or muted, the historical accuracy is, let’s just say, wavery, and the One Thing on every character’s mind is no longer respectable marriage (although that always manages to happen just the same). The Topaz novels weren’t the first to make that change, but they certainly did more than any other brand to establish it as the change to maintain … and game old veterans like Coulter did their bit to help. The new Rebel Bride isn’t any worse a novel than the original – Coulter’s rewrite left untouched all her scenes of genuine talent and vim – but it joins in the key change from yesterday’s romance novels to today’s: it leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination.
April 20th, 2013
Our book today is Park-Street Papers, a charming 1908 volume made by Bliss Perry, the sweetest-natured man ever to run the venerable Atlantic Monthly (with all due apologies to the shade of the almost equally venerable Edward Weeks, who ran a wonderful shop for a long time but who would have readily admitted that he could have fuzzy days just like plain folks). Perry helmed the magazine from 1899 to 1909 and was its genial “Toastmaster,” writing signed and unsigned commentary and patter for every issue, dealing with the endless stream of authors who visited Number 4 Park Street, trying to keep the budget from flying apart at the seams, and maintaining throughout it all the disposition of a saint, often stealing quiet moments to sit and look out The Atlantic’s big bow windows at the city beyond:
They look down upon the mild activities of Park Street, to the left upon the black lines of people streaming in and out of the Subway, in front toward the Common with its fountain that never flows and its Frog Pond gleaming through the elms, and to the right toward the monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Is all this fairly typical of American life – its work and play, its resourcefulness and its carelessness, its tolerant respect for the past, its posthumous honors gladly paid to leaders of forlorn hopes? Or is it merely a view of Boston, something local, provincial; and our outlook from Park Street windows, instead of summarizing and symbolizing the American, the human spectacle, is it only “Frogpondinium” – as scoffers have dubbed it – after all?
He himself was never in any real doubt as to the answer to that question, and the excerpt – from early on in Park-Street Papers, shows both how friendly his prose always was and how easy it was. He was fond – over-fond, perhaps – of those big, simple writing conceits that smarter authors tend to avoid: organizing a piece around the things he can see from his desk, organizing a piece around the view out his windows, organizing a piece as though it were a banquet – that sort of thing came ready-made to his hand.
Most of the pieces collected in Park-Street Papers began life as “Atlantic Prologues” in the magazine itself. There are grinning tributes to the magazine, as well as several examples of Perry’s strongest suit as a writer: long, loving profiles of authors. He writes with insight and affection about such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and he’s at his best – in fact it’s the best thing in this book – when writing about Francis Underwood, “The Editor Who Was Never An Editor,” a quiet, unassuming man who was present at the legendary 1857 dinner party at which The Atlantic was created (these things seem always to happen over food) and who remained something of a presiding spirit there for many years.
Perry was just such a presiding spirit himself, and although he only served for a decade, he did more than anybody else to set The Atlantic’s attitude, that curious mixture of serenity and agitation that has always characterized it at its best. His secret? Avoid the pointlessness of slavish imitation in search of a larger audience:
The Atlantic has many competitors. The more the better. Each of them fulfills some public service peculiar to itself – even if it be only to serve as an “awful example.” Each of them reaches many persons whom the Atlantic cannot reach without changing its character and aim. The colored illustrations of one, the unimpeachable innocuousness of another, the agility of a third in jumping to the majority side of every question, do not arouse the Atlantic’s envy.
Park-Street Papers brims with just that kind of quiet confidence, in the faith that good writing will always find good readers. Ironically, that faith isn’t borne out by Perry’s own writing (who reads Whittier anymore? Or Aldrich? Or Perry himself, for all that?), but it doesn’t matter: the faith itself is the important thing. And if you’re lucky enough to come across this merry, optimistic volume on the bargain carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop (or, you know, the electronic equivalents), don’t hesitate to spend the $3 – it’s a glimpse into a publishing, writing, and editing world that no longer exists and whose like may not come again. Here lives again a list of authors whose names were once on the lips of every conscientious reader, and here also lives again a Boston of a cruder, gentler, slower time – also now gone, except for some of that remaining exquisitely reserved Yankee architecture.
April 18th, 2013
Despite the tragedy that overtook the city of Boston on the 15th of April, the 18th of April can’t help but force a smile against the gloom: it’s the date of the famous ride of Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Samuel Prescott to warn the sleeping townsfolk of Middlesex County that the British were marching to Lexington to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams (“the dangerous Adams”) – an event that might have remained forever a footnote in national history if it weren’t for a poem written by the great Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and published in 1861 in The Atlantic Monthly. That poem, of course, is “Paul Revere’s Ride”:
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”
Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.
Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.
Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,–
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.
Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,–
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.
Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.
A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.
It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.
It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.
It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.
You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.
So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
The poem sparked a craze of Revere-revering that’s hardly abated even in our own post-literate era, including two of my favorite tributes: the sedate statue of Revere by sculptor Cyrus Edwin Dallin that now guards Boston’s North End and is seen by thousands of people every year (Dallin outdid himself, though: his “Appeal to the Great Spirit” statue, sitting outside Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is seen by millions of people every year), and the 1992 children’s book of Longfellow’s poem, with hauntingly fantastic illustrations by Ted Rand.
Longfellow’s poem isn’t historically accurate, but he knew that when he was writing it – his aim was to sound a warning to his own contemporaries about the American Civil War, not the American Revolution. And in the process he created a legend that’s rudely elbowed the facts off the stage – ordinarily a process I’d tend to deplore, except that legends are serene from bombs.
April 12th, 2013
Our book today is the tense and yet lush Tudor novel My Enemy the Queen, which that champion quiller of historical romances, Victoria Holt, wrote in a free afternoon one day in 1978. ‘Victoria Holt’ was a pseudonym for an Englishwoman named Eleanor Hibbert, who was born in 1906, endured a brief, tedious interval learning how to walk, talk, and feed herself, and then spent the next 70 years (she died in 1993) writing novels in the way that other people exfoliate dead skin cells. We may never know how many books she wrote, nor how many pseudonyms she used to write them – “Victoria Holt” was one of her most famous, but then, so was “Jean Plaidy” and “Philippa Carr,” and there were at least half a dozen others, many of them containing little private jokes, each of them writing in a slightly but noticeably different register (as often happens with prolific writers who work under different names). She wrote in her lifetime more books than most people read in a lifetime, and that would ordinarily be astonishing achievement enough, but she went it one better: all her books are soundly good, and a dozen or so of them are considerably better than good.
My Enemy, The Queen is one of her best books. It’s the story of Lettice Knollys, who was the childhood friend of Princess Elizabeth and later became a lady-in-waiting when Elizabeth became queen. For decades she thus occupied that unenviable (and extremely rare) position, an old friend to a Tudor. She was tall and shapely and witty, and she enjoyed for a time great influence in Elizabeth’s court. She married Walter Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and commanded money and property of her own when he died.
Then she made the colossal blunder of falling in love with another old friend (and long-time quasi-paramour) of Elizabeth’s, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. The two courted in secret, consummated in secret, and married in secret, and when Elizabeth inevitably found out, she was furious. She poured imprecations of violence on the couple’s heads and banished Lettice permanently from court.
Our author’s tireless historical research revealed to her that Lettice Knollys lived into her 90s, a ripe old age indeed in a time before medicine, and the winning idea of crafting a book as the reflections of Lettice looking back on her long life sprang naturally to mind. At one point an older and wiser Lettice warns her son “One does not consider personal affronts when dealing with monarchs,” but she’s not a good follower of her own rule and spends most of her book brooding on just such personal affronts – and not only those she received from Elizabeth. One of the book’s subdued triumphs is its chilling success in conveying how secondary Lettice’s marriage to Leicester would have been to him once he was intent on regaining and retaining the favor of the Queen. He had to be almost constantly in attendance on Elizabeth – and so, absent from Lettice herself. When he talks to her about Elizabeth’s reluctance to execute Mary Queen of Scots, he does so as one court ally to another, never dreaming his wife might resent him:
Leicester was impatient with her [the Queen], and I reminded him that not so long ago he had thought of making terms with the Queen of Scots when he thought there was a possibility of Elizabeth’s dying and her coming to the throne.
He looked at me in amazement. He could not understand my lack of understanding of political expediency. Previously I should have been with him in what he suggested. Oh yes, indeed I was out of love.
“If she does not take care,” he cried vehemently, “there will be an attempt to rescue Mary and it may succeed.”
“You would not then be in an enviable position, my lord,” I commented wryly. “I believe Her Majesty of Scotland is very fond of lapdogs, but she likes to choose her own, and I am sure have no house room for those who once pleased the Queen of England.”
“What has happened to you, Lettice?” he asked, bewildered.
I retorted: “I have become a neglected wife.”
There are similarly good turns of scene all throughout the novel, and a great deal of the historical research is remarkably sound (our author provides her sources). It’s true that the narrative never soars, never really makes Lettice into a person, much less an old, bitter person, but re-reading it and being swept up again in the old familiar story, you can’t help but wonder if today’s new crop of Tudor novelists were swept up in these same pages, when they were young girls as thirsty and impressionable as sponges. That’s a debt-worthy service, if so – and that’s on top of the fact that the originator still makes fine afternoon’s reading.
April 6th, 2013
Fifty years ago the great Melville Bell Grosvenor, then the presiding quintessence of National Geographic (son of the magazine’s first editor-in-chief, and grandson of Alexander Graham Bell), collaborated with a bullpen of very creative people and dreamed up a line of National Geographic books, big, heavy, lavishly illustrated things that acted as subject- specific compendiums of the vast treasures of art and writing that were steadily accumulating in the magazine’s pages. He thought of them as perfect gift items, wonderful keepsakes of some of the Society’s most engaging work, and for ten years or so, new volumes appeared with happy regularity.
One of the earliest was something of a sure bet, subject-wise: Man’s Best Friend, a genial, joyful dog-collection from 1958. It was resolutely nothing out of the ordinary: an anatomical chart of dogs, a run-down of all the major breeds (with somewhat stiff though heartfelt illustrations by Walter Weber and a handful of others), chapters on dog shows, police and fire dogs, canine care and feeding, the history of canine domestication (with plenty of the Society’s signature great artwork reproductions), and yet it sold through several large editions, borne along by the burgeoning dog-ownership mania of mid-20th century America. For such an intrepid organization as the Society, it was a curiously domestic opening gambit, but a canny one: it and its few companion volumes (it’s possible there was one on cats as well …) proved there was a market for this kind of thing.
Much more in keeping with the wind-in-your-face nature of the Society was the fantastic 1963 volume Men, Ships and the Sea! My copy was a gift from an old friend who worked at National Geographic at the time, and the volume is so sturdy that it’s withstood decades of my frequent, loving reference and re-reading. It’s an inch taller than most of the other books Mel oversaw, and it’s got everything the nautically inclined could ever want: diagrams of different vessels, eye-popping photography of wind-driven ships braving all kinds of seas, gorgeous shots of unspoiled islands, plus all the usual digressions on great sailors, navigators, and sea-fighters of the last two thousand years. The Beagle, the Victory, the Mayflower, and of course my beloved Old Ironsides herself, the Constitution – all are given neat little tributes. And the best tribute, besides: all the ship’s cabins big and small in which I’ve found a battered copy of this volume – it may very well be one of the best-travelled books of the 20th century.
And if you’re talking about the sea, it won’t be long before you’re talking about England, the subject of the 1966 volume This England, which takes readers on a leisurely tour of the island, from London to the Cotswolds to the shires of the West country to East Anglia and through the beautiful countryside of Kent, presenting beautiful, funny, priceless photos along the way (as well as vintage National Geographic artwork by Birney Lettick). There are tributes to all the valorous English kings, tributes to all the glorious English cathedrals, and of course a tributes to Shakespeare, and it’s all swathed in a gentle glow of nostalgia for a pre-war England that was fast disappearing. Grosvenor did more than anybody to establish the magazine’s tone of nonjudgemental observation, but even so, there’s an almost sweet sadness that permeates these pages – a sadness borne out by the passage of time, since a great many parts of the England captured in this volume no longer exist even fifty years later.
The passage of time naturally rests even heavier on the 1968 volume Greece and Rome, one of the best-selling entries in the whole series. Again, Grosvenor’s approach was non-controversially straightforward: we get the Greece of Pericles and Socrates and the great dramatists, we get lovely photos of housewives taking in the Acropolis, we get the world-dominating career of Alexander the Great, we get the rise and conquests of Rome, plus stories of Pompeii, Hannibal, Spartacus, Julius Caesar, and the growing incursions of barbarians – all of it heavily illustrated, including a positive bounty of paintings by National Geographic giants like Louis Glanzman, Stanley Meltzoff, and the great Tom Lovell. No student of Greek and Roman history will find a single factual detail in this volume they didn’t already know, but they’ll be won over by the sheer warmth of the presentation – and ye gods, how invaluable the book is for the purpose of introducing a newcomer to the subject!
Much in the same vein are the two volumes that comprise the rock-solid boxed set the Society put out in 1977, The Renaissance and The Age of Chivalry: although they feature articles by some of the greatest experts then working (Roland Bainton, Paul Murray Kendall, Vincent Cronin, and half a dozen others), they cling to well-known general narratives and break no new ground, intent rather on storytelling and educating. Monks, pilgrimages, the tenacious rebirth of learning in the West, the great Renaissance figures in literature, statecraft, war, and faith – all are rehearsed again with grace and enthusiasm, accompanied by the best artwork and photography anybody was producing fifty years ago. The Renaissance volume especially is an enduring treat, full of literary excerpts and glimpses inside some of the world’s greatest museums.
There were lots of other volumes in this series (including two utterly enchanting little productions about birds), most of them now carrying the vaguely musty air that attends all old National Geographic productions. You see these old volumes at flea markets, or propping up shelves in the recesses of little used bookstores, and that sight always saddens me a bit – it’s a melancholy fate for books that still have so much wit, learning, and sheer vitality to offer readers. If you run across one (or, lucky devil, a box full) at a yard sale, pay the $5, take them home, use a moist rag to clean them off … and prepare to be very, very happy with your purchase.