Tag Archives: English literature

The Fellowship of Animals

The classic children’s book, Wind in the Willows, was published in 1908 and originally began as stories. The author, Kenneth Grahame, was a banker by trade and would write letters home to his young son, affectionately called, “Mouse”. These letters were actually continuing stories about animal characters who lived by the river Thames and had adventures on the river and in the English countryside, presumably in such places as Wiltshire and The Berkshire Downs, as well as in the forest.

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Grahame describes generously, often poetically, the details in nature from a personified animal’s point of view, their adventures on the wide uplands and streams, along the river’s tributaries, bubbling brooks, runnels and little culverts. The animals, especially the Water Rat, have great escapades and picnics throughout these ebullient pools and backwaters. They go deep into the forest, too, and visit caves and underground tunnels that have been made into grand or quaint abodes, as with the Badger’s catacomb mansion underground and the Mole’s simple hideaway that he nevertheless calls home.

Ratty, the Water Rat, the wise, good-humored, avuncular animal in the story might be considered the main character, and yet, little Mole, who is naïve, impetuous, curious and childish, holds the center-stage, (that is at least when Mr. Toad is not hogging the limelight with his wild exploits). Mole starts out essentially blind to the world outdoors. Indeed, it seems as if Mole is born as the story of his adventure begins. As if in an underground liminal zone, he has been living for years doing nothing but scratching around for provisions and whitewashing his lair in the spring. His eyes are suddenly opened; he hears the birds singing for the first time, and when he reaches the river, he stops spell-bound… Mole has never seen the river before. Here, Grahame describes with Wordsworthian celebration, the spring that Mole wakes up to:

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lovely little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing….
He sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him a babbling procession of the best stories in the world. Sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

When Ratty and Mole meet, they become fast-friends whose friendship grows and develops as that of a blossoming, childhood friendship. Yet these characters are not so much like children as they are like people that children can relate to and learn from. Certainly, the story is a classic that can absolutely be enjoyed by both adults and children. Ratty and Mole perform great adventures on the river, including a very funny scene in which Mole impatiently tries to take the oars from Ratty. They have picnics and meet many other animals who live by the river. There is an intricate system of social order and yet a warm comradeship among the various animals. Most of them are rather sophisticated, especially Ratty’s closest chums; they speak in an elevated English, and wear stylish outfits. Ratty, however, is more wise than most, and often circumspect or patient when the other animals are not as poetic or naturally insightful: as if the Water Rat were worldly-wise, though he lives only by the river in the English countryside. Still, each animal has the gift of natural instincts, much like that of humans, but the natural, more super-instincts, that inter-communication of animals – of sensing when they are close to home or when some danger is afoot. Indeed, Grahame humanizes the animals with great charm:

“Who is it this time, disturbing people on such a night? Speak up!”
“Oh, Badger,” cried the rat, “let us in, please. It’s me, Rat, and my friend Mole, and we’ve lost our way in the snow.”
“What, Ratty, my dear little man!” exclaimed the Badger, in quite a different voice. “Come along in, both of you, at once. Why, you must be perished. Well I never! Lost in the snow! And in the Wild Wood, too, and at this time of night! But come in with you.”

In and among this milieu of sodality and amidst these various expeditions with a handful of close friends, Ratty and Mole maintain the closest bond. Theirs has become a cultivated friendship. They have had their little adventures, their strolls far-afield, for example, where they mingle with humans in society: paying a porter at the train station, lodging a complaint to the police… where, in the evening, they see people sitting by the fireside through their living-room windows along a cobbled sidewalk in the village. Ratty and Mole’s relationship has endured the perils of lovable, capricious, reckless Mr. Toad. Mole is going through some changes. He is growing as an individual and as a mole.

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As for Toad, he learns a few of life’s lessons, for sure, despite his insanely impulsive craving for cars and boats, or anything with a motor. Toad experiences the revelation of hope even at his lowest point, in jail, when the goaler’s daughter brings in a hot, fragrant meal. The aroma fills up his cell, and suddenly his old aspirations and dreams return and he sees a solution to his problems – scolding himself for becoming so morose, thus, hope springs eternal, might be Toad’s credo, even in the face of his shortcomings. He has a long conversation with the gaoler’s daughter, which is a more intimate example among Grahame’s portrayals of an encounter between an animal and a human. Still, Toad is possessed by a perpetual wild hair combined with his compulsive lying. Promising the train driver, for instance, he’ll wash the driver’s shirts in exchange for a ride home, knowing full well he won’t send them back, yet passionately believing he will wash the man’s shirts and send them on, once he returns to Toad Hall.

Whether or not Toad changes and matures for good: this is only implied at by the restraint he shows in front of his friends by not indulging in self-centered speech-making and hogging the limelight at the Toad Hall party. But we the audience perceive how capricious Toad can be. He’s tricky and holds his cards close to his chest. Therefore, only the author really knows if Mr. Toad has actually changed.

Ratty has remained throughout: wise, clever, sociable, yet circumspect, good-humored and adventuresome; perhaps Ratty has become more so, in every quality. The other characters are not as delved into; they are who they are. However, Mole has changed as a central character. He has transformed from a naive, myopic little animal living in a narrow hovel underground into a more knowledgeable; indeed, wise; well-traveled (albeit of the English countryside, villages and forests); more experienced and sociable mole who has learned true comradeship and has in fact performed brave, heroic and kind deeds since he left his lair and unwittingly enrolled in the apprenticeship of the Water Rat. Even Badger gives his nod of approval by calling Mole, “clever Mole” and “good Mole,” tributes that Toad jealously covets from anyone, but especially from practical, austere, fatherly Badger.

When choosing your copy of Wind in the Willows, any book will do as long as it contains all twelve chapters. I found one large, hardbound version with the most beautiful illustrations that I’ve ever seen for this book, however, it was missing chapters. Oddly, the chapters that were left out happened to be some of the most magical, mythical and mysterious chapters of the entire story, such as: Piper at the Break of Dawn, Wayfarers All and the unedited The Return of Ulysses. To have these chapters is to enjoy the full enchantment of Grahame’s genius.

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Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

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To American readers, there is something delightfully appealing, captivating and perhaps nostalgic in an English story. The lively dialects and slightly foreign expressions, even when unfamiliar, attract us. It is an old infatuation that remains fresh with each new encounter. Tessa Hadley, one of the best story-writers we have today, makes this reading experience all the more pleasurable, as she crafts the story of a young woman and builds these episodes over a period of time, so that as readers our sense of time changes and the tale ends much sooner than we’d like.

There is to be a June wedding and a dress needs to be made. Ann Gallagher is young and talented. She is an astute seamstress with a genius for style and fashion-design. Uniformly, Hadley stays true to the continuity of clothing, appearance, fabrics and textures throughout the tale, weaving in, as it were, a tactile setting of fluid lighting and palpable drapery, furnishings and landscape.

Now her scissors bit in with finality, growling against the

wood surface of the table, the cloth falling cleanly away from the blades.

The atmosphere of metaphor begins here and resurfaces in exquisite fragments indulging the reader with portent. At this point in the story, Ann is still young and single, a brilliant dressmaker on her way up with bright dreams of one day soon making it in London couture. Yet, the scissors growl a foreboding, even as the studio brims with light and promise:

Morning light waited, importantly empty, in the cheval glass. 

Ann’s business partner, Kit, dashes in and out with flair and sparkle, a joie de vivre. Though, she couldn’t design for toffee or cut a pattern, Kit had style and could sew well and work hard for the right clients. Kit was raised in Paris, not the English suburbs, like Ann. So, alas, Kit is a snob. Yet she is wild, untamable and chic, with mad exuberance. Kit is a loveable character, as frivolous, superficial characters often are.

Nola, for whom the wedding dress is being fashioned, is the complete antithesis of Ann and Kit. Nola did grow up in the suburbs like Ann, but, as appearances go, Ann is the one who broke from the mold of provincial Fishponds. Nola is a nurse, wearing the same set of clothes every day:

Nola Higgins stood with military straightness, shoulders squared; she was buttoned up into some sort of navy-blue uniform, unflatteringly tight over her heavy bust.

Ann invites Nola in for an impromptu fitting. “I’ll put some coffee on to perk.” It would seem that Ann finds Nola a bit austere and too plain, yet Nola turns out to be sweet with a soft disposition and quite malleable in the expert hands of Ann and Kit, whose attentions improve when they learn that Nola is to marry a wealthy, young man whose estate goes back many generations. Nola suddenly takes on a new significance, like a newly discovered treasure in an attic full of unwanted cast-off materials. Despite Nola’s simple, almost dowdy appearance, Ann has a personal philosophy:

Ann really was convinced that if you could only find the right clothes you could become whatever you wanted, you could transform yourself.

Ann applies her credo to Nola, who really did have lovely, matte pink skin, and Nola entrusts the dressmakers completely, as they tug and smooth the fabric around her large waistline.

And, the light falls in patches on Ann’s cutting table.

Whether Ann’s credo ultimately affects the desired outcome for her own life is a question. Yes, she has a magical way of transforming cloth into a beautiful garment, but for all of her capability and finesse, does she become what she wanted, after all? When Donny Ross is introduced into the story, the narrative is wary, as if the narrator is suggesting that Ann could have heeded these precautions. Donny Ross is apparently a jazz pianist. He is a medic with cavernous cheeks, and thin as a whip. He is mostly saturnine and judgmental. Indeed, most of the descriptions of Donny Ross are unflattering. So, why does an intelligent girl like Ann end up taking such a rude, arrogant and untalkative man for a husband? It seems there was an unexplainable attraction. Though Donny Ross comes prowling seductively into her life, he exhibits no interest in what’s important to her but withdraws into his own inner world, tapping out tunes on her sewing table and humming to himself.

And yet, Ann is unreasonably attracted: She carried on steadily, concentrating on her work, feeling as if some new excitement were waiting folded up inside her, not even tried on yet.

Donny’s pursuit of Ann is as intent and intense as a cat’s, when the three couples spend the afternoon at Nola’s fiancé’s estate in Thwait Park. Ann’s perspective on the day, with regards to Donny Ross, becomes shadowy and yet sparkling, as when she describes her impressions upon entering the Park.

A few skinny lambs scampered under the ancient oaks, where new leaves were just beginning to spring out, implausibly, from gray crusty limbs.

With Hadley, transformation takes place moment by moment. The spring newness of nature or of a great house is ultimately transient, the newness fading into the old, as it becomes ancient with mineral crusts and decayed, peeling wallpaper. Ann and Donny Ross lay side by side, close together but not touching, in the long grass under a tall ginkgo tree of this beautiful, old estate. They’re in a sultry liminal zone, where the future is open with hope and desire, yet Hadley shifts to the reality of fate, ominously.

The light faded in the sky to a deep turquoise and the peacocks came to roost in the tree above them, clotted lumps of darkness, with their long tails hanging down like bellpulls.

The final two columns of the story change perspective to that of Ann’s daughter Sally, years later. At sixteen, Sally Ross knows the story of the silk brocade meant to be used for a wedding that was never realized. This presumptive wedding becomes the perfect example of the ideal marriage, that is to say, a marriage that never actually happens but is only planned for, dreamed of, with genuine longing. The dream is immortal along with the love. Indeed, it is preferable to a marriage wherein the husband goes errant for an entire summer with another woman, as Donny Ross does.

Ann’s philosophy of renewing oneself may help her survive her marriage. She and Sally invent projects of transformation together: of makeovers, outings, dieting and redecorating, but ultimately these will never change the choices Ann made. Still, there is the hope of regeneration. Sally represents the present and also the future when she happens upon the old Thwait mansion wearing a jacket that Ann made from Nola’s silk brocade. Sally stands at the same spot where Nola stood when she was a hopeful bride, making egg sandwiches at the old Belfast sink. Now sally has the wide continuum of hopes and dreams before her.

The silk brocade jacket links the past, the present and the future. Tessa Hadley has a way of turning the usually mono-chronological thought of time sequence inside out, weaving in possibility, shedding light, and discarding with the old to reconstruct the new. After all, the past and the present are really simply jumbled together.

Tessa Hadley’s Silk Brocade appeared in The New Yorker, July 27, 2015.

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

Dickens Mourning The Girl Who Loved Camellias

Book Cover

Book Cover

“For several days all questions political, artistic, commercial have been abandoned by the papers,” a bemused Charles Dickens wrote to a friend from Paris. “Everything is erased in the face of an incident which is far more important, the romantic death of one of the glories of the demimonde, the beautiful, the famous Marie Duplessis.” – Charles Dickens, 1847

When I read this Dickens quotation in the introduction to The Girl Who Loved Camellias, I wondered if Charles Dickens, one of my literary heroes, ever had an affair with this famous, or infamous, courtesan, Marie Duplessis. I read on and discovered something unexpected, and I’m probably the last to know, that Dickens did have a serious love involvement, not with Marie but with an eighteen year old actress, Ellen Ternan – an involvement that was kept secret.

Although, the attachment of the forty-five-year-old Dickens and the young actress did impress Marie Duplessis and gave her encouragement to pursue a love interest of her own with Alexandre Dumas (pere), the older, celebrated author of such works as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. So, even then, Dickens was an inspiration to young women! Still, it seems he did not get any closer to Marie than a distant admiration, though they did orbit around one another in the same elite circles.

The author, Julie Kavanagh, offers captivating minutiae about where Dickens stayed in Paris at the time of Marie’s death and what he said about her – he was very frank, though he never dishonors the beguiling courtesan. Indeed, Dickens wanted very much to write a book about Marie, “feeling that her short life contained a powerfully moralistic story.” Now, that sounds like the Dickens I know. I can imagine his novel being in the same vain as Little Dorrit or Oliver Twist – about the life of a young, coquettish courtesan who’d had a perilous childhood.

Dickens was obviously fascinated with Marie’s life, as many people were, and he felt compelled to report to his friends near and far the widespread reaction to Marie’s death. He describes the somber mood of the extraordinary crowds at an auction of Marie’s belongings: “One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness.” Hence, Dickens certainly did some general reporting about Marie but whether or not he was one of her lovers is uncertain.

Kavanagh chooses an interesting subject in Marie Duplessis and does an outstanding job of bringing her back to life. The story flows with rich details of Paris scenery, famous landmarks and characters, while mingling the life-style of a precocious Parisian girl with a bit of history in the time of Louis Philippee, the last king to rule France. The book depicts the drastic difference in social classes and how Alphonsine Duplessis straddles that chasm and becomes the lady, Marie Duplessis. Indeed, the story captures the reader’s curiosity. I find it compelling to learn about a contemporary of Charles Dickens and to see him woven into this historical rendering.

Marie Duplessis

Marie Duplessis

{Quotations from The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh}

The Romance and Comic Genius of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, 1812 – 1870

When Charles Dickens published Little Dorrit , the 826-page novel originally appeared in Dickens’ own, widely popular, monthly periodical in a series of installments, short pieces, or “teaspoons” as Dickens himself called them, from 1855 to 1856, including illustrations by Phiz.

A rags-to-riches tale, the first half of the book introduces the eccentric, intriguing Dorrit family, their heart-rending plight and a carnival of delightfully Dickensian characters – those dubious people who march through the life of the fallen William Dorrit inside the Marshalsea, the same debtors prison in which Dickens’ own father paid time for debt. The laggards, leeches and extortionists, the hapless, foolish, the large-hearted and everlastingly colorful characters are lovingly portrayed in the darkness and light of nineteenth-century London.

William Dorrit’s daughter, Amy, “Little Dorrit,” is the innocent but worldly girl who watches this pageant of people, loving some of them and fearing others. Soft-spoken and petite – indeed, so petite that she appears to be a child at first, Amy is hardly aggressive, though she is certainly industrious, in providing for herself and her father as a seamstress outside the prison, and assertive in her undying desire to comfort people, especially her father for whom she shows an extraordinary compassion and care; and in her benevolence for humankind in general and the deep love she feels for Aurthur. She does assert these interests but in a clearly humble way. Amy is utterly poetic.

As the tender relationship between Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit becomes the hoped-for, romantic denouement of the love-story portion of the novel, Dickens tantalizes us to the very end. It seems that they are meant for each other: Arthur’s childhood was one of harshness inside the dark house of his unaffectionate parents, while Amy was born in the Marshalsea Prison and grew up there never knowing any other kind of life until her father is able to claim his fortune, with the help of Arthur, as it turns out. Thus, Amy and Arthur are two tattered yet good-hearted souls isolated in a scheming world. Dickens has great fun devising numerous sub-plots that connect and interweave their story.

Amy writes a few bittersweet letters to Arthur when she is away with the Dorrit clan traveling the European continent where she sees, “misery and magnificence wrestling with each other;” these letters are forthcoming, poignant and touching, as they reveal Amy’s loneliness and ultimate difficulty in adjusting to the Dorrits’ new, opulent way of life – traveling through the sublime scenery of Venice and Rome; still, Arthur may never have known the exact nature of Amy’s love for him had it not been for a go-between, the devoted John Chivery, (Little John), who also serves as another supreme example of Dickens’ brilliant skills of characterization.

Fanny and Amy Dorrit, two sisters were never so un-alike.

Other exceptional characters become well known and fond personalities: Fanny Dorrit, Amy’s sister, a selfish and pretentious opportunist who can also be likeable if only for her entertaining dialog; Afry Flintwinch, Arthur’s childhood nurse who is continually throwing her apron over her face to save herself from witnessing the sordid things taking place in that infamous house; Flora Finching, the annoying but loveable young widow who has designs on Arthur and whose delightful monologues add high comedy; Monsieur Rigaud, that evil, ubiquitous presence who becomes the irresistible mystery of the tale, as continually, “his mustache went up under his nose, and his nose came down over his mustache;” and many others with curious and witty names; Mr. Tite Barnacle, Mr. Sparkler, John Baptist Cavalletto, Mr. Merdle, a white collar crook (not unlike Rupert Merdoch, the 21st century swindler), The Meagles, “Tip” and “Pet”.

Dickens’ descriptions and dialogs are profoundly hilarious, as is the Circumlocution Office, an impossible bureaucracy of tangled red tape, its only function being that of a satire on government and society.

But William Dorrit is the most humourous and tragic of characters. Dorrit was probably just as silly and pompous before he went into the prison as he was after coming out twenty years later a much wealthier man, just as his mental infirmness probably began inside the prison walls and became more and more apparent as he forced himself to adjust to his new way of life, which is really only a new kind of prison in which he and the false characters with whom he associates prance around in desperate displays of status.

It seems a wonder that William Dorrit produced such a loving and selfless daughter as Amy Dorrit, his one daughter who was born inside the Marshalsea. This father-daughter relationship, in part, resembles that of the mad King Lear and his best daughter, Cordelia, the daughter who really loved him most. Like Cordelia, Amy Dorrit is admonished, though lovingly, by her sister and ludicrously blamed by her own father simply because it isn’t in Amy to act the part of a privileged princess. Instead, Amy, in her genuine humbleness, only reminds her father of his past by being who she is.

‘Amy,’ he returned, turning shot upon her. ‘You-ha-habitually hurt me.’

‘Hurt you, father! I!’

‘There is a–hum-a topic,’ said Mr Dorrit, looking all about the ceiling of the room, and never at the attentive, uncomplainingly shocked face, ‘a painful topic, a series of events which I wish–ha-altogether to obliterate . This is understood by your sister, who has already remonstrated with you in my presence; it is understood by your brother; it is understood by-ha hum-by every one of delicacy and sensitiveness, except yourself-ha-I am sorry to say, except yourself. You, Amy-hum-you alone and only you-constantly revive the topic, though not in words.’

Thus Amy becomes the scapegoat for people of ambiguous morality and strictly guarded family secrets.

After reading Little Dorrit, the question lingers: in order for the world to produce a person as loving and selfless as Amy Dorrit, must she be raised in an oppressive environment where most of the creature-comforts in life are absent and she must create her own comfort and happiness based on the only natural love received in early childhood.