A Song of Second Chances: A Solitary Blue

Cynthia Voigt, A Solitary Blue (1983)

I owe Cynthia Voigt an apology. When she won the Newbery Medal for Dicey’s Song in 1983, beating out my favorite book at the time (The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley), I retaliated by refusing to read it or any others in what came to be an acclaimed seven-book cycle about the Tillerman family and their friends. But when A Solitary Blue, the follow-up to Dicey’s Song, came again to my attention through the Phoenix Award list, I thought I would give it another chance after 30 years. And I found that the award committee has a point: this is a beautifully written, deeply affecting book, with much insight into the painful process of loving and accepting one another and ourselves, while knowing when and how to walk away from unhealthy relationships.
To be fair, I doubt I would have enjoyed or appreciated it as a teenager. At the time, McKinley’s thrilling tale of adventure and magic in the desert was exactly what I wanted, not a slowly-paced story about a boy abandoned by his mother and learning to understand and live with a distant father. So maybe it’s a good thing I waited until now.

As a parent myself, I was already engaged–to the point of anger–from the first page, when seven-year-old Jeff Greene reads a letter from his mother telling him that she has to leave him in order to help other people, and stifles his tears because his father, whom he calls The Professor, doesn’t like emotion. How could they do that to him? Wouldn’t he be completely messed up?

Over the course of the novel, we find out how they could do that to him: how Jeff’s mother, Melody, could be so selfish and self-deluded as to think she could pick up and drop a child at her own convenience, and how his father could deeply care for his son and yet be so ignorant of children’s needs as to neglect him almost to death. The Professor actually learns from his experiences, and his gradual growing into relationship with his son is moving and real. Melody, on the other hand, is basically pure evil: a modern-day witch holding out a poisoned apple of false love to Jeff. We gain insight into the way her twisted mind works, but not into how she got that way, or into some remnants of humanity in her that we might be able to sympathize with. This one-sidedness creates a flaw in what is otherwise a rich portrayal of character and emotion.

Of course, Jeff himself is the core of the novel, and as we live through his experiences (which do mess him up quite thoroughly), we grow to know and love him in his weakness and his strength. How he finds healing and redemption in the face of serious challenges, finding his way from desperate isolation to community, is a quietly compelling tale. The setting, which moves from Baltimore to South Carolina to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, comes to life through Voigt’s carefully crafted prose, and the natural world holds a strong presence in Jeff’s healing process.

Another element is his relationship with Dicey Tillerman, who comes into the story only near the end, another wounded soul struggling toward the light. Without any gooey sentimentality, it becomes clear that she is important to Jeff and that their friendship will develop further. Her story is more fully told in the earlier and later books in the cycle, which I’ll be sure to seek out now.

A Solitary Blue reminded me that real literature has no age limits. A book that is right for one person at age 14 may be right for another at age 44. Though we tend to want to label books by age or genre, or simply as being “not for me,” when we set aside our prejudices we can make some wonderful discoveries. This was one for me.

Classics Club List #2
2003 Phoenix Award Honor Book

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A Regency Sketchbook: Mrs Hurst Dancing

For my next (and possibly last) Austen in August contribution, I wanted to let readers know about a lovely book I chanced upon through this post at Charlotte’s Library: Mrs Hurst Dancing and Other Scenes from Regency Life, 1812-1823 (Victor Gollancz, 1981). This reproduction of two volumes of sketchbooks by a young lady of Jane Austen’s era provides an unusual glimpse into the daily life of an English country house of modest size.

The artist, Diana Sperling (about whom little is known, and who apparently abandoned art upon her marriage in 1834), has a delightfully unconventional and unstuffy approach to her sketches of family and friends. Slippery grass, recalcitrant donkeys, electrifying machines, lovelorn brothers, pesky flies that need to be “murdered” by maids standing on windowsills — these are just some of the subjects that inspired her, with charming results.

Diana’s artistic gifts are of the naive variety; her figures are not anatomically convincing, and she tends to make their faces very small and hide them behind large hats. But the liveliness and sheer fun of her compositions makes up for this. An introduction by Gordon Mingay gives the historical context, with brief notes opposite each picture (reproduced at their original size, and, as in the sketchbooks, on the right side of each spread).

We often read in nineteenth-century novels about young ladies industriously drawing and sketching. Here is a rare opportunity to see what a talented member of this legion of amateur artists produced, and to experience some of the forgotten details of their lives. Mrs Hurst Dancing is out of print, but used copies can be fairly inexpensive; check your library, too. For anyone interested in the era, it’s really worth seeking out.

 

Partial and Prejudiced: Austen’s History of England

Jane Austen, The History of England

Austen juvenilia historySomeone gave me this little booklet years ago, but I’d never actually read it. I decided that Austen in August was the perfect occasion — I don’t have time to read lots of full-length novels at the moment, but a sixteen-page pamphlet is manageable. And I’m glad I finally cracked it open — it’s a delightful glimpse into Austen’s early creative work.

Dedicated to her beloved older sister Cassandra, who also provided the illustrations, this history is a comic parody of the ponderous tomes that were foisted upon the young in the eighteenth century. Consisting of a series of brief characterizations of the English monarchs from Henry IV to Elizabeth I, it reveals the author as a fanatical champion of the Stuart cause and of the executed Mary Queen of Scots. Pulling no punches, she describes herself from the outset as “a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian,” thus slyly suggesting that perhaps some published historians should confess themselves the same.

Austen sometimes imitates the style of an unintelligent student’s essay, as she makes remarks like “Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for,” and describes Lady Jane Grey as being “famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting.” Since their father ran a sort of informal boys’ boarding school in their home, the girls must have been very familiar with this sort of production.

At other times, Austen reveals flashes of the dry wit that would characterize her mature novels, as when she says of Henry VIII that “little can be said in his Vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of Time has been of infinite use to the Landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing so.” Here we can distinctly hear the voice that she would later hone and refine, tempering the edge of her satire but keeping its brilliance.

Jane Cassandra Austen notebook
Villanous Elizabeth, saintly Mary

As I learned from my recent reading of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, this was one of the pieces that Austen copied into three vellum notebooks as a young girl (the History was written when she was just fifteen). Volume the Second, which contains the History of England and several other works, is now in the British Library, and through their virtual gallery you can view the original text here. It’s a priceless opportunity to be able to experience the energy and flow of the author’s handwriting, as well as the original colored drawings, though seeing the real thing would be even better.

In The Real Jane Austen, Paula Byrne points out that several of the portraits of the English monarchs are similar in appearance to Jane Austen’s relatives with the same names. Could it be, she suggests, that the heroine of the piece, the saintly Mary Queen of Scots, is a portrait of the author? It’s an intriguing idea, but even if we can never be sure what Jane Austen looked like, in The History of England we do have a clear window into the young author’s mind.

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Looking for Jane: The Real Jane Austen

Paula Byrne, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (2013)

Austen biography Paula ByrneWhen we enter a preserved old house, objects are what we see. These paintings, cushions, scribbled notes, and scraps of lace are what are left to us as our link to the past. It can be a challenge to make the imaginative leap that brings the dead artifact to life, drawing out something of the living meaning it once had for the people who formerly handled and viewed it.

In The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things Paula Byrne takes up this challenge, with admirable results. She does not seek to write yet another conventional biography of the elusive author, weaving together the available evidence (not very abundant) with biographical speculation to create a coherent cradle-to-grave narrative. Rather, she takes eighteen “small things” that formed part of Austen’s world, and uses them as the starting point for thematic essays that illuminate aspects of that world.

Though the essays take us on a very roughly chronological path, there are so many diversions along the way that it would be advisable to read a more traditional biography first, for orientation. With some dates under your belt, you are then free to range among the objects on display — an east Indian shawl, a vellum notebook — and explore how their history and significance connects with Austen’s life and work.

Byrne is concerned to dispel some of the myths that have grown up around the author, starting with the family-sanctioned biography by her nephew. In the place of the Victorian picture of a prudish, home-bound spinster scribbling away in a corner she gives us a theater-loving, relatively well-traveled woman who knew the facts of life and was aware of the political issues of the day. Byrne frequently departs from her main subject to discuss the people, places, and events that surrounded her. The result is a wide-ranging, eclectic, and always engaging picture not just of Jane Austen but of her whole social milieu at the turn of the nineteenth century.

While obviously it’s not the purpose of such a book to eschew anachronisms entirely, it is more pleasant if the language harmonizes with that of its subject. In general Byrne does fairly well, but there are some modern missteps, as when Jane’s naval brothers “didn’t make it” to their father’s funeral. Also jarring are the moments when Byrne leaps to conclusions for which there is really no concrete evidence: that Austen was afraid of childbirth, for example. She makes some confident pronouncements that evaporate on closer examination, as when she states of one of Austen’s favorite authors, Fanny Burney: “Without her, it would not have been possible for Jane Austen to reject the convention that a heroine must be beautiful.” Why on earth not? An attentive editor could have smoothed out some of these rough spots, so it’s a pity they remain.

If you can cope with these drawbacks, there is still much fascinating information here, presented in an entertaining and largely intellectually respectable way. Laying claim to “the real Jane Austen” is pretty ambitious, but by anchoring her book in real, tangible things, Byrne at least gives us a new angle on the author, her creative process, and the world she inhabited.

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Victoriana, Early and Late: Coronation Summer and Drawn from Memory

Angela Thirkell, Coronation Summer (1937)

Ernest Shepard, Drawn from Memory (1957)

Angela Thirkell comedyBy chance, I recently picked up two books that happened to be set at the beginning and near the end of Victoria’s reign. One was fiction, one non, but both were entertaining glimpses of that endlessly fascinating era.

It all started because my library didn’t have any of the Barsetshire novels by Angela Thirkell that I wanted, but they did have Coronation Summer, her early novel of the weeks surrounding Victoria’s coronation, which sounded delicious. The somewhat elaborate conceit is that when the pseudonymous Ingoldsby Legends come out, a young woman who thinks they are by a real acquaintance of hers reads a satirical poem about the coronation, and takes it at face value. This inspires her to remember how she and her best friend went to London for the event, which had proved to be a turning point in their personal lives as well as that of the nation.

The period pastiche was well done and often very amusing. I was impressed by Thirkell’s ability to imitate Victorian diction, while smiling at her sly references to other authors (and I’m sure there are many others that I missed). This is a very literate book, unlike many of the neo-Victorian and Regency novels that are being churned out today. However, I had a hard time warming up to the narrator, who is an empty-headed girl, thoughtlessly cruel to her servants, with nothing on her mind but suitors and the social whirl. As a side character to poke fun at she would have been perfect, but as the main character she was lacking in sympathetic qualities. Her romance was dull, not only because it was a foregone conclusion — the main story is told as a reminiscence after her marriage — but because the young man in question had almost no personality; his rival, a ridiculous dandy, was more interesting though no more likeable. One could perhaps detect some subtle social commentary in there, but mainly the book seemed a waste of good writing on such (to me) unworthy characters.

(By the way, if you pick up Coronation Summer hoping to have a ringside view of the actual coronation itself, you’ll be disappointed — only the men of the story attend and our female narrator is just waiting outside while the event takes place.)

Shepard drawing sketch
A sketch by Shepard

I then turned to a book from the other end of Victoria’s reign, Drawn from Memory, which I was pleased to discover was in my library after I read a highly laudatory post over at The Captive Reader. This is a memoir by the artist most famous for his illustrations of Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, though his main work was as a political cartoonist for Punch. Here are his amazingly detailed reminiscences, from seventy years later, of an upper-middle-class London boyhood. Shepard was seven years old in the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and gives a memorable account of the festivities from the point of view of a small boy. Other episodes include a holiday at a farm, family theatrics, and a first visit to a pantomime. Scenes involving a household of eminently Victorian aunts provide comic highlights.

The drawings plentifully scattered throughout are of course delightful, and a few samples of work done at this early age are astoundingly accomplished, fully justifying Shepard’s father’s opinion that his son should be an artist (although he himself wanted to be something a bit more exciting). There’s no need to tie the episodes together with any kind of unified plot, as the reader is happily led along from picture to picture.

Knowledge of the sorrow and death to come later in life does not overshadow the childish joys recorded in these pages, but a few indications of what is to come give Shepard’s sunny memories increased poignancy. For anyone interested in the period, or simply in revisiting the lost world of childhood, Drawn from Memory is an unqualified pleasure.

Links
Review of Drawn from Memory at The Captive Reader 

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