Back to the Classics: Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (1945)

This was a reread for me, and I was already familiar with the plot — I’ll be discussing it here, so please don’t continue if you mind spoilers.

Subtitled “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder,” the novel opens with the Captain and his army troop moving to another base within Britain during the Second World War. Gloomy and depressed by the ruin of civilization and the uselessness of army life, Charles gets an additional shock when he comes to the estate they are occupying and realizes he’s been there before. Brideshead Castle was the site of his youthful dreams and longings, as he became deeply involved with the family years ago.

He proceeds to tell us the history of this involvement, first with Sebastian, who is in Charles’s year at Oxford, and later with Sebastian’s sister Julia, with whom he falls in love when they are both married to other people. The Marchmains are upper-class, wealthy (though less wealthy than they think they are), and, somewhat unusually within this circle, Roman Catholic — at least the mother is; the father is living scandalously abroad with a mistress, and the children vary from devout to agnostic. Charles is enchanted by the family, by their extravagant lifestyle and by their great, elaborate house and its surroundings, which becomes an Arcadia to him.

The idyll is brief. Sebastian, hounded by his mother and her narrow expectations, becomes an alcoholic and loses himself in Morocco. Charles experiences a short time of happiness with Julia, but she decides their relationship is sinful and abandons him too. And so, with the flood of memories exhausted, we come back to the war, to the Baroque fountain that has been a symbol for Charles’s longings, now a repository for sandwiches and cigarettes. But a flame still burns in the chapel, and it seems to have ignited a spark within Charles as well.

There is much to be said about the book as a picture of the interwar period in England, of class consciousness, of sexual mores, and other sociologial and historical topics, but Waugh himself said it was about religion. What is he saying about it? What is sacred, in this collection of mostly very profane memories?

The search for living substance, and the absence and failure of the symbolically feminine sources of nourishment, is the driving impetus throughout. The motherless Charles, arriving in Oxford fresh from an all-male boarding school and with a distant, insensitive father, has no experience of mature femininity or nurturing care. So when he meets the beautiful and charming Sebastian, who is wracked by a love-hate relationship with his “Mummy” that keeps him in an infantile state (complete with teddy bear), he is irresistibly attracted. But it’s when he glimpses Brideshead that his love is truly sealed.

“Brideshead” is a feminine name; it combines elements of the Church, the Bride of Christ, and of the fountainhead of faith, the springing up of life in the dryness of a profane world. Charles’s great love affair, arguably, is neither with Sebastian nor with Julia, but with Brideshead itself — significantly, in adulthood he becomes a fashionable painter, not of people, but of buildings. Though he considers himself an unbeliever, he yet yearns after the harmoniously ordered, consoling, and protective edifice, which faithful Catholics find in their religion, and which has a motherly, womb-like quality.

A building can be restrictive, too — it shuts out as well as encloses. And so in the end, in Julia’s rejection of Charles, the conservative author seems to be pointing to the importance of rules, of structure, order, and obedience to a higher will. When Lord Marchmain dies and the old reprobate appears to repent at last, Julia’s belief in the sovereignty of personal desire is shaken, and the marriage aborted. But is it really a tragedy?

I don’t believe that Julia was wrong to leave Charles, though I can’t agree with her that loving him would be “sinful,” or get in the way of her love of God. To withhold love from a suffering human being can never be the basis for spiritual evolution. But there are many kinds and degrees of love, and Charles’s love for Julia was still of an immature kind. For him, she was part of Brideshead, of his longing for something higher, deeper, more essential. Even as he added her portrait to his collection of pictures, one wonders if she ever really became a person for him.

Perhaps it was for his sake, not her own, as well as her own, that she needed to leave him, so that he could potentially find his way past the symbols to the reality of living water. The ending of the book subtly suggests that he has made a step in that direction, even in the lifeless desert of wartime. What exactly that means for him is left quite open, but it helps to bring about a conclusion that hints at further possibilities, a story that goes on past the final page.

That sense of “opening up,” of possibilities beyond the page, is a hallmark of true religion, as well as of a great novel. And so one can see why Brideshead has kept its hold on our imagination over the years, and how it points toward the sacred elements hidden in a profane world. Through its vivid memory-pictures of a vanished life, it asks what is eternal in all of it, and perhaps inspires us to do the same for our own lives.

Among many editions over the years, the 2018 Folio Society edition, which I included in a video review when it first came out, is to my mind a brilliantly satisfying interpretation. The two-color woodcuts by Harry Brockway capture Charles’s double consciousness perfectly, evoking the stylized aesthetic of the twenties and thirties, but with a restraint and economy that forecasts the austerity of the war. This time around, I was impressed all over again by Folio’s beautiful presentation, which incarnates an iconic work in such an appropriate form. If you love the book, this is an edition to add to your pleasure.

And as for other visual interpretations, the famous 1981 television adaptation would qualify this book for the Adapted Classic category of the Back to the Classics challenge…though in the end I opted for a different category. I haven’t seen the TV series in full, but the clips I’ve viewed are remarkably faithful to the book, with terrific acting and production values that still hold up today. A  film was also made in 2008.

Have you seen either of these, and/or read the book? What did you think?

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic about a Family


Back to the Classics: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

I’m not a horror fan, so I’ve never made an effort to read the classics of the genre — but for one reason or another, in the last few years I’ve read Frankenstein, Dracula, and now this brief but hugely influential tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

With all three of these books, it is hard to come at them with an unspoiled mind because the basic facts of the story are usually well known. In this case, the dual identity of Dr Jekyll can hardly be news to anyone. But the reading of these stories usually holds other surprises, as the author’s particular method of storytelling is not held sacred in retellings or dramatizations, perhaps for good reason.

Here, most of the novella is concerned with characters who observe Jekyll and Hyde but are unable to put the two together. However, since any suspense meant to be caused thereby is no longer effective, it’s with some impatience that we wait to hear from Jekyll himself — which comes only at the end, after the fact, as it were. The oddly distant, third-hand point of view is not the most obvious way of creating a tense and thrilling tale. But perhaps there was some hesitancy about approaching this subject that caused Stevenson to put it at arm’s length.

As with Victor Frankenstein’s creature and the undead Count Dracula, Stevenson has created an image of the Double, the dark shadowy figure that lurks in our unconscious and that plays out our inadmissible desires. While Frankenstein is haunted by the product of his overly intellectual thinking, and Dracula embodies the evil bloodlust of egoistic feeling, Jekyll shows the dangers of splitting off a part of the will. Wanting to be an outwardly good and upright person, but still to indulge the drives (never explicitly spelled out) of his worse nature, he “precipitates out” that part of himself into the horrible Hyde. But his ability to control the transformation is limited, and becomes more precarious until the final tragic outcome.

All three of these works are powerful and compelling expressions of a psychological problem that has great relevance for our time — the encounter with the evil that lurks in each one of us, an unsolved riddle which calls up fantastical images as we try to understand and master it. Each author has created something that transcends the work it came from and has taken on a life of its own. But it is still always interesting and worthwhile to go back to the origin and experience its particular qualities.

Stevenson wrote the book after a disturbing dream, and it can resonate with some of our own nightmare experiences. The spiral of addiction, of being unable to come to oneself while in the grip of some overmastering drive, is imaged in Jekyll’s downfall, for example. To this dilemma Stevenson offers no answer, no viable solution, except perhaps that as readers we can observe this sad fate and try to learn something from it ourselves.

It’s notable that it’s when Jekyll has renounced the draft that transforms him into Hyde because of its dangers, but yet is unable to resist indulging in the vices of his dark side, that he starts transforming uncontrollably and unpredictably. How do we truly become masters of ourselves and all our parts and possibilities? Why are evil habits and compulsions so strong, even for fundamentally good people? The tale feels unfinished, and raises many questions. But it’s up to us try to answer them.

Back to the Classics: Name in the Title


New Reprint Review: Three by D.E. Stevenson

D.E. Stevenson, Vittoria Cottage (1949)
D.E. Stevenson, Music in the Hills (1950)
D.E. Stevenson, Winter and Rough Weather (1951)

My definition of a comfort read is “a book about a place you’d like to be, full of people you’d like to be with.” With all the cozy literary havens out there, I’m always up for discovering one more. And I’m glad that thanks to some recent reprints by Dean Street Press, I have another lovely book-refuge to go to when I’m feeling blue.

I’ve read a few other D.E. Stevenson titles and enjoyed them by and large, but Vittoria Cottage charmed me completely. There’s not much to it in terms of plot, but the characters and setting (see above) just pulled me in and felt like old friends.

That’s not to say that everybody in the book is congenial. Stevenson writes in the tradition of Jane Austen, with her fine awareness of social strictures and her veiled judgment of those who flout good taste and courtesy — however, Stevenson has a softer, less acerbic touch. There are some serious issues here, with difficult choices and some not-so-nice behavior from certain characters. But aside from the few nasty bits of work, there is also much caring, joy, and love, which has as recuperative an effect on the reader, as it does on those within its pages.

The central character, Caroline, is a familiar type, a woman who cares for everybody but herself, and almost manages to cheat herself out of finding happiness. She could have been insufferable, but Stevenson manages to make her sympathetic, and I became truly invested in her fictional moral dilemma. I was glad that it turned out well for her … though others could not be so fortunate. You’ll have to read the book to see how that went.

I was looking forward to the sequels — Music in the Hills and Winter and Rough Weather — and found them lovely as well, but was left a bit disappointed that we never return to the story of Caroline. Instead, these volumes focus on Caroline’s son James and his new life on a sheep farm in the border country of Scotland.

This is Stevenson’s home territory, and she characterizes it with great affection, knowledge, and respect. Although I would have loved another visit to Vittoria Cottage, I adored this sojourn at the welcoming farmhouse of Mureth and its atmospheric surroundings.

While dated gender roles and societal expectations can be mildly annoying to us modern readers, they are a part of the world Stevenson was working within, and it wasn’t her mission to subvert them. More importantly, her characters, lightly drawn though they are, come to life for us — as real people, not just stereotypes. That is one of the most important qualities for a light romantic novel to have, if we are to not to feel empty and cheated at the end.

In this regard some are stronger than others; the villain of the Mureth books, a dastardly interloper from the city, never gets a human side, nor does the femme fatale who tempts James to consider a disastrous marriage. But there are others — like James’s aunt Mamie who is considered stupid by the world’s standards but shows a depth of wisdom that transcends such superficial judgment — who bring a more interesting and vital touch.

In general, though Stevenson certainly is writing in the vein of romance rather than gritty realism, and she creates a convincing and vivid picture of a country community, of farmers, villagers, shepherds, doctors, friends and enemies and neighbors, the natural world that surrounds them, and the human bonds that connect them. I may never make it to Scotland, but I know there is one corner of it that feels like home.

The Dean Street Press editions add an introduction that gives an affectionate and intelligent appreciation of Stevenson by Alexander McCall Smith — most appropriately, as he is perhaps the inheritor of her mantle as a Scottish writer of popular light fiction. The second two volumes also add a magazine article that she wrote about the genesis of Music in the Hills. Altogether, the series is a splendid addition to their list, with these extras as an added bonus.


Beautiful Books: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1847)

January 17, 2020 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anne Brontë, bringing the attention of the world to the youngest and least celebrated of the three literary sisters from Yorkshire. The Folio Society has marked the occasion by releasing a new edition of Anne’s second and most substantial novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Now Anne-partisans (the number of which seems to have been quietly growing over the last couple of centuries) can feel vindicated, with this splendid volume in series with the most recent Folio incarnations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. With their somber binding designs touched with gold, compelling illustrations, pleasantly hefty size that is still not too cumbersome for reading, wide margins, and clear, carefully set type, they provide a fitting setting for the words of three groundbreaking women who changed our reading world forever.

Illustration © 2020 by Valentina Catto from The Folio Society’s edition of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

If Anne has not always been fully included in this company, it’s not really her fault. All three writers attracted disapproval from moral arbiters of the day, but Anne was the only one to be censored and suppressed by her own sister. When Anne died just a year after the publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (which had already gone into a second edition), Charlotte withdrew the novel from circulation, fearing that it cast a negative shadow on her sister’s character. It was only reissued in 1854 with major editorial omissions that have persisted to this day.

Why was the book so frightening to conventional minds? While the other Brontë books have plenty of men behaving badly — bigamy, attempted murder, and psychological and physical abuse are perfectly in order for them — Tenant is the only one that has a woman challenging the bonds of marriage with fully rational moral conviction.

At the time, no matter how bad the man, a woman once married could not escape from him without being judged and blamed. Sadly today, though outer societal structures may have changed, these dark and confining assumptions are still at work. We still need writers who are willing to challenge such strictures, and Anne Brontë is their foremother. In this edition, the illustrations by Valentina Catto  incorporate a subtle, almost ghostly photographic element that complements the nineteenth-century text with a touch of modernity.

Illustration © 2020 by Valentina Catto from The Folio Society’s edition of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Tenant suffers from a long opening section that is a poorly-conceived framing device, narrated by an uninteresting and unconvincing male character. (Charlotte might with justification have given some criticism on artistic grounds, rather than objecting as she did to the subject matter.) Some skimming is not inadvisable here.

Fortunately, once we reach the main part of the book, Helen Huntington’s journal, the narrative becomes much more compelling. Her tale of marital deception and disillusionment is heartbreaking but surely not unusual. What is unusual is her decision to reject abuse and exploitation, to risk everything to protect her child, and to stand firm in her own sense of herself.

Helen’s moralizing at times comes too much to the fore, like an object lesson from a teetotaler’s tract; I find her to lack the psychological depth of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe from Villette. Helen also becomes far too saintly towards the end in a death scene that is everything a Victorian heart could desire. But she still lives as a character and draws us into her world, and she is braver and more sure of her own integrity than Jane or Lucy.

Illustration © 2020 by Valentina Catto from The Folio Society’s edition of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Restoring the full text is obviously vital to appreciating Anne Brontë’s achievement, and her true daring. The Folio edition is based on the 1992 version prepared from the original by Oxford University Press; it includes Brontë’s important preface to the second edition that responds to some of the negative comments on her work.

The introduction by historical novelist and Brontë enthusiast Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring, A Single Thread) puts the work into context with some pertinent details, but is not anything terribly special. I confess to wishing that Folio would commission more scholarly introductions that strive for more illuminating and surprising insights. I find them to be usually fairly bland and forgettable in general.

But the words of the author herself are as pointed as one could wish:

“When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are rather than as they would wish to appear.”

Amen, and happy birthday, Anne.


New Reprint Review: Miss Carter and the Ifrit

Susan Alice Kirby, Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945)

One of the latest of the ongoing series of Furrowed Middlebrow books from Dean Street press, Miss Carter and the Ifrit is a grown-up fairy tale that reminded me of the works of E. Nesbit (another FM author with The Lark). As so often with Nesbit, it’s a story of how mundane life is touched by magic with amusing and sometimes inconvenient results, ultimately helping to expand our understanding of ourselves and our world.

Miss Carter is a middle-aged spinster working in the censorship office during the Second World War who finds her life turned upside down when she inadvertently releases an Ifrit (don’t call him a genie!) The spirit of Arab legend, doomed to imprisonment and servitude until he should atone for his evil deeds, finds himself out of place in the new world of rationing and blackouts.

Joe (as he is dubbed by Miss Carter, an admirer of Stalin — who was then a “good guy” to the Brits) longs to serve his benefactor, but her spinsterish scruples get in the way. These gradually start to come down, though, and she surprises herself with some of the desires and wishes she finally has to admit she has.

You can probably imagine some of the funny scenes and situations that ensue, as Miss Carter has to hide Joe from her friends and neighbors and quell his tendency to shower her with extravagant gifts. They develop a rather sweet relationship and the ending is touching — more so than the rather perfunctory romance, I thought.

The wartime setting provides further complications and questions — why doesn’t Miss Carter just send Joe to take out Hitler, for example? Turns out he is forbidden to harm any humans, though he can and does spy on him for a time, leading to some intriguing discoveries. This thread was dropped somewhat abruptly and could have been developed further, but maybe it would have been too weighty for such a slight and lighthearted tale.

Slight it may be, but there are some thoughtful nuggets to chew on as well, such as the reflection that we now have so many powers that our ancient forebears could only conceive of as “magical” … and what have we done with them? Wished away our inheritance, it seems. That at least has not changed since the 1940s.

So if you’re in need of something to lighten the winter darkness, Miss Carter and Joe will entertain you but also make you think. And maybe make you wish you had an ifrit to cook your breakfast every morning.


A wish come true: Howl’s Moving Castle

Illustration from Howl’s Moving Castle © 2019 by Marie-Alice Harel

For a long time, I’ve been wishing that the Folio Society would publish something, anything, by Diana Wynne Jones. And this year, my wish finally came true! Howl’s Moving Castle was the title for the 2019 House of Illustration competition cosponsored by Folio, and the winning entry has duly been published just in time for the holiday gift season. I hope you will put it on your list as well.

I’ve already written about the book itself here, and you can also read Jenny’s guest post from the first Witch Week. From these you will learn that Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the most enchanting books by one of our favorite authors, and one that we most often recommend to new readers. In his introduction to the Folio edition, YA superstar author Marcus Sedgwick agrees with us: “If a single exemplar of Wynne Jones’s life’s work had to be chosen, Howl would be a brave contender, for here we find everything that identifies her work.”

Illustration from Howl’s Moving Castle © 2019 by Marie-Alice Harel

Sedgwick’s introduction is one of the bonuses you’ll find in this edition, a concise but thorough appreciation that places the novel and its author in the context of fantasy literature, highlighting both its roots in tradition and its innovative qualities. To new readers, I would suggest saving it for after you’ve read the novel itself, because it does contain plot points that would be better discovered as they occur in the story. If you already know the story, though, it’s a pleasure to see Wynne Jones (as he calls her) given due honor by a fellow author, one who benefited and learned from her example.

Illustration from Howl’s Moving Castle © 2019 by Marie-Alice Harel

Excellent design, of course, is the main point of a Folio edition, and this one is a treat. From the slipcase with its iconic door image and occult symbols, to the clever binding design with magical silver accents, to the evocative endpapers and chapter headings, it’s a beautiful production.

The full-page color illustrations by competition winner Marie-Alice Harel are also delightful, sensitively drawn with a muted but not drab palette, and each with a detail that slyly pokes out of the picture frame. But six illustrations are not enough! What about Calcifer the fire demon, Sophie’s sisters, or the Witch of the Waste? What about the flowery countryside, the pastry shop, or the exotic world of Wales? There were so many wonderfully visual scenes and vividly drawn characters I would have liked to see, but we have to be content with what we have.

What we do have is a lovely book, and I hope you will buy lots of copies for lucky recipients, so that Folio will be convinced to publish more books by Diana Wynne Jones. Charmed Life, Fire and Hemlock, Power of Three, The Spellcoats, Year of the Griffin, Deep Secret … I can always keep wishing.

Illustration from Howl’s Moving Castle © 2019 by Marie-Alice Harel

For more information, including a  video with Marcus Sedgwick and Marie-Alice Harel discussing the new edition, see the Folio website.


My first Jane Gardam: Bilgewater

Jane Gardam, Bilgewater (1976)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

I first became interested in Jane Gardam upon reading Michele Landsberg’s description of Bilgewater in her wonderful guide to children’s literature, Reading for the Love of It:

The characters are a gallery of endearing and sometimes buffoonish eccentrics, and all of them, young and old, reticent or extravagant, act out the various and extravagant follies to which they are driven by love.

By now, having read all the Jane Gardam books I could get my hands on, the “gallery of endearing and sometimes buffoonish eccentrics” to which she has introduced me has greatly expanded, as this is one of the strengths of all her writing. But Bilgewater was my first, and I’m still very fond of her.

The title refers to the nickname bestowed upon the novel’s narrator by the boys of the boarding school where she lives with her widowed father, a housemaster. (“Bill’s daughter” = Bilgewater, to a schoolboy’s sense of humor.) Her real name is Marigold, a sunny, cheerful name that contrasts with her image of herself as an ugly, froglike creature suitable to be dismissively called “Bilgie.” But the radiant side of her being is manifest to us from the first chapter, in the energy and verve of her narration.

I emerged into this cold house in this cold school in this cold seaside town where you can scarcely even get the telly for the height of the hills behind — I emerged into this great sea of boys and masters at my father’s school (St Wilfrid’s) an orange-haired, short-sighted, frog-bodied ancient, a square and solemn baby, a stolid, blinking, slithery-pupilled (it was before they got the glasses which straightened the left eye out) two-year-old, a glooming ten-year-old hanging about the school cloisters (“Hi Bilgie, where’s your broomstick?”) and a strange, thick-set, hopeless adolescent, friendless and given to taking long idle walks by the sea.

As readers, we don’t see or care what she looks like; what matters is that here is a brilliant, original mind, able to look at herself and the world with humor and insight that far transcends the ordinary. But at seventeen, looks are paramount — so when she’s given a makeover by the glamorous headmaster’s daughter, it seems possible her life might take a turn for the better.

Fortunately, things do not develop in any dull, conventional way, but go badly astray with hilarious, tumultuous results. Along the way we meet many of those endearing eccentrics, chief among whom is the indispensable Paula, whirlwind of a house matron and the closest thing Bilgewater has to a mother. Though she has no dress sense and is given to handing out items from the rag bag, we can tell Paula’s love is the real thing, however blind those around her may be to her true worth.

And then there is the “great sea of boys and masters,” some of whom give Bilgewater/Marigold her first painful, confusing experiences of attraction and repulsion, love and loss. As she negotiates these treacherous waters, trying to discern what is real and life-sustaining in the midst of deception, falseness and dishonesty, we are reminded of our own journey towards truth — a journey that can be taken up at any age.

I can’t possibly write as well as Jane Gardam does, or explain how she manages to make us laugh while treading on the edge of despair. I can only say that once I found her funny, warm-hearted, and verbally dexterous writing, I didn’t want to stop reading it. If you haven’t already, I hope I’ve intrigued you enough to pick up this or another book by one of the great comic novelists of our time.

And please, don’t be misled into thinking this is only a book for adolescents to read, just because it’s about one. A blurb on my edition insultingly says “Here is a brilliant talent that, if it appeared in adult fiction would be noisily greeted and deserve to be.” Such a talent should be greeted wherever it appears, and the theme of making individual human connections in the face of all the forces that seek to divide and estrange us (or conversely, submerge us in conventional sameness) never loses its relevance, even after the teenage years are long past.


A neverending story: Sword at Sunset

Rosemary Sutcliff, Sword at Sunset (1963)

Can a story still be compelling when we already know how it ends? In the case of the Arthurian legend, the appeal never seems to wane. Something about this doomed hero, who will be betrayed by friend and wife and sister and son, yet still strives for goodness and truth, continues to fascinate us through many generations of retellings. To hear of the nobility of the human soul, its unfulfilled yet undying promise, never becomes old — unless we ourselves have succumbed to the dark.

In Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff knows we know how the story goes — she begins with Arthur’s end, as he lays dying and contemplating the course of his life. Artos, rather, for this is a version which places the legend shortly after the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain, and imagines the hero as a Roman-trained war leader battling the Saxon hordes who are descending on his small island. And it’s her detailed, thoroughly imagined world and characters that make this particular retelling compelling indeed. The tale may be old, but here it comes to vivid life again, with a raw, elemental edge that makes it feel convincing, almost essential. “Yes, it must have been like this,” we feel.

Emerging from Sutcliff’s story-spell, we may realize the “real” Arthur will likely always elude us, that there are flaws in her historical research (a Goodreads review put these into one word: stirrups) and that her Artos, Gwenhumara, Medraut and Bedwyr are figments of the writer’s imagination. But that doesn’t keep them from becoming lodged in our hearts and living on, as surely as Arthur sleeps in Avalon.

Sutcliff strips away the medieval trappings of the legend and tries to return to some of its earliest roots. No grail quests or visions of the Virgin here; Christianity itself has not fully taken hold in Britain, and while respecting and trying to protect the monasteries threatened by the Saxon invasion, Artos gives allegiance to an older mystery. Those old, chthonic forces are not always benign, and Artos falls prey to them through the malice of his half-sister, who begets a son on him to serve her hate.

This dark thread winds through the story of Artos’s military rise and triumph; it poisons his marriage to the tribal princess Guenhumara, rendering it fruitless and marked by death. With that energy at work, it is inevitable that betrayal by his captain and friend, Bedwyr, will come in to complete the misery. How three people can love each other so deeply and yet hurt each other so much has seldom been so movingly rendered. Sutcliff can write thrillingly of battle and adventure, yet this inward drama is the emotional center of the novel, and will stay with me for a long time.

Medraut, the product of Artos’s youthful error, is also more than a cartoon villain. “He is a destroyer,” Artos says, one who has fallen into the love of killing for its own sake rather than for any higher cause. But he is also a victim, a human soul warped by being raised in an atmosphere of hatred, trapped in a cycle of trauma and abuse. Could this evil have been redeemed and healed, rather than bringing about disaster?

Artos is troubled by this question on this deathbed, but he must go into the night without an answer. Maybe it is for us, Arthur’s heirs, to continue to try to find a way to rekindle the light of love even in the face of such determined opposition. Maybe that’s why this story will never end, will continue to intrigue and inspire us.


Beautiful Books: Uncle Silas

J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1864)

It’s yet another classic book review! I’ve been doing a lot of these lately as I try to plow through my accumulated TBR pile. But while on vacation I took a whole bunch of newer books along with me on the e-reader, so I hope to have something completely different for you very soon. Even though I do like reviewing classics, I don’t want to focus on them exclusively on the blog.

In the meantime, I’m going back to the Victorian era with a giant of the Gothic genre. I confess that it was the looks, not the content, of this book that initially caught my attention. It’s a Folio Society edition with illustrations by Charles Stewart, a fascinating character in his own right — a theatre enthusiast, collector, and artist who was obsessed with the tale for many years. He created some of the pictures for an edition that never made it into print, but these were eventually incorporated into the Folio publication along with a gorgeous period-style binding design.

The illustrations are also beautifully in tune with the Victorian aesthetic, and though done in pen and ink imitate the engravings that often adorned books of the period. These are plentiful and add marvelously to the brooding atmosphere. The typography is unobtrusively excellent as well.

But what about the story? (Spoiler alert here — I’m going to refer to some major plot points.) It’s narrated by a seventeen-year-old girl who inherits her father’s enormous estate and is sent to live with her Uncle Silas in his crumbling house. She wants to honor her father’s wish to believe him innocent of a horrible crime of which he was accused years ago, but this becomes more and more difficult as the ominous characters and events pile up …

Though I enjoyed the book overall, I was left with a faint sense of disappointment. Many elements seemed to me to have more potential than was actually fulfilled. There was a fantastically villainous French governess, for instance, but Le Fanu seemed to lose interest in her and her evil petered out into ridiculousness. Another character, a neglected girl with a wonderfully unconventional personality and manner of  speaking, had to be immediately smoothed out and made into a model of Victorian propriety, which was unfortunate. And there was a big build-up of the “Swedenborgian” view of spirits and angels, which would seem to presage some supernatural-slash-psychological crisis, but nothing came of this.

Most seriously, our heroine, Maud, was too silly and passive for my taste. I loved the theme of trying to break through deception to the true reality, but Maud spent far too much time clinging to her wish for Silas to be good, even when it was completely obvious that he wasn’t. She ignored her forebodings for so long that she deserved what came to her, and was saved not by her own awakened initiative and insight, but by some equally silly antics on the part of her captors.

These left me baffled, because they were trying to kill Maud very cleverly in secret so that nobody would know, but the whole point of killing her was to get her inheritance, for which purpose her death would need to be made public. Perhaps this was an indication of Silas’s disturbed mental state, but as a crime it made no sense.

Then there was the way her killer had to enter the murder room laboriously through a secretly contrived window, creating a locked-room mystery — but then Silas barged in to check on the murder through the door. Wouldn’t it have been easier for the murderer to just go in through the door and exit through the window?

And so on. Such inconsistencies left me with a sense that Le Fanu was not quite in command of his material, in spite of the parts of it that shone. Influential as he was in the beginnings of the Gothic/thriller genre, there are others who have done it better — though for a dive back into those early days of the genre, you can’t do better than this beautifully rendered edition.

Classics Club list #68


Classics Club: Excellent Women

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (1952)

As I read Excellent Women, the best-known work by the once-neglected, now widely praised English novelist Barbara Pym, I was reminded of another acclaimed comic novel that I read not long ago: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. On the surface, Amis’s hard-drinking, buffoonish misogynist Jim Dixon may seem to have little in common with Pym’s un-effusive, church-going “excellent woman,” Mildred Lathbury. But the two books shadow and reflect each other in a fascinating way.

Jim is an exercise in how uncongenial one can make a main character, while still attempting to elicit our sympathy for him. An English professor who apparently despises English literature, he goes on epic benders when he’s supposed to be giving a lecture, leaves cigarette burns in the sheets when he’s a houseguest, and is unable to disentangle himself from a woman he doesn’t love or respect — she’s marginally better than no girlfriend at all, it seems, in his “woman-as-object” universe. Some readers find him so awful, he’s adorable; I just found him awful.

Mildred, meanwhile, is about as self-effacing as a character presented in the first person can be. Set in postwar London, the book opens with new neighbors moving in upstairs, and as Mildred becomes a witness to and sometimes participant in their disordered lives, so much more glamorous and seedy than her own, we find us asking ourselves what she really thinks about all this. Other characters in the novel are always eager to tell her what she should be feeling, seeming to find the sensibilities of an unmarried woman over a certain age to be public property; she quietly expresses annoyance at this, while baffling us with sideways expressions and half-uncoverings of her true self.

In both books, though, the opposite sex is a total mystery. The masculine Jim approaches this riddle with bluff and bravado, the feminine Mildred with puzzlement and a sort of understated obstinacy. And both stories left me with a sense of melancholy, a sadness that human beings must so often miss and misunderstand one another. This was in many ways the source of the comedy, as in a screwball plot where everyone is running in circles after each other, and yet there was an undercurrent of tragedy in spite of the guardedly optimistic endings. Can either Jim or Mildred ever find a satisfying relationship that gets beyond the surface differences which separate us? I’m not so sure.

Interestingly enough, the two authors had a friend in common — the poet Philip Larkin, who both provided the model for Amis’s antihero, and had a warm admiration for Ms. Pym, whom he called one of the most criminally underrated writers of our time. This connection seems most suitable, as she helped me to see poor old Jim in a different light, and maybe even forgive some of his excesses. I’ll certainly be seeking out more of her novels, continuing to ponder her subtle perspective on men, women, the gulf between us, and the fragile bridges that we try to build.