New Release Review: Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor, Shadowplay (2019)

Till recently, I knew nothing about Bram Stoker beyond his name, as the author of Dracula. I didn’t know he was the theatrical manager for Henry Irving, and worked with Ellen Terry — about both of whom I did know a little more, largely thanks to my reading of the theatre-mad Robertson Davies. So when the chance to review a new novel about the theatrical trio came up, I jumped on it.

Though I was not sure what to expect, fortunately it turned out to be a delight, one of my favorite books of the year so far. In a nod to Stoker’s famous epistolary novel, it’s presented as an assemblage of letters, memoirs, transcripts and other invented documents. And it mainly covers the time around the composition of that novel, exploring how an obscure Dublin clerk became the manager for the eccentric, extravagant genius Irving and his Lyceum Theatre in London — while compulsively penning the weird and occult tales that brought undying fame only after his own death.

The Lyceum was a brilliant but ultimately doomed venture that strained Stoker’s family relationships and sometimes perhaps his sanity.  The story is full of ghosts — one is reputed to haunt the theatre, but there are also the dim remnants of childhood trauma, unfulfilled dreams, inadmissible longings. The actor’s playing out of a “second self” is a recurring motif, echoed in the shadow-worlds that Stoker creates in his writing. Such “shadowplay” gives power to art, whether in acting or in writing, but it is also a dangerous enterprise, as it taps into the hidden and unfulfilled sides of the human self. To convey that danger and that power, with a strong dash of Irish comedy, is no small achievement.

O’Connor writes in a vigorous, playful style that is not at all Victorian, and yet he somehow effectively evokes that era, especially the emotional and sexual turmoil that underlay its external propriety. But ultimately this is not a study of sex and death, but a story of love: the love that grew between three gifted, sometimes tormented, but thoroughly remarkable people. I’ve no idea how historically accurate it may be, but emotionally it rings true, and leaves me with a sense of having met these characters, or at least having seen them play out a part of their lives on the “stage” of the novel.

With a memorable guest appearance by Oscar Wilde, ample glimpses backstage for theatre lovers, and supporting roles by the spouses and children of the central trio (with some remarkable characters in their own right), there was so much to enjoy, and to learn. I do plan to read Dracula now and then to go back to see what references I missed. Whether you’ve read Stoker’s masterpiece or not, I urge you to check this out, too.


Beautiful Books: Kindred

Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)

Illustration from Kindred © 2019 by James Ransome

Not that far into the reading of Octavia Butler’s fourth novel, recently released in a beautiful new edition from the Folio Society, I realized that the title is a pun. The innocuous term kindred — denoting likeness, similarity, or shared ancestry — can also be split into kin – dread — fear and horror connected with one’s kin, one’s relations or ancestors.

And the latter meaning is very relevant. We begin with the narrator shattered by a bizarre injury, telling us the story of how it came about. Dana has been pulled back in time on several occasions, dragged away from her life as a writer in twentieth-century California, always suddenly, inexplicably, and with no one except her husband as a witness. Her time in the past can last minutes, weeks, or months, but she returns shortly after she left. Whatever happens to her there is real — if she gets wet she stays wet, if she’s injured she stays injured. There’s no way it can be explained away as a mental aberration, but also no way to control or manage it.

At first she has no idea why this is happening, but it soon becomes clear that it’s when a certain boy is in danger that she’s called to his side — by his fear? his need? No one can say, but the connection is undeniable. For she also discovers that he is her ancestor, that he must  survive in order for her to be born.

Illustration from Kindred © 2019 by James Ransome

And this is where the dread comes in. For she is black, he is white, and a slaveholder in antebellum Maryland. Her progeniture depends on an act of rape, her existence is rooted in violence and oppression. How can she come to terms with this conflict, and with the very real threats that being in the past poses to her? Is there any way to take hold of her destiny, to bring any positive action to counteract the dreadful burden of the past?

Butler herself carefully conceals her protagonist’s color for the first fifty pages, so that there should be some shock when she’s first called and treated as a “nigger.” But it’s given away by blurbs, book covers, and in the case of the new Folio Society edition, illustrations. So there’s not much point in trying to avoid talking about this “spoiler,” and there’s not much one can say about the book without acknowledging it.

For the plummeting of a modern woman into the visceral, horrifying reality of slavery is the core of the book. The time-travel conceit is absurd if one looks at it intellectually, but powerful and compelling when one takes its message to heart: slavery is not something that happened in the past, that we can say we have progressed beyond or overcome. It’s happening now, it’s in the blood of our veins and the wounds of our souls. It takes more than a couple of centuries for such wrongness to be overcome, and that will never happen if forgetting and ignoring are the only tactics we can come up with.

“Look how easily slaves are made,” Dana reflects at one point, when cruelty has reduced her to the state of abjection from which she at first proudly distanced herself. Her efforts to educate her ancestor, to mitigate the effects of his cultural conditioning, are weak and ineffective compared to the forces that drive him, the slave/owner mentality that is so hard to dispel even today. Though it is rooted in his own weakness, in pitiful dependence on the people he dominates, when combined with outward power, it takes a stranglehold that it begins to seem only violence can break.

It may appear a bleak prospect, a recipe for despair. But we know (because of the opening scene from which the rest of the book is a flashback) that Dana will survive, though terribly wounded. We know she has a marriage that has also been tested and strained by her ordeal, but that will go on. And at the same time we know that she will never be able to forget, or to let us forget, what she has gone through, the dread that runs through her veins. Her future is our present, and we bear the responsibility of making sure that the suffering of the past does not make us numb and impervious. Do some wounds, to be healed, have to remain open?

Illustration from Kindred © 2019 by James Ransome

For the Folio Society edition, six illustrations and a frontispiece were created by James Ransome, one of whose previous projects was a picture book about Harriet Tubman (a figure significantly mentioned in Kindred). I always find it more satisfying when the illustrations are placed next to or at least near the corresponding text, so I was pleased to find that care was taken with this aspect, as well as making sure there was one image for each of the time-travel sections. The illustrations are richly hued and detailed watercolors, one a double-page spread, that strive to capture the emotional power of the novel. Most focus on moments of threat — hiding from searchers, witnessing a whipping, walking in a chained line — that bring home the grim atmosphere of fear that Butler’s words so effectively convey.

If you haven’t read this modern masterpiece, or if you have and want to own a keepsake copy, this is one to put on your list. With Kindred, the Folio Society adds to its short shelf of challenging, ground-breaking books that explore issues of power, oppression, and freedom: books by Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. LeGuin, Toni Morrison. It’s a category I would dearly love to see more of. What other titles would you add, along the same lines?


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.


Early Christians: The Blood of the Martyrs

Naomi Mitchison, The Blood of the Martyrs (1939)

Naomi Mitchison, who died in 1999 at the age of 101, was a prolific writer who dipped into quite an astonishing number of genres. She wrote historical fiction based in both prehistoric and historic times, contemporary fiction, fantasy, science fiction, travelogue, essays, memoirs, biography, plays … is there anything left? If she’s not a household name today, maybe it’s because she refused to be pigeonholed and especially to follow the “rules” of writing and publishing. One of her early novels, We Have Been Warned, was repeatedly turned down on the basis of its treatment of sexuality and heavily revised before publication. It still caused a furor when it came out.

I haven’t read that book (not considered one of her best), but I have read the stunning historical novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen and the charming fantasy Travel Light, which both evoke a mythological past with beautiful language and powerful, vivid imagery. I’ve been wanting to read more of Mitchison’s books, but they’re not so easy to find these days.

One that is readily available, recently republished in paperback by Canongate, is The Blood of the Martyrs, another historical novel that takes as its subject the first persecution of the Christians in Rome under Nero. Written in the 1930s, it has clear parallels to the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, with Nero’s cult of bloodlust and violence sustaining a leader drunk on the vision of himself as a god. Contrasted with this state-sanctioned insanity is a small cell of Christians, who look forward to the coming of a “Kingdom” of brotherhood, equality, and freedom. In the meantime they attempt to practice the radical non-violence of Jesus’s teaching, loving one another and forgiving their enemies. The climax of the book shows how they try to do this even in the Arena as they’re being burnt and thrown to wild animals.

It’s hard to describe the book without making it sound like a pious treatise of some kind, but it isn’t. It’s not pious in any cheap sentimental way, and the person and deeds of Jesus Christ operate more as a kind of distant rumor than as an active presence. These Christians base their religion not on a numinous experience of the Godhead but on the bonds of kindness and mutual support that they experience with one another. Many of them are slaves, and the book offers, among other things, a pondering of what makes us slave or free. Is it the outer circumstances of our lives? Or is it a choice that we make in our attitude?

The experience of several of these Roman slaves and freedmen is movingly depicted in the vignettes of the opening chapters, which describe the varying paths they take toward Christianity. These make it clear that the repression of the new religion was not based on its addition of a new god to the pantheon — Rome had no problem embracing all kinds of deities, from Isis to Mithras — but on the danger its values presented to the state. If people can strive for an individual, free relationship to truth, if they make love their highest ideal and motivating force, then they cannot be controlled by punishment or fear. That makes them anathema in a regime founded on the empty-hearted, unquenchable drive for power.

Most of the characters share the naive view that the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke is an imminent physical reality which will somehow suddenly overturn the world of their rulers. This does not happen, of course, nor has it come to pass in the intervening centuries — nor ever will, in such a crude, materialistic form. But the lives and beliefs of these early Christians still hold a mysterious power, showing how the Kingdom may come into being within the hearts of people who dare to live as though it were already here.

As Rudolf Steiner put it, we all as human beings bear the spirit within us, but we can decide to ignore and suppress and even imprison this spirit, or set it free. Which will we choose? Whether in the time of the martyrs, during the rise of Fascism, or in our own day, there is no more vital, more urgent question to be asked. I’m grateful to this brilliant, overlooked writer for bringing it up for me once more.


New Release Review: The Essex Serpent

Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent (2016)

Perhaps because the nineteenth century saw the rise of the novel as a literary form, giving us an unprecedented number of imagined narratives about daily life and relationships, there’s a particular fascination in trying to go “behind the curtain” of the period and discern what the Victorians did NOT say in their fiction. Due to societal expectations and conventions, there were many things they could not talk about directly (at least in English — perhaps Continental fiction was more frank). What would Victorian novelists write if this secret history could be revealed, and what would we learn about their real thoughts and feelings?

In more recent times, this question has given rise to compelling novels by the likes of John Fowles, A.S. Byatt, and Sarah Waters, among others. They try to embody aspects of the narrative voice of a bygone age, while retaining a modern sensibility that illuminates the past in a new light. A new entry in this seductive sub-genre is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which takes on the clash of science, faith, and superstition that erupted in the wake of Darwin’s discoveries. Symbol and focus of this cultural turmoil is the mysterious Essex Serpent, which had reputedly been sighted in a seaside town centuries ago, and now seems to be appearing again. Is it a judgment? A scientific marvel? A relic from ancient times? A supernatural warning, or wonder? Or something far more banal and ordinary, given fantastic clothing by the ever-active human imagination?

This is a novel of many characters, switching back and forth between different points of view: a young widow with an abusive past and a yen for paleontology; her son, who baffles her with his strange rituals and emotional distance; their working-class radical nurse-companion; a twisted genius of a surgeon; his less-brilliant, but extremely kind friend; a brisk country vicar struggling to conquer superstition in his parish and unholy longings in himself; his tubercular wife, beset by visions; and many others.

The premise sounded irresistible to me, yet even though The Essex Serpent had all the ingredients for a book I ought to love, I had a hard time warming to it somehow. Perhaps this was partly because the constant switching of perspective also made it hard for me to settle into the story. Certain threads and relationships were not developed as much as I would have liked, as the zigzagging plot kept dropping one to pick up another. I remained oddly distant from the characters, and sometimes had the sensation of being told rather than shown about their characteristics; they felt intellectually constructed out of era-appropriate ingredients (paleontology, advances in medical science, religious doubt, consumption, sexual repression, etc.) rather than spontaneously living.

Unsettling is definitely what The Essex Serpent is all about, though, so perhaps this is an appropriate effect. And at the end, suddenly, the characters came together in a way that surprised me, bringing them to life more vividly. If the book had gone on from there for another hundred pages or so, I might have felt more connected to it.

I don’t know why the alchemy of this book did not quite work for me, and you may have a completely different reaction. I hope you will read it to find out for yourself, and please let me know what you thought.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours and HarperCollins for the opportunity to review this book. For more information, visit the tour page or click on the links below.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Photo by Jamie Drew

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979. Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Folio Prize. She lives in Norwich. The Essex Serpent is her American debut.

Find out more about Sarah at her website, and connect with her on Twitter.


Three British imports from Candlewick

I always find something I want to read in the Candlewick catalog, and among their spring/summer releases my eye was caught by three books that all turned out to have been previously published in the UK (Candlewick is part of the UK-based Walker Book Group). In other ways, though, they were quite different — not all to my taste, but they might be to yours!

The first one I picked up was Sophie Someone by Hayley Long. Here we have a contemporary tale about a fourteen-year-old girl trying to figure out what’s happened to her family, why they left England for Belgium, what her real name is, and many other mysteries, all wrapped up in Sophie’s “special language” which both mirrors her confusion and masks her real pain and anxiety. This involves switching out words for other similar words, in a way that seems baffling at first but soon becomes surprisingly simple to follow.

My first reaction was that this was an fascinating example of how our minds can create wholeness out of fragmentary parts, a confirmation that language is built of meaning, not of words. However, after a while I found myself wishing that Long had done something more with this device, had caused it to develop or transform in some way; as it was, it was like reading a rather ordinary story written in code, the novelty of which soon wore off. I think there’s a chance that young readers will be intrigued and amused by Sophie’s style and by the playful typography, and this might be enough for some, but I was left wanting more. (I was reminded of the books of Ellen Raskin … time for some rereading.)

Next I sampled Maid of the King’s Court by Lucy Worsley, a historical novel by the curator of the Historic Royal Palaces in London. For one so steeped in the history of Hampton Court and other sites, it must be endlessly tempting to weave one’s knowledge of the everyday details of Elizabethan life into an exciting narrative. Worsley’s knowledge and love of the era was clear, but its transformation into fictional form did not quite work for me.

I had a hard time connecting with her protagonist, a fictional Elizabeth whose destiny becomes intertwined with real-life figures including the notorious Catherine Howard, and of course King Henry VIII. Elizabeth talked and acted like a modern teenager, and in general the tone was indistinguishable from a contemporary YA romance. This may make history spring to life for some readers, but it’s not my style at all. I would still be interested to see Worsley in her capacity as a TV documentary host, though, or maybe read some of her non-fiction, to see how she presents this kind of material in a different context.

Fortunately, I enjoyed my third selection much more: Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman was an exciting, satisfying adventure with an atmospheric setting based on the Devon coast and on real people and events of the eighteenth century. Plus, puppet shows!

The plausibility level was not always high here either, and yet with her storytelling energy and well-crafted language Landman managed to keep me engaged with her coming-of age story of a mixed-race boy with a mysterious past. Set adrift by the death of the man he’s always known as Pa, Caleb must try to unravel the secrets of his own origins as well as of his supposed father’s life and death. For fans of high-action, character-rich period drama by the likes of Philip Pullman and Leon Garfield, this will be a welcome new addition to the genre.

Thanks, Candlewick, for bringing these British imports to our shores! I hope each one will find the right audience to enjoy it.


New Reprint Review: The Winged Girl of Knossos

Erick Berry, The Winged Girl of Knossos (1934)

Ever since Betsy Bird put this long-lost Newbery honor book from 1934 at the top of her list of underrated middle grade books I’ve been dying to read it. And lo and behold, sometimes dreams do come true! Three years later, it’s back in print thanks to the fantastic folks at Paul Dry Books, with an afterword by Betsy herself.

Set in ancient Crete, The Winged Girl of Knossos starts out with a thrilling scene in which our heroine, Inas, goes deep sea diving for sponges — just for the fun of it, not because she needs the work — and the action doesn’t let up from there. She also takes a dramatic turn in the bull ring, helps out her friend Princess Ariadne who has inexplicably fallen for one of the boorish Greek captives, and comes to the rescue of her father Daedalus who is causing a stir with his outlandish inventions (including hang-glider-style wings that permit humans to soar with the birds). Danger abounds, but so do moments of beauty, artistry, and lyricism.

Having just done a reread of Mary Renault’s Theseus books it was interesting to revisit the mythical Crete and Knossos from another point of view. The discoveries at Knossos were quite new when the book was written, and Berry clearly enjoyed coming up with ways to put the fragments together into a cohesive and compelling narrative. She crams in more incidents, characters, and details than would probably fit in a soberly factual story, but her storytelling verve might well inspire young students to learn more about the truth behind the tale. And in the wonderfully energetic Inas, she’s created a heroine for the ages, one of the first and most memorable self-determining girls in the Newbery canon.

As an adult reader, I found myself sometimes missing a more introspective side to Inas’s adventures, and more character development than action, but at the target age range of around 9 to 12 I probably would not have sensed anything lacking. I think I would have been enchanted with this vision of a magical time and place, and would have simply loved flying, diving, sailing, adventuring, and intriguing with Inas.

Erick Berry was a pseudonym of Allena Champlin Best, who trained as an artist and illustrated most of her own books as well as those by her husband, Herbert Best. For this book, as well as several dramatic full-page illustrations, she created charming decorations drawn from Minoan artwork, all of which greatly enhance the text. The Paul Dry edition preserves these, while re-setting the text in an elegant and appropriate style. Overall, this is a rediscovery that no fan of children’s historical fiction, myth-inspired adventure stories, or Newbery-award books should miss.


Towers in the Mist

Elizabeth Goudge, Towers in the Mist (1937)

This book is offered in a giveaway open through April 26. Click the link to enter!

Oxford has changed much in the eighty years since Elizabeth Goudge lived there, and even more since the sixteenth century. Yet it still bears within it the weight of its long history, and it is fascinating to imagine all the people and events that have passed through its walls and buildings and churches and quadrangles. That is the task Goudge has set for herself with Towers in the Mist: to imagine a well-known place of the present as it might have been in the past. For anyone who loves the university or even just the idea of it, it’s a wonderful if somewhat unwieldy hodgepodge of a book, an imaginative journey that touches us with the author’s own affection and enthusiasm.

Her Elizabethan tale introduces us to several well-known personages of the time (such as Thomas Bodley, the Earl of Leicester, and the young Walter Raleigh and Philip Sidney), but is mainly centered around the fictional Canon Leigh of Christ Church, whose motherless brood is growing up in a time when children were expected to become adults very early. As the older children are occupied with finding their place in the world, with balancing love and duty, the younger ones experience the universal joys and sorrows of childhood that Goudge always portrays so delightfully. Around them swirls the pageantry of city and university in glorious confusion, with bursts of rowdiness as well as moments of transcendent beauty.

I found it particularly interesting to see how Goudge deals with religion here; she’s writing about a time in which doubt was nearly non-existent, almost everyone lived and breathed within the embrace of the church, and the wars between Catholics and Protestants meant that many died for their beliefs. It is extremely difficult for people of our materialistic age to imagine the mindset of such an era, and Goudge doesn’t try to enter into it very deeply. Rather, she lightly suggests that even in a time when religion ruled daily life there could be many different modes of experience and ways of encountering God. Her Elizabethans express a wide variety of approaches to faith, from simple, heartfelt devotion to worldly-wise practicality, and all seem convincingly possible.

In the latter category, I love the story of how the Christ Church undergraduates appointed just one of each of their groups to listen to the Sunday sermon on which they would later be tested; the others were then free to “think great thoughts” during the hour-long discourse. Meanwhile, their teachers marveled at the burst of earnest conversation taking place later that day among the scholars (during which they filled each other in on the sermon’s contents). It’s just one example of how Goudge pokes fun at a revered institution, while fully appreciating its gifts to our culture.

Hall of Christ Church College

Nor is faith depicted as a fixed, immutable quality, but as something that can move and grow and change, depending on how each character meets and takes up the challenges of life. For example, we see young Nicolas, initially one of the most flippant and worldly of the scholars, becoming more serious and courageous under the influence of love. Meanwhile, upright Canon Leigh, when approached by Nicolas for the hand of his beloved daughter in marriage, must reconfigure his expectations and admit that the young man he would previously have dismissed as an indifferent scholar may actually perceive something in his child that he does not, and which is necessary to her happiness. Both must adjust their view of the world, must humble themselves in some ways and strengthen themselves in others, in order to move forward into the future.

Such characters and relationships are the most interesting thing to me about Goudge’s work in general; they show her willingness to embrace all kinds of human thoughts and experiences with compassion rather than with a critical, judgmental eye. This helps me in turn to look at my own life with the possibility that if there is a divine world, it may regard me in the same way, holding my foibles and errors within a greater perspective of love — and it also inspires me to try to look at other people in the same spirit. To me this is the most important function of all fiction, whether it be overtly “religious” or not.

This is not to say that Towers in the Mist might not have benefited from some judicious pruning. In her wish to create as comprehensive a view as possible, Goudge has wedged in a number of awkward side stories and historical characters, while the overall plot is rambling and often improbable, and certain “patriotic” passages are marred by an excess of sentimentality. The descriptions are elaborate, the pace leisurely, the digressions many. But for those who are willing to take a roundabout journey, there is still much pleasure to be found on the way.

Goudge herself makes no claim to have achieved historical accuracy, only to having made an attempt at reconstruction that no doubt fails in many points. Yet she does somehow manage to convey the lively, vivacious spirit of the early Elizabethan period, of a people who have endured much trouble and suffering without losing their zest for life. It makes sense that this period produced a great flowering of English poetry, examples of which are given at the beginning of each chapter. Love of learning, of words and of the Word, are in abundant evidence in Goudge’s Oxford, and in that she seems to have gotten to the heart of things.

This post was written to celebrate Elizabeth Goudge’s birthday, tomorrow, April 24. I’ll be checking in then to see who else has written posts in honor of this beloved author, and sharing them with you. Please join us!


To be a king: Mary Renault’s Theseus books

Mary Renault, The King Must Die (1958)
Mary Renault, The Bull from the Sea (1962)

What is a true king? That question runs throughout the two historical novels that Mary Renault wrote about Theseus, the legendary ruler of Athens. As the young hero grows up, from mysterious beginnings, through trials that test his strength both in body and mind, to an ultimately tragic end, he struggles to discern and accept his moira, his fate. A king, Theseus suggests, is one who is willing to sacrifice his personal destiny for the good of the people — “the king must die,” as ancient rituals demand, so that new life can arise.

Yet even as he accepts this age-old role, Theseus wrestles with a decadent matriarchal culture to bring about a new individual consciousness, transforming it into something less primal and more forward-looking. This view of clashing cultures may not be supported by current scholarship, but it was based on the theories and research available to Renault at the time of writing, and something about it still rings true. The quest of Theseus for kingship is the quest of each human being to understand and rule the warring factions within us, and to bring them into a dynamic balance that gives birth to new potential.

(c) Geoff Grandfield – illustration for The Folio Society’s edition of Mary Renault’s The King Must Die

Renault comes up with many ingenious and plausible solutions to the riddles posed by trying to place the legends into a historical context. How could Theseus be fathered both by Poseidon and Aigeus? Why did he leave his bride Ariadne on the island of Naxos? What really happened during the four years he supposedly spent in the underworld after trying to steal Persephone out of Hades? Most famously and fascinatingly of all, what was the connection between the mythical Minotaur and the bull-dance revealed in the artwork of the excavated Knossos palace? Renault weaves these incidents and many others into a convincing, inwardly integrated picture of an ancient world that feels both foreign and familiar. There, customs and beliefs may be very different from ours, and yet basic human concerns remain eternal.

The language of the books is admirably pure, clear, and strong, as befits the subject, with not a word extraneous or out of place. The story is told by Theseus himself, who seems at the end of his long life to be reflecting on his many deeds and misdeeds, his triumphs and mistakes. There is no an attempt to rationalize this storytelling — it’s not portrayed as a letter to a young heir, or a diary in which Theseus works through his painful past — but simply floats between narrator and reader, a thread connecting us to a past that perhaps never was, but that during the time of reading seems utterly real.

(c) Geoff Grandfield – illustration for The Folio Society’s edition of Mary Renault’s The Bull from the Sea

Theseus is not always a likeable or admirable character. His obsession with replacing matriarchy and subjugating it to masculine rule is sometimes tiresome to a modern sensibility, and his behavior to various consorts, mistresses and children is not always as well-judged or compassionate as it could be. Yet in this deeply flawed, very human hero I also find much that speaks to me across the gulf of years and cultures. His joy in the bull-dance, the community of life he forms in the midst of death, the bright flame of a remarkable personality that burns not for itself alone, but to kindle others and bring them further than they ever imagined they could go — these are the images that will stay with me. In the second book, most memorable to me is the melancholy, doomed love story of Theseus and his Amazon queen Hippolyta, perfectly matched warrior spirits who could not long remain together against the more mundane, workaday pressures of the outside world. When Hippolyta falls, so does the better part of Theseus, as he himself recognizes; and this sad disintegration leads to the ultimate tragedy.

The new two-volume edition from the Folio Society is a splendid way to experience this mesmerizing tale. The striking illustrations by Geoff Grandfield, with their dramatic silhouettes that echo ancient vase paintings, frescoes, and other artwork, perfectly complement the classical strength and beauty of Renault’s language. If you have already read and loved the books, you will want these gorgeous volumes to cherish forever, and if you haven’t yet read them, I urge you to do so. You’ll find excitement and beauty, philosophy and action, danger and fulfillment — all the very best qualities of a myth retold.

Click here for information on The King Must Die
Click here for information on The Bull from the Sea
Click here for information on The Folio Society


Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic set in a place I would like to visit (Athens and Crete)

Stagecraft and swordplay: Scaramouche

Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)

After watching the 1952 movie of Scaramouche, with its brilliant fencing matches between Mel Ferrer and Stewart Granger, I became curious to read the book. How would the author deal with these exciting action sequences? And would the book give more context and background for the historical and political aspects of the plot? I had seen several swashbuckling films based on the works of this well-known historical novelist, but never read any of his books. How would they hold up today?

I was pleased to find that Scaramouche is not only just as exciting on the page as on the screen, but also features some wonderful bits of dialogue that didn’t make it into the film, and has a much more sensibly constructed plot. Where the movie mixes up and muddles the three aspects of hero Andre-Louis’s life — as a lawyer in the French province of Brittany, as a member of a traveling Commedia dell’Arte troupe, and as a swordsman working to improve his art and confront his aristocratic nemesis — the book divides these into three sequential parts and focuses on one at a time. The initial conflict, in which the evil Marquis kills Andre-Louis’s friend makes much more sense too, as do his relationships with the two women in his life. And the ideas and events of the historical setting, during the years leading up to the French revolution, are naturally able to be developed more fully in a full-length book. The result is a historical romance that is entertaining without being empty, an adventure that might also make you think.

Four Commedia dell’Arte figures – Claude Gillot

Andre-Louis is the kind of character who can easily become annoying, a person who seems to be good at everything he does. First he’s a successful, if somewhat cynical, provincial lawyer; then when he makes a seditious speech in honor of his friend, he goes on the run, falls in with a troupe of traveling players and not only suddenly becomes an excellent comic actor but guides the whole company to new heights; and then, when he has to go on the run again, he takes a job as a Parisian fencing master’s assistant (though he’s only had a few lessons himself) and becomes outstanding at that as well.

Yet somehow he didn’t annoy me, and I think it may be because his success comes from the wholehearted way he throws himself into everything he does. He has no desire to impress anyone with his superiority, or to evade responsibility for his mistakes, but simply takes his fate as it comes and does the best he can in each new situation. This is the quality that is most heroic about him, not any particular ability or skill that he demonstrates.

He also combines thought and action at each stage of his life, identifying what needs improving in the acting troupe and making it happen, and then reading books about fencing as well as practicing ripostes and thrusts, in order to find a more efficient and intelligent way of defeating his opponent. As his journey progresses, he moves from mouthing revolutionary ideals only as an homage to his dead friend, to truly believing in and fighting for what he believes is right, showing that his initial cynical detachment has moved into a more integrated personality. And at the end of his quest for revenge, he finds the need for mercy and forgiveness, and sees his own motives more clearly.

Throughout, his signature role of Scaramouche (a clever rogue who is one of the stock characters in the Commedia dell’Arte), informs his approach to life, even though he acts it on the stage for only a short time. He never loses his ironic view of the world, and at the most dramatic moments tends to break into laughter or make a humorous remark. And yet, this “gift of laughter” never becomes bitter or rancorous, and more often than not he is poking fun at himself. “To understand is always to forgive,” he says at one point, quoting Montaigne. As we human beings bumble through life with our ridiculously partial and incomplete understanding, sometimes laughter can be the most appropriate response of all, restoring perspective and wholeness to our imbalanced view.

I do recommend watching the movie — the slapstick scenes in the theater are fun, and the fight scenes are truly amazing. But I also recommend reading the book for a fuller and richer experience of Sabatini’s adventurous spirit.

Back to the Classics: Twentieth Century classic
Classics Club List