Tuesday, May 26, 2015

More from Penelope Fitzgerald's Charlotte Mew and Her Friends

No time to offer much in the way of commentary today, but I thought you'd at least enjoy the following passage from Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of poet Charlotte Mew. Noting that the years just before World War I was a period of proliferating, successful poetry anthologies, Fitzgerald writes:
It was the great time for small, thin-paper, verse anthologies, with a ribbon for a bookmark, which went easily into the side-pocket, and were taken for long tramps in the fresh air, returning with grass and pressed flowers between the pages. The Golden Treasury (1897) was one of the first of these, and there was no sign of their running out. It was true that these little volumes, even when they were by the newer poets, were often not very demanding. John Drinkwater, for example, in Poems of Love and Earth (1912) thanks God for (1) sleep; (2) clear day through the little leaded panes; (3) shining well water; (4) warm golden light; (5) rain and wind (apparently at the same time) as (2); (6) swallows; (7) wallflowers, tulips, primroses and "crowded orchard boughs"; (8) good bread; (9) honey-comb; (10) brown-shelled eggs; (11) strong-thewed young men; (13) an old man bent over his scythe; (14) the great glad earth and "heaven's trackless ways." There was a great deal of this kind of thing at the lower and easier end of the repertoire, where eggs were always brown, the women always kind, and the earth always glad.
One of Fitzgerald's greatest qualities as a fiction writer, one she carries over to biography, is her sympathy with well-meaning folly and silliness. She takes an amused stance, but one that never leads to dismissal or condemnation. Looking back from a hundred years on, we see much that was silly about the Edwardians, but we have to admit that there is much to admire as well.

Fitzgerald's appreciation for good intentions gives the last lines of that paragraph special poignancy:
The poetry was meant to give pleasure and it was, after all, the last body of English poetry to be actually read, by ordinary people, for pleasure.
The Golden Treasury remains available today; I had a gilt-edged version when I was a boy, with, yes, a ribbon.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Penelope Fitzgerald on The Yellow Book and the New Woman

In preparation for a trip to the Harry Ransom Center to investigate the Penelope Fitzgerald archives, I'm reading one of the two books by her that I'd not read, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (1984). (The other being her biography of Edward Burne-Jones.) In her biography of Fitzgerald, Hermione Lee characterizes the book as "the crucial turning point, the hinged door between what, in another writer, you might call 'early' and 'late' work," in part because of the copious research involved. All of Fitzgerald's earlier novels had been rooted in some way in her own experience; all of her later ones would be set in different places and different times, and would require substantial research to give their slim extents their hefty backbones of believability.

Mew herself was a minor poet, all but forgotten today, though Brad Leithauser, in his introduction to a 1988 American edition of the book, makes a strong case for the quality of her limited output. In Mew, Fitzgerald found a subject who brought together themes that we can trace elsewhere in her own life and work: a woman forced by circumstance to make her way on her own; a woman who determines to be a writer, and does so; and a woman playing a part in establishing new terrain for women at a time when old norms were being upended. That last comes into particular focus in the course of one short paragraph about Mew and her fellow writers on the legendary decadent-era magazine The Yellow Book:
That summer she entered the new world of the New Woman. It was an exhilarating place, which Netta Syrett describes in her autobiography The Sheltering Tree and Evelyn Sharp in Unfinished Adventure. Although the public, discreetly prompted by Lane, thought of The Yellow Book as bizarre and decadent, and though its male writers were often alcoholic, weak-willed and tired of life, its women were strong. Evelyn Sharp, who was one of them, wrote that they "felt on the crest of the wave that was sweeping away the Victorian tradition," and that everything must go. Netta, Evelyn and Ella d'Arcy, like Charlotte, had seen The Yellow Book announcement and sent in their first contributions to Lane. They were also among Lane's Keynotes--that is, they contributed to a special "advanced" series of stories, each with their own Keynote, designed by Beardsley. "Petticoat" Lane liked to be seen with women round him "and we fell in and out of love," said Evelyn, "with or without disaster, like other people." They would find time for marriage some day, but not yet, there was too much in hand. Everything was open for discussion. Netta Syrett, in particular, talked unconcernedly about sex, for her uncle, the writer Grant Allen, was a frank materialist and had brought her up to do so. But this was only one aspect of a world that had grown limitless, but still had to be put to rights. Skimming from one end of London to the other on their bicycles, without fear, without chaperones, they lodged two and two in flats, or in the newly opened Victorian Club in Sackville Street, which had small, cold, candle-lit bedrooms for professional women. If need arose they could emerge soignees and glittering, in the full evening dress of the nineties. These young women were not Bohemians, they were dandies. They complained when the down-and-out Frederick Rolfe, on his visits to Harland's flat, left lice on the furniture. Aubrey Beardsley was "a dear boy" to them. They had no intention of drifting or failing, they meant to rise with the coming twentieth century.
So much is covered in that one long paragraph. The acknowledgment for example, neither overstated nor unduly celebrated, that the women of this circle (like the women in Barbara Pym's world)  were the capable, competent ones, saddled with men who were neither. The specificity of detail that conjures up how very different London suddenly looked to a woman experiencing new freedom--Bicycles! Bedsits! And the distinction between true Bohemians and these women, who still saw value in some social conventions, wanting merely the right to choose for themselves which they would observe. There are aspects here that are familiar from the lives of Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, though their rebellion was both more pointed and more contained; you also detect echoes of Daisy Saunders, from The Gate of Angels, though Daisy starts lower in class, and (perhaps therefore) has lower ambitions. Or, if we flip genders, we can see hints of Forster's Leonard Bast, striving for something that, a few years earlier, would have been explicitly unattainable.

It's an enchanting vision, and the tragedy at the heart of Fitzgerald's bio is that, like Leonard Bast, Mew wasn't quite ever able to make it over the bar. Freedom was not as easy to seize, nor to hold, as it at first seemed, and her life would be a series of frustrations and reverses. But for that one moment--with echoing glimmers here and there throughout the rest of Mew's life--Fitzgerald brings an era, and its new possibilities, to shimmering life.

Wish me luck in my archival research. If it goes well, you'll hear much, much more about it down the line.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

As Martin Amis once put it, late Henry James "didn't give a shit about the reader," or, How The Golden Bowl killed the Wall Street Journal book club!

{Fair warning: I've been letting my imagination wander again, prompted by the announcement a while back that Colm Toibin had named The Golden Bowl the next selection of the Wall Street Journal book club.}

I can already picture it: When all the big newspapers are getting together at the holidays next year, the NYT, trying to come up with something to talk about other than the election, will be all like, "Hey, WSJ--didn't you like have book club or something that you did regularly? Like, you'd get people together and drink wine and talk about the book? Anyway, how's that going?"

"Oh, god. God. Hang on--I have to have a drink first."

The WSJ will down a double Scotch, look at the glass, then pour and down another.

"It was fine. It was totally fine--I mean, a lot of times people wouldn't read the book and we'd just end up talking about Mad Men, but whatever, you know? It was fun. It was a chance for everybody to get out of the house--do you know how hard it is for the Business & Tech. section to get a proper night out with its two bratty kids scaring off all the babysitters on the Upper West Side? I won't say we were doing groundbreaking lit crit or anything, but it was important to us, at least. It was fun. And then . . . Colm Fucking Toibin, man. And Henry Fucking James--though let's be honest: it's Toibin's fault, not James's. We could have handled James. If Toibin had picked What Maisie Knew, for example--I mean, that one might as well have a fucking Reading Group Guide bound in the back, it's got so many obvious bits you can talk about. Or even Portrait of a Lady, if he really felt like he had to push things. (Do you identify with Isabel Archer? Who should play her in a movie? Were you surprised when she chose Gilbert? Would you have done that?) But The Golden Fucking Bowl? What was he thinking? What did he expect to happen? I'll tell you what did happen. It was awful. We never heard from Careers again, not even once--just never showed, never e-mailed, was never again published. Sports at least tried to read it, but after 50 pages was so confused he gave it to his dog, A-Rod, to chew on. Even the Review section admitted that she while she'd struggled all the way through it, she wasn't quite sure what had happened to the characters. And News? News went on an absolute tirade of profanity--smashed a wine glass, tried to stab Op-Ed with an olive pick; we almost called the NYPD beat reporter on him. Colm Fucking Toibin broke our fucking book club. The Golden Fucking Bowl. Jesus."

At that point, the WSJ will look up and realize that all the other papers are huddled over in the corner by the Post, watching him get a new high score on Candy Crush. (Except the Observer, who is already passed out.)

Monday, May 11, 2015


When this post appears, if all is going well, I'll be in the air on my way to a week of publicity calls in New York, having just spent the weekend muttering to myself on my couch in an attempt to hammer the outlines of presentations for 50 or so books into my head.

Accompanying me on the flight will be Thomas Kunkel's new biography of Joseph Mitchell, A Man in Profile. Starting a trip with a book you can count on is essential, and I have it on good authority--that of the book's manuscript editor, Benjamin Dreyer--that this one is excellent.

Knowing I could read it on the plane kept me from doing more than dip into it last week, but I did happen across one bit that I'll share. It's from a letter Mitchell sent a fan in 1993 who wrote him to praise Up in the Old Hotel:
Your letter is one of the first I am really answering because it has meant so much to me. If you remember, in your letter you said you had thought of writing to me about missing my stories in The New Yorker but had decided not to do so until you read in the Author’s Note of my book that graveyard humor exemplified the cast of my mind—"so," you continued in your letter, "you will appreciate this: I thought you were dead." Well, Mrs. Edwards, I don’t know why, but that delighted me. It filled me with cheerfulness. I keep the letter in the tray drawer of my desk and anytime one of those strange, sudden attacks of depression that many of us have hits me, I get it out and reread it, and it never fails to cheer me up.
A good way to start the week, I think. And a good way to start pining for a Joseph Mitchell letters collection . . .

(Oh, and never you worry: yes, I did pack a volume of A Dance to the Music of Time as well. Best to be doubly prepared.)

Friday, May 08, 2015

Byways of the Reformation, courtesy of Diarmaid MacCulloch

Watching the excellent BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall filled me with a desire to read the novels again--which, let's be clear, would be absurd. As Hussein Haddaway says in the introduction to his translation of the Arabian Nights, "There are other fair creatures in the world." I do not need to read Wolf Hall a fourth time right now.

To quell that desire, I decided instead to pull down from the shelf Diarmaid MacCulloch's 700-page history of the Reformation. I read about 100 pages of it back in 2005, when it was published in paperback, but other books intervened, and onto the shelf it went. Now, however, with my head full of power politics and protestant fervor, I dove back in. And I'm glad I did. On the one hand, there's no way I need to know as much about the Reformation as MacCulloch is telling me. I'm quickly going to forget 90% of the names, places, and events. But the vast sweep of it will stay, and, because MacCulloch is a good storyteller, attached to it will be memorable moments, ideas, and people.

I've got two to share tonight. First, a thumbnail sketch of Martin Luther's wife, Katharina von Bora, "an aristocratic former Cistercian nun," whom he married when he was forty-two and already an established figure:
Luther had at first somewhat unromantic intentions to give a good home to one of several destitute former nuns in return for being properly looked after, but Katharina turned out to be a high-spirited, long-suffering and extremely capable partner, who brought him much happiness and much-loved children. She presided over a famously convivial atmosphere at the Luther family dinner table, usually with an admiring student or two ready to take down every passing thought or joke of Dr Luther. . . . The result of Katie's careful budgeting and generous catering can be seen in the marked contrast between the lean austere friar of Luther's first portraits and the married reformer who inspired the proverb "as fat as Martin Luther."
I'm always interested by the capable people who hold the mooring lines of an ambitious, self-regarding, self-involved partner. What must Katie have been like? How did she claim her territory and power within the relationship in its early days? How did she deal with Luther's prominence, outspokenness, and fiery temper? MacCulloch's description runs but a few sentences, yet it's hard not to feel as if in some way you actually know Katie after you read it.

The second passage follows the account of a complicated and bizarre series of events in Munster in 1534. A group of Anabaptists seized the city and were soon besieged by Catholic forces led by Bishop von Waldeck. A "charismatic former tailor," Dutchman Jan Beukels, assumed leadership of the besieged forces, taking on the name John of Leiden and professing two aims: "to usher in the Last Days," and " to sustain the urgent needs of a crowded city in military crisis." Beukels redistributed property for communal use and attempted to mount a defense, but it was of no use. After about four months, the Anabaptists were betrayed from within and the Bishop's forces were let inside the walls. Public executions, "unsurprisingly exercises in exemplary sadism," were carried out on Beukels and his two leading supporters. At that point in the story, MacCulloch offers an aside that will, I think, pique the interest of any engaged city dweller:
A vigilant visitor to Munster today finds . . . reminders: the city churches reveal plenty of evidence of the city's medieval wealth, but a marked lack of pre-1534 furnishings--no stained glass, no tombs. Evidently the Anabaptists, trapped in the besieged city, had ample time to eliminate everything that they hated. A poignant discovery in the 1890s was a series of fragments of a beautiful fourteenth-century font, recovered from inside the rubble of one of the city wall towers; it can be identified as having come from the Benedictine abbey church known as the Uberwasserkirche, and it was evidently smashed up and contemptuously redeployed by the defenders in a symbolic humiliation of infant baptism. Likewise, one of the distinctive features of Munster churches is the amount of mid-sixteenth-century art: the product of a frantic effort of refurnishing. The priority of the triumphant besiegers was to edit the immediate past and remember only what they needed to.
I love the detective work on display there: cities will tell us stories, if we just ask the right questions about what we're seeing and why it is the way it is.