20th century

Summer Reading: The Enchanted April

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922) is really a spring book, about awakenings and new beginnings, with pages full of flowers and April showers. However it also has the atmosphere of summer holidays; of the seaside, of white dresses and warm breezes and hours spent lying in the shade. As a summer break read it is ideal, for it focuses on the space for self reflection and personal change that a good holiday can provide.

In the first chapter Mrs. Wilkins discovers an advertisement in The Times, “To Those who Appreciate Wistaria* and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.” She soon convinces three other women to join her on a month long holiday, escaping husbands, would-be-lovers and dreary London weather.

I learnt of The Enchanted April by way of the film made in 1991, a classic in its own right, which I had the pleasure of watching a few years back. The film is quite true to the book, and manages to capture the wonderful light of San Salvatore, as well as perfectly casting the lead characters (except perhaps Lady Caroline.) What it cannot hope to replicate though, is the charm of von Arnim’s prose, her gentle wit and the fact that most of the text is spent exploring the characters’ meditations, largely about themselves. It is not a story in which much happens externally; a few visitors arrive at the castle, some furniture is moved, there is a disagreement over the catering expenses. Whenever it looks as though something truly dramatic might happen it is always averted, usually thanks to Lady Caroline – “But he was reckoning without Scrap”! This subverts our narrative expectations with subtle humour, setting up the conditions for melodrama and then sorting everything out in a polite English manner before it becomes a problem.

From all of the above you might think this a dull, conservative sort of book and nothing could be further from the truth. Each of the women is escaping from something: an inattentive husband, excessive good-works, a surplus of attention or the memories of her glory days – and each, through a process of self reflection and sun bathing, comes to personal realisation and acts upon it. In the second half of the book their reverie is disturbed by the arrival of male guests and each of these is a wonderfully well realised character in himself. I loved von Arnim’s ability to create good outcomes from selfish motivations, showing that some people do the right thing for the wrong reasons, but this can still facilitate happiness.

The Enchanted April is a gentle book, and would probably make less of an impact if it were published today, but it is quietly revolutionary. The women each claim an independence, even within their existing relationships. Many early 20th century classics are about broken marriages, affairs and women fighting to free themselves from restrictive circumstances. Elizabeth von Arnim does something else, she works inner transformations and expresses the longings of most people as fairly simple, and happiness as something that can be found by looking at the world in a different, perhaps Italian, light.

Skye M. W.

Image: Roses, Peder Severin Krøyer, 1893 (I could live in this painting.)

*What a pity it is we don’t commonly use the spelling ‘wistaria.’ Is there any prettier name for a flower than wistaria? Wisteria sounds too much like hysteria and that is all wrong.

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Summer Reading: Cider With Rosie

There are some books that are entirely seasonal, and cannot be fully appreciated at the wrong time of year. In summer I find myself craving desert fables, Mediterranean travelogues and heady, green poetic prose – to this later category belongs Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee, first published in 1959. I picked up my copy (above) from a charity shop last year, and put off reading it until the weather was warm and sultry. It’s an out-of-doors sort of book, for reading on uncut lawns beneath wilting, over-blown roses.

Cider With Rosie is a memoir, a rural elegy of an early 20th century childhood in a semi-isolated village where modernity had yet to catch on. Laurie Lee is a poet writing prose, always trying to break away from the form. The first chapter is some of the most languid and sensuous stuff I’ve ever read:

Here I discovered water — a very different element from the green crawling scum that stank in the garden tub. You could pump it in pure blue gulps out of the ground, you could swing on the pump handle and it came out sparkling like liquid sky. And it broke and ran and shone on the tiled floor, or quivered in a jug, or weighted your clothes with cold.

The tone changes as each chapter reveals a vignette of some aspect of Cotswold’s life; vivid portraits of local characters, village gatherings as seen through the eyes of a young boy, native folklore and darker happenings, all heavily mythologised.

Lee’s own character is only a vague presence, a spectator through which the scenery is experienced. He writes distinctly of youthful memories, his description of summer brought me physically back to my own out-of-doors childhood, despite the different climate and landscape:

…of sweat running down the legs; of boiling potatoes on bramble fires, of flames glass-blue in the sun; of lying naked in the hill-cold stream; begging pennies for bottles of pop; of girls’ bare arms and unripe cherries, green apples and liquid walnuts; of fights and falls and new-scabbed knees, sobbing pursuits and flights; of picnics high up in the crumbling quarries, of butter running like oil…

However it is, without doubt, a boys’ book, a masculine perspective, and all of Lee’s women are of some other species, separate and remote. The chapter which receives the most praise and inspired the title I found underwhelming. Rosie is nothing but a cameo, a stand-in for Eve, an archetype, never a person. The adolescent boys are predatory and disturbing under the veil of ignorance he casts over them.

Despite this, the whole book is dominated by one incredible woman who feels more three-dimensional, sympathetic and real than Lee himself; his mother, Annie Lee. The chapter dedicated to her is easily the best and she wanders through the rest of the book with armloads of wildflowers, holding up buses, losing her corset under the piano and reciting poetry on cross-country walks. She is an Anne Shirley; an indomitable, scattered, romantic figure who seems to possess an endless supply of optimism and hope. I could relate to her compassionately, but never pity her despite her circumstances, her courage and loyalty forbade it.

I fear Cider With Rosie is a slightly dated classic now, not because it achieves its aim of preserving a slice of rural history, but because the Arcadian vision of England it presents is out of fashion, and it fails modern standards of discrimination, but I feel it is still worth reading for the beauty of its prose, especially on a hot summer’s day.

Skye M. W.

 

Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner

Apart from the element of piety, court life at Brocéliande was much the same as in other Kingdoms. There were fashions of the moment — collecting butterflies, determining the pitch of birdsongs, table-turning, cat races, purifying the language, building card castles. There were expeditions to the coast to watch shipwrecks, summer picnics in the forest, deer hunts with the Royal Pack of Werewolves.

Few books that I’ve desired to read have been as difficult to track down as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1977 anthology, Kingdoms of Elfin. There isn’t a single copy in the Australian library system, no local booksellers had heard of it, it is currently out of print and the Reid library, which has everything else of STW’s including her letters and diaries, does not have it. I have known of the book’s existence for years, since I first discovered The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (Manguel & Guadalupi 1980) in which there is a map of the Kingdoms. Being reminded of it by a reference in a journal article, I decided it was about time to find it and managed to order a copy (a UK first edition) through a bookseller in New Zealand. I have to admit that its very obscurity attracted me to it, as I love to discover under-appreciated treasures.

Kingdoms of Elfin is certainly a treasure. A collection of short stories previously published in The New Yorker, about various fairy courts throughout Europe and Asia, it is a forgotten gem of 20th century fantasy. Unlike many collections of folk tales, or stories based on fairy lore (such as Susanna Clarke’s brilliant The Ladies of Grace Adieu, 2006) these tales do not commonly feature human protagonists who encounter fairies* but rather focus on elfin protagonists who, in some way, revolt against the culture and expectations of the courts they inhabit. The significance of this cannot be overstated, not only are the majority of STW’s characters inhuman, they are entirely other, with an alien set of values, they appear amoral from a human perspective. In doing this, STW captures not only the amorality traditionally associated with ‘the fair folk’ but manages to create characters that are eccentric outsiders within a culture already incompatible with our own. Through the Kingdoms (which are actually Queendoms) she is able to highlight the cruelties and vanities of humanity, particularly the decadent courts of early modern Europe. The shocking traditions of the elfin monarchies are made even more so when compared to their historical counterparts.

Sylvia Townsend Warner also proves herself, through this collection, an expert scholar of the fairy tradition in both literature and folklore. You will meet Robert Kirk, Thomas the Rhymer and James Hogg (wonderfully oblivious) wandering through the pages, and find allusions to Shakespeare, Aristophanes (“Of all the mortal writers, Aristophanes is nearest the Elfin mind”) and Partonope of Blois. Of particular interest are her choice of names, and I highly recommend looking up any that seem unfamiliar or original, as by doing so I uncovered several obscure sources which have been added to my own reading list! STW has clearly read her Katherine M. Briggs cover to cover, but rather than retelling old folk tales she invents new ones. In each the reader feels privileged to a unique view and access to the elfin world, from within that world, rather than from the traditional perspective of a human outsider.

The prose itself is crisp and lyrical; “She was a very pretty shade of green- a pure delicate tint, such as might have been cast on a white eggshell by the sun shining through the young foliage of a beech tree. Her hair, brows and lashes were of a darker shade; her lashes lay on her green cheek like a miniature fern frond… The smell, of course, was that smell of elderflowers. This passage made me think immediately of Randolph Stow’s The Girl Green as Elderflower (1980) and I can’t help but wonder if he read it. The stories also feature STW’s trademark wit; “‘Heresy,’ said Sir Bodach obligingly, ‘Is to believe in what other people don’t believe in. It is an offence against society.’”  But what may lead to some confusion and frustration, to anyone not familiar with her rather individual style, is the complete lack of regard for narrative convention. STW starts a new story, quite often, with a description of the particular ‘kingdom’ then introduces one or two characters, any of whom may turn out to be the protagonist, or may die before the protagonist even appears. She ends the story when she seems to grow tired of it, with little concern for denouement. Somehow, this flippancy adds to the elfin nature of the texts, as the fairy disregard for human morals is transferred onto our idea of how a story should be told. It is characteristic of STW in both life and writing, that she always seems to have done exactly as she pleased, and become a master of breaking the ‘rules.’

This style of narrative may explain, in part, why this book has fallen out of print and circulation. I would further suggest that, although I have called it a fantasy, Kingdoms is not something that could be marketed to a genre readership in the wake of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings. It fits instead, into that other vein of 20th century fantastic fiction that includes the likes of Hope Mirrlees, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen (her uncle by marriage) and the writers of Weird Fiction, although despite its moments of horror, I would not place it in that sub genre. Kingdoms of Elfin was the last of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s prose to be published during her lifetime, but it was a wonderful introduction to her work, which I will continue to pursue and write about with great interest.

Skye M. W.

Yule, 2015

*With the exception of Foxcastle, which follows this motif, and The One and The Other which is the tale of a human changeling.

A brief biography and bibliography of STW’s work can be found at The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society.

Image: Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, William Blake, c. 1786

 

The Essays of Hope Mirrlees

After recently developing nothing short of an addiction to Sylvia Townsend Warner (a proper post on her forthcoming), I was reminded of another obscure talent of the early 20th century who moved on the periphery of more famous literary circles – Hope Mirrlees. I came to Mirrlees as most do, through her extraordinary work of pre-Inklings fantasy, Lud-in-the-Mist. I went on to read her poetry which has received some praise lately (particularly Paris) and then discovered, buried at the back of her collected poems,¹ six essays.

The majority of the essays were originally published in The Nation & Athenaeum. They cover diverse topics ranging from literary criticism, to travelogues, history and religion and show a lively, broadly educated mind able to make nimble observations and develop them into a personal philosophy that is somehow both conservative and subversive. Mirrlees makes brilliant little similes and turns everyday experiences into clever anecdotes. She is able to pull, from a vast memory of literature, disparate threads with such deftness and weave them in so neatly that it never seems mere name-dropping, but more like sitting in on a dinner conversation between herself and everyone she has ever read (Mirrlees would doubtless have a far better metaphor for this!)

As one of the few published articles on Mirrlees states: “she emerges as a travelling modernist in a broad sense, moving across overlapping coteries, from the intellectual circles of Cambridge to literary London and lesbian Paris. Elegantly dressed, relatively wealthy, accomplished in languages and the classics, she can be seen as a kind of intellectual flâneuse, working across literary genres, exploring and commenting on both the past and the present, never lingering long enough to be easily identified with a single group. “² The essays certainly give credence to this intriguing persona.

Some Aspects of the Art of Aleksey Mikhailovich Remizov is ostensibly an exploration of that author’s style, with a good deal of praise. However it quickly becomes a game of comparisons, with such tangents as the real meaning of ‘Shakespearian’ and the nature of Russian patriotism. She is at her best when accidentally poetic, “But for Russians in exile? All Moscow is in flower, and everything is so sweet that bees swarm on the tower of Ivan the Great.” The essay conveys a deep familiarity with the breadth of English literature and concludes with several insights into the nature of reading and writing.

Listening in to the Past muses on the ways in which we receive history, through the metaphor of a wireless tuned in to distant voices, catching fragments of conversation without answers. She argues that it is in the records of law, and not in literature, that we find honest voices, but I would disagree and say that it is both. To (clumsily) carry her metaphor; you might hear both the news and the song of the day on the wireless, and both will tell you something about when and where you are.

An Earthly Paradise is an amusing account of her stay in a Paris hotel, where she waxes lyrical about the library. She inserts little declarations which I think, reflect both her privilege and character: “And Life, if you make your demands with a pistol to her head, is apt to stand and deliver.” I liked best her clever descriptions, stories in themselves, “One was apt to see nuns in that street, on an average, say of two a week; and just as one begins to suspect by slow degrees that somewhere in one’s garden is concealed a nest of insects, so in time we came to realise that the grim taciturn buildings that lined one side of the street were all of them contraband nunneries.”

The Religion of Women would, I think, give gender studies scholars a bit of trouble. It begins with an unflattering examination of middle aged women (of the middle class in particular), but ends, after an enchanting musing on the lack of seasons on Jupiter and how that might effect poetry, in a rather more dolefully feminist tone, “One of the duties of slaves is to mourn their master, and women are the slaves of Time.”

Gothic Dreams investigates the development and influence of Gothic fiction. Mirrlees connects the Gothic to a negative form of medievalism and fear of Catholic superstition. It brought to mind Max Weber’s theory of disenchantment and the later witchcraft trials. She discusses the dreamlike quality of Gothic romance and points out the wide influence of writers like Radcliffe who, “though undoubtedly a goose” was read by far more than the Catherine Morlands of her time.

By far the best of the essays though, is Bedside Books. It begins by exploring the sort of books suitable for bedtime reading (“Above all, they must not be dull”) with a wry humour and lyricism that will warm the hearts of book lovers; “To extract the last drop of sweetness from this delightful hour, we must be conscious of our bed as well as of our book, and a detective story emphasises the conceit that our bed is a hare’s form, a warm secret refuge from hunters and hounds – while outside our sanctuary there is terror and flight, and the surging enemy, mute and terrible.” This introduction does not prepare the reader at all for the rest of the essay, except perhaps, by acting as a lullaby itself – which is a whirlwind  tour through Mirrlee’s own favourites, with which she has an intimate familiarity – imagining Lucretius in bed reading Epicurus for example. She extols Burton, “The A-na-tomy of Me-lan-choly. The syllables are made of poppy and mandragora” and gets carried away with Homer. In this essay, even more than the others, we are exposed to the full power of her agile intelligence and also her whimsical and mischievous creativity – she somehow gets in a parrot.

It has been suggested that Mirrlees did not publish more because her financial independence gave her no need earn a living by her letters. If, however, she is right in that “the measure of a writer’s greatness is the disparity between the things he says and the things he knows” I’m left wondering how very much she knew, compared to how sadly little she wrote. She certainly manages to say a great deal in her few short essays.

Skye M. W.

La Quema del Diablo, 2015

¹ Mirrlees, H., and Parmar, S., Collected Poems. New York, Carcanet, 2011. All direct quotes are taken from this edition.

² Boyde, M., “The poet and the ghosts are walking the streets: Hope Mirrlees-Life and Poetry”, Hecate, 35(1), 29-41, p. 321, 2009. – I haven’t given much biographical information on Mirrlees, but Boyde gives a good account as does Parmar.