Friday, May 30, 2014

Sensational 19th-century images of women under duress

I loved this Flavorwire feature on lavish period illustrations for books by Émile Zola, Eugene Sue, and Victor Hugo. Hugo is one of the authors featured in Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France's Belle Époque, while you can sample fellow French writer Honoré de Balzac's La Comédie Humaine series with At the Sign of the Cat and Racket: The Comedy of Human Life, Volume VII. Illustrations for Balzac's works have never been lacking, including the famous Granville image of the author surrounded by his characters.
David Kennedy Jones commented in the New York Times Magazine that Hustvedt's book exposes at "a country that had for generations channeled its anxieties and vices through the sensationalized form of the hysterical female."
Equally lurid in its own way is Asti Hustvedt's Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, which the Telegraph calls "thoughtful and engrossing." Kathryn Harrison wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "readers who can’t identify Jean-Martin Charcot as the name of the French neurologist whose 19th-century experiments with hypnosis influenced Sigmund Freud’s theory of neurosis may yet recognize the work he conducted at the Saltpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Photographs and illustrations of Charcot’s patients, all women suffering hysteria, remain in currency today, 140 years after they were made, if more as curiosities than as clinically valuable documents.... If [Charcot's] therapies were not purposefully misogynistic, they were imposed, Hust­vedt shows, by 'healthy, educated and bourgeois' male doctors on 'diseased, uneducated and lower-class' women who had been committed, often for life, to a warehouse for not only the mad but also the homeless, the pregnant and unwed, and others who refused to abide by the conventions of a stifling society — in other words, the same disenfranchised women who, centuries earlier, might have been tried and executed as witches."
Writes The Guardian: "One side-show, in a book already packed with wonders, is the story of Jean Avril (later to be painted by Toulouse-Lautrec) who was an inmate at Salpêtrière, and was, as she proudly said, '"among the great stars of hysteria.'  She described their petty rivalries and how they competed for lead parts in Charcot's demonstrations. Even when Charcot was alive, some suspected Blanche was performing a script authored by the doctor himself; others felt she was a fraud, deceiving everyone including Charcot. In fact, he developed his understanding of the illness with her; his interest in hysteria coincided with her arrival at the hospital as a very disturbed young women. In an absurd parody of the doctor-patient relationship, Charcot's patients were not there to be cured, but to improve their ability to be ill: to learn how to become better hysterics."

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dodie Smith: Beyond '101 Dalmations'

Dodie Smith is the author of the wonderful children's book The Hundred and One Dalmatians as well as the wonderful adult, cult novel I Capture the Castle (also made into a wonderful film). Mental Floss recently featured her Dalmations follow-up The Starlight Barking in a slideshow on little-known book sequels.
When I saw we were carrying uniform edition paperbacks of some of her other adult novels, I jumped right on them. I've read The Town in Bloom and thoroughly enjoyed it. The portrait of a young women's theatrical boarding house is reminiscent of the Hollywood film Stage Door, and the candor re sexual mores of the '60s is refreshingly frank. (Smith also was a playwright of note and wrote several screenplays as well as a series of memoirs.) It Ends with Revelations has more theater doings (as well as a sojourn in the English countryside) while The New Moon with the Old looks to have crew of young people with quite a bit of gumption in the face of a sudden turn of fortune.
If you'd like to see if Dodie Smith's prose is up your alley, here's a lengthy excerpt from I Capture the Castle. My researches also turned up this cat-centric title, which I'll have to be on the lookout for!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Enrique Granados: what he did for love

Growing up with a love of classical guitar music (and feeble attempts to play same) I was intrigued by a tidbit I recently discovered about Enrique Granados (1867–1916), a Spanish composer who features prominently in its repertoire.
We're all researching aspects of World War I in preparing a new Forum commemorating its 100th anniversary, and I found out that Granados died in the English Channel trying to save his wife after their boat was attacked by a German submarine.
Despite a morbid fear of water, Granados had taken his first ocean voyage to New York City for the 28 January 1916 premiere of his opera Goyescas. Based on the paintings of Goya, it originated as a suite for piano. The opera was supposed to have debuted in 1914, but the outbreak of World War I forced the cancellation of its European premiere.
While in the U.S., Granados recorded player piano music rolls for the Aeolian Company and performed a piano recital for President Woodrow Wilson. The delay incurred by accepting the recital invitation caused Granados to miss his boat back to Spain. He boarded a ship to England, where he caught the passenger ferry Sussex for Dieppe. On the way across the English Channel, the Sussex was torpedoed by a German U-boat, as part of the German World War I policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. In a failed attempt to save his wife Amparo, whom he saw at a distance thrashing in the water, Granados jumped out of his lifeboat and drowned. So sad!
For those of you lucky enough to be proficient on guitar or piano, we have the sheet music of Granados' Spanish Dance No. 5 ("Andaluza"). And below are interpretations on both instruments, with Granados himself on one of the aforementioned piano rolls.

Another master of Spanish music can be heard on this recording by Dame Moura Lympany, who performs Manuel de Falla's supremely evocative Nights in the Gardens of Spain.
You can take a sneak peek at some of the many offerings related to the upcoming Daedalus Books World War I Forum here. It will feature award-winning history titles, films, novels, and more. As usual, there will be quizzes, polls, videos, and links to interesting articles—as well as opportunities for discounts on our already low prices.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Comtesse de Segur's enchanting fairy tale illustrations

With so many libraries and other sources scanning gorgeous old books and putting them online, one can come across myriad treasures in the digital domain. Below are the fruits of one delving session: images from a lavishly illustrated volume of stories by the Comtesse de Segur.
You'll find more fairy tale magic here, including Philip Pullman and Carol Ann Duffy's new retellings of the Brothers Grimm, The Macmillan First Nursery Collection, and Gregory Macguire's What the Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Metropolitan Museum grants access to high-res images

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has put hundreds of high-resolution, copyright- free images from its collections online! Oh what a tzimmes I'm in! Looking at stuff like this is such a drug for me. I've barely recovered from the hours I've spent viewing and downloading beauties from the Getty collection (which I promise to share with you ere long).
Meanwhile, here is a sample image from the Met appropriate to the season: "Summer" (1935) by Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski). As with many of the images newly available, the painting is not currently on display in the museum. One can really examine artworks in detail this way—what a boon for researchers and art lovers!
And if you want to go the print route, we have a number of excellent art books from the Met on hand.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Outsider artist gets a place in the sun: "Mingering MIke" LP covers (plus Nonesuch at 50)

More than 100 works celebrating “Mingering Mike” and other avatars of his mystery man creator have been newly acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and are being prepared for an exhibition in 2015. Can boogying down at the White House be far behind? Here's how the MM phenomenon is described by his hometown paper, The Washington Post:
As a poor kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Mingering Mike dreamed of becoming a recording artist. In pursuit of that dream, he drew. In his late teens and 20s, he made album covers out of painted cardboard and discs with hand-drawn grooves that illustrated the story of a young man’s fantasy. He drew characters and sidekicks — “The Outsiders” and “Big D” — who sang with him on his “Capitol Records” and “Fake Records Inc.” labels….. His works illustrate much about African American culture in Washington at the height of the civil rights movement. Those nuances were woven into the fantasy, and for that, he has a real fan club, which includes international record collectors, musicians such as David Byrne and the Smithsonian Institution… In 2003, [Dori] Hadar, 38, a record collector and criminal investigator in Washington was scouring a flea market at RFK Stadium when he came across a collection of vibrant albums. Upon closer inspection, he realized all the albums were fakes made of cardboard. There were double albums, benefit albums, soundtracks to Kung Fu movies starring the superstar. The albums referenced each other, indicating a world of connections. Intrigued, Hadar bought the illustrated records for $2 apiece and went searching for the artist. Hadar tracked Mike down; he was living in the same neighborhood he grew up in. Mike had missed a payment on a storage space he was renting and the albums disappeared. Mike and Hadar became friends, and their story became myth.
Leery of being "outed," Mingering Mike's creator prefers to remain anonymous, but there's a pot of gold at the end of his fantasy's rainbow. Donors bought the collection for the Smithsonian, and he and Hadar are splitting the profits from that and other commercial offshoots. As Mingering Mike might put it, "Power to the people!"
As long as we're talking vinyl, let's pause a moment to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch Records. As John Zech wrote in Composer's Datebook, "Nonesuch was a wildly eclectic label in the days of vinyl LPs. Where else could you hear Metropolitan opera soprano Martino Arroyo singing Karlheinz Stockhausen or Baroque music scholar Joshua Rifkin playing Scott Joplin? By the age of compact discs, with Bob Hurwitz in charge, Nonesuch was home base for performers like Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet and composers like John Adams and Philip Glass." I had a slew of Nonesuch LPs back in the day, including the Joplin and lots of baroque music (the covers were wonderful) As Zech implies, Nonesuch is still eclectic and still going strong. Witness our current offerings of CDs by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell (below), Nickel Creek, Joshua Redman, and others … check them out!
Love "outsider" art? Have a look at Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940–1980. More American folk/outsider art can be found, curiously enough, in this book from a British museum's collection.

Monday, May 19, 2014

'Sonata Mulattica'—ode to an obscure genius, friend and rival to Beethoven

Handsome, personable, and a child prodigy, violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1778–1860) was the son of a Polish-German mother and an Afro-Caribbean father. His life and times are reborn in Rita Dove's Sonata Mulattica, a collection of poems subtitled “A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play.” The book careens around the musical capitals of Europe, as composers and musicians of the time were wont (and often forced) to do.
The crux of Bridgetower's posthumous fame comes from his friendship with Beethoven, who dedicated his Opus 47 to him as “Sonata Mulattica.” The two colleagues performed the daunting piece publicly for the first time in Vienna in 1803, with Beethoven on piano and Bridgetower on violin. Beethoven, however, got into a snit about a woman they were both interested in, and there went the dedication, as well as the friendship. By the time it was published, in 1805, it was dubbed the “Kreutzer” Sonata and dedicated to Rudolphe Kreutzer. Ironically, the French violinist pronounced it  unplayable, and never performed it.
The poet speaks of Beethoven's "dismal chunk" of a face, elsewhere likening him to Rumpelstiltskin.
“The dramatic tension of Sonata Mulattica is clearly between Beethoven—his tempestuous nature exacerbated by his deafness—and Bridgetower” wrote Paula Woods in the Los Angeles Times. “Ten years younger than Beethoven, Bridgetower's background includes the childhood trauma of being sold off to the Prince of Wales by his greedy father, virtuoso performances in numerous resort towns and theaters in England and Germany and a young man's lust for the opposite sex. The men's connection through the violin sonata is told with a sensuality that borders on the erotic, uniting them as kindred spirits even as their bond belies the truth about their class differences or Beethoven's ultimate power to undo Bridgetower's promising career with a mere stroke of his pen. Sonata Mulattica brims with passion for the music, the era and its major and minor characters…. Dove's masterful collection illuminates the life of a musical genius who might have been lost forever in the braying cacophony of our celebrity-driven times.”
Besides reading like a novel, the book carries off the coup of evoking the experiences and sensations of listening to music.  As in the following passage (from the young Bridgewater's point of view):
But oh the witchery of orchestral strings—
the full body of sound gathering you in,
as to a mother's bosom
or a haystack at sunset,
to plunge into
that stinging embrace...
Or consider the competing agendas of “Tafelmusik (2)”
Style and flattery will get you the life

you deserve: one table setting after another,

beer sand cards in the park at Raneleigh,

some lame poet enthusing over

the pale moon under the pricking stars

while Lord Petersham glimpses himself

in the sheen of his boots and smiles

as he pulls out the snuffbox for this very day.

At least the unnamed gentleman who

each evening squires a different doll

from his own bisque collection

knows that that’s all he wants.

Does all that powder make them happier?

There’s the Duchess of Devonshire, snooting past

with her lap dog, as big a yawn as ever.

Look at sly little Miss Wilson Lady prattling on;

she’s absolutely smitten with the divertimento!

Smitten: as if this were a love affair

and she needs to be hit between the eyes

to actually feel something. Divertimenti

do not smite: only God does.

Here’s a modest proposal: Shut your eyes

for five minutes and listen. Easy music,

yet it demonstrates respectable employment

of chordal modulation and is utterly

capable of transporting a weary soul

out of this frenzy and onto the plain

of perfect comprehension—and there is

your bliss, flowing beneath all the fretting;

there is your ecstasy & ruin & entitlement,

all the religion you’ll ever need.

“Papa” Haydn pops up here and there; most notably in this rueful poem:
Haydn Leaves London
August 1795
I work too slowly for their appetites.
I am a plow horse, not a steed; and though
the plow horse cultivates the very grain that gilds
their substantial guts, they will thrill to any chase,
lay down a tidy fortune and their good name
on the odds of a new upstart darling.                                               
The first trip, I took up Pleyel's unspoken dare
and promised a new piece every evening
for the length of the concert series. 
Intrigue fuels the coldest ambitions;
the daily newspapers thickened
with judgments on the drummed-up duel
between the maestro and his student of yore. 
What was I thinking?  I am old enough to value,
now and then, an evening spent with starlight—
not one twittering fan or lacy dewlap obscuring
my sidelong glance—yet I came back
to these noisome vapors, this fog-scalded moon,
fat and smoking, in its lonely dominion. 
The black Thames pushes on.  I close my eyes
and feel it, a bass string plucked at intervals,                        
dragging our bilge out to the turgid sea—
a drone that thrums the blood, that agitates
for more and more. …
...............................Well, it is done. 
I bore down for half a dozen occasions,
wrote a four-part canon to a faithful dog,
wheedled a few graceful tunes
from Salomon's orchestra, that bloated fraternity
of whines and whistles—and now I can return
to my drowsy Vienna, wreathed in green
and ever turning, turning just slowly enough
to keep the sun soft on her face.
[Hear Rita Dove read this poem here.]
The truly great cities are never self-conscious: 

They have their own music; they go about business.

London surges, Rome bubbles, Paris promenades; 

Dresden stands rigid, gazes skyward, afraid.

Vienna canters in a slowly tightening spiral.  

Golden facades line the avenues, ring after ring 

tracing a curve as tender and maddening

as a smile on the face of a beautiful rival.
You can't escape it; everywhere's a circle.

Feel your knees bend and straighten

as you focus each step.  Hum along with it;

succumb to the sway, enter the trance.

Ah, sweet scandal:  No one admits it, 

but we all know this dance.

Dove reads this poem here. She reads another poem from the book ("Ludwig van Beethoven Returns to Vienna") here.

Bridgetower spent much time in England, taking a music degree at Cambridge. Dove makes special use of the diaries of Charlotte Papendiek, a servant in the court of George III of Britain and the wife of musician, Christopher Papendiek, who took an great interest in Bridgetower, helping arrange concerts for him.
Dove's poetic recreation of Bridgetower's life was so inspiring to others that a feature-length documentary about him is nearing completion. Also called "Sonata Mulattica," it brings in the contemporary story of African-American violin virtuoso and composer Joshua Coyne.

Here is Dove at the 2009 Virginia Festival of the Book talking about the process of creating Sonata Mulattica. (At 4:20 she starts reading from it.)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Permission to do nothing

I resonated so deeply to Sven Birkerts' historical disquisition, in Lapham's Quarterly, on the beneficial nature of doing “nothing” in this day and age of incessant clicking, keying, binge-watching, and all-around overscheduling. Some of my life's happiest moments have been spent lying on my back watching the pattern of light through the beautifully rustling leaves of a tree in spring. Well worth reading in its entirety, here is the finale of his essay, “The Mother of Possibility.”
Who still idles? Sieving with the mind’s own Google I pull up a few names: the late W. G. Sebald, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson in her reverie-paced scenemaking, Nicholson Baker in The Anthologist…But finally there are few exemplars. Most contemporary prose, I find, agitates; it creates a caffeinated vibration that is all about competing stimuli and the many ways that the world overruns us. Idleness needs atmospheres of indolence to survive. It is an endangered condition that asks for a whole different climate of reading, one that is not about information, or self-betterment, or keeping up with the latest book-club flavor, but exists just for itself, idyllic, intransitive.
I recently heard a commencement speech by critic James Wood in which he lamented the loss of pungency from our lives—so much is now sanitized or hidden away from the public eye—and exhorted would-be writers to search deep in their imaginations for the primary details that animate prose and poetry. On a similar track, I wonder about childhood itself. I worry that in our zeal to plan out and fill up our children’s lives with lessons, play dates, CV-building activities we are stripping them of the chance to experience untrammeled idleness. The mind alert but not shunted along a set track, the impulses not pegged to any productivity. The motionless bobber, the hand trailing in the water, the shifting shapes of the clouds overhead. Idleness is the mother of possibility, which is as much as necessity the mother of inventiveness. Now that our technologies so adeptly bridge the old divide between industriousness and relaxation, work and play, either through oscillation or else a kind of merging, everything being merely digits put to different uses, we ought to ask if we aren’t selling off the site of our greatest possible happiness. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau. In idleness, the corollary maxim might run, is the salvaging of the inner life.
Don't miss this post on Eliot Porter's exquisite photographs of Thoreau's woods.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How well do you know your veggies? 23 quiz questions

I enjoyed perusing A Potted History of Vegetables: A Kitchen Cornucopia as much as I did its sister volume (A Potted History of Fruit), so I thought I would cobble together another quiz to test your knowledge of veggie arcana and lore. Many of the full-page, color plates in this lovely little volume of "dip-in trivia and essential facts" are from the Album Benary—vintage chromolithographs of vegetable varieties by Ernst Benary (1819-1893). Other images are drawn from the Collection du Règne Végétal compiled by Baron Joseph van Huerne (c. 1790-1820). True or false unless specified.
  1. Adding what to cooking water will keep cauliflower [Old English name "coleflower" or "cabbage flower"] from turning yellow? a) lemon juice, b) milk, c) either?
  2. Pumpkin seeds dating to 7000 BCE have been found in Mexican caves.
  3. A "walla walla" is a) a squash, b) an eggplant, c) an onion
  4. Carrots came to North America with Virginia colonists, who planted them in their kitchen gardens.
  5. A "grandpa admire" is a) a giant pumpkin, b) a very old looseleaf lettuce, c) a crookneck squash.
  6. The first type of eggplant to arrive in 16th-century English had small white fruits the size of hen's eggs; hence, the name.
  7. Onions were served to Ancient Egyptian priests to quash their libidos.
  8. Corn was introduced to the Americas by Christopher Columbus.
  9. Rhubarb leaves are poisonous.
  10. A marrow is a zucchini, but not all zucchinis are marrows.
  11. Corn can grow "as high as an elephant's eye" in 2 weeks.
  12.  The Greek word for fennel is marathon.
  13. Which mushroom is most nutritious, button, shitake, or portabello?
  14. What the heck is a mangel-wurzel? a) hybrid of beet and Swiss chard; b) a type of kohlrabi; c) a German potato cultivar
  15. In Russia, a pasternak denotes what vegetable? a) rutabaga; b) parsnip; c) turnip; d) yam
  16. What Hollywood legend was named Queen of the Artichoke by the town of Castroville, CA in 1947? a) Jane Russell; b) Marilyn Monroe; c) Kim Novak; d) Lucille Ball
  17. The Shakers were the first commercial producers of plant seeds in North America.
  18. Can you guess what was voted Britain's most unpopular vegetable?
  19. Asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, spinach, tomatoes, and zucchini are among the vegetables that provide more antioxidants when briefly boiled or steamed than when eaten raw.
  20. What salad vegetable was so popular with the Greeks that in 628 BCE they put an image of it on some of their coins?
  21. Generally speaking, the smaller the pepper, the hotter the taste.
  22. Most of potatoes' nutrients lie just below the skin, as well as the fiber.
  23. Sir Francis Drake was the first to bring back tomato seeds from the New World to Europe.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Introducing Angela Thirkell

"Her often caustic wit, her accurate and wickedly funny realisation of unforgettable characters, and her interpolation of an extraordinary range of references and allusions, ranging from Homeric similes through English literature from Shakespeare through Dickens (and of course Trollope) to her cousin Rudyard Kipling, historical episodes, nursery rhymes, laced with a sound knowledge of what everyday life was like, mean that one can read and re-read her books."—Angela Thirkell Society, UK. Portrait by John Collier, 1914
We currently have a rather spiffy set of uniform editions with lovely covers of novels by English writer Angela Margaret Thirkell (1890–1961). They're from a small publisher called Moyer Bell, and I've personally collected several of these handsome reissues in the past because I have long admired Moyer Bell's lists and trust their literary judgment. Daedalus is now offering a veritable bonanza of Thirkell, with Three Score and Ten, Miss Bunting, Enter Sir Robert, Jutland Cottage, High Rising, Happy Returns, The Duke's Daughter, and Private Enterprise.
Angela was the elder daughter of John William Mackail, a Scottish classical scholar and civil servant who was the Oxford professor of poetry from 1906 to 1911. Her mother was Margaret Burne-Jones, the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Her first husband was James Campbell McInnes, a professional singer. Born in 1912, their first son, Graham, became a diplomat and writer. Their second son was the novelist Colin MacInnes. In 1917, Angela divorced her husband for adultery, amidst great publicity. (Above: Angela Mackail as a child, by her grandfather, Sir Edward Burne-Jones.)
Thirkell with her sons in the garden at 4 Grace Street, Malvern, Melbourne
Angela next married George Lancelot Allnut Thirkell, an engineer originally from Tasmania, and in 1920 they sailed for Australia together with her sons. The lower-middle-class life in Melbourne they led there was not to her liking, however, so she finagled passage back to England, where she happily stayed single. "It's very peaceful with no husbands,'" she was quoted by the Observer in its "Sayings of the Week" column.
Money troubles led to the inception of her writing career, which took off with her second novel, High Rising (1933). She set most of her novels in the fictional Barsetshire, originally conjured up by Trollope. (The Duke's Daughter in particular engages with descendants of Trollope's Barsetshire characters.) Miss Bunting addressed changes in society wrought by World War II, as the title character, a governess, approaches middle age and wonders where her ambitions might take her with the world as she knew it turned upside down.
Another Barsetshire novel, Private Enterprise, is leavened by Thirkell's whimsical humor (as in "The Home For Stiff-Necked Clergy," "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Ancient Buildings," "Red Tape and Sealing Wax Office," and the "Ministry of General Interference").
The last of the Barsetshire novels, Three Score and Ten comprises an enjoyable reprise of the entire series. It was left unfinished by Thirkell at her death at 75 and was completed from extensive notes by her friend and fellow writer, C. A. Lejeune. Here's the précis of Happy Return (1952) by Amalia Angeloni Jacobucci of the Angela Thirkell Society (which obligingly provides summaries of her books):
The action takes place at a succession of social gatherings, dinner parties, teas, sherry hours, and a dance in the local pub reminiscent of the one in Austen's Emma. The retreat of the gentry continues, now however, buoyed up by the return of Mr. Churchill and "Us" to the government. Despite this, it gradually dawns that hard times do not disappear and an uneasy feeling that the past cannot be recaptured lurks in the background. We have our usual complement of requited and unrequited love. The marriage of Charles Belton and Clarissa Graham is finally brought about by the efforts of friends and relatives to the vast relief of the whole county. Grace Grantly (of Trollope's Grantlys) brings a much appreciated dowry to Lord Ludovic Lufton leaving Eric Swan mildly heartbroken. Minor characters of the whole "downstairs" portion of society continue to re-appear—take note of Edna and Doris Thatcher and their "children of shame", a delightfully un-PC characterization.
And I would have to give a very big "huzzah" for this appreciation of Thirkell by Verlyn Klinkenborg that appeared in the New York Times:
When I first came upon Thirkell, nearly 30 years ago, she seemed like a diverting minor writer. Minor now seems too slight a word to me for the purveyor of such major pleasures…. What interests Thirkell is people talking, and the nonsense they talk. It makes no difference who. It might be the chaotic English of a Mixo-Lydian refugee in a novel set during the war or the inane chatter of the beautiful Rose Fairweather, whose favorite adjectives are “dispiriting” and “shattering,” though she has never been dispirited or shattered. Or the effusive biographer George Knox who, in a fit of illness in the first of these Barsetshire novels, says to his friend, Mrs. Morland, “Even Wordsworth was more interesting that I am at this moment.”
These are novels full of what might be called applied literature, whole lifetimes of shared reading welling up allusively in conversation. The reader hears the constant sound of familiar authors passing back and forth behind the scenes, like servants heading from the kitchen to the dining room in great English houses. And yet the talk is wonderful because it is simply neighborhood gossip. The war encroaches on Barsetshire, but the gossip continues, against a broader, grimmer backdrop.
Thirkell has often been called nostalgic because she is describing a kind of life — English county life — that was vanishing even as her books were appearing. Yet there is nothing nostalgic or sentimental in her tone. She is brusque, judgmental, and also, somehow, tolerant, for without her tolerance these stories would never get off the ground. If she pokes fun at Miss Hampton and Miss Bent, a gay couple living in one of the Barsetshire villages, it is nothing compared to the fun they poke at everyone around them. For every Mr. Bissell — a schoolmaster fond of the word “Cappitleist” — there is a Mrs. Bissell, who is the soul of efficient goodness.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Shakespeare's mortal—and immortal—remains

I'm still soaking up the coverage in various media of the 450th birthday of the Bard (and wishing I'd be around for the big 500!). Our offerings on the man and his era continue in this Spotlight, which is well worth taking a look at.
Among Shakespeare's hundreds of word coinages is "bedazzled," which Katherina uses in The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, Scene V: "Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes, that have been so bedazzled with the sun that everything I look on seemeth green."
The Folio Society is preparing a lavish letterpress edition of the complete works by "the man who not only crafted the most translated, adapted and performed plays of all time, but who did so whilst creating such evocative phrases as ‘in my mind's eye’, ‘a sorry sight’ and ‘be-all and end-all’." The Guardian trotted out a creditable list of 10 novels inspired by Shakespeare, including a Ripley opus by the always spooky Patricia Highsmith.
Now to the rather sly-looking image that appears at the top of this post. The inscription on the back formerly read as follows: Shakespere / Born April 23=1564 / Died April 23-1616 / Aged 52 / This Likeness taken 1603 / Age at that time 39 ys.  This label was transcribed in 1909; today the text is not legible. It's called the "Sanders Portrait," and purportedly depicts our man William in the prime of his life. It was named for the person that owned (and perhaps painted) the image, John Sanders, whose family has had it for more than 400 years. (You can read about the work's history is fulsome detail here.)
In an April 28 New Yorker essay called "The Poet's Hand: Why Do We Still Search for Relics of the Bard?", Adam Gopnik wrote that all attempts at authentication thus far have not disproved the portrait's age and provenance per se. He does suggest that wishful thinking (or longing) may play a part in people's desire to behold vestiges of the great poet/playwright's mortal life. (He also discusses in detail a 16th-century dictionary that two rare book dealers believe was annotated by Shakespeare himself.)
Antony and Cleopatra by Anne Seymour Damer (bas relief)
Going off on a tangent as usual, I also found these rather wonderful illustrations from various plays. They were commissioned for a Shakespeare Gallery created by 18th-century engraver and publisher John Boydell, as well as for an illustrated edition of the plays. Joshua Reynolds' Puck (1789) is modeled after Parmigianino's Madonna with St. Zachary, the Magdalen, and St. John.
The scene from Act I of Hamlet is by Henry Fuseli, while the murder of the princes from Richard III (Act IV, Scene 3) was engraved by James Heath in 1791, after a painting by James Northcote.

If you enjoy speculation about the Bard, you won't want to miss Bardolatry or Brouhaha: Shakespeare's Identity Problem, an insanely popular post from the past by the very witty guest blogger Karen Mulder. Or you may wish to revisit this gallery of Shakespearean thespians.