I got Charles Finch's A Beautiful Blue Death from the library on the recommendation of someone on the DES list, who has enjoyed reading it and its sequels featuring "Victorian gentleman and armchair explorer" Charles Lenox. I read the first two chapters and set it down, not especially interested in picking it up again, but I did so a few weeks later in anticipation of the approaching due date, then before I'd got to chapter 6 I decided to give up altogether.
It seemed a little odd to me that the Victorian bachelor Lenox is such good friends with the lady who lives next door to him, a young widow (who addresses him in a note as "Dearest"), but I was prepared to accept this as an eccentricity. It was far more jarring that Lady Jane Grey (sic!) is referred to variously, within a single page, as "Lady Jane" and "Lady Grey". A woman either has the title in her own right, and thus is "Lady Jane", or marries into it, and thus is "Lady Grey", but never both.
Upon the discovery of the body of a maid, an apparent suicide, in the house of another friend of Lady Jane's, Lenox -- in addition to Scotland Yard -- is asked by her to investigate. They go down to the servants' quarters, which again made me stop. I have lost count of the times I've read about servants complaining that after a long day's work they have to trudge up x flights of stairs to their rooms in the attics, then down again x flights of stairs to light the fires before dawn -- and yet here the doctor says, "I know. In houses of this design the servants' bedrooms are always to the left, and the kitchen is always to the right". I assume that this rearrangement of basic London townhouse architecture will prove to be a plot point, since the window of the dead maid's room -- which she does not share with anyone else, by the way -- looks out onto the feet of pedestrians passing on the snowy pavement above, allowing for what the Victorians would surely call ingress and egress. The doctor examines the body, "unbuttoning her shirt as low as he decently can, to verify that the chest wasn't flushed either. He then lifts her shirt and prods her stomach, without any visible effect". Any self-respecting maid of 1865 would surely be wearing a corset, making access to her stomach pretty much impossible without removing it -- and "shirts" are men's wear, where a woman of any class would be wearing at some layer a chemise, a blouse, or at the very least a shirtwaist. A few pages later, the housekeeper enters, introducing herself as "Miss Harrison".
Now, I have every respect for anyone who can write a book and get it published, but I take very strong issue with someone who writes an historical novel and does not do the most basic research into the period. I'm not expecting it to sound like Middlemarch, but I don't want it to sound even 20th-century, either. It was but the work of a moment for me to confirm just now, in the first sentence on the first click into the first website upon Googling "victorian housekeeper" -- that housekeepers are always referred to as "Mrs." regardless of their marital status. Even if a website's facts are uncited, such a statement would at least give a writer something to verify in more magisterial sources. I also generally refrain here in this blog from writing about books I dislike, but I am honestly distressed that first the author considered this to be acceptable historical fiction, and then the editor did so as well, nor does it say much about the standards of either the Agatha Award committee or Library Journal, who wrote in their -- starred! -- review that it "vividly captures the essence of Victorian England".
Phew! enough of that.
I started re-reading Green Money for the latest DES list group read, but didn't get very far and dawdled rather a long time, and when I came to renew it, somebody else had requested it. Disappointing for me, of course, but on the other hand, it is encouraging to know that I am not the only one in this town who reads D.E. Stevenson. But I can still post an entry for it in my virtual D.E. Stevenson knitalong --
a late-thirties knitted blouse (from Fabulous Forties Fashions), very ladylike. Is the old-fashioned Elma really what she seems?
I admit that I have a weakness for literary criticism, and sometimes -- possibly rather too often -- enjoy reading about books as much as I enjoy reading the books themselves. I ended up, therefore, with both Maggie Lane's Understanding Austen and John Millan's What Matters in Jane Austen at the same time. They are not exactly alike, but they are certainly not dissimilar. Millan asks specific questions, though -- does age matter? why is the weather so important? which characters are never quoted directly, and why? -- whereas Lane explores abstract terms such as gentility, reason, elegance, and that Austen sine qua non, amiability. Both fascinating, in their different ways.
I was walking around at the bookstore and this caught my eye, Wendy Moore's How to Create the Perfect Wife, and I must say that although I was a bit put off, as I began to read then and there, by Moore's semi-fictional beginning -- "Spring sunshine warmed the ancient brick walls of the courtyards and chambers in London's legal quarter. The jet of water that leapt up thirty feet from the fountain in Fountain Court sparkled in the light before splashing noisily into its basin...." -- the fact that pretty much all of this bizarre story is true held me, like someone watching an accident from too far away to stop it, rapt from beginning to end. At the age of 21, Thomas Day, intelligent and grave, homely, smallpox-scarred, despairing of ever finding the perfect wife, decided to create one, by "adopting" an orphan child and bringing her up in Rousseau-like simplicity and idealism. Although the jacket blurb admits that Day's "peculiar experiment inevitably backfired", I read the book all in a rush to find out what happened. Who would want to marry such an awful person? even one who admits that he was, as Moore describes him, "like a looming black rain cloud"? "In one letter," she says, Day "referred to his own 'Want of Elegance in Table, Dress, Equipage' and admitted: 'I have a Kind of natural, rough [way] with my Words, my Actions, my Manner of Life'. But he was nevertheless determined not to do anything about it." There is so much in this book, about philosophy, friendship, child-rearing, education, progressive Enlightenment and hypocrisy, that what sounds -- and is -- barbaric makes for fascinating reading, if only as an object lesson in the dangers of taking a philosophy too far.
I picked up The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin at Costco a week or so ago, on something of a whim, mostly on the strength of the New York Times Book Review quote on the back, that Coplin's is "a voice resolute and fiercely poetic". Now, it is true that I have been many times disappointed that a reviewer's idea of some such voice and mine are not the same at all, but I did appreciate this book very much. I felt a bond with the grave and solitary Talmadge from the very start, and was swept along with him in the forces of life beyond his control. It is not a comfortable read, by any means, nor a quick one -- a very great deal happens in the story, but it curiously seems to move at an almost glacial pace -- but it is a haunting one.
Stylistically, it seems a little peculiar that there are no quotes used for dialogue, and I found that this gave everything a kind of distance, that, cumulatively, only adds to the melancholy with which the book is suffused, but it does not seem out of place. My bigger quibble with Coplin's prose -- because for the most part, as I say, I found the story very compelling -- is the sentence fragments. I understand why writers do this, I think -- feeling that it creates tension, conveys a sense of urgency, loss, poetic drama -- and in very small doses it does, but after a while it only throws me into English-teacher mode and makes me want to grab a red pencil. But by the time it got irritating here, I was too wrapped up in the story to stop.
I borrowed two audio-books for our long road trip last month -- we put off listening to them for a while, for some reason, but when we did, they were a huge success with all of us. The first was Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe read by Hugh Fraser -- the title would not have been one of my first choices of Christie's books, but the reading was absolutely first-rate. I like Hugh Fraser enormously anyway, I think he's made a wonderful Hastings, so that was all right -- but he has caught both David Suchet's Poirot voice and Philip Jackson's Japp uncannily well. If I hadn't known it was Hugh Fraser doing all of it, I would have been hard pressed to tell. Highly entertaining.
We haven't finished listening to this yet, since now that we are not trapped in the car for hours on end, it is difficult to all sit down together, but Christopher Timothy's reading of All Creatures Great and Small is also wonderful. I had tried to introduce Julia to James Herriot a few years ago, since she loves animals so much, but for some reason she did not get into it -- was it simply the weight of the compilation volume?! Perhaps it was only that the timing was wrong, for now we were howling with laughter from almost the very beginning -- "'Wass is dis you haff done?' he spluttered, his fat jowls quivering with rage 'You kom to my house under false pretences, you insult Fräulein Brompton, you trink my tea, you eat my food. Vat else you do, hein?'" I had these stories practically memorized years ago, and things came back to me like visiting a well-beloved place -- "'Ay, he's womiting, sorr, womiting bad'" -- "'The only tricky bit was getting him to swallow that bit about the parasitology'" -- "'Mr Herriot! Please come, Tricki's gone flop-bott again!'" -- oh, time for a re-read!