Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a novella by the Scottish author John Buchan, and was published in 1915. It's the first of the 'Richard Hannay Stories' which also include Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919), The Three Hostages (1924), and The Island of Sheep (1936), and it's the first John Buchan I've read: fortunately I liked it!

It's very short, only a hundred pages or so, and it tells the story of Richard Hannay, a Scot in London newly returned from Rhodesia in southern Africa. Mr. Hannay is bored:
I returned from the City about three o'clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn't get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing out in the sun. 'Richard Hannay', I kept telling myself, 'you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.'
Bored, and somewhat cynical - a good introduction to a spy novel, and this is a good, solid story more of the tradition of Sherlock Holmes than James Bond (who I can never bring myself to like despite best efforts). It begins with the murder of Franklin P. Scudder, an American spy who knows of a plot to assassinate the Greek Prime Minister Karolides and thus wreak havoc in Europe. Already Scudder has faked his own death and now must follow a ring of German spies, 'The Black Stone', who are attempting to discover British plans for the outbreak of World War I. Shortly after revealing his mission, Scudder is found dead.

James Edwin McConnell's illustration of
The Thirty-Nine Steps.
And so Richard must flee - he resolves to complete Scudder's mission but knows he will be a suspect for the murder. He heads for Galloway (in the south east Scotland) to hide, evade the police, to decipher the Scudder's notes that will reveal the full details of Scudder's plans, and discover the significance of the 'thirty-nine steps' that will lead him to a German spy.

It is very much of its time, but all the same it's a very high paced and energetic novella, and I had a similar experience with it as that with H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898) - I've no interest in reading the spy (or sci-fi) genre, or indeed adventure novels, which is partly what The Thirty-Nine Steps is, but this was a very entertaining read and I'm glad I've finally got to it. I've had this book for a long time, I bought it when I was very young and would buy any Penguin Classic, but somehow it got lost and I regretted it, but then I came across The Complete Richard Hannay Stories. I'm glad, these stories are definitely on my to-read pile now! 

Monday, 30 March 2015

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope.

Can You Forgive Her? is the first of Anthony Trollope's 'Palliser' or 'Parliamentary Novels' and was published in serial form between 1864-5, then in book form in 1865. This series includes:
  1. Can You Forgive Her? (1864-5)
  2. Phineas Finn (1867-8)
  3. The Eustace Diamonds (1871-3)
  4. Phineas Redux (1874)
  5. The Prime Minister (1875-6)
  6. The Duke's Children (1879-80)
One of the central characters in Can You Forgive Her? is Alice Vavasor who is unable to decide between her two suitors - John Grey or her cousin George Vavasor, Grey's absolute opposite. Trollope writes of her ponderings in the early part of the novel:
With all her doubts Alice never doubted her love for Mr. Grey. Nor did she doubt his character, nor his temper, nor his means. But she had gone on thinking of the matter till her mind had become filled with some undefined idea of the importance to her of her own life. What should a woman do with her life? There had arisen round her a flock of learned ladies asking that question, to whom it seems that the proper answer has never yet occurred. Fall in love, marry the man, have two children, and live happy ever afterwards. I maintain that answer has as much wisdom in it as any other that can be given;—or perhaps more. The advice contained in it cannot, perhaps, always be followed to the letter; but neither can the advice of the other kind, which is given by the flock of learned ladies who ask the question.
1923 edition of The Noble Jilt.
And this is the crux of the matter: "What should a woman do with her life?" To complicate matters, Alice was already engaged to John however she broke the engagement: she is a "jilt" (a "noble jilt" in fact, which was the title of Trollope's play written in 1850 but not published until 1923 - the prototype of Can You Forgive Her? with Margaret de Wynter as Alice and Count Upsel of Lindenbrock as John Grey). Breaking an engagement in the Victorian times was a serious business: an engagement was seen as legally binding, and the "jilted" party was entitled to sue. There are no such legal wranglings in Can You Forgive Her? but there is confusion, irritation, and some bad feeling.

As this goes on, the second strand to the novel develops - that of Alice's friend Lady Glencora, quite possibly the greatest Trollopian heroine I've yet come across, and her dismal marriage to Plantagenet Palliser. Their marriage was arranged, and both parties wealthy, although Lady Glencora is the wealthiest of the two. Plantagenet is a hard working parliamentarian with firm ambitions to be the next Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is so dour, and serious to the point of being a bore, but Lady Glencora has such vitality and charisma. Throughout the novel she regrets not marrying Burgo Fitzgerald, a man she was once engaged to: Lady Glencora, like Alice, was a "jilt".

Finally, in what is the least interesting strand of the story, we have Mrs. Greenow, a widow, has herself two suitors - Mr. Cheesacre and the pauper soldier Captain Bellfield. Now who will she choose?

Can You Forgive Her? is a great Trollope novel with a somewhat rocky start (I would advise anyone who begins it and finds it a chore to keep ploughing through the first 150 pages or so). But it picks up and gathers speed - it's an exciting read, dark at times and shocking (particularly regarding George Vavasor), and completely enthralling. When reading it I was so absorbed in the events, though I should admit that there were times when I read it a little too fast: that was honestly out of pure excitement - it's such a good book!

And there's a part of me that is relieved as well - I wanted to read the Palliser novels, and even if I hadn't have enjoyed this I would have persevered, but one of my happiest reading times was last year reading the Chronicles of Barsetshire and I now know I'm likely to have this again. Hurrah for Trollope!

To finish, some illustrations. The first set are by Phiz for the first instalment in 1864 -

And the second set are by C. R. Grant, Victor A. Searles, Thomas Blinks, Leslie W. Lee, Hy Leonard, and R. B. Morrison for the 1900 edition of The Writings of Anthony Trollope (vol. I, II, and III)
By C. R. Grant (Vol. I)
By Victor A. Searles (Vol. I)
By Thomas Blinks (Vol. I)
By R. B. Morrison (Vol. I)
By C. R. Grant (Vol. II)
By Leslie W. Lee (Vol. II)
By R. B. Morrison (Vol. II)
By Victor A. Searles (Vol. II)
By C. R. Grant (Vol. III)
By Leslie W. Lee (Vol. III)
By Victor A. Searles (Vol. III)
By Hy. Leonard (Vol. III)
Further Reading

Friday, 27 March 2015

The Patron and the Crocus by Virginia Woolf.

Crocuses in Kensington Gardens.
'The Patron and the Crocus' is a particularly funny essay from Virginia Woolf's The Common Reader: First Series (1925) and probably nothing could sum it up better than this quote from the second paragraph:
Thus the writer who has been moved by the sight of the first crocus in Kensington Gardens has, before he sets pen to paper, to choose from a crowd of competitors the particular patron who suits him best. It is futile to say, “Dismiss them all; think only of your crocus”, because writing is a method of communication; and the crocus is an imperfect crocus until it has been shared. The first man or the last may write for himself alone, but he is an exception and an unenviable one at that, and the gulls are welcome to his works if the gulls can read them.
Virginia Woolf by by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1926).
This is Woolf's essay on writing: not how to write, but on the importance of choosing one's patron. She begins,
Young men and women beginning to write are generally given the plausible but utterly impracticable advice to write what they have to write as shortly as possible, as clearly as possible, and without other thought in their minds except to say exactly what is in them. Nobody ever adds on these occasions the one thing needful: “And be sure you choose your patron wisely”, though that is the gist of the whole matter. For a book is always written for somebody to read, and, since the patron is not merely the paymaster, but also in a very subtle and insidious way the instigator and inspirer of what is written, it is of the utmost importance that he should be a desirable man.
Audience, for Woolf, is key if writing and art be about communication. She goes on to consider the chosen patrons or audiences of previous ages:
The Elizabethans, to speak roughly, chose the aristocracy to write for and the playhouse public. The eighteenth-century patron was a combination of coffee-house wit and Grub Street bookseller. In the nineteenth century the great writers wrote for the half-crown magazines and the leisured classes. And looking back and applauding the splendid results of these different alliances, it all seems enviably simple, and plain as a pikestaff compared with our own predicament — for whom should we write? For the present supply of patrons is of unexampled and bewildering variety. There is the daily Press, the weekly Press, the monthly Press; the English public and the American public; the bestseller public and the worst-seller public; the highbrow public and the red-blood public; all now organised self-conscious entities capable through their various mouthpieces of making their needs known and their approval or displeasure felt.
Virginia Woolf's desk by Gisèle Freund (1965)
There are some somewhat harsh thoughts shared on the failure of other writers to ascertain their patrons before writing: on Samuel Butler, George Meredith, and Henry James (all authors I quite like) she wrote:
Each despised the public; each desired a public; each failed to attain a public; and each wreaked his failure upon the public by a succession, gradually increasing in intensity, of angularities, obscurities, and affectations which no writer whose patron was his equal and friend would have thought it necessary to inflict. Their crocuses, in consequence, are tortured plants, beautiful and bright, but with something wry-necked about them, malformed, shrivelled on the one side, overblown on the other. A touch of the sun would have done them a world of good.
She then considers the role of the Press, "undoubtedly a great multiplier of crocuses", other contemporary writers and the impact of their "crocuses" on one's own, and the social mores of the time. Art, she argues, does not live in a vacuum. Simply writing is not enough.

This essay can be read online here, and I do very much recommend it - it is the typical funny, sharp, and informative essay one would expect from Virginia Woolf. Perfect!

And next week for the Deal Me In Challenge: Hedda Gabler by Henrick Ibsen.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Nibelungenlied.

The Nibelungenlied (Das Nibelungenlied), or The Song of the Nibelungs is a medieval epic German poem by an unknown author and composed around 1195 - 1205. I read the prose translation by A. T. Hatto (1965). It was, I found, remarkably difficult and I've been struggling for several days to write something! So I'm going to keep this brief and attempt an outline on the basic plot.

The story can be divided into two parts: Siegfried and Kriemhild, and Kriemhild's revenge. In the first chapter we meet Kriemhild, the sister of King Gunther, who dreams of a falcon killed by two eagles. Her mother Uta interprets this as her, Kriemhild's, future husband being violently murdered, and so Kriemhild resolves to stay unmarried. However Sigfried, the prince of Xanten, arrives to Worms where this part of the tale is set to woo Kriemhild, which is encouraged by King Gunther, who tells her of the various battles Siegfried has won. Gunther, meanwhile, wishes to marry Brünhild of Iceland however in order succeed he must defeat her in battle. This, he feels, is beyond him however Hagen, a vassal of Gunther, believes that Siegfried is capable of winning the battle, and if he does, Kriemhild will be "given" to him. The battle is won by trickery (for a period Brünhild was led to believe that Siegfried was Gunther's vassal), and Kriemhild is to marry Siegfried, and Brünhild to Gunther.

First page of the 1230 manuscript.
Naturally, Brünhild is furious at having been tricked (on more than one occasion, too) and so remains suspicious. When she and Kriemhild later watch Siegfried and Gunther at a tournament they both quarrel - neither of them are fully aware of the bargain the men struck. Previously Siegfried had taken from Brünhild her ring and girdle whilst attempting to "tame" Brünhild before Gunther could sleep with her (the significance of this, according to Hatto, is uncertain), and when Kriemhild and Brünhild continue their argument Kriemhild produces them as evidence that Brünhild slept with Siegfried before her husband Gunter. Though aware of the true facts, Gunther does not wish to appear unmanly at this accusation, and nor is he certain if Siegfried ever boasted that he had slept with Brünhild.

Hatto likens the powerful statement of revealing of the ring and girdle to when a judge places on his head a black cap. Hagen, the true vassal of King Gunther, is obliged to kill Siegfried (in a similar tale, the Scandinavian Thiðrekssaga, or Þiðrekssaga, once the ring has been produced there is no discussion over the truth and facts - murder is the only action to take). Siegfried, however, once soaked in dragon's blood is invulnerable, however Hagen tricks Kriemhild into stitching on to his cloak a patch marking the only place dragon's blood did not touch him. Hagen stages a war in which he stabs Siegfried with his spear, and the treasures Siegfried won before arriving at Worms - a cloak of invisibility and a sword are stolen by Hagen and thrown into the Rhine. Kriemhild vows revenge, which takes place in the second part of the story (I won't spoil it by revealing details!).

The Nibelungenlied is a magical and exciting tale and whilst I may have found it hard to follow it was still nonetheless entertaining. It is partly based upon the battle and defeat of Burgundians by Flavius Aëtius (a Roman general) in the 5th Century A.D., as well as a feud in the 6th Century between Merovingian queens Brunhilda and Fredegunde, and indeed other historical events. And, The Nibelungenlied went on to influence Richard Wagner's opera The Ring of the Nibelung  (Der Ring des Nibelungen, also known as the Ring Cycle; 1876) along with Thidreks saga and the Völsunga saga. Imagery from the tale was also used in Nazi propaganda, but (on a more cheerful note) it also influenced J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). The invisibility cloak belonging to J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter was perhaps also inspired either by Wagner or The Nibelungenlied. Finally, this opera of Wagner's was published in 1910 under the title The Rhinegold and The Valkyrie and illustrated by Arthur Rackham:

Also, here is Magda Bánrévy's 1933 painting Nibelungenlied:

And finally, how could I resist - Harry Potter's invisibility cloak:

Further Reading
The Nibelungenlied: A summary in English prose by D. L. Ashliman
A.T. Hatto's introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Nibelungenlied (1965)
Nibelungenlied | Wikipedia

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf: The 100 Year Anniversary Read-Along.

"The voyage had begun, and had begun happily with a soft blue sky, and a calm sea. The sense of untapped resources, things to say as yet unsaid, made the hour significant, so that in future years the entire journey perhaps would be represented by this one scene, with the sound of sirens hooting in the river the night before, somehow mixing in."
One hundred years ago today, Virginia Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out was published. It tells the story of Rachel Vinrace, who is travelling to South Africa on her father's ship - the Oxford University Press describes Rachel as launching "on a course of self-discovery in a modern version of the mythical voyage".

Woolf is best known for her novels such as Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931), but this, The Voyage Out, is the genesis of her literary odyssey and so is worthy of celebration! So I'm hosting this read-along, which will begin today, but when it will end is up to the reader. You may want to read it over the weekend, you may wish to spend a month with it: this is a casual read-along. Myself, I'm hoping to read some over the weekend and finish it over next week. I hope you can join in :)

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Trollope by Victoria Glendinning.

Victoria Glendinning's 1992 biography of Anthony Trollope is one of the biographies on my Classics Club list and I'd been looking forward to it, so when I saw Lisa's post on C. P. Snow's Trollope (in which she recommends Glendinning's Trollope) I was moved to read it. I've also read Glendinning's biographies on Vita Sackville West (Vita - The Life of Vita Sackville West, 1983) and Leonard Woolf (Leonard Woolf: A Biography, 2006, which I must re-read and write about some time soon) and I thoroughly enjoyed those, so I had high hopes for Trollope - and I was not disappointed!

Anthony Trollope, one of my favourite authors, was one of the most prolific writers of the 19th Century, writing 47 novels, many short stories and articles, travelogues, biographies (including biographies on William Makepeace Thackerary and Cicero), and two plays (I've included a list at the end of this post). His fans include two Conservative British Prime Ministers - Harold Macmillan (in office from 1957 to 1963; his favourite was apparently The Last Chronicle of Barset) and John Major (1990 - 1997), who wrote in his autobiography (John Major: The Autobiography, 1999) that Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux (two novels from the Palliser series) "were never far from hand". Furthermore, 50% of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet (1979 - 1990) were members of the Anthony Trollope Society, as were seven High Court Judges of the time. Margaret Thatcher herself was not a member, but wrote,
I certainly agree Anthony Trollope was one of the greatest English novelists... [source]
His novels were also enjoyed by Sir Alec Guinness, John Kenneth Galbraith, and the illustrator Edward Gorey. And don't let the Tories put you off - Thatcher was at least right on one thing (and one thing only, I dare say) - Anthony Trollope truly was one of the greatest English novelists of all time.

Anthony Trollope by Spy (Sir Leslie Ward)
A study for drawing published in Vanity Fair
5 April 1873
Glendinning's biography is divided into four parts: "Leaps in the Dark", "Into the Light", Midstream", and "Towards the Further Shore", then a conclusion. She begins with his early life (for some reason I'm never keen on biographies that start with the death of the subject): he was born two hundred years ago almost on 24th April 1815 to Thomas Anthony Trollope and Frances Trollope (author of Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832, and other works), and he had a sister, Cecilia, and three brothers, one of whom was Thomas Adolphus Trollope (author of A Siren, 1870, his memoirs What I Remember, 1887-89, and others). From the age of seven he spent three very miserable years at Harrow (Harrow School in north-west London), then on to Winchester College (Hampshire), then back once more to Harrow (and not that this is at all relevant, but it is the Winchester College song Dulce Domum that is referred to in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, 1908). The Trollopes were very poor and were at one point relying on an inheritance from Anthony's great uncle, Adolphus Meetkerke, however Meetkerke's new wife Matilda bore a son who became the heir (wills and inheritance are often features of Trollope novels - Lady Anna, 1874, Is He Popenjoy?, 1878, and Cousin Henry, 1879, spring immediately to mind). In 1827 his mother went to America "in an attempt to save the family fortunes" (she left Anthony and Thomas behind) and she returned in 1831 to make some success out of writing. His father however was in rapid financial decline and the family moved to Bruges (Belgium) for a period where Anthony felt he was "an idle, desolate hanger-on, that most hopeless of human beings, a hobbledehoy of nineteen, without any idea of a career, or a profession, or a trade". "Pretty girls" almost made up for it, but it has to be said that young Anthony's childhood was remarkably unhappy.

Pillar Box from Guernsey installed 1852-3.
But Anthony did find a trade: at the age of 26 he moved to Ireland to work as a postal surveyor's clerk and he remained working for the Post Office until 1867, and it is in this period he introduced pillar boxes to the Channel Islands (London would not get them until 1855, and at that time there were only five - in Fleet Street, The Strand, Pall Mall, Picadilly and Rutland Gate). And, whilst working for the Post Office, he wrote some twenty novels including the Chronicles of Barsetshire - The Warden (1855) Barchester Towers (1857) Doctor Thorne (1858) Framley Parsonage (1861) The Small House at Allington (1864), and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867), as well as the first of the Palliser novels - Can You Forgive Her? (1864-5). His retirement in 1867, at the age of 52, allowed him to stand as a Liberal candidate for Beverley, in the East Riding of Yorkshire (he described the fortnight of campaigning as "the most wretched fortnight of my manhood") however he was unsuccessful, losing to Sir Henry Edwards of the Conservatives. And of course he continued to write - between 1867 and his death in 1882 he wrote a further twenty-seven novels, as well as several non-fiction books.

And so Glendinning writes of Trollope's novels, his many travels (Trollope has been all around England, to Belgium, Ireland, Australia,  and other places), his friends and not so friendly acquaintances (Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, William Makepeace Thackerary, John Everett Millais, and Wilkie Collins to name a few), and his wife (Rose Heseltine) and sons Henry (born in 1846) and Frederick (born 1847), and his relationship with Kate Field, one of his closest friends. There's a wealth of information in this biography, even Trollope's (damning) opinions on crinoline, and over fifty illustrations and photographs. It's an absolute must for Trollope fans, both to read from cover to cover and to dip into from time to time (since I bought this book I've been looking up the various Trollope novels I've read and I've learned quite a lot from Glendinning). It's also a very lively book, not dull and dreary as some biographies end up, and his personality shines through.

And, it must be said: 2015 is an excellent year to read more Anthony Trollope. Books and Chocolate is holding an Anthony Trollope Bicentennial Celebration in April, and meanwhile books as food is hosting a Chronicles of Barset read-along (they're up to Barchester Towers, which is the second in the series, so plenty of time to catch up). As for other Anthony Trollope novels - here are the forty seven (apologies for some of the quality of the pictures, I was quite limited in choice!):

The Chronicles of Barset
The Warden (1855)
Barchester Towers (1857)
Doctor Thorne (1858)
Framley Parsonage (1861)
The Small House at Allington (1864)
The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

The Palliser Novels
Can You Forgive Her? (1865)
Phineas Finn (1869)
The Eustace Diamonds (1873)
Phineas Redux (1874)
The Prime Minister (1876)
The Duke's Children (1880)

The Others
The Macdermots of
The Kellys and the
La Vendée: An Historical
The Three Clerks 
The Bertrams
Castle Richmond
Orley Farm
The Struggles of Brown, Jones & Robinson (1862)
Rachel Ray
Miss Mackenzie
The Belton Estate
The Claverings
Nina Balatka
Linda Tressel
He Knew He Was Right
The Vicar of Bullhampton
Sir Harry Hotspur of
Ralph the Heir
The Golden Lion of Granpère (1872)
Harry Heathcote of Gangoil (1874)
Lady Anna
The Way We Live Now
The American Senator
Is He Popenjoy?
John Caldgate
An Eye for an Eye
Cousin Henry (1879)
Ayala's Angel
Doctor Wortle's School
The Fixed Period
Kept in the Dark
Marion Fay
Mr. Scarborough's Family
The Land-Leaguers 
An Old Man's Love
Further reading

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