Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.

The Merchant of Venice is quite possibly my least favourite Shakespeare play, and I'm always amazed at how well-liked it is (a poll by Time even put it above Richard III!). There are, I must admit, some good moments in it, but I found it such an absolute effort to get through and I was rather relieved to finish it. As I've been re-reading Shakespeare's plays and reviewing them, and as this is my 33rd post on a Shakespeare play (35th if you include the apocrypha and 41st if you include the poetry!) I feel I have to push through this aversion and say something, however whatever I do come up with is going to be brief.

The Merchant of Venice was written somewhere around 1596 to 1597 but it wasn't performed until 1605 (in front of King James who apparently liked it so much he requested a second performance). The merchant of Venice of the title is Antonio: his friend Bassanio is in love with Portia and needs to borrow money in order to woo her. Antonio cannot lend his friend money, and allows Bassanio to borrow money from Shylock (a miserly Jew), naming him, Antonio, as the loan's guarantor. There is a history between the two: Antonio is vocal in his antisemitism and crossed Shylock before in the business of money-lending, and it takes some persuading for Bassanio to get his money. If he defaults, however, Shylock warns him he will take 'a pound of flesh'.

Meanwhile, Portia has a great many suitors, and in his will her father he has stipulated that in order to marry her a suitor must chose correctly one of three caskets of gold, silver and lead. It is Bassanio who chooses correctly: the casket made of lead, and so he will marry Portia. However all is not well: our merchant Antonio suffers a catastrophe when his ships are all lost at sea, which means he can no longer guarantee the loan. Shylock, meanwhile, finds his own household in disarray: Launcelot, his servant, has left to work for Bassanio, and his daughter Jessica is planning to elope with Lorenzo, Antonio's friend. As Bassanio makes the correct choice of caskets, Jessica is also in Belmont with Lorenzo, and when they learn of Antonio's misfortune they must quickly leave for Venice, Portia and Jessica disguised as pages (we've also seen female characters disguised as men in Twelfth Night and As You Like It) to save Antonio from being the victim of Shylock's revenge...

What it is I don't like about The Merchant of Venice I'm not quite sure. There is much antisemitism in it, but as a reader of the classics I've learned to put up with that, and as plots go this is not a bad one, I'd even say it's a good one. Perhaps I wasn't in the mood for it (though I thought I was), I just found it especially tedious. There were two excellent and famous speeches I admired though, firstly from Shylock:
... He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.
And this from Portia:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.
The portrayal of the clash between Jewish and Christian values was interesting, the idea that Jewish people value money above love was enlightening, as was the different concepts of justice (Shylock's being rather bloody and the Christians of the play based on mercy): I do believe there is a value to reading literature that attempts to justify prejudice (I say that cautiously: perhaps it would be more accurate to say the characters try to justify their prejudices) as one may understand those showing the prejudice more, which is perhaps a starting point to reducing intolerance in the world (very idealistic of me, I know). For that it is a worthwhile read. For entertainment, I personally would say no.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Heidi by Johanna Spyri.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri is such a famous and well-loved children's novel I don't know how it is I've never read it before now! But, of late, I've been very much in the mood for late Victorian / Edwardian children's literature and I'm glad I've finally got to this one. It was first published in two parts in 1881: Heidi: her years of wandering and learning (Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre) and Heidi : how she used what she learned (Heidi kann brauchen, was es gelernt hat), and it has two main settings: the Swiss Alps, and Frankfurt in Germany.

The story is very simple: Heidi, an orphan, is taken by her aunt Dete to live with her grandfather in the alps around Dörfli (the Sertig Valley in Graubünden, Switzerland). He has the reputation for being awkward, bitter, and anti-social but Heidi's warmth, cheerfulness, and enthusiasm quickly wins him over and she spends several years with him, the goatherd Peter, Peter's mother Bridgget, and his grandmother. However Dete arrives once more to take Heidi away to Frankfurt to act as the companion of a girl a little older Heidi, Clara Sesemann, who is an invalid. The two become friends, however Heidi is constantly put down by the almost comically villainous Fräulein Rottenmeier, the housekeeper. She maintains her attempts to be positive, learns how to read and write, pray, and the ways of city life, however she eventually breaks down and becomes so homesick she is ill. The Sesemanns' doctor advises that she must be taken back home to her grandfather and the alps, but the question is what will become of Clara?

It's a fantastic tale with a fair amount going on: firstly, there is an idea of "wholeness". Heidi flourishes in the natural surroundings of the alps where she is most happy, a stark contrast with Frankfurt, the city (as is often in Victorian literature) represents the unnatural, the modern, the industrialised, and the harsh. Nature alone, however, is not quite enough: it is in the city where she is educated and taught to pray - on her arrival in Frankfurt the following scene takes place between Heidi and Mrs. Sesemann, Clara's grandmother:
"I tell you something, little girl," she [Mrs. Sesemann] continued. "If you have a sorrow that you cannot tell to anyone, you can go to Our Father in Heaven. You can tell Him everything that troubles you, and if we ask Him He can help us and take our suffering away. Do you understand me, child? Don't you pray every night? Don't you thank Him for all His gifts and ask Him to protect you from evil?"
"Oh no, I never do that," replied the child.
"Have you never prayed, Heidi? Do you know what I mean?"
"I only prayed with my first grandmother, but it is so long ago, that I have forgotten."
"See, Heidi, I understand now why you are so unhappy. We all need somebody to help us, and just think how wonderful it is, to be able to go to the Lord, when something distresses us and causes us pain. We can tell Him everything and ask Him to comfort us, when nobody else can do it. He can give us happiness and joy."
Heidi was gladdened by these tidings, and asked: "Can we tell Him everything, everything?"
"Yes, Heidi, everything."
The child, withdrawing her hand from the grandmama, said hurriedly, "Can I go now?"
"Yes, of course," was the reply, and with this Heidi ran to her room. Sitting down on a stool she folded her hands and poured out her heart to God, imploring Him to help her and let her go home to her grandfather.
With Heidi's return to the alps, and Clara's visit, a balance is found, a certain harmony that makes the two girls more "whole". There is as well the healing element of nature, something we see thirty years later in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Finally, there is an idea of adaption whilst maintaining inherent characteristics. Heidi is a good child, she is cheerful, kind, and loving, but she adapts as far as she is able to new information and surroundings. She changes in the sense that she is educated and, in a sense, becomes closer to God, as well as becoming more accustomed to the city ways. She is still Heidi, though, neither hardened by Frankfurt nor simple in Dörfli. It's a wonderful book, comforting and entertaining, and I'm glad I've read it at last.

To finish, some illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith from the 1922 edition published by David McKay Company:

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Queen Who Flew by Ford Madox Ford.

1894 edition.
The Queen Who Flew is a fairy tale by Ford Madox Ford, first published in 1894 back when Ford Madox Ford was Ford Madox Hueffer (he changed his name in 1919; it's suggested "Hueffer" sounded too Germanic). He is perhaps best known for his Parade's End (1924-28) and The Good Soldier (1915; I'm planning on read this very soon), but Ford was also the author of several fairy tales: The Brown Owl and The Feather (both 1892), and this, The Queen Who Flew.

The story begins,
Once upon a time a Queen sat in her garden. She was quite a young, young Queen; but that was a long while ago, so she would be older now. But, for all she was Queen over a great and powerful country, she led a very quiet life, and sat a great deal alone in her garden watching the roses grow, and talking to a bat that hung, head downwards, with its wings folded, for all the world like an umbrella, beneath the shade of a rose tree overhanging her favourite marble seat. She did not know much about the bat, not even that it could fly, for her servants and nurses would never allow her to be out at dusk, and the bat was a great deal too weak-eyed to fly about in the broad daylight.
The cover of The Queen Who Flew
illustrated by Edward Burne Jones.
Apologies for the low resolution.
Ford goes on to describe how "there was a revolution in the land", writing further -
But you must understand that in those days a revolution was a thing very different from what it would be to-day.
Instead of trying to get rid of the Queen altogether, the great nobles of the kingdom merely fought violently with each other for possession of the Queen's person. Then they would proclaim themselves Regents of the kingdom and would issue bills of attainder against all their rivals, saying they were traitors against the Queen's Government.
In fact, a revolution in those days was like what is called a change of Ministry now, save for the fact that they were rather fond of indulging themselves by decapitating their rivals when they had the chance, which of course one would never think of doing nowadays. 
Above: Salisbury by "Ape" for
Vanity Fair (1869).
Below: Gladstone by "Spy" for
Vanity Fair (1887).
Now, I can't help but think of General Elections here and would note that during the period Ford was writing there seems to have been a disproportionately high number of Prime Ministers: there was an election in 1885, and, on the whole, one would expect a Prime Minister in 1885, then perhaps another one in 1890, and a third in 1895, but this was not the case: in 1885, William Ewart Gladstone won the most seats for the Liberals but did not win a majority. Gladstone was thus defeated on the Ireland Bill, which was seen on as a vote of no confidence, and parliament was dissolved in June that year. Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury took over, and was then voted in in another General Election in 1886. He lead the country until 1892, whereupon another General Election was held (this one was due): Salisbury won again, but, like Gladstone, did not have enough seats for a majority. He resigned a few months later following a defeat, and William Ewart Gladstone takes over and wishes Henry Labouchère to be in his cabinet. Labouchère, however, insulted the royal family at some point so Queen Victoria vetoes it (the last time the monarch ever vetoed a potential member of the cabinet). In 1894, the year The Queen Who Flew was published, Gladstone resigned and Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery took over (by all accounts it sounds like it wasn't too successful) and Salisbury would take over in 1895 until another General Election in the same year, which Salisbury would win.

In short, here was a period of a great amount of political wrangling (which, I would say, is well-matched by the sheer volume of elections and referendums the Conservatives have brought us since 2010, thus making their "strong and stable" slogan sadly ironic) and I really do believe Ford had all of this in mind when he wrote the above paragraph! 

But, back to The Queen Who Flew: the queen, the very young Queen Eldrida, spends her days in the garden talking to her friend the bat - here comes what is perhaps my most favourite sentence in literature - "The Queen and the bat had been talking a good deal that afternoon—about the weather and about the revolution and the colour of cats and the like." She then learns that the bat can fly and wishes she could do so herself, if only to escape her suitors including the awful Lord Blackjowl. The bat, a rather cantankerous sort, asks why she thinks she can't, getting rather irritable with her in the process. He then agrees he will tell her the secret, and, eventually, she flies: flying off from the palace and into the realm. Ford describes some wonderful adventures, including one Goethe-esque encounter with the devil, and she learns much about her people and, indeed, herself.

It's a wonderful story, a great fairy tale as good as the likes of Hans Christian Andersen's or The Brothers Grimm. I can't help but feel adults may enjoy it even more than children. The Queen is a great character, but the bat: the bat is one of the best animal creations in literature, certainly up there with Badger (my favourite) from The Wind in the Willows (1908).

And that was my 22nd title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: The Curate in a Populus Parish by Anthony Trollope.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.

A few hours ago I finished Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, the final novel Hardy wrote (though he did re-write The Well-Beloved a few years later), and the final novel I have on my Hardy's Major Works list. It's hard to know where to begin with this novel: it is one of the most impressive novels I've ever read, one of the most darkest and complex, and I do believe this is Hardy at his absolute peak. Jude the Obscure was actually one of the first Hardy novel I read about 12 years ago and I always had in mind when reading his other novels. I had a sense, which may well have been a false sense, that everything he wrote was building up to this crescendo. It embodies most if not all of the common themes and motifs in Hardy's other works before it: marriage, love, gender, and fate.

We first meet Jude Fawley as a young boy at Marygreen (in Hardy's Wessex) who has dreams of going to Christminster (modelled on Oxford) to become a scholar, inspired by his schoolmaster Richard Phillotson who has left to do the same. He works very hard for it, learning Greek and Latin, but one day Jude makes a decision, innocent enough, but it will prove his downfall. Jude meets a young woman, Arabella Donn, who is very pretty but very rough around the edges. One Sunday he wonders: should he get on with his Greek, or should he go and meet her again?
He would not go out to meet her, after all. He sat down, opened the book, and with his elbows firmly planted on the table, and his hands to his temples, began at the beginning:
Η ΚΑΙΝΗ ΔΙΑΘΗΚΗ. [The New Testament]
Had he promised to call for her? Surely he had! She would wait indoors, poor girl, and waste all her afternoon on account of him. There was a something in her, too, which was very winning, apart from promises. He ought not to break faith with her. Even though he had only Sundays and week-day evenings for reading he could afford one afternoon, seeing that other young men afforded so many. After to-day he would never probably see her again. Indeed, it would be impossible, considering what his plans were.
In short, as if materially, a compelling arm of extraordinary muscular power seized hold of him—something which had nothing in common with the spirits and influences that had moved him hitherto. This seemed to care little for his reason and his will, nothing for his so-called elevated intentions, and moved him along, as a violent schoolmaster a schoolboy he has seized by the collar, in a direction which tended towards the embrace of a woman for whom he had no respect, and whose life had nothing in common with his own except locality.
Η ΚΑΙΝΗ ΔΙΑΘΗΚΗ was no more heeded, and the predestinate Jude sprang up and across the room. Foreseeing such an event he had already arrayed himself in his best clothes. In three minutes he was out of the house and descending by the path across the wide vacant hollow of corn-ground which lay between the village and the isolated house of Arabella in the dip beyond the upland.
Oxford in the 1890s.
Jude falls for her, and, to trick him into marrying her, she pretends to be pregnant, telling him after their marriage she was mistaken. The marriage, unsurprisingly, is not a success and very swiftly falls apart (at this point we're not even a fifth of the way through the book) and one day Jude finds a brief note: "Have gone to my friends. Shall not return." Thus, Jude's dreams of Christminster are once again a possibility and, in the second part of the book, he attempts to enrol.

It is there he meets his cousin, Sue Bridehead, who he quickly falls in love with. Sue is his equal: highly intelligent, educated, very beautiful, an atheist, and thoroughly modern. Jude, however, is still married to Arabella, and so she marries none other than Phillotson. Like Jude's, Sue's marriage falls apart quite quickly and, no longer able to stand being apart, they live together unmarried.

I could very happily continue describing the plot, it's so compelling and fascinating, but I'll stop there so as not to spoil it. But what a story! It's absolutely devastating, a true (in the Greek sense) tragedy of a poor man trying to better himself, an attempt that, because of the circumstances, would ruin him beyond repair. I can't speak highly enough of Jude the Obscure. The overall theme is that of love and marriage, which dominates the novel, but class and education, the snobbery of those at Christminster, is also important. There is no good and evil in Jude, even Arabella, who did a terrible thing, isn't herself bad, and Phillotson is remarkable in his ability to forgive and show kindness, and Jude: Jude is a dreamer, and Sue almost other worldly. They were too advanced for their time and society, their own and the readers of this novel, were not kind. It is truly a great novel.


As I mentioned, this was my last novel on my Hardy list: I'm left with two short story collection, two plays, and eight volumes of poetry (as well as two biographies). Here's the novels I've read and my ratings:
Desperate Remedies (1871) ✯✯✯✯
Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) ✯✯✯✯
A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) ✯✯✯✯✯
Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) ✯✯✯✯✯
The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) ✯✯
The Return of the Native (1878) ✯✯✯✯
The Trumpet-Major (1880) ✯✯
A Laodicean (1881) ✯
Two on a Tower (1882) ✯✯✯✯✯
The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) ✯✯✯✯
The Woodlanders (1887) ✯✯✯
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) ✯✯✯✯✯
The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved (1892) ✯✯
Jude the Obscure (1895) ✯✯✯✯✯
The Well-Beloved (1897) ✯✯

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Another exciting discovery!

We're a week away from June and every day, almost every moment, the garden is changing. I've got quite a few pictures now to share for June's post, but this can't wait: this evening whilst watering the greenhouse after a spectacularly hot day (40 °C on the patio!) I found a White Ermine moth (or, to give it its Latin name, Spilosoma lubricipeda). I've never seen one before, I'd never heard of one before, and, not being a butterfly-buff, I didn't know there were white moths in the UK. But there is and it's laying its eggs on my Morning Glory plant! 

My camera's not too good at close-ups, but here's two pictures I took just a few minutes ago:

Such discoveries are why I love gardening so much! I was planning on moving this Morning Glory (Ipomoea tricolor) out into the garden but I think, if there's eggs on it, it perhaps ought to stay in the greenhouse. I'm looking forward to seeing caterpillars (I know caterpillars will eat some of my plants but I'm used to that, and I actually deliberately keep two large crops of nettles for caterpillars to enjoy!).

And, in other news, I've just seen a few rosebuds. I do love my roses 😊

Update: As of 7.20 AM I now have two moths!

Jacques Damour by Émile Zola.

Jacques Damour (one English translation calls it Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder) is a short story by Émile Zola, published first in Vestnik Evropy in August 1880, then in his short story collection Naïs Micoulin in 1884. In 1887 Léon Hennique turned it into a play.

The story is divided into five chapters and begins,
Sometimes, as he sat beside the sea, scanning the black horizon, visions of his past would flit through Jacques Damour's mind: the hardship of the siege, the savage fighting with the Commune and the final brutal wrench which tore him from his home, to land up, broken and bewildered, in this faraway Pacific island of Noumea. This was no recollection of pleasant times, of love and affection, but the dull brooding of an enfeebled mind returning, again and again, to certain unchangeable, precise facts that alone stood out amidst the general collapse of everything.
Jacques, Zola goes on, had married Félicie, "a tall and beautiful girl of eighteen, the daughter of a greengrocer in the Villette quarter of Paris, from whom he had rented a room". They had a son and daughter and, in Zola's words, "were not an unhappy family". This family however were split in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71); first they were impoverished as many of the French were in war time, and then, as the war raged on, Jacques decided to leave his family to join the army. He was taken prisoner then deported to Noumea. For a while he remained in touch with Félicie, however he soon became aware that her letters were becoming more and more infrequent until finally ceasing. He attempts to escape, and narrowly escapes with his life, but it is reported that he in fact died. When he finally returns home some years later to find Félicie, he is told she has remarried. Nevertheless he goes to see her, and her husband, and tries to reconcile.

As stories go this is a very simply one in terms of plot, but, as ever, Zola does it so very well. As with many of Zola's other novels we see the effects of the Second French Empire and its downfall with the Franco Prussian War, and how it affects an individual group or person. Jacques, to all intents and purposes, was a normal man who married and started a family, however his family and his life were torn apart by forces external to him. Unlike some of Zola's other works though it isn't without hope. Things do not turn out as Jacques would have hoped, however there is a sense of peace that Jacques finally reaches. It's an excellent story, deeply uncomfortable at times and Zola portrays the awkwardness of Jacques and Félice's meeting brilliantly. I found it also interesting to compare with The Death of Olivier Becaille, another story from Naïs Micoulin, which also involves a supposed death and its consequences on an individual and his family.

And that was my 21st title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - The Queen Who Flew by Ford Madox Ford.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

20 Books of Summer.


I want to write a positive post today as things in the UK are, as you can imagine, pretty tense. Yesterday I woke up to the dreadful news of the attack in Manchester, and this morning the news that we are on critical alert, meaning an attack is thought to be imminent and the army have been deployed. It's very sobering, and I think like many people here some happiness and joy should be shared. To cheer up myself and hopefully others I thought I'd make my list for the 20 Books of Summer interspersed with some of the nicest pictures I've seen of books and summer.

For the past few years Cathy of 746 Books holds a 20 Books of Summer Challenge from 1st June to 3rd September and this will be my fourth year of joining! I've never yet managed to read from my 20 Books list (previous attempts: 2014, 2015, and 2016) but perhaps this will be the year. My personal best I think is 15, so anything above 15 will be regarded as a big achievement! For my list I've decided to take 5 books from my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge and 15 from my Classic Club list. Without further ado, here's my selection...

Ancient Greek and Roman

The Golden Ass.
The Golden Ass by Apuleius.
Ethics by Aristotle.
Confessions by Augustine of Hippo.
The Symposium by Plato.
Constellation Myths: With Aratus's Phaenomena by Eratosthenes and Aratus.

Plato's Symposium by Anselm Feuerbach (1869).

Classic Club

The Letters of Abélard and Héloïse.
The Lucky Chance by Aphra Behn.
The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret by Susanna Centlivre.
In Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus.
Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth.
Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie.
Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Monkey by Wu Cheng'en.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.
The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith.
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.
The Royal Mischief by Delarivier Manley.
The Innocent Mistress by Mary Pix.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.
The Fatal Friendship by Catherine Trotter.

And, because summer is so very close, here's some summery loveliness I've seen online of late!

Sunset at Millennium Green in North Hykeham by Malc Sawyer.

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Fragments of Menander.

Since I read Menander's Dyskolos about a month ago I've been slowly reading the remaining fragments of Menander's plays. I've read fragments of Greek plays before, Sophocles' Ichneutai and Other Fragments, and I still remember it primarily as quite a moving experience straining to hear the echoes of one of my most favourite authors. With Menander there was that element of almost frustration in never being able to grasp the full picture, comedies once enjoyed and loved but now lost, though with tantalising hints of what was once loud and clear. However Menander is not a favourite author, and in fact though I enjoyed Dyskolos I can't say I was particularly fond of what was left.

Of the many plays Menander wrote, there are only six that have more or less survived (though still with great gaps; up to half missing): Dyskolos, Samia, Epitrepontes, Perikeiromene, Aspis, and SikyonioiSamia, or The Girl from Samos (Σαμία) is the longest fragment of Menander with 116 lines missing (when you get into Trophonius, for example, only nine lines remain). This play is dated somewhere around 315 and 309 B.C. and, like Dyklos, the play was discovered in the Bodmer Papyri from 1952 and the Cairo Codex found in 1907. The plot was already familiar to me: in 166 B.C. the Roman playwright Terrance adapted the play for his The Girl from Andros (Andria), but as his play was set in Andria in southern Italy, Menander's is set in the Greek island of Samos. It tells the story of Demeas, a bachelor, whose mistress Chrysis has a baby which sadly dies. At the same time the mistress of adopted son of Demeas, Moschion, also has a baby: his mistress is Plangon, the daughter of Nikeratos, who is Demeas' business partner. Chrysis was ordered to get rid of her child, and when it dies she nurses Plangon's; when Demeas returns from a business trip however, he mistakes Plangon's child for Chrysis' and believes she has defied him. What follows is the great confusion of trying to convince Demeas that he is wrong in his assumption with the other characters often being in possession of only half of the facts. My problem with it was that I didn't care so much about any of them, so the confusion was not so much comic but frustrating. Nevertheless it was interesting if only to see what inspired Terence's The Girl from Andros.

Next, Epitrepontes, or The Arbitration: again, the birth of a child is the centre of the confusion - Charisios' new wife Pamphile has a baby whilst Charisios is away on business which, to save her marriage and reputation, she abandons however gets found out; the ensuing drama revolves around their marriage reveals much about their characters and those around them as well as the limitations in Greek society and, indeed, in human nature. In Perikeiromene, or The Rape of the Locks we see Polemon violently cut his wife Glykera's hair believing her to have been unfaithful with Moschion. When she escapes it is revealed that Moschion is in fact her brother. Aspis, or The Shield tells the story of Daos, a soldier, who has returned from war with the shield of Kleostratos, who he believes to be dead. The miserly Smikrines plots to steal the shield by marrying Kleostratos' sister. Finally, Sikyonioi or The Man from Sicyon, follows the very recognisable (dare I say well-worn) plot of a child once lost and later found.

The rest of the book contains much smaller fragments of the following plays:
  • The Man She Hated
  • The Double Deceiver and The Two Bacchises by Plautus
  • The Farmer
  • The Toady
  • The Harpist
  • The Hero
  • The Phanton
  • The Girl Possessed
  • The Girl from Perinthos
  • Title Unknown
  • Longer Fragments
  • Fragments Doubtfully Attributed to Menander
I would never say that reading a classic isn't worthwhile in some regard, and reading Menander was to read an important figure in the 4th Century B.C. who went on to influence Terence and Plautus, who in turn had a great impact on Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers. The thing was I just couldn't get into anything past Dyskolos. There was a strong formula to the plays: the long lost children I mentioned, mistaken identities, feuding neighbours, and some caricatures of miserly old men. I found it all a little disappointing: as readers of old know I'm making my way through ancient Greek and Roman works and am now focusing on the 4th Century B.C. Menander was my hope for this section given that section is dominated by Aristotle and Plato (both of whom are a little out of my league!). I feel nothing will be as great as the 5th Century B.C. and I miss reading those works! But, there it is: the next title on my radar is actually from 2nd Century A.D. - The Golden Ass by Apuleius, which I started last night and am very much enjoying so far!

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Vasari's Lives of the Artists Chapter IV: Duccio.

Following the chapter on Simone Martini, a brief chapter on Duccio, who is the final artist of Part I in my abridged edition of Vasari's The Lives of the Artists (1550).

The Life of Duccio, Sienese Painter
[c. 1255 - c. 1316]
No doubt those who are the inventors of anything notable attract the greatest attention from historians, and this occurs because new inventions are more closely observed and held in greater amazement, due to the pleasure to be found in the newness of things, than any number of improvements made later by anyone at all in bringing these things to their ultimate state of perfection. For that reason, if no beginning were ever made, the intermediate stages would show no improvement, and the end result would not turn out to be the best and of marvellous beauty.
Duccio, says Vasari, was one who inspired many followers and his 'invention' was "chiaroscuro", which uses light and dark giving a more three-dimensional effect:
... he gave honest shapes to his figures which he executed in a most excellent fashion, given the difficulties of this art.
Vasari then writes of the panel of an altar in the Duomo in Siena, which included scenes from the New Testament, however Vasari was unable to find where it was located (it is now in Siena's Museo dell'Opera del Duomo).

And that is actually that for Duccio - this is such a very brief chapter! But I've been looking at some of his works and loved many of them: here are some of my favourites:

Madonna with Angels (1300-05).
Coronation of the Virgin (1308-11).

Vasari's Lives of the Artists Chapter III: Simone Martini.

The next two chapters of Vasari's The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori; 1550) in my edition (abridged; published by Oxford World Classics) are rather short and they focus on Simone Martini and Duccio. However short though, I'd like to include some of my favourites of their artwork and give each artist a spotlight: today, then, I'll be putting up two posts, one on Simone Martini and one on Duccio. Here's the first (the second is here):

The Life of Simone [Martini] of Siena
[c. 1284 - 1344]

Truly happy are the men who are by nature inclined to those arts which can bring them not only honour and great profits but, what is more important, fame and an almost everlasting reputation; even happier are those who in addition to this inclination exhibit from infancy a gentility and civility of manners which make them most pleasing to all men. But happiest of all, finally, are those (speaking of artists) who, in addition to having a natural inclination towards the good as well as noble habits resulting from both their nature and education, live in the time of some famous writer from whom, in return for a small portrait or some other kind of gift of an artistic nature, they may on occasion receive, through his writings, the reward of eternal honour and fame. Such a thing should be especially desired and sought after by those most excellent artists who work in the field of design, for their works, being executed upon surfaces within a field of colour, cannot possess the eternal duration that bronze casting and marble objects bring to sculpture or buildings to architects. It was thus Simone's greatest good fortune to live in the time of Messer Francis Petrarch and to happen to find this most amorous poet at the court of Avignon, since he was anxious to have a picture of Madonna Laura by the hand of Maestro Simone for that reason, when he received a painting as beautiful as he had wished, he immortalised Simone in two sonnets, one of which begins in this fashion:
And all the others famous for that art,
No matter how hard Polyclitus looked,
while the other beings like this:
When Simone first received that high idea
Which for my sake he used his drawing pen,
Vasari goes on to suggest that it will be Petrarch that makes Simone immortal in his fame, and not his art. And yet he describes him as an excellent painter, singular even, though after the fashion of Giotto. He worked in Sienna, then Florence, though as Vasari notes, some of his greatest work was "ruined in the year 1560 by the monks who, unable to use the chapter house because it was so badly damaged by humidity, pulled down the little that remained of the paintings of this artist in constructing a vault to replace a worm-eaten scaffold". Fortunately other works survived; Vasari describes some, and then concludes,
... Simone did not excel in design, but he possessed a natural talent for invention and was very fond of drawing from life, and in this respect he was considered the best master of his day, causing Lord Pandolfo Malatesta to send him all the way to Avignon to paint the portrait of Messer Francis Petrarch, at whose request he then painted the portrait of Madonna Laura, which Petrarch praised so highly.
And before I turn my attention to Vasari's thoughts on Duccio, here's some of Simone's works:

Petrarch's Virgil (title page; 1336).
Christ Discovered in the Temple (1342).

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame.

The Reluctant Dragon illustrated by Lois Lenski (1922 edition).
The Reluctant Dragon is a short story from Kenneth Grahame's Dream Days, first published in 1898, and I've been looking forward to it since I discovered it - I think like a lot of people, the only Grahame I've read is The Wind in the Willows and I was eager to read more of Grahame's writings. The Reluctant Dragon didn't let me down.

Grahame tells a story within a story: it begins,
Footprints in the snow have been unfailing provokers of sentiment ever since snow was first a white wonder in this drab-coloured world of ours. In a poetry-book presented to one of us by an aunt, there was a poem by one Wordsworth, in which they stood out strongly—with a picture all to themselves, too—but we didn't think very highly either of the poem or the sentiment. Footprints in the sand, now, were quite another matter, and we grasped Crusoe's attitude of mind much more easily than Wordsworth's. Excitement and mystery, curiosity and suspense—these were the only sentiments that tracks, whether in sand or in snow, were able to arouse in us.
We had awakened early that winter morning, puzzled at first by the added light that filled the room. Then, when the truth at last fully dawned on us and we knew that snow-balling was no longer a wistful dream, but a solid certainty waiting for us outside, it was a mere brute fight for the necessary clothes, and the lacing of boots seemed a clumsy invention, and the buttoning of coats an unduly tedious form of fastening, with all that snow going to waste at our very door.
The narrator, a young boy, and his sister Charlotte find strange tracks in the snow, "something lizardy", and Charlotte hopes for a dragon - "a real British beast". As they attempt to track it down the come across a circus man who indulges them in their inquiries, invites them for tea, and then, on request, tells them a story. And that story begins,
Long ago—might have been hundreds of years ago—in a cottage half-way between this village and yonder shoulder of the Downs up there, a shepherd lived with his wife and their little son. Now the shepherd spent his days—and at certain times of the year his nights too—up on the wide ocean-bosom of the Downs, with only the sun and the stars and the sheep for company, and the friendly chattering world of men and women far out of sight and hearing. But his little son, when he wasn't helping his father, and often when he was as well, spent much of his time buried in big volumes that he borrowed from the affable gentry and interested parsons of the country round about. And his parents were very fond of him, and rather proud[157] of him too, though they didn't let on in his hearing, so he was left to go his own way and read as much as he liked; and instead of frequently getting a cuff on the side of the head, as might very well have happened to him, he was treated more or less as an equal by his parents, who sensibly thought it a very fair division of labour that they should supply the practical knowledge, and he the book-learning. They knew that book-learning often came in useful at a pinch, in spite of what their neighbours said. What the Boy chiefly dabbled in was natural history and fairy-tales, and he just took them as they came, in a sandwichy sort of way, without making any distinctions; and really his course of reading strikes one as rather sensible.
One evening this shepherd saw a dragon,
 "He was sticking half-way out of the cave, and seemed to be enjoying of the cool of the evening in a poetical sort of way. He was as big as four cart-horses, and all covered with shiny scales—deep-blue scales at the top of him, shading off to a tender sort o' green below. As he breathed, there was that sort of flicker over his nostrils that you see over our chalk roads on a baking windless day in summer. He had his chin on his paws, and I should say he was meditating about things. Oh, yes, a peaceable sort o' beast enough, and not ramping or carrying on or doing anything but what was quite right and proper. I admit all that. And yet, what am I to do? Scales, you know, and claws, and a tail for certain, though I didn't see that end of him—I ain't used to 'em, and I don't hold with 'em, and that's a fact!"
The shepherd's boy, oddly enough, is unsurprised and the next day he goes to pay the dragon a visit. The two become friends, and we learn the dragon is a sensitive sort who enjoys poetry, however that doesn't stop the villagers fearing him when they learn of his existence. St. George is called " slay the deadly beast, and free us from his horrid yoke. O my! won't there be a jolly fight!". Can the boy and the dragon convince him not to kill the dragon, and that the dragon is not a threat? I won't spoil the end...

It's a very sweet tale, not up there with The Wind in the Willows but nothing really is, so I'll let that go. I enjoyed it very much and I wish I could get a hold of the Michael Hague illustrations. For now, here's four I've found:

And that was my 20th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder by Émile Zola.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Roses for English Gardens by Gertrude Jekyll and Edward Mawley.

Today has been a grey, miserable day, mostly rain, yet still very muggy. And it's been an irritable, restless sort of a day: our car's broke down (the back axle snapped, fortunately not whilst driving!) so all plans have been cancelled, everything's up in the air, and it's one of those days trying to sort things out and being thwarted left and right. So I thought I'd treat myself to some lost time - one thing I find fun (and rarely get the chance to do) is look up random books on Internet Archive as I do love beautiful book covers and illustrations, and it's fun to go down a hole and stay down there looking at all the old images for a while. As I did I came across Roses for English Gardens by Gertrude Jekyll and Edward Mawley from 1902. To be clear: I haven't read this book but I was very struck by the photography in it. Honestly, I suppose I found the pictures quite moving: roses are so beautiful and timeless, yet the black and white, the quality, the dress of the women in it was so very turn of the century; they're snapshots of a moment in a period long gone, and with all the unpleasantness in the world right now it's nice to dream and feel nostalgic and enjoy pictures from a bygone era. As I enjoyed the images so much I thought I'd share them, they're credited to a Miss Willmott, and I assume this is Ellen Willmott the very famous horticulturist who lived in Warley Place at Great Warley, Essex.

Monday, 15 May 2017

The Vicar of Bullhampton by Anthony Trollope.

Anthony Trollope's The Vicar of Bullhampton was published in 1870, three years after the final book of the Chronicles of Barset: The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867). I would love, one day, to read all of Trollope's 47 novels but for now I'm just picking out the ones with the most appealing plot, and The Vicar of Bullhampton looked interesting for the similar themes of the Barset books which I loved so much, the feuding churches, problematic courtships, and a clergyman at the centre of it all.

The clergyman in question is Frank Fenwick, and in the novel there are three plots that surround him. Firstly, that concerning the Brattle family, the head of which is Jacob Brattle. His son Sam, having fallen into the wrong crowd, is, along with his friends, suspected of murder when a farmer is killed during a burglary (sure of his innocence, Fenwick acts as a bondsman). Jacob's daughter Carry, meanwhile, has become a prostitute having been denounced by her father for succumbing to the advances of her seducer. She is found by Fenwick and brought home, and Fenwick must encourage Jacob to forgive her. The second subplot concerns Mary Lowther, an old friend of Fenwick's wife. She accepts the proposal Captain Walter Marrable, however, owing to some very unfortunate circumstances, it appears that Marrable will have to return to India with his regiment. Because of his father's cruel actions, he will be a poor man and it is agreed that Marrable's life of poverty ought not to be inflicted on Mary. Instead, Mary considers the proposal of another suitor, Harry Gilmore, who loves her very much however she does not love him. She finds herself pressured by those who surround her to accept his proposal and live a comfortable life. Finally, the feuding churches: Fenwick is 'Broad church' or Anglican, and he finds himself pitted against Mr. Puddleham, the village's Methodist minister, by the Marquis of Trowbridge (himself a 'Low church' Anglican) who is angered by Fenwick's support of the Brattle family.

Found by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1850-82).
Trollope is excellent at these 'panoramic' novels which do not limit themselves to one plot: around Frank Fenwick we have a setting and a variety of characters with a variety of problems and religious practices, all linked up by this one central character, and we have a picture of a town or village, Bullhampton, the various goings on, a range of emotions, how the attitudes shown to the problems in it are reflective of society in general, that is Victorian England, and the effects of such attitudes on the individual. My problem is, however enjoyable, I know well that Trollope can do better, and though this is not Trollope's longest novel (my edition of The Vicar is about 530 pages) it does go on a bit, and the bones of it are stretched a little too thinly for my liking. What is interesting is the darkness to it (which we do see in his other works, The Last Chronicle of Barset springing immediately to mind) in the story of the Brattles. I dare say this is what motivated Trollope to write a preface for the novel (I don't recall ever seeing a preface in a Trollope novel) in which he justifies his "castaway" - Carry Brattle:
There arises, of course, the question whether a novelist, who professes to write for the amusement of the young of both sexes, should allow himself to bring upon his stage such a character as that of Carry Brattle? It is not long since,—it is well within the memory of the author,—that the very existence of such a condition of life, as was hers, was supposed to be unknown to our sisters and daughters, and was, in truth, unknown to many of them. Whether that ignorance was good may be questioned; but that it exists no longer is beyond question. Then arises that further question,—how far the condition of such unfortunates should be made a matter of concern to the sweet young hearts of those whose delicacy and cleanliness of thought is a matter of pride to so many of us. Cannot women, who are good, pity the sufferings of the vicious, and do something perhaps to mitigate and shorten them, without contamination from the vice? It will be admitted probably by most men who have thought upon the subject that no fault among us is punished so heavily as that fault, often so light in itself but so terrible in its consequences to the less faulty of the two offenders, by which a woman falls. All her own sex is against her,—and all those of the other sex in whose veins runs the blood which she is thought to have contaminated, and who, of nature, would befriend her were her trouble any other than it is.
She is what she is, and remains in her abject, pitiless, unutterable misery, because this sentence of the world has placed her beyond the helping hand of Love and Friendship. It may be said, no doubt, that the severity of this judgment acts as a protection to female virtue,—deterring, as all known punishments do deter, from vice. But this punishment, which is horrible beyond the conception of those who have not regarded it closely, is not known beforehand. Instead of the punishment there is seen a false glitter of gaudy life,—a glitter which is damnably false,—and which, alas, has been more often portrayed in glowing colours, for the injury of young girls, than have those horrors, which ought to deter, with the dark shadowings which belong to them.
To write on prostitution in Victorian England was fairly brave (but not unique) and Trollope does so in starkly, his characters exclaiming, "I am told that one of the daughters is a—prostitute", and a little later "Who can be surprised that there should be murderers and prostitutes in the parish?", finally "The family is very bad, one of the daughters being, as I understand, a prostitute." This darkness is alleviated by some comic relief in the conflict between Fenwick and the Marquis, and, together with Mary Lowther's 'rebellion' and the situation with the Marquis, one does feel it is all a little too much for our vicar. Is it all too much for the reader? No, but it does come close. Even so, The Vicar of Bullhampton is a good novel, and, for its themes, very interesting.

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