Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Master of Blacktower by Barbara Michaels

This is one of those tempting, plain, and slightly grubby tomes tucked in among its fellows, both the shiny-new and the well thumbed, on the local library's mystery shelves. Reinforced library binding, imprinted with a groovy, green-amber-brown Greek key design; pages as soft as velvet with age and use; no jacket, no blurbs, no summary. Chapter 1: "The Black Tower of Dunnoch. I saw it first at twilight ...."

I have a great respect for people who can sit down and think out a plot. As the years go on I grow more and more convinced within myself that I have no head for it. In this case, author Barbara Michaels has set herself the challenge of creating a romantic mystery in which, one, there is no murder or theft or kidnapping for anyone to solve, and two, the romantic hero plausibly and repeatedly rejects the heroine. The problem he is struggling with does prove to be, as Damaris realizes late, "so simple, and so deadly, that it took my breath away." But as mysteries go, Mr. Gavin Hamilton's problem is almost, almost intellectual and nothing more. The story is oddly bloodless, and yet coolly intriguing as a result. I read it over two nights (did I mention the large print?), and found it a very pleasant antidote to whatever dull thing was on the family TV. And by the way, there are no heavy-breathing sex scenes. This must be either because the book was written in 1966 before all that became the norm, or because Miss Michaels was an old-fashioned lady.

I say I have no head for plot construction. Perhaps I have always gone about it backwards. I envision Miss Michaels sitting at her desk in 1966, and reasoning out, first, how all the threads are going to come together and why. That must happen at some point in the creative process, but perhaps also there are other ways to compose plots, more naturally. Perhaps one can sit down "with a blank piece of paper and an idea," as the writers' manuals all advise, and simply start working, to find that in time, characters and events unfold as they will. Perhaps it is this method which enables prolific writers to write twenty and thirty novels in a lifetime. The biggest trouble I see with composing plots -- however it is done, and I am no one to speak because I've never had fiction published, no doubt for good reason -- is that they so often resemble each other. History and biography are always unique and are also real; essays, sketches, belles-lettres reflect a unique viewpoint real for that writer at that time. One fictional plot, on the other hand, seems so much like another.

The Master of Black Tower, for example, is Jane Eyre all over again, only much diluted. There are howling, cold, isolated north Britain locations. There is a dark, scarred, brooding, upper-class older man, and an eighteen-year-old, proud but orphaned governess type. There is an ominous mansion with a closed-off wing. We meet the flip and laughing local gentry woman, hard, blond, and well-dressed. We are shocked by revelations about the hero's past -- and present. We mourn the heroine's despair. There are good servants and bad servants. It is Jane Eyre even to the intervention of the supernatural towards the end, when Damaris, standing at a window and looking out at black night, seems to hear a call to go back.

All enjoyable, to be sure, but didn't Barbara Michaels as she typed busily away realize the resemblance? Would it have stifled her creativity if she had? It would stifle mine, but then perhaps I'm just a wimp when it comes to sitting down and working at fiction. I may be a wimp also when it comes to research. (This book seemed to show curiously little of that. Other authors routinely trowel in much more information on clothes and food alone, in a novel set in the mid-1800s.) I like research, but I ask myself -- if you have something valuable to say in fiction, even historical fiction, isn't endless research a kind of window dressing, pretty but in its details extraneous? Wimp, I am sure Miss Michaels would sniff.

I can heartily recommend The Master of Black Tower for a cozy winter afternoon, even as I eye Jane Eyre on my shelf and ask, what is the difference between competence -- a very noble thing -- and lush, extravagant, wildly gifted ability, not to say genius? There's a difference in vocabulary of course, in depth of character development and even in humor (" 'Am I hideous, Jane?' 'Very, sir. You always were, you know.' " ...' "Jane, leave me. Go and marry Rivers' "). There's a difference in the thickness of the book and in the size of the print. There is a difference in prolificity ...

...or so I hazarded a guess. My library copy of Black Tower lists Barbara Michaels as having written only one other book, called Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs. This was her first novel, then, and I was free to imagine her either sinking back into obscurity in 1966, or going on to become some sort of queen of romance. Indeed, she did the latter. The internet is wonderful. I typed her name in the search box. There she is, auburn haired at eighty, with her own website complete with FAQs, and sixty-six novels to her credit written under two other names at least, plus non-fiction.

God bless her. Charlotte Bronte wrote one. Probably not much researched. God bless the pair of them.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Beeton's Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton

When modern Western women complain about long-standing sexism in society, I sometimes want to lift a dubious eyebrow, and then glance meaningfully at something like Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management, published in London -- apparently by the family firm, S.O. Beeton -- in 1861. A sexist society, a woman trapped in a sexist society, does not just vomit out an achievement like this.

I glance at it meaningfully, that is, assuming I've found it. My local library has a facsimile edition of the book, printed in 1969. It is just about two inches thick, its pages closely printed with Victorian-looking type, and all bound in that wonderful, rock-hard, plain reinforced library binding that sets an antique book-collector's pulse a-quiver. My, what have we here?

What we have is a massive "modern" cookbook, whose recipes include exact amounts for ingredients, plus estimates of the time and expense required for each dish. There are many illustrations, both color drawings and woodcuts. There are explanations of all foods and where they come from; Mrs. Beeton, I think, was still heir to a scholarly tradition which insisted that anyone demanding the public's notice in a book lay out for it the most fundamental proofs of intent to attack the book's subject with absolute thoroughness and understanding. "The exercise or diversion of pursuing four-footed beasts of game is called hunting...." Well, yes, it is. This, mind you, only comes on page 508, after all the chapters on soups, fish, and meat, and before the chapters on vegetables, puddings, breads, and bills of fare. Before all that, she started her book with chapters on the role of the mistress of the home ("the treatment of servants is of the highest possible moment"), and she concludes it with information on the duties of these servants, on the upkeep of the stables, on child rearing, on when to summon the doctor, and at last on "legal memoranda."

It is all a breathtaking accomplishment. One wonders if, like Shakespeare, there was anything this woman did not know. She is, for example, the first author I have happened to come across, who has made me understand what poaching was -- not poaching in the sense of cooking an egg, but in the sense of killing someone else's wild game illegally. Poachers, it seems, were the drug dealers of previous eras. They supplied something which the wealthy wanted, and which could only be bought, because all wild game lived perforce on noblemen's estates and therefore was construed to belong to them as the gift of the sovereign from whom they technically held their lands. If you were not a good friend of the Duke of Soandso, to be invited to his country house for a haunch of venison brought down by his people, then you had to buy the product. From somebody. The law's penalties for poaching were "very severe," Mrs. Beeton acknowledges. And they "will never" work. With hard-headed sense she writes that the wealthy but socially unconnected will have their game, and thus must continue to encourage poaching, "which, to a very large extent, must continue to render all game laws nugatory as to their intended effect upon the rustic population."

One of the delights of an old cookbook is the information provided about basic, almost medieval- style food preparation and preservation techniques which we no longer have to bother about. The human race probably took a long time learning this, learning how to eat safely: perhaps it is just as well that it is written down somewhere, for what will become of us if the good people at the sausage-making and jelly-making corporations should forget why they do what they do? Mrs. Beeton knows how to smoke and pickle meat, how to take the cream off milk -- it must be put in a shallow pan, because cream cannot rise through a great depth of milk -- how to gut a freshly killed suckling pig, how to dry cherries.

She also seems to know everything about every other household task, event, or problem which may arise. She knows the duties of a maid-of-all-work (they started their careers at age thirteen), how to iron a lady's fine clothes, under what circumstances the cook should also help make beds, and how to pay "calls." Is it a condolence call? A visit of friendship? A morning call? And be warned, you young people. An introduction at a ball does not count as a proper introduction. No gentleman, afterwards, has the right to address a lady. "She is, consequently, free, next morning, to pass her partner at a ball of the previous evening without the slightest recognition." Probably a most wise rule.

Mrs. Beeton has also been deep inside the nursery and has seen things, in this era before modern medicine, that most of us have, again, been spared. Of course she knows the trouble that young mothers have with their early experiences of breast-feeding -- keep the nipples dry afterward, and get a breast pump for the excess -- and she is adamant against the practice of bringing the baby into the parents' bed. It is an invitation to accidental smothering. But she has also seen babies die, of the mysterious causes that seem to have killed so many in their first hours, causes that responded to no treatments whatever. "Sometimes, however, all these means will fail in effecting an utterance from the child, which will lie, with livid lips and a flaccid body, every few minutes opening its mouth with a short gasping pant, and then subsiding into a state of pulseless inaction, lingering probably some hours, till the spasmodic pantings growing further apart, it ceases to exist."

But the bulk of Household Management is its recipes. Are any of them worth following today? Although a calf's head complete with palate, eye, tongue, and brains, will surely never be brought to a table again, I think quite a few of the less gothic recipes are worthwhile. What is daunting about her book is the amount of food she expects to be served at any and every meal. This is the age of servants, we must remember. A "plain family dinner" for November, for example, is fried soles and melted butter, roast leg of pork with apple sauce and vegetables, and macaroni with parmesan cheese (this whole menu constitutes item number 2110 -- Mrs. Beeton has the book arranged brilliantly thus, with every new paragraph, recipe, or piece of advice numbered. Number 2152, for example, specifies "Beverages not to be forgotten at a picnic." Don't bother with water, you can get that anywhere.)

Anyway I don't know if I am equal to dishing out all that one plain family night soon, but many of her individual recipes are simple and worthwhile because in this era before refrigeration, convenience, and waste, she made great use of leftovers and of single, seasonal ingredients. Her baked tomatoes under butter and bread crumbs sound very good (No. 1158). So does her leftover beef stewed with gravy and three bunches of celery (No. 667). Some of her recipes are painstakingly professional, like No. 1350, a casserole of rice which is baked with pieces of bread in it, to hold open places which will then be stuffed with meat "ragout" when the bread is removed. Some of her recipes show an imagination -- or a use of seasonal, cheap ingredients -- that I have never seen before (No. 1397, "A pretty dish of apples and rice"). And then as you flip along happily through the book, you'll come across things like the addendum to item No. 1627, in which the authoress describes what sounds like lactose intolerance. Or the addendum to No. 451, (about pickles) in which she says that really the mark of a thrifty and accomplished mistress, as opposed to the lady "to whom these desirable epithets may not honestly be applied," lies in her arrangement and labeling of the things in her store closet. It is such a saving of time and trouble to be able to lay one's hands instantly on what is wanted.

True enough, though nowadays we flatter ourselves that liberated women have more important things to do. I wonder. Until our own era produces another Mrs. Beeton, I think I'll flip happily through her massive tome, and go on wondering.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Little Wax Doll by Norah Lofts

Originally appeared in The Times of Northwest Indiana

Norah Lofts was one of an impressive cohort of English women novelists who seemed to reach their prolific prime in the middle of the twentieth century, and who remain delightful, intelligent escape reading today. Mary Stewart was another, along with Angela Thirkell, Miss Read, and of course Agatha Christie. They were born early enough to be able to grace their writing with real information from a late-Victorian schooling, and yet they lived and created through the huge social changes of the 1950s and 60s, and so noticed things like hippies and the sudden ubiquity of four-letter words. Norah Lofts in particular had a talent for thinking up great titles for her novels, which tended to the historical romance genre. Silver Nutmeg and White Hell of Pity were just two of a few dozen.

Unfortunately, The Little Wax Doll is not one of Lofts' better efforts. Perhaps the rather dull title is a clue. The book is set in eastern England in the late 1950s, and concerns a Miss Deborah Mayfield, who returns from twenty years as a missionary in Africa to take up a teaching post in the small and beautiful village of Walwyk. Strange things go on, or rather, the villagers behave strangely. A girl shows up at school with welts on her back, and then defends her grandmother when Miss Mayfield says she suspects the old lady of having administered the beating. A boy and girl who like each other are kept apart by the boy's parents, with no explanation given. A boy becomes sick, and his parents' reactions range from hysteria to cool indifference -- and Miss Mayfield wants to know why.

There are possibilities in this novel, but the trouble is that the plot depends on the narrator (that is, the author), the characters, and the reader all taking witchcraft seriously. Since the author is clearly not sure whether she does -- this is after all "nineteen fifty-nine, the modern age," as Miss Mayfield is made to say -- we are left following the adventures of a protagonist who may be fighting true, supernatural evil, or who may just be stuck in the boondocks with a lot of elderly farmers having parties, naked, in the woods.

Still, one has to give Lofts credit for slogging through and producing yet another professional, well-woven story, including what she probably meant to be a startlingly eerie ending. At best, Miss Mayfield's situation makes the reader think about what it might have been like to live in places or times when "witchcraft" was a real terror, not so much for "victims" of it as for victims of accusations of it. Norah Lofts liked to spice her novels with the witchery theme from time to time, but in The Little Wax Doll, witchery is not the spice but the whole meal. It is the more indigestible for it.