Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Bostonians by Henry James

From my "Book Lover's Journal," January 2002

Most excellent. Surprised the feminist movement survived it. However, if it was a "failure" when it first came out, I can see why: it all hinges on the character of Olive Chancellor, and there is no reason for her to be as she is, at least no explanation -- though perhaps that is James' point. She is like Iago, totally rational and totally malicious -- but why?

I suppose the theme of the novel is that people are going to do what they like, and always have, and that the purpose of life is to be true to oneself (like Miss Birdseye, who is a radical), and not to give oneself over to a cause, even a cause for freedom. Subjection to a cause always leads to obedience: the Boston audience howling for Verena at the end. As for oppression, not a single woman in the book is beholden to anyone, except perhaps Olive herself, who at the end has a male agent, Mr. Filer. Obedience being the price of belonging, James would not be at all surprised to find today that the feminist movement's demand now is that all women work, and wish to work. As for Basil Ransom, he, like Miss Birdseye, is one of the few characters true to himself -- and true to the absolute truth, love -- but even with him, James has "not cheated." He really does want women to stay home and make men happy. Or so he protests. He also "sits on fences" for them.

A curious note: I think James cannot describe the American landscape. He has no feel for it -- he describes it as if from a map, with no real smells, sounds, details, love.

As for Verena: a pure and lovely creature, yet, as such, her subjection to the horror of Olive also makes little sense. I feel James knew none of these people, except Ransom and Birdseye; the rest are types, set to lay a scene.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh

I have re-read with pleasure, in the course of a few hot summer nights, this classic book from my childhood and classic of modern children's literature. I always liked The Long Secret even better than its precursor and companion story, Harriet the Spy, because I could relate to Harriet's and her friends' summertime adventures more than I could to their school days in swanky Manhattan. Being (and remaining) a child of the suburbs, the very urban setting of that book always puzzled me. What kind of kids, I wondered, lived in apartment buildings, stopped at a local drugstore after school for an "egg cream," had full-time nannies, and attended weird stand-alone schools not a part of any comfortable and generically named district? Later on when I read other juvenile fiction also set in New York, I used to wonder what "P.S.," followed by a number, meant; later still, I wondered at the insularity of New York editors who think that all American children will understand that, and no explanations necessary.

The Long Secret spins out on slightly more familiar ground. In Water Mill, New York ("slow down and enjoy it" reads the motto on the welcome sign), we are far from the perplexing and gigantic city. There are forests and farm fields here, long gravel roads with real individual houses along them, and a town with a main street, a filling station, a post office, and a little grocery store where the kids buy cookies. We read of long bike rides, of the sun on hot handlebars, and of long days at the beach with nothing to do but swim, read, eat, and get back home in time for dinner.

Harriet's and her friends' escapades are certainly a bit implausible -- the essence of fiction, no? -- yet when I read them at twelve, I found them spot on. That a set of pubescents should "spy" on the adult goings-on at a country resort, concentrating particularly on the bar staff, plus meet an extraordinary family of Bible-thumping Southern evangelicals in the patent nostrum business headed by an obese single mother, all the while one of the pubescents endures a dreadful reunion with a long-lost Eurotrash mother of her own, seems a pretty outlandish set up even for a young adult novel. (Do we assume that kids want to read crazier plotlines than adults do? Perhaps.) Yet I drank it all in. I think it seemed right because the friendships among the main characters, Harriet, Beth Ellen, Janie, and the late-come Mississippian, Jessie Mae, are so right. These four friends are everything twelve-year-olds are: viperish, rude, self-absorbed, prickly and critical with each other most of the time, and yet capable of a sort of clodhoppy affection and of rudimentary adult manners troweled like plaster over the rough bricks of childhood. This scene, for example, struck me then, and still does, as emotionally perfect:

They were having a discussion about where to go.

"Let's go back and see Mama Jenkins. She said come back one day before they work and get lemonade, remember?" said Harriet, looking at Beth Ellen.

That seems a thousand years ago, thought Beth Ellen, but all she said was, "Let's go to the hotel."

" 'Let's go to the hotel, let's go to the hotel,' -- that's all you ever say," said Harriet.

"What hotel?" asked Janie. "Anyway, I thought people went to the beach out here. Isn't that what you come out here for?"

Harriet looked at Janie. Beth Ellen knew what was going through Harriet's mind: Janie was a guest and whatever she wanted they would have to do. She watched Harriet and her inner struggle.

"Yes. Let's go to the beach," said Harriet in a limp but friendly way.

"I couldn't care less," said Janie. "The sun gives you skin cancer anyway."

"Why don't we do all three?" said Harriet as though a light bulb had gone on in her head.

"Smashing," said Janie.

Beth Ellen felt a secret smile that she wouldn't let crawl out onto her face. She would see Bunny ...

The story's "secret" concerns the question who is leaving a series of bizarre red-crayoned notes all over Water Mill. Harriet, Beth Ellen, and briefly Janie are vacationing here, and witness the resultant small scale turmoil. Random people find random notes at their workplaces, in their homes, as they sit down to restaurant meals, in Harriet's case in the basket of her bicycle. Playing detective as she is, and planning to write a story based on the mystery, she's beyond thrilled when she finally gets one. (" 'It's HAPPENED.' ") The notes are faintly Biblical, scolding, and horoscope-like, " 'like some sort of nasty fortune cookie,' " as a minor but terrifically outre character, Mrs. Plumber, puts it. Beth Ellen's breathtakingly beautiful and awful mother, Zeeney Baines, gets the worst -- because truest -- of them all: IN SORROW THOU SHALT BRING FORTH CHILDREN.

If you've never had the pleasure when you were twelve, I won't go any further, for fear of spoiling things for you; only do please read this funny, un-syrupy, and need I emphasize lavishly plotted book. Even the asides cover just about everything in a preteen's head and experience, including the first independent thoughts about religion, the crush on the older man, the first menstruation, and those late night pajama-party conversations about God. Harriet starts this topic abruptly. " 'Listen, I want to ask you something, both of you. Do you believe in God?' "

Adulthood has given me just one little soupcon of delight more in this delightful book. Of course, I can see some scenes anew, as at the very beginning when Beth Ellen's grandmother is furious that the maid MOVED her perfume bottles. No, she's mad at more than that. But more fun is that, having spent some years reading Vogue and other materials, I understand the setting of The Long Secret. These are the Hamptons, whither all the celebrities retreat in summer when swanky Manhattan grows unbearable. Montauk, where Harriet's father buys lobsters for the clambake, is a real place, as is Mecox Bay, on the shores of which Harriet's and Beth Ellen's families have their respective houses. The Montauk highway and Water Mill are also real, although I hardly think, almost fifty years on, that Louise Fitzhugh's descriptions of the town as a truly hick wide spot in the road, whose locals roll their eyes at "the summer people" and whose woods still shelter the house of an elderly black sharecropping preacher, can now be accurate.

It never occurred to me when I first read both books that Harriet and her circle were very rich. That background, which Harriet at least suspected, neither drove nor interfered with the fun of either story. But it turns out that Fitzhugh knew whereof she wrote on this score, because besides being an adoptive New Yorker she was herself a trust fund baby and an owner of grand (Connecticut) properties. Doing enough perfunctory researches into her life to learn that much gives another soupcon, not of delight but of half-appalled fascination, to the re-reading of her work. If I had wanted to find out anything about her when I was twelve, I would have had to ask a librarian at the public library for help in unearthing details, painstakingly slowly, from sources like the once absolutely necessary Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. It would have required dogged work for us simply to find her obituary there -- for by the time I read her two finest, almost her only novels, she was already dead. To learn the fact of "her death in 1974" from the back of a book jacket meant nothing to a twelve-year-old in 1977; to google her, and learn in a moment that she died of a brain aneurism at 46, is rather choke-inducing now that I am 45. "MY GOD," Harriet would shout, "YOU'RE KIDDING." And then, her eyes narrowed to slits: "What is this?"

For more information:

Purple Socks: a Louise Fitzhugh tribute site

"Regarding Harriet: Louise Comes in From the Cold" by Karen Cook (originally published in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, April 11, 1995, reprinted at Purple Socks)

Louise Fitzhugh (wikipedia article)

Harriet the Spy (movie, 1996)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim (Marie Annette Beauchamp)

The introduction to this book is almost as interesting as the book itself, for it explains, briefly and lucidly, the life and works of our authoress, and why she happened to have two names. The lady was born in Australia Marie Annette Beauchamp, and was a cousin of the more famous, New Zealand born writer Katharine Mansfield (nee Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp). Reared in England, where she "was always called Elizabeth," she married, or "was persuaded to marry" a German count, and so became a rather young countess Elizabeth von Arnim. For the publication of her first book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, the former Miss Beauchamp acquired in 1898 a third name: for in the gentle but surely expiring tradition of lady writers even then, she was at first Anonymous.

The book was a huge success, so that for subsequent editions her name, or at any rate her German name, was permitted to grace the cover. The Garden was followed in later years by more books, a few of which we might know better. She wrote Mr. Skeffington, made into that great movie of the same name in the early 1940s with Bette Davis and Claude Rains; she wrote Enchanted April, made into a movie in the early 1990s starring actors not quite so well known.

All this we have from one R. McGowan, writing in San Jose on April 11, 1998. Apparently he or she is the one responsible for getting Elizabeth and her German Garden scanned into the files of Project Gutenberg as long ago as that. Indeed he closes with, "In the centennial year of this book's first publication, I hope that its availability through Project Gutenberg will stir some renewed interest in Elizabeth and her delightful work. She is, I would venture, my favorite author ...."

I don't think I'll count Elizabeth as my favorite author quite yet. Her rough diary of a year at her country estate is certainly a unique view into a strange and vanished world -- faint praise; any good book should be that -- but there is also something unpleasantly dreamlike in these cool, guarded, yet outlandish portrayals of family, guests, servants, routine, holidays, chores, and weird excursions. There is warmth in the garden, but only there. And even there, the reader who is also a gardener will not be able to follow her too far in her hobby, even in sympathy, unfortunately. Though she began as an absolute amateur, still she was the wife of a count, and had the means -- the pin money -- to order things like a hundred rose bushes at a time, and to speak of stream and woods. Like so many garden writers, where she says "garden," she means property. There is a big difference, even if one tries to rejoice for her.

The rough diary, set down from the beginning of May to the end of the next April, is one half given over to the garden, and one half to a chronicle of indoor domesticities, chief among them a long midwinter visit from Irais and Minora. These are two women whom Elizabeth would far rather not have left on her hands, especially Minora, who is merely a young relation of a friend, taken in as a favor because she is alone in Germany and requires chaperoning. The girl also has literary pretensions. She is gathering material for a book on Germany. Elizabeth and Irais find her ignorant, credulous, and yet absurdly timid when it comes to any chance for an authentic German adventure.

Such as, for instance, a sleigh ride to the Baltic coast in the depths of winter. Minora starts out happily enough with her two companions, but after six hours of the cold and a cold picnic and then the swiftly gathering darkness, and pop-eyed, faux innocent assurances from Elizabeth that the elderly coachman doesn't fall asleep and overturn the carriage too often, she turns desperate and drops broad hints that they ought to stop at a neighbor's house for the night and continue home in the morning. Upon that she is treated to a long, sumptuously composed speech from Irais about how vulgar and pushing such a visit would be, and how even if they all were such rubes as to dare it, she herself would promptly be seated in the most uncomfortable chair in the house, in the spot preordained for unexpected visitors who are also virgins of no rank. Granted Minora's idea was a little awkward, still the reader wonders if indeed German etiquette at this time was so atrocious, or if Irais was indulging in deviltry, or if Elizabeth was making the entire scene up for the sheer joy of invention.

Regardless, it makes one sympathize with Minora, even though perhaps she was sometimes an annoying chit. And, to be fair to Elizabeth, long country house visits must have worn on the hostess' nerves in any society or era where they were once commonly made. Elizabeth wanted to get back to her garden and her family privacy. Still, in setting the stage for this long and not very funny story, Elizabeth had told us that she also likes to take her truly wearisome summer guests to these same Baltic beaches. The great joke there is that the seacoast in summer swarms with mosquitoes, which spoil the expectations of visitors who had thrilled to the suggestion of refreshing ocean breezes. After that, they tend to pack their bags and go home. So, I think, would I. I think also I do not make Elizabeth one of my favorite writers, not just yet.

A couple of scenes, if they are not much warmer than any others, nevertheless ring with a likable and unmistakable truth. In one, the young wife, mother and gardener tells us what it was like, not only to have servants to do your work, but to be forbidden to do your own work -- even if it was work you loved:

I did one warm Sunday in last year's April during the servants' dinner hour, doubly secure from the gardener by the day and the dinner, slink out with a spade and a rake and feverishly dig a little piece of ground and break it up and sow surreptitious ipomaea [morning glory], and run back very hot and guilty into the house, and get into a chair and behind a book and look languid just in time to save my reputation.

This was the mistress of the estate, and she could not garden. In another scene, that same young mistress proves her mettle when it is time to sack one of those servants. One day a door to a parlor swings open and the governess, Miss Jones, is accidentally overheard criticizing her employers in a private talk with our Minora. She pronounces, in a general way, that most parents "are not wise," that most pious husbands including the present master were probably rakes as bachelors, and that it's a sore trial for the governess to have to be polite and "even humble" to such pompous fools. Elizabeth walks in to the parlor, icily invites Minora to tea, and tells the governess she "wants the children for a little while." The next day, Miss Jones is gone, flung out into the great world with no good references, we may be sure. No mention of consulting the husband, "the Man of Wrath," in all this. No need to, it seems.

R. McGowan's introduction tells us that in time, Elizabeth had to leave this idyllic home -- we never quite know where it is, except that it is fifteen miles from the Baltic -- and go on to a probably much more urban second half of life. (Back in England? We don't know.) After the Man of Wrath died, she circulated among people fine enough to introduce her to friends like H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell, whose brother she married. Somehow, one doesn't see men like that mucking about in the compost days from any town, and knowing the names of a hundred roses, too.

The second marriage ended in divorce. With the outbreak of World War II, she fled to America, where she died in 1941.

Now of course the Garden is not all unpleasantly dreamlike, and mosquitoes and sacked servants. There is humor in it, and it would be unfair to leave you with no idea of it.

"I really think, Elizabeth," said Irais to me later, when the click of Minora's typewriter was heard hesitating from the next room, "that you and I are writing her book for her. She takes down everything we say. Why does she copy all that about the baby? I wonder why mothers' knees are supposed to be touching? I never learned anything at them, did you? But then in my case they were only stepmother's, and nobody ever sings their praises."

"My mother was always at parties," I said; "and the nurse made me say my prayers in French."

And there is the garden and the flowers, "which I have loved so much." (Even on the last page we hear a hint of a goodbye.)

"I love tulips better than any other spring flower; they are the embodiment of alert cheerfulness and tidy grace, and next to a hyacinth look like a wholesome, freshly tubbed young girl beside a stout lady whose every movement weighs down the air with patchouli."

I'm curious to know what Elizabeth's last novel, Mr. Skeffington, is like. Of course I have seen the movie, but I'd like to know if Skeffington shows some kind of arcing journey of the woman and the writer. I think it must, unless Hollywood transformed it sight unseen. From idyllic and adored German garden, the titled young mother, thirty, becomes a seventy-year-old telling the tale of a Jewish banker who barely escapes with his life from a Germany that now occupies another universe.