The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

 

letteraTechnically this is a reread. However, all these many years since high school have dimmed my memories of the details. The first being the Introduction to the book or autobiographical essay that Hawthorne uses to show that the story he tells is true; that one day during his job as the Surveyor in the Custom House in the city of Salem, Massachusetts he explores the old building and discovers a room filled with old documents belonging to his predecessors. Upon opening a package wrapped with red tape, he finds a tattered piece of material with a faded letter “A” embroidered on it. Also enclosed are documents containing interviews with townspeople enabling him to piece together the story of Hester Prynne the adulteress, who bore a child, refused to name the father and lived life as a recluse.

The story takes place during the mid 17th century in the first few years of the Puritan city’s founding. Hester Prynne has been convicted of adultery and must live for the rest of her life with the shame branded on her in the form of an elaborately embroidered scarlet letter ‘A’ sewn into the bodice of her dress. She lives her life on the outskirts of town, raising her daughter and eking out an existence by sewing and embroidery. The man complicit in the liaison is identified to the reader as the Reverend Dimmesdale, though he does not acknowledge any involvement in Hester’s plight or responsibility for Pearl.

We learn Hester comes to Salem from England awaiting her husband who has not yet arrived and is feared to have died at sea. However, on the day Hester is released from prison and paraded through the crowd of townspeople to the platform from where she will be displayed for the day, he appears though he makes no move to rescue Hester, to forgive her or reveal their relationship to the authorities. He disguises himself as an itinerant doctor and changes his name to Chillingworth.

As the pious and well-loved minister of the town, Dimmesdale’s conscience gets the better of him and as the years go by his guilt begins to literally eat away at him. Dr. Chillingworth moves in to his home presumably to care for him, but he knows Didmmesdale’s connection to Hester and it is not clear how honestly is his medical advice.

Dimmesdale dies after a brilliant last sermon and soon after so does Chillingworth, himself a victim of guilt-related wasting disease. Hester and Pearl leave for several years and when Hester returns to Salem she is alone living once more on the edge of town bearing her sentence with quiet humility until she dies.

Some Things that Strike Me: The Supernatural,  Corporate Sin

Hawthorne is at his best when he blends the normal with the supernatural as he does in The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance and which he does here. In fact, there is a constant sense of evil and malevolent forces at work throughout; of the men in Hester’s life who act in fiendish ways, including her husband whose guilt has ‘transformed him into a devil;” a meteor that lights up the night sky and is observed as a foreboding sign; the rumored dance of witches with the Black Man [Satan] of the forest; little Pearl “born of sin” whose soul seems to fight the forces of good and evil. And finally, the scarlet letter which has a life of its own.

In the Introduction, as Hawthorne sifts through the documents pertaining to Hester Prynne, the remnant of the scarlet letter falls on his chest.

It seemed to me,—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, of a burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.

The scarlet letter is also of curious interest to the infant Pearl who notices the lettera2glimmering gold embroidery “with a decided gleam that gave her face the look of a much older child,”  causing Hester to never feel safe. This look is described as elfish, almost fiendish, an evil-spirit possession of the child mocking her mother.

When Dimmesdale dies it is in the presence of his congregation at the conclusion of what turns out to be his last sermon. Hester is near and comforts him. He confesses his guilt to her and hopes his suffering in life is sufficient penance to reach Heaven. Many of the spectators testify to seeing a scarlet letter A visible on his chest. Some say it was put there as the penance he took on when Hester first appeared to the public to show his flock we are all sinners. Others believe it was placed there through the work of Chillingworth, by necromancy and magic.

I find Pearl to be a striking character who is thought of as both the sin of her parents as well as a magical creature, full of airy light who is a wild woodland elf. The stain of her mother precludes the town’s children from associating with her so her playmates are the trees, brooks and animals of the forest and her fantasy life. But she scares Hester almost from the beginning.

The child’s own nature had something wrong in it, which continually betokened that she had been born amiss, –the effluence of her mother’s lawless passion, — had often impelled Hester to ask, in bitterness of heart, whether it were for ill or good that the poor little creature had been born at all.

Pearl refuses to obey rules and is described as a disordered and peculiar child whose character, Hester believes, was formed while she was giving in to her illicit passion which was transmitted into her child. As Pearl was “imbibing her soul from the spiritual world…the warfare of Hester’s spirit was perpetuated in Pearl.”

How unfair for a child to be so burdened by society’s strictures and grievous religious dogma through no fault of its own and without ever having recourse.

I also found it unusual that Hester’s accuser is not her husband, but the townspeople, the governors and magistrates, the clergy. At that time, religion and its enforced morality had a hold on one’s personal life and was policed by neighbors. Transgressions were brought to the clergy and punishment was strong to set an example.

It occurs to me how different a scenario is the accusation of adultery during the colonial times compared to our own. We leave adultery to the couple involved to sort it out as they will and while one or the other might make accusations against each other it is not a criminal offense affecting the entire town. It reminds me of the witch trials of Salem, this belief that what you do as an individual your community has something to say about it and everyone must toe the same line.

As the years pass though Hester continues to wear the scarlet letter, many in the town have either forgiven her or are unsure of her past. She becomes known for her good deeds to the poor and sick and comforting and consoling to any young women thought wronged in some accusation or another. In fact, many choose to see in her exemplary life the letter representing not her shame, but her penance. “They said that it meant Able.

And how does this all end for Hester Prynne and her little woodland elf of a daughter? Quite nicely as it turns out. The old devil Chillingworth died a rich man and bequeathed his fortune to Pearl who became the richest heiress of her day. Mother and daughter leave the country for many years until one day Hester arrives back at her simple cottage and attaches to her dress the scarlet letter continuing the punishment of her own free will. It is speculated that Pearl, being of marriageable age, has found a husband across the sea and would not be joining her mother.

To the townspeople who observe packages and letters coming into Hester’s home bearing seals of unknown English heraldry, they know someone from afar, is it Pearl?, is caring for her. This is confirmed the day Hester is seen embroidering a baby garment….

Such an intense tale of passion and mystery! Made up or based on reality? Whether the Introduction is true about the package with the faded fabric or not, a story of great magnitude is the result.

________________________

Title: The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1850
Pages: 238
Full plot summary

 

Challenges: Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Victorian Reading Challenge

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Gabriela Mistral: Chilean Poet, Educator, Diplomat and Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

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April is National Poetry Month and I want to share a few works of a poet I just discovered, Gabriela Mistral (April 7, 1889—January 10, 1957). She is the first South American author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1945) and I hope I am in the minority of those who have never heard of her!

Pure luck brought her to my attention when a character in a telenovela I am watching that is presently airing on Chilean television quoted her. (“The universe changes in an instant and we are born in a day”). I found this profound and wanted to find out more about her.

Born in a small village in the Andes Mountains of Chile, Mistral had an extensive career as an educator, poet, and diplomat; her diplomatic assignments included posts in Madrid, Lisbon, Genoa, and Nice.

She is an emotional and lyrical poet and her poetry is characterized by a persistent and mystical search for union with divinity and all of creation.

I think it is for this reason these three poems particularly draw me. All three speak of spirituality, Nature and a person at ease in conversation with the Divine.

A note on translation: I do not know Spanish, the language of Gabriela Mistral’s work, but these translations are by Doris Dana, her friend and heir to her papers and estate. I am sure they do Mistral justice.*

 

“Serenity”/”Suavidades”

When I am singing to you,
on earth all evil ends:
as smooth as your forehead
are the gulch and the bramble.

When I am singing to you,
for me all cruel things end:
as gentle as your eyelids,
the lion with the jackal.


“Time”/”Tiempo”

DAYBREAK

My heart swells that the Universe
like a fiery cascade may enter.
The new day comes. Its coming
leaves me breathless.
I sing. Like a cavern brimming
I sing my new day.

For grace lost and recovered
I stand humble. Not giving. Receiving.
Until the Gorgon night,
vanquished, flees.


“Eight Puppies”/”Ocho Perritos

Between the thirteenth and the fifteenth day
the puppies opened their eyes.
Suddenly they saw the world,
anxious with terror and joy.
They saw the belly of their mother,
saw the door of their house,
saw a deluge of light,
saw flowering azaleas.

They saw more, they saw all,
the red, the black, the ash.
Scrambling up, pawing and clawing
more lively than squirrels,
they saw the eyes of their mother,
heard my rasping cry and my laugh.

And I wished I were born with them.
Could it not be so another time?
To leap from a clump of banana plants
one morning of wonders—
a dog, a coyote, a deer;
to gaze with wide pupils
to run, to stop, to run, to fall,
to whimper and whine and jump with joy,
riddled with sun and with barking,
a hallowed child of God, his secret, divine servant.

I don’t pretend at this time to know more than a scant few details about Mistral, since in discovering her, I have mostly concentrated on reading her poems. I know that while she had fulfilling and important career successes in education and political diplomacy, she had many personal loses and sorrows, including the death of a nephew she raised as a son. Her poems reflect this.

Since today is her date of birth, I am hoping the Internet will point me to others who know more. If she is new to you, maybe you’ll want to search around as well.

For a nicely detailed biography of her life, including excerpts from her work, I found her entry at The Poetry Foundation to be quite meaningful.

___________

Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated and edited by Doris Dana. Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore, 1971.

Morning Prayer-Spring Equinox 2018

 

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I arise facing East,
I am asking toward the light;
I am asking that my day
Shall be beautiful with light.
I am asking that the place
Where my feet are shall be light,
That as far as I can see
I shall follow it aright.
I am asking for the courage
To go forward through the shadow,
I am asking towards light!–Mary Austin

 

Mary Austin wrote about life in the Sierra Nevada mountains and valleys of California, about the Native peoples, the white settlers, the animals and the natural rhythm of the area.

March Magics – Dogsbody, Diana Wynne Jones (1975)

Do listen to this, Leo! It’s about the Dog Star.
Sirius, Alpha Canis Major, often called the Dog Star, is only some eight and a half light-years distant from our Solar System…its brightness and characteristic green color make it a notable object in our winter sky…It’s exactly right for you! Oh–and you’ve got a Companion that’s a white dwarf, about half the size of our sun.

 
dogsbodySirius is angry. In fact, he is so angry he is lit up green. He has been accused of murder and the mishandling of the Zoi, which was seen falling to Earth and he cannot convince the other luminaries of his innocence. However, they have suspended his sentence with the proviso that he be banished to Earth to find and return the Zoi. He will be put in the body of a native creature, in this case a dog, without the knowledge of his mission. If he succeeds, he will be reinstated to all his spheric dignities. If he fails he will die in a manner natural to the dog. His green eyes are the only indication he is different from other dogs.

He begins his life on Earth in a litter of unwanted puppies, who are taken to the river to be drowned. Two die, but 4 are rescued by people who find them barely clinging to life, including young Kathleen, who is Irish and living with her English relatives while her father serves out his jail sentence back in Ireland. Already begrudged by Mrs. Duffield, who hates the Irish and is not happy that her husband took her in, the dog just makes things worse: Kathleen has to promise to do all the cooking and cleaning in order for Leo, the name she gives the dog, not to be put down.

Mrs. Duffield and her two young boys, Basil and Robin, make life difficult for Leo by their aggressive behavior towards him. Mrs. Duffield is a potter with a shop inside the house which makes the ever growing Leo a hazard. So he is banished to the backyard every morning to be tied up until Kathleen comes home from school and can take him out. It is on a walk to the field where she picked him up that he begins to awaken to his mission, that he is something else besides a dog, that he was wrongly accused of murder, that someone let him down and while he understands that his goal on Earth is to find a Zoi and bring it back, at this point he does not know what it is.

As the days go by and Leo remembers more he develops the ability to understand human language, which Kathleen notices. A book lover, she reads to him at night and though these scenes are touching, they give Leo some of the most important information he needs for his quest. He also communicates with the 3 Duffield cats, who have come to trust him after he saves one of them, Tibbles, from a severe beating by Mrs. Duffield. Tibbles teaches him how to unlock the gate, which he does each day to go and search for the Zoi. He feels an even more immediate need to find it after he realizes Basil is a collector of rocks and fossils and fears he may come across the Zoi first.

As the rush to find the Zoi and clear his name heats up, Leo encounters help and hindrance from all kinds of magical, earthly and celestial beings: Sol and Moon, who communicate via sun and moon beams and Earth whose clues come from its body, the Companion sphere of Sirius and the New-Sirius who want to kill Leo so he can’t come back and kindly old Miss Smith who takes in Kathleen and Leo when life at the Duffield’s becomes too dangerous for both.

The ending is bittersweet. There is victory, there is letting go, there is grief. But ultimately for us, the stars are in alignment, our Earth is stabilized and Kathleen is safe.

While this is a wonderful children’s tale (although the treatment of Leo by the Duffields is hard to watch even for adults), Diana Wynne Jones fills this story with astronomical legends and mythical symbolism to keep adults satisfied. As the great orbs of our galaxy fight and war with each other, they are reminiscent of the stories of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and the feuds between them that threaten all of humanity and the one brave warrior tasked to save us all.

And what of the Zoi? Is it life itself? Is this a spiritual quest Leo travels toward as much as it is material? After all he is trying to save his life, or is he trying to save the life of all humanity? Frankly, I didn’t realize the depth of questions I would have before I started this book.

On a Personal Note

About three years ago I wanted to identify some of the constellations in the night sky and to learn their legends and history. Since Orion is so obvious and full of and close to major stars and other constellations I started there. Each late fall and through the winter months as it make its way across the sky I think of what I have learned. Orion is the Hunter, who is in the lead, while Sirius the loyal Dog, follows. In reading Dogsbody now, both Orion and Canis Major are visible and I have loved adding this story to what I know already about these constellations.

This is my first Diana Wynne Jones and I am grateful to Lory at Emerald City Book Review where I discovered March Magics and to Kristen at We Be Reading for having created it, giving readers a chance to discuss or discover a new author.

________________

My Edition
Title: Dogsbody
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: Harper Trophy
Device: Paperback
Year: 1975
Pages: 261
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

Classics Club Spin #17

classicsclub

Several times a year, the Classics Club (CC) Spin gives me a boost to get on with reading from my CC List. The last two times I have needed that boost, and even though I am glad to say I don’t need it now, these Spins are fun. I enjoy seeing what is on the lists of other Classic Clubbers and the experience helps me to feel part of the community.

The rules are simple: I go to my CC List and choose 20 books I haven’t read, list them 1-20 and wait until Friday, March 9th when the Spin Goddess chooses a number. Voila! The corresponding number on my list is the book I will read and blog about by April 30th.

If you want to read more classics and think a community of bloggers doing that very thing will spur you on, join the Club first and you can participate in the Spin.

My list:

Jane Austen
1. Sense and Sensibility (1811)
2. Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Anne Bronte
3. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)

Charlotte Bronte
4. Shirley (1849)

Emily Bronte
5. Wuthering Heights (1847)

Fanny Burney
6. Evelina (1778)

Willa Cather
7. O Pioneers! (1913)
8. My Antonia (1918)

Daniel Defoe
9. Robinson Crusoe (1719)
10. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

Theodore Dreiser
11. Sister Carrie (1900)

George Eliot
12. Mill on the Floss (1860)
13. Silas Marner (1861)
14. Daniel Deronda (1876)

Elizabeth Gaskell
15. Mary Barton (1848)
16. Cranford (1851)
17. North and South (1854)
18. Wives and Daughters (1864)

Henry James
19. Portrait of a Lady (1881)
20. The Ambassadors (1903)

Some Clubbers do a theme with their Spins, for example, “books I am afraid to read,” “books by women,” but I decided to choose the first 20 on my list minus the ones I’ve already read or don’t have in my physical possession. Check out #ccspin on Twitter to find Spin lists by CC members.

I will be back on the 9th with an update. Psst, Spin Goddess, the Brontes or Gaskell, please 🙂

ETA: The Spin Goddess has chosen #3 and I got my Bronte! I will be reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 🙂

“I thank You God for most this amazing day…” e e cummings

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i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

 

ee cummings (October 14, 1894 – September 3, 1962), the man of lower case letters and eccentric punctuation. The word order in his poems, too, is different: personal, idiosyncratic, experimental.

This poem sings the spirit of nature for me, although I didn’t understand it all until I came across a recording of the man himself reading it. His intonation, the breaks and pauses…How many times does it happen that one can hear a classic poem read by the poet long dead in his own voice?

 

 

#BloggingtheSpirit

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920)

It was not the custom in New York drawing rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule, she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes.

 

AgeinnocenceThis the fourth book I’ve read by Edith Wharton after Ethan Frome, Summer and The House of Mirth. I see similar patterns in all of them, but each one is from a fresh perspective, from the particular protagonist.

Wharton seems to be interested in the struggle between a person’s freedom versus society’s demands; between the ability to dream a new reality for yourself and what your class says you can and cannot do. In each of the aforementioned books the main character is caught in what they want for their life and their inability to get it. There is always interference and it is then that their conscience kicks in or their chance to choose is lost. And then they resign themselves to their fate. This is my perspective, anyway.

The Age of Innocence tackles marriage and after only a few pages in it is obvious that this particular courtship is not going to go well.

It is an opera night in 1870s New York City and the well-known Swedish opera singer Christine Nilsson is performing. Newland Archer is scanning the audience and rests his eyes on the box across from him where May Welland, his soon to be announced fianceé is sitting with her mother and aunt. He has the vantage to observe her unnoticed.

His thoughts at first are to his love and what he will make of her and how she has been raised to be molded by her husband. “…he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” He is interrupted when a friend points out a young woman who has just entered the Welland box and whose foreign dress is causing a stir. She is Madame Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, who has come from Europe having run away from her husband and has come home to get a divorce.

At first, Ellen is shunned by many of her American relations who fear the disgrace divorce would cast on their reputation. When Newland’s law firm takes on the handling of the divorce, he is asked by the family to intercede with Ellen and encourage her not to file. Later he is asked to dam this breach between Ellen and the family due to his marriage to May, which leads to a disaster as the two fall in love.

As Newland navigates the thorny rules and rituals of courtship and marriage, he exposes the faults and farce of the new state he is entering into. He catches himself musing on what he expects his wife to be; while not quite equals, he wants something that is more free than what he sees in his circle. But the way women are raised, how can this be?

He reviewed his friends’ marriages—the supposed happy ones—and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

Would his marriage become like so many others where the husband “had formed a wife so completely to his own convenience that, in the most conspicuous moments of his frequent love-affairs with other men’s wives, she went about in smiling unconsciousness…”

Newland reasoned that the things he loved about May–her frankness, her grace and loyalty were an artificial construct.

He felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.

Wharton pulls no punches here.

Ellen, through her life experiences, possesses the sexual and intellectual freedom that Newland desires in a woman, a wife. And yet she is not free. Even if Newland wanted to leave May, the lack of a divorce would stand in the way of their marriage. Ellen sees the futility of living in limbo and announces she is going back to Paris, presumably to her husband. And what Newland and men like him don’t understand, is that women like May see through the bars of their gilded cage; they understand what marriage really is and only pretend to ‘smile in unconsciousness.’ Sick at Ellen’s departure, Newland tells May he wants to take a trip. Without missing a beat she tells him she is pregnant and that she told Ellen so a few weeks ago.

“You know I told you we had a long talk one afternoon—and how dear she was to me.”

“But that was a fortnight ago, wasn’t it? I thought you said you weren’t sure till today.”

“No; I wasn’t sure then—but I told her I was. And you see I was right! she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with victory.

In the final chapter decades have passed. May has born three children and after 26 years of marriage has died. Newland thinks of his life with her as deep and real. Ellen, though, lives only in the past. And at the very end of the novel when circumstances take the turn that both had wished for long ago, Newland makes a remarkable decision.

It would be easy to dislike a character like Newland Archer, but Wharton makes it impossible. He is honestly trying to assess the promise of his life against the social conventions of his time; exposing the hypocrisy of  the status quo and the values they hold dear.

_____________

My Edition
Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1920
Pages: 307
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club

 

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Unconsciously I shivered, as though someone had opened the door behind me, and let a draught into the room. I was sitting in Rebecca’s chair, I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom, and he remembered, in the past, she had given sugar to him there.

 

RebeccaWhen I put Rebecca on my Classics Club list, I didn’t know anything about it. I put it on my list with the same intention I put many classics on it: I want to read well-known or important classics, and knew this was one of them.

When I started book blogging, I discovered how many readers include Rebecca on their top 10 favorites list. That in itself was intriguing, yet there were so many other classics I knew about that I wanted to read first.

Now I am initiated. Now I understand.

(Caveat: For those not initiated, you will see often in this post ‘the second Mrs. de Winter,’ this is because her name is never mentioned).

There is so much tension built into this book, which begins in the first pages where an unnamed narrator is recounting a dream. It is a beautiful descriptive dream of a house, its grounds and its secrets and an ominous statement that it is no more.

The house was a sepulchre, our fear and suffering lay buried in the ruins. There would be no resurrection.

When the young second Mrs. de Winter comes to Manderley, her background has not prepared her to take up the responsibilities of caring for a show place like Manderley. Her shyness and reticence in the presence of the household staff and housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, does not instill confidence and she is constantly questioning herself and her marriage to Maxim. In her mind she concocts rich fantasies about what the staff really thinks of her, although reality is never as bad as her thoughts. But there is another facet of this experience she has no control over. She is living with the ghost of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca and her secrets, that permeate every aspect of the second Mrs. de Winter’s life.

No one will talk about Rebecca, which only adds to the second Mrs. de Winter’s rich fantasy life. Though many characters are introduced including Beatrice, Maxim’s sister and kind-hearted Frank Crawley, Maxim’s business associate, who genuinely like and accept her their refusal to talk about Rebecca and her death hangs over Mrs. de Winter’s ability to feel comfortable in the house.

That is until Mrs. Danvers, who it turns out was not just the housekeeper, but Rebecca’s confidante confronts Mrs. de Winter when she catches her in Rebecca’s suite and is only too happy to talk. Danvers is the classic dead mistress-obsessed housekeeper who refuses to let go of the past. She cleans and dusts this suite every day. She lays out Rebecca’s clothes as if she is only gone for the day. du Maurier writes this scene so well. It is easy to share de Winter’s panic as Danvers speaks.

It’s not only this room it’s in many rooms in the house…I feel her everywhere. You do too, don’t you?”…Sometimes, when I walk along the corridor here, I fancy I hear her just behind me. That quick light footstep. I could not mistake it anywhere. And in the minstrels’ gallery above the hall. I’ve seen her leaning there, in the evenings in the old days, looking down at the hall below and calling to the dogs. I can fancy her there now from time to time. It’s almost as though I catch the sound of her dress sweeping the stairs as she comes down to dinner.” She pauses. She went on looking at me, watching my eyes. “Do you think she can see us, talking to one another now? Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?”

I swallowed. I dug my nails into my hands.

Sometimes I wonder,” she whispered. “Sometimes I wonder if she comes back here to Manderley and watches you and Mr. de Winter together.”

When a ship capsizes in the bay and Rebecca’s small boat is discovered with her dead body still inside Maxim has no choice but to reveal the truth about how she died. It is a shocking revelation, but in my opinion, less shocking than the reasons he did it. As she listens to the truth about their marriage, as she hears the details about who Rebecca really was and as the investigation and inquest unfold, she is transformed. She is determined to support her husband, will hear all he is accused of, will stay by his side. In this regard she grows up and is changed overnight. Even Maxim acknowledges her transformation, dismayed that it is his fault.

But you. I can’t forget what it has done to you. I was looking at you, thinking of nothing else all through lunch. It’s gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved. It won’t come back again. I killed that too, when I told you about Rebecca. It’s gone, in twenty-four hours. You are so much older…

And then he says her name. He doesn’t, of course, but in my head it would have made so much sense for him to say it here.

Du Maurier’s writing style is quite amazing in this book. How many passages are worth quoting her way with words? How detailed she gives to the narrative whether in describing a person, Manderley and its grounds, or an event, but the narrative never feels bogged down in the details.

Yet, it is the details that infuse, propel and wrap up the story. I spent the last quarter of the book on a roller coaster as one revelation proves Maxim’s guilt while another one covers it up, while still another could go either way. I have never been very good at guessing outcomes in books, so I was not prepared for the very end. While it explains the dream of the first few pages and why the narrator is estranged from her home, I was still shocked. With eyes as big as saucers I closed the book…“What???”

I have heard people say and I have said it too about books that really touched me; I wish I could forget I read this book so I can read it again for the first time.

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My Edition
Title: Rebecca
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Publisher: Avon
Device: Paperback
Year: 1938
Pages: 380
Full plot summary

Challenges: Roofbeam Reader TBR, Classics Club

Margery Sharp Day – The Foolish Gentlewoman (1948)

For a moment he was left suspended between past and present, and well he knew which way his heart yearned. What he longed to return to was an orderly world. No one, in Mr. Brocken’s opinion, had tasted the sweetness of life who had not lived before 1914. What years those were for solid comfort!

 

22074996Recently widowed, fifty-five year old Isabel Massey Brocken has come back to her childhood home, Chipping Lodge. Nearby is the war-damaged remains of the much larger, Chipping Priory, where the Brocken family lived with their two sons, Simon and Mark. Ruth, Isabel’s sister, married and moved to New Zealand, while Isabel eventually married Mark. They had a long happy marriage and though childless, Isabel is close to Ruth’s son Humphrey who was educated in England, served in the war and is now staying with Isabel. Simon is also staying at Chipping Lodge while his war-damaged home is renovated. Completing this collection of family members and employees is Jacqueline Brown Isabel’s companion and Mrs. Poole and her 14-year old daughter, Greta, who Simon hired on as caretakers and cooks.

Humphrey and Jacky have struck up a relationship and value the peacefulness of Chipping Lodge after the chaos and stress of the war. As does Simon who hopes he can get through the next several months with his sister-in-law and the rest of the occupants of the house in peace and quiet. The Poole mother and daughter only want to do their jobs and be left alone. Order and respect permeate Chipping Lodge, though Sharp’s writing suggests a sense of unease.

We soon find Isabel holds a secret that will disrupt the balance of power at Chipping Lodge, a secret she has harbored since girlhood concerning a great wrong she committed against her cousin, Tilly Cuff. She has invited Miss Cuff to visit indefinitely and plans to make whatever amends she can. Simon remembers Tilly, but does not remember a special affection between her and Isabel and fears the disruption of a new person, a feeling shared by Humphrey. Both men have also observed that Isabel seems distracted and under some strain; a normally a patient woman, her temper has become thin and her tongue sharp.

When Isabel finally unburdens herself and what she hopes to do about it Simon and Humphrey are shocked and angry: Isabel wants to give all her money to Tilly out of guilt because of a childish misdeed she believes changed her life for the worse and deprived her of a home and family. It wasn’t until but a few weeks before that a half-heard phrase at church woke this guilt and the remedy to assuage it. She tells Simon what the preacher said,

It was a common error to suppose that the passage of time made a base action any less bad. “He meant, don’t you see, that because a thing happened a long time ago, it doesn’t make it any less base if it was base at the time.”

The sleeping guilt of the act has risen up inside her so that her only remedy is to confess to Tilly the deed and to give her all of her inheritance, including the house, which would go to Humphrey if she didn’t want it.

Once Tilly arrives, however, her abrasive and dictatorial behavior sets everyone on edge. Isabel promises Simon she won’t tell Tilly of her plans until she settles in, but even she sees how loathsome and impossible to bear Tilly has become. Simon tries to talk her out of her plans and though Isabel is aware of her disruption and admits she is very unlikable, that is still no reason to withhold what should come to her.

As time goes by, Tilly has encroached and wrestled her way into the personal and professional life of every person at Chipping Lodge and all is chaos and bad feelings. The Pooles have given notice, Jacky and Humphrey have separated, Simon stays late at the office and leaves early and Isabel has retreated into her own mind.

Something must give before all is lost, so Isabel plucks up the courage and tells Tilly that on the morning after one of their teenage parties, a certain Mr. Macgregor who was interested her wrote her a letter offering marriage. Isabel found it, read it and kept it from her, because she was in love with him herself. She knows this selfish act deprived Tilly of a future of happiness and security that she could never get back. But Isabel could make her future better by offering her money and a home.

It took Tilly three days to emerge from her bedroom and when she does she stuns them all by refusing Isabel’s offer. What she wants instead is for Isabel to keep everything and to give the house to Humphrey; she only wants a life with Isabel. Together they would live out their days in Bath, which Isabel loves, or anywhere else. After all of her years in service, where she went from one job to the next she only wants the stability of friendship and the security of a place to live in her old age. What Tilly is proposing surprises Isabel, since she expected, and was frankly looking forward to, a little suffering as penance. She questions Tilly until she is satisfied that Tilly’s need for stability is the best gift she can give her at this time in her life.

Jacky and Humphrey are horrified for Isabel, until a childhood friend of hers spells it out for them,

Isabel and Tilly have lived their lives for better or worse, “They’ll do very well together, and when Tilly upsets people, Isabel will calm them; and if Isabel is sick, Tilly will nurse her–and of course Isabel will nurse Tilly. I shouldn’t be surprised if they grew to be a very devoted pair.”

As Jacky, Humphrey, Isabel and Tilly make their separate ways out of the house, Simon is left with the Pooles, who continue to do their jobs quietly and unobtrusively. Simon is left with the ghosts of his past until Humphrey, if ever, returns and “could look forward to a period of perfect peace.”

One of my favorite aspects of this book is the setting. Almost every scene takes place in one location, Chipping Lodge. The characters develop, interact with each other, rant and rave and come to terms with their fate all in the same place. The character journey is really the thing here and it’s as if they are forced to face themselves in a locked room until they each find a way out.

This was a satisfying read and one that does make one question wrongs done in the past and how or should they be rectified. To bring up old wounds or not when starting anew might be a better step? While Tilly claims she was not in love with Macgregor, which satisfies Simon, Isabel knows a marriage proposal from anyone decent would have been better in her situation than the life she was eventually forced into.

I am happy to have been introduced to this author and look forward to reading more about her today.

If you are interested in other neglected women writers, Jane of Beyond Eden Rock has created a wonderful post called, A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors that lists the dates of birth of 16 women writers in which to read, read about or celebrate. This makes the prospects of 2018 much better, in my opinion!

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My Edition
Title: The Foolish Gentlewoman
Author: Margery Sharp
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Device: Library binding
Year: 1948
Pages: 330
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

The Witches of New York, Ami McKay (2017)

Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shopgirl.
Must be well versed in sums, etiquette, tea making, and the language of flowers.
Room and board provided.
Those averse to magic need not apply.

 

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It is 1880 and New York City tea shop owners Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom are doing a brisk business at their shop, Tea and Sympathy. Eleanor, a hereditary witch with a sympathetic ear makes potions, curative teas and spells that give comfort and insight to the women who come to her for advice. Adelaide, whose past includes sideshow huckster, develops a genuine gift for fortune telling after a devastating acid attack scars her face and causes the loss of her right eye.

 

A shepherdess sees to the care and feeding of her flock, a seamstress sees to the cut of a lady’s dress. Witches see to things best sorted by magic: sorrows of the heart, troubles of the mind, regrets of the flesh. This is what we do. That is who you are. Madame Delphine St. Clair

Though she won’t admit it, Eleanor is feeling the stress of their success with overwork and sleepless nights. Adelaide is concerned, but when she brings up the matter Eleanor cuts her off. So without asking, Adelaide puts an ad in the paper hoping a suitable assistant will appear whom Eleanor won’t refuse. In her small town north of the city, Beatrice Dunn sees the ad and hopes this will be her ticket to a new life. From the moment she enters the city her latent magical abilities emerge. And to Adelaide’s relief, Eleanor takes her ‘gift’ under her wing and Beatrice’s talents blossom. Overseeing the young women is the magnificent raven, Perdu, who sits on his perch high above the actions of the shop. An old, literally talkative soul who belonged to Eleanor’s mother, he sees all and protects the women as best he can.

They meet Dr. Quinn Brody through one of their clients, Judith Dashley, who with her husband, own a well-known hotel. Dr. Brody is an alienist, but has become interested in the after life and communication with the dead. He is anxious to test a device left to him by his father, which he simply called a spiritoscope and though his father’s only experience with the machine was in exposing frauds, Quinn hopes to find a true spiritual medium. When Beatrice admits she can see the dead son of Judith Dashley, Adelaide believes she is the perfect subject for Dr. Brody’s machine and Beatrice agrees. After preliminary tests it is clear the machine through Beatrice is picking up something. They arrange a public demonstration of Beatrice’s abilities at a hall in the Dashley’s hotel, but just before she is scheduled to appear, she goes outside looking for Eleanor, who she can’t find in the audience. A hand closes over her mouth and she is whisked away.

Beatrice is not the only woman disappearing from the streets. A push back against anyone deemed progressive, different, antireligious is in full force. Independent women, especially have been targets of accusations of immorality and witchcraft. Reverend Townsend, a preacher whose demented mind has twisted scripture to construct a one-man army of God against suspected witches in particular has taken it upon himself to bring these women to repentance. He walks the streets in search of prey and tortures the women into admitting their “wrongs.” If they die, it is better that they are off the streets.

His fiery sermons against the immorality of the times has affected one of his flock who is certain evil is going on at Tea and Sympathy and writes to a Mr. Comstock, whose Society for the Suppression of Vice is aimed at cleaning up what goes through the mail as well as what goes on in the streets. People like Sister Piddock write in about their neighbors, shop owners, or anyone they believe are “engaged in questionable activities.”  When agents of the Commission investigate the shop nothing untoward is found, but the women are still on the Piddock radar.

It is Townsend who has taken Beatrice and for days she is suffering his torture in his basement cell. Eleanor and Adelaide are frantic to find her and enlist the authorities as well as people from the neighborhood to help find her. By magic and the visitation of the ghost of one of Townsend’s previous victims, she is able to escape.

Ami McKay has created a very suspenseful story in the way she uses historical details as a foundation for many of the events that effect the characters. In the late 19th century, contact with the dead through private séances and public demonstrations interested many who were grieving over friends and family members. The Comstock Laws of 1873 initially attacked material sent through the mail that had to do with preventing conception, but went on to attack any material or behavior that was considered lewd or lascivious.

Women who needed to prevent pregnancy or end it, could not do so openly. Eleanor and women like her had the recipes, the tinctures, the experience to help in these situations, but their discovery to authorities could prove tragic. It wasn’t uncommon for people to take these laws into their own hands to attack neighbors or others on the streets. McKay populates the book with a range of character types that give the novel a depth of atmosphere. Some are so vulnerable and exposed due to circumstance you fear for their safety against those who want to clean up the streets. Yet, some are so bold that they protect the weak against the hypocrisy of the so-called do-gooders.

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Cleopatra’s Needle encased in a massive box crossing train tracks into Manhattan, 1880

When Beatrice boards the train to New York City to apply for the job at Tea and Sympathy, it stops suddenly to make way for a massive box that has stopped on the rails. She is told it contains a great obelisk called, Cleopatra’s Needle and it is making its way from Egypt to Central Park. She has her first mystical experience when she gets off the train to inspect it.

The obelisk is real and its journey to the city in 1880 elicited great excitement. Erected in Egypt in 1450 BC it was sold to the US with specific instructions that it would go to New York City. New Yorkers were enraptured by Egyptomania as merchants and entrepreneurs created specialty foods, costumes and accessories with an Egyptian theme.

Finally, one of the greatest strengths of this novel for me is the friendship between Eleanor, Adelaide and Beatrice. Their support and encouragement of each other’s gifts and purpose even when they have differences in approach is what makes their friendship successful. When Tea and Sympathy is targeted and Beatrice goes missing, it is the good will that the three women have created between themselves and among their friends, the community and even the street people who ultimately come to their defense.

This book affected me in all the right areas: I love its attention to, as well as, bending the historical record; personally, I am on the lookout for a 21st century Tea and Sympathy; and, culturally, I am encouraged by its depiction of community support when any of its members are in trouble.

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Read more about:

Cleopatra’s Needle, its history and journey to New York City

The Comstock Laws

How, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Spiritualism rose to its apex in the late 19th century:
The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud and Photography, and the man who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, by Peter Manseau.

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My Edition
Title: The Witches of New York
Author: Ami McKay
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Device: Paperback
Year: 2017
Pages: 527
Full plot summary

Challenges: Historical Fiction