#JazzAgeJune! Link Post

Jazzagejuneposter

Welcome to this very special June where we celebrate the Flappers, Art Deco, silent movies and ‘talkies,’ brilliant books and maybe a gangster or two during that crazy decade, the 1920s.

Participation is easy–this event is not strictly about books: films, plays, music, sports, pop culture and anything else you can think of that happened in the 1920s is game. Then post on your blog, Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #JazzAgeJune and we’ll retweet or like you. In the comment section below you can also share links to your social media posts.

Thanks for joining in and have fun!

Laurie and Fanda

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If you need some suggestions, try these:

Goodreads, books published in the 1920s

Stylist, 50 best books of the 1920s

Penguin, books that defined the 1920s

UC Berkeley, Nonfiction

Plays, written or performed in the 1920s (click top of page for succeeding years)

Pulitzer winners

The Newbery Medal for children’s books

The Glimpses of the Moon, Edith Wharton (1922)

He knew on how frail a thread the popularity of the penniless hangs, and how miserable a girl like Susy was the sport of other people’s moods and whims. It was a part of his difficulty and of hers that to get what they liked they so often had to do what they disliked.

 

glimpsesNick Lansing and Susy Branch of The Glimpses of the Moon are the answer key to Lawrence Selden and Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, whose motivations and actions often confused me. Where the problems exist in Edith Wharton’s, The House of Mirth, The Glimpses of the Moon is its “redo.”

Wharton, who was born in New York City to a wealthy and prominent family, writes realistically of upper class society in the early 20th century piercing its contradictions and exposing its hypocrisy. She is also masterful at portraying another part of this society: the dependents, the bright, pretty things of wit and intelligence hoping to break into the community of the wealthy and achieve some level of stability and status.

When Nick and Susy meet they recognize kindred spirits. Both are charming, beautiful and likeable; the kind the wealthy enjoy having around to enliven parties and animate conversations. They live off the good graces of their rich friends and all expenses are paid whether for a weekend in the country or a 3-month tour of Europe. They first see each other at their mutual friends, the Fulmer’s, where Susy is staying. Nick has come to visit and after several days of conversation they realize they are in the same position in society, but might do much better as a couple. “I don’t know how you feel; a man’s popularity is so much less precarious than a girl’s–but I know it would furbish me up tremendously to reappear as a married woman.” They both know the ropes, can spot opportunities and will be a novelty as a married couple. “We’re both rather unusually popular–why not be frank?–and it’s such a blessing for dinner-givers to be able to count on a couple of whom neither one is a blank.” So they make a bargain that they will marry with the understanding that if either finds a better situation the other will release them.

And it works. Due to Susy’s calculations she has figured out they could honeymoon for a year all over Europe on the invitations of friends for whom lending their homes to the newlyweds is a happy prospect. And so their life together begins with their first stay in a villa in Italy owned by a close friend of Susy’s, Charlie Strefford. They entertain the wealthy of their set who pop by in their boats or buggies to spend afternoons at home or evenings out.

Next, they move on to the home of Nelson and Ellie Vanderlyn where on the first night Susy finds an unexpected complication to their stay. Not expecting either to be home, she assumed their daughter would be with them. But in a letter left by Ellie to Susy she apologizes for leaving their 8 year-old daughter Clarissa and hopes Susy will be a good friend and care for her. Then Ellie asks for another favor. There are several letters to her husband she would like to have mailed, one each week. The post-mark is from the house, which Susy realizes means Ellie and Nelson are not together and Nelson thinks Ellie is home…Susy is sick with worry, disgust and fear all night going back and forth as to what to do. Should she participate in this deception against Nelson, should she aid in Ellie’s adultery, should she tell Nick even though Ellie begs her not to?

In the morning, she is resigned to play the game: in order for her and Nick to live this luxurious life as guests of other people they will always have to do something distasteful in return and this won’t be the last time. She and Nick, as a matter of course, will always have to do the dirty work of others.

However, this is a revelation to Nick who is stunned when by accident he finds out about Susy’s part in Ellie Vanderlyn’s affair.

Well–doesn’t our being together depend on what we can get out of people? And hasn’t there always got to be some give-and-take?…You’ve lived among these people as long as I have; I suppose it’s not the first time–”

By God, but it is….I have never in my life done people’s dirty work for them–least of all for favours in return. I suppose you guessed it, or you wouldn’t have hidden this beastly business from me.”

And Nick’s final blow against Susy:

“You knew I wouldn’t have stayed here another day if I’d known.”

“Yes: and then where in the world should we have gone?”

“You mean that–in one way or another–what you call give-and-take is the price of our remaining together?

As if Nick had forgotten their bargain and the compromises and concessions they’d have to make, he tells her they must part.

The two separate and continue to live at their various friends’ homes continuing to miss each other yet too proud to confess. It is many months since they have seen each other and Nick has taken a position as a secretary to their mutual friends, the Hicks’ aboard their yacht and cruises the Mediterranean. It is assumed he will marry their daughter, Coral.  Susy finds herself receiving attention from her old friend Strefford whose wealthy relatives have died leaving him a wealthier man than when she stayed at his villa. It is assumed she will marry him.

The manner in which the newly married, now separated Lansings are treated among their friends is almost matter of fact. At this period, divorce is not the stain on a woman’s reputation as it was only a decade or so earlier. Both are free to marry when the divorce is final. Some of the characters, though, are very puzzled by the decision to divorce, and in a not so very subtle way tell Susy she can stay married and find love elsewhere.

Because everyone is doing it….having affairs, that is. For their upper class friends cheating on your spouse is practically an obligation or at least usual. Nelson Vanderlyn eventually finds out about Ellie and though devastated, it is short-lasting. At one point, Susy hears that Nelson, Ellie and her new man are all dining “cheerfully together.” In this world of wealth, position and family ties marriage is to secure riches and status, not because of love. And to be married for many decades to someone you may not particularly like is a tedious prospect. So spouses cheat, and if discovered let it go, because they are doing it themselves.

When Nick and Susy reunite, it is not to live as their friends do. The parting has forced them to give up their pride and say they love each other. They will not cheat as their friends do to keep the family fortune, as they know they will have no fortune. The difference between Nick and Susy and their friends is that they married for love. If only Lawrence and Lily could have said it….

__________________________

Title: The Glimpses of the Moon
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Scribner Paperback Fiction
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1922
Pages: 297

Challenges: CCSpin #23, Classics Club

#JazzAgeJune A Reading Event!

Jazzagejuneposter

 

“The restlessness approached hysteria. The parties were bigger. The shows were bigger. The pace was faster,…the buildings higher, the morals looser.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

I am teaming up with Fanda of Fanda Classiclit (and creator of the wonderful poster above) for Jazz Age June, a reading event from June 1-30, that explores the 1920s through literature and other arts.

While 2020 has certainly taken a turn no one could have expected, the 1920s began eerily similar as it recovered from its own pandemic. But as the decade progressed it boasted some of the best in worldwide literature, poetry, dance, theater, women’s fashion and new technologies that revolutionized home and community.

This is an easy event to participate in…just read! Or watch a film, read a play, listen to music or watch a dance performance, then write about it on the social media of your choice. Anything published, produced on stage, opened in a gallery or museum or film released from 1920-1929 qualifies.

With the hashtag #JazzAgeJune we will retweet you or repost from your blog, Instagram or other social media, just tag me. And on June 1st I will put up a blog post where you can link your post or other social media in the comment section.

I am starting out the month with my Classic Club Spin, Edith Wharton’s, The Glimpses of the Moon (1922) and later in the month I’ll post my impressions of The Great Gatsby.

If you need help getting started, some of these lists might help.

Goodreads, books published in the 1920s

Stylist, 50 best books of the 1920s

Penguin, books that defined the 1920s

UC Berkeley, Nonfiction

Plays, written or performed in the 1920s (click top of page for succeeding years)

Pulitzer winners

The Newbery Medal for children’s books

Hope to see you in June!

 

 

“Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise.” — George Gershwin

“You are all a lost generation,” Gertrude Stein quoted in Ernest Hemingway’s, The Sun Also Rises

“I don’t want no drummer. I set the tempo.” — Bessie Smith

A Room With A View, E.M. Forster (1908)

For Italy was offering her the most priceless of all possessions–her own soul.

 

roomviewI enjoyed this story very much, but had a bit of an issue with Forster’s writing style. He starts paragraphs with allusions to culture or history; off-hand phrases that seem to come out of nowhere and are hard to see how they follow. However confused this made me, oddly, it fit into the story of Lucy Honeychurch and the eccentric characters who made up the tale.

Lucy and her cousin Charlotte Bartlett have just arrived at a pension in Florence, Italy and are very unhappy, because they were promised a room with a view of the Arno River. Instead, their rooms open up onto a courtyard. So disappointed and agitated are they, their unhappiness with what was promised spills into dinner-time conversation, where the guests-all English, like themselves-give them their unasked for opinions, including the father and son Emersons, who insist they take their rooms, which do, indeed, look upon the Arno. From here begins the twists and turns of adventures, attractions and attachments that will change Lucy’s provincial outlook on life irreparably.florence2

But, in Italy, where any one who chooses may warm himself in equality, as in the sun, this conception of life vanished. Her senses expanded; she felt that there was no one whom she might not get to like, that social barriers were irremovable, doubtless, but not particularly high. You jump over them just as you jump into a peasant’s olive-yard in the Apennines, and he is glad to see you. She returned with new eyes.

florence3Forster has collected a wonderful group of English adventurers who expand Lucy’s notion of herself. As a young, beautiful, eligible young woman everyone wants to protect her, but Lucy is impulsive and wants to go out and see the sights. Besides, she has the indispensable Baedeker to guide her, so how can she go wrong? And though she witnesses a murder, gets lost (when she loses the Baedeker!), receives a stolen kiss from George Emerson, rather than folding into the protection of others, she returns from Italy emboldened and confident.

She is being courted by Cyril Vyse, who is considered a perfect match. But he is snobby and narrow-minded and does not treat the people Lucy has come to love very kindly and at the end, she cannot dismiss his arrogance.

When we were only acquaintances, you let me be myself, but now you’re always protecting me. I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult. Can’t I be trusted to face the truth but I must get it second-hand through you?…I won’t be stifled, not by the most glorious music, for people are more glorious, and you hide them from me.

She is also unable to let go of the passion she felt when George kissed her in Italy, even though by society standards he is unsuitable. But she loves him and is attracted to the freedom in which he lives life.

Forster understands the society in which these characters live and especially the social conventions that designate a person’s class and what is expected in the way one lives or moves between them. He is witty and satirical and surprises the reader with the development of certain characters, not only Lucy, but with her cousin, Charlotte. Charlotte is set up as a roadblock to Lucy’s happiness, but in the end George has an amazing revelation about the true meaning of her actions, which Lucy comes to realize is true. And is Mr. Emerson really as uncouth and eccentric as people think or is his crazy thinking just misunderstood wisdom? And then there is George—tortured soul or a man with deep awareness of life that has, until Lucy, found no home?

In a book like this, where two people who love each other, but find all sorts of ways not to admit it, the ending is rather obvious. And I was not disappointed….

Some Personal Details
baedeker
A 1903 Baedeker, the most essential item for the traveler.

For years early in my working life I was a bookstore clerk. I had many a conversation around travel guides. Fodor’s, Frommer’s or Baedeker? The Baedeker, a German company, had the best photos, but Fodor’s or Frommer’s was almost always chosen. I suspected it was because Baedeker is harder to pronounce. At any rate, I loved this reference in A Room with a View and how much the characters relied on it. Memories!

The word empyrean came up as a very important description for Lucy when she plays the piano. I mention this here because I had just read JM Barrie’s play, Mary Rose, which is where I heard the word for the first time. What are the odds you’d come across the same new word two books in a row?!! Empyrean: Heaven, specifically the highest part of heaven.

It so happened that Lucy, who found daily life rather chaotic, entered a more solid world when she opened the piano. She was then no longer either deferential or patronizing; no longer either a rebel or a slave. The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected. The commonplace person begins to play, and shoots into the empyrean without effort….

Though the prose at times was a little difficult for me, this was still a very satisfying reading experience. I think the biggest takeaway might be a warning based on the beginning quote at the top of this post: What happens in Italy, stays in Italy!
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Title: A Room with a View
Author: EM Forster
Publisher: Dover Thrift Edition
Device: Paperback
Year: 1908
Pages: 172

Challenges: Classics Club, Back to the Classics

The ‘Stay at Home’ and What I Would Bring to Heaven Edition

stayhome

 

Like many of you I am sure, I am craving things I can’t have right now.

About falafeltwo weeks into ‘stay at home’ I woke up wanting falafel, so much so, my mouth was watering, which was a little messy on the pillow. I have a place nearby that serves the crispiest, most fragrant of these little chickpea balls based on their grandmother’s recipe. Grandma’s recipes, no matter the cuisine, are the best.

About a month later I started missing my library. I want to know what is on the new releases shelves and what I have missed on other shelves. I want to browse the vintage department of the used books for sale and see what gems have been donated. This hurts.

But I know this will not last and I am ok. I am doing well socially isolating and for various reasons do not go into any stores. I have never been much of an online buyer, but, my o my, I have discovered there isn’t much I can’t get online from grocery delivery, to dog and cat supplies to batteries and toothbrushes!

As I have been musing over things I miss I was looking through my old friend and spiritual companion Abbie Graham’s, Ceremonials of Common Days. She calls Eastertide a time of material transition, as the Season of the Relinquishment of Things “and is therefore, the time for an intensified appreciation of them.” She gives a list of the things she would bring to heaven. Obviously, this is an impossible and weighty list, even if she could bring anything with her (!), but I love that her list includes both the bold and the objects of everyday.

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Note: They may not let me enter with all of these, but the planning lends a sense of joyousness and comradeship to that final departure.

My Celestial Shopping List:

One Tea-room, serving cinnamon toast by a fireplace
Hollyhocks
Periwinkles
Ink
Two Roads, one small unimportant; one wide, very important
Queen Anne’s Lace
A Waterfall
One Range of Mountains
Coffee
One Blue Pine Tree, a Double Row of Poplars and Two Birches
Candles, orange and blue
One Fireplace
Blue Tea Cups, at least two
Golden Rod
A Sunrise
One Small Island, with large hemlock tree and little wintergreen flowers
One Head Waiter with One Sub-Waiter
A Little Garden
A Stony Brook
A Small Post Office

I would take many from her list and add ice cream (mint and chip), two California coastal live oaks, a granite boulder from the Sierras and of course, a public library and my falafel place.

The wonders of Creation and our creaturely habits are hard to let go!

Classics Club Spin #23

 

CCspin18.jepg

I have revised this list several times in the almost five years I have been at it. I want this to be a list of books I really want to read. I must finish by the middle of September and I believe I will be successful. And I am already planning list 2….

For now here are the last 7 and I am looking forward to all of them.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Classics Club, you can check them out here. The Spin is a list of 20* books from your list that you number 1-20. On a particular date the Spin Gods choose a number and that is the book you read to be completed by a certain date, usually within a month or so.

Good luck to all participating. Hopefully, I will see you with my Spin before June 1st….

*I am repeating the seven books I have left, instead of adding any new ones.

ETA: The Spin number is 6, which means I will read The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton. Yes!

Charlotte Bronte
1.Shirley (1849)
Daniel Defoe
2.Moll Flanders (1722)
George Eliot
3.Middlemarch (1874)
E.M. Forster
4.Room with a View (1908)
Henry James
5.Portrait of a Lady (1881)
Edith Wharton
6.The Glimpses of the Moon (1922)
Virginia Woolf
7.To the Lighthouse
 (1927)
Charlotte Bronte
8.Shirley (1849)
Daniel Defoe
9.Moll Flanders (1722)
George Eliot
10.Middlemarch (1874)
E.M. Forster
11.Room with a View (1908)
Henry James
12.Portrait of a Lady (1881)
Edith Wharton
13.Glimpses of the Moon (1922)
Virginia Woolf
14.To the Lighthouse
 (1927)
Charlotte Bronte
15.Shirley (1849)
Daniel Defoe
16.Moll Flanders (1722)
George Eliot
17.Middlemarch (1874)
E.M. Forster
18.Room with a View (1908)
Henry James
19.Portrait of a Lady (1881)
Edith Wharton
20.Glimpses of the Moon (1922)

The 1920 Club: Mary Rose, A Play in Three Acts, J.M. Barrie (1920)

There was always something a little odd about Mary Rose.

 

The pla2015.86628.Mary-Rose-A-Play-In-Three-Acts_0005y opens in the drawing room of an old house. It is alive with the presence of the past. The caretaker of the house, Mrs. Otery, is indifferent to her job, especially when periodically called upon to show it to potential buyers. It is clear she is uncomfortable in the house. She is giving a tour now to a young man who has returned to the area after the war (WWII) who it turns out, used to live there as a child.

Harry: What’s wrong with this house?

Mrs. Otery: There is nothing wrong with it.

Harry: Then how is it going so cheap?

Mrs. Otery: It’s–in bad repair.

Harry: Why has it stood empty so long?

Mrs. Otery: It’s–far from a town.

Harry: What made the last tenant leave in such a hurry?

Harry knows people say the house is haunted, “It’s a woman, isn’t it?” and plies Mrs. Otery with questions. She clearly does not want to talk about this subject, but finally admits to the presence of a young woman who is felt in the house after midnight.

While Harry waits for Mrs. Otery to return with his tea he is visited by a presence. Doors close and open and suddenly through a misty lens Harry disappears and the room becomes as it was 30 years ago and the story of the house begins.

The Morlands were the previous owners and they had a daughter, Mary Rose. When she was 11 her parents visited the Hebrides where her father loved to fish. He would take Mary Rose to a tiny island while he was out in his boat and she would sit and sketch. On their last day her father rowed over to the island and saw her sitting on the stump of a tree as usual, so he turned to row toward her, but when he got there she was gone.

The townspeople searched and searched for her. They dragged the little lake, but she was nowhere to be found. Her parents stayed on hoping she would return and one day her father saw her again sitting on the stump sketching. He rowed as fast as he could and when he got to her it was evident she had no idea what had happened; she had no idea of being gone for 20 days. Once home she never mentioned it and her parents never ever talked about it.

But they always knew if the time came for her to marry, they would have to tell her fiancé. And that time has come. Her intended is Simon, who they ask to speak with privately while Mary Rose is upstairs. When they are finished, he is not sure what to make of it.

Simon: It has had no effect on her, at any rate.

Mrs. Morland: I have sometimes thought our girl is young for her age….And she sometimes acts like she is listening for something like a sound from the island.

When they are alone Mary Rose asks about their honeymoon and Simon is shocked when she mentions a little island in Scotland she’d like to visit…her parents having just assured him she has forgotten it.

Act II opens with Simon and Mary Rose on the island four years after they married. Interestingly, it is Simon who asked to come to the island, though Mary Rose seems happy to see it. She talks to the tree stump she had sat on and to the other trees and tells them about about her life and of her two-year old son. Though these conversations seem childish, she doesn’t seem like the young girl we met in Act I.

A local man named Cameron is helping them with their lunch. He is polite and talks a little about himself, but he won’t sit down to eat with them.

Cameron: This island has a bad name. I haf (sp) never landed on it before….[The people say] it has no authority to be here…Then one day it was here.

Cameron says too many birds visit the island and they seem to come here to listen. None of the locals want to come on shore because of the stories, like the one about the baby boy who disappeared. Then he tells the story of the young English girl who once came here with her father and disappeared. Mary Rose finds the story strange–how could she not know what had happened to her? Cameron’s father was one of the searchers, so he assures her the story is true.

The three are sitting around a campfire heating up their lunch. Mary Rose hears a call, “Mary Rose, Mary Rose.” She reaches out to her husband, but he doesn’t see her. She has disappeared. He turns to Cameron and asks where his wife is. End Act II.

Act III opens 20 years later with Mary Rose’s parents and their good friend, the vicar visiting in the drawing room. They are speaking of their age, time gone by and the apple tree outside the window that Mary Rose liked, but its age is forcing them to cut it down.

Simon is due to see them today. As he sits with them he receives a telegram from Cameron who announces Mary Rose has been found and he is coming that day with her. He comes into the room and tells them she was found by two fishermen on the site where she sat at the campfire all those years ago. When she enters the room, her appearance is the same as she was then. She has not aged and for her no time has passed. She goes immediately in search of her baby boy. The scene fades into the present.

Harry is sitting in a chair as Mrs. Otery brings him a cup of tea. He is a little disoriented. “Have you seen anything,” she asks?

He wants to know the story of the family, the Morlands. He tells her he is of the family and wants to know about the ghost. “Is it true about folk having lived in this house and left in a hurry? And have you seen her?”

Mrs. Otery has seen her all over the house, passing her on the stairs even, where she let the old woman pass with a “Good evening.”

He wants to see her, but Mrs. Otery will not have anything to do with that. He takes a candle and walks down a narrow passage that leads to his childhood bedroom. Mary Rose appears, but does not recognize him.

As they speak it is clear that Mary Rose is in the liminal space between life and death and it is her concern for baby Harry that has kept her earthbound. It is Harry who tells her this.

Ghosts are unhappy because they can’t find something, and then once they’ve got the thing they want, they go away happy and never come back….What you need now is to get back to that place you say is lovely, lovely. It sounds as if it might be heaven.

As she realizes this Harry is looking out at the starry night sky and the scene fades.

The smallest star shoots down as if it were her star sent for her, and with her arms stretched forth to it trustingly she walks out through the window into the empyrean.*

*Heaven, specifically the highest part of heaven.

Conclusion

Shades of Peter Pan, eternal youth and flying out of windows. There is the requisite haunted house, magical island, lost time and secrets and, of course, the mysterious caretaker. (Someone should do a book on the mysterious house-caretakers of Gothic stories)!

With its heavy emphasis on stage directions and dramaturgy, the play reads like a novel and is therefore rich in background and well-drawn characters. It is a perfect Gothic ghost story with a nice balance of mystery and fantasy. I highly recommend this work in general, but I am thinking that it is perfect for the RIP challenge in the Fall for anyone in need of a break from novel reading.

I had plans to do more for this year’s club, but the year did not start out the way I’d hoped and I had to find something short. But it all worked out for the best, because reading Mary Rose reminded me how much I enjoy reading plays, something I need to get back to, even if I can’t do it with others at the moment.

______________

1920-club
Challenges: 1920 Club

Title: Mary Rose
Author: J. M. Barrie
Publisher: Archive.org
Date: first produced in April, 1920 at the Haymarket Theatre, London

Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)

The daily life into which people are born, and into which they are absorbed before they are well aware, forms chains which only one in a hundred has moral strength enough to despise, and to break when the right time comes–when an inward necessity for independent individual action arises, which is superior to all outward conventionalities.

 

RuthI’ve spent the last two months reading Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens. I am about one half the way through David Copperfield, but I put it on hold to read Gaskell’s, Ruth.

I picked up Wives and Daughters several weeks after my last post and it was the perfect book to read at a “snail’s pace.” Have you ever loved the experience of reading a book as much as you loved the book itself? As I spent long leisurely evenings on the couch or afternoons on the patio rocking chair, Molly Gibson stayed front and center in my thoughts. Molly really got to me and each morning I awoke wondering how her story would unfold. The richness of the narrative, the variety of characters and the complexity of their intertwined lives forced me to read slowly. When I finished I wanted more Gaskell and so I picked Ruth off my shelf and this did not disappoint.

Ruth Hilton is 15 years old when we first meet her in this seminal year of life-changing events. Her parents are dead and without anyone to care for her a guardian is appointed who sends her off as an apprentice to Mrs. Mason, a dressmaker. One evening she is sent to a ball to do repair work for ladies’ gowns and meets wealthy Henry Bellingham. In the succeeding days, playing on her loneliness and naivete, he gets her banned from the dressmaker when she discovers them in an illicit, but innocent outing. Without a place to go Bellingham takes Ruth with him on his travels where they end up in Wales. Bellingham becomes very ill and his mother, who has been alerted to his grave illness, comes to take him home. She forces Ruth away from his bedside and removes him in the middle of the night. The next morning Ruth is beside herself with worry and she becomes ill. When she is examined it is discovered she is pregnant. While in Wales she has befriended Thurstan Benson to whom she was kind when the neighborhood children teased him about his dwarfism and he takes her back home where he lives with his sister, Faith and their long-time housekeeper, Sally.

Soon Ruth is delivered of a son, Leonard, and though Faith and Sally are made aware of the circumstances of his birth and have wrestled with the morality of Ruth’s situation, both are struck by Ruth’s piety in wanting to protect her son at any cost and her pliancy and lack of willfulness in her behavior. They have devised a new identity for Ruth as the Widow Denbigh.

goodshep2
The Good Shepherd and the lost lamb.

Ruth’s penance would last all her life for the “crime” she committed as a young girl by a man who took advantage of her. The morality of the world that tells her she is an evil sinner and her desire to mitigate her immorality in the eyes of God and man with the desire to keep Leonard safe fills her every waking moment.

I appeal to God against such a doom for my child. I appeal to God to help me. I am a mother, and as such I cry to God for help–for help to keep my boy in His pitying sight, and to bring him up in His holy fear. Let the shame fall on me! I have deserved it, but he–he is so innocent and good.

Ruth’s morality is based on her son’s purity regardless of the circumstances of his birth. Even when Bellingham appears in a coincidental situation years after disappearing and discovers the son they share; proposing marriage with threats of the power he holds over Leonard, she turns him down. A marriage would legitimize both her and Leonard, but she refuses him on the grounds that once leaving her he never sought to find her and that threatening to take Leonard make him a truly bad man, not fit to raise her son.

Ruth’s understanding of herself, that she may be doomed, but that her child should not have to suffer for it is at the very heart of what motivates her life. She is honest, simple and true in all her dealings and though the townspeople and the few friends she makes know nothing of the truth at first, she comes across as the most decent and trustworthy person they know. With the help of the Bensons she finds work as a governess to the two youngest girls in the prominent Bradshaw family. But her greatest achievement is in her selfless nursing of the townspeople when a terrible fever hits the village, so contagious that trained nurses refuse to see patients.

What is noteworthy in this story is not that once Mr. Bradshaw discovers Ruth’s true identity and fires her from his home or that once Leonard discovers his illegitimacy he is pushed into a tailspin. It is the way the townspeople come to an understanding of their own prejudices and religious training against a woman like Ruth who they are supposed to shun and how they come to treat her in the end.

Gaskell confronts the age-old question, how do we treat “fallen women” in society?, but instead of the typical reactions of hiding Ruth away or sending her into prostitution, she shows how such a woman can be returned to everyday life. This kind of portrayal of a woman bearing a child out of wedlock and her desire to become part of the community reminds me of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter. Hester, though vilified at first, like Ruth, redeems herself through her good works and stays in the town and comes to be esteemed in the eyes of the people.

Mr. Bradshaw to Ruth: Do you suppose your child is to be exempt from the penalties of his birth? Do you suppose that he alone is to be saved from the upbraiding scoff? Do you suppose that he is ever to rank with other boys, who are not stained and marked with sin from their birth? Every creature in Eccleston may know what he is; do you think they will spare him their scorn?…you went into your sin, you should have thought whether you could bear the consequences or not–have had some idea how far your offspring would be degraded and scouted.

Mr. Benson to his sister Faith Benson: The world has, indeed, made such children miserable, innocent as they are; but I doubt if this be according to the will of God, unless it be His punishment for the parents’ guilt; and even then the world’s way of treatment is too apt to harden the mother’s natural love into something like hatred. Shame and the terror of friends’ displeasure, turn her mad–defile her holiest instincts; and, as for the fathers–God forgive them! I cannot–at least, not just now.

The Bensons are Dissenters, Mr. Benson being a minister in the church. As such, their practice of Christianity is in direct contrast to the legalistic framework to the Church of England that would condemn Ruth to a different kind of life. Yet, Sally is Church of England and though her first response after learning of Ruth’s circumstances is to leave the house, becomes one of Ruth’s fiercest defenders once she is confronted with Ruth’s humility and goodness.

The [Benson] household had many failings: they were but human, and, with all their loving desire to bring their lives into harmony with the will of God, they often erred and fell short; but, somehow, the very errors and faults of one individual served to call out higher excellencies in another, and so they re-acted upon each other, and the result of short discords was exceeding harmony and peace.

When Ruth was first published the reviews were surprisingly favorable toward the subject matter and how Gaskell chose to deal with it. George Eliot praised her style and skill with description; Charlotte Bronte said the book had a nobility and purpose, however she did not like the ending, “Why are we to shut up the book weeping?”

It would be trite to say this book is about redemption, but that is probably its central point. However, redemption or forgiveness, turning the other cheek, “there but for the grace of God’….is not only the journey of the one who ‘sinned,’ but the journey for any of us when our beliefs and morals are challenged, not by theory or what its, but when flesh and blood reality is standing right before us.

_______________

Title: Ruth
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1853
Pages: 375

New Goals for 2020: I am a Snail

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All hail the mighty snail!

 

“Finding myself in the middle of a book I never want to end is among the greatest joys of reading. I live for the desire to finish a book in one sitting, and the competing desire to slow down and make the pleasure last. Sadly, I robbed myself that pleasure this year. I blew through everything I read, including books I would’ve dragged out for weeks just to live in their worlds a little longer.” Hurley Winkler

Let me say at the outset this post has nothing to do with anyone else. These thoughts should probably stay in my journal, but in the last month or so, I’ve read a number Tweets or Instagram posts that speak similar feelings, myself included and since this article confirmed all this I decided to share.

Last Monday, the 13th, Charlie Place tweeted an article, “Why I’ll Never Read a Book a Week Ever Again in which the writer, Hurley Winkler, shared her frustration over the stress of reading goals to the extent it affected her love of reading. She had raised her Goodreads Challenge from 40 books read the previous year to 52 in 2019. She found herself reading to finish, instead of reading to savor. “The pressure to finish books sucked some of the day-to-day joy out of my reading life.”

Some of the negative habits that were reflected in this year of fast reading were that she  read books she wasn’t wild about in order to keep up with the habit tracker on Goodreads. Or reading all the stories in a collection when she would normally read only the ones that piqued her interest. In the pressure to read more books she chose shorter-paged books. I am astonished to admit that I could relate to all of these.

In the past, I’ve always felt at peace with abandoning a book before finishing it. Why waste time on a book I don’t love, trudging through to reach an ending that won’t satisfy? But reading a book a week made it harder to justify abandonment. I didn’t want to fall behind—like I said, Goodreads will tell you when you do. And the thought of that sent my Type A brain into a tailspin. So I wound up finishing several books I felt lukewarm about from the very first chapters.

Winkler’s reading experience resonates deeply with me, because not only have the goals and challenges (and my failures to meet them) in the last year affected my desire to read, they also affected my desire to write about what I read. I have made so many excuses to myself as to why this is happening, but nothing made sense until I saw myself in this article and realized how much my reading and blogging has changed in the four years of Relevant Obscurity when at the beginning I took the time to read and then to let the book sit with me before I wrote it up. During the early years I didn’t participate in challenges, except for the Classics Club and the year-long Reading New England hosted by Lory of The Emerald City Book Review. And I just read the classics I wanted to read.

At the end of 2018 I started feeling anxious that I didn’t ‘put out’ as much as I saw other bloggers doing and that maybe I am not as serious a reader as I thought: equating the more books I blog makes me a more serious a reader. I was not allowing myself to be the slow reader and writer I really am.

It’s almost embarrassing to think at this age I am acting like some jr. high schooler who compares herself to everyone else and finds herself lacking because she isn’t measuring up. I need to learn to honor the individuality of everyone’s style without seeing my slowness as a deficiency or someone else’s speed as my liability.

As I think over what I set for reading goals this year, I unconsciously resolved this issue. The challenges are fewer than previous years and have me reading mostly classics, the books I love, and not pressuring myself with a books-read total. I have decided I will not put up a Goodreads goal, but keep my own list until I feel I am back to being honest with myself.

And the books I read, but don’t blog? I will stop feeling anxious about those, too and utilize Instagram or Goodreads for short reviews. Faster readers thrive on goals and contests and I will celebrate those milestones in the bloggers I follow. And I will be ok with being the snail!

I could probably quote every sentence in the article, but this is a perfect conclusion:

“That’s why I’ve set a different reading goal for 2020. This year, it isn’t based on the quantity of books I aim to finish. Instead, I resolve to abandon books I don’t like. I’ll take the whole summer to pore over that staggering novel I never want to end. I’ll recommend books to friends after I’ve lived with the story awhile. I’ll read intentionally and joyously. After all, there are too many good books out there. From now on, I’ll take the time to savor them.”

 

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My new pledge for 2020 is to read only what I love and to blog slowly.

 

A Year-Long War and Peace Readalong

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Staring a 1455 page book straight in the eye, so to speak, is incredibly daunting. I wonder if it is realistic that I will stick with it? Like many classics, War and Peace is a book I have always felt I needed to read at some point in my life. And while I greatly enjoyed Anna Karenina last year, this book beats that one by many, many hundreds of pages.

Russia

At only 4 very short chapters in, though, I know what will sustain me throughout this year-long readalong and it is what I remember from Anna Karenina: the way Tolstoy describes his characters intentions, their inner thoughts as well as their outward appearance. I am a visual person. It’s how I learn things. I need to see and do a thing to make it stick, to make me understand it. Tolstoy’s descriptions of the myriad characters that populate his books allow me to see them visually creating a life for them in my head, which is how I have experienced reading since childhood; descriptions of time, place and intimate surroundings rounding off the pictures I need in my head.

Because there are 361 chapters in this book the readalong host Nick Senger has created a ‘chapter-a-day’ reading schedule and my expectations are high that I will finish. The character list for War and Peace is a page and a half, but I know I will ‘see’ them all. It is early yet, but the characters have drawn me in with their appearance, their humor and their thoughts.

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Some characters we are introduced to so far:

Prince Vasily always spoke listlessly, like an actor repeating a part in an old play…like a wound-up clock, saying by force of habit things he did not even expect to be believed.

Anna Pavlovna was brimming with zest and animation, despite her forty years. To be an enthusiast had become a social attitude with her, and sometimes, even when she did not feel like it, she became enthusiastic in order not to disappoint the expectations of those who knew her.

[Prince Andrei Bolkonsky]…it was obvious that he not only knew everyone in the drawing room but was so thoroughly bored with them that he found it tedious either to look at them or listen to them. And among all those faces he found so tiresome, none seemed to bore him so much as that of his pretty little wife.

Princess Ellen smiled; she rose with that same unchanging smile, the smile of a perfectly beautiful woman, with which she entered the drawing room….Ellen was so lovely that not only did she show no trace of coquetry, but on the contrary, appeared to be almost embarrassed by her undeniable, irresistible, and enthralling beauty….[She] leaned her plump bare arm on a little table….The whole time the story was being told, she sat erect, gazing now and then at her beautiful round arm resting lightly on the table, or at her even more beautiful bosom, on which she readjusted the folds of her gown…

Ippolit struck one not so much by his remarkable resemblance to his beautiful sister, as by the fact that despite this resemblance he was surprisingly ugly. His features were the same as hers, but while his sister’s face was lit up by a perpetually beaming, complacent, youthful smile, and her body was of a singularly classic beauty, his face was overcast by an idiotic and invariably peevish, conceited expression, and his body was thin and weak. His eyes, nose, and mouth all seemed to be puckered into a vacant, bored grimace, and his arms and legs always fell into unnatural positions.

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It’s rather unwieldy to read this in mass market form!

Have you read War and Peace? What did you think?

We are using this hashtag on Twitter for daily quotes from the book if you want to see what we’re up to! #warandpeacereadalong.