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.

______________

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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.

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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.

2019 Wrap-Up and a Look Ahead to 2020

As I look back at my reading adventures in 2019 I am very happy with what occurred. Two major accomplishments were books I dreaded reading and surprisingly Anna Karenina and Moby Dick turned out to be two of my favorite books of the year.

I had plans to read more books by several writers that have become favorites since I started blogging and while I didn’t get to everyone I am pleased to have finished all of CS Lewis’s Narnia books (which helped me with my contribution to Witch Week and my post on the White Witch), read several novels and novellas by Edith Wharton and two novellas by Henry James.

Other highlights: I read my first Emile Zola and 4 volumes in Susan Cooper’s the Dark is Rising Sequence. Tracy Chevalier’s A Single Thread started me reading contemporary novels (which I post about on Instagram). Some reading experiences I treasured were Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein, Willa Cather’s, O Pioneers!, and Wharton’s, A Custom of the Country a masterpiece in class criticism of which she is a master. I was disappointed with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and with Virginia Woolf’s, Night and Day.

In 2020 I am looking forward to a quieter year here:

  1. I will finish my Classics Club list by September 13th!
  2. My attraction to Edith Wharton has grown and I have decided I want to read everything she has written! This year, though, I will start with books about her, the classic biographies by R.W.B. Lewis and Hermione Lee as well as Wharton’s own autobiography, A Backward Glance.
  3. Challenges and Readalongs/Readathons: Not many actual Challenges this year–Reading the Classics, European Reading Challenge and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, which will get books off my TBR shelves. I want to concentrate on readalongs and events that catch my eye. Four events at the moment have me excited, One Hundred Years of Solitude and War in Peace readalongs, The Wales Readathon and Zoladiction.

My 2020 should be subtitled The Year of the Chunkster or as Chris of Calmgrove calls them ‘doorstops!’ To finish out my Classics Club list I have Wives and Daughters, Portrait of a Lady and Middlemarch; I have committed to reading War and Peace, David Copperfield, Jane Austen’s, Emma; and several more near and over 500 pages. Yikes, what is the matter with me???

 

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In my personal life as a newly retired person life is still a little weird as I look onto a land of many paths. While I love reading and writing for Relevant Obscurity, there is more out there for me. I am looking forward to experiencing more literal trails in nature as well as the spiritual trails in my head. But I am lucky to be where I am now and so grateful for the possibilities.

And finally, Relevant Obscurity exists as a journal of personal reactions, a sensitivity to and awareness about my thoughts as I read and not as a book review blog, because this is why I read….
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”
William Styron

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To all my readers far and near I wish you a 2020 of nothing but the joy of living and participating in this wild world and especially, may all your book dreams come true!

At the Beach on Christmas Eve

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Christmas Angel seen at Newport Beach, CA December 24, 2019

 

On Christmas Eve love is clothed with visible vestments, with gifts and written words, with holly-wreaths and flowers and candles. The love that through the year is silenced by ‘busy-ness” is expressed in terms of tangible beauty. Christmas Eve is the Ceremonial of Gifts, of gifts that are given to explain something which the heart cannot say.
Ceremonials of Common Days

 

Happy Christmas Eve from my part of the world where we tended to the Ceremonial of the Christmas Eve Beach Walk, when this year a stunning display of cloud angels reminded us of the magic of the season. And we shared a beach connection with the often illusive, Osprey. Both Gifts that “explain something which the heart cannot say.”

Merry Christmas to All!

 

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One Angel fully formed, one forming and one about to form.

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Can you spot the Osprey in the middle of the photo?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A fine display all along the coast.

 

 

 

 

Classics Club Spin #22

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Classics Club Spin #22

 

2020 is an exciting year for my Classics Club list as I have 9 more to go to be finished by September 13th and I will make it! So for this Spin I am only using those 9, repeating them twice and adding 2 of those titles at the end to round out to 20.

Briefly, for those who are unfamiliar with the Classics Club, it’s a website curated by a dedicated group of classics lovers to encourage everyone to read more classics. And several times a year they host a Spin to keep us on our classic-reading path.

When you join the Classics Club you list a minimum of 50 titles you commit to reading in a five-year period. For the Spin you chose 20 of those titles and number them, 1-20. On a scheduled date (12/22, this year) the Spin Gods will announce their chosen number; that number corresponds to the number on your list and that is the title you read by, in this case, January 31, 2020.

My list for Spin #22:


1. Middlemarch
(1874)
2. Room with a View (1908)
3. Mary Barton (1848)
4. Wives and Daughters
(1866)
5. Portrait of a Lady (1881)
6. The Ambassadors (1903)
7. First Men in the Moon (1901)
8. The Invisible Man (1897)
9. To the Lighthouse (1927)
10. Middlemarch (1874)
11. Room with a View (1908)
12. Mary Barton (1848)
13. Wives and Daughters (1866)
14. Portrait of a Lady (1881)
15. The Ambassadors (1903)
16. First Men in the Moon (1901)
17. The Invisible Man (1897)
18. To the Lighthouse (1927)
19. Portrait of a Lady (1881)
20. Middlemarch (1874)

This time around I can honestly say I have no favorite, but am excited to read any and all!

Good luck to all who are participating.

 

The Christmas Banquet, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844)

Who is this impassive man? We seem to know him well, here in our city, and know nothing of him but what is credible and fortunate. Yet hither he comes, year after year, to this gloomy banquet, and sits among the guests like a marble statue. Ask yonder skeleton–perhaps that may solve the riddle!

 

xmasbanquetThis is one of the oddest Christmas stories I’ve come across. There is nothing warm and fuzzy, or “feel good” to lend this story any kind of familiarity of tales typical of the season. While I will say the body of the short story involves some philosophic contemplation the ending is confusing enough to leave one with the question, “what just happened?”

The premise involves a wealthy man and his last will and testament. He has bequeathed a yearly Christmas dinner at his home and has charged two stewards with care of the guests. Their task is to find the ten most miserable people in the city and invite them to spend Christmas together; their misery is proof that even on this holiest day of hope sadness, bad luck, emotional, financial and physical pain still exists.

That the pitiful group assembles in a dining room looking more fit for a funeral than a Christmas dinner is not by accident. This dinner is the deceased’s protest against those religions that find “sunshine in the world.” As such, the dining room is lit by torches and hung with dusky purple curtains and wreaths of artificial flowers like those strewn over the dead.

The main reservoir of wine was a sepulchral urn of silver, whence the liquor was distributed around the table in small vases, accurately copied from those that held the tears of ancient mourners. Neither had the stewards…forgotten the fantasy of the old Egyptians, who seated a skeleton at every festive board, and mocked their own merriment with the imperturbable grin of a death’s-head.

Was the skeleton at skeletonthe head of this table shrouded in a black mantle the benefactor of the dinner? The narrator tells us that one of the stipulations of the testator is that he be present and permitted to sit with his guests. And if the banqueters want to lift the veil in hopes of some answer to the age old question regarding life after death, his open and staring eye sockets would make the answer clear.

Included in the decorations is a wreath. The stewards say it is designed to crown the guest with the “wofullest” story. The conversations and introductions begin and we see representatives of all those who will appear at the dinners to come. The invitees suffer from depression, chronic diseases of the heart and other organs of the body; there are hypochondriacs, and those whose disappointments in life have created obsessions of murder and treachery against their neighbor; one lamentable soul feels he was born with a message for humanity, but doesn’t have the confidence to say it; a woman with the slightest defect in her eye which so affronts her ideal of perfection that she feels compelled to hide herself away in solitude.

The last guest walks in and whatever malady he is suffering from is not apparent causing suspicion and consternation among the others. He is young, healthy, successful and looking more suited to a merrier holiday table. Some of the guests want to know why the dead founder doesn’t shake his skeleton finger at Gervayse Hastings and point him the way out. The stewards assure them of his right to be there saying only, “not a guest at the table is better entitled to his seat.”

As the years pass the Christmas dinners continue without a repeating guest–there is that much misery in the world. There is sometimes an instant after each tells their story that a momentary gleam of inner light descends upon the speaker and the physical or emotional malady ceases in some kind of understanding. But the moment is lost when one of the more cynical of the group breaks the spell in laughter or rude comment.

It is not quite true there were no repeat guests. Gervayse Hastings was invited every year. And as the decades passed and he aged physically his vitality was retained and he was still met with same response. “Has he suffered? Has he sinned? There are no traces of either. Then wherefore is he here?” It is true he is prosperous and in robust health with financial and personal success. But they notice a distance, a coldness that feels physical and makes them shrink from him, makes them draw back their hand extended in greeting.

Hastings is aware of this coldness of heart and how people respond. He tells them he feels nothing, that his heart is but a vapor and though from the outside people think he has everything, on the inside he is hollow. He feels no human emotion, not even toward those he should love. “Neither have I myself any real existence, but am a shadow….” At the moment of this admission the ligaments of the skeleton come apart and the bones fall away. And as the guests take their eyes from the skeleton and back to Hastings, he has ceased to live. If only he could have “imbibed one human grief” he might have been saved.

Of such persons–and we do meet with these moral monsters now and then–it is difficult to conceive how they came to exist here, or what there is in them capable of existence hereafter. They seem to be on the outside of everything; and nothing wearies the soul more than an attempt to comprehend them within its grasp.

And so ends this very Gothic Christmas story that feels straight out of Edgar Alan Poe!

 

My Thoughts

Last year I read Dicken’s, A Christmas Carol for the first time. This year I looked around my shelves for a Christmas story that wasn’t obvious or well-known and found this title in a collection of Hawthorne’s short stories and decided to take a look at it. I know from reading several of his novels he creates characters in turmoil, whose lives are dark and somber, though I didn’t expect those sensibilities in a Christmas story. But this one is classic dark and somber Hawthorne and I have to say it worked for me.

While the story itself is a little extreme, I do like the aspect of the story that describes the pain and suffering many people struggle with at this time of the year. They may seem like they have it all together, but in reality they are hurting as much as someone who is physically wounded. Hawthorne may have exaggerated the story to get this message across, but after close to 200 years his point is still relatable.

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Wishing everyone a merrier Christmas than what was experienced above!

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Title: The Christmas Banquet
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Penquin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1844
Pages: 20

Ceremonials of Common Days is Reprinted!

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The new and the old

 

This collection of the Ceremonials of a Year is an Anthology of the Wonder of Common Days. The Ceremonials of a year are accumulative; they can never be concluded, as long as one lives on earth. A Ceremonial may be interpreted as a spiritual obeisance to the created beauty of the world. From the Forward

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A few months ago I was contacted by a woman named Michele Lamond who wanted to reprint Abbie Graham’s Ceremonials of Common Days. Originally published in 1923 it was due to come into the public domain and she wanted to use a quote from one of my posts on the back of the reprinted edition. I was only too happy to give permission and was thrilled that this beloved book would now be widely available.

Having just received the new edition I am happy with the more modern format and engaging graphics.

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The book celebrates simple loves of daily life as the seasons turn: lighting the first fire of winter; celebrating ink and letter-writing as a means of “conquering distances;” the Coffee Ceremonial that acknowledges this “gregarious beverage” which Graham observes in the morning that follows the first night of camping; and the Ceremonial of the Roads–in praise of rambling–in which Graham quotes Thoreau; and many more ways of honoring ordinary life. There is a page at the end of each season for readers to create their own ceremonials.

On Thanksgiving Day I celebrate the Ceremonial of Being Glad for People. A year is a lean year or a year of plenty in proportion to the poverty or richness of its fellowships….Thanksgiving is an articulate season, a time for expressing the unspoken things of the heart. The Ceremonial of Being Glad for People was the initial ceremonial. Because of it, the other ceremonials were made necessary. From Autumn

Revealing a kind of quiet bygone age of simple observation, generosity to others and a slower pace of life, yet Graham calls for being fully engaged in a world where the mundane is not taken for granted, but celebrated in grand style.

The holidays are coming and I say, “Celebrate the Ceremonial of the Stocking Stuffer!”

Available from:
Michele Lamond, Proprietor
NelliesNotecards.com
Venice, Florida

Happy Thanksgiving to Friends everywhere…

 

 

 

 

A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier (2019)

And now for something entirely different!

singlethreadAs most of you know, this blog reflects a passion for classic literature–in particular, my love for the 19th and early 20th centuries knows no bounds. Every once in awhile, though, I read a review on someone’s blog of a more modern novel that for whatever reason piques my interest. When I read Sandra’s (A Corner of Cornwall) review of A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier, something compelled me to read it.

I enjoyed the book immensely. It was just what I’d hoped it would be as a respite and a calm pause to break the day to day turbulence of the news cycle that I often get caught up in. The book is a wonderful character driven account of a subset of people engaged in activities that were new to me and a main character whose emotional journey truly captivated me.

But I enjoyed this book so much more for two items in the story making me realize I probably would never have recognized them had I not started this blog. But first, a brief review.

A Single Thread is a simple story of a woman’s loss and grief and the will to find meaning in a life she otherwise never would have chosen. The book opens in 1932 and centers on Violet Speedwell, an English “surplus woman,” grieving the loss of her brother and fiancé who both died in the Great War. Like many women of a certain age whose prospects for marriage are minimal due to the number of men who died, she is finding it difficult to construct her future. She lives with her mother, herself grieving the loss of her son, and their relationship is difficult and strained. Violet puts in for a job transfer to the nearby cathedral town of Winchester, where she finds herself drawn to the community of embroidering women who make kneelers and seat cushions for the church, which she comes to see as a way for her posterity to be marked.

Violet embodies the great emotional and financial difficulties of these single women within a society that is not sure where they belong or how to treat them, as she struggles against village gossip, physical violence and familial ignorance. In the end, Violet, as we would say today, ‘finds her people’ in the most unlikely characters and creates a family support system that includes biological family and neighborhood friends. For a much more in depth and engaging review, please go to Sandra’s post.

As I read I was surprised by two references that brought to mind some of the reading and writing I have created on this blog as I pursue classic literature.

While I have never been to the city of Winchester, I am aware of a special object mentioned in the novel that it is known for that I recognized from my participation in Witch Week 2017. The theme for that year, “Dreams of Arthur,” gave me the idea to do a piece on King Arthur’s Round Table. A model of sorts exists in the Great Hall at Winchester Castle, believed to have been made in about the year 1290. The table top is 5.5 meters in diameter, weighing in at about 1200kg. It is without its table legs and hangs on the west wall. The artwork on the top dates later, to the reign of Henry VIII and shows a Tudor rose in the center and Henry as King Arthur surrounded by the 24 names of Arthur’s knights. When I saw it mentioned in the novel, with a bit of pride I realize my contribution to Witch Week gives me a secret connection to Winchester Cathedral and its Round Table, whether I have ever been there or not!

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The second reference is to a book one of the characters is reading, Gilbert White’s, The Natural History of Selborne, that celebrates the natural world around the town. Last summer I saw it sitting on a bookstore shelf and found myself immersed in his descriptions of the animals and plants of Selborne and although here, too, is a place I have never been, I was drawn to it as I am with one of my favorite natural histories of a place (I also have never been to), Aldo Leopold’s, The Sand County Almanac, a natural history around Leopold’s home in the state of Wisconsin. I bought the Selborne book laughing to myself at how odd I am, excited about my discovery and wondering if anyone had ever heard of it. Then to find it referenced in a contemporary novel, I was pleased, and the laugh was on me!

I don’t judge my interest in the past and whether or not it has relevance to anything important in the world or my life in the present. After all, I majored in Medieval history. And I don’t know why I am so drawn to the late 19th century now. But the pleasure of seeing these connections in my reading after over four years of concentrating on the classics, gives me a certain satisfaction that history is not a void, but full of threads that from time to time connect themselves into my present. And it is then I know all this immersing myself in a time period long gone is worth it.

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Title: A Single Thread
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Publisher: Viking
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2019
Pages: 336