Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (1814)

mansfieldpark

 

The nonsense and folly of people’s stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves makes me think it right to give you a hint, Fanny, now that you are going into company without any of us; and I do beseech you and entreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins…Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last….

 

Fanny Price is taken from her working class family to live with her more affluent aunt and uncle. Lady Bertram is her mother’s sister and it is suggested by her mother’s other sister, Mrs. Norris that taking Fanny in would relieve their sister of the burden and expense of raising another child. Fanny is 9 years old and a quiet and frightened child when she comes to Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and their four children at Mansfield Park. For the next decade, while she is given everything material she could need, she lives a liminal life, sometimes included in the activities of her cousins and sometimes treated like a servant; decisions are made for her without her consent and criticisms of her thoughts and behavior are discussed by her aunts and uncle as if she isn’t there. Edmund, the younger of the two brothers, is her constant champion amidst the crassness and criticism of her Aunt Norris, who regularly reminds her of her humble place, regardless of how the Bertrams treat her or what they give to her.

Most of the action takes place through Fanny’s eyes and especially through her moral compass. Her cousins, the neighbors in the parsonage next door, are seen through her world view, which is exacting, unsentimental and harsh.

A Rigid Social Structure or is it just Fanny?

I don’t quite know what to make of Fanny Price. She has an unrelenting moral code that is so rigid and unforgiving it impedes her social interactions. With her delicate constitution she is forced to sit on the sidelines of many of life’s events, so she becomes the observer, the critic and the conscience-filter through which the motivation of each of her family and friends is measured. They ‘commit,’ what seem to me, infractions of the slightest intent or the folly of teenagers, yet to Fanny they are so grievous she cannot forgive.

I think there are subtleties of right and wrong, of etiquette and behavior during this period I am just not familiar. For instance, Fanny’s discomfort with Mary Crawford, which feels like plain old jealousy (over Edmund), yet I think even if she had not been Fanny’s rival, she would have found fault. Each person Fanny comes into contact with—Maria and Julia, her aunts, the Grants—can never live up to her impossibly high standards.

Who is Fanny, Anyway?

Edmund, from her first days at Mansfield Park, shows an almost 6th sense to Fanny’s material and emotional needs and comfort. He makes sure she is given a horse to ride every morning for her health, gives her a chain for the necklace her brother William gave her so she can wear it to the ball. Sir Thomas as well shows immense kindness to Fanny, especially once he returns from his business abroad. She accepts all of this with the appropriate gratitude, embarrassment and deference. But after the downfall of Maria and Julia, the break-up of Edmund and Mary Crawford, and Henry Crawford’s demise and finally, her triumph in winning Edmund, her quietude and deferential demeanor become something else. I see her as a conniver, who bides her time until she gets what she wants. Am I just mean, jaded or am I missing the point entirely?

I think there is a subtlety in this world that is foreign to me. For example, as loathsome as Mrs. Norris is to Fanny and everyone else at Mansfield Park, she is the least subtle and feels the most familiar. Her meanness comes from her own liminal life as a widow without a purpose or a place. She is a busy-body and treats Fanny abominably and tries to force the rest of the family to do her bidding often with disastrous results. She unnerves the Bertrams who want her gone from Mansfield Park; at Maria’s downfall, they get their wish. Yet, she is obvious in her brutishness; no one would expect anything different.

Austen 101

I would love to understand the details of this society; those minute cues and subtle looks that set Fanny off. If there is such a book that would explain it all to me, please let me know!

___________________

My Edition
Title: Mansfield Park
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Books
Device: Paperback
Year: 1814
Pages: 427
Full plot summary

Challenges: #AustenInAugustRBR, Classics Club, Mount TRB

Upstream: Selected Essays, Mary Oliver (2016)

upstream

 

I am one of those who has no trouble imagining the sentient lives of trees, of their leaves in some fashion communicating or of the massy trunks and heavy branches knowing it is I who have come, as I always come, each morning, to walk beneath them, glad to be alive and glad to be here.

 

I didn’t know Mary Oliver wrote essays. I know her as the writer of many of my favorite poems and a woman in love with and who embodies the natural world.

 

Childhood

In this collection, she shares her early experiences of wandering through the woods of her Ohio childhood and the writers and poets she discovered, whose works illumined her inner and outer worlds from a young age,

As a young person, I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door—a thousand opening doors!—past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.

and her relationships with the animal, bug, bird and plant worlds of the Provincetown of adulthood, and how she created her writing life.

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

 

Whitman

As a Young Adult

In high school, she counted Walt Whitman among her ‘friends’ with whom she would skip school for the woods “with a knapsack of books.” Warned she might not graduate, her parents let her ‘go her own way.’

Down by the creek, or in the wide pastures…I spent my time with my friend: my brother, my uncle, my best teacher…Whitman’s poems stood before me like a model of delivery when I began to write poems myself….The oracular tenderness with  which he viewed the world—its roughness, its differences, the stars, the spider—nothing was outside the range of his interest….But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing….I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.

Her experiences in nature became part of her psyche, then translated into a visceral experience. It is fair to say, she is a ‘hands on writer’ as she describes an hour spent in the woods walking on all fours.

I had seen the world from the level of the grasses….I was some slow old fox, wandering, breathing, hitching along, lying down finally at the edge of the bog, under the swirling rickrack of the trees.

You must not ever stop being whimsical.

Besides Whitman, other sources of influence were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe and Percy Bysshe Shelley. She writes of their personal stories of sorrows and challenges and what fueled their creative impulse. I am always fascinated to read what one writer thinks about another and how or why they were of influence.

Of Emerson she writes. I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy. And there he is also, avuncular and sweet, but firm and corrective, when I am below the mark.

That we are spirits that have descended into our bodies, of this Emerson was sure. That each man was utterly important and limitless, an “infinitude,” of this he was also sure. And it was a faith that leads, as he shows us again and again, not to stasis but activity, to the creation of the moral person from the indecisive person.

Of Poe: For are we not all, at times, exactly like Poe’s narrators—beating upon the confining walls of circumstance, the limits of the universe? In spiritual work, with good luck (or grace) we come to accept life’s brevity for ourselves. But the lover that is in each of us—the part of us that adores another person—ah! That is another matter….In the wide circles of timelessness, everything material and temporal will fail, including the manifestation of the beloved… This is Poe’s real story. As it is ours. And this is why we honor him, why we are fascinated far past the simple narratives. He writes about our own inescapable destiny.

 

Close Encounters

In several essays she describes encounters with nonhuman inhabitants of the spideynatural world around her: the mating and mothering habits of a female spider whose web Oliver finds in a stairwell and whose 6 egg sacs she watches as “the uncountable number of progeny have spilled” out of them; a rescued injured seagull she brought back to her house whose rehabilitation became part of the routine and pattern of her life during the several months it lived; the observation of a female snapping turtle as it struggled to lay its eggs on land against its natural predators, including Oliver, who will come back to this spot where the cache is and dig up half the eggs to scramble for breakfast. “I ate them all, with attention, whimsy, devotion, and respect.”

Poet and Literary Critic

As a writer, her word choices and phrases in these essays are as lyrical and expressive, wild and intense as the poetry she writes. I found myself reading many passages out loud envisioning the world she is describing. Her attention to the details of the flora and fauna she writes about in her poems make these essays powerful, visual and captivating to read. Here are two:

hornedowlBut the great horned [owl]…if one of those should touch me, it would touch to the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world….I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world….When I hear it resounding through the woods,…I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life—as, for example my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry.

She found an injured seagull on the sea shore and took it home to care for and named it, Bird:

He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact: this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief. Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it filled not with darkness but with light. Bird was like that. Startling, elegant, alive. 

Finally, in a wonderful passage connecting her spirituality and the bond she has with the nonhuman beings around her, she calls them a company of spirits, as well as bodies:

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves—we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.

*****************

My Edition:
Title: Upstream: Selected Essays
Author: Mary Oliver
Publisher: Penguin Press
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2016
Pages: 178
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton (1911)

efrome
This was a very depressing novel. Let’s just get that out of the way. Like another of Wharton’s New England novels Summer, which I read last year, she once again creates a character whose life has promise and potential, but bad choices made early on coupled with poverty and duty to family ruin any chance of freedom. Ethan Frome’s draining, joy-sucking life permeated every page.

Wharton creates a bit of mystery surrounding Ethan Frome in the opening pages. The unnamed narrator who arrives in town on business notes his somber countenance, “something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man,” yet he was only 52. The coach driver explained he has looked that way since ‘the smash-up.’ And with that, the strange, sad tale of Ethan Frome begins.

Frome is many years into a loveless marriage. He and his wife, Zeena, live in the Frome family home eking out a slim existence from soil that doesn’t yield much. He asked Zeena to marry him out of gratitude for helping him nurse his sick mother. Right after they marry her real or imagined ill health makes her unable to take care of the home, so she enlists the help of her young cousin, Mattie Silver, although it is soon clear she has no household skills.

Mattie’s youth and joy for life is Ethan’s one bright light and he begins to care for her deeply. When Zeena announces that her new doctor wants her to get a proper hired girl, because “I oughtn’t to have to do a single thing around the house,” Ethan is devastated. Mattie will have to leave because they can’t afford to pay for two girls, although she has no family to take her in. Ethan spends days frantically looking for a way to run off with Mattie, until he realizes its futility. The day he takes Mattie to the train station he stops to take her sledding. Both are distraught over their impending separation admitting they cannot live apart and make a pact to end their pain by sledding into a tree. They are severely injured, but both live. Ethan is left with a limp and a scarred forehead, but Mattie sustains a spinal injury that leaves her permanently disabled.

The action skips to the present when the narrator, who has only heard bits and pieces of this story is invited by Ethan to stay the night during a snow storm. When the front door is opened he hears more than one voice coming from the kitchen. He is shocked to walk in on both Zeena and Mattie sitting around the kitchen table.

When he goes back to his boarding house, run by a childhood friend of Ethan’s she explains that yes, after the accident, Zeena took Mattie back and nursed her as best she could and without any family to return to the three have lived together for 24 years. She tells him, “If she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”

Though the story is terribly tragic I admire Wharton’s writing. She is not sentimental or overly emotional, but matter of fact. The event happens or the choice sets in motion tragic consequences, the character accepts his or her fate and makes new choices and with them we move on. As in real life we have to get on with whatever hand we are dealt and this is how Wharton writes.

Except that I found it hard to just let go of Ethan’s fate. Is it too much to ask to give him a little happiness after having to leave college to come back home to care for his father, then his mother, then his wife and finally both his wife and unrequited lover? Couldn’t Wharton give him a little better financial situation or let his wife die young or…something?

However, like Charity, the main character in Summer, who similarly had to pit personal fulfillment against duty, what the reader finds here is reality. Both Ethan and Charity made foolish choices the first time they fell in love, which left them with life-altering consequences they could never break away from. And maybe that is the moral or the cautionary tale here; what you do when young comes back to haunt you. The whole trajectory of your life can change in an instant, so make good choices!

Right.

Try telling that to any young person in love!
____________________

My edition and plot summary.
Edith Wharton. Ethan Frome and Selected Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004. Originally published in 1911.

Challenges: Classic Club List and Mount TBR

Where Angels Fear to Tread, E.M. Forster (1905)

My Edition:angelstread
Title: Where Angels Fear to Tread
Author: E.M. Forster
Publisher: Dover
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1905
Pages: 117
Full plot summary


“Remember, that it is only by going off the track that you get to know the country. See the little towns—Gubbio, Pienza, Cortona, San Gimignano, Monteriano. And don’t, let me beg you, go with that awful tourist idea that Italy’s only a museum of antiquities and art. Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvelous than the land.”

 

What a soap opera and angst-ridden tale this is and packed into only 117 pages! The above quotation turns out to be the death knell for the Herriton family. If ever a family had a bad day…or span of years, it would be them. The ruptures and tragedies that plague them, however, are surprising and come out of the blue, making the novel read like a great international mystery/adventure story.

Lilia Herriton was widowed young and left with a daughter. From the beginning of her marriage, according to her in-laws, Lilia was wild and ill-mannered. After her husband’s death, she is forced to move near her mother-in-law for the sake of young Irma. But Lilia is still full of life and finds it difficult to play the conventional role of widow. When Caroline Abbot asks Lilia to be her companion on a trip to Italy the Herritons hope the responsibility will help to quell her untamed ways.

A cable is received from Lilia that she has settled down in the town of Monteriano and is going to marry Gino, the son of a dentist. Phillip, the brother of Lilia’s husband is sent to stop it and bring her back to England. But he arrives too late as she and Gino are already married. He tells her he has come to rescue her and will break up the marriage, but Lilia is defiant and with the past injustices from his family overcoming her and she defends her actions:

For once in my life I’ll thank you to leave me alone…For twelve years you’ve trained  me and tortured me, and I’ll stand it no more. Do you think I’m a fool? Do you think I never felt?..When I came to your house a poor young bride, how you all looked me over—never a kind word—and discussed me,…and your mother corrected me, and your sister snubbed me…And when Charles died I was still to run in strings for the honour of your beastly family, and I was to be cooped up at Sawston and learn to keep house, and all my chances spoilt of marrying again.

With such passion, the reader pulls so hard for Lilia and this new life she has created far from the criticism of her family. Alas, she dies in childbirth. And while that is shocking enough, the real shocker is how badly the Herritons now feel about the way they treated her and this guilt leads them to plot to get the child away from Gino and raised as their own. Once more, Philip is dispatched to Monteriano with his sister Harriet to make a bargain with Gino. When Gino turns down the offer, Harriet steals the baby as she rushes to catch the carriage taking them to the ship to go home. But when the carriage turns over on a wet road, the baby is killed.

No one is really happy in this novel. The Herritons and Caroline Abbott are all trying to live a life that is socially acceptable as members of the middle class, no individuality allowed. Lilia, who hoped her marriage would free her from English conventional norms found herself caught in similar conventions as an Italian wife.

Where Angels Fear to Tread is Forster’s first novel. His later works are more well-known, including A Room with a View, Howard’s End and A Passage to India. What drives his novels, in my opinion, is his gift for finding the vulnerable places of his characters as motives for their life choices and in the case of this novel one character’s choice from that place drives the vulnerabilities of the entire cast.

_______________________
Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)

My Edition:treebrooklyn
Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Author: Betty Smith
Publisher: The Blakiston Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1943
Pages: 376
Plot summary: Goodreads

Johnny: Anybody can ride in one of those hansom cabs, provided they got the money. So you can see what a free country we got here…In the old countries, certain people aren’t free to ride in them, even if they have the money.

Francie: Wouldn’t it be more of a free country if we could ride in them for free?

Johnny: No, because that would be Socialism and we don’t want that here.

About a year and a half ago I heard a program on NPR about the publishing industry and World War II; that publishers put out specially formatted books with thin paper and in a particular size to fit easily into the pocket of a soldier’s uniform. They published classics as well as light reading and were passed from soldier to soldier throughout the fields of battle. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of the most requested titles, because it reminded the soldiers of the values they were fighting for.

The Story

It is a Saturday during the summer of 1912 when we meet 11 year-old Francie Nolan. She lives with her brother Neeley and her parents, Katie and Johnny, both born in the United States, from Austrian and Irish backgrounds respectively. They live in a third-story walk up on a street with other immigrant Irish. Johnny is a singing waiter beloved by his friends and family, but alcohol has taken over him so his work is sporadic. Katie has become the breadwinner of the family and works as a ‘janitress’ cleaning homes and offices.

Francie and Neeley are always hungry, their clothes are not thick enough to protect them from the biting cold of winter and their home is not always heated. But they themselves are breadwinners as collectors of bits and bobs that they sell to the junkmen for pennies which will buy stale bread. Saturday afternoon being the most important day of the week, the kids scheme against each other for the best deals at the storefronts where they trade their stashes of rags and bits of metal and anything they can find to sell. With that money they buy food for the family, saving a penny for a sweet or two.

The book is told through budding writer Francie as she watches and observes the people and conditions around her. The narrative is a simple one as Francie grows from an 11 year-old to 17: her father dies of alcoholism, her mother takes on more work, she reads voraciously and realizes there is more to the world than Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York; she falls in love, is jilted, she fears her brother, who likes to sing, will end up like her father; she must give up her education so her work can support her mother and brother, but the desire for education burns so hard she takes college classes at night and during the summer and is able to skip high school altogether and is accepted to a college in Michigan. Her mother remarries and the family moves out of poverty.

Through Francie, Smith writes with such detail about early 20th century Williamsburg and the crushing and demeaning poverty of its inhabitants. She writes with a meticulous hand the strategies the children employ that will get them the most for the items they have collected throughout the week: which stores will pay them the most, whether this shop owner likes girls better than their brothers or that shop owner will give more to the boys, and the pride the children feel contributing to the family bank (a can nailed to the closet floor). When Katie asks Francie to shop for food she is given instructions on what to say and how to approach the butcher, the breadmaker and so on, in order to get the best deal.

My Thoughts

Yet, the story is not just the narrative, but the characters that people Francie’s life: the teacher who at first encouraged her writing until she started writing the truth about her hard life, who then told her writing is supposed to be full of beauty; her aunt Sissy, the ‘floozie’ who married three times, had 10 children that died at birth, yet is the family member everyone turns to in times of crisis; the Jewish and German shop keepers with whom Francie deals, who can be gruff and mean to the poor children one minute only to give them something extra the next; her father Johnny who she is so close to, yet for all his patriotism about freedom, is never able free himself from his addiction; Katie, who wanted to make a different world for her children, took her mother’s advice to read from the Bible and Shakespeare,

“…every day you must read a page of each to your child—even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great—knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.

And the titular tree that grows tall throughout Williamsburg like an umbrella, because “it likes poor people” has the tenacity to succeed like the human inhabitants because when it is cut down, will find a break in the cement, push through it and grow again.

The book was published in 1943 when, although the soldiers didn’t know it, was right in the middle of the war. They were not that far removed from their own immigrant past, the tales of the ‘old country’ that were still real for their parents and grandparents. So, it is fair to say that this novel is really a story of immigrant America, how each generation built it up from the succeeding one.

And which may be why the book was so heavily traded among soldiers who saw in the pages their own mother and sister who kept the family together, whose fathers worked any job they could get, a little brother they missed; the same immigrant neighbors, who regardless of their poverty, knew America could give their children freedom, the ability to determine their own destiny which set America a part from the enemies they were fighting.

_____________

Classics Club, Mount TBR

Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War (2016)

 

My Edition:mercyst
Title: Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War
Author: Pamela D. Toler
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2016
Pages: 287
Summary

I immediately wrote to all the people of influence I knew, begging them to procure me some place in the war as nurse, or whatever I could do, Mary Phinney von Olnhausen[1]

I shall not come home, unless I get sick, while this hospital lasts,  Cornelia Hancock[ii]

 

mercyst1
The Union took over Confederate private homes and hotels for use as hospitals

The second season of Mercy Street on PBS starts this Sunday. I was hooked from the first episode last year. The program tells another part of the American Civil War from the perspective of the doctors and nurses and the wounded of both sides. The script is based on the biographies, diaries and other writings of real women who volunteered to serve their country as hospital nurse, a profession that was ill-defined for women up to this point and whose presence in war-time hospitals often met with condescension at best and suspicion at worst. Their presence in military hospitals challenged the medical establishment’s concept of female sensibility to the horrors of war, until the women proved not only their worth in the hospital setting, but that their work was vital to the overall war effort.

I have been a ‘female nurse’ since a year ago last October…I went with many misgivings—but now I know what women are worth in the hospitals. It is no light thing to hear a man say he owes you his life and then to know that mother, wife, sister or child bless you in their prayers, Ella Wolcott[iii]

The Heroines of Mercy Street, by Pamela D. Toler, a companion to the PBS series, tells the stories of many of these women and about what it meant for nursing to grow from something done by women at home for family members as the knowledge was passed from mother to daughter, to a skilled profession in hospital and other outside-the-home settings. Toler explains that during the early days of the Civil War it was recovering soldiers who aided the doctors in caring for newly injured and sick, as female nurses were not well-accepted or were considered unable to perform the physical and medical duties as required. It was also thought the sights of the wounded and their care was not a respectable job for the mothers, daughters, wives and sisters of middle and upper class families.

…and in the late war we saw the most delicate women, who could not at home endure the sight of blood, become so used to scenes of carnage, that they walked the hospitals and the margins of battlefield, amid the poor remnants of torn humanity, with as perfect self-possession as if they were strolling in a flower garden,  Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner [iv]

Florence Nightingale changed this perception with her work in the Crimean War after which she published Notes on Nursing to high acclaim. Her school in London drew women from all classes of society, including American women, giving skills to  thousands of women willing to nurse the wounded and ill on the front and in hospitals.

Toler profiles many well-known women, including Dorothea Dix, Louisa May Alcott and her experiences at Union Hospital and the work of Clara Barton. Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, a major character in the series, features prominently in the book as well.  The comprehensive endnote section includes many others through their letters and journals, their conversations and documents that describe their back-breaking and emotionally-wrenching work.

mercyst3
Scenes like this are portrayed in the series

All these women, the famous and the unknown, were pioneers, who felt called to a profession in its infancy. They stood up for themselves and their vulnerable soldiers for whom they fought to get the best medical treatment, food and the cleanest environment possible. Their dedication proved their necessity to the war effort. As a result of the War, these skills also paved the way for women to work after the war ended, which according to Dorothea Dix advanced women “at least fifty years beyond the position they would have held had the country remained at peace.”[v]

I wonder what I shall do with myself when the war is over. I never can sit down and do nothing…I never expect to live at home again, I shall always be working somewhere or other, I hope. Work is my life. I cannot be happy doing nothing, Emily Parsons[vi]

_________________
[i] 51.
[ii] 175.
[iii] 143.
[iv] 121.
[v] 221.
[vi] Ibid.

Library Love Challenge

Miracle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doctor Saved Thousands of Babies and Transformed American Medicine, Claire Prentice (2016)

My Edition:coneyisland
Title: Miracle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doctor Saved Thousands of Babies and Transformed American Medicine
Author: Claire Prentice
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Device: Kindle Fire
Year: 2016
Pages: 95
For a plot summary

About a year ago, I came across a segment on NPR that told the strange and wonderful story of an exhibit of incubator babies at Coney Island amusement park. Organized by German-born doctor Martin Couney, who saved thousands of premature infants with this new-fangled contraption, appealing to the public was the best way to show the skeptical medical establishment premature infants had a chance of survival.

And who would have thought trying to save babies from certain death would cause such controversy?

At the end of the 19th century when Couney started exhibiting his incubator babies, the survival rate of a premature or underweight infant was dismal. In general, 15-20 percent of infants did not live to their first birthday, which was devastating enough; the rate of death for premature babies was much higher. When a woman delivered such an underdeveloped baby, all resources went to her survival, as the baby’s death was just expected.

“Take it to the people” then if doctors and hospitals are skeptical. So Couney brought his doctors, nurses, wet nurses and 6 incubators to the Berlin Exposition in May of 1896. His set up consisted of a room for the nurses, a separate one for the male physicians, a second for the weighing, feeding, changing and bathing of the infants and a third large space which was open to the viewing public: the displays of incubators.

couney2-jpeg

 

So odd was the concept of babies nurtured in a box, that the exhibit was not in the official science and technology building but in the amusement section “sandwiched between the ‘Congo village’ and the Tyrolean Yodelers.” During the expo, Couney took in “batches of babies” bringing them to 6 pounds, all surviving, all going home with their parents.

The next year, Couney displayed the incubators at the Victorian Era Exhibition, where visitors picked out their favorite babies, often returning to watch their progress. It should be mentioned that Couney never charged the parents who brought their babies to him. Like any exhibit, the public was charged a fee, so it was from that Couney was able to pay his staff and buy equipment. It must also be noted Couney accept all babies regardless of race or class during a time when many places of amusement, not to mention hospitals, were segregated.

At some point after this exhibition Couney came to the United States and attained citizenship. (According to the author Claire Prentice, some of Couney’s early personal life is a little sketchy). His first American incubator exhibit occurred in 1898 at the Trans-Mississippi International Exhibition in the city of Omaha. Though hospitals would not release any infant born prematurely to Couney, desperate parents did. And the incubators were always full. Couney was at the exhibit every day explaining to the public how the incubators worked; that they replicated the body temperature of the mother, filtered in clean air to keep away germs and in such a clean supportive environment the babies thrived gradually gaining the requisite 6 pounds before being allowed to leave the incubators in the arms of their parents.

After several more exhibitions in the U.S., Couney was invited to a new amusement park on Coney Island, New York, called Luna Park. The spectacular attractions drew a large audience and after just one summer became the entertainment capital of the world. Couney was promised a prime location on the main thoroughfare.

Come this way, ladies and gentlemen! See the tiniest little bits of humanity in the world warmed, nourished and fed, given a good fair start to become strong and able-bodied citizens. Maybe the future President is inside! Maybe there is another J. Pierpont Morgan breathing the pure tar scented air! All done by the baby incubator! Step right in and watch the babies grow well and strong before your eyes! 

With a permanent base on Coney Island, Couney continued to exhibit the incubators at world’s fairs and exhibitions. Though his success rate was phenomenal attention from the medical establishment was slow to come. By the late 1920s, most hospitals still had no incubators and the few doctors who believed in the technology had no recourse but to send their premature patients to Couney at Luna Park.

Prentice goes into detail about Couney’s personal life, including his marriage and the birth of a premature daughter, his name change from Cohen to Couney and his fight to bring members of his family to America from Germany before Hitler’s reign would make it impossible for them to leave.

Prentice also reveals a stunning bombshell regarding Couney’s medical training, that is, whether or not he actually had any and what such a truth would bring to bear on his life’s work. Perhaps he was lucky that his technology was so derided by medical men and that he had to operate outside the medical establishment; surely, working in a hospital alongside actual doctors he would be caught as a fraud?

couney1However, does this knowledge, if it is true, take away from the fact that what Couney created worked? He saved thousands of children with a machine that is now part of every hospital on the planet. He was always careful to have doctors working with him who could take care of any medical emergency and trained nurses who believed in his work. He made it possible for babies who were given up on to live, and to grow up and create families of their own. His official medical credentials may always remain a mystery. But his contribution to medicine and to society can never be in doubt.

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

My Edition:herland.jpeg
Title: Herland
Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Publisher: Dover Publications
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1915
Pages: 124
For a plot summary

There was no accepted standard of what was ‘manly and what was ‘womanly.’…When Jeff said to Celis, “Women should not carry anything…they are not built for heavy work. Celis looked out across the fields to where some women were working, building a new bit of wall out of large stones; looked back at the nearest town with its woman-built houses; down at the smooth, hard road they were walking on; and then at the little basket he had taken from her. “I don’t understand, are the women in your country so weak that they could not carry such a thing as that?[i]

 

I was so disappointed by Edward Bellamy’s depiction of women in his utopian novel, Looking Backward, that I found myself pining for a more positive view. I remembered I had Herland on my shelf and pulled it off only to find in the introduction the author was inspired by Bellamy! Charlotte Perkins Gilman was already known for her autobiographical, The Yellow Wallpaper, which exposed the chilling and harrowing methods of the ‘rest cure’ forced on some women when depression and the inability to cope made living impossible. Surely, she had a more affirmative and supportive concept about women in her utopia?

Happily for me, Herland presents a stable and progressive environment, a well-planned framework for a new way of life. The novel, in a parallel to Looking Backward, is based around conversations, in this case, between the three male explorers and their three female teachers.

The plot is simple enough. Three young men, Terry the rich boy, Van the sociologist and Jeff the doctor and friends since college have joined an expedition somewhere in Central or South America, the exact location is not made clear, where the native guides tell tales of a land of women high up in the mountains where there are no men or male children. One of the guides shows them a piece of cloth made with extraordinary skill that looks nothing like the work of local people. The three men vow to come back and find this land which they do a year later.

And the tales they heard are true. It IS a land of women, who have created a country of beauty, peace, culture and education without the aid of men. And poor Terry, who is certain the women have been waiting centuries for him spends the entire trip trying to prove it, but to no avail. Van and Jeff are eager to learn and understand the history and society of the country and it is through conversations with their three teachers, Zava, Moadine and Somel that we learn how the land came to be.

Two thousand years ago, after a series of wars, though they built fortresses and had skilled warriors, the men were unable to stave off attacks from other tribes and all were killed. This left women, young girls and old slave women as the only inhabitants when the final blow, a volcanic outburst, sealed off the pass below and penned them up against the mountains. There was no escape. After the initial despair where some women suggested suicide, the majority made the decision to live. The slave women taught them invaluable skills and they learned to work the tools and equipment of various trades. They had records and archives with their history, which they learned and added to as the centuries went by.

But the question had to be asked: if there were no men for two thousand years, how did they populate? For about 10 years after they were sealed in by the volcano, the remaining women plucked up the courage to plan a future as best they could. They cleaned up the land by working together and grew strong and wise and more and more mutually attached, until a miracle occurred: one young woman bore a girl child… a direct gift from the gods, they believed. She bore four more—all girls. The miracle continued as each woman, upon reaching the age of 25, bore her first child, until she, too, had five. But as the centuries passed and overpopulation threatened the land, the process settled on one child a piece.

“Babies are raised communally after a year spent with their mother, though even then, the mother is never far from her child. School and education is an environment calculated to allow the riches, freest growth….”[ii]

The children grow up in a system of education that draws out their talents and abilities to things they love and are good at so when they enter the work force work is a delight and a joyous contribution to the nation. This notion that education is for discovering what we’re good at and love is like Bellamy’s system, except that his excludes women, whose highest contribution to society is to procreate, with ‘careers’ only auxiliary, not part of the needs of the nation.

I should mention here that in Herland, motherhood, too, is lauded as the supreme achievement with babies loved and adored by the whole community. However, it is acknowledged that not every woman will have or want to have a child, a decision that is honored and respected. In Bellamy’s new world as in his real 19th century world, a woman who does not want to have children is looked on with derision, even suspicion.

It may be that Gilman’s perspective on motherhood is also a reflection of her ideas about women and work and the insistence that women have choices over their life. This may have also been a reaction against the criticism Gilman received when she gave up her daughter to be raised by her first husband so she could concentrate on her work. He remarried her best friend and the three were close, but the act of voluntarily giving up her child for such a “selfish” reason was looked upon as extremely “umotherly.”

Gilman also explores femininity in Herland. The women here are not ‘feminine’ in the way Terry, Van and Jeff are accustomed. It is confusing enough for them that society functions just fine in every area without men and Gilman uses this as a platform to explore this new womanhood. The three are educated about Herland for months together and individually by their three teachers, Zava, Moadine and Somel, whom they affectionately call “The Colonels.” The lack of sexual dynamics and their notions of femininity are confusing to the men. That the women of Herland created a land of peace and plenty, built streets and edifices, figured out food sources and methods of feeding 3 million people, developed laws and education without the guidance and organization skills of men, is an almost impossible concept for Terry, Van and Jeff.

Van: “Here you have human beings…but what we were slow in understanding was how these ultra-women, inheriting only from women, had eliminated not only certain masculine characteristics…but so much of what we had always thought essentially feminine….The tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out. These stalwart virgins had no men to fear and therefore no need of protection.”

Terry, with sarcasm, “It’s likely women—just a pack of women—would have hung together like that! We all know women can’t organize—that they scrap like anything—are frightfully jealous.”

Jeff: “But these New Ladies didn’t have anyone to be jealous of, remember?”[iii]

What a blow to Terry who is observing a land where he is not needed and that frankly works better without men!

And in fact, Terry, the prized catch of manhood in his former life has the most difficult time. I think Gilman uses him to illustrate every sexist and chauvinistic word men ever said about women! Even after the men are accepted into society, learn the language and are educated on the history of the county, Terry refuses to accept that a country can actually exist without men and that in truth, the women MUST have been waiting just for him. As imagined, he causes the most problems, cannot accept what he sees and longs to get home to ‘real women.’ In a remarkable observation Van says, “those feminine charms we are so fond of are not feminine at all but mere reflected masculinity—developed to please us because they had to please us and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process.”[iv]

Gilman explores many aspects of society, including religion

…they had a clear established connection between everything they did—and God. Their cleanliness, their health, their exquisite order, the rich peaceful beauty of the whole land, the happiness of the children, and above all the constant progress they made—all this was their religion….They applied their mind to the thought of God, and worked out the theory that such an inner power demanded outward expression. They lived as if God was real and at work within them.[v]

And relationships, because of course, there is romance! But between whom and whether they stay in Herland would be a spoiler, so you’ll have to read the book to find out. Hint: Poor Terry….

That this beautiful, stable, evolving world exists because women are cooperative with each other, that they are smart, are able to take their talents and abilities both physical and mental to their highest potential, have created culture and art is what Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writer and feminist, was working for in 19th/20th century America. It is hard to remember women once had to fight for the right to be smart and capable, to freely take their talents and abilities as far as they could, to create whatever kind of life they wanted.

It makes me laugh, knowing all I do now, to think of us three boys—nothing else, three audacious impertinent boys—butting into an unknown country without any sort of a guard or defense. We seemed to think that if there were men we could fight them, and if there were only women—why, they would be no obstacles at all.[vi]

Was Herland a reaction to Looking Backward? Or Gilman’s singular attempt to design a world where women were not only safe from the violence of men, they were also physically competent and smart and educated enough to build and care for their own society? Looking forward, taking the best from both, they have the potential to create a good decent society where each person is valued for their individuality, yet part of the whole.

___________
[i] p. 79.
[ii] p. 87.
[iii] p. 49-50.
[iv] p. 50
[v] p. 8.
[vi] p. 18.

 

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (1868)

My Edition:littlewomen2
Title: Little Women
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Publisher: Signet Classic
Device: Paper book
Year: 1983. From the original, 1868
Pages: 449
For a plot summary

Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone; it keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion.[i]

I like good strong words that mean something, replied Jo.[ii]

 

Apparently, Louisa May Alcott was not happy when her publisher asked her to write a “girl’s book.” She wanted to publish a collection of short stories and didn’t think she could write a successful book for girls. Nor did she enjoy writing it. “I plod away,” she wrote in her diary, “although I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.” After showing the completed manuscript to several girls, who found it “splendid,” Little Women was published to great success and to a surprised Alcott.

This was a first-time read for me and it was a slow process. I found myself totally immersed in the lives of the characters, each page rich in both the large and minute details of the daily life of the March women: pretty Meg is 16, plump and fair, with white hands, of which she was rather vain; Jo at 15 was slim and tall, with gray eyes that saw everything, a flyway look to her clothes and the “uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn’t like it;”[iii] 13 year-old Beth was shy, but with a peaceful demeanor and was called ‘Little Tranquility’ by her father; the youngest is 12 year-old Amy, blue eyes, yellow hair and a very high opinion of herself. And of course, Marmee, Mrs. March, helping her girls to live and grow as best they can while feeling the absence of their chaplain father away on the front lines (of the Civil War).

If had to sum up in one sentence the theme of the book, I would say it is a morality tale for young women; how to know yourself, what makes you tick so that you can be a better person. So, it was fascinating to watch each daughter’s life journey, each one so different from the other bring their trials, questions, flaws in their character to their mother and with Pilgrim’s Progress as their guide (why is it that one book always leads to another?!) overcome these deficits or ‘burdens’ in their personalities and become independent grown women.

Marmee never scolded or condemned their behavior, but saw each challenge as something that kept them from living up to their best self. And through the normal jealousies, hurt feelings, missteps, growing pains, revelations of truth brought each daughter to her highest self.

So much interested me in this book that I imagine this will be the first of many posts. These are some of the things that struck me.

  • Jo is continually described in masculine terms. She acts “gentlemanly,” she is described as “the man of the family.” Jo is like a boy because she is blunt in her words. Laurie calls her “my dear fellow.” However, these epithets are never used as a mockery or said in spite. They are merely descriptions of her behavior or personality. And it makes me wonder if this meant something different at that time than it does now where calling a woman ‘a gentleman’ has all kinds of negative associations and is often said in mockery toward certain types of women?
  • Though most of the book centers on domestic life, Laurie’s and Amy’s travels in Europe helped both develop a direction for their lives in keeping with the knowing-yourself theme. As Amy says, “Foreign life polishes one in spite of one’s self….”[iv]
  • The sympathetic defense of spinsters and old maids: “Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight….and looking at them with compassion, not contempt, girls in their bloom should remember that they too may miss the blossom time; the rose cheeks don’t last forever, that sliver threads will come in the bonnie brown hair, and that, by-and-by kindness and respect will be as sweet as love and admiration now.

    Gentleman, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is the readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind, regardless of rank, age, or color. Just recollect the good aunts who have not only lectured and fussed, but nursed and petted, too often without thanks; the scrapes they have helped you out of, the tips they have given you from their small store, the stitches the patient old fingers have set for you, the steps the willing old feet have taken, and gratefully pay the dear old ladies the little attentions that women love to receive as long as they live.”[v]

  • Limes! Who would ever think elementary school popularity was contingent upon the ability to provide limes to your friends? As Amy explains to Meg: “The girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it, too. It’s nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in the schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else, at recess. If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime; if she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck. They treat by turns, and I’ve had ever so many but haven’t returned them, and I ought, for they are debts of honor, you know.”[vi
  • Titles of books. A nice piece of cultural and literary history to see what books were read at this time or which authors were important to a character. I caught The Vicar of Wakefield, Ivanhoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Fanny Burney and her Evelina, and of course the importance of Pilgrim’s Progress throughout the book.
  • Beth’s (Louisa’s?) thoughts on death. “Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety, it shows itself in acts rather than in words, and has more influence than homilies or protestations. Beth could not reason upon or explain the faith that gave her courage and patience to give up life, and cheerfully wait for death. Like a confiding child, she asked no questions, but left everything to God and nature, Father and mother of us all, feeling sure that they, and they only, could teach and strengthen her heart and spirit for this life and the life to come.[vii]
  • Amy Gets Snubbed at Mrs. Chester’s Fair Or Mean Girls Fail to Kill Amy’s Spirit.
    Amy was to have the front table at the charity fair to sell her art, but due to circumstances beyond her control (Jo’s imitation of May Chester which put Mrs. Chester off), her table was moved to a less than prominent location and May was given the front table for her work. It would have been Amy’s right to be mad or to even retaliate, but Amy was resolved to participate and keep up the best possible attitude. In the end, May didn’t have enough pieces to fill the table and Amy offered to put back her work, although she was not asked to sit at the table. The pieces sold well and the fair itself was a great success. Her sisters knew what she had been through and praised her for it. “You laugh at me when I say I want to be a lady, but I mean a true gentlewoman in mind and manners, and I try to do it as far as I know how. I can’t explain exactly, but I want to be above the little meannesses and follies and faults that spoil so many women. I’m far from it now, but I do my best, and hope in time to be what Mother is.”[viii]

I have to laugh as I was taught once again that familiarity with a film adaptation (the Hepburn version hepburnis my favorite) does not do a book justice. I thought I knew this story, but it was just a tiny portion.

 

 

As it is summer, let me end on this wise gem from Jo, whose big outdoor hat Meg put the kibosh on by saying, “Oh Jo, you shall not make a guy of yourself.”

“I just will, though, for it’s capital—so shady, light and big. It will make fun, and I don’t mind being a guy if I’m comfortable.”[ix]
_______

[i] 110-111.
[ii] 34.
[iii] 115.
[iv] 354.
[v] 402-403.
[vi] 62.
[vii] 342.
[viii] 284.
[ix] 115.

The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett (1896)

My Edition:pointed firs
Title: The Country of the Pointed Firs
Author: Sarah Orne Jewett
Publisher: A Public Domain Book
Device: Kindle Fire
Year: 1896
Pages: 72
For a plot summary

When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person. The process of falling in love at first sight is as final as it is swift…but the growth of true friendship may be a lifelong affair. [i]

Most biographical descriptions of Sarah Orne Jewett include the fact that as the daughter of a doctor, she accompanied him on rounds throughout their small rural town in Maine and grew close to the townspeople, the farmers and fishermen and developed an eye for the details of their behavior and the rhythm of their daily lives. It is apparent throughout this small book of “quietly powerful rhythms” (Ursula K. LeGuin), Jewett’s acquaintance with the variety of types who make up the small fictional fishing village of Dunnet Landing benefited from these encounters.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is not really a novel, but more a series of sketches tied together by an unnamed narrator, a writer, stopping for the summer at the home Almira Todd. It is with Todd, an herbalist with a well-stocked garden in the ancient manner of healers, that much of the action centers.

There were some strange and pungent odors that roused a dim sense and remembrance of something in the forgotten past. Some of these might once have belonged to sacred and mystic rites, [but now] They were dispensed to suffering neighbors, who usually came at night as if by stealth, bringing their own ancient-looking vials to be filled.[ii]

Fisher folk are the bulk of Todd’s neighbors. They know the weather, the tides, how to build and repair boats and how to read the water. They have lived long and see the world around them changing. They have been jilted at the altar and take on penance on an isolated island, they have lost the great love of their life, they stop everything for a neighbor’s disaster and they live for the next family reunion

One of the changes is spoken by Captain Littlepage, who spends time pondering the past as he sits and watches the shore from his home. He is disconcerted at the fact that men don’t put out to sea for the adventure and mind expansion as they once did. The town is “full of loafers,” he says…“who once would have followed the sea, every lazy soul of ‘em.” [iii]

“…that a community narrows down and grows dreadful ignorant when it is shut up to its own affairs, and gets no knowledge of the outside world except from a cheap, unprincipled newspaper…There’s no large-minded way of thinking now: the worst have got to be best and rule everything; we’re all turned upside down and going back year by year.”[iv]

Another character who features strongly throughout the books is one we never meet. Although, she has been dead for 22 years, she is often on the mind of Mrs. Todd and others of the town. “Poor” Joanna was to be married, but a month before the wedding her suitor fell in love with another woman and up and moved away. Understandably upset she turned her wrath on God to such an extent that in her own mind she became unforgivable and felt she must remove herself from society. Although the tiny island she moved to was visible from the mainland, she made it clear her friends must leave her alone, which they reluctantly did. Having heard this story, the narrator feels compelled to visit the island.

Later generations will know less and less of Joanna herself, but there are a paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over, –the world cannot forget them…the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance…In the life of each of us…there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong. [v]

And then there is the Bowden family reunion that brings in throngs of people for food gossip and to connect with far flung family. Mrs. Todd and her old mother invite the narrator along, who observes:

….when at long intervals, the altars to patriotism, to friendship, to the ties of kindred, are reared in our familiar fields, then the fires glow, the flames come up as if from the inexhaustible burning heart of the earth…. Each heart is warm and every face shines with the ancient light. Such a day as this has transfiguring powers…but it is the old who really value such opportunities; as for the young, it is the habit of every day to meet their comrades—the time of separation has not come. To see the joy with which these elder kinsfolk and acquaintances had looked in one another’s faces, and the lingering touch of their friendly hands… easily makes friends of those who have been cold-hearted, and gives to those who are dumb their chance to speak, and lends some beauty to the plainest face.[vi]

This is my first Sarah Orne Jewett, a work Henry James called, a “beautiful little quantum of achievement.” I was drawn into this book through the details of a way of life that for the most part no longer exists. It found me longing to know more, not only of the characters, but of the author herself.

 

**********

[i] p 1.
[ii] p. 2.
[iii] p. 9.
[iv] p. 10.
[v] p. 43 & 44.
[vi] p. 51.

This book is for the Reading New England Challenge and my Classics Club book list.