Thursday, July 29, 2010

Kings Canyon and For the King

Peter enjoying King's Canyon

Here I am at Cedar Grove Lodge in King’s Canyon National Park, which is the northern part of Sequoia. It’s been a favorite place of ours for years, and perfect for Peter while he’s still semi-convalescing.  No place could be more peaceful. The beautiful Kings River rushes right past the lodge, and Peter loves to sit on the porch and watch the water and the Stellers Bluejays that pop and flit about.

  The river runs

Today we drove to Road’s End and took a little walk by the river. But mostly we’ve been reading, and I have read two books by Frenchwomen on this trip: Adelaide and Theodore by Madame de Genlis, and the new historical novel by my friend Catherine Delors, For the King. So I spent the weekend simultaneously in eighteenth century France, and by a very American, western river. Usually in these settings I’m more moved to read Americana, but not this time, and nor was Peter.  For the record, he was rereading Prometheus Bound and Thus Spake Zarathustra, and reading part of The Mahabarata for the first time.  (We are united in our love for reading and writing...but what different books!)

Peter reading on the porch at Cedar Grove Lodge

For the King is a hybrid, being a combination historical novel and detective thriller, and it is exciting in both genres.  The historical background is particularly vivid and rich; in the details, the feeling of living in Paris in 1800, is evoked so well, that you feel you've been plunged into the tense, turbulent, rapidly changing society. The realities of daily life are fleshed out with a full bloodedness that many historical novels don’t achieve. The story centers around a fascinating true event, the attempted assassination of Napoleon by the explosion of a gunpowder cart, or “infernal machine.” Chief Inspector Roch Miquel, a clever and likeable detective, has his hands full with taking evidence while walking through a minefield of political maneuvering, in which his own peasant father, a former Jacobin, is faced with the guillotine.  The mystery plummets along urgently, laced with danger, politics, sex, fashion, and love - a rich French potion.

Me in Kings Canyon

Wild raspberries, picked and eaten...

I’ve read little about France, concentrating on Jane Austen and England, but France and its political events impinged upon Austen's life, and I enjoyed reading this story set in the France she knew about (though never visited), through her cousin, Comtesse Eliza de Feuillide, whose husband was guillotined.  Jane Austen also read Madame de Genlis’s book, Adelaide and Theodore (Adele et Theodore, in French), as is evidenced by her mentioning it in Emma, in talking about Mrs. Weston's new baby:

"She has had the advantage, you know, of practising on me," she continued -- "like La Baronne d'Almane on La Comtesse d'Ostalis', in Madame de Genlis' Adelaide and Theodore, and we shall now see her own little Adelaide educated on a more perfect plan."

So I’ve always meant to read it, and obtained a translated copy thanks to my useful almost-librarian son Paul, who downloaded it from the ECCE site; I also found the introduction by Gillian Dow online.


Adelaide and Theodore is very readable; the style and attitudes took me back to the world of Les Liaisons Dangeureuses, written in the same year (1782) and which also would have been known to Austen. Gillian Dow writes, “As portraits of decaying and corrupt Ancien-Regime high society, the two novels are remarkably similar,” and that’s what I felt. These baronesses and viscontesses, writing to each other, remind me of Laclos’s characters in their epistolary style; but they are writing in milk-and-water fashion, like Hannah More out of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, about how to bring up children – instead of how to attract and corrupt lovers! But, being Frenchwomen, the subject does shift from whether or not to teach your boy Latin, to how to conquer one’s own proclivities to coquetry. Written in 1782, when Mme. de Genlis was thirty-six, she delivers a feeling opinion on being a fading beauty. “I think there is one time of life very dangerous for women, who are not entirely free from coquetry. It is when they are still handsome, but no longer possess the brilliancy and charms of youth, nor are talked of for their elegance of person, which now ceases to attract admiration. In short, as soon as it is said of a woman, she is still handsome; that still spoils the compliment.”

Leopard lily
There can be no doubt that Austen knew a good deal about this ancien regime French society, its manners and morals - her cousin Eliza was a "living rule" example of it, and Austen's own Lady Susan, the portrait of a character who seems more French than English, is proof positive.  In Adelaide and Theodore so far (I've read only the first half) I've detected only a few places that made me think might have influenced Austen, or given her thought. “Genius [in a woman] is a useless and a dangerous gift,” writes de Genlis. “It lifts them out of their proper sphere, or serves to disgust them with it.” What would Austen have thought, reading that? Perhaps it’s why she wrote in Northanger Abbey, “A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can."

Peter contemplating the stream in Giant Forest, Sequoia
The mention of studying history with “emperors down to Constantine” recalls a phrase in Mansfield Park, while “an artful woman may be able to govern a weak and narrow minded husband,” may put us in mind of Mr. Collins and Charlotte. But these are stray thoughts. More interesting is the France I read about in Adelaide and Theodore, one of aristocrats leading a life exquisite except in the complete lack of modern medical science (a woman is bled for her headache, and bears her pain nobly so as to teach her children to do the same), and how very different it is from the France in For the King, which takes place six years after the Reign of Terror and shows the lower orders as Austen and Genlis never showed them. Nothing could make clearer how the Revolution changed France, than reading this pre-Revolution book, side by side with the novel set in the turbulent post-Revolutionary France.

And then I looked up, and there was the river...not the Seine, but one beside which, in 1800, Indians shot deer and ground acorns.  On the last night, I stepped into the woods for a last look at the darkling river, and I came upon the largest black BEAR I ever saw:  a veritable monster, cinnamon dark, most busily engaged in nibbling raspberries from the very bushes where I'd picked some earlier.  I hastened back to the car, for he was a noble monster indeed.  Like this one, only...bigger.

Monsieur Ours

Speaking of animals, the cats had an emotional meltdown at our being away (or possibly Paul had one, trying to meet the pampered neurotic fears and fancies of all three).  When we got home, it was clear that the cats had all concluded, as one, that we'd died, and therefore our reappearance after three days was as if we were ghosts.  They ran.  It took an hour or so to win them back, and then Pindar appropriated me and would not allow Marshy to approach, which made her skulk.  Oh, it was a tempestuous evening!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tempestuous Testament

Tempestuous Petticoat, Clare Leighton's memoir of her mother, Marie Connor Leighton

Recently I read Testament of Youth for the first time in many years, Vera Brittain's powerful evocation of the effects World War I on her generation. She often mentions Olive Schreiner as a writer who shaped her thinking, so I also had a browse into Schreiner's Story of an African Farm and Women and Labour, in an attempt to understand the young Vera's mindset, but their appeal was lost on me. Testament, however, is such eloquent, yes, testimony, of the thinking and experience of a generation, as only retrospective thoughts written in the writer's maturity, incorporating her own young notes, could be. I've read Vera's early diary, and it's banal and naive, reminding me of an unpublished diary of the period that I read by Lois Austen-Leigh (who became a detective story writer in the 1930s), a teenage debutante before World War I who wrote a diary much like Vera's. Reading both diaries gave insight into what a middle class young girl's life was like then, seeming to us today as unimaginably sheltered, childish, privileged and frivolous. Yet Vera's Testament of Youth is (among other things) a commentary on this pre-war innocent mind (as Jane Austen said, "as unformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is"), and what became of that summery pre-war experience.

It's commonplace to say that it was this very idealism and lack of knowledge of life, are reasons why that generation went so willingly to war. Vera Brittain depicts her world so well, that it does help you understand people of that place and time as perhaps never before. Yet, In spite of admiring this work, I have to confess that I have never liked Vera Brittain. It's hard to say why exactly; I don't blame her for having no sense of humor, under the circumstances, but it's hard to relate to her and Roland's earnest conversations about things like the Afterlife.

Roland Leighton, 1914

I do love her portrait of Buxton, the suffocatingly provincial town she came from. It's interesting to try to trace this stifling snobbishness and narrowness and find something similar in Jane Austen's experience a century previously, but I just can't. Buxton isn't Highbury. Nor is it Chawton or Bath. Jane Austen's villages were just as confined and hermetically sealed, and brimming with snobs. So it must be Austen's own mind, laughing at it all instead of doing a slow burn like Vera. But again, this may be because Austen accepted the narrowness of her world, a provincial woman's world, without much question: things were as they were, questions had not really been raised, except perhaps like outre revolutionaries like Mary Wollstonecraft. In Vera's day the world was changing, and there were many people who were a good deal more enlightened than her stultifying, narrow-minded parents. She longed to be out of Buxton, in the more enlightened world. Austen does not seem to have ever had any such longing (she resisted meeting the literati), but then her family were not to be compared with the Brittains, being vastly more intelligent and tolerant. Austen found no one to satirize in her writings who was anything like the Brittains - but she was writing before the Victorian era, not after. That was what made the provincials in Brittain's world so rigid and conventional. Austen seems almost to celebrate the conventions of society, the order that was necessary for civility. She takes the established mode for granted because there was no possibility of anything else, yet, and seems to imply that conventional manners and ways are necessary for life to run properly, sanely, as things should be. She shows covertly things that need change - such as the lot of the dependant spinster. The young Vera Brittain, by contrast, rails with fury in a way that would be unthinkable in Jane Austen's day. Women were starting to go to universities (though they were not granted degrees yet), but her parents didn't believe females needed such an education, though they sent her brother to university. Where Jane Austen took this sort of thing as part of the world order, Vera knew there were women already at university, and that it was a fight in progress that could and would be won.

Clare Leighton

I followed reading Vera Brittain's book with the tangentially related Tempestuous Petticoat by the artist Clare Leighton (1899-1989), and they form a most fascinating and enlightening contrast. Clare Leighton was the sister of Roland Leighton, Vera's lost wartime fiance, and this book is a portrait of her mother, whom Vera mentions meeting and grieving with in Testament. Both books treat of the same era and some of the same people, but to read them back to back is to explore vast differences in character and society. Where Vera is a serious, soulful modern young bluestocking, her character scarred by her wartime experiences, Marie Conner Leighton (1864?-1941) is about the most fanciful, exasperating Edwardian I've ever encountered in fact or fiction, almost like an E.F. Benson caricature. Simultaneously raffish and snobbish, she sits in her paradisical home in the richly beautiful, secluded, flowery bower of St. John's Wood, alongside neighbors who are great artists and great courtesans. She is so class bound in her pronouncements, she won't allow her children to set foot in nearby Maida Vale, considering contamination from the mediocre to be worse than being exposed to smallpox. She scribbles at her Daily Mail romantic serials day and night, carelessly stuffing bills and sandwiches in with her manuscripts, and has her children scratch her back with her run-down quill pens. The back cover calls her "a dual personality, an Edwardian and a Bohemian...illogical, vain, superstitious, opinionated and self-satisfied." You do wonder at the contradiction with her doing all this incessant work while supposedly simultaneously daily entertaining her three adoring, cartoonish lovers, while keeping her kind, deaf husband bent to the grindstone writing Westerns and boys' stories. It's a horrifyingly but deliciously priceless portrait, but takes on much more resonance if you've read Testament of Youth. In that book, perhaps surprisingly, Vera adores Marie on the few occasions when they meet, and they share their love of Roland. Yet the reader feels a dreadful certainty that, beyond a shadow of doubt, if Roland had survived and married Vera, the relationship between her and her mother-in-law would have made World War I run on for at least another generation.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

The title comes from a Robert Herrick poem, "Delight in Disorder." Here it is:

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglected, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in his studio in St. John's Wood, the upper end of Marie and Robert Leighton's bohemian world (1880s)

Marie is quite the exasperating monster, and very much a product of her time. Here are some quotes from her:

"It's all nonsense - this morning sickness and such. Leave that to the women with no work to do."

"You'll always find that it's the lower classes who rush to pay their bills the moment they arrive."

(Speaking of would-be bohemians) "They are trying to learn the secret of our magic. But they'll never manage it. You see, they aren't real. They don't work."

She was an ardent Suffragette but strangely didn't care if she had the vote. "Why should I want a vote? As it is, I hold the power to control the votes of six - no, eight - men. All of these men will vote as I want them to, to please me, for they think of me as a woman; but directly I get the franchise my power will be taken from me."

(On a fellow novelist) "Ninety-two novels he has written, and if you were to boil the whole lot down into one book you might manage to make something just worth reading while you were waiting at a station for your train on a rainy day. But then, I am always forgetting that most people in the world can only understand trivial books."

"History is something to be created rather than remembered."

(She preferred to have admirers visit one at a time because) "I feel like a lighthouse that is trying to throw its beam on everybody at the same moment. It is most exhausting."

"The really worth-while women are those who feel most at home in rich furs."

"...a lower middle class place, such as Switzerland"

"it is safer any day to leave your children in the company of a rake than to place them for half an hour in the care of a vicar's wife."

"If you cover yourself with jewelry it's as good as proclaiming to the world that you know you are not beautiful."

"A distinguished woman, with a dream, needs a large hat."

And I've saved the worst for last:

"Much as I loathe mice, I'd rather have them in the house than keep such a common thing as a cat. A cat is almost as impoverishing to the general atmosphere of an establishment as a baby's napkins hanging in the garden."

Can you imagine this as Vera Brittain's mother-in-law? Heavens! Yet both women were extremely ambitious writers, with strong elements of vanity in their make-up. And Vera quotes Marie in a very different vein, saying shrewdly, "Why does she want to go to Oxford?  It's no use to a writer - except of treatises." Perhaps they did briefly bond as professional writers, though this book sheds light on the romantic unreality of Vera's relationship with Roland: she does not seem to know anything about the world from which he came.

Clare Leighton, about the time she emigrated to the U.S. (1939)

The book's ending is oddly troubling, disappointing. Clare is superb as long as she is describing her mother's grandiose eccentricities in her heyday. But she obviously feels very uncomfortable and has no idea how to handle Roland's death and the hard times that followed - for after the war the lavishness was at an end, Marie went bankrupt, and her life became rather pathetic. A realistic treatment would have been best, but Clare was clearly not able to come to grips with the subject matter at all, when it turned tragic. Interestingly, even though Roland and Vera Brittain were engaged, Vera is never once mentioned, though Clare does mention Roland's conversation to Catholicism, which they learned about after his death.

Lily Elsie, Marie's idol
in The Merry Widow (1907)

I wish I could find a picture of Marie Connor Leighton, but apparently she had a characteristically superstitious terror of being photographed.  But there are scatterings of her many books to be hunted out, and some of Clare Leighton's fine woodcuts can be found reproduced online.

Dressing the Bride, woodcut by Clare Leighton (1940)

Oh my. I've just read Marie's The Boy of My Heart (1916) online. It's the book she wrote after Roland's death, and is over the top beyond even the heights of Edwardian sentimentality, but it is rather revealing as to what she thought of Vera. Apparently she never was able to perceive anybody other than though a romantic novel haze. Here are quotes:

"But is he wholly mine? Is there there somebody else who wants him even though he is hardly more than a boy? There floats before my eyes the vision of a girl: a small, delicate-faced creature with amethystine eyes, who is dreaming dreams that have got him for their centre. What a forcing power for sex this war has been, and is!"

Vera Brittain

"If he has sent Vera The Story of an African Farm, then she can't be the ordinary sort of girl. She can't be of the great army of girls who play games and are always taking bodily exercise, yet never by any chance do anything more useful than arrange cut flowers. She must be a personality - one of the few girls that can think and are not afraid to do it; one of the few who know what real romance is, and who, because they know this, will be able to marry as often as they like, no matter how small the number of marriageable men may be, while other women stand around and gasp for a husband in vain. And if she is this - then he is not only and wholly mine as he was just a few weeks ago. He will never be wholly mine any more."

Later, Marie asks her son coyly, "Do you think you will ever be as fond of her as you are of me?" And she quotes him as answering: "What are you talking about, Big Yeogh Wough? [his stupendous pet name for her] I'm only a boy yet and not likely to get fond of any woman, except in a comradely way. [He is then twenty and a commissioned lieutenant, but we can hardly blame him for being disingenuous.] You know when the time comes for me to love a woman and think of marrying her, I'd like to find one like you, if I could. But I'm not likely to be able to do that. Yet, whether the woman be Vera or anybody else, there won't be any question of whether I love you or her the better. You and I have lived so much in each other's life we are like one person, and the woman I love will have to have you for a lover as well as me, while she'll have to love you if she wants me."

Marie describes her first meeting with Vera, at which Roland and his sister Clare (always called The Bystander) were also present: "Not one of us breathed a word as to what we had really come there for - namely, to examine each other and see how we liked each other; but the verdict was an all-round satisfactory one, and in the end we all got into a taxicab together, and Miss Vera [Brittain] sat on my knee. "How tiny you are!" I said playfully.

Later there's a stunningly melodramatic scene where Vera puts out her arms imploringly and tells Marie how she loves her son, but will give him up if she says so, and Marie takes her into her arms and holds her to her heart for a very, very, very long time.
Vera Brittain as a VAD nurse in 1914

Woodcut by Clare Leighton


Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Pictures Tell a Story: Hiking in the High Country

Paul and I drove up to the little town of Lee Vining, overlooking Mono Lake, on Monday (made record time for us, 330 miles in 5.2 hours), and met our friends the Willemsens at the Yosemite Gateway motel, which overlooks Mono Lake.  This is the view at sunset.

We had dinner at the Mobil Station, which perhaps does not sound like the grandest thing in high cuisine, but it's actually a place with a lot of character and good food.

Sunset at the Mobil

Paul at the Mobil

Dinner:  prime rib, garlic mashed, fried onions, broccolini

Next morning we drove over Tioga Pass just inside Yosemite Park, to the Mono Pass trailhead.  Our destination was Spillway Lake at 10,400 feet, 7.5 miles round trip.

Paul and I at the start of the trail

Paul with Mike and Eleanor, our long-time hiking friends

Paul on the trail:  still some snow


Eleanor and I at Spillway Lake

It's tiring at the top

A cold landscape

On the way down:  greener meadows

Mike taking flower pictures


Remnants of an old cabin

Thunder is heard

And it starts to rain!

Hailing now, and I'm getting wet! 
Naturally it's the one time in ten I didn't bring my rain slicker...
And then we got thoroughly soaked fording a fast rising stream.  But it was fun!

Next day:  Sunny.  We're on the water taxi crossing Saddlebag Lake.

On the boat

Paul and our friends just before parting - us to go home, they to hike on.