Monday, December 31, 2012

A Caricature


Daily Dose

From Poems, by Christina Rossetti

APACE

"New Year coming on apace
What have you to give me?"

From Old and New Year Ditties

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Caricature


Daily Dose

From Hiawatha: A Poem, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

DOWNWARD

"Downward through the evening twilight, 
In the days that are forgotten, 
In the unremembered ages..."


From Hiawatha's Childhood

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Caricature


Daily Dose

From The Canongate Burns, edited by Andrew Noble

EV'N
"Ev’n then, sometimes, we’d snatch a taste
Of truest happiness."

From Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet

Friday, December 28, 2012

Quick Review

Rubaiyat of Omar KhayyamRubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Omar Khayyám

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Let me share the Pork Bun Theory of academic editions.  I love me some cha siu bao -- aka BBQ pork buns -- specially the shiny brown baked kind.  (There's a little bubble-tea joint that sells them, right across the road from the bookstore where I work.  Yum.)  What I like best about the good ones would be the good BBQ, and the right ratio of pig to bun, or Zhū ròu to Bao, if I've got that right -- no idea if I do, but that's the thrill of the Internet, ain't it?  I've had some bad Bao in my time; inferior filling, sometimes, but mostly, too much bun.  Get the idea? 

FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, with his preface and notes, in this edition, runs to fifty-three pages.  Throw in some variants, and the whole thing, unillustrated could maybe be made to total, what?  Seventy-five?  This edition from Oxford?  What with sixty-nine pages of front matter, end-notes and the rest, I put the total at 236. Too much bun, right?

Normally, I would say yes.  Anyone can pick up any used copy of the Rubáiyát for cheap from nearly any used books stall and read it, with variant versions, and maybe illustrations by Edmund Joseph Sullivan, or Willy Pogány, or most famously Edmund Dulac.  I've come to love Edward Fitzgerald mostly for his letters -- among the best and most entertaining in English -- but this means I also own already at least three editions of his Rubáiyát.  Well, now I own a fourth. 

The lengthy introduction by editor Daniel Karlin was actually one of the better things I've ever read on Fitzgerald, let alone his poem.  Dry, incisive and surprisingly enthusiastic about a work the popularity of which peaked well before the professor was born, I can't remember the last time I enjoyed such a brief so much.  That wouldn't have been enough to make me buy yet another copy, even with the best notes on the poem I've ever read, including even FitzGerald's own -- which can make as many mysteries as they solve, by the way.  What sold me finally were all the really interesting supplemental materials: the few, fascinating, contemporary reviews, under "Critical Responses," and Alfred Tennyson's lovely poem, "To E. FitzGerald." Makes for a pretty handy object, all that.  Sold.

The poem itself, admitting it was widely held, even in it's own day to be as much or more Edward FitzGerald's rather than Omar's, has actually come to matter more to me than I ever imagined it might.  Frankly, I couldn't much care for anyone's Omar but this, faithful or false.  Getting to know Fitz through all those letters, and a biography, and some more obscure reprints, I've come to very much to appreciate not just the rather weary attitude and philosophy of the piece but even more, the fine and delicate balance of FitzGerald's great Victorian verse.  A wonder, that, considering this is a poem I was warned against in my youth.  Older folks, of my parents generation roughly, had long since dismissed the Rubáiyát as the very worst sort of Kiwanis Club recitation; bouncy orientalism, no longer suitable to any purpose but mocking theatrics, in imitation of those dusty saps, the Homo Sapiens Victoriana.  Maybe that disdain for all things mid-nineteenth had to pass before the Rubáiyát became readable again.  Maybe I just had to get over myself.  At any road, I now own four editions so clearly I like it fine.

This Oxford edition of 2009, I would recommend to any with a curiosity about Fitz, or for whom the poem may otherwise not mean as much as it might with some good end-notes.

Turns out?  Good Hum Bao. 



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Daily Dose

From The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, by Edward Fitzgerald

XLIX

"'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither movers, and mates and slays,
And by one back in the Closet lays."

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Christmas Special

I know I'm a little behind-hand here, but I've had issues, as they say, this festive season, what with the vertigo and the broken toe and so on.  But I just had to get the word out on one last item, finally.  My favorite Christmas purchase this year?  A brilliant holiday CD from a young artist named Andrew Coba, called "Coba for Christmas."  It's available to buy here and five bucks from every Cd sold goes to benefit the Interfaith Sanctuary homeless shelter in Boise.  This kid's amazing, no lie.  Just listen to him do the bejeezus out of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," and tell me Longfellow has ever been better served.  Kid breaks my heart.  I've been obsessively playing this music since the record came in mail.  Buy it.  Too good.

Peace.

Daily Dose

From The Book of Christmas, edited by Hamilton Wright Mabie

NOW

"Now have good day, now have good day!
I am Christmas, and now I go my way!"

From a Balliol MS of c. 1540

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Caricature


Daily Dose

From Christmas in Song and Story, edited by Philip Gates

HAST

"Hast thou no verse, no hymn, no solemn strain --"

From John Milton's Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Sacred Songs and Otherwise




Here it is, Christmas day.  I had so many plans.  I'd only just started recording a few Christmas readings to put up, and planned more when the dread vertigo came down the chimney and that was rather the end of me.  (It's all been something of an improvisation since.)  This year, in my search for an appropriate encore for the Capote reading, I finally tripped to the possibility of reprinting something on Homer, the bookstore's beloved Espresso Book Machine.  No idea why this hadn't occurred to me before, but it never had.  Searching just with the word "Christmas," I must have reviewed a couple of dozen titles that were not Dickens' Carol, or any of the more usual titles.  I looked at the previews for probably a dozen or more, and dismissed all but three as either obvious children's titles -- which I have no need of for my purposes -- or the work of some single, now unknown sentimentalist.  There are, in Google books, more of that sort of thing than you might imagine.  I love old and neglected authors, but let me tell you, there are plenty who have earned the disregard of later readers, and it would almost seem that every one of these wrote Christmas stories.  (I don't think there was a lady with three names between 1850 and 1920 who didn't write something about poor little sister lost in freakin' snow.)

I couldn't see much in the way of specifics in the previews, but with these three books at least I could see from the tables of content that all three had contributions from still recognizable names, as well as unfamiliar folk, and that all three had selections from down the ages.  I meant to avoid being trapped with some magazine annual with one vaguely recollected poem by Charles Kingsley and then a whole list of forgotten clergymen and unreadable poetesses.  No.  I wanted Robert Herrick's "Christmas Pie" right in there with  "Jean Valjean plays the Christmas Saint," from Hugo novel.  (Might never have thought to read that scene otherwise, despite the new movie musical.)  I didn't much mind the James Russell Lowell, so long as I could spot a Robert Southey poem that looked promising or a Longfellow I knew.

The idea, I repeat, was to find further readings.  Well, I very much did.  Turns out, I hadn't time for much after Capote this year, and needed something cheerful and funny, so I went with a reliable Ogden Nash.    Still, I'd found all sorts of good things among my three reprinted books.  My thought was to close out the season with multiple Christmas readings.  I made a start anyway.  I read just three or four at that first go.  I intended to keep right on.  Then I fell over and broke my toe, etc.   Change of plans.

That hasn't meant that I stopped reading my way through these three books.  The biggest one, in terms of an unanticipatedly huge format, turned out to have the least interesting stuff in it.  I shouldn't say that though.  What I mean is this book turned out to be more of the more usual children's stories and fables, mixed with religious song, and, weirdly, the whole of Dickens' Carol, among other things.  Not the most interesting stuff and nothing like the happy surprises in the other two.

Both of these, The Best Poems of Christmas and The Book of Christmas have proved to be treasures, from 1912 and 1909 respectively.  The poems I did get read for videos were all from The Best Poems, but I'd marked at least a dozen others in that slim book that I might as easily have read.  In the other I tagged more than a dozen I never got to, prose and poetry.  (And in both, everywhere, Tennyson, Tennyson, Tennyson.  Perhaps because he was my Summer reading, but for whatever reason he would seem to be everywhere around me this December.)

I don't mean to go on about what I didn't get done.  I may still do something aloud from either of these; certainly some of the New Year selections!  What I did mean to ruminate briefly this Christmas night was the unlikely pleasure I've had from the specifically religious verse I've been reading.  In years past, and certainly for my annual Christmas readings at the bookstore where I work, I've been very careful to avoid specifically Christian works.  The nearest I came, that first year when the first of our post 911 military misadventures was still fresh, I did read Longfellow's sad celebration of the end of an earlier and even bloodier war, The Christmas Bells.  I've never repeated the experiment in public.

My Christmas readings are meant to celebrate the season, not the birthday of the baby Jesus.  I am agnostic at best when it comes to the existence of any such person, and an atheist, personally, come to that, with little patience for Our Father Which Art.  Religious art in general has had little purchase in my   adult life, though it is of course impossible not to see and hear it everywhere around me, this time of year specially.  Now, I do love and listen to Gospel of nearly every stripe but the detestably saccharine "Contemporary Christian" variety, and I likewise love Choral Music, almost in preference to any other kind of Classical Music.  (There's something in the massed voices of humanity that soars for me well above the specifics of theology or even belief.  The collective aspirations of the species are embodied nowhere better, I should think, than in the blended sound of people singing together.)  Likewise the visual arts, dependent for centuries on Biblical reference, never make me the least bit uncomfortable because the brass plaque under the painting happens to call the woman Judith or the head in hand, Holofernes.

But with poetry, and the poetry I mean to read aloud specially, I've always shied from what would seem to suggest, in my reading of it, an endorsement of Christianity, the Nativity or redemption.  I do not ever mean to go on record as either such a hypocrite as might offer a prayer to a God in whom I disbelieve and I don't believe for that matter in preaching a message with which I have fundamental disagreements.  There are, I've always felt, plenty of good Christians -- and bad -- to share the Good News without my help.  

And yet, and yet...  This year, with these reprinted old books from which to read, I could not help but be struck with the slight ridiculousness of such a stance.  I was raised, nominally as a Christian.  I certainly grew up in what it would not be too much of an exaggeration to call a predominantly Christian culture.  Turns out, there is always something to be said for Milton, and Henry Vaughan and the rest as being as much my birthright as Kipling or Whitman.  

It was Milton that tipped the balance to a new appreciation and tolerance for me this year, as pompous and silly as that claim may sound from the heathen lips of such as me.  I read my way, slowly enough when I was recovering last week, through one of Milton's first masterpieces, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," as well as some others from his mighty pen.  Written when the poet was no more than twenty-one, it is a most astonishing performance.  In it are mixed a surprisingly mournful farewell to the old gods vanquished by the new, among other surprises.  The accomplishment of that young man's verse was frankly dazzling, and I determined to read it through as many times as I might, and even sought such supplemental explanation of the poem as I might find elsewhere.

From that to Vaughan and other English and American worthies, good Christian gentlemen and ladies all, I found myself for the first time in years immersed in religious beauties I had not properly considered in decades.  Eventually, I began to feel the strong urge to share something of my new found enthusiasm.  For me that means more usually, reading things aloud.  And so I still might.

I'm not sure when I've spent a Christmas Day more in Church than out, but this has been that day.  I feel a bit of a fool for having denied myself such an experience heretofore for no better reason than for fear of being thought insincere.  (I felt no such embarrassment singing along with the great Mahalia all these years, let me just say.)  The revelation, if that word doesn't seem too irreverent, came to me at last that my enthusiasm for the individual poems and poets need not be curbed by my failure to subscribe to every thought and sentiment expressed.  I can't say that I've ever agreed with everything I thought good, or even everything I thought to read aloud.  This then may well prove to be the falling away of my last taboo as a reader, for all I know tonight.

I may still feel the need to announce now and again my own lack of faith entire before I read the book of Luke's most famous story, but I can't think now why I shouldn't read it, or anything else from either the Gospels or the Christian Canon without worry that I, of all people, might be mistaken for a Baptist.  The sublime is not something that needs my concurrence to be beautiful, or mine.

And that's my Christmas reading for tonight.

"God bless us, everyone."  (As it were.) 

Daily Dose




From The Best Poems of Christmas, edited by Edward A. Bryant

HOW

"How will it dawn, the coming Christmas Day?"

From Charles Kingsley's Christmas Day -- 1868

Monday, December 24, 2012

Quick Review

One Hundred Portraits: Artists, Architects, Writers, Composers, and FriendsOne Hundred Portraits: Artists, Architects, Writers, Composers, and Friends by Barry Moser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Easily our greatest living illustrator, it's easy to forget just what a dark and curious art it is that Barry Moser practices.  Really, it's not until one has the opportunity to see his work out of other people's books, picture after picture, all the shadows stacked, as it were, one atop the other, that one may appreciate just how thick the gathering dim.  It's a technique, of course, and to do with the tools employed, but is just as clearly the artist's somewhat unforgiving vision.  "Warts and all" in the phrase supposedly from Cromwell to his portrait painter, does not begin to describe Moser's brutally lined, deflated James Joyce here, or his all but coal-black profile of Twain.  And neither is Moser's black meant to invariably suggest some dark night of the soul for each of his subjects.  One of the beautiful and striking pictures in this book, for instance, is of Chopin -- reproduced here, one suspects at an enhanced size from the original, though perhaps not.  Chopin hardly qualifies as a specially tortured soul.  Here, barely rising from the surrounding black, Moser's famous lines thicker and and more obviously artful, the composer's face seems to just drift briefly into focus, like a message in a magic eightball.  It's a remarkably beautiful if far from pretty picture.

More typically, Moser's mastery of his form seems best suited to the care-worn, the weathered, battered and blown, so that the faces most familiar from photography, and in at least middle-age, seem the most authentic likenesses.  Dreiser, Borges, Cocteau in old age, and more cheerfully, if that's an applicable word, Jim Harrison and Eric Carle are all celebrated in the full dishevelment and decay.  Perhaps the single most horrifying image might be Jonathan Swift, imagined in his toothless dotage, in a gargoyle's profile, not so much as a thought suggested in his head. 

Which is not to say that Moser hasn't a lighter hand when called for.  His Washington Irving, for example, reproduced as well as part of the dustjacket, conveys a wry amusement, as does Moser's Whistler.  The picture of the Rev. Martin Luther king Jr, is notable for its optimism as well; no shadow of tragedy, but rather a bright and curving light that seems to run through the round and healthy face.

Special note might be made of all Moser's portraits of African American subjects here.  From Sojourner Truth to Richard Wright, there's a restrained and respectful fidelity, and no hint of caricature. 

Perhaps the single most faithful and affectionate portrait in the book, at least of the famous faces, may well be Hemingway.  I don't know anything of Moser's literary preferences beyond his obvious interest in illustrating books by Melville and Lewis Carol, etc.  It seems obvious to me at least that his Hemingway is not just beautifully detailed, but well nigh heroic.  I don't mean any disrespect in suggesting that it's the kind of head that deserves a stamp.

Perhaps Moser's least successful portraits are those faces we know not from photographs but only from one or two paintings or a bust; Keats for example, or Dr. Johnson, neither of which really registered for me as recognizable likenesses of either writer (though a case can be made for having nothing but unalike pictures of Keats to which we might compare this one.) 

My own favorite pictures here would tend to correspond to my own preferences among the writers depicted, but honestly, the drawings I've found myself studying most closely have actually all been of the least familiar faces: Moser's own, mostly, but also his family and friends.  If my absolute favorite, more typically, is his drawing taken from Blake's remarkable death-mask, every bit as fine, in their way, are Moser's affectionate portraits of his parents on facing pages.  There's enormous vitality in all three drawing, ironically only in the case of Blake.

With a rambling, quite charming introduction by novelist Ann Patchett and excellent production values throughout the book, this is a treasury well worth keeping, hard-by.  I should think I will want Barry Moser's perspective whenever I might set to thinking about any of the writers included here.  Nearly as easy to get lost in these drawings as in the minds of the artists depicted.

What an extraordinary record of a remarkable talent!



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Daily Dose

From The Book of Christmas, edited by Hamilton Wright Mabie

SOON

"Soon there stole over every one in the room that sense of peace and contentment which always comes when one is at ease in an atmosphere where love and kindness reign."

From Colonel Carter's Christmas Tree, by F. Hopkinson Smith

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Caricature


Daily Dose

From The Book of Christmas, edited by Hamilton Wright Mabie


SHUT UP

"Shut up among worm-eaten tomes in the retirement of his antiquated little study, the pages of old times were to him as the gazettes of the day; while the era of the Revolution was mere modern history."

From Christmas Day

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Quick Review

The Event of LiteratureThe Event of Literature by Terry Eagleton

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


I don't do the crossword puzzle.  I'm not much for games, generally.  I enjoy a hand or two of rummy once in a long while, but the friend who tried to teach me bridge eventually gave up in tears.  In junior high, the basketball coach taught me chess during practices.  I was the team manager.  We were bored.  I was never very good at it, but at least it was more interesting than boys running drills -- for the coach, anyway.  I had my own interests there. 

Reading Terry Eagleton is sudoku for me.  Just as sudoku uses numbers but doesn't actually involve arithmetic, so with Eagleton and literature.  Oh, the name of a novelist may pop up now and then, but it doesn't signify.  One no more has to have read Melville to enjoy Eagleton than one has to remember algebra to play sudoku.  (If you want to know who actually matters in Eagleton, who the writers are he's reading, other than Marx who always comes out on top for citations, check the index. More importantly, who are the writers with whom Terry Eagleton is arguing?  Just check the index for critics, familiar and otherwise.  Pretty safe bet that if the name's unfamiliar, Terry's got his number.  Ultimately, you're more likely to find Stanley Fish served up than Moby Dick.) The game Eagleton plays happens to use literature, but I don't doubt he could play it just as well, and every bit as divertingly with The Old Farmers Almanac, or reports from the Department of Agriculture.  Books are the clues, but substitute "crop yields" for "semiotics," and what might be lost in meaning wouldn't be so very much, and the result would be just as much fun.

Really what this particular puzzle book is meant to be I suppose is something of an elegy for the faded charms of theory in general, which Eagleton seems to feel have lost their rosy glow.  Hadn't noticed.  Still, he would know, wouldn't he?  Now, the Professor never really approved of all that stuff anyway, it seems.  There's a right way and a wrong way.  Every game has its rules, and so on. Seems all those theorists were atheists or something.  Who remembers?  Doesn't matter.  The game, and great fun it is too, is all to do with the logical progression of Eagleton's argument, not with whom he's having it, what it might be about or whether it matters to anyone else.  Trying to guess Eagleton's next move is always fun, but frankly I'm no better at this game than I was a bridge.  Doesn't matter.  Terry Eagleton's a grand master of this nonsense.  Every performance is about equally dazzling.

In fact, Terry Eagleton is the Will Shortz of this kind of puzzle-making.

It doesn't really pay to study this kind of book with the idea of understanding how Moby Dick -- just for consistency's sake -- works or doesn't works, why one ought to read it in preference, for instance, to any other novel, or why one ought to read novels at all, for that matter. (I don't know that Professor Eagleton thinks we should. Don't know what Professor Fish would say.)

Meanwhile, at least between novels, for the exercise if to no other or better purpose, I will now and again find myself sucked in by the goofy magnetism of Eagleton's witty, giddy gamesmanship.  I can't recommend it highly enough for those long winter afternoons, by the space-heater.  If there's no one around for backgammon and you're not ready for your nap, give the old boy a try. 

Perfectly harmless fun.



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Daily Dose

From Christmas Carols: Complete Verses, edited by Shane Weller

THEREFORE

"Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing;
Ye, who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessings."

From Good King Wenceslas, by John Mason Neale

Friday, December 21, 2012

Quick Review


The Portable DickensThe Portable Dickens by Charles Dickens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I was the age at which this rather collegiate series was aimed, I resisted the Viking Portables mightily.  The very idea of excerption, specially from great, 19th Century novels struck me as condescending and plain wrong.  That I would not live to read all the great novels ever written seemed to me ridiculously pessimistic; very much an old man's argument and a cocktail party excuse for knowing a little something rather than nothing, just for argument's sake.  Now that I am, like Father William, old and my hair has become very white, I can of course see the sense of the thing better.  The editors of the Viking series, and the novelist Angus Wilson, the editor of this particular volume obviously never meant these anthologies to be read in lieu of anything.  Neither do I now think that that this sort of book would do as an introduction per se, as I can't imagine but that the better way to read Dickens -- or any of the other novelists in the series -- would just be to read the novels, or even just a novel and see where that leads.  The very nature of novel reading requires and rewards exactly the same energy, I should think, that it might take to read, say, this fat little volume of more than 700 pages!   A point I might have made at 18?  Yes, but I now see that what is in these 700 odd pages, while by no means a substitute for reading Dickens "properly," isn't a bluff, but an examination of that most subjective and illusive quantity, style.  If, as I did when young, we first read, and read, and read to know, in latter life we quite rightly read to be reminded, and to appreciate anew, then what better means?  So long as the title's kept in mind and one can remember that this is just so much "walking-around" Dickens, then as it turns out, this can be a very good book indeed.

I became reacquainted with it only quite recently when, on an overnight trip to the great Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, my friend and traveling companion asked if I thought he might benefit from buying a nice, cheap copy?  I endorsed the purchase, without envy, until, that is, we had our books back to the hotel room and I had the opportunity of a browse.  When we came to discuss Dickens a bit more that night, I was moved to find herein, under the general heading of "Childhood," exactly the scene from Bleak House I wanted to quote.  Under the title, "The Salvation of a Street Boy," I found the last few pages detailing the final illness and prayer of Jo, the sweep.  It might seem a curious choice for the very unsentimental, very 20th Century Wilson to have included, were it not for that last very famous and very angry paragraph, in the novelist's own voice:

“Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.”

I can not read that passage without tears -- the point I was trying to make that night.  For me, Dickens is not defined so much by the Victorian religiosity of such scenes, by what a later and more cynically self-aware age has consistently and, I'm convinced, erroneously dismissed as his sentimentality, but instead by his very real, and yes, righteous indignation.  As much as his wild, comic invention, his wit and his general humanity, it is his wrath that makes him more than a major novelist, that puts him in the company of Shakespeare as among the greatest writers who ever lived.  (It is the same vein of deep emotion that makes Fielding a greater writer than Smollett, the Hardy who wrote Tess a better novelist than the Hardy who wrote the Woodlanders, and Hardy the poet a better writer still than Hardy the novelist.)

Finding that scene in this book, and reading Wilson's introduction, made me want a copy of my own.  Cost me all of five dollars when I found one.

Wilson's introduction, like his selection, reflects quite clearly the preferences and prejudices of the mid-century reader he was and to whom he directed his efforts.  His Dickens is a psychologically complex but largely unaware artist; the perpetual Victorian writing machine who almost in spite of himself and his times made imperfect work, shot through with insight and genius.  The modernist urge to detach art from either God or gaiety is clear.  It's just that there's no way to make Dickens anything but what he was, edit him how you will.  Again, like all the greatest artists, like Shakespeare, Dickens is a world unto himself.  He can not quite ever be reduced to either themes or angles, as there will always be too much left out.

That then is the fault, I think, that will undo anyone who hasn't read him before from reading him here with anything like the pleasure to be had by someone more familiar with the novels at least.  Reading around in the selections here, I found myself drawn not just to bits of the books before and after what was included, but drawn almost as by magnetism in each case to the very beginning of each book.  So complete can the experience of reading such novels be that even in revisiting them, what's wanted is the whole over again.  There's not much in the literature that I've read of which that is true, may I say.

As to style and the appreciation of it by example, this anthology does what it ought, I suppose in hurrying the reader back to the source.  Of all the great novelists, I can think of almost no one who is better at greater length than Dickens.  He needs every page, every line, good and bad, to breath.  Yes, this sort of book might spare the casual reader some of the tedium that is in fact to be found in even Dickens best books; some of the endless virginal protestations of virtue defamed, the paeans to domesticity and sacrificial maternity, etc.  But the worst of him and the best of him are so tightly woven as to resist, I think, the picking apart.  There are writers, even great writers, who may benefit from being seen only in a better light, but Dickens isn't one of these.  As a result, even some of his best things here can be unsatisfying, of themselves, for not being where they belong in the books.

Still, as just what it is, one writer's rather hefty commonplace book on another, there's value here.  "Here's richness!" indeed.



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Daily Dose

From The Little Book of Christmas, edited Lena Tabori

BLISS

"Bliss tomorrow and more anon.
Joy for every morning!"

From Carol of the Field Mice, Kenneth Grahame

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Quick Review


The Great Charles Dickens ScandalThe Great Charles Dickens Scandal by Michael Slater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Slater is perhaps the greatest living Dickens scholar.  That isn't to say he's Dickens' best biographer -- a title I would still give to the late Edgar Johnson, if anyone -- or even that I much liked his magisterial life of Dickens from a few years back.  It was a factual wonder: summarizing and condensing all the best Dickens research of the past fifty years, indisputably accurate in every detail, no doubt, and as true a record of the great man's life as we are likely to ever see, two centuries out from his birth.  If it was not a very diverting or stimulating book, and if critically it lacked the sharp edges and enthusiasm of earlier lives, such as Johnson's, Pope-Hennessy, Steven Leacock or the more recent and readable biography by Claire Tomalin, Slater's book was also free of many, even most of the critical eccentricities and or speculative inventions of the rest.  The best biographies, particularly critical biographies of great artists, at least for the common reader, are not quite so dryly reportorial, so determinedly objective as was Slater's.  Specially when reading the life of a man of such profound and influential emotions as Dickens, one wants some clear sympathy, some humor, some joy.  Even John Forster's classic biography, for all Forster's supposed Victorian reserve, was suffused with what can only be described as love for biographer's great subject and friend.  Likewise, later, Chesterton's brilliant little book, and even to a lesser extent, Leacock's life, or the recent short life by the actor, author and Dickens reader, Simon Callow.  For a man who has devoted a good span of his professional life to reading and writing about Dickens, Professor Slater would seem to allow himself precious few pleasures in the task, at least precious few he's felt fit to share.  (There were many familiar and not a few fresh and wonderfully new anecdotes of Dickens' fun in the biography, quoted presumably with Slater's full intent to amuse, but rather as an unfunny man might relay the story of a party at which he abstained from the punch.)

Curiously, the very deficits in Slater's full-length biography; the cool, not to say cold detachment, the dry reliance on accumulated evidence, no matter the reader's willingness to accept such authority as might have been already sited, the over-fastideous refusal to comment directly on anything but in deadpan, can prove real virtues when, as here, the literary historian's task is to sort, sift and present rather than revivify the past.  Slater hasn't any interest in reviving past controversies, or in disputing the dead or the living.  What he does do, and do extremely well in a brief span, is tell a somewhat sorry story straight.

I could not imagine why he should want to tell this story at all until I'd read his book.  Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Ellen "Nelly" Ternan, The Invisible Woman, and again, if with less emphasis in her biography of Dickens, rather conclusively and quite brilliantly made the case not just for Dickens' last "scandalous" love for a much younger actress, but also definitively restored Ternan to her full dignity as an interesting and sympathetic person and personality in her own right.  So why then should the great scholar, Michael Slater choose to follow up his weighty biography with this considerably more sleight review of the whole history of the scandal?  Why rake over yet again Dickens' disastrous end to his long and fruitful marriage, his not so secret fascination with Ternan and their life together and apart to the time of his untimely death?

What Slater does here, and does so well, is painstakingly trace the evolution and detection of that well known and yet little recorded story.  His interest is strictly and quite cleverly confined, again, to the facts, and most interestingly, how they were concealed, revealed, suppressed and finally brought most fully to light.  The book is more the story of the many Dickensians -- amateur detectives and enthusiasts mostly, with a few professional hacks and hatchet-men among them --who down the years made it their business to winkle out the many small details; an address here, the name on a lease there, a letter, a confession, an otherwise lost conversation and or half-forgotten encounter, from which one of the few truly private episodes in Charles Dickens' very public life might be reconstructed.   Slater's command of not only the facts but the personalities involved is masterful.   Even with the end now a forgone conclusion for most readers, the good professor manages to make this teapot tempest genuinely exciting, even suspenseful in part because of the scholar's dry, distance survey.  Slater looks into it all from a very great height and surprisingly, with very little disdain for any but the very worst characters involved, nay, with even what I feel safe in characterizing as amusement and affection.

Imagine.  Such a surprise for the reader of his earlier biography.  (Though that's not altogether fair.  Slater's entry for Dickens in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, later reproduced as a very short book, was a wise and almost witty thing, smart as paint, and his even earlier critical volume, Dickens and Women was a very clever analysis, free from all the more usual psychological and political cant to be expected from an academic on such a subject, replete as it would seem to be with opportunities for scoring points for and against current theories of sexual and literary politics.)

This book then would seem to have been exactly the sort of exercise the great scholar was meant to take, so late in his labors; an almost brutally clear-eyed review of some the last messy materials left over from more than a century of gossip, rumor and pedestal-rocking.  The reader would be hard-pressed to think how anyone coming after might still make much more of the business.

(This also answers some of the more naggingly lazy references to the scandal, and the rather shabby uses to which it is still put in even quite recent books, like Robert Gottlieb's otherwise entertaining and informative book, Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, where that author too easily reproduces one or two of the least attractive opinions of Dickens' behavior to both Nelly Ternan, his wife and daughters without properly tracing the origins, as Slater does so definitively here, of those judgements against Dickens' character and affections.)

If finally my own interest in both the relationship between Dickens and Nelly Ternan and the resulting scandal remains next to nothing, even after this book and the rest, That, I happily confess is because my awe of and delight in Dickens achievement as a writer, and my admiration of him as a man, remains all but undimmed by the unhappy end of his marriage and or his personal failings as either a husband or father.  I am myself then a Dickensian, I suppose, and proud to so say.  Perhaps it is just my own thoroughly modern disinterest in saints, sin and personal scandal as a determining factor in appreciating great literature.  Perhaps it is my ever deepening appreciation in this, Dickens' bicentennial year, of his unparalleled artistry as the greatest comic novelist in English that makes me, if always curious as to the details of his life, unwilling to judge him by any other standard.  Perhaps it is as simple as saying that I love him, as best as I am able to say, as he was, that makes this book of such keen if passing interest.  Whatever I think of this book then, and I think it quite good, it is still Dickens I believe to have been great.

Of that, I am more sure with every word by, rather than about him that I read.


View all my reviews

Daily Dose

From The Best Poems of Christmas, complied by Edward A. Bryant

KEEP TIME

"Keep time, keep time, wild, joyful chime!
Bid every heart keep Christmas time --"

From A Christmas Chime, by Kathleen Kavanagh

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dickens Lost & Found















Back to visit the old people in October, I was finally able to see for myself if the set of Dickens I sent was on the shelf of my hometown library.  In an earlier post I'd described buying and boxing up a full set of the Oxford Illustrated Dickens to donate.  Earlier still, I'd described in a post my horror at finding naught but busted Book Club editions, and old strays on the Grove City Community Library shelf.  Not true any more.

A full set, twenty-one little hardcover volumes, with the original illustrations are now available on the open shelf, where they belong.  Done and done.

When I was in the library anyway for the free WiFi, I announced myself, and asked if I mightn't have a picture of someone from the staff, posing with the set.


Here's Librarian Heather Baker with her favorite of the novels, Little Dorritt.

Lovely.

No secret, my less than happy experience of public libraries in general, and of the one in my hometown in particular.  Growing up, I had to lie about my address to even use the library.  (We lived outside of town and I had to claim my town-grandma's place as my own to take out a book.)  More than once as a child I was forbidden certain books from the general collection because some busybody librarian didn't think the title "appropriate" to my infant intelligence.  (That ended when my little, unassuming mother told the party at the desk that thereafter, I "could read any damned thing" I wanted, as she was my mother and it was nobody else's business to raise me.  Thus I first read Don Quixote, whores and all.  Still proud of the old girl for that brave day.)  My experience in most public libraries since has done little to convince me that most are any better than they should be and that most are almost infinitely, tragically worse than might be imagined.

That said, I still believe in the mission of the institution, respect the sincerity and enthusiasm with which most public librarians go about their business, and believe absolutely in the necessity of public libraries for the health and stability of the Republic.

I have however come in just the past few years to despair of anyone finding on their own anything much that's worth reading in a public library, the one in my hometown not excepted.  Before my donation, there was no copy of David Copperfield, no Oliver Twist or Great Expectations!  I walked the stacks this last visit and found but one, old, badly translated and much abused novel by Dostoevsky, but three Austen, no Middlemarch, no Vanity Fair.  Forget for a moment the great 19th Century masters.  I saw no Bellow, no Joyce, one Updike, no Beckett, and so on and on, nothing and nothing.

The Grove City Community Library, as now situated is a handsome building; brightly lit, inviting and well arranged.  The limitations of the space would not allow for any but the most judicious selection even if the staff were granted carte blanche with their acquisitions budget and every awful, bad and or busted old book was thrown out.  Still, what is there is far from good, much of it, and much that might, and ought to be isn't.

Why this exercises me so is not just outrage on behalf of Dickens' ghost, in this, the 200th anniversary of his birth. While I understand the argument that libraries must change to meet the new requirements of a changing community and new technologies, I still believe with all my inky old heart that nearly no one ever wanted to read a book they never saw, that more readers find the books they need by finding them on a shelf than will ever find them in a dedicated "search."  Public libraries must be as much about happy accidents as they are about reference and recommendation, or they are just the poor man's Google, with ugly carpeting and poor lighting.

Now at least some other, younger, unknown myself may come across, as I did, The Christmas Books.  Someone who may never have read any further than that, may find Barnaby RudgeGreat Expectations may lead to the journalism, or "Boz," anywhere, on.

I was more than a little miffed that I had to ask if the library had received the books I'd shipped.  I was not pleased to have had not so much as a "thank you" for a donation made in spite of rather than in memory of my own childhood experience of the place.  (Please note that despite my very best intentions, I could not make it quite to the end of this without mentioning the insult.  Pooh.)  Nevertheless, I am convinced that what I've done, I did well and someday, should I have occasion still to return, I may see someone, some boy or girl, some old party or some recent immigrant -- they have those nowadays, even in Grove City, PA -- with his or her nose in a book I sent.

Perhaps the Spirits will give me a glimpse, some Christmas.

"Lead on!"

Daily Dose

From The Portable Dickens, edited with an Introduction by Angus Wilson

CHILDHOOD

"This may be fancy, though I think the memory of most of us can go farther back into such times than many of us suppose..."

From David Copperfield

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Into Eternal Sorry

To recall my unhappy hour in pain will do nobody a bit of good.  Truth be told, this last "spell" was not so much a descent as a straight-up fall.  I believe my last words, around 4PM, were:

"oh.  Oh.  OH."

And then, down I went, you see.  The vertigo was on me once more, but this time I fainted dead away. Came to with my head swimming dangerously; up was down, down was up, over and around, etc.  I was flat on the floor.  Could not get up again.  Turns out, by the time my beloved husband, A. could shake his stiff hip out o' bed and rush to my side, I was out.  Told me later what I'd done. Seems I just went straight back, head-first, taking out my crowded nightstand, and kicking my right foot up under the bed-board.    A new twist, as it were, on the now sadly familiar routine.    The predictable nausea and sweaty horror followed, as did thereafter the ambulance, the emergency room, the restitution of lost fluids and so on and on.  By the time I was something like myself again, my next articulation was:

"Ouch."

(Isn't it curious, and I'm sure entirely cultural, how one will actually use such cartoonish exclamations when in pain?  It's almost as if there was a kind of comfort in their familiarity.)

Seems this time I cracked my thick head -- though just a little bit of plaster came loose there -- and broke my little toe.

Such a mess.  It was after 11PM before we got out of Virginia Mason Hospital.  My dearest A. wanted to leave me at the door and fetch the car, but that seemed to me a not very good idea in the wind and cold rain, so instead we hobbled out together, me with my broken toe in a slipper, him with his bad hip.  The garage was all down hill.  Took us quite awhile.  A passing elderly lady wished us a good night as she motored past us.  Had to laugh.

Since then it's mostly been a struggle to sleep, re-wrap the toes, and hobble, slippered, around work.  Nearly useless, really.  Poor me.

Enough of that.  There is one fascinating aspect of these emergency room visits.  This is the first where I wasn't kept overnight for "observation," but we had no way to know that when we went, so dear A. packed me a bag, just in case.  Now, on that nightstand I knocked over, beside the lamp, the earplugs, the clock and the lip-balm, there were probably about three dozen books on, under or near.  A. tidied these roughly away.  But now here's the part that's always interesting: he picked two books to bring for me, should I have to stay in the hospital.  Such a puzzle, what to pick?

I have a hard enough times most mornings deciding which books to bring with me to work -- in a bookstore, yeah, I know; coals to Newcastle.  I am usually reading at least half a dozen books at any given time.  This is not a sign of any kind of genius, just a short attention span.  If I can't make up my mind what to read, how then was poor A. to decide?  And what did he decide?

A big one and a little one, I should think.  The big book was John Ciardi's translation of The Divine Comedy!  Understand, I have never been able to read Dante.  True, I don't read Italian, or anything but English for that matter, but I mean I've never been able to make it through even The Inferno.   Various translations down the years, but I just haven't managed it.  I find the whole enterprise antipathetic: theologically and morally repugnant, more than a little sadistic, and finally, dull.  I'm sure I'm wrong.  I'm sure Dante Alighieri belongs in that rare company with Shakespeare and Milton.  Thus the Ciardi on the nightstand, as I was clearly, at some point in the past year or so, contemplating another go at it.

And then, speaking of Milton, the smaller volume packed turned out to be Volume III: Milton to Goldsmith, of the great Viking Portable Library anthology, Poets of the English Language, edited by Norman Holmes Pearson and W. H. Auden.  Milton & Dante!  Fair enough, given my circumstances on the night in question.

I read neither that night and hadn't any reason to think I would any time soon thereafter.  Still, maybe I should.  Maybe my dear husband's instincts were better than he knew.  What better way to nurse both my injuries and my sense of injustice?

We'll see.

(Ahi!  Seems that's Italian for ouch.)

Daily Dose

From Christmas in Song and Story, edited by Philip Gates

A CHRISTMAS GAMBOL

"A Christmas gambol oft would cheer
A poor man's heart through half the year."

From Sir Walter Scott's "Christmas Eve"

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Caricature


Daily Dose

From The Little Big Book of Christmas, edited by Lena Tabori

ALAS!

"Alas! how dreary the world would be if there were no Santa Claus!"

From Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus, by Francis P. Church

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Caricature


Daily Dose

From Christmas Carols: Complete Verses, edited by Shane Weller

CRADLED

"Cradled in a stall was he
With sleepy cows and asses"

From Unto Us a Boy Is Born

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Shockingly Gauche Clerihew

GEORGETTE HEYER

Were you aware
That Georgette Heyer
Rhymed not with shire?
No, nor esquire!

Daily Dose

From A Child's Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas

GO ON

"Go on to the useless presents."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Bits o' Dickens



With the very best intentions, people will bring things by the desk just to show me.  I like that idea.  Not everything, you know, has to be a transaction.  I've seen a vintage OZ book with a John R. Neal signature, a family Bible with, amazingly, eight generations recorded in it, all sorts.  Knowing my love of Dickens, a coworker the other day brought by a new board-book, "a BabyLit book," called A Christmas Carol: A Colors Primer, by Jennifer Adams, with "Art by Alison Oliver."  I did not love it.

Let me just say that while I absolutely approve of board-books as a category of thing, I do rather think that making them of anything other than alphabets and rhymes is not just silly but honestly rather pointless.  I have friends, young parents, who've insisted with me that their babies have favorite "books" like this, but I can't help but think that this is not unlike the people I know who insist that their cats have a favorite radio station.  I'll take your word for it.  May well be true.  How would we know? (Maybe that board-book tastes better when gummed.)

The point being that something like this "colors primer" based on the Carol has no more to do with Dickens novel than a "classic" Coke advertisement of Santa tells the story of A Visit from St. Nicholas, let alone The Nativity.   That's what I think this board-book actually is; part of a campaign, but nothing much to do with Dickens.  Think of, say, a coffee mug. (I've searched the Internet a bit, and discovered the artist's website, is called appropriately enough, "Pure Sugar."  'nough said.) 

I don't mean to sound so pissy about this harmless little thing, or even the whole "BabyLit" marketing concept, of which this is but one title among many.  The idea of familiarizing even quite young children with literature and art beyond their years is time-honored and admirable.  No idea if it has ever been shown to do anything like what's implied, but I doubt it's ever done much harm, for that matter.  (Remember "Baby Mozart" and "Baby Einstein"?  Guess that's still around after-all as well.  Who knew?)

There is however a not altogether wholesome reduction from actual literature to illustrated nonsense here.  "A Colors Primer"?  Yes, brown boots feature, as I'm sure you'll remember, nearly as significantly in Dickens' Carol as that famous pink dress.  (Not to worry, I don't remember either either.)

This new book has a context for me, in some old books I recently had from a friend.

My friend's mother is sorting through someone else's old books. This is a job most often undertaken by an adult child for a parent or some other relation of an earlier generation, either because of one last move or because that older person has moved on. Now and then, as was the case here, this work is the last act of a long friendship. Despite sorting through people's old books every day for my job as a buyer, I can't say I envy having that first crack at most people's private libraries. I should think there might be some emotion attached to sorting such books, and not all of it necessarily fond.  There is also the unhappy reality of most "house calls," that there will be less than meets the eye. (That's what we call them in the trade, when the dealer is invited to go out and make a bid rather than waiting for the books to be brought in.)  I made more than a few house calls, back in the day. Bought some good books. Never a happy day doing it though.

My friend's mom, with a keen eye and real kindness, spotted a few things she thought I might like personally and sent them along. Bless her. Here then the remains of some old Dickens, three books worth, though truth be told only one of the three is actually by the great man himself -- a busted Pickwick, about which, more anon.

The two books that might just have been said to still be books, were interesting to me for their unfamiliar, and quite pretty illustrations.  Their only other interest now would be as examples of the greater expectations, so to say, of an earlier age. The first is Ten Girls from Dickens, by Kate Dickindon Sweetser, author likewise of Ten Boys from Dickens. The other is Dickens' Stories About Children, done up by one Elizabeth Lodor Merchant. (Please note the musicality, almost Dickensian, of either lady's three-octave moniker.)  Both books are modelled I should think on Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare; simplified stories from the novels, focusing on the most familiar children characters.  Call them introductory Dickens; both with charming "new" illustrations, from 1905 and 1929 respectively, and both bowdlerized but still recognizably Dickens' stories.


Normally I might have spent some time researching the illustrators to write about here, but as fine as these pictures are, that's not really the issue at hand.  I reproduce these two different pictures of Little Nell and her grandfather on the road to illustrate how harmless their journey has been made to look.  See Nell's rather smart bonnet in each?  Their clean clothes?  The friendly countryside?





These are books meant for very young readers, not so young as the wee people meant for board-books, but not of an age to be made aware of tragedy.  So, here we have just the story of a brave little girl, who takes care of her grandfather, not a dark fable of debt, homelessness, madness, the threat of rape and or death. I can see no objection to such a simplification, can you?

The idea at least of these earlier books would seem to have been to not just familiarize a kid with these characters, but to introduce them, in smaller doses to Dickens, which means Dickens prose, and that happens in both of these old books, more or less.

Did then anyone who owned these books go on to read, say, that busted, nearly chapless Pickwick Papers , it's front cover and last chapters gone?  No telling.  Probably, as it's fallen apart.  I won't be able to read any of these really, even if I wanted to.  There's not enough of them left as books.  But then my friends, my coworker and her dear mother, thought I might like to look at them anyway. Quite right.  I'd never seen these illustrations.  (In fact, I've saved them from the broken books and discarded the rest.  Don't be shocked.)

Still begs the question of making Dickens or anything else over for kids.  I don't have an answer for that.  No idea, really.  Does seem something people will keep doing though, doesn't it?  If I had to guess, I'd bet more readers actually have picked up Pickwick, or Copperfield and looked at the pictures before trying the text and then someday after, doing that, than were ever persuaded by  any ersatz Scrooge or scrubbed up Little Nell, no?  Tell me I'm wrong.

Daily Dose

From The Collected Poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson

FULL

"Full knee-deep lies the winter snow,
And the winter winds are wearily sighing"

From The Death of the Old Year

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bloopers II



Here we are, again.  I've now posted more than 300 readings of one sort and another, on Youtube.com.  Poems, prose, diaries, letters, essays, selections from novels, public readings and readings -- mostly -- from just sitting right here in my old white chair.  To mark the occasion, I thought I might again make a quick selection of my gaffes, goofs and curses.  Here then, I get it all so very wrong.  Enjoy.

Daily Dose

From Christmas in Song and Story, edited by Philip Gates

ALREADY

"Already had he grown high above the clouds, which floated past beneath his crown like dark troops of passage-birds, or like great white swans."

From The Last Dream of the Old Oak-tree: A Christmas Tale, by Hans Christian Andersen

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus

Daily Dose

From The Best Poems of Christmas, compiled by Edward A. Bryant

THE CHRISTMAS PIE

"Come, guard this night the Christmas Pie,
That the Thiefe, though ne'er so slie,
With his Flesh-hooks don't come nie
To catch it

From him who all alone sits there,
Having his eyes still in his care,
And a deale of nightly feare,
To watch it."

From Hesperides, by Robert Herrick

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The True Christmas by Henry Vaughan

Daily Dose

From Christmas Stories, by Charles Dickens

AWAY

"Away into the winter prospect."

From A Christmas Tree

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Bells of Yule by Alfred Lord Tennyson

A Bookstore Doodle


Daily Dose


From Christmas Stories, by Charles Dickens

HE SAW

"He saw that men who earned their scanty bread with lives of labour, were cheerful and happy; and that to the most ignorant, the sweet face of nature was a never-failing source of cheerfulness and joy."

From The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle


December by Christina Rossetti

Daily Dose

From Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, by Robert Gottlieb

LETTERS

"To (Aunt) Georgina , the letters constituted 'a wonderful book -- like a new one from the dear dead Hand.'"

From Mamie

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle


Winter by Robert Southey

Daily Dose

From The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, collected and introduced by Holbrook Jackson

B

"B was a book
With a binding of blue
And pictures and stories
For me and for you.
b!"

From Nonsense Alphabets

Friday, December 7, 2012

Quick Review

Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles DickensGreat Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens by Robert Gottlieb

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A much anticipate title!  I've enjoyed Gottlieb's earlier books and reviews, specially his short biography of Sarah Bernhardt, so when I saw this title in the publisher's catalogue, I was made most happy.  Dickens' family however, as a subject, is not necessarily a happy story.  Recent researches have tended to focus on the spectacular failure of Dickens' marriage and on the girl who may or may not have been his mistress, Nelly Ternan.  And then there's poor old Catherine.  The great man, supreme celebrant of hearth and home, after producing a family of ten with her, sent his wife away and never spoke to her again and forbade his children from living with her.  All this he did very brutally and publicly and in a most ungentlemanly fashion.  He may or may not have had an eleventh child by his mistress.  If so, the baby did not survive.  That's the story anyway.  (The great Dickens scholar and biographer, Michael Slater has a new book out now on just the scandal.)

The aspect of Dickens' domestic life taken up here, is considerably less exciting; seven boys, three girls -- one died in infancy -- and a mostly disappointing lot.  Again, that's the story.  Gottlieb tells this briskly and well, tracing the life of each in a separate set of matched chapters, divided between the years before and after Charles Dickens' death.  It's a clever plan.  All of Dickens' children would seem to have had in common, from the eldest to the last, was a happy childhood.  Dickens adored babies and children, and dearly loved all his own.  His death unknit what was already a stretched and strained family.  Still, even before that tragic turn of events, there were few enough signs of resilience, let alone genius in the  new generation.  But if none of his children ever quite measured up to either their father's renown or his expectations, as Gottlieb rightly asks, how could they?  And the novelist was disappointed, specially with the boys.  Gottlieb emphasizes the impact of this paternal disappointment on what turned out for all but one or two of the children to be lives of less than spectacular financial or personal success, even when not quite the downright failure of more than one of the boys.  Most of that, of course, Dickens, dead at 58, did not actually live to see.

Gottlieb is very good at telling each of these lives at the length it deserves and with great sympathy for all.  He's very good, in a very small space, at capturing something of the personality and eccentricity of these rather unexceptional people, and is specially good about using original sources judiciously and well to do it.  There's no fault to be found, at least by me, with either Gottlieb's research or style.

I do take issue with some of the rather pat, 20th Century psychologizing in which the author indulges when speculating as to affect of Dickens' supposedly crushing disappointment in his sons.  So far as the reader might know from the sources quoted here, from their adolescence on, Charles Dickens did not think much -- and loudly -- of most of his boys.  This Gottlieb ascribes as much to the father's own extraordinary dynamism and ambition, not to mention his genius, as to the obvious absence of any such in the next generation.  Not wrong, I shouldn't think, on it's face, but this argument strikes me as a little too glib.  Dickens characteristically Victorian energy and hectic pace came from something other than just the times or his ambition.  Gottlieb, I think, pays too little attention to the family that made Dickens, in criticizing the family Dickens made.  Beyond his own rather remote mother and famously spendthrift if charming father, by the time Dickens was married he was already supporting in various ways various family wastrels, drunks, invalids and cripples.  The much that Gottlieb makes, for instance, of Dickens insisting on getting all his boys "settled" in a profession or job, even a sheep ranch in Australia, while they were as young as fourteen, was not just some inexplicable exercise in either penny-pinching-economy or patriarchal disregard, but something very like panic as the admittedly rich Mr. Dickens was busily working himself to death. He was not rich enough.  He may have been the best paid writer and lecturer and editor to that time, but that did not offer lifetime security for what came to nine children, two wives, various sisters, relatives and dependents.  However high his rise in the world, he was never so far from the mire that he couldn't see and smell it, and fear it.  (His readings made more money than even his novels, and even acknowledging this, how many biographers have been tempted to see those last heroic tours as exercises in pure ego?)  What else was he to do for what proved to be a whole brood of very dear, perfectly harmless, and largely feckless children if not try to secure them some safe position in the world before be bustled out of it?  He knew what it was to have a lovable, but improvident parent.  One can't eat charm.

There is also a willingness on Gottlieb's part to quote from the invariably devoted letters and memoirs of the Dickens children, and then question not their manifest sincerity, but suggest what wasn't said.  Understandable, given the circumstances described, but not altogether cricket the third or forth of seventh time. Gottlieb may be right about what he thinks must have been if not between, then somewhere behind the lines in the Dickens family, but then maybe his premise of the Big Noisy Giant might not quite meet the facts.

I don't want to sound some Dickensian crank, insisting on the man's sainthood.  I appreciate the contemporary scholarship being done, as well as Dickens humanity, and want to know the bad he did in the world as well as the good.  (Very modern thing to want, I should think, certainly not Victorian.  But then, wasn't that what Plutarch claimed for biography quite some time before Victoria, or Britain had been heard from?)  Still, I will confess,Dickens for me, and for millions of other readers, is always something of a special case, and a friend, and one doesn't want him done any injustice, I suppose.

But whatever my disagreements with the book, it is a good one, and the better for being brief, and bright.  There are biographies already of Kate, Aunt Georgina and Catherine now, as well as Nelly Ternan, and memoirs by at least three of the children that can be found online or reprinted as Google books.  This however is the first book I've encountered to tell the stories of all the children of Charles Dickens and in a sure and simple span.  The telling is warm, generous in spirit, concise and cleverly written.  He gives them all their due.  What's more, the author makes it clear that he would not have undertaken the task were it not for his respect and sincere admiration of The Inimitable.



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