Category Archives: literature

They’ve Been in Scotland Afore Ye

This weekend Dr. B., an old friend of mine who is now a university professor, is flying over from Scotland.  He will be speaking at a literary and film conference next week in Virginia. We have not seen each other in eight years, so there is a great deal of chattering on the agenda. I am lucky in that, whatever we do not finish discussing this weekend, we will be able to finish up weekend when he returns to DC for the weekend, before heading back across the pond.

Dr. B. and I have always discussed the possibility of someday taking the Camino de Santiago together, with the idea of producing a co-authored travel narrative.  We would keep separate journals of our impressions and thoughts along the way, and then exchange these at the conclusion of our trip.  And who knows? Perhaps there will be a publishable book in it.

For those who have never heard of the Camino, it is the ancient pilgrimage route to the tomb of St. James the Apostle in Compostela, in NW Spain. From the early medieval period onward, it has been one of the great pilgrimage destinations of Christendom.  There are several different routes one can take, depending on the starting point, that vary considerably in length.  I am a devout Catholic,  while Dr. B. is not of any particular religious affinity: however, as we are both fluent in Spanish, and love the history and culture of the Iberian Peninsula, it would be an interesting journey to take together, and see how we each react to the same set of circumstances.

Although it is extremely presumptuous to make this comparison, and admittedly Dr. B.’s flight over from Scotland puts me in mind of it, the idea of a pair of opposites taking a journey together and writing about the experience is reminiscent of the trip which James Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson took together in 1773. The men visited the Highlands and the islands of the Scottish Hebrides over the course of nearly 3 months, and wrote separately on their sometimes harrowing experiences. One thing which comes shining through in their writing however, and particularly in Boswell’s account of the journey, was that despite the difficulties of travel in the 18th century, they had a great deal of fun together.

Reading their separate accounts of the same event reveals a great deal about them both, in terms of their friendship as well as how they each perceived the world as individuals.  For example, in August 1773, the two were exploring the area around Loch Ness. They stopped by the hut of an elderly peasant woman, so that Dr. Johnson could see how the local people lived. His account of what he saw is straightfoward, and almost anthropological in tone:

When we entered, we found an old woman boiling goats-flesh in a kettle. She spoke little English, but we had interpreters at hand; and she was willing enough to display her whole system of economy. She has five children, of which none are yet gone from her. The eldest, a boy of thirteen, and her husband, who is eighty years old, were at work in the wood. Her two next sons were gone to Inverness to buy meal, by which oatmeal is always meant. Meal she considered as expensive food, and told us, that in Spring, when the goats gave milk, the children could live without it. She is mistress of sixty goats, and I saw many kids in an enclosure at the end of her house. She had also some poultry. By the lake we saw a potato-garden, and a small spot of ground on which stood four shucks, containing each twelve sheaves of barley. She has all this from the labour of their own hands, and for what is necessary to be bought, her kids and her chickens are sent to market.

With the true pastoral hospitality, she asked us to sit down and drink whiskey. She is religious, and though the kirk is four miles off, probably eight English miles, she goes thither every Sunday. We gave her a shilling, and she begged snuff; for snuff is the luxury of a Highland cottage.

Boswell, on the other hand, is not as interested in the life and habits of the Scottish peasantry, so much as he is in the opinions and reactions of his friend. This is very true in his biography of Dr. Johnson, but also the visit to this hut proved no exception. As was often the case during the course of their friendship, Boswell found a way to make Johnson laugh:

Dr Johnson was curious to know where she slept. I asked one of the guides, who questioned her in Erse [i.e., Scottish Gaelic]. She answered with a tone of emotion, saying (as he told us) she was afraid we wanted to go to bed with her. This coquetry, or whatever it may be called, of so wretched a being, was truly ludicrous. Dr Johnson and I afterwards were merry upon it. I said, it was he who alarmed the poor woman’s virtue. ‘No, sir,’ said he, ‘she’ll say, ‘There came a wicked young fellow, a wild dog, who I believe would have ravished me, had there not been with him a grave old gentleman, who repressed him: but when he gets out of the sight of his tutor, I’ll warrant you he’ll spare no woman he meets, young or old.’ ‘No, sir,’ I replied, ‘she’ll say, “There was a terrible ruffian who would have forced me, had it not been for a civil decent young man who, I take it, was an angel sent from heaven to protect me.”‘

Such contrasting accounts of shared experiences pepper these two books, and this example is by no means the end of their shared sense of humor. The two accounts are usually printed together in a single volume, so one can flip back and forth to see what each writer was thinking on the same day. For my readers who are not quite ready to tackle Boswell’s monumental biography of his friend, this travelogue may prove a good appetizer, by which you will be able to determine whether you would enjoy moving on to the main course.

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Filed under biography, Camino de Santiago, Dr. Johnson, James Boswell, literature, Scotland, travel, writing

>Rediscovering Richard Hannay

>John Buchan, more formally known as Lord Tweedsmuir, is one of those authors who, with the passage of time, has sadly gone out of fashion. Part of this has to do with a change in attitude that began with the dismemberment of the British Empire, which affected the popularity of British writers such as Buchan (1875-1940), Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), and Sir H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925). Their tales of adventure were great fun in and of themselves, but sometimes featured ideas or language which, even if only secondary to the plot, were unfortunately racist in tone.

That being said, I am looking forward to Masterpiece Theatre this Sunday evening, which will be screening a new film adaptation of Buchan’s novel, “The Thirty-Nine Steps”. The most famous celluloid version of the book, as film fans know, is Alfred Hitchcock’s from 1935. Though not entirely faithful to the novel, this is one of the earliest films with the plot device of a man on the run from mysterious forces out to get him, a genre which Hitchcock would arguably perfect in his great film “North by Northwest” in 1959, starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.

I am avoiding any reviews of this new version of “The Thirty-Nine Steps” until after I have seen the film, as I do not want the experience of watching it to be ruined in advance by considering others’ opinions. Nevertheless, I do have to question the casting of Rupert Penry-Jones in the role of Richard Hannay, the hero of many of Buchan’s novels. Hannay, as all Buchan fans know, was based in part on Lord Ironside, a tough, smart, lumbering giant of a military man who was just as likely to challenge you to a boxing match over opposing political views as he was to survive a plane crash and tie up his own wounds as if nothing had happened. Penry-Jones has always been an engaging actor, but he is a bit like a leather club chair in a fancy hotel bar: well-upholstered but not something you can knock about without injuring it.

Buchan was not only a novelist, but a political figure as well, rising to become Governor-General of Canada at the end of his career. His book, “Memory Hold-the-Door”, published in America as “Pilgrim’s Way”, is one of my favorite autobiographies and deals with the events of his childhood and leading through all the way to his arrival in Canada. As one might imagine, he knew everyone worth knowing during his long academic, writing, and military career, and as such it is a nice companion to the autobiography, “To Keep the Ball Rolling” by Anthony Powell, another British writer of not entirely dissimilar background and opinions who, like Buchan, these days is not read as often as he ought to be.

In this sort of secular apologia pro vita sua, Buchan stated (in 1940!) what many in the Christian world are very cognizant of today, as Western Civilization continues to circle the drain. I close this post with his words, in the hope that readers of similar opinions may be interested in reading this fascinating author’s life story for themselves, and draw their own conclusions:

There have been high civilizations in the past which have not been Christian, but in the world as we know it I believe that civilization must have a Christian basis, and must ultimately rest on the Christian Church. Today the Faith is being attacked, and the attack is succeeding. Thirty years ago Europe was a nominally Christian continent. It is no longer so. In Europe, as in the era before Constantine, Christianity is in a minority. What Gladstone wrote seventy years ago, in a moment of depression, has become a shattering truth: “I am convinced that the welfare of mankind does not now depend on the State and the world of politics; the real battle is being fought in the world of thought, where a deadly attack is made with great tenacity of purpose and over a wide field upon the greatest treasure of mankind, the belief in God and the Gospel of Christ.”

John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir

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Filed under Alfred Hitchcock, Britain, Christianity, cinema, civilization, England, film, H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan, literature, movies, Rudyard Kipling, television

The Lost Best-Seller

In preparation for a 1950′s-themed party I am attending this weekend, I was doing some research on popular figures of that era. Some of them happen to be more obvious than others. For example, Marilyn Monroe is an obvious choice of a 50′s icon, but many younger people forget that Queen Elizabeth II, who is still going strong, was crowned to enormous fanfare and celebration in 1953. The event was celebrated in all of the popular magazines and broadcast to international audiences via the still-new medium of television.

Among the lists of best-selling books of the era, I found several references to Frances Parkinson Keyes. According to Publisher’s Weekly, the primary trade journal for the publishing industry in the U.S., between 1950 and 1959, she had four novels make the top ten list of best-selling fiction books in a given year. The most popular of the four, “Joy Street”, reached number one on the New York Times best-seller list in 1951.

Despite this documentary evidence of considerable popularity, I suspect that you, my dear readers, have never heard of this writer nor read any of her work – though probably your grandmothers were very familiar with her. This is indeed a great shame, and so I wanted to do my tiny part to hopefully revive interest in this very talented and interesting woman. In particular, some of my regular readers with a Romish persuasion may be interested to learn that she was a convert to the Catholic Church, and that Catholic themes run through very many of her books.

Frances Parkinson was born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1903, to transplanted New Englander parents. Her father was the head of the Greek Department at the University of Virginia, back when the study of Greek was de rigueur for a young gentleman’s education. After her father’s early death her mother remarried, and the family moved back to New England, spending part of the year in Boston and part at the family’s ancestral Federal-era farm in Vermont.

Frances later married a Harvard man named Henry W. Keyes, and together they had three sons. Her husband, a powerful member of the Republican Party, served in both houses of the New Hampshire legislature, was elected Governor of New Hampshire in 1916, was subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate in 1919, and served there until his retirement in 1937. Mrs. Parkinson Keyes, as she became known, was popular in Washington society, and wrote regular pieces for ladies’ magazines and newspapers about her experiences and travels as a prominent Senator’s wife.

Mrs. Parkinson Keyes’ first novel, “The Old Gray Homestead”, was published in 1919, and it marked the beginning of what by any measure would be considered a profoundly prolific writing career, spanning six decades. In all, not including magazine articles and shorter pieces, she published around 60 books, including novels, memoirs, biographies, and travelogues. She became particularly popular for her novels about life in Louisiana, after she purchased a home in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1950′s, which is now a museum dedicated to her.

During her extensive travels Mrs. Parkinson Keyes happened to find herself in Rome attending the Beatification of St. Therese de Lisieux in 1923, and became fascinated by her autobiography. She later spent a summer with the Benedictines at Lisieux researching what eventually became a biography of the Little Flower. Mrs. Parkinson Keyes was received into the Church in 1939, and continued to write biographies of saints, travel journals about pilgrimages, and other Catholic material for the rest of her life.

I first came across Mrs. Parkinson Keyes’ work when I was about ten or eleven years old. At a charity book sale I spied a book entitled “I, The King”, a novel about the life of Philip IV of Spain, the great patron of Velázquez. This was one of Mrs. Parkinson Keyes’ last works, published in 1966. Being interested in the subject matter, and at the cost of 25 cents, I decided to give it a try.

I ended up inhaling the book, re-reading it several times over, as it brought the court of this interesting but flawed monarch to life in a way which gave further depth to those magnificent, dark paintings collected in The Prado. For those who are not yet familiar with her style, Mrs. Parkinson Keyes is decidedly a detail-oriented writer. The amount of historical research that she performed for just one of her novels, long before the age of the internet and while suffering from increasingly ill health, is simply outstanding. Everything from architecture to food, costume to manners and forms of address, are painstakingly researched and documented for accuracy.

From there, I went on a Frances Parkinson Keyes “kick” for awhile, picking up any novels and non-fiction of hers that I could come across in second-hand bookshops and garage sales. I would estimate that I read probably a dozen of her novels and at least several travelogue/non-fiction pieces. Like any such interest however, I eventually reached a point of saturation, and moved on to other things, but the better for the experience. Seeing her name appear on those 50′s best-seller lists brought back fond memories of spending long evenings of summer vacation wrapped up in tales of old steamboat gothic plantations in the Deep South and French chateaux in Normandy.

Mrs. Parkinson Keyes is not what one would consider to be a “high-brow” writer of the first part of the 20th century. She is definitely writing from the perspective of a respectable, well-off lady of a certain background and experience. Being therefore too ladylike for such company, she does not sit well on the bookshelf next to tortured scribblers like Céline or Hesse. Her enormous cast of characters and detailed observations of life speak more to the 19th than the 20th century, and in that respect she is more analogous to Trollope than to Dickens: a good storyteller, writing primarily to a bourgeois audience, but not particularly challenging to the reader. One of her novels is a perfect accompaniment to a rainy afternoon or evening in front of the fireplace, but it is not a challenge to one’s world view.

That being said, her skills and charm as a writer are very much needed in a society which has forgotten grace and civility, almost to the point of no return. Tastes have changed, affecting her popularity, but she has also suffered a decline in public awareness of her work as a result of a long copyright dispute between her estate and her publishers subsequent to her death in 1970. As a result, her books fell out of print, and a search on Amazon will reveal only second-hand copies of a handful of her works for sale. And what a loss for the film industry, when so many interesting novels of hers are simply in need of a good director to be made into engaging historical films.

Should one of my readers find themselves at a charity book shop in the near future, I highly recommend seeking out Mrs. Parkinson Keyes’ novels. They are becoming increasingly difficult to find, as old paper disintegrates and new editions fail to print. However, for the enjoyment of a good story with interesting historical detail and a solid, Catholic moral foundation, and for the rescue of lost esteem for a deserving author’s work, they are well-worth the investment.

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Filed under Catholic, Church, Frances Parkinson Keyes, literature, Louisiana, New England, Philip IV, Spain, Velazquez, writing

>Three British Novelists Worth Discovering

>REMINDER: Gentle reader, you have until midnight on August 15, 2009 to enter your submission in The Courtier’s Birthday Contest!

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Today is the birthday of John Galsworthy (1867-1933), the Nobel Prize-winning English novelist and dramatist. Galsworthy’s most famous work, a group of novels and stories collectively referred to as “The Forsyte Saga”, chronicles the rise of the bourgeois Forsyte family from arriviste to establishment in Victorian/Edwardian London. Today the general public is familiar with Galsworthy, if at all, since sadly he does not seem to be read much anymore, primarily because of the first volume of the series, “The Man of Property”, which has been turned into film and television adaptations several times. The book was particularly scandalous when written, and is still uncomfortable to read today, since the tortured Soames Forsyte, Galsworthy’s central character, rapes his soon-to-be-ex-wife Irene toward the end of the novel when he learns she is cheating on him with the architect he has hired to build them a suburban villa.

Galsworthy, somewhat like Balzac, tried to create a world-within-a-world by carefully intertwining the lives of his fictional characters with the reality of the changing times which they would have experienced over the course of the late 19th and early 20th century. Dealing primarily with the middle classes and nouveaux-riches, rather than with the nobility and gentry, Galsworthy is able to allow a greater degree of freedom to his characters’ choices as, somewhat similarly, in an earlier generation, Jane Austen’s middle-class heroines were able to move more freely than the blue-stockinged sisters of the toffs who pursued them. Unlike Austen, however, Galsworthy’s heroes often end up alone, unfulfilled, miserable – or dead. This is not to say that Galsworthy is obsessed with tragedy, in the manner of Hardy, but he is a more of a realist than Austen, who was writing in a different age and about country pursuits, rather than the difficulties of urban life.

Lovers of finely-crafted literature, however, would do well to learn of two later writers whose work is perhaps even less familiar today than Galsworthy’s, but who in my view inherited Galsworthy’s mantle of chronicling the British middle classes and their reactions to the changing times, albeit in very distinct ways: English author Anthony Powell, and Scottish author Guy McCrone.

Anthony Powell (1905-2000) wrote a great deal of work during his career, fiction and non-fiction, as a novelist, dramatist, journalist and screenwriter. However it is his magnum opus “A Dance to the Music of Time”, consisting of twelve novels chronicling the fortunes of four men from the English middle and upper-middle classes, that is perhaps the English language equivalent to Proust’s seven-volume “À la recherche du temps perdu”, albeit often from a more comic standpoint. “Dance” begins with four boys at public school, soon to leave for university, and follows them over the arc of the twelve novels through the Jazz Age, World War II, and up through the hippie era. Their lives intersect at various points, sometimes for long periods, at other times only for short intervals, but their exploits are often a chance for Powell to satirize the social movements and morays through which they pass.

Each of the four main characters in “Dance” is more or less a type, familiar to anyone who has spent time in English society. Nick Jenkins, the narrator, comes from an army officer’s family with a fairly solid, middle England background. Like an avatar, he provides some grounding for the reader since he reveals little about himself as compared to his schoolfellows. Charles Stringham is part of a complicated but interesting clan somewhat reminiscent of Sebastian Flyte’s. Peter Templer is a City-money lush who has luck with the ladies, and the enigmatic social climber Kenneth Widmerpool is eager to outstrip them all.

The successes and failures of these men occupy the reader through the passage of time, and show how English society abandoned the straitlaced conventions which Galsworthy, a generation earlier, was already beginning to tear. Whereas Galsworthy focuses on the members of a single, extended family, as well as those who seek to become members of it, in Powell it is ultimately the individual’s desires, for good or for ill, that prevail over family ties. By the end of the novels, this independence of the characters from where they began is exactly mirrored by the strange new world of the later 20th century in which they move.

Guy McCrone (1898-1977) is certainly the most obscure of these three novelists, and this is a very great shame indeed. As of this writing, he has not even merited an entry on Wikipedia. His absence from that abattoir of questionable information however, is in no way a reflection of the great charm that characterizes his writing, nor of the pleasure that can be taken from reading his work.

In scope comparable to Galsworthy, but in a style very different from both Galsworthy and Powell, McCrone chronicles the rise of a Glaswegian clan in his “Wax Fruit Trilogy” of novels, as well as a few additional, associated novels and short stories. The Moorhouses, like the Forsytes, come from farmers and tradesmen, but rise to become provincial haute bourgeoisie in Victorian Glasgow. As they rise in society, they mix with the establishment and try to continue their ascent, not unlike the characters in both Galsworthy’s and Powell’s epics.

Here the comparisons end, however, for while “The Forsyte Saga” views money and power as inherently dangerous and leading to tragedy and emotional suicide, and “A Dance to the Music of Time” views these, or at least their pursuit, as at equal moments comic and disastrous, in “Wax Fruit” these are seen primarily as instruments to be used, not good or evil in and of themselves. Perhaps McCrone, as a Scot, took a different and more sympathetic view of the value of economy and investment than did his English colleagues, who only saw the negative impact of the quest for influence. For McCrone, money is not necessarily the root of all evil, if in fact it is kept under control.

Certainly there are problems created by the search for higher position on the part of McCrone’s characters, particularly in the absolutely outstanding Aunt Bel – a part which surely needs to be brought to the screen and given to a great comic actress to bring to life. Bel is often thwarted in her efforts to put on the right sort of show for society, but she is never mean-spirited in her attempts to raise her family higher, and there is a great deal of genuine love and affection among the members of the clan. The psychologically twisted and scarred characters in both “The Foryste Saga” and “A Dance to the Music of Time” would be anathema to the Moorhouses. In these very Scottish stories, there is a wonderful quality of lightness and wry humor, contrasted with the darkness of industrial Glasgow, that keeps McCrone from falling into the camp of either the socialist propaganda of Victorian social crusaders like Dickens, with his inevitable street urchin coughing up a lung, or putting on the rose-colored lenses of some ancien régime-style dramatist trying to keep the establishment blind to the realities around them.

While none of these three novelists make for easy reading, all deserve to be much better-known than they are at present. Admittedly, only a few weeks of summer remain, and with the resumption of school days for many, little time remains for reading large tomes such as those suggested here. However, even if their books are approached in a piecemeal fashion, Galsworthy, Powell, and McCrone are all outstanding exemplars of English language novelists worth getting to know.

John Galsworthy


Filed under Austen, Balzac, bourgeoisie, Britain, England, fiction, Galsworthy, literature, McCrone, Powell, Proust, Scotland, society

>"Little House", Redux

>A brief post, this morning, dear reader, to refer you to a lengthy and fascinating article by Judith Thurman in the most recent issue of The New Yorker on author Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. The two collaborated on the “Little House on the Prairie” series of books, which many of us read, in whole or in part, while growing up. Few however, know about the lives of these two women or how the stories came to be published. This extensive re-examination of the relationship between mother and daughter yields a remarkable portrait of two very different lives which, while dispelling of some of the myths surrounding these women and highlighting their significant personal differences with each other, managed to produce remarkable works of literature.

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Filed under Laura Ingalls Wilder, literature, Little House on the Prairie, Rose Wilder Lane