Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Dr. Dolittle's Voyages Through Time

Although I have read the very first Newbery Medal winner, The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik Willem van Loon (and am, er, working on the review), it was the reading of 1923’s Newbery Award winner, Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, that made me feel as though I’d really begun on my Newbery review project. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it’s fiction while The Story of Mankind is non-fiction. No matter how readable The Story of Mankind was, it still made me feel like a child dutifully eating her literary vegetables in order to get to the dessert. For The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle is definitely dessert. Actually, perhaps it’s more accurate to say Dr. Dolittle is pure candy. Even the illustrations in my library edition have a certain confectionary quality — everything is in bright bubblegum colours of pink and blue and red, the shapes are round, the lines soft, the characters delectably chubby.

Novels are usually as indelibly time-stamped by the psychology of their era as pre-computerized library cards used to be. Victorian novels were generally stern and spoke of morals and duty; today’s novels are about personal growth and personal problems (and those often of a nature a Victorian would blush to hear acknowledged). Dr. Dolittle is very much a novel of the nineteen twenties, with a twenties spirit of irrepressible optimism, fun, and adventure.

The story’s narrator is a small, animal-mad boy named Tommy Stubbins who meets the famous Dr. Dolittle. Dr. Dolittle is a naturalist who travels all over the world and has learned to speak to animals in their own languages, although he is frustrated in his attempt to learn the language of the shellfish. Dr. Doolittle’s home is a wonderful menagerie of animals, and it is kept by a perfect duck of a housekeeper (yes, literally). Tommy Stubbins manages to convince his parents to let him live, study and travel with Dr. Dolittle, and he and Dr. Dolittle (and a dog named Jip, a parrot named Polynesia, and and an African prince named Bumpo) voyage together around the world to the floating Spidermonkey Island.

A twenties-era exuberance permeates this book. This was a decade in which people believed that dramatic self-improvement could come from the constant repetition of the mantra “Every day in every way I know I am getting better”. Dr. Dolittle doesn’t know how to navigate or sail a ship, but he always gets safely to wherever he wants to go, even when shipwrecked. He can get a friend acquitted for murder in a courtroom scene more dramatic and sensational than the Law & Order writers can ever dream of staging, and tame five mad bulls at once. Though he hates war he can fight heroically and effectively in the war between the two Spidermonkey Island Indian tribes (referred to as the Great War, involving injuries but no deaths, and followed by a seemingly endless peace – the twenties strike again). And when Dr. Dolittle’s ready to return to good old England (this is a very English novel for an American award winner), he and his entourage voyage homewards across the sea floor inside a transparent snail shell. And yes, he can ultimately learn to speak the language of the shellfish.

The age of this novel shows itself in more regrettable ways as well. Even when I know it’s not at all fair or useful to critique an old literary work by contemporary standards of what constitutes racism, it did make me wince when the African prince, Bumpo Khabooboo, Crown Prince of Jolliginki, appeared on the scene, announcing that he’d left the Oxford "quadrilateral" because the shoes and the algebra they tried to force upon him there hurt his feet and his head, respectively. Also cringeworthy was the depiction of the Spidermonkey Indians, who are described as "child-like" and who, under Dr. Dolittle’s tutelage, progress from the discovery of fire to the construction of an opera house in something less than two years. They gratefully crown Dr. Dolittle king, and it is with a guilty reluctance that he eventually leaves them to return to England and his "more important" work among the animals. And I really doubt it would possible now to publish a child's novel in which a young boy meets a strange man in a rainstorm and accepts the man's invitation to go home with him and "get those wet clothes off".

I keep calling The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle a twenties novel, but the more I consider its spirit of limitless possibilities, the more I begin to realize that it does, as all lasting works of fiction must, touch modern chords as well. Perhaps we’ve lost our sense that we could collectively be wise enough to permanently end war, and we don’t have that particular brand of happy-go-lucky optimism, but we’re still optimistic. Our faith has undergone a seismic shift and currently is rooted in our ability to solve problems through technology, rather than in wisdom and goodwill. But optimism, like wanderlust, like the age-old child’s fantasy of escaping parental control and school, and like the fantastic appeal of travelling in a transparent snail shell, is still very much with us, and so The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle is as well.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

True Romance and Elinor Glyn

I decided to read Addicted to Romance: The Life and Adventures of Elinor Glyn, by Joan Hardwick, because I was intrigued by the descriptions of Elinor Glyn in The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters. But when it came time to open the book and begin reading, I did so with some trepidation. The prologue opens with a quote from Elinor Glyn, declaring that her dominant interest in life had been the desire for romance. This inspired dread. Perhaps I would learn that Elinor snacked on heart-shaped sandwiches as Danielle Steel does. I might be subjected to examples of Hallmark-style poetry, or read that Elinor could be seduced with the properly timed presentation of a plush teddy bear. Who knew what examples of mawkish sentimentality I might find lurking in the book.

But I need not have feared any of these things. I love biographies and have read many, and I don’t think I’ve ever admired the subject of a biography more. I do deliberately write “subject of a biography” as distinct from person, being aware that biographers are known for their partisanship to their subjects. After all one doesn’t like to spend years and much hard-won grant money on research and writing only to admit that one’s subject wasn’t worth the trees after all. A less sympathetic biographer might have made more of Elinor’s flaws and been less generous in assessment of her literary abilities. It’s an interesting experiment in to read two biographies on the same person and to see how much of our final view of the subject is dependent on the biographer’s spin.

But even so I don’t think I could be otherwise than admiring of Elinor Glyn, who was an incredibly interesting and accomplished person. Glyn was a prolific writer of romance novels, and a screenwriter during Hollywood’s early days. Beginning in 1901, she supported her family by producing a book a year for many years. In 1907 Elinor’s book Three Weeks, which told the story of a young man’s affair with an older married woman and featured an erotic love scene on a tiger skin, was published, and it catapulted Elinor to a new level of readership and fame, or rather infamy. Both the book and Elinor achieved instant notoriety, with everyone assuming that book was autobiographical. A popular bit of doggerel made the rounds: "Would you like to sin/With Elinor Glyn/On a tiger skin?/Or would you prefer/To err with her/On some other fur?" Edward VII – a compulsive womanizer – refused to have the book mentioned in his presence. When Elinor’s daughter Margot was caught reading Three Weeks at her boarding school, the school authorities confiscated the book and punished her. Glyn’s second career as a screenwriter began when, at 50, she received propositions from the King of Spain and from a Hollywood production company. She declined the first and happily accepted the latter. Elinor flourished in Hollywood, where her gift for self-promotion soon established her as someone of note. She gave birth to a meme that survives to today by declaring that Clara Bow had "It" (though Dorothy Parker snorted, "'It', hell. She had Those.") She made many prominent friends and mentored a number of young actors. Rudolph Valentino benefited from her lessons on how to woo a woman; Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow came to love and respect her for her excellent advice; Charlie Chaplin’s incisive mockery of her pretensions in no way diminished their friendship; and she travelled with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford on their belated honeymoon.

Excellence is generally compelling, but human nature being what it is we find excellence all the more attractive when it is packaged and delivered with style, and this Glyn never failed to do. It helped that she was beautiful, and seemingly ageless. I kept turning to the photo section to stare with incredulity at the pictures taken throughout her life. Though there are pictures taken of her in her late seventies, she never appears to be older than her late thirties. This seems to have been partly due to genetics (her mother’s photos are similarly amazing) and partly to her self-discipline. Elinor Glyn lived in an era during which those of her leisured class dined lavishly on seven-course dinners and routinely made trips to some elite spa to shed the resulting avoir dupois. Glyn ate simply and drank lots of water. She never permitted herself to slouch and even as an elderly woman always sat bolt upright. She loved clothes and dressed beautifully, keeping a notebook in which she sketched and detailed every outfit, and served as a model for the clothes produced by her sister, whose dressmaking business was wildly successful, thanks to Elinor. She always decorated her homes lavishly to provide the proper backdrop for the sort of life she wanted to lead. She knew how to get attention of the kind she wanted – once in her seventies she appeared at a luncheon with her cat Candide draped over her shoulders. Glyn was pretentious, but her pretensions were not a false front hiding emptiness or inadequacy, but an outlet for her creativity and artistry. The reality was just as interesting, and the relation between her actual self and her presentation of herself a fascinating one.

Glyn’s self-discipline seems to have been remarkable and, coupled with her intelligence, generous nature, and strong ethics and generally good judgment, enabled her to sail through many difficulties. During her adulthood if she needed money she promptly found a way to earn some. At one time of dire need she wrote a novel in 18 days. During World War I, like many other British women, she did a great deal of war work, and visited recuperating soldiers and washed dishes in a canteen (when she had never previously washed dishes in her life) as well as visiting the trenches as a war correspondent. And she never stooped to behaving badly no matter how others might have treated her. Though her marriage was not a successful one there was never animosity between Clayton and Elinor Glyn. Clayton lost all interest in Elinor soon after their marriage and was always indifferent to the attention she received from men, or at most found it amusing, as on the occasion the Sultan of Turkey sent an envoy to Clayton offering to purchase Elinor (to be fair, I can’t blame him for finding that one funny). Never lacking in suitors, Elinor found some emotional satisfaction in her several intense yet platonic relationships with men. But she couldn’t bring herself to be physically unfaithful to her husband, and would part from her lovers when they became too insistent on her doing so. It was not until Elinor met George Curzon, who was probably the love of her life, that she allowed herself to have a sexual affair.

Glyn met the widowed George Curzon in 1908, and they began a passionate affair that was to last for years. In 1915 Clayton, who had become an alcoholic, died, and while Elinor honestly mourned the waste of his life and the loss of the man she had once loved and fell ill immediately after his death, she could now hope to marry Curzon. Curzon even asked her to take charge of the decoration of a Montacute estate he had recently acquired. But Curzon had also been seeing another married woman, Grace Duggan, whose husband died at the same time as Clayton. Curzon seems to have honestly loved both women and been torn by the decision between them, but in 1916 he married Grace, probably because as she was younger than Elinor, he could hope to have the male heir he desperately wanted. Elinor was at Montacute working on its decoration when she read of George and Grace’s engagement in a newspaper. She left the house at once, and later burned the 500 letters Curzon had sent to her.

Devastated as she was by Curzon’s treatment of her, she seems to have carried on with her life without noticeable pause. She entered happily into her new life in Hollywood. She had the satisfaction of continued close relationships with Irene, Cimmie, and Baba Curzon, who would turn to Elinor Glyn rather than their stepmother when they needed a mature woman’s advice. Glyn also learned from the Curzon daughters that George and Grace Curzon’s marriage was a failure. She did not delight in the news, but it was a comfort to realize that she might well have been an unhappy Lady Curzon as well.

Glyn was contemptuous of the uselessness of the lives led by most of those in her circle, and her life was chockfull of the worthwhile. Besides writing her many books and several screenplays she travelled incessantly, had many talented and powerful friends, and educated herself to a high degree. As she aged she continued to be open to new adventures and undertaking, and to learn and grow as a person, and showed an excellent discernment when it came to discarding or retaining the values she’d had in her younger days. She was the kind of grandmother who insisted that her grandchildren converse, rather than chatter, but she was able to see that she’d been wrong in her youthful reverence for pre-revolutionary French government and to see the good in socialism.

As I read the book I often shook my head in disbelief at the way Elinor seemed to repeatedly manage to get entrée into the kind of society and incidents that are of historical note, but looking back on her life I see that she was a part of those moments because she belonged in them. She achieved a great deal, and was a remarkable person, and so attracted others like herself. It was not luck that Mark Twain called on her while she was in New York. It was not a coincidence that she was asked by the Grand Duchess Kiril to go to Russia in 1910 to write a book set in the Russian royal court. The Grand Duchess had been impressed by the accurate rendering of the French court in Elinor’s books and thought that if such a widely read author could write such a book about Russia it might have a good effect on Russia’s image. Elinor, with her love of travel and adventure, her understanding of image creation, and her need to produce a new book every year, accepted at once. George Curzon was a man who enjoyed women as he did fine wines and beautiful paintings rather than as equals or partners, and when first approaching her, expected a light flirtation. He was taken aback when Elinor was well informed about his work in India, and interested in hearing about his travels and the book he’d written. She asked about his opinions on Lloyd George. She loved the classics as much as he did, and they would later read Plato together.

At the end I realized I’d been given a valuable illustration of the truest and best meaning of romance, a word that has become somewhat degraded since Elinor Glyn’s time. The word romance has come to be associated with some unfortunate things – Harlequins, stuffed animals, movies starring Julia Roberts, sentimental greeting cards bought by harried men late in the afternoon of February 14th, or other things that are well enough in their way but that are often so cliché and perfunctory in their presentation as to be almost empty of actual romantic value, such as gifts of roses, chocolates and lingerie (especially if the roses cause an allergic reaction, the chocolates make one’s skin break out and the lingerie doesn’t fit). Thus my sense of fear upon beginning the book – I am already so sated with this degraded, sentimental, modern definition of “romance”. But that’s not at all what Elinor Glyn had in mind when she spoke of romance. To her, romance meant ideals, imagination, adventure, passion, and heroism. A romantic life was thrilling and epic. She worked very hard to create a life that was romantic, and to present herself as a romantic figure, and succeeded despite her failed marriage and rejection by the love of her life. The story of her life makes it clear that this genuine romance can not only be incorporated into an intelligent and realistic person’s life, but enrich it.

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Tracts With Plots

Last July there appeared on Metafilter a front page post about a book called From The Ballroom to Hell, by T.A. Faulkner. As MeFites were quick to point out, Faulkner’s books is basically a type of porn, containing such passages as:

Her head rests upon his shoulder, her face is upturned to his, her bare arm is almost around his neck, her partly nude swelling breast heaves tumultuously against his, face to face they whirl on, his limbs interwoven with hers, his strong right arm around her yielding form, he presses her to him until every curve in the contour of her body thrills with the amorous contact.


When she awakes the next morning to a realizing sense of her position her first impulse is to self-destruction, but she deludes herself with the thought that her "dancing" companion will right the wrong by marriage, but that is the farthest from his thoughts, and he casts her off — he wishes a pure woman for his wife.

She has no longer any claim to purity; her self-respect is lost; she sinks lower and lower; society shuns her, and she is to-day a brothel inmate, the toy and plaything of the libertine and drunkard.

Hot, huh? As you can see, all the elements of porn are there. A nineteenth-century Christian reader could get the safely vicarious and voyeuristic pleasures of reading about behaviour considered wrong, and because the depiction of such behaviour is presented in a framework of moral condemnation, could at the same time delude herself or himself into the belief that the real motive for reading such material is a religious one.

Although I hadn’t previously ever seen or heard of this particular book, its existence and contents are no surprise to me, because mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century religious pulp fiction for both children and adults (basically, tracts with plots) is one of my guilty pleasures.

It's standard practice for this genre to argue strenuously against any and all indulgence of dancing, card playing, drinking, and theatre going, and often the characters refer to actual works of non-fiction in order to back up their arguments. No, I haven't seen anything referred to that is as salacious as this linked one, but one I do see mentioned is Plain Talks About the Theatre, by Herrick Johnson. I haven't ever seen the book, and it doesn't seem to be online anywhere, but I'm sure it's a gem of its kind and evinces the sort of facile logic and belief in absolute truth found in religious pulp fiction. For instance, it makes the argument that although there may be wholesome and moral plays, one cannot attend these plays without giving one's patronage to theatres which also run objectionable plays, and therefore the only morally safe course of action is not to attend any plays at all. The fact that this argument would also apply to book publishers and thus make it a moral imperative to refrain from reading almost all books never seems to occur to either Johnson or the characters who quote him.

I don't have that much patience with the worst of the genre, which tends to feature hysterically melodramatic touches such as disobedient children getting eaten by bears and young men becoming instant alcoholics upon their first sip of wine. The Elsie Dinsmore series, for instance, is maddening. Elsie’s father, Horace Dinsmore, demands absolute obedience from her. Elsie isn’t allowed to eat or drink anything without her father’s express permission, she mustn’t ask him the reason for any of his dictates, and at one point Horace orders eight-year-old Elsie to go to her room without any explanation because she had forgotten that her father had told her once months before that she should never sit on the floor. Morbidly conscientious Elsie soaks the pages with her tears in response — and is then severely lectured by her father on the importance of self-control. I collect children’s fiction and I have two of the Elsie books because I think them representative of a significant subgenre in children’s literature, but I can’t say they’re enjoyable. While reading them I amused myself by keeping a mental list of the psychological disorders a real child raised in such a fashion would have as an adult. And I regret that the edition of Elsie Dinsmore that I now own does not have the same illustrations as the one I read as a child. As a ten-year-old I found it hysterically funny that Horace Dinsmore, in his checked suit and pompadour, looks remarkably like The Joker from the sixties-era TV show Batman, and the humour of the coincidence has not worn thin though I'm now 33.

My enjoyment of and interest in this genre is rather complex and I'm not even sure I understand it. I read it to laugh at it, yes, but it's not as simple as that. An ironical enjoyment is a limited and superficial one and palls quickly. Someone who rents the occasional B horror movie is enjoying them for their kitsch value; someone who has a number of B horror movie DVDs and videocassettes lining the bottom drawers of his or her entertainment unit has a deeper stake in them. So… if I, hypothetically, had a stash of nearly 150 such books in old dresser in one corner of my attic studio, had ongoing automatic searches for particular books set up on E-bay, and occasionally whiled away the odd two or three hours reading them on Project Gutenberg and such sites, it might be fair to say that I get more from this genre than ironical amusement.

The religious aspect of these novels is not what I value, at least not in their literal sense. As an agnostic, I skim the most irritating passages that hold forth on Christianity as the only possible moral course. I get irritated with the worst of what can arise from that mindset — the endless self-chastisement, the looking-glass circular logic, the obsessive preoccupation with religious subjects, and the aggressively evangelistic tone. But this overtly religious content doesn’t bother me as much as they might other non-religious people, because I spent most of my childhood and adolescence steeped in that sort of thing. And if I had never learned to strip away the Christian trappings to get to the truly valuable philosophical teachings that usually lie within, I would be significantly the poorer for it.

Then, too, seen in the context of all other works written in the period, these “Sunday School books”, as they were called, don’t seem so excessively religious. It was an era in which almost everyone attended church as a matter of course. It wasn’t considered respectable not to, and there was considerable social pressure brought to bear on many of those who did not. And so practically all novels from this time have a vein of religion running through them. If I couldn’t accept this, I couldn’t read Jane Eyre, nor Little Women. And, in fact, some of Louisa May Alcott's work borders on inclusion in this religious pulp fiction genre. Alcott herself referred to it as "moral pap for the young".

I see these books, and the principles they espouse, very much in the context of their day, and this understanding has probably given me a better understanding of the role and place of religion in society. Even if one sets aside the fear of spending eternity roasting in hellfire like a weenie on a stick, so many of the taboos do make irrefutable practical sense.

In The King’s Daughter, by Isabella Alden, the heroine Dell Bronson refuses to marry a man she loves because he won’t sign a total abstinence pledge. She quotes Bible verses to him by the yard, and it’s laughable in a way because her suitor, an earnest minister who takes no more than the occasional glass of cider and who has shown no signs of susceptibility to addiction or any sort of substance abuse, is not at all likely to become a drunkard. However, let us look at the larger picture. Dell’s father is an alcoholic who runs a hotel which contains tavern. Dell is therefore called upon to live in the hotel, and is shunned by others in their town for being a saloonkeeper’s daughter. And then, too, given the socio-economic strictures of the time, a woman who married a man was choosing not only a companion and father for her future children, but an economic status. She would be completely economically dependent on him for the rest of her life. And there was no feasible escape from marriage in those days. Divorce was considered a disgrace, and was prohibitively expensive and difficult to attain. Women had limited earning capacity. If a woman had some capital she could set up her own business, but otherwise she would be fortunate to eke out a marginal existence as a factory worker, cook, laundry worker, etc. And if the woman had children to support, well, the picture becomes so much darker. There was no treatment for addiction, no child support, no alimony, no battered women’s shelters, no welfare, no calling on the police for protection. Yes, these modern safeguards work imperfectly, but try to imagine being without them. An abused wife’s best hope was that her birth family would be able and willing to take her back and assume her support again, but not every woman would be so fortunate. A woman in those times had much more reason than now to fear alcoholism in the man she loved. Let us remember that the women’s suffrage movement was originally an offshoot of the temperance movement. Given Dell’s particular circumstances and the harsh realties of the day, Dell’s insistence that her suitor show his commitment to remaining sober by signing his name to a temperance pledge becomes much more understandable. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same.

Examining the religious dictates in these books, I find they boil down to stern pragmatism most of the time. There is much said about self-reliance, and one’s duty to help others. The late nineteenth century was the time in which we came closest to having a libertarian society, when there were the fewest industrial regulations and next to no social safety net. People and their families were especially vulnerable to catastrophe, and more dependent on themselves and each other. Plain as it is that individual measures can be inadequate in the face of larger problems, that society as a whole must make a concerted effort to help ensure the well being of its populace and minimize suffering, it’s reasonable that nineteenth century reformers should have begun with self-reliance as a first response. As for the insistence on chastity, if I had lived in the days before reliable birth control and access to abortions, I would have remained chaste too. Of course there’s much more emphasis on female chastity, but this too is understandable, if not excusable, given that the consequences of an illegitimate pregnancy would fall inescapably on the woman while the man at least had the option of refusing the responsibility.

Some of these authors wax indignant over very silly and trivial matters, such as dancing, or specific styles of dress or hair. Isabella Alden’s niece Grace Livingston Hill, who wrote about a hundred books between 1900 and 1946, was quite obviously fit to be tied over many small, harmless, fashionable “vices”, such as fingernail polish, backless dresses, and jazz music (described by one character as "the music of the lost”). She has several of her twenties-era heroines declare that they won’t bob their hair because “God gave me my hair and I’d like to keep it”, a scruple that doesn’t seem to keep said heroine from cutting her fingernails. Also these authors make many pronouncements against reading “third-rate dime novels”. This is where the ironic enjoyment comes in. I also have been known to curl up happily in bed with a temperance-themed novel and a delicious hot toddy.

Besides the fun of snarking, and the educational experience of coming to understand the relationship between the evolution of religion and prevailing sociological and economic needs, I also learn a little history from these books. I have very little interest in contemporary Christian fiction, so the history component must constitute a good part of my enjoyment. These old pulp novels familiarize me with the social mores and customs and mindsets of this era, and as someone who wishes to write at least one historical novel, I can consider them research.

But it seems that when I dig right to the bottom of my enjoyment in these books, I find that I take a certain escapist pleasure in their moral certainty. This moral certainty, and its accompanying neat resolution of plot, isn’t only to be found in nineteenth-century religious fiction. It’s also found in contemporary romance novels. We’re all familiar with the course of events — heroine meets man, conflict arises, heroine and man work through conflict, and then live happily ever after. And the fact that this is not realistic does not seem to keep Harlequin novels from selling at the rate of one every six seconds. I know behaving well, working hard, keeping my home neat and tidy and sticking to my principles doesn’t ensure a happy ending any more than does finding a man named Hunter with a chiselled jaw and abs (though the latter sounds like a more straightforward and immediate kind of fun), but after a day of dealing with a complex and sometimes seemingly random universe I sometimes find it comforting to retreat into a world where it does. And yes, it’s very odd to choose “late nineteenth to early twentieth century religious fiction” as my escapist genre, but I still find them more interesting and less tiresome than most contemporary romance novels or fantasy or sci-fi, and I can take something intellectual away from them.

Finally, these books are sometimes surprisingly well-written and enjoyable in their own right. The American Isabella Alden (1841-1930) is one of my favourites. Alden was incredibly popular in her day, and very prolific, writing or editing over 200 works in her long ifetime besides leading what is reputed to be a very full personal life. She wrote under the pseudonym of “Pansy”, and since that name has acquired connotations that must have whatever is left of her remains spinning in her grave, her modern publishers have chosen to go with her full name. I got a perfectly unironic satisfaction from her heroine, the independent and witty Dell Bronson, who refuses her (stubborn and insufferably arrogant, if temperate) minister’s proposal when he refuses to meet her conditions for marriage. Her suitor marries someone else, and Dell remains serenely single to the end of the book with no regrets, and decides to believe that there are better things in store for her.

Alden’s books do tend to melodrama and can’t be considered literature by any stretch of the imagination, but her characterizations are realistic and their psychological profiles sometimes astonishingly complete, her dialogue natural, and her plots usually interesting and not formulaic if extremely contrived at times. Moreover Alden was obviously a woman with a good sense of humour. In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s classmates gather at lunchtime to read a Pansy book out loud to each other — apparently her books were considered a treat back in the day.

I can’t pretend to have even a working familiarity with all such authors, as I’m sure there were many more than I will ever get to, and their books extremely hard to find if not completely unavailable, but of the dozen or so authors I have read, Alden does stand out as superior. L.T. Meade was perhaps Alden’s English counterpart in terms of popularity, but Meade is far less readable. I suspect the quality of her work suffered from her extreme prolifacy, as she produced an astonishing 280 novels as well as a number of short stories and articles in a 48-year career.

And now I must go fulfill some sort of duty before I get eaten by bears.

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

The Newbery Project

I’m contemplating a large, ongoing project for The Orange Swan Review: to review all the Newbery Medal winners. To give you an idea of the scope of this project, check out the list of award recipients. Yes, at the time of this writing there are 85 past recipients. And I would only do two Newbery books a month as I don’t wish to either make this site entirely about kid lit or to wind up having to spend the coming year reading almost nothing but children’s fiction. For one thing, many of the kind of readers I would like to attract wouldn’t frequent such a site. And then, as much as I enjoy children’s and young adult fiction, it would feel a little too much like subsisting on a diet of milk and cookies. I'd soon crave steak, strawberries, baked potatoes, croissants, raspberry tarts, avocado and tomato sandwiches, lentil soup, brie cheese, Reese peanut butter cups, and so on.

According to my math it will take me nearly four years to accumulate reviews for all these books (and those that will be added to the list in that time). Yet I have a fatalistic feeling that this is what I intend. I’ll never have a better excuse to read all the Newbery books as I have long wanted to do, and a comprehensive collection of Newbery reviews would be a plum feature of any book review site.

Why have I chosen the American Newbery Medal when, say, the Canadian Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature or the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award for children’s or young adult fiction might make be a more obvious choice for me as a Canadian as well as being less punishing in terms of workload? I hate to say this, but I chose the Newbery list because, overall, its winners are superior to my country’s award winners. No, I have not read all the books on either list so I should not make such a sweeping claim. But among those titles I have read I see none on the Governor General’s or CLA’s lists that can stand beside Katharine Paterson’s Bridge to Terebithia, Joan W. Blos’s A Gathering of Days or Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song. I see Janet Lunn’s The Root Cellar, which is a solid and entertaining but not distinguished piece of work. I see Jean Little’s 1985 CLA Book of the Year for Children award-winner Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird, which is another good book, but which wouldn’t have won any sort of direct competition with 1985 Newbery Medalist, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown.

I know this painful contrast exists because Canada has a smaller population than the U.S.A. rather than less talent per capita, but I still wince to see the same few authors winning the awards again and again, and the overlap between the two awards. Have we really so very few good home grown books to choose from that no one can give Kit Pearson, Janet Lunn, Jean Little, and Tim Wynne-Jones a run for their money?

I definitely will make an effort to read and review Canadian books, and to write about at least the current Canadian award winners and contenders, but my passion for stellar literature overrules my (very real, and vested) loyalty and concern for the Canadian publishing industry, and so it is the Newbery Medalists that will become the main focus of my mission. Look for the first essay within the next few weeks.

Monday, 1 January 2007

Seduction by Deduction

Betsy Prioleau began the research that led to Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love because of the reaction to a course she taught to packed lecture halls at Manhattan College — “The Seductress in Literature”. Students of both genders were avid to learn the secrets of fabled sirens. And after class, she writes, “the women flooded my office. Over and over I heard the same laments: elusive bad boys, soulless hookups, sapped confidence, wrecked pride, and total mystification about how to prevail in love.”

Prioleau came to think that this was indicative of a larger problem in our culture, that though decades of feminism have benefited women in the workforce they haven’t made women much happier in their romantic lives. She considered that there was a dearth of research on successful women in history, and decided to track down some role models herself in hopes that it would be a step towards changing things. The result was Seductress, in which Prioleau serves up an array of historical dishes.

I first became aware of the book when I read this Salon interview with Prioleau, which so intrigued me that I promptly visited the Toronto Public Library web site to put a hold on her book. While I was waiting for Seductress to become available I read some other the other book she recommended — the novels A Sport of Nature, by Nadine Gordimer and Justine, by Lawrence Durrell, plus some bios on some of the other women she considers successful, such as Catherine the Great and Beryl Markham. I admired Catherine the Great and enjoyed reading about Beryl Markham, but didn’t care for the novels. Both described the heroine as “an honorary man”, and I was irritated by the inference that the ultimate woman is one who has learned to successfully ape men.

Seductress was a surprise to me, though I am not quite sure what I had expected, and indeed when I try to define my prior expectations of it they sound silly. Was I expecting a typical self-help book? Perhaps something that was a combination of The Rules and an issue of Cosmopolitan which would advise me to never call a man and to wear nice undies? Fun as it would have been to mock such a book (supposing I’d read it all the way through), I doubt I would have learned much from it. Self-help books are not usually very helpful. The specific advice is usually not suited to the circumstances of every life or to every personality; the general advice is usually so obvious as to be condescending and silly. I stopped reading one such guide when it listed the items I should have in my night table drawer.

Prioleau is far too intelligent and has done her homework too thoroughly to make any such rash promises or to try to outline any kind of facile methods or magic formulae for succeeding in love. She writes that “love resists glib formula” and instead presents a selection of history’s sirens in all their complex, messy glory. Mini-bios constitute most of the book, and are the best of it, since outside the bios Prioleau has a tendency to concentrate on belabouring the tenuous connections between the women she profiles and ancient goddesses. The famous and the almost forgotten appear one after the other: Isabella Stewart Gardner, Catherine Sedley, Tullia d’Aragona, George Sand, Colette, Mae West, Diane de Poitiers, Cleopatra, Ninon de Lenclos, Elizabeth I, Martha Gellhorn, Violet Gordon Woodhouse, Gloria Steinem, Josephine Baker, Agnès Sorel, and Eleanor of Aquitaine are only a sample of the women she discusses.

When determining which women to include, Prioleau set the bar quite high. A successful woman is one who was able to get the men she wanted, “men who were good for her”, who were “rarely discarded or two-timed” and who “successfully combine[d] erotic supremacy with personal and vocational achievement.” She includes Wallis Windsor, but takes her to task for “shirking the task of self-development”.

Prioleau’s alpha women are by no means perfect. They were generally terrible mothers and amoral types who annexed married men without a qualm. And their effect on those who knew them was often disastrous – eight men committed suicide over Parisian dancer La Belle Otero. These women are also wildly diverse. They are drawn from many different eras and cultures. Sometimes they were educated, as with Cleopatra, who spoke eight languages and studied literature, rhetoric, philosophy, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, medicine, drawing, signing, lyre playing, and horsemanship, and sometimes they weren’t, as in the case of Eva Perón. Sometimes they were young, and sometimes they were old. Sometimes they were beautiful, and other times they decidedly weren’t, as in the case of Edith Piaf, who was 4’10”, with a “boxy build and an oversize head with a thick neck and wide-set Pekinese eyes”. Some were extremely promiscuous from an early age, and some weren’t – as in the case of Lou Andreas-Salomé, who remained chaste until her thirties, despite the pressing attentions of many men, and then joyously made up for lost time.

By this varied parade, Prioleau seeks to debunk the myths of love and sexual attraction that have burrowed into our culture like parasites. A siren needn’t be young. When Josephine Baker died in her sleep at 69 she had rave reviews piled on her bed and a recently acquired man who loved her passionately living in her home. A successful woman needn’t be beautiful, and beauty alone is no guarantee of success in love, as Elizabeth Taylor’s multiple marriages and Elizabeth Hurley’s multiple humiliations prove. She needn’t be a silent, passive muse or hide her smarts, as Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir would have us believe. Émilie du Châtelet told Voltaire, “The light of my genius will dazzle you.” It did. The two of them worked in frenzied intellectual competition for years, and she was the only woman with whom he ever fell in love, despite the fact that intellectual groupies pursued him avidly. A woman can finesse love without playing by society’s rules — many of the hussies in Prioleau’s book made off with smitten, unhinged men like bandits of eros.

The actual siren’s checklist of characteristics only becomes clear when one looks at these women in aggregate. The mad welter of detail recedes into larger, more general patterns. All of these women had enormous self-confidence. Throughout the course of their chequered lives they all determinedly pursued their own goals and happiness first and foremost. They knew their own self-worth, and paid no heed to their detractors. Many experienced considerable adversity – they were brutally raped, or forced into bad marriages or prostitution, or were subjected to racism and misogyny, or were penniless in the days when it was next to impossible for women to earn their own livings, but they hurtled over such obstacles with style and proceeded to claimed success as though it was their birthright. Prioleau highlights the fact that almost all of these women had horrible childhoods. Instead of becoming emotionally crippled by such formative experiences as one might expect, these women were galvanized by it — they learned early that it was up to them to take care of themselves, and that knuckling under to others led only to more abuse. They were creative and intelligent and very hard working. They had — and used — excellent judgment. They surrounded themselves with kind men who loved and nurtured them. And though the sirens may have loved and nurtured and pampered those men in return, it was not at the expense of their own self-development. They were non-conformist. If a social norm got in the way of what they wanted to do, they smashed it. Jane Digby of the ultra-conservative nineteenth century went from marriage to marriage before finding the love of her life at age 45 — a black, Muslim man who was young enough to be her son. Her family disowned her, but she cared nothing for that and enjoyed 25 years of happiness with her tribal prince, and he never remarried after her death.

It would be impossible for a modern woman to imitate these women too literally. Most of Prioleau’s babes had servants to take care of the tiresome details like cooking and changing diapers. I also wouldn’t recommend the calculated and wholesale use of men as practised by many of the women profiled in this book, especially when it’s not necessary in contemporary times. A modern woman needn’t be a courtesan to earn money nor a monarch’s mistress or wife to have political clout. I doubt that a modern Cleopatra would attach herself to the 21st century equivalent to Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and not only because Caesar and Antony have no modern day peers. She would know full well that modern political spouses of either gender are (rightly) powerless and would run for office herself. Sex and romantic love are now merely an element of a woman’s life instead of her only means to success.

Prioleau’s book can’t be classed as a self-help book, but I can’t help thinking it’s a guiding light to what self-help books could be — works that teach without presuming to dictate specific applications for our lives. One is not supposed to emulate these women or try to use any of their specific methods. Rather, Prioleau’s mosaic of women is meant to provide historical precedents, to inspire, to enlarge our sense of the possible, to demonstrate to women that we needn’t resign ourselves to being sidelined romantically because we happen to be, say, a plain, awkward teenager or divorced 50-year-old. By providing us with examples of successful women Prioleau is attempting to demonstrate that we can feel empowered when in love or in hardship rather than subject to it. And in this she has succeeded remarkably well.