The Painted Veil – W Somerset Maugham

Kitty Garstin marries Walter Fane for all the wrong reasons. She’s a beautiful young girl, badly brought up by a snobbish mother & when her first few London seasons result in much admiration but few proposals, her mother’s obvious desire to get rid of her daughter lead Kitty to accept a proposal she would have rejected with scorn during her first season. The final straw is the news that her younger, less attractive sister, Doris, is engaged to the only son of a baronet. It’s true that Doris’s future father-in-law received his baronetcy for his work as a surgeon rather than inheriting a title but the news propels twenty-five year old Kitty into marriage. Walter Fane is a bacteriologist, home on leave from his Government post in Hong Kong. He’s a staid, quiet man, not socially adept but very much in love with Kitty. It soon becomes obvious that their temperaments are very different.

She had discovered very soon that he had an unhappy disability to lose himself. He was self-conscious. When there was a party and every one started singing Walter could never bring himself to join in. He sat there smiling to show that he was pleased and amused, but his smile was forced: it was more like a sarcastic smirk, and you could not help feeling that he thought all those people a pack of fools. He could not bring himself to play the round games which Kitty with her high spirits found such a lark. On their journey out to China he had absolutely refused to put on fancy dress when everyone else was wearing it. It disturbed her pleasure that he should so obviously think the whole thing a bore.

When the Fanes reach Hong Kong, Kitty soon becomes bored & dissatisfied with her lowly social status in the expatriate community as the wife of a scientist. She falls in love with the Assistant Secretary of the colony, Charlie Townsend. They meet in the afternoons in a rented flat above a curio shop & occasionally, very daringly, at Kitty’s house. When Walter discovers the affair, he gives Kitty an ultimatum. She is sure that Charlie wants to divorce his boring wife & marry her. Walter agrees to allow her to divorce him as long as she accompanies him to Mei-tan-fu, a town in inland China in the middle of a cholera epidemic. Walter has volunteered to go there to help in the hospital after the medical missionary died. A group of French nuns are attempting to keep the hospital running but they need help. Kitty is horrified by the idea & sees the trip as a means of her certain death. If Kitty refuses to accompany him, Walter will divorce her with all the scandal that would accompany such a course. On the other hand, if Charlie will agree to brave the scandal of the two divorces & marry Kitty, Walter will allow Kitty to divorce him. Kitty’s confidence in Charlie’s love is shaken by his conventional horror at the prospect of scandal & she realises that he had never really loved her. In despair she agrees to accompany Walter to Mei-tan-fu.

On their arrival, Walter becomes immersed in the work at the hospital. Kitty’s boredom & fear are allayed by her friendship with Waddington, the local Deputy Commissioner of Customs. Waddington drives Kitty around the local area & takes her to the convent to meet the Mother Superior. The convent has lost several nuns to the contagion & the Mother Superior refuses to let more nuns come to Mei-tan-fu while the risk is so great. Kitty becomes involved in the life of the convent & offers to help. She is not allowed near the hospital but is put to work in the orphanage, looking after the girls who are brought tot he nuns as an alternative to being left on the mountainside by their families to die of exposure.

Kitty’s attitudes are changed by her work at the convent & she begins to grow up. Walter is as distant as ever but Kitty finds a purpose & companionship with the nuns & the orphans. She sees different kinds of love, from the detached care of the Mother Superior for the orphans to the passionate attachment of a Manchu Chinese woman who left her family to follow Waddington. She tells Waddington,

I don’t understand anything. Life is so strange. I feel like someone who’s lived all his life by a duck-pond and suddenly is shown the sea. It makes me a little breathless, and yet it fills me with elation. I don’t want to die, I want to live. I’m beginning to feel a new courage. I feel like one of those old sailors who set sail for undiscovered seas and I think my soul hankers for the unknown.

The Painted Veil was published in 1925. Maugham writes in the Preface that it’s the only one of his novels that started with a story rather than a character. He was a young medical student on holiday in Italy, living very frugally, wandering around Florence & reading Dante with the help of his landlady’s daughter, where he came across the story that became the novel. From those beginnings, Maugham has created a very moving story of the emotional & spiritual growth of a human being. The story is told from Kitty’s viewpoint &, even from the beginning, when she’s an empty-headed butterfly, Maugham shows us how her upbringing has made her the way she is. She’s essentially innocent, even when she committing adultery, because she can’t see, as the reader can, how worthless Townsend is. She’s bored & used to flattery & flirtation so she’s an easy target for a man like Townsend. The depiction of the marriage of Kitty’s parents could have been seen as just a subplot but their relationship – the dominance of Kitty’s mother & the self-effacement of her father, seen as a cash cow & pushed into promotions for which he’s unfit just to satisfy his wife’s ambition – emphasizes the lack of role models in Kitty’s life. She sees men as a means to an end, the end being a comfortable life of trivial social engagements & pretty clothes.

Walter isn’t a completely sympathetic character either. He tells Kitty quite bluntly that he knew she only married him from convenience & that she never loved him. He believed that his love would be enough. His self-abasement is unattractive & his blindness to the consequences of the mismatch of two people with nothing in common, is one of the causes of all that follows. We’re never really sure if he deliberately forced Kitty to accompany him to Mei-tan-fu hoping she would die of cholera or if it was a bluff. His behaviour when they arrive is cold & he seems to care nothing for Kitty or her fate at all. His dedication to his job becomes almost inhuman in contrast to his neglect & unconcern for his wife & he fades into the background of the story just as he’s always been in the background of Kitty’s life.

Maugham isn’t afraid to show Kitty’s unattractive side. She bluntly tells Walter that she’s always found him physically repulsive & she is disgusted by the little Chinese orphans at the convent until she gets to know them. It’s a measure of her growing up that she eventually becomes attached to the orphans & grows to respect the choice of the nuns to leave everything in the pursuit of duty & a different kind of love than any Kitty has ever contemplated. The Mother Superior’s last words to Kitty would have meant nothing to her just weeks earlier on her arrival at Mei-tan-fu but they encapsulate what she’s learnt.

Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.”

Sunday Poetry – Oliver Goldsmith

I’ve just finished reading The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham & this poem is quoted at a crucial moment. It’s An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog by Oliver Goldsmith. I loved the novel & I’ll be reviewing it in a couple of days.

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man
Of whom the world might say,
That still a godly race he ran—
Whene’er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad—
When he put on his clothes.

And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp, and hound,
And curs of low degree.

This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad, and bit the man.

Around from all the neighbouring streets
The wond’ring neighbours ran,
And swore the dog had lost its wits
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad
To every Christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad,
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light
That showed the rogues they lied,—
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died!

Literary Ramblings

I’ve collected a few more literary links & interesting articles to share.

The most exciting news I’ve heard for ages is that Scott from the blog Furrowed Middlebrow is partnering with Dean Street Press to launch his very own imprint, Furrowed Middlebrow Books. Here’s the revelation of the colophon for the new imprint & here’s the announcement of the first of three authors to be reprinted – Rachel Ferguson. Scott will be reprinting three of Ferguson’s novels – A Footman for the Peacock, Evenfield & A Harp in Lowndes Square – & you’ll find more information on all three books plus Scott’s enthusiastic reviews on his blog. Dean Street Press have done such a great job of resurrecting unfairly neglected Golden Age crime writers that I’m sure they will be the perfect partners for Scott’s new venture. I can’t wait to find out who the other two launch authors will be. I have my fingers crossed for more Winifred Peck.

Edited to add : I was right! I can’t wait, especially for the mystery novels.

I love articles written by experts (or obsessives) who look at a book & can only see their special subject in it. This article from the Cricket Country website reviews the British Library Crime Classic reprint of Thirteen Guests by J Jefferson Farjeon entirely in terms of the cricket references.

A couple of weeks ago, ABC Classic FM revealed the Top 100 Voice over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend. Every year they compile a different Top 100, voted on by listeners & this year it was the voice – opera, choral, folk song. I didn’t enjoy it as much as previous years because I don’t enjoy opera so a lot of it didn’t interest me as much as previous years when they’ve featured Baroque & Before, the Concerto or Mozart. However, we’re also coming to the end of a mammoth eight week election campaign & this little bit of promotion for the countdown made me smile. I don’t think you need to know who the politicians are to recognize the species.

I’ve become aware of the very definite ideas that readers have about translation lately. I’m reading The Tale of Genji in Royall Tyler’s translation but I know that there are devoted partisans of other translations. Mirabile Dictu discusses it here. Janet Malcolm has also recently written an article about translations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The fans of the Constance Garnett or Maude translations are passionate about their choice & I was interested to read more about the dislike of some critics (including Janet Malcolm) for the Pevear & Volokhonsky translations of the Russian classics. All the discussion & discord has made me want to read Anna again.

I read it first in my teens, influenced by the BBC TV series with Nicola Pagett, Eric Porter & Stuart Wilson. I’m still very fond of this adaptation (even though a friend to whom I loaned the DVDs laughed at the fake beards). It was the TV tie-in edition & I think it was the Constance Garnett translation. I also heard Tchaikovsky’s Manfred symphony on the radio the other day & that reminded me of the series as well because it was used as the theme music.

The next time I read it was this OUP edition translated by Louise & Aylmer Maude. Now I’m tempted by the new OUP edition translated by Rosamund Bartlett. Here is Bartlett discussing whether a new translation is even needed & here’s a review of several of the newer translations.

Finally, I really like Elaine Showalter’s idea of celebrating Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway with Dallowday to compete with James Joyce & Bloomsday. Clarissa Dalloway’s party took place on June 13th 1923 so why shouldn’t it be as celebrated as much as Leopold Bloom’s walk around Dublin? Frankly the food would have to be more appealing than kidneys on toast, Gorgonzola sandwiches & Guinness. We might even be offered cucumber sandwiches & a cup of tea – much more to my taste.

Margaret Kennedy Day – The Wild Swan

Roy Collins is a scriptwriter with B.B.B, a major English film studio. He has ambitions to write & direct his own scripts but his current assignment is to work on the shooting script for a historical picture selected for one of the studio’s leading stars, Kitty Fletcher. Dorothea Harding was a Victorian lady writer of children’s stories & twee poetry. After her death, however, a diary & passionate poetry was discovered & literary critics, including Alec Mundy, interpreted the poems as an expression of illicit love between Dorothea & her brother-in-law, Grant Forrester. Grant’s early death was seen as suicidal despair over the impossibility of his love for Dorothea. Mundy’s biography was the basis of a play by Adelaide Lassiter, a writer of sentimental platitudes who calls Dorothea Doda & is now writing the screenplay for the movie.

Adelaide wants to absorb the atmosphere of Bramstock, Dorothea’s home which is still owned by members of the Harding family so she goes down to see the house, accompanied by Roy, Mundy & hanger-on Basil Cope. Now very hard up, the Hardings have reluctantly agreed to allow their house to be used for the filming, knowing that the money will pay for daughter Cecilia’s college education. Cecilia is proud & resentful of the whole idea, dismissing Dorothea’s work as Victorian tosh but she becomes interested in Roy despite looking down on his origins (his aunt lives in the village where the Hardings are the local squires) & what she perceives as his lack of ambition. Roy begins to feel an affinity with Dorothea as he walks around the grounds of Bramstock & begins to realise that the sentimental story of her life is wrong. He becomes determined to stop the movie from going ahead because he feels somehow akin to Dorothea & protective of her story.

But it’s not Cecilia’s fault that she doesn’t understand, thought Roy. None of them do. They all think it’s their job to tell us what to put. And we have to laugh it off.
They, to him, were the entire human race. We were Dorothea Harding, himself, and a myriad nameless others, swimming, sinking, fighting for life, in the same inclement ocean.
He lifted his head, smiled, and went back to the hotel in better spirits than he had known for many a day, sensible that he had, after all, got company.

Another descendant of the Harding family, Shattock, is in possession of potentially explosive documents that could change the image of Dorothea as the Victorian poetess & potentially scupper the making of the movie. The central section of the book takes us back to the time of Dorothea herself & we learn just how mistaken the ideas of biographers can be as the truth of her life & the reason she wrote her inane but successful novels becomes clear.

The Wild Swan is a novel that reminded me of other books about writers & their literary afterlives. Like A S Byatt’s Possession & Carol Shields’ Mary Swann, the central conceit of a writer from the past whose life has been misinterpreted & taken over by modern academics is one that has always fascinated me. The idea that we can ever really know a person from another age, no matter how much material they leave behind is fraught with danger. Material is always turning up & there are plenty of real life examples as well as fictional ones. Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Monsieur Heger are probably the most famous example but there are plenty of gaps in our knowledge of historical figures that novelists & playwrights have tried to fill in & sometimes their version becomes the truth.

I enjoyed seeing the real Dorothea, who was a much tougher, more resilient woman than her admirers imagined. Her life was circumscribed by the duties of a Victorian daughter. She was able to get on with her writing & go her own way while her older sister, Mary, was at home. Mary’s marriage to Grant will be the catalyst that reluctantly forces Dorothea into the role of housekeeper to her demanding father. Her invalid brother & his wife & children also live at Bramstock & Dorothea’s relationship with her sister-in-law, Selina, is difficult. Dorothea’s cousin, Effie Creighton, is sympathetic, & as one of the few people who know about Clone, the imaginary world Dorothea & her sister invented as children, she understands how important Dorothea’s work is to her. However, her mother does not approve of Dorothea & eventually marriage takes Effie away. The rector, Mr Winthorpe, is seen as a benign presence & an influence on Dorothea’s writing by Mundy but his desire to control Dorothea is typical of a conventionally Victorian moral world. He’s disconcerted by Dorothea’s unusual self-possession & tries to persuade her into a more conventional role while he fears that she is secretly laughing at him.

The contemporary story was also fascinating. Written in 1957, it’s set in that awkward post-war period when upper & middle class families were having to adjust their expectations. The Hardings are still the local squires but they’re poor. Cecilia may still boss around the women of the local W.I but Bramstock is rundown & she knows her father can’t afford to send her to college. The offer from the film company is embraced by Cecilia’s practical mother although her father is horrified by the implication of stooping to the depths of taking money from something as vulgar as a movie company & about a family member at that. Cecilia’s contempt for Roy (her father initially mistakes him for “the plumber’s mate” & Cecilia calls him that in her mind for quite a while) changes to interest as she discovers more about him. When she learns that he’s written an avant garde short film that she’s seen & enjoyed, she has to reassess her prejudices & finds herself liking him quite a lot. Roy’s feelings for her are more ambiguous. I also enjoyed the pompous Mundy & his superior attitude to Adelaide’s play while she was much more like the accepted image of Dorothea than the real woman could ever have been. Everyone has an image of Dorothea in their minds that suits their own plans but the truth will surprise them all.

Thank you to Jane at Beyond Eden Rock for hosting Margaret Kennedy Day. It was a great incentive to read another of her novels.

Sunday Poetry – John Donne

I’m going to feature my favourite poems over the next few weeks. John Donne has always been a favourite, one of the few writers that I still love after studying them at school (John Steinbeck didn’t survive this test). When I think of this poem, A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning, I always hear Richard Burton reading it.

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls, to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
‘The breath goes now,’ and some say, ‘No:’

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears;
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refin’d,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end, where I begun.

Sentimental Education – Gustave Flaubert

For certain men the stronger their desire, the less likely they are to act. Lack of self-confidence holds them back, they are terrified of giving offence. Moreover, deep affections are like respectable women; they are afraid of being found out and go through life with their eyes cast down.

Frédéric Moreau is a romantic young ditherer. Sent by his mother to stay with a rich uncle, with a view to being mentioned in his will, he is returning home with no definite plans & no promise of an inheritance. On the journey home, Frédéric falls in love at first sight with Madame Arnoux, wife of an art dealer. All he can think about is getting to Paris to pursue her. He goes to Paris to study law, visiting Arnoux in his shop but unable to either declare himself to Madame or to stop visiting. His schoolfriend, Deslauriers, comes to Paris & they share rooms, mostly at Frédéric’s expense. Through Deslauriers, Frédéric meets a group of radical writers & artists. His studies suffer & he still hasn’t made an impression on Madame Arnoux.

Frédéric returns home discouraged & already half-forgetting Madame but then receives a letter informing him that his uncle has died intestate & he has inherited a substantial fortune. Immediately, all his plans for a sober provincial future are overturned. He’s desperate to return to Paris. His mother thinks that a political or diplomatic career will now be open to him & urges him to make the acquaintance of the local landowner, Monsieur Dambreuse. Frédéric’s return to Paris leads to a whirl of partying & he meets a courtesan, Rosanette, known as the Maréchale, who is Jacques Arnoux’s mistress. Maréchale is attracted to Rosanette but still yearning for Madame Arnoux.

The company of these two women made a sort of twofold music in his life: one was playful, violent, entertaining; the other serious and almost religious. And the two melodies playing at the same time steadily swelled and became gradually intertwined. For if Madame Arnoux brushed him with her finger, the image of the other woman appeared before him as an object of desire, because he had more of a chance with her. And when in Rosanette’s company his emotions happened to be stirred, he immediately remembered his one true love.

His friendship with the Arnouxs leads him into financial commitments & Deslauriers is also pressuring him to invest in a radical newspaper. Frédéric becomes almost a companion to the Maréchale, taking her to the races, paying for her portrait to be painted but he is not her lover, he’s too timid to demand more than a few kisses. The Maréchale is offended by his apparent lack of interest but she’s juggling several lovers so just accepts his companionship & his presents.

Frédéric is invited to the Dambreuse’s home & he is impressed by the splendour of their lifestyle but he fails to take up any of Dambreuse’s suggestions or invitations to invest with him & so again, he drifts along. When he does make money on an investment, he waits too long to sell his shares & loses again. His income diminishes & he continues to sell property while he loans money to Arnoux, who has sold his art dealership & is now running a porcelain factory. Frédéric’s options are to find work, to spend less, or to make a rich marriage.

Frédéric’s mother wants him to marry Louise Roque, the daughter of Monsieur Dambreuse’s agent. Louise has been infatuated with Frédéric since she was a child & she is now a woman & an heiress. Again, he dissembles & can’t commit himself to Louise while he’s still in love with Madame Arnoux & lusting after the Maréchale, whom he finally makes his mistress. Marie Arnoux has discovered her husband’s infidelities & she realises that she has fallen in love with Frédéric & then Madame Dambreuse, a haughty but attractive woman, begins to take an interest in him as well. Frédéric sees her as a challenge & the fact that she’s wealthy is an added incentive.

He read her pages of poetry, putting all his soul into it, to move her and to win her admiration. She would stop him with a critical remark or a practical observation; and their conversation reverted constantly to the eternal question of Love. They wondered what occasioned it, whether women felt it more than men, what were the differences between them on that subject. Frédéric tried to express his opinion, avoiding both vulgarity and banality. It became a kind of battle, pleasant at times and tedious at others.

Frédéric’s sentimental education begins conventionally enough – a young man falling in love with the first attractive older woman he meets – but it takes many twists & turns & although he’s meant to be receiving an education in love & life, Frédéric seems to learn very little through the course of the novel. Will he be able to take the happiness that he’s wanted for so long? Or will his constant indecision be his downfall? Maybe Frédéric’s experiences are more realistic than those of many characters in fiction who seem to have a plan for their lives. All Frédéric’s plans go awry which may be more true to life where plans often fall apart & leave a mess that has to be lived with.

Sentimental Education is a funny, cynical portrait of French society in the years leading up to the 1848 Revolution. Frédéric’s inability to make a decision about anything & his misunderstandings with everyone he meets are amusing but also frustrating. His idealism leads him into one mess after another as his motives are misrepresented time & again. Madame Arnoux sees him as a kind young man; Arnoux as his friend who is helping to keep the knowledge of his affairs from his wife; the Maréchale sees him as a ready source of fun; Louise sees him as a chivalrous hero of romance; his mother sees him as a future Cabinet Minister. He lurches from one disaster to another either financial or romantic. He fights a ridiculous duel over an insult to Madame Arnoux but the Maréchale thinks he’s saving her reputation while Arnoux thinks it’s in his defence.

There are some great set scenes – the day at the races, the dinner party at the Dambreuses, the duel, the party where Frédéric first meets the Maréchale – that contrast with the poverty of students like Deslauriers & the journalists & artists in his circle. Then there’s the radical element, men like the engineer Sénécal who is arrested for conspiring to assassinate King Louis-Phillippe. As the 1848 Revolution unfolds, Frédéric becomes even more of a bystander to events as he & the Maréchale escape Paris for a country idyll that can’t last. His desire for approval from his friends paralyses him & whatever moral strength he may once have had just slips away as he juggles mistresses, potential wives & possible careers. In one farcical scene, he only just prevents Madame Arnoux & the Maréchale from meeting in his rooms & his selfishness is exposed in his relations with both Louise Roque & Madame Dambreuse as well as his remoteness from the political concerns of his friends. It’s a fascinating novel & it’s good to be able to read more Flaubert who is mostly remembered now for just one book, Madame Bovary.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a review copy of Sentimental Education in a new translation by Helen Constantine.

Sunday Poetry – Eleanor Farjeon

Yesterday was a very cold day; winter has finally begun & it was a day of bitter winds & showers with even a little hail. Just as well it was Saturday & I was home all day to keep the house warm, dry & snug. I took Lucky to the vet for her flu vaccination first thing – which is a tale in itself. I had made an appointment to take both cats for the vaccination last Monday. When I arrived home from work, Phoebe was there but psychic Lucky was nowhere to be seen. I called, I searched, I rattled the nibbles bag – nothing. I think my mistake was getting the cat carriers out, ready to go, before I went to work. Lucky is a wary soul & made herself scarce. Of course, when Phoebe & I returned from the vet, who should come sauntering towards us, looking completely unconcerned & wanting her dinner?
So, I had to make another appointment.

After I brought Lucky home, I went to the farmers market, the greengrocer (for the things I couldn’t find at the market) & then home. After a bit of housework, I made coffee, sat down to read Genji & before too long, Lucky was on my lap & Phoebe was in one of her favourite spots, on the top of the chair behind my head & they didn’t move very much for the rest of the day.
It reminded me of Eleanor Farjeon’s poem, Cats Sleep Anywhere.

Cats sleep, anywhere,
Any table, any chair
Top of piano, window-ledge,
In the middle, on the edge,
Open drawer, empty shoe,
Anybody’s lap will do,
Fitted in a cardboard box,
In the cupboard, with your frocks-
Anywhere! They don’t care!
Cats sleep anywhere.

A Country Doctor – Sarah Orne Jewett

I was reminded of Sarah Orne Jewett last year when I read Willa Cather’s Letters. I’d read her most famous novel, The Country of the Pointed Firs, years ago but I’m interested in New England writers so I bought a copy of her first novel, A Country Doctor.

Adeline Thacher is a wild young woman who leaves her mother’s farm in rural Maine to go to the city. She meets a well-to-do young man, marries him &, after his death, rejects his family who have always disapproved of her. Desperately ill, she makes her way back to her home & collapses on the doorstep of her mother’s farm with her baby in her arms. Adeline dies the next day & the little girl, Anna (called Nan), is brought up by her grandmother. Before Adeline dies, she asks the local doctor to be Nan’s guardian.

Nan grows up bright & wilful, the delight & the despair of her grandmother. Dr Leslie takes a vague interest in the little girl, especially when it seems she has some interest in medicine. Her father had been an assistant doctor in the Navy & it seems as though Nan has inherited his talent. Old Mrs Thacher asks the doctor to look after Nan when she dies & he fulfills his promise, taking her to live with him & his gruff but kind housekeeper, Marilla. Nan’s rich Boston aunt, Miss Prince, tried to get custody when Adeline died but had to be content with sending a yearly allowance which Dr Leslie has banked for Nan’s education. Nan knows nothing about the Princes apart from local gossip. Dr Leslie, with the help of his friend & neighbour, Mrs Graham, give Nan a good upbringing with Mrs Graham supplying the social niceties & polish while the doctor encourages Nan’s medical interests. Nan’s schoolfriends recognize her abilities while being sceptical about her future career,

Long ago, when Nan had confided to her dearest cronies that she meant to be a doctor, they were hardly surprised that she would determined upon a career which they would have rejected for themselves. She was not of their mind, and they believed her capable of doing anything she undertook. Yet to most of them the possible and even probable marriage which was waiting somewhere in the future seemed to hover like a cloudy barrier over the realization of any such unnatural plans.

When Nan finishes school, she decides to study medicine, encouraged by the doctor. She writes to her aunt in Dunport asking for a meeting & Miss Prince agrees with some apprehension about this unknown niece, raised in the rural backwater of Oldfields. Miss Prince lives alone in her family home. She had one unhappy love affair in her youth but has stayed in touch with the son of her old lover, George Gerry. Young George has become like a favourite nephew & is working in a law office in town. Miss Prince is soon very fond of Nan but horrified at her plans to become a doctor. Nan enjoys her time in Dunport & becomes involved with a group of young people enjoying sailing & picnics. George falls in love with Nan & proposes marriage. Although Nan loves George, she has long accepted that her choice of a career will preclude marriage. Miss Prince’s disapproval of her plans represents the accepted view of a young lady’s life choices & she believes she has the financial clout to make Nan change her mind. She’s not above a little emotional blackmail either. Nan’s own wishes are more in tune with her upbringing & Dr Leslie’s encouragement but she has a difficult choice to make. The calibre of her opponents is exemplified in old Mrs Fraley, a domineering woman who doesn’t expect to be contradicted,

A woman’s place is at home. Of course I know there have been some women physicians who have attained eminence, and some artists, and all that. But I would rather see a daughter of mine take a more retired place. The best service to the public can be done by keeping one’s own house in order and one’s husband comfortable, and by attending to those social responsibilities which come in our way.The mothers of the nation have rights enough and duties enough already, and need not look farther than their own firesides, or wish for the plaudits of an ignorant public.

A Country Doctor is such an interesting novel, especially given the autobiographical elements of the story & the time in which it was written. It was published in 1884 & was based, in part, on the author’s early life. Jewett’s father was a doctor & she spent a lot of time accompanying him on his rounds as Nan does with Dr Leslie. She was an outdoors child although not as willful as Nan. Dr Jewett seems to have been the model for Dr Leslie, a brilliant doctor who could have made his name in a big city practice but chose to spend hi life in rural Maine. Sarah may have thought about a career in medicine but her health was often poor & she may have felt that she wasn’t up to the demands of such a life. Medicine was only barely possible as a career for women in the 1880s. Elizabeth Blackwell had qualified as a doctor in 1849, the year Jewett was born, but it was a long, hard road to acceptance for her & the other women who followed. Maybe Nan’s plans were in the nature of wish fulfillment for Jewett. It was surely unusual to have a novel of the 1880s about a young woman determined to follow a career. Nan has truly combined the best qualities of both her families & some of the contemporary reviews point to Nan as a role model for young girls.

The picture of the rural community of Oldfields & the surrounding farms is beautifully drawn & the descriptions of the natural world are lovely & full of minute observation. The book begins a little uncertainly & takes a while to decide on its tone. The first chapter describes Adeline’s desperate journey to her mother when she even considers throwing herself & Nan into the stream in her struggle. Then, we meet Mrs Thacher & her neighbours, Mrs Martin & Mrs Jake Dyer, talking about old times & frightening themselves with ghost stories when they hear a noise at the front door. The next chapter takes us to the Dyer farm where twins Martin & Jake Dyer enjoy an evening without their wives. It seems that rural comedy will be part of the story. However, once Mrs Dyer rushes in with the news of Adeline’s return & sends her husband for the doctor, the Dyers fade into the background & just have walk-on parts in the rest of the novel.

The contrast between Nan’s two worlds shows just how much of a struggle she has to decide on her future. As she becomes involved in her father’s world, becomes fond of her aunt & falls in love with George, Nan can see the possibility of a different life. The scenes where Miss Prince tries to influence Nan while she tries to pull back are very effective. George is a bit of a cipher, a bit of a ditherer who is nonplussed by Nan’s proud determination. On a trip on the river, Nan & George come across a labourer with a dislocated shoulder. Nan competently pushes the joint back into place without fuss while George looks on feeling a bit squeamish. He’s just not in her league although she does love him & finds her decision difficult. I really enjoyed all the characters from kind Dr Leslie & prickly Marilla to lonely Miss Prince & chatty, nosy Captain Parish. Sarah Orne Jewett knew & loved Maine & I’m looking forward to reading more of her stories as A Country Doctor was such a delight.

The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe – Elaine Showalter

Shiny New Books no 10 went live a few days ago & I’m very pleased to have a review in it. I enjoyed Elaine Showalter’s new biography of Julia Ward Howe very much. Here’s the beginning of my review,

Julia Ward was born in 1819, to a wealthy New York family. Her father’s fortune was in banking and, despite his strict religious beliefs, he felt no guilt about his wealth and spent it accordingly. After Julia’s mother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her seventh child at the age of only twenty-seven, Samuel Ward’s grief took the form of stricter religious observance. Julia and her sisters were brought up as accomplished young ladies, while her brothers were sent to school. The Ward girls were taught French, dancing and music at which Julia excelled. Their social circle was restricted to family and Sundays were dominated by church services and improving literature. Julia later wrote,

The early years of my youth were passed in seclusion not only of home life, but of a home life most carefully and jealously guarded from all that might be represented in the orthodox trinity of evil, the world, the flesh, and the devil.

You can read the rest here.

There are lots of other enticing reviews in this new issue. New biographies of Thomas De Quincey & Anne Brontë (both of which I definitely want to read), more British Library Crime Classics, the new OUP edition of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (which I’ve just finished & will be reviewing soon), reprints of books by Eric Ambler, Angela Thirkell & Eudora Welty & much more.

Sunday Poetry – Lady Murasaki

I started reading The Tale of Genji on Friday night & I’m enjoying it very much. My only problem is that the book is so heavy. As soon as I sit down in this chilly weather, either Lucky or Phoebe are waiting to jump up on my lap. I managed nearly two hours unencumbered reading time yesterday though as both cats were fast asleep. I’d been out shopping, did some housework & they were both still snoozing – Lucky under her blanket & Phoebe curled up on my bed – so I made myself a coffee & settled down with Genji. I’ve read about five chapters & I’m starting to recognize characters & feel in tune with the style. I deliberately didn’t read the Introduction & background in my edition as I just wanted to plunge in. I may go back & read all that now that I’ve made a start – maybe next time the girls are asleep?

The characters converse in very formal, circumscribed ways, often through two line poems.  At the age of 17, Genji, the son of the Emperor & a very beautiful young man, has fallen in love with Utsusemi, the wife of an official. She is horrified by his advances & only piques his interest more by being so elusive. He recruits her young brother to his household so that he will be able to use him as a go-between. One of the poems he sends her refers to the robe he has taken from her room & which he keeps with him as a keepsake, as a cicada shell.

Underneath this tree, where the molting cicada shed her empty shell,
my longing still goes to her, for all I know her to be.

Utsusemi is secretly pleased with Genji’s devotion although she knows that nothing can come of it. She writes a response to the poem on the same sheet of paper,

Just as drops of dew settle on cicada wings, concealed in this tree,
secretly, O secretly, these sleeves are wet with my tears.