Sunday Poetry – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

BarrettsJJones

It’s true that once I start thinking of an author or an actor, they seem to pop up everywhere. After posting one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous poems last week, I was interested to read this article by Elizabeth Crawford on her blog, Woman and her Sphere. The post reproduces a talk that Elizabeth gave at the Persephone Symposium some years ago when they reprinted Virginia Woolf’s Flush, about Barrett Browning’s dog. The talk was about English women writers in Italy & it’s fascinating so do pop over & read it if you have any interest in writers like Matilda Hays, Ann Radcliffe, Ouida or Elizabeth Von Arnim. Lettice Cooper’s wonderful novel, Fenny, is also mentioned. Elizabeth has written the Introductions to a number of the new Furrowed Middlebrow novels from Dean Street Press & is the editor of Kate Parry Frye’s diary, Campaigning for the Vote & the author of a biography of Kate which I enjoyed very much when I read it a few years ago.

One of the most famous English writers to live in Italy was Elizabeth Barrett Browning when she escaped from Wimpole Street & eloped with Robert Browning. The poem featured in the talk is Casa Guidi Windows. The poem begins as a look through the poet’s window & encompasses her feelings about the Italian liberal movement that was striving for freedom from the Austrian empire. It’s a long poem so here’s just the first section.

I heard last night a little child so singing    
  ’Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church,    
O bella libertà, O bella!—stringing    
  The same words still on notes he went in search    
So high for, you concluded the upspringing            
  Of such a nimble bird to sky from perch    
Must leave the whole bush in a tremble green,    
  And that the heart of Italy must beat,    
While such a voice had leave to rise serene    
  ’Twixt church and palace of a Florence street:            
A little child, too, who not long had been    
  By mother’s finger steadied on his feet,    
And still O bella libertà he sang.    
 
Then I thought, musing, of the innumerous    
  Sweet songs which still for Italy outrang            
From older singers’ lips who sang not thus    
  Exultingly and purely, yet, with pang    
Fast sheath’d in music, touch’d the heart of us    
  So finely that the pity scarcely pain’d.    
I thought how Filicaja led on others,            
  Bewailers for their Italy enchain’d,    
And how they call’d her childless among mothers,    
  Widow of empires, ay, and scarce refrain’d    
Cursing her beauty to her face, as brothers    
  Might a sham’d sister’s,—“Had she been less fair            
She were less wretched;”—how, evoking so    
  From congregated wrong and heap’d despair    
Of men and women writhing under blow,    
  Harrow’d and hideous in a filthy lair,    
Some personating Image wherein woe            
  Was wrapp’d in beauty from offending much,    
They call’d it Cybele, or Niobe,    
  Or laid it corpse-like on a bier for such,    
Where all the world might drop for Italy    
  Those cadenced tears which burn not where they touch,—            
“Juliet of nations, canst thou die as we?    
  And was the violet that crown’d thy head    
So over-large, though new buds made it rough,    
  It slipp’d down and across thine eyelids dead,    
O sweet, fair Juliet?” Of such songs enough,            
  Too many of such complaints! behold, instead,    
Void at Verona, Juliet’s marble trough:    
  As void as that is, are all images    
Men set between themselves and actual wrong,    
  To catch the weight of pity, meet the stress            
Of conscience,—since ’tis easier to gaze long    
  On mournful masks and sad effigies    
Than on real, live, weak creatures crush’d by strong.

The Ultimate Middlebrow List

FMTop20

I love a list & this is the ultimate list for lovers of middlebrow fiction. Scott has compiled his list of the Top 100 middlebrow novels at his blog, Furrowed Middlebrow. He’s been unveiling the list gradually over the past few weeks but has now given list nerds everywhere the entire list here, organised by ranking & by publication year. What more could we want? Of course, the first thing I did was count how many of the 100 I’d read. I’ve read 55 of the 100 & 19 of the Top 20. You can see my Top 20 collection above (with multiple copies of particular favourites). I don’t own a copy of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. The book I haven’t read is Miss Mole by E H Young but it’s ready & waiting on my Kindle.

FMTBR

I have 21 books on the tbr. Here are the physical books & the rest are on the Kindle. So, that leaves me 29 books to track down… Hopefully some of them will eventually become part of the Furrowed Middlebrow list that Scott is publishing with Dean Street Press. Isn’t it wonderful that so many of these books are back in print thanks to Scott & the champions of the middlebrow novel, Persephone Books & Virago Modern Classics.

Sunday Poetry – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

BarrettsJJones

I do like the daily emails from Interesting Literature. As well as the poems & authors they feature that are new to me, they often remind me of old favourites. This post, about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous poem, was a case in point.

I’ve always loved EBB’s poetry. I can remember reading her novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, sitting on the back porch of a friend’s house in Daylesford over 30 years ago. I love both versions of the movie The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Norma Shearer or Jennifer Jones? The lovely movie poster is from here. I do like the way they reference Jennifer Jones’ most famous role – The Many Splendored star in her greatest romance) & I think I still have them on video, taped from the TV. I’ve read biographies of the Brownings, literary criticism (Alethea Hayter’s book on poets & opium as well as her book on EBB), commentary on their letters & even a psychological examination of Elizabeth. So, how has it been so long since I read the Sonnets from the Portuguese?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Daphne Du Maurier

DuMaurier

I’ve been hearing Daphne Du Maurier’s name everywhere lately. The new movie based on My Cousin Rachel will be out soon & nearly every BookTuber I follow seems to be reading Du Maurier or coveting the lovely new Virago Modern Classics editions. Lauren from Lauren and the Books is a particular fan. She’s recently read the short story collection The Birds and other stories & filmed a review of it. She also mentioned Rebecca (both book & film) several times in the latest Books and Blankets podcast with Mercedes from Mercy’s Bookish Musings. Simon from Savidge Reads never lets an opportunity go by to mention Rebecca which is his favourite book.

Apart from all the Du Mauriers from my shelves that you can see above, I also have an omnibus on my eReader that includes one of the short story collections, The Breaking Point. I’ve been dipping into short stories lately so thought I’d read one of Daphne’s. I chose the first story in the collection, The Alibi, the story of a man who is bored with his life &, on an impulse, decides to murder someone. He chooses a random house in a random street, knocks on the door & ends up renting a room from the lonely woman who lives there with her young son. He tells the woman that he’s an artist & becomes so obsessed by the story he’s told that he puts it into practice. His fantasy gradually takes over his life & comes to a shocking conclusion.

I read another story today (Ganymede – a classics scholar goes to Venice instead of Devon for his holiday & becomes entangled in the life of a beautiful young man) Both stories have such a sense of foreboding or maybe I just expect that from a Du Maurier story. Her short stories are often more macabre than her novels. Just think of The Birds, The Blue Lenses or Don’t Look Now. The descriptions of Venice in Ganymede are so seductive yet with a hint of menace as well. Du Maurier was certainly a writer with an incredible range & I’m looking forward to finishing this collection of stories.

DuMaurierKings

Only after reading Ganymede did I realise (while looking DDM up on Fantastic Fiction), that today, May 13th, is the 110th anniversary of her birth. Happy Birthday Daphne! My browsing led me to the Introduction by Justine Picardie to the Virago edition of The King’s General, one of my favourite Du Maurier novels. Picardie’s experience, reading the novel for the first time as a teenager, was so close to my own that I was transported back over 30 years to my local library which had a shelf full of the old yellow Gollancz hardbacks of Du Maurier’s novels. A while ago, I added the audio book of The King’s General to my Audible library. It’s read by Juliet Stevenson, one of my favourite narrators & I’ve downloaded it, all ready to go. This is one of Du Maurier’s historical novels, set in the 16th century during the Civil War at Menabilly, the Cornish house she loved so much. It’s the story of Honor Harris & her love for Sir Richard Grenvile.

I still have several unread Du Mauriers on the tbr shelves & I’m tempted to complete my collection with some of the new VMCs. I may not be able to resist.

Arrest the Bishop? – Winifred Peck

PeckArrest

There are some few men who possess undoubtedly an aura of evil, visible even to those who profess no psychic powers, and Thomas Ulder was one of them. His personal appearance had not been attractive in old days but five years of sloth and self-indulgence had revealed the ugly contours of his narrow brow and heavy chin till they resembled a pear in shape; his figure had widened on the same lines; his intemperate life had resulted in watery eyes and a twitching face. … it was only when he focused those eyes on you, with the secretive stare of all creeping, slimy things and when his too oily manner stiffened into threats, that the sensitive shuddered as if turning over a stone which conceals maggots; and felt, in Bunyan’s phrase, threatened by an evil, a very evil thing.

The Bishop of Evelake, Dr Broome, is preparing to host a party of young men about to be ordained in his Cathedral. His wife & daughter, Sue, are doing their best to get the draughty, inconvenient Palace ready with the help of the Bishop’s Chaplain, Robert Borderer, known as Bobs. The Bishop will be assisted by Canon Wye & the Chancellor of the diocese who are also staying at the Palace. One of the ordinands, Dick Marlin, is an old friend of the family. Dick served in Military Intelligence during the War & has returned to the Church looking for a life of service. As well as trusted family servants, Mrs Broome is trying to cope with a seriously ill housekeeper & Soames, a very unsatisfactory butler, employed only because so few servants are prepared to live so far from the life & bustle of the town.

The Rev Thomas Ulder is a thorn in the side of the Bishop. A truly wicked man, he has been sidelined by the Church in the past to avoid scandal. When he writes to the Bishop announcing his imminent arrival, Dr Broome is horrified. When the Bishop’s daughter, Judith, spoilt, beautiful & reckless, arrives with a story of being blackmailed by Ulder over a love affair that threatens her divorce, the Bishop despairs. Ulder is an accomplished blackmailer & he has timed his visit to cause the maximum distress to several of the Bishop’s guests as well as his family. When Udall arrives, obviously intoxicated, & then collapses, Mrs Broome puts him to bed & summons the doctor, already in the house to care for the terminally ill housekeeper. Doctor Lee diagnoses acute heart trouble & gives strict instructions that no stimulants & no more morphia are to be given to the patient. Next morning, Ulder is dead, poisoned with an overdose of morphia, a glass of whiskey by his bed.

Arrest the Bishop? is a thoroughly entertaining mystery in the Golden Age tradition. The setting – a Bishop’s Palace in the depths of winter, just before Christmas, in fact – is perfect. I could feel the draughts & the ill-fitting windows & doors with the fires not lit until teatime. Although the book was published in 1949, it’s set in 1920 & has that post-WWI feeling of melancholy & austerity. There are several scenes that combine embarrassment, humour & the awfulness of the food of the period as well as the custom of reading something improving like Pilgrim’s Progress at meals. If nothing else, the reading forestalls awkward conversation. Judith has just asked the local policeman, Tonks, if he’s found another corpse,

With that, Judith flashed into the dining-room, cast her lovely smile on the company, made a face at the pudding, and declined fish. It was left to Bobs to read on while the company watched Mack leave the room to interview Tonks, and return to summon the Chancellor away with him, with a wholly ominous expression. “Moreover, my brother, thou talkest of ease in the grave, but hast thou forgotten the Hell whither murderers go,” concluded Bobs, as the dreadful meal ended at last.

There are more suspects than you can poke a stick at. Ulder had so many visitors in the hours before his death that it’s a wonder they weren’t tripping over each other in the corridors. Ulder is such a repulsive character that we feel no sorrow at his demise. The servants are either pillars of rectitude or decidedly dodgy like Soames. The Chief Constable, Mack, is a Scotsman with a prejudice against the Anglican Church. In a typically country way, the local police are all connected through marriage with the servants at the Palace & gossip spreads quickly. Mack does take Dick Marlin into his confidence & Dick is a shrewd investigator, suspecting Soames from the beginning & equally desperate not to suspect the Bishop who doesn’t help by behaving very suspiciously. There are so many satisfactory motives & so many suspicious goings-on that I found the novel a joy to read.

Dean Street Press have reissued Winifred Peck’s mystery novels as a complement to the Furrowed Middlebrow edition of Bewildering Cares, which I enjoyed so much a few months ago. Martin Edwards has written an informative Introduction to the novels. I very much enjoyed Winifred Peck’s novel, House-Bound, reissued by Persephone & I would love to read more of her work. I’ll be picking up her other mystery, The Warrielaw Jewel, very soon.

Sunday Poetry – Emily Dickinson

Dickinson

Another Dickinson poem this week. Has anyone seen the new movie about Dickinson’s life? A Quiet Passion (watch the trailer here) stars Cynthia Nixon & Jennifer Ehle as Dickinson & her sister, Vinnie. The reviews I’ve read have been mixed but I will definitely be seeing it when it opens here next month.

This is one of my favourites &, like last week’s poem, features a bird although not being stalked by a cat this time. I like the idea of Hope being personified (anthropomorphised?) in this way. Dickinson always looks at the world in unusual ways, Tell all the truth but tell it slant, as she says.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me