Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Stone of Chastity, for Margery Sharp Day

When I chose The Stone of Chastity to read for this year's celebration of Margery Sharp, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, I knew nothing about it. The American edition I found on-line has a very decorative cover:

But it has no dust jacket, so there was no synopsis to tell me anything about the story. I wasn't expecting something along of the lines of a mystery story in a rural village. There is an investigation, interviews with local residents, even a type of trial. But rather than murder, the hunt is for the Stone of the title, and the stories about it.

The person directing the investigation is Professor Isaac Pounce, a specialist in folklore and magic. Some months earlier, while visiting friends, he went rooting around in their attics ("while his hosts were looking for him to play bridge"), and found a diary with a very intriguing entry from 1803:
Mr. C. back from Gillenham. I thank God in my striped India muslin, rose-colour sash. Mr. C. entertaining as ever; tells us an odd strange legend, that in the stream there is a certain stepping-stone, on which if a Miss who should by rights have quitted that Title, or a wife unfaithful, set her foot, the poor creature infallibly stumbles and is muddied for all to see. 'Tis called the Stone of Chastity. Mamma shocked.
There was a further account of a young maidservant, "challenged by her mistress to make trial of the S. of C., did so out of brazenness in her Sunday print, white stockings, fine black shoes, green garters. All ruined by the stinking mud. She now the mother of a fine boy."

The Professor immediately decided he had to investigate this further.

I love stories that begin with an archival discovery. I'd like to have read more of the diary, actually - which the Professor calmly pockets, by the way, stealing it from his friends without a word or a qualm. He quickly locates the village in question, leases a house there, and arrives to carry out his research. He brings his nephew Nicholas as his secretary. Also in the household is Nicholas's mother, the Professor's widowed sister-in-law, and Carmen, a striking young woman whose position there is ambiguous to say the least.

With Nicholas's reluctant help, Professor Pounce prepares a questionnaire for the residents of Gillenham, asking what they know about the Stone of Chastity, and about the maidservant who failed the challenge back in 1803. When one of the villagers turns out to have the Stone itself (embedded in her scullery floor), he plans a public trial of it for the local women. He never stops to consider whether the residents might find his questions about their virtue - and the entire topic of chastity - inappropriate and offensive. He is magnificently self-absorbed, intent only on the research. His unwilling assistant does realize that trouble is brewing, but he is distracted himself by Carmen and then by his pursuit of another young woman.

I enjoyed this funny, fast-moving story very much. It felt a little different from the other books of Margery Sharp that I have read, which have focused on a central female character, telling her story. Nicholas plays something of that role here, and we see must of the action from his point of view. In his own way, he is nearly as self-absorbed as his uncle. He has recently taken his degree, but he has no plans, no ambition, other than to become a man of the world. I found him a little bit tiresome, yet he at least realizes the trouble that his uncle's research is creating, and he is a kind son.

There are many funny scenes in this book. My favorite came late in the story, as the Professor plans to cap his research with a public trial of the Stone. He forces the reluctant Nicholas to draw a poster inviting the local women to take part, which he posts (over Nicholas's objections) on the church door.
   By two o'clock that afternoon there were nineteen names on the Professor's list: those of Mrs. Jim, Mrs. Ada Thirkettle, Sally Thirkettle, Grace Uffley, Violet and Mabel Brain, Mrs. Jack Fletcher (all in the handwriting of the first), and twelve Boy Scouts.
   By three o'clock the poster had been torn down. There was no evidence as to who had done this, except that it was Mrs. Crowner's day for cleaning the church brasses. Fortunately the Professor had already visited the poster once and made a note of the first seven signatures. (The dozen Boy Scouts he rightly ignored.)
The Boy Scouts made me laugh out loud. On the day of the Trial, they are "turned out in full force, hopefully bringing their stretcher with them."

Thank you to Jane for introducing me to Margery Sharp, and for hosting this annual celebration of her books. I see that she has posted about this book as well. I'm looking forward to seeing what others have read, which I'm sure will add to my Margery Sharp collection - or at least my wish list, since some of her books are still out of print.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Real Motive, by Dorothy Canfield

The topic of "comfort reading" comes up often in book discussions. Ever since the presidential election in November, I have drawn comfort from the books of Dorothy Canfield Fisher. On election night itself, sick in body with what turned out to be a sinus infection, but also sick in heart and soul at the results, I had the strongest urge to read something of hers. I chose Hillsboro People, published in 1915. It is a collection of stories set around the town of the title, which perhaps stands for her own hometown of Arlington, Vermont. As Inauguration Day approached this week, I felt the same urge toward her books. This time I chose The Real Motive, another short story collection, published in 1916.

I've been trying to figure out what it is in her books that calls me so strongly right now. I think it is in part the balance, the humanity, the compassion that I find in her writing. Her characters are not all paragons. They can be weak and fragile, they can make bad choices and do harmful things. She shows us these things, but she wants us to understand the people who do them. And they can grow, learn, change their minds, sometimes. There is a basic human decency, a strength of character, an unshowy goodness in so many of them. Maybe it's also how clearly Canfield Fisher's stories express her values, her beliefs. She is not the most subtle of writers, and I know that some people find her overly didactic, too much the preacher. I don't. I feel like her fiction reflects the writer, the person that I came to know through reading an excellent collection of her letters a couple of years ago.

The stories in The Real Motive are an interesting mix, with some familiar elements. There are a couple set again in Hillsboro, but others in New York and Paris. Two of them take place around small colleges in the Midwest. DCF grew up in a small college town in Kansas, where her father taught at the state university. Perhaps that's where she developed her intolerance of the pretensions, the pettiness sometimes found in academic life. (I was a "faculty brat" myself, growing up in similar small college towns.) "From Across the Hall" is a sweet story of two parents watching their daughter fall in love, with very mixed feelings. "Vignettes from a Life of Two Months," about a new mother and her infant son, discusses breast-feeding with a frankness that I found surprising for 1916. Three of the stories involve immigrants, considering their motives in coming to America, their struggles here and the prejudices they face. I braced myself when one story introduced a "big, black-browed Semite, with the big diamond in his scarf and the big plaids on his protuberant waistcoat." But if his appearance had something of the stereotype, his character and the story didn't. I did cringe when the sole African American character to appear in the stories - a maid, traveling with her employer in France - spoke some of the worst "Gone with the Wind" style dialect ever written.

I realized only after finishing the book that while it was published in 1916, there is no hint of the Great War in it. At the time she was writing these stories, she and her husband John were planning to take their two children to France to work for the war effort.

I have collected and read most of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's novels. I still have her last, Seasoned Timber, on the TBR shelves. I also have A Harvest of Stories, chosen by DCF for this collection published shortly before her death in 1958. I even gave in to temptation and bought a copy of her Memories of Arlington, Vermont, because I wanted to know more about the real "Hillsboro." I think she is an author I will be re-reading for years to come.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Meet Mr. Fortune, by H.C. Bailey

Last year, I lost my blogging voice. I was still reading, voraciously, but I couldn't figure out anything to say about what I was reading - at least not in a blog post. Over the past few weeks, I've had that feeling again, of wanting to share something about what I am reading, both the new books I am discovering and the old favorites I am savoring again. That's why I started this blog in the first place. So here I am again, at least today.

I am not usually a fan of short stories, but I have really enjoyed the collections of mystery stories that Martin Edwards has edited for the British Library Crime Classics series. (I've enjoyed them a lot more than the full-length novels from the series, to be honest.) I've met some familiar and favorite authors, and I've been introduced to many new-to-me writers and their characters. I took an immediate liking to H.C. Bailey's Reginald Fortune, and I wanted to read more. In the introduction to one story, Martin Edwards noted that Agatha Christie was a fan of Fortune, and that she paid homage to Bailey in Partners in Crime, where Tommy and Tuppence channel famous detectives (including Fortune) while running their own agency. Edwards also wrote that Bailey's books fell out of fashion after the Second World War. That unfortunately means that there aren't a lot of copies around now. But I did find this "Reggie Fortune Omnibus," published by The Book League of America in 1942, and designed to introduce Reggie to readers in the United States.

Reggie is a medical doctor who works for the Criminal Investigation Department in London as a scientific expert. He reminded me immediately of Peter Wimsey in his piffling conversation and his constant quotations. His speech is much more mannered than Wimsey's, though. He repeats himself, he moans, he murmurs, and he purrs (he is also a cat person, if that explains the purring). Like Wimsey, he is a demon driver, when he can be bothered to take the wheel. Unlike Wimsey, he is indolent by nature and quite the gourmand - or maybe a glutton - and he is a heavy man, who complains bitterly when he has to walk to a crime scene. I noticed that he doesn't seem to drink alcohol, taking a glass of soda while others are adding whisky to theirs. He is an expert in medical questions but also in general science, particularly natural science. He often spots clues in plants found at the scene of a crime or on a body. In two stories, his identification of moths plays a big part. Throughout the stories, Fortune shows great concern for people caught up in the cases, particularly children and those he believes to be unjustly accused. He takes pleasure in upending cases that his colleagues on the force think neatly solved, particularly when he believes they have ignored evidence in a rush to declare someone guilty. He has a very competent wife named Joan who handles him neatly. She occasionally involves him in cases but is firmly shunted off to the side in investigating them. H.C. Bailey wrote these stories in the 1930s and early 1940s, and his police force has no women constables, even for dealing with women suspects and victims.

The collection starts off with a novella, "The Bishop's Crime," centered around Badon Cathedral, an important medieval pilgrimage site. Its golden image of the Virgin Mary was lost at the time of the Reformation, sunk in a shipwreck on its way to Henry VIII's treasury. It is quite an exciting story, which draws on both the Cathedral's history and its library of rare books. At different points the Bishop and the dean, who have been in conflict over various matters (including the library), both come under suspicion of murder. (The Cathedral politics of course reminded me of Anthony Trollope.) The rest of the book consists of stories originally published in earlier collections. Some are set in London, others in country towns. I particularly enjoyed "The Greek Play," set at the top girls' school in the country.

I am hoping to find copies of at least some of H.C. Bailey's many books of Fortune stories. Two full-length novels have been reprinted by Rue Morgue Press, and they at least are easily available. Bailey's stories are also in two of the Crime Classic collections I still have on the TBR shelves, Capital Crimes and Resorting to Murder (but not in Crimson Snow, which I want to read while it's still technically winter). I would love to see the British Library republish some of his books in addition to the stories.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A different kind of cover

Did you cover your school books? We did, usually in brown craft paper - sometimes even with grocery bags, as I remember. Then we'd spend the next few months doodling on them, decorating them, writing coded messages and jokes that seemed hilarious at the time. I haven't thought about that in years. I haven't covered a book in years. (I'm an archivist, not a librarian, so I never learned to do real book conservation).

Inspired by Audrey and Jane, I pulled Margery Sharp's The Eye of Love off the TBR shelves (partly in preparation for the arrival of the book on the left).

My copy is a first edition (third printing), and at almost 60, looking its age. It arrived without the dust jacket, which I don't mind at all. But the top of the spine is broken - luckily not yet completely detached. Someone probably have grabbed it from the top once too often. I've done that myself, pulling a book down from a shelf, and noticed how vulnerable the binding there can be. I do know enough not to try and tape a book back together (I could show you horrors of bad taping in my archives). So I decided to go the old-fashioned route and make a book cover. Not out of acidic brown paper, though, I used a sheet of acid-free paper instead. I couldn't quite remember how to fit the cover, and one of my co-workers helped me. It took me straight back to high school, those first days of the new school year with the books piled up. To be honest, my cover looks rather sad, a bit lumpy in spots, and the lettering leaves a lot to be desired. Hopefully it will keep the spine intact for a while, and that's all that matters to me.

Isn't the Martha in Paris cover lovely?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

New books, and a book lost

If all goes well, I will be moving in a month or so. I should be thinking about all the books that I have to put into boxes between now and then. I should be weeding out books that I don't need to take with me (to the built-in bookcases). I should not be adding more books to those stacks. Like Louis in "Casablanca," I am sure that you will all be shocked, shocked!  to hear that somehow I keep finding books that I just have to have.

The book on the left is The Sherwood Ring, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. I learned about from a post by Constance Martin on Staircase Wit, "10 Books for the Hamilton-Obsessed." Her description immediately sold me on the book:
"This is a jewel of a YA historical fantasy from an author wrote only two books (both outstanding). When orphaned teenaged Peggy goes to live with her cantankerous uncle in upstate New York, her loneliness results in encounters with characters from the Revolutionary War. The contrast between the 20th century and the British-occupied countryside is entertaining and British officer Peaceable Sherwood is as charming a character as you will find in a story that combines history, romance, and humor."
I've been in the mood for a time-travel or time-slip novel, and I think this one will be just right.

The book on the right arrived today, in a wrapping so elegant that I thought immediately of Persephone Books. This one comes thanks to Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. I initially resisted both her review and the book's beautiful cover, but I knew it was only a matter of time. I'm glad I was able to find a copy whose cover is still in pretty good shape, and I am so looking forward to the story within. March Cost is a completely new author to me - with more titles to explore.

(Thanks to Jane and Audrey, I may also have ordered a copy of Margery Sharp's Martha in Paris today - another beautiful cover. I still have The Eye of Love to read first.)

Sadly, another book has been lost in transit.  When Jennifer of Holds Upon Happiness wrote about reading My Family and Other Animals for the first time, she asked about sequels. I couldn't remember the name of the second book, so rather than walking all the way out to the living room, I did a quick Google search. My reward for sloth was the discovery that there is a third book set in Corfu, The Garden of the Gods.  Of course I had to look for a copy - and there aren't a lot out there. I did find one for a reasonable price, but it never arrived, and today Amazon gave up hope and credited me for it. (I once lost an Amazon book package left on my doorstep; I have a theory that they are sometimes appropriated by people assuming they must contain electronics.)  While I was waiting, I picked up My Family and Other Animals, for the first time in at least fifteen years. What a joy it was to rediscover this book. I had only the vaguest memories of it. Now I'm looking forward to sitting down with Birds, Beasts and Relatives - of which I remember even less (if possible).

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

I am reading: Bound for Canaan, by Fergus M. Bordewich

The subtitle of my copy (borrowed from the library) is "The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America." The image above, with a more forceful text, is from the paperback edition. It feels like a perfect time to be reading this book, under either title, given the events of the past two weeks (and the many past actions and tragedies they evoke). 
     At the start of the twenty-first century, Americans are in the midst of a contentious, often painful, national debate about slavery and its role in American history. At a time when earlier remedies for inequality have been discarded as politically and practically unacceptable, as the historian of American slavery Ira Berlin has put it, "slavery has become a language, a way to talk about race, in a society in which it seems that blacks and whites hardly talk to each other at all." Modern-day racism's roots lie in the slavery era, and any attempt to seriously address race today must also take into account not only the slavery of the past, but also the commitment and sacrifices of other Americans, both black and white, to bring slavery to an end. A better understanding of the Underground Railroad, and of men and women like George DeBaptiste [a black "conductor" in Indiana], deserves to be part of that conversation. . .
    The story of the Underground Railroad is an epic of high drama, moral courage, religious inspiration, and unexpected personal transformations played out by a cast of extraordinary personalities who often seem at the same time both startlingly modern and peculiarly archaic, combining then-radical ideas about race and political action with traditional notions of personal honor and sacred duty. . .
    The Underground Railroad's impact on the antebellum United States was profound. Apart from sporadic slave rebellions, only the Underground Railroad physically resisted the repressive laws that held slaves in bondage. The nation's first great movement of civil disobedience since the American Revolution, it engaged thousands of citizens in the active subversion of federal law and the prevailing mores of their communities, and for the first time asserted the principle of personal, active responsibility for others' human rights. By provoking fear and anger in the South, and prompting the enactment of draconian legislation that eroded the rights of white Americans, the Underground Railroad was a direct contributing cause of the Civil War. It also gave many African Americans their first experience in politics and organizational management. And in an era when proslavery ideologues stridently asserted that blacks were better off in slavery because they lacked the basic intelligence, and even the biological ability, to take care of themselves, the Underground Railroad offered repeated proof of their courage and initiative.
     The Underground Railroad, and the broader abolition movement of which it was a part, were also a seedbed of American feminism. . . In the underground, women were for the first time participants in a political movement on an equal plane with men, sheltering and clothing fugitive slaves, serving as guides, risking reprisals against their families, and publicly insisting that their voices be heard. ("Introduction") 
The cover of this book immediately caught my attention when I came across it in the library, with its pictures of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I didn't recognize all the people shown, and now I've met some of them, extraordinary characters - heroes - like Rev. Josiah Henson, a runaway slave who made it safely to Canada, where he established a colony in Ontario for his fellow fugitives. And Isaac Hopper, who began a long and distinguished career as an abolitionist and central figure on the railroad at age 16, when he helped a fugitive slave in Philadelphia find a safe home and work.

I've already ordered a copy for my shelves, since the library will want theirs back on Saturday.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A positively wolfish appetite for books

     The Small Person used to look at them sometimes with hopeless, hungry eyes. It seemed so horribly wicked that there should be shelves of books - shelves full of them - which offered nothing to a starving creature. She was a starving creature in those days, with a positively wolfish appetite for books, though no one knew about it or understood the anguish of its gnawings. It must be plainly stated that her longings were not for "improving" books. The cultivation she gained in those days was gained quite unconsciously, through the workings of a sort of rabies with which she had been infected from birth. At three years old she had begun a life-long chase after the Story. She may have begun it earlier, but my clear recollections seem to date from Herod, the King, to whom her third year introduced her through the medium of the speckled Testament....
     Religious aunts possibly gave it horrible little books containing memoirs of dreadful children who died early of complicated diseases, whose lingering developments they enlivened by giving unlimited moral advice and instruction to their parents and immediate relatives, seeming, figuratively speaking, to implore them to "go and do likewise," and perishing to appropriate texts. The Small Person suffered keen private pangs of conscience, and thought she was a wicked child, because she did not like those books and had a vague feeling of disbelief in the children. It seemed probable that she might be sent to perdition and devoured by fire and brimstone because of this irreligious indifference, but she could not overcome it...
     Little girls did not revel in sumptuous libraries then. Books were birthday or Christmas presents, and were read and re-read, and lent to other little girls as a great favor.
    The Small Person's chase after the Story was thought to assume the proportions of a crime...
     "That child has a book again!" she used to hear annoyed voices exclaim, when being sent up or down stairs, on some errand, she found something to read on the way, and fell through the tempter. It was so positively unavoidable and inevitable that one should forget, and sink down on the stairs somewhere to tear the contents out of the heart of a few pages. . .   
There is something enchanting about meeting a fellow reader across the years. This is from Frances Hodgson Burnett's The One I Knew Best of All, a memoir of her childhood in the 1850s (it was published in 1893). This particular chapter has a happy ending, with the Small Person discovering, in "a large old-fashioned mahogany bookcase" called the Secrétaire, shelves and shelves of stories inside the "substantially bound and serious-looking books" that fill it.
Her cheeks grew hotter and hotter, she read fast and furiously. She forgot that she was perched on the ledge, and that her legs dangled, and that she might fall. She was perched in Paradise - she had no legs - she could not fall. No one could fall from a Secrétaire filled with books, which might all of them contain Stories!
I had been reading William Still's The Underground Railroad, his record of the fugitive slaves that passed through Philadelphia on their way to freedom in Canada. He began the work to document these individuals, which might help them find their families again later. His is an invaluable record, but it isn't concerned as much with how the fugitives escaped and made their way north, or how the Railroad operated. That's the part of the story that I want to read, so I think I'll set it aside for now in favor of a more general history of the Railroad.