Dreamer of Dreams, Part One

Friday, July 9th, 2010

I love everything that’s old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines. ~Oliver Goldsmith

I have been waiting to write this post for a long, long time.

It was a deciding factor in the name I chose for this site. It’s been a steadily-brewing desire since the days I sat among the stacks and shelves of Katherine Downs’ shop and learned to love the weight of a well-made book in my hands and the feel of the thick, smooth pages between my fingers.

It’s been a vision I’ve cherished: not only to make the proper introductions between certain books and those I know would love them, but to provide the volumes themselves to any who might want to give them a home on their shelves. To offer beautiful, hand-selected old books for a good value and with the personal element of thoughtful reviews.

And so, it is with the greatest excitement that I wish to announce that Monday, the second of August, in the year of our Lord 2010, the Book Shop at Lanier’s Books will open its doors.

I’ll be hanging out the sign, by way of a discreet little link on the sidebar, and it will be a virtual open house. I only wish I could provide the tea for anyone who “stops by”. I can’t imagine anything nicer than sitting down with such kind and lovely readers and chatting the afternoon away over all the verities of life, like Mrs. Downs and I used to do in those days cherished of old.

Lanier’s Books

Antiquarian Gems and Gently-loved Jewels

Opening Monday, August 2, 2010

When you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book. ~Christopher Morley

And you’ll notice that I’ve titled this post Part One. Look for more secrets sprinkled over the summer, my friends…

The Rim of the Prairie

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

The Rim of the Prairie, 1925, by Bess Streeter Aldrich

When a writer has a philosophy like Bess Streeter Aldrich’s, I know I’m in good company.

And when Jodi said that The Rim of the Prairie was her favorite of Aldrich’s books, I knew that I was in for a treat.

I want to begin this review by saying that one of the things I love best about Bess Streeter Aldrich is the very thing I love in so many of my favorite writers, namely, a sense of place so evocative, so intimate and alive that you as the reader are literally present in the story, every sense awake to the beauties and charms and idiosyncrasies of the setting. Elizabeth Goudge gave me the cobbles and cathedrals and gardens and houses of England; Prince Edward Island is Lucy Maud Montgomery’s lavish bestowal which I will be honored to carry with me all the days of my life. Daphne DuMaurier made Cornwall so vivid and touchable that when I first saw its jagged cliffs and shingle beaches and deceptively placid coves, a shiver of recognition, of revisitation, went through me and I all but cast a glance over my shoulder for a spaniel named Jasper scrabbling among the rocks behind.

And when I drove across Iowa for the first time on a still October morning just tinged with the maiden blush of dawn, I knew that I had been there before. Had seen a couple of nondescript graves covered with woodbine on a little rise of a churchyard and watched a solitary young man make his purposeful way over the golden sea of prairie grasses…

That was Song of Years, of course, my long-standing favorite of Bess’ children. And Suzanne, that idealistic companion of my youth, has always been my favorite of her characters. I was almost afraid to see her challenged by The Rim of the Prairie and this upstart of a Nancy Moore, howsoever endearing she might prove herself to be.

It hardly needs saying that Nancy won my heart, as did her story of a sweet youth ended abruptly by the rise of a dark shadow. Chic in a delightsome 1920’s way, charming, vivacious–and so winningly flawed that one can’t help but like her, it’s easy to identify with the characters she encounters, many of whom are predisposed to frown upon her teasing and her breezy ways and end up her devoted friends and admirers. Nancy is not perfect, and that’s what makes her real: that’s what makes her faults and her misplaced ambitions ring true to pitch. Jolly and designing, sunny and selfish, but altogether living and breathing and laughing–and even crying in secret.

And it’s the secrets that propel the story forward: hidden intrigues and painful questions that engather an entire community with the ‘tangled roots’ that Aldrich so evocatively describes, making of a small town a grove of trees that both beautify the wild landscape and stand as a respite and windbreak from the merciless elements. Images of cottonwoods and their growth are intertwined with the growth and interlacing of a community, where one’s standing influences another’s and the fall of a single tree could bring down an entire line.

I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to the sweet sophisticate Nancy Moore: to learn the secrets about her that she herself didn’t even know; to be assured of the outcomes of those whose lives had become irrevocably intertwined with her own. To see how that last visit to the old farm where she was raised with which the book opens influenced the rest of her life.

I am resolute in not denying your enjoyment by giving away any more of a teaser than that. But I can promise you a setting so fresh with wind rolling over the prairie gold and alive with birdsong in the cottonwoods that only love of the deepest sort could have crafted it. And a living, breathing heroine that learns what it means to ‘put away childish things’. And a supporting cast of ‘tangled roots’ from which spring all the really fine things in life.

(But Suzanne is still my favorite. ;))

This is obviously not the secret-bearing post that I promised last week. Tying up a few last details, but check back tomorrow!!

Our Mutual Friend

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens is one of those books that was just meant to be read aloud. Literally. Dickens considered himself the novelist of the common man and his works were originally published in the relatively inexpensive serialized form. I heard that in nineteenth century England, whole neighborhoods would go in together to purchase a copy for the local pub, and that families would crowd in expectantly in anticipation of a fabulous rendition compliments of the designated reader—that being, someone that could actually read.

Reading Dickens quietly to oneself is a fantastic journey into an exquisitely plotted world. But reading Dickens out loud is the actual living in it. Philip and I read Our Mutual Friend together last winter and it was a magical few weeks of fireside evenings and theatrical voices and frenzied breakfast table speculations. I even found myself so carried away by the quandaries in which all our new friends had found themselves that I hastily appended Philip’s suppertime grace one night with a quick appeal for their fates.

Our Mutual Friend is characteristically peopled by a cast of remarkable (and aptly-named!) characters, from the little crippled doll-maker, Jenny Wren to the wolf-like longshoreman, Rogue Riderhood. Who can forget the newly-risen society couple, the Veneerings? Or their adorable counterparts, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin? “Fascination” Fledgby or the indefatigable Podsnaps? At it’s simplest, Our Mutual Friend is the story of a young heir presumed dead and given the unique opportunity to observe the impact of such upon those affected by the redistribution of his fortune—including the lovely Bella Wilfer, whom he was literally willed to marry. But no story of Dickens is simple. He will move heaven and earth to weave together every single echelon of society, interconnected and interdependent, into an absolute miracle of coincidence and chance and glorious intention, taking his readers from the slums of London to the glittering drawing rooms of would-be MPs to the haunts of ‘waterside characters’ along the Thames.

I have always adored Dickens. I have always been mesmerized by his plots. But it wasn’t until a respected and learned friend pointed out to me that every one of his stories has a distinct and deliberate form that I really began to fully appreciate his genius: source material that was easily recognizable to his original audience, masterfully recreated into a performance all Dickens’ own. (Think Frankenstein for Great Expectations. And Jane Eyre for Bleak House.)  But when she explained what was the source material for Our Mutual Friend, I knew why this book appealed to my heart in every particular. Why of all Dickens’ books that I have read, this one stands out from the crowd as my very favorite.

For it’s none other than the Fairy Tale.

Looking back over the novel I could see it all: fairy godmothers; an ornery mother and sisters set against a princess-in-exile; wolves that can’t quite keep to their disguises. There’s even the thread running through it of my most favorite fairy tale of all, Rapunzel. (High marks to those who can identify it ;)) And like all true fairy tales, Our Mutual Friend confronts the problems of evil and pain. The characters suffer—both by their own hand and by the consequences of others’ actions. There’s anguish and growth and excruciating choices. But the ennobling power of love flaps over the story, like a standard straight against the wind.

And that makes all the difference.

So, she leaning on her husband’s arm, they turned homeward by a rosy path which the gracious sun struck out for them in its setting. And O there are days in this life, worth life and worth death. And O what a bright old song it is, that O ’tis love, ’tis love, ’tis love that makes the world go round!

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

Mrs. Tittlemouse and a Song of Ascents

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

When I was seven or eight, my grandparents went to England. And among the things that they brought back to me was one of those coveted little books bound in green cloth and wrapped in a gorgeously-familiar glossy white dust jacket. Not to date myself, but it must be pointed out that this was at a time in which Beatrix Potter books were not to be had for the asking at any Borders or Barnes & Noble, not to mention the Little Professor book shop on the square in our town. (Alright—I’m not quite as old as I’m making myself sound here. 😉 Let’s just say that a lot has changed in my lifetime!)

Mrs. Tittlemouse was a most terribly tidy particular little mouse, always sweeping and dusting the soft sandy floors. Sometimes a beetle lost its way in the passages. "Shuh! shuh! little dirty feet!" said Mrs. Tittlemouse, clattering her dust-pan.

I had already befriended Miss Tiggy-Winkle and the illustrious Peter (how haunted I was this spring in the construction of my new cold frame with the memory of Mr. MacGregor’s cucumber apparatus!) but The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse was a treasure that immediately became a favorite. Perhaps it was the cunning little box bed that she slept in, with her slippers at one end and her dust pan and broom laid by at the other. Or the silliness of Mr. Jackson taking the thistledown that she offered him at tea and blowing it all over the room. I know that the ‘acorn-cupfuls of honeydew’ that the mice enjoyed at her party seized my little girl heart with longing, much as Edmund’s was piqued by the thought of Turkish Delights.

But it wasn’t until I was grown up and had a house of my own to keep that I realized the real, potent, deep magic of the story of Thomasina Tittlemouse. And it’s just this:

She’s me.

I completely sympathize with Thomasina’s obsession with a clean house. From one perfectionist to another, I hail her with a kindred salute. I keep her on top of my bread box in the kitchen with a small stack of other resoundingly house-wifely titles (like a facsimile edition of an old Williamsburg cookbook and a domestic science textbook from the twenties) and the other night I leaned against the counter and chuckled over her skirmishes with muddy footprints and uninvited guests of an insect variety.

But beneath my smiles I was aching for her a bit. It’s difficult to keep house. It’s a battle to combat the daily evidences we homemakers encounter of demise and decay and the constant reality of entropy. No matter how much we might love it as an overarching vision and ennoble it as a vocation in the truest sense of the word, down in the flatlands of the everyday it can be rather trying to complete one task and move on to another, only to turn around and find that the first one needs doing again. Or to be too exhausted at a given moment to rationally prioritize the onslaught of chores that all seem to be clamoring for our attention at once. Both of which, incidentally, our diminutive heroine contended with in thirty tiny pages of text, with additional botherations thrown in besides.

Mrs. Tittlemouse followed him with a dish-cloth, to wipe his large wet footmarks off the parlour floor.

“All noble things are difficult,” said Oswald Chambers, and homemaking is nothing if not noble. But it can be almost as difficult to keep a governor on noble desires in overdrive. To prevent order and beauty from slipping over into perfectionism. It’s a field that I have to take every single day, or suffer the consequences. And I’m not nearly so cocky as I once was in thinking that I could take it alone. I need the help of the God of creation to run my house in a way that honors Him. And I need the camaraderie of other souls.

“If you expect perfection or nothing,” I pontificated to a friend the other day, quoting Brenda quoting Edith Schaeffer, “you will always end up with nothing.”

And it wasn’t two hours later that I was on the phone with the very same friend being gently admonished for the very same thing, only in different words.

I had the most striking insight a while back that puts a much graver face on the quest for control that lurks behind the innocent smile of perfectionism. It was from the 127th psalm: one of the songs of ascents that were used by Jewish pilgrims as they traveled, singing, to their true home.

She fetched soft soap, and flannel, and a new scrubbing brush from the storeroom. But she was too tired to do any more. First she fell asleep in her chair, and then she went to bed. "Will it ever be tidy again?" said poor Mrs. Tittlemouse.

Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Being the lover or words that I am, the great big bulking Strong’s Concordance is one of my best friends. And every once in a while a word will leap up from its context in Scripture and beg to be explored to the enlightenment of the whole passage. Such was the case with the word ‘vain’ in the verses above. I looked it up , keeping in mind the setting, the futile efforts for control, the promise of rest. And when I found it in the original Hebrew I gasped. And then I felt a little ill. For it’s a word not used often in the Bible–one of the only other references was from the account of Moses handing down the Commandments in Exodus 20: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

To call upon God for help in the issues of life–great and small–and then to neglect (another word for refuse) to avail myself of it on His terms (another definition of surrender) is not only futile. It’s blasphemous. It’s taking God’s name in vain. Here all these years I’ve been preening over the fact that I don’t use God’s name as a swear word so commandment number three is a shoe-in. And yet, I’m doing essentially the same thing when I pay Him lip service in my prayers and then go scrambling around trying to perfectly control my environment from the effects of the Fall.

When it was all beautifully neat and clean, she gave a party to five other little mice...

“I eat the bread of anxious toil,” another friend told me candidly. “I knead it and I bake it. I chew on it–often far into the night. I digest it where I should be digesting God’s words.”

But the majestic tenderness of God gleams like a precious gem in the culmination of this section of the psalm: for He gives to His beloved sleep.

“You’re not in control,” He essentially says, “but that’s alright because I AM. I am building your house and I am watching your city. It’s too much for you and you’re tired from all the work that is your own to do. Rest now–go to sleep. You can, you know, in perfect peace, because I love you.”

Good literature begs good questions. I’m not going to pretend that The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse delves the great difficulties of the universe. But neither will I conceal my respect for Beatrix Potter as one of the significant writers of the 20th century, particularly in the spirit of Walter de la Mare’s “only the best for the children”. If one can write timelessly for the children–timelessly to the tune of being the best-selling childrens’ author of all time–then I would venture to say she was on to something. That she knew a little that was worth knowing about the intangibles and the unutterables. That her books, simple as they are, live because they are true.

“Will it ever be tidy again?” worries Mrs. Tittlemouse.

Yes. And no. And it’s alright. We care for the smeary prints of honey all over the cupboards and the muddy footprints and the loving of the souls in our charge. And He cares for us.

And “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”.

Also, there was Mrs. Tittlemouse's bedroom, where she slept in a little box bed!

all images and captions, Beatrix Potter, and compliments of The Project Gutenberg


Monday, April 19th, 2010

"The Dean's Watch" by Elizabeth Goudge

… is the only word to describe the void that is following The Dean’s Watch,” quoth my friend Laura in an email over the weekend.

Our book club just finished reading this 1960 Elizabeth Goudge jewel and I know exactly how she feels. We’re all kind of wandering, I’m afraid, unwilling to exchange that post-Goudge dreamy sort of happy-sadness for the cares of a new cast of characters with which Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda is doubtless only too eager to supply us.

Personally, I’ve been saving The Dean’s Watch, only slipping it onto our ballot after some half-dozen of her other books had in their turn been unanimously voted onto our reading list. My mother—who introduced me to Elizabeth in the first place—has long named it her favorite, and so it was with as much reverence as expectation that I anticipated the pleasure of its acquaintance.

At the meeting, everyone wanted to know if it was my favorite, as well. I hemmed and hawed and contradicted myself in the way that I generally do when confronted with a question that I haven’t fully settled in my own mind. I thought about Henrietta slipping like a sprite through the cobbled streets of A City of Bells. I swung round towards the beckoning flare that Pilgrim’s Inn will always be to me. I set down the delicate crystal goblet with which our hostess had supplied me upon arrival and sighed.

“It will be someday,” I said.

Someday when its hard-earned lessons of love are less experimental on my part and hopefully more experiential. When I am old enough to look back on the vision it has cast and God-willing able to say that the light it first shed is more dazzling upon approach than I could have dared to dream. The Dean’s Watch is a book of great maturity, disarmingly simple at face value. But Elizabeth Goudge will not let you take anything at face value. She, like all truly great novelists, probes the hearts and motives of her characters with an oftentimes brutal honesty. She examines what a life of love really looks like—and what it really costs.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, England, reputed to be the setting of 'The Dean's Watch'

Through descriptions that glint and gleam and live, like the glimpses of heaven that they are, Goudge takes us into the heart of an English cathedral city at the turn of the nineteenth century. She gives us the fens of Cambridgeshire in all their stark beauty, and the personalities of those that inhabit them—oftentimes more stark and startlingly more beautiful. But the light with which this book is filled and borne along is set against a dark foil of evil and suffering. Goudge will not let us content ourselves with the charm of the narrow cobbled streets, with the warmth of Miss Montague’s drawing room fire and the music of the birds in the trees of the Cathedral Close. With a persistence that seems almost dogged she draws us into the slums of the city, into the repulsiveness of child labor and into the festering alleyways of hatred. And she bears the light with her, inexorably lavishing it upon all who come within its circle of brightness–deserving and undeserving alike.

The great Cathedral that towers over the city and all who dwell in it is itself a figure of love. An image of grace that overwhelms both reader and character alike with what Charles Williams would call a “terrible goodness”. And at the helm of the Cathedral, we find the Dean, like a captain at the wheel of a mighty ship. A man whose whose simple godliness–straightforward but never facile–has the power to affect an entire city. But it’s one man, the atheistic little clockmaker Isaac Peabody, that seems to have the whole burden of his soul…

I love and esteem the way that Goudge writes of sacred things with an absolutely spiritual touch and never resorts to triteness in the way that many Christian authors inadvertently do. She doesn’t tell us that God is good, that Love is real and that Light will always triumph over darkness. She shows us.  She blinds us with beauties and breaks our hearts with joy.

She enfleshes the Body of Christ–the Church–with characters that are humanly flawed and yet beatifically drawn into the heaven they’ve been made for.

The Heaven we’ve all been made for. God bless you, Elizabeth. You’ve done it again.

Something Tookish

Monday, April 12th, 2010

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

There was a fabulous question posed over at The Rabbit Room this morning that all good Tolkies will hail with a joyful recognition: Are you a Took or a Baggins?

It reminded  me of this piece I wrote for YLCF a couple of years ago after my first wild and lovely sojourn in Middle Earth had come to an end:

When Philip and I finished the last book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy I sat in silence for some time, the tears chasing one another down my cheeks, wrapped in a lovely melancholy over the end of the Third Age and the pilgrimage of the fair folk beyond the Grey Havens. I couldn’t stop brooding over what it must have been to have had a mind like Tolkien’s: crammed with such beauties and terrors: the birthplace a world so real that a reader’s heart literally breaks over not being able to journey there and see the shining heights of Minas Tirith or race on a flying charger across the plains of Rohan or chat with a hobbit beside a companionable fire over a pipe and a pint. What a master Tolkien was. It is not lightly that I say I thank God for him. Truth lives in his work, at times shimmering and glowing, at times piercing with the sharp and often painful flash of lightning.

Long afterward I am still mulling over the insights that continue to appeal to me, blooming under my feet as it were, like the lowly, lovely elanor in the glades of Lothlorien, smiling up at me as I walk along the way. There are vast stores to be mined here, and great critics have done it better and more thoroughly than I ever could. My reflections are of a humble nature, and perhaps simplistic in the light of the scholarly treatment already devoted to this work. But I cannot help but make this story mine through the acknowledgment of its verities, claiming its meanings and symbols for my own.

The Lord of the Rings is not a perfect allegory or anything of that sort, any more than Lewis’ Narnia was. And that’s why I love it so, why I believe it carries such power at its heart. He doesn’t spell everything out for us; he doesn’t merely recast true but familiar stories in a different mold. He makes us think, and ache and search—he speaks first to our hearts and then our heads, in a way that, for me at least, was a humbling and intensely personal experience.

Imperfect analogies have a force that their cousin, the allegory, sometimes lacks. They demonstrate the universal potency of Truth, under other circumstances than our own, on unfamiliar ground, even in different worlds. There are pictures and symbols of the Christian life, with all its raptures and perils, woven throughout The Lord of the Rings. Frodo’s quest spoke vividly to me of the supreme challenge of Life in this fallen world. I saw in the hardships that he and his friends encountered an image of each faithful Christian’s experience upon the earth, ‘creeping upwards’, often upon hands and knees, sometimes even carried by fellow pilgrims. A life blinded by tears; a mission that those closest to us may never understand or even recognize. (One of the most poignant moments in the films, to me, was the wistful look that passed between the four hobbits, at home once more in the Shire, as they sat in the Green Dragon surrounded by kith and kin that had absolutely no idea what Frodo and his friends had been through for their sakes. And the gentle sigh of acknowledgement that they never would know.)

As believers, the most intense battles often rage within the secret of our own minds and hearts, and yet they can be no less terrifying than the fires of Mt. Doom, or hopeless-seeming than that last valiant diversion at the Black Gate of Mordor. Our enemies are not orcs and trolls, but ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’. Our aid lies not in elves and wizards, but in the prayers of our compatriots, in angels from heaven, in, above all, the promised help and presence of the Holy Spirit. But reading these books has made me long to ‘fight the good fight’ with more perseverance than ever. It has reminded me of the valor required of the servants of Christ, and the futility of any campaign waged against the victory He has already secured. It has made me long to throw my hat in the ring for Beauty and Truth and Goodness, not only for the sake of this tired, hurting old world, but because I believe in that which is to come.

Of all the tools at a writer’s disposal, none, perhaps, is more effective than that great device of perspective. An author must consider carefully the vantage point from which his tale is to be told: which character or characters will lend their inmost thoughts to the reader and which ones will be more remote, supplying only actions and gestures and words to convey their response to the unfolding events. In Tolkein’s hands, point of view is the blade of a sure swordsman, striking true to its mark with a keen thrill of insight. From our first acquaintance with Bilbo Baggins to Sam Gamgee’s last contented statement, the effect unfolds with great simplicity and authority, until we realize at the end that the characters we identify with more than all the others are the hobbits. They are the only ones that we get inside of; they are the ones that awaken our deepest sympathies and over whose triumphs we rejoice most ardently.

I can’t help but believe that this was entirely intentional: of all the marvelous creations of Tolkein’s fancy, hobbits are the most like us. Frodo and his ilk are the least likely of heroes; they are little and simple and great fanciers of creature comforts. But their halfling stature conceals a sturdy soul forged of steel, capable of rigors and valors unlooked-for in the common hours. In the hobbits, Tolkein paints an endearingly accurate picture of the average Christian and what he or she is capable of; they illustrate most poignantly the exquisite heavenly irony of God using something so puny as a human on a divine mission.

Like us, hobbits are very much of earth. And yet their nature sings of eternal adventures—irresistibly so. In The Hobbit, the placid Bilbo is first awakened to this inner yearning by way of the mysterious songs of uninvited dwarves around his fireside:

And as they sang…something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick…

No matter how quiet and ordinary and Baggins Bilbo may have desired his life to be, the untamed blood of his Took ancestors would not lie dormant in him forever. We, too, are often surprised by longings that flame unexpectedly within our prosaic earth-bound little bodies, soaring heavenward like vanishing sparks and taking with them any hope of our being content on a mere temporal plane again. Some latent Tookish trait wakes up to the essential Romance of being alive and being in Christ, and with a shout of joy and a brandishing of heavenly steel, we’re up and off on the adventure of eternity, without a thought of the tame, terrestrial existence we’ve left behind. It’s that great pilgrim spirit of Christianity that proves we are citizens of another country and have sworn our allegiance to another King:

And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11: 13-16

Like Frodo and his friends, we’ll all have our battle scars to show at the end of days, no less valid for the fact that our Lord may be the only one who knows of them. And like the hobbits, we’ll celebrate with a joy to which all our joys have been but a prelude when we finally see our King come into His kingdom. It’s that blessed hope that makes of this life an epic adventure, with an ending that lends a reflection of truth to the finest fairytales and puts the poets’ best dreams to shame. And the fact that we already know the climax of the story doesn’t take away one shade of the surprise.

Godspeed, my friends, on our common Quest. May you know what is the hope of His calling and the exceeding greatness of His power to us who believe…

The Immortal Alice

Monday, March 29th, 2010

"Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!"

Quaint child, old-fashioned Alice, lend your dream:
I would be done with modern story-spinners,
Follow with you the laughter and the gleam:
Weary am I, this night, with saints and sinners.
We have been friends since Lewis and old Tenniel
Housed you immortally in red and gold.
Come! Your naïveté is a spring perennial:
Let me be young again before I am old.

Vincent Starrett, from Brillig

I’ve known Alice all my life. Before I was old enough to read for myself, I remember having bits of Through the Looking Glass read aloud to me, and John Tenniel’s illustrations are a part of my childhood. I’ve had ‘twas-brillig-and-the-slithy-toves-did-gyre-and-gimble-in-the-wabe stuck in my head times out of mind. I’ve even acted in a play version of the story, in an illustrious theatre in a friend’s backyard, constructed entirely of donated wood and directed by a twelve year-old ‘little brother’. (I was 23 at the time, and acted the part of the Tiger Lily, should anyone care to know. ;))

I love Alice like I would a childhood friend and I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve revisited Wonderland as an adult. With her pluck and propriety and her disarming questions she set the world of childrens’ literature on it’s ear, and it has never been the same since. “Who am I?” she dares to ask more than once. And in the same breath, it seems, she turns those thoughtful eyes of hers, still glinting with the wonders they have beheld, upon the young readers and the adults that are paying attention, with logical uncertainty: Very well, then, who are you?

'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'

Is it a dream, or it is real? And what’s more actual—the real or the dream?

Far from being merely a covert foray into psychoanalysis, as many modern critics would have us believe, or, even worse, a string of sheer nonsense, Alice in Wonderland is a brilliant and thoroughly entertaining gambol in the world of the imagination. Every stroke of Carroll’s pen hits it mark with mathematical precision—from life-sized chess matches to grinning cats uttering profundities to absurd games of croquet employing flamingoes as mallets and hedgehogs as balls—and he manages thereby to make a case for the latent streak of moonstruck madness present in us all.

Just what would happen if Alice took that madness back to the real world with her? we can’t help but ask. Just how Alice would she be then?

That’s one of the questions that the new Alice in Wonderland (2010) film poses. We saw it this weekend in the theatre and I really had no idea what to expect. Apart from an engaging review on The Rabbit Room, and the glowing praise of a very dear friend, I pretty much went in cold.

‘It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!'

But I came out glowing. I thought it was a wonderful movie, most especially because it made no pretense of sticking to the book. It was more of a ‘what if’ or ‘what’s next’ than a faithful adaptation of Alice, which always seems to turn out rather ludicrous. (Or more ludicrous ;)) But the film kept to the essence of the book while engaging me with a plot (which the book manages to do quite delightfully without). It’s a return to Wonderland—or, Underland, suggestively called, a once-beautiful dream-world that has been ravaged and impoverished by the Red Queen’s reign of terror. Alice is almost grown now, “almost Alice”, as it’s poignantly pointed out, and the situations that she faces both above ground and below it force her to choose between comfortable, conventional adulthood and the real maturity that is always childlike.

“I always believe six impossible things before breakfast,” Alice’s father states early in the film.

I couldn’t help but think of the One Impossible Thing that I believe and which makes every other thing in the world plausible.

'Yes, that's it,' said the Hatter with a sigh: 'it's always tea-time, and we've no time to wash the things between whiles.'

Alice in Wonderland is a dark film, there’s no denying it. It’s quirky and crazy and oftentimes baffling. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is over the top—I was completely mesmerized. And Helena Bonham Carter is brilliant as the insecure Red Queen, really more pitiable than terrifying. The Jabberwocky, now—John Tenniel’s illustration leapt to horrible life before my eyes. I was literally a bit dizzy over that sequence. But to make up for it there’s a glimpse of the original Mad Hatter’s tea party that was nothing short of beautiful.

Another thing going for this film is that Alice’s madness has a foil in the form of aunt that is really, truly mad, and I think that was a good stroke. It’s delicate, but all the more effective. We’re not talking about howling at the moon around here. Just being mad enough to be…yourself.

I came home from the movie and pulled out my beloved Annotated Alice, reading over Jabberwocky again and delighting in the many allusions to the original that the movie had been carefully laced with. It really was a fun romp, and good to see Wonderland again, even in its war-torn condition.

But it was even better to see Alice. And to know that she hadn’t forgotten how to dream. Or just how real dreams might be.

The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo

(By the way, if you and Alice have never been properly introduced, allow me to suggest Martin Gardner’s definitive tome, The Annotated Alice. It’s a scholarly but wholly approachable explanation of the staggering symbolism, the embedded jokes and the scads of contemporary allusions that Victorian audiences would have easily recognized. I enjoyed reading the original text side by side with Gardner’s fascinating footnotes. Case in point: did you know that Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) was a close friend with the great George MacDonald and his family? Or that we have MacDonald’s young son, Greville, to thank in part for Alice’s eventual publication? Apparently Carroll sent his manuscript to Mrs. MacDonald, asking her to try it out on her children. The six year-old Greville was said to declare that “there ought to be sixty-thousand copies of it”. ;))

So, have any of you seen the movie? Love it? Hate it? Adore the book?

Or perhaps a better question might be Carroll’s own:

Was it a dream? What do you think?

all captions from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
illustrations by John Tenniel

Here’s another great Rabbit Room link to an article by Travis Prinzi: Alice and the Imagination

Daniel Deronda

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot, 1876

Let thy chief terror be of thine own soul:
There, ‘mid the throng of hurrying desires
That trample on the dead to seize their spoil,
Lurks vengeance, footless, irresistible
As exhalations laden with slow death,
And o’er the fairest troop of captured joys
Breathes pallid pestilence.

Reading George Eliot is never a comfortable occupation. An honor and a joy, yes. A tremendous privilege to witness the outworking of a fellow creature’s genius–absolutely. But however awed I might be at Eliot’s probing profundities into the intricacies of human nature, there’s no reading her with impunity. No matter how spoiled and selfish and egotistical a character might be–no matter how exasperated I might feel at the predicaments their choices land them in–the very moment of passing judgment is at once a moment of recognition. A pang of self-discovery.

A terrifying glimpse into what possibilities for good and evil lie couched in every human soul.

She painstakingly uncovers one motive after another; she plays no favorites with her characters, the men and women of her creation. Goodness is held under as exacting a scrutiny as vice. But if there is one thing Eliot’s idealism cannot bear it’s selfishness. The sense that the universe is uniquely crafted to suit our own individual needs. Spoken in bare words, I recoil at such a notion. But illustrated in a prose so living it hurts, I tremble and wince beneath the awful weight of it.

To live for self or to live for others? This is the question that all of Eliot’s fiction seems to beg. And beyond that, even, is posed the ideal of living for the Highest: the ‘Invisible Power’ that governs all things and is the lodestar of all human purpose. Though Eliot’s admission of ‘the Highest’ falls short of what, as a Christian, I know to be encompassed in the Person of God in Christ, there is much–perhaps more–to be gleaned from her expression of what submission to the Highest really means. Both for us as well as for other people.

It shall be better with me because I have known you.

George Eliot, 1819-1880

This statement is, in many ways, the very essence of George Eliot’s masterpiece, Daniel Deronda. Set within a fascinating web of social intrigue, unknown identity and rising Zionism, at its heart it is a story of how one soul may influence another for good, and how both may be drawn in submission to the Highest. Gwendolen Harleth is a spoiled beauty bent on having her own way at any cost. But a fated meeting with the young gentleman Daniel Deronda, a triviality of glance and action, has the chance of altering her destiny. Through a frustrating maze of circumstances that follow, a disastrous marriage on Gwendolen’s part and a dawning awakening of spiritual roots on Deronda’s, we see their lives intersect with an ever-increasing tension. When the strings of Gwendolen’s soul are tightened to an intolerable degree, will Deronda be able to save her from her worst enemy–herself?

I was literally consumed with this book. Gwendolen was so real to me, her suffering so affecting, that she haunted me like an actual presence. I chafed at the exposure of her selfishness; I deplored some of her choices. But I grieved for her almost as I would do for another human being. She wanted to be better–and I wanted it for her. And this is the effect of Eliot’s mastery: her characters live because they are neither all good nor all bad. They are often struggling pilgrims just like ourselves. And I think that it’s partly for our own sake that we want them to succeed.

Deronda is not perfect either, though he is a hero in every sense of the word. He is a man of high ideals and exquisite sympathies. But every now and then an irksome strain of prejudice trickles out. And while he maintains an almost symbolic role of deliverer in other lives than just Gwendolen’s, he often feels put upon, and balks–understandably–under the weight of other peoples’ souls. He’s a fascinating character. But I am left with the surprisingly uplifting idea that he’s not all that he could be. Not yet.

The towering strength of George Eliot’s fiction is that she leaves us with an undying idea of what might be in the lives of her characters long after the cover has closed on this portion of their journey. Will they succeed? Will they blossom and flourish in the ideals they have espoused? I think that even the headings of the various sections of the novel give great insight: the final one is titled Fruit and Seed.

Will the fruit set? Will the seed bear? It remains to be seen. But I can say without equivocation that yet another seed has been planted in my mind by George Eliot’s mighty pen.

It is better with me because I have known her. I hail her genius with a heart that quakes before it.

A Note on Simplicity

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

One of the most poignant observations that the precocious Laura Timmins makes in Lark Rise to Candleford comes near the end of the third book, Candleford Green. Uniquely poised in history as a young girl watching an old order give way to the new, she comments on the differences between the housewives of her mother’s generation and those of that immediately following. Endowed with so many of the choices and conveniences provided by the Industrial Revolution, these younger women had come to expect a standard of living much higher than that within which Laura had grown up. They had finer, newer homes, wood floors and store-bought furniture and curios.

But, as Laura so candidly wonders, where they really happier than the women in their tiny cottages with polished stone hearths and a bit of a garden out back?

Everything was beautifully kept, furniture and floors were highly polished, windows gleamed, curtains and counterpanes were immaculate, and the little kitchen at the back of the house was a model of neatness. Laura found out afterwards that Mrs. Green worked herself nearly to death. With only one child and a house only a little larger than theirs, she worked twice the number of hours and spent ten times the energy of the cottage women. They, standing at their doors with their arms folded, enjoying a gossip with a neighbor, would often complain that a woman’s work was never done; but the Mrs. Greens were working away while they gossiped and, afterwards, when they were indoors having a ‘set down with a cup o’ tay’, the Mrs. Greens, wearing gloves, were polishing the silver. For of course forks and spoons and any other objects possessed by a Green housewife were known collectively as ‘the silver’, even if there was not one single hallmark to be seen upon any of them.

Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford, p. 552,53

It’s worth considering. The more choices, it seems, the more room there is for comparison with others and expectations of ourselves.

And it certainly makes me want to pause over that one more purchase of a thing to be cared for. I think I’d much rather spend the money on some lovely tea and invest the time in a long chat with a friend. 🙂

Afternoon Tea

Lark Rise to Candleford

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

The hamlet stood on a gentle rise in the flat, wheat-growing  north-east corner of Oxfordshire. We will call it Lark Rise because of the great number of skylarks which made the surrounding fields their springboard and nested on the bare earth between the rows of green corn…

Peasant Woman with a Cow, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1865-1870

Peasant Woman with a Cow, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1865-1870

Thus opens Flora Thompson’s gentle masterpiece of rural life in an England that was just beginning to feel the benefits–and the drawbacks–of the Industrial Revolution. By times witty and elegiac, this combined collection of  three original works (Lark Rise, Over to Candleford and Candleford Green) is a haunting and detailed chronicle of a world that is no more; a world that had existed for centuries previous and which ended abruptly with one generation. With an eye as keen as only love could make it, Flora Thompson, by way of her thinly-veiled little fictional counterpart, Laura Timmins, paints a picture of the life she knew among the fields and hedgerows, in her father’s garden and at her mother’s humble but well-stocked table (“there was never enough of anything except food”), in the shades of her beloved woods and in the comparatively elegant streets of the neighboring village of Candleford. Through Laura’s eyes we see the men savoring their meager half-pints at ‘The Wagon and Horses’ after a grueling day in the fields and watch the women over their well-deserved teas at one house or another:

These tea-drinkings were never premeditated. One neighbor would drop in, then another, and another would be beckoned to from the doorway or fetched in to settle some disputed point. Then someone would say, “How about a cup o’ tay?” and they would all run home to fetch a spoonful, with a few leaves over to help make up the spoonful for the pot.

With a sensitivity that is never mere sentiment, Flora Thompson gives us an honest assessment of the life of the poor: the tiny cottages too small for the ever-growing families that occupied them; the privations resultant of ‘enclosure’ acts which kept them in a station of life we would deem below poverty level, the ceaseless occupation of mothers endeavoring to cover the bodies if not the feet of their children as they went out to school or to work in the ‘larger world’. But there is a beauty, even in the harshness of reality, and an original truth undergirding the simple rustic lives she portrays. Perhaps water must needs be drawn from a common well on the outskirts of the hamlet (and in times of drought they “just had to get their water where and how they could”), perhaps milk was a rare luxury and “for boots, clothes, illness, holidays, amusements, and household renewals there was no provision whatever”. But in spite of such struggles for existence–or, perhaps, because of them–that existence was in many ways an enviable thing to those of us jaded and dazed by the overwhelming complexities of the current age.

The Apple Gatherers, Frederick Morgan

The Apple Gatherers, Frederick Morgan

I’d never so much as dare to suggest that their lives were easier than ours, in the purely practical sense of the word; in almost every way they were harder, grittier, leaner. But there was an abundance in all the rustic rituals and dearly-earned pleasures, a fundamental simplicity that, quite frankly, made my heart ache to read of at times. Flora Thompson writes with such an honest beauty that the images of Harvest Home suppers and May Day customs long-since abandoned seem to voice their own appeal for the traditions of the past and lure our hearts to any and all of the various roots from which we have sprung. From her descriptions (and oftentimes adorable commentary!) she affords her readers a privileged view of life as it really was, and that in staggering detail. And all without the slightest shade of condescension or petty moralizing that would ruin the confiding tone and reduce its timeless truths to mere curiosities of a vanished era.

As it is, Lark Rise to Candleford is a gift and a gem, and a kind pluck at the sleeve to the modern reader tempted to exchange community for all the things purchased with its price on the world’s market. Though she never says it outright, it seems to breathe in every well-crafted line: Don’t despise the old because it’s old, or overvalue the new because it’s novel. Don’t sacrifice the verities simply because they are invisible.

Don’t forget where from whence  you’ve come.

But, in spite of their poverty and the worry and anxiety attending it, they were not unhappy, and, though poor, there was nothing sordid about their lives. ‘The nearer the bone the sweeter the meat’, they used to say, and they were getting very near the bone from which their country ancestors had fed. Their children and children’s children would have to depend wholly upon whatever was carved for them from the communal joint, and for their pleasure upon the mass enjoyments of a new era. But for that generation there was still a small picking left to supplement the weekly wage. They had their home-cured bacon, their ‘bit o’ leazings’, their small wheat or barley patch on the allotment; their knowledge of herbs for their homely simples, and the wild fruits and berries of the countryside for jam, jellies and wine, and round about them as part of their lives were the last relics of country customs and the last echoes of country songs, ballads and game rhymes. This last picking, though meagre, was sweet.

L'angelus, Jean Francois Millet

L'Angelus, Jean Francois Millet

Please give yourself the pleasure of this beautiful trilogy. It’s a treasure that would not have come into existence but for a remarkably observant little girl and the remarkably insightful woman that she became.

all quotations from Lark Rise to Candleford, copyright 1939, 1941 and 1943 by Flora Thompson