Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Historical Novels

Top Ten TuesdayHistorical fiction is my favorite genre, and I’m not sure I could pick an adequate top ten. There are so many great books that fit into this genre. You can find my list below with the following caveats: I simply haven’t had a chance to read a lot of great historical fiction that’s out there yet, so this list is necessarily limited to just those books I have experience with, and also I have decided not to include classics that were set during their own contemporary times but are history now (e.g. [amazon_link id=”0486284735″ target=”_blank” ]Pride and Prejudice[/amazon_link] or [amazon_link id=”1441408223″ target=”_blank” ]Jane Eyre[/amazon_link]). Also, these are in no particular order (aside from the order in which they occurred to me) because I couldn’t begin to rank them. Finally, I selected these particular books out of all the historical fiction I have read and loved because they so perfectly evoke their time settings that they bring the historical eras in which they are set alive (with historical accuracy) and simply couldn’t take place any other time.

  1. [amazon_link id=”034549038X” target=”_blank” ]The Dante Club[/amazon_link] by Matthew Pearl: Not only is this book a solid thriller with fun connections to Dante’s [amazon_link id=”0812967216″ target=”_blank” ]Inferno[/amazon_link] and the Fireside Poets, but it is also a great snapshot into life in Boston right after the Civil War. In terms of period detail and engaging reads, you could do worse than Matthew Pearl for sure.
  2. [amazon_link id=”0780748433″ target=”_blank” ]Catherine, Called Birdy[/amazon_link] by Karen Cushman: This is a middle grades/early YA novel set in 1290 in England. Catherine is the daughter of a knight, and Cushman captures the Middle Ages (particularly, the lives of a family in a small manor house) in exquisite detail.
  3. [amazon_link id=”0152164502″ target=”_blank” ]The Coffin Quilt[/amazon_link] by Ann Rinaldi: The subject of this YA novel is the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. Told from the viewpoint of Fanny McCoy, the novel touches on all the major events of the feud and is simply one of the most well-written YA novels I’ve ever read.
  4. [amazon_link id=”0345521307″ target=”_blank” ]The Paris Wife[/amazon_link] by Paula McLain: This novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage and time in Paris perfectly captures the lives of the American artist expatriates living in France during the 1920’s. It’s a gorgeous novel.
  5. [amazon_link id=”1565125606″ target=”_blank” ]Water for Elephants[/amazon_link] by Sara Gruen: This isn’t just great historical fiction. It really captures an era and a subculture that I’ve not seen captured as well in any other novel. Superb read.
  6. [amazon_link id=”0765356155″ target=”_blank” ]Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell[/amazon_link] by Susanna Clarke: While also classified as fantasy, this novel also explores England during the Napoleonic Wars, including brushes with Mad King George and Lord Byron as well as the Duke of Wellington. The footnotes are a great touch. I loved this novel.
  7. [amazon_link id=”039331507X” target=”_blank” ]Nothing Like the Sun[/amazon_link] by Anthony Burgess: I don’t think I’ve read another historical fiction book about Shakespeare that touches this one. Burgess’s characters speak like Elizabethans, and the events described are both believable and fun homages to Shakespeare’s plays. The premise behind the book is that Shakespeare’s tangled love life majorly influenced all of his work.
  8. [amazon_link id=”B000FC10KC” target=”_blank” ]Ahab’s Wife[/amazon_link] by Sena Jeter Naslund: Oh, how I love Una Spenser. She is my fictional BFF. She is amazing. I need to read this one again. As you might have guessed, this book takes the passage in [amazon_link id=”B003GCTQ7M” target=”_blank” ]Moby Dick[/amazon_link] in which Captain Ahab mentions he has a young wife at home and creates her character and her life (and it’s a fascinating life that, in my opinion, puts that of her husband to shame).
  9. [amazon_link id=”0061577073″ target=”_blank” ]The Poisonwood Bible[/amazon_link] by Barbara Kingsolver: This novel about Christian missionaries in the Belgian Congo right as the country declares its independence from Belgium is a fascinating snapshot into the Congo of the 1960’s as well as the lives of Christian missionaries and also serves as an allegory for America’s own role in colonialism.
  10. [amazon_link id=”0061990477″ target=”_blank” ]The Thorn Birds[/amazon_link] by Colleen McCullough: When I read this novel, I couldn’t put it down. I haven’t read a lot of books set in Australia, but this novel seems to so perfectly capture the times and setting. Meggie is an engaging heroine, and who doesn’t love Father Ralph de Bricassart?

Because I read a ton of historical fiction, I need to include some honorable mentions:

  • [amazon_link id=”0547550294″ target=”_blank” ]The Witch of Blackbird Pond[/amazon_link] by Elizabeth George Speare: This YA novel is set in Colonial Massachusetts and is a great vehicle for middle schoolers (or even their older siblings and parents) to learn about that time period in history. I can’t think of too many books that do as good a job with this era.
  • [amazon_link id=”0312378025″ target=”_blank” ]The Tea Rose[/amazon_link] by Jennifer Donnelly: This book is a fun read, but has a few lapses in terms of credibility (at least for this reader). Set in Whitechapel as Jack the Ripper ravages London, this novel is the story of Fiona, daughter of one of the Ripper’s victims, who makes her way to New York and builds a tea empire from scratch.
  • [amazon_link id=”B001NLKT2E” target=”_blank” ]The Commoner[/amazon_link] by John Burnham Schwartz: This story of a commoner’s marriage into the Japanese imperial family makes for a great read, too, though Schwartz takes some liberties to make his character’s ending happier than that of the real model for his heroine.
  • [amazon_link id=”0060515139″ target=”_blank” ]A Plague of Doves[/amazon_link] by Louise Erdrich: Some of this novel is contemporary, which is one reason I didn’t include it above, but it is one of the finest novels I’ve read and concerns the repercussions of a murder and hate crime that sent ripples through a community for generations.
  • [amazon_link id=”B003WUYROK” target=”_blank” ]The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane[/amazon_link] by Katherine Howe: Also partly set in contemporary times, this novel concerns Connie Goodwin’s attempts to learn more about her ancestors’ grimoire and secret powers.
  • [amazon_link id=”0399157913″ target=”_blank” ]The Help[/amazon_link] by Kathryn Stockett: While this book certainly evoked Mississippi of the 1960’s, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, it did not seem as realistic to me as some of the books I included in my top ten.
  • [amazon_link id=”0307588661″ target=”_blank” ]Madame Tussaud[/amazon_link] by Michelle Moran: This novel, set during the French Revolution, was an excellent read and shone a spotlight on a historical figure who hasn’t perhaps received as much attention as she was due.
  • [amazon_link id=”0143034901″ target=”_blank” ]The Shadow of the Wind[/amazon_link] by Carlos Ruiz Zafón: Barcelona’s book world during the 1930’s and 1940’s, though to me, the plot did not have to be set during era or in that place.
  • [amazon_link id=”0451202503″ target=”_blank” ]The Songcatcher[/amazon_link] by Sharyn McCrumb: Again, because this novel is set partly in contemporary times, I excluded it from the list above, but the historical fiction parts were my favorite. This novel is the story of how a song learned on the crossing from Scotland to America in the eighteenth century was passed down in a family and survived to the present day.
  • [amazon_link id=”039306915X” target=”_blank” ]Emily’s Ghost[/amazon_link] by Denise Giardina: The story of Emily Brontë and one of the better historical fiction novels about the Brontë family.
  • Pretty much anything by Jude Morgan. Love him. And Syrie James. And Tracy Chevalier. I mean, this was really a hard topic for me to narrow down.
Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Books of 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday—how appropriate! What are my top ten books of 2011. Note: Not all of these books were published in 2011, but I read all of them in 2011.

  1. [amazon_link id=”0385737645″ target=”_blank” ]Revolution[/amazon_link] by Jennifer Donnelly (review): This part-contemporary YA novel/part time-travel story awakened an interest in the French Revolution that I previously did not have (I know, right?). I loved the musical aspect and had a lot of fun discussing this book with students who chose to read it for their summer reading selection. I wish Amadé Malherbeau were real!
  2. [amazon_link id=”1565125606″ target=”_blank” ]Water for Elephants[/amazon_link] by Sara Gruen (review): Jacob Jankowski is my BFF. I loved this story more than I thought I would. I didn’t think I’d like the circus aspect at all, but I found it fascinating.
  3. [amazon_link id=”1439156816″ target=”_blank” ]On Writing[/amazon_link] by Stephen King (review): This book is the best, most practical book about writing I’ve ever read, and its advice has already proven invaluable.
  4. [amazon_link id=”0451202503″ target=”_blank” ]The Songcatcher[/amazon_link] by Sharyn McCrumb (review): I love the idea of handing a song down from generation to generation, and as a family historian, I found that aspect of the novel particularly appealing. Sharyn McCrumb writers about her own ancestors in this novel.
  5. [amazon_link id=”0345521307″ target=”_blank” ]The Paris Wife[/amazon_link] by Paula McLain (review): Stories about the Lost Generation are interesting. I loved this take on what happened in Paris told more from Hadley Hemingway’s point of view than Ernest Hemingway’s (for a change).
  6. [amazon_link id=”1594744769″ target=”_blank” ]Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children[/amazon_link] by Ransom Riggs (review): This book was comical and completely engaging. I can’t wait for the sequel. I giggle every time I think of the Welsh teenagers trying to rap.
  7. [amazon_link id=”1400031702″ target=”_blank” ]The Secret History[/amazon_link] by Donna Tartt (review): I will never turn my back on a Classics major again. They are scary people.
  8. [amazon_link id=”0316068209″ target=”_blank” ]The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian[/amazon_link] by Sherman Alexie (review): I laughed all the way through this while still feeling empathy for Junior. Alexie is a gifted storyteller.
  9. [amazon_link id=”0312343698″ target=”_blank” ]Passion[/amazon_link] by Jude Morgan (review): I loved this novel of the lives of the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats told through the eyes of the women who loved them. Mary Shelley comes across as fascinating and sympathetic, and Caroline Lamb was downright engaging.
  10. [amazon_link id=”B0043RSJQS” target=”_blank” ]The Kitchen Daughter[/amazon_link] by Jael McHenry (review): As the mother of two children on the autism spectrum, this novel about an adult with Asperger’s was fascinating. I also liked the cooking aspect and learned a truly good recipe for brownies.
Friday Finds

Friday Finds—July 22, 2011

Friday FindsI wasn’t scouting for books much this week, but I also have to say I didn’t see too many that caught my interest.

No cover available for it yet, but I just found out that Jude Morgan is writing a book about William Shakespeare called [amazon_link id=”0755358236″ target=”_blank” ]The Secret Life of William Shakespeare[/amazon_link]. I just loved his books about the [amazon_link id=”0312343698″ target=”_blank” ]Romantic poets[/amazon_link] and the [amazon_link id=”B004P5OPAW” target=”_blank” ]Brontës[/amazon_link]. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for the release of that one.

I was looking around for more books set in France, and I found [amazon_link id=”0767904559″ target=”_blank” ]On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town[/amazon_link] by Susan Herrmann Loomis. Loomis bought a 14th century convent in Normandy and set up shop. The book has 50 recipes!

I also discovered [amazon_link id=”0670018775″ target=”_blank” ]My French Life[/amazon_link] by Vicki Archer. Like Loomis, Archer bought an ancient home—a seventeenth century farmhouse in Provence. I’m not jealous. I’m not jealous. I’m NOT jealous.

Can you imagine being able to pick everything up and move to the French countryside? Ah well, at least we can read about others who can.

I’m still on the lookout for more books like this, preferably fiction. Know of any?

[amazon_image id=”0767904559″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0670018775″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]My French Life[/amazon_image]

Passion, by Jude Morgan

Passion: A Novel of the Romantic PoetsAfter having finished Jude Morgan’s novel Passion, I feel emotionally spent. What a rollercoaster ride this aptly named novel has taken me on.

The novel begins as Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, attempts to commit suicide by drowning herself. It’s a story that’s been well known to me since college when I first encountered Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I was entranced by the story because I latched on to a curious detail: Wollstonecraft, mistreated by man in a world that didn’t appreciate her intellect, was bouyed by her skirts—the symbol of her femininity saved her, and later, it would take her away as she died following her daughter Mary’s childbirth. The rest of the novel unfolds as the lives of the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats are told through the voices of the women who loved them: Lady Caroline Lamb, Augusta Byron Leigh, Mary Shelley, and Fanny Brawne. At times the stories entwine as the women move in the same circles, and ultimately, each is left behind as the man she loved dies before her. How each woman resolves the issue of forging an identity separate from her lover is alluded to in the epilogue, but largely left unwritten.

If ever a book were written just for me, this book would be it. I have been devoted to the Romantic poets since high school. Jude Morgan not only manages to bring the poets and their lovers alive, but he also manages to do so with painstaking research and attention to historical detail. I was transported to another time where I knew and loved all of these people. Much of Morgan’s research has come from primary sources—letters, memoirs, diaries, and the like, for much of it reads exactly like the accounts from which they were drawn, but somehow sketched out in sharper relief. My favorite characters were probably Byron, Caroline Lamb, and Fanny Brawne, but truthfully, I enjoyed meeting everyone (although I kind of hated Claire Clairmont, which may have been Morgan’s intention). I felt wrung out with sadness as each of the poets died—the inevitable conclusion I knew would happen, but that I was still inexplicably unprepared for.

If I have one criticism of the book, it’s that it felt a little too unwieldy at times. Morgan never manages to lose control of the story, however, and even switching narrators and voices is no trouble. The reader can follow Morgan down each path. Keats’s story suffers the most in this large tale, while Byron and Shelley loom large on the page. Perhaps that is also a deeper message one can glean from the story—it was also thus, no? Towards the end of the book, Fanny Brawne reflects on Keats’s pronouncement that she is like a fire:

Oh, I would much rather be the fire. Think of the other elements: earth is rather too plain and sluggish, and I hope I have too much sense to be forever floating about in the air, and water has something too cool about it for my temper, which is, I know, a little too much on the lively side. (459)

It seemed as if all the women were described in that paragraph. I saw Augusta Leigh as like the earth, not “plain and sluggish,” necessarily, but the bedrock, the only solid thing in Byron’s life. Earthy would be a great adjective to describe her. And if Brawne sees someone “floating about in the air” as having little sense, then air is Caro Lamb, who threw her dignity, happiness, and family away for a mad obsession for Byron. Mary Shelley, then, is water, cool, collected, sometimes too passionless for Shelley, who often compared her to the moon in his poetry—not to mention that life-claiming water seemed to be a recurring theme of Mary Shelley’s life.

What a wonderful book. I would give it infinity stars if I could. I never mark my books (no trouble highlighting a Kindle and taking notes, but somehow I feel I’m defacing my books if I write in them), but I found I had to mark passages and talk back to this story, at least a little. I certainly can’t think of too many other books I’ve read that have had me doing as much research and reading about its subjects as this one. A new favorite. The title is perfect in all senses of the word, but don’t let the cover scare you off—it’s pretty, but makes the book seem too frivolous and light. Mary Shelley seems to capture the essence of this book in one sentence: “How can you love someone so much, and not understand them at all?” (383).

Rating: ★★★★★

I read this book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. I’ve read four now. Eleven more to go.

http://www.danahuff.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/GRC.jpg

The story of the writing of Frankenstein and some of the literal Byronic hero qualify this book as my first read for the Gothic Reading Challenge. Nineteen to go on that challenge. I must have been crazy.

I’m going to have to puzzle over where to put this on the Where Are You Reading Challenge because these guys went all over Europe. I guess England.

Fanny Brawne

Fanny Brawne

Ambrotype of Fanny Brawne ca. 1850

As I wrap up reading Jude Morgan’s Passion (I have about 100 pages to go), I think I’ve developed a girl-crush on Fanny Brawne. Fanny Brawne was John Keats’s fiancée and muse for some of his poetry. While perhaps not classically beautiful, she had something of wit and charm about her that reminds me of a Jane Austen heroine. While I understand Morgan’s book is fiction, his novel is not the only such fictional account to portray her this way: the Jane Campion film Bright Star , starring Abbie Cornish as Fanny and Ben Whishaw as Keats, also characterizes Fanny as a sparkling wit and a gifted fashion designer.

Bright Star

Ever since I picked up Morgan’s novel (and, I admit, since I saw Bright Star last month), I have been learning all I can about the late Romantic poets—Byron, Shelley, and Keats. I took a course in college in Late Romantic Literature, and as I learn and I read, I can’t help but wonder what my professor for that course must think of Passion and Bright Star.

Bright Star

One of the things I’ve learned is that Fanny’s reputation in the nineteenth century was much maligned by both Keats’s friends and literary scholars who seemed to feel Fanny undeserving of Keats’s devotion. Keats’s friend Charles Brown seemed to feel Fanny was a capricious flirt who toyed with Keats’s affections. In any case, many of Keats’s friends felt Fanny was bad for Keats. On the other hand, he was at his most prolific while in love with Fanny, and many critics believe some of his famous works, such as the sonnet “Bright Star,” were written about Fanny:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

Bright Star

Fanny Brawne was largely unknown to Keats scholarship until the publication of Keats’s letters to her in 1878. R. H. Stoddard criticized their publication:

Miss Fanny Brawne made John Keats ridiculous in the eyes of his friends in his lifetime, and now she (through her representatives) makes him ridiculous in the eyes of the world.  She (and they) have had fifty-seven years in which to think about it; she forty-four years as maid and wife; they thirteen years as her children.  Why did she keep his letters all those years?  What could she keep them for but to minister to her vanity, and to remind her that once upon a time a crazy young English poet was desperately in love with her, was her captive and her slave?  What else could she keep them for?  She revered the memory of Keats, did she?  This is how she revered it…. I have two more questions to ask: What motive actuated the descendants of Fanny Brawne in allowing the publication of this objectionable book?  Could there be any motive other than that of lucre?

Fanny saved Keats’s letters and left them to her children after she died in 1865. If John Keats meant nothing to her, why did she wear mourning for six years after his death? Why save these letters? Stoddard would argue that she hoped they’d be valuable, but she cannot have known that as it took some time after Keats’s death for his work to be appreciated. Later on, she must have thought they might be valuable or she would not have entrusted them to her children. It is known she had to sell a miniature of Keats that she had kept for years after his death. Stoddard criticizes Fanny for not burning the letters, but these letters are widely considered to be among the most romantic letters ever written. Why would any woman burn them?

Bright Star

It would seem that after Fanny’s letters to Keats’s sister Fanny Keats were published in 1937 by the Oxford University Press, the tide turned for Fanny, who was revealed to have truly loved Keats: “If I am to lose him I lose everything,” she declared in one letter written as Keats’s death neared.

Keats addressed Fanny in his letters as “My dearest girl,” and it is clear he was devastated not to be able to marry her. Fanny’s mother would not approve the marriage until Keats proved able to support Fanny, but that success came too late as Keats developed the consumption that had also taken his brother, Tom. Keats, a surgeon, recognized the signs of consumption only too well when he first began displaying symptoms.

Bright Star

The love story of Fanny Brawne and John Keats is one of the great love stories of literary history. It’s a shame that we do not have Fanny’s letters to Keats, which were destroyed by Keats’s request after his death, for we truly only have part of their story. In March 1820, Keats wrote to Fanny:

My dearest Fanny, I slept well last night and am no worse this morning for it. Day by day if I am not deceived I get a more unrestrain’d use of my Chest. The nearer a racer gets to the Goal the more his anxiety becomes so I lingering upon the borders of health feel my impatience increase. Perhaps on your account I have imagined my illness more serious than it is: how horrid was the chance of slipping into the ground instead of into your arms—the difference is amazing Love—Death must come at last; Man must die, as Shallow says; but before that is my fate I feign [sic] would try what more pleasures than you have given so sweet a creature as you can give. Let me have another op[p]ortunity of years before me and I will not die without being remember’d. Take care of yourself dear that we may both be well in the Summer. I do not at all fatigue myself with writing, having merely to put a line or two here and there, a Task which would worry a stout state of the body and mind, but which just suits me as I can do no more.

Bright Star

One of my favorite dialogues between Keats and Fanny in Passion:

“Will you oblige me by leaning a little closer, Mr Keats? I wish to make Mr Swain jealous.”

Keats, emerging from his shade of watchful quietness, frowns. “I see no Mr Swain.”

“That’s because you don’t have my eyes. Everyone for me has two names, Mr Keats. The real one and the appropriate one. The real one is arbitrary and nonsensical. Would you say that I am characterized by brawn?”

“I might if you vexed me enough.”

“That is not gallant, and you know what I mean. Now when you assign a title to a poem, you don’t choose any old arbitrary words, do you? You choose a title that suits. So I call that gentleman with the thin legs and weak hair Mr Swain, because he is so exactly like a swain, or how I have always fancied a swain in poetry. Or, rather, not fancied it.”

“A sad fate for a fine old word. You would rather have a lover than a swain, then?”

“Mr Keats!”

“I speak of words. With words. If I lean towards you, Miss Brawne, I shall do it because I want to, not to save you from Mr Swain.”

“That would be an unpardonable liberty, and I only allow the pardonable ones. Besides, Mr Masterful has gone in to cards, and if I do any leaning in, I want him to see it and be jealous.”

He sits back, studying her. Those wide cheekbones: she has an acute image of a sculptor lightly pressing both thumbs into damp clay, creating him: stepping back from the beautiful intensity.

“My name for you,” he declares, “shall be Minx.”

“Why, I ought to be insulted.”

“You ought to be, indeed, on a daily basis: it might do you good.”

Images from Bright Star. Dir. Jane Campion. Perf. Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw. Pathé Renn, 2009. Film.

For more information, see The Life and Work of John Keats.

Atlanta

Reading Update: February 13, 2011

Atlanta

I met my parents for lunch today, and it was such a gorgeous day here in Atlanta that I felt required to play “Blue Skies” by the Allman Brothers on the ride home.

I am still reading and enjoying Passion by Jude Morgan. I am over halfway through with it and eyeing by TBR pile. I am also still plugging away at The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser, though I have been dipping into Passion more often. I think I’ve decided to give up on Jamaica Inn. I haven’t listened to it in weeks. It never really grabbed me, for whatever reason, and I guess I need to put something that will hold my interest better on my iPhone for commutes. So, I downloaded A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness with my Audible credit. I had been wanting to read that one anyway. I am not sure if that’s one that is better to read or listen to, but I think I’ll give the audio a shot.

Reading Update: February 5, 2011

Nottingham CastleHow much am I enjoying Jude Morgan’s novel Passion? Well, I am prolonging the reading of it so as to enjoy it more, which will not help me meet my goal of reading 50 books this year, nor will it help me finish any reading challenges.

Some favorite passages, most of which come from the viewpoint of Lady Caroline Lamb:

And when in 1802 the peace was declared, after nine years of war between England and France, the Duke [of Devonshire] sighed, “I dare say we can go over to Paris again now,” as if a good shop had reopened after a fire; and patted his dog’s head.

The Peace of Amiens: the two punch-drunk prizefighters unable to carry on any longer: “a genuine reconciliation between the two first nations of the world,” according to “Doctor” Addington, the new Prime Minister: the peace, quipped the wits, that passeth all understanding. Too much conceded to Bonaparte, securer now in power as First Consul than any king, and lording it over Europe: wouldn’t last: bad times ahead. But for now, a feeling of relief and freedom. The tight little island had begun to seem like a prison. The fashionable world packed its trunks and headed for the Channel. Of course Boney and his upstart crew were devils, but who could resist a little tour of hell, just to see what it was like?

The Duke did not go, in the end, because of his gout. But everyone else did—”everyone,” in this case being roughly the whole section of English society that in France would have be guillotined. (84)

On Lord Byron:

It appeared to her [Lady Melbourne] highly probable that a man in his situation, and possessing those undoubted qualities that acrimony could not hide, nor dissipation impair, must seek sooner or later to leave behind the sins of his youth, and embark upon a new and restorative course. Lady Melbourne dropt one or two hints in that direction, the full import of which her niece [Annabella Milbanke] did not chuse to construe; though she must admit it as a truth universally acknowledged that a single man not in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. (170)

Caroline Lamb, on the dissolution of her liaison with Byron:

Well, here is a thought for you. Now let me see if I can take you over the fences of this one. You’ll agree that there are times in your life that are happier than others—yes? And so out of all those there must be one time that is the happiest—yes?—just as among some trees that are taller than others, there must be one that is tallest of all even if only by an inch—yes? Thus there must be one period of time in your whole life that is, take all in all, the happiest, the truest, the most fulfilled, the best. So.

What if that time has already been and gone?

And you know it?

No, no—I’m quite well—I just fancied I heard my grandmother’s ghost at last. Saying that in her day they did not think of such things.

Well for them, perhaps. Part of me does long to lace up my feelings in that narrow bodice and tread that old narrow path. But I think it is closed off to us now, whether we like it or not.

Do I think my best time has gone? Why—how could I go on living, if so? (181)

And in a line worthy of Violet, Dowager Countess Grantham from Downton Abbey (played expertly by Dame Maggie Smith), Lady Melbourne to Lord Byron, on his affair with her daughter-in-law, Lady Caroline Lamb:

Lord Byron, how do you do? I am so used to seeing you disappearing upstairs, you must forgive my staring at your near and frontal approach. (181)

You know, with all the strange connections between historical persons in the Regency—William Lamb, Lady Caroline’s husband and Lady Melbourne’s son, would become Visount Melbourne, Prime Minister and mentor to Queen Victoria. His first cousin, Annabella Milbanke, would be Lord Byron’s wife, the Duke of Devonshire married to Georgiana Spencer and uncle and aunt to Lady Caroline—the time period begins to look almost as incestuous as Byron’s love affair with Augusta Byron Leigh.

Ba-dum-bum-psshh.

At any rate, it makes one think the period sounds like a game of six degrees of separation from Romantic poets.

photo credit: PeterXIII

Percy Bysshe Shelley

My Crush on Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819, by Amelia Curran

I wrote yesterday about Byron, and despite completely understanding Byron’s appeal, it is Shelley I have the crush on.

I probably first encountered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry in twelfth grade. I can’t think of any reason I would have encountered him before that time. I did a group project on his poem “Ozymandias” with two classmates. We videotaped ourselves as the Shelleys and his “inspiration,” a basketball player who was past his prime and whose talent would quickly vanish, which I have to say was probably not a bad modernization of the text’s theme. Shopping in the bookstore with my parents, I found a Norton anthology of Shelley’s poetry and prose and had to have it. My dad bought it for me, and he must have been scratching his head over the purchase something fierce because what normal twelfth grader wants a Norton anthology of a British Romantic poet’s work? Even I would wonder what was up with such a kid if I met one today, but I have a sneaking suspicion I was on the extremely rare side in that particular area.

So I read some of the other poems in the Norton, and I was particularly entranced by Epipsychidion, a word Shelley made up which means “on the subject of the little soul.” This poem is about S-E-X. It is transcendent, a connection of souls. It’s written for a woman named Teresa Viviani with whom Shelley was quite enamored, but who was inaccessibly confined in a convent by her father. Just imagine! It reminds me of Romeo’s declaration that Rosaline’s decision to “remain chaste” in fact “makes huge waste.” In the poem, Shelley calls Viviani “Emilia,” the name of Hippolyta’s sister as described in The Teseida by Boccaccio. Later, Geoffrey Chaucer would rework the story in “The Knight’s Tale,” and Shakespeare and John Fletcher as Two Noble Kinsmen. Emilia, or Emily, desires to remain chaste also, but she has the misfortune to be spied by Palamone and Arcita, who fall in love with her on sight (because that’s what you do). I am much more familiar with Chaucer’s version of the story, so I’ll discuss it for a moment (still with me? bored out of your skull yet?).

In Chaucer’s story, Palamon and Arcite (same dudes, different spelling) are cousins who are like brothers. They are among the Thebans who fought against Theseus’s forces. They are captured and imprisoned in Athens, and it is from their prison window that first Palamon, then Arcite, spy Emily. They fall in love with her at first sight, but they can’t have her because they’re in prison. Eventually Arcite is released from prison, but is exiled from Athens, while Palamon remains behind bars. This scenario prompts the Knight to ask the company who has it worse: Palamon, who is imprisoned, but who can still look on Emily’s beauty from his prison window, or Arcite, who is free, but cannot see Emily. I usually ask students how they would answer the Knight’s question. How would you?

I won’t go too far into the rest of the story, but suffice it to say the men have really only fallen in love with Emily from afar. They don’t really know her, and in fact, no one really cares what she wants in all of this, which is to be a nun. Women didn’t get to choose so much in Emily’s day, however, so she eventually weds one of the cousins, and I won’t tell you which because I hope you’ll read the story. What Emily represents is the Knight’s ideal—an example of the lady on the pedestal. Of course, the Miller tells his story next, concerning men and women who are a little nearer to the earth.

At any rate, Shelley choosing that particular nickname for his beloved is fraught with all sorts of meaning. She is the unattainable Emilia, only she is imprisoned rather than her lover (presumably Shelley). Idealized, not real. Not really Teresa Viviani, but his hope for perfection.  He compares his wife, Mary Shelley, to the moon—cold, chaste. Teresa is the sun (can’t help but think of Romeo and Juliet once again).

I don’t know why, but I developed a sort of crush on Shelley that has lasted since twelfth grade, over 20 years now. I don’t think Shelley was particularly nice, at least not to his wives, and I’m not sure what it is about him. He is on the page, and his opinions and beliefs shine forth in clear language, but even after all this time, I don’t feel I really know him. He is still a mystery. I am looking forward to seeing how Jude Morgan gives him flesh and life. I have no trouble imagining Byron or Keats as real people, but Shelley has remained elusive. He is, in that way, like Emilia himself. All the descriptions I’ve read of him tend toward the idealized. I hope Morgan is able to make him walk on the ground.

See Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family.

Lord Byron

Byron Was a Bad, Bad Boy

Lord Byron
Portrait by Richard Westall

Byron seems to be cropping up on my radar a lot lately. Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time recently recorded a discussion of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. I subscribe to the podcast in iTunes and listened to it during my work commute last week. My favorite part:

Melvyn Bragg: Then he left [England] in 1816, as it happens never to return, but he left notorious—he was hissed in theatres, he was hissed in the House of Lords. He was more than a scandal; he was an outrage. They wanted him out—out of the country, off the island. What had happened?

Emily Bernhard Jackson: Well, he had had an affair with his half-sister, um, of some duration, uh—

Melvyn Bragg: And that got out.

Emily Bernhard Jackson: That got out. Although, interestingly, what seems to have caused more problems were the rumours that he had practised homosexuality in the East, that he had attempted to perform sodomy with his wife and with Lady Caroline Lamb, both. Um, these were all rumours. There was a—when the Byrons separated, Lady Byron mounted a kind of campaign to make sure that she would come out well, a very modern campaign, and part of that was spreading these rumours. Um—

Melvyn Bragg: What credence do you give them?

Emily Bernhard Jackson: I would say he certainly had an affair with his sister. I would stay that’s beyond question, although he didn’t announce it to the world. I give full credence to all of them.

I think it says something kind of weird about me that I laughed when Professor Jackson said that last sentence, mainly because she set it up to sound like a smear campaign headed by Lady Byron, Annabella Milbanke, but a true one.

Annabella Byron, 1812
Annabella Byron, 1812 via Wikipedia

Caroline Lamb famously described Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” and Melvyn Bragg and his guests hypothesized that Byron’s bad-boy reputation helped move copies of his books off the shelves. The Corsair sold 10,000 copies on its first day, apparently.

Byron will also be a character in the book I’m currently enjoying immensely: Passion by Jude Morgan—the story of the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats as told through the voices of the women who loved them.

I have to admit that when I teach Byron, I can be somewhat irreverent, and it is my hope that Byron, wherever he is (I’m sure many folks would say hell), enjoys it a little. I think he liked being famous. One of my favorite ways to describe Byron’s death is that he was bored, so he decided to sail for Messolonghi and fight for Greek independence because that’s what you do.

He sounds like he would have been one of those guys who was fascinating to have as an acquaintance, but maddening to have as a close friend or lover. Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist, expert on bipolar disorder, and author of Touched with Fire and The Unquiet Mind, speculates that Byron was bipolar, which would explain a lot about some of the choices he made in life. It also explains much of his behavior—by turns magnetic and charismatic, then frightening and cruel. Certainly he describes suffering from melancholy.

“My Soul is Dark”

My soul is dark—Oh! quickly string
The harp I yet can brook to hear;
And let thy gentle fingers fling
Its melting murmurs o’er mine ear.
If in this heart a hope be dear,
That sound should charm it forth again:
If in these eyes there lurk a tear,
‘Twill flow, and cease to burn my brain.

But bid the strain be wild and deep,
Nor let thy notes of joy be first:
I tell thee, minstrel, I must weep,
Or else this heavy heart will burst;
For it hath been by sorrow nursed,
And ached in sleepless silence long;
And now ’tis doom’d to know the worst,
And break at once—or yield to song.

When I read this poem, which seems to discuss Byron’s emotions on hearing music, I can’t help but notice the title seems to infer it’s really about his own turbulent feelings—the frustration he felt over being emotionally damaged or deranged in some way. His poetry must have been one of the few outlets he had for making himself feel better—his heart would “break at once—or yield to song.” And yet, he’s not without a sense of dark humor about himself. Thomas Medwin reports in The Angler in Wales, Or Days and Nights of Sportsmen, Vol. 2 that in discussion of an upcoming attack on the Castle of Lepanto in which he would act as commander-in-chief,

“I do not know how it will end,” said his Lordship, gaily, “but one thing is certain, there is no fear of my running,” at the same time glancing at his lame foot. (214)

I leave you with some audio of one of Byron’s most famous poems, “She Walks in Beauty,” set to music by Isaac Nathan. Nathan’s melodies for Byron’s poems (Hebrew Melodies) have largely been forgotten, but Byron’s poetry remains. This audio is from Romantic Era Songs.

She Walks in Beauty

Reading Update: September 20, 2010

On the platform, reading

Friday was my birthday, and my parents usually send me a book gift card. The last few years, it’s been an Amazon card because I can get books shipped for free. An added bonus this year is that I can buy books for my Kindle instead. I haven’t spent all of it, but here is my haul to date:

I have been wanting a NKJV Bible for some time, and reviewers gave high marks to this study Bible. I think I will like having the annotations, and the NKJV is my favorite translation. Passion is the story of the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats told through the point of view of the women who loved them. That sounds absolutely fascinating to me. From Slave Ship to Freedom Road is a children’s book by Julius Lester. The artwork is superb, and it tells the story of slavery like no other book I’ve read. I have actually used it with my students before and since I’m teaching American literature again, I decided to pick it up. Dracula, My Love is a new novel by Syrie James, whose previous work I have really enjoyed. As a bonus, I can read Dracula, My Love for the R.I.P. Challenge if I finish The Heretic’s Daughter and have time for more books—and I don’t see why I shouldn’t, as it’s not even October, and I’m nearly halfway finished with that book.

Wuthering BitesI’ve started Jamaica Inn on audio, or rather I will when I catch up on my podcasts. That book, too, can be counted as an R.I.P. Challenge book, and then I will have four, which means I can move up a level in commitment. Of course, my department chair also gave me Wuthering Bites, the latest mashup novel in the tradition of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and Jane Slayre. Heathcliff is supposed to be a vampire, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it. OK, I admit it looks good. We’ll have to see if my sense of humor can handle mocking my favorite book.

This week is the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, and as I work in a Jewish school, I have a half day on Wednesday and no school Thursday and Friday. I am excited to have some time to read. The first draft of my portfolio for grad school is finished, so I am not anticipating a ton of grad school work to impede my enjoyment of half a week off. I plan to spend the time reading.

Amazon sent me my replacement Kindle, I’ve sent the broken one back, and the new one is already up and running and loaded with good reads. What are you reading?

photo credit: Mo Riza