Posts Tagged ‘reading’

The haul

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

Hello, friends. If you celebrated Christmas, I hope you had a warm, joyful, peaceful holiday. Today, I thought I’d share with you my haul: the books I received as well as the ones I gave.

My brother, whose gifts are always always ALWAYS food-themed, in the best possible way, gave me Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.

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I’d already found a few of Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s recipes online and some of their flavour combinations sound like magic. I also love cookbooks with a strong sense of place and culture.

This next one was entirely my 7yo son’s idea: Debbie Bliss’s The Knitter’s Book of Knowledge.

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My grandmother taught me how to knit (but not purl or cast on/off) when I was about eight, so I’ve always expected that I’d find my way back to knitting someday. What I can’t explain is how my son might have divined that…

The last book I received is from Nick, who knows me better than anyone and therefore doesn’t hesitate to give me the kinds of books you might buy an 80-year-old man: Special Operations Executive Manual: How to Be an Agent in Occupied Europe.

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And now, of course, I’m wondering if there’s a parallel manual for Force 136, SOE’s counterpart in Southeast Asia… entirely for research purposes, of course.

I gave Nick a copy of Summer World, by Bernd Heinrich.

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He’s a big fan of Bernd Heinrich in general, and still stuns me on a regular basis with facts from its companion book, Winter World.

A couple of months ago, I lucked across a copy of Sarah Thornton’s 7 Days in the Art World at a used-book sale. It was like a sign: we’ve both been meaning to read it for some time, so I also got Nick a copy of Thornton’s more recent book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts.

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Nick’s already raving about it and I can’t wait to read it myself.

I have incredibly fond memories of my Grade 3 teacher, Mrs. West, reading aloud to us from Tom’s Midnight Garden.

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It felt like forever between installments – maybe a couple of times a week? – and that reading time is one of my best memories of elementary school. I couldn’t wait to pass on the experience to my son.

Regular blog readers will know that my 7yo is thoroughly obsessed with dogs, so Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie is his perfect companion book.

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Often, magical realism in adult fiction doesn’t sit well with me but I really enjoyed DiCamillo’s use of it here.

I also have a treasured memory of reading Blueberries for Sal as a child. I’m not sure where I encountered it – probably at school – but my 4yo adores blueberries, bears, and stories about mothers and children.

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As I’ve mentioned before, my 4yo is also a fierce and determined girl who looks strikingly like some of Yoshitomo Nara’s paintings.

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I fell in love with Nara’s work and I hope she does, too. Since we can’t afford a Nara painting, I thought we’d start with his picture book, The Lonesome Puppy.

And that’s my holiday bookstravaganza. What did you give or receive recently? Anything you’d particularly recommend to me?

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Sickbed lit

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

Is “sickbed literature” already a Thing? If it isn’t, it really needs to become a Thing.

I’ve been down for several days with a weird, nagging virus. (Remember when viruses used to mean either cough/cold/sore throat or gastro? Wasn’t life simpler, then?) However, the one bright side to this illness is that I’m still able to read. Here’s what I’ve been enjoying:

Palace of Spies and Dangerous Deceptions, the first two books in Sarah Zettel’s Palace of Spies series.

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They are delightfully lighthearted, twisty, early-eighteenth-century spy romps. Wigs and lapdogs and Jacobites, ftw! I’m really looking forward to the next installment.

Tamar, by Mal Peet. (I didn’t mean to create a spy theme; it just happened.)

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Set in Nazi-occupied Holland and 1990s England, Tamar is about wartime espionage and the long repercussions of secrecy. It’s making me think (in a really happy, productive way) about my own Second World War work-in-progress.

I’ve also read some dog-training books (we’re picking up Mac in under a week!), the most interesting and thoughtful of which are Plenty in Life is Free, by Kathy Sdao, and Train Your Dog Positively, by Victoria Stilwell.

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Both have really helped me to envision the kind of relationship I’d like our family to cultivate with our first dog. I’m sure we’ll make mistakes, but it’s good to have a plan and an ideal going in.

And that’s it for me, this week. Have you read anything particularly fine or delightful or memorable recently?

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On re-reading

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

Hello, friends. One morning last week, as I was still waking up, I had a moment of intense clarity about my work-in-progress: its shape is wrong. I need to restructure the first third of the novel.

As I’m less than halfway through a first draft, I did not welcome this insight. Indeed, I spent a couple of days squinting at the corpus-thus-far-assembled, giving it a poke here and a jab there, as though testing the monster’s reflexes. Still, I think my half-waking vision was accurate. Since then, I’ve made a pile of notes and shuffled some ideas. I can keep some of the sections already written, while others need to be excised. About half of it needs to be rewritten.

Happily, some of the changes I’m going to make mean that I also need to revisit one of my favourite books: Freddy Spencer Chapman’s The Jungle is Neutral. I’m SO EXCITED to spend more time with my historical boyfriend! (If you’re wondering who on earth Freddy Spencer Chapman is, I’ve blogged about him over at the History Girls.) I’m reading partly to re-ground myself, and also for a detailed timeline. For example, here’s a map that includes some of his journeys in the month of January 1941:

journeys in Malaya, January 1941

(Pedant alert: Freddy didn’t travel to Telok Anson that month. That leg of the journey is included for SECRET WRITERLY PURPOSES.)

But as much fun as I’m having plotting and mapping, the most thrilling part of re-reading The Jungle is Neutral is how much better I’m able to appreciate it. Freddy is as breathtakingly adventurous as ever, of course. But after two years’ research into wartime Malaya, I’m familiar with all the main players. I know the geography and natural landscape. I have a firm grasp on the politics. And I bring this richness of understanding to The Jungle is Neutral. Everything means more.

I make a habit of re-reading favourite novels every few years: Middlemarch, for example, grows and deepens for me every time. I recently read both The Trumpet of the Swan and Pippi Longstocking with my son, and adored them both all over again. Yet I’m not sure I’d have thought to do this with a work of non-fiction, until now. But it’s true, it’s true, it’s true.

Everything means more.

P. S. I finished Paul “Raj Quartet” Scott’s 1960 novel, The Chinese Love Pavilion, and blogged about it at the History Girls. If you read my original blog post, written when I was halfway through the novel, you’ll want to skip down a few paragraphs. If you haven’t… well, brace yourself!

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Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Hello, friends. I’m halfway through a novel by Paul Scott called The Chinese Love Pavilion. I know, I know: SKETCHY TITLE ALERT! Don’t worry: this is, and will remain, a PG-rated blog.

Paul Scott, The Chinese Love Pavilion

Cover of the 2013 edition (University of Chicago Press). The pavilion on the cover looks very little like the pavilion described in the novel.

Mostly, it’s research for my novel-in-progress (which is set in Malaya during the Second World War). The Chinese Love Pavilion (another suggestion from my well-read friend Mary Alice Downie) takes place mostly in Malaya just after the war, so I get to experience another writer’s vision of the place. I’d heard excellent things about Scott’s Raj Quartet – four linked novels set in India during the twilight of British colonial rule. I also knew the first novel of the quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, was adapted as a miniseries by the BBC in 1984 to massive acclaim.

The Chinese Love Pavilion, published in 1960, is about a friendship between two Englishmen in the colonies. The narrator, Tom Brent, is younger and in search of a shape for his life. He meets the unconventional, charismatic Brian Saxby in 1930s Bombay and, over the course of a whiskey-soaked evening, falls under his spell. This sets up the men for long conversations about the soul, fate, and the meaning of life. I have a limited tolerance for cod philosophy at the best of times, and that limit plummets when the “exotic” East is used as a picturesque backdrop for these kinds of musings. However, I stuck with it.

The story then skips over the Second World War and picks up in 1946 or so, when a war-injured Brent is brought to Malaya and instructed to find Saxby. Apparently, Saxby is hiding out the Malayan jungle and might be responsible for the revenge-slayings of some Chinese civilians. The metaphysical novel morphs into a kind of homage to Heart of Darkness, with Brent travelling deeper into jungle-dark territory to find his legendary but tortured friend. Promising, right?

Paul Scott, The Chinese Love Pavilion

An early edition

Actually, I can’t remember the last time I was this appalled by a well-reviewed novel. The self-indulgent metaphysical musings drove me nuts, but I am predisposed to like most things thriller-ish, and the pacing of the novel’s second half is excellent. Also, Scott is gifted with an extraordinary sense of place. His descriptions of the Malayan landscape are vivid and entirely convincing, and his eye for natural detail is impeccable.

However, there’s one massive problem with the novel that (from my current perspective, 3/4 of the way through) taints everything else it attempts: the way it handles prostitution. Women – specifically, the sexual services of young Indian and Chinese girls – are the common currency of this novel. I’m not exaggerating in the least. Here are three conversations from the novel, in the order they occur:

At a restaurant in Bombay, where Brent and Saxby have just dined:

“[The girls are] clean. Clean now, you understand, not later. Later the bloom goes. Disease enters.”

“Does he sell them too?”

“To us first. Honoured guests. Then to others.


When Brent visits Saxby after a three-year gap:

“The little one holding the curtain so patiently, is for you. She is an untouchable, and, I am told, a virgin.”

I looked from Saxby to the girl and back to Saxby. “That was very thoughtful of you.”

He smiled. He said, “I have always been accommodating to my friends.”


In small-town Malaya, where the officer-in-charge offers Brent the use of “his” designated prostitute:

“Did you like her?”

“Yes, I liked her.”

…”Well while you’re here she’s yours. It all comes under the contract but you’ll probably like to give her the occasional present.”

“It’s very hospitable of you. What about you?”

“I’ll manage, I expect.”

Do you see the progression here? Prostitution is first an economic fact, and then a gesture of welcome between friends, and finally a common courtesy, like a cigarette or a cup of tea. I wondered, at first, if this obsessive attention to prostitution could be read as a kind of critique of colonialism, or a comment on the moral effects of the British imperial project. But no.

In a still-later scene, Brent describes a prostitute named Suki “who by European standards was no more than a child and looked absurdly fragile in his beefy arms”. This is an isolated moment of light-hearted physical contrast in a novel that otherwise takes itself extremely seriously. Significantly, it features a young woman who, if she was “European” – that is, worthy of civilized treatment – would be “no more than a child”. I don’t think the word “beefy” is an accident, here. It’s an evocation of what’s familiarly, essentially English. And the “beefy” Englishman who holds Suki – a loud-mouthed but fundamentally loyal and reliable soldier – has the approval of all characters. Could the subtext be any clearer? Child prostitution is a harmless joke, as long as the women are brown and the men are white.

*Let us all pause for a moment to bellow in rage and disgust.*

I am going to finish this novel, because I need to be as thorough as possible in my research. I remain open to the possibility that I could be wrong, and that something towards the end of the book will demolish all my objections. But I’m sad and afraid I’m on the right track.

I have a terrible taste in my mouth right now. What are you reading, friends? What do you recommend to cheer me up, when this thing is over?

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Nona Baker

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

Hello, friends. I’m currently time-travelling in the colony formerly known as Malaya. I’m interested, specifically, in the Japanese occupation of Malaya during the Second World War and how different groups of Malayans responded to the threat.

Here in the west, many people don’t learn about WWII’s Pacific theatre of war at school. Certainly, my own education focused on France, Britain and Germany, with a dash of Russia and Italy, and a rousing finale by the United States of America. However, there was also a Pacific War and its Axis aggressor was Japan. The most famous incident in the Pacific War, the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, was just one part of a multi-pronged assault. On that same night in December, the Japanese simultaneously attacked Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines. The next month, the Japanese turned their attention to Burma, the Dutch East Indies, and northern Australia.

When the Japanese invaded Malaya in December 1941, the local population was an ethnic mixture of aboriginal peoples, Malays, Chinese, Indians, and a small percentage of white (mainly British) colonists who controlled the colony’s industry, politics and, of course, wealth. In the prelude to one of military history’s most ignominious defeats, the British failed to take the Japanese threat seriously. Their attitude is well represented by the the Governor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas: when informed of the invasion, he reportedly said, “Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off.” Far from shoving the little men off, however, “Fortress Singapore” fell to the Japanese in just 70 days.

By the time the British surrendered to the Japanese in February 1942, nearly all white civilians had evacuated – and had done so, very conspicuously, at the expense of the local non-white population. One remarkable exception to the white flight was Nona Baker, “a parson’s youngest daughter” from Dunstable, Bedfordshire.

Nona Baker

Nona Baker first travelled to Malaya to keep house for her brother, Vin (V. B. C. Baker), who was general manager of a mine at Sungei Lembing, “the single largest tin mine in the world”. Before the war, her brother was the most powerful man in the region, universally called Tuan Besar, or “Big Master” in the Malay language. Nona became known as Missie. Vin Baker seems to have been a classic Victorian paternalist in his management of the mine and his workers. Nona believes that “he was a king and father to the people, and they certainly adored him”.

When the Japanese invaded, Vin couldn’t conceive of a British defeat. Even as the Japanese advanced rapidly south through Malaya, Vin refused to leave his community. He made plans to hide in the jungle with Nona: after all, it would be only a matter of weeks, or perhaps a couple of months at most. Three trusted workers built Missie and Tuan Besar a hut in the jungle and stocked it with a primus stove, paraffin and tinned food. Still, denial prevailed. When the Japanese Army rolled into Sungei Lembing, Vin and Nona were quite rattled: “In the hurry of our departure, I had seized the tool kit from the car and taken it with me, instead of carrying something which might have been of some use.” They also forgot to bring any reading material, an omission they bitterly regretted during their long, idle days in hiding.

As it turns out, they weren’t in hiding for a few weeks or months. Nona Baker remained in the jungle for THREE YEARS. Despite the danger of being caught by the Japanese or betrayed by spies, their faithful servants visited them every ten days in the jungle to bring them fresh food, coffee, paraffin and news. (The servants also had Vin’s false teeth repaired, again at immense personal risk: the dentist who fixed the dentures recognized that they were made in Europe.) After the first year, Vin and Nona’s supply of money ran out and they took the decision to go live among the orang bukit, or “hill people”: a euphemism for camps of Communist guerrillas who lived in the jungle and actively resisted the Japanese occupiers.

Nona and Vin were welcomed by the Communists, both out of principle (Nona says that she never saw a refugee turned away by guerrillas, even when food was extremely scarce) and financial savvy (Communist leaders recognized that they could raise funds locally, using Vin’s name). For three years, Nona and Vin lived as very few white people had ever done, in Malaya: on terms of relative equality with local people.

In 1944, Vin Baker died of illness – a combination of malaria, dysentery and beri-beri. He’d suffered from bouts of depression since going into hiding, and these must have contributed to his weakness. What’s much more remarkable is that Nona Baker survived. She gives a few dutiful reasons for her persistence: wanting to demonstrate that not all British were cowards and quitters; looking after Vin; the need to tell her mother, after the war, how Vin died. But there must have been something beyond that – an essential desire to learn, to know, to live. Despite her self-effacing explanations, Nona Baker was an extraordinary woman.

The 1959 edition, published by Constable

The 1959 edition, published by Constable

Nona Baker was briefly famous after the war, when she was delivered into the care of Force 136 (the equivalent of SOE in Southeast Asia), contributed information to Freddy Spencer Chapman‘s report on local Communist organizations, and returned to England. But it was only in 1959 that she felt able to dictate a memoir of her time amongst the Communists. It’s called Pai Naa: The Story of Nona Baker. (Pai Naa, the name she was given by the guerrillas, means something like, “White Nona”.) Nona Baker remains the only documented white woman to have survived the war by living in the jungle. While it is true, as she admits, she was only “busily saving my own skin”, it is remarkable to have her even-handed portrait of life amongst the guerrillas. It’s an intimate record that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

(This post also appears today at the History Girls.)

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To read: perchance to sleep

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Hello, friends. Most nights, before I sleep, I read. This is a constant tension: I always want to read more. I know very well that I should sleep more. And the two seem mutually exclusive.

That aside, I thought I’d share my current stack of books with you.

Ying's current reading

From the top:

Fancy Cycling, by Isabel Marks. This is a delightful photographic catalogue of the kinds of tricks Edwardian children, ladies, and men can perform on bicycles. Most of them are astounding.

This is one of the simpler stunts but I love how the rider is looking directly into the camera. It feels very modern, despite her hat and long skirt.

This is one of the simpler stunts but I love how the rider is looking directly into the camera. The photo feels very modern, despite her hat and long skirt.

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. My friend Trina lent this to me a few months ago and I’m fewer than 50 pages in. Sorry, Trina! I didn’t find it immediately compelling but she loves it so much that I plan to carry on. It’s just that all my other reading is getting in the way…

On the Yankee Station, by William Boyd. This is Boyd’s first collection of short stories, written before his first novel but published afterwards. It’s a bit uneven but very funny and strange and vivid. I began reading it for short-story inspiration (I’m writing one myself) but kept on because I love being in Boyd’s presence.

Jungle Soldier, by Brian Moynahan. A biography of my new hero/historical boyfriend, Freddy Spencer Chapman. Freddy’s a classic stiff-upper-lip subject and the biography is commensurately very thin. It fills in some details from his early and late life, but I’m better off reading…

The Jungle is Neutral, by F. Spencer Chapman

The Jungle is Neutral, by F. Spencer Chapman. This is my current favourite book and perhaps my favourite work of nonfiction ever. I really hadn’t expected to like Freddy so much. I was braced for a man of his generation (born 1907): a social snob, an unreflexive racist, an unapologetic colonialist. This isn’t the case at all. Freddy is immensely curious about the world, entirely willing to judge people on their individual merits and flaws, and endearingly passionate about food, even while suffering from bullet wounds, pneumonia, chronic malaria, ulcerated legs, blackwater fever, tick typhus, dysentery, and I-don’t-know-how-many-other ailments. Here’s how terrific this memoir is: I’ve been following Nick all around the house, reading excerpts to him. Another measure of how much I love it: I’m halfway through and already mourning the fact that it must end.

Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898, by William B. Haskell. I bought this in Ketchikan, Alaska, at a terrific indie bookstore called Parnassus Books. Haskell is very enjoyable company and reading him is such a lovely way to relive a family holiday while becoming familiar with the setting of my short story.

Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899, by Pierre Berton. It’s impossible to avoid Pierre Berton when you’re researching the Gold Rush. I lucked into this copy at the library’s used-book sale, and it’s been useful as a representative of the most romantic, legend-building, to-hell-with-historical-documentation view of the Klondike.

There it is: my reading brain, exposed. What are you reading, at the moment?


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First impressions

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Hello, friends. First Impressions is, of course, Jane Austen’s title for her first version of Pride and Prejudice. And in the same way that Elizabeth and Darcy come to realize that they were utterly mistaken in their first impressions, I’m also hoping that I’m wrong about the new book I’ve dipped into.

I’ve written before about my love for the novels of William Boyd. Boyd is that rarity, a writer who merges thriller with literary fiction, and he does so with authority and panache. (I also once read that he also makes award-winning wines near his home in the south of France. I haven’t checked into it, but I really hope it’s true.) Nevertheless, I was extremely nervous about his most recent novel, Solo.

As you can see from the cover, Solo is a James Bond novel. And that’s when my interest in it stalled.

Let me explain. I really enjoy action movies and have seen a fair few James Bond flicks. (Until Daniel Craig, my favourite Bond was Roger Moore. That always makes Bond aficionados groan. But here’s the thing: I have difficulty taking Bond seriously, so for me, Roger Moore was the perfect foolish, flouncing, smirking, stiff-limbed puppet who undercut the seriousness of the enterprise. Also, Sean Connery’s wildly meandering but too-frequently Scottish accent drove me nuts. In the non-Bond way.) But there’s a difference between watching a light-hearted action film and taking the time to read a book. A film is so easily here and then gone, reduced to a few clever lines of dialogue, a smart plot twist, and some great cinematography. But even a weak book embeds itself in your brain. It lingers.

I attempted Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks’s Bond novel from 2008, but didn’t get far. Faulks has a good reputation as a writer, but he hewed closely to the Bond tradition. I found Devil May Care to be a laundry list of shopping, snobbery, and boring sexual stereotypes. After a few chapters, I gave up and skimmed to the end, for the plot. Can you see why I’m so nervous about Solo?

I genuinely don’t know what to make of the first chapter, but I howled with laughter a few times. That’s probably a bad start for a Bond novel. But don’t take my word for it; let me give you some examples. In the first few pages, Bond wakes up in a hotel and eats breakfast:

“Bond smiled grimly to himself, slid out of bed and walked naked into the en suite bathroom. The Dorchester had the most powerful showers in London…” (4)

“He swallowed again – his throat was sore.” (5)

“He sprinkled some pepper on his scrambled eggs. A good breakfast was the first essential component to set any day off to a proper start.” (8)

Is that you, Bond, or is it my grandmother? I was half-expecting him to order chamomile tea. After Bond manfully eats breakfast (despite his sore throat), he declines a flirty invitation to a party and goes back to his flat to supervise some builders who “have found some damp in the drawing room” (11). And THIS is why I’m wondering what’s going on with Boyd’s Bond.

I think Boyd is too good a writer to slouch on the basic furniture of a Bond novel (luxury brands, cheesy sexual intrigue, crazed megalomaniacal villain). I suspect – I sincerely hope – that something more is going on. A subversion of the Bond tradition? Something deliciously loopy and off-kilter? We shall see.

How about you, friends? Have you read Solo or other Bond novels? What did you think?

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I was wrong

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Hello, friends. Last week I mentioned my new and rather frantic interest in Fanny Imlay/Godwin/Wollstonecraft. After Judith Chernaik’s Mab’s Daughters and Janet Todd’s Death and the Maidens, my reading led me to Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation, and I am so glad it did.

I’ll start by confessing that I was never especially enamoured of the Romantic poets. I have limited patience for Wordsworth’s one true subject (himself), and while I was a lot more enthusiastic about the second-generation Romantics (a group that includes Keats, Shelley, and Byron), I wasn’t terribly interested in the personal details of their dramatic and scandalous lives. (Why? What was wrong with me, as a student?) Anyway, Daisy Hay changed all that last week.

Hay’s argument is this: although Romantic poets idealized the poet as a solitary genius, the best work of the poets Shelley, Byron, and Keats grew out of a lively intellectual dialogue within a community of artists. Hay reads their poetry against their lives, revealing friendships, conversations, fallings-out, love affairs, and acts of both courage and cowardice. And I completely buy her argument. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I lapped up this book. When I began it, I was primarily looking for more scraps of detail about Fanny (they are few; Hay relies on Todd’s biography), but instead found myself enthralled by the complexity and sheer vivid energy within this group of extraordinarily talented and clever people.


Journalist and poet Leigh Hunt was one of the anchors of this group for a long time. I had no idea that Leigh Hunt was mixed race! He had West Indian blood on his father’s side of the family and endured racist sneers about his skin colour and features. His persistent political radicalism was incredibly brave at a time when publishers were commonly threatened with imprisonment for criticizing the government (and Hunt did serve time, apparently for calling the Prince Regent “fat”). In Bleak House, Dickens cruelly caricatured Hunt as “Harold Skimpole”, a pretentious journalist who simply must live in luxury while his family starves. It’s good to see that portrait balanced.

I didn’t realize that Shelley’s critical reputation (as a poet) came about largely after his death. I think I conflated his privileged background with Byron’s and assumed that they’d both been early nineteeth-century rock stars. But no: Shelley was largely mocked and unread in his lifetime, and it was only long after his death that Mary Shelley could bring out an official edition of his poetical works.

I have a new appreciation for Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister and the girl who joined Shelley and Mary on their “elopement”. I had previously dismissed her as a Jane Austenesque demi-villain: a self-dramatizing second-fiddle with poor impulse control. But Hay has a lot of time and respect for Claire, and I find it persuasive. Claire was in (unrequited) love with Shelley and a loving mother to Allegra, her illegitimate daughter by Byron. She survived both Shelley’s and Allegra’s deaths with dignity and had the fortitude to start life over as a governess in Russia.

I had never before heard a single word about the botanist Elizabeth (Bess) Kent, Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law and intellectual companion. Her first book was Flora Domestica, a delightful-sounding volume about container gardening enriched by quotations from the poetry of her brilliant friends. Hay describes it as far more than a poetic primer on potted plants; instead, it proclaims “a message of democratic luxury” by claiming that “one did not need to be rich enough to travel to experience the pleasures of nature, since nature could be domesticated in a portable garden”.

One question that occurs to me is the matter of radicalism and youth. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were so painfully young when they eloped, and certainly that youthful idealism informed their writing and their actions. Because so many in the group died fairly young, it would be interesting to trace how their radical politics shifted over time. It’s a commonplace to say that people become more conservative as they age, but that seems borne out in the lives examined here.

But this is me wandering away. Overall, Hay is a fine biographer, striking just the right balance of sympathy and firm judgement. And she’s opened my eyes to the marvels of a group of poets I too-quickly skimmed over as an undergraduate. I was blind, but now I see.

I shall read on.

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The woman without a name

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Hello, friends. Recently, I mentioned reading and loving Claire Tomalin’s biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ve now become completely obsessed with the question of Mary Wollstonecraft’s elder daughter, Fanny. Fanny was born in 1794 in revolutionary Paris, the result of a short, passionate affair between Wollstonecraft and a handsome, fickle, frequently dishonest American named Gilbert Imlay. Imlay promptly tired of Wollstonecraft, moved to London, and set up house with an actress; he never displayed further interest in either Wollstonecraft or their infant daughter.

Wollstonecraft returned to London as well, with her toddler, and married the philosopher William Godwin in 1797. Shortly after, she died from complications of childbirth. (The new baby, Godwin’s biological daughter, grew up to be Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.) Godwin raised both girls and then some: he soon remarried and formed a blended family of five children, none of whom shared a pair of biological parents. Fanny and Mary grew up knowing that they were half-sisters and the daughters of the scandalous genius Mary Wollstonecraft.

The Godwin household was intellectually demanding, emotionally remote, and paralyzed by debt. The second Mrs. Godwin sounds like a deeply unpleasant character who, in fairy-tale fashion, resented and oppressed her stepdaughters. Mary asserted herself by eloping with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and writing a genre-defining bestseller, Frankenstein. Fanny tried to make peace within her fractured and fractious family and committed suicide in a coaching inn at the age of 22.

I’ve now read two books about “the Shelley circle”, combing them for details about Fanny. Let me tell you a bit about what I’ve found.

This is Mab’s Daughters (UK title) by Judith Chernaik. I couldn’t find a decent image of the North American edition, which is titled Love’s Children, but it’s the same novel. Yes, it’s a novel and it’s a quiet, contoured, persuasive, imaginative recreation of the voices of the four women closest to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: his first wife, Harriet; his second wife, the novelist Mary; his sister-in-law (Mary and Fanny’s stepsister) Claire Clairmont; and Fanny. Chernaik’s gift is balance and restraint. She takes these extraordinary lives filled with scandalous episodes and renders them entirely plausible, anchored by loyalty (between sisters) and love (for learning, for travel, but mainly for Percy’s genius). I admire it hugely.

I just finished Death and the Maidens, by Janet Todd. Fanny is typically a footnote in the stories of other great minds: William Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley. The traditional line goes something like this: “Poor, depressive Fanny, what a pity. Her death is important because of what it tells us about so-and-so…” This biography is Todd’s corrective, an effort to place Fanny’s story at the centre of her own life. Todd argues that Fanny was intelligent, politically conscious, opinionated, and warm-hearted. She tried repeatedly to reconcile her sister Mary with her stepfather Godwin (there was a rift after 16-year-old Mary ran away with Shelley; it ended only after Mary and Shelley were legally married, two and a half years later), and hoped to escape her stepmother by going to live with Mary and Shelley. Fanny never got her wish; never received an invitation even to visit Mary for a few days.

Todd argues that this rejection was the central force that pushed Fanny into suicide. It’s an interesting theory but will always remain so; there is scarce evidence of Fanny’s last days, and the people closest to her remained silent. Even at the time, rather than risk the scandal of a suicide in the family, they refused to claim the body. Fanny was abandoned in death, and buried in an anonymous grave in Swansea (the city where she died). While I enjoyed learning more about Fanny’s life, I found Todd’s clear antipathy towards Percy Bysshe Shelley rather distracting, and I wish the footnotes were more thorough. What dominates overall, however, is Todd’s clear affection for Fanny, and her desire to do Fanny justice.

My third book is Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics. I’m only partway through and will wait until next week to talk about it, but I’m enjoying it immensely.

At this point, I’d like to explain the title of my post. At birth, Fanny’s name was officially recorded as “Françoise Imlay” (Wollstonecraft and Imlay were still a couple, just about, and they were living in Paris). After Wollstonecraft’s death from complications of childbirth, Godwin chose to raise Fanny as his daughter and she became known as Frances Godwin. Despite carrying the names of these two men, however, Fanny was technically illegitimate and never legally adopted. Her name should always have been Fanny Wollstonecraft.

I find it both fascinating and moving that readers still can’t agree on her name. Todd reclaims her as Fanny Wollstonecraft; at other times, she’s Fanny Imlay (wikipedia) or Fanny Godwin (with explanations). It’s tricky to find her in an index. And this elusive quality, the fact that we can’t even work out what to call her, is reflected in her life. No diary survives; her letters are partly destroyed; there is no known portrait. And for a very long time nobody found her remotely interesting, except as an adjunct to the lives of others.

Poor Fanny, indeed.

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Lumpito and the Painter from Spain

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Hello, friends. Two weeks ago, my children and I had the pleasure of discovering Monica Kulling and Dean Griffiths’s utterly charming picture-book, Lumpito and the Painter from Spain. (Disclosure: I am friendly with Monica and an admirer of her many other books.)

The story features a dachshund named Lump (pronounced “loomp”, meaning “rascal” in German) whose owner, David, takes him from Rome to the south of France to meet Pablo Picasso. Picasso nicknames the dog “Lumpito” and artist and dog get along so fabulously that Lump refuses to go home with David. Instead, he remains with Picasso.

Like many of Kulling’s other books, Lumpito and the Painter from Spain is based on a true story. Kulling tells us that Lump later appeared in some of Picasso’s work, notably his Las Meninas, after Velazquez. If you click on the link to wikipedia, you can see one of the Las Meninas paintings (there are 58 in total) with a small, long dog in the foreground. That’s Lump!

Something about the story seemed familiar. I wondered whether I’d actually heard it before, or whether it was simply too good a tale to remain untold in one form or another. And then I got distracted.

It took Nick to put things together. When I was 21, I travelled to France on my own. One of the few things I bothered to lug back with me was a gift for Nick: a copy of photographer David Douglas Duncan’s Viva Picasso.

Neither of us reads Italian and even as a second-hand copy, the book was fabulously expensive (for the 21-year-old me!). But it was so compelling that I couldn’t leave it. Besides, it was the photographs I loved; I still don’t know what the introductory text says.

Flash-forward to 2014. Nick read Lumpito and the Painter from Spain to our children, then pulled out Viva Picasso. And there it was: David Douglas Duncan’s intimate photographs of Picasso in Cannes, dancing with his children, eating lunch, showing off, holding forth, and, yes, playing with a sweet-looking little dachshund. We met Lumpito years ago, and never even knew it. Maybe we should have tried to read the Italian, after all.

I absolutely love these sorts of reflections and convergences. They give me the shivers, in the best possible way, and I’m so thrilled that Monica Kulling and Dean Griffiths triggered one with their beautifully told, vibrantly illustrated picture book. Thank you, Monica, for this window into art history. It’s an absolute delight.

What about you, friends? Have you heard any echoes across the years, recently or otherwise?

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