Sunday, October 2, 2016

Book report: MARCH COST, CLAIRE TOMALIN

This is quite a random pairing of books to report on, and my only excuse is that the extent of my thoughts on each is about half the length of a proper blog post. How's that for well-considered, thoughtful planning?


I don't usually say a lot about books I don't like. I know that different readers feel differently about each book, and I'm always haunted by those reviewers on Amazon who have the chutzpah to denigrate even the greatest literary works of all time. If you haven't already, have a look some time at reviews of Hamlet, for example, or Pride and Prejudice, or Bleak House, or Middlemarch, or any other widely-read and highly-regarded book. There's always one or more dolts ready to weigh in with their carefully considered opinion that Shakespeare is a terrible writer, Austen is pretentious, or Dickens is crap.

I therefore always try to be mindful of the fact that every reader's ability to appreciate any kind of artistic work is relative and completely limited by his or her own likes and dislikes, life experiences, education, and previous reading, not to mention one's mood at the moment one is reading. (How often have I picked up a book, hated it, and then tried it again and loved it a year later?) I'd rather, usually, focus on my own limitations, and why a book didn't work for me at this point in time, rather than make a blanket statement that it's the book itself, not me, that's the problem.

All of which is to say that my long-planned, much-delayed reading of a second novel by March Cost (real name Margaret Morrison) finally happened but wasn't quite the experience I had anticipated.

When I first dived into Invitation from Minerva, I was delighted to find that it was a sequel of sorts to the only other Cost novel I'd read, The Hour Awaits, which I briefly wrote about here. I had only a vague recollection of that novel, but certainly remembered enjoying it. And Minerva starts off promisingly enough, just hours after Hour left off, with the Princess chatting with a friend in London, appreciating handsome men, whisking about Europe, arranging the sale of a painting in Florence, and then finally returning home to her impoverished chateau in what was former the Austrian empire but is now an obscure part of Italy.  Clio, a spunky 17-year-old who has been acclaimed for rescuing a cat from the roof of a villa (though the rescue turns out to have been a fraud, stemming from her having broken into the villa's library—a crime I can surely appreciate) joins the cast, coming to stay with the princess just before a flood of other guests arrive for a dinner party. 

But then, after such a sophisticated and enjoyable first half of the novel, Cost inexplicably locks her characters into the chateau, using the device of an avalanche burying the entire house. The rest of the novel, sadly, reads like a rather melodramatic play, with far too much gushing and gasping, paling of faces and narrowing of eyes, as all their various intrigues play out in a few rooms. From jetsetting across Europe to a rather tedious experimental play, all in the course of one novel! Clearly, this is quite intentional, and Clio's idea for a play becomes a central symbol for the novel itself:

With a gasp Clio came to the surface again, "But this is weird," she said, "—watching you all! Earlier I told Princess Sophia of a plot I'd got for a play—a gathering of affinities in a private house, just like this. In the first act, you would be as you are now. Hidden. In the second act, you would be disclosed. And the third act—the third act would be the most gorgeous of all ... for we'd all be back together, facing what we then knew of each other. Why! in some cases it might be simply frightful—" her inquisitorial glance flashed along the board—"or very wonderful." She paused to consider the Comte, and lost vigour.

Sadly, in the case of the novel, I found the result quite a bit more on the "simply frightful" side than the "very wonderful" one. But of course, other readers might feel very differently, and I haven't given up on March Cost quite yet! Bree at Another Look Book wrote about another of Cost's novels, The Bespoken Mile, fairly recently, and her review made me want to proceed straight to that novel. It might take me another year, knowing me, but I'll certainly sample more of Cost's work.

And speaking of how long it takes me to get round to reading certain books, it's embarassing to admit that I acquired a copy of Clare Tomalin's bio of Jane Austen almost as soon as it came out, and have now, a mere 19 years later, actually read it. (Well, to clarify, I read a different copy, actually, since that early copy was lost in the great purge of 2000, before my move from Washington DC to San Francisco—c'est la vie.) I've flirted with the book on numerous occasions since then, but it took our upcoming trip to England, and our impending visits to Winchester, Chawton, and Bath—Austenesque destinations all—to finally inspire me to make a commitment.


Some of you, at least, are sure to be Jane Austen fans already, and to be far more knowledgeable about her than I am, so I'll just mention a couple of things I was struck by. For instance, I hadn't realized that so much time elapsed between the writing of her first three novels—Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey—and the later three, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. In between was a gap of more than a decade. It's hard to resist (and Tomalin doesn't resist either) imagining what other works Austen might have produced had circumstances allowed her to be actively writing for all of those years. In fact, Tomalin notes that the early version of Pride and Prejudice nearly found a publisher soon after its writing, and speculates what might have happened if a lazy and incompetent publisher hadn't passed on the book. With the encouragement and financial resources that might have resulted from a successful publication, who knows how many other Austen novels we might have?

Being the obsessive tracker of obscure authors that I am, I also liked hearing about Austen's own reading material, which, in addition to featuring some surprisingly scandalous authors like Fielding and Sterne, included women writers such as Charlotte Lennox, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith, Maria Edgeworth, and Hannah Cowley. A promising beginning for an 18th century Overwhelming List!

I was also surprised by reading about some of her early writings, and this one, sent to her brother Francis, takes the cake:

All her early works were given these dedications to friends and members of the family, whether present or absent, and she inscribed Jack and Alice to Francis more than a year after his departure. It must have made him laugh, this story of a quiet country village with a cast of bad girls, ambitious, affected, 'Envious, Spitefull & Malicious' as well as 'short, fat and disagreeable'. One girl is found with her leg broken in a steel mantrap; subsequently she is poisoned by a rival, and the rival is hanged. The ambitious girl captures an old Duke, the affected one leaves the country and becomes the favourite of a Mogul prince. Another village family is so 'addicted to the Bottle & the Dice' that a son dies of drink and a daughter starts a fight with the local widow, the pious Lady Williams, who is herself carried home 'dead drunk' after a masquerade. Particular interest is shown in the effect of drink on women; Jane sagely notes that their heads are said to be 'not strong enough to support intoxication'. This sounds so like an older brother's piece of worldly wisdom that it is not surprising Jane crossed it out; perhaps she and Francis had started on the story together before he went to sea. Two children intensely curious about the adult world, laughing at drunkenness, cruelty and death, seem plausible originators of Jack and Alice. Jane had already faced death when she was away at school, Francis might now face it even further from home; better to die laughing than be pitiable, was tough Jane's word for tough Francis.

A Jane Austen tale featuring boozy widows and spiteful bad girls duking it out in a country village? Count me in!

It was interesting (and a bit disappointing) to learn that Chawton cottage, which we hope to be visiting in mid-October, was turned into a tenement after Cassandra's death, and that it was only in the late 1940s that it was remodelled and restored to something approximating its look in Austen's day. But I suppose it's too much to ask that Austen's pen should still be lying exactly where she left it…

And finally, I have to share the funniest line of Austen's quoted in the bio. It's from a letter to her sister Cassandra, and has to do with a young man Jane was thrown together with in 1798, perhaps with an eye toward marriage. He, at least, seemed to have had marriage in mind—before even meeting her, in fact—but then did not pursue his goal. Here's Jane's hilarious formulation of the situation:

Jane was at her sourest explaining to Cassandra that it was 'most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me.'

Clearly, Jane must go on my short list of people I'd love to have tea with if the opportunity arose.

10 comments:

  1. i read one Cost but did not like it--BY THE ANGEL ISLINGTON.Hard going as author does not keep the dramatic narrative going.
    Tina

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    1. I'm sure eventually I'll sample another one, since I liked The Hour Awaits, but currently she's not at the top of my TBR list!

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  2. Scott, if ever in my life I could incite you to a jealous fit, it would be now. When last I went to England (too many years ago!) we were awaiting int he departure lounge (as, being good citizens, we got there way early!) and I was idly glancing at my copy of the Tomalin biography, and a very pleasant woman sat down beside me - and guess who it was - not quite so wonderful as had it been Miss Austin herself, but it was indeed Ms. Tomalin! Did I have her autograph my copy - oh hell yes! THAT sort of thing has happened to me only one other time in my life, and then it was the actor Sam Waterston sitting in the pew inf ront of me in church, but still....................Tom

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    1. Tom, I don't know about Scott, but I am jealous. Although it did remind me of the time I was going through airport security in the UK and the woman inspecting my carry on bag (I was picked for a hand search) saw my DEStevenson novel I was reading, and said "I read her books too."

      Jerri

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    2. ALMOST even better!
      Tom

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    3. I take it that she introduced herself, Tom? My trouble is that I am often so oblivious to my surroundings that I might not notice if Virginia Woolf herself sat down beside me! Although when I lived in DC I did occasionally notice "famous" people there--George Stephanopoulos went to the same hair salon and was standing next to me there one day, and I saw people like Tim Russert and Newt Gingrich on the street. But that hardly compares to actual authors, does it?!

      Jerri, I think merely being a reader of DES should expedite any security search--surely no DES fan would be up to anything nefarious?

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  3. I will read anything by Claire Tomalin. Give yourself a treat and find her biography of Nellie Ternan, the actress for whom Dickens left his wife.

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    1. Wonderful, another book for the TBR list! :-)

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  4. Wait.... did you say a great purge??? Your books didn't make it cross country. Oh, the sadness of it all.

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    1. I'm afraid I've had several purges, Susan, but 2000 was definitely the largest. I arrived in San Francisco with not quite enough books to fill a small three-shelf bookcase I bought for my teeny tiny apartment. Of course, within two years, I was back to three full size bookcases as well...

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