I’m not dead yet! I’ve been reading a 523-page biography of Malcolm X and writing a review of it for Litro Magazine, which has taken me a week. It’ll be up here whenever they publish it, which I think will be the 26th of February, though possibly sooner. (I didn’t entirely like it, so if mildly critical reviews are your jam, keep checking back. I also didn’t entirely hate it, so if you’re a positive-reviews-only kind of person, there’ll be something in it for you.)
Without wishing to underestimate anyone, I think you’d be hard pressed to find the general reader in 2021 who has even the remotest idea of who Fanny Burney is. Fantastically famous and well-regarded in her own time, and a favourite author of Jane Austen—indeed, influential enough that the title of Pride and Prejudice is taken directly from the final chapter of Burney’s novel Cecilia—she’s now largely read by students, professors, and nerd-types. This is unjust: her work is not only fascinating as a direct literary forebear of Austen’s, but in its own right. Her novels of young women beginning the world, heiresses forced to reckon with the culpable greed of marriage brokers, and heroines fleeing political upheaval are not only diverting for their plots; they’re also studded with minutely observed dialogue and social interactions. Burney’s shrewd ear for phrasing and tone was first honed upon the famous connections of her musical father, such as David Garrick, Hester Thrale, and Samuel Johnson; then upon Queen Charlotte, King George III, and their court, when she was a member of the Queen’s household; finally, as a married woman whose husband’s identity as a French national and a professional soldier, in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, put her family in a constant state of instability for nearly twenty years. Kate Chisholm’s marvelous biography, now rather over twenty years old itself (see bibliographical information at the end of this piece), is a wild ride through the events of Burney’s life—a very full one for a woman as shy and retiring as she was—as well as the general history of mid-eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century Europe, and a vivid introduction to Burney’s fiction and drama.
Chisholm starts with Burney’s father, a man who was to have a significant claim on her affection and loyalty throughout her life: Dr Charles Burney, an eminent musician, teacher and musicologist, whose ambitions to mix in the highest society were realized in a manner almost impossible for even the most talented to emulate. (One of Fanny’s brothers-in-law, also considered an extremely gifted musician, never attained a fraction of the acclaim, money, or access to elites, suggesting that Dr Burney’s achievements were exceptional and owed as much to his personal charms, and to good luck, as to his technical abilities.) She also had a mentor figure in the person of Samuel Crisp, a family friend to whom she repeatedly referred as “my Daddy”. Twenty-first century readers will have some questions about this, and I think rightly so; Crisp was one of the few adult men who took Fanny’s mind seriously, and with whom she could have conversations about art, literature, history and culture, but it came at the price of a level of control. Crisp’s letters show that he was unusually fond of the company of young women; it seems unlikely that his interest in Fanny was menacingly inappropriate, since they remained affectionate towards each other throughout their lives and we know Fanny to have been an almost prudish person with regards to perceived impropriety, but certainly it appears to have pleased him to have such a clever, and such a seemingly malleable, young woman in and around his house and at such close emotional proximity, so regularly. Crisp gave her some very good advice, but also some very bad: her play The Witlings was suppressed because Crisp and Dr. Burney believed it too bluntly satirical towards people who had offered Fanny specifically, and the Burney family more generally, their patronage and support, such as the literary hostess Mrs. Thrale. She may have listened to them, but she wasn’t happy about it: when Crisp’s “patronising response” (Chisholm, p. 95) to her disappointment was to suggest another topic for a more straightforward comedy, she didn’t bother to reply to the letter.
By this point she was already famous, since her first and still most widely known novel Evelina had been published in 1778. Her protagonist is a young woman trying to enter society whilst labouring under the disadvantage of being unacknowledged by her father: she knows who he is, but until he will publicly admit to her being his daughter, she is a nobody despite the upper-middle-class milieu in which she has been raised and educated by her kind guardian, Mr. Villars. The book takes the form of a series of letters, mostly from Evelina to Villars back home, as she navigates London society for the first time. It is, technically, a romantic plot, as she ends up married by the end, but what really brought the novel to critical attention and acclaim, as well as that of readers, were Fanny’s skewering powers of observation. Her ear for dialogue was exceptional and was to be her trademark as a fiction writer all her life; she depicts the conversation of vulgar City upstarts, country-bred gentlemen, young women, conniving older women on the make, foreigners and servants, with a precision that creates comedy. She rarely physically describes anyone (we never know what colour Evelina’s eyes are), but her powers of scene-setting and creation of atmosphere are immense. Her perceptiveness and memory gave her both the ability to reproduce conversations word for word and great power over fictional tone, but this initially worried her: “if you do tell Mrs Thrale [that I am the author of Evelina], —won’t she think it very strange where I can have Kept Company, to draw such a family as the Branghtons…” (quoted Chisholm, p. 57) Her identity was at first anonymous; all of her communications with her publisher took place through a brother or cousin, suitably disguised (both of the male relatives she pressed into service for her here seemed to relish the amateur theatrics of it all). She was terrified to be thought unladylike. When the secret was finally revealed (by her father), she was only persuaded of the acceptability of her public authorship by the knowledge that both Mrs. Thrale and Dr. Johnson (another family friend) regarded Evelina very highly.
Fanny occupies an intriguing place in women’s history, and particularly in the history of women writers: she was not a political radical or a feminist by any means, deferring to her father frequently and eventually marrying a French aristocratic emigré, General d’Arblay. (Their marriage seems to have been the happiest of all her siblings’; they were very much in love, and remained so throughout their lives. She was forty-one when she married him, forty-two when they had their first and only child, Alexander.) Yet her writing—she produced three other novels, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer, and many other plays, though few were ever staged and one at least that was staged was disastrously received—is consistently interested in how women can make their way in the world without patriarchal protection; in what happens to a woman who perhaps has money but no one to represent her interests, and little or no respect from her guardians; and in representing events occurring in the world without attaching an obvious moral. Her work was satirical but does not partake of the clear agenda to “improve” that defines Richardson’s and Fielding’s writing; she trusts her readers to understand the rights and wrongs of her characters, but is much more an observer than a moralist. Particularly in her early work, there are eruptions of violence (a monkey bites off a dandy’s ear) and cruelty (two lords make two elderly peasant women race each other so that they can have something to bet on) that are, even now, grotesque and shocking to read; there are encounters with sex workers at Vauxhall in one novel, frank and funny dialogues between servants, milliners, and other working women in her plays. Fanny is never easy to categorize, either as a person or as an author.
She was restored to public attention primarily through the publication of her journals and letters, which made it clear that she was present at many of the great historical moments of her time. As a child, she plays with the famous actor David Garrick, a frequent house guest thanks to her father’s musical work in the theatre. As a young woman, she matches wits with Dr Johnson, Mrs. Thrale, Mrs. Montagu, and Richardson. As an unmarried woman in her thirties, a friend introduces her to Queen Charlotte and she is appointed Second Keeper of the Robes; although miserable as a courtier and eventually released from royal service, she becomes close to the royal family, witnesses the first illness and madness of King George III, and is present in Kew Gardens for his recovery (she runs away from him, unaware that he is now well again, and he chases her through the shrubbery with his doctors). In her forties, she becomes part of a circle that includes French emigrés fleeing the Revolution, and falls in love with one, whom she marries. In her fifties, her husband is part of the army of allies that challenges Napoleon at Waterloo; she is in Brussels while the battle takes place, and her account of the confused intelligence coming from the battlefield regarding the victor is an extraordinarily immediate portrayal of that historical moment.
One of the most famous accounts from her journals describes her endurance of a seventeen-minute mastectomy; she had a cancerous lump in her right breast and was operated upon in 1811. It took her nine months to complete her account of this ordeal, and it is frankly a wonder that she managed it at all. I defy anyone, with or without breasts, to read her testimony unmoved. She was without anaesthetic apart from some wine mixed with laudanum, and refused to be held down by the surgeon’s assistant; she held her own breast for him to cut, and describes the linen handkerchief that was placed over her face for a measure of dignity and discretion. “[w]hen, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel,—I closed my Eyes,” she writes (quoted Chisholm, p. 214) She did this without her husband, forbidding her servants to fetch him from his office; in a foreign language and land (they were living in France at the time, and although she spoke the language well, it must have added another layer of fear and estrangement to proceedings); and her own maids, save one, had been sent out of the room by the surgeon and “7 Men in black” (ibid.) who were present to assist him. Her bravery, and her suffering, is unthinkable, and the fact that she left a record of the experience makes her braver still. If you read one thing by Fanny Burney, make it that account. (If you read a second thing, make it Evelina.)
Responding to such trauma by memorializing it verbally is more indicative of Fanny than anything else that can be said: she was a writer through and through, an observer and recorder. We’re lucky to have her words, and lucky to have Kate Chisholm’s biography, which gives such an exciting and entertaining yet scholarly account of her life and world. As Stella Tillyard has already said, if the best literary biographies make us want to seek out the work of their subjects, Chisholm succeeds admirably. I read Evelina over a decade ago, but will be returning to it, and seeking out her other novels too.
Fanny Burney: Her Life was published by Vintage in paperback in 1999. It is now out of print, but can be found on AbeBooks. My copy is from The Second Shelf. Burney’s novels are all in print from Penguin and/or Oxford World’s Classics, except for The Wanderer, a 1991 edition of which is also available secondhand through AbeBooks. The Second Shelf might also be able to find you a copy if you ask nicely.
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.
The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket. 1999.
Oh, Lemony Snicket, how did I love thee, back when I was a mere tiddler reading through the non-YA section of my school’s library (and furious because my mother would not give me a note permitting me to read the YA books until I had turned ten). The Bad Beginning, book one of his A Series of Unfortunate Events, doesn’t quite count as a 21st-century children’s novel, but the largest portion of the series was published after 2000 (it ended in 2006 with the splendidly named thirteenth installment, The End), so I am counting it towards my goal of reading through this list. Really, to be a completist, I should read the whole series, but I already did read it, when it came out, and the point of the challenge is primarily to expose myself to new children’s fiction, so The Bad Beginning will suffice.
You may or may not know the premise of the series, which is that three resourceful and much-loved children—Violet, an inventor; Klaus, a reader; and Sunny, the baby, who likes biting—are orphaned in a mysterious house fire. The terms of their parents’ will stipulate they must to be sent to live with a relative, and thus their woeful adventures begin. In The Bad Beginning, the relative who takes them in is the “short-tempered, demanding and bad-smelling” Count Olaf, whose house is covered in pictures of eyes and who is obviously scheming to get hold of the vast fortune that the Baudelaire children will inherit as soon as Violet comes of age. He is, or calls himself, an actor, and concocts a plan that involves marrying Violet, under the guise of her performing an ingenue role in a play that conveniently culminates in a wedding ceremony. The children manage to foil the plot, but Olaf and his associates escape, and their parents’ executor must find a new relative for them to live with. Cue book two…
Today’s tiddlers probably come to the misfortunes of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire through either the mostly dreadful Jim Carrey movie of 2004 (rescued only by the performance of Jim Carrey, which is excellent), or the more recent Netflix adaptation. This is something of a shame, because Snicket’s style is so inimitable, and such a delight. As with most things loved in childhood, I worried that a revisit as an adult would disappoint; it did not, not in the slightest. From the patently false authorial name and bio (“Lemony Snicket was born in a small town where the inhabitants were suspicious and prone to riot. …He is considered something of an expert by leading authorities.”) to the slightly off-kilter urban layout of wherever it is the Baudelaires live (there’s a meat district and a banking district, but also, unremarked-upon, a sculpture district), to the tone that effortlessly combines world-weariness with a knowledgeable avuncularity, Snicket’s world has lost none of its charm. Part of that is that he, and the book that he’s writing, seems to know its antecedents: numerous asides, and a curious blankness or vagueness to the wider world beyond the direct experiences of the Baudelaire children, make it quite clear that there’s an element of fable, or even allegory, at work.*
*footnote: I would argue that A Series of Unfortunate Events becomes increasingly allegorical as it goes on, at least up to about book seven; the children are dumped with a procession of unsuitable relatives, each of whom personifies a fatal weakness of character that allows Count Olaf to continue menacing them. It’s not dissimilar to medieval allegorical adventures: each failed guardian constitutes an obstacle, or a test. But that’s somewhat outside the remit of this review.
Back to the tone: one of the things this series is famous for is its in-text (and in context) definitions of words. Snicket does this for the first time on page two:
…occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley—the word “rickety”, you probably know, here means “unsteady” or “likely to collapse”—alone to the seashore…
It’s such an intelligent way of enriching the text without making it inaccessible that one is surprised by how novel it feels. I can’t think of any children’s book that I read before Snicket that did this, and can’t really think of many after, either. And it’s not just for didactic purposes; quite often it’s funny, either by defying our expectations about what words need clarifying (“…his voice faking—a word which here means feigning—kindness”), or by being outrageously context-specific (again, this happens more often in the later books, and usually takes the form of “translating” Sunny’s non-verbal gurgles).
If The Bad Beginning was no more than some entertaining wordplay (one more I can’t resist: the sham play written to conceal the marriage is supposedly by “Al Funcoot”, which, although this is never actually said, is a delightfully crap anagram of “Count Olaf”), it’d still be fun. But its real power—Snicket’s real power—is that there is menace, handled with a lightness of touch that only enhances the effect. Consider, for example, this moment between one of Olaf’s henchmen and fourteen-year-old Violet:
Nobody paid a bit of attention to the children, except for the bald man, who stopped and stared Violet in the eye.
“You’re a pretty one,” he said, taking her face in his rough hands. “If I were you I would try not to anger Count Olaf, or he might wreck that pretty little face of yours.” Violet shuddered, and the bald man gave a high-pitched giggle and left the room.
The eye contact, the touching of her face—perhaps most of all, that “high-pitched giggle”—it’s terrifying. Snicket is too well aware of his young readers to be quite explicit about the sexual nature of the threat that Olaf poses to Violet, but reading as an adult, it is absolutely clear. More on a child’s level, perhaps, is the fact of Olaf’s unpredictable physical cruelty. He strikes Klaus across the face, knocking him to the floor; he puts Sunny in a birdcage; and once he has the children’s money, he’ll kill them. In many ways he is a cartoonish villain, but always a thoroughly believable one.
The only fault I might ascribe to The Bad Beginning is that it lacks some of the baroque elements of later installments in the series; there’s nothing in it to match the empty lift shaft in The Ersatz Elevator or the terrifying climax of The Miserable Mill. Even the allusions and wordplay are muted in comparison: there is, of course, the fact that the Baudelaires’ executor is named Mr. Poe and his horrible sons are named Edgar and Albert, and that he works at Mulctuary Money Management, but that is about as much as we get. In comparison to later books with characters such as the fashionable Esmé Squalor or the tyrannical headmaster Nero (obsessed with his violin), it’s a little thin. (I suspect I still haven’t worked out all of the references in these books.) But as the first in a long series, it contains all the seeds of later brilliance. Not such a bad beginning, after all.
Lara Prior-Palmer signed up for the Mongol Derby—famously the world’s toughest horse race—on a whim, a month before the start date. Other competitors had been preparing for a year, building their endurance and stamina. She won it. At nineteen, she was the youngest rider, and the first woman, ever to do so. Although her book about the experience is technically, I suppose, a sports memoir(!), what’s most evident throughout Rough Magic is the kind of mental or spiritual transformation she finds herself undergoing. When she starts the race, she’s casual and unconcerned, in it for the fun of spending an August in Mongolia, a why-not kind of person. By the time she’s halfway through, she discovers quite suddenly that she cares. The compelling bones of Rough Magic are the paths she took in her own head to get to that place.
Even, or especially, by her own account, Prior-Palmer is a vague and drifty sort of person. Her family seems to think of her as semi-permanently away with the fairies. But that’s a common disparagement to throw at young women (her father’s friend refers to her as “Avatar”, which she tells us in a way that I think is meant to be ironic and self-aware, but which I actually found quite disturbing–what kind of adult man gives his friend’s kid a nickname deriving from her social awkwardness, then uses it to her face?) In any case, that blinky personality serves to mask more interesting things. One of these is that Prior-Palmer is ambitious, and she acknowledges that she’s been raised to find naked ambition vaguely suspect. Her impetus to win the race comes from being deeply, personally irked by an American woman called Devan, who, only a year older, takes the race with deadly seriousness. Some readers seem to feel betrayed by Prior-Palmer’s immediate antipathy towards Devan, seeing it, I think, as yet another instance of women competing instead of coming together in supportive sisterhood. But it rings very true: there’s little that can spur a person more than seeing herself reflected at a frustrating angle in someone else.
Of course, there’s plenty about the nitty-gritty of the race: the Derby is so difficult in part because it has twenty-five stages and each one is ridden on a different Mongolian pony, which are rounded up into small herds at each checkpoint. Prior-Palmer differentiates each of her mounts with a nickname, which helps the reader keep track as well. She’s great on the confusions of navigating on a seemingly featureless steppe (the GPS tracker is frequently unhelpful), negotiating a place to stay with the local semi-nomadic herders when she gets caught between checkpoints at nightfall, and the cultural cruces that make communication difficult. (She also glances at the particular hazards of being a woman traveling alone, even in a bad-ass competitive way: one local assaults her, and a group of boys attack her pony while she’s riding.) If you’re interested in the logistics of cross-country horse racing, Rough Magic has you covered. But it’s also a very compelling twist on the current crop of memoirs by young women; Prior-Palmer’s psychological growth isn’t often foregrounded, but the reader is ever aware that the Derby is permanently changing her. Very worthwhile indeed.
Rough Magic was published by Ebury on 6 June.
If you like what I write, why not buy me a coffee?
At first glance, House of Glass seems to fit neatly into the tradition of English Gothic haunted-house stories: an unusual or unreliable narrator (Clara Waterfield, age twenty and a sufferer of osteogenesis imperfecta, which renders her bones dangerously brittle; her beloved mother is dead of cancer and her stepfather not unkind but distant) is summoned to a stately home (Shadowbrook, in Gloucestershire) that represents some kind of sanctuary (the opportunity to use her newly acquired horticultural skills in the cultivation of a glasshouse for Shadowbrook’s owner, the mysterious Mr. Fox). “Trouble” is darkly hinted at (by the man who drives Clara from the station to the house), but our narrator remains skeptical of anything that can’t be touched or proven. Still, the house’s staff seem to be hiding something (the overly cheerful housekeeper, Mrs. Bale, and two frightened maids from the village, Harriet and Maud), and eventually our narrator experiences some uncanny goings-on for themselves. Intellectually frustrated by the apparent impossibility of the supernatural, our narrator seeks to uncover the truth, while simultaneously revealing themselves to the reader as being an ever more untrustworthy and subjective observer.
Roughly, that is what happens in the first half of House of Glass, but Susan Fletcher innovates by making Clara not less believable, but more so. Learning to shed her preconceptions about rationality and the nature of knowledge, she also learns to shed idealized images of other people: too frail throughout childhood and adolescence to have a normal social life, she is forced to meet people at Shadowbrook who are – like all real people – contradictory, confusing, and illogical in their actions. This will eventually prove the key to solving the mystery of Shadowbrook, which – it’s whispered – is the ghost of Veronique Pettigrew, the daughter of the family that used to own the place. To say too much more would be to spoil the clever way in which Fletcher undermines the tropes of the Gothic romance genre: the crazed, over-sexed woman (Bertha in Jane Eyre, Cathy in Wuthering Heights), the deceptive housekeeper (Mrs. Danvers, Mrs. Fairfax), the brooding romantic hero whose role, in House of Glass, is spread over several male characters and in one instance combined with the trope of the taciturn-but-sexy man of the soil. Fletcher makes us consider the difference between real life and fiction. We think we are reading one sort of book, one particular set of accepted illusions, but that too is an illusion: House of Glass is a different book at its end, once we grow to understand – along with Clara, whose book-derived ideas about life echo Catherine Morland’s in Northanger Abbey, though to an effect that’s alarming rather than amusing – what it is we’re actually reading.
About three-quarters of the way through, the device that has brought all of these characters together in one place is revealed, and it’s the weakest part of the book, as such devices tend to be. Still, if the book resonates with Jane Eyre in its early sections, it’s worth remembering that Charlotte Bronte resorts to a universally-derided and equally implausible trick in order to reunite Jane and Rochester; Fletcher’s use of convoluted coincidence can be read as another comment on the genre she’s working with. House of Glass is fluid, addictive, and very clever, all at once: I can’t recommend it more highly.
This post is a stop on the House of Glass blog tour, which runs all week; other stops can be found below. Thanks to Virago for the review copy!
This is not my usual sort of book at all. 880 pages of global economic history, nearly 200 of which are taken up by endnotes and bibliography? Gosh. But I put it on my #20BooksofSummer pile for a few reasons: we had sold a lot of it in the shop last summer, there was a damaged copy going, the front cover is utterly beautiful, and I am kind of interested in material culture: how people’s stuff relates to the way they treat themselves and each other, how self-fashioning is so often bound up with what you own and how you use it.
Since this is so enormous, I posted updates to Goodreads while I was working my way through it. They’re fairly indicative:
page 136 (15.45%): “So far, I’m impressed by Trentmann’s scope: he deals with consumerism in Ming China and in East African kingdoms, as well as in Britain, France, the Netherlands, etc. (There were big differences. Ming elites wanted antiques with provenance, not the new and shiny.) The focus of any given section is often unclear, though I’m willing to believe that this is the fault of a reader unaccustomed to reading economic history.”
page 370 (42.05%): “I’ve a better handle on the focus and structure now: part one is basically a chronological overview of global consumption trends (fun!!) Almost finished that section now and especially impressed with the analysis of consumption in the GDR and Soviet Russia. (Socialism doesn’t stop people wanting stuff. It’s not news, but the details on things like car ownership and food shopping are interesting and engaging.)”
page 735 (83.52%): “Covered lots of ground last night. Part 2 deals with present-day consumption issues, using historical examples to contextualise: the current chapter is on fair-trade movements. Interestingly, Trentmann’s analysis of the effects of state spending merely glances at contemporary austerity policies. He implies they only really affect the already-poor and disadvantaged, which is demonstrably untrue, at least in the UK.”
The very last bit was a short chapter looking into the future of consumption, which – obviously – is a tenuous one, given that if human civilisations continue to consume resources at the current rate, or anything like it, we’ll be in deep trouble very shortly. Trentmann has some interesting things to say on short-term strategies, like various municipal waste-management policies, but he stops short of advocating a real crackdown on waste or consumption. He keeps his own politics out of the narrative, mostly, as a good historian should, but globally we’ve reached a point where to be politically neutral is to make a political statement, so it doesn’t wash in this section, though it does in the earlier chapters.
It’s also too long, but then, any book of 880 pages is too long.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is set in 1809, just after the Spanish campaign of the Peninsular War. We first meet our protagonist, John Lacroix, being carried into his family home in Somerset: feet badly wounded and hearing severely damaged, he is on the edge of death, though his housekeeper Nell nurses him back to health. Meanwhile, we meet two other characters: an English soldier named Calley who witnessed English troops on the retreat committing an atrocity in a Spanish village, and a Spanish officer named Medina. Calley, after giving testimony identifying the man in charge of the raping and murdering troops, is charged by a shadowy superior to find the individual in question and kill him; the Spanish want proof that someone has been punished, but the English government’s position is sufficiently precarious that it needs to be done extrajudicially. Medina is assigned to keep Calley on track and to witness the murder as a representative of Spain. The juxtaposition of the two narratives suggests strongly to the reader that Lacroix – whom we know, so far, as a gentle and quiet man – was the officer named by Calley. As he sets out on a journey that will take him from Somerset to Bristol to Glasgow to the Outer Hebrides, and from frozen guilt and shame to redemption and love, suspense comes not merely from wondering whether Lacroix’s psychological scars will heal, but from the reader’s disbelieving anxiety: surely we know him, but could it be that he’s less than the man we think he is?
In fact, he is, but not in the way that we’ve been led to think. This is the first of Miller’s books I’ve read, but if its impressively nuanced characterisation is anything to go by, the rest of them must be worth reading too. The community that Lacroix eventually finds in the Hebrides (on an island that he reaches on the back of a cow, after a voyage narrated with such dry wit that I found myself grinning periodically throughout) consists of three siblings, two women and a man. This is the last remnant of a quasi-pagan cult led by a charismatic man called Thorpe, or sometimes Phyrro. (We actually meet him, in passing, when the narrative is with Calley and Medina.) Thorpe has left one sister pregnant; the other, Emily, with whom Lacroix falls in love and whose sight is failing, seems to have unfinished emotional business with their absent leader. Emily’s interior landscape is complex – at one point she reproaches Lacroix for referring to her as “free”, listing the many ways in which she is not at liberty at all – and Miller renders it very delicately. There aren’t really any minor characters in this novel; even William Swann, Lacroix’s Bristol merchant brother-in-law, and Nell, the housekeeper, who only appear in one or two chapters each, feel like fully rounded people, with hopes for the future that have nothing to do with Lacroix or his journey. And Miller’s settings are the same: his early nineteenth century harboursides, crofting communities, hospitals and rural estates have lives of their own; you can imagine them carrying on quite happily when Lacroix or other point-of-view characters leave the scene.
In short, then: an excellent historical novel; a moving exploration of guilt and love; beautifully written; very highly recommended.
It’s not really about Chopin’s piano.
Oh, it starts off adhering to its title well enough: Kildea gives some background information about Chopin and his lover, George Sand, an infamous female author who liked to scandalise Parisian salon society by dressing as a man. The two moved to the island of Mallorca for the winter of 1838-39, where Chopin’s lovely Pleyel piano got held up in customs and he was forced to make do with a pianino built by a local craftsman, Juan Bauza. That is the instrument on which he wrote his Preludes, “scraps” of music that have baffled listeners, players and critics ever since their premiere. Kildea’s idea, at least to begin with, is that tracing the pianino will shine some light not only on the circumstances under which the Preludes were composed, but on their vexed history of interpretation and performance. Since he also sees the Preludes as a symbol of Romanticism itself, the way in which pianists have approached them – from the ethereal stylings of Cortot to a later Romantic fad for greater attack and intensity, as befitted the larger halls in which public concerts could now be performed, and which publicly performed music now had to fill – is representative, for Kildea, of the history of the artistic movement in general.
None of that is particularly evident from the way he structures his book, though; I have come to the conclusion that this is what Kildea wants to explore because I’ve mentally winnowed the many, many pages of digression, distraction, tangent and plain irrelevance with which Chopin’s Piano is riddled. It’s not totally unenjoyable. If you have any interest in historical detail at all, some of it is great fun: descriptions of nineteenth-century Palma, the Mallorcan port town, are vivid (if too long), and the section set in the twentieth century doubles as a primer on the Nazi art-theft industry. (The pianino came into the hands of Wanda Landowska, a Polish pianist who had an affinity for Chopin and his music. Her instrument collection was scattered by the Nazi looting of great Parisian houses; some of it has been put back together, but the pianino has not been conclusively traced.) But there is just so much of it. Barely a few chapters into the book, Kildea launches into an explanation of how a nineteenth-century artist would produce a linocut. It goes on for some paragraphs. This has been prompted by the existence of a linocut of Palma as Chopin and Sand would have seen it. It’s interesting information on its own, but in a book like this, it’s vexing, an obstacle to the reader’s pursuit of the actual story.
Kildea does write evocatively about performance, which is historically his strength, given that his previous book was a biography of Benjamin Britten and that he was the artistic director of the Wigmore Hall from 2003-2005. He compares the various styles of the musicians who have attempted the Preludes with great thoroughness and erudition; it’s quite clear which side he comes down on (Cortot’s, and the gentler tradition’s), but he enables us to understand his partiality, because he can tell us what he hears. Nor is it his fault that the trail of the pianino goes cold, though it is narratively unsatisfying. The real issue, though, as Igor Toronyi-Lalic wrote in his Literary Review article on the book, is that one gets the impression Kildea is bored of being “a mere music biographer, and wants to be a Writer. Fatal.” I wouldn’t say fatal, but I would say it’s a waste of a good story.
One particular risk of having a reading list or challenge is that it’s easily possible to read several books in a row that, while fine, don’t really excite you; that you’re reading because there’s no reason to put them down and they’re doing their job, but which you don’t feel a pang parting from when you reach work, or the end of your lunch break. This has happened to me: May, A Station On the Path…, and The Waters and the Wild all ended up three-star reads, quite all right but not especially haunting, and not propulsive while I was reading them. (Actually, The Waters and the Wild was, but the structure did most of the work; I found that even as I was racing through the final pages, the relentlessly circuitous prose was frustrating.) The upside of a patch of average reading is that when you do find something emotionally compelling, it breaks upon you like a wave of delight. The Madonna of the Mountains is a book like that. It’s quiet, but it’s brilliant.
It starts in 1923, with a girl called Maria Vittoria embroidering sheets for her dowry trunk. She’s twenty-five, alarmingly old to be unmarried. Her papà has gone to find her a husband. He returns with a man – Achille Montanari, tall and strong and wrapped in glory as a result of vaguely-defined heroism in the last war – and they marry. From there, Elise Valmorbida spins the story of Maria Vittoria’s life: her marriage, her children, the ascent of Mussolini’s government and the onset of WWII. It finishes with her family’s eventual emigration to Australia in 1950. In between these events, Valmorbida demonstrates, life goes on: the war isn’t the point of the novel any more than the question of whether Maria Vittoria will have a husband, a question solved in chapter one. As a result of its refusal to be “about” any one particular event, The Madonna of the Mountains feels both universal (fears about infidelity, a child’s health, how to protect your family in uncertain times) and deeply, richly specific: Valmorbida is interested in process, whether that’s washing laundry in the stream, raising silkworms from eggs, or the arduous hunt for, and fiddly preparation of, snails to eat when there’s no other meat.
Because we’re so deeply embedded in its physical world, The Madonna of the Mountains also feels effortlessly emotionally engaging, without resorting to either melodrama or apparent anachronism. Third-rate historical fiction forces us to care about characters either because we identify with them (often because they have political opinions much like our own, which are suspiciously progressive for their own time, as in The Burning Chambers), or because they’re forced to endure trial after trial, which requires a grudging sort of respect from the reader. Here, neither of those things occurs: Maria Vittoria is very much of her time, a God-fearing Catholic countrywoman whose husband hits her on occasion but whom she will never dream of leaving, who feeds her eldest son first, and who disinherits a daughter with pain but no regret when she brings dishonour to the household. The challenges she faces are both personal and political (indeed, in Fascist Italy, the two are often the same), and in every adversity, her responses are so consistent that it really feels as if you are peering into the head of, let’s say, your great-grandmother; someone whose world is not your world, whose socially conditioned responses are alien to your own. The Madonna of the Mountains is one of the most restrained, yet profoundly convincing, historical novels that I’ve read in years, perhaps ever. I’m delighted to have found it.
I’ve always thought Benjamin Britten would have written great music for it, the Yeats poem that gives this book its title:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
The poem appears in an envelope addressed to Daniel Abend, a psychoanalyst who lives in New York City. Along with the poem—handwritten, in the distinctive block capitals of the woman whom Daniel loved twenty years ago in Paris, who killed herself shortly after they ended their relationship—there is a photograph of Daniel’s former patient Jessica Burke, who died in her bathtub of a heroin overdose. She is supposed to have died alone, but the photograph suggests otherwise; someone else was there, someone who knows Daniel’s life and history, and who is bent on revenge.
Daniel reveals his story through a long confession written and sent to Father Nelson Spurlock, the vicar of the church in New York that conducts Jessica Burke’s funeral. Thus, as Spurlock reads the document, we too discover the secrets that Daniel has been living with, and keeping from his daughter Clementine. By its very nature, the confessional structure is a slow reveal; it takes almost the entire book for us to learn things that Daniel knows from the start. Sometimes it’s too slow. Harrison, like Benjamin Wood, wants us to see this story as somehow special or profound. He uses as many tricks as he can to imbue the narrative with weight: heavy foreshadowing, complex or inverted sentence structure that echoes biblical or poetic phrasing, introduction of religious themes (Daniel’s beloved is on track to become a nun), and of course that Yeats poem. Again, though, I don’t see that it works, and I don’t see why it’s even necessary to reach for it: the particular sins of Daniel’s life, his failures and his lies, are so commonplace and human. They have extreme consequences—a person’s death, a child’s life—but Harrison seems to want to introduce a metaphysical significance to the events of the plot that simply isn’t supported. There is a lot about shame and guilt and God, but these things can and should be invoked and felt deeply by the characters, without necessarily being a moral framework through which the reader ought to perceive the book.
The Waters and the Wild is helped, though, by that confessional structure: you want to read it all the way through because you do—even if frustrated by Daniel’s withholding—want to know what happened in the past, and how it is affecting the present. You want, perhaps most of all, to know his level of culpability: how much is he at fault? He is a thoroughly realised character, seemingly open but concealing much, perhaps because he is deceiving himself. That particular brand of unreliability makes a nice change from the other unreliable narrators of domestic noir, who tend to be alcoholic women. The Waters and the Wild is flawed in conception and execution, but it sets its sights much higher than most other books of its genre.