Catching Up: Bookish Miscellany, with a Special Note on Loins

I haven’t done a lot of focused reading in the past week or so–I blame (but very much welcomed!) my visiting parents, for diverting me with conversation. I also blame my daughter, who celebrated her 10th birthday on the weekend–an occasion involving much festivity but also, in advance, much planning, bustling, and shopping. Not that we did anything particularly fancy for it (not like last year’s bouncy castle, which really was quite a big deal). This year we had a “pajama day” party, with pillows and “stuffies” and movies, all very cozy. Of course, it would turn out to be the one beautiful sunny day in about a month! But everyone seemed to enjoy curling up to watch, and then we had games (‘freeze dance’ is a ritual favorite with this crowd) and pizza and ice cream sundaes with all the peanut-free toppings I could think of (Maddie’s very allergic).

I have been gathering books to read, though, and puttering through some of them, especially various books (fiction and non-fiction) about Richard III, as I think through what my essay will be about. I haven’t kept up with Ricardian novels since about 1985, and it turns out there have been quite a few, so I’ve been searching them out at the library and taking a look. At this point I’m not inclined to pay much attention to these “new” ones in my essay because they seem, well, awful. I suppose they aren’t, really. What they are is pedestrian and unconvincing. That said, I’ve been wondering: are the old books I cherish, including the two I just reread (The Broken Sword and The White Boar) really any better, or do I just read them through sentimental eyes? I think they are better. For one thing, by and large they avoid tedious attempts to make the characters sound medieval by having them speak in stilted, artificially antique dialogue–like this, from the page that happens to be open in front of me: “Ay, young Richard has proved a good student of arms. I do hear he wields a fierce sword.” You do hear that, do you? 15th-century speakers would have sounded perfectly idiomatic to themselves: I think that (for any but the most ingenious and talented writers) the smartest choice is to make them sound perfectly idiomatic to us, and to let the strangeness of their world-view come through in some other way. An old-fashioned oath or two is fine, and certainly allusions to period details of clothing, food, ritual, whatever. But stay away from ” ‘Tis unnatural in the eyes of God what they are doing” or “Certes, ’tis hard to explain.” Rather than creating an air of authenticity, this kind of labored stuff distances us–or me, at least–from the characters whose immediacy is crucial to our imaginative engagement with the novel. And for crying out loud, leave their loins out of it: across just a few pages of my current example, Anne Easter Smith’s A Rose for the Crown, we get “his exposed loins telling the tale,” “Kate’s loins all but melted into her shaky knees,” and “she experienced the familiar flutter in her heart and stomach that affected her loins.” Our heroine Kate has yet to get passionate with Richard of Gloucester, but I have a familiar flutter of my own that says loins will once more be involved, though maybe this time they’ll keep quiet and stay above the knees. I am hopeful that Jean Plaidy’s The Reluctant Queen will be better. I read and reread Plaidy’s novels as a teenager and have often regretted having discarded most of my collection over the course of many moves. This particular one is unknown to me, though: it is a late one, early 1990s, I think. (One of the unexpected convergences of my thesis research was discovering that the reason Agnes Strickland’s 1840s series Lives of the Queens of England seemed so familiar to me was that Strickland was one of Plaidy’s main sources.) I also dug up Sandra Worth’s The King’s Daughter and took Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen as I roamed the library, as both are at least peripherally about Richard and the Princes in the Tower.

One book I did get through, because I was writing it up for the summer reading feature we’re preparing at Open Letters and I couldn’t resist refreshing my memory, is Pauline Gedge’s The Eagle and the Raven. This is another old favorite, and again it raises the question of how far sentiment affects my judgment. I think I could find passages in The Eagle and the Raven that are as banal and cliched as any in A Rose for the Crown–but overall, I really do think it is fiction of a different order, richer, more challenging, more imaginatively rich. I can’t be quite sure, though, because about half way through it I developed an unnerving tendency to start weeping over every loss or betrayal in the plot, which means over most of the second part of the book. I can certainly be this kind of emotional reader (I’m a Victorianist, remember–I always cry at the end of A Tale of Two Cities too), but I wondered if it was really the tragic failures of the ancient Britons in their struggle against the Roman Empire that made me cry this time: I was full of memories, because of my parents’ visit, and emotionally stirred from reflecting on Maddie’s first completed decade, and The Eagle and the Raven is one of the books that made a great impression on me in my younger years, so that reading it was never just about the book but always about some volatile combination of who I was, who I am now, where I am now (literally and figuratively), and so on. How could I possibly assess its literary quality in these circumstances? And, I suppose, why would I really want to? I loved rereading it, so much that I think I may soon reread Gedge’s first novel, Child of the Morning, about Hatshepsut, Egypt’s only woman pharaoh–another old-time favorite.

Among the other books I have collected for my TBR pile recently is Testament of a Generation, the collected journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby: I ordered “a lovely copy” through Abebooks (actually, from Silver Tree Books in Malvern, in the UK), and it finally arrived once the postal dispute was concluded (I won’t say “settled,” since it wasn’t, not properly). I’m more interested in reading this than in reading any more about Brittain and Holtby just yet, but I’ve also got Testament of Experience waiting. My mother and I had a nice browse at the Jade *W* downtown, too, and while she took home about 5 more books about Virginia Woolf to add to her impressive collection as well as their copy of Ursula Nordstrom’s Dear Genius (which I really hope she enjoys–I rather urged it on her!), I took Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows and This Real Night from their well-hidden Virago section.

First up for some sustained attention, though–which will have to be tomorrow–is Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale for the Slaves of Golconda. It is worrisome to me that I read this barely a month ago (mistakenly thinking that was our deadline) and can barely recall it now!  But I’m sure it will all come back to me, especially since I see I made some helpful little notes in the back of my copy.

And that’s a start on getting back to blogging. I was actually starting to feel quite fretful about not having written anything here for so long, not because I felt guilty but because I felt sort of pent up, even with nothing in particular to write about.



3 thoughts on “Catching Up: Bookish Miscellany, with a Special Note on Loins

  1. Annie June 30, 2011 / 5:07 am

    Have you read Emma Darwin’s ‘A Secret Alchemy’? There’s not that much about Richard but it does concentrate on Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the Princes in the Tower, and so might fit into what you are doing. Then there was a book I loved when I was teaching children’s literature, Barbara Willard’s ‘A Sprig of Broom’. It’s the second in her Mantlemass series and is a ‘what if’ about Richard. The whole series is worth reading but they may be out of print and need a bit of searching for.


  2. Rohan Maitzen June 30, 2011 / 10:06 am

    I did read A Secret Alchemy and wasn’t particularly moved by it–though I think it was mercifully loin-free. I too love the Mantlemass series, and don’t have to search further than my bookshelf to find all but The Lark and the Laurel, which sadly I lent to a friend’s daughter and never saw again. But Amazon UK says it is still in print! I’ll have to pick up a new copy: though I like A Sprig of Broom and all the others too, The Lark and the Laurel was always my favorite.

    Speaking of British YA books, did you ever read K. M. Peyton’s Pennington series or Flambards series? I loved those. The Flambards ones seem to be in print but not Pennington, so I’m glad I bought library discard copies of those years ago: I reread them often, but so far can’t seem to interest my own children in them–ungrateful wretches!


  3. Annie July 1, 2011 / 4:26 am

    Oh yes, I loved both series, but somehow never managed to come to terms with the earlier books about Ruth. Not a pony girl, I’m afraid!


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