Sprung from the Loins of Byronic Heroes

Today I wend my way back from Washington to Halifax. So we moved off, as Homer said, sad in the vast offing, having our precious lives, but not our friends.

Before I leave, I've tried to do as much scanning of old photographs as I could, and I put this to you: some of my ancestors could be dashing heroes of historical romance.

Take my great-great-great-uncle Francis, for instance, a veteran of the Civil War:

I'm mean seriously: Byronic, right?  Those cheekbones....
Or there's my great-great-grandfather, Francis's older brother by three years (they were the babies and pranksters of the family - thirteenth and fifteenth of seventeen siblings). He may have had really alarming facial hair, but he's got the same stern, ferocious good looks as Francis, and I'm sure he looked just as swashbuckling in his Illinois Regulars uniform.  Also, check out his name, which I would have derided as improbably contrived in a spy thriller or romance novel, but which (it turns out) is a traditional family moniker.

I think he may be using some hair pins to fasten back those luxuriant locks.

Good looking boys they were in that family, and between them they had an unsurprising 17 children with names like Fern, Effa Eutoka, Zenas, and Enoch.  Actually, that's relatively restrained, given the determined fecundity of their own parents....

Monday, April 23, 2012
Washington, DC

A Condensation of Microreviews, or What I've Been Reading

(Yes, that's what I've decided the collective noun should be.)

When the semester gets frantic, my reading not only runs to escapism and engrossment, but the pace also accelerates, as I whip through swathes of books (using them as incentives to finish unpleasant or taxing work) at a rate that makes them almost impossible to recall.  I always mean to slow down and account for these books more fully here, but the very scheduling pressures that make me turn to this voracious style of reading also guarantees that I won't have time for leisurely blog reflection. 

For a number of the books I read over the last few months, I did formulate microreviews, however.  I think I had the intention of expanding on them later, but now so much time has passed that I don't know if I could do so with any hope of accuracy, or without a total reread.  So microreviews they shall remain, forever and anon.

A Most Lamentable Comedy 

Janet Mullany (2009) 

Feb 29, 2012, 5.5/10

As usual with Mullany, I warmed to the writing early, but wanted something a little less … ludicrous from the plot and characterization.  This was an oddly elliptical book as well, always cutting away at the key moment (not just THOSE moments, but yes, those moments too) and moving in anxious leaps of plot.

More than One Night 

Sarah Mayberry (2012) 

Mar 1, 2012. 5.5/10

Charlie’s just been discharged from the military, and feels a bit at sea.  She and Rhys fall into a celebratory one-night stand, and despite/thanks to everyone’s best efforts, conceive.   This pregnancy narrative is sort of the modern marriage-of-necessity story, but there’s not quite enough going on here (despite Mayberry’s dependably full characterization).  The conflict is too insecurity-driven, when he is clearly enraptured by her.  I would have like to get more of a sense of her as someone shaped (not just abandoned) by her life in the military.  As often with Mayberry’s work, I wish there had been a hundred more pages.  That’s both a complaint and a compliment.  A complaintment.

In for a Penny 

Rose Lerner (2010) 

March 4, 2012. 6.5/10. 

A marriage of convenience novel (a trope I love), but I wished for a heroine who was just a hair less bland than the smart but self-effacing Penelope. In other words, I think I might have preferred to read the story of Nev’s spitfire, piratical sister and her love affair with childhood friend (and steward) Percy.  After all, I love (and long for) a good friends-to-lovers romance.  I appreciated both the prose and the pervasive realism of this novel of class conflicts, but there were both odd narrative leaps and outbreaks of conventional romancey sultriness and handsiness that seemed implausible to me. I’d definitely be up for another Lerner.

Secrets of a Summer Night 

Lisa Kleypas (2004)

March 8, 2012. 6/10. 

First in the Wallflowers quartet, but I don’t anticipate that it will be the most satisfying.  Smart but somehow bland Annabelle Peyton resists butcher’s-son-turned-industrialist Simon Hunt, for reasons even they don’t find very compelling. Also: what was up with Simon insulting her reading habits on the honeymoon?  

Crazy for You 

Jennifer Crusie (1999)

 March 15, 2012 6/10 

Intriguing but ultimately troubling commonalities between the obsessive, controlling, abusive ex and the protective, dominating hero.  I liked the possibility raised that not every happy couple needs to be married or live together, but this ultimately fizzled into a more conventional ending. 

Tell Me Lies 

Jennifer Crusie (1998)

March 18, 2012. 5.5/10.  

The spectre of assault and the heroine Maddie's frenetic attempts to cover for those wronging her make this one of my least favorite Crusies. There's also a hero (CL for Chopped Liver, all too appropriately) whose issues get short shrift, but whose determination to care for the heroine comes to seem almost oppressive - the very last thing that she needs, despite some potently evoked sexual tension.

[More soon, as I transcribe these microreviews from my Nook, aide and abettor of frenzied reading binges.]

Friday, April 21, 2012
Washington, DC

The Throaty Growl and the Trace of Yearning: On Glamor, Responsibility, and Teddy Bears

My grandfather and his bear: a parable of friendship and temptation, in his own words.

Early one evening shortly before Christmas Day [1925] Helen took him to a toy store in the area of shops up the street from the hospital. It was dark night in the street, but the shop was brilliantly lighted by many exposed filament light bulbs.  There was a low counter and shelves above it displaying dolls, Teddy bears, felt monkeys, and other toys.  Helen must have made a previous survey and wanted Grant to have a chance to approve his main gift.  Grant sensed that she was pushing him tactfully to select a particular Teddy bear, but at least initially his eye was taken by a felt monkey in a red jacket with bright brass buttons and a "bell-boy" cap.  Helen clearly didn't like the monkey, the bear did have a quiet, kindly charm, and the bear gave a throaty growl when you tipped him forward.  Grant saw he ought to vote for the bear, and so he did. Perhaps Helen believed it was a choice between a solid friend and a flashy acquaintance.  Probably she was right, but more than 50 years later Grant still had a trace of yearning for that red-jacketed monkey.  The toy is a symbol to him of all those touches of glamor which you give up a when you set your course for a steady, responsible life, as McC-----s in his time generally did.
More than fifty years later...
(More than eighty years, in fact,
when this picture was taken.)
The Teddy bear was a faithful companion of Grant's Assiut years.  His growl mechanism failed after a few years so that he only rattled inside when moved.  His feet and paws had to be patched with light khaki when the original cloth covering wore out.  Helen made him a suit of blue-gray material with a pocket in front and several red buttons below the neck.  After a year or two Grant once tried to shave Teddy with his father's straight-edge razor.  The cut was stitched together by Helen, and Grant was made to repent for his thoughtlessness by having Teddy put away in a drawer for many days.

So many things.  First, note that Grant wasn't reprimanded for playing with a straight razor at the age of five, but rather for thoughtlessness to Teddy, whose integrity as a faithful friend he had failed to honor. Secondly, and on a related note, I want to declare here and now that I am vindicated of personal responsibility for the oddity of my adult belief that stuffed animals have feelings, a belief that has, on occasion, led me to try to enlist D in massive stuffed-animal-liberation maneuvers in the gulags of FAO Schwartz.  Clearly, both the excess of anthropomorphizing empathy and the tendency towards allegorical melodrama are delightfully but inalterably genetic.

Thursday, 19 April 2012
Washington, DC

The Hollow Heroine and Epistolary Delights: Ranney's Till Next We Meet

Colonel Montcrief isn’t too clear about how he began writing to Catherine Dunnan from the Quebec front.  It probably was because her feckless husband was too busy whoring, beating his horses, and reveling in the French slaughter even to read Catherine’s letters, much less to reply to them. So write Montcrief did, in the other man’s name, and before he knows it, he’s been drawn deep into an epistolary love affair, the letters growing less dutiful and more intimate with every passing week.
I do love an epistolary novel, because it allows an opportunity for love to develop separately from physical desire, and with a gratifying incremental quality that is the opposite of the fated love, coup de foudre model I’m so tired of. (Laura Kinsale’s My Sweetest Folly has a brilliant beginning in this vein, even if I didn’t love the book that followed.) In Till Next We Meet, Karen Ranney combines this with the Cyrano trope (a man woos a woman behind the screen of another’s identity) to create some fascinating scenarios of dramatic irony.  
The unsympathetic husband Dunnan passes out of the picture almost immediately (shot in a lover’s bed), and Montcrief also learns that his own elder brother has died, making him the Duke of Lymond.  He resigns his commission, and makes his way back to Scotland, where it seems like the most natural thing in the world to seek out the young widow whose letters so fascinated him, and offer his condolences.  He has worried (or wondered, to be fair) whether this spectral figure he’s fallen in love with is remotedly attractive, but he never dared ask her husband for fear of drawing attention to his fascination.  Now when he meets her, she is a wraith, starved and battered by grief.  The predominant emotion she arouses is not longing but pity.  He can’t wait to be away from her.  But when he comes to take his leave of her, she has taken (wittingly? He doesn’t know.) an overdose of drugs, and the only feasible way (!!) to protect her from herself and the world is to marry her.  
What follows is a struggle of self-control: for him, they are already in a position of tremendous intimacy, and he has to restrain himself from acting on that familiarity and affection, because for her is an utter stranger, and an incomprehensible one.  She mourns a man who hasn’t died - the man who wrote the letters, but he can’t reveal that without tilting her already precarious mental state. 
Moncrief is fairly nuanced, compellingly ambivalent, and fully wrought. Catherine, on the other hand, feels like an Empty Romance Heroine Signifier. She is a shell of a human being for much of the novel, hollowed out by a grief we know is unwarranted.  Moncrief wishes that she would show the character he knew from the letters, and I couldn’t help but sympathize.   Even after she recovers, and is much more active, there was nothing about her to justify his fascination, apart from a cheery willingness to hike up her skirts against various pieces of furniture.  
Some romances hollow out their heroines as a mechanism of identification* (just as Scott McCloud speaks of visual abstraction as a trigger for identification in Understanding Comics, or Laura Mulvey speaks of the workings of identification, objectification, and scopophilia in film): the hero is fully wrought because he is the object of readerly desire, but the heroine is a blank so a diverse array of readerly experiences and personalities can align themselves empathetically with her subject position in the novel. Ranney has quite cleverly positioned her heroine so that there is a diegetic (generated within the plot itself) reason for this hollowness.  Nonetheless, as always with me, this blankness of the heroine generates not a feeling of identification, but one of alienation. I feel manipulated by formula when one of the characters is a blank canvas for my identification, rather than convinced that these are two real, compelling people carefully negotiating a difficult situation.  Her one nuanced quality as a personality - her extreme and sincere grief for her husband and correspondent - is necessarily undercut and delegitimized by the way the plot unfolds for us.  We know she is grieving 1) a man who didn’t ever deserve her love (her first husband), and 2) a man whom she is too blind to see is standing right in front of her (her correspondent, who happens to be her second husband).  Thus her most interesting and sympathetic feature - her ferocious loyalty and her searing grief - becomes a source of frustration, because it’s clear that her ignorance is acting as an impediment to the progress of the romance. The hero is impatient with her grief (the fact that this is an unreasonable impatience, given what she could conceivably understand, doesn’t matter, because our knowledge is aligned with his knowledge), and even though I thought he was making unfair emotional demands on a recent widow, I was impatient too.
There’s a fair amount of material of questionable historicity here, or at least elements that had plausibility problems to my eye, with its half-education in the period.  Would the heir to a dukedom (his brother has no children) be permitted to fight in the wars in Quebec?  How did Montcrief manage to marry Catherine without a license virtually immediately after their first meeting? How plausible is it really that her servants would allow her to wander into her first meeting with him half-dressed?
There’s also a major consent issue that was insufficiently addressed, and that troubled my acceptance of their marriage and the hero’s demands: he marries her when she is too drugged even to remember the ceremony, much less give her agreement to it.  Why doesn’t this cause more conflict between them, apart from a few gentle reminders that she is an “unwilling bride”?  He traps her into a lifelong contract in which he has possession of her body and control of her estate: this is a violation, no matter how altruistically motivated, and needed more - much more - acknowledgement to become an interesting interrogation, rather than an unsettling sense of violation in my readerly mind.

Till Next We Meet (2005)
Karen Ranney 
Finished Monday, April 9, 2012

*I’m quite sure an abundance of work has been done on this that I just haven’t read.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012
Washington, DC

Venomous Creatures and the Face that Launched a Single Ship

A Prelude to Chapter 1

My great-grandmother, the face that launched the Canopic
I've just come upon an account my grandfather, Grant, wrote in 1973 of the love story of his parents - the jovial Frank (a doctor) and gentle Helen (a schoolteacher).  I'm only part of the way through it right now, but already it's a tale filled with influenza epidemics, travel across war-torn oceans filled with torpedo boats, riotous Egyptian nationalism, and tremendous tenderness.  Every so often, Grant has left an open space in the typescript (no doubt prepared by my industrious, sometimes Bracknellian grandmother), which he has filled with hieroglyphs, phrases in Arabic, and tiny sketches of the difference between an Egyptian carriage and an American one.  It's enthralling.

Frank and Helen first came together because their siblings - his brother Paul and her sister Grace (who would herself become a great historian of the family) - were married, and Helen later describes him as "the same sweet, unselfish, gentle Frank that we all loved so well in those days when we learned to know him after Paul's death." Nonetheless, Frank's interest seems to have come as something of a shock to Helen and her family. I'll let Grant tell it:

Shortly before Christmas Frank wrote from Harvard to Helen at her home in Waverly, Ohio, proposing marriage. [...] Frank's message was a surprise, and when Helen told the household, her mother, Cora Barch Smith, in agitation threw the envelope into the flames of the living room fireplace. [...] Helen cherished this letter and once showed it to Grant in Assiut when he was about 12 years old.  He remembers being told then the explanation for its lack of an envelope.  She destroyed the letter with many other papers in 1951 in Egypt.
Helen and her childhood friends, in the same fit of riotous hilarity
that virtually any afternoon with my high school friends dissolved into...
Frank remained in Cambridge during the Christmas holidays.  To make good use of this period without classes and to keep himself from brooding too much about what Helen's response might be he asked Dr. Strong to suggest a line of study.
Strong recommended that he read works on tropical poisonous reptiles.  Frank took his advice and became intensely interested in cobras, vipers, scorpions and other venomous creatures.  This knowledge proved to be of direct use to him later in Egypt, particularly in Luxor.
Helen's reply to Frank's letter was that he should come to Waverly for a talk.  He did so, and they became engaged.  Helen's engagement ring was of a simple design, and the diamond, though modest in size, was of the finest purity with a pale blue fire.

The cherished letter, only destroyed when they finally left Egypt! The supplicant lover so much on tenterhooks about the response to his proposal that he can only soothe himself with the study of vipers and scorpions! (Family lesson: sometimes the venomous can be the best source of solace.)  This is gothic stuff, and I adore it.

But Grant has (oddly enough) left out the best part.

After a Christmas spent in the anxious study of poisonous creatures, Frank received a letter from Helen in the new year saying that he should come to Waverly to discuss the matter further with her.  When he arrived at her parents' house, she suggested a walk, and as they wandered amidst bleak wintry gardens, she accepted his proposal.  As she did so, she reached out and plucked a thorn several inches long from a bush close at hand, and they made their happy way back to break the news to her family.

Helen amidst the thorn trees in Waverly
(I find something moving in the fact that in these pictures, the people are blurred out of focus -
as if moving too quickly through a fleeting time - but the thorn trees are static and precise.)
It was 1915, and they didn't yet know that within the next year they would not only be married, but also finished with his post-graduate studies in tropical medicine and her teaching, assigned to a hospital in Egypt, and making their way towards the Mediterranean in the ghoulishly named Canopic, a British liner carrying a hold full of ammunition through the submarine-patrolled Atlantic waters.   In fact, all they knew for certain was that they'd be married soon. They had photographs taken to commemorate the happy day, and in our albums, above those pictures, a single thorn, the length of my smallest finger, pierces the album's thick, dark paper.

Frank and the family emblem
Wednesday, 18 April 2012
Washington, DC

Fear no more the heat of the sun

Grant (October 22, 1919- April 14, 2012)

Here's what I need you to know about my grandfather. Pay close attention: it's a romantic story.

Chapter 1

Potent playgrounds
He was, to the great consternation of ninety years of passport control officials and dermatologists, an American born in Egypt, towheaded and blue-eyed and casually fluent in Arabic.  His father, Frank, was a part of the Presbyterian mission in Egypt (unsurprising given our Scottish family - one of the earliest pictures of my grandfather shows him being dandled, newborn, by a uniformed Scottish soldier who has crowned the baby with his tartan cap).  Frank, a former college track star, was a doctor at the mission hospital, and a man famous for his gregariousness and kindness.  You can see his warmth emanating from the photographs, in which he seriously examines patients, performs complex surgery in his early twentieth-century facilities in Assiut, or stands proudly next to a Hadja (a woman who has undertaken the Hadj) and her luxuriant sheep.

Grant's was a childhood of sun and sand and books.  It was an era in which children could clamor over ancient statuary like it was some patient, long-suffering family pet - a Great Dane with cosmic concerns and small, rambunctious friends. 

Helen, sowing the seeds of bibliophilia
(or possibly bibliomania)
Grant's mother, Helen, had trained to be a teacher, and she was a voracious reader, one who carried a Bible and a volume of Shakespeare's Complete Works with her wherever she traveled and read devotionally from each every day.   You can see that I come by my bibliomania honestly.  There's a clear genealogy from this picture of Helen reading to her sons in Assiut to my library in Nova Scotia. At Farfara I have a tiny table and an Egyptian rug of undyed wools that Frank and Helen packed in the single steamer trunk they brought back from a lifetime of service in Assiut.  God, how I wish I had that gorgeous bookcase.  Years later, after Grant had had his own children, he was posted to the NATO Defense College, and had to leave my adolescent mother with friends in London to finish out the school year while the rest of the family moved to a luxurious apartment in Paris.  When he dropped her off, and before he said his goodbyes, Grant handed my mother a two-foot-tall stack of new Penguin paperbacks, in their distinctive orange covers, a bibliophile solace for the absence of family.  In this stack was I, Claudius, which was, he told her, one of his mother's favorite books.  It wasn't until I read it for the first time, opening that same orange-covered copy as a teenager, that I realized how bold a choice - filled with sex and murder and intrigue - it was for a missionary doctor's wife in the 30s.  I came to know my great-grandmother in all her complexity through the books she loved. 

Scowling against the sun
So, childhood was a bit of an idyll, despite the loss of a younger sister named Jennie when she was very young.  Grant's family rarely made it back to the States, but on vacations they sought out contrasts, making their way to chalets in snowy Switzerland.  

Outside the clinic in Assiut
One day in Egypt, a traveling peddler came by Helen and Frank's house.  He offered, among other things, a small satchel of ancient bronze coins.  Fascinated, Grant bought them with his pocket money.  It was the birth of a numismatist. (There are few enough opportunities in life to use that word; you've got to seize them when they come.)  He was entranced by ancient history, fascinated by the ruins and hieroglyphs that surrounded him.  He wanted to become an Egyptologist.

When Grant had just turned three, Howard Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, stood together outside the newly opened tomb of the ancient pharaoh Tutankhamun and looked on burial treasures no one had seen in over 3000 years - treasures that certainly no one was meant to have seen ever again.  When Lord Carnarvon fell terribly ill in the months that followed, so the family story goes, doctors were called in from all over Egypt, among them my great-grandfather Frank.  

This is why, my grandfather often told me with a serious mouth and a glint in his eye, our family is doomed to death by the mummy's curse.  The wrath of Tutankhamun finds us all; sometimes it just takes nine decades to do it.
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers come to dust.

Sunday, April 15, 2012
Washington, DC

Clarity or Fat Caliper?: A Battle of Wills

Sunday, April 8, 2012

"I have another name I'd like to put to you for our future, as-of-yet-utterly-hypothetical children," I said to D one day by the fire, when he was still in town. Name-speculating is one of my favorite pastimes, but D normally greets my proposals with ill-concealed (well, unconcealed) scorn. I mean, what's wrong with "Clarity"? Or "Meta"?  Perfectly legitimate names.

I paused for drama, but D's way ahead of me this time. His own proposal tripped off his tongue: "Fat Caliper."

"What?" I did a double-take. "Are you proposing that we name our child 'Fat Caliper'?"


"Well," I said thoughtfully, after a long moment, "I was going to suggest 'Griffin,' but 'Fat Caliper' would pretty much destine him for a fruitfully painful career as a bluesman. And we could call him 'Cal.'"

Two can play at this game of chicken, D.* Satirize me at your own peril.

*In fact, it's not much of a game of chicken unless two are playing at it.

Sentimental Remains: Down on Downton

Friday, April 6, 2012

There's something that's been eating away at me about Downton Abbey, even before Salon thought to ask why liberals (particularly in America) love it so or I found out that Alan Cumming agrees with me (which is naturally a great bolstering of my ego).  What's making me mad is essentially this: Downton spends a great deal of money and effort to make us believe that an aristocracy (a system that pays people to behave as if they are better than their fellow citizens based on the arbitrary fact of their birth) is an inherently benevolent social institution, beneath the cheerful cattiness of its various members.  There might as well be a motto emblazoned over the opening credits: Downton Abbey: Noblesse Oblige. It's well-clad hegemony: it persuades those who are being screwed by the system that their screwing is not just a necessary process, but a beautiful and noble one.

I'm liable to get a bit ranty on the subject, particularly since I harbor a substantial fondness for historical fictions and costume dramas, and their ability to mine the complexities of historical difference to philosophically complex and often subversive ends. But today, in discussion with a friend, I reflected on what made this different from a more effective, less ideologically disturbing costume drama.  Here's what I said, with some moments of expansion:

I would like Downton Abbey so much better if it were more like Remains of the Day - a vividly and humanely drawn portrait of people so steeped in the ideology of a class system that they are 100% committed to their own oppression or privilege (or both), but a portrait that nonetheless managed to throw that oppression and privilege into stark relief rather than dipping it in treacly, unquestioning nostalgia. (Remains of the Day is about nostalgia, as the title indicates, and it persuades us of the power of that nostalgia, but that nostalgia is problematic.  The protagonist looks back longingly, and with varying degrees of self-knowledge, to a period that was glorious but morally complex; it is damningly tied up in, among other things, fascism.) There are times when Downton tended in that direction, mostly in the first series, where characters were allowed to be much more plausibly selfish. This compelling self-absorption not only made it a more plausible critique of aristocratic privilege, but also a more well-wrought drama. In series two, the characters were muddled by strange, implausible, and anachronistic acts of generosity that seem designed rather to win our modern sympathies than to make sense with their psychology or their social context. In their spontaneous desire to concern themselves with the benefit of those they in no way considered to be their social (or often intellectual) equals, the characters came to operate on the principle of patriotic parable (Pull together, all! That's what the class system is about!) rather than human psychology.  By series two, I felt that I was watching a propaganda film with extra kissing.

My wrath at the series finally peaked during the episode in which the Irish socialist attempts an act of dinner-table terrorism. It just made my skin crawl. What a demeaning, infantilizing representation of revolutionary ideology that was: all of his ideals fizzling into a melodrama-turned-farce.  I could only hope that this series would never, ever air in Ireland. And, unbelievably, because narrative necessity and an unrealistic sense of the chummy inter-class loyalty of these houses rules the plotting, the humiliated political miscreant continued to work at Downton after this bizarre incident.

I do love a good costume drama (love them like nobody's business), and I don't think this sort of ideology is inherent to them. I had high hopes for Downton Abbey, which is why it fills me with sadness that it appears to be part of an upswing of nostalgic art that goes hand in hand with conservative politics in Britain.