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Melissa Wiley is the author of The Martha Years books about Laura Ingalls Wilder's great-grandmother, Martha Morse Tucker, and The Charlotte Years books, about Laura's grandmother, Charlotte Tucker Quiner.
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As soon as spring is in the air Mr. Krippendorf and I begin an antiphonal chorus, like two frogs in neighboring ponds: What have you in bloom, I ask, and he answers from Ohio that there are hellebores in the woods, and crocuses and snowdrops and winter aconite. Then I tell him that in North Carolina the early daffodils are out but that the aconites are gone and the crocuses past their best..”
—Elizabeth Lawrence, The Little Bulbs
The photo is not of my garden; this lovely sight of a neighbor’s front yard left me breathless last April. I haven’t been down that street lately to see what may be in bloom, but the daisies and poppies are coming up in other yards around town. My own poppies are all leaf, not quite ready to set buds yet. But soon. And some of these small daisies have popped up quite unexpectedly in a large planter by my front steps, along with some adorable johnny-jumpups. Either they jumped up indeed, right into the pot, or it’s possible Rilla planted some seeds…she’s always finding an old half-full packet in a drawer somewhere (why do I only ever plant half the seeds in a packet?) and taking it upon herself to do a bit of Mary Lennoxing. Today it was freesia seeds, inherited from a friend, and some sweet peas and sweet william. I grow freesia from bulbs, not seed, so I’m eager to see if these come up. It’s turning wonderland out there, already…the lavender has gone supersized this year, the bees are quite drunk.
It’s the season when I have no choice, I must read gardening books. The Little Bulbs is mandatory at this time of year, when the freesia are tumbling everywhere. I could live on the scent of freesia. This bit to Miss Lawrence from her horticultural pen-pal, Mr. Krippendorf, one February day, made me laugh:
“I was surprised to hear of the paucity of bloom in your garden, as I once read a book by an Elizabeth Lawrence who listed quantities of plants that bloomed in February or even January in her garden (which she alleged was in Raleigh, North Carolina). We have quite a few snowdrops now, and some eranthis, in spite of the fact that the pool on the terrace freezes every night.” And later: “I have your letter dated Fourth Sunday in Lent but not mailed until Tuesday. You say you might as well have lived in Ohio this winter—that sounds almost scornful. Yesterday was a wonderful day, not too warm, and sunshine off and on. I have tens of thousands of winter aconites in the woods—bold groups repeating themselves into the distance, also the spring snowflakes, and Adonis amurensis.”
All this sudden color is the result of the few days of rain we had the other week, after a crispy, crackling, waterless winter. And I know so many of you in other parts of the U.S. have had a really dreadful time of it these past few months. I wouldn’t dare to ask Miss Lawrence’s question, above, but I’m starting to see hints on Facebook and Twitter of a crocus here, a narcissus there, and Mr. Krippendorf’s tens of thousands of winter aconites gave me courage.
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (ahhh, deep delight)
Grace for President
Here Comes Destructosaurus (coming out soon, quite funny, wonderful Jeremy Tankard art)
Finished Where Angels Fear to Tread. Forster is tearing me up, lately. I had to read Howards End because of the Susan Hill book, and it wrung me inside out, and Angels hung me out to dry. In a good way, you understand.
Overslept this morning, thanks to Daylight Savings Time (which I nonetheless adore) and to having stayed up past midnight, too wired from sending off a manuscript (yippee!) to sleep—or to read, for that matter. Fumbled at a crossword puzzle on my phone instead. Well, after talking at my poor exhausted husband for an hour.
So no early-morning reading for me today. And a whirl of a morning, catching up on the housework and garden work I’ve neglected these past weeks. It’s spring out there! Who knew! Loads and loads of freesia sweetening the air—almost knocked me over, the scent was so lovely and so unexpected. And the pink jasmine is blooming, and the lime tree and grapefruit (not as exciting as it sounds, those two—they don’t seem inclined to produce fruit, ever). Nasturtiums and sweet alyssum and loads and loads of lavender. I might have to live outside for a while. “I think your garden needs you, Mom,” said Rose only a little reproachfully. She’s right; the clover is overrunning everything, and let’s not even speak of the bermuda grass.
But inside, there was Spenser. We’re reading it in excerpts, with plot summary between the passages—Marshall’s English Literature for Boys and Girls is wonderful for this—if you, a 21st-century teenager, can forgive the condescending name. Today was great fun, as the girls kept spotting parallels to Narnia (Una happening upon the dancing fauns and satyrs, not to mention her devoted lion)—Rose or Beanie, which?, said “I think Lucy is supposed to be an Una, Mom.” And the description of St. George going forth unto the dragon’s darksome hole:
“And lookéd in: his glistering armour made
A little glooming light, much like a shade,
By which he saw the ugly monster plain…
Most loathsome, filthy, foul, and full of vile disdain.”
I thought of Bilbo and Smaug, but Beanie thought of Eustace. They know a lot about Tolkien’s literary credentials and influences from our Beowulf studies, and now they know about Lewis’s too. You can’t help but see it, reading Spenser.
Oh, and we returned to our Poetry 180 journey, poem #8, “Numbers” by Mary Cornish.
Now, during all this poetry-reading, Rilla was perched in her usual spot at the kitchen table, drawing, and suddenly she flitted across to the shelves behind my rocking chair and started piling up books—mostly volumes from our Poetry for Young People collection, plus Child’s Garden of Verses. Later, I found this pile on my bed. She informed me gravely that she has decided to be a poet as well as an artist, “and I’m going to need to study everything about poetry. All the poems, and the poets’ lives, and everything.”
All the poems. Well, then. No time to lose. We began with Sandburg, at her request—his “Between Two Hills” is her favorite. And then a bit of Poe (we are incapable of saying his name without belting “Poe, Edgar Allen, American poet, born in eighteen hundred and nine…“). She liked the Raven but deemed it “too long” (I can’t disagree) and said she prefers poets like Emily Dickinson who “tell a whole story in a short little poem.” I can’t argue with that, either.
Things I read last week:
—finished Howards End
—the “Keeps House” chapter of Milly-Molly-Mandy (a favorite because of Billy Blunt pretending to be a Mr. Snooks)
—Queen of England: The Story of Elizabeth by Helene Hanff
—essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Alice Walker
—began Where Angels Fear to Tread
I spent the past week (month) (several months) in panic/crunch mode on a manuscript and missed commemorating a rather significant milestone here: Scott and I celebrated the 25th anniversary of our first date. Our 20th wedding anniversary is coming up in May, but in many ways this week’s date is the more significant, the more earthshaking, life-altering. We met at callbacks for a college play (Black Comedy) in February 1989. I was head over heels for him immediately. He seemed keen on me too. On March 3rd I invited him to my roommate’s birthday party. He took some coaxing—not a partygoer, is he—and somehow we wound up at a different party, either before or after my roomie’s (college, man), and we fell into a discussion of our mutual favorite books, The Lord of the Rings (remember, this was long before the films and you were part of a relatively small geeky subset if you were a Tolkien nut) and, well, we’ve been pretty much inseparable ever since. (Even my two years in grad school in North Carolina, when he was working in NYC, we talked every single night on the phone. And that brutal three-month stretch in 2006 just after Rilla was born when he came out here to San Diego to start the new job and I was back in Virginia trying to sell the house, we had an IM window open round the clock and often spent our evenings working together, each on our respective assignments. Ping, ping, ping.) I am still as ridiculously crazy about him as I was that very first day.
Anyway. I put some pictures on Facebook. Later in the week I was clicking around on the ‘related links’ below my posts, wandering back through funny kid stories I would have forgotten if I hadn’t blogged them, and I got swept with a tidal wave of gratitude for the chronicle this blog has become, this diary of our lives. His blog, too—even more so than mine, in so many ways—practically nothing is sweeter to me than glimpsing our children through his eyes, from his inimitable perspective. So, because I know I’ll be glad later that I did, I’m posting the photos here too.
Pretty sure this was the first picture ever taken of us. Would have been late March, 1989. Rehearsals for Black Comedy. In that show, if you haven’t seen it, there’s a blackout five minutes into the play, and the characters spend the entire rest of the show in the dark. When the show opens, the stage is pitch black, but for the characters there is light, and they are walking and talking as if all is normal. Then boom, blackout: the stage lights come up, and the actors stumble around as if plunged into utter darkness. We had to stick around campus during Spring Break and rehearse, and at one point there was a blindfolded egg hunt on the stage. You can tell our respective feelings about children’s Easter chocolate. I cannot say I have matured in that regard in the slightest.
Some months later but still ’89. I can tell because of the lipstick. It wouldn’t have been long after that that I bumped into Scott on my way (late) to an 8am class and he was all, wow, you look great, and I was all, but I don’t even have any makeup on…Ohhh. I just may marry this boy.
Recently. Still goofy. Still head over heels.
Rilla on why she didn’t put away her playdough: “Well, I expected myself to go back and do it, but I didn’t.”
There’s never any knowing—(how am I to put it?)—which of our actions, which of our idlenesses won’t have things hanging on it for ever.
—E.M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread
“I’ve never met a really good writer who lives in high style. I think a stylish life is unsuitable to the writer, and very often in the house where there’s a mild disorder one finds the writer with the best powers of organising his work. Order where order is due.”
Muriel Spark— “The Poet’s House”
Read this and many other wonderful essays by Muriel Spark in The Informed Air, which will be released by newdirectionspublishing on April 29th.
(Source: kevinelliottchi, via maudnewton)
(I’m counting the days until this book comes out!)
Huck: “I know what ‘bow’ means. It means ‘hello’ in dog language.”
Huck, apropos of nothing and in a voice of great urgency: “How old do I have to be?”
Me: “For what?”
Huck: “To get the remote and to cross the street by myself.”
Ah yes, the important stuff.
Our favorite line from The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher. And Sir Isaac Newton (the newt) cracks Rilla up every time.
And in the you-had-me-at-hello department, how’s this for an opening?
When I walk into a bookstore, any bookstore, first thing in the morning, I’m flooded with a sense of hushed excitement. I shouldn’t feel this way. I’ve spent most of my adult life working in bookstores, either as a bookseller or a publisher’s sales rep, and even though I no longer work in the business, as an incurable reader I find myself in a bookstore at least five times a week. Shouldn’t I be blasé about it all by now? In the quiet of such a morning, however, the store’s displays stacked squarely and its shelves tidy and promising, I know that this is no mere shop. When a bookstore opens its doors, the rest of the world enters, too, the day’s weather and the day’s news, the streams of customers, and of course the boxes of books and the many other worlds they contain—books of facts and truths, books newly written and those first read centuries before, books of great relevance and of absolute banality. Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can’t help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time.
—from The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, one of your memoir suggestions from the other week, and also mentioned by jep in the comments here.
And a bit of Howards End this morning. I didn’t read much this weekend. How about you?
I’ve written before about our great experiences with various MOOCs one or more of us has taken via Coursera. Here’s another list of offerings, this time from FutureLearn.com. Courses that have caught my eye include:
• Moons— “Explore the many moons of our Solar System.” This has Beanie written all over it. Eight weeks, starts March 17. The Open University.
• Kitchen Chemistry— “Along the way you will use fruit tea to identify acids and alkalis, investigate chemicals that speed up reactions and experiment with electron transfer reactions. This should give you a feel for the world of molecules and an idea of some reactions. It should also introduce some methods to separate chemicals, to find out what chemicals are present in a mixture and ways to change chemicals from one form to another.” Six weeks, starts in April. University of East Anglia.
• England in the Time of Richard III! Exclamation point mine. “Explore 15th century England through archaeology, history and literature against the backdrop of the excavation of Richard III.” Yes, please. Methinks it’s time to introduce Rose and Beanie to Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time—a compulsive reread for both Jane and me—as a backdrop to this course. Six weeks, starts mid-2014. University of Leicester.
Those plus the Courseras we’re already signed up for—including a History of Art for Artists, Animators, and Gamers via CalArts, which is just getting rolling—may tide us over until the next iteration of ModPo kicks off in September. Boy do I love sending my kids to college around the world in our own living room.
Searches for this phrase (minus the comma) keep popping up in my stats. It’s a Downton Abbey quote, Violet mocking Isobel: “I wonder you don’t just set fire to the Abbey and dance ’round it, painted with woad and howling.” She didn’t pause for a comma, which has some folks confused. ‘Howling’ here is a verb.
Here is a person who is painted with woad, and is also howling.
Woad is a blue dye extracted from a the plant Isatis tinctoria or “dyer’s woad.” Its flowers are yellow but you can get blue from its leaves. I learned a lot about it while researching my Martha books—woad would have been one of Auld Mary’s staples. Indeed, it was a staple in European textiles through the Middle Ages, until it was gradually replaced in commercial use by indigo.
Image source: Wikimedia
You chop the leaves into a paste, let them dry, crumble them into powder, then sprinkle them with water and allow them to ferment, a process known as “couching.” Then you add a mordant, something to help fix the color into the cloth. In days of yore this was most commonly stale urine. (The ammonia in the urine serves as the fixative, as you probably learned from The Mammoth Hunters.) Fun fact: according to this dyeing site, the urine of male beer drinkers was most effective. The collection and sale of urine from certain cities was big business, at one time.
Urine from London was shipped up the coast to Yorkshire, where there was a big dyeing industry, and this is the origin of the phrase “taking the piss.”
Captains were unwilling to admit that they were carrying a cargo of urine and would say that the barrels contained wine.
“No – you’re taking the piss” was the usual rejoinder.
In ancient Scotland, so the story goes, the Picts liked to paint or tattoo themselves with woad, especially before going into battle. In fact, that’s how they came to be called Picts by the Romans, from the Latin word “pictus” or painted. Julius Caesar wrote in his The Conquest of Gaul, “All the British color themselves with glass, which produces a blue color.” Over time his word “vitro” (glass) came to be associated with woad, and the image of blue-painted Scottish warriors stuck. Some modern scholars dispute the association, saying Caesar meant something else entirely; it is widely accepted that the early Britons did engage in body art but the contemporary thinking, as far as I can tell, seems to be that the paint was probably not made from woad. However, other experts will point out that woad has antiseptic properties, which could well explain its use in painting the skin before or after armed conflicts. And so woad lives on in battles (of the scholarly sort) to this day.
Whatever the truth may be, the blue body paint is exactly what the Dowager Countess had in mind when she tossed her barb at Isobel. If I had any kind of Photoshop skills you would be looking at Maggie Smith’s face painted with woad (and howling) right now.
Here’s my recap of the Downton episode in question: Season 4, Episode 5 (UK/DVD 6)
So this morning the littles and I stayed in and read. Mice, more mice, is what Rilla wants these days. Kittens and hedgehogs are an acceptable substitute. Any small creature that wears clothing, really.
So first it was The Story of Miss Moppet—four times! I ask you. They kept begging and begging.
Then The Tale of Tom Kitten, which is crammed with delicious language. All Beatrix Potter is, but this one especially tickles me.
“While they were in difficulties, there was a pit pat, paddle pat! and the three Puddle-ducks came along the hard high road…”
“‘My friends will arrive in a minute, and you are not fit to be seen; I am affronted,’ said Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit.”
That petulant “I am affronted” cracks me up every time. Mrs. Tabitha is the Mrs. Bennet of B. Potter characters.
And then finally we got to the necessary mice. Well, mouse, singular. We read about half of The Mouse of Amherst (speaking of delicious language). She didn’t remember it from three years ago, which made it all the more fun. Seven is the perfect age for this loveliest of little books.
I slept too late to get any Howards End in, but did grab a few minutes for …on the Landing. Now that I’ve determined I’m going to buy a copy, I may save the rest for later and turn to one of the other interlibrary loans I have piled up, as time is ticking and they can’t always be renewed. I have The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop and a couple of Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow books, which were recommended to me in the memoir thread the other week. I also got hold of Helene Hanff’s Elizabeth I biography for children—she admired Elizabeth so, and it seemed a fun choice for a sampling of her children’s nonfiction.
Paperwhites by Rilla
Something Sherry mentioned in the comments reminded me of this post I’d left sitting in drafts all month. Instead of a booknote today (since all I’ve read is a chapter of Howards End), I’ll toss the draft up. I was saving it until I had time to say something intelligent about the three 1963 books, but now I can shove it into these quickie notes I’m doing and be excused from coming up with something insightful.
I read about the Century of Books project at Alex in Leeds—a reading project in which you endeavor to read a book written in every year of a particular century. Ideally you would assign yourself a time frame for completing the mission, but I’ve learned that deadlines are deadly to my recreational pursuits—too many deadlines swirling around my working life. I love, however, the idea of tracking the publication dates of my reading: another layer of interest to add to my favorite activity.
And so I borrowed Alex’s template and created a 20th-century list for myself, and plugged in last year’s titles. Right off the bat I discovered that my reading is skewed far more toward 21st-century titles than I might have guessed. (Over a third of my 2013 total.) I do read a lot of new books, I suppose, via NetGalley and other advance review copies. I just hadn’t thought about how that means new publications dominate my reading pile, elbowing older books to the lower, dustier shelves.
I logged fourteen 20th-century books in 2013 (well, counting this month*). Several were rereads—the children’s books especially, my read-alouds with Rilla. (I’m counting middle-grade and above, but not picture books. I can’t keep count of picture books. A dozen a week, at least.) Most surprising to me was the discovery that of those fourteen titles, three were published in the same year—1963.**
1) Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which caught my attention when Betty Draper read it in her bathtub. It was republished an as ebook by Open Road last year, and I snapped it up. (Set in the 30s.)
2) The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. (Set in 1945, with a 1963 framing story.)
3) The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge. (Contemporary with its writing.)
All so striking, and so very different! All books that stick with you and affect how you think of other books, and the outside world. I will try to come back to this when I have more time and muster some actual analysis. There’s an essay in these three books rubbing shoulders, to be sure. I haven’t the brain for it now.
*”This month” was early January. Total in late February is twenty 20th-century books.
**And now there’s 1962′s Underfoot in Show Business right alongside these, capturing yet another vivid and totally distinctive world. (The striving of Broadway hopefuls in the 30s and 40s, mostly.)
***I made a 19th-Century page as well, but there’s nothing there yet. Not a single 19th-century book for 2013-present? Actually I do have a number of late 1800s titles I’ve used as reference for my current novel, but for some reason I never seem to include research books in my annual booklogs. That makes no sense at all. I’ve read them, haven’t I?
Oh, and I did read three picture books with the littles this morning. The Ultimate Book of Vehicles and two other interactive books from Chronicle, who have been spoiling me with review copies lately. Vehicles became Huck’s instant Favorite Thing Ever (it’s a giant pop-up with excavators scooping and crane operators climbing to the top, and he fell instantly in love, as Scott’s tweet attests.
My Winter Bookletter is live! If you’re a subscriber, watch your inbox. To subscribe to future issues, click here.
This time around, I share a new picture book the littles and I have fallen in love with and a surprisingly entertaining app for sentence diagramming. Plus news about my next Inch & Roly book!
These posts are going to get very short all of a sudden because Rose and Beanie have departed for a week with my parents. I’ll miss our daily Poetry 180 readings. To make up for it, I made sure to catch today’s Writer’s Almanac entry. “Yard Sale” by George Bilgere. And it seems it’s Christopher Marlowe’s birthday! He was only 29 when he died, can you believe it?
Early morning: Howards End.
After lunch: Howards End Is on the Landing. Standout bits: This quote from Sir Walter Scott:
Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.
Oh how I love to hear writers talking about what other writers can pull off that they themselves can’t.
And just a note to myself to look up Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower. Hill’s description certainly sells it. Also loved this line Hill quotes from a letter Fitzgerald wrote her, on the delights of being a grandmother:
It is such a joy to have someone who wishes to sit with you on a sofa and listen to a watch tick.
I’m enjoying these daily booknotes even more than I expected to—it’s the least taxing writing I’ve done in a long time. I’ve said before I like talking about books more while I’m reading them than after I’ve finished, and doing it in these slapdash daily notes is less pressure than a monthly or weekly roundup. Also it makes me realize how much I actually read. Because sometimes weeks will pass without my finished a whole book, I’ve had a sense lately that my reading has dropped way off from where it used to be. But it hasn’t really, not when I’m counting (and why wouldn’t I? why haven’t I?) all the things I read to and with my kids in the course of a given day.
Early morning. Instead of turning to Middlemarch, I found myself sinking contentedly into Howards End instead. Gee, I wonder what put that particular book in my head? I love Forster—his prose at once crisp and dreamy, which is an impossible feat. I don’t know how he manages it. He’s a cipher. And a realist. Anyway, I got as far as the Beethoven concert, the goblins walking quietly over the universe from end to end. Bit wrenching to lay that aside and rise to the imperatives of contact lenses and lost Lego men.
Mid-morning, with the girls. Another small chunk of Wormwood Forest. The buried villages. Where are the poems? There must be reams of poetry about them. Probably in languages I can’t read.
This poem (it’ll be obvious by now that we’re reading through the Poetry 180 selections in order): Ron Koertge’s “Do You Have Any Advice For Those of Us Just Starting Out?” I’m trying not to talk about these too much, not unpack them, just let the girls sit with them. We’re doing so much heavy-duty analysis in our other poetry studies (Shakespeare’s sonnets at the moment), talking technique and all the rest of it. I don’t want to overwork poetry for them, to “tie the poem to a chair with rope /and torture a confession out of it” as Billy Collins describes in the very first poem of the 180 series.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I hope we haven’t beaten Shakespeare and Marlowe with a hose, but certainly we’ve poked and prodded them, ruffled their hair, measured the size of our hands against theirs. And so to balance it, we read these other poems, one a day, and I try very hard to sit there with my mouth shut.
After lunch: More Howards End Is on the Landing. I wonder if any of you laughed at me yesterday when I said I wasn’t going to make lists of the books she rhapsodizes about. Of course I’m going to make lists. Or else I’m just going buy this book, which I got through interlibrary loan. Of course I’m going to buy this book. I could blog my way through it, reading all the books she’s reading, like Julie and Julia only even more meta. And with less aspic.
I’m having an ongoing conversation with Susan Hill in my head. She shocks me sometimes. She mentions in passing a book “about Australian aborigines, in whom I had then, as now, little interest.” I gave her such a look! How can you not be interested in a group of people? How can you say such a thing, and mean it, and in print!
Early afternoon. Spent a long time poring over our Beatrix Potter treasury with Rilla. I much prefer the small single editions, the original miniature size that is so just right for stories about mice and rabbits. But this big battered old collection is wonderful too, and she wanted to page through it and talk over all the stories, the ones she remembered and the ones she didn’t—it’s been at least a year since it came off the shelf. Halfway through is Roly-Poly Pudding and, well, there’s no paging through that one, you have to stop and read it. The “unruly family” line I quoted above made her laugh so hard. Potter’s genius shines here—who else would enfold a naughty, sooty kitten in dough and have a couple of rats roll him with a rolling pin? I love how full of antiheroes her tales are, too. Practically no one behaves himself.
Will close with another quote from the Susan Hill book. (I found an excellent OCR app that can take a picture of print and turn it into editable text! You can paste it into Evernote or an email, straight from your phone.) Here Hill herself is quoting a 1904 Atlantic Monthly essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson called “Books Unread”:
The only knowledge that involves no burden lies…in the books that are left unread. I mean, those which remain undisturbed, long and perhaps forever, on a student’s bookshelves; books for which he possibly economized and for which he went without his dinner; books on whose back his eyes have rested a thousand times, tenderly and almost lovingly, until he has perhaps forgotten the very language in which they are written. He has never read them, yet during these years there has never been a day when he would have sold them; they are a part of his youth, in dreams he turns to them…He awakens, and whole shelves of his library are, as it were, like fair maidens who smiled on him in their youth and then passed away. Under different circumstances, who knows but one of them might have been his? As it is, they have grown old apart from him; yet for him they retain their charms.
I lingered in bed yesterday morning—though linger is relative when the day begins around six, weekend or no—and the little ones saw me snuggled up, reading, and wanted in on the fun. I can’t say I got much of my own book read after that, but I have no regrets.
I’m moseying my way through Howards End Is on the Landing, enjoying it very much, the first chapter’s internet-grumping notwithstanding. It would be easy to come out of this book with another long list of books and authors to explore, and yet the author’s focus on spending a year reading only the books she already owns serves to discourage the impulse to start compiling. She keeps reminding me how much I have lying around the house already, or gobbling up the memory on my Kindle. I’m resisting the temptation to list. If any of her favorites stick with me after I’ve finished, I’ll hunt them up.
My favorite bits are the passages where she talks about encounters with other, older authors she admires. Susan Hill is in her early 70s, was first published at 18, has been part of England’s literary life since she was very young. She writes of one memorable encounter in a library while she was a student:
Not, though, as conscious as I was of the small man with thinning hair and a melancholy moustache who dropped a book on my foot in the Elizabethan Poetry section some weeks later. There was a small flurry of exclamations and apology and demur as I bent down, painful foot notwithstanding, picked up the book and handed it back to the elderly gentleman—and found myself looking into the watery eyes of E.M. Forster. How to explain the impact of that moment? How to stand and smile and say nothing, when through my head ran the opening lines of Howards End, ‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters’, alongside vivid images from the Marabar Caves of A Passage to India? How to take in that here, in a small space among old volumes and a moment when time stood still, was a man who had been an intimate friend of Virginia Woolf? He wore a tweed jacket. He wore, I think, spectacles that had slipped down his nose. He seemed slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable and I have remembered everything about him for nearly fifty years.
I went back to the hostel and took out Where Angels Fear to Tread, read some pages, read the author biography, and had that sense of unreality that comes only a few times in one’s life. The wonder of the encounter has never faded. Nor, indeed, has the wonder of bumping into T.S. Eliot on the front doorstep of a house in Highgate, though, strangely, I cannot now remember whose house, but there was a literary party to which I had been invited by some kind patron of young writers. So there I stood, while Eliot rang the bell and gave me a rather owlish but kindly smile as we waited. Once the door was opened to us he was absorbed into the throng and I saw him no more—but I can certainly still hear the voice of someone saying, on seeing him, ‘Oh good, here’s Possum!’
I think my favorite quote so far comes from a conversation with her elderly friend, the poet Charles Causeley:
Shortly after receiving the Heywood Hill Prize, he was made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature, a rare honour, and asked me, again, to accept on his behalf. ‘What would you like me to say?’ I asked.
The reply might well have been: ‘What an honour.’ Or perhaps, ‘What a surprise …’ But one of our greatest living poets, aged eighty-three, asked me to say, ‘My goodness, what an encouragement.’
I didn’t do so well with Middlemarch these past few days. The thing about reading something smart when I first wake up, while my brain is still wanting to drift back into whatever dream was dispelled by the sound of thumping boy-feet outside my door, is that I’m not always up to the intellectual effort required to stay attuned to the page. This morning I woke up twenty minutes after I started reading, with the phone gone black-screened in my hand. Lydgate something something promising young man something.
Things I read with kids today:
Landmark History of the American People, second half of the Eli Whitney chapter. I’ve read it before and forgotten it: the cotton gin sticks, obviously, but I’d lost the whole tale of how he invented mass production by transforming the process of how guns were made. Before Whitney, guns, like everything else, were made by specialist craftsmen, one at a time. In 1798 (I think—dates don’t stick to me) with Napoleon scaring the pants off everyone, a terrified young America was desperate for arms. Whitney’s cotton gin had transformed the entire economy of the South (for better or worse) and he was asked to turn his brilliant mechanical mind to the problem of how a country short on gunsmiths could generate vast quantities of guns. He reasoned that there were fifty parts to a musket, and if you could teach fifty men to make one part each—perfectly uniform, every time—you could assemble a great deal of guns in much less time that it takes one man to craft fifty separate parts by hand, over and over. Fast forward a few years through his creation of some molds, some part-making machinery, and there he is in a room with Pres. Adams, Vice Pres. Jefferson, and most of the Cabinet, with heaps of gun parts piled on a table. Go ahead, put some muskets together, he instructs them. Voila, mass production. (Now that I’ve narrated it, it oughta stick.)
Story of Science, finished the Keppler chapter. Watched a couple of Youtube videos afterward to help us grasp his Laws of Planetary Motion. Rose was most intrigued by the part about how DNA researchers in 1991 used clippings from Tycho Brahe’s mustache (!) to discover that he died of mercury poisoning.
Poem: “The Distances” by Henry Rago. “The house…billows with night” took my breath away. And the “rings and rings of stars” was a perfect and serendipitous cap to our Keppler conversation.
Also, these lines from Donne, quoted in the science book:
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
(From “An Anatomy of the World,” although I could swear the Hakim book cited “The Anniversary” instead. Will check tomorrow if I remember.)
My previous Downton Abbey recaps are here.
Cousin Oliver’s big day
If I enjoyed screencapping more, I would turn this into a fashion blog and do nothing but rhapsodize about this week’s costumes. What an eyeful we got! Alas, I lack the vocabulary, not to mention the fortitude.
In lieu of gown-swooning, then, let’s talk plot. This is the supersized Christmas special, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. Here we are in June 1923, with the gang heading to London for Rose’s long-awaited presentation at Court. All season we’ve seen Rose chafing to be free to be out and about in London society—you know, as opposed to the dull life she’s been leading up till now, going to jazz clubs and sneaking off to float down rivers with her secret boyfriend—and all season Cora has chirped at her to be patient. Well, it looks like Rose has survived the wait without scandal, despite the way the season has pretended her reckless disregard for social norms was bound to lead to catastrophe. Not only do we have nary a whiff of scandal, there is absolutely no mention of her erstwhile fiancé, Jack Ross, nor the broken heart she might have been supposed to suffer when he, for her own good, broke off the brief engagement last episode.
Eight months have passed since the Jack Ross adventure, during which interval Edith and Rosamund disappeared to Geneva and Edith has “come back looking more tired than when she left,” in the kitchen staff’s opinion. Of course we know what the staff does not: Edith has had her baby and is now sadder than ever, wishing she could have kept her little girl. She is not exactly enthusiastic about the London trip, envying Tom who gets to stay behind for a couple of days—he has an estate to run. He’s expected to show up at Rose’s ball, though. I mean, someone has to bring Lord Grantham his dog.
The staff flap around in a frenzy of preparations. Mrs. Hughes is going up to London to run the house there, and Daisy will join Mrs. Patmore and Ivy, who went up early to prepare for the eleventy-thousand people they’ll be cooking for all week. This means Daisy has been left in charge of Downton meals for a few days already, a nicely subtle reminder of how competent she has become these past few years—skills that will take center stage later in the episode.
Nearly all our main belowstairs players will join us in London; only Thomas is left behind to boss the assorted unnamed housemaids and underservants. A bit boring for him, really; what’s a conniving villain to do without anyone to scheme about? He sends a not-very-cryptic and completely unnecessary message to Miss Baxter via Daisy (“Tell her I’m looking forward to her stories”), for which Daisy rewards him with her best are-you-daft look; and then I’m afraid it would have been a dull week for Thomas if he hadn’t suddenly remembered that he passionately hates Tom and resents his unwarranted rise to “Sir” status. WHEW. For a moment there I thought Thomas might actually have nothing to do but enjoy some down time. If an evil underbutler snarls in the forest where there’s no one to hear him, does he make a sound?
Daisy, a volcano of excitement about going to London: “I don’t care where I peel potatoes.”
Edith visits Violet, who attempts sympathy for Edith’s feelings, trying with what I thought was rather endearing forthrightness to talk about the baby. Edith snaps at her for saying “it,” not “she” and smacks her down for Violet’s feeble attempt at cheering her up. Edith, listen, I’ve been in your corner for a really long time, and your situation is genuinely tragic, but here’s the one person at Downton who knows why you’re in pain, and you’re biting her head off. She’s trying, which is more than you might have expected her to do.
Meanwhile, the rest of the family is demonstrating equally charming manners. Robert whines about having to go to London; Mary sighs over the impending arrival of the “American contingent” (Cora’s like, Hey, that’s my mother you’re talking about); and then Cora completely loses her mind and suggests that Edith and Mary might have to share a room in London. Mary: “You’re joking. I’d rather sleep on the roof.” I’d give anything if only Cora could call in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle at this point. Chapter 12, The Insufferable Sister Cure. “Oh, I know just the thing,” Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle said. “Take a blanket and pillow up to the roof, and make up a nice little bed for Mary and my pig, Lester. He has the loveliest manners.” After all, we know how inspired Mary is by Pigs.
Well, I’m with Cora. All this kerfuffle! Get out the door to London, already! They haven’t even made it to the car yet, and already Rose is pestering to go out to a club that night. “Your niece is a flapper. Accept it.” This from Mary, that famous progressive.
But at last, they’re off, and the stragglers can quiet down—except for Isobel, who is surprised by a visit from Lord Merton, hinting that he’d like to be her date to Rose’s ball. Isobel doesn’t plan to go—”not my natural habitat”—but we can make short work of this plotline. She’ll decide to go after all, because it’s tradition. Not her tradition, but the Downton Granthams are her people now, etc. I’m feeling a little sad about Isobel this season. She’s a wonderful character, somewhat wasted. All season we’ve seen a penduluming relationship between Isobel and Violet—they exasperate each other, but they look out for each other nonetheless; and since neither one of them seems inclined to be a hands-on grandmother, they’re left without much to do except keep each other’s blood pressure up. But since Violet’s other foil, Cora’s mother Martha, will promenade into the scene as soon as we hit London, Isobel becomes something of a shadow again. You’d think Martha—so loud! so vulgar! so American!—would make Violet appreciate Isobel’s merits, but we’re denied the fun of seeing a three-way snipe-fest between them.
LONDON AT LAST. The flappers head to the Embassy Club—Rose and her friend Madeleine Allsopp—and immediately bump into Madeleine’s father, an impoverished baron, hanging out with his good buddy the Prince of Wales. This is the future King Edward VIII (David to his family and friends), and he’s here at the club with his mistress, Mrs. Dudley Ward—Freda to her friends, and “My vewy vewy own precious darling beloved little Freddie” to the Prince. No, seriously. You see why it was so imperative that his letter not get into the wrong hands. Freda Dudley Ward and the Prince had an affair from 1918-1923 and remained close even after it ended, right up until he started seeing Wallis Simpson in 1934 (for whom he abdicated the throne in 1936).
Well, it turns out the Prince is fond of Rose’s father, good old Shrimpy, who hosted him in Bombay last year. Freda thanks Rose for perking up her grouchy date, and just like that Rose has some new friends.
BACK AT DOWNTON, Tom doesn’t want to make any trouble for the servants, which irritates Thomas no end. I mean, obviously, them’s fightin’ words. Gloves OFF. Or they would be, if Thomas wore gloves—what do you think he is, a footman? You want to be on his hit list, too?
Tom bumps into his new friend Sarah Bunting again, just in time to introduce her to Violet, whom I absolutely love to see peering from a car window. You can totally picture her peering from carriage windows with the same lofty distractedness, fifty years earlier. She takes little notice of Sarah and calls Tom “Branson” again by mistake, catching herself with an endearingly fluttery, “Oh, I mean Tom!” Sarah decides to take Tom up on his offer of dinner, and then all but goads him into giving her a tour of the house. Tom is terribly uncomfortable about it, feeling that it isn’t entirely appropriate, but he can’t take Sarah’s teasing. He does live in the house, after all; isn’t he allowed to have his friends over? HELLO, not when there’s an Evil Underbutler out to get you. Of course Sarah wants to see the view of the gallery from the top of the stairs—the bedroom stairs, Thomas will make a point of calling them to Lord Grantham later, when he rats Tom out.
LONDON. Edith arrives at the same time as her grandmama and Uncle Harold. Uncle Harold is Paul Giamatti! This ensures I will love him even if he’s despicable. But it seems he is not despicable, that Teapot Dome business notwithstanding. “It should’ve worked.” Uncle Harold is cynical, picky about his food, wary of fathers on the prowl for rich sons-in-law, and inclined to take a dim view of his own charms. But he’s got a sweetly sad manner and is frank without being embarrassing (unlike his mother). Of course if Martha’s on screen, we hardly notice anyone else. It’s obvious Shirley MacLaine is having a blast with this role, and I’m glad, because playing it with that kind of over-the-top relish is the only way Martha’s character is made tolerable—otherwise she’d be such a cardboard stereotype of the Pushy American with Terrible Taste. MacLaine imbues her with a sense of humor and self-awareness: yes I know I’m ridiculous, I like it that way.
Uncle Harold has a chatty valet, Ethan Slade, whose American accent will make you wince. (It’s even worse than Jack Ross’s.) And boy howdy is he American! Pronto! You bet! He meets Daisy and is instantly smitten, for no reason at all. Well, he did mention that you have to have skin like a rhinoceros to work for the Levinsons. Daisy’s cold stare doesn’t faze him a bit. (“Are you excited?” “I’m never excited.”)
Carson has been charged with thinking up a nice outing to reward the harried staff at the end of their London stay. His ideas—visiting the “new science museum” or Madame Tussauds—exasperate Mrs. Hughes, because they’re apparently all boring from top to bottom. Rather than just come out and tell him what everyone will like (a visit to the seaside), she sticks a picture postcard at his eye-level and waits for him to be struck with the winning idea. After trotting out all sorts of eager suggestions to an unimpressed staff, he finally suggests the beach trip, at which point Mrs. Hughes jabs that it took him long enough to get there. Okay, this makes no sense at all. If it’s so important that he come up with the idea on his own (as suggested by her postcard ruse), why let him know she had something in mind all along? I love Mrs. Hughes, I really do, but this is not the first time this season her behavior has perplexed me.
And it happens again in the Bates plot. Anna donates Bates’s old coat to a cause Mrs. Hughes is collecting for. Mrs. H. finds an incriminating ticket stub in the pocket: York to London on the day Anna’s attacker, Mr. Green, was killed. EIGHT MONTHS AGO, remember. Let’s not linger too long on what it says about Bates that he has hung on to a damning piece of evidence all this time, like a trophy. He knows it was in the pocket because he’s very upset when he learns Anna gave the coat away without letting him go through the pockets first. He fixes his Sinister Gaze upon Mrs. Hughes, clearly suspecting that she suspects something. And here’s where Mrs. Hughes confounded me again: she shows the ticket to Mary, then gets very distressed when Mary contemplates turning Bates in. Then why tell her in the first place?
Robert’s all glum that Tom hasn’t arrived, and Cora coos because she thinks that’s sweet, and Robert’s baffled: “No, I mean he’s bringing Isis. I miss her.” HIS DOG. Best laugh of the night.
Another night at the Embassy Club. Rose is “tiddly,” to potentially disastrous effect: she blabs about a secret letter Freda has in her handbag, a tender missive from the Prince. Naturally the scoundrel Sampson (the card shark from earlier in the season) takes the opportunity to filch it. It’ll make him a tidy sum with the foreign press. When the news ripples back to the Grantham clan in the days following, they spring into action. Robert is a monarchist, for Pete’s sake! No relative of his shall be a party to bringing scandal upon the Royal Family! A very elaborate plan is hatched, involving a decoy poker game, a decoy theater outing, a forged letter (good old Bates!), and a secret search party in Sampson’s flat. Both of Mary’s fellas are in on the plot, and Charles is just so pleased that Mary reached out to him in a time of need.
Alas, the search is a bust: the letter isn’t in the flat. Back at the house, Bates puts two and two together and pickpockets the letter from Sampson’s coat right under everyone’s nose, because he is a master criminal. Brilliant forger (who sits brazenly in the servants’ hall doing the forgery he’s supposed to have contracted out to a friend), silken touch, can bump a man into traffic in front of hundreds of witnesses—is there nothing he can’t do? I’m starting to have second thoughts about Vera’s arsenic pie.
His pickpocketry saves his bacon, because Mary is so grateful for his loyalty to the family that she tosses the incriminating train ticket into the fire. All’s well that ends well.
In between the letter’s loss and its recovery, we had that tiny little diversion of Rose’s Presentation at Court. Gowns to die for. The King makes conversation with Rose—good old Shrimpy again—and Rose acquits herself admirably. But that is just a shadow compared to her success at her coming-out ball. With the dangerous letter safely back in Freda’s beaded purse, the Prince of Wales is in Rose’s debt. He crashes her ball and asks for the first dance. “If she’s not the belle of London society after this,” remarks Robert, it’s not his fault.
All week, Madeleine’s father has been pushing her at Uncle Harold, while daddy himself is making a play for Martha. Both Americans see right through the ploys and rebuff them with good humor. Harold actually winds up connecting with Madeleine, and they become friends of sorts. Meanwhile, Harold’s valet has made his own play for Daisy, offering her the chance to come to America and be Harold’s cook—after all, he adores her delicious fish mousse. Daisy declines, but is tickled by Slade’s interest. Ivy jumps at the opportunity since Daisy doesn’t want it, and everyone winds up happy. Daisy even smiles, which is how you can tell this is a season finale.
The season ends with a reason for Edith to smile, too. All along she’s been pushing back at Aunt Rosamund, regretting giving her baby away to that nice Swiss couple. And now that news has come at last of Michael—it seems he clashed with some Nazis in Munich (a “gang of toughs” who “wear brown shirts and go around preaching most horrible things”). We still don’t know if he’s dead or imprisoned. Edith has power of attorney over the magazine, and she may inherit his personal property as well. She feels very strongly that his daughter ought to have a share of that, and while the London crew is still recovering from the ball, she slips home to Downton and makes arrangements with Mr. Drew, the reliable farmer and new pig man. Drew agrees to raise the baby (her “friend’s” baby, but he susses out exactly what the situation is) as his own. Edith will get to watch her little girl grow up. This was the bit that made me feel most eager for next season.
I’m afraid Mary’s double romance, which is supposed to have been the dominant arc of this season—What Will Mary Do?—has left me rather flat. I like Tony, I like Charles, I don’t like watching Mary string them both along. I know she keeps trying to shoo them off, but never very convincingly. And now she’s got them fighting for her—”Let battle commence”—and, well, I keep thinking of the day one of my daughters complained about another: “Mom, she’s smugging again.”
What else is left to wrap up? Thomas bullies Baxter for more sssssecrets, but Baxter has drawn strength from Molesley’s kindness and decides to take her chances with whatever leverage Thomas has over her. Listen, look at Bates and Thomas—at this point a shady past is practically a requirement for new Downton hires.
And so the tide goes out on Season 4 at the seaside, with Carson and Mrs. Hughes holding hands and wading into uncertain waters. “We’re getting on, you and I,” she tells him companionably. “We can afford to live a little.”
The primary task of every character this season was to decide what world to live in: the old pre-War England, or the new. Robert has clung to the past like a toddler clutching his mother’s leg. Even Carson has accepted change with more dignity than his employer. Thomas, too, seems stuck in a past built on pecking order and rank. I wondered if his trip to America would open up new prospects for him, but it seems he came back more hidebound and bitter than ever. He wants esteem in the old order, and it’s fading away before he can climb to the top of his ladder. Cora seems to be fading away right along with it; she’s much less vital a person than she was during the war. Violet may not approve of all the ways in which society is changing, but she’s rolling with the change much more amiably than might have been expected, and I didn’t think Martha’s barbs about “your world is ending, mine is beginning” were entirely fair or accurate. Violet is accepting social change tolerably well; it’s Martha’s style she objects to, and her idiom. And her personality. And her face.
Mary has decided to orient herself toward the future for the sake of keeping Downton intact for her son—and that’s an interesting twist on progressivism. She’s open to new ideas only because she wants to maintain the status quo. It’s a nice little paradox and I’d like to see Mary grapple with that problem rather than her question of whom to marry whenever she feels like marrying again. But in the end, it’s the outliers I care about—Edith and Tom.
Season 4 • Episode 1 • 2 • 3 • 4 • 5 • 6 • 7
My Helene Hanff kick (about which more later) continues—after Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, I tore through Q’s Legacy, and yesterday when Underfoot in Show Business arrived via interlibrary loan, I squealed and quit work half an hour early to dive in. This binge got me thinking about how much I enjoy memoir. I asked my Facebook friends what their favorites are, and the list could swallow a whole year of reading time. I think you should be able to view it even if you aren’t on Facebook—or does FB make you log in to read anything there, even the public threads?
I’ll try to get the list moved over here at some point, but I’m afraid I won’t have any free time until I’ve finished reading Underfoot. Oh Helene, Helene, I wish you’d written thirty memoirs.
Wait! I realized I could just paste in the thread. But then I worried my friends might not want their names and faces plastered on my blog, so I’ve stripped out everything except the book comments. Forgive the lack of formatting!
Please add your own favorites in the comments! I have a few to contribute too, later. And happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!
Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow Books.
Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place
Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl
The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
Someone already said Glass Castle, so I’ll throw in A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel.
Any of Caroline Knapp’s.
Seven Storey Mountain
Glass Castle for me too.
Like all of the above but Glass Castle, hands down not only my favorite memoir but a favorite book of all time.
I really liked Rumer Godden’s– and I’m on a Godden kick this week– A Time To Dance, No Time To Weep is the first volume and A House with Four Rooms is the second.
The Egg and I by . . . Betty MacDonald, I think?
Beyond Dark Hills Jesse Stuart
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior
My favorite genre,so hard to pick. Ambulance Girl, Glass Castle, On Gold Mountain , any Annie LaMott, Helen Hanff, Florence King, Alexandra Fuller, Thunderbolt Kid, any Mitford,Quentin Crisp, Christopher Isherwood …..
Good call on Betty MacDonald and Florence King. Add Shirley Jackson (Life Among the Savages) to that list.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
I liked The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong (think you’d really like it) and I like Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd, too.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone’s Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World (one of my favorites and since you like 84, Charing Cross Road you might enjoy this one).
I loved Sidney Poitier’s Measure of a Man.
It’s Always Something by Gilda Radner.
Period Piece, Raverat
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard
Love all Gladys Faber, and Anne Morrow Linbergh. And for comic fun, Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods!
Anything by Nancy Mitford.
Not So Wild A Dream by Eric Sevareid. Brilliantly written.
Not Even Wrong by Paul Collins. The only “autism memoir” I love. He is amazing.
I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but The Glass Castle has stuck with me.
The Girl From Yam Hill
A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders
I’ve been meaning to read WILD forever now and I always loved IN PATAGONIA by Bruce Chatwin–which is maybe more travelogue than memoir–but it has stayed with me.
In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson is just so funny and learning about Australia is fascinating.
The Middle Place. Or any of Anne Lamotts.
The Moon’s a Balloon by David Niven. But I haven’t read many.
O I love this! I’m so into memoirs recently, I love to hear people telling their stories. What a great resource this list is. I hate to have to choose a favorite anything, but let me add from recent reading Journal of Best Practices. I don’t think I saw Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage on this list yet, which I’m thinking might have been your recommendation.
I’m crazy about memoirs. Our book club read “Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio:How My Mother Raised 10 Children on 25 Words or Less” a few years ago. It’s still one of my top favorites. My least fave….A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates.
So hard to pick just one. Of course I loved Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle….
Katherine Graham: Personal History
So many! But Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp, is up there.
Darling, I’m so glad you survived your time in the land of Prohibition.
(UK / DVD episode 8. Also, spoilers below.)
Proving it has its priorities firmly in place, this episode starts with the VIPs: the Very Important Pigs. Look at ’em, up and drinking, fat and sassy! Oh, what a relief. I’m only sorry we never got to meet that dastardly fellow, the Negligent Pigman. After the great trough catastrophe, Tom and Mary have decided to offer sturdy Mr. Drew, whose devotion to Yew Tree Farm has proven his mettle, the job of Keeper of the Pigs.
Let’s just take a moment to savor this: Downton Abbey is full of grown men and women who require another adult’s help to change clothes three times a day, but Mr. Drew can be trusted to tend these somewhat delicate Pigs and FARM AN ENTIRE FARM. In fact, he’s so reliable that Edith is eyeing him as a potential foster father for her child. (She’ll be talked out of that by Aunt Rosamund, but that comes later.) For once I’m not making fun of the show; I think this is a pretty realistic depiction. I have no doubt that Mr. Drew is fully capable of running his farm and tending the Pigs. And while Mary has shown that she can do a hard night’s work in an extraordinary circumstance (and even elegantly scramble an egg afterward), it’s amusing how different the family’s definition of “farming” is from Mr. Drew’s. When Mary and Robert speak of “farming Downton themselves,” they mean making plans and hiring people to carry them out. When Mr. Drew speaks of farming, he means getting up at 4:30 in the morning to check on the Grantham Pigs before milking his own cow.
A recurring theme throughout the four seasons of this show has been how much happier the upstairs crowd is when they have some real work to do. During the War, we saw Edith blossom as an aide to the recovering soldiers (and, later, as a newspaper columnist), and Sybil grew from a restless cause-seeker to a woman who found real satisfaction in her nursing duties. We began this season with Mary and Isobel in zombie states, six months after Matthew’s death. The spark came back into Mary when she was nudged into taking an interest in the management of the estate, and Violet basically applied a bellows to Isobel, dumping the problem of Carson’s down-and-out former friend in Isobel’s lap, fanning the embers of her do-gooder zeal back into the fire she runs on.
We’ve seen it with Cora, too, this season: so many scenes in which she looks absently up from a book, smiles benignly, and does nothing of consequence—she has seemed more like an amiable ghost than a person whose actions have any effect on the world. This week, Cora was zooming around in a whirl of bazaar preparations, and although her somewhat vapid remarks seemed designed to elicit eye-rolls from her family as well as the audience, the truth is that organizing an event on the scale of that one is a mammoth undertaking. If you tried to assign me that job, I’d run away with the Pigman. I appreciated Tom’s insightful “beast of burden” remark near the end of the episode, his recognition of how hard Cora had toiled over the bazaar. I still found myself wanting to roll my eyes at everything Cora said—I’m serious when I say I think the script wanted me to—but Tom’s right. We very seldom see Cora at work, but she does work. There are parts of her job she could do a great deal better; she’s been only superficially aware of Edith’s misery and Rose’s mischief all season. But she organized a mighty impressive bazaar, and I’m glad Tom gave her her props.
But I’m jumping ahead. This week saw the Dowager Countess back on her feet, poking Isobel with her customary relish. She drags Isobel in to help entertain Mary’s godfather and seems mildly surprised to see the distinguished widower taking an interest in our Mrs. Crawley. Lord Merton walks Isobel home, totally spaces that her son has died, and sends a gorgeous flower arrangement in apology. Did anyone catch his rank? I’m not sure I see Isobel remarrying (she’s too easily irritated), but it would be pretty funny if she married into a higher rank than Violet’s.
Through Violet, we learn that Uncle Harold is mixed up in the Teapot Dome Scandal, which I think a lot of us suspected, given the timing and the hints. So far, this plotline has had little effect on the Downton main players except to remove Robert and Thomas from the scene for a couple of episodes. Frankly, we needed a rest from both of them. Thomas’s absence has allowed a nice little relationship to flourish between Miss Baxter and Molesley, who is absolutely astonished to see himself through Miss Baxter’s eyes. She envies him his lifetime in a community that, in her words, respects him and likes him. Molesley, after sinking just about as low as he could go—reduced to digging roads and begging for a footman’s job—has finally encountered someone who doesn’t view him as the ultimate sad sack. It’s quite sweet.
Violet’s other occupation this week is to ferret out the truth about Edith, and to respond with deep understanding. Rosamund has tipped her mother off that Edith “needs cherishing,” and when, shortly afterward, Rosamund makes a sudden visit to Downton to announce she’s taking Edith to Switzerland for several months—to improve her French—Violet does the math. If she tsk-tsks Edith, we never see it. Instead, she offers to pay Edith’s travel expenses. Edith is not exactly happy about the plan—it kills her to think she won’t be any part of her baby’s life—but she’s relieved not to have to tell Cora she’s pregnant, at least.
Another round of Alfred Drama sets the kitchen crowd fluttering once again, but mostly only because no one wants Daisy know what’s going on. Since the tactic Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes apply to Hiding Things from Daisy is to make alarmed faces at her every time she walks into the kitchen, Daisy susses out the truth pretty quickly. Alfred has written to propose to Ivy; Ivy has turned him down; and now Alfred is going to swing by Downton to say goodbye forever. Mrs. Patmore sends Daisy off to visit her father-in-law, Mr. Mason, to spare her the pain of watching Ivy break Alfred’s heart one last time. But Mr. Mason persuades Daisy to go back and say a real goodbye to him, leaving “nothing jagged, nothing harsh” between them. This is probably the wisest advice anyone’s ever given Daisy, whose heart is full of jagged edges, and she carries it out so gracefully that for the first time we have hope she may not turn out a bitter, sharp-tongued shrew. Mrs. Patmore’s heartfelt praise afterward (“I couldn’t have been prouder if you were my own daughter”) clearly touches Daisy. Actually, Miss Baxter’s words to Molesley apply very much to Daisy as well—in her eleven years at Downton she has developed quite a supportive (if sometimes overzealous) network of friends, whether she realizes it or not. Including Mr. Mason, who is basically a more talkative Matthew Cuthbert. Daisy, like Molesley, is luckier than she realizes. Perhaps someday we’ll see her realize it.
Charles Blake and Evelyn Napier announce they’ll be ending their prolonged stay at Downton, both of them leaving their hearts at Mary’s feet. (Mary fails to notice Napier’s and accidentally kicks it under the sofa, where it will lie forgotten until 1941, when a young London evacuee will discover it and it to his collection of birds’ eggs and owl pellets.) Before Charles goes, however, he jumps another notch in Mary’s esteem by demonstrating his undaunted willingness to do that which most Downton upstairs folk quail from: he voluntarily holds Baby George, and even seems to like it. First Pigs, now babies. (At Downton we don’t uppercase babies; that might make them think we’ve remembered they exist.)
To make sure Mary is well stocked up on attention before her suitors depart, Tony Gillingham sends word that he’s going to stop by for the night. For Anna, this is terrible news: it means another encounter with Tony’s valet, Mr. Green—and another opportunity for Mr. Bates to put two and two together about the identity of her rapist (but he’s already done that math, hasn’t he). Anna, distraught by the prospect of Green’s return, finally reveals to Mary that he was her attacker. Mary is horrified and wants to notify the police, but Anna swears her to secrecy. If Bates learns the truth, he’ll kill Green and hang for it; of this everyone in the know seems quite certain. Because obviously, Anna’s rape is All About Bates. I’m sorry, I’m so disgusted with this entire narrative thread.
Including the way every major scene involving Bates (all season) seems to take place in the bootroom—the site of Anna’s attack. Green is the villain, but it’s Bates we see here, over and over, making his sinister, brooding faces. It’s here Bates badgers Anna about Green’s return: “And Mr. Green? He’ll be coming back? Have you gone off him? You liked him so much when he first came.” WE GET IT, BATES. Don’t be a monster. But Green will arrive, and Anna will go tharn at the servants’ table, sickened by his presence, and Bates will ask leading questions about where exactly in London Green lives, furthering Anna’s torment. I miss first-season Bates. Season 4 Bates is worse than Thomas. At least Thomas doesn’t pretend to be anything but self-serving.
Tom and Isobel go to Thirsk, the small town six miles from Downton, where Tom spies Rose caressing Jack Ross’s cheek in a restaurant. Back home in the village, Isobel and Tom (who spend a lot of time together this season; it’s quite sweet) bump into Sarah Bunting, village teacher, the young woman Tom met at the political meeting last week. This was my favorite scene of the week, because of the way Isobel rushes to speak up on Tom’s behalf when he won’t. He’s a keen political thinker, she informs Sarah, unafraid to question his own beliefs. Tom’s been in such existential turmoil lately, it was nice to see Isobel characterizing it in a way he might be able to make his own peace with. Isobel gives Sarah Bunting a stamp of approval too: “She knows her own mind”—a quality Isobel appreciates in everyone except Violet.
Back home, Tom takes his uncomfortable Rose secret to Mary. (Best moment of the week: his absolute panic when Mary asks why he isn’t in tails for dinner. After all, Granny’s coming. Poor Tom.) Mary takes the Rose news in stride—it wasn’t a total surprise to her, after all, since she caught them making out weeks ago. She’ll deal with it.
At dinner that night, the main course is We’re All in Love With Mary, with a side of Thinking Is a Dangerous Occupation. Tony’s been rambling around Scotland having epiphanies while Charles and Mary were being perfectly splendid at rescuing Pigs. In the morning, Tony confesses to Mary that he has broken his engagement with Mabel, not that Mabel knows it yet. Mary still can’t promise to marry Tony, however, she’s “not on the market.” Honey, this season you are the market. Next morning, her trio of admirers departs, leaving the ladies behind to debate the best collective noun for suitors, while Mary smiles serenely and pretends to be annoyed.
Regarding the matter of Rose’s suitor, Mary plays a more active role. Rose declares she’s going to marry Jack Ross, they’re totally in love and also it will really upset her mother. Mary immediately makes plans to go to London the next day, where she will pay a visit to Jack Ross and put the kibosh on the wedding plans. Now, this is a show that thrives on making high drama out of mild events (“Alfred’s coming for a visit? BATTLE STATIONS, EVERYBODY!!”), but then we’ll have a storyline that might conceivably be expected to generate some theatrics, and it’s defused in the most mellow fashion, over a cup of tea. Jack thinks Mary is underestimating Rose’s mettle, but no worries, he’ll call off the engagement anyway. He loves Rose and doesn’t want her to have to face the societal censure she’ll incur by marrying a black man. Sorry, Rose.
Anna is spending the night in London with Mary, freeing Bates to head off to York on mysterious errands of his own. Mary lunches with Tony Gillingham, swatting away a few more declarations of undying devotion, including the news that Tony has broken his engagement to Mabel, who by all accounts is as good a sport as Jack Ross. But Mary’s real purpose in meeting Tony is to ask him to fire Mr. Green, no questions asked. Naturally, Tony agrees. Mary says jump, you jump. (But would Charles Blake jump? I’m not so sure. I think he’s a better sparring partner for Mary. Sigh, I miss Matthew.)
Tom happens upon Sarah Bunting, stranded by the side of the road with car problems. She’s surprised to learn Lord Grantham’s son-in-law is actually out on estate business—she assumed it was a figurehead position—not to mention that he knows his way around a car engine. Tom fills her in on his past. This makes Sarah “take a kinder view of the family”—she doesn’t generally “warm to their type.” “I don’t believe in types,” says Tom. “I believe in people.” So now I want to run off to America with Tom.
Back at Downton, look who’s in the bootroom! It’s Bates, being secretive about what he did in York all day. “This and that.” He’s not even trying to put on a front for Anna anymore. He’s been a total Mr. Hyde this whole episode. Dear Julian Fellowes, this is why my husband won’t watch the show with me anymore.
The day of the bazaar arrives, sunny and beautiful. Look—a miracle! There’s Mary holding baby Geo—nope, wait, she’s handing him back to Nanny. Whew, I thought the earth was going to crack open there for a second. Rose pouts to Mary about her nixed engagement; Molesley, basking in Miss Baxter’s admiration, trounces Jimmy at a game of Ring the Bell; and menfolk converge upon the Downton women from all directions. Robert’s back! Tony Gillingham’s back! Charles Blake is back! Sorry, Edith, no one here for you. Have some ice cream.
Robert’s return is wreathed in smiles. Actually, the way Edith lit up in genuine joy when she saw him was very touching. Even Mary smiled, like a real smile that showed teeth, and the sight was so startling I realize how seldom we’ve seen her that way. Cora and Robert have a reunion as loving an affectionate (and, yes, cornily written) as their parting last episode. The warmth between these two has been given a lot of screen time this year.
His mission was successful; Uncle Harold is saved. We’ll get to meet him next week in the final episode of the season. (And since he’s played by Paul Giamatti, I can’t wait.)
Lord Gillingham brings less cheerful news. I’m sure we were all shocked (shocked!) to learn that his valet, Mr. Green, is dead. Stumbled and fell into traffic the day before. Mary still won’t tell Tony why she wanted him to fire Green, and I’m sure he doesn’t suspect anything when she immediately walks over to Anna and tells her the news. That’s about when Charles Blake shows up, and Mary pulls him aside to ask his advice about turning in a man you suspect of committing a crime you personally believe was a very good crime to commit. Charles says he’d keep quiet, which is what Mary is hoping he’ll say but is a reaction that makes very little sense. Who can answer a hypothetical like that? What kind of crime, Mary? There’s a pretty big range of possibility there. Charles, I thought you had more gumption.
Anna murmurs to Bates that she wishes she knew what he’d been up to the day before. He says, “You know me, when I do a thing I like to have a very good reason for doing it”—which is TOTALLY NOT SUSPICIOUS AT ALL. You’d think his time in prison would have taught him how to cover his tracks better.
Of course Robert’s return means Thomas is back, too. He sidles up to Miss Baxter and starts picking for secrets—always with the everlasting secrets—but Molesley nips at him and escorts Miss Baxter away. Anticlimactic return for Thomas.
Now all that’s left is for Mary’s suitors to proclaim their determination to wait as long as necessary for her frozen heart to melt in one direction or the other, and let’s all raise our glasses to the best bazaar in Downton history, or least since Violet was in charge.
My previous Downton Abbey recaps are here.
I’m not going to have time to write anything thinky in the next couple of weeks, but I thought I might try jotting down a few quick reading notes each day, just to keep the blog warm.
Last week I decided to try something new: instead of reaching for my phone and checking my mail when I wake up, I’m reaching for my phone and reading a book. My boys wake up très early and get to watch TV for 30 or 40 minutes before Scott and I drag ourselves out of bed. Usually I use that time to doze, and then check in on everything that’s piled up in my inbox during the East Coast’s head start on the day. But I’m always grumping about not having enough time to read—I fall asleep three pages in, every night—so I thought I’d give a morning reading session a go. It’s been quite nice. I have eleventy-thousand books queued up, so naturally I decided to reread Middlemarch. (I’ve given up trying to figure out my capricious reading whims anymore. If a book insists it wants to be read, I read it.)
This is my third trip to Middlemarch. Read it first the year between college and grad school, when I was working as a publicist for my undergrad alma mater’s drama department and trying to fill in gaps my English degree hadn’t. Loved the novel, had trouble settling on anything else for a long while after. Reread it a few years ago—I could check my archives here to find out when—and loved it even harder. And now here I go again. Why is it I’m hollering at Dorothea every time and yet she still goes and marries him?
So anyway, this morning it was a chapter and a half of Middlemarch (enter Fred Vincy, munching on a grilled bone).
Later: the first section of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with Rose and Bean.
Poem: “The Summer I Was Sixteen” by Geraldine Connolly.
After lunch: a couple of chapters of Helene Hanff’s Underfoot in Show Business, which is making me deliriously happy.
Assorted articles online.
No picture books! Made a Staples run in the early afternoon that ate up our Rillabook window.
Early a.m.: Middlemarch chapter 12.
Particularly struck by how skillfully Eliot builds tension in the first visit to Stone Court—Featherstone ordering Fred to get a letter from Bulstrode averring he doesn’t believe Fred made promises about paying debts out of his expected inheritance. How rapidly this escalates! Featherstone has already made it clear to his sister, Mrs. Waule, that he thinks the rumor is “stuff and nonsense…a got-up story” and he defends Fred against her insinuations. “Such a fine, high-spirited fellow is like enough to have [expectations].” But then after Mrs. Waule leaves, Featherstone whips out the accusations, almost teasingly, and the order to get a letter from Bulstrode has the air of a whim, at first. And suddenly there Fred is in a terribly awkward situation that is only going to get awkwarder, and eventually quite serious. It’s a gripping conflict, it puts us squarely in Fred’s corner while leaving us under no illusions that his imprudence (those fine high spirits) has helped put him in this pickle. Featherstone is utterly believable, a difficult person who enjoys being difficult, and who enjoys having scraps of power over people. All the rest of the morning my mind kept coming back to this scene, picking over how artfully Eliot created a major conflict (in plot terms) out of a fragment of gossip.
Midday: Finished Underfoot in Show Business.
Am now bereft: it was the last (well, the first for her, but the last for me) of Helene’s memoirs. I wish she’d written five more. The tales in this one: so rich! That first summer she spends at the artist’s colony—sitting down at the desk in her quiet studio and seeing Thornton Wilder’s name written on the plaque listing all the previous occupants of this cabin. He’d stayed there in 1937; she realizes he’d written Our Town in this very spot. For a moment it throws her—I completely understood that wave of comparative despair—until she registers that in the long list of writers under Wilder, there’s no one she ever heard of. This makes her feel better, and then she’s able to work.
And the early story about how she gets to NYC in the first place—winning a fellowship for promising young playwrights. Late 30s, the second year of the award. In the first year, the two winners were given $1500 apiece and sent out to make their way in the world. In Helene’s year, the TheatreGuild decides to bring the three fellowship winners (Helene is the youngest, and the only female) to New York to attend a year-long seminar along with some other hopeful playwrights. The $1500 prize pays her expenses during this year of what sounded very similar to a modern MFA program, minus the university affiliation: classes with big-name producers, directors, and playwrights. Lee Strasberg! An unprecedented opportunity for these twelve young seminar attendees. And the fruit of this careful nurturing? Helene, chronicling the story decades later, rattles off the eventual career paths of the students: there’s a doctor, a short-story writer, a TV critic, a couple of English professors, a handful of screenwriters.
“The Theatre Guild, convinced that fledgling playwrights need training as well as money, exhausted itself training twelve of us—and not one of the twelve ever became a Broadway playwright.
“The two fellowship winners who, the previous year, had been given $1500 and sent wandering off on their own were Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.”
I laughed my head off when I read that.
I’m not going to have time to post anything significant in the next couple of weeks, but I thought I might try jotting down a few quick reading notes each day, just to keep the blog warm.
Early a.m.: Middlemarch chapter 13.
“The banker’s speech was fluent, but it was also copious, and he used up an appreciable amount of time in brief meditative pauses.”
Mid-morning, with Rose and Bean:
Landmark History of the American People, first half of the Eli Whitney chapter.
Story of Science: Keppler.
Poem: “The Blue Bowl” by Jane Kenyon.
Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” and Ralegh’s “The Nymph’s Reply”—neither of the girls had read these before, so we had ourselves a good time. I remarked that I would have said yes to the shepherd, and Rose laughed and said, “You did.”
After lunch, with Rilla:
The Blue Fairy Book, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”
Tumtum and Nutmeg, finally finished the Christmas story
Milly-Molly-Mandy, next chapter.
Snatched a few minutes’ reading time before a meeting, started Howard’s End Is on the Landing. Have been looking forward to this one—Susan Hill’s memoir about spending a year reading only books she already owned. I’ve had that same urge myself more than once! I think it’s going to be a fun read even though she’s a bit crotchety on the subject of the internet: its “insidious, corrosive effect” “fragmenting the brain,” leading to “mental malnutrition”…by the time she got to those “infernal systems on websites” that allow you to catalog your books, I was rolling my eyes pretty hard. Don’t go knocking my GoodReads! But I’ll give her a chance. I have a soft spot for curmudgeonly types.
Middlemarch, chapter 14
With Rose and Beanie:
• a section of Wormwood Forest
• “Lines” by Martha Collins
• Sonnets #18, 29, and 130, Shakespeare
Helped Rose study her falconry manual
Friday is Journey North day, so not a huge reading day for any of us.
Hawk by Rilla
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Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is on sale for Kindle today. This puts me in such a quandary.
1) Have never read it.
2) Have long intended to.
3) Bought a copy in 1993, have moved it 6 times.
4) See #1.
5) Am more likely to read it on Kindle, because eyes.
6) See #3.