Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Isla Morley – The Last Blue + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with Terri Fleming! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Terri Fleming (Perception) discuss looking at the further lives of Mary and Kitty Bennet, working with Austen’s original stories and prose, Mr and Mrs Bennet’s relationship, and organising bookshelves.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


Book Cover

Far from gloomy.

Publisher: Pegasus Books
Pages: 326
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-643-13418-5
First Published: 5th May 2020
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2020
Rating: 5/5

1972 – a young man has come into town and he’s asking questions, questions of the type Havens doesn’t want dragged up. We return to 1937, when Havens and Massey, photographer and journalist respectively, travelled to Chance, Kentucky, to find out about some local news and end up instead two of few witnesses to the life of an outcast family, living away from others on account of two of the children having very unusual skin. The siblings are blue.

The Last Blue is Morley’s fantastic third novel based on a real medical occurrance, and set in such a time (a century later than the factual history) that it effectively looks at further social issues, too.

The 1930s setting means that the fictional Buford family of Morley’s creation live during the time of racial discrimination; this results in a interesting aspect of the book where, as the reader, you can see a similarity between treatment of these white-blue people and black people; it can at times seem very allegorical – difference is not to be tolerated.

So there’s a lot of discrimination in the book – the Bufords are hated simply because they are different. There are times of extreme violence, and there are a number of looks at the affects and effects of violence as a whole.

Put together in terms of literature, the effect is brilliant – this book gets you thinking. And it almost creeps up on you as the story starts out fairly slowly, almost quietly. However this simply allows you to get a hold of the situation better.

Our main characters – our narrators – are the aforementioned Havens (first name Clay) and one of the ‘blues’, Jubilee. Morley uses an interesting narrative voice, far closer to first person than your usual third person, meaning that you get a number of effective sub-narratives, so to speak. The writing style, like the slowness of the book’s beginning, is deceptive – you’ll be thinking you’re in a soft fantasy novel for a while (even after reading this); at the start you do have to work at that surface to see under it, and that fact is one of the best parts of the text. And our characters are great to hear from, in fact one of the best aspects here is that one is just as intriguing as the other.

(On this note is Morley’s use of birds in the book. Birds are both a factor of life – we begin the book with Havens going to feed a pigeon -, and, in the way Morley situates them in her fiction, a symbol.)

Havens’ passion for photography informs a lot about the novel. There are two points of interest here: the first is the detailing. Morley provides a suitable amount of detail about photography in the era, which covers the role of a photographer in the media (Clay is in some ways what we’d call a photojournalist). Crucial is Clay’s ability to take colour photographs. The second is in the use of photography and imagery as a theme; as Havens comes to know Jubilee, photography becomes a way to tell not only a story in the way we know it can do, but also informs the progression of their friendship.

There is some lovely romance in this book, and it does exactly what you might think – highlight issues in its particular way as well as simply enhancing the story.

It is difficult to discuss The Last Blue in depth without revealing the story; hopefully there are enough pointers to show how successful Morley is in what she’s done. The text is both novel and study, a wonderful creation that you’ll want to keep with you for its fiction and its relation to multiple aspects of historical and contemporary reality. It is also just a very good story.

I received this book for review.

 
The Reception Of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland From Contemporary Reviewers

An image from the original editions, illustrated by John Tenniel: Alice sits in a circle of animals listening to the mouse speak

When I first started looking at this subject, I saw ahead of me a fairly short post mostly composed of quotations with some analysis after each one; let the primary sources do the talking. During the course of my research, however, for reasons related below, this had to be changed. I therefore decided to structure this post in the same way I did last year when looking at the Brontë sisters and Jane Eyre. There is a lot more background context in this post than I ever imagined including.

Table Of Contents

Abbreviations
Introduction
Reviews and Analysis
Conclusion
Appendix A: Oscar Wilde’s Opinion
Appendix B: On the Rumour About Queen Victoria
Notes
References

Abbreviations

Alice – Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865.
LG – The same author’s Through The Looking-Glass, given a publishing date of 1871 but in fact published in 1872. The editions of newspapers and magazines in which reviews are included provide evidence for this.
The Ath – The Athenaeum, a past British weekly periodical.

Introduction

This post came about as I looked through my previous work on Alice, and various web searches on the same, and came to the conclusion that if the various questions and commentaries on Alice that arise in our present day are interesting, then the questions and commentaries of our peers from history would likely offer similar; the commentaries there, by the nature of cultural evolution, being different, there must be a lot more out there for us to muse on.

This interested me in particular because the contents of Alice, as anyone who has read the book or seen any number of film adaptations of it knows, are quite extreme compared to anything published for the target age group today1. Therefore the understandable questions I see in web searches each day as to this, and as to comparisons of childhood then and now (the former a subject I cannot claim to know much about), naturally led to my interest in further opinions.

It was perhaps inevitable I’d be wondering about my ‘fellow’ reviewers.

Prior to the publication of Alice, Lewis Carroll was unknown. The writer, real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, had only published a few works: La Guida di Bragia, a Ballad Opera for the Marionette Theatre, which, Wikipedia (n.d.a) states, released around 1850; Miss Jones, a comic song from 1862; and one or two (the same Wikipedia page gives two dates for one of them, whose title begins ‘the fifth book’) publications on mathematics. Alice was his first novel2, after which it’s evident he simply added children’s books to his category list and continued on.

The citation of ‘poor reviews’ is used fairly widely across articles on the Internet that discuss the book (most often ‘X things you didn’t know about’ articles) which, given their general shortness, suggests the information has simply been parroted from Wikipedia (see reference to n.d.b) or another site that has copied the information.

The statement, I have found, is mostly untrue. In the two long afternoons I spent scouring the Internet for contemporary reviews I only found one that is negative. Whilst it is quite likely that the popularity of Alice was increased by the publication of LG (as says Wikipedia n.d.b, though only in the context of the reception of Alice being ‘poor’) there is nothing to suggest the second book had a bigger impact than the first, indeed the very fact that there was a second book, and published later on (Carroll took his time – it was in the works from 1866 [de Rooy n.d.b]), suggests by itself that Alice was popular.

It took me a while to find sources; after initial success with a couple of reviews, I finally found extracts of others – like all good extracts that involve opinions, the main point was included – in The Ath3, a British literary magazine that was published weekly between 1828-1921. The original sources may be out there but given many are cited by The Ath to newspapers still in production today (or since amalgamated into others) they are likely to be in the publisher’s archives, in other words not easily accessible to the layman. Where the remaining reviews are cited to belong to publications that have since ceased production they are hopefully in the British Newspaper Archive. (Some reviews about Alice are indeed in the British Newspaper Archive; I found a couple of mentions in newspapers I’d never heard of, however the site requires a subscription to view more than the briefest descriptions and the number of reviews currently uploaded to it didn’t warrant it; I copied the notes I could under the ‘3 free articles’ offer.)

I will note in advance that the various discovered extracts almost all relate to LG; they are reviews of LG that simply, by fact of the book being a sequel, involve snippets or simply concepts of what would have been either each individual publication’s prior opinion of Alice.

During my research I discovered an additional reason for the difficulties in finding reviews of Alice – whilst officially first published in November 1865 (and that’s the date you’ll find noted everywhere), the copies of the first print run were found by illustrator John Tenniel to be inferior; the print bled. So the first copies were recalled with the result that the ‘actual’ publication date was 1866 [de Rooy n.d.a]. (Incidentally, copies of LG, despite being published in 1871, bore the date 1872.)

Reviews and Analysis

Here is the review of Alice in Aunt Judy’s Magazine, June 1866, p.123, ellipses and bracketed notes mine:

FOURTY-TWO illustrations by Tenniel! Why there needs nothing else to sell this book one would think. But our young friends may rest assured that the exquisite illustrations only do justice to the exquisitely wild, fantastic, impossible, yet most natural history of “Alice in Wonderland”. For the author… has a secret, and he has managed his secret far better than any author who ever “tried on” a secret of the same sort before, that we would not for the world let it out. [Detail here about how the reader will have to find out about the secret for themselves.] …of Mr. Tenniel’s illustrations we need only say that he has entered equally into the fun and graceful sentiment of his author, and that we are as much in love with little Alice’s face in all its changes as we are amused by the elegant get up of the white rabbit in ball costume…’

This review written for children (Aunt Judy’s Magazine was a monthly magazine for young people) is completely positive. The review naturally focuses on elements that will most intrigue children, and even adds a particular element of persuasion in its note that there is a secret but that if you want to know what it is, you’ll have to read the book to find out. (One can assume the idea was for children to read this and start requesting their parents buy a copy of it.) Note also the emphasis on John Tenniel (Carroll’s name is included in the details retracted); Tenniel was well-known; it’s likely many would have seen this as the selling point, the ‘way in’ for Carroll.

It’s also interesting to note that as we can see from the review (and those following), from the very start of Alice‘s publication the title was shortened. The more popular name, undoubtedly easier to remember and quicker to write (and quicker to print in the days of letterpresses), has always been around4.

A brief sales note from the John Bull (1866, p.872), a London Sunday newspaper, later a magazine:

From the same publishers, too, we have to welcome a beautiful copy of that old favourite, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

John Bull‘s positive words are technically more of a nod to the wider popularity.

Review of Alice in The Ath, 16th December 1865, p.844, ellipses mine:

This is a dream-story; but who can, in cold blood, manufacture a dream, with all its loops and ties, and loose threads, and entanglements, and inconsistances [sic], and passages which lead to nothing, at the end of which sleep’s most diligent pilgrim never arrives? Mr. Carroll has laboured hard to heap together strange adventures, and heterogeneous combinations; and we acknowledge the hard labour… We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, over-wrought story.

It’s safe to say that the reviewer for The Ath did not like the book; he (or she – by this time there were a number of female critics in the industry) disliked it so much they kept their first sentence going on, with words that have negative connotations, for far longer than necessary. Though they do at least ‘acknowledge the hard labour’. The Ath was written for an adult audience, so this review would be to suggest adults not buy the book for children. It makes this idea its final point; you wouldn’t want your child to be ‘puzzled’ by this ‘stiff over-wrought story’; by this time in history, childhood was more about being ‘enchanted’.

Is this review the reason we have the notion of ‘gained poor reviews’ running riot on the Internet? The Ath‘s historical popularity and the relative ease with which we, now, can hunt through it for information, could be the reason for the idea.

According to City, University of London, The Ath was ‘a highly influential periodical’5. It is interesting to consider the review in light of the others.

In later issues of The Ath, there are multiple text-based adverts for publisher Macmillan (who remains Alice‘s publisher to this day) which naturally include quotes from positive reviews. These adverts are where the following few extracts are from. Perhaps understandably, whilst the adverts are printed by The Ath, their own review is not included.

The following is from a review of Alice by the Pall Mall Gazette, an evening newspaper (cited in The Ath, 1873 [1872]a, p.831):

One of the cleverest and most charming books ever composed for a child’s reading.

And another extract from the same newspaper (cited in The Ath, 1873 [1872]b, p.757):

Beyond question supreme among modern books for children.

From an edition of The Ath (1866, p.548) printed around Alice‘s second print run (after that disastrous first), we have the following two reviews:

From The Times (ellipses: The Ath):

An excellent piece of nonsense… Illustrated with extraordinary taste.

And from the London Review6 (not to be confused with the London Review of Books, a current popular publication founded in 1979):

A piece of downright hearty drollery and fanciful humour.

Extracts from reviews of LG, used to advertise the second edition of the book, sometimes indicate each publication’s thoughts of Alice. The Ath‘s own in 1871 (pp.787-788), for which the full text is available, is rather lovely. Let’s look at it in full, square brackets mine:

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. By Lewis Carroll. With Illustrations. (Macmillian & Co.)

IT is with no mere book that we have to deal here,-to borrow the idea expressed by Dr. Johnson [Samuel] when the inventory of Mr. Thrale’s [Henry]7 brewery was being taken,-but with the potentiality of happiness for countless thousands of children of all ages; for it would be difficult to over-estimate the value of the store of hearty and healthy fun laid up for whole generations of young people by Mr. Lewis Carroll and Mr. John Tenniel in the two books which they have united to produce. In the first volume, Alice won the affections of a whole child-world as she wandered through Wonderland; in the second, that now before us, she will be sure to add fresh troops to the number of her unknown friends, besides retaining her place in the hearts of her old admirers.

Before many days have elapsed thousands of bright eyes will be watching her as she glides through the drawing-room looking-glass, which suddenly softens before her, and passes into the land of reflections which lies on the other side, where animated chessmen and walking and talking cheerily, and finds herself as a White Queen’s Pawn playing across a chessboard earth, and striving to arrive at Queendom at its farther end. Many a little head will puzzle – children like to be puzzled – over the people who thought in chorus; and the wood in which names got lost; and the Red King’s dream of which Alice was told she was a mere feature, her existence being absolutely subjective; and the land in which events took place backwards, like a sentence in Hungarian, so that a criminal was sentenced first, and tried afterwards, for a crime he was going to commit. Much young blood will run cold with fright – children dearly love to be frightened – at the awe-inspiring portrait of the Apolloyon-like Jabberwocky, which

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

And many a heart both old and young will be stirred with wholesome laughter at the quarrel of the Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the arithmetical genius of Humpty Dumpty, the vagaries of that King’s Messenger who was as mad as a Hatta [sic], and the metamorphosis of the Red Queen into a kitten, which synchronizes with Alice’s own return from her eighth-square queendom into her old life on this side of the looking-glass.

Even the face of a reviewer, of one whose heart has been rendered heavy within him by the involuntary study of our comic literature, may be dimpled by a smile of admiration as he watches the skill with which both the author and the illustrator have worked in the difficult atmosphere of nonsense. Many of Mr. Tenniel’s designs are masterpieces of wise absurdity. We may refer, for instance, to that in which the Oysters, incarnations of old-womanishness, are listening to the dulcet speech of the Walrus and the Carpenter, or those of Humpty Dumpty shouting to “Someone’s” ear, of the White Knight shaking the aged man who sat upon the gate, and of the Messenger expiating in prison the crime he was going to commit; not to speak of some drawings which deserve still higher and more serious praise, such as that in which Alice is rowing the boat along the stream which is half river and half grocer’s shop. The skill with which the dream-like blending of the one with the other is rendered is worthy of Wonderland itself.

Before parting with this charming book, for which such bands of children will deservedly feel personally grateful to both author and illustrator, we must call attention to the touching address to his “child-readers” which “Lewis Carroll” has appended to his book,-thanking them for the interest they have taken in his “dream-child,” telling them how pleasant it is to him to think of “the many English firesides where happy faces have smiled her a welcome,” and ending with wishing that to them each recurring Christmas-tide may be “more bright and beautiful than the last – bright with the presence of that unseen Friend, Who once on earth blessed little children, and beautiful with memories of a loving life, which has sought and found that truest kind of happiness, the only kind that is really worth the having, the happiness of making others happy too!”

The original text is in columns so it seems particularly lengthy. But no matter the visual effect of the columns it’s a fact that a great many more words were afforded LG here than The Ath‘s review of Alice we saw earlier.

There are no names ascribed to the magazine’s reviews, but this adds an intriguing question to our study. Note the sentence ‘Many a little head will puzzle itself – children like to be puzzled – over the people who thought in chorus’. Is this a jab from the reviewer of LG towards the reviewer who had said of Alice ‘We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, over-wrought story’? It’s quite possible that that is the case. Or, perhaps, it’s the same reviewer, begrudgingly agreeing with something that someone else has argued for. (Note, too, the use of Carroll’s full name – he has surely moved up in the world.) Of course it could also simply be the reviewer’s style – they later use the same ‘children like to be…’ again. (This usage of the style is interesting in itself – some children today like scary stories; it would seem Victorian children did too. Stories in those days, even if we look solely at Alice and LG, could be incredibly scary.)

It is wonderful here to get a glimpse of the reception of contemporary children: ‘In the first volume, Alice won the affections of a whole child-world as she wandered through Wonderland’. Not so wonderful is the summary of a lot of the plot but if we consider any parent reading it out or passing the paper over to children, it makes more sense.

We now return to extracts. From the Illustrated London News, the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine (cited in The Ath, 1873 [1872]a, p.831):

Quite as rich in humourous whims of fantasy, quite laughable in its queer incidents, as loveable for its pleasant spirit and graceful [next word illegible] as the wonderous [sic] tale of Alice’s former adventures.

From The Standard, now the Evening Standard (cited in The Ath, 1873 [1872]b, page unknown8):

If this had been given first to the world, it would have enjoyed a success at least equal to ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ and now every child who possesses the original should demand the sequel as a matter of right.

From The Guardian (ibid.):

Little Alice herself is as sweet as she ever was, and her companions in the new Wonderland are just as quaint and odd and surprising as they were in the old one. Mr Tenniel’s illustrations are simply exquisite. To be without this book in any household where there are children young enough to be amused by sheer absurdity, or old enough to be charmed by graceful fancy, would be an act of high treason.

A separate advert for LG, published in an edition of The Ath a couple of weeks before the edition containing the above reviews, cites a print run of 36,000 copies. This is shown in a ‘new books’ section9.

There are a couple of extracts that don’t mention Alice in any specific way, but do give us further knowledge of the general reception. From the Morning Post, a daily newspaper since acquired by The Telegraph (cited in The Ath, 1873 [1872]b, page unknown):

Let us inform the children that the story is one of the most captivating and delightful they have ever read, and that the pictures are beautiful.

The words indicate the reviewer would have likely found in its favour. Similarly, from The Times (ibid.):

The nonsense is far more charming than half the literature bought and sold as solid sense. Child’s book as this is, a man whose childhood lies sunk below the horizons of many decades, whose life is in the second hemisphere, may read it and be the better for having done so. The illustrations are capital. Never was artist so thoroughly at one with his author.

This rather wonderful review suggests adults will get just as much – if not more? – enjoyment from LG than will children. And it is by the same writer as The Times’ review of Alice – notice the use again of ‘nonsense’ within the context of something superb.

Conclusion

From the above extracts and the various information discovered, it can safely be concluded that Alice (and LG) was received with much happiness and admiration, and that was extended towards its author. Whilst there is only one review that has categorically been written for the target audience of the book (and that is available online), the other reviews, most likely written for parents and other interested adult-age parties, allow us to see the further reception, the general reception.

Thus it must be noted that no matter how prevalent the phrase ‘to poor review’ is in modern-day articles (never used with any reference) it is incorrect. Perhaps the term has morphed – perhaps it originally related to John Tenniel’s opinion of the first print run and the subsequent removal of those initial copies from sale and ‘Chinese Whispers’ are at play; this is a generous take on it – it’s not likely at all.

Appendix A: Oscar Wilde’s Opinion

Whilst researching the opinions of reviewers, I came across numerous references to Oscar Wilde’s having enjoyed Alice in his younger years, however I could not find any primary sources for this. (There may well be commentary in his letters but these require the consultation of a copy of them and with libraries closed at this time in Britain, and the collection of letters not in ebook form, I made the decision to go without.)

Away from this, there is at least one other primary source that points to Wilde’s admiration of Carroll’s work, which I have supplemented with a secondary source.

In Oscar Wilde’s article, A Note on Some Modern Poets, published in The Woman’s World magazine, December 1888, and found compiled in an edition from 188910 (p.110), Wilde looks at a poem by William Sharp; in so doing he draws attention to the ballad aspect it, saying:

Well, Mr. Andrew Lang, some months ago, signed the death-warrant of the ballade, and—though I hope that in this respect Mr. Lang resembles the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, whose bloodthirsty orders were by general consent never carried into execution—it must be admitted that the number of ballades given to us by some of our poets was, perhaps, a little excessive.

In his 2016 article on Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll, Ray Dyer notes the following (ellipses mine):

Wilde had opportunities to observe Carroll, his reputation, and his literary works whilst he was up at Oxford, where he attended Magdalen College between October 1874 and June 1878.

[…]

The Lady Vice-Warden’s relevant phrases… seem to have a distinct resonance in Wilde’s later plays.

The Lady Vice-Warden is a character from Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno stories. Carroll’s time teaching at Oxford’s Christ Church College included the years Wilde attended as a student.

Appendix B: On the Rumour About Queen Victoria

It was believed by many that Queen Victoria contacted Carroll to let him know she had enjoyed Alice and, then ‘To her great surprise she received his most recent mathematic [sic] book” (de Rooy, n.d.c). The following refutation is from Carroll himself, included by de Rooy in her commentary. It is from his mathematics textbook, Symbolic Logic Part I. It can be found in the ‘P.S.’ from the ‘Advertisement’ at the start of the second edition of the book (1896). The page is unnumbered by it is effectively page VII:

I take this opportunity of giving what publicity I can to my contradiction of a silly story, which has been going the round of the papers, about my having presented certain books to Her Majesty the Queen. It is so constantly repeated, and is such absolute fiction, that I think it worth while to state, once for all, that it is utterly false in every particular: nothing even resembling it has ever occurred.

For added context, David Mikkelson’s article on this subject (1999), citing the words of a Carroll scholar, includes this paragraph (ellipses and brackets Mikkleson’s own):

As Jean Gattegno pointed out, by the time Dodgson issued this denial, the rumor was thirty years old (having appeared shortly after the publication of “Alice in Wonderland”) and was unlikely “to injure Carroll any more, much less the Queen.” Perhaps with “the problem of his pseudonym … becoming more and more troublesome,” at that point Dodgson was more interested in “reaffirm[ing] the ban on identifying Carroll with Dodgson” than with contradicting a decades-old rumor.

Notes

1 I have looked at age appropriateness for modern day children in the past.
2 The creation of the novel came as a result of Dodgson’s relations with the Liddell family, in particular young Alice Liddell. For a comprehensive background, see Wikipedia’s page on Miss Liddell – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Liddell which includes the speculation of controversy. See also the short piece on the website for the churches in the New Forest – https://www.newforestparishes.com/alice-in-lyndhurst – which includes St Michael And All Angels, where the lady is buried.
3 If this post were to have an acknowledgements section it would include my posthumous thanks to The Ath; I have now used it for a few different subjects and it remains at least slightly useful, at most absolutely critical.
4 It’s interesting to consider that, as much as the alliteration is nice, ‘adventures’ is effectively extraneous.
5 City has a short page about the magazine in its archives and collection pages: see references section.
6 There have been many publications by this name – this is presumably The London Review and Weekly Journal of Politics, Literature, Art, & Society in circulation from 1862 to 1869.
7 The two were friends, having met ten years after the publication of Johnson’s dictionary.
8 This is an unfortunate circumstance – I noted down the citation but even with it cannot find the information anew.
9 The Ath, 2nd November 1872, No. 2349, p.554.
10 Wilde was the editor of this short-lived magazine (it ran from 1886-1890 and Wilde was editor from 1887). In taking on the job, he persuaded the publisher to alter it from a target audience of ‘middle-class lady readers’ to the emerging class of educated women (Clayton, cited by Wikipedia, n.d.c).

References

Books

Carroll, Lewis (1896) Symbolic Logic: Part I (2nd ed.) Macmillan & Co., Ltd, London

Newspapers and Magazines

The Athenaeum (16th December 1865) Review of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, No.1990
The Athenaeum (27th October 1866) Books for Presents, the Drawing-Room, or the Library, No.2035
The Athenaeum: Supplement to No. 2300 (18th January 1873 [21st December 1872, No. 2356]-a), Macmillan & Co.’s Christmas Books, No. 2300
The Athenaeum: Supplement to No. 2300 (18th January 1873 [14th December 1872, No. 2355]-b), Macmillan & Co.’s Christmas Books, No. 2300
Aunt Judy’s Magazine (1st June 1866) Review of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (scanned copy available from the British Library)
John Bull (29th December 1866) [Advertisements], available via British Newspaper Archives
Wilde, Oscar (1889 [compiled volume]), A Note on Some Modern Poets, The Woman’s World, Vol.2, pp.108-112

Websites

City, University of London (n.d.) The Athenaeum – Archives and Special Collections, City, University of London Website, accessed 17th May 2020
de Rooy, Lenny (n.d.-a) About the book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, Alice in Wonderland.net, accessed 14th May 2020
de Rooy, Lenny (n.d.-b) About the book “Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there”, Alice in Wonderland.net, accessed 14th May 2020
de Rooy, Lenny (n.d.-c) Trivia, Alice in Wonderland.net, accessed 14th May 2020
Dyer, Ray (2016) Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll, Victorian Web, accessed 15th May 2020
Mikkelson, David (26th March 1999), Did Lewis Carroll Send Queen Victoria a Mathematics Text?, Snopes, accessed 18th May 2020
Wikipedia (n.d.-a) Lewis Carroll, accessed 15th May 2020
Wikipedia (n.d.-b)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, accessed 10th May 2020
Wikipedia (n.d.-c) The Woman’s World, accessed 18th May 2020

 
Analyses Of First Lines #8

It has been a lot longer than I thought since I wrote one of these posts; I suppose I got confused, when looking, by the post on ending lines, which was recent. (Thank you again to Felicity and Kelly for your feedback on that; I’m still mulling over an alternative way of doing things there but it’s looking more and more unlikely I’ll continue it, which may be no bad thing.)

I’ve chosen today not to worry about numbers – I usually aim for five books – and instead to add that thinking time to refining the possibilities. As mentioned before, the books in these posts reflect what’s currently in my reading ‘sphere’ – new reads, reads just finished, review copies, and now podcast research – and there is naturally usually limited choice. With my recent letting go of reading ‘limits’ (I’ve currently about nine books on the go, but it’s still helping so I’m not changing it yet) there are plenty to choose from. I’ve opted for those that are most well-aligned to the concept of these posts. It’s been a lot of fun.

Diana Evans’ Ordinary People (2018)

To celebrate Obama’s election, the Wiley brothers threw a party at their house in Crystal Palace.

Book cover

We have an exact time – I reckon we can say from the information in the first part of the sentence that it would be in the days following Obama’s election, a few days past 4th November 2008. With the election cited, we also know that the story will take place in our real world. Crystal Palace (south London) – this party is for British people or American ex-pats. We have a good idea as to the politics of the Wiley brothers, who are celebrating a historic moment; we have a good insight into these brothers and the people at the party.

Isla Morley’s The Last Blue (2020)

Thirty-five years ago, Havens would have opened his eyes and thought of the day ahead as lacking

Book cover

A specific number of years – how old is Havens? I think we can assume he isn’t thirty-five; an incredibly young child isn’t going to recognise an adult’s day. It would be fair to suppose that Havens has got to be at least forty-five. Unless, of course, he’s comparing days in more of a historic, social, or/and cultural, manner.

That day that’s definitely not ‘lacking’ right now – something’s changed in those thirty-five years; changed in Havens’ opinions or in the world (certainly the idea of a day lacking or not has a bit more context right now with our ‘new normal’). In those years past, whatever Havens’ age, would this day that lies ahead be considered a routine one?

The line is a good one, pushing you to read further to find out what’s changed.

Nicholas Royle’s Mother: A Memoir (2020)

In my mind’s eye she is sitting at the circular white Formica-top table in the corner.

Book cover

With the inclusion of the Formica, Royle sets the scene in terms of era. He’s also specific with his detailing; this amount of detail for a table and its placement suggests, perhaps, a defining role later whether in terms of general inclusion or a single moment. The way the sentence is written certainly looks back to a specific moment that we can assume may be explored further than the expected few sentences more on the subject to come.

The opening of the line also suggests a look back, which you would expect for a memoir.

Terri Fleming’s Perception (2017)

It is an opinion widely held, that a young lady lacking prospects must dream of defying expectations.

Book cover

A line inspired by Austen (are we able to exclude the fact that this book is a sequel to the one the line is inspired by?) ‘Lacking prospects’ – a person without means; ‘defying’ – with a strength of character; ‘lady’… this woman is not wealthy but she has the spirit to become more.

Or so we assume – in fact, if it’s an opinion, even widely held, that doesn’t necessarily equate to the character herself, it is just that we know better, that a first line that is inspired by another first line that correctly infers what will happen is likely to be… likewise.

The use of expectations here – defy the expectation that she won’t marry well? After all, our man in possession of a good fortune was indeed in want of a wife. (I also like the simple fact of the word ‘expectations’ being used – when looking at this sentence for this post, studying it, it made me think of Pip and those great expectations. Fleming’s book is of course set in Austen’s period rather than Dickens’, but regardless the comparison may have something to it.)

Conclusion

Like last time there aren’t any links between these books. I’m not sure there will be going forward; my reading is necessarily more varied at the moment. Unlike last time and the times before, this will have to remain a short conclusion; creating this post has been pretty straight forward and, perhaps understandably, there is less to say on the subject itself. I suppose it will happen more and more as I continue.

What is the first line of the book you are currently reading?

 
Nicholas Royle – Mother: A Memoir

Book Cover

A memoir and then some.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 209
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-912-40857-3
First Published: 14th May 2020
Date Reviewed: 13th May 2020
Rating: 5/5

Owing to the title of this book and in addition its contents (necessarily discussed below) I’m leaving my usual synopsis paragraph to this one sentence.

Royle’s third narrative book, his first narrative non-fiction (I say ‘narrative’ because the author has also written many academic works), does both what it says on the tin and what it implies on the tin if you were to look at the tin more closely. Mother: A Memoir is a mixture of straightforward memoir about the author’s mother but also a book about the concept of a mother – particularly, of course, his mother – and the concept both of writing a memoir and of memoir as a written form. It’s about writing. What this means in brief, is that this is a highly experimental, artistic, and language and linguistics related book that is nevertheless also a standard memoir.

But ‘standard’, in any quantity, doesn’t really explain this book. The only book that this one comes anywhere close to being similar to, at least to my admittedly limited knowledge, is the Royle’s previous book, An English Guide To Birdwatching. The book succeeds in being something very special: from the title, it’s a memoir of the author’s mother, Mrs Royle. (I’ll be referring to Nicholas Royle as ‘the author’ from now on to limit any confusion.) However as you read through it you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s only half about Mrs Royle, until you’ve read enough to discover that in actual fact it may be more of a memoir and more of a tribute to her than you could have imagined.

The book is also about a love of reading and literature in general; some of the best passages discuss times when the author and Mrs Royle conversed about texts, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in the many references to novels and poems that are included without further comment. It can take a few pages to get into it, with its various versions of wordplay, but it’s very easy once you’ve got the hang of it. It’s very appealing and often quite fun.

The writing style is great; there are stylistic choices deliberately chosen and accounted for. The most obvious is in punctuation; the book is devoid of commas, there are none except in quotations, because, as the author says on page 25 (bracketed text mine):

But in writing about my mother I have been compelled to respond to what was quirky and singular about her own language. I have experienced a kind of unfettering. And stumbling into a new closeness to her in the very reaching out to shape words and syntax – idioms and ironies – in the wake of her voice and her laughter. In the remembered tricks and turns of her vivacity. I discovered I had to write – for better or worse – without commas. Things linked without notifications or signposts. Continuous but broken. Making more use of dashes. In sentences sometimes lacking main verbs. Or subjects. Discandying flux. Even if at the same time I cannot write a sentence without wanting to pay homage to my father’s lifelong Maxwellian [both Royle’s and his brother’s word for their father’s passion for the English language, based on his name] vigilance as Grammaticality Enforcement Agency.

(The extract shows the other effect of the lack of commas – the book is quite often very poetic. It also quite often changes the ‘natural’ emphasis in a sentence to highlight what is truly important in it.)

Perhaps – likely? – the author’s father wouldn’t have appreciated the way the book was written, which in the context of the family and the addition of Mr Royle’s letters to newspapers, is an interesting idea in itself. But there’s also an interesting question that this reviewer found herself asking – does the author’s focus on his mother’s language, given the father’s was the language deemed more correct (and thus important), question the traditional ideas of the relative values of men and women’s work and so on? (I should point out the author never says this, it’s just something I took away with me.) It certainly questions whether Mr Royle’s use of language is necessarily better (employed in Mrs Royle’s correspondence, his corrections in the letters she wrote are shown in the author’s discussion and reproduction of one of them).

This is perhaps the time to also note that Mrs Royle was a dedicated, passionate nurse who was well loved by many. Stories of her work are many, are lovely, and are spread throughout the book. (The narrative is not linear – the content is divided into chapters each on a theme – and scenes and elements of Mrs Royle’s life are returned to.) Quite a number of the photographs show Mrs Royle at various stages of her career.

It’s also perhaps the time to note that as much as the book is about Mrs Royle, it’s also about her husband, the author’s brother, who sadly passed away at a young age, and many other members of the family. There’s a lot to be said for the cover photograph showing the nuclear family. This book covers the affects of a mother on lives – the affect of Mrs Royle on the author, his father, his brother, and inevitably somewhat the whole family on who the author is.

To be sure, despite the small number of pages – just over 200 – Mother: A Memoir is a book you will probably want to take a bit of time with; it’s a good one to savour. That’s related to the major point to make – this book is brilliant.

I received this book for review.

Related Books

Book cover

 
Caroline Lea – The Glass Woman + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with Zoë Duncan! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Zoë Duncan (The Shifting Pools) discuss coping with and healing from war trauma in reality and fiction, the use and power of dreams, employing various styles and formats, and how fascinating reader interpretations can be.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


Book Cover

Will not shatter.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 400
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-93461-9
First Published: 7th February 2019
Date Reviewed: 11th May 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

In order to ensure the health of her aged mother, Ròsa agrees to marry Jòn, leader of another village a fair way from home. In doing so, Rosa not only leaves her mother but her childhood friend, Pàl. But life isn’t ‘simply’ going to be more difficult – it’s going to be far beyond that. Jòn is secretive; his first wife, Anna, died in mysterious circumstances and his manner seems controlling – he wants a meek wife; then there’s the villagers who say that Jòn killed Anna – and Ròsa isn’t allowed to talk to them. And Ròsa isn’t allowed into the loft of the home, from which strange sounds arise, haunting her sleep.

The Glass Woman is Lea’s second novel, set in 1600s Iceland, a generally wintry place that offers much for those looking for intrigue and a thrilling tale. Set wonderfully in its history, the book offers a lot of information about the time period that will appeal particularly to those more versed in the medieval continental Europe – the weather makes things a bit different in Iceland compared to Britain, for example. The history is good and pretty immersive.

But it is the story itself that holds the most interest; the novel sports parallels with two classical novels that are in themselves heavily influenced one to another – where Anna’s mysterious death is concerned and where Ròsa naturally starts to question the refusal Jòn gives her when she wants to go into the loft, the book turns towards the concept of the Mad Woman in the Attic, that concept that is a mainstay of Jane Eyre; and in its furthering of this – Anna’s apparent haunting of the place – it looks too at Rebecca.

Whether a deliberate nod by the author or not, the parallels with Brontë and Du Maurier are fantastic, both just far enough away as to not be too similar (as to repeat) and close enough to be a study of the concepts in themselves. The idea of a lingering ghost remains almost until the end (when you necessarily get answers) and the handling by Ròsa also similar enough to warrant further thought; there is – of course? – no question of race here, nor of envy, but the same concept of identity that informs the second Mrs de Winter is at play in Lea’s story.

On the subject of identity – altered here to be personal agency and control (suitable for the time and setting) – it’s well structured. The question as to whether or not Ròsa is at all truly meek, an obedient wife, and in various meanings of the idea, is looked at throughout to great effect, in itself a possible further nod to Du Maurier’s tale – however Ròsa has more leave to change her circumstances than Max’s wife ever did. Lea’s choices of history and place lend themselves well to the study, weaving in tradition and culture from the northern island nation, allowing perhaps for a stronger backdrop to the subjects at hand.

The further use of the classical works cannot be discussed without spoiling Lea’s story; suffice it to say the parallels become weaker at points but also stronger at others, and Lea’s situation as a writer in the 21st century allows for much more. The author is excellent at making you constantly question where she is taking her tale.

Other themes, somewhat related but far more the novel’s own, are the ideas of fragility and purity. These are looked at frankly in dialogue, but perhaps best in the element of the glass woman itself, an ornament Ròsa receives from her husband. There is a lot to be said for symbolism in the novel.

So the novel is thrilling in a good few ways, ‘inherited’ and brand new alike. The style and structure of the book aids in this; there are two narratives – Ròsa’s, told in the third person, and Jòn’s, told in the first person and set a month after that of his wife’s. It is a constant – and intriguing – quest for the reader to work out what has gone on; you’ve got Ròsa’s tale wherein she becomes fearful of Jòn, and you’ve Jòn’s that speaks of a different character to the one you’ve come to expect; the study of perceptions and reality is good. Despite the short time lapse between the narratives and the knowledge of how you have to read them and sort the information, Lea only allows it to be easy once you’re past a certain point, and that point is near the end.

The Glass Woman is a highly interesting one; on the surface you have a novel that is full of the day-to-day necessarily repetitive routine in an isolated, work-dependent place, laced with a burgeoning mystery. But as to be expected, once you look under the surface – and the possibilities are plentiful in an icy place – you’ll find it’s anything but.

And you’ll leave 1600s Iceland, however much Ròsa’s story matches others of her time or not (I can’t pretend to have much knowledge in this respect), with not only a particular set of ideas to think about but also a new approach to some age-old literary ponderings.

 

Older Entries