Sunday, 31 August 2008

Re-reading: The Secret Garden. . .

It's been a goal of mine to consciously make time to re-read books from my bookworm past to see if I react differently to them many years later. This morning, a pot of tea at the ready, I tackled Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved 1911 classic The Secret Garden. It must have been over thirty years since I first read this. It was a favourite of mine as a child because I was born (although not bred) in Yorkshire and have always kept a certain romantic notion of the moors in my imaginative consciousness. I found that I remembered the first half of the book extremely well - the sullen Mary Lennox's first arrival in England and her lonely first days until she finds a way into the secret garden that has been locked up for ten years until, with the help of the Yorkshire lad Dickon, she brings it, herself and Colin, the sickly master of the manor, back to life.

Reading it again, I'm struck by how many echoes of the Bronte sisters reverberate through the pages. The reverence and love of the moors is constant of course, but Colin's strange crying in the night as he's hidden away, not in an attic but a forbidden corridor, surely is a nod to Jane Eyre. As is the "voice" calling back Mr. Craven from his aimless European wandering (I had completely forgotten this entire chapter). I was also intrigued by the insistence of "Magic" as a life-force that Colin calls upon to make things happen. There are certainly religous implications in the novel, and today, it's what we'd probably call the power of positive thinking. But time and again, the word "Magic" with a capital M is repeated. Which is interesting having just read Hartley's The Go-Between, about a child who believes in his magical powers and the ability to put curses on people. That novel is written much later than Burnett's, but set only ten years earlier. So was there an intense interest in the occult then, particularly among children? Hmmmm.

I also found myself thinking of the first part of Rupert Brooke's famous sonnet, "The Soldier", whenever Mary's request for "a bit of earth" is referred to.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

Dickon is thirteen in the novel - he'd be sixteen when the war started. What would have happened to him? And after finishing the last chapter, I'm surprised by how suddenly Mary disappears from what has been mostly her story. Now that she has helped heal Colin and he's reunited with his father, is that the end of her usefulness and she can just fade into the background again?

Saturday, 30 August 2008

The Go-Between. . .

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

I've heard the phrase many times - now I've finally finished the novel, The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley that begins with this famous line. First published in 1953, it's set in the hot and almost continually sunny summer of 1900, a "Golden Age". Leo Colston is approaching thirteen and is staying with a rich schoolmate at his stately home for a few weeks. Insecure and naive, he starts taking messages between his friend's older sister and her secret lover - a farmer, handsome and virile, but of course of the wrong class. Tragedy ensues.

I was hooked right from the prologue as Leo, now an elderly man in his sixties ruminates on that summer and how it shaped (for the worst) his entire life. He imagines a conversation with his 12 year old self who reproaches him:

"But you have had half a century to get over it! Half a century, half the twentieth century, that glorious epoch, that golden age I bequeathed to you!".

And his answer breaks your heart:

"Has the twentieth century," I should ask, "done so much better than I have? When you leave this room, which I admit is dull and cheerless, and take the last bus to your home in the past, if you haven't missed it - ask yourself whether you found everything so radiant as you imagined it. Ask yourself whether it has fulfilled your hopes. You were vanquished, Colston, you were vanquished, and so was your century, your precious century that you hoped so much of."

That almost sums up the core questions of this novel - can one ever really make that last bus to the past? And do we want to? Colston's recollections of the boy he was - his innocence and vanity, coupled with his awkward insecurities are so beautifully and delicately portrayed. Hartley has vividly captured the constant heat of the summer, the tension of a village cricket match (the only British novel I know which prefaces the description of the match with a helpful summary of the rules of the game), and the complicated relationships within a family and among the different classes. A strong sense of the supernatural (as experienced in a child's imagination) and an elegy for the historical dead, both past and future (several of the characters will die in the First World War) permeates this lovely novel. A completely absorbing and thoughtful reading experience.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Modern Architecture. . .

As a relaxation exercise, I oddly find documentaries or movies about architecture to be just the thing for a flop on the sofa type of evening. There's something soothing about cameras lingering on the worn face of a stone carving or the vaulted roof of a church. And I'm grateful to be able to see in close-up the fine details that one would not be able to see with the naked eye, or would miss in the tourist shuffle. I've been watching Antonio Gaudí, by Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara - a documentary described as more of a "visual poem". I had thought of Gaudí as being more modern; it was a surprise to learn he died in 1926. The DVD also comes with a BBC documentary on the architect's work, narrated by art critic Robert Hughes, which was a good introduction. Barcelona and the famous Park Guell is definately on the list of places I want to visit someday.

I also have enjoyed the PBS documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. I watched this after reading Nancy Horan's captivating novel Loving Frank - a fictionalized account of the architect's relationship with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, who left her husband and children to be with Wright. The novel explores many of the emotional and societal conflicts facing women at that time as Mamah struggles with her love for Frank against her own need for intellectual fulfillment and her guilt over abandoning her children. I didn't know how the relationship ended (and I won't give it away here) but it's quite shocking. The documentary was extremely interesting on Wright's personal life after Mamah, which was just as rocky. Of course, there's an awful lot about his buildings and houses as well.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Bookstores around the World - Idlewild Books

One of the things I want to do on this blog is showcase innovative, interesting and just plain beautiful bookstores around the world. Three Percent tipped me to a New York bookstore that I will definately visit next time I'm in the city. Idlewild Books calls itself a "bookstore about places" and specializes in travel and international literature. They organize their sections by country. What a terrific and inspiring idea; I love reading the literature of a place before visiting - it completely enhances the experience.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

A Graphic look at the early 20th century. . .

I've started reading Charley's War - a series of reprints of comic strips by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun that originally ran in Battle Action Weekly in the 1970s. The strips begin in June 1916 and follow the naive 16 year old Charley Bourne and his experiences in the trenches. They've been collected into four volumes so far, with a fifth one out this fall. I've finished the first volume and was quite moved, especially as it covers the Battle of the Somme. There's a bit of over the top (no pun intended) machoism and some fairly improbable coincidences in the story line, but the authors are trying to cover all aspects of the war, including the homefront, and it definately is by no means glorifying the war. It was entertaining and informative and I'm hooked enough to want to read on.

Graphic novels are so popular now and every bookstore has a section. Mine would too. I've come across several already that would fit the bill. The Salon by Nick Bertozzi takes us back to 1907 Paris where a killer is targeting avant-garde painters. So Gertrude and Leo Stein with the help of Picasso, Erik Satie, Alice B. Toklas and Apollinaire, set out to find the murderers. Looks like fun. Martin Rowson has written a witty and noir version of Eliot's The Wasteland involving the L.A. cop Christopher Marlowe - a pastiche of Philip Marlowe. HarperCollins have brought out several Agatha Christie mysteries as graphic novels. I haven't read one of these yet - I wonder if they can get all the intricate plotting just right. Or would it be easier to guess the "graphic" murderer? And then there are the Proust graphic novels - I have the first two volumes and they are quite well done. Doubtless there a lot more to add to this list. Must investigate.

Monday, 25 August 2008

The Women gets a 2008 makeover. . .

This fall will see a remake of the 1939 movie The Women, which has always been one of my favourites. I also love the 1936 play version written by Claire Boothe Luce. The remake is directed and written by Diane English who was one of the creators of Murphy Brown. And Candice Bergen is in this film too, along with a fairly great cast including Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and Bette Midler. You can see the trailer at the movie's website here. You'll notice, as with the original, there's not a male in sight. Let the backstabbing begin.

Votes for Suffragettes. . .

When I was recently visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake to take in some plays at the Shaw Festival, I wandered into the British shop on the main road, to stock up on Jaffa Cakes and Twiglets. The store also has a good selection of DVDs and I picked up The Suffragettes. It's only about an hour long and thus basically just skims the topic. Still, it shows how ghastly the force-feeding was in the prisons, and it's quite difficult to watch Emily Wilding Davison's death when she throws herself in front of the horse at the Derby. Actresses play the Pankhursts and other suffragists and there's a tiny bit of scene from Shaw's Press Cuttings. A good introduction to the topic - I imagine it would be useful for students. Much more powerful is the Upstairs Downstairs (one of my favourite television series) episode in the second season, when Rose the maid, tries to stop Elizabeth - her naive upstairs mistress who is dabbling at being a suffragette almost out of boredom - from getting into trouble with the law and ends up being arrested instead. Rose's experiences in prison are frightening and heart-breaking.

These brave women are true heroines of mine - discerning readers may have noted that the colours I've chosen for this blog reflect the purple (for justice), white (for purity) and green (for hope) of the flags of the Women's Social and Political Union - one of the main organizations in the fight for women's votes.

There would definately be a section in my bookstore devoted entirely to histories of the suffrage movement, biographies of the main players and plays and novels that explored the issues and/or were written by suffragists. Broadview Press has kept a lot of these books in print. They've published a wonderful anthology entitled The Literature of The Women's Suffrage Campaign in England, edited by Carolyn Christensen Nelson, that includes articles making the case for and against suffrage, eyewitness accounts from the memoirs and writings of the suffragists themselves and selections of suffrage poetry, drama and fiction. They also specialize in New Woman fiction of the era, having also published The New Woman Reader also edited by Christensen Nelson, and novels such as Suffragette Sally by Gertrude Colmore. At the end of this month they are bringing out Prisons and Prisoners - the memoirs of Constance Lytton, a member of the aristocracy who pretended to be a working class woman to call attention to the differential treatment that women of different classes received in the prisons.

New books on the First World War. . .

While browsing in my local independent bookstore this afternoon, I came across two interesting newish books. Doris Lessing's latest, Alfred & Emily is part novella and part biography of her parents - both of whom were haunted by the First World War. Alfred was injured fighting, losing a leg; Emily worked as a nurse at the front lines and lost her fiance. The novella imagines what her parents' lives would have been like if the war had never occurred. This is followed by biographical sketches showing the lasting results of the war on the rest of their lives - and how it affected her own relationship with them. This blend of fact and fiction is intriguing to me - in some ways it seems the perfect way to tackle a subject that is inevitably elusive in its dependence on memory, stories, and the clarity (or not) of thoughtful hindsight. I tend to think of the war as so far away; nearly all the people who lived through that horror are gone now. But how could it not affect their children and grandchildren? With the 100th anniversary not that far away, I imagine many of the next generation will be examining the war - both in fiction and non-fiction - over the next few years.

Michèle Barrett's Casualty Figures: How Five Men Survived the First World War, was the second book I discovered. It also examines the long-term psychological effects of the war on the five soldiers that she profiles. I imagine it will be a heart-breaking read.

One book being brought back into print that I'm quite excited about is Mary Borden's The Forbidden Zone which Hesperus is publishing at the end of this month. I collect women's writing of the First World War and have a 1930 edition of this book (first published in 1929). I think it's one of the best works of fiction to come out of the war by any writer, male or female. Borden was a nurse in France and this collection of short stories and prose pieces drawn from her experiences is so beautifully written and powerful; I hope this new edition will introduce her writing to a whole new audience. It makes a perfect companion piece to Hemingway's In Our Time, for example. "The Beach" is my favourite piece of hers. Borden led an absolutely fascinating life, actively participating in the Second World War as well. I wish someone would write a really good biography of her.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

After a trip to the Shaw Festival. . .

Welcome to Julia Hedge's Laces - I hope you find something of interest here. What's likely to turn up is outlined on the righthand side. In turn, I hope to find a community of readers who are as passionate about Woolf, the times she lived in, and the books written during and about that period, as I am.

It's always hard to know exactly where to begin (with anything, not just blogs), but perhaps for this particular endeavour, there's no better place than to tip my hat to the Shaw Festival. Their mandate of putting on plays written (and more recently, set in) the period of Shaw's life makes it one of the most unique theatre companies in the world and of course inspired the thinking behind what my fantasy bookstore would stock. Shaw's long life (1856-1950) includes of course the whole of Virginia Woolf's (1882-1941) and the theatre of late 19th and first half of the 20th century, so a trip out to Niagara-on-the-Lake is always a must for me each summer. The Shaw is particularly good at remounting lost and forgotten plays from this era. Terence Rattigan's After the Dance which I saw last weekend, is a perfect example of what they do best.

This play first opened in June, 1939 and is set in the last years of the 1930s. The characters are a group of friends - the Bright Young Things of the 1920s, too young to have fought in WWI and suffering from survivor guilt, alcoholism, and a sense of the futility and waste of their lives that has come from years of partying and enjoying themselves. David Scott-Fowler is an author trying to write his big book but knowing in his heart that it isn't very good. He's also been recently told that he will die if he doesn't stop drinking. He falls in love with Helen, an earnest, young woman who believes she can save him. His wife Joan, also an alcoholic and madly in love with her husband although she can't bring herself to admit it to him, takes the news badly. When tragedy strikes, all the characters have to "grow up" and face the consequences of their actions, or rather in-actions. This is a suspenseful, poignant play that hooked me right from the beginning. Patrick Galligan, who plays David, has just become my favourite actor at the Shaw (he also gave a marvellous performance as Osborne in Journey's End a few seasons ago). His David is quietly romantic, troubled, guilty and tragic. The supporting cast is also terrific particularly Deborah Hay as Joan and Neil Barclay as David's wise-cracking friend John. Highly recommended if you have a chance to go and see it.
Another rediscovery being mounted this season is Githa Sowerby's The Stepmother. I haven't seen it as it keeps conflicting with another plays that I have tickets for, but I did buy a copy of the play, published by Women's Press. It was written and is set in 1924; you can read more about it here. I often bemoan the fact that people don't read more plays - in many ways I think they are the perfect literary form. The entire work can (usually) be read in a few hours and then hopefully, if one is lucky enough to see a production or multiple productions, can expand infinitely in the imagination. Plays are expensive which is why many bookstores don't stock huge sections. We're fortunate in Toronto to have Theatre Books which is a regular haunt of mine. I also never go to London without making a stop in the National Theatre Bookshop.

So many great playwrights from this period. Kudos to the Shaw Festival for keeping their work alive.