Archive for ‘Kindle’

April 11, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars

Before I watched John Carter last month I reread A Princess of Mars for the first time in many years. I realised I’d forgotten most of the plot but very little of the feel of the place – for all its problems (and they are legion) Barsoom is a truly epic setting.
Because I am a lazy person, this month’s short column for Kindle magazine was about A Princess of Mars.

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For most of human history we have known very little about space – for that matter, we still do. Dreams of space travel once focused primarily on the moon, the heavenly body most visible to the naked eye. But then telescopes were invented and we began to learn more about the planets, our knowledge growing with improving technology.

In the 1870s the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered a strange feature on the surface of Mars – the appearance of straight lines. He called these “canalli”, or “channels”. When Schiaparelli’s findings were translated into English the relatively innocent “canalli” was translated as “canals”, the latter word carrying the connotation that these lines were man- (or martian-) made. This was probably the reason behind the flowering of fiction about Martians at the turn of the twentieth century.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is one such work of fiction, published in 1912. It tells of John Carter, a former confederate soldier and now gold prospector who, while fleeing from savage apaches (racial sensitivity is not one of the strong points of this book) stumbles into a mysterious cave and, in an incomprehensible series of events, has an out of body experience and is transported/astrally projected to Mars.

Carter’s early hours on Mars do at least pay lip service to the fact that it would be difficult to survive on a planet other than one’s own. He has trouble adjusting to the difference in gravity, and does not speak the language of the natives – Mars, or Barsoom, is home to various species of alien but they share a common tongue. This state of affairs does not last for long. Soon enough he is adopted by the four-armed green Martians (known as the Tharks), and it seems a matter of days before he has mastered their language, and begun to rise in their ranks. If all this seems something of a cliché, it’s because A Princess of Mars is one of the founding texts of the genre. It’s also why Carter is the least interesting thing about this book. Things get a lot more fun when the titular princess, the humanoid Dejah Thoris of Helium, shows up. In what is a rather scattered plot, Carter and Dejah Thoris escape, bring down a rival ruler, and unite the green and “red” (humanoid) Martians.

Yet the plot isn’t really that important. What makes A Princess of Mars work is Barsoom itself – a dying planet with a failing civilisation. We’re told very little of the history of Barsoom. We learn that there were once more humanoid races; that, like Earth, Mars once had seas. We’re told almost nothing of the strange old men who operate the machinery that keeps the Martian air breathable.

It’s easy to see why in John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s 2012 adaptation of the novel, the director should have chosen to jettison most of the plot, cobbling together a new one and focusing on the visual depiction of the planet. Because A Princess of Mars isn’t really a very good book, but Barsoom? Barsoom is glorious.

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February 6, 2012

Bram Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars

I wrote my most recent Kindle magazine column on public domain books while I was revising a conference paper on Egypt-themed fin de siècle invasion fiction. Naturally, then, I felt that the book deserved a few thousand words and that the 500-odd I had in which to write this column managed to say almost nothing. There’s a lesson here, and it’s probably the opposite of write what you know.

 

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When the Nineteenth century turned into the Twentieth, the British Empire was still going strong. This makes it all the more interesting that this period should have seen a trend of “invasion” fiction, in which Britain was the colonised, rather than the colonising country. Some of these would-be colonisers came from the actual colonised countries (the “yellow peril” novels, for example, used the threat of an expanding Chinese population); others were of a supernatural nature. Bulwer-Lytton wrote of a subterranean “Coming Race”. H.G. Wells had England invaded by Martians in The War of the Worlds, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula arrived from Eastern Europe.

Dracula is hardly obscure; it is the definitive vampire novel.  The character has entered pop culture in a vast range of iterations, from the cartoon “Count Duckula” to the magnificently awful film (available on youtube!) Shaitani Dracula.  Fewer people are acquainted with another invasion novel which Stoker wrote a few years later; The Jewel of Seven Stars.

The Jewel of Seven Stars is in part a product of late Victorian (and early 20th Century) England’s fascination with Egypt.  In it, an English scholar named Mr Trelawney, comes into the possession of the preserved or mummified body of an Ancient Egyptian queen and attempts to resurrect her. Malcolm Ross, the narrator, is in love with Trelawney’s daughter Margaret. Everyone is a little surprised to discover that the spectacularly beautiful mummified queen and the spectacularly beautiful Miss Trelawney are physically identical. Naturally (as in most books about reanimated corpses) things go horribly wrong.

In many ways The Jewel of Seven Stars is a weaker novel than Dracula, but a few things make it stand out. One is the way in which it dramatizes the sheer discomfort around various aspects of Egyptology and the colonial enterprise. It’s clearest of all in a scene where the mummified body is unveiled – mummy unveilings often turned into public events. Here, Mr Trelawney and his associates stand gloating at the body of the woman they have stripped while in the presence of a woman physically identical to her, whom they have sworn to protect.

The book is also notable for having two endings. Stoker’s original ending had Tera victorious – the narrator enters the room to discover that not only has she reawakened, but that all the witnesses to her resurrection are lying around petrified and glassy-eyed. When the novel was republished in 1912, Stoker was told to give it a less gruesome ending. He managed, magnificently, to give it one that (to me at least) seems even more ominous. What looks like a traditional, happily-ever-after wedding is undercut by Margaret’s decision to dress herself as the dead queen. I am tempted to read this as a sign that the two women have changed places – that the narrator is now sharing his bed not with the woman he loves, but with a centuries-old impostor. Perhaps even more disturbing is another explanation, that Tera has in some way possessed Margaret’s mind. Either way, Stoker’s ability to amp up the creepiness of his book while pretending to tone it down is something to be lauded.

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January 10, 2012

O. Douglas, Penny Plain

For the out of copyright books column I do for Kindle magazine, I chose last month to write about O. Douglas’ Penny-Plain. Douglas gets rather overlooked despite (or because of?) being John Buchan’s sister – her writing is never spectacular, but it’s charming, and gentle, and generous. I’d previously mentioned on this blog her Olivia in India – remarkable for being set in India, written during the Raj and still not annoying.

 

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Anna Masterton Buchan was the sister of the author John Buchan, who was famous for his adventure tales, particularly The Thirty-Nine Steps. His sister was considerably less famous, but published a number of books as O. Douglas, most of them novels of life between the wars.

Penny-Plain is her third book, set in a small town in Scotland. The Jardine family are well-educated but very poor. They live in a house filled with books, offer hospitality to anyone who looks like they’d enjoy it, and are all that is good and saintly within this tradition of novels. The head of the family (the parents are dead) is the oldest sister, Jean, who is also (predictably) unusual and attractive.

Two important people visit the town (on, predictably, the same train). The first is a rich, jaded old man with a terminal illness. Having spent his life accumulating wealth, he now realises that is has no one to whom to leave it. He resolves that it should go to the first person to unselfishly do him a good turn. He meets the Jardines – and then disappears for a good chunk of the book. Anyone who has ever read a book knows where this is going.

The second visitor is the Honourable Pamela Renton who, sick of town life, has taken lodgings in the cottage next door. Naturally she befriends Jean. Matters follow their natural course – Pamela’s titled brother falls in love with Jean, who nobly rejects him because of the disparity in wealth. The old man dies and Jean inherits his fortune; her suitor convinces her that he still loves her, and everything ends happily.

What makes Penny-Plain enjoyable is not its mundane plot, but the sheer warmth of the book. Only a few of Douglas’ works are in the public domain (her Olivia in India, an epistolatory novel, is particularly good) but in those that are accessible, no amount of cliché is enough to stop them from being likeable. She reminds me of no one more than L. M. Montgomery (the author of Anne of Green Gables) for her quiet humour and her feel for the intersecting lives of characters in a small community. And where even Montgomery could be cruel (see The Tangled Web, for example), Douglas is always charitable. Even the loud, annoying woman with vulgar tastes, who comes closer than anyone to being the villain of the piece, is rendered sympathetic.

Penny-Plain may on the whole seem completely apolitical, but the war is all over the book. Written in 1920, it is presumably set around the same time. This is made clear by the many characters who have lost someone – a husband, a son. Characters frequently discuss how the war has changed their lives and the ways in which they think, act, even the ways in which they read certain books. There may not be much space given to European power games, but the idea of how personhood itself is affected by an event so epochal is as least as worthy. Douglas is a marvellous writer, and it’s surprising that she should be so obscure.

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November 9, 2011

Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, The Inheritors

My monthly Kindle Magazine column focuses on out of copyright books. For the October issue I wrote about the product of a collaboration between two great authors. It’s not, however, a particularly good book.

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I’ll never understand how it is possible for two writers to collaborate on one work of fiction without creating a disjointed mess, but it evidently is. My favourite example of this is Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens; a wonderful, heart-warming account of the apocalypse and the end times. But Good Omens, for all its excellence, wasn’t too far from the sort of thing for which Pratchett and Gaiman were already known. What would be far stranger would be for two literary novelists were to get together and work on something completely alien to their genres.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Joseph Conrad and Forx Madox Ford collaborated on a set of novels – The Nature of a Crime, Romance and The Inheritors – covering a variety of genres. Of these, The Inheritors is perhaps the best known.

What makes The Inheritors surprising is that it is in part a science-fiction novel. There exists a Fourth Dimension inhabited by creatures that seem human. Except that they are “a race clear-sighted, eminently practical, incredible; with no ideals, prejudices, or remorse; with no feeling for art and no reverence for life; free from any ethical tradition; callous to pain, weakness, suffering and death, as if they had been invulnerable and immortal.” And they are going to take over the world.

At the beginning of the book Arthur, the narrator, meets one of these Fourth Dimensionists; she appears in the form of a beautiful woman. Pressed to tell him more about herself she reveals her identity and even performs some alarming magic to convince him (in the process she renders the nearby town, and significantly its cathedral, ‘contemptible’). Her willingness to share her evil plan with him seems at first the sort of terrible decision supervillains make, allowing the hero to thwart them. But there will be no thwarting from Arthur, who is contemptible himself. Filled with vaguely-formed high ideals about great art but also a strong desire to be important, Arthur is the perfect pawn. He soon finds himself drawn into Fourth Dimensionist power politics. While the mysterious woman (who is now posing as Arthur’s sister) manipulates him on the one hand, he also finds himself encountering two other Fourth Dimensionists – one of whom claims to be creating a Utopia in Greenland. He does make a few half-hearted attempts to thwart our eventual masters but, being incompetent, he fails miserably.

The Inheritors starts out as disjointed and abrupt – the opening scenes in which the narrator learns of the Fourth Dimension are dreadful. Yet as the power games between these terrifying beings set in, as the secondary characters become more rounded out it begins to be rather good.

And beneath the rather gloomy subject of our demise as a species (and its subtext of the decline of the human race) there is, oddly enough, a ray of hope. At the beginning the woman suggests that our ancestors too came from the Fourth Dimension, and “caught” weaknesses: “beliefs, traditions; fears; ideas of pity … of love”. By the end of the book, it seems that she may have caught some of these diseases as well. Humanity, it seems to suggest, will always be arrived at somehow, even if the humans themselves (ourselves?) are no longer around.
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October 7, 2011

Maurice LeBlanc, The Blonde Lady (Arsène Lupin Contre Herlock Sholmès)

And the water was rising. It reached the soles of their boots. It covered their feet; they did not move.

It came above their ankles: the Englishman took his tobacco-pouch, rolled a cigarette and lit it.

Lupin continued:

“And, in all this, my dear maître, you must not see anything more than the humble confession of my powerlessness in face of you. It is tantamount to yielding to you, when I accept only those contests in which my victory is assured, in order to avoid those of which I shall not have selected the field. It is tantamount to recognizing that Holmlock Shears is the only enemy whom I fear and proclaiming my anxiety as long as Shears is not removed from my path. This, my dear maître, is what I wished to tell you, on this one occasion when fate has allowed me the honour of a conversation with you. I regret only one thing, which is that this conversation should take place while we are having a foot-bath … a position lacking in dignity, I must confess…. And what was I saying?… A foot-bath!… A hip-bath rather!”

The water, in fact, had reached the seat on which they were sitting and the boat sank lower and lower in the water.

Shears sat imperturbable, his cigarette at his lips, apparently wrapped in contemplation of the sky. For nothing in the world, in the face of that man surrounded by dangers, hemmed in by the crowd, hunted down by a posse of police and yet always retaining his good humour, for nothing in the world would he have consented to display the least sign of agitation.

“What!” they both seemed to be saying. “Do people get excited about such trifles? Is it not a daily occurrence to get drowned in a river? Is this the sort of event that deserves to be noticed?”

And the one chattered and the other mused, while both concealed under the same mask of indifference the formidable clash of their respective prides.

Another minute and they would sink.

 

 

My Kindle column for this month is about Maurice LeBlanc writing what amounts to fanfiction using his own characters and other people’s. I suspect if he’d lived in the age of the internet he’d be writing slash. The H. Richard Boehm translation is available here. A version of my review is below.

 

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As writers of fanfiction in particular know, there’s a certain joy in bringing together iconic characters from different series/movies/authors and imagining their interactions. Perhaps the published author most famous for doing this is Alan Moore, whose League of Extraordinary Gentleman series of comics picks up a bunch of classic figures from Victorian literature and gives them new adventures.

The classic Victorian icon is of course Sherlock Holmes. Moore may have chosen not to use him in the series (though at least one other important Conan Doyle character appears), but more than a century ago another major writer did. Maurice LeBlanc, creator of the French gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, had the two face off in Arsène Lupin Contre Herlock Sholmès – the detective’s name slightly changed because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had objected. This collection of two related short stories was published in America under the title The Blonde Lady, and Herlock Sholmès was further changed to Holmlock Shears.

Chief-Inspector Ganimard invites Shears and his colleague, “the unspeakable Wilson” to Paris to solve the theft of a diamond ring in which Lupin and a mysterious blonde woman seem to be involved. Lupin is thrilled; Shears is a worthy adversary. This leads to a prolonged cat-and-mouse game, with the two men working to outwit each other and occasionally (though briefly) succeeding.

Traditionally, if  Holmes has a nemesis it is Professor Moriarty. Yet for me perhaps the most engaging villain in Conan Doyle’s stories was Irene Adler – not because she was a woman (though beautiful adventuresses are always welcome in Victorian fiction) but because the two of them seemed to enjoy the game so much. Holmes presumably respects Moriarty as an adversary, but there’s an underlying grimness- when it comes to it, these men are willing to kill each other. Whereas Holmes may be angry at being bested by Adler, but there’s always the sense that it’s all an elegant bit of play and they’d get along quite well under different circumstances. It makes a difference, of course, that Adler’s crime in the one story in which she appears is not particularly serious. Lupin is more of an Adler than a Moriarty.

LeBlanc’s hero is always amazing – rakish, charming and forever one step ahead of everyone else. Every encounter between him and Shears is a delight in this book. On the occasion of their first confrontation the two sit down to whiskeys-and-sodas. They often compliment each other, and in the second story, “The Jewish Lamp”, engage in a showdown that is quite a spectacular mutual admiration society. Of course there’s a bit of France vs England going on, and Lupin leaves Shears furious and humiliated more than once. But there is still the feeling that they could have been friends (or even lovers, though I highly doubt LeBlanc meant us to read it this way). Of course it helps that (as with Adler) Lupin isn’t totally morally repugnant – he tends to steal only from the rich and does not commit murder (as well as being witty and attractive). It’s much easier to like him than it would be with a more hardened criminal.

If there’s one thing over which this odd crossover book can be faulted it is its treatment of poor Wilson. Conan Doyle’s Watson is a perfectly ordinary, intelligent man; LeBlanc’s Wilson is an idiot. In a way it foreshadows the idiot sidekick trope in fiction – Wilson is closer to Agatha Christie’s Captain Hastings than to our favourite army doctor – but it seems unfair to a character who really doesn’t get enough love. Perhaps if LeBlanc had been allowed to use the original Conan Doyle characters this would have been different – and what a great novel that would have been.

 

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September 12, 2011

L.T. Meade, A Modern Tomboy

I cheated a bit over this month’s Kindle Magazine column. The book I discuss in it is one I’ve mentioned on this blog before – but while the last post (which was more quote than commentary) focused on the incredible levels of homoeroticism in the book, this one looks at a couple of other aspects of this very odd book.

 

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It is startling sometimes to realise suddenly how far removed the cultural values of old books are from your own. It’s even more startling to realise how far removed they can be from the cultural values of their own times.

On the surface of it, L.T Meade’s  A Modern Tomboy is a conventional story for girls. Mrs Merriman decides to start a school for girls in order to support her husband, who is a scholar working on a Great Work. Daughter Lucy is jealous, particularly since one of the new girls, Rosamund, is attractive as well as being a born leader. Rosamund befriends Irene Ashleigh, a rich girl who is so spoiled that she is uncontrollable. Rosamund’s influence and the advent of a saintly younger girl play major roles in Irene’s reform.

Thus far we have the school, the pretty, headstrong but basically nice school girl who is the heroine and the wild, antisocial girl who must be taught to fit into society. All seems to be proceeding as you’d expect it to.

But A Modern Tomboy is neither a traditional school story nor a moral tale. As far as I can tell, it appears to be about how charisma is the most important thing in the world, and how those who have it will always get their own way. That, and romance among young girls.

The school story has something of a history with homoeroticism. In part this is a natural result of any stories about people of one sex all cooped up together (rumours about monasteries and nunneries exist for similar reasons), but early authors in the genre did not exactly help things (Angela Brazil infamously – and apparently innocently – called one of her schoolgirl characters Lesbia). The first half of this book is filled with romantic declarations; people breaking into other people’s rooms to get into bed with them, and claiming that they cannot live without them.

But it is the second part of the book that is particularly baffling.

If this book has a heroine it is probably Rosamund. Meade makes sure that we know this character is bossy and used to getting her own way, but she is forgiven much for how attractive she is. Irene is even more beautiful and charismatic, and so characters she has physically injured or threatened with death find it easy to forgive her. Her beauty also causes the infatuation of Agnes Frost, the younger sister of Iren e’s governess. Miss Frost can only watch in alarm as her sister is seduced away, and as her own complicity in the whole thing is bought off with the promise of the good education for her siblings. The text tells us that “[i]t is a curious fact that there are some weak but loving people who are not loved in return”, stating this as obvious fact rather than as a problem that needs fixing.

And this, I think, is what makes A Modern Tomboy so unusual – where most children’s stories of the period moralise, it takes for granted the unfairness of the world, treating it as something so obvious that it needn’t even be commented upon. 

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All this, plus everyone in the book being kind of terrible. Were I looking for this sort of cynical realism in fiction I wouldn’t have expected to find it in an early-twentieth century school story writer, but there you go. A Modern Tomboy is available on Project Gutenberg here.
May 7, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

I’ve written about Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket on this blog before. This month it was the subject of my column at Kindle Magazine. Slightly longer version below.

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There’s a bit at the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a book too well known to ever appear in this column, but both out of copyright and brilliant) in which the narrator laments the filling in of the world map, as new places were explored. “It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery–a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.”

Unknown places allow for stories about them*. In medieval Europe India was a fantastic place, populated with all manner of strange creatures. Centuries later adventure novels (of the Rider Haggard variety) had people discovering hidden valleys and lost civilisations in parts of Asia and Africa and South America. As the world became more and more known we had to find other blank spaces to fill in – Jules Verne and Edward Bulwer-Lytton both went subterranean with Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Coming Race; some writers turned to other planets (particularly Mars, and I think this is at least one of the reasons for the flowering of science fiction in this period).
Edgar Allan Poe goes south. In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s only complete novel, the title character stows away aboard a whaling ship. He is helped in this by his friend Augustus, whose father commands the ship. After some mutiny and wholesale slaughter they end up on another ship, this one dedicated to exploration. They sail towards the Antarctic, discover new lands, and have hair-raising encounters with native barbarians. All of this is quite normal as far as nineteenth century adventure stories are concerned.
But this is Poe, and so obviously it cannot be a normal adventure story. Throughout, it is infused with the sort of weirdness that Poe is so skilled at invoking. A sense of everything not being quite real lurks under everything. So when Pym hides himself on the ship, it has to be a nightmarish situation involving a coffin, rancid meat and feverish dreams. Later the few people left on the ship must see (or hallucinate) ghosts. As Pym sails south in the last moments of the book he feels “a sudden listlessness” and becomes more and more passive, as if in a dream. At times the unreality of it all reminds one of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The violence and gore of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is often ridiculous, particularly since the author seems to feel that each chapter must somehow surpass the last in sensationalism. Yet the adventure plot is only the structure; what elevates the book is the sheer strangeness that runs through it. This is only enhanced by the kind of ambiguous ending that most writers would not dare attempt.
Arthur Gordon Pym may not be as famous as other of Poe’s works, but its influence has definitely been felt. Elements of it can be felt in H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Jules Verne references it in The Sphinx of the Ice fields. Most recently, Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym tells the story of a man obsessed with Poe’s book. Ludicrous and over the top it may be, but it is somehow special.

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*See also Daniel Abraham’s post defending “exoticism” here. I read a fantastic response to it by Jha on tumblr, but no amount of searching has produced a permanent link. If anyone does have the link, please post it?
Edit: Link to Jha here. (Thank you!)
April 4, 2011

Susan Coolidge, Clover

Look, I’ve tried. I’ve read the three Katy books, I’ve read Clover, and I just don’t get Susan Coolidge. Clover was my out-of-copyright book for review at the Kindle Magazine this month.

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Most Indian children of my generation grew up reading English children’s books. This has changed to a great extent since. But even back in our time there were a few classics from North America that found their way into our libraries. Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and Daddy-Long-Legs (discussed last month in these pages) were among them. Also in this little group of recommended classics were Susan Coolidge’s Katy books.

There were three Katy books: What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School and What Katy Did Next. I was not a fan of any of them.
What Katy does, if I remember correctly, is to go from being an absolutely normal child to a plaster saint. This is because she injures her back, and over years spent in the “school of pain” and unable to walk learns to be good and virtuous and motherly. When she goes to school in the next book, she continues to be a very good girl, and despite the inclusion of a few amusing side characters (I do not include the excruciatingly whimsical “Rose Red”) it’s all very dull. In the third book she is taken on a trip to Europe where she is once again good and cheerful, nurses a sick child, and attracts a husband by showing herself to be nicer than her more attractive cousin. This would be quite a satisfying story if Katy had any personality at all.
I only learnt recently that there were two more Katy books, Clover and In The High Valley, and that Clover (published in 1888) at least was considered better than the rest. Both were out of print and available for many years. Clover is Katy’s younger sister and the book focuses on her coming to terms with her sister’s marriage. A large chunk of the book is taken up with this wedding, complete with a visit from Rose Red plus one child who lisps in a way that the author probably thought was adorable (I cannot agree). One of Clover’s brothers falls ill and she accompanies him on his convalescence to Colorado where she goes sightseeing in canyons and accumulates suitors.
If Clover is better than the Katy books, the improvement is in the scenery. Coolidge seems to like Colorado, and some of the descriptions of trips are rather lovely. There’s also a strain of humour in the form of the passive-aggressive Mrs Watson who has been invited along to help Clover, yet seems to think things should be the other way around.
Unfortunately, Clover is even less of a person than Katy was. With Katy, one at least had a vague memory of her careless youth; Clover appears to have been saintly throughout. There’s nothing quite as unappealing as a flawless person.
I confess myself defeated where Coolidge is concerned. There must be something about her to make so many people claim to have loved the books in their childhoods, and certainly Clover is considered a particularly good example of her work among those who have read it. Clearly I am missing something, and if so I am missing it in all of Coolidge’s work. I don’t think I will be reading In the High Valley.

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If you’re deeply fond of Coolidge, do feel free to express outrage or explain why.
March 10, 2011

Jean Webster, Dear Enemy

In my regular column for this month’s Kindle Magazine I talk a bit about my discomfort with Daddy-Long-Legs and conclude that Webster’s Dear Enemy is far better.

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I have a rather complicated relationship with Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs. When I discovered it (I was 11 or 12 at the time, I think) I loved it; it was exactly the sort of thing a girl that age might be expected to love. Brilliant, funny orphan Judy Abbot is sent to college by a mysterious benefactor (an anonymous trustee of the orphanage where she has grown up) on the strength of one humorous essay. Her benefactor’s only condition is that she write to him regularly and she does so, giving him the nickname Daddy-Long-Legs. While at college she meets the gorgeous young uncle of one of her classmates. Gradually she falls in love with him, but hesitates to tell him the secret of her background. Of course it turns out that he is her mysterious benefactor and it all ends happily.

As a grown-up, I find that I have my doubts. It’s difficult to be wholly supportive of a relationship where the (older, richer) man is deliberately manipulating and keeping information from the woman. Not to mention the inherent (and I’m sure unintended) creepiness of Judy’s calling her future partner “Daddy”.

If Daddy-Long-Legs is a teenage girl’s book, its sequel, Dear Enemy (1915), is a book for adults. Dear Enemy tells of the adventures of Sallie, Judy’s college friend, as she attempts to take over and refurbish the orphanage. Like the first book, Dear Enemy is told entirely through letters; Sallie writes to her fiancé Gordon, to Judy, and to the grumpy local doctor who she soon begins to refer to as her “dear enemy”. It is obvious from the beginning, when we learn that Judy and her husband disapprove of Gordon and are hoping Sallie will fall for the doctor, how this is going to go.

But for all its predictability, Dear Enemy is a surprising leap forward from the first book. Daddy-Long-Legs has its moments of seriousness, but Dear Enemy has long conversations about things like whether or not eugenics works, women’s rights, how institutions should function; it’s a book that treats its characters and (more importantly, perhaps) its readers like grown-ups. And unlike a number of other books with similar settings (many of them written much later than this one) it manages not to patronise or romanticise or become twee.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is Gordon. We the readers know how this is supposed to go – the heroine of the last book disapproves of this man, he is a charming politician, surely he will turn out to be a cad and she will turn to the taciturn doctor? And yet this plot, familiar as it is, would have diminished Sallie. Instead we are shown a man who is really quite nice, though he has his flaws, and with whom she could have been happy. The break-up, when it comes, is amicable and blame is not flung around. Readers of romance will know just how rare this is.

Dear Enemy was adapted into a TV series in the 80s so can hardly be called obscure. Still, it’s a lot less famous than the book it follows, and that strikes me as rather unfair.

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January 6, 2011

Talbot Baines Reed, The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s

My regular column about out of copyright books, for Kindle magazine (whose decision for this issue to do a huge Assange-glorifying story without mentioning the charges against him is one I’m not too pleased with). I cheated a bit – The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s is one of the books I covered in my thesis and so pontificating about its relationship to the genre was all too easy. Still.

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It is generally believed that the first school-story was Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays. I’m not sure I agree. Origin stories for genres are tricky. Genres don’t just spring fully formed as from the head of some writer or the other – tropes from books get used and reused until they coagulate into a particular form.

If there is such a thing as the first book in a genre, perhaps it ought to be the first book that knows it is being written within a genre. By that argument a strong contender for the first real school-story is Talbot Baines Reed’s The Fifth Form At St. Dominic’s, published in 1881.

Before Baines Reed, a young reader in England might have read Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), the story of how young Tom grows up and becomes a credit to Rugby school. It’s sometimes preachy, but it has its moments. This hypothetical reader might also read Dean Farrar’s Eric, which tells of the prolonged downfall of a sinning schoolboy. It would be terribly depressing were it not so heavy-handed. A few decades later Kipling’s Stalky & Co. would mock the book for its ridiculous sentimentality. With The Fifth Form At St. Dominic’s, things changed.

The book tells the story of the Greenfield brothers at St. Dominic’s school. Stephen, the younger brother, is a new student. Oliver is in the fifth form of the title, and is taciturn, honourable, and a good sportsman (the stuff literary heroes are made of). As Stephen negotiates the difficulties of public school life for the first time, Oliver finds himself falsely accused of wrongdoing and shunned by his classmates. Meanwhile, led by the magnificent Anthony Pembury, the members of the fifth have created a wall magazine in which they mock the doings of the sixth form.

As a school-story fan it’s fascinating to see how much Baines Reed borrows from his major predecessors. The long descriptions of sports matches, the ragging of new boys, the idealized headmaster are all there. The downward spiraling of the real culprit is the sort of thing Farrar might write – though Baines Reed’s characters are allowed the possibility of redemption, rather than prolonged, gloomy deaths. But equally it’s interesting to see how closely the book corresponds to the pattern that most later school stories would follow.

Most importantly, it’s fun. Like most of Baines Reed’s work, The Fifth Form At St. Dominic’s was published in The Boy’s Own Paper. The good end happily, the bad are punished and the reader learns a Valuable Moral Lesson, but considering the tenor of a lot of his contemporary children’s writers, Baines Reed did a good job of not shoving that aspect of it down his young readers’ throats. It’s easier to see this book as a forerunner to the Frank Richards or Enid Blyton school stories than it is to imagine Tom Brown’s Schooldays in that role.

Perhaps the author’s greatest achievement of all was the inclusion of Anthony Pembury; sharp, funny, and no good at sports. Characters like this do not usually pop up in the school story, but one rather like Pembury appeared in 1909 in a school story titled Mike. The character’s name was Psmith, and the author was a young man named P.G Wodehouse.

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