Thursday, August 30, 2012

New Grub Street by George Gissing

'Reardon looked at the gaps left on his shelves.  Many of those vanished volumes were dear old friends to him; he could have told you where he had picked them up and when; to open them recalled a past moment of intellectual growth, a mood of hope or despondency, a stage of struggle.'

Writer's block, or at least the ability to write anything he could be proud of, was the beginning of the end for Edwin Reardon.  It was a situation George Gissing was familiar with and according to his diary there were seven false starts to what would become New Grub Street.  Then in a sudden burst of productivity the book was ready for the publisher in just over two months, hitting the shelves so to speak in 1891.

The view of Marylebone Workhouse haunts Reardon as he turns out what he considers to be bits of fluff to earn enough money for the rent due at Christmas.  He yearns to write a stellar novel, one that will bring him fame and security but it's frustratingly beyond his reach.  His wife, Amy, is desperate that he should make something of himself so she can hold her head up in society.  Things are so bad that the Reardon's refuse dinner invitations from friends as reciprocating isn't an option.  Exasperated, Amy resorts to spending ever more time at her mother's home as a way of saving on food.  More down-at-heel members of the Grub Street fellowship drop by to commiserate with Edwin, each with a tale of woe about reduced savings and meagre shelter.  At the mercy of their publishers they wait anxiously for white envelopes to be slipped under the door of their cheap garret rooms stating that a piece of writing is worth any paltry sum.

Meanwhile on the other side of the coin is Jasper Milvain, 'the clothes he wore were of expensive material, but had seen a good deal of service.'  Employed as a journalist he casts his eye toward women with heavy purses and good prospects who will make the climb to a premier position all the easier for him.  Alas, the Married Woman's Property Act has recently become law so Jasper won't have an easy time of gaining access to the purse strings of savvy women.  His sisters, Maud and Dora, are encouraged to write but let's face it, any success they have will ease Jasper's financial burden for the duration of time they remain unmarried.

As always, the more London porn in a novel the better and New Grub Street has plenty.  Many is the mile I've happily strolled around Bloomsbury but poor Reardon and his disillusioned friend, Biffen, have lost any sense of affection for the city...

  'It's a huge misfortune, this will-o'-the-wisp attraction exercised by London on young men of brains.  They come here to be degraded, or to perish, when their true sphere is a life of peaceful remoteness.  The type of men capable of success in London is more or less callous and cynical.  If I had the training of boys, I would teach them to think of London as the last place where life can be lived worthily.
  'And the place where you are most likely to die in squalid wretchedness.'

There is little in the way of sugar-coated niceties about this book but there is plenty of page-turning drama.  Which begs the question of why is it that production companies churn out numerous productions of the works of Austen and Dickens when there is such a work, rich in character and plot with story lines still relevant in today's world, found within these pages?

Many people died before the age of 50 during the Victorian era and Gissing succumbed to emphysyma at 46 in 1903 after catching a chill on an ill-advised walk during the winter.  Eerily it was a fate he gave one of his own characters in the book.  New Grub Street is every bit as wonderful as The Odd Women, one of my favourite books from the past year and I am desperate, yes desperate, to read another of his popular works, The Nether World.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Literary London

Sir Richard Steeles Cottage, Hampstead, c. 1832
John Constable

'It was undeniable that on a fine day one enjoyed extensive views.  The green ridge from Hampstead to Highgate, with Primrose Hill and the foliage of Regent's Park in the foreground; the suburban spaces of St John's Wood, Maida Vale, Kilburn; Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, lying low by the side of the hidden river, and a glassy gleam on the far-off hills which meant the Crystal Palace; then the clouded majesty of eastern London, crowned by St Paul's dome.  These things one's friends were expected to admire.  Sunset often afforded rich effects, but they were for solitary musing.'

For my tastes there is no such thing as a book too full of the panorama of London.  In New Grub Street Gissing takes the reader on quite the evocative walking tour of the streets of London, particularly Bloomsbury.  Characters crossing paths on street corners while walking to the British Museum were so vividly described that I searched them out on Google Maps, it's all there.  Dark staircases leading up to sparsely furnished garret rooms had me putting on the kettle despite our warm temperatures this summer.  When moral fibre struggles against hunger and Edwin is faced with selling off his precious books I thought about my own bookshelves and could have cried.  Newspapers, reviews, authorship, periodicals, journal writing and the competition for readership rival anything going on in the world of media today, New Grub Street positively reeks of ink.

I'm two-thirds the way through and absolutely loving this book.  Gissing writes his female characters with plenty of smarts and backbone so I can't wait to find out how the ladies handle issues of romance, inheritances, business and scallywags.  Stay tuned...    

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Distillery District

Think of Victoriana and Toronto usually isn't the first thing that comes to mind but we have something especially significant right on our doorstep. 

The Distillery District (clip, the fellow is a bit effusive though) 'represents the largest and best preserved collection of Victorian Industrial Architecture in North America' according to their website.  The area has also been used in several feature films!  So with tolerable temperatures meaning we wouldn't melt away by lunchtime, R and I set out to stroll this fine neighbourhood while we worked up an appetite.

Parking just over a kilometer away we browsed through table upon table of antiques and colourful kitsch at the St Lawrence Market.  We scanned aged books, poked at old phones, marvelled at an album of Nazi propaganda photos and tried not to knock over a multitude of breakables.  My thoughtful husband bought a small trinket plate for me to add to my tiny collection of celebratory bric-a-brac involving the Royal family.  My latest features Prince Charles and Lady Diana from the date of their ill-fated wedding.  I sent an email to The Heiress announcing that the vision of me as an old woman maneuvering my zimmer frame around the living room, dustcloth in hand, is already starting to take shape.

Passing a few art galleries we finally walked amidst some of the most hauntingly beautiful buildings you will ever see around Toronto.  They couldn't be further from ornate but they are solid and each brick reminds you that someone stood in that very spot, almost two centuries ago, with their hands full of mortar and dust.  We had been here last year for the Dickens Christmas Marketplace but it was so cold that everyone ran about bundled up to their eyeballs, ducking into any shop with room for more customers.  It was so nice just to take a leisure stroll through the laneways and drink it all in...speaking of which. 

The Mill Street Brewery with its micro-brewery operating behind glass for all to see was a great place to have lunch.  Usually I won't hesitate to order a pot of tea while friends are sipping wine but when you are this close to massive stainless steel vats full of artisan liquid then oh, why not.  The very lady-like Raspberry Ale Frambozen was delicious and in an absolute reversal it will be me dragging my poor husband back for more.  Our dessert was in a shopping bag slung on the back of R's chair, mouth-watering macaroons, eccles cake, brownies and ginger loaf from the lovely Brick Street Bakery.  Ooh la la.  I can't tell you how uplifting it was to remember the leftovers as I was heaving around my vacuum cleaner this morning.  Anyway, it was a lovely day and no doubt there will be a return visit for some autumnal soup to go with the Coronation Chicken sandwiches we also spied at the bakery.  Since there was no visit to England this summer then I will just have to bring it to me!

p.s - the plasterwork is for JoAnn from Lakeside Musing, it was in a shop and reminded me of her beautiful dog, Zelda.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

'He dared not decide whether her eyes, with their misted askance look, were those of the victim or of the femme fatale.'

Stella Rodney lives on the top floor of a house on Weymouth Street near Regent's Park.  Working in a secret branch of government during World War II she is skilled at living a veiled existence both in her public and private lives.  Despite the fact that details surrounding her divorce from Victor have been misconstrued, Stella leaves the past behind and moves forward with strength and confidence to live independently.

One evening she has a visit from a man named Harrison who delivers a bombshell.  Telling Stella that her lover, Robert, is a spy for Nazi Germany, he offers to withhold the information in return for a sexual relationship with her.  So begins the unraveling of what is true, what is false and deciding which man is being deceitful.  Meanwhile her son, Roderick, serving in the Army, learns that he is to inherit the family home in Ireland (mirroring Elizabeth's inheritance of Bowen's Court).  Feeling he needs the blessing of Cousin Francis's widow, Nettie, he travels to a home for the aged and insane where he ends up discovering some unsettling news about his father.  But is the narrator reliable?

While this book has been described as Bowen's 'war novel' the reader is acutely aware that people have the ability to wreak as much havoc with lies as with bombs.  Even something as benign as a visit to Holme Dene, Robert's crumbling family estate, is cloaked in secrecy as he and Stella keep the fact that they are a couple secret from relatives.  Colder surroundings you would be hard pressed to find as the inhabitants even jealously guard their butter rations at mealtime.   

Bowen's descriptions of London during the war are both life affirming...

'The very soil of the city at this time seemed to generate more strength: in parks the outsize dahlias, velvet and stretched out perfect against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour.'

...and chilling...

'You dared not envisage sleep.  Apathetic, the injured and dying in the hospitals watched light change on walls which might fall tonight  Those rendered homeless sat where they had been sent; or, worse, with the obstinacy of animals retraced their steps to look for what was no longer there.'

But while other novels from this era are full of people scurrying for shelter during air raids, there seems to be a more relaxed feeling about it all in this novel.  At one point near the end of the book, Stella receives a visitor as the guns are blaring in the distance only causing a slight delay in her conversation.  Defiantly perhaps, she has taken yet another top floor flat at a time when others are living half of their lives underground.

There is a backdrop storyline involving Louie Lewis who shares a flat on Chilcombe Street with Connie.  They also offer an opportunity for Bowen to expose social and class distinctions, of which she was very much aware, as the ladies share a bed with noisy springs, work in a factory and wear gloves with grimy seams.   More secrets permeate their storyline and as skillfully as one could imagine, Bowen brings these characters together in one of the most unforgettable stories I will ever read.

To anyone who is still unaware of this author's talent, yes there are times when Bowen's richly layered passages full of observations slow you down and make you work but I beg of you, do not shy away!  She is sublime, a genius, a doyenne, and with this book has taken the crown as my absolute favourite author.      

Thursday, August 9, 2012

An Assignment

Staff at the branch library, where I am employed as a circulation clerk, are welcome to create a display of their choosing to decorate a slat wall.  Topics such as humour, fitness for seniors and healthy eating have provided customers with no end of choice reading material lately.  Those of you who know me will not be surprised to learn that my eye was cast in another direction.  While it would have been oh so tempting to create a display called "Books That I Adore" and run merrily through the stacks pulling titles that have made me laugh, cry and wax lyrical, the display should appeal to as many of the population as possible.  No more than ten seconds passed before there was a twinkle in my eye.

Over the past year my somewhat intact sense of etiquette has been tested again and again when lovely patrons, completely unaware of what goes on beyond our borders, have asked "Have you heard of a show called Downton Abbey?"  The poor things have no idea that I have watched every episode drinking copious amounts of tea while snacking on tea bread made by my very own self from the Fortnum & Mason recipe.  If I owned an Edwardian tea gown and corset I wouldn't be beyond changing my attire for the occasion.  Thinking about it, there is still time before series three to whip something up...hmmm.  Anyway, some upstairs/downstairs and Edwardian era books would be just the thing to hold people over until the next series airs here in Canada. 

Searching the catalogue for ideas was a pleasure but also a bit disappointing at times when we didn't stock many of the wonderful titles that would have applied.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate earlier this year but I wasn't about to cough up my own copy, sorry.  The past couple of weeks have been really satisfying, watching people browse the display and then tuck something under their arm.  Men love to flip through the Victoria Cross book but then place it back where they found it.  Oh well, you can lead a horse to water, as they say.  Back in the inner sanctum that is our staff room I have been squirreling away replacement books and dvds to fill in any gaps.  My friend and colleague, Liz, has been doing her best to sign out material as fast as I can put it up. 

One book that caught my eye, although I resisted the urge to sign it out straight away, is Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford.  Has anyone read it?  It has rave reviews for its keen observation of Edwardian social history and has, I just found out, been made into a dramatization by the BBC starring Benedict Cumberbatch.  (Note to self...make more tea bread).  Once London's Olympic cauldron has been extinguished and my thoughts on The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen are sorted I would like to try Ford on for size and see how we get on.

And in case anyone is wondering, I made the bunting myself.  Five dollars and a spare hour of my time, no problem!  There was a slight moment of panic last week when I was greeted at the door by a member of upper management on my morning to open the library.  The motion sensor had gone off during closed hours.  A moment of dread filled me when I thought perhaps the bunting had fallen down and what a nuisance that would have been.  The bunting was safe, a member of staff had forgot to lock up the night before and the front doors had swung open to greet a night maintenance employee at the community centre.  Oh dear.