June 5, 2010

Summer Reads & Reviews--Part One

I just returned from a four-day business trip to Cheyenne, Wyoming. I had a great time seeing a lot of my peers and enjoying the seasonable weather of the northern Great Plains. Cheyenne is the capitol of Wyoming and has fully embraced its history and heritage as a railroad town in the wild west. If you are in the neighborhood, stop in and have a visit.

I also took a small collection of books with me, and with all of the airport, airplane, and quiet evenings, I had plenty of time to finish a couple of really terrific books. Both books, in my opinion, make great summer reading. They are light, well-written, and easy to read, and very enjoyable. The first book that I read was Miss Marjoribanks by the Victorian author, Mrs. Margaret Oliphant. I loved it! Here's my review --

This is a delightful, elegant, and refreshingly witty novel. Until reading Miss Marjoribanks, I’d not read anything by Margaret Oliphant before. I will certainly try and find more of her “The Chronicles of Carlingford.” It has been said that this is novel is much like Jane Austen’s Emma; well, I can absolutely appreciate the comparison. If anything, Miss Lucilla Marjoribanks is even more confident, self-assured, and imperious than Miss Emma Woodhouse. Miss Marjoribanks is a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners, and superbly organized and generous young woman whose stated object in life is “to be a comfort to her dear papa.” While oft-stated, this personal and altruistic mantra seems to guide all of Lucilla’s decision-making and activities in Carlingford as well as the other families of Grange Lane, I believe that this desire to make her father’s life comfortable also empowers Lucilla with moral authority, and a rationalization that liberates her to organize and efficiently implement her brand of ‘society’ among the upper middle class of Carlingford. Lucilla Marjoribanks is the consummate organizer, schemer, and is fiercely independent when it comes to ruling her little kingdom; but she’s very careful to ensure that she stays within the proscribed bounds of the rules for proper society.

The novel is largely the story of the ten years that Lucilla spends as the ‘lady’ of her father’s house following the death of her mother and the finishing of her education at the Mount Pleasant school for young ladies. Effective almost immediately, upon her assumption of the throne, Lucilla begins holding regular Thursday “Evenings” (“not parties”) whereby Carlingford’s gentry attend dinner at Dr. Marjoribanks table and several hours of music and conversation in Lucilla’s newly remodeled parlor. Lucilla, in the role of conductor, orchestrates and directs everything from the guest list, dress-code (“white frocks, high”), dinner menu, parlor seating arrangements, and even the subjects of conversations discussed.

This novel was originally serialized in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (a monthly literary magazine) from February 1865 through May 1866. As I read the novel, I could sense the pulse and rhythm of the serial presentation of the novel’s plot, with each little vignette being well-structured and building up to a mini-climax or posing a question involving mystery or intrigue. Oliphant introduces her Carlingford characters with a deft touch. Whether they are some of the older ladies of town who have their noses in everything; or the two proudly independent and slightly insecure Lake sisters (the ‘contralto’ and the little ‘preraphaelite’), daughters of the drawing master; or the town ‘mimic,’ Mrs. Woodburn, and her mysterious brother, Harry Cavendish; or Archdeacon Beverly and the widow, Mrs. Mortimer; they are all the grist that Lucilla kindly, but firmly, grinds in her effort to shape Carlingford society. It is great stuff to watch Lucilla assert her mastery and control over each of them; but not in an egotistical or obsequious fashion, but done in a manner that makes each of them feel like it is the right thing to do. Sure, Lucilla, at times, makes mistakes in her dealings with Carlingsford’s folk; but she quickly recognizes these faults and does try to make all well in the end. After a time, I began to realize that Carlingford was waiting for someone like Lucilla to come along and take charge – she is the captain of the ship with her hand firmly on the tiller.

There is a great plot twist near the novel’s end, though not altogether unexpected, and it certainly staggers Lucilla, but doesn’t knock her down. Her own inner strength and the outward calm she displays is more than impressive, but it is also consistent with her upbringing, her education, and perhaps the Victorian ideal of how women were expected to behave. While I believe that Mrs. Oliphant has created a bit of a humorous social satire in Miss Marjoribanks, I also believe that Lucilla’s character was important in showing that women of that time could be confident and competent independent thinkers, and could very capably assume the mantle of the clear-headed leader within her society.

Getting back to comparisons with other literary heroines; in 1969, Q.D. Leavis said about Lucilla Marjoribanks that she was the “triumphant intermediary” between Austen’s ‘Emma Woodhouse’ and George Eliot’s ‘Dorothea Brooke’ and found her “incidentally, more entertaining, more impressive and more likeable than either.” This is pretty high praise in my opinion, and I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree. During the course of the novel I came to very much like and admire Lucilla Marjoribanks; and, in fact, I came to like Lucilla even better than I have ever liked ‘Emma Woodhouse.’ I also have to think that the satirical novelist, E.F. Benson, must have looked to Oliphant and her “Lucilla Marjoribanks’ as he began to develop his great character, the magnificent 'Mrs. Emmeline Lucas,' the 'Great Lucia' of the “Mapp and Lucia” series of novels.

I loved reading this novel, and unhesitatingly recommend it. In my opinion, it most certainly belongs in the Victorian canon. Miss Marjoribanks is very well-written, entertaining, engaging, funny and has significant elements of drama and mystery. This is a wonderful book, and once started it is hard to put down. If you’re looking for a fun summer read, go take a visit to Carlingford and spend a few ‘Evenings’ with the lovely Lucilla Marjoribanks. You won’t regret it.


The second book that I read was a non-fiction book by Christopher Benfey, a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. His book, entitled, A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, was a great little find, and I absolutely enjoyed every minute of reading it.

I found this very well-written and interesting book the other day on the bargain table at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds, while just a touch over 250 pages in length, is a fascinating look at a series of seemingly unconnected historical events involving a group of prominent literary, theological, scientific, and artistic Americans during the late-1860s through the 1880s. Interestingly, what seems to link these persons together was their unmitigated passion for hummingbirds!

As Dr. Benfey writes, “they wrote poems and stories about hummingbirds; they painted pictures of hummingbirds; they tamed wild hummingbirds and collected stuffed hummingbirds; they set music to the humming of hummingbirds; they waited impatiently through the winter months for the hummingbirds’ return.” Dr. Benfey puts forward the proposition that this fascination was one result of the great tragic, but ultimately liberating, experience of the American Civil War. Benfey believes that “Americans during and after the Civil War gradually left behind a static view of existence, a trust in fixed arrangements and hierarchies. In science and in art, in religion and in love, they came to see a new dynamism and movement in their lives, a brave new world of instability and evanescence. This dynamism, in all aspects of life, found perfect expression in the hummingbird.”

The book kicks off with Thomas Wentworth Higginson and his black Union soldiers near Jacksonville, Florida, during the American Civil War. Before his military service began, Higginson wrote an essay entitled, The Life of Birds, that was published in The Atlantic in 1862. He began the essay with a long look at hummingbirds which, in his words, were “an image of airy motion,” and wondered if “gems turn to flowers, flowers to feathers, in that long-past dynasty of the humming-birds?” A fanciful nod to Darwinism, perhaps.

Higginson, during the war years, was already corresponding with Emily Dickinson, the shy and reclusive brilliant poet of Amherst, Massachusetts. In fact, in 1862, Dickinson sent three poems to Higginson for his opinion and asked if they had the potential for publication. Dickinson, it seems, was inspired by Higginson’s nature essays to begin writing poems about hummingbirds, including this example:

“Within my Garden, rides a Bird
Upon a single Wheel—
Whose spokes a dizzy Music make
As ‘twere a traveling Mill—

He never stops, but slackens
Above the Ripest Rose—
Partakes without alighting
And praises as he goes”

I learned some interesting new things about Emily Dickinson, Henry Ward Beecher, his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. To me though, I was most intrigued with Martin Johnson Heade. Heade was an artist, largely a landscape painter, of the American mid-19th century “Hudson River School;” that also produced artists like Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt. Heade loved painting nature and the wildlife that lived in it. It appears that he also had a bit of wanderlust in him as he traveled all over the globe in pursuit of practicing his art. He particularly loved to paint hummingbirds in their natural habitats, and visited Central and South America in pursuit of these little flying jewels. Many prominent Americans, including Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) owned paintings by Heade.

Generally, the book gives a wonderful overview of each of these amazing people and what made them important in their own time. The real point of the book though, in my opinion, is Dr. Benfey’s contention that there was a convergence, of sorts, of most of these people in and around Amherst, Massachusetts from the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s, for a variety of reasons. I really don’t want to give anything away, but there are some really interesting and juicy tid-bits concerning Henry Ward Beecher, Austin Dickinson, the beautiful and talented artist Mabel Loomis Todd, Martin Johnson Heade, and Emily Dickinson.

Benfey’s book then, in a sense, is really a ‘string-of-pearls’ of connected, or quasi-connected, relationships among the book’s principals. These relationships occur over the twenty-year period following the Civil War, the so-called 'great American Golden Age,' and culminate with Henry Flagler’s promotion and development of Florida as a winter travel destination. As I mentioned above, the book starts in Florida with Higginson; it goes full-circle and ends in Florida with Flagler and Heade and Flagler's fabulous resort hotel in St. Augustine, Florida.

This was a very thought-provoking and fun book to read. I have to say that learning more about Emily Dickinson, the person and woman, has increased my appreciation of the brilliance and genius of her amazing poetry. Getting to know her brother Austin, and sister-in-law, Susan, and her friends David and Mabel Todd was an added bonus. Discovering Martin Johnson Heade’s life and paintings was fantastic, as I am a huge fan of the Hudson River School, landscape art in general, and especially paintings of birds. Finally, the book includes an excellent collection of end-notes and a superb index. This is a fast read and will make a wonderful addition to anyone’s American literature bookshelf. I highly recommend Dr. Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds.

Stay tuned, there's more Summer Reading to come!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review! I enjoy those "string of pearls" books. Another one in similar vein that you might like is "Beethoven's Hair."