Friday, December 24, 2021


THE BOY WHO LAUGHED AT SANTA CLAUS  (from Good Intentions Little, Brown& co., publ. 1937)

Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

In Baltimore there lived a boy.

He wasn't anybody's joy.

Although his name was Jabez Dawes,

His character was full of flaws.

In school he never led his classes,

He hid old ladies' reading glasses, 

His mouth was open when he chesed,

And elbows to the table glued.

He stole the mild of hungry kittens,

And walsked through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE.

He said he acted thus because 

There wasn't any Santa Claus.

Another trick that tickled Jabez

Was crying "Boo!" at little babies.

He brushed his teeth, they said in town,

Sideways instead of up and down.  

Yet people pardoned every sin,

And viewed his antics with a grin,

Til they were told by Jabez Dawes,

"There isn't any Santa Claus!"

Deploring how he did behave,

His parents swiftly sought their grave.

They hurried through the portals pearly,

And Jabez left the funeral early.

Like whooping cough, from child to child,

He sped to spread the rumor wild:

"Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes

There isn't any Santa Claus!"

Slunk like a weasel or a marten

Through nursery and kindergarten,

Whispering low to every tot,

"There isn't any, no there's not!"

The children wept all Christmas Eve

And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.

No infant dared hang up his stocking

For fear of Jabez' ribald mocking.

He sprawled on his untidy bed,

Fresh malice dancing in his head,

When presently with scalp a-tingling,

Jabez heard a distant jingling;

He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof

Crisply alighting on the roof.

What good to rise and bar the door?

A shower of soot was on the floor.

What was beheld by Jabez Dawes?

The fireplace full of Santa Claus!

Then Jabez fell upon his knees

With cries of "Don't," and "Pretty Please."

He hawled, "I don't know where you read it,

But anyhow, I never said it!"

"Jabez", replied the angry saint,

"It isn't I, it's you that ain't.

Although there is a Santa Claus,

There isn't any Jabez Dawes!"

Said Jabez then with impudent vim,

"Oh, yes there is;  and I am him!

Your magic don't scare me, it doesn't" -

And suddenly he found he wasn't!

From grimy feet to unkempt locks

Jabez became a jack-in-the-box,

An ugly, vastly ghastly jack

In Santa Claus's bulging pack.

The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;

They searched for him, but not with zeal.

No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,

which led to thunderous applause,

And people drank a loving cup

And went and hung their stockings up.

All you who sneer at Santa Claus,

Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,

The saucy boy who mocked the saint.

Donder and Blitzen licked off his paint.

Nash published over twenty books of his inimitable "poetry", to the thankful delight of many unserious souls.  One of his last recommendations to his faithful readers:  "Progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long."

Saturday, December 18, 2021



Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu  (1814-1873)

Sir Jekyl Marlowe is a commanding presence in the English countryside, being a Baron and the owner of several villages and a lot of land.  The story opens with him returning home to his baronial estate after a tour of the continent.  He happens to meet, on the way, two tourist types, one of whom gives him a slight shock because of his resemblance to an old acquaintance.  Guy Strangways is also new to the vicinity and, as he seems an acceptable member of the upper classes, Marlowe invites him to stay at his manor, along with his companion, Mr. Varberrierre.  A houseparty of sorts develops and other friends collect at the mansion, among them old Mrs. Alice Redcliffe, General Lennox and his young wife, Lady Jane.  Marlowe's housekeeper has just given notice because she won't have anything to do with placing a guest in the "Green 'Room", an addition to the house that was built about twenty years before by the present owner's father, Harry Marlowe.  She says there's ghosts in it.  She leaves and takes a job at the Redcliffe mansion, working as a housekeeper for the aging Mrs. Alice.  Alice harbors a fierce dislike for the younger Marlowe, based on an event that occurred between old Harry and another fellow twenty years before, but the reader only gradually discovers what her antipathy is based on.  As more visitors arrive, social activities ensue, whist, billiards, hunting and the other enjoyments of the British upper classes of the time.  Lady Jane has been assigned the Green Room to sleep in and there's muttering amongst the servants forecasting dire events in the near future.  

Guy and Marlowe's daughter Beatrice become familiar with each other but their budding romance is inhibited by her father's hopes for a more luxurious connection, featuring money or status or both.  The mystery associated with the Green Room is referred to in an increasingly provocative way, heightening the suspense and bewilderment as frequent arcane references are made to its peculiarities.  The reader is informed that Varberrierre has hidden acrimonies against Marlowe as the plot progresses, and it is revealed that all this has something to do with a lost deed to the property and estate, and to the unfair death of the elder Deverell.  Apparently the late owner was engaged in a duel twenty years before and an irregularity in the procedure resulted in the death of Guy Deverell senior.  The rumor in effect stated that the victim was shot before he had a chance to raise his weapon by the underhanded Harry.

The suspense slowly increases as time passes until one night Jekyl is found in Lady Janet's Green Room, stabbed.  By this time Varberrierre has revealed himself to be Herbert Strangways, an old friend of the Deverell who was shot, and, a rich man in his own right who has embarked on a plan to wreak revenge on the family responsible for the elder Guy's death by discovering the old Will and legitimizing the claims on the estate of Guy's son, Guy Strangways, nee Deverell.  Investigation reveals a secret tunnel between Jekyl's bedroom and that of Lady Jane's where he was found, and the General is implicated in the attack;  divorce ensues.  Jekyl's brother, Dives (a local preacher) inherits the estate and Herbert  returns to Europe, where he buys two silk factories and makes money hand over fist.  Guy marries Beatrice and they have a son, Guy.  The General disappears somewhere.

This was a sort of rambling book that seemed rather like a jigsaw puzzle with some missing pieces.  For one thing, although the location of the Will was revealed, no mention was made of what happened to it, or if it was ever unearthed.  And there seemed not too much justification for a number of jaunts and trips undertaken by the ancillary characters.  I sort of got the idea that Le Fanu was trying to increase the suspense by tidbitting the reader, just leaking out a bit of relevant information as the plot developed, so as to maintain a certain level of ongoing anxiety.  And that was slightly annoying...  Apparently the sole reason for the construction of the Green Room was so that the horrible Harry could sneak into it at night through the hidden passageway;  that didn't make a lot of sense to me.  I liked Le Fanu's writing style:  clear but not too verbose, but even so i had the feeling while we were going along that i had accidentally dropped a bowl of spaghetti on the floor and was on my knees, poking about for hidden strands hiding behind various table legs.  His short ghost stories are justifiably famous, as is Camilla, his vampire book, but this one was not one of his better efforts, imo anyway...

Saturday, December 11, 2021



George Meredith. (1828-1909)

Meredith's paternal grandfather was named Melchizedek, and so was the founder of the Harrington family.  He was a tailor in Lymport-on-the-sea and had died just before the action begins in Portugal.  His issue was one son and three daughters, one of whom was married to a Portuguese Count.  Louisa and her family and nephew are first seen returning home from Lisbon, where they had spent some years enjoying the pleasures of the royal court.  Evan, the nephew, is uncertain about where his future lies.  He's been raised in a court atmosphere and the idea of taking over his father's business does not appeal.  Through Louisa's influence he comes to be accepted in the household at Beckley Court, the residence of the Jocelyn family.  He and Rose, the daughter of the reigning baronet, fall in love, but the path is not made easy for them mainly due to Evan being a common tailor.  Evan's sister, Louisa the Countess, has glommed onto the fact that a certain Abraham Harrington, a member of the upper classes, has recently died in the immediate vicinity, and while she doesn't actually lie about her family's relation to the deceased nobleman, she doesn't deny it either.  Which provides her family a tentative justification for a prolonged visit at the Jocelyn estate.  

Side issues involve the sisters' marriages with a retired Major and a rich brewer.  The former is brutal to Caroline and she stays away from him as much as she can:  Beckley Court seems like heaven to her.  Harriet is wedded to Andrew Cogglesby, the younger brother in the brewing firm.  The older brother, Old Tom, is retired and plays an important role in the developing plot as a hidden manipulator of some of the other characters, which he is enabled to do as a result of his abundance of money coupled with his bizarre sense of humor.  After ensconcing themselves in the Jocelyn household, the Harringtons more or less follow Louisa's lead in their dealings with their hosts and other guests.  There are abundant numbers of ancillary figures, a Duke, and assorted Lords residing in the area.  One of them,  Lord Laxley, is a competitor for Rose's hand in marriage and at one point a duel between Evan and Laxley seems imminent, but sober heads prevail and the situation is temporarily defused.  Another character, a friend of Evan's, is described thusly:  "Mr. Raikes stood about a head under him.  He had extremely mobile features;  thick, flexible eyebrows;  a loose, voluble mouth;  a ridiculous figure on a dandified foot.  He represented to you one who was rehearsing a part he wished to act before the world, and was not aware that he took the world into his confidence."  Then there is Juliana, a younger relation to Rose, who loves Evan desperately, but she is handicapped because of a certain lameness which is not elaborated upon.  Later in the denouement, she plays an important role in the final resolution of the plot.

Meanwhile, carousals at the local Green Dragon Inn take place;  a cricket game occupies quite a few pages; and Old Tom episodically looms in the background, laughing to himself at the antics of his victims.  Evan waffles about, trying to convince himself to take up his father's profession, but due to his love for Rose, can't decide to actually go home to Lymport and start to work.  In the interim, he is hired by Andrew Cogglesby to take care of some business dealings.  While in London, he sees Rose occasionally, but nothing very important transpires until Juliana arrives, apparently stricken with tuberculosis.  In the last stages of the disease, she writes her will, leaving Beckley Court (which she had inherited from her uncle) to Evan.  Guilt-ridden, Evan gives it back to the Jocelyns, but, as Old Tom's plans come to fruition, he's left in a prominent social situation nevertheless.  Do Rose and Evan finally get married?  Is Louisa going to be thrown into jail?  Will Caroline escape her cruel husband.  These questions and more are answered in the finale, but suffice it to say that everything works out in the end;  at least to the satisfaction of some of the characters, if not all.

This was one of Meredith's early works.  But in spite of that, it's "comedic" components are fully on display.  The lurking presence of Old Tom is just intrusive enough to attract the reader's attention, but not so kaleidoscopic as to dominate any of the peroration.  Of course, Meredith's principal purpose was to contrast and expose the dire consequences of the English social system, with its Grand Canyon split between the upper and lower, common, classes.  But rather than repeating the facts of the case ad nauseum, he much prefers to indicate the iniquities through the behavior and attitudes of his characters, using their reactions to the circumstances inherent in their social statuses to balloon up the injustices of the system until  they explode, leaving rags of rage and surprise behind like the tattered remnants of an overnight frat party.

In some ways i liked this book better than "The Egoist".  It was more broadly based in terms of its social analysis.  "Egoist". was more of a study of the effects of class prejudice on a few characters, whereas "Evan" seemed to extend that criticism to cover a larger portion of the citizenry, as well as the English institutions that were responsible for such misery and unhappiness noted in the less fortunate economic castes.  Also, the prose was easier to follow.  Meredith has been castigated by some reviewers for his involved and unpredictable sentence construction, and there's some truth to the idea that he's not an easy read.  But on the other hand, he is very perceptive and his books have a lot of depth, the bottom of which i'm certain i haven't plumbed in any of his works that i've read.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, tho...

Saturday, December 4, 2021


Matteo Boiardo  (1440-1494)

Francesco Berni. (1497-1535)

William Stewart Rose. (1775-1843)

This was originally written by Boiardo, and intended to be a sort of compilation of various tales of Orlando (Roland) written by sundry authors and poets in years previous to the 1400's.  It takes place during the reign of Charlemagne, and ostensibly deals with the invasion of Spain by the Moors in the 8th century.  But contrary to the intuited intention, it has mainly to do with the adventures of Charlemagne's knights, their duellos with each other and with fairies, monarchs and legendary beasts such as giants and dragons.  At the outset, a big party is being held in Paris to celebrate the coming-together of all the elements of King Charlemagne's army, including Orlando, Rinaldo, Astolpho, Brandimart, Gryphon, and many others.  This assemblage is supposedly preliminary to the expected war with various African invaders, mainly Gradasso and Agramant, who have nefarious plots to subsume France in their coils.  During the height of the festivities, Angelica vanishes, spirited away to her father's (Sacripant) house in the Orient by Malgigi, Rinaldo's brother and practicing magician.  Since she's of royal blood and pretty to boot, there's a mad dash to find out what happened to her, and many of the knights fare forth to rescue her from whatever coils may have embroiled her.  Things are complicated by the ingestion of magic potions designed to either cause lovers to hate each other, or to make enemies fall in love.  One of the first major events occurs when the Moors capture Paris in the absence of its defenders.  But that situation is resolved when general Gradasso decides to release the city in exchange for Orlando's horse, Bayard.  He wants the Orlando's sword, Durandanna also, but it already left with its owner. When Rinaldo leaves the party he is trapped in a self-powered boat while crossing a river which carries him into the forest of Arden (a common place for magical incidents) where he sees a palace and is captured by a giant.  It's the castle of Altaripa, and is presumably owned by the castellan Gryphon and Stella, his wife.   Rinaldo is lowered into a deep dark cavern from which he's rescued by the knight Astolpho (the only English knight in the book) who lowers a rope and some wax into the cave while Rinaldo is being threatened by an all-devouring monster.  Rinaldo uses the wax to seal the creature's mouth shut and hauls himself up by the rope.

Meanwhile (there are lots of these "meanwhiles" in the book, as Boiardo weaves the narration between situations and events, leaving the reader gasping in wonder at what could possibly happen next to rescue whoever it was that is in imminent danger), armies are gathering before the town of Albracca,  to where Angelica was spirited during Charlemagne's party.  Agrican (a Tartar general) is leading the attackers and Astolpho is present to deny them their victory.  In spite of his magic spear, he's captured by the gloating Agrican.  Meanwhile, Rinaldo has wandered away from the castle Altaripa and met Sir Brandimart's lady friend who says he's been abducted at the Bridge of Oblivion and persuades him to take on nine other knights simultaneously.  Before that, however, he has to listen to the story of Iroldo and Tisbina, involving a devious escape from Medusa's garden through one of four gates named Life, Poverty, Death and Wealth and a thirty day crossing of an endless desert and the use of sleeping powder to free Iroldo.  Rinaldo has another epic battle with a giant and a herd of griffins, but loses his girl-friend when she's captured by a unicorn and swept downstream in a boat.  Back in Albracca, Angelica is besieged in a tower while the Tartars flail at the doors but she's able to leave due to her magic invisibility ring.  She and Flordelis rescue Orlando from Dragontina's garden and they return to Albracca.  At one point, Orlando and Agrican fight for a whole day before the walls of the city and Orlando wins, retrieving his horse Bayard who's been gone for quite some time.  Agrican coverts to Christianity just before he expires.

Monodontes, the King of the Distant Isles wanted to marry his daughter to an old friend.  She actually loved a younger man instead, who she married without her father's permission, but at the same time she agreed to marry the old petitioner.  The two suitors lived in adjacent castles and there was a tunnel connecting the two domiciles, so when the second ceremony occurred, as a result of running back and forth between both castles, she was able to convince the unloved one that she was the twin sister of herself and this worked great until the King discovered the tunnel and was not very happy about the situation.  But it was all resolved when she was captured by two giants while running from one to the other.  One of the major players was a lady knight, Marphisa.  She was a friend of Orlando's and aided him in several of his ventures, mostly relating to defending Albracca against the Tartars.  The new general of which, Truffaldino, Orlando fought with until he defeated him as a result of which Angelica persuaded him to investigate Falerina's garden in Orgagna, near the entrance to Heaven and Hell.  There was a bridge there and a lady hanging up by her hair named Orgilla.  He cuts her down and while he's peering into the black entrance, she steals his horse (Bayard).   This is the end of Book one.

Book two begins with Orlando entering the Heaven and Hell gate and initially coming across a golden donkey with prehensile ears and a sword for a tail.  He sees a tree with golden fruit that throws apples at him.  He cuts it down with his sword (Durandanna) and everything turns black, but he's guided out by Falerina after freeing all the prisoners.  Back at Albracca (again), Marphisa and Sacriphant are still defending the city.  Angelica's invisibility ring is stolen by Brunello the expert thief.  He also steals Sacriphant's horse while he's riding it.  And Marphisa's sword while she's using it.  A Turkish army arrives to relieve the city.  Then Orland and Rinaldo have a long adventure in the subterranean kingdom of Morgana's.  Orlando had defeated the guardian of her lake, Arridano, and found that the lake bottom was actually an extension of her vast holdings.  With a kind of permanent coal lamp to illuminate the darkness, Orland passes a gate into a field of jewels and then finds another bridge which he crosses after contending with the guards.  He enters a building housing a King who's sitting under a sword suspended by a single hair that will decapitate him if he tells a lie.  Orlando finds Rinaldo who attempts to steal a golden chair while en route out of the kingdom, but it flies back in when he tries to carry it up a long flight of stairs that lead the surface.

The adventures continue for several hundred more pages, the second Book ending with the Moors invading once more and all Paris in a state of alarm.  The first two books were published in 1483 and the last one in 1495.  There are only the first two extant, however, as, with one exception, the complete edition was lost sometime in the 16th century.  The one exception is one copy of all three books located in the Marciano, in Venice i think...  The last volume has never been translated.  Francesco Berni rewrote and republished the work in 1531 and it achieved some success at that time.  Then the two books faded into history until interest revived in the late 1700's.  The edition that re-popularized the saga was the translation in prose of William Rose in 1831.  He claimed that the original, written in octave stanzas, was unsuitable for the English language.  This is the version that i read.  And it's the only one, so for as i know, that's available in English.  It's in Gutenberg's files.

It was a lot of fun reading this even though it got fairly confusing at times.  Boiardo had a great sense of humor, which shows through from time to time.  His tongue can be seen at intervals, bulging his cheek out.  Rose, in addition to rewriting the two books, occasionally included some of the original stanzas from Boiardo, and i thought they were excellent and quite poetic.  I think it's a shame that he didn't translate the entirety that way, but, as he was not a very well person, maybe it would have been too much for him.  Comparisons with Spencer are inevitable, and I couldn't help but see commonalities between the two works;  there was a certain amount of allegorical reference to the court of Charlemagne, i thought.  And the compositional style was pretty similar, with interwoven plot lines and fantastic adventures.  Perhaps Spencer was a bit more moralistic than Boiardo, though.  The latter seemed to more interested in relating an entertaining story for the most part, while Spencer really seemed to have a moral imperative, even if, as was perhaps possible, he was just writing that way to impress Queen Elizabeth.  Fun book, and i hope to get to the sequel fairly soon:  Orlando Furioso!

Saturday, November 27, 2021



Charles Reade  (1814-1884)

Dion Boucicault  (1820-1890)

John Wardlaw is a successful business person but is retiring.  He's leaving the company to his son Arthur, who has just left Oxford and needs a job.  Arthur is none too honest, but he's quite ambitious, so he dives right in and spends a lot of money investing in chancy enterprises.  Soon he owes money to a lot of bankers and loan sharks and is about to lose everything.  So he forges a note-of-hand ( a check) for two grand and gets the blame shifted onto his best friend, Robert Penfold.  Robert has just graduated as a clergyman and is about to take up a position in a country curacy, when he's arrested and thrown in jail.  He and his dad try desperately to clear his name, but Arthur has hidden his devious moves too well and Robert is jailed for a year and then expelled to Australia, where he is appointed gardener to General Rolleston as a ticket-of-leave employee.  He works away at his job and falls in love with the daughter, Helen Rolleston.  The Rollestons are about to embark on a trip to England, and Robert, desperate, shaves his beard and buys a ticket under the name James Seaton, so as to be near his sweetheart.  Unknown to any of them, Arthur has employed a seaman, Joe Wylie, to do some dirty work for him.  The plan is to switch cargos between two of Arthur's ships which are anchored in Sydney harbor and about to sail to England, one of which will leave with the Rollestons on board.  One ship is loaded with commercial goods and the other one has a shipment of gold.  One night Wylie sneaks into the warehouse where both cargos are being stored temporarily, and moves the boxes around so that the ones designated for the Proserpine will be sent to the Shannon and vice versa.  Then Joe is supposed to sink the first ship in the middle of the Pacific so that Arthur can save his neck by collecting on the insured cargo, which is presumably laden with gold, when in point of fact the gold is being successfully carried to Liverpool.

Everything goes according to plan.  Seaton (Penfold) spots Joe drilling holes in the bottom of the ship one night and soon afterwards it sinks.  Two life boats full of crew and passengers abandon ship.  The one with the crew aboard (and the General) is eventually picked up by a passing trader, but the other one, with only crew members and James and Helen, get caught in a storm and driven westward into unknown territory.  The starving crew have murder in their eyes and are observing the two passengers thoughtfully, but they fight among themselves and commit mass suicide for one reason or another.  With only Helen and James left, the cutter (a small two masted lifeboat) sails before the wind and they are about to expire when James sees a palm tree in the distance.  They sail to the island and begin a Robinson Crusoe existence.  

After almost a year, dealing with food, shelter, and the wildlife, James has a brilliant idea.  He's seen that flocks of ducks pass over occasionally and stop for refreshment in a small lake situated in a caldera.  He realizes that, being land-based creatures, they must be going somewhere, so he captures one and attaches a message to its foot.  He does this fifty times and eventually the island's human occupants are rescued.  Well, one of them is.  The rescue team includes Helen's father who informs James that if he returns to civilization, he'll be arrested as an escapee.  So he's left to fend for himself.  By this time Helen and Robert have fallen deeply in love with each other, and are not happy about the separation.  But she leaves anyway, determined to investigate and clear James' name in London.

After continuing his survival studies on the island for a while, James gets fed up with hanging around and equips the cutter with water and food and sails east, where he's picked up by a Down East whaler.  During his isolation, James has discovered gold in a buried Spanish vessel, so he has plenty of money to reward the captain and to pay his way to London.

Meanwhile, back in London, Helen has been working hard to exonerate James, but without too much luck until she meets Mr. Undercliff, a hand-writing expert.  Undercliff becomes fascinated by what his analyses are telling him about the situation, and he throws himself whole-heartedly into  unveiling the perpetrators of the forgery.

It's probably fairly obvious what happens next, but in the interest of keeping mum in deference to whomever might want to peruse this book, i'll stop here.

I've read books by Reade before.  I read "The Cloister and the Hearth" when i was in my teens, about sixty years ago, and have liked his style ever since.  He's the sort of author who will never use one word when a hundred would do.  If the word "potboiler" were to have a defining identity, Reade would be it.  There's just something about his work that's attractive:  he's light-hearted normally, and never leaves the reader imagining that something dire is going to occur without indicating that things will all turn out for the best nevertheless.  And he's so obviously having so much fun creating whatever book it is, that he carries the reader right along with him.  Also, his career began in the theater, and some of his explications seem taken directly from the script of a play.  Boucicault, who was one of his friends, was even more into theater than Reade, having had an extensive vocation in England and America both.  His reputation as an actor was without parallel.  Unfortunately i don't know exactly how the two friends organized the production of this novel, but i can imagine that it didn't happen without a lot of laughter and jollity.  Recommended to anyone who's able to find a copy.  Mine was from Gutenberg, under "Reade".

Saturday, November 20, 2021


A Taste of Walter de la Mare:

                                IN THE LOCAL MUSEUM

They stood - rain pelting at window, shrouded sea -

Tenderly hand in hand, too happy to talk;

And there, its amorous eye intent on me,

Plautus Impennis, the extinct Great Auk.

            WINTER COMPANY

Blackbird silent in the snow;

Motionless crocus in the mould;

Naked tree; and, cold and low, 

            Sun's wintry gold...

Lost for the while in their strange beauty - self how far! -

Lulled were my senses into a timeless dream;

As if the inmost secret of what they are

           Lay open in what they seem.


I saw bleak Arrogance, with brows of brass,

Clad nape to sole in shimmering foil of lead,

Stark down his nose he stared;  a crown of glass

Aping the rainbow, on his tilted head.

His very presence drained the vital air;

He ate erect - stone-cold, self-crucified;

On either side of him an empty chair;

And sawdust trickled from his wounded side.

           AND SO TO BED

"Night-night, my Precious!";  "Sweet dreams, Sweet!"

"Heaven bless you, Child!" - the accustomed grown-ups said.

Two eyes gazed mutely back that none could meet,

Then turned to face Night's terrors overhead.  

Mr. de la Mare lived on the same street that Tennyson did but at a later date.  He also wrote a biography of Lewis Carroll which i'd love to get my hands on.  He was noted for his appreciation of child-like minds (why i identify with him, lol) and for his classic horror stories as well.  A rare and rarified personality;  not many of them left, nowadays...

Sunday, November 14, 2021


Sherlock Holmes (1887---)

Adrian Conan Doyle (1910-1970)

John Dickson Carr (1906-1977)

This is a collection of pastiches about Sherlock.  Twelve stories in the traditional assemblage.  Carr and Doyle wrote the first six and Doyle alone was responsible for the rest:

The Adventure of the Seven Clocks:  Celia Forsythe is traveling is Switzerland with her employer, Lady Mayo, when they meet Charles Hendon, a suave gentleman of leisure traveling by train through the Alps.  Celia is interested in him, but doesn't understand why he hates clocks, destroying them with his stick or burying them in the snow...

The Adventure of the Gold Hunter:  What does the death of Squire Trelawney have to do with a gold watch (a hunter) and a jar of vaseline?

The Adventure of the Wax Gamblers:  Sherlock engaged in fisticuffs with Bully Boy Rasher and knocked him out, receiving a sprained ankle in the melee.  Watson is pressured into touring a wax museum in order to get the goods on Sir Gervase Darlington, a loud-mouth braggart with too much money.

The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle:  Mr. Cabpleasure worships an umbrella and his wife is upset.  What has this to do with the misplacement of a bottle of milk?

The Adventure of the Black Baronet:  Colonel Jocelyn Dalcy has been fatally stabbed while drinking a cup of port.  How is the Battle of Bosworth Field between the York and Lancaster adherents relevant to his death?

The Adventure of the Sealed Room:  Colonel Warburton has been shot and killed in a locked room.  A game of bezique and a fireplace poker almost end Homes's career.

The Adventure of Foulkes Rath:  Is Squire Addleton's nephew implicated in his uncle's death?  And what has a medieval executioner's axe have to do with it?  Holmes, meanwhile, collects samples of dust...

The Adventure of the Abbas Ruby:  Black thumbs, red camellias, and the NonPareil Club all lead Holmes and Watson to Oxford Street when Holmes accuses himself of idiocy.

The Adventure of the Dark Angels:  Joshua Ferrers lives in the country and never mows his lawn or weeds his garden.  Dark nights and seraphic post cards spell his doom..

The Adventure of the Two Women:  Blackmail and secret documents lead Holmes and Watson into the world of crime...

The Adventure of the Deptford Horror:  not for the faint of heart unless interested in arachnology.

The Adventure of the Red Widow:  Watson marries, but leaves his bride in the lurch when Lord Jocelyn Cope is slain in Arnsworth Castle.  Rug fibers tell Holmes that the perp is fifty years of age, has a malformed left foot and smokes Turkish tobacco in a cigarette holder.  Holmes gets a chance to practice his pyromania.

These stories were a lot of fun, taking me back to when i first read the originals.  The first six were quite in the style of Arthur Doyle;  the last ones were very slightly different in aura, perhaps using a bit more detail than Adrian's father would have employed.  i've noticed in the past, and in reading these stories, that too much detail can interfere with the reader's mental conception of the action.  Arthur Doyle was a master at providing entrancing descriptions that drew in the reader but didn't hamper his/her imaginative facilities.  Pastiches in general, the ones i've read anyway, usually are couched in the author's habitual style, with not much attempt at duplicating that of Arthur.  The first six included in this volume come very close to imitating to perfection the atmosphere of the originals, and are very well done.  The last six are also good, but not quite possessing the genuine ambience of Arthur's descriptions, even though they are just as enjoyable as the first six.  If you're interested at all in re-visiting Holmes and Watson, these stories would be a great place in which to do that.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021


Will Irwin (1873-1948)

Gelett Burgess (1866-1951)

Coffee John and Big Becky were part of a vaudeville act when Sol Bauer, a newspaper editor,  fell for Becky.  John managed to finagle $4,000 out of him when he decided to marry Bertha Wolfstein instead.  John used his share, $2,000, to buy a cafe in the Tenderloin District in San Francisco.  To celebrate he invited three down-and-out friends to a feast at his place, paid for by Bauer.  After oysters, steak, halibut and other unaccustomed delicacies, John gave each friend a dime and told them to go find their fortunes.  

James Coffin began by winning 40 cigars, then betting another scrounger that he could smoke all of them one after another for $100.  He won but it put him off tobacco for the rest of his life.  Coffin had been a student at Harvard who was kicked out for hiding alarm clocks in his professor's houses all set to go off in the middle of the night.  So he started riding the rails and wound up broke in San Francisco.  He had been arrested for stealing bananas on Fisherman's Wharf just before meeting Coffee John.  Professor Vango was a medium who was doing well, bilking society ladies through the use of necromantic trickery, until Mrs. Higgins began haunting him whenever he tried to continue his business.  Consequently he was broke and in dire straits.  Admeh Drake was a cowboy for two and a half years until he met Susie Latham who he promised to marry but couldn't because he had to go fight in the Philippines (the Spanish-American War) except he never went there.  He had a friend send Susie fake messages from the islands describing all his heroic adventures while he was down and out in San Francisco the whole time.  Now Susie has come to the city to welcome him back at the end of the war and he doesn't know where to hide.

The three "picaroons" each have a series of hilarious and bizarre adventures in which they meet other victims and opportunists whose stories are related, resulting in a chain of tales that in the end result in the them meeting one another again at Coffee John's place to see how and if they have succeeded in improving their individual lots in life.  Professor Vango meets Harry Maidslow who regales him with a story of mixed identities and how he survived in the Philippines while being chased around the back country by enemy natives.  One long history concerned a lady who married a Chinese dope smuggler and how she managed to win a fortune by outwitting the San Francisco Tong while stealing a boat-load of their opium.  And there's the street car conductor (horse drawn in those days)named Eli Cook who got into the habit of pilfering some of the coins paid by the passengers until he got greedy and decided to stop doing that, but noticed that the street car began squeaking when he reformed.  It got so bad that people wouldn't use that car any more because the creaking and banging was so disturbing.  So he had to retire and because he was afraid of the car's threatening attitude, he had to use some of his ill-gotten gains to buy it.  He parked it on one of the SF beaches and lived in it.  There's the history of the Klondyker who struck it rich in Alaska, but was robbed and left for dead by a no-account villain.  He was rescued by an Indian girl who showed him a mountain of gold and then married him:  actually he bought her for ten sled dogs and a rifle.  To celebrate they sailed to SF and blew the whole fortune:  "We skated through town like a forest fire" was his description.  He blamed it all on his wife, who didn't know what money was for.  When they decided to return to Alaska, she decided she didn't like money and threw the $20.00 gold pieces they had left over into the bay.

Burgess and Irwin were both newspaper reporters and editors in San Francisco.  Irwin was kicked out of Stanford for "rowdy behavior" and Burgess went through a series of odd jobs before deciding to write.  They were good friends and undoubtedly had a great time writing this book together.  At times, reading it was a jaw-dropping experience;  i've don't recall reading a book that portrayed such bizarre events.  At the very end, the three meet once more at Coffee John's to share their experiences and John was so excited by the tales he heard that he...  well, i'll leave to the next reader to discover what he did!  Any time a reader becomes bored with average, everyday literature, he or she would be advised (by me) to investigate the uproarious shenanigans included in this one-of-a-kind excursion into old San Francisco for a comprehensive attitude readjustment, lol...  available at the Gutenberg site.

Sunday, October 31, 2021



Wilkie Collins. (1824-1889)

This is a Cornish romance set mostly in coastal Cornwall, the critical action taking place in Porthgenna Tower, a very large mansion with wings, North, South, East and West.  In the beginning Sarah Leeson is tending to the wants of the dying mistress of the house, carrying and fetching and other last rite things.  Mrs. Treverton's husband is a Captain of commercial ships and is absent on a voyage, so Sarah is being seriously attentive to her boss.  Before dying she writes a letter to the Captain revealing a large secret that is burdening her.  Giving it to her maid Sarah, she emphasizes the urgency with which the communication needs to be given to her husband.  But Sarah, knowing the contents of the letter and being intimately involved with same, is aghast.  She feels impelled to do her mistresses' bidding nevertheless.  So as the lady is about to expire, she makes the maid swear that she'll not destroy or let the letter leave the building, but she passes just as she's about to add the most important part:  to give the letter to the Captain when he returns.  Sarah is out of her mind with worry and since she was not verbally instructed to deliver the letter, just to keep it, she decides to hide it.  Which she does, in the Myrtle Room situated in the North wing of the house.  Then she packs up a few possessions and leaves the house, never to return.

Fifteen years pass and the plot moves to a nearby town where Rosamund Treverton is about to marry Leonard Frankland.  Leonard has recently become blind because of over-straining his eyesight while repairing watches.  Captain Treverton is off on a ship somewhere, so the local curate gives Rosamund away.  The Captain has a brother, Andrew, who doesn't take any responsibility for his niece's activities, as he's a miser and a human-hater.  About a year after the ceremony, the couple receives a letter saying her father, the Captain, has been drowned and that she has inherited the Porthgenna establishment.  The two decide to move there and hire a nurse for their new baby.  They travel to Cornwall from London and at one of the last rest stops, the nurse becomes ill and they hire another named Mrs. Jazeph.  The Jazeph lady acts peculiarly and whispers odd things to Rosamund so they dismiss her.  She's actually Sarah under an alias that she acquired in the previous fifteen years through marrying a drunken and violent person who is now deceased.  Something she says alarms the Franklands and they fire her.  She travels to her uncle, her last living relative, who is a little old music box maker named Joseph;  a merry old soul with a fixation on Mozart.  He carries a portable music box with him everywhere that plays "Batti Batti", a nursery tune composed by Mozart in his youth.  After revealing her troubles to her uncle, they decide to travel to Cornwall as well, hoping to reclaim the letter that was hidden in the Myrtle room.  Once at the house, they are faced with a suspicious housekeeper and a bumbling overseer named Mumber.  Both staff members try to frustrate the intentions of Sarah and her uncle, but they evade them and she races upstairs to the Myrtle room door.  But since a window is broken inside, a passing breeze rips off a piece of decrepit wall paper and blows it across the door, causing Sarah to faint, convinced a ghost inside bears evil intentions toward her.  They escape and elude pursuit, returning to London.

Meanwhile, Andrew the brother of the Captain and his valet Schrowl receive a letter from Rosamund's lawyer interested in whatever they might know about the Myrtle room.  They know that that room is where the Secret is hidden but they don't know where in the North wing it is.  Andrew rips up the letter but Schrowl pieces it together and wants to sell his information about Porthgenna for five pounds.  The Franklands reach the Tower and move in and begin to search the dilapidated and abandoned section of the house for the right room.  They finally discover it and force an entrance and start poking about in the bits of furniture that are left.  In an old escritoire, Rosamund discovers a folded up sheet of paper and, opening and reading it, is SHOCKED!

I'll leave the ending to be unveiled to such readers that might be driven through sheer overwhelming curiosity to read the novel.  Suffice it to say everything is wound up more or less satisfactorily, thereby resolving the driving force that has been augmented throughout the narration.

I was curious about the book's popularity until i started thinking about the social conditions and limited lives led by the tech-free inhabitants of Victorian England.  This book and others like it must have been regarded as absolute treasures to those readers who had very little opportunity or ability to enjoy their lives in such a regimented and class-bound society.  Even today, with TV, movies, stereo, computers and all the ancillary gizmos open to the average person, i found myself caught up in Collins' world and eagerly turning the pages until i found out what the SECRET actually was...  it was a fun read and i'll probably investigate more of his lesser-known works...

I should add that Collins has a great gift for depicting odd characters.  In addition to the ebullient uncle Joseph, his description of the attitude and thoughts of the lumpkin Munder are hilarious.  And the designing and slavering Schrowl, after his five pound note,  seems taken from the life.  Andrew himself would be unbelievable if similar personalities had not been known to exist in reality.  Earlier in the book, Mr. Phippen and his delicate digestion equal any description i've read concerning gastric tribulations and the overall debilitating effect on the sufferer thereof...  Read it you'll like it!

Sunday, October 24, 2021



Algernon Blackwood. (1869-1951)

Five incorporeal adventures in the life of Dr. Silence are included in this volume.  As well as being a trained medical doctor, Silence has deeply explored the remote regions of human mentality, both in England and in little-known spiritual enclaves of the far East.  After receiving his degree in England, he disappeared for five years while pursuing those studies, and now runs a kind of psychic detective agency.  People with problems of a non-material nature seek his advice and assistance.


Felix Pender, successful novelist, is having trouble writing.  He is being followed around inside his house by something or someone with evil intent.  Dr. Silence suspects a vengeful ghost is causing difficulties, so he arranges for Felix to stay at his house while the Dr. spends the night in Felix's lodging.  He gets to the house later the same day, accompanied by two pets, a cat and a dog.  He trusts animal instincts as being keener than his own insofar as detecting malignant spirits is concerned.  Silence is dozing off in the library when all of a sudden he smells smoke, and wakes to a dark and threatening glamour that has settled over the room.  The cat sees something eery in a corner and the dog begins barking at an invisible intruder.  But gradually through the haze, a shadowy figure looms;  an old lady, haggard and staring, glares at him with murder in her heart.  The Dr. summons up his powerful psychic knowledge and counter-attacks the apparition which gradually dissipates.  Back in his office, he relates the story to Mr Pender and after further investigation, they discover that the house was formerly the residence of an old lady hung for multiple murders.  Silence recommends the house be torn down and the location turned into a garden.


Arthur Vezin is traveling by train in northern France.  On impulse, triggered by loud-mouth fellow travelers, he gets off at a remote station located in the mountains and is so charmed by the idyllic ambiance that he decides to stay for a night.  He takes a room in an old inn and walks around the small village.  He becomes nervous when he notices that all the villagers seem to be watching him.  At dinner, the inn-keeper's daughter becomes very friendly and tries to make him fall in love with her.  Suspicious, he retires early only to be awoken in the night by loud cat cries and noises of yowling and fighting.  He sneaks outside and sees that some of the citizens have turned into cats.   The daughter accosts him and tries to get him to accompany her.  There is a parade of sorts leading out of town and lots of dancing and sinister merry-making.  As Vezin tries to escape, she grabs him by the neck, but he breaks away and runs off.  At the train station cafe, he meets Dr. Silence who explains to him that the village was formerly the habitation of witches who were burned at the stake, and that their ghosts invaded the townspeople on certain nights, causing them to engage in devil-worship.


Horace Wragge needs help.  He's a retired Colonel and he and his sister live in an old farmhouse near the ocean in northern Yorkshire.  The house is located near a 12 acre wood that has an ancient mound at the center.  Spot fires are erupting with alarming frequency all around the manse and in the fields and the house itself it is uncomfortably warm, with a kind of sultry heat that seems to carry a lingering menace with it.  Dr. Silence and his assistant Hubbard arrive and immediately search the woods.  They find burned places and a pond but not much else.  But the same night, one of the rooms catches on fire and they are barely able to extinguish it.  Doing some research, Silence believes that there's an Egyptian connection.  The Colonel's brother had spent time in that country and was known to be an aficionado of ancient Egyptian culture.  A full moon is expected the same night and the Dr. gets ready:  he gathers some picks and shovels and a long rod.  After dark, he pokes the rod into the soil surrounding the building until he finds a hidden tunnel.  With the help of the Colonel and Hubbard, he digs out an entranceway and all three enter it and crawl toward the woods.  They come upon a large room under the mound and discover a mummy case buried just below the surface.  Just as they open the coffin, a fire Elemental comes to life and things heat up.  At that moment the sister crawls into the chamber with an ancient scarabeus and places it inside the coffin with the mummy and the Elemental vanishes.  Her explanation is that she had thought it was attractive when the brother brought it back from Egypt and kept it in her room.


Harris, a silk merchant, visits his old theological school near Strasbourg.  It's located in a remote valley, isolated and unpopulated.  He's welcomed by the Priests even though it's been thirty years since he was a student there.  They become more and more friendly, demanding that he spend the night.  The head of the school, Asmodelius, is about to arrive and they want to introduce him.  Things get weirder and Harris gets scared and starts yelling but the brothers show no reaction, which really freaks him out.  He runs but the monks catch him and begin to strangle him and he faints.  Next day he wakes up on a pile of old bricks and while walking back to the depot meets Dr Silence who had followed him to the school and later rescued him from the glamour that had captured him.  Silence tells Harris that the school had burned down and the village abandoned because the fathers were devil-worshippers.


Hubbard with some friends is on a camping trip in the northern Baltic Sea.  They're traveling by canoe and stop at one of the islands to build a more permanent encampment.  The Reverend Tim Maloney, Mrs. Maloney and their daughter Joan as well as the family friend Pete Sangree compose the party in addition to Hubbard.  They are having a wonderful time fishing, swimming and story-telling for a while, until their evenings begin to be disturbed by a wolf invading their camp.  One night it tears a hole in the wall of Joan's tent.  Hubbard tracks it but loses the trail until he happens to look into Pete's tent and sees the wolf merge into Pete's body.  Luckily, Dr. Silence arrives soon after Hubbard sends him an urgent message, and he verifies that Pete is indeed inhabited by a "fluidic body", i.e., a werewolf.  The good Dr. knows all about lycanthropy of course, so he manages things such that the incipient love between Pete and Joan becomes a reality.  This puts a halt to the form-changing and the two live happily ever after.

Blackwood led a checkered life, pursuing a number of different careers, but writing ghost stories and novels between  and during his various employments.  He even taught violin lessons upon occasion.  But he also worked for a number of newspapers and came to know some of the movers and shakers of that world.  He was a past master at word-smithery, and his descriptions of eerie and spine-chilling events has never been exceeded, imo...  The resemblance between Silence and Sherlock is pretty evident, even so far as the mysterious absence in the East was concerned.  That's where Sherlock was supposed to have gone after his fight with Moriarty at Reichbach Falls when he was presumed, erroneously, to have died.  Anyway, HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!

Sunday, October 17, 2021



Sir Walter Scott (attrib.)

G.W.H Haering  (pseud. Willibald Alexis, 1798-1871)

Thomas de Quincy  (1785-1859)

The good ship Halcyon, inbound from France, was just entering the harbor when the crew espied smoke pouring out of the forward hold.  Since the cargo was gunpowder, they became berserk, dashing about and desperately breaking into the liquor cabinets in the mad attempt to make themselves jolly before meeting their maker.  The master knocks Bertram overboard with one punch.  He flounders around until a barrel drifts within reach, then straddles it to save himself at just about the same time that the ship disintegrates in a giant explosion.  Something jerks the barrel out from under him and he sees another survivor of approximately his own age disputing his possession of the barrel.  They disagree, physically, for a bit and then decide to share, turn and turn about, the barrel between them.  The top to the barrel falls off and the new arrival discerns a bottle inside of it.  He grabs it and pulls the cork, drinks a goodly amount of it, then sinks out of sight.  Bertram hangs on until a passing ship under the command of Monsieur de Harnois rescues him.  A short, stocky figure, de Harnois is also a master seaman, a drunk, and avaricious.  He lands Bertram on Anglesea Island, charging him 60 francs for the passage.

Bertram wakes up in a brush-made hut in which an old lady with wild grey hair, ragged clothes and a piercing stare is cooking an obnoxious mixture on a wood stove.  Her name is Mother Gillie Godber and she's deranged through having lost a son, hung for a misdemeanor charge by Sir Morgan Walladmor, the local noble who lives in a castle of the same name constructed at the end of a local peninsula.  Leaving the old lady, Bert gets to the mainland and walks to Machynleth town.  Stepping into the first tavern he saw, he found himself in the company of a troupe of actors who had just finished performing "Venus Preserved", a popular work by Thomas Otway.  Other personalities are on the scene:  Dulberry the lawyer, a spouting fountain of radicalism directed against any speck of prejudicial attitude toward the lower classes.  He talks a lot, but is not listened to very much.  The owner/bartender tries to maintain a modicum of civilized behavior, but the crowd becomes rowdy,  especially while mourning the death of Edward Nicholas, a local smuggler, who supposedly was blown up along with the Halcyon.  Bert sees the latter upstairs, standing in a corner, when he is going to bed.

The next day is St. David's Day and a huge parade is scheduled with 120 Snowdon archers, decorated carriages, uniformed militias of various identities, and a carriage with Sir Morgan himself.  After a church service, Dulberry and Bertram walk over to the town hall where they find out that Captain de Harnois is going to be buried the next day.  A bit surprised, Bert agrees to go along with the entourage accompanying the cortege to the cemetery.  He's told to bring a big club.

Next day, as the funeral gets under way, Miss Walladmor's carriage almost careens over a cliff, but a figure that suspiciously resembles Edward Nicholas saves her at the last minute.  Reaching a toll gate, the line of mourners is stopped for inspection.  The officers want to inspect the inside of the coffin, but a mighty uproar at the very idea causes a riot.  In the ensuing melee, the carriage with the coffin aboard disappears.  Bert receives a note from an anonymous personage instructing him to come to the ruins of Ap Gauvon for a meeting at the Abbey.  Gillie Godber leads him in that direction and they see a lot of piratic appearing individuals trundling barrels and demijohns into the Abbey cellar.  The revenuers show up and Bert is arrested.  They think he's Edward Nicholas, the notorious smuggler, whom he apparently resembles .  The real Edward rescues him and Bert runs off but gets lost in a snow storm.  He finds a barn to sleep in at the last moment before freezing and the next morning is accused by the farmer of killing his dog who has died in the night.  Bert wanders off but is recaptured and taken to Walladmor Castle and ensconced in a perilous tower looming over a sheer cliff with wild waves crashing against the rocks below.  His trial takes place in a few days.  Things look bad for Bert until Edward, mainly due to his hopeless love for Sir Morgan's daughter, and unwilling to live any longer without her, surrenders himself to the authorities and Bert is freed.  There's a relationship between Ed and Bert which is revealed in the ensuing text, but at this point i'm going to not spoil the ending, which is not a very cheerful one, in light of the unlikely event that some other person might read the book.  Suffice it to say that Mother Godber has had a lot to do with what happens.

In Leipzig, in the early years of the nineteenth century, there was a book fair held twice a year.  One of the highlights of the festival was the publication of humorous or clever pastiches of famous books or authors.  Mr. Haering was inspired to participate one year, and produced a three volume set entitled "Walladmor", supposedly written by Sir Walter Scott.  Haering claimed that it was a translation from the original English.  Thomas de Quincy apparently obtained a copy of the book and, having time on his hands, translated the German text which had ostensibly been written in English, back into English again, only this time leaving out what he regarded as philosophical piffle, codswallopian claptrap.  The result was two volumes instead of the more classical three.  Anyway, Quincy's version in addition to being considerably shorter, also has some continuity to it, which the original probably lacked.  Not that it bore any resemblance to any book Scott might have written, but at least it was comprehensible, couched in the reasonably fluent English characteristic of the time.  I can't say the book was comparable to any of Scott's work, but it was entertaining and quite funny some of the time.  The ending was not what i expected, but was in some sense logical.  I guess i liked it, i'm still not quite sure...

Sunday, October 10, 2021


Sir Walter Scott  (1771 - 1832)

Near the Cairntable mountains in southern Scotland lies the Castle Dangerous, so-called because of its proximity to the border with England.  In the early 14th century this was important because of the ongoing wars for dominance between the two countries.  The castle had been conquered and reconquered several times in the recent history of this tale.  At the time the action opens, it's held by the English who had recently taken it away from the Douglas clan, its historical owners.

On a pleasant spring day in Douglas Dale, Bertram the minstrel and his son Augustine were slowly making their way on horseback toward the castle, enjoying the flowers and musical tinkle of a small brook on its way down to join the Douglas river lower in the valley.  They're on the way to visit Sir John de Walton at the castle but as the hour was growing late, they decided to stay overnight at Hazelside at the home of Tom Dickson, a local farmer and sheep herder.  They are heartily welcomed by Tom and after a substantial meal they're preparing for the night when a couple of soldiers from the castle arrive.  They have queries as regards the intent and purposes of the travelers and to avoid trouble Bertram agrees to accompany them back to the castle.  But he doesn't want Augustine to go along so he tells them that he's recovering from the plague and might be contagious.  So Augustine is conveyed to nearby St. Bride's Abbey where he's domiciled overnight.

Bertram's excuse for being there is that he wants to search for old manuscripts in the castle's small library, so he's embroiled in dusty tomes when the Commander of the Guard, Aymer de Valence has questions about his real purpose.  Valence suspects Bertram of secret motivations, so he has him imprisoned.  But Bert has discovered a copy of Thomas the Rhymer's last book, so he's delightedly reading about fairies and goblins while incarcerated in durance vile.  He's in jail because Fabian, Aymer's squire, has told old Gilbert Greenleaf, the head guard, that Bertram is there to spy out the weaknesses of the place for the clan Douglas and Gilbert has in turn related his suspicions to Aymer.  Aymer plans on arresting Augustine also and the next day rides over to the convent only to find that his intentions have been foiled by the escape of the presumed villain's son.

At this point the reader discovers that Augustine is actually a girl, Augusta, who is traveling to the castle because her father has tried to wed her with an odious count and she wants none of it.  In fact, she has said, in company, that she will marry Sir John de Walton instead if he manages to keep the castle from being recaptured by the Douglas forces for a year and a day.  That time is approaching, so, to escape her parent and to meet Walton, she's enlisted Bertram to help her travel to the Castle.

Augusta wanders through the forest, meeting various and assorted wizards and ghosts en route.  One of the latter is a tall skinny knight dressed head to foot in black armor that has been painted like a skeleton.  This is revealed to be James Douglas, who is plotting to take back his Castle.  James takes Augusta in tow and they ride to an old decayed church, where they meet Aymer and Walton.  The idea is that James wants to trade Augusta for his castle.  There's a certain amount of sword play and a climax builds until a messenger arrives who tells Walton that the Duke of Pembroke has ordered him to surrender the castle to James Douglas.  So Walton clears out and takes Augusta with him and they marry.

There's some interesting psychological byplay between Fabian and his superiors when the former is manipulating the latter persons, with his stories of spies and traitors, in order to advance himself in the chivalrous hierarchy.  And the duality of the Augustine/Augusta split together with the overlying Scottish/English struggle for dominance is reinforced by that.  Scott does occasionally include in his work subtle threads and themes that one might not expect in novels of adventure and these add a lot to the interest of the books and to one's impressions of the author.

This is a simpler tale than some of Scott's books that i've read, but that might be because Scott himself was not too well.  In fact, he was on his way to Italy to try to heal himself when he was writing this last book.  He hurried with the last few chapters, and that is evident to the discerning reader.  Scott was seriously ill and he didn't live too long afterwards.  He had been desperately trying to write himself out of debt for years as a result of a financial mesalliance with his friend Ballantine, that he felt honor-bound to repay, and those efforts were undoubtedly harmful to his health.  I'm not aware that he ever succeeded, but he certainly gifted the planet with a timeless and marvelous series of adventure novels in the process.


Monday, October 4, 2021



Charles Dickens  (1812-1870)

This last novel of Mr. Dickens was considerably more complicated in terms of number of characters and ancillary plot structures than any of his works i've read (I haven't read them all...).  The basic plot is a murder mystery but the many persons winding in and out of the action creates a sort of kaleidoscopic image, kind of like one of those hand-knitted blankets with lots of imagery woven into the fabric.  Gaffer Hexam is trolling the Thames river for dead bodies when he finds the supposedly drowned corpse of John Harmon, although the reader doesn't know the body's identity for another several hundred pages.  One of the principle characters is Lizzie Hexam, his daughter who rows the boat while Gaffer deals with the dead.  She is a young sensitive soul caught in a brutal society but she soon manages to escape London to work in a mill upstream of the city.  Noddy Boffin lives in a house located on the city dump.  Due to confusion over John Harmon's will, he inherits a lot of money and is able to move into a higher rent district.  But before that, he is depicted as a merry old soul who exudes benevolence toward his fellow man.  An itinerant street corner merchant named Silas Wegg has been hired to read him the complete eight volumes of Gibbon's History of Rome, which he does.  There's a mystery lurking in the dump.  Somehow Harmon's will is supposed to be hidden somewhere in the huge piles of "dust" (as the Brits call garbage) surrounding the house.  Wegg and an associate find the will later on in the book and use it as the basis of intimidation directed toward Boffin in hopes of appropriating all his personal possessions and valuables.

Jenny Wren is perhaps the most lovable person in the book.  She makes her living by sewing clothes for dolls.  She is crippled to a certain extent and walks with a cane.  Later on she is instrumental in helping Lizzie hide from various evil-doers.  Eugene Wrayburn and Mortimer Lightwood are wannabe lawyers who don't seem to ever get any cases;  they sit in their office and consume potables, mainly.  Eugene later falls in love with Lizzie with the expected result.  Mortimer and Eugene serve as foils to highlight the absurdities of the Veneering family, who are recent arrivals in the London upper classes and fearless about throwing expensive dinner parties.  It's said of Father Veneering that he never met an invitee that wasn't a long admired friend, whether he knew them or not.

Roger (called "Rogue") Riderhood is a former associate of Gaffer's and is perhaps responsible for his death earlier in the book.  He perpetrates evil deeds throughout and after winning a treasured position as an assistant lock attendant outside of the city, he is influential in setting up the fate of Bradley Headstone, a private teacher in a boy's school who falls in love with Lizzie and drives himself crazy through his single-minded pursuit of her.  Another lady who is pursued is Bella Wilfer, the daughter of a minor clerk who's married to a tight-lipped and stern wife with unfulfilled ambitions.  She is the love object of John Rokesmith, a man of business hired by the Boffins to oversee his newly inherited wealth.  She is initially a flighty, self-centered young lady, but after several shocks she alters her attitude and realizes the importance of basic human virtues.  There is a secret about Rokesmith which is not revealed until the plot has matured a bit more.  It has a lot to do with the ultimate fate of both those personalities.

The action takes place mainly in London, near the docks and to some extent in the more well-to-do neighborhoods.  Toward the end, some of the personalities migrate upriver to where Lizzie and Riderhood are working.  Suffice it to say that the villains get their suitable rewards and some of the rest live happily ever after.

There's a lot of character development in the book.  At one point Boffin becomes entranced with books about misers and collects as many as he can find.  Apparently he has turned into one himself, but the denouement is surprisingly different than the reader would expect.  Altogether there were about 35 characters to follow while reading and it was sometimes a challenge to remember the pertinent traits of each in order to keep up with the multiplexed action.  It was quite contorted on occasion, but i have to say that after four or five hundred pages it became quite interesting.  Looking up at what i've described, i see that i've left out a lot of threads, but i hope i've included enough to create interest in the book.  From what i've read, there are lots of conflicting opinions about whether it was a successful effort or not, but there was pretty much a consensus that it was a work of genius.  I particularly liked some of the metaphorical references made in connection with some of the characters.  They were illuminating and inspired.  Naturally i forgot to write any down, so i guess they'll remain a bit of serendipity for the next reader, lol...

Saturday, September 25, 2021



Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

George Bertram, Arthur Wilkinson, and Adela Gauntlet grew up together at Hurst Staple, a small community near the Hampshire border in England.  Adela was an orphan who lived with her aunt;  Arthur's father, a pastor, died early, leaving the manse to his wife, and George lived with his uncle, old George, who had made a fortune in the financial abattoirs of London.  As the three grew up, young George and Arthur remained friends even when they went to Oxford while Adela lived a more or less solitary existence with her aunt.  She had feelings for Arthur, but the two hadn't at this point become more than neighbors.  When the boys graduated from college, George received a double first degree, one of the highest levels of achievement offered, while Arthur only got a second, even though he had studied much harder than his friend.  So Arthur decided to accept the parsonage at Hurst Staple, while George anticipated a blazing career in the high society of the City.  Arthur gradually came to terms with his disappointment and made plans to marry Adela, but since his mother received most of his income, he felt unable to propose, not having the wherewithal to support a wife.

George waffled around for a while, toying with authorship and having a good time.  His uncle wanted him to study law, but George wouldn't commit to that.  In order to give his nephew a broader experience of the scope and vicissitudes of life, he persuaded him to embark upon a tour to the Middle East.  George joined a group of tourists that visited Jerusalem, where he became acquainted with Caroline Waddington, an English orphan accompanying her aunt.  George falls for Caroline and has an epiphantic experience on the Mount of Olives, where he imagined himself walking in the footsteps of Jesus.  But it doesn't last very long, and when he met his father Lionel, he allowed himself to be swept away to the alluring attractions of Constantinople.  Lionel Bertram was in the military.  His job involved traveling to foreign capitals to adjust minor difficulties arising with the locals over British policies.  George soon discovered that his father's real activities were feral, in a financial sense:  he was a spendthrift and a scavenger after all the money he could get his hands on, regardless of the source.  Disillusioned, George returned to London.

Time passes;  George the younger continues undecided;  he tries being an attorney and is unsuccessful, so he writes a short book which achieves a minor bump in the literary market.  He continually sees Caroline, but she is getting tired of his indecisiveness.  When she meets an old school friend of George's, Henry Harcourt, she shares some of her discontent with him.  Harcourt had had a great success at Oxford also, and had striven greatly to make a life as a politician.  He got himself elected to Parliament, and was sanguinely expecting a knighthood in the near future.  And he had also fallen in love with Caroline, mainly because he viewed her as decorative addition to his political and social ambitions.   George is irate at what he sees as disloyalty, and the burgeoning connection with Caroline is shattered.  

Meanwhile, Lionel has arrived in England, in the town of Bath, and is busily worming himself into the social fabric of the feminine social network.  But, mainly because of the interference of Sally Todd, one of the brighter butterflies in the communal meadow, his reputation precedes him, and he finds himself increasingly isolated.  Then old George passes away.  During his last days, there was a gathering of the clan at his mansion, and one of them was Sir Henry Harcourt, who was counting on Caroline inheriting massive amounts of money so he could marry her and pay off his burgeoning debts.  But he's left out of the will, so he returns home and shoots himself.  Arthur finally summons up the gumption to face his mom and appropriates enough money to enable his marriage with Adela to take place.  Lionel gets nothing.  Five years pass and Caroline and the remaining George marry and live fairly contentedly afterwards.

From the bit of research i did, this book was written when Trollope was about half way done with the Barsetshire novels.  Maybe it represented a sort of break from that intensive effort, or, since the main theme of the book was the damage that money and the lack of it can do to all levels of society, he may have wanted to get away from the pleasant rural atmosphere of Barsetshire for a while.  Since he wrote so much, getting up at five every morning to write his books for several hours, maybe he just was trying to change the rhythm somewhat.  I thought this was a pretty good effort, although somewhat ragbaggy in its often unpredictable switches between situations and locales.  But Trollope usually has interesting things to say about the human condition and is therefore almost always worth reading.

Saturday, September 18, 2021



Norah Lofts (1904-1983)

Eleanor of Aquitaine was probably born in 1122, although the date is not a certain one.  She was raised mostly by a religious order, receiving an excellent education to match her superior intellect.  She was fluent in French and Latin at least and later in English, undoubtedly.  In her late teens, she was slated to be married to Louis the King of France, but, being in love with young Richard de Vaux, she resisted until Richard was accidentally on purpose slain by a sword in the back.  After becoming the Queen of France, she had two daughters over the next few years, but was in disgrace through lack of producing a son and heir to the throne.  The Crusades were well underway by this point and Eleanor took part in the second one, acting as one of the leaders of the French contingent.  Unfortunately, while crossing the Phrygian Mountains in central Turkey, the segment of knights with whom she was traveling got too far ahead of the main army, which was attacked and seriously mauled by native Turks.  Eleanor was blamed, partly, for her part in agreeing to outdistance the rest of the army.  When the Crusaders reached Jerusalem at last, she was mildly ostracized from the leadership, and was thus unable to introduce a sane voice into the squabbling disagreements among the other commanders as to their next goal.  Unfortunately the lure of Damascan wealth was too much for the generals to resist and the army spent its strength and power uselessly in besieging that city's walls.

Soon afterwards, the European members of the force left by boat to return home.  Louis of France then divorced Eleanor ostensibly for not producing a son and not too long afterwards she became somewhat enamored of the Henry II, the Duke of Normandy.  They were married, and upon the death of King Stephen, he became the King of England.  The next few years were mainly taken up with uniting the kingdom under one ruler.  There were around 1100 separate baronies in the country at that time, and all of them spent their time and substance fighting with one another.  Henry succeeded in eliminating most of the petty infighting and through his superior resolve and with his seasoned armed force, managed to unite the country, more or less.

Henry was not a very loyal husband.  He had lots of mistresses and when one of them died, he accused his wife of poisoning her and sealed her up in Winchester Castle.  The real reason, probably, was actually because Eleanor wouldn't agree to allow Henry to depose her son Richard, who was at that time King of Aquitaine.  Henry wanted to remove Richard because he was too good of a tactician and also because he wanted his other son, John, the King of Ireland, to take his place.  The politics of that time were just as involved and contorted as they are today.Anyway, Eleanor spent the next fifteen years in durance vile, so-called, in a cold cell with minimum comforts and clothes.  

Meanwhile, Henry had his own problems.  One of his best friends, Tom Beckett, a sort of Catholic functionary, had done very well in the priesthood and after many years, had been promoted to be Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was ambitious and wanted to spread Catholicism throughout the kingdom and be head of the entire business.  Henry didn't like this too much.  There's no evidence that he said, as Shakspeare would have it, "will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?", but shortly after, Tom was found dead of multiple stab wounds.  Henry was not a person with very many limits on his personal behavior.  As Ms. Lofts stated once, "Henry's reaction to weakness is to stomp on it".

Henry finally died and Eleanor was released from her cell to become the reigning regent of England and Aquitaine for several years.  The book ends with her in charge and Richard once more in the Holy Land, trying to "free" Jerusalem.

The novel/history was well written.  There was a lot of invented dialogue, of course, but most of it seemed to mesh with the actual facts pretty well.  It was all in English of course, when people of the day actually spoke French or a version thereof - Aquitainian?  The ending was a little abrupt.  Eleanor lived for another twenty years or so.  She helped free her returning son from the prison in which he was incarcerated near the Danube, then moved back to her beloved Aquitaine, living peacefully until she passed away.  Back in England, Richard was about as pugnacious as his father, spending much of his energy and substance in wars with France.  He died in a small siege in that country at the early age of 41.  Richard, Eleanor, and Henry II are all interred in the same place:  the abbey of Fontrevault in France.

I liked this novel quite a bit even though it was a bit dated.  Ms. Lofts is a smooth writer, and this work blends the historical record nicely, logically segueing from one episode to another.  Sort of like lolling about in a canoe on a quiet lake in the sunshine, to be metaphorically extreme, haha...