Sunday, February 28, 2021



Archibald Marshall  (1866-1934)

John Howard was on a walking tour somewhere in northern England around the turn of the 19th century.  Approaching the foothills of the local fells, he met an old farmer with whom he conversed for a bit.  The topics under discussion turned to caves and caverns, of which the local seemed entranced, for he began describing a local cave that he had once ventured into and that seemed endless and unexplored.  Since Howard's time was his own, he agreed to accompany the old fellow in a cursory inspection of the attraction.  The entrance was one of three in a sandstone cliff.  Two of them had been closed by slides but the third was still approachable, so they entered, using Howard's flashlight to find their way.  All of a sudden a roar was heard and the oldster yelled a warning and ran for the exit.  Howard felt a moment of anxiety during which he dropped and broke his only source of light, but through the murk he espied a faint glow in the distance.  Edging his way toward the dim spark, he stumbled several times over intervening objects, rocks and ledges, but soon was able to exit the darkness and enter a sunlit copse.  It didn't look familiar to him, or much like the countryside he'd left, but it was a pleasant place, so, being tired and a bit shaky, he sat down under a tree and took a nap.  Something perturbed his sleep and he awoke just in time to see another old, short and portly, person running off with his pocket watch.  Howard jumped up and gave chase and soon apprehended the malefactor who was dressed like a derelict down on his luck.  Feeling sorry for the old fellow, he offered, after requesting the return of his watch, a few shillings to tide him over, but the perpetrator became upset and began raging about who did Howard think he was, anyway!  Then he ran off, but soon returned with a policeman who put the cuffs on John and hauled him off to jail in the nearby town, which was named Culbut.

Howard was thrown into a cell, which was a large apartment with hot and cold water, a small library, an easy chair, and a refrigerator full of snacks.  The policeman came back after a while and told Howard that Lord Potter had had him arrested for violating local laws concerning homelessness and being a person of low character and trying to give away money under false pretenses.  After a splendid dinner served by a sneering waiter, the suspect enjoyed a peaceful night's rest in a comfortable bed.  The next morning when he was arraigned before a magistrate, he met a young man named Edward Perry who seemed interested in his case, which could have brought the penalty of a month of hard labor in the coal mines.  Perry was an enemy of Lord Potter, and their mutual enmity was sufficient for Edward to argue Howard's case before the court, which resulted in the charges being dropped and Howard being placed under house arrest in the care of Perry and his family who had an estate in the country.  Lord Potter left the courtroom angry and vengeful, vowing to get even with the iniquitous derelict.

Living in the comfortable Perry manor, Howard became more acquainted with the local laws and cultural structure.  In this country, Upsidonia, the rich classes were often servants, and frequently dressed in rags and rarely took baths, while those that were not as well off were cursed with the ownership of expensive houses, with all the accouterments that went along with them:  excellent clothes, good food, leisurely life styles and horses.  Businessmen were continually stressed to discover new methods of losing money so as to maintain their social standing.  Politicians sought out ways to approve costly and unnecessary infrastructural and developmental projects so as to bankrupt the state.  Above all, the more money and property a citizen could give away, the higher his social status and the greater his respect by the general population.

The ramifications of this social attitude were many and various.  Library chairs were purposefully made uncomfortable so the patrons wouldn't learn too much, as books were "an odious form of bondage".  Maids usually told their mistresses what clothes to wear.  The butler (Blother, at the Perrys house) organized the household and made all the decisions pertinent to maintaining it.  The general idea seemed to be that giving things away, divesting oneself of excessive materiel, pruning away the cloying paraphernalia of existence, would make a better and happier person;  one with unadulterated freedom to live a joyous life unbound with the fetters and irons of nauseating social responsibility and meaningless obligation.

Howard lives with the Perrys long enough to fall in love with daughter Miriam.  She reciprocates and they plan a wedding in the near future.  Curious about her future companion's history, she's informed that he's from a small village in the Highlands, north of Culbut.  Her father is relieved to discover that Howard is fully equipped to begin their married life in a position of reduced circumstances. The fly in the works continues to be Lord Potter who has developed a strong antipathy to John and is determined to have him arrested and/or thrown into the coal mines.  Potter is also angry at the Perry's in general.  During a recent series of riots in the city, Edward, Miriam's sister has been identified as one of the leaders and instigators of the period of unrest.  He's arrested,  and sentenced to a month in the mines.

Meanwhile, John is broke and he realizes that he can't return to England and provide a life for Miriam without a lot of money.  So he contacts a millionaire in the city who initially was cursed with a gift for making money and offers to take his goldmine shares off his hands for free.  The magnate, Bolster, jumps at the chance to redeem himself, and signs over 135,000 lbs. worth of stock to John.  So John is all set, except just before they're ready to leave, he finds out that there's been a run on the market and his shares are now worthless, which makes everybody else overjoyed at his good fortune.  At the same time Lord Potter has renewed his attack, having obtained a warrant for John's arrest for being a stateless and homeless person who has lied about being from the Highlands.  Howard goes for a walk to try to sort out all his difficulties while at the same time the police are on their way to arrest him at the Perry's house.  John watches them from behind a tree and realizes that his affairs are about to crumble like a ginger snap.  He decides to go hide in the cave until things blow over.  He enters and hears a roaring sound and everything goes black.  (spoiler ahead)

He wakes up in a hospital with two broken legs and some other damage.  The nurse tells him he was caught in a cave-in and rescued by an old farmer who helped dig him out.  The book ends with John staring over the hills to the direction of Upsidonia and realizing  that it was all an extended dream...  or was it?

Well-written and curious, this conceit of reversing the social and monetary values of London society was well done, i thought.  By the end of the novel, the various ideas seemed not so far-fetched or as much of a parody as they had at first.  Humans are very susceptible to suggestion, especially when young, and warped brains are very hard to re-align.  Circumstances in our present-day world could be much worse, after all...

Monday, February 22, 2021



Torquato Tasso (1544-1595)

Edward Fairfax (trans.)  (1575-1635)

Some seven years after the first Crusaders left Europe to free Jerusalem from the Infidels,  Duke Godfrey and his minions are camped before the city of Jerusalem, trying to get it together enough to assail the city walls.  Baldwin, Godfrey's brother is busy in Edessa and Bohemund is preoccupied in Antioch.  The various other members of the nobility are lolling about, waiting on orders or having a fine time chasing demons, wizards and sirens.  It's a diverse crew.  Many of them are from Germany, France and England, but some have traveled there from Ireland and even Norway.  Sweno, the son of the king of Denmark is a stout warrior and has made his way to the middle-east by fighting his way through the Balkans and overcoming Turkish harassment en route.

Godfrey has a lot to worry about.  If the army hangs around too long, Egypt and its many allies may enter the fray which would mean that a second front would have to be dealt with, not to mention the possible presence of about a million more soldiers all eager to squash the froward Franks.  Rinaldo, perhaps the strongest and most able warrior in the whole assemblage, is from Italy and his reputation has preceded him to the extent that Aladine, the king of Jerusalem has enlisted his friend the ex-Christian wizard Ismen to do something about ameliorating his abilities.  He contacts Hidraort, the Caliph of Damascus to recruit his daughter, Armida, a sort of enchantress/wizardly person to help delude and deceive the enemy.  She enters the Crusader camp one day with a story about how she has lost her kingdom at the hands of foul evil-doers and needs help.  Godfrey sees what is going on and orders ten knights only, to accompany her to seek revenge.  He's worried that the whole army will abandon its purpose and ride off to rescue the poor unfortunate lady, hence the exercise of discipline as regards her avengers.  But Rinaldo sneaks out at night with Armida and another fifty of the most accomplished knights follow them in the dark.  

Meanwhile Godfrey initiates an attack on the walls of Jerusalem with unfortunate results.  The Franks haven't prepared very well, and the lady warrior, Clorinda and her friend Agrantes, both superior fighters, run through the Crusader ranks like a drill press through butter.  Another major player on the crusader side is Tancred, a renowned knight from France.  After the battle, Erminia the daughter of the King of Antioch, in love with Tancred, borrows Clorinda's armor and escapes from Jerusalem, where she had been captive.  She's chased by Poliphern, a pagan hero, and Tancred pursues them both but gets lost in the woods and stumbles into a dark dungeon where the echoey voice of Armida tells him that he's trapped there forever.

All this time, Satan has made life as difficult as he could for the opposition, sending demons, ghouls, and all manner of Sheolic beast to harass Godfrey's troops.  He darkens the sun and throws lightning bolts at them as well as turning the rain red.  A messenger enters the camp and informs the leaders that Rinaldo's headless body has been located near Gaza.  Things are looking bleak for the assailants, but finally Michael, the archangel, shows up and sends all the nasty creatures back to Hell.  So the war effort waffles back and forth between the two parties until the Egyptians show up in Palestine, which is within striking distance of Jerusalem.  Godfrey is in a quandary because his principle fighters have all left or have been slain.  But soon, another messenger shows up and tells him that there's a rumor floating about that Rinaldo is not dead.  And shortly afterwards, Tancred arrives with the fifty knights that had chased after Armida.  Their story is that they were lured into a castle in the Dead Sea where they found Tancred and Armida, the castle belonging to the latter, who had them all chained up preparatory to leading them off to a life of slavery, when Rinaldo showed up and freed them all.  But Rinaldo was still missing.  Until he reappeared also with a knight named Ubaldo.  Ubaldo relates how he rescued Rinaldo:  searching near the Dead Sea again, he meets an old man who can walk on water and is a supporter of the anti-pagan cause.  The old man states that the body that was supposed to be Rinaldo's was actually someone else's, put there by the devious and cunning Armida, who later absconded with the Italian knight because she was in love with him.  Ubaldo wants to bring him back, naturally, so the old man gives him a boat steered and operated by another siren as well as a magic shield with which to awaken the wayward paladin.  They sail out through the straits of Hercules to the Fortunate Isles and land at the base of a volcanic mountain protected by more beasties which they overcome.  Climbing to the top they espy a palace on an isle inside a lake of laughing death waters (if you drink the water you die laughing).  Ubaldo manages to cross the lake and find Rinaldo who's under a magic trance.  He shows him his reflection in the shield and he wakes up and they return to the battle site.

The final battle, which the Crusaders win, naturally, takes place soon after with lots of tactics, fires, sword fights, death, agony, celestial interference and aid, the resolution of personal animosities, and the reunion of long-separated lovers.  The very long poem ends rather abruptly on the battlefield littered with corpses and broken lances and pieces of armor lying all around.  Armida has been fighting on the side of the pagans but she has a change of heart after the battle and realizes that she loved Rinaldo all along.  So they ride into the sunset, arm in arm, and live happily ever after.

This is just a  bare, a brief, synopsis of a very long poem with all manner of magical and supernatural events and circumstantial carryings-on.  There are 20 books in the work, each book has approximately 100 verses, each verse consists of 8 lines.  Most of it is iambic pentameter, but the poetic mechanism varies a bit.  Some of the verses are in couplets, like English pentameter, but others skip a line so the final words of every other line rhyme with each other.  Reading it was interesting, occasionally tedious, and often exciting.  And very imaginative.  Tasso was a noted poet of his time, but had a somewhat peripatetic lifestyle as he was apparently, according to one source, bipolar.  He didn't live in a single residence for very long.  Either his host told him to go away or he left by himself.  But there was no doubt about his popularity and talent.  Fairfax's version is regarded by most critics as a work of art in itself.  His choices of language and facility of expression were overtly astonishingly good, i thought, and i really liked reading and appreciating his often ingenious and mindful constructions and expressions.

Saturday, February 13, 2021



James Fenimore Cooper  (1789-1851)

Sir Edward Moseley and his wife and four children have just moved into their new house/mansion located in Northamptonshire, England.  John, Clara, Jane and Emily are the children, well, young adults, of marriageable age.  Their neighbors are the Jarvises (merchants and business persons), the Haughtons (an upper class family of good repute), and the residents of The Deanery:  the rector Dr. Ives, his wife and Francis, the son, and two daughters.  The story opens with the above characters dining with the recent arrivals at Moseley Hall.  Uncle Benfield with his valet Peter Johnson share in the festivities.  Also Colonel Egerton and his friend Captain Jarvis.  George Denbigh appears as a stranger to two of the Moseley girls as they visit the Ives at the Deanery several days later.  George becomes a welcome associate of the family and a potential suitor for the hand of Emily.

Captain Jarvis loves to shoot at things:  pigeons, foxes, wrens, even his hat once.  His friend is Colonel Egerton, a somewhat dubious character who appears as a sort of hanger-on of the Jarvis family.  Egerton aspires to the hand of Emily Moseley, but ends up marrying one of the Jarvis girls.  Jane and Francis Ives are the first couple to be united as the plot unfolds;  Francis, a religious like his father, is granted  the living of a nearby diocese.  The Chattertons consist of a dowager mother with several daughters and a son.  There are other characters as well who dance in and out of the plot, creating confusion in the lives of the other personalities as well as in the mind of the reader.

The Captain and Egerton are out hunting one day.  They return to the rear garden of Moseley Hall, where Emily, her sisters and George Denbigh are lolling about.  Fooling about with a shotgun, Jarvis points it at Emily and pulls the trigger.  George dashes in front of her just in time to intercept the bullet and is wounded but saves her life.  They fall in love, but later suffer a separation because while on a vacation at the beach, Emily befriends a Mrs. Fitzgerald who has a dire story to tell about the predatory behavior of George.  She claimed that while she was escaping from an abusive husband in Spain, he tried to take advantage of her and was only saved at the last minute by a passing English soldier.  Because George's pocketbook was found in Mrs. Fitzgerald's house, the assumption was made by all that George had returned to visit her with ulterior motives.  So Emily dismissed him disdainfully.

The Earl Pendennyss was supposedly the richest bachelor noble in England and was a cousin of George's.  Of a philanthropic nature, he allocated funds right and left, trying to get rid of the money that kept rolling in as a result of his investments and properties.  His interest in Emily increases in spite of her generally comprehensive dislike and avoidance of all men.  Colonel Egerton asks Jane, Emily's sister to marry him, but one of his former companions, Captain Henry Stapleton, wrecks his plans by spreading rumors around about Egerton's true character, which is that of an opportunist and addicted gambler.  Jane turns him down, so he marries one of the Jarvis girls instead after he finds out that her father was making a lot of money as a merchant prince.

Catharine Chatterton is urged to marry Lord Herriefield because he's rich.  They move to Lisbon and she writes that she's very unhappy so John and Jane, Grace Chatterton and her mother sail to Portugal to straighten things out.  Herriefield is angry because his wife only loves his money.  Later she leaves him and returns to England.  The four embark on another ship to sail back home.  Jane meets the Reverend Harland aboard ship and later he asks her to marry him.  Meanwhile Lord Derwent, Pendennyss's cousin,  is interested in Emily but she's not interested in him.

So things go until Bonaparte returns from Elba and rampages through Europe.  By this time George Denbigh (spoilers ahead) has confessed that he is also Earl Pendennyss and has married Emily.  Things are beginning to get straightened out with assorted marriages and separations when Denbigh/Pendennyss leaves for Waterloo with his regiment.  Egerton is there also and after the battle starts, spends his time dashing around trying to avoid trouble.  But it finds him anyway and he's fatally wounded.  Pendennyss, having fought bravely through the whole affair, finds him and hears his confession about how he set Denbigh up by stealing his pocketbook to incriminate him for actions that in fact he, Egerton, had done.  Pendennyss returns triumphantly to England and they all live happily.

As may be evident in the above paragraphs, this is a complicated book with lots of characters;  more, even, that those i've mentioned.  I'm not even sure at this point whether i've mangled the continuity or not.  I think i got it all straight but i'm not sanguine about it.  Anyway, the point of the book seemed to be, that parents should think ahead before committing their children to possibly unsuitable relationships.  Money and social position are not guaranteed passages to happiness that they might appear to be.  But although Cooper had this message in mind, it wasn't evident to me that his book was really supporting that idea.  It seemed rather, that most of the accidents and travails experienced by the young people were a result of causality:  the consequences of pre-ordained states of mind and social position more than anything else.

Like all of Cooper's works that i've read, the writing is under a master's hand, even if it gets a bit windy at times.  But because, or owing to, the fact that this was his first book, his gifts were somewhat like wild horses, with lots of potential but maybe a lack of control;  too many reins and not enough fingers, perhaps...  In general i liked the novel.  It was sort of a cross between Austen and Trollope with more physical action than either of those two more famous authors might have allowed to permeate their pages.

Saturday, February 6, 2021


William Black 1841-1898)

Publ. 1880

Mary Avon has just spent two months in Edinburgh caring for an old lady;  looking for a vacation, she has arrived in Glasgow, where she's welcomed by the old Laird of Denny-Mains, with whom she's about to spend the summer sailing about the islands of western Scotland on his sloop, the White Dove.  She has made a small amount of money with her oil painting and is looking for new landscapes in the western Highlands.  Several days are spent at the Laird's Osprey Castle while waiting for Angus Sutherland to arrive.  Angus is an up-and-coming young scientist with an interests in medicine, biology, zoology, physics and chemistry.  He's written at least one paper on radiolaria that was well received.  (Tiny protozoans with complex structures.)  Mary is alone in the world except for an uncle, Fred Smethurst, a short and thin reprobate with a sneaky grey eyes.  Fred shows up when the party is about ready to go and has a brief interview with Mary after which he departs.

Mary has sailed before and it's not long before she is at the helm as they sail past the isle of Rum, headed for the basalt cliffs of Canna.  They anchor in a convenient inlet and row to shore, exploring the herds of puffin populating the island and listening to the deep roar of the sea as it fills up the sea caverns, rattling the rocks and pebbles and slowly but surely gouging out a tunnel into the land.  Soon they're sailing again, hoping to reach the Isle of Skye.  Close-hauled before a strong western wind, the boat takes spray and water occasionally courses along the starboard scuppers.  The Laird and Angus discuss the geology of the area, citing the researches of Hugh Miller, one of the very first Scottish geologists who played a major role in unraveling the primordial mysteries associated with the PreCambrian history of Scotland.  Angus has some highly interesting theories:  humans are a trivial incident in the history of the Earth;  the bad things that have occurred in recorded history are due to a poor diet;  criminals should be fat because it would tend to conceal their guilty faces.

They moor overnight in the bay of Portee to do some shopping and notice a light earthquake that is not explained.  The ship returns to Castle Osprey where Mary receives a message from her banker that all her money is gone.  She had had a small inheritance from her aunt that was producing a livable income from the Funds, but apparently uncle Fred forged her name and stole it all.  Mary is an intense sort of person when it comes to personal responsibility.  She has a certain amount of pride and egoistic independence which interferes with her relationship with others.  She and Angus fall in love, but because she thinks Angus is on the verge of becoming a famous scientist, and that she is nobody without her money, she cools toward him on the pretext of not wanting to inhibit his rise to glory and recognition.

The Laird has had visions of wanting Mary to marry his nephew, Howard, and hopes to leave Castle Osprey to the both of them in his will.  To this end he invites Howard along on the next sailing expedition after Angus has left.  Angus leaves partly because Mary has rejected him and partly because he has a lot of research to do in London.  Howard is a light-weight of course, even though he's a friendly sort of person, but Mary doesn't take him seriously.  Instead she governs herself to be nice to him and the others, pretending that Angus's absence doesn't mean anything.  On the next tour, sailing north, they meet some spectacular scenery and sunsets.  Becalmed on one quiet evening, they are stunned at the vision of a scarlet sea as it meshes with the violet sky and the black rock cliffs on either side and the low breathing of the ocean as it moves up and down.

The party continues making trips during the summer, visiting ruined monasteries on the deserted isles and searching for seals with which the Laird professes a desire to make Mary a seal coat.  He's not deterred by her informing him that without question she doesn't want a seal coat.  Eventually he understands Mary's behavior and how the loss of her money has effected her, and he desists in that endeavor and also comes to understand that Mary and Howard will never marry.  That in fact Mary is deeply in love with Angus who's been badly hurt by her cold attitude.  So he manages, on their last excursion to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, to get rid of Howard, who is anxious to go partridge shooting with a friend in northern England.  Staging their way up toward the northern Highlands, they meet storms and have more adventures.  Finally, as a result of the Laird's action in the matter, they meet another ship as they are tacking out of the narrow neck leading out of the Loch of Hell (Loch Hourn) and Angus joins them via rowboat just as they are about to have difficulty against the strong headwind.  The Laird, who earlier in the book had seemed to be a typically obtuse and opinionated land-owner, changes his attitude and  seeks an interview with both Mary and Angus, individually, and arranges for them to understand each other and, finally, schedules their marriage when they return to Osprey Castle.  He also reimburses Mary for her monetary losses, restoring her self of self-possession.   In the meantime, the collective group undertakes sailing through the Minch with, its whirlpools and subsurface rocks, in the middle of a storm.  They arrive successfully and spend time with friends, walking and behaving joyously.

Black was a very popular writer during his life, perhaps outselling even Dickens in some places.  It was not because he was such an exceptional writer - the plot in this work has several holes and inconsistencies - but because he was a genius at describing landscapes.  I mentioned in my last post that some authors have that knack of thrusting the reader into the center of whatever sweep of scenery they may be describing, and Black is better at that sort of thing than any author i can recall reading.  I have no doubt that this gift is what made him so popular with the later Victorians.  After all, they didn't have TV and most of them didn't have the wherewithal to attend the theater, many of them not even enough to patronize the occasional traveling troupe that might pass through.  But reading one of Black's works must have gone a long way to providing an escape from their work-intensive grind.  I'll read more of his work...