Showing posts with label Victorian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Victorian. Show all posts

14 February 2013

References, Anyone?


by Eve Fisher

I know that you can get everything on the internet any more, but I still think it's handy to have a shelf of reference works.  I still have a big fat dictionary, a Roget's thesaurus (the on-line ones are awful), Bartlett's Quotations (the on-line ones are almost all modern), a Dictionary of Science, of Language, of Foreign Terms, of Japan, of various other things, as well as the following foreign languages:  Spanish, French, German, Gaelic, Greek (Demotic and ancient), Latin, Chinese, Japanese, and (my personal favorite) Colloquial Persian. 

There are history textbooks, of which I have shelves, and also certain history books that I consider mandatory for giving you the real flavor of a time and place (what I call time-travel for pedestrians"). 

Liza Picard has written a whole series (and I have them all) about London:  "Elizabeth's London", "Restoration London", "Dr. Johnson's London", "Victorian London." 

Judith Flanders has written many works on Victorian England, of which I have:  "Inside the Victorian home : a portrait of domestic life in Victorian England", and "Consuming passions : leisure and pleasure in Victorian Britain."   What she doesn't tell about Victorian daily life isn't worth telling.  Her most recent work - just out, which I have got on order even as I write - is "The invention of murder : how the Victorians revelled in death and detection and created modern crime."  Woo-hoo!

Speaking of every day life, there's the "Everyday Life in America Series", which includes "Every day Life in Early America," "The Reshaping of Every Day Life 1790-1840", "Victorian America", "The Uncertainty of Everyday Life 1915-1945", etc. I have them all. 


As some of you may remember, I used to teach Asian history at SDSU.  I have TONS of books on Japanese and Chinese history, and making a list of them...  Well, what do you want to know?  Let's just hit some highlights about Japan for today:

The File:Tosa Mitsuoki 001.jpgfirst thing to read is Ivan Morris' "The World of the Shining Prince", about Heian Japan, specifically the 11th century Heian Japan of the Lady Murasaki Shikibu, author of "The Tale of Genji" (Note about Genji - there are 3 good English translations, and I have them all.  I LOVE THIS BOOK.  Feel free to e-mail me any time to discuss it; it's one of my obsessions.)

"Legends of the Samurai" by Hiroaki Sato - from the 4th century to the 19th, these are the stories the samurai told about themselves, building the mythos of the samurai - slowly - over time.

"Japan Rising:  The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe 1871-1873" compiled by Kume Kunitake. See the USA and Europe through the eyes of Japanese who had never been West before - and weren't particularly impressed.  (And who foresee the need for Japan to oversee the Pacific Ocean.)

"Memories of Silk and Straw:  a Self-Portrait of Small Town Japan" by Dr. Junichi Saga - Japan before WW2.


John Gunther (1901-1970) wrote a series of "Inside" books in the 1930s and 40s which are snapshots of Europe and Asia.  I am the proud possessor of two:  "Inside Asia - 1939"; "Inside Europe - 1938".  I consider these priceless because they were written, fairly objectively, before World War II:  and not all the portraits are recognizable by today's standards, especially those of Hitler and his gang. This is BEFORE the world was willing to accept that they were crazy.  Did you know that Mussolini was considered an intellectual?  Did you know that Putzi Hanfstaengl played piano to put Hitler to sleep every night? 

Don't forget diaries.  St. Simon's diary of the Versailles under Louis XIV and Louis XV; the diary of Colonial midwife, Martha Ballard; Lady Murasaki and a host of other upscale women of Heian Japan all kept diaries, and let us never forget Sei Shonagon's "Pillow Book"; Parson Woodforde's diary of 18th century rural Britain; Samuel Pepys, of course; and any others that you can get your hands on for the period/time/place you're interested in.  WARNING:  what I've found is that reading a diary of a period/time/place I'm not particularly interested in can generate a whole new passion...

And then there are maps.  Besides collecting all this other stuff (and I didn't even get to the Chinese daily life histories, etc.) I have atlases galore, including a couple that are very old.  (One came with a church insert that explained the League of Nations, which in itself was worth the price of the book!)  I have regular atlases, an Atlas of World History, of the British Empire, of the Middle Ages, of War, of Ancient Empires, etc.  And a bunch of plain old road atlases.  If nothing else, when I'm really stuck, I can pull them out and plan my next road trip...
I'm not sure where it is, but I'm interested in going there...

11 October 2012

You Say Sensation, I Say Mystery...


by Eve Fisher

It was a dark and stormy night, and I've got to have something to read.  I'm sorry, but tonight, as the wind howls and the hail spatters against the window, I don't want anything new.  I don't want anything slick.  I don't want anything modern.  I want something familiar and satisfying.  Who do I fall back on? The Victorians:  Never underestimate the punch of a Victorian writer.  They pretty much began the mystery genre, under the much-maligned term "Sensation Novel", and don't get enough credit. If you have never read any of them, allow me to recommend three of the most famous and accessible:

File:Wilkie-Collins.jpgWilkie Collins' The Woman in White.  Here two young women's identities are stripped from them as one is declared dead, one is dead, and one is sent to a madhouse for life.  What happened?  Who died?  Who lived?  How can the truth be proven?  Besides an endlessly twisting and turning plot, there are amazing characters:  a magnificent heroine in Marion Halcombe, the ultimate Victorian cold-hearted bitch in Mrs. Catherick, and the worst guardian known to man, Frederick Fairlie, who really should have been shot at birth.  And then there's Count Fosco, one of my favorite villains in all of history, with a face like Napoleon's and the heft of Nero Wolfe.  Watch him as he plays with his little pet white mice and, at the same time, his irascible "friend" Sir Percival Glyde.  Meet his completely subservient wife, who spends her days rolling his cigarettes, watching his face, and doing his bidding.  He loves sugar water and pastry and plotting, and he never, ever loses his temper or raises his voice.  His only weakness?  A passionate admiration for Marion.  But can that actually stop him?  Don't count on it. 
(NOTE:  Collins' wrote many other novels, including The Moonstone, which I don't care for, actually, and Armadale, which is even MORE full of plot twists and turns than The Woman in White.  And Lydia Gwilt should scare the crap out of anyone...) 

In Mrs. Henry Wood's East Lynne, the ostensible main plot - and a true Victorian corker it is! - revolves around Isabel Vane, an Earl's daughter who, unbelievably, is reduced to poverty and marries an attorney (SO much beneath her in birth), Archibald Carlisle.  Mr. Carlisle is such a miracle of common sense, rectitude, honor, and beauty, that I have to admit after a while I get tired of hearing how wonderful he is.  It almost makes you cheer when she is eventually unfaithful to him with a former suitor, who gets her to run off with him, impregnates her, and abandons her (the "Lady!  Wife!  Mother!" scene is worth the read in and of itself).  Lost - in every sense of the word - and alone, Lady Isabel is believed killed in a railroad accident.  However, she is only disfigured beyond recognition (isn't that always the way?), and comes back to be the governess in her old home, to her own children, and to the children of her husband and his new wife, Barbara Hare. 
That in itself would keep almost any soap opera running for YEARS.  But what really fuels this sensation novel is the second plot, about the murder of a local gamekeeper, whose daughter, Aphrodite Hallijohn, was "involved" with multiple suitors, among them the clerk of courts (I can believe that one), a mysterious Captain, and Richard , the brother of the second Mrs. Carlisle.  Richard and Barbara are the children of the local Judge, and Judge Hare does his best throughout the novel to find, convict and hang his own son.  Barbara's whole goal in life (other than being the perfect wife to Mr. Carlisle) is to clear Richard's name.  Each and every character is involved in the solution to this murder, and the shifting identities of various people - at least three people live in disguise for major parts of the novel - are obstacles, keys, and clues to what really happened in that hut.  
(NOTE:  Mrs. Henry Wood wrote over thirty other novels, and among the best of the rest (imho) is The Channings.)  

Mrs. Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret curled many a person's hair back in the day, especially once it was revealed that what they thought was the secret - a secret that should be solved by anyone of moderate intelligence early on - is not The Secret at all.  Let's just say that Lady Audley is a work of art, and perhaps the source material for all suicide blondes.  Once again, a spicy Victorian stew of bigamy, mysterious deaths, hidden identities, even more mysterious (and convenient) arson, betrayal, adultery, heartache, and suspense, all served up at (for a Victorian novel) a fairly rapid clip. 
(NOTE:  Mrs. Braddon was another prolific author; second best novel is probably Aurora Floyd.)


Sensation Novels are often given a bad rap, but they were very well written, intricately plotted, and take you into the Victorian world in a way that few other books do.  Let's also not forget that, in their day, the Sherlock Holmes books would have been considered Sensation Novels - I mean, come on:  Polygamy!  Murder!  Hidden identities!  Revenge!  Giant devil hounds!  Granted, Sherlock Holmes transcended the genre - every genre - but he started in sensation.  And I'd love to debate someone about why Dickens is literature and Sensation Novels are not. 

By the way, Sensation Novels are also proof, once again, that reality must be watered down to be acceptable fiction.  The Victorian authors were an interesting bunch.  Wilkie Collins was an opium addict who had at least two concurrent families, and married the mother of neither of them.  Mrs. Henry Wood was married to an unemployed alcoholic, and her writing supported the family.  And Mrs. Braddon was involved for years in an adulterous relationship with her editor.  And when Jane Eyre came out, it was widely assumed that Mr. Rochester was based on William Makepeace Thackeray, whose wife was in an insane asylum, and who was believed to be having a long-running affair with his governess...   

All of these books, and many more, are available either new, used, or on Kindle. Please, check them out.  Those dark and stormy nights are coming back...  Next time, more Victorian murder mysteries!