Saturday, November 8, 2008

Swimming in the 19th Century

Once again, I’ve been remiss in posting anything here. It’s been an odd month. Many things have been happening - the election here in the US for one, a new pastor at the church where I work, the change of seasons, the illness of friends. Tension and anxiety have been rampant in the people around me, and, while I have not felt anxious directly in myself about any one thing, I’ve been hard put to not take on the anxiety of others. I’m weary and have not been able to put a decent sentence together to save my soul.

So, I’ve lost myself in reading. Thing is, I usually find myself in what I read, and so it has been this last month.

The beginning of October I was reading Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White.
“Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before.”

Faber follows the life of a young prostitute in Victorian England – her rise from the streets to mistress of a wealthy perfume manufacturer. It is a fascinating, powerful, explicit, gritty and depressing book. When I finished it, I felt the need to immerse myself in the laughter and innocence of the preschool children at the church. There aren’t many books that have affected me so.

I’ve read many books dealing with the struggle for women’s rights in the 19th century. In fact, the books I read after this one dealt with that theme, as well. But the sheer hopelessness of a London street prostitute to rise above, let alone stay alive… This book made me count my blessings I was born mid 20th century.

The next book I picked up was Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer Prize winning March. I do love Brooks’ writing. Earlier this year I read People of the Book that told the stories of both a young woman who restored manuscripts and the book that was her project to restore – the fictional Sarajevo Haggadah. It is an exquisite intertwining of her story and the history of a Jewish text.

March was a surprise. If you’re a reader, I’m sure you have wondered and “what-iffed” about what happened to a character after the story that was told. Brooks takes the character of Mr. March, the father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women who was pretty much a behind the scenes character until the end of that book, and tells his story during the year he was away from his family serving as a chaplain to Union soldiers in the Civil War.

While in Little Women we see him as the returning hero, loved by wife and family. March shows us the struggle, the doubts, the anguish of an idealistic, abolitionist, dreamer amid the horrors of an incredibly brutal war. No hero is without his weaknesses, and Mr. March is drawn in Technicolor in that regard. We also see Marmee, his wife, in more dimension than Little Women’s perfect mother picture. There are times in the book when I would have liked to give each of them a good shaking, but I realized that was my 21st century morals and attitudes judging characters in the 19th century. This is what makes Brooks’ writing in March so remarkable to me. She unapologetically and skillfully does not judge her characters or manipulate them beyond the culture of their era.

For some reason only the gods know, I seem to be stuck in the 19th century. I had no idea when I ordered my copies of Wild Swan, Swan’s Chance, and Season of the Swans by Celeste Deblasis that they would take me through that century with the Carrington-Falconer family. Someone had recommended Wild Swan on a forum I frequent and, well, I have a thing for swans, so I ordered them. Silly reason, but there you are.

These books were published in the 1980s and 90s. Celeste Deblasis passed away from cancer in 2001. I suppose they are categorized as historical romantic fiction. The emphasis is indeed on the relationships of the main characters, many main characters. This is a sweeping history of a prolific family from the early part of the century to the end. Alexandra Thaine Carrington Falconer is the driving force of the family and the focus of the books. Wild Swan moves with her from childhood in England to her immigration to Maryland where, with her first husband, St. John Carrington, she builds a farm for the raising of Thoroughbred racing horses. I will not give you much of the story here, as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who decides to read the books.

At first I was annoyed at how much exposition there was in these books. We get history lessons through them all. But these were written in a different style, a different decade, when exposition was not as frowned upon as it is today. 23 years does make a difference. And the characters are very much a part of the history that surrounds them, so it felt more natural as I continued through the trilogy.

Swans. During a difficult time in my life I lived for a month at my cousin’s summer lake cottage. It was my grandparents’ cottage when I was a child and I spent idyllic, sun-warmed summers with them there. Now it is a run-down sort of place, kept together with love and Mr. Fix-it efforts by my cousin. By all rights it should be torn down and replaced, but my cousin just can’t bring himself to let go of it. It is a magic place, not just because it holds the loving spirits of our grandparents and memories of our youth, but it is an untouched oasis amid busy suburban rush. There are deer, fox, ducks, birds of all kinds, squirrels, ground hogs, frogs, turtles, fish….and swans. My cousin tells me there are three species of swans on the lake. I don’t know about that, but I will forever remember the family of mute swans that frequented the channel in front of the cottage every morning I was there – a male, female and three fuzzy, dustmop cygnets. Watching them feed on the duckweed in the channel every morning, parents herding and directing their young ones, brought me a peace and confidence that all was as it should be.

Alex Falconer finds the same peace and solidity in the migration of swans first in England’s west country and then the Chesapeake Bay. Swans are fiercely dedicated to and protective of mate and family. They mate for life, unless their partner dies, of course. Alex is a swan.

I don’t know what century I will venture into next. I’m not sure I’m done with the 19th yet. We’ll see what comes.


Michelle said...

Lovely write-up, Betty!

Betty said...

Thanks, Michelle. The books seemed so connected that I didn't want to "review" them separately. It's funny how what I read seems to find connections in that manner. I can just pick books at random not even knowing what they are about, like I did with the Wild Swan trilogy, and that seems to happen.

But then, I'm all about "connections," aren't I?:o)