Sometimes I need a change from the present day with its endless news—endless recycling of stories that make me sad or mad or both. That’s when I lose myself in reading about the past. For the last week or so I’ve been reading a new biography of Edward Lear. Remember him? He was the author of children’s verse such as
The owl and the pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat
They took some honey and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
Even more famous are his limericks, which have become almost as familiar as Mother Goose rhymes.
Like most people I had no idea that Lear was not primarily a poet, but rather a respected painter specializing in birds and landscapes. That was how he made his living and the reason why he traveled ceaselessly around Europe and the Middle East. I learned all this from a sparkling new biography by Jenny Unglow called Mr. Lear; a Life of Art and Nonsense.
During the past two weeks I’ve spent much of my spare time dipping into Edward Lear’s remarkable life. Unglow makes his life memorable by describing his unusual family life—he was the 13th of 14 (or possibly more) children and was raised primarily by an older sister because his mother couldn’t cope with all the babies.
Born in 1812, Lear was able to take advantage of the speedy travel made possible by the spread of trains across Great Britain and most of Europe and the steamships that took him to Greece, Malta and Sicily. His network of friends gave him companionship when he was in foreign lands. Although not an aristocrat, he found patrons among wealthy families who valued his pictures and enjoyed his cheerful company and his way with children. He was welcomed everywhere he went.
Certainly his life wasn’t easy. He suffered from a range of ailments including epileptic attacks as well as episodes of depression. He longed for the stability of marriage and family life, but his emotions centered on men and he never found a way of balancing his desires with the rules of Victorian society. Still, he maintained his friendships and found satisfaction in his work, although like all of us he often complained of overwork.
The past was not a happy place, and I wouldn’t want to live there, but visiting it now and then is refreshing. I urge you to read Jenny Unglow’s book, which is available now in libraries and bookstores as well as on Amazon.com.
People have lived through worse times than those we are going through today. Reading and writing about them today gives me perspective on the life and times of the 21st century. That is why I have set my Charlotte Edgerton mystery stories in the 1840s, a tumultuous period in both Europe and America. Charlotte Edgerton and her friends lived through many of the same events that Edward Lear did.
Later this month, the fourth Charlotte Edgerton mystery Death Enters the Convent will be published. I’ll write more about that in my next post.
At a time when present day life often seems overly complicated and depressing, many readers as well as many TV viewers choose to go back to earlier times. Somehow it seems as though life must have been simpler then, although the truth is that it wasn’t. Finding enough food for the family and keeping young babies alive was a lot harder than coping with an overcrowded bus on the daily commute.
Even though we know life wasn’t really simple in the old days, it’s easy to believe that it was because the problems were different. After all, the Regency heroines of romance novels never had to worry about having a scandalous video of their indiscretions turn up on Facebook.
But historical novels often deal with issues that are very current and similar to what’s going on today. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace might be set in a different time, but the difficulty of judging guilt or innocence in a crime is a perennial problem. It will be interesting to see whether the TV version of Alias Grace treats the subject with as much depth as the book did.
TV is often scorned as offering a more sanitized and false picture of the past than historical fiction books. Certainly the imagined world of Downton Abbey which attracted so many viewers, brought people into a domain where servants and gentry shared not only an estate but also a world view. The master and mistress of the house cared about the servants and thoughtfully helped them through their troubles. In the end almost everyone made out all right.
Novels that deal with servants and masters are often far more frank than TV shows about the carelessness and cruelties that often make a servant’s life miserable. If you really want a glimpse of what it was like to be a servant in early 19th century England, you might want to read Jo Baker’s Longbourn, which gives a fascinating glimpse of the life of a servant in the service of Jane Austen’s fictional Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice. Admittedly Jane Austen wrote about an earlier historical period than Downton Abbey, but it is hard not to believe that Baker’s view of the world is far more realistic than the one offered by the familiar TV series.
If you are a fan of historical fiction, whether mysteries set in medieval Europe or novels based on American history like The Underground Railroad, you’ll enjoy this great list of historical novels website. Choose your century and ENJOY!
Summer is coming up and for many people that is the prime season for binge watching TV series they missed during the year. But television isn’t the only media that is ripe for binging. Binge reading is a perennial favorite especially during rainy summer weekends when the beach is sodden and hiking trails are muddy.
Some people define binge reading as reading a book obsessively and not putting it down until you’ve finished it, whether that is 2 a.m. or sunrise. But equally satisfying is the binge reading done in bits and pieces but covering a whole series of books, usually genre books like mysteries, romances or science fiction. I remember one stressful holiday season when I gulped down one Ruth Galloway mystery after another, relishing the excuse to leave my crowded household for the north shore of England filled with mysteries about archeology and with patient sleuths. (In case you’ve never read them, the Ruth Galloway mysteries are by Elly Griffiths).
Binge reading can be by subject too. I remember spending a snowy Christmas week, stuck in the house with small children, reading one book after another about Renaissance Italy. It was almost like having a vacation.
Binge reading could be difficult in the old days when ending one book and feeling the urgent need for another meant a trip to the library or possibly even a bookstore if one was available. Now with ebooks, it takes only a few clicks to have the next book in the series delivered electronically from your public library or ebook supplier.
Most readers don’t think about the people who supply the books for us to read, but the enthusiasm for series books to read has put a lot of strain on writers. In the days before the indie publishing revolution—five years ago or more—there was usually a wait of two or three years between books. Traditional publishing is a time-consuming business. Now, if you look at writing blogs, you will see writers complaining that their publishers want at least two books a year from their series of mysteries or romances. It’s not easy for a writer to come up with several new ideas for books every year. As a result, a sparkling series may dwindle away as old plot twists are reused and irrelevant padding dragged into the story. It can be as sad to see a good, lively book series die away as it is to watch a TV series wither in its final season. It is much better for writers and publishers to aim for “limited series” as the TV shows are now doing. A quartet of lively books using the same characters and setting is better than a dozen books of repetitious stories.
On the other hand, some writers could be called binge writers. They keep turning out books and finding an audience year after year after year. One of these was Barbara
Cartland, who wrote more than 700 books in her 80-year-long career before her death in 2000. And her fans kept on loving them. Another was Isaac Asimov, who wrote more than 500 books both science fiction and non-fiction. He contributed so much to our culture that he deserves a separate post.
There should be a special award for binge writers whose energy and ideas feed our need for more stories to feed our passion.
This year has been a disappointment for so many people and a disaster for some. Almost all the notes written on holiday cards from friends include some reference to being shocked and depressed by the election results last month. We are all wondering what the spring and summer will bring.
At a time like this it is a relief to take refuge in some of the books I have loved since childhood. I remember a poem by Oliver Herford that I read many years ago:
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.
“We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,”
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
That poem was in a book called More Silver Pennies that my mother bought in a second-hand bookstore. It has echoed in my head every January for years.
When I was growing up, my friends and I had access to many poems that we read and reread. As a preteen I remember finding a book of Dorothy Parker’s poems at the home of one of my Girl Scout leaders. My best friend and I used to giggle over Parker’s verses when the scout meetings seemed long. We especially liked this one:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
That struck us as the most sophisticated and witty language we had ever heard. Parker gave us a glimpse of the glittering world of Manhattan just across the river from the quiet streets of Queens. We both decided that someday we would live in that world.
I know that school children today are encouraged to write their own poetry and express their feelings, but I hope they are also reading other people’s poetry. Poems, especially the old-fashioned kind that have rhythm and rhyme, linger in the mind and can be a lifelong pleasure.
Another favorite poet of my childhood was, of course, Emily Dickinson. Her works were everywhere—in schools and libraries . Teachers read them to us and we recited them back in class during Friday afternoon poetry sessions. Some of them are still with me.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
At the end of this long and trying year, I am grateful I grew up with poetry. I hope children today are doing the same. Hope remains. Let’s all keep it in our hearts during the year ahead.