Thursday, December 20, 2018

Literary Birthday Book Reviews for December

Cicely Isabel Fairfield, born on December 21, 1892, grew up to use the pseudonym Rebecca West as her pen name. West lived a captivating life, as an activist in the women's suffrage movement, a reporter for the Nuremberg Trials, and mistress to novelist H.G. Wells. Her affair with Wells produced a son, Anthony West, who became a celebrated writer in his own time. In 1959 she was made DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire), cited as writer and literary critic. She is noted as the most accomplished English writer in the Anglo-Saxon world. A British author and journalist, she has worked as a literary critic, a travel writer, and published several novels in various genres. West was a staunch liberal feminist and considered to be a one of the 20th century's most important public intellectuals.

December's recommended read is West's novel Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy, published in 1929.
This is a strange story about a woman who is able to read her lover's mind, and knowing his thoughts is in the end what saves her life. Harriet is a concert pianist who lives in a Kensington House apartment. Arnold Condorex is a man whose ambitions lead him to corrupt politics in a quest for power. Together this couple is made of polar opposites and at the same time seem drawn together by magnets. Harriet's apartment has a beautiful courtyard where she tends the trees and lilacs with care. While strolling there with Arnold after a midday rendezvous, she shares with him fairytales and revelations about his inner thoughts. This is unsettling to Arnold, whose thoughts are not the purest. He can't face himself in the mirror, so to say. Arnold realizes he has to leave Harriet in order to reach his aspirations in life. She reminded me of Jiminy Cricket … supplying a conscience for Arnold that he doesn't want. He knows that ruthlessness will get him where he wants to be and doesn't need Harriet's judgement to slow him down. The story stops and starts as the couple reunites every few years. While they are apart, Arnold achieves his goals, yet sacrifices his morals along the way. With each reunion, I think Harriet hopes he has changed, or hopes she can change him. Instead her intuitive powers prove Arnold's thoughts are still self-serving and not always flattering to her. Along with burgling Arnold's mind, she can also predict his actions. As the story progresses, his actions become more erratic and Arnold tries to make sense of his fatal attraction to Harriet, “You yourself once explained that there was a mystical confusion of substance in us.”

While researching Rebecca West, I discovered a 1968 interview with her on YouTube, conducted by William F. Buckley Jr., where she talked about the subject of treason. It was an interesting talk about the Cambridge Five and their involvement in passing on information to the Soviet Union as double agents. In listening to her views about spies, traitors, McCarthyism, communism and the John Birch Society, I wondered what she would say about today's politics. One of her noted published works was The Meaning of Treason, where she dissects the moral struggles of those involved in spy rings and conspiracies. This interview also helped me make some connections to what motivated Arnold Condorex in his affair with Harriet Hume. He was obviously attracted to Harriet, although he spoke in flippant terms when professing his love, but the underlying problem he had in other areas of his life prevented him from being the sort of chivalrous lover I wished he could have been. I think West illustrated the human weakness of Arnold’s worldly desires and the difficulty he had with ethics splendidly.

Throughout the novel, West's vocabulary may seem archaic for modern readers, but as stated by William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker, in response to an announcement of her death (March 15, 1983). No one in this century wrote more dazzling prose, or had more wit, or looked at the intricacies of human character and the ways of the world more intelligently."

Tales from Shakespeare is a collection of the famous tragedies and comedies compiled for young readers by English writers Charles and Mary Lamb. My first thought was that Charles and Mary may have been husband and wife, but actually they were unmarried siblings. Mary Lamb whose birthday is on December 3, 1764, cannot be highlighted independently from her brother. They both suffered on and off with mental illness and were devoted to each other’s care throughout life. Mary’s illness was more severe and one day in a fit of anger she stabbed her mother to death. She was acquitted from willful murder on the verdict of lunacy, and on the condition that Charles remain her caretaker.

Their collaboration on Tales from Shakespeare was first published in 1807 and is still widely read and studied today. These tales are a perfect introduction to Shakespeare’s work, preserving the essence of his original language. Charles was responsible for summarizing the tragedies, while Mary rewrote the comedies. Still it was not until the seventh edition (1938) that her name appeared on the title page. The Lambs organized and led a literary and social circle that included poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Tales from Shakespeare came about when William Godwin, a member of this group (more commonly known as Mary Shelley’s father), encouraged the Lambs to write something for his Juvenile Library. There are many editions available of Lambs’ “retellings” but the first edition with illustrations by Irish painter, William Mulready and poet, William Blake is my favorite. For those who enjoy reading online, free access to the entire collection is available at If you are a listener, there are several YouTube audio readers.

I don’t recall ever studying Shakespeare in depth and have only read a few of his tales; of course Romeo and Juliet, A Mid-summer’s Night Dream, and Hamlet. Lamb’s collaboration was my first time reading some of these classics and I discovered new favorites, such as The Winter’s Tale and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. There are a total of twenty tales in this book and I spent the last several weeks reading a different one each night. It may be obvious to those who know Shakespeare’s work well, but there is a theme I picked up on in my readings. I seems like Shakespeare loved disguises and incorporated this into the strategies or motives of different storylines. Many plots unfolded to reveal trickery and surprise, as characters used false identities to reach the story's high point. I imagine the success of Shakespeare’s plays comes partly from costumes and extravagance in production.

My final thoughts about Mary, Charles, and Shakespeare are personal favorite quotes I discovered in research: From William Shakespeare, “There is no darkness but ignorance.” From Charles Lamb, “New Year’s Day is every man’s birthday.” And from Mary Lamb, “A child is fed with milk and praise.” I am not sure of the context these quotes were taken from, but all inspire deep thoughts and will be noted in my literary journal.

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