In Praise of the New with Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee 

Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee share their latest discoveries.

July 2017

 - Thursday, July 06, 2017

Granny's Good Reads

For 200 years we have been reading Jane Austen the wrong way. She was, it seems, a radical with well-considered opinions on sex, slavery, rural poverty, the class system and the lowly status of women, and wrote novels to bring these opinions before an unenlightened public. This, pretty much, is the message of Helena Kelly in Jane Austen the Secret Radical ($23). So, for instance, Northanger Abbey isn’t just a send-up of the Gothic novels in vogue in the late 18th century, but is also a key to the more intimate aspects of Catherine Morland’s sexuality. I wasn’t convinced. The past is a foreign country and Kelly’s attempt to migrate Jane Austen into 21st Century feminism is implausible. Austen doubtless had strong opinions. She read widely, hated slavery and felt keenly her dependence on her brothers after her father’s death. But it’s always her characters who are centre-stage, with the world of their day as backcloth. Fortunes were indeed made from sugar, which was known to be a product of slavery, so it’s hardly surprising when Fanny Price asks Sir Thomas Bertram a timid question about the slave trade in Mansfield Park. Fortunes were also made by enclosing land, from which landlords like Mr Knightly would have done well, but Austen did not write Emma to depict a bad landlord. A girl without money had little prospect of getting a husband, but a few girls got lucky. Fortunes could be made at sea from seizing enemy vessels as prizes and Captain Wentworth returns with a tidy sum in Persuasion, while Fanny Price’s brother William is well on his way by the end of Mansfield Park. Most of Austen’s time was wartime and soldiers’ camps were dotted all over England. Officers in red coats added colour to balls and rural assemblies, while the cads among them were available for running away with silly girls like Lydia. Some parsons, like Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, were obsequious, and some rich folk, like the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, were selfish, but such portraits are not put before us as indictments of the contemporary social structure. That said, I greatly enjoyed Kelly’s book and heartily recommend it. There’s a wealth of information in it, and it was a great pleasure to disagree with her. But for balance I suggest Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life ($25).
I also thoroughly enjoyed A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work by Bernadette Brennan. It’s not quite a biography but rather an evaluation of Garner’s writings in chronological order with the reaction of critics and readers to each one. Garner co-operated by helping Brennan get access to materials such as her correspondence with Axel Clark. This book will be invaluable to students but will also be welcome to anyone who esteems Garner for her searing honesty, her courage in writing gut-wrenching books like Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief, and who admires her peerless prose style. I have a soft spot for Cosmo Cosmolino, at one time panned by critics and shunned by readers, and Garner herself admits to sulking at the response. The Spare Room and The First Stone are exhaustively discussed and there’s a good account of the furore over the latter. The last book treated is Everywhere I Look, Garner’s superb selection of her diaries and essays, including tributes to her parents and her fearsome teacher Mrs Dunkley, her joy in her grandchildren, the problems of ageing, a riff on Pride and Prejudice with a shout-out to that ‘slack moll’ Lydia, and (my favourite) the episode where Garner yanks the ponytail of a schoolgirl who is taunting an Asian woman. Finally, Brennan asks Garner if she has anything going on now. The reply is so delightfully Garneresque that it left me smiling. She and Hilary McPhee and a couple of others have a reading-aloud group where they read the psalms in different translations.
Tony Kevin went to Russia in 1969 as a young diplomat and conceived a deep affection for the Russian people. In Return to Moscow ($30) he goes back for a holiday and finds Moscow to be ‘an elegant European city’. He visits the homes of Pasternak and Tolstoy and is pleased when his fluent Russian returns. In the final chapter he looks at world affairs from a Russian perspective and is concerned that Western antipathy to Putin may lead to a second Cold war.
Finally, don’t miss Antipodes: In Search of the Southern Continent by Avan Judd Stallard, a lavishly illustrated book about the geographical obsession which had countless explorers looking for the Terra Incognita and not knowing what to make of it when they found it. One for readers with an interest in old and obscure maps. Sonia

In Praise of the New

The state of Maine, with its rocky coast and rugged terrain, has produced more than it’s fair share of memorable imagery, in both art and literature. One of the most memorable images, for me, is the other-worldly, rather unnerving painting, Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth painted in 1948. A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline is a novel based on the real Christina in the painting, Christina Olson.
Born into rural poverty in 1893, she had a degenerative muscular disorder that attacked her legs—and eventually took away her independence and any hope for a ‘normal’ life. A very intelligent child, she was stopped from pursuing her education—despite being offered a teaching job at her school. And although she had a place in her community, she hardly had an easy time of it. Andrew Wyeth chose Christina, her brother, and their farm as subjects of many of his drawings and paintings; but it is the image of her lying awkwardly in the grass, her back to the artist with the farm house some way in the distance, that captured the collective imagination. Christina does evoke sympathy in the reader of this book, but it’s Andrew Wyeth who really leaps from the page. I would have liked to read more about him, and his artistic process, and his really extraordinary parents. Thankfully, there are other books to be read about the Wyeth family, and I’m going to track them down.

Kate Forsyth’s new book Beauty in Thorns is stuffed with facts about the Pre-Raphaelite painters and their models, and she has created a really vivid world that pulls the reader in with fascinating details about their work, and the extraordinarily complicated way they lived. Focussing on Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, the story starts early in their careers, and takes us through the various dramas and tribulations and exultations of their artistic lives—as a group and as individuals. Most interestingly, the author spends time imagining the lives of the wives of these artists—the doomed Lizzie Siddal, beautiful Jane Burden and the really long suffering Georgiana McDonald, who married Edward Burne-Jones when he was just Ted Jones. These woman were artists in their own right, as well models, and their husbands were able to burn brightly in their careers because their wives toiled in the background, sustaining the idyll of art and beauty. The author alludes to fairy tales and myths, (favourite motifs of these artists) as well as using quotes from Georgiana Burne-Jones’ Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, creating a rich and believable setting for the book. Don’t be put off by the corny cover, because despite being a bit breathless at times, this is a very enjoyable and highly informative book that brings a whole art movement to life. Louise