". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Three Reading Wednesdays At Least!

A splendid trio of titles this week: two historical novels and one a studied account of a famous event in literary history.

These are the current trade paper reprint editions from Houghton Mifflin / Mariner imprint that I acquired.
The two historical novels are both by Anya Seton, and both of them are among first historical fiction I read written by women, read in that boundary year between 12 and turning 13, certainly the ones I remember, along with Gone With the Wind.

The Winthrop Woman I read at the lake during the periods I wasn't allowed in the water.  It was among the Book of the Month Club offerings that my mother brought to the annual July sojourns at the Lake. in the vain hope that she'd have so much time on her hands she'd be able to catch up with her reading.

I had already read Gone With the Wind, at the end of spring, just when school let out.  This was from my grandmother's shelves, from where I'd previously appropriated Ben-Hur and Ivanhoe, both of which I'd re-read several times already.

When school resumed in the fall, that year I was bused everyday to Town, where the county public library was located, and for which my mom saw to it I'd gotten my library card as soon as first grade was completed. The library was divided into the juvenile side and the adult side.  It may have been me, but it seemed the division was so strictly observed that surely a lightening bolt would strike -- or expulsion from the library at least -- would ensue if I stepped over that invisible line.  But now I was a freshman (rather early but I'd been skipped a grade), maybe I could sneak across that line and browse among the mysteries those adult shelves held.

Sure enough, on one of those first explorations I discovered Seton's Katherine.  I no longer recall whether I was aware that the same writer was responsible for both novels -- it's quite likely that I was not.  But I do recall in detail that book -- a dull green library binding, with darker letters spelling out the title.  It was a fat book too, and I'd already associated a fat book with an exciting read back in time. Why this particular book with dull covers (only the latest books acquired possessed the colorful dust jackets, preserved in see-through plastic) got my attention, I no longer remember.  It's not as though Katherine was even a girl's name I liked, surrounded at that time by a number of bullying Kathys, and attracted as I was to exotic women's names such as Deirdre and Charlotte.

But devour I did Seton's imaginative creation out of the few facts known about Katherine de Roet - Swynford, and finally Duchess of Lancaster and ancestress of English Kings.  This is where I first encountered the existence of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Geoffrey Chaucer, England's alliance with Portugal and her national fortune founded in wool, and a great deal more about the middle ages in England that have interested me every since.  I puzzled over the differences between this Middle Ages and that of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.

So, I  learned there were chronological, i.e. historical differences -- periods -- even within a the demarcation of the Middle Ages of my history classes. I also noticed -- vaguely! --  there seemed differences in stories of a woman as the eponymous title of a novel, from those of an eponymous novel written by a man with male hero.

Oddly, I did know the meaning of "eponymous" at that age, another of the random bits of information gleaned from omnivorous reading and The Book of Knowledge volumes'  literature sections.  Yet, while had noticed the author of Ivanhoe was a man, I'm still not sure I actually noticed that Seton was a female -- partly because I was distracted by the "Anya" -- what kind of name was that?) I did not notice however, that I thought of both Ben-Hur and Ivanhoe as heroes, but I did not think of Katherine as a heroine.  She was "just" a woman, though fascinating.  unlike, any women I knew, in a milieu I did not understand, but which glowed with the colors of the frequent jewels described the narrative. By comparison, Elizabeth Winthrop and her colonial Puritan world were close and familiar.

Yet Katherine wasn't entirely unlike women I knew, or at least knew of, during her poverty stricken years, as depicted in Seton's imagination, married to the knight Hugh Swynford.  She was left alone to manage on a poor country estate, to make do with little, while trapped in marriage with a man she did not like, forced to have his children. That was my take-away from the novel from the reading back then.

However, I'm not certain that's what Seton actually wrote in Katherine. I began reading Katherine last night, and so far, I'm still very impressed with the book, though perhaps in a different way than the 12 year-going-on 13 me was.  Yet, in the end, Seton's writing is creating the same effect -- constant page turning to follow the journey of this most sympathetic and interesting of heroines.  The novel opens when Katherine's 15;  as far as I got last night, though married, she's still only 15. I can't wait to learn what comes next, and how it compares -- and / or contrast -- with what I remember.

There isn't anything more satisfying to read than a good historical novel.

The non-fiction title among the three books this week is The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth and Lamb by Stanley Plumly. This is one of the events in the history of English Romantic Literature that profs of our graduate seminars liked to refer to.  Now a whole book has been published about it.  It looks good, because in that company, how not?


Sarah Johnson said...

It's been a long time since I read Katherine (I did a paper on it for 9th grade English class) and I'm hoping it would hold up well to a re-read. I suspect it would, given how much more I enjoyed her novel Avalon when I reread it a few years ago. (As a teenager, I thought Avalon was one of Seton's more dull, slow-moving novels. Now it's one of my favorites!)

I remember, at age 13 or so, getting drawn into Katherine by the family tree on the endpapers.

Juli said...

You might enjoy Mistress of the Monarchy by Alison Weir. It's a recent scholarly biography of Katherine Swynford. There is an appendix about the Seton book, which is very well loved by many women (including me).

Foxessa said...

Thanks, Juli!

I did read Weir's book, but ultimately was not satisfied and progressively more irritated, as due to so few documentary / primary source materials, the entire book was written in the mode of "perhaps, maybe, possibly, etc." for very many pages.

The greatest value of the book was delineating the Roet's political and family backgrounds.

In mine opinion, that is! :)

Love, c.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

Sarah -- Katherine and The Winthrop Woman are the only two of her novels I really liked, when I read some others in later reprints, such as Dragonwyck.

In re-reading the first two titles, I'm finding they both stand up very well, but it's The Winthrop Woman I enjoyed the most.

But then, the historical and religious milieu is something within which I've lived all my life, intellectually speaking, as well as how I was brought up. I find myself identifying with Elizabeth as much at this stage of my life as I did when a rebellious, questioning, questing, yearning pre-pubescent.

Love, C.