Virginia Morell's biography of the Leakey family is superb! Much of what we have learned about our own human origins is due to the life-long dedicatio...moreVirginia Morell's biography of the Leakey family is superb! Much of what we have learned about our own human origins is due to the life-long dedication of several generations of Leakeys working in Africa and the countless graduate students that they have mentored. It was fascinating to learn ever so much more about Louis, his long-suffering and curmudgeonly wife, Mary, and one of their sons, Richard, and his wife Meave. And even now Richard and Meave's daughter, Louise, is continuing the tradition and is conducting paleontological/anthropological expeditions of her own in Africa. What an interesting family! This was a great read.(less)
I know that some readers grouse about Lee's description of Wharton's love of gardening and architecture, but what the hell, this was part-and-parcel o...moreI know that some readers grouse about Lee's description of Wharton's love of gardening and architecture, but what the hell, this was part-and-parcel of Edith Wharton's life, and was reflected throughout her short stories and novels. I think Hermione Lee has done a magnificent job of capturing the human and literary essence of this most wonderful woman--Edith Neubold Jones Wharton. Edith Wharton is my favorite American author, in the same vein as Thomas Hardy is my favorite British author, and Emile Zola my favorite French author--it is all about 'Naturalism'.
Personally, this biography resonated enormously with me--chapter by chapter--simply because I have read nearly all of her novels, and probably ninety-five percent of her short stories. I now know that this is my go-to reference for all things Wharton going forward. If you like the fiction of Edith Wharton, you owe it to yourself to find a copy of Hermione Lee's biography of her. Sit down with a cuppa tea and enjoy the flowers and the life of a very grande dame!(less)
I just finished reading Michael Millgate's biography of Thomas Hardy. Interestingly, I read this immediately after finishing Claire Tomalin's more rec...moreI just finished reading Michael Millgate's biography of Thomas Hardy. Interestingly, I read this immediately after finishing Claire Tomalin's more recent Hardy biography, Thomas Hardy. Millgate's biography is superb--scholarly and very detailed. I enjoyed it very much, but if I had to choose my favorite, I'd probably go with Tomalin's. Why? I loved the way that Tomalin integrated Hardy's poetry so seamlessly into the narrative of his interesting life. It was her great reliance and use of his poetry, from my perspective, that so fully fleshed out the man and the ideas behind those wonderful novels of his. Millgate, on the other hand, tells the full, complicated, and rich story of Hardy's life; and while Millgate features Hardy's poetry throughout the book too, it is but a part of the larger story of the man and his life. Both books are worthy and quite complementary, they are just different from one another.
In summation, if you are a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Thomas Hardy's fiction and poetry, I say that you should have both of these biographies on your bookshelf. They really are the definitive Hardy biographies, and both are quite readable. Finally, to fully round out your Hardy library, I would also recommend the addition of Rosemarie Morgan's brilliant little volume, Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy.(less)
When reading the novels of Thomas Hardy one can't help but want to delve into the author's mind about these incredible women that he has developed. Th...moreWhen reading the novels of Thomas Hardy one can't help but want to delve into the author's mind about these incredible women that he has developed. Think about it for a moment. What Victorian male author do you know of that has created such a suite of women? Women who are strong-minded, strong-willed, soulful, and imbued with their latent natural femininity and sexuality; and that these women defy the Victorian norms and convention at every turn. While the outcomes of some of these novels have the power to absolutely devastate me, I am at the same time simply amazed at the depth and breadth of the character of the female heroines that he has created. Being the father of two beautiful and incredibly intelligent adult daughters, I have to say that I am an unabashed fan of these women who round out the spheres of each of Hardy's novels (and a good bit of his short stories and poetry too).
I recently ran across a bibliographic citation to Rosemarie Morgan's book, "Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy", in the Introduction to the Everyman's Library edition of Hardy's "The Return of the Native." I decided that this was definitely something I wanted to read, and while it was a bit difficult to procure, I was able to find a nearly brand-new copy on-line.
Dr. Morgan is the current President of the "Thomas Hardy Association"and is considered quite the Hardy scholar. And while her book is clearly a scholarly analysis, it is eminently readable and quite fascinating. After reading Under the Greenwood Tree, A Pair of Blue Eyes, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure I knew that I needed to dig deeper and try and better understand all that Hardy was trying to tell me about these women. Reading these novels you can't help but become very much aware of each of these amazing women. Hardy almost physically forces you into their space and into their mind, and sometimes it is damned uncomfortable and very painful; and I think that is just as he intended it to be.
The women in Hardy's novels are not perfect; far from it. In fact, Hardy himself vehemently rejected the model of the 'perfect woman in fiction.' Sharing his feelings in a letter to a friend in 1891, Hardy wrote, "that I have felt that the doll of English fiction must be demolished." Well, all I can say, in having read his novels in order of publishing, is that I believe he has accomplished this in every case. Even before I read Dr. Morgan's book I had come to the conclusion that Hardy liked to include a 'witch' in his novels. These witches aren't necessarily bad, but they are enchantresses; they are powerful, seductive, assertive, and self-determined women. These are not the 'limp-wristed' helpless beauties of so many of the Victorian authors that we read today. No, these are women that we can all relate to in almost every way, and in almost any time.
Morgan sets forth the notion that Hardy's fusion of moral seriousness and feminine sexuality yields, as she says,
"a set of fit and healthy, brave and dauntless, remarkably strong women. The sexual vitality which infuses their animate life generates vigour of both body and mind; from thence springs intelligence, strength, courage, and emotional generosity, and that capacity so many Hardy heroines possess for self-exposure expressing both daring and intimacy--the ultimate intimacy which demands facing the fear of ego-loss in those moments which call for abandon.
Morgan's thesis continues with the observation that
"Hardy's platform remains consistent and forthright: the world that denies autonomy, identity, purpose and power to women, is to be, on his terms, the loser."
Morgan's aim with the book then, in her words, "is to present a revisionist study of Hardy's treatment of female sexuality, a new vision of his work, reshaping our impression of him through the refracting lens of his view of women."
Dr. Morgan's book walks the reader through her interpretation of Hardy's authorial intent associated with the following heroines (and my editorial comments): the sweet Elfride Swancourt (A Pair of Blue Eyes); vivacious Bathsheba Everdene (Far From the Madding Crowd); my favorite 'witch', Eustacia Vye (The Return of the Native); my dearest beloved, Tess (Tess of the d'Urbervilles); and the ethereal Sue Bridehead (Jude the Obscure). If you read Hardy, and if you love Hardy, you simply must read this book. If you are a fan of Victoriana, this is a book that must be on your shelf. If you truly want to explore women's issues and female sexuality in the late-Victorian then this book is for you.
It is my experience that people tend to automatically pigeon-hole Hardy's novels as "bleak," "black," "depressing," or "morose;" but these labels are nothing but superficial; and while they are certainly tragedies in the Greek sense, they are at the same time uplifting, liberating, and enlightening for the situations in which women are placed in the late-Victorian. In my opinion, and this is an important facet, I think Hardy does the job well. He is one of the 'Voices in the Wilderness' screaming for the emancipation of women, the equality of the sexes, and the recognition of natural female sexuality in a time that rejected all of it out of hand; and especially when it came to the rigours and institution of marriage. He truly believed that marriage needed to be reconsidered from the perspective of the female participant. This, I believe, is Dr. Morgan's contention, and I agree wholeheartedly. I applaud her, and I most especially applaud Thomas Hardy for his moral fortitude in presenting these magnificent women, just as they are, and their issues, to us for our view and consideration. How can we not fail to accept them for who they are? Can we honestly fail Eustacia, Tess, and Sue yet again?(less)
Claire Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy is simply superb! I believe that I enjoyed the book even more because I recently read (or re-read) all of h...moreClaire Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy is simply superb! I believe that I enjoyed the book even more because I recently read (or re-read) all of his major novels, many of his short stories, and much of his poetry. It was simply delightful to be able to immediately relate to the points she made. It was also fascinating to see how much of Hardy's own personal life, as well as that of his Dorset family and friends, influenced his fiction and poetry.
As Tomalin points out and discusses in some detail, one of the great paradoxes is that while Hardy was certainly one of the great Victorian novelists, he was also one of the great poets of the 20th century! I cannot emphasize enough the importance of reading Hardy's poetry if you are truly looking to fully understand this brilliant man. Tomalin's biography makes a point of lacing the text liberally with hundreds of examples of Hardy's poetry illuminating the various points and events of his 87 years of life. And what a life it was!
This very well-written and very readable biography should be on every Hardy enthusiast's bookshelf. Could it have been longer, and even more detailed? Sure, it probably could have, but then Tomalin would have been plowing ground already planted by Michael Millgate in his scholarly works of 1985 and 2004. In my opinion, this is a perfect addition for the general reader and scholar if you are looking to learn more about the man that gave the world some of its greatest novels and beautiful, soulful poetry.(less)
I found this very well-written and interesting book the other day on the bargain table at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Christopher Benfey’s...moreI found this very well-written and interesting book the other day on the bargain table at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds, while just a touch over 250 pages in length, is a fascinating look at a series of seemingly unconnected historical events involving a group of prominent literary, theological, scientific, and artistic Americans during the late-1860s through the 1880s. Interestingly, what seems to link these persons together was their unmitigated passion for hummingbirds!
As Dr. Benfey writes, “they wrote poems and stories about hummingbirds; they painted pictures of hummingbirds; they tamed wild hummingbirds and collected stuffed hummingbirds; they set music to the humming of hummingbirds; they waited impatiently through the winter months for the hummingbirds’ return.” Dr. Benfey puts forward the proposition that this fascination was one result of the great tragic, but ultimately liberating, experience of the American Civil War. Benfey believes that “Americans during and after the Civil War gradually left behind a static view of existence, a trust in fixed arrangements and hierarchies. In science and in art, in religion and in love, they came to see a new dynamism and movement in their lives, a brave new world of instability and evanescence. This dynamism, in all aspects of life, found perfect expression in the hummingbird.”
The book kicks off with Thomas Wentworth Higginson and his black Union soldiers near Jacksonville, Florida, during the American Civil War. Before his military service began, Higginson wrote an essay entitled, The Life of Birds, that was published in The Atlantic in 1862. He began the essay with a long look at hummingbirds which, in his words, were “an image of airy motion,” and wondered if “gems turn to flowers, flowers to feathers, in that long-past dynasty of the humming-birds?” A fanciful nod to Darwinism, perhaps.
Higginson, during the war years, was already corresponding with Emily Dickinson, the shy and reclusive brilliant poet of Amherst, Massachusetts. In fact, in 1862, Dickinson sent three poems to Higginson for his opinion and asked if they had the potential for publication. Dickinson, it seems, was inspired by Higginson’s nature essays to begin writing poems about hummingbirds, including this example:
“Within my Garden, rides a Bird Upon a single Wheel— Whose spokes a dizzy Music make As ‘twere a traveling Mill—
He never stops, but slackens Above the Ripest Rose— Partakes without alighting And praises as he goes”
I learned some interesting new things about Emily Dickinson, Henry Ward Beecher, his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. To me though, I was most intrigued with Martin Johnson Heade. Heade was an artist, largely a landscape painter, of the American mid-19th century “Hudson River School;” that also produced artists like Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt. Heade loved painting nature and the wildlife that lived in it. It appears that he also had a bit of wanderlust in him as he traveled all over the globe in pursuit of practicing his art. He particularly loved to paint hummingbirds in their natural habitats, and visited Central and South America in pursuit of these little flying jewels. Many prominent Americans, including Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) ownws paintings by Heade.
Generally, the book gives a wonderful overview of each of these amazing people and what made them important in their own time. The real point of the book though, in my opinion, is Dr. Benfey’s contention that there was a convergence, of sorts, of most of these people in and around Amherst, Massachusetts from the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s, for a variety of reasons. I really don’t want to give anything away, but there are some really interesting and juicy tid-bits concerning Henry Ward Beecher, Austin Dickinson, the beautiful and talented artist Mabel Loomis Todd, Martin Johnson Heade, and Emily Dickinson.
Benfey’s book then, in a sense, is really a ‘string-of-pearls’ of connected, or quasi-connected, relationships among the book’s principals. These relationships occur over the twenty-year period following the Civil War, the so-called 'great American Golden Age,' and culminate with Henry Flagler’s promotion and development of Florida as a winter travel destination. As I mentioned above, the book starts in Florida with Higginson; it goes full-circle and ends in Florida with Flagler and Heade and Flagler's fabulous resort hotel in St. Augustine, Florida.
This was a very thought-provoking and fun book to read. I have to say that learning more about Emily Dickinson, the person and woman, has increased my appreciation of the brilliance and genius of her amazing poetry. Getting to know her brother Austin, and sister-in-law, Susan, and her friends David and Mabel Todd was an added bonus. Discovering Martin Johnson Heade’s life and paintings was fantastic, as I am a huge fan of the Hudson River School, landscape art in general, and especially paintings of birds. Finally, the book includes an excellent collection of end-notes and a superb index. This is a fast read and will make a wonderful addition to anyone’s American literature bookshelf. I highly recommend Dr. Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds.(less)
I have just finished reading Jan Marsh’s monumental biography of the Victorian poet, Christina Georgina Rossetti, entitled, “Christina Rossetti: A Lit...moreI have just finished reading Jan Marsh’s monumental biography of the Victorian poet, Christina Georgina Rossetti, entitled, “Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography,” and all I can say is “Bravo!” This extremely well written biography leads the reader through Christina’s interesting and complicated family life, as well as providing significant insight into the development of her poetic craft, and the intellectual stimulus behind much of her work. Christina, born in 1830, was the youngest of four children, and wrote her first poem as a birthday present for her mother when she was eleven. Her elder siblings, Maria, Dante Gabriel, and William were also accomplished writers; and in Dante’s case, he was an incredibly talented artist as well.
I read Marsh’s biography of Christina concurrently, in a side-by-side fashion, with the Penguin Classics edition of “Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems,” and it made the experience ever so much richer. It would be easy to pigeon-hole Christina Rossetti as simply a religious poet, but that would be very short-sighted. Yes, she was very pious, and was incredibly devoted to her faith and the High Anglican church she was raised in. Her poetry though, while complex, lyrical, and imaginative, reflects the trials and tribulations of a young woman’s feelings whilst growing up in Victorian England. Over the course of her life, Christina wrote more than 1,000 poems that weave together her fantasies, experiences, feelings, moral upbringing, social conventions, and her deep and abiding faith together in a body of work that is virtually unparalleled among poets, including those that preceded or followed her.
It was also interesting to learn just how involved she was with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s creation, in 1848, with his friends, of the avant-garde artistic movement that became the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). This initial group included William Holman Hunt, James Collinson, John Everett Millais, and Christina’s other brother William Michael Rossetti. Several of the artists, including Dante, also wrote and published poetry, and Christina was invited to publish her early poetry in the PRB periodical, “The Germ.” The young Christina also sat as a studio model in several of Dante’s beautiful paintings. More importantly, while Christina did not always approve of the life-styles and activities of many of the members of the PRB, she was intellectually challenged and stimulated by the round-the-clock philosophical and artistic discussions that the members engaged in. Both of her brothers, especially Dante Gabriel, were fully committed and active supporters and promoters of her poetry and provided extensive literary and critical advice over the course of her career.
I found it fascinating to learn that during Christina’s lifetime, because of her own talents, and the literary connections of her family, Christina met and spent time with Robert Browning, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Jean Ingelow, Adelaide Proctor, Charles Dodgson (“Lewis Carroll”), and a whole host of other poets and writers. The biography also includes several photographic family portraits taken by Charles Dodgson, as well as numerous sketches and paintings of Christina and other family members by her brother, Dante. She was known to be a prolific reader and letter writer, and wrote scores of short stories and essays, both secular and religious; and Ms. Marsh has drawn upon much of this prose and correspondence in fleshing out the details of Christina’s life.
Ms. Marsh’s biography provides one of the most detailed looks into the day-to-day life of women in Victorian London, and the dependence that many single or widowed women had on the men in their family for their support. After the death of Christina’s father in 1854, her brother William essentially became responsible for the care of his mother and his two unmarried sisters. Christina, over the course of her life, rejected two serious proposals of marriage; the first from James Collinson, of the PRB; and the second from Charles Bagout Cayley. It appears that the reasons for these rejections were that neither man shared the same religious beliefs that she adhered to. While both of her brothers had complicated relationships with women and did eventually marry; neither Christina, nor her older sister, Maria, ever married. That lack of a long-term romantic love is a topic that Christina’s poetry returns to time and time again.
As Christina’s poetic voice matured, she began to submit her works for publication. Her first substantial book-length publication was “Goblin Market and Other Poems” in 1862. “Goblin Market” was immensely popular and well-received by the critics, and seems to have established her as a poet of some note in both Britain and the United States. This brought her wide-spread fame and allowed her to contribute to the Rossetti household income and support her charity work. In fact, upon the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1861, Christina became the natural successor to the informal title of 'female laureate.' Over the course of Christina’s literary career she was able to have published several books of collected poems; including “Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book” for children, a delightful collection of short poems and riddles that recalled her days as a little girl in the rambunctious Rossetti family.
Ms. Marsh’s biography does a terrific job of illuminating the personality and character traits of this woman, her interactions with her immediate family, and the wide network of friends that she had. Marsh also sheds insight on Christina’s many years of charity work at the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate. While it was not a prison, but a ‘home’ with a fairly structured routine, she worked with women who had had children out of wedlock, or had been abandoned, or were active prostitutes coming off of the streets of London. Again, much of her poetry seems to reflect many of the life experiences that she would have become aware of during the course of her work with these women. Finally, in middle-age her declining health became much more of an issue for her. For years she battled ‘Graves Disease’ (a thyroid condition); and later, the breast cancer that ultimately claimed her life in 1894 at the age of 64.
The most important aspect of Jan Marsh’s biography is that the reader comes away with an understanding behind Christina’s most powerful works -- the muse behind the words. The reader has a better sense of the role that her life experiences and her faith played in the development of her major poetic works. In that vein, I really want to recommend some of my very favorite poems of Christina’s that really illustrate what a technically and lyrically accomplished poet she was, including the following: “Goblin Market,” “The Convent Threshold,” "The Prince’s Progress,” “The Ghost’s Petition,” “The Months/A Pageant,” “Monna Innominata” (a sequence of 14 sonnets), “An Echo from Willowwood,” “The Dead City,” “Ruin,” and “In an Artist’s Studio.”
In conclusion, Jan Marsh’s many years of researching and writing about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the women associated with that movement (she also wrote a book entitled, “Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood”) has eminently prepared her to write this superb biography of one of the greatest poets of the Victorian Era – Christina Georgina Rossetti. In many respects, the book reads like a novel, is well illustrated, and includes a prodigious amount of Christina’s eloquent poetry that reinforces the connections, and relationships that Ms. Marsh believes motivated Christina’s poetic muse. This was an important book for me, and has caused me to appreciate Miss Rossetti’s poetry all the more. (less)