Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, July 31, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 144

Exploring the Boot of Italy

As we’ve seen, newlyweds Mary and Bysshe Shelley did not stay long in England once they’d exchanged their vows at St. Mildred’s, Bread Street on December 30, 1816. A little over a year later they—and Claire Clairmont with her fourteen-month-old daughter, Allegra (whose father, recall, was Lord Byron)—were on the way to Dover to sail for Italy. With the Shelleys, as well, was their son, William, about two years old. It was a journey that would transform them all and would place a dark, dark period at the end of the sentence of their youth.

Part of the plan for my journey to Europe in April 1999 was to follow the Shelleys to Italy—which, I knew, wouldn’t be all that easy. The peripatetic Bysshe could not stay in one place for very long. During his four years in Italy, they visited and/or lived in (sometimes more than once) Pisa, Leghorn, Bagni di Lucca, Venice, Ferrara, Bologna, Rome, Naples, Florence, San Terenzo. They were up and down and around the boot of Italy like shoeshine cloth.

Well, my masters, Time and Money, would not allow me to go everywhere. But I did the best I could given my masters’ restrictions. My biggest regret: I did not make it to Venice, over on the northeastern side of the boot. For me, it was pretty much the western side, the side where they were living when Bysshe never returned from a sailing excursion in July 1822, washing up ten days later at Viareggio, where local officials required he be cremated on the beach.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Back from the Bard, 4

Blackfriars Theater
American Shakespeare Center
Staunton, Va.

Final thoughts (I think?!?) about seeing Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale last Saturday afternoon at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va.

Okay--the time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things. Well, a few things, anyway. Specifically--what about the endings of Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter's Tale, endings that require us to accept that a loving woman will forgive a man who (in Much Ado) shamed her at her own wedding (calling her a whore, basically) and (in Winter's Tale) accused her publicly of infidelity with his best friend, condemning her to prison and ordering the death of her newborn, who, he believes, is not his child but his best friend's?

Both women (Hero and Hermione) feign death, but Hermione waits sixteen years to reveal that she is alive.

And, as I said, both women forgive the men. Happy ending.

There are all sorts of ways to look at this. I'll review a couple, then talk about where I come down--and why.
  • We must remember: Shakespeare wrote these plays for an audience, a late 16th-, early 17th-century audience. An audience living in a time when males dominated everything. Women were basically a man's property (as were children), so one hard way to look at these endings? Shakespeare was a man; he had very probably strayed (his wife and family were back in Stratford-upon-Avon while he was in London, the most popular playwright of his day). So ... man strays; woman forgives ... does she really have a choice? (Other than suicide or a life of disgrace?) Only a man in a male-dominated culture could write a story like this ... imagine the opposite? A woman behaving in such a fashion ... never happen, right?
  • The plays are not tragedies. If they were, Claudio and the King of Sicilia would, like Othello, have committed even more grisly acts than they did--murder, perhaps. Then die themselves. But Shakespeare wanted a brighter ending in these two plays, so dissipating the darkness that reigns for a while in both is the sun of forgiveness. 
  • But I have another thought, a thought about the vast dimensions of love and forgiveness that appear in his plays, the vast dimensions of the human heart. Yes, the men shame the women in horrifying ways (I'll tell you this: I'm pretty sure--no, positive--I wouldn't be married now if I'd carried on at our wedding the way Claudio did at his!)
    • Both men, however, undergo a transformative period of suffering. Claudio, realizing the horror of what he's done, goes regularly to the grave of Hero (who, of course, is not there) and declares his sorrow and regret; he agrees to marry, sight-unseen, a cousin (he will willingly do his duty); he even realizes that he will perhaps have to battle with his friend Benedick, who has blasted him for his actions, who has suggested they will soon be drawing swords. It's not until the final moments of the play that Benedick lets him off the hook.
    • Leontes (King of Sicilia) grieves for sixteen years--not just for the death of Hermione (who's not dead, of course) but for the the death of his young son (caused by the King's disrespect for Apollo) and the (supposed) death of his infant daughter, whom he ordered abandoned in the wilderness. We see that he has softened, become more humane. More of a human being.
    • And so ... the women, recognizing true transformation, forgive them.
  • So, maybe I'm a bit Pollyannaish about all of this. Blame my own experiences with the love of a wonderful woman, if you must. I know, you see, firsthand, about the dimensions of a human heart.
  • Shakespeare wrote about love over and over and over again. (Anthony Trollope, by the way, wrote forty-seven novels and said he tried to write one without a love interest in it but had to change his mind part-way through: It just wasn't working.) The Bard saw that there is nothing funnier than love-at-first-sight (Romeo, Claudio, Lucentio, Berowne, and many many others), that there is nothing more moving than a man and a woman recognizing they must be together, nothing more ludicrous than a cuckold (best shown in The Merry Wives of Windsor). And nothing more, well, tragic than love spurned--or disgraced.
  • Hawthorne's story "Young Goodman Brown" charts the dark story of a young man who cannot forgive once he discovers that the people in his life are sinners. And do you remember the grim final sentence?
    • And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grand-children, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.
  • I think Shakespeare knew this long before. No forgiveness, an embittered heart. Forever.
All right ... now here's something you probably didn't expect. We saw The Winter's Tale on Saturday afternoon. On Saturday evening we walked down the street to the little local movie theater and saw Minions!

More about that later this week ...

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Back from the Bard, 3

Joyce and I saw The Winter's Tale at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., last Saturday afternoon ...

Let's admit this right away: The Bard can give us problems--and I'm not talking here now about unfamiliar vocabulary and Elizabethan customs and the like. I'm talking about what happens in his plays. Sometimes, it can, well, require a lot of us.

Like Hamlet's encounter with the pirates. That's a stretch. And (in the comedies) the stunning failure of characters to notice that other characters are pretending to be someone/something else. Like those cross-gender transformations in, oh, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. C'mon now--how dumb do you have to be not to recognize that "Ganymede" in As You Like It is actually the amazing Rosalind!?

Okay. There are those sorts of problems. But there are others that can be deeply disturbing. In my memoir about my teaching career (Schoolboy, 2012--available on your Kindle app from Amazon) I tell briefly about an experience I had teaching Much Ado About Nothing to eighth graders back in the 1990s.

In that wonderful play, the young and mercurial Claudio, convinced (by lies) that the young woman he is about to marry (Hero) is, well, providing services for another man--on the eve of her wedding--he waits until the actual ceremony to confront her, to accuse her of infidelity in front of the assembly, and then to stalk self-righteously out of the wedding-that-is-no-more with his equally huffy buddies. Hero, in the meantime, has fainted with shock at the vileness of the slanders against her.

The word goes out that Hero has died. Claudio later discovers he's been manipulated and deceived. He begs forgiveness from Hero's father, who says he will forgive--if (among other things) Claudio will marry, sight unseen, Hero's cousin. The distraught young man promptly agrees.

At the second wedding, his new bride is heavily veiled and he does not see who it is until the last minute. It's Hero, of course, who has not actually died but has been in hiding until friends rescue her reputation (which they do).

At this moment as we were reading the play aloud in class one day, one of my eighth grade girls cried out, "Why would she take him back!" Indeed. A sizzling little conversation ensued.

In The Winter's Tale (first performed in 1611, more than a dozen years after Much Ado) we have an even more egregious version of that story, as we've seen. The King of Sicilia believes his wife, Hermione, has been unfaithful--with his best friend--and that she has conceived a child with that friend. Sicilia condemns her in public, ignores moderating cautionary counsel, sends her to prison, orders the infant to be killed. Only deaths convince him of his error. The death of his son, the death of Hermione. And his daughter is now off, abandoned and dead (he thinks), in Bohemia.

Sixteen years pass between these events and the end of the play. He is reunited with the daughter he thought was dead, and then Paulina, a friend of his long-dead wife, invites him to view a statue of Hermione that she has commissioned. He goes to Paulina's house (with most of the rest of the cast) and sees the statue, initially covered with a drape.

When the covering is removed--TIME FOR A SPOILER ALERT--he sees the amazingly lifelike image before him. He is overwhelmed with regret and grief. And then--after some talking--the statue moves, steps down from its pedestal. It's Hermione, of course, still alive, who's been in seclusion all this time. They embrace. All forgiven.

What?!!?!?!  How could she do that? And why?

In the words of my 8th grader, Why would she take him back?

Indeed ... and next time I'll get into that ...

To be continued ...

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Back from the Bard, 2

Yesterday, I wrote about how Joyce and I saw a production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale at the Blackfriars Theater (a replica--though smaller--of the indoor theater that Shakespeare's company used in London late in the Bard's career). As is my wont, I rambled and never really said anything about Winter's Tale, so that's today's task ...

I mentioned yesterday that, until recently, The Winter's Tale was one of the final two remaining of the plays of Shakespeare that Joyce and I had not seen onstage. But now--as I wrote--we've seen it several times because companies, for some reason (could it be the play is good?!?!), have begun producing it again.

Quick plot summary: two kings (of Bohemia, of Sicilia) have been friends since boyhood; Bohemia is visiting Sicilia (has been there quite a while); Bohemia says it's time to go home; Sicilia begs him not to; Bohemia is adamant; Sicilia enlists his (pregnant) wife to intercede; she does; Bohemia says he'll stay; Sicilia goes all Othello (jealous, murderous), begins imagining/believing that the child his wife is carrying is not his but Bohemia's; Sicilia orders the murder of his old friend, but old friend gets a warning and flees; grrrrr; Sicilia shames his wife in public, accuses her of infidelity, confines her to prison; when the child is born, Sicilia refuses to accept that it's his and orders the infant (a girl) tossed in the fire, relents (a bit), orders it abandoned in a remote place; when word comes from the oracle at Delphi that Sicilia has been totally wrong, he refuses to accept Apollo's decision; oops: his young son and wife die; oops; now he realizes he's been wrong; too bad and too late; an aide has taken the infant to a remote place (Bohemia!), has abandoned it, then runs offstage in a moment described in the best stage direction in Shakespeare ("Exit, pursued by a bear."); he doesn't exit fast enough, though; the bear catches and eats him (offstage!); a shepherd finds the baby; adopts it.

Sixteen years pass; baby has grown into gorgeous young woman, pursued (not by a bear) but by--surprise!--the son of Bohemia; the king goes into disguise to see what his son's been up to--He's courting a shepherd's daughter! NO WAY!--he orders his son to cease and desist--NO WAY!--son and gf flee to ... Sicilia, where the penitent king welcomes them (not realizing they've fled against Bohemia's wishes, not realizing, of course, the young woman is his daughter); Bohemia pursues the couple; we're back where we started; the kings reconcile, and then one of the most amazing moments in Shakespeare ...

I think I'll hold off on the "one of the most amazing moments in Shakespeare" for the nonce. I've left out a couple of the subplots in the little summary above. (Look them up; read the play; whatever.)

The production in Staunton, as I wrote yesterday, was pretty much Elizabethan--low, continuous light; simple costumes; no scenery; few props; music before and during the show; playfulness of the players (they often interacted with audience members, about a half-dozen of whom were sitting on the stage at far Right and far Left); actors (even the principals) playing more than one role.

And they were terrific--as was the Bear. I've seen this done numerous ways--from minimal costuming to maximal. This was more the latter. Full Bear. With an actor who had practiced ursine movements and looked really convincing. At the intermission, the Bear (sans Bear head) was one of the singers. And he could more than ... barely ... sing. He was good.

The director and the players found some funny stage business to do at times. Grabbing a guy with a shepherd's crook, crawling around on the floor in hopes you won't be noticed, suddenly switching from an Elizabethan dance number (at a shepherds' party) and doing a raucous version of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy"--link to YouTube of John Denver singing his famous song).

Sometimes (usually? always?)  I'm bothered when Shakespeare directors are so fearful of losing a modern Twittery, Facebooky, texty audience that they fill the show with contemporary music and references (adding lines to the Bard's!), but I liked this because it was so unexpected--and so fitting--and so unique (it did not happen again).

Also very amusing was Bohemia's disguise at the party (see above), when he was spying on his son. He'd donned a silvery wig, affected a hunch, and tried to act sage and neutral--until it became very clear that his son was with the young girl (Perdita). Then ... all pretensions disappeared and he roared as only a parent disappointed in a child can roar.

One rendering of Autolycus
Also well done--a subplot involving the small-time conman, Autolycus (ought to like us?), who cuts purses and lies and steals throughout. But things don't work out well for him.

And now, it seems, I've written so much that I'm going to have to delay till tomorrow the "amazing moments" stuff ...

To be continued ...

Monday, July 27, 2015

Back from the Bard

American Shakespeare Center
Staunton, VA

Part of Joyce's birthday this year was a trip to Staunton, Va., to the American Shakespeare Center, where we saw this past weekend a wonderful production of the Bard's The Winter's Tale. As you can see from the image (I stole it from the web), the theater is a smaller replica of Blackfriars, the indoor theater that Shakespeare's company acquired in 1608, late in the Bard's career.

Until Blackfriars (others would follow), theater companies had to go on the road in the winter months (performing indoors for various patrons, including the king and queen), for, as we know, the other playhouses (like the Globe) had open roofs (sunlight worked better than no light in the ages before electricity!)--and open roofs in the winter are generally not such a good idea.

Blackfriars was so named because it (and other buildings around it--occupying in all, about five acres) had once belonged to the Dominicans (they wore black cloaks), whom Henry VIII outlawed in his decision to break from Rome in 1534 in the wake of the Pope's refusal to sanction his divorce from Catherine, his marriage with Anne Boleyn. Church property became the King's property and eventually found its way into private hands, as well.

Anyway, at the American Shakespeare Center the productions adhere to some of the routines you would have seen at the original Blackfriars: low-level light the entire production (the original theater had used candles), musical performances before and during the show, many interactions with the players and audience members (some of whom sit on the stage), minimal costuming and props (no scenery at all), audience members drinking and eating throughout (think: movies today), actors playing multiple parts (and sometimes as a member of the other gender), and a general friskiness that helps make the time fly. Oh, and the company has several productions going throughout the week, with the same players in all. From the program cover you can see what's going on now--the cover image is from Henry VI, Part One, which features Joan of Arc (fire, if you recall, is relevant in her story!). It's astonishing to think of the feats of memory these cast members achieve.

Oh, and all of them sing and dance. The cast members are the ones who play (guitar, bass, banjo, etc.) and sing before the show (and during intermission). The songs are contemporary, by the way--as they would have been in the Bard's day.

It's an odd thing about our experiences with The Winter's Tale. As I've written here before, Joyce and I had been on a decades-long quest to see all of the Bard's plays onstage, and as the years drifted by, we soon found ourselves with just two remaining: The Winter's Tale and Richard II. Then, suddenly, companies were doing Winter's Tale, and we've seen it three or four times in recent years. But Richard II? We finally managed to see it at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass., in the summer of 2013. It's still the only time we've seen it. Since 2001, we've been going up to Stratford, Ont., every summer for their theater festival (we stay all week--see almost every show they do--ten or eleven plays in six days), and they have yet to do Richard II.

Anyway, I'm going on and on, so I'll pause here before I write about the actual production of Winter's Tale, one of my favorite plays.

To be continued ...

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Pause That Refreshes [tm]

When I was a kid--and later on--"the pause that refreshes" was Coke's marketing phrase. Things have changed. For one, Cokes are no longer 5 cents in the machines (as they were in my boyhood); the Coke containers are now far larger (our machines held only 8 oz glass bottles). And so on. Oh, and the motto? I don't even know. I'm not a Coke drinker anymore.

But anyway--I'm going to be taking a "pause that refreshes" for a few days on this blog. Nothing ominous. Just a break--which I will write about in a few days.

In the meantime--a couple of things I've been wanting to say something about.

1. Yesterday, I finished reading a posthumous collection of stories by the late Elmore Leonard (1925-2013), a collection assembled by a son (Peter). Charlie Martz and Other Stories (2015) comprises a few stories published decades ago--and some never before published, dating back more than a half-century.

In some ways they are resolutely "Elmore": sturdy (quiet) heroes, women who see the virtues of same, violence (necessary) in the final paragraphs, sharp dialogue. Some are Westerns (he wrote many of these and some novels, as well); others, contemporary. And a couple of them feature Charlie Martz (see title).

But most, I fear, bear strong evidence supporting Leonard's decision not to publish them. They are apprentice pieces. Wordy, obvious--not terms I'd usually (ever?) apply to his later work. He's probably blushing, wherever he is.

Still ... I had to read them. I've read all of Elmore Leonard, you see--Westerns included--and to not read one is, well, unthinkable. (And, of course, Joyce and I were addicted to Justified, the TV series based on one of his short stories, "Fire in the Hole," 2001, which you can read online. Link to story.)

Years ago, he was a featured writer at one of the Plain Dealer's Book and Author Luncheons. I got a release from school that day and took some of my middle school students with me. I also took a stack of his books with me (there would be a signing afterward), distributed them among the kids (so it wouldn't seem that I was a Stalker or something), and got them all signed. When I reached his table, I asked him if he'd ever write a Western again. He looked at me oddly. "Nobody reads them," he said. But I was gratified, some years later, when Cuba Libre appeared (kind of a Western). And The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, 2004 (definitely Westerns!).

2. This week another of my literary lions roared his last. E. L. Doctorow (1931-2015; link to Times obituary). In the later 1960s I'd never heard of Doctorow, but a Hiram College classmate, William Heath (now a writer, too), raved about him, and so as the years went by, I bought and read Doctorow's books, pretty much as soon as they came out. I'm not sure I read all of them (and I'm too lazy to check), but most, for sure. Maybe all.

my Doctorow shelf
I also had the good fortune to review (for the Cleveland Plain Dealer) the final novel he lived to see to publication--Andrew's Brain (link to review),  It was a book I liked a lot.

Some posthumous things will probably appear in the next year or so. But I hope they're not in cahoots with Charlie Martz.

Oh, in 1990 when the Library of America published its single-volume version of Jack London's The Call of the Wild--a book about which I became obsessed for, oh, a decade (and did some consequent publishing about)--guess who wrote the Introduction? Oh, no, not I. It was E. L Doctorow. (Enlarge the picture and you'll see his name on the cover.)

His Intro ends with this: "It is Jack London's hack genius that make us cheer for his Buck and want to lope with him in happy, savage honor back to the wild, running and howling with the pack" (xviii).

Couldn't have said it better myself--though I'm not so sure about that "hack genius" phrase ...

Oh, and Edgar Lawrence Doctorow (I learned in the Times review) was named for Edgar Poe, a writer he once called "our greatest bad writer." Good line. And Doctorow wrote countless others in his most wondrous career.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 143

By the time Fanny Godwin killed herself, Mary and Bysshe were firmly together (with Claire in tow), and when the dark dust settled from the suicide of Harriet Shelley, Bysshe, now free to marry again, promptly did so. Two and a half months later. He briefly pursued custody of his two young children, then gave up. And never saw them again.
On December 30, 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin became Mary Shelley in a service at St. Mildred’s Bread Street. As I wrote above, that building is entirely gone now—destroyed by the Luftwaffe in World War II. I stood at the site and saw nothing. But imagined much.
One of the most direct results of that marriage? Mary’s father, William Godwin, finally spoke to the daughter with whom he’d refused all forms of communication after her elopement with Bysshe in late July, 1814. Nearly two and a half years of bitter silence had ensued, a silence that had devastated Mary, who’d adored her father. Godwin and his wife, Mary Jane, attended the service at St. Mildred’s.
Once Godwin broke his silence, he wrote to family and friends announcing that Mary had, well, married up. To his brother he wrote: “Mary has now (most unexpectedly) acquired a status and character in society. Shelley is not without his faults [!!!], but he is also not without many good and even noble qualities ….”[1] Godwin also accelerated and intensified his requests to Bysshe for money. Godwin was terrible about managing it, and he had cash problems his entire adult life.

The next fifteen months were productive and peripatetic for the newlyweds—and highly stressful. Immediately after the marriage, the couple lived with the Godwins for a bit—and with Leigh Hunt and family (who would emerge significant later in the story). They moved to a place called Albion House in Marlow, a little over thirty miles west of London.
Less than a year later, they sold the place and moved to 119 Russell Street in London, just off Drury Lane and right around the corner from the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on Catherine Street. Years later, on January 26, 1824, Mary would see the great Edmund Kean play Richard III there. “His wonderful looks,” she wrote in her journal, “his tones, his gesture—transported me.”[2] She resolved to write a tragedy herself. It didn’t work out.
The day I’d planned to go to Russell Street, there was a downpour, but I learned subsequently that the place is long gone anyhow—a busy urban neighborhood. All I would have seen would have been confused ghosts.
And then Bysshe decided he and Mary (and Claire) should move to Italy. This seemed sensible to him for a variety of reasons. For one, it would get Godwin off his case (the pleas for money had become ever more odious). For another, living expenses were much cheaper in Italy. For another, they would get to see the places they’d read about all their lives—Florence, Pisa, Rome, Naples.
But there was another, more pressing reason: Claire Clairmont had delivered the child of Lord Byron on January 12, 1817. Incredibly, they’d managed to keep the whole thing hidden from the Godwins and others. She named the little girl Alba, but Byron, hearing, decided Allegra would be a better name. Claire had little choice but to change it. Anyway, Claire and Allegra would travel with the Shelleys to Italy, where Byron was living, and deliver the child to him—as per his insistence.
And finally—before they left for the Continent, Mary published her account of her 1814 elopement as a travel book (with no mention of the reason she’d gone to Europe), History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817). The complete title goes on and on.[3]
And on New Year’s Day 1818 … Frankenstein appeared. Published anonymously.

                [1] Qtd. in William St Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), 417. St Clair had consulted the text of the original letter at the New York Public Library. Godwin’s letters are slowly being edited by the terrific scholar Pamela Clemit and published by Oxford University Press, but only two volumes are now in print—and the letters have not as yet reached beyond Mary’s childhood.
                [2] The Journals of Mary Shelley, 475.
                [3] History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: With Letters Descriptive of a Sail round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


I've never handled it very well, frustration. As a child I was not a major Thrower of Tantrums, but I had a temper that usually emerged when I couldn't do something as well as I wanted to. Like run fast. My older brother (by three years) delighted in beating MiniMe on the sidewalk near our place in Enid, Oklahoma. (I didn't handle those defeats gracefully--and I am certain they were the cause of my boyhood stuttering!)

And--as I've written before--my first experience with women's equality (okay, superiority) came in front of University Place Christian Church in Enid where young Shirley Williamson, an elementary school classmate, beat me easily in a race down the long sidewalk that formed a hypotenuse in front of the church. Knowing the Me of Then, I probably felt a surge of guilt related to religious failings that God had seen fit to punish via a humiliating footrace. With a girl!

One thing that organized sports did for me (besides fill me with unfulfilled illusions) was help me learn to control my temper. I was not the kid who threw his bat when he struck out (not that I ever did strike out!), who cried in despair when he missed a free throw (not that I ...). Etc.

In individual sports however ... well, that was different. In high school, after hitting a terrible approach shot to the green on a course (now gone) in Ravenna, Ohio--Chestnut Hills, a nine-holer--I whipped my wedge toward the green, where it dutifully went, where it landed with authority, where it dug a very impressive divot. Which I quickly "repaired" to the best of my ability. That was not good.

And in college tennis practices and matches I would hit my leg with my racket after a bad shot (something that my leg knew occurred with alarming regularity). I'd sometimes throw my racket into the fence. Or hit the bad ball (which, of course, had done only that which the physics of my swing had dictated) up onto the roof of the college library right behind the courts. That'll show that disobedient ball!

Is immature the first word that leaps to your mind? Or something even more damning?

But now ... I'm more ... mature, right?

Sort of.

The last few days I've been looking all over our house for a book I need for a review I'm working on, an earlier book by the writer whose new one I'm reading.

I looked where I knew it was. (It wasn't there.) I looked where it might have been. (It wasn't there.) I looked where it couldn't possibly be. (It wasn't there.)

I checked our local library, just in case I couldn't find my copy. (They don't have it.)

I looked again where I knew it was. (It wasn't there.) I looked again where it might have been. (It wasn't there.)

I arranged with the Hiram College Library to hold it for me; I'd go over and get it after supper.

I looked again where I knew it was.

And there it was, right where my stupid eyes had failed to notice it before.

Quick note to Hiram Library: Sorry.

Quite note to self: You really didn't learn a thing from Shirley Williamson, did you?

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Mighty Class of 1962

There aren't so many of us now. Mortality is against us. Nonetheless, yesterday, we gathered at the Troy Community Center in Welshfield, Ohio, to celebrate our 53rd high school class reunion. I believe only five were there from our class.

I'd been to our 50th, but I'd forgotten to go to the 51st, and our 52nd was on Joyce's birthday, so I missed that one, as well. But yesterday ... I was there.

Because Hiram High was so small--and closed its doors forever after the 1963-1964 school year (since then, all Hiram students have gone to Crestwood HS over in Mantua)--we have whole-school reunions instead of individual classes. Our numbers dwindle every year, and (on a grim note) the program begins every year with a list of those who are no longer with us. (The photo shows the building--cornerstone: 1913, the year my father was born--in the early 1960s.)

There are also classmates who have disappeared into their lives, people I haven't seen--or heard anything about--in decades. All I can do is wish them well.

I sat yesterday with old friends Paul and Tina (who were a year behind me in school) and with classmate Ronnie, who, I discovered many years after graduation, had also been a career middle-school teacher (science; Stow, Ohio). We have war stories to compare. Ronnie and I used to laugh a lot in Latin II, mostly because neither one of us was exactly making Cicero return from the dead to see those two young men in Portage County who were so artfully employing his language.

HHS ("We are the Huskies, the mighty, mighty Huskies!") was a good place for me. Because it was such a small school (as I said), I got to do so many things--sports, band, choir, stage productions, newspaper, etc. When I became a teacher later on, I found those experiences really helped me. I supervised a lot of those activities, and (I like to think) I understood kids who were involved in such things.

I chatted some with other classmates--Carla and Sharon and Ellen. And with some folks I knew from earlier years. Some from the class of 1959, my older brother's class, wanted to know how he was doing. (He's doing fine.) It's strange what time does to us: Some of them I would have known immediately on the street; others have changed so much I had to look at the name tag.

The event was scheduled from 1-4 p.m. (always the third Sunday in July), but things started breaking up a bit before 4, and I wandered away with the majority (always a Follower, eh?).  We'd told stories, laughed at old screw-ups, remembered old friends who were not there.

The HHS building was razed years ago. Just grass remains. No marker at all. Plans for a park or something seem always on the table (but nowhere else).

But before we left--a picture of the five of us who were there from the Mighty Class of 1962.
L to R: Carla, Ronnie, Dan, Ellen (and her husband, Don), Sharon

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 60

1. AOTW: I have no specific candidates this week--just the usual dorks in traffic and some corporal arrogance at the health club, and ... my own ridiculous behavior now and then. One day I will mature.

2. In my recent reading of some recent books, I've been surprised to come across a grammatical construction that I'd always taught (and had always been taught) was nonstandard. I've seen it enough recently that I realize these are not mistakes; no, the Change has arrived (or is arriving). See the italicized portions below.
  • My brother is taller than I.
  • My brother is taller than me.
Since I was a Wee Lad (and under the tutelage of my English-teaching mother and my savant of an older brother), I've always written--and spoken--the former. The grammatical logic? Than is a conjunction that is followed by a subordinate clause, a clause that the full sentence does not reproduce in total. It's elliptical. In other words, it really goes like this: My brother is taller than I am. Dropping the am does not alter the grammar of the sentence.

Lately, I've been doing some reading about this issue in usage manuals, in unabridged dictionaries, and online, and some who prefer taller than me are arguing that than is a preposition (or has become one), and a preposition requires an object--like me. However, the Oxford English Dictionary does not--in its entry about than--say it can be a preposition. But other usage mavens are noting that Change Is in the Air (and, obviously, in numerous books I've read).

Now (bored yet?), in this construction there are cases that do require the objective case for the pronoun.
  • She loves her mom more than (me, I).
Both can be acceptable, depending on what the writer intends.
  • She loves her mom more than [she loves] me.
  • She loves her mom more than I [do].
I tend to agree with some of the authorities who say that it's perhaps a better idea to look for a different way to construct such sentences--to complete them, if necessary (not to make them elliptical). The reason? If you use me, some hearers/readers will think you don't know the rule; if you use I, some may think you are an uppity/pretentious/elitist/latte-drinking Yuppie/GrammarGeek.

I do avoid some constructions now for precisely this sort of reason. Usage panels are starting to prefer sentences like this to the alternative: Everyone brought their books instead of Everyone brought his or her book. I avoid this clunker by using plurals. All the students brought their books.

Anyway, what's bothered me lately is that I've seen--multiple times, in multiple recent books--sentences like this: My brother was bigger than me. To me--and to my ear--that's just "wrong." But, clearly, the sentence survived the copy-editing routine. It's not there by mistake. 

(By the way, I'm not talking about an intentional colloquialism--the kind you might find in dialogue. No, I'm talking about books written in otherwise conventional, even academic, diction--Standard English stuff.)

But I also realize that rules change over time (and that we made up all of this stuff--it did not come down from the mountain with Moses) and that perhaps the tide is shifting. Or has shifted.

Fine. Let it. But I'm going to keep doing it the way I was taught. My mom is still alive, and I just know that if I say bigger than me, she will learn what I've done. And shake her head, once again, in disappointment. No one can be more conservative about language than she.

3. I'd ordered Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman when I first heard the news it was coming. It's arrived. I haven't read it yet (ambivalence is deep), but Joyce has started it, so I have an excuse. For a while.

4. On Friday night, Joyce and I went to see Trainwreck (link to YouTube trailer for film), mainly because (a) I go see Apatow films (shame on me--sometimes), (b) I heard LeBron is pretty good in it (he is), (c) we've heard so much about Amy Schumer but have never watched her perform (she was good). Her screenplay was very funny in places (and middle-school gross in more than a few places, too), and we enjoyed the parts (large and small) played by current and former SNL cast members--Colin Quinn, Vanessa Bayer, Pete Davidson, Tim Meadows, Leslie Jones. And, of course, the male lead, Bill Hader, was an SNL superstar.

We also enjoyed seeing one of our stand-up comedy favorites, Mike Birbiglia, playing the doofus husband of Amy's sister, Brie Larson (from 21 Jump Street). Tilda Swinton as Amy's boss was, as usual, superb. And there were cameos by Daniel Radcliffe, Marissa Tomei, and numerous others.

The arc of the story is achingly familiar to fans of romantic comedies--all the way back to Shakespeare (SPOILER ALERT): girl finds guy, guy and girl fall in love, someone screws up (almost always the guy--not this time ... well, he's not always the most sensitive of companions), LOVE breaks out after a montage of loneliness.

5. I've been having one of those Weird Weeks--thinking all week long that it's a day later than it actually is. I'm typing this paragraph on Friday evening, and I've been thinking all day that it's Saturday. Another example: At the coffee shop where I go each morning, there's a group always there on Friday morning. It's a weekly gathering of friends. When I got home Thursday morning, I told Joyce they hadn't appeared. She reminded me it was Thursday. And, yes, they were present on Friday.

6. We've had our first TMW (Two-Movie Weekend) in quite a while. On Saturday night we saw: Mr. Holmes (link to YouTube trailer for the film) with the wonderful Ian McKellen as the aging detective (in his early 90s), now fighting dementia and the great traitor we all must battle: our own bodies. Holmes has gone into retirement--principally because of his final case, a case whose details he is struggling to recall and write about. He lives near the cliffs of Dover (which we see in all their glory) with his widowed housekeeper (oh, have I always loved Laura Linney!), her precocious young son, and his bees (he has an apiary out back).

Several plot strands: his relationship with his housekeeper and the boy (who in some ways is very like him), his struggle to remember his final case, his relationship with a Japanese man whose father was (was not?) a figure in Holmes' past, an issue with dying bees (not irrelevant to the rest, by the way), his battles with his own body.

It was one of those films I didn't want to end.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

My Bathroom Photographs, 5

In the summer of 1986 I went to Europe for the first time--well, to England only--with my older brother, Richard. The main reason? I had begun teaching Shakespeare to my 8th graders at the Harmon Middle School (Aurora, Ohio), and I was eagerly learning all I could about the Bard (as I still am).

I've written here before about my rather slowly developing affection for the Bard (it began with High School Disdain, has evolved to Old Man Wonder), so I'll not repeat all those grim stories here. (You can Google "Shakespeare" and "Dawnreader" to see the earlier posts, if you're interested.)

Anyway, the 1985-1986 school year was my first with the Bard, and one of the reasons I began? My son was in my class. (I've written about this elsewhere, too, so I'll skip along here.) The play I used with the kids was The Taming of the Shrew, a play I picked for a variety of reasons.

  • I'd already read it. (And had not read many of the others.)
  • It was a comedy. (Didn't think I'd start with Lear or Othello.)
  • There was a good (1967) movie available--Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. I knew the kids would love it. (And they did.)
  • It dealt with the Battle of the Sexes, a battle that can rage in middle school.
But I had some problems, too: I knew little about the Elizabethans; I'd never seen any of the Shakespeare sites in England, principally because I'd never been to England. Other than that, I was well prepared.

My older brother, Richard, was, in 1986, the classical music critic for the Boston Globe, and he had been abroad many times. So ... going with him, I knew, would be a Wise Move. Also, he'd told me that there was going to be a production of Shrew that summer, one that featured one of my favorite actresses, Vanessa Redgrave. Playing opposite her was an actor I'd barely heard of--Timothy Dalton. (At the time, he and Redgrave were ... together.) Not long after Shrew the whole world would hear of him: Dalton became the new James Bond, though only for two films: The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989). There was supposed to be a third, but ... contracts, Hollywood, etc. ended it all.

As you can see from the Shrew poster, Redgrave-Dalton were also doing Antony and Cleopatra in the same run, alternating days. We went to see that one first but were shocked to learn that Redgrave was ill (or something); her understudy was less than convincing, so we bought tickets for yet another evening at the Theatre Royal Haymarket--and this time we saw her in a luminous performance. They were also very good together in Shrew, though I was somewhat spoiled by the film (which I loved). I've had the same experience, by the way, with Much Ado About Nothing: That 1994 Branagh film, which I love, surpasses every stage production I've seen--and I've seen a lot of them.

Anyway, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket they had stacks of the little flyers advertising the two shows; I grabbed a few, had one framed when we returned. And it now hangs on my bathroom wall.

Years later ... doing research on Mary Shelley, I learned she'd been to the Theatre Royal Haymarket numerous times. And on August 10, 1824, she had one of her "dates" with Washington Irving, whom she was rather vigorously pursuing. (She'd been widowed for two years.) I'm going to be writing about their relationship in a subsequent blog, but for now? Just imagine: The authors of Frankenstein and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," sitting together in the candlelight, watching a play ...*

*The theatre they attended in 1824 had recently reopened in a new building (1821). And that is the building still standing--still offering wonderful productions--in London's West End. As I type these words, Bradley Cooper is starring there in Elephant Man.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 142

More about the life and death of Fanny Wollstonecraft Godwin.

As some of you know, I published a YA biography of Mary Shelley on Kindle Direct in 2012 (link to that book). While I’ve been writing now about Fanny Wollstonecraft Godwin—her sad life, her sadder end—I began wondering what I’d said about her death in that biography. Below, I’ve pasted in what I wrote—and I should remind readers that I wrote this before I’d read Janet Todd’s book about her.
But back in England, things were not so carefree. Fanny Godwin—the only other daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft—was very unhappy. She had been away from home in 1814 when Mary and Claire had first run away with Shelley, and when Fanny returned, she heard many angry outbursts from Godwin and Mary Jane. Fanny was trapped: She loved her sisters but she did not want to disobey Godwin, who refused communication with them. And then [1816] Mary and Claire had gone off to Switzerland for the summer with the romantic Lord Byron. While she stayed at home to work in the shop for Mrs. Godwin, who was not an easy employer.

Godwin himself loved Fanny very much—even though she was Gilbert Imlay’s daughter.  Like her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, Fanny was moody and often depressed. And she felt insecure. Both Mary and Claire tried to cheer her up in their letters. “For heaven’s sake be cheerful,” urged Claire. But Fanny was sure that her sisters were untrue to her. She thought they were laughing at her. And while Mary and Claire were in Switzerland, Fanny wrote: “I am not well; my mind always keeps my body in a fever; but never mind me.”
Now that Fanny was in her early twenties, the Godwins were trying to find employment for her. One possibility was for her to join her aunts Eliza and Everina, who were running a school together in Dublin. Perhaps Fanny could join them and become a teacher.
But when the aunts arrived for a visit, something went wrong. They decided not to take Fanny with them. On 8 October, she suddenly left London, heading west for Bath, where Mary and Shelley were staying. No one knows if Fanny stopped to see them. Perhaps she did. Perhaps she asked to be allowed to live with them. Perhaps they refused her. Perhaps she argued with them about the Godwins. No one knows.
But she traveled on to Bristol, about 120 miles west of London. There she wrote quick letters to Mary and to the Godwins. Mary said theirs was “very alarming”—and it was: Fanny wrote that she was going to kill herself. Shelley raced to Bristol, but at 2 a.m., he returned with no news.
The next day, Shelley went back to Bristol. This time, he was gone two days, and when he returned, Mary wrote a brief note in her journal: “The worst account—a miserable day—”And so it was. Fanny Imlay Godwin had taken her own life.

At Swansea, a Welsh seaport about fifty miles farther west from Bristol, she had taken a room at an inn. When she did not come down the next morning, the innkeeper forced open her door and found her dead. Beside her on a table were a bottle of laudanum and a suicide note.
To protect her family from embarrassment, Fanny had not signed the note and had left no other forms of identification except for the letter “G” on her stockings and the letters “MW” (her mother’s initials) on her corset. She also had with her a small gold watch that Mary and Shelley had bought for her in Switzerland.
Her suicide note was inexpressibly sad:
I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavoring [trying] to promote her welfare.
An inquest in Swansea came up with a simple verdict: “found dead.” There was no official speculation about suicide. Godwin was worried that news of the death would have a terrible effect on his already low reputation. He wrote to Shelley: “Go not to Swansea; disturb not the silent dead ….”  He said that he would probably tell people that Fanny had gone to Ireland to be with Everina and Eliza.
There was another reason to make sure Fanny’s death was not declared a suicide: The law (until 1823) required a suicide to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart.  The stake supposedly kept the ghost in the ground, and the crossroads spread the evil influence in four directions.

So Fanny was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

Such a lonely fate for the woman, who, as a little girl had been such a happy child.  Mary Wollstonecraft had written of Fanny when she was only four months old: “Besides looking at me, there are three other things, which delight her—to ride in a coach, to look at a scarlet waistcoat [vest], and hear loud music ….”

Thursday, July 16, 2015

My Bathroom Photographs, 4

Another in a series of posts about the framed objects I have hanging on the walls of the little bathroom adjoining my study.

I read a lot of Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), back in the day. Although he was an evolutionary theorist at Harvard University, I appreciated his ability to make clear to me--well, usually--the concepts he was writing about. I bought and read each of his essay collections when I saw them appear in the bookstore, and although I can't claim I understood everything he was writing about (my grades in science in public school were not ... impressive), I was always--because of his skill, his clarity of prose--able to get at least some of it. Also, he was an essayist who alluded to lots of things out in the popular culture--from music to baseball to literature.

As I said, I collected most of his books--and I have one signed one, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (1996). I have no memory--or record--of how I acquired a signed one. But there it is. I do have a note that I read it in March 1997, so I just checked my journal for that year (the first year I started keeping one every day). No luck. Just that I paid $25 for it--the cover price. Oh well.

And then there's the letter, the one I've framed and hung in my bathroom. It's a reply to a sort of fan letter I wrote to him on May 20, 1999. In it I also reported to him, among other things, about how the editors of the literature anthology I'd used at Harmon Middle School had eliminated in The Call of the Wild those passages about the "ancestral memories" of the dog Buck. Readers may remember that Buck lies by the fire (in a couple of places) and "remembers" his ancestors lying by the fires of cavemen.

I did not really expect an answer, but I got one, postmarked July 13, 1999. He said that he agreed with my assessment of London's caveman novel, Before Adam (1906)--not a good novel. And, if you can't read from the image, he added: I read it to see if I could find enough material to base one of my columns upon--but to no avail.)

He also had high praise for my older brother, Richard (whom I'd mentioned in the letter; at the time, Richard, now retired, was still the classical music critic for the Boston Globe): He is the best in the business, said Gould. Not bad ... not bad at all.

I was sad to learn that Gould was dying, and although I bought his massive final book about evolutionary theory, I have not read it. It still sags one of our shelves, though. (Link to obituary in the New York Times.) He was sixty years old--far, far too young.

There was a time when pretty much everyone knew who Gould was. He was a true public intellectual. But I'm not so sure anymore. Fame fades fast these days.

But I still remember him as a fine writer--one with wide-ranging interests, a generous mind. And I miss seeing his books on the bookstore table, waiting for me to buy them.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 141

The first major scholar to tell Fanny’s story is Janet Todd (mentioned here before) whose wonderful book Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle appeared in 2007. Naturally, I didn’t get around to reading it until March of this year, once I’d embarked on the serialization of this memoir (which, I’ve realized as I’ve written, is going to need some serious revision before I launch it into the world later this year—or early next year).

Todd’s book is not lengthy. The text ends on page 264, though more than thirty pages of back matter are there, too (note, bibliography, index). She says in her Preface, “I have been haunted by the figure” of Fanny. And she notes that there is no picture of her (none that we know of). And she admits so much about her is unknown—and will probably stay that way. We’re not even certain where she’s buried—it was probably an unmarked pauper’s grave. Godwin, as I’ve said, was horrified not just at her suicide but at how that suicide would affect him and his other loved ones.
Like other biographers of people we wish we knew more about—people as revered as Shakespeare, as little-known as Fanny Wollstonecraft Godwin—Todd, ruing the lack of direct information about her, must proceed by creating the worlds she lived in, by describing the people around her, and trusting that all of this will sharpen the focus on the fuzziest of images in the Shelley-Godwin-Wollstonecraft circle.
And so she alternates chapters, directing our attention to Godwin, to his second wife (Mary Jane Clairmont), to Bysshe Shelley, to Mary Godwin Shelley, and others. “Fanny” is the title of only thirteen of the thirty-three chapters. Yes, Todd of course alludes to her in the other sections, but this is just one indication about how pathetically little we know about her.
Shelley did begin a poem to her—but he could not finish it. Todd reproduces it for us:

Thy little footsteps on the sands
  Of a remote and lonely shore –
The twinkling of thine infant hands
  Where now the worm will feed no more.
They look of mingled love and glee
When one returned to gaze on thee –

These footsteps on the sands are fled,
  Thine eyes are dark – thy hands are cold,
And she is dead – and thou art dead –[1]

Todd is not easy on the men—or the women—who lived with Fanny. Todd also makes it quite clear that Fanny, like the other young women in the house, was smitten by Bysshe Shelley, who, as we know, did not invite her to join Mary and Claire as they rushed off to the Continent in 1814. Fanny remained behind, as I’ve said, to endure all the bitterness and recrimination.
And so … off she went to Swansea, on the Welsh coast, nearly 200 miles west from London. Where on October 9, 1816, she took a room in an inn, the Mackworth Arms on Wind Street. Where she wrote and left a note. Where she drank an overdose of (probably) laudanum (alcohol and opium). Where she lay down and drifted into death.
Here’s the note, reproduced in Todd from the way it had appeared in the local newspaper:
I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed as[2]
We don’t know who tore off the rest. But we do know that until Janet Todd, many biographers and scholars have done the equivalent.
After I finished her book, I sent an email to Prof. Todd, thanking her for what she had done. She wrote back a kind reply—and added: I found some of the research especially in Swansea very difficult to do without choking up at the idea of Fanny's last hours.[3]

                [1] 55.
                [2] 3.
                [3] Email. April 17, 2015.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Corny Tales

Did you ever drive across the country on I-80 in the summer? I have, a few times. And from our house in northeastern Ohio to, oh, western Nebraska it's pretty much one giant cornfield. In the recent film Tomorrowland, the earth's crops are failing all over the place. But not corn--not yet, anyway.

Corn-on-the-cob was one of the reasons I loved summer as a boy--but not the main reason, of course. Every kid knows the main reason for summer-love is that school is out!  During the year we ate corn with many meals--but canned. Or, later, frozen. There's no comparison, though, with corn-on-the-cob.

From the time we moved to Hiram, Ohio, in the summer of 1956 (I would turn twelve that fall), Dad would buy piles of ears each summer from the stands that farmers all over the area had placed out by the road. We ate it pretty much every night.

Which caused a small bit of domestic tension.

Dad, you see, was a ferocious eater of corn-on-the-cob. He attacked each one, teeth flashing, and did not come up for air until all the yellow was gone. And did I mention that he had first swabbed the cob with real butter (the kind from a cow) and used enough salt to ensure traction in our driveway for a long winter?

By the time he finished, his lips were flecked with corn-corpses--as was the front of his shirt. (In later years, when he couldn't really prevent it, Mom would put a bib on him.)

And did I say how noisy he was? My older brother, Richard, declared Dad sounded like a cow walking through a swamp. I thought about chainsaws and wood-chippers.

The noise also annoyed Mom--perhaps more than the yellow flecks on his face and shirt. But it's a close call, which she found more annoying. I'm pretty sure that as she daintily ate her own ear, she was hoping for a bad harvest.

Years passed. I got married. And discovered that one of the principal differences between Joyce and me is corn-eating.

I'm typewriter-regular about it. Right down the row to the end. Then return, start another row. I try not to eat the entire ear without laying it down to sample some other bounty. But sometimes I just can't help myself. (You know guys.)

When health (and aging) concerns began to emerge, I eschewed salt, then butter. I eat the ears plain now. We also steam rather than boil them.

But Joyce is a very different corn-critter. Her eating I can only describe as random. She picks up the ear, looks at it, dives in at a spot that has nothing to do with routine or even common sense. I guess I'd call it creative, which, of course, she is. She never eats it all-at-once. And when it's through, I'm often tempted to pick it up and finish it off. (There are little corn islands on her cob that need to be conquered.) But I don't. I've matured.

We also have some "issues" about who shucks the corn--and where. But let's not get into that.

I mention all of this because we went to a local farmer's market the other day--Szalay's (see image)--where we got our first corn of the season. We've had it the past two nights. (See above for how.)

I also called my mom, 95, yesterday, told her about our corn purchase, and reminded her of Dad's fondness for it. She needed no reminding. But when I told her I remembered the yellow remains on his lips and shirt, she laughed--very very hard.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 140

Another suicide in the Godwin-Shelley circle ...

And then, in the close Shelley-Godwin-Wollstonecraft circle there was another suicide attempt, another one, like Harriet Westbrook Shelley’s, that was sadly successful. Early in my research on Mary Shelley I learned, of course, about Mary Wollstonecraft’s first child, her daughter Fanny, named in honor of Mary’s dear friend from girlhood, Fanny Blood.
I’ve already written about the context of Fanny’s conception—her mother’s affair with American Gilbert Imlay, who, as we remember, eventually abandoned mother and daughter and vanished into the mists of history. I’ve written, too, about how when Fanny, born in May 1794, was still a little girl, she and her mother joined lives with William Godwin, who soon married Mary when she once again became pregnant, this time with the daughter she would never know, the daughter who would become Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley.
The early biographers of William Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley do not say much about Fanny. She was, in their view, a minor player. A character actor. A young woman who, unlike so many of the others, apparently had no literary or artistic talents. A young woman who, it seems, was physically ordinary. Nothing special. Just, you know, a human being. Oh, she had a kind heart. That sort of thing.
And I confess that throughout my years of research, I also consigned Fanny to the corners of the story. Far more interesting to me were the lives of the others—the lives of historical and literary significance. Sure, it was sad when she left home in October 1816—she was just twenty years old—and traveled nearly 200 miles west to Swansea, Wales, all of it by coach, where she executed her plan to kill herself. But, I fear, I was more interested in the reactions of the others in her life. How Bysshe dashed off to look for her, how Godwin tried to cover it all up (how embarrassing, a suicide in the family!), how Mary (19) and Claire Clairmont (18) responded.
In my elaborate trip to Europe in the spring of 1999, I made no plans to go to Swansea (which lies about 130 miles south of Porthmadog in Wales, a place I did visit and have written about). As I look at travel maps now, I see that there is no direct train connection between the two towns. It would have taken about six and a half hours to make all the connections. The bus is no better. Seven and a half hours. I suppose I could have rented a car, but I was afraid to do that—all that driving on the left stuff; I figured I’d hit someone head-on after a mile or so.
Still, as I sit and type today, I know for certain that if something “significant” had happened in Swansea, I would have figured out how to get there. I would have done it.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 59

1. AOTW: We're eastbound on Aurora-Hudson Rd., approaching the Stow Road intersection. Approaching us is a westbound car. I have my left signal on (we're turning north); the westbound car continues to approach, then, at the last second, sans signal, turns left right in front of us to head south on Stow--a move earning the driver this week's AOTW.

2. This week I finished the recent (2013) collection of novellas by Andre Dubus III--Dirty Love. I found myself very moved by these stories of people hanging onto the economic edge in America, a group of people Dubus understands well (before he Hit It Big he was cliff-clinging by his fingernails, too, at least to judge from his 2011 memoir, Townie). I was especially affected by the final novella (which bears the same title as the whole book), which tells the story of an octogenarian great-uncle and her grand-niece. He's a former teacher; she's a maid in a motel & clears tables at a nearby bar. He's tutoring her for her GED, but she just can't get interested. She prefers her smart-phone (which Dubus calls her "iEverything"). She gets involved online with a damaged war vet, and at the end ...? I ain't tellin'!

One of Dubus' stylistic traits--the long sentence (now and then)--or a long series of repetitions. There's a lovely one at the end of the 1st novella ("Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed"). A man who's estranged from his wife imagines a reconciliation. For a page-long paragraph at the end he begins many sentences with Maybe.  And it all ends with this as he's knocking on the front door of the house they once shared, the house where she now lives.

He would pay more attention, and he would let her do whatever she wanted, then and later, every day and every night and week and month she chose to stay with him, which she might not, this woman whose footsteps he now heard through the door, this woman he could hear moving through their entryway, his heart in his head once again for he did not know if he was even up for any of this, this change from change, the door swinging inward as he straightened, his wife's face lovely and surprised and waiting (80).

3. Last night, Joyce and I (via Netflix DVD) watched the Coen Bros. Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013, a film we'd somehow missed when it was in the theaters. (trailer for the film) We both love the Coen Bros. films, and this was no exception, despite its quieter, more perplexing nature. It's the story of a 1961 folksinger, trying to make it in NYC. He seems competent enough (there's lots of music in the film), but he just can't quite seem to get through the door. He's barely got a dime, is sleeping on the couches of friends and acquaintances, and there are all sorts of problems--not just with money. There's a pregnancy, an estrangement from his sister, an aging father--even a friend's cat gets caught up in his misery. Excellent cast. And--as you've got to expect from the Coen Bros.--some playfulness with chronology and perspective and the nature of "truth."

4, Some words and phrases that popped up this week

  • having a field day  I read this one somewhere this week and wondered about it, checked it out on the OED. And here's what I learned ... it dates back to the early 19th century ...
    • b. fig. A day noted for remarkable or exciting events; a period of celebration or triumph. Now chiefly in to have a field day : to enjoy a great opportunity for action or success (sometimes at the expense of others).

      1827   T. Creevey Let. 26 Mar. (1934) ii. xiii. 236   Saturday was a considerable field day in Arlington Street,..and a very merry jolly dinner and evening we had.
      1848   Thackeray Bk. Snobs xx. 74   The mean pomp and ostentation which distinguish our banquets on grand field-days.
  • nobbler was a word-of-the-day from the OED this week; it has several meanings, but the one I love is this one ...
    • A person that hits; something used for hitting. 1. Eng. regional (Staffs. and Shropshire). A person who strikes or hits; spec. one formerly employed to strike inattentive members of a church congregation with a rod. Now hist.
    •  I love the picture of a guy with a stick poking those who nod off in church. I could have used one in my classroom sometimes!
  • bespoke which comes from bespeak, a term whose 5th meaning (below) is the one Shakespeare employed in the famous scene in The Taming of the Shrew when Petruchio, who has ordered new clothes for Katherine, finds fault with all of them--including the cap he'd ordered for her.
    • To speak for; to arrange for, engage beforehand; to ‘order’ (goods).
    • Here's the moment in Shrew when the word appears ...
Enter Haberdasher

Petruchio: What news with you, sir?

Haberdasher:  Here is the cap your worship did bespeak.

Petruchio: Why, this was moulded on a porringer [a small bowl];
A velvet dish: fie, fie! 'tis lewd and filthy:
Why, 'tis a cockle [a type of clam] or a walnut-shell,
A knack, a toy, a trick, a baby's cap:
Away with it! come, let me have a bigger.

Katharina: I'll have no bigger: this doth fit the time,
And gentlewomen wear such caps as these

Petruchio: When you are gentle, you shall have one too,

And not till then.
5. Okay, why do we register a different weight on different scales?

6. I've used a Mont Blanc fountain pen for a long, long time. I love it. Imagine my surprise when I saw a full-page ad in the Times today for a new product Mont Blanc is bringing out, a scent for men! It's called "Mont Blanc Emblem." I guess they've found a use for some unused ink? And they found a model who looks remarkably like me (sans beard, of course).