Dawn Reader

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

Monday, September 14, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 152

And off to Pisa I went. I knew little about the city before my trip. Oh, sure, the Leaning Tower. And The Taming of the Shrew. Remember the opening lines of the young lover, Lucentio, arriving in Padua at the beginning of the play to commence his studies at the university?

I taught that play for about ten years to eighth graders. Among them, one year, was my son, and a few years later I got to see him as Lucentio in a high school production of Shrew, heard the for I am Pisa left / And am to Padua come coming from the mouth of the child I adored.

Anyway, I was hardly a Pisan authority, despite my reading in a tourist guidebook. I also knew that the Shelleys had lived there during their Italian years. They moved there in late January 1820, where Mary began writing her second novel (Valperga). In the summer, they moved for a bit to Bagni di Lucca (the Baths of Lucca), but then back to Pisa. Back and forth they went a couple of other times, to and from other places—Bysshe Shelley’s wanderlust matched only by his lust for a couple of women he met.

One was Emilia Viviani, daughter of the Pisan governor, living in a convent until her marriage (one sure way to prevent … well, you know). The Shelleys visited her, Bysshe in a swoon that Mary surely recognized (and would see again). Her dismay must have been profound. Who was this man she’d married?

The other woman was Jane Williams, wife of Edward Williams. The Shelleys met this couple through the offices of Thomas Medwin, Bysshe’s cousin (who would later write a lousy biography of the poet). Mary again saw the torrent of Bysshe’s affection flooding, this time toward Jane, but let’s hold off on that story for a bit.

In November 1821, Lord Byron arrived in Pisa (with his latest, Teresa Guiccioli), and soon they were all again socializing. Then, in mid-January, another man arrived, a man who would change all their lives, would remain a factor in Mary’s life, would outlive almost all of the others. Edward John Trelawny.

So, my Pisa docket was full. In my journal for April 23, 1999, I wrote: I have a lot of things to do the next two days. Aboard the train from Florence that morning, I noted that we rolled through the town of Signa, and I remarked that Jack London had read a novel of that title by a writer named Ouida, the pen name of Mary Louise Ramé (1839–1908). She wrote some forty books, and one of them, Signa (1875), is a book the boy Johnny (not yet Jack) London read and loved. He alludes to it a number of times in his work. At the dawn of his career, in a letter to publisher Houghton Mifflin, who’d requested some biographical material, he replied with this:
At eight I was deep in Ouida and Washington Irving.[1]
And—fourteen years later—he wrote this elaboration to a children’s literature instructor at the University of Wisconsin Library School:

The first wonderful thing was, when I was a little boy on a poor California ranch, finding a tattered copy of Ouida’s novel entitled Signa. The end of this book was missing but I read and reread and reread countless times the story of Signa and it put in me an ambition to get beyond the sky lines of my narrow California valley and opened up to me the possibilities of the world of art. In fact it became my star to which I hitched my child’s wagon.[2]

And so—rolling through Signa, initial setting for Ouida's novel, rolling from my Jack London to my Mary Shelley obsession—I felt an odd confluence of passions.

[1] The Letters of Jack London, eds. Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz III, and I. Milo Shepard (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988), 3 vols.: 148.
[2] Ibid., 1392. December 11, 1914.

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