Saturday, December 2, 2017

Best fiction and biography 2017

Fiction and the Poetry

The Prelude by William Wordsworth: I didn't expect to enjoy this book-length autobiographical poem as much as I did. (I had never read enough of it before to put it on my rereads list.) I became deeply engaged in it: in its language, in Wordsworth's idea of the poet as secular priest, in his discontent with university learning, and with his time in France during the French Revolution. Wordsworth, deeply disillusioned by the way the Revolution had gone awry, came home depressed. According to The Prelude, his impetus in writing about the common person was political: he hoped to educate people of his own class and elevate those of the lower classes by depicting simple people in the best possible light. In this way, he would contribute to the dissemination of the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Today, we can see that Wordsworth had little understanding of the lower classes he wrote about, but his Lyrical Ballads are nevertheless respectful of rural people. They are also moving in their evocation of the solace to be found in a simple life close to nature, at least for a person who isn't toiling from dawn to dusk. Wordsworth's autobiographical account is subjective and idealized, but I take seriously the truth of what he describes as the concerns closest to his heart.

The New Grub Street by George Gissing: It's about the pain and peril of the publishing industry in late nineteenth century London. It's probably not too different from today.

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth: A novel, which Jane Austen enjoyed, brought alive by Lady Delacour and her many troubles.

I read many biographies this year: these are the standouts. All were published in 2016 or 2017, showing that biography is currently a robust genre.

Jane and Dorothy: A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility, by Marian Veevers. The central conceit, that Jane Austen represented the "sense" of Elinor Dashwood and Dorothy Wordsworth the "emotionality" of Marianne Dashwood is a bit too simplistic, but this nevertheless is a worthwhile book. Get past the sweet beginning and the book hits hard about the toll it took, especially on Dorothy, to be a single, dependent female in the early nineteenth century. Despite a somewhat sugary beginning, this book doesn't sugarcoat the hardships that faced almost all unmarried woman. And how often do we get to see Jane Austen's and Dorothy Wordsworth's lives put side by side? Although much of the information in the book was familiar to me, and while Veevers was out to write an accessible book, not break new scholarly ground, I nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed this treatment of two important literary females.

The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon: I love that this biography shows Carter as a woman who changed and grew, reacting and responding to the times she lived in. She starts as an over-protected daughter in a claustrophobic townhouse where her post-war mother is thrilled to serve canned pineapple. She enters a stifling early marriage, and then an embrace of the possibilities offered by the 1960s: a free university education (with stipend) as well as the freedom to leave her husband and explore both independence and other men. She doesn't crash and burn from freedom, but develops, settles into her own skin, and grows more mature and humane as she ages. She finds happiness with a working class man, has a child late in life, and, remembering what made her success possible, never endorses the Thatcher revolution. Having read several of her retellings of fairytales and an exuberant novel centered on old women and their pasts, I don't know that I love her as a novelist, but I do love the person that Gordon renders with honesty and sympathy. I also appreciate the feminist optimism of Carter's fiction. She shows women standing together and, more importantly, sucking the marrow out of life and enjoying the experience, even in patriarchal society. Oh no ...I am writing myself into wanting to read more of her. ...

An Uncommon Reader: Life of Edward Garnett by Helen Smith: As with Angela Carter, I fell in love with Edward Garnett, a man who published several undistinguished novels, then turned to promoting other writers. His generosity, instinct for great literature, and ability to pour himself out for struggling artists set him apart. He discovered and encouraged Joseph Conrad, DH and TE Lawrence, and many more, even including some female authors. He married Constance Garnett, the Tolstoy translator, but their marriage quickly evolved into separate lives. Smith, commendably, doesn't lay blame on either one. Beyond liking Garnett, I found his milieu fascinating: he and his wife could support themselves, build a big U-shaped arts and craft house outside of London using money she inherited, rent a London pied-a-terre, have nice London lunches, and put a son through university. While Constance made money translating books, he earned an income as a reader for a publishing house and a book critic. Tele-commuting, we learn, is not a new invention: Edward went into his publisher's London office one day a week. These people, even after World War I, managed to live in style.

Jane Welsh Carlyle and her Victorian World by Kathy Chamberlain: I learned from this biography, which covered in depth one year--1847-48-- of Carlyle's life and times. Life was not easy in a London townhouse in the 1840s, even for a middle-class woman. Chamberlain focuses on marginal, women Jane helped, such as a governess, as well as her wide acquaintanceship with important figures of the period.

The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling by Natalie Robins: I found this biography riveting, but had a hard time understanding Robins's take on Diana. The book, perhaps because so many of the players or their children are still alive, doesn't take a side on the troubled marriage of Diana and Lionel. At the end, Robins revives a theory that Lionel had ADHD (a disability not recognized in his lifetime). I thought  holding it back until the afterword misplaced: how much more interesting had she introduced this idea earlier. The book led me to outside research to try to better understand Diana, and I was taken with her, especially while watching a Youtube interview with William Buckley clearly meant to put her in her place.

Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast by Megan Marshall: Marshall's biography of Margaret Fuller, which  haven't read, won a Pulitzer prize. This bio shows the good and bad in Elizabeth Bishop, who survived a harrowing childhood and inherited enough wealth to see her through college and support her as a poet until she took up with a wealthy Brazilian woman lover. The book is marred by sections where Marshall discusses too self-indulgently her own undergraduate life: her rationale is that she intersected briefly with Bishop in a Harvard writing seminar shortly before Bishop's death.

Two other biographies that stick in my mind: The Disappearance of Zola by Michael Rosen and DefianceThe Extraordinary Life of Lady Anne Barnard by Stephen Taylor. Both show how hard it was to be a woman, whether in eighteenth century England or late nineteenth century France. Barnard's sister married the brother of the Fordyce whose sermons Mr. Collins reads in Pride and Prejudice. This Fordyce displays as a near sociopath, and also, incidentally, takes his family from fabulous wealth to near poverty when his reckless financial behavior more or less crashes the British economy. Zola's wife had to tolerate his much younger mistress and their two children, who he treated as his second family.


  1. Quite a number of stand-out biographies. It seems to me you share my (and Dr Johnson's love of these). I've read good reviews of the books on Garnett, Bishop (and I've read her poetry), Carlyle. I'd love to read the biography of Carlyle and have Veever on a TBR pile. I've felt Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth are parallel figures. To be honest, the Prelude was a disappointment. Wordsworth avoided telling us about his real life development, was to me repetitive and didn't seem to grasp how privileged he was. What a rich year!

  2. Yes, some wonderful reading this year.