Sunday, 15 January 2023

Nuggets Of Moonstone

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, 1868

Ah, the Victorian novel. It can really divide the masses. Mr P is reading Middlemarch for the first time and attends it with lots of oh dear, oh dear!-s and hearty guffawing & cannot help delightedly reading me passages, for it is a cracking good read. Ol' George Eliot really had her finger on the pulse with what made people tick. And the language! Right up Your Correspondent's alley*. And which has reminded me to finally crack on with some choice nuggets from last year's reading of Wilkie Collins's contribution to the early detective novel genre, The Moonstone

Nota bene: Ever the professional, WC wrote much of the book as a serial whilst delirious with opium for his gout pain and dealing with the death of his mother. What ho, Dear Reader, it's a recipe for fun!

This Victorian stalwart is told through first-hand reminiscences, epistolary-wise, of those on the scene of the Mystery of the Stolen Moonstone, a famous cursed diamond of Indian origin bequeathed to an heiress. A proselytising spinster and a household steward who confers soothsaying abilities upon Robinson Crusoe are the inadvertent comics among the narrators whose recollections form the book. A police detective, a louche gentleman, a dying opium-addict, a lawyer and a couple of others add their two-bob's worth, littering clues, red herrings and further suspects liberally about the pages while revealing more about themselves than their brief required. 

Viz. Drusilla Clack, our Proselytising Spinster:

 Here was a golden opportunity! I seized it on the spot. In other words, I instantly opened my bag, and took out the top publication ... entitled The Serpent at Home. The design of the book - with which the worldly reader may not be acquainted - is to show how the Evil One lies in wait for us all in the most apparently innocent actions of our daily lives. The chapters best adapted to female perusal are "Satan in the Hair Brush"; "Satan behind the Looking Glass"; "Satan under the Tea Table"; "Satan out of the Window" - and many others.

  'Give your attention, dear aunt, to this precious book - and you will give me all I ask.' With those words, I handed it to her open, at a marked passage - one continuous burst of burning eloquence! Subject: Satan among the Sofa Cushions.

 Poor Lady Verinder (reclining thoughtlessly on her own sofa cushions) glanced at the book, and handed it back to me looking more confused than ever.

The book ranges widely (& wildly) from the scientific experiment of administering laudanum to novel police work (whereupon a famous detective dreaming of retirement and growing roses is paid to consult in the mystery); from the exotique of avenging Hindoos (sic) to do-goodery and charity work amongst the spinster class and religious evangelism. There's even deadly quicksand to contend with!


But a Romance, as it was once sub-titled? Well, Rachel Verinder the Dreary Heroine who is robbed of the Moonstone does have a couple of vying Suitors amongst the cast and a fair amount of tears, door-slamming and attendant petulant silence might indicate passions running high. There's also a housemaid Rosanna Spearman employed from the reform house who becomes an obsessive stalker of Franklin Blake, Rachel's louche suitor. Rosanna is generally meant to be a tragic, pathetic creature to be pitied for her misdirected unrequited love but I'm calling this out for what it is.

Love object Franklin Blake is himself also a prime suspect and enlists all the narrators to pen their observations to clear his name. He strikes me as an English take on the Russian Superfluous Man, his own narratives showing his Cosmopolitan Sensibilities at odds with the petty confines of his world:

 Trumpery little scandals and quarrels in the town, some of them as much as a month old, appeared to recur to his memory readily. He chattered on, with something of the smooth fluency of former times ... I submitted patiently to my martyrdom (it is surely nothing less than martyrdom to a man of cosmopolitan sympathies, to absorb in silent resignation the news of a country town?) until the clock on the chimney-piece told me that my visit had been prolonged beyond half an hour. Having now some right to consider the sacrifice as complete, I rose to take leave.

Much priceless Victorian wisdom, however, is dispensed from the loyal retainer, 70-something butler (house steward) Gabriel Betteredge, and far and away my favourite character. Blessedly, he gets around half the book. Feast your eyes upon some of our man Betteredge's nuggets of Moonstone:

On Traditional Enmities:

  'Let us finish the story of the Colonel first,' says Mr Franklin. ' There is a curious want of system, Betteredge, in the English mind; and your question, my old friend, is an instance of it. When we are not occupied in making machinery, we are (mentally speaking) the most slovenly people in the universe.'

  'So much,' I thought to myself, ' for a foreign education! He has learned that way of girding at us in France, I suppose.'

On Downstairs Duty:

'Speaking as a servant, I am indebted to you. Speaking as a man, I consider you to be a person whose head is full of maggots, and I take up my testimony against your experiment as a delusion and a snare. Don't be afraid, on that account, on my feelings as a man getting in the way of the duties as a servant! You shall be obeyed. The maggots notwithstanding, sir, you shall be obeyed. If it ends in your setting the house on fire, Damne if I send for the engines, unless you ring the bell and order them first!'

On the Iniquity of White-Collar Crime:

The upshot of it was, that Rosanna Spearman had been a thief, and not being of the sort that get up Companies in the City, and rob from thousands, instead of only robbing from one, the law laid hold of her, and the prison and the reformatory followed the lead of the law.

On Easy Governance:

 We, in the servants' hall, began this happy anniversary, as usual, by offering our little presents to Miss Rachel, with the regular speech delivered annually by me as the chief. I follow the plan adopted by the Queen in opening Parliament - namely, the plan of saying much the same thing regularly every year. Before it is delivered, my speech (like the Queen's) is looked for as eagerly as if nothing of the kind had ever been heard before. When it is delivered, and turns out not to be the novelty anticipated, though they grumble a little, they look forward hopefully to something newer next year. An easy people to govern, in the Parliament and in the Kitchen - that's the moral of it.

Finally, Betteredge on Women:

 On hearing those dreadful words, my daughter Penelope said she didn't know what prevented her heart from flying straight out of her. I thought privately that it might have been her stays. All I said, however, was, 'You make my flesh creep.' (Nota bene: Women like these little compliments.)

* And why I've read it twice just in the past several years.


Image credits: 1: Biblio; 2: Antique Maps and Prints; 3: Wilkie Collins Information Pages


Tuesday, 10 January 2023

Medea & The Treacherous Ingrate

 

Motherly murder most foul
    "We must all bend our minds," she said brightly, "to think of different ways of boring our royal visitors to death. ... Alma Peacock, who is already straining at the leash and hasn't been off the telephone since yesterday afternoon, can easily be persuaded to give a gala production of some weighty classic, her little amateur theatre group doesn't know the meaning of the word fear, they've already done Hamlet, Mourning Becomes Electra, Young Woodley, Blithe Spirit and Antony and Cleopatra with Alma herself as Cleopatra. I see no reason why on this special occasion they shouldn't attack something really impressive like The Trojan Women or Medea ..."
    "I should dearly love to see Alma as Medea," said H.E. equably.

Noël Coward, Pomp and Circumstance, 1960
When I recently reread Noël Coward's (only) novel about the comedic and chaotic preparations of a small island in the Pacific in the run-up to The Royal Tour, the playful joke about Blithe Spirits included in the roll-call of weighty classics vigorously undertaken by the resident Amateur Dramatic Society was but one of the many giggles. 

But hold onto your hat, Dear Reader, when I tell you that it was only a mere handful of weeks later that we Pipistrellos had a Noble Visit of our own, and lo! last month we went to see Marc-Antoine Charpentier's opera Médée as one of our entertainments! 

Hence I can now fully appreciate His Excellency the Governor of fictional Samolo's jolly wish: Oh, the delicious incongruity of a ruthless murderess waging vengeance on her tiresome treacherous ingrate of a husband to be played by a motley crew of enthusiastic colonial thespians*. For the young ERII and Duke of E on their Royal Tour, it could have been a cultural offering par excellence!

Just as well we were fortunate that our V.I.P. visitor from the Kingdom of Newfoundland in Canada had an appreciative ear for such French baroque fancies. Apart from, ahem, enjoying the company of the Pipistrellos, the wish-list for Madame C principally featured seeking out marsupials for embracing to the patrician bosom**, so an evening of tragédie lyrique was hardly to be anticipated. 

My magical prowess got you your Golden Fleece
and now you're dumping me?? Beware, ingrate!!
Sang Catherine Carby to Michael Petruccelli
a.k.a Medea & Jason

Yet the impulsive purchase of tickets to see the dear princess-sorceress Medea go stark raving mad after scoundrel Jason (of Argonautic fame) tries to dump her for a younger model proved to be a delightful leavening to tramping about zoological gardens and whatnot. To see the treacherous ingrate Jason brought to his knees, general bloodthirsty mayhem ensued which was all rather satisfying, albeit seemingly a tad extreme as a revenge in these more equable times. The only real disappointment to the evening was needing to imagine rather than witness the 1693 stage directions specifying Medea to exit-stage left in a dragon-drawn chariot, a fanciful climactic flourish sadly dispensed with for this spare and stylish contemporary staging.

The libretto by Charpentier's collaborator Thomas Corneille provided for some cracking lines, even in translation, and when the opening scene has Medea singing,
Jason is an ungrateful liar.
My love for him tells me that
in no uncertain terms,
and Love does not deceive.
you know she's already smells a rat about the so-called shelter and hospitality of Creon, King of Corinth.

Foolish Jason for his part, now plotting with Creon and his nubile daughter Creusa for her hand, merely sings, tra la! 
How happy I would be if I were less loved! [Ed: Idiot]
Medea sets to thwart the sneaky lovers and it generally descends pretty quickly to her getting rather het up about the treachery and calling upon the Black Daughters of the Styx to aid her sorcery:
Let us punish the utter perfidy of this
ingrate. Let him suffer, if it is possible,
a hundred torments at once as he
watches the suffering of the one he loves.
And not to mention enlisting some general madness:
It is too much to suffer
the insult of vile contempt.
Come, madness,
you are the one to finish my work.
And then it is time to avert your gaze as the bloodbath is unleashed.

But I must say, the prize for inadvertent prescience goes to King Creon when he tried to deceive Medea into simply scooting off from Corinth for the duration of the impending war, claiming the unhappy Corinthians thought harbouring her was just asking for trouble:
I must silence the malcontents.
When you hear the storm rumbling
it is wisdom
not to resist the weather.
Yup. It was his head first on Medea's chopping block.

The End.




* I'm speaking of the book's earnest theatrical society and not the polished & professional Pinchgut Opera, obv.

**Alas and alack, it appears these are enlightened times and it is now verboten to undertake such mischiefs outside the Kingdom of Queensland and one must settle for a Michael Parkinson-style interview with the marsupials instead. No touching!

Saturday, 7 January 2023

Not-Reviews: Week 1

Something new for you, Dear Reader, the Not-Reviews. Viz., some pics of the books Your Correspondent has in play at the close of the new year's first week:

Doing double-duty as book for the bus and book beside the bed, the complete collection of Katherine Mansfield's short stories. This 2009 Vintage edition (the cover of which got smudged in the rain - boo), purchased in Wellington in New Zealand more than a decade ago, was finally pulled down from the bookshelves on impulse as a nostalgic post-NZ-holiday wave washed over me. How prescient, however, for Katherine Mansfield has been In The News this past couple of days owing to a new biography just released. It's also the centenary of her death.

The book for the sofa and the park when it's not raining is Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. Shamefully, this has been on the go for absolutely ages, despite its eminent readability and general allure, however I'm still on the Ancients! I know blogger Rachel knocked this off in double-quick time last year. This has Priority written all over it.


Leslie Charteris's 1939 Omnibus is masquerading as a sort of 21st century audiobook. Mr P is, ahem, reading this one to me, so we're both enjoying it. AbeBooks provided this 1950 fourth impression with the creamy page and print size so soothing for my Reader.


Now up to book 11 of the Aubrey-Maturin nautical novels, audiobooks (albeit abridged, read by actor Robert Hardy) that swap in and out with historical podcasts as a bit of entertainment whilst ironing.


The Lazy Person's Library a.k.a. Internet Archive is supplying this borrowed omnibus of E. F. Benson's Dodo books. It sits open on the laptop but I keep forgetting it's there so it's slow going and I keep needing to backtrack to figure out what's going on. I'm not loving reading books on a laptop but there are thousands of fabulous hard-to-find books to choose from and it's free!

Hopefully, declaring my reading hand up front might prompt some brisk action toward finishing the occasional book review and break the cycle of cluttering up the Draft Department with endless quotable quotes which, ahem, languish without jollying up with some proper bookish treatment. 
[Ed: A new leaf? Ha! Let us see ...]


Image credits: 1-3: Flying With Hands; 4: via Kobo Rakuten; 5: via Internet Archive

Bats In The Belfry