le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

australians and fairies

The Project staggers along. i feel like I am reading an insane amount - I think I'm averaging a book a day - in addition to preparing my fall syllabus, having a life and trying to do some renovating around the house.

Alas, I am not reading fast enough. I think it is physically impossible for me to NOT read a novel in its entirety, unless it's hideously bad (With Clive in India springs to mind). So i can't condense my fiction-reading; I'm already skimming perilously large chunks of, say, Tom Brown's Schooldays, and anything about cricket (the Sport That Baffles). I've been trying to get through the primary texts before hitting the critical stuff, but I'm going to have to fly into high gear with those soon.

I'm a little confused about the project papers: the first is a kind of lit review, I think, an overview of the field/texts read. How can I POSSIBLY write an overview when I haven't read everything yet?
This is a true mystery, and I shall have to discover the answer pretty damn quick if I want to keep my head above water.

Now: the BOOKS!

I'm struggling to finish Arthur Conan Doyle's The Coming of the Fairies. I've been plugging away at it, but I get so cringingly embarrassed for Mr Doyle that I have to put the book down. It's a peculiar text, for sure, and one wonders how Doyle was able to reason and rationalize fairies, while also being the author of the rather sharply and smartly constructed Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
The Coming of the Fairies is an attempt to prove the existence of fairies, based largely on Doyle's investigation (with a few psychic/theosophist acquaintances) of the Cottingley fairies (pictured here). The painstaking lengths Doyle & Co go to to find experts who will verify the purity of the photos is mortifying to read about. People around the country are swearing up and down that there is NO CONCEIVABLE WAY these photos could be faked. But of course, they are: the girls who perpetrated the fairy hoax admitted to it in some interviews in the 1980s. They constructed the fairies out of fabric, cardboard and other materials, and staged the photos. I give them credit for being rather good artists - those are lovely fairies.
But Doyle's credulity is truly embarrassing to encounter. He relies so heavily on extraordinarily flimsy testimony. When he begins to cite examples of "upstanding, honest citizens" who have seen, and talked with, fairies, I wanted to die. People who see and speak with fairies and gnomes are....well, not right in the head.
I only know a very little about the popularity of fairies through the Victorian era (and clearly, into the 20th century), but this is such a cringeworthy attempt to rationally demonstrate not just the possibility, but the true, verifiable existence of fairies. Doyle also leans on the Romantic view of childhood - the girls can see the fairies, and capture them on film, because they, the girls, are still children. Once the two are older, they are no longer able to see and document the fairies. The elder's reticence to speak about the fairies, once she's in her 20s, is telling, but Doyle ignores this entirely. Her monosyllabic answers to fairy-related questions are reported, but never really analysed; Doyle just blithely moves on to quoting the findings of some local psychic experts.
It's an embarrassing read, well and truly. But I LOVE the photo of the girl with the gnome. I think that gnome is hysterically funny.

Now, for Seven Little Australians, by Ethel Turner (with SPOILERS). Published in the 1890s, this is evidently one of the first and classic texts of Australian children's lit. Naturally, I'd never heard of it before beginning this project (I'm weirdly ignorant of anglophone children's lit outside of England/Scotland/America). Despite its being readily available, apparently, in every Australian bookshop, I had to request it via interlibrary loan from someplace on the other side of pennsylvania. I found this odd.

The book itself: um, wow. I spent the first 50 pages being horrified at Esther, the young (20-year-old) stepmum. Actually, I was really horrified by Captain Woolcot, really, for being so disengaged with his children, and for marrying such a young girl (when his eldest child is 16!). It seemed so.....Hugh Hefner. Then again, maybe in the 1890s the exigencies of life in Australia made that sort of marriage seem reasonable. I simply don't know my Australian history or culture well enough (though I do know about the thylacine and the weird and wonderful animals of Australia).

There were strong parallels for me in this book with Little Women: Judy made a lovely Jo, Meg made a great, um, Meg (the chapter in little women titled "Meg Goes to Vanity Fair" is essentially the blueprint for Meg Woolcot's escapades under the influence of Aldith. Even darling Nell had resonance for me with Amy.

I liked Turner's writing style; I like rowdy, rambunctious, large families in interesting locales in the late 19th century. I was really shocked by the book's conclusion; it felt weirdly out of place in such an otherwise cheerful - or rather buoyant - text. Judy's sacrifice pissed me off, too; she seemed so much the most interesting of the children. Meg's "flirtations" with Mr Gillet gave me mild heebie-jeebies, as well. But Judy's death was uncomfortable and scary, and I appreciated that (Unlike Janeway's and Stretton's children, who happily smile their way into death). It was dreadful to read Judy's words as she tells Meg that she doesn't want to die, that she's scared, that she'll be lonely.

Overall, I don't know quite what to make of this book. I rather enjoyed reading it, and I found the remove to Australia a very refreshing and exciting change from all the time I've spent at boys' public schools lately (Harrow, Rugby, gah!). The moralizing was minimal but then suddenly became heavyhanded, in the last few chapters - after the children and Esther have gone to the country, to Esther's parents' home.

Turner hints at a sequel text, and I'd be REALLY keen to read that; she leaves off so clearly ready to tell us more about her characters.

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