The Mysteries of Udolpho

I run a Jane Austen book club for the Jones Library. Despite the library being closing, I will be hosting, via Zoom, a meeting of the club tomorrow. This is the second year of the club. I have structured it so the first meeting of the year we read a Jane Austen book. Then, for the rest of the year, we read books related to the Austen work.

This year, we read Northanger Abbey. On Thursday we will be discussing The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. Scholars consider Udolpho to be the first Gothic novel. Austen satirized it in Northanger Abbey. Udolpho is a very long book; almost 700 pages.  The gothic or “frightening part” is the middle third. It was slow reading up until that point and then the pace picked up.

During her stay at the Udolpho castle, Emily, the heroine suffered mightily. Many eerie and unexplained things happened. The author also builds suspense because you do not know if there will be a reunion of Emily and her love, Valancourt. After Emily leaves the castle, the pace of the book slows down again.

In the end, there is a rationale explanation for everything that occurred. Emily is a sensible, intelligent young woman. Throughout the book she only rarely succumbs to belief in the supernatural. In this way, she and Catherine Moorland, Austen’s heroine, are similar.  Catherine, partly because she is reading The Mysteries of Udolpho throughout Northanger Abbey, initially believes horrid things have happened in the castle she is visiting. In the end of her book, sense prevails as well.

I had mixed feelings about The Mysteries of Udolpho. There were parts I enjoyed and parts I disliked. The book, while it might have been new in 1794, feels dated in a way Northanger Abbey doesn’t.

Marie Kondo Revisited

A few years ago, I read  the Marie Kondo book and posted a review of it. At that time, I was not that impressed and had no plans to use the method in my home. This year, however, there were some areas of my house that really needing organizing so I gave Marie another look.

So far I have fixed up my sweaters that I have in an armoire.  I used the Kondo method for folding, but that actually works best in drawers where you will just have a single layer of clothes. I have more then one layer of sweaters and the space is much higher than a drawer. I had to pile sweaters on top of each other. When I finished it looked good, but the pyramid started to fall apart as soon as I took one sweater out. It isn’t perfect but it is better than how it was before I started.

Her folding and stacking method worked much better in my sock, bra, and underwear drawers. They have all stayed very neat and I love to look at them.  I also cleaned out my closet. I didn’t really use her “does this item bring me joy” shtick. I mostly kept or threw things out based on whether they ft or not. Some of clothing I got rid of I really loved. For sorting the closet I used the What Not to Wear mantra that you have to dress the body you have now. The closet also looks really nice and it is much easier to get my clothes out.

My new conclusion about Marie Kondo’s method for organizing is that it  works better for some things than for others. In my recent cleaning phase, I probably used the spirit of her approach more than hewing strictly to her rules.

I started  re-organizing before COVID-19, but, since I have been homebound, I have also worked on my linen closet and the junk drawer. What organizing projects have you done since the epidemic started? I hope every is safe and healthy.

Book Review: The Clergyman’s Wife

The Clergyman’s Wife by Molly Greeley is one of the best adaptations of a Jane Austen book that I have read. The main character is Charlotte Lucas; the book imagines her life after she married Mr. Collins. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte’s decision is a practical one. She tells Elizabeth, “I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home.”[1]

Greeley does an excellent job portraying the limited choices available to women like Charlotte who remains unmarried at 27 and is not a beauty. The fact that Mr. Collins is gainfully employed as a minister and has a wealthy woman, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as a benefactor probably would have been enough to make him a good catch. However, his prospects which include being the heir to Longbourn really sealed the deal.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is Greeley’s expansion of the Greeley back story. The knighting of Mr. Lucas was not a complete blessing. The Lucas family was better off, financially when he owned a haberdashery shop. The family’s social elevation reduced the marriage options for both Charlotte and Maria.

The plot involves Charlotte forming a friendship with a local farmer, Mr. Travis. Through this friendship, she gains a better sense of what a marriage built on love and mutual interests might be like. Charlotte also realizes that this was not ever a viable option for her.

In the other good adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn, by Jo Baker, Mrs. Bennett dies, and Mr. Bennett lives into old age. In that book, the entail of Mr. Bennett’s estate is not discussed. Because Charlotte is Greely’s heroine, the entail becomes a plot point in The Clergyman’s Wife.

After Charlotte has been married for several year, lost a child at birth and has a young daughter, Mr. Bennett dies. The estate at Longbourn now belongs to Mr. Collins. The inheritance requires the Collins to leave Hunsford and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It also means that Charlotte and Mr. Travis must part.

In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte makes a practical choice which Elizabeth disparages. Elizabeth has a much happier outcome when she marries Mr. Darcy. The Clergyman’s Wife has a more realistic ending for Charlotte and by inference many women in the early 19th century. In the end Charlotte’s need to have both love and economic security remains unmet.

[1] Jane Austen, The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, annotated and edited by David M. Shapard.

The American Wife

As I continue to work on my manuscript about faculty wives, I am always interested in books that appear to be about wives or more broadly women. After reading The New York Times obituary of Elaine Ford, I read her collection of stories, The American Wife.

In the story, “Changeling”, the main character, Sandy, thinks the following: “It’s as if getting married when you’re an undergraduate and then having a baby before your husband’s career is well established, together amount to sheer irresponsibility, which cannot be allowed to go unpunished.”

The story is about a young woman living in Athens with an infant while her husband is off on an archaeological dig. Sandy experiences extreme psychological distress to the extent that she believes the baby is not hers.

The story has autobiographical elements; in 1958, Ford, an undergraduate at Radcliffe married a Harvard student, Gerald Bunker. Together with their infant they pursued lengthy travels while he completed his Ph.D.  By 1964, she had three children but did completed her bachelor’s degree.

The couple continued traveling and having more children. By 1976  they five children and were living in Northern Ireland while Bunker was in medical school. Ford divorced Bunker, returned to the United States and began pursuing a writing career. She published her first novel, The Playhouse, at the age of 41 in 1980.

Ford, writing  about “Changeling”, said it “reflects my experience of living in Athens with a baby while my husband was far away on an archaeological dig. Though I’ve imagined the central plot of the story, the protagonist’s sense of isolation and disorientation certainly expresses my state of mind at the time.”


The Gammage Cup

Last night when I couldn’t sleep, I reread one of my favorite books, The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall. I loved the book when I was a child and I still do. Kendall wrote several books, including  a sequel but The Gammage Cup is her most famous work. As an adult, I read the sequel, The Whisper of Glocken but I didn’t like it as much. I am going to reread it also; just to see if I will like it better.

The Gammage Cup  is about five outsiders, people who were different, living in a very traditional, insular commuunity of Minnipins. Eventually village officials outlawed Muggles, Gummy, Walter  the Earl, Curly Green and Mingy. As an aside, Kendall used the word, “Muggles” thirty years before J.K. Rowling. In the end,  these five Minnipins saved the whole village. On their return to the community they received a heroes welcome.

Kendall wrote the book in 1959; it may have been a response to McCarthyism. The Gammage Cup is about accepting difference and living peacefully in a diverse community. It is a sweet fantasy although there is a lot violence in the battle scenes.  Once the enemy, the Mushrooms, are recognized, Walter the Earl and the others realize they must be defeated. There is no diplomacy.


Looking Forward.

My original plan for this blog post was to write about my goals for the New Year. However, I have been so busy that I haven’t had time, yet, to sit down and formulate specific goals

The things I will continue to work on include my book, my website, blogging and tweeting. On a more personal level, I plan to continue skating. If I could test, compete, or perform in 2019, that would be thrilling.

One new project I will be involved with in 2019 is the Jane Austen’s Regency World Book Club which I will be facilitating at the Jones Library, Amherst. The first book we will read is Pride and Prejudice. All are welcome.

Goose Island

This week Chicago Magazine is asking the question – “Is Goose Island Still a Craft Beer?” The article is a review of a book, Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out, by Josh Noel. When we spent two weeks in Chicago in 2010, one of the beers we tried was Goose Island.You can read that post here.

A year later InBev Anheuser Busch bought a controlling interest in the company. The sale was a huge issue in  the beer blogging world  partly because Goose island was a factor in the renaissance of brewing in Chicago. Noel’s book is about that controversy and explores how Goose Island fared under corporate ownership.  For craft beer aficionados the issue was whether Goose Island could remain a craft beer if Anheuser Busch produced and owned it.

The answer to that question depends on what matters to you when you buy and drink a beer. If taste is your sole criteria and Goose Island continued to taste the way it did when John Hall brewed it than you won’t care  about Anheuser Busch totally controls the company today.

Craft beers image is, however, based on more than taste. By definition, a  craft beer is an authentic product brewed by small, independent  brewers. For consumers who care about where and how a beer is made, In Bev Anheuser-Busch ownership could be a defining factor in whether or not to buy the beer.

The intervention of macro brewers into the craft brewing world remains controversial. The growth of some craft breweries such as Boston Beer has been another flash point. When does success remove  a beer from the craft brewing fellowship?  The Brewers Association has consistently changed its definition of craft beer to  continue to include the bigger, more successful brewers.




The Internet

Recently I read three books that, in one way or another, dealt with the internet. I have also been watching episodes of Catfish: The TV Show.  Felicia Day’s book, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is a memoir that describes how she became involved in a web series and website. A lot of it is very funny because she had an unusual childhood . Day writes about how she found a community online through gaming and social media. One chapter deals with gamergate. Day was not directly involved but she has faced misogyny online.

Crash Override by Zoe Quinn is directly about gamergate since the author was the main actor in that saga. She had a  difficult and unhappy childhood and turned to internet games for a sense of community and identity. A disgruntled ex boyfriend published a screed against which turned into a huge online phenomena at great personal cost to Quinn.

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesa Zappia is a novel about a very shy and socially awkward teenage girl who creates a  fictional identity for herself  through an online webcomic forum. On the internet she is a  strong and dynamic creator, Lady Constellation, and she has a large fan base. There are serious consequences when her true identity is revealed

Catfish The TV Show is about people who pose as  someone they are not on the internet and then get romantically involved with unsuspecting men or women. Many of the catfishers are people, most often women who are insecure about their looks and weight. Others are scared to reveal their sexual identity to friends and family so they create a fake persona online. Some catfishers are scam artists seeking money.

The three books and the tv show reveal the ways in which we use the internet to find community, define ourselves and or escape reality.  The internet can be a free and open space for young people  particularly, to try on different ways of being and expressing themselves. It can also help people who do not fit in the real world to feel like they belong.

However it can also be a dangerous and potentially harmful space. The 2016 elections revealed the consequences of fake information and fake personas. The misogyny that Zoe Quin and other women continue to face on the internet remains a serous problem.

Book Review: Just Kids

Just Kids by Patti Smith is a memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer.  They lived together in New York City from 1967 – 1972. Their real experiences occurred during the same time frame as the fictional characters of Marge Piercy’s, Small Changes. 

The artistic and musical worlds of New York City were very different from the political and counter-cultural worlds of Cambridge Massachusetts. Although Patti Smith had different encounters with a variety of men she does not write about her experiences from a feminist perspective. Despite the fact that it was very unusual for a woman to front a rock band in the 1970s she does not write about those experiences through a feminist lens. 

Her goal, when leaving her small town in rural Jersey, was to become an artist. While living on the streets, she met Robert Mapplethorpe and they began to purse artistic careers together. While they worked on various artistic projects, they met many people who were already famous and some who became, as they did, famous later. To some extent they were in the right place at the right time. 

In many ways Andy Warhol was the epicenter of the avant garde art world and Robert, especially, sought to enter his orbit.  They went repeatedly to Max’s, a night club, where they did not directly encounter Warhol but met many other artists and musicians. 

Both Patti and Robert were twenty-one when they met and their years together represent the searching and developing of their artistic bent. Robert eventually focused on photography, particularly erotic pictures of men. Patti was more eclectic but became most known for her music. Many people consider her the ‘godmother” of punk rock. 

On one level, Just Kids is a love story. Although Patti and Robert were not always intimate and Robert realized his homosexuality during the time they lived to together, on an emotional level they were deeply connected. 

I enjoyed reading the book and realized I had never really heard her music. I got the album Horses and listened to it. The first time I did not like it at all but the second time around I found some interesting things.  It is clear that, as she says in the book, she was trying to merge poetry and rock.




Book Review: Small Changes

This weekend Marge Piercy was the Scholar in Residence at the Jewish Community of Amherst. I attended the event and it was a great experience. She is the author of many novels, books of poetry, a memoir and liturgical writing. Piercy read some of her poetry, discussed various aspects of writing and read some of her liturgical writings as well.

In preparation for the weekend I read Small Changes, a novel Piercy wrote in 1973. The book is strongly feminist and almost reads like a primary source because she so evocatively describes the early feminist and counter culture environment in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late 1960s and early 70s.

The two main characters, Beth and Miriam, interact with men within a pronounced patriarchal society. None of the men in the book can really see or treat woman as human beings. Rather they exist as sex object, mother, housekeeper, and caregiver but not as fully autonomous beings.

The women, particularly Miriam, are unable to completely escape the narrow definitions that the men impose upon them. Miriam is a very smart and well-educated person who so desperately seeks love and validation that she is unable to assert herself at critical moments and maintain an independent identity.

Miriam, who is not overtly political and does not have a feminist perspective, is determined, in the beginning, to not be like her mother who spent her life trying to please a husband who was indifferent to her. Despite this determination and the fact that she obtains a Ph.D. in the new field, at the time, of computer science, she ultimately marries a fellow computer scientist, has two children, and cooks gourmet dinners. Her husband, Neil, does not seem to have married her for her brains or personality but rather to have a decorative object who will provide children and be a help in his career.

Beth comes from a working class family who discourage her from going to college.  Instead she marries her high school sweetheart who essentially views her as a cook and house cleaner. She sours on this life fairly quickly; her husband, sensing her dissatisfaction, decides to force her to have a baby. Facing this prospect, Beth flees and winds up in Cambridge.

The part of the book which deals with Beth is an exploration of her development and growth into an independent person with a strong feminist and political consciousness. She becomes involved with another woman, Wanda. Eventually they have to go into hiding because of Wanda’s past associations with radicals who are wanted by the government.

The book does not end on a happy or particularly hopeful note. Although Miriam is trying to dig herself out of the domestic hole she is in, it is not clear whether her marriage will survive. Beth is living under an assumed identity and is far from the community and connections she had developed.  Neither Beth nor Miriam are able to be an independent autonomous being and live fully in mainstream American society.

It was interesting to read Small Changes forty years after it was written. What struck me was how much still needs to change for women to be full participants in American life and society.