Pas de deux: Georgette Heyer’s Snowdrift and Other Stories

Heyer, Georgette. Snowdrift and Other Stories. Source Books-Casablanca. 2016.

For those of my readers who are unfamiliar with Munro’s Bookstore in Victoria, BC, suffice it to say that in 2016 it was rated by National Geographic the third best bookstore in the world beating out Powell’s in Portland, which came fifth. ( If you ever make it to this part of the world, Munro’s is a “must visit.” I and my spouse were treating ourselves to a couple of days of gracious living in Victoria just before Christmas, and, of course, a visit to Munro’s was essential. I came home with several “must-have” books one of which was Georgette Heyer’s Snowdrift and Other Stories. If you’ve browsed through older posts, you will know I admit to a guilty pleasure in Heyer’s novels, especially her Regency novels.

This book is a reissue of Heyer’s 1960 collection of short stories Pistols for Two with the addition of three stories unseen since their earlier publication over sixty or even eighty years ago in magazines and including a Foreword by Jennifer Kloester, Heyer’s biographer (Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller and Georgette Heyer’s Regency World). Kloester tells us that when she discovered the stories she had to restrain herself from doing “a happy dance right there in the middle of the [British] Library reading room!” (vii). I hasten to add that while I was intrigued to find Snowdrift I did not break into dance, not even a little pirouette of excitement, in Munro’s. I just bought the book, and I read all the stories over the holiday season.

The stories are quintessential Heyer. Here are the sprightly heroines and dashing, firm-chinned heroes, helpful landlords, stately yet understanding butlers, and anxious, overbearing aristocratic families. What I found lacking in these works, most of which apparently date from Heyer’s earlier days of writing is that the brevity of the form means there is little opportunity for character development and, therefore, I found the number of times couples fell tumbling into love at first sight rather over-stretched my ability to suspend disbelief. As Kloester points out, readers of Heyer’s novels will recognise that some of the plots of these stories are reworked and developed in the later novels. Only the names have been changed.

By the time I came to the end of the collection, I had actually had enough. I was in fact rather irritated with the fact that Heyer ends all the stories with a happy resolution. I realise that the market for which she was writing demanded that she comply with the formulaic happy ending, but . . . .

Despite this saccharine quality, however, the stories do turn a comic lens on the world of women in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries. It’s not a world I would particularly like to have lived in, a world where women were basically the property of first a father and then a husband; a world in which an unmarried lady (I use the word specifically) had little place unless she were a governess. Those whose class defined them as women or even merely as persons, in other words lower middle and working-class women, did at least have a function other than as someone’s wife. They were forced by poverty to work, whether married or not. Further, the, to us, extreme youth of some of the heroines, some as young as seventeen, when they commit themselves to life with men approaching or already in their thirties seems not a little disturbing, but this was indeed an aspect of the world that Heyer visits in her work.

For the most part, Heyer’s characters are if not aristocratic then landed gentry, or the children of somewhat impoverished but well-connected clergy. They depend upon the services of others; they aren’t in service. However, in a couple of the stories we find Heyer shifting ground somewhat. In “Night at the Inn,” the main characters are a clerk newly returned to England from working in his company’s office in India and a governess on her way to her first position. In “Pursuit,” Heyer also shifts her attention a little further away from the aristocratic classes; the heroine is a governess whose charge has eloped. In this story, we also find Heyer entering territory she was to visit at times in the novels: the situation, even plight, of women who for whatever reason appear “doomed” to spinsterhood. Miss Fairfax in “Pursuit” is “a lady . . . who would very soon have attained her thirtieth year” (237).

While Heyer is no George Eliot or Jane Austen, she does offer a view of a past world, an antidote to or at least a brief escape from the pressing realities of our own times. However, it does behove us at times to remember that there are some women who are still in thrall to family obligation and societal expectation not dissimilar to those experienced by their nineteenth century predecessors. As current news stories make all too evident, women today still suffer from the attentions of predatory males, and families still have to deal with financial loss, addiction, and war. Look carefully at Heyer’s world: for the most part, her stories and novels are set during the Napoleonic wars or in the years surrounding the French revolution. It’s a violent, insecure world, but Heyer’s comic resolutions do suggest that prejudice can be overcome and that belief in oneself and in one’s own good principles can ultimately be rewarded. I leave it to you to decide whether such a view is naively optimistic or not.

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The Proper(?) Imposition of Words: Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost

Pears, Iain. An Instance of the Fingerpost. [1997] Vintage, 1998.

I can’t believe it’s twenty years since I first read this novel. Trite phrases about the passing of time come easily to mind. The novel pleased me then. It pleased me again when I finished it a couple of weeks ago.

Just short of seven hundred pages in the paperback version, the novel is a long one centred on the events surrounding the mysterious death in 1663 of Robert Grove, Senior fellow of New College, Oxford. Was his death natural or not? The truth (?) emerges through four narratives written many years after the event by four men who were closely involved with Grove’s death. Needless to say, all four reach rather different conclusions, and their understanding of what they observed in their youth differs even when they remember the same events. They all tell the truth as they understand it, and as an exercise in point of view, the story is masterfully handled.

It is good, however, that it is not possible to libel the dead. Many of the characters including two of the narrators are historical persons of no little importance. The last pages of the book are a “Dramatis Personae” in which Pears lists all the characters who appear in his novel explaining who are the figments of his imagination and who are not.

Each section of the book is introduced by a quotation from Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum Scientiarum (my edition prints Scientarum) that relates to the narrative that follows and making some appropriate comment on how we understand the evidence of our own eyes. For example, the second narrative is introduced by a quotation from Section II Aphorism V of the Novum Organum and reminds us that “we every one of us have our peculiar Den, which refracts and corrupts the Light of Nature, because of the differences of Impressions as they happen in a Mind prejudiced or prepossessed” (197). Pears’ use of these quotations from Bacon does more than simply give context to what follows; at times, they function as witty comments about the pitfalls we may encounter if we take what we are about to read at its face value. Can we trust our narrators? Can they trust themselves?

Introducing the final section in a quotation that gives Pears the title for his book, he, through Bacon, tells us, “Sometimes indeed, these Instances [that illuminate the truth] are found amongst that Evidence already set down” (529). In other words, the answer to our questions may well be right under our noses but we just haven’t seen it, until something illuminates what we need to understand that we’ve seen. Here, I must admit I had worked out what must have happened to Dr. Grove before the novel actually tells us. Sometimes this situation can be disappointing. Not in this case. I found it intensely satisfying. However, the reason I was able to fathom the mystery is because unlike the characters in the novel, even when they are recalling events of their own pasts, I have the benefit of a more modern psychological theory than they do. For example, I know about conditions such as schizophrenia; I know about blood groups, about infection. I understand humours theory only as a metaphor. I also have the benefit of hindsight into the period of the novel, which gives me the possibility of a disengagement from the political situation post-Restoration of the Stewart monarchy unavailable to those who lived at that time.

We know the Stewart dynasty came to an end with the death of Queen Anne. At the time of Dr. Grove’s death, Anne had yet to be born. Her sister Mary was barely a year old. We know how the politics of the era turned out. The constitutional crises, the political and social shifts, the economic and religious developments of the late seventeenth century are of intellectual interest to us. The fate of Clarendon has no immediate effect on us even if the slow movement towards the kind of constitutional monarchy with which we are familiar today has some of its roots in this time.

Just as influential and arguably more tangible are the developments of other late seventeenth century activities that have resulted in many things we today take for granted. For this is the period where in many ways we see the pursuit of knowledge dividing into what we tend to call the Arts and Sciences. The characters in An Instance of the Fingerpost stand at the edge of the period often referred to as The Enlightenment. Alchemy is giving way to the study of Chemistry. The medical treatises of Aristotle and Galen are being questioned. At the centre of this period of reassessment and interrogation lie the questions about what for some of us may still seem the most alien: religious belief and practice in both the private and public political spheres. Where does belief in an immortal soul meet understanding of the circulation of the blood? How is the doctrine of transubstantiation a viable concept when considered in the light of empirical science? These are not only questions from the seventeenth century. Some people struggle with them still. Just how do we derive at truth? Neither Bacon nor Descartes are much help when it comes to matters of the soul, however we define soul. Perhaps we had to wait for Freud and Jung.

It is the way An Instance of the Fingerpost raises metaphysical and epistemological questions and scrutinizes the whole reliability of narratives while keeping us enthralled by a good mystery story (Pears has also written mysteries with an art historian sleuth) that makes the novel such a fascinating and stimulating book: one of those books with which it is a kind of sorrow to part.




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Catalysts for Thought: Armstrong’s Islam and Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel

Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. 2000. Rev. and Updated. Modern Library 2002.

Dershowitz, Alan. The Case for Israel. Wiley. 2003. E-book.

I read these two books in partial preparation for the trip I took earlier in the fall and found them both absorbing but also disappointing. While their subject matter is in some ways connected, their foci are very different. Further, both Dershowitz and Armstrong attract strong responses both supportive and antagonistic to their points of view. However, in this short review, I am not going to espouse any particular attitude. I will simply outline what the books attempt to do, outline their organizational strategies, and explain why I ultimately found both works slightly disappointing.

A quick review of Dershowitz’s various Google entries and so on reveals that you don’t need me to let you know that Dershowitz might well be described as Lead Defence Counsel for Israel. As its title suggests, this book presents a case arguing on behalf of the state of Israel. Each chapter is divided into four sections and responds to evidence presented against Israel. First, he outlines “The Accusation; then he identifies “The Accusers” and examines their supporting evidence. “The Reality” asserts the alternate view, supporting evidence for which is outlined in “The Proof.” In his Introduction, Dershowitz asserts his reliance on “objective” and often “overtly anti-Israel sources.” While he doesn’t include a Bibliography, his notes section is extensive and informative, so if the reader so desires he or she is well able to track down Dershowitz’s sources and decide for him or herself to what extent Dershowitz is convincing.

While Dershowitz presents argument, Armstrong’s discourse is primarily explanation, and as the subtitle of her book suggests, Islam delivers a short history of Islam from its beginnings in the early seventh century of the common era to the turn of the twentieth century. Her Bibliography is quite extensive, though her chapter notes are brief. The book includes an introductory chronology of the development of Islam and a concluding section listing short biographies of the major figures in the development of the faith as well as a glossary of Arabic terms together with a pronunciation guide. There are also twelve study/discussion questions at the very end of the book.

For the most part, Armstrong’s tone is moderate. Her aim is to explain what the tenets and practices of Islam are and how they have been shaped by the Muslim experience and understanding of history. Certainly, it is this view of history that Armstrong is at pains to make clear to her readers. In her Preface, she explains how “Muslims have looked for God in history.” A Muslim’s “chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect.” She goes on to explain how “A Muslim had to redeem history, and that meant that state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself” (xi). The rest of the book is devoted to illustrating how Islam’s “sacralization of history” (xii) has influenced the development of Islam and affected how Muslims have responded to their past and to their presents.

Her later chapters may well be of most interest to us today dealing as they do with the relationship between the West and the Islamic world and in the differing experiences of modernity. If there is any persuasive note in Armstrong’s text, it is in her plea for the West to “cultivate a more accurate appreciation of Islam in the third Christian millennium” (187). In her epilogue, written after the events of 11 September 2001, she asserts, “It has never been more important for Western people to acquire a just appreciation and understanding of Islam” (191).

Since Armstrong wrote those words, fifteen years have passed. Dershowitz’s book was published in 2003. Both works felt more than a little dated to me. I wanted some engagement from both writers with the current situation and was disappointed to find that some kind of Afterwords/Epilogues other than Armstrong’s brief note, had not been appended to later printings of the works. However, that said, I would still recommend both works as introductions to subjects complex and challenging on many levels.

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Tempus Fugit

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The Pity of Shadows: John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies

Le Carré, John. A Legacy of Spies.Viking, 2017.

 A lot of us would agree, no doubt, that John Le Carré’s novels set in the cold war are some of his best, and, perhaps, you are like me in regretting the fact that at least in fiction the shift in international politics and the accompanying espionage has left us without the world of the Circus as created for us by Le Carré. We may even some of us share a kind of nostalgia for the apparent certainties of the cold war years of our childhood, youth, and early adulthood.

In this latest novel, Le Carré returns to that world and to characters first created several decades ago, and while A Legacy of Spies stands perfectly independent of its forebears, you will probably find it has greater resonance if you have read its predecessors, especially The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Peter Guillam, you will remember him particularly from Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and Smiley’s People is summoned back from his retirement on his French farm to London to account for his actions during the cold war. What was acceptable all those years ago is no longer acceptable especially when it comes to deaths resulting from covert actions, and when descendants of the dead are “demanding full disclosure, punitive damages, and a public apology” (36).

The story unfolds as a somewhat fragmented first-person narrative. Guillam records what happens to him in his dealings with the service from which he has long retired. He is required to work through old files from when he was young and explain himself and his so long ago actions. With Guillam, we read the old memos and documents relating particularly to operation Windfall that resulted in the death of an agent and of an “innocent woman” (1). What the files record and what Guillam affirms to his interrogators do not always match with Guillam’s own memories.

In many ways, the action of the novel lies primarily in the past, and through this device Le Carré is able, to a certain extent, to carry us back to the mood evoked in his earlier novels with their settings behind the wall in the DDR or in the rain soaked streets of an Eastern European capital.

However, while much of the action may lie in the past, in many ways the concerns of the novel are more recent, focusing as they do on changing attitudes, changing contexts, on a changing world, a world that asks the question: “Who will atone for our father’s sins, even if they weren’t sins at the time?” (31). A very contemporary question indeed, and one senses that Le Carré is arguing that the present cannot understand the past.

One of the constants of Le Carré’s work is his skill in understanding the conflicts between idealism and realpolitik. His novels convey the kind of world-weariness that results in pity rather than cynicism. An angry Smiley tells Guillam, “‘We were never pitiless. We had a larger pity. Certainly it was futile. We know that now. We did not know it then’” (261). Are these words of regret or acceptance? Or both?

In A Legacy of Spies, Le Carré takes us once again into the world of generational distrust, the grey, shadowed world of moral ambiguity, conflicting loyalties, and misunderstood idealism that lasts despite all. I found it a not optimistic but melancholically hopeful book.


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Casting for the Rainbow: Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel

Wilson, Ethel. Swamp Angel. Harper & Bros., 1954. Ed. George Bowering. UBC Library-Macmillan, 1990. E-book.

If you had taken a Canadian literature course in the late sixties and early seventies, you would probably remember that much of the focus of what was included in reading lists then—a time when Canadianists were fighting English Departments to have their specialty recognised as something worthy of attention—how much of what we read seemed to focus on surviving geography. A few years later, I was assigned to teach an introduction to Canadian literature, and at the end of the thirteen-week semester I asked my students what sense they had of what made literature Canadian: they said, “snow.” I was beset by something like a cross between amusement and a total sense of failure.

Oddly enough, perhaps, despite my long ago experience with Canadian Literature in the classroom, I had neither been required to read Swamp Angel nor had I assigned it to others. Therefore, I read it for the first time a couple of months ago. I knew it was regarded as probably Wilson’s best novel, and if I had any preconceptions about the work they were that its setting would be important.

This I found to be the case. If you want, you can map Maggie Lloyd’s journey, though some of my fellow reading group members rather disagreed about Wilson’s complete accuracy.

However, while Wilson does indeed celebrate the physical landscape of British Columbia, the more important aspect of the novel lies in Wilson’s empathic delineating and understanding of her characters’ personal navigations of their own inner geography. The novel follows Maggie Lloyd as she walks out on her second husband Edward Vardoe and finds work in a fishing lodge in BC’s interior. Much bereaved, her first husband Tom Lloyd having been killed in action during the war, and both her son and her father, who had taught her to fish and to tie flies, also dead, Maggie, “with no-one to care for, had tried to save herself by an act of compassion and fatal stupidity” and “married Edward Vardoe who had a spaniel’s eyes” (ch. 1).

Notice that juxtaposition of “compassion and fatal stupidity.” It’s just one example of Wilson’s tone in the novel. Yes, Wilson is very understanding of her characters, but she isn’t saccharine. Her vision is sharp and appraising, as is that of one of the major characters in the novel Mrs. Severence, the owner of the gun that gives the novel its name: the swamp angel. Mrs. Severence, who was once a juggler, might now be described as a puppeteer pulling the strings of those around her. A benevolent and manipulative ogress, in many ways, she is, to my mind, a far more interesting character than Maggie Lloyd, and her function in the novel though supporting is definitely not secondary.

Two other characters whose own stories act as foils to Maggie’s are Vera Gunnarson, wife of Haldar Gunnarson who owns the fishing resort where Maggie finds sanctuary and Hilda Severence who marries Albert Cousins. Swamp Angel is very much an examination of women’s lives, and I found this aspect of the novel of far more interest than its being Canadian.

In his Afterword, Bowering recalls early critics of Wilson’s work who saw her as “an unambitious chronicler, innocent of intellectual and moral matters but somehow gifted in limning character.” He takes the rest of his essay to show just how untrue that is and concludes that “Wilson’s feigned simplicity is the most complicated trick of all.”

Where I might disagree with Bowering is in his use of the word “feigned,” a word that suggests an intent to deceive the reader. I would argue there is no authorial deception in Swamp Angel. Wilson tells it as it is in a style that is simple because it is acerbic. A sharp razor blade is a simple thing, but it is also deadly. What is fascinating about this novel is Wilson’s ability to balance this kind of duality underscoring that life is part of what Nell Severence calls “the miraculous interweaving of creation” (ch. 46).

Earlier, I commented that Nell Severence is more interesting than Maggie Lloyd and called her a “puppeteer.” There is, of course, another puppeteer at work, the author herself. Any work of fiction is itself an “interweaving of creation.”  When we consider Wilson’s sensitivity to image and use of metaphor, her ongoing motifs of fishing, of birds, her presentation of the tension between the elements of earth, water, and air, and the way she ensures that these facets of her work support and illustrate her plot and characters, we realise her threads are woven silky fine.

Her vision is neither overly optimistic nor overly pessimistic; rather, it looks at the world’s apparent randomness and sees cohesion and acceptance that “we have no immunity” (ch. 46) from life because “we are all in it together” (ch. 46).

I finished this novel aware of a faint sense of melancholy but aware I had been engaged with a very finely crafted work.




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Traveller’s Tales Four: Returned

It’s nearly a month since my last post, but a quick review of my Currently Reading page will reveal that I have several books awaiting review. I am catching up. In fact, the first review since my return follows this post.

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