There’s rue for you: and here’s some for me

I am re-reading The Herb of Grace parenthetically, one chapter a day. 🌿

It’s such a healing, lovely book, and I want to extend my friendship with it, and revisit Damerosehay and the Herb of Grace in the beginning autumn. I find that very appropriate. And it’s so pleasant and calming to read it so very slowly and evenly.

I have already read the first two chapters. Chapter One reminded me of how much I do love Sally. I love every paragraph of her description. With some parts, the overly specific ones, I identify more than I ever thought I could identify with a character in a book. The others, I simply enjoy. She is such a thoroughly enjoyable woman. And the children asking whether she’s over age for bananas is so sweet.

And I love her first meeting with David, and the way she felt. It reminds me of the first time Mary and Michael meet, in The Rosemary Tree. Elizabeth Goudge’s characters, especially in her contemporary books, are so thoroughly human, and so are their romances. There is a special quality, almost a sort of magic, but at the same time such a painful realism, that makes them so very superior. In these two scenes, it’s the sudden realisation, and the quiet acceptance. Unexpected and unsentimental, not until wanted, but valiantly taken and valued. This, and the very dedicated and laborious love, and the combination of both, are everything.

And David’s feelings! The way he hated that he couldn’t talk openly, just while Sally wondered about his mask. The way he adored Sally’s unaffectedness from the war, while she was feeling ashamed of it. The way they were both right, and thought themselves wrong.

And Chapter Two! Oh, Nadine. The reader suffers because of you and with you—and grows and rejoices, because of you and with you. The violets. I love these details. Whether one reads it as part of a trilogy or as a stand-alone, the way things are coming together reads differently depending on whether one already knows some of the characters, or doesn’t, but it reads equally well. That magic of recognition and wonder, I dare even call it a sort of suspense, the small moments of “oh, this!” are always so lovely. But Jill’s letter is such a small, sad moment…

And I love the bit about Nadine and the Little Village, and that she loved being at Damerosehay because it always changed her a little, and not in spite of it. And I love to see her and Hilary interacting. To see two characters in an ensemble story who usually don’t have much to do with each other, who are from “different ends” of the story, so to speak, appear in the same scenes is always a great joy to me.

Rambling about a minor character

I have actually come to realise that I have a very soft spot, fondness even, for George Eliot. From the Damerosehay books, I mean. It’s funny, it came up to me when I thought about literary characters I personally fancy (yes, what a deep and important topic) and when I thought about how brilliant all the positive romantic relationships (as in, the ones that actually make it work together) in Elizabeth Goudge’s books are all absolutely wonderful and I love them very much, I came to think of how I feel for the men outside their wonderful relationships in the books, and despite my great love for Jocelyn and David in particular, I actually realised that, long story made short, I am very fond of George Eliot.

I mean, I often said that all of Elizabeth Goudge’s characters are real people, very real and very much alive, and I still say so, but George is, despite his real-ness, a character whose place is mostly in the background of the narrative, and of whose own story, out of Nadine’s personal character arc, we don’t see very much. And you see, I like Nadine actually a lot. She’s a very complex and interesting character, and I love her growth, and I love how she worked her way against her own disposition in a way that actually makes me like her much more than, to name someone in a similar position as her, mentally, Lucilla herself, whom I actually view rather (very) critically, even though of course she’s important in her way.

And I see what her feelings for George, and the way she handled them, and… grew them, worked on them, mean in that context, and I understand George as the technically for a long time unwanted and unloved, generally oblivious and uncomplicated, old and boring husband. I understand how coming to build her new relationship means a lot to Nadine’s story, and I love the way she found her own true happiness in the way she did (without going into much detail here).

But most of what we see of him is either from the eyes of his children, who love him, but also see him mostly as a comforting and kind and otherwise not too interesting, well, father, and his mother and wife who both often look down on him in a sort of loving way, and he is mostly described as a man without much depth (e.g. his religious and political views). George doesn’t have that sort of romantic storyline some of the others have, in fact, all there is is just happening on Nadine’s side of the story.

So, he’s not the obvious character to even care about much. But I noticed I do, much more in retrospect than while reading. It’s funny how he is technically the stereotypically “desirable match” (wealthy, good military rank, one of the “beautiful” Eliots, etc.) his position is more or less that of an undesirable man—boring, bland, conventional, and of little emotional depth.

But he is so kind. There is such a certain air of warmth and safety about him. In the scenes he appears in there is always a certain calmness. The twins, despite not really caring for anyone, are extremely attached to him simply because of that specific aura. Lucilla made very clear that he was a very sensitive child. Nadine once really felt attracted to him, and despite all that made her lose interest in him, she always felt drawn near to him again, and despite not really wanting him for a long time, she never seemed to feel one bit uncomfortable with him, it was just that he couldn’t give her specifically what she wanted, but that’s an entirely different thing. Caroline practically shaped her world around him. Every relation and friend and acquaintance trusted him unconditionally, even if they didn’t really like him or take him seriously.

And there’s another thing—many parts are from the point of view of Hilary and Margaret, and so we know how deeply they think and feel. Even though most other characters seem not to expect that of them. I’m actually sure that it’s similar with George, it’s just that the reader sees little more of his inner life than the other characters.

But I got extremely off topic here, I didn’t actually want to write so much about him. All I wanted to say is that I think is that he, as himself, taking the specific storyline of his and Nadine’s marriage all aside, a very lovely husband. Not only as a nice and rather convenient, boring man. No, it’d be actually lovely to have him as a husband, just as he is. As himself I mean. Simply from the perspective of the reader (in this case, me) and not in the specific context of the books.

On Jill

I have to say something about Jill.

I think there’s two very precise reasons for her unpopularity.

The first is, how real and relatable she is. She behaves very natural, very much like a child in her situation would, and she feels very, very real. I’ve seen many posts by people who don’t like her who actually admit they relate to her, and I am sure there are far, far more who wouldn’t realise it. Not all the things Jill says or does are good, but all of them are absolutely plausible things for her to do, given her situation and background and age.

Jill’s nine years old in The Silver Chair. She went to the same school as Eustace and appears to have been raised by parents with a similar mindset as the Scrubbs, though while Eustace was pampered, Jill was encouraged to be more tough and active. She was raised without any religion or definitive moral compass (no, I do not mean that being brought up secularly meant being raised without morals; I am only talking about the context of Jill’s life)—her premise was, in short, pretty much the same as Eustace’s. And definitely different to the Pevensies’.

Which brings me to the second reason (these two blend in each other). Jill didn’t behaved perfectly, and she better—but she never behaved bad enough to undergo a significant change/redemption, nor did she behave well enough to be liked for just who she is.

When all Pevensies went to Narnia they already were, in a way, rooted there. Lucy had met Tumnus, Edmund had been enchanted by the witch, and Tumnus had been caught. The Pevensies met the Beavers, and they learnt of Aslan. They all were raised with a strong sense of duty, and Lucy was naturally faithful and open. Edmund behaved badly lately, and was then enchanted, but he received the same upbringing as his siblings. Peter and Susan were significantly older and more mature than any of the other children who went to Narnia.

Eustace was also only nine years old, and he behaved horridly, but he had his cousins, at least, and he grew immensely through his experiences in Narnia, while being led by others, and finally meeting Aslan.

But Jill? Jill had and knew nothing. A nine year old girl, bullied in a boarding school. Coming, most likely, from a similar background as Eustace, but still behaving much friendlier and nicer than him. (Actually, really friendly. Jill was a nice girl. People like to claim she wasn’t but that’s not true.) A boy she vaguely knew to be rather nasty all of a sudden told her of a magical world. They suddenly went there. She showed off, he fell down. She met a lion and couldn’t know who He was, yet after a while trusted him. She had to.

And later on? She trusted those who were nice to her, she was arrogant, she forgot things she ought to remember. She did all the little bad things that all the other children did, but they were not so dramatically bad and then redeemed as they were with Eustace and Edmund, nor were they simply accepted as every person’s right to not be perfect all the time, as with the other three Pevensies.

(I am not going to bring up Caspian, Shasta/Cor, and Aravis—children who were brought up in Narnia have an entire different set of things to their advantage or disadvantage.)

Jill is kind and courageous and plucky, but she has to navigate through Narnia with very little help—because Eustace can’t really help her, and all the Narnians who do (or don’t) are complete strangers to her, and she has to decide whether to trust them or not, and whether to agree with them or not, and she often decides wrong.

Lucy has a natural gut feeling about that, which isn’t unrealistic, because some children really have that. But I am sure that Lucy knew just as well who to trust back in England. Jill never really learned how and who to trust, and knew that people could be horribly cruel. But she was also a very small child with the natural desire and ability to trust. So, yes, she trusted the wrong people for the very shallow reasons that a child with no proper guidance has for trusting people. She also disagreed with people she deservedly trusted (like Puddleglum) for the natural shallow reasons that most children just can’t bear negativity or restraint too long.

She had no spiritual love for Narnia, not at first (though it developed greatly later on) and simply had to make her way through a strange landscape, without being granted the sense of magic and hope and special-ness that the Pevensies and even Eustace, had he accepted it from the beginning, were granted.

Jill was also whiny and, though never unfriendly or rude, odd-mannered and impatient. She was always supposed to be tough, and she was physically tough, but she was also emotionally sensitive, and very lonely. She had no friends, and she had a lot of fear, and absolutely no sense of home or safety. She cried several times in the book, which is an absolutely normal thing, even when one isn’t a child, even when one isn’t in a terribly dangerous situation, even when one isn’t constantly worried about one’s own decisions. And even though Lewis went so far as to excuse her for it, which shouldn’t even be necessary, there’s many posts on the internet saying how annoying she is for crying.

And her behaviour is typical for someone who is naturally friendly, but never learned proper manners, and who has a limited self-control; combined with that very certain air of someone who is used to being picked out to be the disliked one, not bullied for a certain thing but chosen because she was, in some way, particularly suitable for being a victim. Both the original “reason” as well as the… results of such don’t leave a person so quickly. They stuck with Jill and it shows.

But there’s another thing to Jill. A constant inner struggle. Not short moments of temptation, no a shocking experience to better her. From the very moment she steps into Narnia, until the moment she leaves, she thinks about what she does wrong, what she does right, with a great deal of denial thrown in—a denial she is often conscious of, and often not. A way from good but flawed, to, well good but flawed, though better, and more aware, and very willing to learn. A gradual, seemingly insignificant development, which began very early, and never really ended, and of which she was aware, and with which she didn’t really know what to do, and which she didn’t always want—until she understood, at least a bit.

And I think all this makes it so difficult to like her for many people. She’s incredibly human without being an obvious heroine, or even an anti-heroine, she is constantly developing, with interruptions and regressions, but with no clear redemption arc of any sort, never stops making mistakes, never stops learning from them; she behaves like a normal child would do in a difficult situation, and she has to face very specific difficulties under very specific conditions which, in that way, never happened to any of the other children.

And yet—she learned to love Narnia and Aslan so much. She spent years in England just to prepare herself for another visit to Narnia. She learnt nothing of (religious) faith in England, yet proceeded to believe in Aslan as much as she could, she kept a loyalty to Narnia and made friends with the other Friends of Narnia for years after her visit there, even though her connections to Narnia were the loosest of all the children, and she had to wait for her return much longer than any of them (not counting Digory and Polly, of course!). She never gained as much of the insight as the Pevensies and Eustace, and Digory and Polly, had, never really had a relationship to it that resembled theirs, but stuck to Narnia with all her strength.

And people hate her.

Armchair Vacation

It’s late July, and most of this summer was, and will—and should—be spent at home. Fortunately, reading books is a fabulous way to let one’s imagination wander a bit further, and I thought I’d like to make a list of ten lovely summer reads. That is…ten or so, since I don’t keep strictly to stand-alones.

The Eliots of Damerosehay: The Bird in the Tree, The Herb of Grace—aka Pilgrim’s Inn—and The Heart of the Family by Elizabeth Goudge

A beautiful trilogy, although the second book can be (and often is) read as a stand-alone. The books take place over all seasons, and the second ends with a particularly glorious Christmas celebration, but there is an air of summer about them, throughout them; captivating and uplifting, they make wonderful companions for long days with misty mornings and sunny evenings.

(And as for Elizabeth Goudge, one of her Torminster books, called Henrietta’s House, is a pure high-summer-read, a delightful little gem for all ages.)

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, the first in The Dark is Rising Sequence

The only one that could be regarded as a beach read, being set during the summer holidays in Cornwall. But it’s an adventure, not only for children, that will make one feel instantly at home in the story, and the village of Trewissick. It’s also the first in a series of five, followed by winter in Buckinghamshire, spring in Cornwall, autumn in Wales, and finally, summer again, this time in Wales. A perfect blend of myths and nature.

Summer Lightning, a Blandings novel by P. G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse is a promise of hilarity, and his Blandings novels are particularly charming. This one in particular is pure bliss—false identities, tangled-up romances, scandalous memoirs, and prize-winning pigs are all one needs for lighter, but very intelligent reading. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read any other Blandings novel before, as it stands really well on its own, and it’s really great fun from start to finish.

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh

In some ways an autumnal read, though of course no book is strictly bound to any seasons, and it is in its tone and theme similar to the aforementioned Eliot chronicles, which also feature the colder seasons very much, and yet draw much from summer. And Brideshead, you see, the book, and the Castle, have an air of summer about them, the first part in particular, the fruit always ripe…a warm breeze that returns with the final twitch upon the thread at the end of that glorious book.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, the third, or fifth, of The Chronicles of Narnia

If you’ve been to Narnia before, and now wondering what book to read, you might consider to return for a while, and why not on such a beautiful ship? But in case you’ve never been to Narnia before, then let me assure you that the first time has an incredibly loveliness. No matter if you’ll start with The Magician’s Nephew—a lovely summer read by itself; and my favourite book in the world, or with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—a wonderful classic, perfect for summer as much as for Christmas—you will soon enough find yourself on deck of the Dawn Treader.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson

A novel about a woman who wrote a novel about a woman who wrote a novel…or something of that sort. A hilarious account of small town life, whimsical characters, and an endearing woman who is convinced that she’s got no imagination, and yet writes a bestseller which causes all sort of agitation. Miss Buncle’s Book can be read as a stand-alone, but it’s actually the first of a lovely trilogy, being followed by Miss Buncle Married and The Two Mrs Abbotts—and technically also the vaguely related The Four Graces. All of them make wonderfully light-hearted, yet intelligent entertainment. And it’s got one of the loveliest proposals I’ve ever read.

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

A classic tale, beloved by readers of all ages. Perfectly appropriate for summer as much as any season, with nature seen through Anne Shirley’s large grey eyes, translated into Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beautiful prose. No matter if you’re revisiting, or taking your first glimpse at Green Gables and Avonlea, you are sure to be enchanted by an imaginative, spirited girl with red hair, and her dream world on Prince Edward Island.

The Corinthian by Georgette Heyer

A perfectly silly romance novel, and a perfectly sweet adventure. Georgette Heyer means fun, and this tale of two people—a man strongly suspected of being a dandy, and the sweetest polly oliver—who travel the country together to avoid having their upcoming and unwanted marriages. Their journey is interrupted by nuisances such as theft, murder, and annoying acquaintances, and in the end, they both find that they have fallen in love with someone unexpected—that is, unexpected to them, though not to the reader.

Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones

The first Chrestomanci novel, and though one might argue that The Magicians of Caprona is an even sunnier read, and just as recommended for sure, it is, in my opinion, inherently summer-y. There’s castles and gardens and berries and tea and no school (though class, of course, but it’s magical and much better than school, and Cat doesn’t have to write with his right hand) and scrumping apples, and colourful dressing gowns, and even a dragon, so you see, one’s got to read it.

And finally

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Technically not a book, but one can read it very well, and it naturally belongs in the summer. Madness and magic, love and lust, a good deal of humour, and beautiful language, all in a delightfully quick read. It’s always great fun, and a good place to start for those who are curious, but reluctant about reading Shakespeare. And even if one doesn’t get to see it on stage, it does let one’s imagination wander and conjure up enchanting pictures.

And remember: drink a lot of water, eat lots of fresh fruit, stay at home if you can, and always put on a mask in public.

Literary Soundtrack: Linnets & Valerians

One of the most enchanting little books one could possibly imagine!

Linnets & Valerians—also published as The Runaways—by Elizabeth Goudge is a perfect read for early summer; a children’s book for all ages, made of beautiful prose, everyday magic, and strawberry jam. I couldn’t recommend it more, and I couldn’t resist making a little playlist for it. It’s such a sweet, and such a beautiful novel, full of forests and flowers and animals and birds and bees and music and adventure. 🌿

The Lark Ascending

I Believe in Springtime

English Folk Song Suite

The Sky and the Dawn and the Sun

Narnian Lullaby

Jupiter Hymn

Morning has Broken

All Things Bright and Beautiful

The Trees They Grow So High

The Ash Grove

The entire Playlist on YouTube

The Man under the Umbrella

I am well aware of Friedrich Bhaer’s unpopularity, but I don’t understand it. I am aware of it, because it has been so often stated and explained; I don’t understand it because nothing of it makes sense—personal preferences aside, everyone has a right to like (or dislike) whoever they want, after all.

“Me wants me Bhaer!”—Tina, the daughter of Mrs Kirke’s French maid, said as she flung herself into the arms of this controversial character, and her words express my own feelings perfectly.

The accusations are numerous: Bhaer was merely an afterthought, to screw the readers, he is unattractive and boring, suppresses Jos own freedom as a writer and forces her to express herself in a posh manner, and of course, he isn’t Laurie.

But we’ll start in the beginning. Little Women has originally been published in two parts: Little Women and Good Wives. Later editions often put them together, but the distinction between the two books is an important point in the discussion of Friedrich Bhaer.

After Little Women first came out, Louisa May Alcott received several letters from readers who asked about the further lives of the March sisters, and especially about whom the little women would marry. Ms Alcott was not delighted by this question, and of her character’s being reduced to the subject of matrimony, as was rather usual back then, and which, in return, brought many modern readers to the conclusion that marriage by itself were a sign of a lack of liberation in the heroines and could therefore not correspond with Ms Alcott’s own intentions.

In particular the still popular wish, that Jo and Laurie should become a couple and marry displeased the authoress. But that does not make the insinuation that Friedrich’s part was caused by mere spite true.

Criticism of Friedrich Bhaer comes from those who would have liked to see Jo with Laurie, as well as those would have preferred her to remain unmarried. An argument for the latter is that Louisa May Alcott herself has never been married, and that Jo was based on her in many respects. But Little Women is no direct autobiography and contains many elements that didn’t happen as described in the lives of the author and her sisters. The common attempt to equate Jo and Louisa cannot succeed. The Marchs are obviously based on the Alcotts, but they are not them. But this awkward mingling of real person and fictional character is applied nearly exclusively to Jo.

The desire for an unmarried role model is common and understandable, especially as many readers identify with Jo and often think differently about these things than the 19th century audience—although it cannot be denied that the marital status of a novel’s heroine continues to receive a great deal of attention.

But to say “For this reason I would have preferred Jo to stay unmarried,” would be a better choice than, “Jo was never really supposed to marry, it’s only in the book because Louisa May Alcott has been pushed to do so. Jo is in truth single!” But in truth Jo doesn’t exist, only Louisa, and in the book, Jo married, and she did so because the author wanted her to.

The question, whether a marriage of Jo and Laurie would have received as much rejection, nowadays, I mean, because even those would prefer Jo to be single, seem to rather tolerate Laurie than Friedrich. But this is not supposed to be a comparison of both men—I like Laurie a lot, and I would not have had any issue had he and Jo become a couple. But they didn’t: Jo didn’t want it, Louisa didn’t want it, and in the end it turned out that Jo and Laurie could continue their wonderful friendship, though in a matured way, and still find a different sort of love each.

The notion that it was a sign of conformation or even submission, shows a completely incorrect understanding of the societal context of the story’s time. It may come from the cliché of the young woman who has to marry a boring old man, and who liberates herself by eloping with a brooding young rake; or from the good social standing of Germans, especially German academics, in contemporary America.

But Friedrich is, according to all economical and societal standards of that time, no reasonable, let a lone conforming choice—not within the story, and not from the point of view of the then audience. To claim that his character had been created because of societal pressure is completely incorrect.

Friedrich is poor; the idea that older men used to be preferred was based on the fact that they usually had build an existence (or increased it) and this promised financial security. To prefer a poor, older man over a young, very rich man, who still had the prospect of becoming even richer, was no decision made of reason, and not at all understandable for onlookers.

Beyond that, Friedrich had a very bad position as a German. German immigrants were a fairly large minority in America back then; most of them were poor, and even more so very unpopular. One must not forget that the Hummels, from whom Beth contracted the scarlet fever that later led to her death, were Germans, too. But the Alcotts liked Germans—and so did, apparently, the Marchs. Louisa May Alcott’s parents were transcendentalists and felt very drawn to German culture, in particular literature. Louisa May Alcott was born in the same year that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died. She loved Goethe and visited his house in Frankfurt—thought she didn’t have time to go inside. It is obvious that Friedrich is a character whom she liked to write and who came very close to her personal literary ideal.

But what is much more important: Friedrich supports, respects, and values Jo.

It brings me nearly physical discomfort to read what’s claimed about Friedrich and his attitude towards Jo and her writing. That he would belittle her, keep her from writing, push her to betray herself and lose her way. Yes, even the fact that Jo writes in later years, is read as a rebellion and secret disobedience towards Friedrich.

It’s a mystery to me, how one could read a book and interpret it in such a twisted manner. It seems that, whenever Professor Bhaer appears, some readers throw all reading comprehension overboard. To think Friedrich had condemned Jos own stories and asked her to write what he considered “higher literature” is complete nonsense. And so is the idea that he had asked (or forced) her to stop writing altogether.

Friedrich knew that Jo wrote and was very enthusiastic about it. He also had reason to assume that she published stories in papers, but he could neither be sure about that, nor about what sort of stories they were. He saw a magazine of the sort, for which she hadn’t written anything, and criticised this sort of stories (and their title illustrations) in general, especially their accessibility for children, without referring to Jo’s own stories, as is commonly maintained.

He did worry however, that Jo, due to a lack of money, protection and experience, could possibly write for exactly this sort of paper, and, rather impulsively, made an effort to dissuade her. Jo argued that one could earn money that way, and Friedrich, a poor man, mind you, remarked that one should rather sweep dirt in the streets.

One can—and should—not deny that Friedrich wanted to influence Jo in this matter. But I’ll have to remark two things: For once, I don’t see what’s wrong about that. He didn’t take the decision away from her, which he neither could nor would do, he simply stated his opinion—an opinion she valued from her own free will. Jo wouldn’t have changed anything, had she not agreed with him. Jo was stubborn and headstrong, and would not even have her nearest and dearest change her mind. She wouldn’t have read her story with Friedrich’s eyes, if she hadn’t truly agreed with what he’d said. That aside, it’s Friedrich’s right to tell his opinion, regardless whether Jo or the reader liked it or not. The idea that a “good” man in a novel always has to tell the heroine what she wants to hear, is a horrible, pseudo-feminist trend, which goes hand-in-hand with the idea that a person (especially a woman) would betray themselves (herself) through learning and growth. Anyway—to claim that Friedrich oppressed Jo, and that she would let him do so, is an insult to both of them.

Secondly: Friedrich has not once talked degradingly about Jo’s own stories. He hadn’t read them, couldn’t even be sure whether she had published any. He also never criticised that she wrote. His criticism was directed towards a specific genre, one could even say business or even milieu, which he thought would be harmful to both Jo and her work. He wanted Jo to write, but he didn’t want her to do it only to earn money, instead to write what she truly wanted. Jo’s first reaction was to write an overtly moralist, sermon-like story, but with time she balanced it out and found her way (back) to what she truly liked.

Here, too, the criticism describes the absolute opposite: Friedrich never wanted Jo to stop writing what she liked. He wanted her to start. At that time, Jo cared more about her income than her own development and expression, which did her no good, and of which Friedrich couldn’t approve.

Later on, Jo wrote neither secretly, nor in rebellion—she wrote as she liked, and Friedrich always supported her.

Friedrich also didn’t consider (commercial) writing to be unsuitable for a woman, and wanted Jo to get published and be successful as a writer. He even took her to a symposium of famous writer, which in the end disillusioned and sobered Jo, but which also helped her not to feel intimidated by the so-called Greats. Friedrich, too, would not be intimidated and, reserved as he normally was, argued ardently for his convictions, which impressed Jo persistently.

Friedrich did not make Jo more womanly. In fact, Jo and Friedrich liked and respected each other’s characteristics and peculiarities that were often seen untypical for their respective gender. Jo became, as she grew older, less boyish, but that was partly due to her increasing maturity, as she mostly left behaviours behind that would also not have suited a grown man, and on the other hand, because her appreciation of other women had grown—Jo had, after all, the tendency to take men and “manly” things more seriously.

Friedrich liked and loved Jo just as she was. But he also supported her development and growth. And it’s funny that this of all things is so often criticised, even condemned, even though it is what Little Women is largely about.

No character in Little Women is perfect. Not Friedrich, not Jo, and nobody else either. But Jo is often seen as a perfect heroine, and her development as self-betrayal. But one cannot rob a book of its own essence to modernise it. The notion that Jo could only be a good role model if she would never think or act differently than she did at the age of fifteen, because all maturity, all learning, were a sign of submission and an antiquated world-view is a dreadful way of thinking by itself. But if one happens to be of that opinion, then one should also stand by it rather than selling it as the author’s own belief.

That aside, it seems that nobody is allowed to criticise Jo. No other character, and no reader. Her sisters have all been degraded cruelly, but Jo has to be considered perfect, just as she is. She is the representative of all strong girls and completely infallible, or else valuable only through her faults. That is the common opinion—though not the writer’s, who considered her protagonists mistakes, and her development, and to acknowledge them, very important. That does not make her a lesser character or a bad role model for young girls—on the contrary, it makes her human, and gives her room to grow.

Transcendentalism was an important influence for Louisa May Alcott, although she did not at all view or take it uncritically. Growing up is the central point of this novel, and, although I am sure that Jo would have managed to do so very well on her own, Friedrich was a great help for her, to look forwards, and to become a big woman, while always staying true to herself.

And, at last, the romance. I’ll say three things:

Every person feels differently. The interaction of romantic and other feelings, and the cognition of them, is highly individual, and Jo and Friedrich have found what is just right for themselves.

The chapter Under the Umbrella can be re-read over and over again. Those who have forgotten just how romantic Jo and Friedrich are, should read it again.

Thou is often a subject of criticism—and perhaps the most painful one of all. What is presented as Friedrich’s attempt of shaping Jo to his demanding ideals, is nothing but his way of approaching her. For thou is viewed quite wrongly nowadays—it’s old-fashioned, and thus often seen as posh or dusty, and as a distanced form of address. But the English you is much rather comparable to the German Sie, which is formal and impersonal, and used by strangers and people whose connections are merely business-like. Thou on the other hand, is Du, the informal, personal and intimate form of address, used by friends and family. It is also to be noted that children are always addressed Du, while children address all adults, aside from family and friends, with Sie, which indicates the adults’ authority. This is was much stricter in the 19th century, and through initiating thou, Friedrich opened towards growing intimacy, while raising Jo on the same level as him, a grown woman and his equal. It is a loving and respectful gesture.

On Léonie

I’m afraid this post is a bit muddled, as I have written it very spontaneously and emotionally. But here it is:

Léon/ie de Bonnard/de Saint-Vire/Alastair…Léonie! is an amazingly complex and iridescent character.

I know that many readers just see her as either annoying or just cute and innocent, with not much going on with her otherwise, but she’s so, so far from that. Her character is very well developed, easily surpassing stereotypes, and highly individual, yet in a very human manner.

She is so often seen as childish or immature, when she’s actually quite the opposite of it, nearly too experienced and mature, in some ways, and inexperienced in others. The things she knew, and the things she did not know, her experiences and her lack of it, were in such a drastic contrast. Not only that, she grew up with hardly a concept of most social conventions, yet with some manners that were actually above her upbringing.

And due to her strange and mostly unhappy past, she became not a childish young woman, but one who was nearly too mature for her own good in some ways, yet with absolutely no concept of what was expected of an adult—or of a woman—and with little “normal” experience, which made her too young and too old, too boyish and too girlish, too well-mannered and too bad-mannered all at once. And also too sensitive, and too insensitive.

For example: The way she had absolutely no concept of what was considered “proper”, despite being in some ways better educated than one would have expected of her (thanks to the Curé, whose interest in the ton was long gone!) and no concept of age, gender, or class, and behaved accordingly.

A good example is the travel back from Versailles. She was still Léon, fell asleep, and cuddled up to Avon and expected him to pick her up should she fall down. Doing this to an adult man, who is also one’s superior, was 1. improper for a young woman, 2. improper for a young man, and 3. improper for a servant. But Léonie didn’t care, because Léonie never learned that these things could matter.

And that’s important, because she was not socialised as a young woman, but so immature of character that she misbehaved like a child. She was socialised to be a surprisingly well-educated and world-wise peasant boy.

But she was mature beneath that. She wasn’t dressed up as a boy since the age of twelve for no reason. She also saw and heard a lot in the inn. And she suffered so much abuse from her sister-in-law that she actually wanted to kill her, and admitted such to Avon. And yet, so many reviews treat her as a spoiled little brat.

Avon described her quite incisively: “A certain cynicism, born of the life she has led; a streak of strange wisdom; the wistfulness behind the gaiety; sometimes fear; and nearly always the memory of loneliness that hurts the soul.”

Her “childishness” and “immaturity” come partly from a desire to be a child in safety, and from a complete ignorance of the superficial social norms associated with adulthood. Or with womanhood.

And Léonie’s learning to become a woman is also a really interesting part of her character, and one that I particularly like, because most storylines of that sort have the heroine either be absolutely relieved to finally be a able to live as a girl, despite being completely unfamiliar to it, or be angry on all things female or feminine.

And while both are completely fine and valid, I love how again Léonie saw no distinction between what was “masculine” and what was “feminine” and made her pick accordingly, she made the distinction between what she liked, what felt right for herself, and what didn’t. She saw no point in separating these things, and while she tolerantly allowed Fanny and Avon to dress her up and teach her how to be a girl, yet still insisted on keeping her breeches and learning how to fence, she quickly discovered what she liked, and what she didn’t, and picked things to work out for herself accordingly, enjoying dresses and swords equally. That’s charmingly realistic, and unusual for most sweet-polly-olivers in literature.

Many people also claim that Léonie saw Avon as a father figure and that her falling in love with him (romantically) was just too sudden. But that’s not precisely true.

Yes, it was sudden, but that’s mostly because her love was “let out” to her own consciousness very suddenly. It was Avon, who thought that Léonie could only look at him as a sort of grandfather.

Léonie only saw him at first as a man who saved her, gave her a home, treated her well, and was otherwise not interested in her. And that was true. (Of course, Avon was already working on his scheme against Saint-Vire, but he was not in any way interested in Léonie, and he wasn’t attracted to her.) They both developed a strong affection for each other, and Avon (and many readers, it seemed) thought she idolised him, while she was oh-so-innocent and ignorant.

But that is not true. Léonie was well aware of who he was, and of his past, and of his general…way of life. But she did not care, because he saved her, because he gave her a good life, and because of her own past, she was—understandably, this is a pro-Léonie post! I don’t blame her—in some ways selfish, and also quite ruthless. Léonie knew about his reputation, and didn’t care, while her own temper and her own savageness were very much underestimated by Avon and pretty much anyone around her.

It was Avon who thought himself to be unworthy of her, and who tried his best to live up to what he thought was her idea of him. Léonie, on the other hand, was or grew aware enough of how class differences worked, and saw herself as inadequate. At this point, both had subliminal romantic feelings for each other. And they ignored them, and went on with their relationship as it was, accepting it as what it was, and making no break ups or demands, which is also beautiful and unusual.

Fanny remarking that Léonie would make a wonderful Duchess what was brought Léonie’s feelings for Avon and her own (presumed) social standing to her consciousness—and still she made the decision (before the Verchoureux unsettled her) to ignore both, and stay as his ward, certain not to be loved by him, but glad to be with him.

This, too, is a sign of both her emotional maturity, and her complex feelings, as well as her respect for the conventions and norms that she was aware of, even if she did not like them. Even if they hurt her feelings.

And when she was told that she was ruining Avon and his reputation, she made the choice to leave. She went to the curé, to live a new life, far away, and the determination to make something of it, despite not being happy, despite having lost, by choice, all that she ever wanted or loved. But, also, not theatrically falling into despair. This is not the action of a spoiled, bratty, immature child. She did so with absolutely no concern for herself, and with a very sad sort of serenity.

She was also a trusting person, but not naive. She trusted Avon, because she had reason to, but she was wary of most people, and always detached. She made no illusions about Avon, even said that he might send her away, or treat her badly, and certainly not love her, but she was grateful for what he did, she liked his company, and she grew to love him. But she trusted him deliberately, she chose to do so, and she knew why most people would have thought it unwise. Because Léonie was not naive—quite the opposite, actually.

Léonie was also well aware what it meant to be a mistress (and would not have minded being Avon’s for her own sake) and what it meant to be base-born. She was very well aware of Avon’s affairs, and couldn’t care less about them, and she knew that during her life in the inn she was at the constant risk of being sexually abused. She was aware of all these things, and she deliberately trusted Avon, and she had very little concern for her own reputation. Avon cared about her safety and her reputation, but that’s a different thing.

And that’s the most beautiful thing about the Duke and his Soul: They both were rather selfish people, yet loved each other selflessly. They were both rather ruthless people, and had no concern about other people’s opinions on them, yet cared a lot about the other’s safety and were willing to give the other up for their own good. And that’s what makes their love story so beautiful.

It’s so often proclaimed about a cute (but annoying) little ingénue and a brooding oh-so-evil old man, with her either taming him or him leading her astray, depending on whether the review is favourable or not. But that is not the truth. They both grew through each other, and were ready to sacrifice their own happiness for each other, and both were very flawed, yet kind-hearted people, although one has to say that Léonie had much better reasons to be so ruthless—but she also went farther than him, and her temper was quite natural, and not acquired through her experiences.

To say that Léonie was just a childish and annoying brat in an inappropriate and absurd love story is completely unfair to her character. Even if one doesn’t personally find her likeable, she is an amazing, well-rounded character, with surprising depth and a great tenderness of character.

So that is that.

These Old Shades, from page to screen

There should be a film adaptation of These Old Shades, and frankly, I should be in charge of it. It’s a pity in itself that there is no Georgette Heyer movie to speak of, with all her Regency novels being a bonanza of material for beautiful films and mini series in the vein of our well-beloved Jane Austen adaptations. But These Old Shades, that’s a different matter altogether. It’s not gentle colours and dry wit, combined with romance and a dash of adventure, it’s far too 18th century, far too lavish and rich, too powdered and patched.

No, with new adaptations of beloved classics, made in different styles, being all the rage right now, we should be making a screen adaptation (whether an extra-length movie for the theatres or a mini-series made by one of our favourite public television broadcaster is of less importance) in a new playful interpretation of the characteristic style of classic period dramas.

The reader might not yet know what I mean, but I do. The problem with this book is that two possible things in a film adaptation could happen: 1., that the makers take the book too seriously and try to present all of it in a completely true manner (or, worse, try to fix what seems wrong!) and 2., that the makers look down on the source material as a silly vintage romance novel and make just a travesty of it, or try to make it modern.

But These Old Shades is a good book, and it’s a book to adapt into film respectfully, but it also sometimes a silly book, with some of its silliness being full intention, and some of it maybe just a sign of age, and both needs to be considered. A loving, respectful self-irony is what it needs, playing all what is meant seriously in a truly serious manner, but not forgetting the wonderful humour, and gently poking at all that is silly about it, showing the nonsensical class snobbery that is, already, called out in the book, and the strange whatnots of the time.

Many reviewers seem to think that the book stands for all that it shows, but that is not entirely true—a certain hypocrisy is exampled, and the protagonists are not always meant to be agreed with (or always agree with each other!), but the strange logics of innate desires…of farming, for example…make a good base for in-jokes that carry and light up parts of the film, and show a certain humorous view of what can be read in the novel, without deprecating it.

But some things need to be played straight. The page boy with the Titian hair, for example. No matter how obvious it might be to all the audience, there shall be no hints beyond what can already be read in the book, or, as we see him, even fewer. Play it straight, no matter how ridiculous it may appear. Play it straight, and reveal it in full glory. And the same goes for certain physical similarities…

And be careful of what you do with the main characters’ relationship. Show what is written, truthfully and with full understanding of context and situation, not wrong readings of others.

What brings me to another—show Avon and Léonie, and all the others, in their full light. Don’t try to make them any better or worse than they are, instead show how flawed and lovable they are, and how they, especially Avon, grow.

I want to see a Léonie who’s all energy and misbehaviour, loneliness and distraught, a strange and elegant boy at one time, and a rogue, yet sweet girl at another. Her eagerness to fight and use weapons, to bite and kick, and fence and shoot, should be shown in exactly the true, wild, chaotic way it is, and not polished to make her a Strong Female Character, devoid of all personality and originality. Her equal delight in her attire as a boy and her new-learned girlhood should be equally shown, and she should not be made into either a tomboy, who hates all feminine things she should wear or do, or into a girl who’s changing entirely through suddenly putting on a dress, leaving all what was behind her, because both would be a simplification of her character and sadly stereotypical. Léonie likes what she likes and does what she wants, whatever that may be.

But above all: show her maturity. And her sadness. Two things that are often told of and sometimes shown in the book, and which are important to her character, even more when we see her moving and talking than in a book which tells a great deal through narration, and through the eyes of Avon:

“A certain cynicism, born of the life she has led; a streak of strange wisdom; the wistfulness behind the gaiety; sometimes fear; and nearly always the memory of loneliness that hurts the soul.”

Léonie, though often called that, is not a child—or maybe she is, but then she is a small child, a true infant, as much as an ancient, and that has to be shown. Making her all cheerful and wild would be unjust, and I dare say, to make better use of modern times in a film adaptation of an old book, than to include pointless nude scenes or lessons in misunderstood feminism, show some of her past, of the cruelty she experienced, and the things she has seen, and not just the results, but the reasons of her having to be a boy for seven years. All this could only be allured to in the book, and while I don’t want anything overtly dark or explicit in a film, I think it would be good to take a tiny glimpse behind the surface.

As for Avon—show his growth. His desire to live up to Léonie’s expectations, or to what he thinks them to be. Let him grow tired of his old image, but don’t overdo it—show that there has always been kindness in him, and that he would never cease to be a dangerous men. Show also his reluctance towards his and Léonie’s relationship, and his fear not to be good enough.

But again with Avon, the matter of dress is important. It would be such a pity if he were to look in a way that would be appealing—and “manly”—today. He is powdered, he is patched, he has a fan, he’s wearing shades of lavender and pink, and ensembles in pure gold, and he is always holding his snuff box tight. He is also frightening and dangerous, nearly sinister, and he thinks himself to be a worse person that he is, or at least, than he becomes. And he is the leading man in a romance. These three must work together, despite the general reluctance of the film industry to make it work.

Which brings me to another thing—the 18th century costumes, and sets, and general aesthetics, must work in accordance to the ideals of the time, not to ours, or what we now deem pretty of that time. But a few decided anachronisms, of the type often found in old period dramas, might just work for the fun of it. I don’t really know right now how to describe what I mean, but it’s the sort of thing I would find just right.

All in all, it has to be grand—bright, rich colours, big costumes, lavish sets, gorgeous scenery, full music, plenty of historically appropriate, but extravagant whatnots, all the strange ideas and ideals of that time, have to be shown in full grandeur. No minimalism, very little realism, no reluctance and no shyness; it has to be bold! And the style, the overall vibe, should be more of something made in the mid of the last century, but with a certain whimsy unique to itself, and an intricacy often found nowadays, all while staying faithful to the book.

Small and silent scenes should be equal to loud and large ones, Léonie and Avon’s sweet moments of Pygmalion given as much importance as Léonie and Rupert saving each other and riding away.

The side characters and their relationships should be explored wholly, but of most importance shall be the relationship of the Duke, and of his Soul. In fact, making Léonie his Soul should be a continuous thread throughout the entire film (or series). Not too much, of course—not to the degree that it gets annoying in narration, and especially not so as though Avon thought of Léonie of a sort of device to become a better person, or any such thing. Only gentle subversion of a common literary theme—a character who has not sold his soul, but, through buying what can not be bought, and what became his, and yet not his property, found his way back to his own soul.

It would be a pity if their love story became one of a cheerful girl fixing a bad man. Léonie is sometimes worse than Avon, at times he is even concerned about her own outbursts, though she may have better, if one can call it that, reason to be so. They both grow through each other and save and protect each other, or at least mean to do so, and at times it even seems that the tables have turned and it is he, who has to make sure that she is not growing too dangerous—which she must not, any more, having him.

For personal reasons, the scene of the drive back from Versailles needs to be included, unshortened, maybe even prolonged. And Léonie’s letter has to be the most heartbreaking thing, naturally.

And as for something I have already mentioned vaguely, and now have to say more to: It is of importance that Léonie is made Avon’s ward so that he can work his scheme against Saint-Vire and so that she can be respectably and legally with him. He thinks that she would only look at him as a “grandparent”, whereas she thinks that he would never want her as for matters of class. He refused her to be his mistress, and both thought the other should not marry them for their respective better. These aspects are too often overlooked by people who want to make everything bad. Naturally, their relationship grows from master and (overjoyed) servant to platonic, even familial affection, to romantic love. This growth is important and more of an example of friends who become lovers, than of anything else.

Now I have to say one last thing: The loveliest ending would be a voice over, maybe of the Duke, or of Léonie, perhaps of Hugh, or even of Saint-Vire, or several together… no! I got it, of the Curé! of the quote from, or even the entire, Epilogue to Eighteenth Century Vignettes by Austin Dobson, from the beginning of the book. It embodies just what I want for the film—a warm and loving, yet critical and gently ironic view of the magnificence, extravagance, splendour, bigotry, concealment, arrogance, and humanity of a not quite so distant century, and of the people in this lovely, silly story, who represent it all so wonderfully.

‘WHAT is it then,’—some Reader asks,—
‘What is it that attaches
Your fancy so to fans and masks,—
To periwigs and patches?

‘Is Human Life to-day so poor,—
So bloodless,—you disdain it,
To ‘galvanize’ the Past once more?’
—Permit me. I’ll explain it.

This Age I grant (and grant with pride),
Is varied, rich, eventful;
But, if you touch its weaker side,
Deplorably resentful:

Belaud it, and it takes your praise
With air of calm conviction;
Condemn it, and at once you raise
A storm of contradiction.

Whereas with these old Shades of mine,
Their ways and dress delight me;
And should I trip by word or line,
They cannot well indict me.

Not that I think to err. I seek
To steer ‘twixt blame and blindness;
I strive (as some one said in Greek)
To speak the truth with kindness:

But—should I fail to render clear
Their title, rank, or station—
I still may sleep secure, nor fear
A suit for defamation.

The Flawless One

Then move the trees, the copses nod,
Wings flutter, voices hover clear:
“O just and faithful knight of God!
Ride on! the prize is near.”

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Generally, I have to say that I am very fond of Sir Galahad. I would actually go as far as to say that he’s my favourite Knight of the Round Table—if one can call it that.

Galahad is, of course, often perceived as boring, too perfect and too pure, and as an example of an antiquated idea of Good and Evil. But I cannot agree with that.

On the contrary. Galahad is a wonderful example of the way medieval literature and lore often exceeds our expectations, and is at the same time the antithesis of the stereotype he is accused of: He emerged from the most unpleasant and unfortunate background and became one of the greatest forces of good. This concept is not as unusual as one might think—but it is often overlooked and rarely brought up in the discussion about Galahad.

The fact, that Galahad has been born out of wedlock, would have been enough for him to fall out of favour. The complicated, sad, and in many ways immoral circumstances of his conception would have been an even stronger base for a negative portrayal of his character.

To look down on children because of their own origin and existence, even punishing them, denying them their rights, or seeing them as impure, was and is sadly very common. To make just Galahad the symbol of Purity, Confidence, and Good, is remarkable and a sign, that his character is certainly not simplified.

The message that even mistakes and unhappy circumstances can lead to something wonderful, is beautiful and hopeful, as well as nuanced and a contrast to the prevalent idea of the stories of those times.