Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit (2019).

They can't all be easy.  One of the major tasks of the critic is to figure out just how much the author knows about their chosen subject.  That's the big rule of thumb when it comes to reviewing a biography.  Once you enter that territory the job isn't just about trying figure out what a metaphor in a work of fiction means.  Now all of sudden, you've got to find out how all those metaphors relate to the life.  I don't suppose it's too much of a stretch to believe this basic rule applies not just to the critic, but also to any biographer who hopes to present an accurate and successful picture of the life they've devoted their book to.  This goes double in those cases when the biography's subject happens to be an accomplished artist.  Perhaps the worst gig in the non-fiction section falls to those historians who are able to discover an unsung talent, and then find themselves saddled with the conviction that their subject deserves to gain a voice at the popular level.  Good luck to them is all I can say.  It's not an impossible goal.  It's just the the task is a lot harder than if you devote a book to a well-known personality (however long that's supposed to last).

I guess that's what makes talking about Edith Nesbit something like a real challenge.  She seems to occupy one of those strange, liminal places in the great pantheon of Fantasy fiction.  She doesn't appear to be an unknown name.  On the other hand, I've never seen or heard of her being mentioned as high up there with the big names as she perhaps deserves.  She was a very popular children's author in her day.  That's the basic fact of her claim to fame.  She seems to have done a more than decent enough job of it, all things considered.  Her accomplishment lies in the way she helped set up a lot of the images, themes, settings, and plot points that sort of define the way we think about certain fantasy novels.  She's been described as a pioneer more than once, and the label seems to fit.  That becomes pretty obvious once you decide to leaf through the pages of even one of her short story collections.  Her secondary worlds can sound familiar, until you stop and realize that the reality is you're encountering a lot of familiar faces for the first time.  Here is how Eleanor Fitzsimmons opens her study of the author.

"When I was a little girl who borrowed weekly adventures from my local library, my favorite stories were by E. Nesbit.  Best of all were her tales of magic, and of these the book I loved most was The Story of the Amulet.  I accompanied her fictional children to ancient Egypt, Babylon, and the lost city of Atlantis.  I met Emperor Julius Caesar as he stood on the shores of Gaul looking across toward England.  I was filled with hope on reading her account of a utopian London where everyone is happy and wise.  In "Praise and Punishment," chapter nine of Wings and the Child, her manual for a successful childhood, Nesbit herself explained: 'There is only one way of understanding children; they cannot be understood by imagination, by observation, nor even by love.  They can only be understood by memory.  Only by remembering how you felt and thought when you yourself were a child can you arrive at any understanding of the thoughts and feelings of children'.

"Confirming that the children in The Story of the Amulet were the "second cousins once removed" of her beloved Bastables from earlier books, she confided: 'The reason why those children are like real children is that I was a child once myself, and by some fortunate magic I  remembered exactly how I used to feel and think about things'.

"The key to her brilliance was that she was one of us, and her magical adventures felt as if they could easily happen to you or to me.  Her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography explains this: 'Her characters were neither heroes nor moral dummies, but real young human beings behaving naturally.  This gift of character drawing, aided by the ease and humor of her style, place her in the highest rank among writers of books for children'.

"A profile published in September 1905 in The Strand Magazine, where Nesbit's most popular stories were serialized, praised her "astonishing versatility" and her "almost uncanny insight into the psychology of childhood."  A review in John O'London's Weekly noted: "Take a book by E. Nesbit into any family of boys and girls and they fall upon it like wolves."  Of her own style, she wrote: "I make it a point of honour never to write down to a child."  In an interview with the Dundee Evening Telegraph, she insisted: "It's quite natural that a child should believe in fairies."

In Treasure Seekers and Borrowers, Marcus Crouch suggested of E. Nesbit: "No writer for children today is free of debt to this remarkable woman."  He believed that she "managed to create the prototypes of many of the basic patterns of modern children's fiction."  Nesbit came of age in the Victorian era, but she did not leave us more of the stiff, moralizing tales that characterized the nineteenth century.  Instead, as Crouch explained, she "threw away their strong, sober, essentially literary style and replaced it with the miraculously colloquial, flexible and revealing prose which was her unique contribution to the children's novel."  She wove her whimsy and magic into the everyday lives of children, and they would not easily let this go (ix-x)".

Before we get to the biography itself, there's just one or two details of the passages above that stick out like thorn branches in an otherwise smooth looking field of green.  Maybe it's just the pedant who took up residence in my head sometime after learning to read, however it seems like the two authors might have missed something.  To start with, Crouch and Fitzsimmons claim that Nesbit replaced a so-called literate, Victorian style with her own modernized form of prose language.  Perhaps I made a mistake?  I'd always thought since high-school that it was guys like Charles Dickens who were responsible for creating what a new "sober...colloquial, flexible" prose style with novels like Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.  In books like those and others, Dickens was able to take the stylistic flourishes honed during his years as a journalist and then applied it to to his artistic imaginings.  What he did was take the local dialects, accents, and ways of speaking, and give them a voice that had never been seen on the page before.  In doing so, Dickens was able to create a kind of stylistic space that allowed pretty much all the best authors who came after him (Nesbit included) to find their own voices.

As for the claim of Nesbit's creative work being a "breakaway from all "the stiff, moralizing tales that characterized the nineteenth century", I have just one question.  Are you talking about books like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn?  If so, then the choice is odd, to say the least.  I don't think I've run across a nineteenth century text which was more irreverent and disrespectful of all the social idols of its day, a lot of which are still with us.  If such a book is the epitome of stiff moralization, then its a wonder that it still remains the most controversial and banned text in existence.  It really does seem as if Twain had managed an artistic feat that I don't think he intended.  He has managed to create a text which has gone on to become both totem and taboo at the same time.  Different things to different people, in other words.

I mention both of these literary lights because of the way Nesbit's own efforts might be seen as both mirrors or continuations of, and divergences from the same type of story.  What unites all three writers boils down to just a number of things.  All three of their lives encompassed the entire Victorian Era.  Each of them was a master of satire.  Nesbit's fantasies sometimes contain an element of humorous self-knowing that allows her to poke fun at her own pretensions.  This may account for one reviewer calling her the British Mark Twain.  Like Nesbit, the real Twain and Dickens were good at delivering barbs at a lot of well chosen targets.  I think the most important link between them all however comes down to the way in which each of them managed to discover they had an affinity to the fantastic.  The word I use for this is Victorian Romanticism.  It's a phrase I've used here and there, and I don't know how it must sound to others.  It also doesn't change the fact its the best term I've got for the kind of rubric under which each of the three authors listed fall under, no matter how different their chosen subject matter.      

It's because of this, that I've got to maintain that any critic or reader who gets the crazy idea of trying wrap their head around an artist like E. Nesbit has to understand how both her life and art were shaped by the aesthetics of the culture she was raised in.  This in turn can help the critic get at a better understanding of who she was, and what she did.  The way Nesbit put all her fantastical landscapes down on paper, the events, ideas, and literature that inspired her, the various ways she discovered new uses for dragons and flying carpets, and how it all led her to become a literary pioneer is a story that's well worth telling.  I'm just left wondering if the biographer did a good job in this case.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Thus I Lived with Words: Robert Louis Stevenson and the Writer's Craft.

One of the questions I've been concerned with for a while now is just what is the nature of a lasting artistic reputation.  I think it's telling that the question is not one that a great majority would ever think to ask.  One of the hard facts of a bookworm's life is that when you sign on for such a gig, you've more or less joined a very small and informal fraternity.  There has never been a time, so far as I can tell, when a reading audience was ever able to make up a sizable, or influential majority of the world's population.  My own response to this slow growing realization has been complex.  On the one hand, there's nothing to wonder about in the strictest sense.  History shows a world in which the vast majority of its peoples have never bothered to pick up a book, much less take in a movie.  The whole thing is a continuous and recurring pattern that doesn't look to change anytime soon.  As far as anyone can tell, that has always been the norm.  On the other hand, if that's the norm, then I guess I can't help but find the whole thing disconcerting.  It just seems wrong to me that entire world cultures would neglect the various aesthetic artifacts that make up the best and brightest of their respective intellectual histories.  It all kind of makes me wonder how come certain authors are able to maintain their popular reputations over such a long span of time.  Robert Louis Stevenson is a good case in point.

He's one of those names on the tip of the tongue.  He's famous for something, and it's possible to just barely recall what that is.  His heyday was during the Victorian Era.  If any lingering historical memory of that period exists at all, then it's most likely to found in old, battered copies of Dickens and Jane Austen.  They seem to be the ones who have cemented the popular image of that decade the in the minds of audiences.  To be fair, part of the reason for that is because they really were just that good at capturing the atmosphere of their times and giving them the proper dramatic spin that would fashion it all into an indelible image.  When we hear someone described as a Scrooge, we have this near-instant idea of the kind of personality we are dealing with.  If someone encounters a quarreling couple who can't bare to leave each other, then so long as its not that serious, we might remember the main characters from Pride and Prejudice.  It's rare for even the most talented artists to leave that kind of a lasting impact.  That's what makes the survival of Stevenson so remarkable.  His legacy can be found in sentiments regarding the fate of fifteen men on a dead man's chest.  If you can complete at least the words that describe the second half of that old sea-chantey, then you may be familiar with Stevenson's works, even if the author himself remains a complete mystery.

That's a shame, because the man in question helped form a vital link in a chain of creative talents.  Together they more or less created a minor, yet notable renaissance in both English and American letters during the 19th century.  They were never anything like a formal group.  Each writer who can be listed as a contributor to this collective effort occupied a place in which their major efforts were done in the privacy of their own, individual studies.  Yet they also shared and critiqued their efforts among one another as peers.  If it is possible to give an academic label to this group, then perhaps the title that fits it all best is to describe them as the Victorian Romantics.  The phrase may have a certain apt ring to it.  There's a nicety about it that perhaps makes it easy to remember.  However, I'm convinced there's nothing facetious about it.  I really am willing to contend that all the best known children's authors of the Victorian Era were and remain the closest thing to a series of literary inheritors of an artistic tradition that in many ways helped to form and set the parameters of their differing, yet interrelated literary endeavors.  

It's the goal of this article to show that the work of Robert Louise Stevenson fits in well with this same tradition.  In order to do that, a close look at the writer's life and craftsmanship and will be a bit more than necessary.  So far as I can tell, there's never really been any other way of finding out what makes a good work of writing tick.  In Stevenson's case, the  task is not impossible, though it's a lot more laborious than it has to be.  The trouble with examining the art of Stevenson isn't that his life plays no part in it.  It's just that for the longest time I've had to struggle against a major obstacle when it comes to getting at all the relevant facts.  There's shared tendency among all of his biographers to become so fascinated with the life of the author.  This has happened time and again in all the major biographies that are still available.  The tendency is so widespread, in fact, that it can be traced all the way back to the slew of critical work that emerged in the wake of the death of the author.  To be fair, there is at least a certain kind of excuse to be offered here.  One of the marvels of Stevenson's life was his determination to live it to its fullest.  In his case, this meant embarking on a life that really did seem to match the old epic romances that populated his favorite storybooks as a young boy.  

As soon as Stevenson was old enough, he embarked on a series of excursions to lands old and (for him, at least) new.  It took him from the charm of Old Europe, the new blank canvas of the American West, and somehow it all ended up on the Samoan Coast.  It really was quite a life, and I think the key about it is that so few of us will ever be able to dare even half of what Stevenson accomplished.  This leaves the writer as something of a freak of nature.  He has found a way to make his own daily existence so remarkable that it's left all the various academics and enthusiasts in a kind of intellectual stupor.  There's just no way most people can pull that kind of thing off today.  As a result, it seems all too easy for them to get lost in the grandeur of the life at the expense of the art.  I can't recall many RLS biographies where the writer ever stopped much to ask how Stevenson's adventures on the high seas might have impacted a work like Treasure Island.  It's a real shame the way the buck keeps getting passed on like that.  The fault is all the more noticeable when you realize Stevenson is one of those obliging authors who are considerate enough to wear their influences on their sleeve, or else telegraph where and how they get their ideas by simply talking about how his day went.  I think it's time critics began to focus on how the life made up the art, rather than just focusing in on what happened to the author for its own sake.

The good news is I was able to find at least something that gets to the core of Stevenson's art.  I just had to agree to take my sweet time in getting there.  That's where today's book under discussion comes in.  It is just possible Annette R. Federico has done Stevenson scholars a kindness.  Whether it counts as a favor remains to be seen.  She has composed a book on Stevenson that zeroes in on his craft and inspiration as a writer first and proper.  This creates an ideal situation for the critic, because it allows something to talk about other than the contents of what the artist had for breakfast.  The basic purpose of Federico's book is laid out neat enough on the book's back cover.

"Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) loved more than anything to talk about the craft of writing and the pleasure of reading good books. His dedication to the creative impulse manifests itself in the extraordinary amount of work he produced in virtually every literary genre—fiction, poetry, travel writing, and essays—in a short and peripatetic life. His letters, especially, confess his elation at the richness of words and the companionship of books, often projected against ill health and the shadow of his own mortality.

Stevenson belonged to a newly commercial literary world, an era of mass readership, marketing, and celebrity. He had plenty of practical advice for writers who wanted to enter the profession: study the best authors, aim for simplicity, strike a keynote, work on your style. He also held that a writer should adhere to the truth and utter only what seems sincere to his or her heart and experience of the world. Writers have messages to deliver, whether the work is a tale of Highland adventure, a collection of children’s verse, or an essay on umbrellas. Stevenson believed that an author could do no better than to find the appetite for joy, the secret place of delight that is the hidden nucleus of most people’s lives. His remarks on how to write, on style and method, and on pleasure and moral purpose contain everything in literature and life that he cared most about—adventuring, persisting, finding out who you are, and learning to embrace “the romance of destiny (web)”.

Books like this present something of a challenge.  On the one hand, there are folks out there who just eat this stuff up.  Then there's the other half of the equation.  The simple truth is that most people tend to view works of fiction as mere indulgences, nothing more.  This second group often has a hard time understanding why anyone would want to devote their whole life to the scribblings of a guy like Shakespeare.  It really is a simple question of finding out just who is the right audience for a text like this.  It's a work of literary criticism which studies the words of an old, canonical author.  It devotes an entire book to this topic, and all for the sake of trying to attain a better grasp on the nature of creative writing.  In that sense, the book has a very definite goal.  I'm just wondering how many out there can find any value in it it.  For what it's worth, I'm willing to go far enough out on a limb to say that such a topic does have some kind of applicable value to real life.  The question is whether or not Federico and Stevenson are able to prove that value, and fulfill that book's stated goal?