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“Follow your own path.” #WITmonth @OWC_Oxford

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Selected Letters of Catherine the Great
Translated by Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev

History as a concept can be problematic linguistically from the start, Just look at the word – an amalgam of his and story – and you can see where the focus is going to be. There is still perhaps a belief that great deeds are done by great men, and women are often marginalised to the sidelines. However, thinking of, for example, the great monarchs of the past just shows how that isn’t necessarily the case. Elizabeth I in this country is unforgettable; and the Russian monarch Catherine the Great is just as legendary.

Oxford World Classics have just brought out a brilliant book of her Selected Letters and I thought it would be fascinating to take a look at this during WIT Month; particularly after having spent some time with another great Russian, Marina Tsvetaeva. The two women couldn’t be further apart, really, but both had equally fascinating lives, and I’m enjoying very much dipping into Catherine’s correspondence.

The introduction is excellent, providing background to Catherine’s reign, her vast achievements and just what an educated woman she was. This was the real Golden Age of letter writing which was an art in itself, and she excelled in using the form for personal and diplomatic purposes. The book is divided into sections that follow her career chronologically, focusing on the main aspects which informed her writings at those points. So we see the young queen finding her way when new in the role; fostering cultural connections with European countries and philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot; dealing with war and conflict; expanding the Russian empire; and also more personal contacts with her various lovers. Catherine’s reign was a long one and she was in many ways a self-made woman. Born a German princess, she embraced Russianness wholeheartedly, becoming synonymous with her country and determined to drag it forward culturally and in terms of conquest. And this was no mean feat, for a country the size of Russia contained so many different elements, people and cultures that to set out a set of laws and regulations that applied to all was nigh on impossible.

In the end, the laws that people are talking so much about have not been made yet, and who can say whether they will be good or not? Truly, it is posterity, and not we, who will be in a position to settle this question. Just think, I beg you: the laws must work for Asia and for Europe. What differences of climate, peoples, habits, even ideas!

The “Selected Letters” is an exemplary book, and demonstrates exactly how you should produce a scholarly yet readable volume. The introduction is detailed enough to give you perfect context, there’s a chronology, notes are indicated in the text by an asterisk, and crucially, each letter has its own short paragraph to introduce it and explain context. So it’s perfect for dipping into, which I think is how I shall carry on with it, because each letter is so beautifully written that it deserves to be savoured and not rushed. I confess the print size of the intro paragraphs is quite small for my ageing eyes, so dipping will help with this too, but I’m intrigued by this woman and shall enjoy making my way through her letters.

Andrew Shiva [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Attribution], from Wikimedia Commons

I’m finding so much to be fascinated by in this book: for example, the fact that she was responsible for the iconic Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. Catherine was determined to create and emphasise a connection between herself and Peter, most crucially because she was of course not actually Russian. The correspondence with the sculptor is so interesting, and her skill at a combination of flattery and insisting on her own way is so clever. I’ve also been struck again by the general interconnectedness (well, inbreeding….) of the European monarchs which continued until 20th century and perhaps reached its zenith with the strangeness around the time of World War 1 and the Russian Revolution; the family tree of Victoria caused a fair amount of havoc at that time…

Catherine the Great c. 1845 by Georg Cristoph Grooth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Selected Letters” is proving to be the perfect book for #WITmonth, and is shaping up to encapsulate brilliantly the breadth of Catherine’s achievements and her reign. As the introduction reminds us, the male bias of history often tries to diminish what she did with gossip about horses and lovers in a judgemental way which would never be applied to a king or Tsar. I’m not a fan of monarchy in general; however, accepting that this was the mode of rule at the time, what Catherine aimed to do with her country was laudable. I hope this volume will help to ensure that we remember Catherine the Great for her intelligence, wit and triumphs rather that trying to relegate her rule to one of novelty.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

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Am I a superficial reader?

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Perhaps a frivolous sounding heading for a post, and I don’t think things are entirely superficial on the Ramblings as I do like to read books of substance (balanced with lighter works!) However, the thought occurred to me when I was taking such pleasure recently in some lovely new volumes which had arrived, in the form of the Oxford Classics hardbacks. I’m currently contemplating making my way through the beautiful copy of “Crime and Punishment”, a book I’ve been meaning to revisit for a long time, and indeed I have at least one copy already. Yet it takes the arrival of a shiny new version to make me pick it up again – and I think this is a tendency I’ve noticed before.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been seduced by the new – Alma Classics, for example, often produce glossy new versions of books I already own, and it will frequently be those versions I read, not the ones I already have. And you’ll have noticed that I brought home a very pretty new copy of “Middlemarch” recently, despite already owning one.

So is this superficial? Well, I’m not so sure. Back when I first started seriously reading, I had less money for books and less access to them than I had now, so I would often settle for whichever copy I could get hold of. If it was a second-hand copy, perhaps a little pre-loved, it really didn’t matter as long as I could read it. My eyes were better then, I was younger and reading voraciously anything I could get hold of, and although I loved a beautiful book, I mainly wanted to get at the content.

However, I read differently now I think. For a start, my eyesight has most definitely gone downhill! I don’t have the hours in the day I used to have to read, I struggle holding awkward or fragile books, and I perhaps appreciate a book as an aesthetic object a lot more nowadays. Plus there is the complication that many of my original volumes have deteriorated over the 30 years or so since I got them and I do find that’s starting to detract a little from the reading experience.

So no – on balance, I don’t think I *am* a superficial reader. Even if nowadays I like to read an attractive edition with bigger pages and type, at the end of the day it’s what’s in the book that matters the most. Certainly, “Crime and Punishment” is proving an immersive experience, whichever copy I’m reading (more of that in a later post…) – so bring on the pretty books and let’s have our stories of substance housed in lovely containers! :))))

Early signs of genius

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Teenage Writings by Jane Austen

Well, 2017 really *is* turning out to be the year of anniversaries, isn’t it? As well as it being 100 years since the Russian Revolution, I’ve also been covering the work of the artist and writer Leonora Carrington, who was born in the same year as that Revolution. But I was reminded of the fact that it’s also 200 years since the death of Jane Austen by the arrival of a lovely review copy from Oxford World Classics – a beautiful book collecting together her teenage writings.

It’s been some years since I read anything by Austen – decades, in fact – and I can’t be sure now what I’ve actually read and what I haven’t, although I’m pretty sure on “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion”. So I wondered how I would find these juvenile works by an author who is arguably one of the most famous in the English language and who probably needs no introduction from me!

As always for OWC, the books is put together in a most exemplary fashion. There is an erudite and knowledgeable introduction from Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnston, both from St. Anne’s College, Oxford; a chronology of Austen and her works; detailed notes to support the contents of the text, and also notes that deal in detail with textual variations; maps, family continuations of the works, and three volumes of the actual stories (about which more below)! The scholarship which has gone into this book is impressive, making it a very special volume which is ideal for the reader who doesn’t necessarily have much background knowledge of Austen’s history, the era and the context (me!).

One of the hand-made books

Jane Austen was an inveterate reader of novels herself, and absorbed whatever books she could get hold of, high- or low-brow. Her early writings were done not ‘for the drawer’ but to be circulated amongst family and friends, and she collected them together into three mock books, the source of the works here. The earliest date from when she was 11 or 12, and the final pieces from her later teens when she was around 17. The early pieces are understandably shorter but Volume 3 has two substantial pieces, “Evelyn” and “Kitty, or the Bower”, the latter of which is the first opportunity to read the story as she actually wrote it, as it was apparently subject to alteration by family members later on.

If you think of Austen as a purveyor of gentle prose, you might be quite surprised when you read these stories! They take a variety of forms, from short pieces a page or so long, through little playlets to the longer, more dramatic stories in volume 3. The book includes her most famous piece of juvenilia, “Love and Freindship”, and it’s fascinating to see what a sophisticated wit she displays for one so young – this from one of the early pieces, for example:

… I daily became more amiable, & might perhaps by this time have nearly attained perfection, had not my worthy Preceptoress been torn from my arms, e’re I had attained my seventeenth year. I shall never forget her last words. “My dear Kitty, she said, Good night t’ye.” I never saw her afterwards, continued Lady Williams wiping her eyes, she eloped with the Butler the same night.

There’s a surprising amount of boozing going on, with one particular lady in the very early stories regularly drunk and knocking back the alcohol! Love is dramatic and tragic, and there is even a little murder thrown in…

An entertaining diversion comes in the form of “The History of England”, which appears in Volume the Second. Here, Austen turns her talents to relating the stories of the various monarchs of the country. Some warrant only a line or two, but titans such as Henry VIII earn entries of a decent length. I was particularly pleased to note that Austen refuses to believe the propaganda about Richard III declaring that she supposes him “a very respectable Man”. The entries are illustrated by Austen’s elder sister, Cassandra, but unfortunately she’s not able to present an image of Edward V as Jane tells us that “This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3rd.” (Hmm – so perhaps Austen was being a little sarcastic in her views on the latter….)

I’m not enough of an Austen reader or scholar to comment on how strongly these early pieces relate to her later works, but I’m told that many of the themes in the teenage writings appear more subtly in her adult work and certainly I picked up elements of parody. This is an entertaining and enjoyable collection providing a unique glimpse into the world of the young Jane Austen. Is it a work for the general reader? I think so, though it would make more sense to have read some of her adult works before you come to this one. But this is a beautifully presented volume which presents an essential collection of early works by one of our best-loved authors – and it couldn’t have been put together any better!

(Many thanks to Oxford World Classics for kindly providing a review copy)

Literature as a business

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New Grub Street by George Gissing

I suppose I’m not alone amongst readers and book bloggers in having a rather romantic view of the author, picturing them sitting in a beautiful study, pen in hand, waiting to be visited by the muse and then pour out wonderful words to enchant us. Or at least to type them onto the computer for the same effect. However, that’s rather naive of me really, as writing has always been a business, and a lovely new edition of George Gissing’s “New Grub Street” from OUP really hammers that home!

new-grub-street

George Gissing (1857 – 1903) was an English writer who produced quite a number of novels and short stories, a surprising amount of which appear to have been published posthumously. It’s clear from a quick glance at his biography that he struggled to make a living from his writing, supplementing his income with teaching, and so I approached this book expecting it to come from the heart.

Published in 1891, the title of the book refers back to Grub Street, an area in London previously known as the home of hack writers, poets and minor publishers; it was referred to by Samuel Johnson in his dictionary and the term came to denote writers and writings of no literary value. Gissing takes that concept and brings it into his modern world, telling us the story of a pair of writers who are diametrically opposed in their character and outlook.

Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets.

We first meet Jasper Milvain, a somewhat cynical young man trying to make his way as a journalist and regarding writing as simply a career and the way to make money (although he isn’t doing that very successfully at the moment…). His friend Edwin Reardon is a novelist with talent; however, his books are not selling and he’s made an unsuitable marriage so things are not going well for him.

Circling these two are the extended friends and family: Milvain’s two sisters, as dependent on his widowed mother as Jasper is himself; and the Yule clan, including Amy (who has become Reardon’s wife), her cousin Marian, and their respective fathers. Jasper becomes entranced by Marian; Amy is regretting her marriage to Edwin. Alfred Yule, Marian’s father, is a writer of sorts himself, with a little influence in literary circles and with many ongoing feuds; his brother John, uncle to both girls, is completely anti-intellectual, preferring instead to rabidly promote sport and healthy outlets. Ironically, his love of the outdoors has rendered him an invalid.

So we watch the Milvains and the Yules attempt to navigate the world, the real one as well as the literary one; the action moves from the country to London, where the Milvain girls befriend Marian. Characters fall in and out of love, marriages break up and new alliances form, all against a background of literature in its highest and lowest forms. Money is seen to be the motivating factor in most of the relationships and though certain characters end up together, it’s never quite clear whether this is because of emotion or necessity.

“New Grub Street” was a fascinating read, if a little unsettling at times! I found myself quite shocked at the cynical attitude of many of the characters, particularly Jasper, who coldly discusses the selling of words for money, or the necessity of marrying a rich wife. In fact, Jasper wasn’t likeable in many respects, sponging off his mother’s small legacy and diminishing the amount she and his sisters had to live on to support his literary endeavours.

Gissing, sporting a jolly fine moustache...

Gissing, sporting a jolly fine moustache…

The book also catches women at a kind of cusp – as the author points out, the Milvain girls would have had much less education 20 years before and would have been satisfied with a simple life. As it is, they had been educated, which put them in a slightly different class from those with whom they were mixing , and they hadn’t yet reached the time of full emancipation. Despite their education, marriage ends up being the only long-term solution to their problems.

But the recurring theme of money *is* an important one, particularly for the struggling writer (and it’s one that Orwell picked up on later when he praised Gissing). To take that step into writing is to give up all chance of a regular income and any kind of living wage, unless you become a bestseller with all the compromises that implies. It’s a dichotomy that probably hasn’t changed since Gissing’s time, particularly in our modern era when publishing has become so much easier, but the flooded market means that picking out the good from the bad is increasingly complex.

“New Grub Street” made fascinating reading. Gissing’s style is eminently readable, and as usual with Oxford Classics the book is beautifully presented, with copious notes, an excellent introduction and supporting material. As the notes flag up, many of the experiences that Milvain and Reardon have reflect the issues that beset Gissing during his writing life, and it’s fascinating to consider whether either author (or maybe both!) is something of a pen self-portrait.

I’ve intended to read Gissing for some time, as his book “The Odd Women” has been lurking with the Viragos on Mount TBR for goodness knows how long. However, it took the push of this nice new edition to get me picking up his work and a very enjoyable and thought-provoking read it was – so hopefully it won’t be too long before I pick up another one of his works!

Review copy kindly provided by Oxford World Classics, for which many thanks!

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