"Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if 'escapist' fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real. As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers."
Good news for all of us who are fans of the late Mary Stewart: to mark the centenary of her birth this year Hodder are to be reissuing her entire backlist with new covers. I haven't seen any of the designs yet, but I hope that putting her work centre stage in this way will bring in new readers and perhaps remind old ones that her books are well worth revisiting. I've linked to this video interview with Mary Stewart many times, but if you haven't already seen it do take a look.
Unveiled today is this year's Books Are My Bag limited edition book bag designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith (who needs no introduction). The bags will be available at independent and chain bookshops around Super Thursday, which this year is October 6th..
Many of us will know Natalie Fergie as the talent behind The Yarn Yard, purveyors of hand-dyed yarn and embroidery thread*. Well now Natalie has turned her creative hand to writing and she's penned a novel called The Sewing Machine. You can read all about it - and hear from Natalie herself - over on the book's Unbound page, and if you like the sound of it (as I do) you might consider giving it your support. To find out more about Unbound and how it works, click here.
*Unsurprisingly, the shop's empty just now as Natalie has been giving her writing her full attention.
You can read the full story here, but wasn't there a similar thing a few years ago called the McLuhan test which involved page 69, suggesting there's nothing new under the sun ...
For fun I picked up a favourite novel of mine, One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes (there's a very early Cornflower post on it here, should you not already know it) and looked at p.112 - it's as perfect as any other page in that book.
The Robertson Davies biography I'm currently reading has on p. 112 a good example of Davies' early experiences providing material for his later novels. The same goes for p. 125 from which I'll quote because it's more of a curiosity:
At boarding school in Toronto, Davies had a Scottish music master called Richard Tattersall -
"In World of Wonders he made use of one of Tattersall's tales to establish the way the immensely rich and powerful Jeremias Naegeli lived in his Swiss castle, Sorgenfrei. Years before, Tattersall had responded to a Glasgow newspaper advertisement - 'Organist wanted for employment in a private house. Must be a gentleman' - and found that his employer was to be the millionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The organist's duties at Skibo Castle, Carnegie's great country house, were specific but not onerous. He was to play Bach chorales while Carnegie ate his breakfast, and after a free day, he and Carnegie's many male secretaries would be responsible for taking any unaccompanied ladies in to dinner (the reason a gentleman was wanted). After dinner he was to hold himself ready as soloist or accompanist, whichever was required."
"In the course of our studies, we often had to go to museums to gather ideas for our work [...] Looking for old stories demands great effort, but it is well worth it, for it puts one's imagination to work and brings contemporary people in contact with the mystical-ritualistic world of [the past]. It is a kind of dialogue with what has been, from which new stories emerge."
The exhibition Fairy Tale Fashion is currently on at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City - I'd love to see it but doubt I shall. However, there's an accompanying book coming out soon which "[examines] the history, significance and imagery of classic fairy tales through the lens of high fashion and explores the pivotal role of dress in the exploration of power, transformation and identity in fairy tales".
Follow the link above to see some of the exhibits and hear the curator Colleen Hill talk about the show which in addition to clothes also exhibits artwork by Rackham, Dulac, etc. which helped establish "a fairy tale aesthetic". It sounds fascinating.
The picture here is The Storyteller from the stunning Wonderland by Kirsty Mitchell.
Just a quick link to point you in the direction of Eva's blog and podcastThe Charm of It, should you not already know them. Eva is one of those people who make mere mortals like me feel inadequate: she reads several hundred books a year, she knits nineteen to the dozen, and she designs her own complicated (knitted) garments, to boot. In documenting her progress she is always an informed and interesting observer and critic.
On her latest podcast episode she's talking about bookish knitting, specifically how she manages to combine knitting and reading, and the knitting references she's come across in her recent reading, and that segment begins around the 19.20 mark. Look out for Thistle and Moth, Eva's sweet dog and cat, too.
To return to Thursday's post for a moment, Patrick Leigh Fermor mentions Mary Russell Mitford and Our Village in one of his letters to Deborah Devonshire quoted in In Tearing Haste. MRM was a member of the same Northumberland family from which DD (née Mitford) was descended, and she replies with the following aside:
"When the French Lady(i) wrote Highland Fling(ii) Lady Redesdale(iii) suggested it should be called Our Vile Age (see?) but Evie(iv) had just done Vile Bodies so it wasn't."
"If choice must be between two seasons, each so full of charm, it is at least no bad philosophy to prefer the present good, even whilst looking gratefully back, and hopefully forward, to the past and the future."
From Our Village by Mary Russell Mitford; the cover from my 1909 edition (J.M. Dent, English Idylls series) is shown here.
New from Virago, mugs and notebooks designed to match three of their stylish VMC hardbacks. The picture's not great, but that's Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca on the left (design by Neisha Crosland), Barbara Pym's Excellent Women in the centre (Neisha Crosland again), and Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls (by Biba's Barbara Hulanicki). Available from Waterstones and smaller bookshops before Christmas.
Not that we lack good books to read now, but it's nice to glance ahead and see interesting ones in the pipeline. Today's example of a book to look forward to is by Andrew Taylor, author of The Anatomy of Ghosts (post on it here), The Scent of Death (an absorbing, atmospheric historical thriller of the highest quality), and The American Boy, among many others; coming from him next November is Broken Voices and Other Stories, a collection of three ghost novellas "to make a perfect fireside read for the cold winter months. Whether the setting is an icy cathedral close before World War 1, the storm-battered East Anglian coast, or the mysterious forest of Dean, these unnerving stories grip and disturb the reader in equal measure."
I'm reading Humphrey Carpenter's most interesting Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature, and I've reached the chapter on Kenneth Grahame. Carpenter identifies two poles of personality in Grahame, the Wanderer and the Home-lover, and says that all his writing was a product of the tension between those two, The Wind in the Willows being "the outstanding result of it".
Tracing the home-lover aspect, Carpenter refers to the many moves Grahame had to make during childhood and remarks,
"[they] must have played a part in his obsession with creating a snug, little home for himself, which runs through The Wind in the Willows (Mole End, Rat's bachelor home, Badger's splendid underground quarters) and may also be discerned in his early essays and letters. To a friend, he confessed that he had a recurrent dream of
'a gradual awakening to consciousness in a certain little room, very dear and familiar ... always the same feeling of a home-coming, of the world shut out, of the ideal encasement. On the shelves were a few books - a very few - but just the editions I had sighed for, the editions which refuse to turn up, or which poverty glowers at on alien shelves. On the walls were a print or two, a woodcut, an etching - not many ... All was modest - Oh, so very modest! But all was my very own, and, what was more, everything in the room was exactly right.' "