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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

E. F. Benson's Reading Tastes

E. F. Benson drew heavily upon the old adage "write what you know." As he attended Cambridge, it makes sense that he would tell a story about undergraduate life there. As he lived, for a time, in Chelsea, it made sense that the Babe would bicycle in nearby Battersea Park. 

102 Oakley Street, Chelsea, London,
a residence of E. F. Benson.

One thing I hadn't realized, until I read The Babe, was how diverse E. F. Benson's reading was. As the Babe spends his evenings out and about in London with his friends, he extolls the virtues of "The Yellow Book", a magazine which rocked contemporary Victorian cultural values. While many of the stories it published were from conservative writers, including H. G. Wells, it nonetheless had a salacious reputation. It is also linked with Oscar Wilde, who suggests that the magazine is a major corrupting influence on the title character in his novel The Picture of Dorian Grey

Once the Babe returns to Cambridge, he throws himself into studying for his tripos. But he takes out time to read Ravenshoe by Henry Kingsley, the brother of Charles Kingsley. Despite his interest in progressive contemporary literature, he apparently adores Henry Kingsley's novel, as E. F. Benson says he already knows it by heart. Meanwhile, his study partner Reggie picks up Gerald Eversley's Friendship, a novel by James E. C. Welldon, who like Charles Kingsley and E. F. Benson's father, rose to prominence in the Church of England. But while Reggie finds his novel depressing, the Babe tells him what he loves about this study of boys boarding at a school named St. Anselms. When Reggie asks for a synopsis, the Babe readily gives it to him. 

When preparing for our vacation in Devon last year, I thought I was out of my mind to plan a trip around a forgotten author like Charles Kingsley. At the time, he seemed to bear no correlation between E. F. Benson, or any of the other English novelists which I knew and loved. But having read Charles Kingsley's novels Yeast, A Problem, and Westward Ho!, as well as Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey, it's interesting to read The Babe, and realize how interconnected all these English authors are. While many better remembered authors like Agatha Christie focusing solely upon plot and characters, less remembered authors like Benson and Kingsley tell you so much about the times in which they lived, and the stories that mattered to them.

Often, I think that my reading is too diverse, that I should confine myself to one genre, such as Science Fiction and Fantasy. Then I read E. F. Benson, and I realize that his tastes were as wide as mine. No wonder I enjoy reading him so much.

Dragon Dave

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Electoral Ponderings

This weekend, I opened my ballot booklet. I wanted to try to make a few decisions on candidates for office and the various propositions. Yet none of the propositions seemed all that clear to me. There was only one statewide proposition, one which would empower California legislators to punish their fellow members. The city propositions seemed geared toward refining processes and procedures rather than actually creating something new, or fixing something that was broken. 

Similarly, the candidates up for election were all for positions that don't leap out at me as being terribly important. At a glance, I'm guessing I'd need to invest 30-40 hours to research most of these people, and the positions they're running for, to make an informed decision. In the meantime, the most important position of all, that of President of the United States, seems already decided, at least in terms of Primary Voting. As a registered Republican, Donald Trump is the only candidate left. All the others, however promising, have dropped out.

On his blog, author Steven Brust claims that the Democrat and Republican parties are both facing unprecedented levels of acrimony. This is due to the clash between the people, who theoretically "govern" our nation, and the multinational corporations and other big money concerns that fund the major candidates. I don't know if that's literally true or not, but everyone needs a paradigm through which to interpret the world. For Steven Brust, it's the utter failure of capitalism to meet the people's needs. 

In a representative democracy, we supposedly elect people to make decisions on our behalf. Yet we supposedly hold power to make a few important decisions as well, such as through propositions. I'm sure you could argue that all these little people, and little issues on my ballot, are really terribly important. I'm sure, if you made your argument well, I'd agree with you. But right now, voting in the California Primary seems a lot less important, and relevant to my life, than it should.

I wish I felt differently.

Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links
Steven Brust's Election Ponderings

Monday, May 23, 2016

As Time Goes By in Battersea Park

In E. F. Benson's novel The Babe, the title character complains early in the novel that he often goes against the rules of the university, but none of the Cambridge staff ever punish him. They just shrug, say, "Oh, that's just the Babe," and let him off for his offenses. Later, on his river outing, we learn that he has been punished for several offenses, and is gated, which means that he needs to be back in his rooms by ten pm. So naturally he plans on a long day out on the river, and if he gets back by the expected time, well, that would be fine by him.

Instead, as the boat travels back through darkness, it strikes the edge of the bank, the Babe tumbles into the water, and he returns to the dorms swathed in a tablecloth. 

This is too much for the university leaders, who pack him off early, meaning he doesn't take his exams for that term, and necessitate his taking a tripos (a tougher exam) in the next term. So he goes off to London, where each day he rides his bicycle around Battersea Park each morning, then gets together with his friends each evening, and tells them all how unfairly the university staff has treated him. 

In 2013, my wife and I visited Battersea Park in London. It was a cold, cloudy day in November, and not many people were strolling through the park. I don't remember anyone riding their bicycles through the park, nor were children out playing. But the absence of crowds probably had most to do with school being in session, and people working during the week. (We visited nearby Hyde Park on the weekend, and it was packed). In any case, we had the park to ourselves, and were in no mood to complain.

In an episode of the TV series "As Time Goes By," there's an episode in which Jean and Lionel take a rowboat out on the lake in Battersea Park. As the characters are middle aged, and Lionel is out of practice at rowing, he finds the exercise more difficult than he anticipated, and the rows end up coming out of their stays and falling into the water. This results in the man who rents the boats getting in another boat, and towing them back to shore. Lionel then spends the rest of the day bemoaning his advancing years, and wishing he was younger, so he could share an even longer life together with Jean.

I liked the idea of rowing a boat across the lake, but sadly, the office was closed, and the boats were all put away. So my wife and I had to be content with strolling through the park, and enjoying our solitude together. It was a quiet, peaceful time, in which the only company we got was from the local duck population, who came out in their great numbers to admire our sandwiches, chips, and cookies. So we watched them crowd around us, and enjoyed our time together, even if we wished we could have taken a boat out on the lake. 

Then we left the park, climbed aboard a nice warm bus, and headed off to our next adventure.

Dragon Dave

Monday, May 16, 2016

E. F. Benson on Grantchester & Byron's Pool

Recently, I watched a TV series called "Grantchester." It is based on a series of mysteries written by James Runcie, and set in the real life village of Grantchester, just outside Cambridge, England. The stories take place after World War II, and follow a young priest who helps a police detective solve murders. These beautifully filmed shows depict the verdant beauty of the English countryside, and spark my interest in touring England's second great university town.

In addition to James Runcie's mysteries, the town boasts another famous literary association. Just outside of town lies Byron's Pool, named after Lord George Gordon Byron, a famous English poet, who is supposed to have swum there. Or, according to E. F. Benson in his novel The Babe, because "there is no reason to suppose that Byron was not supremely fond of it." Lord Byron casts a long literary shadow, and characters in fiction are even labeled Byronic heroes if they meet the appropriate qualifications. Authors said to have been strongly influenced by Lord Byron's poetry include Charlotte and Emily Bronte. 

In E. F. Benson's novel, one day the Babe and his friends decide to row a boat up the river Cam, and swim in Byron's Pool. Here's a few passages from their day on the river:

Though the lower river is one of the foulest streams on the face of the earth, the upper river is one of the fairest. It wanders up between fresh green fields, bordered by tall yellow flags, loosestrife, and creamy meadow-sweet, all unconscious of the fate that awaits it from vile man below.

Looking back across a mile of fields you see the pinnacles of King’s rise grey and grave into the sky; and in front, Grantchester, with its old-fashioned garden-cradled houses, presided over by a church tower on the top of which, as a surveyor once remarked, there is a plus sign which is useful as a fixed point, nestles in a green windless hollow.

Among sensuous pleasures, bathing on a hot day stands alone, and Byron’s Pool is in the first flight of bathing places.

In Byron’s Pool the reflective, or what we may call the garden bather is well off. He has clean water deep to the edge, a grassy slope shadowed by trees to dry on, and a boat to take a header from. Even Mr. Stevenson, a precisian in these matters, would allow “that the imagination takes a share in such a cleansing.”

I'm sure a lot has changed in Cambridge and Grantchester since E. F. Benson wrote The Babe in 1897. For example, I've learned that the Grantchester Mill he described burned down in the 1920s. I suspect (I hope!) the lower section of the River Cam has been cleaned up since Benson's day. I don't know if the locals would consider me a garden bather, but Byron's Pool sounds like a nice day to enjoy an afternoon swim. I'd also like to tour the village of Grantchester, which inspired a series of murder mysteries, as well as songs by the musicians in the group Pink Floyd. But I don't think I'll stop inside the church to speak with the vicar. That could prove dangerous.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Arthur Conan Doyle on the Dangers of Collecting Butterflies

Warning: This post contains a spoiler for Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. Read on at your own risk!

In Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr John Watson takes a walk across the moor. There, in the wilds of England's Dartmoor National Forest, he meets a man dressed in a grey suit and wearing a straw hat. Or, as Watson describes him: A tin box for botanical specimens hung over his shoulder and he carried a green butterfly net in one of his hands. The man introduces himself as Mr Stapleton of nearby Merripit House. Then, after warning Watson to beware the dangers of Grimpen Mire, he dashes off in the hopes of capturing a Cyclopides, a type of butterfly also known as a South American Skipper. 

Dartmoor National Forest is a place of rugged natural beauty. As my wife and I drove through the park, stopping off at Princetown, the home of the famous prison, where Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired to write The Hound of the Baskervilles, and several important tors, I could not help but wonder what it was like to travel through and live on the moor in the day when people crossed it on foot, on horseback, or in wooden wagons pulled by those delightful Dartmoor ponies. It's hard to imagine living there, especially when the wind howls across the land. But people do, and some of them own some pretty large spreads.

Mr Stapleton could have enjoyed a long life in Dartmoor, spending each evening in Merripit House, and days out wandering the moors in search of his beloved butterflies and insects. He was a noted naturalist, and made several important finds there. Unfortunately, he decided to covet his neighbor's property, and reawakened the old myth about the Hound of the Baskervilles to frighten away the residents of Baskerville Hall, in the hope that he could gain possession of it instead. Unfortunately for him, Sherlock Holmes takes the information Watson gathers on Mr Stapleton to the British Museum. There he learns that the man's really a Baskerville, and that he was the first to describe a species of moth while living in Yorkshire.

So, I guess the moral of the story is that if you plan on becoming a criminal, keep your hobbies at the amateur level. Otherwise, the police will discover your true identity, these days via a quick internet search. Either that, or you can devote yourself to pursuing your interests, and sharing that passion with others.

Dragon Dave

Monday, May 9, 2016

E. F. Benson & Charles Kingsley on Collecting Butterflies

England's Dartmoor National Forest:
A great place to capture Butterflies.

"I hate water except when it’s a hot bath. Water is meant not to drink, but to heat and wash in.”

“Babe, do you mean to say you have hot baths in the morning?”

“Invariably when the weather is cold, and a cigarette, whatever the weather is. I am no Charles Kingsley, though I used to collect butterflies when I was a child.”
--from The Babe by E. F. Benson

Like the title character in The Babe, Georgie in E. F. Benson's novel Mapp And Lucia also likes to collect butterflies. He's a man who is fascinated by everything: every aspect of our world fascinates him, with the possible exception of sex. For him, that's a topic best left undiscussed. Even after he and Lucia marry, in the later books, one gets the feeling that theirs was a sexless marriage. But that's part of Georgie's charm: he's a little boy who never quite got around to growing up.

A search regarding Charles Kingsley and Butterflies sent me to an essay entitled "The Unconscious Naturalist," part of a selection of essays written by Charles Kingsley, another English author who was fascinated about every aspect of our world. Unlike Georgie, he was presumably interested in sex, as Mary St Leger Kingsley, who wrote under the pen name Lucas Malet, succeeded her father in becoming a popular Victorian author. In any event, here's the passage on Butterflies from Charles Kingsley's essay:

At a foreign barrack once, the happiest officer I met, because the most regularly employed, was one who spent his time in collecting butterflies. He knew nothing about them scientifically--not even their names. He took them simply for their wonderful beauty and variety; and in the hope too--in which he was really scientific--that if he carefully kept each form which he saw, his collection might be of use someday to entomologists at home.

Collecting butterflies used to be a hobby practiced by English gentlemen of culture and refinement. They were most like introduced to this hobby during childhood. Growing up in America, in a far from aristocratic family, I remember being instructed in how to collect butterflies. Today, with our concentration on preserving the natural world, you don't hear a lot about collecting butterflies. Instead, we build playgrounds near zoo exhibits, and hope children learn to appreciate animals while they're playing on a lifelike facsimile.

Isn't it ironic how most of us live in cities, spend most of our workdays indoors, spend much of our free time on our computers, laptops, and smart phones, and then preach the virtues of nature conservation to our children? I suppose it's a very different thing to promote capturing and killing any animal or insect as a hobby, when we live in a world of six billion people, versus the quarter of that who lived in Arthur Conan Doyle's time. But does posting photographs of butterflies on Instagram, and sharing videos of Butterflies on Facebook really constitute a superior way to teach children about their world?

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Charles Kingsley & E. F. Benson on the Importance of Bathing: Part 2

The front yard of The Church House Inn
in Charles Kingsley's birthplace of
Holne, England

"I hate water except when it’s a hot bath. Water is meant not to drink, but to heat and wash in.”

“Babe, do you mean to say you have hot baths in the morning?”

“Invariably when the weather is cold, and a cigarette, whatever the weather is. I am no Charles Kingsley, though I used to collect butterflies when I was a child.”
--from The Babe by E. F. Benson

Apparently, the washing that The Babe is referring to in E. F. Benson's novel refers to a character in The Water Babies, a Charles Kingsley novel that I have yet to read. A quick Google search led me to a preview of a book called If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley. Here's a short passage from Worsley's book:

The poor little chimney sweep in Charles Kingsley's Victorian children's story The Water Babies learned that he could only go to heaven if he kept himself clean. He needed to "work very hard and wash very hard" before he could be considered worthy.

According to Worsley, Charles Kingsley wrote this at a time in which the public attitude toward bathing was changing. Although it seems odd to us today, the people of Kingsley's day were only beginning to realize that regularly cleaning the body could promote health and prevent illness. Many still felt that bathing was a wasteful use of water, if not downright dangerous, as it could cause people to catch a cold or some more debilitating illness. 

This was the second Charles Kingsley reference that the Babe offers in E. F. Benson's novel, and unlike the first, which I understood, this one I decided to investigate. I'm glad my wife suggested that I read another novel by E. F. Benson, as his stories always bring me such pleasure. The Babe certainly offers a nice change of pace, after immersing myself for so long in Shirley by Charlotte Bronte. 

As with Bronte and Kingsley, Benson liberally peppers his novels with references that I feel compelled to check out, such as the Charles Kingsley association with bathing. As with bathing, researching those references takes time, but leaves me feeling as if I learned something important. Unfortunately, hunting down those references can prove equally dangerous as bathing, as it takes time away from my fiction writing, just like catching a cold, the flu, or some other illness. 

As with anything else is life, E. F. Benson's novels offer a wealth of knowledge and delight. Yet they can also prove dangerous, as my example of research, and writing these two blog posts, has demonstrated. Therefore, I must caution you when approaching any of the Benson's novels: Read with care!

Dragon Dave

Monday, May 2, 2016

Charles Kingsley & E. F. Benson on the Importance of Bathing: Part 1

The Church House Inn in Holne, England,
where Charles Kingsley wrote his 1863 novel
The Water Babies

Recently, my wife suggested that we watch the TV series based on E. F. Benson's novel Mapp & Lucia, and that I should read another E. F. Benson novel. While I'm not sure what prompted this suggestion, I enjoyed watching the TV series again. I also enjoyed reading The Babe, a novel E. F. Benson wrote in 1897. Like his previous novel, Limitations, it affords us a view of undergraduate life at Cambridge University in England. This time, however, Benson's tale is more humorous and colorful. While it's not a perfect comparison, the novel reminded me The Adventures of Verdant Green by Cuthbert M Bede, which takes place at Oxford, England's other great university town.

Just as interesting and quirky as Verdant Green's friends, the title character of The Babe is a celebrated rugby player who drops colorful quotes in casual conversation, and lives a life of easy and comfort while, perhaps, he should be studying. Here's one such quote:

I hate water except when it’s a hot bath. Water is meant not to drink, but to heat and wash in.”

“Babe, do you mean to say you have hot baths in the morning?”

“Invariably when the weather is cold, and a cigarette, whatever the weather is. I am no Charles Kingsley, though I used to collect butterflies when I was a child.”
--from The Babe by E. F. Benson

If you've been following my blog, you'll know that last year's trip to England took me to several places mentioned in Charles Kingsley's 1855 novel Westward Ho! These included Bideford and Clovelly, the latter a town on the coast of Devon where he spent his childhood. My wife and I also visited the tiny village of Holne, located on the outskirts of Dartmoor National Forest, where he was born. There we saw a church with a Charles Kingsley stain glass window, and a rare public house owned by the Church of England. Inside, the bartender kindly showed us the Charles Kingsley room, where the writer reportedly wrote part of his children's novel The Water Babies, and shared with us a little of his affection for the story.

The bartender never mentioned anything about Charles Kingsley's attitudes on bathing, but the tiny room had its own fireplace, and smoke from that fire must have seeped into Kingsley's clothes while he wrote. So perhaps, after a few hours of writing, especially in the winter, he might have felt he needed a bath. But that's what writing, and reading a great story is like. After immersing yourself in another world, you awaken in this one, and realize that you need to do something to enhance your life.

Bathing is a small way you can do that, I suppose. Personally, I much prefer travel, although bathing is cheaper, which means I can do it more often. Still, if I were to total up the cost of each day's hot water...

Dragon Dave