Valentine’s Day Lockdown Lists

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A bit of Valentine’s Day lockdown timewasting … strange ways in which couples in books met, most romantic places which couples in books visited, key worker heroes in books (other than doctors, there are strangely few of these), and worst proposals in books.  Useless fact of the day – speaking of strange ways to meet, the song by The Hollies, about a couple who meet when they share an umbrella at a bus stop, was inspired by a no 95 bus, which goes within a few yards of my house.  Except that it didn’t then: it’s been re-routed since.  I know that people needed to know that.  As I said, timewasting …

During lockdown, people are finding it difficult to meet potential partners, except online.  Five strange ways in which couples in books met: 

  1. Meggie Cleary and Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds.  He was her priest.  Don’t try this one at home.
  2. Judy Abbott and Jervis Pendleton in Daddy Long Legs.  He funded a college scholarship for a girl from an orphanage.  She was the girl.  He wanted her to write him letters telling him how she was getting on … but he didn’t tell her that they’d actually met umpteen times and he’d concealed his identity.  I used to find this terribly romantic when I was about 9.  It now seems a bit weird.
  3. Henrietta Rawlinson and Adam Swann in God is an Englishman.  She’d run away from home and was washing her face in a puddle near Warrington.  He gave her a lift on his horse.  As you do.
  4. Madge Bettany and Jem Russell in The School at the Chalet.   They were both on a train which caught fire.  Madge bravely risked her own safety to help an unpleasant woman escape through a window.  Jem was impressed by her pluck.  Very feminist, really 🙂 .
    5. Florentyna Rosnovski and Richard Kane in The Prodigal Daughter.  They met when she was working in a shop of which he was a customer.  Seems normal enough … but she was actually hiding her real identity, and it turned out that their dads were sworn enemies.  Oh dear.

And, because of the infernal travel restrictions, we can’t go anywhere … five very romantic locations visited by couples in books:

  1. The Lake District is the most romantic part of the UK … and features in a lot of poems, but not nearly enough books.  However, lucky Damaris and Brian in Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey books don’t just go to Grasmere, but move there to live permanently.
    2.  Venice is the most romantic city outside the UK, and is where Katy Carr and Ned Worthington in What Katy Did Next get engaged.  They aren’t a very exciting couple, and it isn’t a very exciting romance, but the fact that they get engaged in a gondola makes up for a lot.
    3.  The Italian lakes (I like water, OK) – the setting for The Betrothed, the eponymous couple being Lucia Mondella and Renzo Tramiglia.  There’s a lot of plague in this, but never mind.  Also visited by Elio Perlman and Oliver (who appears to have no surname) in Call Me By Your Name.
    4. Lake Geneva – (more lakes!) – where Amy March and Laurie Laurence get together in Good Wives.  There seems to be this idea that Amy betrayed womankind by stealing her sister’s man, but she really didn’t: Jo had turned Laurie down
    5.Russia – ignore all the political stuff: Russia is a very romantic country.  Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova in Dr Zhivago are one of its many well-known fictional couples.
  2. Five key worker heroes in books not already mentioned:1. Doctor – Gilbert Blythe, in the Anne of Green Gables books.
    2. Vet – Guy Charlton in the Lorna Hill Sadlers Wells books.  Guy is my hero, OK – I had to mention him somewhere!
    3. Farmer-cum-heroic-fetcher-of-food-for-entire-town – Almanzo Wilder in the Little House books.
    4. Policeman – there are loads of policemen in books, but, for some reason, most of them are either idiots or else just annoying.  The best I could come up with was more of a secret agent than a policeman, but he’ll have to do – Bill Smugs/Cunningham in the Enid Blyton adventure books.
    5. Postman/delivery man – this was even worse!   I’m struggling to think of any postmen in books, other than Courtney Elliot in the Adrian Mole books, and he’s only a minor character.  I suppose it’ll have to be Postman Pat, who does feature in books as well as TV programmes!

And, just because lockdown is not actually very romantic, unless you actually enjoy being stuck in, five really bad proposals:

1.  Mr Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – he tells her that her family are common and vulgar, and that he’s tried to get over his thing for her, but it hasn’t worked, so will she marry him.  She says no.  They do get together eventually, but he’s got his act together by then.
2.  Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind – this is the best book of all time, and the proposal scene is brilliant, but it’s awful as well!  Her second husband has just died, and Rhett says that he needs to go away on business so will she please get engaged to him before she goes, as, otherwise, she’ll probably have married someone else by the time he gets back.  He does talk her into it.
3. Reg Entwistle to Helena (Len) Maynard in Prefects of the Chalet School – the unheroic Reg, who’s been pestering Len for months, is fished out of a stream by her middle-aged uncle, and put to bed in her parents’ house.  She says he looks dreadful.  He then says “I take it we’re engaged.  Like it, darling?”.  She says that, yes, they are, but they mustn’t tell anyone until the end of the school term.  It’s grim.
4. St John Rivers to (his cousin) Jane Eyre, in Jane Eyre.  He says that he only wants to marry her because he wants someone to go to India with him, to be a missionary trying to convert people.  You do wonder how he’d feel if a missionary from India turned up in his Yorkshire parish and tried to convert all his congregation to a different religion.  Jane is not keen on the idea of marrying someone she doesn’t love.  He tells her that she’s “formed for labour, not for love”.  She turns him down.  Thank goodness.
5.  Bill Thistleton to Anastasia (Tazy) Kingston in The Troubles of Tazy. He says  “Are you game to fix up with one of us? [either him or his brother]”.  Either one will, presumably, do.  I think that this is the worst fictional proposal ever: even St John Rivers didn’t mention his brother (although, to be fair, he didn’t have one).  She does actually accept.  Him, not his brother.

Lockdown Timewasting over.  Thank you to anyone who’s read that.  Stay safe xxx.

 

 

 

 

 

Ruth’s Journey by Donald McCaig

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Oh dear.  This was dire!  It was supposed to be a prequel to Gone With The Wind, and it sounded like such an interesting idea – a book about the early life of Mammy, and also touching on the life of Scarlett’s intriguingly scandalous grandmother Solange.  Unfortunately, the writing was poor, and the author didn’t capture the character of Mammy at all.  If you’re writing a book about an existing character, then the book needs to be true to that character.  There are probably sides to them that we don’t see, especially when, as in this case, the character exists largely in relation to other characters and we hear next to nothing of their own life; but it still needs to link in with what we do know of them. If that’s not what you want to do, create your own character and write about them instead!

Also, there were umpteen inconsistences with GWTW itself – if you’re going to try to write a prequel to the best-selling novel of all time, read it properly first, and, for heaven’s sake, at least get the names right, if nothing else – and what he wrote about the other characters was beyond stupid.  Ellen, the perfect lady, hanging around in disreputable bars?  Scarlett, whom Mammy watched like a hawk, dressing up as a male jockey and hanging around at the racecourse?   It was just dreadful.  How could anyone make such a mess of writing about some of the most interesting characters in the entire history of fiction?!

Most annoyingly of all, the second half of the book was all about the Robillards and the O’Haras.  No, no, no!  The book was meant to be about Mammy.  So it completely defeated its own point!

The author of this also wrote Rhett Butler’s People, and that wasn’t bad.  This was!  What is the one clue that we’re given to Solange Robillard’s personality?  That she wore a wet petticoat to show the shape of her legs.  Is that one thing mentioned anywhere in this book.  It is not.  There’s also a mention in GWTW of Great-Grandfather Prudhomme, who was forced out of Haiti by the Haitian Revolution.  So we know that Solange’s maiden name was Prudhomme, and that her father was a landowner in Haiti.  Well, everyone else does, but Donald McCaig apparently doesn’t, because he had Solange’s maiden name being Escarlette, and her father living in Brittany.

We’re told that Solange’s first husband (he at least gets the fact that she had three husbands right, although I don’t know why he says that Pauline and Eulalie’s father was her second husband rather than Pierre Robillard) found a small child alone after her mother and been murdered, and that he and Solange took her in and named her Ruth.  This was the child who became Mammy.  That works, at least.  They move to Savannah.  OK.  Ruth, when she’s 15, wants to marry a free black man.  Solange agrees to let him buy her, so that the two of them can be together, and they move to Charleston … where he gets involved in Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion.

OK, this could have happened, and marks for bringing Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion into it.  The actual history was pretty much accurate.  And the portrayal of young Ruth wasn’t that bad: you could see how that young woman might have become the Mammy we know from GWTW.  But we were then told that her husband was hanged by Rhett Butler’s dad.  What??  OK, Mammy does take a dislike to Rhett when she first meets him, but that’s because she can see what a bad lot he is.  The name “Butler” doesn’t mean anything to her until Rhett comes along.  An she changes her mind about him when she sees what a good father he is to Bonnie.  Would she really have done that, and lived under his roof at all – she could have said she was going back to Tara, as she did later – if his dad had hanged her husband?  The story, which also involved her child being sold and then dying, which was very poignant, might have worked without the Butler link.  As it was, it didn’t.

She then smacks her new owner over the head with a heavy object when he tries it on with her, bullies him into giving her a pass, and makes her way back to Savannah.  Come on – how likely is that to have happened?  And, from then on, the story isn’t even about her anyway.  We move on to this nonsense about Ellen hanging around in bars.  No, no, no.  Yes, Ellen wants to marry her dodgy cousin Philippe.  Her father’s supposed to have run him out of town.  He gets killed in a bar room brawl – that bit at least is sort of included accurately.  But Ellen hanging around in disreputable bars?  Hardly!  Even if she’d wanted to, Mammy wouldn’t have let her.  That’s the whole point.  Mammy keeps an eye on her.

Ellen then marries Gerald O’Hara.  There is a vague nod to her threat to go into a convent, but only in passing: there’s no big showdown with her dad, who doesn’t seen very interested.  And who’s a Baptist.  OK, at least McCaig got the fact that he was a Protestant right, but how many French Baptists are there?

Then all the familiar Clayton County crowd turn up.  Ashley Wilkes seems to be much older than he should be.  So does Cathleen Calvert.  Raif Calvert, even though we know that he and Scarlett were friendly as children, is hardly mentioned.  Suellen seems to have a lot of beaux – er, no.  And Scarlett is known as Katie until she’s about 15.  WTF?!  OK, she’s Katie Scarlett, but she’s always “Miss Scarlett”.  And there’s all this utter nonsense about Scarlett going off riding by herself, and dressing up as a jockey and hanging around racecourses.  Excuse me?  This is Scarlett, who worries about concealing “small breaches of etiquette” from her elders, hanging around racecourses in men’s clothing?!  And, again, as if the daughter of a Southern plantation owner would have been able to get away with doing that?  Mammy watched her every move!  And when was there ever the slightest suggestion that Scarlett was interested in racing anyway?!

As if all this isn’t stupid enough, Mammy has some sort of vision of Scarlett marrying Rhett and their child dying.  This is in early 1861.  Mammy didn’t even know that Rhett existed until Scarlett decided to dress up in the green curtains to go and visit him, after the war.  She never met him at the Twelve Oaks barbecue.  Or, if she did, it was only in passing.  She doesn’t know who he is when Scarlett says she’s going to get the money from “Rhett”.

And the book was meant to be about Mammy, not about the O’Haras!  On top of all this, most of the second half of the book, from Ellen’s marriage onwards, is narrated by Mammy, and it’s all in “I’se gwine …” dialect.  Now, I know that views differ as to whether or not it’s appropriate to write an African-American character as speaking or thinking in … I think the term “Ebonics” is used now.  But I personally am not keen on it.   We don’t see Solange speaking or thinking in Franglais.  I’d rather have had things in standard English.  That’s my view: other people’s may differ.  And we just lost who Mammy was … Mammy would never, ever have let either Ellen or Scarlett behave like that.  She would have known what they were up to, and stopped it.

And where was her story?  Once she was back with Solange, all she was doing was being the Robillards’/O’Haras’ Mammy.  The point of this book was meant to be to show that she was so much more than that.

It was a good idea.  But it was certainly not a good book.  Don’t bother reading this.  It’s really not worth it.

 

 

 

Mental Health Awareness Week – 10 kind characters in fiction

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This is Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is kindness, something of which many people (although not all) have been showing an awful lot during these very difficult times – very much appreciated.  I nicked the idea of listing ten kind characters, and particular acts of kindness which they show towards others, in fiction from someone else, but I thought it was a really nice one.

  1. Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables … and the dress with the puffed sleeves.  In most Girls’ Own type books, Anne would have been firmly reprimanded for her obsession with wanting a dress with puffed sleeves.  Look at the grief which poor Meg March gets just for borrowing a pretty frock from a friend for one evening!   And you certainly wouldn’t expect a middle-aged man to understand how much a dress in the latest fashion would mean to a young girl.  But Matthew does.  So he gets Anne a dress with puffed sleeves.  It is just so sweet and kind of him!

2. Madge Bettany in The School at the Chalet … when she takes on responsibility for Juliet Carrick, who’s been abandoned by her cruel parents.  Madge is a young single woman who hasn’t got much money, hasn’t even got a home other than the school, and is already responsible for her sister, but she doesn’t even hesitate about taking on Juliet.  Until this point, Juliet’s been a troublemaker, but the kindness which Madge shows towards her helps her to become a much nicer person.

3. Lucy Pevensie in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe … and her concern for Mr Tumnus and the Beavers.  She’s only a very young child, but she really cares about others.

4. Martha Sowerby in The Secret Garden … and her kindness towards Mary Lennox, who’s been a complete pain in the backside towards her.  It’s Martha who first tells Mary about the garden.

5. Melanie Wilkes in Gone With The Wind … and her kindness towards Belle Watling, who runs the local brothel.  The other society ladies in Atlanta look down their noses at Belle, but, when Belle comes to make a financial donation to the hospital, Melanie just speaks to her as one woman to another.

6. Paddington Brown in the Paddington Bear books … and his kindness towards everyone!  Paddington is such a lovely, sweet character!

7. Nancy in Oliver Twist … and her attempts to protect Oliver.  Nancy’s had a very tough life, and ends up meeting a horrible life, yet she can still show such kindness towards a young boy, even at the risk of her own safety.

8. Miss Temple in Jane Eyre … the kind teacher who takes an interest in Jane’s educational and emotional development, and also cares for the dying Helen Burns.   One kind adult can do so much for a child living in difficult circumstances, and Miss Temple plays a crucial role in Jane’s life.

9. Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice … and her understanding attitude towards Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr Collins.  Jane’s the “good” one of the Bennet sisters, and she’s always nice, but her reaction to Charlotte Lucas deciding to marry a man who’s a complete idiot always particularly strikes me.  Elizabeth, even though she’s Charlotte’s best friend, can only see that Charlotte has agreed to marry a man whom she doesn’t love or respect.  Jane is able to understand Charlotte’s reasons – as a woman who’s plain-looking and has no money, she’s going to struggle to find a husband, and the prospects for an unmarried woman of her time and class aren’t very appealing.  Marrying Mr Collins is her best option.  At the moment, a lot of people are busy yelling and shrieking and judging others for decisions that they’re making over the loosening of lockdown of restrictions.  We need to accept that there is no one-size-fits-all answer.  What is right for you may not be right for someone whose medical, financial and domestic circumstances are different.  That doesn’t mean that either of you are wrong, and it doesn’t give you the right to judge or criticise them – any more than Elizabeth has the right to judge or criticise Charlotte’s choice.  Jane can see that.

10. Almanzo Wilder in The Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years … and his kindness to Laura and, alongside Cap Garland, his kind and courageous decision to go and get supplies for the entire town during the very severe winter which leaves everyone struggling.  OK, he fancies Laura and is hoping to win her affections, but it was still very nice of him to drive all that way to bring her home at weekends when she was teaching at the Brewster Settlement, especially as she kept telling him that it wasn’t going to get him anywhere!  And, yes, someone had to go and get supplies, but it was Almanzo, along with Cap, who actually did.  He’s not presented as a romantic hero in the books, even though he’s the author’s husband, but he is one!

#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.  Please be kind xxx.

Fictional characters and the coronavirus

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This is meant as gallows humour, OK.  If you are one of the people who thinks no-one should be joking, please don’t have a go at me – I’ve got an anxiety disorder and am permanently convinced everything I say or do offends people anyway!  But I was reading a ridiculously pompous “critique” of Little Women the other day – Jo having her hair cut symbolises castration, seriously?! – and I started thinking that Beth March would never have got scarlet fever if she’d practised social distancing with the Hummels.  Then I started thinking that, if Helen Carr were around now, she’d be writing some sick-making poem about “The School of Self-Isolation”.  And what about other fictional characters?  A few thoughts …

1.  Adrian Mole would chronicle it all carefully, and constantly be convinced that he’d got the virus when he hadn’t.

2.  Anne Shirley would think up dramatic-sounding names for everything.  “Covid-19” is really pretty naff compared to “the Black Death”.  “The sweating sickness” is at least descriptive, and “the plague” sounds very Biblical.  “Covid-19” sounds like a robot off an ’80s children’s TV programme.

3. Bertha Rochester wouldn’t notice any difference – she’d been locked on the upper floor for years, and never gathered in groups of more than two people.

4. Beth March would be so keen to help struggling neighbours that she wouldn’t observe social distancing and would end up being ill herself 😦 .

5. Gwendoline Mary Lacey would insist that she should be allowed into the supermarket during the times reserved for vulnerable people, due to having a “weak heart”.

6. Heidi wouldn’t need to think about panic-buying food, because she’d stockpiled all those white buns, but she might end up being fined for breaking the curfew due to sleepwalking.

7.  Helen Carr would write a vomit-inducing poem called “The School of Self-Isolation”, about how it was bringing you closer to the angels.

8. Joey Bettany would catch the virus from standing by an open door whilst someone passed within six feet of her, and would be terribly ill but would recover after being serenaded with “The Red Sarafan”.

9. Laura Ingalls (OK, not actually fictional, but never mind) would say that the virus was transmitted by eating watermelons.  I love Laura’s books to bits, but where on earth did the watermelon thing come from?!

10. Scarlett O’Hara would cut up the curtains to use as toilet paper.  Bobbie and Phyllis from The Railway Children would do the same with their petticoats.

Gallows humour, OK?  Gallows humour!!

Stay safe and well, everyone xxx.  And I apologise if I annoy people by over-posting, but just ignore me if so – I can’t really work much from home as I need access to files and other things, so I’ll need to write to keep my brain active!

Ten book characters who’d be good in this time of crisis

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I’ve said “book” rather than “fictional” because I think I could do with having Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland around, to go out for supplies if the Toilet Paper Hoarders (an issue not actually mentioned by Laura Ingalls Wilder, come to think of it) strip all the local shops’ shelves bare.  On a more serious note, I’ve just had a message from my favourite café, urging people to buy, if possible, from small local businesses which are really going to struggle to weather this situation.  If there’s an equivalent of the De Smet store nearby, and it isn’t out of barrels of wheat or Ma’s sewing ribbons or whatever, that sounds like a very good suggestion.  So, who would be the best book characters to have around?

1a and 1b – Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland, from The Long Winter.  They heroically went out in the heavy snow and ice, and made a 24 mile round trip to bring back supplies and save the whole town of De Smet from starvation.  No mention of hand sanitiser or toilet roll, admittedly, but still.

2 – Jane Eyre, from (to state the obvious) Jane Eyre.  Jane lived through the typhus epidemic at Lowood School.  She’s been there and done that.  OK, she left her stuff on a coach, but no-one’s perfect.

3 – Melanie Wilkes from Gone With The Wind.  One of the genuinely inspiring things about Gone With The Wind is the way that all the petted Southern ladies go to work in the hospital, in horrible conditions.  Scarlett hates it, but Melanie throws herself into even the most unpleasant of work.  She’s also practical – she accepts donations from the local brothel, because the hospital needs it, when everyone else gets all holier-than-thou over it.  Melanie is clearly a gal to have by your side in difficult times.

4. Karen from the Chalet School books.  Whilst Matron Besley is getting hysterical over a thunderstorm, Karen calmly marshals all the domestic staff to make sandwiches and hot drinks for everyone.  And she’d be able to make something nice out of whatever food you’d got left in stock.  She managed to feed everyone during the “Famine” in the early Swiss years, even when Miss Annersley sent some of her flour over to the Maynards.  Just a shame that she specialises in coffee rather than tea, but, as with Jane, no-one’s perfect.

5. Madge Russell from the Chalet School books.  Madge’s words about being brave look like they’re going to be sorely needed over the next few weeks, and probably months.

6. Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey.  Being quarantined with Mr Darcy sounds rather nice, but he’d probably do your head in after a few days of being together 24/7 with no-one else around.  Henry Tilney, on the other hand, would make you laugh and keep your spirits up.

7. Charlotte, Duchess of Southport from the Morland Dynasty books, who sets up her own hospital.  OK, she was well able to afford it, but not everyone was so philanthropic and so concerned for other people’s well-being.  If you can help in any way, please do so.

8. Tatiana Metanova from The Bronze Horseman, who survives the Siege of Leningrad, works as a wartime nurse, donates her own blood to save her husband’s life, drives to the Finnish border despite being shot, and persuades the US authorities to let her into America.  As you do.  She copes with any sort of crisis!

9. Katy Carr from the What Katy Did books.  For a start, she’d tidy everything up if you didn’t feel up to doing it, as she did for Miss Jane. She’d look after the kids if the schools were closed.   And she wouldn’t mind her holiday plans falling through, seeing as she seems to hate everywhere she visits anyway.  When you got all upset over your holiday of a lifetime being kyboshed, she’d just tell you that you didn’t really want to go there anyway, because the weather was horrible and so was the food.

10. Gilbert Blythe, from the Anne of Green Gables books.  Well, the list has to include a doctor, and it may as well be one who can double as a romantic hero.  I would obviously prefer Guy Charlton from the Lorna Hill books, but I’m not sure people’d really want to be treated by a vet.

If anyone’s reading this, hope that you and yours are OK in these difficult times, and, if there are any book characters you’d particularly like to have around at the moment, please share ideas!!

Valentine’s Day – who would be your fictional Valentine?

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 And which so-called romantic heroes or heroines of fiction definitely would not be?  Seven for whom it’s a definite yes please, and seven for whom it’s a definite no way … to make fourteen, for the 14th of February.  If anyone’s actually reading this, and wishes to cheer me up by making their own suggestions – I need cheering up, seeing as Storm Ciara ruined my plans for last Sunday and now Storm Dennis has ruined my plans for this weekend, bleurgh – then please, please do.   People usually think I have terrible taste in fictional heroes, so yours are probably much better!

Yes please to:

  1. Orry Main from North and South, but only to the TV mini-series version played by Patrick Swayze.  The real Orry (i.e. the real fictional Orry) drinks too much and has a scruffy beard.  The TV version has a great deal to do with my very long love affair with American history.  Seriously.
  2. Guy Charlton in the Sadlers Wells books.  Yes, I know I am the only person in the world who thinks Guy is a romantic hero, but he is!  I accept that he is a pain in the Marjorie books, but people do grow up, and adult Guy is amazing.  He can rescue me from a Scottish mountain any time.
  3. Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  Well, he does own Lyme Park … er, sort of.  And, OK, he starts off being rude and obnoxious, but he’s a good guy at heart, and it’s so romantic how he changes his ways when he realises how unworthy are all his pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.  Henry Tilney and Captain Wentworth would also be “yes please”, as far as Jane Austen heroes go.  Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram less so.  Mr Knightley is a maybe.
  4.  Almanzo Wilder in the Little House in the Prairie books.  I never used to think of Almanzo as a romantic hero.  His silly name doesn’t help, especially as it probably came not from the Crusades but from a daft story that was being serialised in a magazine.  But he, along with Cap Garland, goes out in the blizzards to find food to save everyone else in the town from starvation.  And then he, again in bad weather, goes to collect Laura from the Brewsters’ every weekend, brings her home, and takes her back again – even though she tells him that it doesn’t mean there’s anything going on between them.  Bless!
  5. Gilbert Blythe in the Anne of Green Gables books.  He gives up the teaching job at the local school so that Anne can stay with Marilla after Matthew dies.  How lovely is that?  And I love the way he tries to get Anne’s attention at school – so typical of what boys of that age can be like.  Then they end up getting married.  So sweet!
  6.  Jem Russell in the Chalet School books.  Yes, OK, he can be bossy, but he is supportive of Madge keeping the school open, he adores his sister Margot, and he is clearly a feminist because he pays for Daisy to go to medical school.  Better than all of that, when Madge is upset because of Joey’s nasty remarks about her weight, and decides to go on a diet, he tells her that she’s fine as she is.  This is a man telling a woman that she does not need to lose weight!  Now there’s a true romantic hero.
  7.  Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music.  He counts as fictional because he’s nothing like the real Captain von Trapp!  OK, he’s very rude to Maria at first, he runs his house in a very odd way, and you’d get lumbered with looking after his seven kids … but you so would, wouldn’t you?  And he makes a stand against the Nazis!

But a definite no to:

  1.  Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.  Why on earth is Heathcliff classed as a romantic hero?  The guy is a complete psycho.  He wants locking up.  And the key throwing away.
  2.  Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre.  OK, he’s better than Heathcliff, and I accept that he was trying to do his best for Bertha, but he tries to trick Jane into a fake marriage, and, when she finds out the truth, assumes she’ll be happy to be his mistress!  And he’s horrible to Blanche Ingram as well.  Jane had terrible luck with men – St John Rivers was probably even worse than Mr Rochester – but I’m sure she’d have found someone decent if she’d kept looking.  But she didn’t.
  3.  Maxim de Winter in Rebecca.  Again, why is he classed as a romantic hero?  He murdered his first wife!
  4. Theodore “Laurie” Laurence in Little Women.  Amy tells Laurie that he is a sulky idiot and that she despises him.  Unfortunately, she then marries him.  She was right about the sulky idiot bit.  He’s OK as a teenager, but he’s a complete pain as an adult.  Why does everyone wish he’d married Jo?  OK, Prof Bhaer’s hardly Mr Darcy, but Laurie isn’t either.
  5.  Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary.  Well, more in The Edge of Reason.  He doesn’t realise that he’s supposed to be going out with Rebecca, but he spends the night with her because they’re put in the same room.  Even though he’s supposed to be in love with Bridget.  Oh please.  Mr Darcy, he is not.  Well, he is, but you know what I mean.
  6.  Jack Maynard, who’s probably actually supposed to be the hero (insofar as there is one) of the Chalet School books.  He keeps giving his wife sleeping pills.  That’s not romantic.  It’s creepy.  And he deals with stroppy kids by refusing to speak to them.  And spends money given to him by a grateful patient on buying a lime-green minibus, instead of handing it over to the sanatorium.  Jem would never have done that.
  7. And, last but not least, Rhett Butler.  Gone With The Wind is the greatest book ever written, and I love the way Rhett is always there for Scarlett.  Every time things go wrong, Rhett is there to help put them right – even though she just can’t see that he, not Ashley, is her true love.  He should be the greatest romantic hero ever.  But Margaret Mitchell spoilt it by including the marital rape scene.  I know that times were different then, but there’s no getting past that.  It’s horrendous.  I really wish that scene wasn’t there.

So there we are.  Seven hits and seven misses.  And that’s about as romantic as my day is going to get, but, hey, if anyone’s reading this, I hope yours is better.  And your list of romantic heroes is probably better as well, but this is mine!

How to be a Heroine; or, what I’ve learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis

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  I’d quite like to meet Samantha Ellis.  She, Lucy Mangan and I are all almost exactly the same age – does that signify something?  Anyone who gets Gone With The Wind and Chicken Licken (/Henny Penny) into the same book and asks neurologists if “brain fever” really exists definitely sounds like my sort of person.  Not to mention managing to group together Pride and Prejudice, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Riders in a single chapterThe big questions – who were your book heroines when you were growing up, what did they teach you, and do they still seem like heroines to you now?  And then all sorts of questions about them.

Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw?  Jane, obviously.  The only good thing about Cathy is that Kate Bush sings about her.  Scarlett O’Hara or Melanie Hamilton?  Melanie’s the one who holds it all together, but can you really identify with someone so good?  Elizabeth Bennet?  Earlier this week, I told a really annoying person that they puzzled me exceedingly.  I actually use her lines: that’s how much I love Elizabeth.  Was Anne Shirley better before she became a Smug Married?  Definitely.  Should Jo have ended up with Laurie?  Could everyone just get past this, please?!   Should there be “a special place in hell” for Cousin Helen? That’s a bit harsh, but I can see where the author’s coming from.

There are some interesting comparisons which I’d never really thought of before – Anne Shirley being allowed to enjoy her puffed sleeves versus Meg March being made to feel guilty for wearing a fancy frock for one evening, and Scarlett O’Hara’s efforts at dressmaking with curtains versus Fraulein Maria’s.  Scarlett’s (or, more likely, Mammy’s) are better, but, to be fair, she had better curtains.  And, apparently, Lace is “a career woman’s handbook”.  I’ve never heard it called that before.  Mind you, it probably beats my own teenage theory that the path to career success is to try to conceal your total lack of self-confidence by turning up to interviews dressed like Alexis Colby.  Don’t try this: it really doesn’t work.

And, in amidst all this and more, there’s the author’s family history of fleeing the persecution of Jews in Iraq (the maternal side of her family, in particular, went through some horrific experiences and were mentally scarred for life as a result) and her experiences of growing up in London as part of a tiny and rather insular community of Jews with Iraqi heritage, whose culture and traditions are very different from those of most other British Jews.

She does a lot of criticising – I don’t think it’s very fair to expect heroines of Georgian or Victorian books to be feminist role models in the 21st century – but she makes some very thought-provoking points.

There are two main themes to the book. One, as with Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, is the role which books played at different stages of the author’s growing-up. The other is whether or not the heroines of those books still stand up to her scrutiny now.

She says that the idea for the book came from a discussion with her best friend about Bronte heroines. She’d always idolised Cathy Earnshaw. Her friend persuaded her that Cathy was an annoying brat and that Jane Eyre was a much better heroine. I’m totally with the friend on this one: I admire Jane and I can’t stand Cathy.  But I’ve always felt like that.  With other people, though, my views aren’t quite the same as they used to be, and they certainly aren’t what their creators intended them to be.  Nor are Samantha’s.

The book starts with fairytale princesses – making the very good points that a) even before Disneyficiation, the versions of fairytales told to children bore no resemblance to the original stories and b) there should probably be more to a heroine than bagging a prince –  and goes through a wide range of different heroines from different books. I’m not going to write an epic essay about all of them.  I don’t even know some of them, TBH.  Conversely, there are people whom I’d have included but she doesn’t – there isn’t one school story heroine in here, unless you count Sara Crewe – but obviously we all have our own favourite books and our own ideas about them.

I do need (OK, want) to write about some of the heroines she mentions, though.  Starting with Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Hamilton. She doesn’t mention them until the fourth chapter, but never mind.  Gone With The Wind is the greatest book of all time.  Yes, I know that it was written in very different times, and that the racial attitudes are unacceptable to modern eyes, but we’re just talking about the characters. The ending isn’t really about Scarlett vowing that she’ll get Rhett back because “Tomorrow is another day”. It’s about Scarlett realising that, all these years, she’s had it wrong about the important people in her life. It’s always been Rhett and Melanie who’ve had her back. They’ve always been there for her. And she’s always been too busy mooning over Ashley, the teenage crush she never got over, to see it. On top of that, she’s fallen out with all her other old acquaintances and got in with a crowd she now realises she doesn’t even like.   A lot of people will have been there – desperate to keep/get in with a friend or a crush or an in-crowd, or spending years wanting someone who isn’t even right for you, and only realising belatedly that they’re the wrong people and you’ve failed to appreciate the right people as much as you should have done.  We think of it as a historical novel, or as a romance, but it also says so much about life that’s valid in any era and for any person.

So, is Melanie the real heroine of the book? She also copes with everything, but, whereas Scarlett alienates the entire community, Melanie keeps their affection and respect. But … well, Melanie falls for the whole “Glorious Cause” thing, and Melanie’s so sweet and innocent that she can’t even see that her husband and best friend are lusting after each other. And Melanie is dependent on Ashley, who’s financially dependent on Scarlett, whereas Scarlett gets out there and sets up her own business and fights for her home and her family. I’m not nice enough to be Melanie or confident enough to be Scarlett, so I’d never claim either of them as role models, but … which of them is the real heroine? Very interesting question.  Samantha goes for Scarlett.  I think I do too.

I think I take both Scarlett and Melanie the way they were intended to be taken, but how about Katy Carr? Counsellors must love Katy and Cousin Helen. They both accept things and try to make the best of them. However, I’ve never known anyone have a good word to say about Helen and the vomit-inducing School of Pain/School of Love stuff.   And the supposedly sweet and lovely menage a trois with her, her ex-fiancé Alex and his wife Emma is just plain weird.  No-one is telling me that Emma was OK with it.

And Katy … the point at which she really starts to annoy me is when she’s wrongly accused of and punished for something she didn’t do, and prances around singing “Let It Go” “Live It Down”. She’s got a point, because being bitter about something doesn’t help. And I don’t like the nasty prank that Rose Red plays on the teacher involved in order to avenge her friends. But do we really want to accept that, if we’re the victim of an injustice, we should just let it go.   Sorry, but I’m not that saintly!   Anyway, doing that can be dangerous.  OK, Katy has been wrongly accused of writing a note to a boy, not wrongly named all over social media as the perpetrator of some horrific violent crime, but even so.

And who wants to belong to a school gang called “the Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct”?  OK, I was never going to be cool enough to belong to the Pink Ladies (not that our school had any gangs like the Pink Ladies), but “the Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct”?!  Seriously?!  I still love these books, but Katy is not my sort of heroine.  I just don’t see her like readers are meant to see her.  I think I used to.  But not now.

Anne Shirley, though, is different. I still love young Anne and how she imagines everything into being far more exciting and romantic than it really is. I still do that too much myself – I end up saying things I shouldn’t, because I’m trying to make things into a drama.  It’s quite a problem in the age of e-mail, when your melodramatic purple prose ends up on someone else’s computer or phone until or unless they delete it, but Anne didn’t have that problem!  So I was very pleased that the author says that she too still loves young Anne, and is grateful to Anne for showing her that being imaginative is a really good thing.  But, as she says, it’s hard to find much inspiration in adult Anne, who gives up her dreams of writing to become Mrs Dr Blythe and concentrate on “writing living epistles” (i.e. her children).  Although apparently Anne is quoted on religious blogs written by people who say that she’s a wonderful example of a woman who devotes herself to her husband and children.  I don’t think I want to think about that .

But I think it’s a bit unfair to criticise Anne, or Jo March, or, rather, their creators, over the fact that both characters give up their writing.  Times were different then.  They live in the world they were written in, not our world.  It does rather make you appreciate Jo Bettany (not mentioned in this book), though.  OK, as an adult she’s incredibly annoying, and she wouldn’t be able to carry on writing if she didn’t have two live-in domestic staff, but at least she doesn’t pack in her writing and just become Mrs Doctor Dear.

There’s also a reference to how preachy Little Women is, and how you might not realise that as a child but it hits you in the face as an adult.  I recently had the same experience with Heidi, re-reading it for the first time in years.  Don’t get me wrong, I love these books, but, bleurgh, are they preachy?!  Three cheers for young Laura Ingalls complaining that she hates Sundays!  And there’s a very interesting comparison between lovely Matthew making sure Anne gets her puffed sleeves and poor Meg March being made to feel that she’s committed the crime of the century for borrowing a friend’s sister’s pretty frock and having her hair done.

The author is really scathing about Little Women and Good Wives.  I think she goes overboard, really.  I don’t think we’re meant to see Beth as an ideal of womanhood.  I don’t think Laurie fell for Amy’s “womanly pain and patience” – I like to think that there was a big spark between them when she boldly told him to stop being such a pathetic idiot and get his act together. And  I don’t think Meg was “tamed” – she chose the man she wanted, and pretty much told Aunt March where to shove her comments.  And could we all just please get past the idea that Jo and Laurie should have married each other?!  Still, what Samantha says makes you sit up and think.

She’s a bit hard on most people, really.  She talks about how wonderful Elizabeth Bennet is – well, yes, I couldn’t agree more.  But then she even has a go at her, saying that she’s prissy for being disgusted by Lydia’s behaviour.   What??  Lydia makes a complete show herself at Mr Bingley’s party, then runs off with Mr Wickham and lives with him before they’re married.  How was Elizabeth supposed to feel?   About the only book that she doesn’t have a bad word to say about is Ballet Shoes.  She really waxes lyrical about that one, which surprises me a bit.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely book, despite the use of “Petrova” as a first name when it’s actually a surname and only a surname, but Sylvia annoys me.  Why doesn’t she try to get a job?  Elizabeth Bennet never annoys me.

Each chapter bears the name of a heroine, but actually covers several heroines … and (Judy Blume)’s Margaret Simon is in the Elizabeth Bennet chapter.  Sadly, though, she’s only mentioned briefly.  Margaret is a great heroine for teenage girls.  If Enid Blyton had written Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, domineering Nancy would have been the heroine.  As it is, we get all Margaret’s worries and insecurities.  Margaret is brilliant.  But she only gets three paragraphs, before the author moves on to Jilly Cooper.  Laura Ingalls Wilder, in a later chapter, also only gets three paragraphs.  They both get nothing but praise, though, which is good.  Laura is brilliant as well.

By this point, the author’s life story’s on to her teens.  Most bookish females read a lot of the same books as children – and a lot of these books have been around for years and years, and our mums and aunties and grandmas and great-aunts read them too.  With adult books, other than the “classics” and a few other legendary books – like Gone With The Wind – it’s different: people branch out.  So I didn’t know all the heroines of the books Samantha read when she moved on to “grown-up” books. They were mostly still older books, though.  No Barbara Taylor Bradford!   I’d definitely have had Emma Harte in there.  OK, Emma Harte first appeared in the late 1970s, but she was still pretty big in the late 1980s: I must have been about 13 when I first read A Woman of Substance.  I’d have had Fee from The Thorn Birds in there as well. Meggie’s the heroine of the story, but her mum Fee is the best character in it.  If you’re a melodramatic sixth former looking for lines to make your life sound like an epic novel instead of just sad and boring, The Thorn Birds is the place to go to.  Scarlett can try to win Rhett back, because tomorrow is another day.  Fee doesn’t realise that she really loves Paddy until he’s killed in a fire.  “It was like all of my life, too late.”  Whenever I’m feeling particularly melodramatic (which I’m afraid is quite often), that line comes out.

She does talk a lot about Lace, though.  I’ve never heard it described as a “career handbook” before.  Back in the day, if I wanted careers advice, I went to Dynasty – which was how I and my zero self-confidence level ended up going to my first few interviews in a bright red jacket with bright gold buttons and huge shoulder pads.  I got turned down right, left and centre, but, to be fair, it wasn’t the jacket’s fault.

But, from Lace, she goes on to the Brontes.  I know where I am with them.  As I’ve already said, I can’t stand Cathy.  And I have no idea why anyone thinks Heathcliff is a romantic hero.  He’s a thug.  I love Jane, though.  And I love Samantha’s theory that, if she’d taken more notice of Jane when she was younger, Jane might have taught her to value herself even though she wasn’t beautiful.  I never thought of that.  I just thought I was Charlotte Lucas instead of Elizabeth Bennet.  And, for a while, I even thought I was Bertha Rochester, because the managers at my first permanent job kept me hidden away from clients (seriously).  Maybe it’s because Jane is small and thin.  If she’d said “Because I am poor, obscure and fat” rather than “Because I am poor, obscure, plain and little”, I might have got the idea.  Charlotte isn’t fat either.  Book heroines are not fat.  Caroline Scott in the Sadler’s Wells books is a bit, but magically “sheds her puppy fat” in her teens.  And Bridget Jones constantly talks about being fat, but, FFS, she only weighs about 9 1/2 stone.    Anyway.  Jane is amazing.  But I don’t really get Samantha’s ideas about looking to the Brontes for relationship advice.  Stick to Jane Austen for that.

The penultimate chapter is about adult heroines who aren’t defined by their relationships with men.  The only really good one seems to be Mary Poppins, who isn’t the ideal role model unless you possess a flying umbrella.  Oh dear.  I really feel that Miss Annersley, Miss Grayling and Miss Theobald are needed here.  Then there’s a final chapter, which is presumably meant to be inspirational, about how the heroine we really need to be is Scheherezade, writing our own stories – but they need to be the stories of our own lives.

It sounds great, but it’s no good.  I need heroines from books.  The problem is that most of them are so young.  If the book does follow them past their twenties, they either fade into the background and become Mrs Dr Blythe or else become annoying because the story needs them to fade into the background and they don’t (Jo Bettany, I’m looking at you).  Even Emma Harte fades into the background as her granddaughter Paula becomes the centre of the story.  Ah, but hang on!  My melodramatic line – “It was like all of my life – too late”.  Towards the end of The Thorn Birds, both Fee and Meggie do the fading into the background thing, as vibrant twentysomething Justine takes centre stage, but Fee finds her voice and her personality.  Everyone realises how great she is, how intelligent she is, and how clever she is with words.  She was also good at saying things in just a few words, which I’m not – I go on and on and on, so I shall shut up now, and, if anyone has actually read all this waffling, well done and thank you!

Well, I’ll shut up about book heroines, anyway.  Just a bit about the author’s family history, which she keeps explaining has had a huge impact on her life, on her choice of reading matter, and on her relationship with fictional heroines.

I read quite a bit about Iraqi Jews a couple of years ago, when I was reading up on Shanghai (I know that sounds weird, but quite a lot of Iraqi Jews moved to Shanghai in the 19th century), but it’s not a well-known story.  She talks about how her mother and maternal grandparents – her father’s side of the family having left before things got as bad as they did later – were mentally scarred for life by being imprisoned, how they escaped with the help of the Kurdish community.  She also talks about how the Iraqi Jewish community in London was very insular, to the extent that arranged marriages were common when she was growing up, and she was expected to marry someone from the same background (which she didn’t).  The community put so much emphasis on girls bagging a suitable husband that, in the 1980s, families kept a layer of their daughters’ bat mitzvah cakes (just before anyone thinks I’ve got the wrong term, it’s Samantha herself who talks about a “bat mitzvah”, despite it being at an Orthodox synagogue … and involving making cheesecake which was then scoffed by some naughty boys from the bar mitzvah class), to be eaten at their weddings.

This isn’t a history book, but (in case anyone’s reading this!) I think it’s worth adding a few notes on the subject.  In 1941, due to the belief that Iraqi Jews had supported British forces against the pro-Nazi Iraqi government, there was a huge wave of violence in Baghdad, in which around 200 Jews, maybe more, were killed and 1,000 injured.  There was also widespread destruction of property.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s, many Iraqi Jews were sacked from public sector jobs, there were boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses, and many well-to-do Iraqi Jews had their property confiscated on trumped-up charges.  Things got worse during the 1960s.  From Wikipedia:

With the rise of the Ba’ath Party to power in 1963, restrictions were placed on the remaining Iraqi Jews. Sale of property was banned, and Jews had to carry yellow identity cards. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Jewish property was expropriated, bank accounts were frozen, Jews were dismissed from public posts, their businesses were closed, trading permits owned by Jews were cancelled, they were not allowed to use telephones, were placed under house arrest for extended periods of time, and were under constant surveillance and restricted to the cities. In late 1968, scores of Jews were jailed on charges of spying for Israel, culminating in the 1969 public hanging of 14 men, 9 of them Jews, who were falsely accused of spying for Israel. Other suspected spies for Israel died under torture. After Baghdad Radio invited Iraqi citizens to “come and enjoy the feast”, half a million people paraded and danced past the scaffolds where the men were hanged, which resulted in international criticism. An Iraqi Jew who later left wrote that the stress of persecution caused ulcers, heart attacks, and breakdowns to become increasingly prevalent in the Jewish community.

Here endeth the history lesson.  And here endeth this extremely long blog post.  I’m off to read yet another book …

 

Book Bub Valentine’s Day challenge – top ten literary crushes!

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To mark Valentine’s Day, Book Bub posted a list of top book crushes.  I’d never heard of some of them, probably because I don’t read fantasy novels, but the ones I did know were a mixed bag.  Heathcliff – the man who kidnaps young girls and forces them into marrying their cousins.  Mr Rochester – the man who keeps his wife locked up in the attic and tries to commit bigamy with the governess.  Seriously?!  But Gilbert Blythe, Rhett Butler and Mr Darcy – ah, that’s a bit more like it!   Atticus Finch – well, I suppose he gets marks for integrity, but he’s not really all that interesting.  They were all blokes, and there didn’t seem to be a corresponding list of women, which was a bit weird, but maybe they think it’s only blokes who attract admiration from readers!

OK, I need to think of a list of ten.  Excluding people who actually existed, which rules out the major characters of quite a lot of my books!   And, seeing as I can’t make decisions and would never manage to put them in order, this is going to have to be in alphabetical order.

  1. Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables. Gilbert seems to have made most of the other lists I’ve seen, as well!
  2. Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind. OK, he’s very annoying, and I would probably get on much better with Ashley Wilkes, who usually had his head in the clouds and his nose in a book, but I love the way Rhett’s always there when he’s needed. There’s a lot to be said for that.
  3. Prince Caspian from The Chronicles of Narnia. Preferably as played by Ben Barnes in the film. So much nicer than Peter or Edmund!
  4. Guy Charlton from the Sadler’s Wells books. Everyone laughs at me for this!   OK, teenage Guy, in the Marjorie and Patience books, is a bit of a pain, but Guy as an adult, sorting out Nigel for bullying Jane, rescuing Jane when she gets lost on a Scottish mountain in New Year’s Eve, and then telling her that he quite understands that she’s putting her career before him (unlike Sebastian Scott, who gets in a huge strop when Veronica prioritises her career) … if I was doing this in order, Guy would definitely be at or near the top of the list. And everyone laughs at me for this.
  5. Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. OK, another one who can be annoying, but he’s also there when he’s needed. He’s also a wonderful brother. Oh, and he owns Pemberley. Shame about the first name, though. OK, I know it was his mother’s maiden name, but what did Elizabeth call him in private? Fitz? Will?
  6. Angelo Ibanez from the Sadler’s Wells books.   The Sadler’s Wells books are very romantic!   And I need a Spaniard on the list 🙂 . Angelo, unlike his annoying friend Sebastian, is a perfect gentleman who is polite to everyone and never sarcastic … and he comes to Caroline’s rescue when her life seems to be a mess, and sweeps her off her feet into a new world of personal and professional success. My two favourite Sadler’s Wells girls are Mariella and Caroline, but I think Caroline edges it because I sympathise with her weight traumas!   Having been the fat kid, Caroline becomes beautiful and glamorous at the age of fifteen, when her puppy fat magically disappears. For years, I hoped that that would happen to me. It never did! But that all got bound up in my head with the idea of being swept off your feet with someone like Angelo, so I’ve always liked him. Even though he isn’t Guy.
  7. Count Sergei Nikolayevitch Kirov from the Kirov saga. This is the first Count Sergei, who dies in the first book, not his half-brother, who dies in the second book!   Well, I’ve got to have a Russian in here somewhere, haven’t I?! This is a really melancholy Russian story – Sergei is in love with Anna, his sisters’ English governess, and asks her to marry him. He adores her, and he’s so sweet, but she turns him down. He then finds out that she’s actually in love with his father. His stepmother conveniently dies, and Anna and the father live happily ever after, but poor Sergei is killed in the Napoleonic Wars. It’s very sad 😦 .
  8. Orry Main from North and South. Preferably as played by the late, great Patrick Swayze in the TV series. All right, as his life spirals downwards he walks around looking a mess and drinks too much, but nobody’s perfect, and I do sympathise with that feeling of your life getting out of control. He’s the perfect honourable gentleman – like Ashley Wilkes is meant to be, but without Ashley’s wimpishness
  9. Dr Jem Russell from the Chalet School books. Not only does he take on Madge’s sister, wards, nieces, nephews and sundry other hangers-on, but he’s fine with Madge continuing to run her own business after they’re married – as Rhett Butler is with Scarlett. Best of all, when Madge is upset because people are making unkind remarks about her weight, and decides that she needs to go on a diet, he tells her that she looks fine as she is. That earns him a huge amount of gold stars. I have heard so many nasty remarks about weight over the years that I remember every time anyone’s ever said anything complimentary to me, even really random things like the time I asked a bloke in a newsagent’s in town if he had any sugar free Polo mints and he said I didn’t need to worry about having sugar free stuff. Bless!   I remember all the nasty remarks, of which there’ve been far more, as well, so I love Jem for telling Madge that she looked fine as she was
  10. Captain Frederick Wentworth from Persuasion. I love the way that he goes back to Anne, his first love, when there are younger and prettier girls after him. He’s lovely.

There.  Ten!   A lot of my favourite books don’t feature on this list, because they don’t seem to have decent heroes.  I’m not sure what that says about anything!    And, if anyone does happen to be reading this, please make your own suggestions!   Just not Heathcliff or Mr Rochester, please

 

American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley (second episode) – BBC 4

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It’s extremely annoying when people claim that the American Civil War was about Abraham Lincoln leading an anti-slavery crusade.  It wasn’t. So I was really looking forward to seeing some of those myths debunked, but this second episode of Lucy Worsley’s series just didn’t work as well as the first one did, because most of the  “fibs” being addressed just weren’t things that most people actually believe.  Does anyone genuinely believe that true racial equality in the United States exists even now, never mind that it was brought about in the 1860s?  And, much as I love Gone With The Wind, surely nobody today actually buys that frighteningly romanticised view of slavery?  Those “fibs” just can’t be compared with Paul Revere’s Ride and the ringing of the Liberty Bell, stories that actually do form part of American culture.  However, that’s not to say that the programme wasn’t interesting.  It was.  In particular, it showed just how dangerous the distortion of Civil War history has become in our own time.

As with the first episode, it had several barely-concealed digs at Donald Trump.  It began with a crack about “alternative facts”, and ended with a discussion of racism being immediately followed by a shot of a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap.  I don’t disagree, but the BBC is supposed to be neutral.  I’m so sick of all the bias in the media!  It’s getting worse and worse: it’s becoming almost impossible to find anything that just tells you what’s going on and leaves you to make up your own mind about it, rather than trying to force one viewpoint or another down your throat.  OK, rant over!

The programme started off with the Union myth of the Civil War, which, history being written by the victors and all that, is the official version.  Slavery and reunification.  Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves and saved the Union.  Incidentally, the programme utterly failed to point out that the biggest fib about the Civil War is that it was … er, a civil war.  It wasn’t.  USA versus CSA, not Northern USA versus Southern USA.  Having said which, the same happened with Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  It also reminded us that the war killed 600,000 people, more Americans than were killed in the First and Second World Wars combined.

There’s only so much you can fit into an hour, and, OK, there really wasn’t time to go into the Wilmot Proviso, Bleeding Kansas, popular sovereignty, the Compromise of 1850, Dred Scott, John Brown and so on and so forth, and so we just got a brief mention of the fact that there’d been disputes over whether or not slavery should be extended into the new states being organised in the West.  Then a historian saying that slavery in the southern states would have been worth trillions of dollars in today’s money.

The point being made was that concerns about slavery were economic rather than ideological.  I’m not sure how well that actually worked.  The northern and southern economies were developing along different lines, so it wasn’t really a question of competition; and a lot of the opposition to extending slavery west actually was ideological.  A lot of it was also due to the belief that slavery was actually bad for the economy, which didn’t tie in with what the programme was saying.  Slavery was, obviously hugely economically important for the South, but I’m not at all convinced that opposition to slavery in the North was also about economics.  I think all that talk about economics actually over-complicated things.  Debunking the myth?  Many people believed that slavery was wrong.  That didn’t mean that they wanted, or wanted their husbands and sons and brothers, to go off to fight in a war about it.  Myth debunked!

When we actually got to the war, it was oversimplified.  Yes, OK, there were time constraints, but that was no excuse for factual inaccuracies!  No, it was not a case of nineteen free states versus eleven slave states: Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri, all slave states, remained in the Union.  And, if you want to be thorough, West Virginia seceded from Virginia!  And there were not eleven states in the Confederacy at the time of Fort Sumter!  Having said which, the issue of the slave states which didn’t secede was mentioned when talking about the Confederate battle flag, which has thirteen stars because it includes Kentucky and Missouri.  And it was a fair point that what everyone thinks of as the Confederate flag is actually the Confederate battle flag.

Oversimplication’s one thing, but blatant errors are another.  The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued after three years of fighting, apparently.  Ahem … Fort Sumter, April 1861, Manassas/Bull Run, July 1861, Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, September 1862, to take effect in January, 1863.  How do you make that into three years of fighting?!

I rather bizarrely started thinking about The King and I, at this point.  I know that sounds daft, but international perceptions of the American South had been very deeply affected by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a lot of people today say that the first time they heard of that book was when they first saw The King and I.  We also get Deborah Kerr proclaiming that Mr Lincoln is “fighting a great war to free the slaves”.  Yes, all right, all right, The King and I is hardly an accurate reflection of anything; but was that how the rest of the world saw it even at the time?  Quite possibly, yes. There’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Manchester city centre.  A letter was sent to him from the working men of Manchester (er, what about the working women?!) saying that they supported his war, his anti-slavery war.  Despite the terrible effects of the Cotton Famine.  By the way, why weren’t blockade runners mentioned in this programme?  If you want to talk about romanticising the Lost Cause, you need blockade runners!  Anyway.  Lincoln wrote back … and, whilst his letter mentioned slavery, he said that his main responsibility was the preservation of the Union.

So who’s inventing the myth?  The whole argument of this programme was that America was telling fibs about its own history, but I think there’s an argument that the myth of the war being an anti-slavery crusade existed outside America well before it existed within America.  It is definitely a myth, though.  Who’s the myth about, Lincoln or the Union?  That all got a bit confused, as well, but Lincoln has very much become the personification of the Union – which is daft in itself, because he wasn’t really that popular.

Lucy made two crucial points here.  Lincoln never seems to have been that keen on immediate emancipation, and certainly not in favour of equal rights for African Americans.  And the proclamation only declared the slaves free in the states of the Confederacy, not in the slave states which remained within the Union.  Battle Hymn of the Republic – “as he died to make men holy let us die to make men free”.  Was the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation supposed to make the war about slavery, even if not for ideological reasons on Lincoln’s own part than to boost morale and support in the North?  Or was it in the hope that the slaves of the South would all run off, knacker the Southern economy even more than it was knackered already and destroy Southern morale?

This is the crux of the matter … but, just as things were getting really interesting, the programme dropped the subject and started talking about Sherman’s march through Georgia.  It didn’t play Marching Through Georgia – you know, the one that gets used as a football song in England – for some reason, although it did play the Battle Hymn of the Republic, with Lucy dressed up as a Union soldier.  And it didn’t mention the infamous quote about presenting the city of Savannah to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present.  Was the march a great act of heroism or was it a war crime?  Well, read Gone With The Wind.  It may be biased, but it doesn’t say anything about Sherman’s march that wasn’t true.  But this all seemed to have got a bit waffly.

However, it got back to the point, with the events at Ebenezer Creek in December 1864, shortly before Savannah fell.  Many fleeing slaves were following the Union Army.  The Army looked on them as more of a nuisance than anything else.  Having crossed the creek, the Union XIV Corps destroyed the pontoon bridges which it had built.  The refugees tried to swim across.  Many of them drowned.  So much for “let us die to make men free”.

Back to Lincoln.  Why did the Gettysburg Address not get a mention in this?  That’s fascinating, because it talks about all men being created equal, but it means the question of whether or not the United States can survive, not whether or not black and white people are created equal.  It never got a mention.   However, we did hear a lot about Lincoln’s assassination.  Dying a violent death can often make someone into a saint and a martyr, whatever they’ve done during their lifetime – look at Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  We were shown postcards showing pictures of Lincoln as a semi-divine figure – and Lucy commented on how the fact that he was assassinated on Good Friday seemed to add to that.  The great Frederick Douglass stated at the time that Lincoln wasn’t the great anti-slavery hero that he was made out to be, but the myth grew.

And, because he was dead, no-one could blame Lincoln for how badly wrong things went once the war was over.  The programme discussed sharecropping, and convict leasing.  Yes, it was appalling.  Yes, it makes a mockery of the idea that the war had anything to do with what we’d now call civil rights.  But it’s not a “fib”.  Everyone knows about it.

So that was the Union.  Well, it was Lincoln.  On to the Confederacy.  Various issues.  The romantic idea of the Lost Cause.  The distortion of Confederate history to try to justify horrifying violent racism.  And the argument that the war was about states’ rights.

Lucy said that it wasn’t about states’ rights – that it was about slavery.  I actually think that it was about states’ rights.  There’d been issues over tariffs going back to Calhoun and Nullification and all that.  But states’ rights were inevitably bound up with slavery, because the disputes between the states were inevitably about economics, and disputes about economics were inevitably about slavery.  So you can’t separate the two things.  However, what is indisputable is that Lincoln’s election brought matters to a head, and led to secession, because he was seen as being anti-slavery.  There’s not really much arguing with that.

But what the programme didn’t say was that the states’ rights argument goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the war was about Northern aggression.  More about that later.

Fast forward to 1915, and The Birth of a Nation.  It was controversial even at the time – and yet it got huge viewing figures.  Although it’s a Civil War film, its significance is in relation to the Ku Klux Klan – which, as Lucy said, had long since died out at this point, but now made a comeback, complete with white robes and burning crosses … which had nothing to do with the Reconstruction-era Klan.  Reconstruction era, OK.  The Klan did not exist during the Civil War itself.  It was more akin to the Spanish Inquisition than anything else, which was quite ironic as the new-look Klan targeted not only African Americans but anyone else who wasn’t a “WASP” – white Jews and Catholics.  That was more Know-Nothing than Civil War – and the Know Nothings were in the North!

So what’s the issue here?  Well, it’s the distortion of the Southern myth, by people in the South.  The myth was supposed to be that the war was about states’ rights.  Suddenly, the myth became that it was about the persecution of white Southerners.  Incredibly dangerous – and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the inter-war years, and on into the 1960s, were beyond sickening.  And it’s misusing Southern history.  The Klan didn’t even exist during the war.

And then from violence to romance – with Lucy Worsley trying to dress up as Scarlett O’Hara, and talking about the idea of the Lost Cause.

About Gone With The Wind.  It romanticises slavery.  Ashley Wilkes does say that he’d have freed all his family’s slaves when his father died, but Ashley is supposed to be out of step with everyone else.  It also presents some horrible stereotypes of African American characters such as Big Sam and Prissy.  And it romanticises plantation life in the antebellum South, although a) the book doesn’t do that as much as the film does and b) someone needs to tell Lucy that Scarlett was not the mistress of Tara (well, except very briefly).  What it does not do is romanticise the Glorious Cause, later the Lost Cause.  Throughout the book, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are very cynical about “the Cause”, and contemptuous of those who do romanticise it.

Going back to what it does do – yes, it shows how “the Cause” was romanticised, especially by women.  Margaret Mitchell said that she grew up hearing these stories.  She wasn’t born until 1900.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy had been founded only six years earlier, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans almost four years later, almost thirty years after the end of the war.   In this programme, we were told how, in the 1930s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy had people checking the textbooks used in the South, trying to ensure that they didn’t say anything negative about the Confederacy!   Seventy years after the war, two completely different versions of events, The Lost Cause and the Anti-Slavery Crusade, both completely one-sided, neither accurate, were being peddled.  That’s not unusual, after a war, but when it’s in what’s supposed to be one country … how do you move on?

And the descendants of the freed slaves weren’t really getting a look-in in putting forward either version, never mind getting equal rights.  Martin Luther King, as the programme pointed out, made a very powerful comment about the end of the war having offered black Americans a promissory note, which had never been redeemed.

There still isn’t really a … a take on the Civil War, for lack of a better way of putting it, from the viewpoint of slaves.  People argue about the extent to which the war was about slavery, but the views of those who were enslaved, and the impact on those who were enslaved, never really comes into those arguments.

Back to Gone With The Wind.  Yes, it’s a Civil War novel, but a lot of it is about life in wartime generally. One of the most powerful scenes in is when the casualty lists reach Atlanta, after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Scarlett, reading through the lists, finds name after name of young men she’d grown up with, known all her life.  She becomes so distressed that she can’t read on any further.  Rhett, normally so cynical, is upset and angry at the waste of life.  Mrs Meade learns that her son Darcy has been killed: Melanie tries to comfort her, but there’s little she can say.  The Misses McLure learn that their brother Dallas, their own relative in the world apart from each other, is dead.  Dallas’s sweetheart, Fanny Elsing, collapses in her mother’s arms.  That’s not about slavery, or secession, or any of it: that’s just about war and its devastating consquences.

Also, I’ve just said that it’s a Civil War novel, and that’s how everyone thinks of it, but much of it is actually set during Reconstruction.  Reconstruction was an absolute screw-up, and that’s partly why the “Lost Cause” got so romanticised.  It’s a big part of the myth of Lincoln as well.  If you’re succeeded by an idiot, history will remember you as one of the greats, because you look so good by comparison.  Barack Obama’s place in history is already secured!   It’s hard not to think that everything would have been different had Lincoln been in charge of Reconstruction, because he could hardly have done a worse job than Andrew Johnson’s useless government did.

And, after the war, Suellen O’Hara, one of Scarlett’s sisters, marries a Confederate veteran called Will Benteen.  Will typifies the South far more than the likes of Ashley Wilkes and the other men in the book do.  He comes from a relatively poor family.  It’s unlikely that he ever owned slaves: he wouldn’t have been able to afford to.  He had no political influence before the war: the decision about secession had nothing to do with him.  But he fought for his home state.  And, in doing so, he lost his health (he lost a leg) and his home.

None of this got a mention, and I thought that that was a bit unfair.  I don’t particularly mean in terms of characters in a novel, obviously!  I mean in general.

Lucy said that Gone With The Wind reunified the country!  I suppose it did, in a way.  It was so popular.  That’s a bit mad, really.  I mean, Melanie Wilkes, the sweet, mild-mannered Melanie, who couldn’t believe any ill of anyone, said that she’d teach her children and her grandchildren to hate the Yankees.  Should Northerners have hated  Gone With The Wind?  No.  It’s too good.  And its themes are universal, as typified by that scene with the Gettysburg casualty lists.  That’s the real tragedy of all this.  This war killed 600,000 Americans, and destroyed the lives of many others.   There’s nothing glorious about any war.  Yet this one’s been made to seem glorious in different ways, by different people, for different reasons.

And then on to the present day.  Charlottesville. We all know what happened at Charlottesville in 2017.  This is painful to write about, because it’s so horrible.  2017.  The twenty-first century.  I’m not a great fan of pulling statues down.  For one thing, it provides a flashpoint for trouble.  One man Lucy interviewed said that it’d make more sense to put up educational literature and use Confederate statues as a discussion point. However, what’s happening is that Confederate imagery – flags, statues – has become a modern-day battleground, between people who view it as a symbol of racism and people who use it as a symbol of racism, waving Confederate battle flags alongside Nazi flags, talking about Southern culture in the same breath as they shout anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic slogans.  It’s horrible: there aren’t words strong enough to say how horrible it is.

This is how history gets misused.  A primary school word like “fib” doesn’t exactly cover it.  And it makes it very hard to talk about the Civil War, because it’s got all tangled up with the “alt-right”, with anti-Islamism, with anti-Semitism, with misogyny, with homophobia, with transphobia … none of which have got anything to do with the Civil War.   It’s a long way from Will Benteen.  It’s a long way from Abraham Lincoln.

I once read a book which said that Britain still hadn’t got past all the issues of the Civil War of the 1640s.  America certainly hasn’t got past all the issues of the Civil War of the 1860s.  And the distortion of history is getting worse.  This was a very disturbing programme.  Did Gone With The Wind unify America, as Lucy suggested?  I only wish someone could come up with any sort of book or any sort of film that could bring about unity today!  Oh dear.  I started studying the American Civil War in the 1980s.  It really wasn’t like this, then.  Someone pour me a mint julep with extra whisky.  I think I need one!