by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Books”

The Reference Shelf

Posted 28 August 2008 in by Catriona

I have a weakness—one that I persistently indulge—for reference books.

And I’m not even talking about the sort of reference books that everyone should have on their shelves: the OED, Strunk and White, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, or The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

I’m not even talking about the ones specific to my discipline or my occupation: MLA Handbook, Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms, or The Little, Brown Handbook.

No: I’m talking about the odd ones. The . . . slightly embarrassing ones, like Who’s Who in Enid Blyton. The ones that I don’t look at every day, or every week.

And then, looking at my shelves at work and again at home, I thought, “Sod it. These books are awesome. Every one of them has taught me something. It may not be something terribly essential and chances are that I won’t remember it tomorrow, but it’s still been imparted.”

So this is in honour of my favourites among the not-quite-essential reference books that I love.

Ghastly Beyond Belief: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Book of Quotations by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman.

I’m going to love any book that warns me to “sterilize [myself] with fear.” But the most valuable thing this book taught me? That Tony Stark, at some point in his continuity, uttered the line “I’ll meet you at the Frug-a-go-go when I’ve finished with the cyclotron, baby.”

Smooth, Tony.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones.

Diana Wynne Jones just rocks. That’s all there is to it, really. But The Magicians of Caprona and Archer’s Goon are one thing, and a tourist’s brochure to fantasy fiction is another.

Sample entry: “Small Man can be a very funny or a very tiresome TOUR COMPANION, depending on how this kind of thing grabs you. He gambles (see GAMING), he drinks too much and he always runs away. Since the Rules allow him to make JOKES, he will excuse his behaviour in a variety of comical ways. Physically he is stunted and not at all handsome, although he usually dresses flamboyantly. He tends to wear hats with feathers in. You will discover he is very vain. But, if you can avoid smacking him, you will come to tolerate if not love him” (174-75).

1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence by A Member of the Whip Club (Frances [sic] Grose, according to the introduction).

This one speaks for itself, surely.

No? Might be just me, then. It certainly helps when you’re reading Georgette Heyer novels, that’s for sure.

This, I think, is my favourite entry.

Dommerer: A beggar pretending that his tongue has been cut out by the Algerines, or cruel and blood-thirsty Turks, or else that he was born deaf and dumb.

It’s just so curiously specific, isn’t it? The proviso stuck on the end—“or, he might not have much of an imagination. You know, whatevs”—seems a bit of a let down.

Book of Intriguing Words, Paul Hellweg.

I’m just going to list the weirdest of the new words that his book taught me while I was flipping through it this afternoon.

Daphnomancy: divination by means of a laurel tree.
Ailuromancy: divination by the way a cat jumps.
Cinqasept: a short visit to one’s lover (literally from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.)

(But surely the last would also apply to a period between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m.? )

The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce.

Now this one is a vital addition to the shelf, really, but I had to include it in the list just so I could give some sample definitions.

Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.

Guillotine, n. A machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason.

Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun by Willard R. Espy

But, seriously: who doesn’t need a dictionary of eponyms? I had no idea, before browsing through this, that “tawdry” was an eponym (taking its name from a corruption of St Audrey, in reference to the inexpensive lace collars sold on her holy day) or that badminton took its name from the Gloucestershire seat of the Duke of Beaufort (where it was first played after being imported from India).

An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton.

Now, I don’t know how many of these collective nouns are tongue in cheek and how many are derived from genuine sources. I believe that the collective noun for hounds is “a mute” (from the Old French meute, for either “pack” or “kennel”) and that a legitimate, if rare, alternative is “a sleuth of hounds” (from the Old Norse slóth, meaning “track”).

That seems plausible.

But this following list seems both as though it’s entirely fabricated and as though the words should be in more common use:

An angst of dissertations.
A vicious circle of fallacies.
A tabula rasa of empiricists.
A conjugation of grammarians.

When I find gems like these, is it any wonder that I keep buying reference books?

And that isn’t even revealing the existence of my Dictionary of Pirates or Encyclopaedia of Plague and Pestilence.

One Day, I'm Going to be Granny Weatherwax

Posted 26 August 2008 in by Catriona

(At the moment, I’m planning on working my way towards Granny Weatherwax via Sue White, the completely insane Staff Liaison Officer in Green Wing, who deals with hysterically crying staff members by shouting, “Take this copy of Dealing with Difficult People and fuck off!” But Granny Weatherwax is the ultimate goal.)

I much prefer Terry Pratchett’s witches to his guards: I like the guard books, and I particularly enjoy watching the development of Detritus from his original, rather melancholic, appearance in Moving Pictures, but the witches are my real favourites.

And Granny is my favourite witch.

Don’t get me wrong: I sympathise with Magrat Garlick. I suspect, in fact, that I’m closer to Magrat than I’ll ever be to Granny. That’s largely why Magrat’s not my favourite of the witches: there’s no wish fulfillment there and perhaps a little too much mirroring. I, too, am probably a wet hen.

For me, the same is true for Agnes Nitt, though her development as a character between Maskerade and Carpe Jugulum is intriguing.

And Nanny Ogg . . . well, the interesting thing about Nanny Ogg, as Agnes points out in Carpe Jugulum, is that Nanny Ogg is, in many ways, an uncomplicated person.

As a result, she’s not a very complicated character either or, at least, not a character who changes much through the books. Always delightful as she is, there’s not a great distinction between her role in Wyrd Sisters and her role in Carpe Jugulum.

But Granny changes with each encounter, becoming more extraordinary and more powerful as she faces down family members, elves, vampires, and even Death.

There’s something about Granny Weatherwax that reminds me of Miss Marple.

Granny has none of Miss Marple’s innate belief in superiority of men, although that something that Miss Marple honours more in the breach than in the observance: for all she states the Victorian tenets of her upbringing, she rarely abides by them in practice.

And Granny has none of Miss Marple’s fluttering, hyper-feminine, dithering camouflage.

But they both develop out of the idea that skills can be honed by observing one’s immediate surroundings: that experience is more a matter of applied intelligence than of frenetic activity.

And they are both characters restricted by their gender but ultimately refusing to be restrained by it.

For Miss Marple, the restrictions of her gender, of her gendered upbringing, and of social assumptions about old women become tools and, at times, weapons. In wielding them, she moves out of her restricted sphere into the wider one of the detective. And when Miss Marple starts detecting in December 1927—when what became the first chapter of The Tuesday Club Murders was published in The Royal Magazine—she was moving into what was still largely a male province; female detectives had been around, in small numbers, since the 1860s, but the first professional female detective, Loveday Brooke, appeared in 1894.

But for Granny, the restrictions are professional as well as gender based. She’s not a witch because she’s a woman: she’s a witch because she’s a witch. But, being a woman, she can only be a witch: not a warlock, not a wizard.

And, Pratchett points out in Carpe Jugulum, she’s a witch of the old school, from the days when witches were feared and persecuted: her weapons and tools, like Miss Marple’s, are disguised as safe, domestic objects, a protective colouring that she maintains even when witches are accepted and valued in Lancre.

Granny is isolated. Nanny and Magrat have their families: even Agnes has close relatives in the area. Granny does not.

And she’s an object of fear. As Pratchett makes clear, people in Lancre go to witches when they’re in trouble . . . but they don’t go near them at other times. Granny, of course, draws strength from this fear but it, and the isolation, are also used as weapons against her.

But, oh, she’s powerful.

And she’s strong.

And she never forgets who she is or what she is—even while she’s constantly fighting against what she was or what she might be.

Granny knows that we have to make decisions without always knowing whether they’re the right ones, and that we never find out if they were the right ones. And she knows that we have to watch ourselves if we’re to be sure of who and what we are.

It broke my heart when I realised that there weren’t going to be any more specifically Granny Weatherwax books, that she’d grown too powerful to be a central character, that there were no more enemies that could offer a challenge.

But that’s all right.

Because one day I’m going to be just like her.

Random Weirdness from Girls' School Stories

Posted 23 August 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been marking all afternoon, so I have an abundance of headache and an absence of energy.

But, thankfully, I also have an abundance of girls’ school stories, including May Wynne’s The Term of Many Adventures.

I should think it was a term of many adventures!

In this one book alone, the schoolgirls deal with mysterious gipsies:

With friends who don’t know enough not to accept mysterious jewelry from mysterious gipsies (honestly, you’d think they’d never read a school story):

With curiously co-ed adventures in late-night archaeology:

With furious working-class Irish villagers, who aren’t pleased that the girls broke into their house and, to quote the ringleader, “made it fit to live in” (113), spoiling most of the furniture and breaking the rest in the process:

And a mysterious man of unspecified ethnicity, in a turban:

It’s a miracle the girls had any time for classes at all.

From May Wynne’s The Term of Many Adventures, illustrated by Roberta F. C. Waudby. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, n.d.

Why, Oh Why? A Reprise

Posted 22 August 2008 in by Catriona

This brief dialogue, which I’ve just exchanged with the television during the ABC’s airing of Cards on the Table, sums up my attitude towards these current adaptations of Agatha Christie novels:

RANDOM CHARACTER: Why would she do that?
ME: She didn’t. Now I’m bored.

And yet the adaptation of Cards on the Table was doing so well up to this point. It was beautifully set-dressed, relatively faithful to the plot, and fairly well acted (excluding the woman playing Anne Meredith; she’s fine in this, but she was dreadful in Rome, as Cleopatra, and that’s all I can see when I’m watching this.)

But then it all went to hell in the last ten minutes.

Frankly, I’m fairly impressed that they managed to make such hay out of such an intricate and carefully organised plot with so little time left.

I suppose that’s a compliment of sorts.

And, as I type this, Poirot has just outed the murderer and his “regular bridge partner” Mr. Craddock, who “practise for hours with the door closed.”

And I thought Nick was being far-fetched with his comment about lesbian Nazi nuns.

(On the plus side, this post is bound to turn up some interesting Google results.)

More Random Weirdness from the Bookshelf

Posted 21 August 2008 in by Catriona

These are all from Peter Haining’s compilation of The Fantastic Pulps, which I bought today.

What I love about this first one is that the illustration, by John Newton Howett, is from an Edmond Hamilton story called “The Indestructible Man.”

Not unless he can find some way to work around that knife sticking out of his back, he’s not.

(Oh, I know he might not be the man of the title. Just go with the joke.)

This one’s lovely, though: a Hannes Bok illustration for Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Devotee of Evil.”

(He looks, from this angle, rather like a devotee of the kind of dancing that used to frighten me way back when Nick still dragged me to Goth clubs. But it’s a beautiful image.)

Apparently, Ray Bradbury was a fan of Hannes Bok: I can see why.

But this: this is the jewel of the collection, I think.

This is a H. W. Wesso illustration for a John W. Campbell story, “Piracy Preferred.” (But preferred to what? That’s what I want to know. Alas, the story isn’t included in the collection.)

It’s an indictment of the prevailing attitude to pulp artists that someone capable of this type of work doesn’t get their own Wikipedia page. Sure, Hannes Bok has a page, but Wesso’s work is a gorgeous example of the classic sci-fi art that I love. I would think there’d be some room for him on Wikipedia, surely?

(All taken from The Fantastic Pulps, edited and compiled by Peter Haining. London: Gollancz, 1975.)

I've Been Book Shopping!

Posted 21 August 2008 in by Catriona

Despite the fact that it’s Thursday night, I’m exhausted, and we haven’t organised dinner yet, despite the fact that Nick’s had two colds in a row and is apparently self-medicating by playing Diablo very loudly (and currently killing something that squeals horribly when it dies), and despite the passive-aggressive anti-smoking prats this afternoon, I’m perfectly content.

Because I’ve been book shopping.

We had a relatively small book sale in the department this afternoon, run by one of my M.Phil. supervisors (who knows perfectly well that I’ll buy almost anything in book form, and so kept putting tantalising books directly in front of me).

Mind, I was well behaved: I only bought half a dozen. (The two that I bought for Nick don’t count, despite the fact that they’ll all go on the same shelves.)

But I couldn’t turn down Victorian Feminism, could I? It’s not the most recent book but, as I keep telling students, that’s why MLA isn’t an author-date method of referencing: not everything goes out of fashion. (Plus, I mainly read the bibliographies of these books, anyway.)

And I certainly wasn’t going to turn down a lovely, shiny copy of Dr Johnson’s Women; even if it is a little early for my research, it’s bound to be fascinating. Dr Johnson’s high opinion of Charlotte Lennox might even induce me to finally get around to reading The Female Quixote, which I’ve owned for years and, I suspect, have never even opened.

There’s no way I could go past The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. Sure, the essays manage to more or less completely skip the Victorian period, bouncing from Anna Clark’s “The Politics of Seduction in English Popular Culture, 1748-1848”—covering, at least, the beginning of Victoria’s reign—to Derrick Price on How Green Was My Valley (1939), but it’s still fascinating. And Price’s work on romanticised Wales makes a nice companion piece to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s work on the forcible traditionalising of Scotland in The Invention of Tradition.

I’m sure the title of Root of Detection: The Art of Deduction before Sherlock Holmes explains why I bought that one, to go with my numerous other books of Golden Age detective fiction—although this one offers quite a different interpretation of “Golden Age,” since the first offering is a piece from Herodotus’s Histories.

(Mind, I’m a little worried by the blurb, which describes the collection as containing “a little surprise from the novel by Mrs. Henry Wood published over a hundred years ago, the source for her celebrated play, the ineffable East Lynne.” Partly I’m worried that, in a book published in 1983, the play of East Lynne—“Dead! And never called me Mother!”—is considered better known than the actual novel. But mostly I’m just surprised to hear a novel called “ineffable.” “Little known”? I would have accepted that. “Overblown melodrama”? Sure. “Unintentionally hilarious”? Absolutely. But “ineffable”? That’s a little odd.)

I’m going to say little about the lovely little hardback—in a fabulously 1970s, bright-yellow, Gollancz cover—called The Fantastic Pulps, because I’m going to copy some illustrations from it into another post in a moment, as a counterpart to the terrifying cactus of The Quatermass Experiment. But I will say that having looked at the front matter, I now want some of the author’s other compilations: The Wild Night Company (Irish tales of fantasy and horror), The Clans of Darkness (Scottish tales of fantasy and horror), The Magic Valley Travellers (oddly enough, Welsh tales of fantasy and horror), and, of course, The Penny Dreadful. Bless you, Peter Haining. Your obsession with pulp enriches us all.

But my favourite find for today is, alas, a work in two volumes, of which only one volume was available. But, better only volume two of Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines than no volume at all.

There’s something so intrinsically Victorian about a two-volume work detailing the early lives of fictional characters. And, yes, it’s intensely romantic, in its way, and the prose is a little overblown.

But Clarke was a true Shakespearean scholar, who produced a Shakespearean concordance in 1844-1845, in a period when most women were discouraged from reading large sections of Shakespeare’s work. (Of course, her concordance may have referred to the bowdlerised texts: I’ve not seen it, and I don’t know. But that doesn’t negate the scholarship behind that sort of undertaking.)

She published The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines in 1850, and there’s a fascinating feminist impulse behind the extraction—albeit in heavily fictionalised form—of the education, training, and development of characters who so often are simply pawns for the more powerful characters, as with Katharina, or sacrifices on the altar of tragedy, as with Ophelia.

Of course, married lady though she was, she was also a Victorian woman, and she doesn’t answer the question that always intrigues me: why was Juliet’s nurse so keen to influence her charge’s—horrifyingly early, by modern standards—sexual experience?

Had it been a Victorian text, I’d argue that it critiques the way in which the system of domestic servitude brings people of different social classes into close communion with one another. Nineteenth-century texts so often present the working classes as either sexually depraved or, at best, less restrained than the middle class and the aristocracy. Since the latter were doubly restrained by social convention and by the obligations of primogeniture (so at least you had to be sure who your first-born son’s father was), the clashing of the two classes within the home throws up some interesting tensions that, had the play been written four hundred years later, might prove thought-provoking.

Of course, I can’t be sure Shakespeare’s intending any such thing. In fact, I’m fairly certain he’s not.

But I would really like to know why the nurse is seemingly so fascinated with Juliet’s marital experience.

Why, Oh Why, Do I Keep Watching Adaptations of Agatha Christie?

Posted 15 August 2008 in by Catriona

They always disappoint me.

I had thought, back when I bewailed the unnecessary Nazis in At Bertram’s Hotel—173 days ago, apparently—that the Poirot adaptations were more accurate than the Miss Marple ones.

But now I’m watching After the Funeral, and I’m not so sure.

So far, they’ve already removed one of Richard Abernethy’s siblings, making the unreliable nephew George the son of Helen, instead of her nephew.

And they’ve disinherited him, for no reason.

They’ve removed another of Richard Abernethy’s siblings, making Susan (now Susanna) and Rosamund sisters instead of cousins.

And they’ve made Cora’s late husband an Italian instead of a Frenchman. She’s Mrs Gallachio (or something along those lines: I haven’t seen the actual spelling) rather than Mrs Lansqueset.

And they’ve introduced the theft of the deeds of Enderby, Abernethy’s house, making its sale impossible, which adds an apparently unnecessary sub-plot.

Oh, dear: now George has just woken up on a park bench being licked by a Labrador (not a euphemism) and Susanna is haranguing a congregation on the subject of foreign missions. I think I miss the Susan who was a keen businesswoman, planning on opening her own emporium to capitalise on her own and her husband’s strengths.

I don’t think I need to mark that as a spoiler, because I doubt this is going to follow the book’s plot too closely. Susanna, for example, is unmarried, and apparently both inappropriately involved with her cousin George and also planning on sailing to Africa to pursue her work with foreign missions.

So far the most interesting point in this adaptation., from my perspective, is the fact that George Abernethy is Michael Fassbender, who was a Spartan whose name I’ve forgotten in 300 and the fallen angel in Hex. But that’s not why I’m interested in seeing him. Rather, it’s because the name Fassbender has reminded me of Ruth Rendell’s Put On By Cunning, in which the plot turns on the fact that “fassbender” is, apparently, the German term for a cooper. (At least I think it was German; it sounds German. I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong.)

It’s made me think that at least I might be able to wile away the time during the programme thinking of slightly better crime fiction.

And yet Christie really is very good.

So why? Why on earth do they make these changes?

I would have thought that Christie’s plots were ideally designed for adaptation to the television. They’re cunning, but she prides herself on setting everything out for the reader, for all she may employ sleight of hand to draw the reader’s attention away from the main points.

So why these broad, sweeping changes? And, something that irritates me even more, the minor changes, like adjusting Mrs Lansqueset’s surname? It seems so unnecessary.

I once went to see Troy with Nick and a friend. I gave up on the film at the point at which (spoiler! but it’s a bad film) Menelaus died. But, after the film, I pointed out that Menelaus’s death was the point at which the whole thing became thoroughly absurd, but our friend disagreed, saying it was liberating: “You didn’t know what was going to happen next!”

I admire that kind of optimism. But I can’t put it into practice myself.

Why, oh why, if you must write plots involving Nazis, murderous nuns, or drunken, disinherited gamblers, do do you not present them as brand new mysteries? Why tell us it’s Christie, and get all our hopes up?

Oh, I know: saying that it’s Agatha Christie brings in a certain audience who, by the time they realise the plot’s gone haywire, are already committed to watching the rest of the programme.

But it disappoints me every, every time.

Final Thoughts on Stephenie Meyer

Posted 12 August 2008 in by Catriona

I’m nearing the end of Breaking Dawn, the final book in the Twilight series and I have a series of completely random thoughts on the subject.

Even though I’ve not quite finished the book, this will be spoilerific—if you haven’t read the books and want to, don’t keep reading.

I’ve also numbered my points to keep them straight, but there’s no underlying organising principle.

1. I’d never noticed before, even though this is the fourth book of hers I’ve read, that they’re all structured in exactly the same way: several hundred pages of emotional angst and trauma followed by a hundred pages of action.

That worked well—for me, anyway—in Twilight, but I’ve been a little bored with it in this book. Frankly, I was a little bored with it in New Moon, but I think that was largely to do with the fact that the emotional trauma was centred around Jacob; Jacob is just as objectionable as Edward, really, but once the author has made it clear that I’m supposed to see Edward as Bella’s true love, I get frustrated with the addition of a love triangle. It seems like a fairly cheap way of jerking the reader’s emotions around.

Actually, love triangles just irritate me, full stop. The only one I had any patience with was the one between Aeryn Sun and the clones of the original John Crichton, in Farscape—and even that wasn’t dragged out for too long.

2. I’m uncertain about the werewolf “imprinting”. As far as I can tell, it’s a “love at first sight” thing, but specific to werewolves: intenser, perhaps? Or tied to their pack nature? To be honest, I’m not quite certain, except that I am certain that the woman the werewolf imprints on (and the almost exclusively masculine natures of werewolves is another issue) is his future mate.

It’s the future part that bothers me, because one of the werewolves imprints on a two-year-old girl and one on a newborn baby.

Now, clearly Meyer isn’t suggesting that the attraction is sexual at this stage: she goes to some length to have her characters explain that, in fact, and the relationships between these werewolves and their future mates isn’t suggestive or disturbing.

Not sexually.

But the idea of these hyper-masculine creatures (did I mention that the packs are almost exclusively male?) closely overseeing the rearing, education, and development of their future wives . . . there’s something a little creepy in that. Especially combined with the fact that the gender politics of these books do tend to construct men as controlling (and that control as a good thing) and women as fragile.

3. The hyper-masculinity of werewolves in the novels has also come to irritate me, but only in this book. There’s one female werewolf, and in this book she explains something of how the change came about for her. For the male werewolves, the change (triggered by an ancient protective spirit and by the presence of the vampires) effectively stalls development: once they change the first time, they age and grow rapidly for a period—so that the adolescent boys who change become, physically, enormous men—but the natural aging process is stalled. (This is convenient for the two who “imprint” on much younger women.)

But for the female werewolf, Leah, it doesn’t work this way. Leah makes it clear that the woman’s role in the werewolf myth is simply to pass the gene on: to give birth to future generations of werewolves. But, she argues, she can’t do that: clearly, she doesn’t possess the correct gene (or whatever it is that triggers the change), despite her descent from one of the original three werewolves. If she did, she believes, the Alpha werewolf—her ex-boyfriend—would have imprinted on her and not her cousin.

So her change into the first female werewolf in the history of the pack is, she thinks, a corrupted act: a way of her body coping with her lineage in the absence of its appropriate, feminine, fertile response.

And the change triggers menopause. She’s a twenty-year-old woman, but—while the male members of the pack are trapped in permanent adolescence—she ceases to menstruate, describing herself as a “genetic dead-end.”

And the same is true for female vampires. When Bella becomes pregnant on her honeymoon, while she’s still human, she concludes that female vampires can’t become pregnant, because the vampiric change essentially freezes their body, rendering the necessary change of pregnancy impossible. But male vampires can impregnate human women, apparently because the former’s bodies don’t change.

And while I’m happy to acknowledge that men remain fertile much later into life than women, this seems oddly absurd to me. If their bodies don’t change, how does a century-old vampire still have the means to impregnate women?

It seems to me that it would be very easy to construct an argument that suggests Meyer is presenting powerful women as unwomanly: while men can change into werewolves and vampires without giving up their essential nature, women who shift into these powerful modes do so by giving up their fertility. In a novel whose world view presents—as I argued above—men as controlling and women as fragile, women are hyper-feminine, although that femininity might not take the form of an obsession with shoes. Their change makes them unwomanly.

In case it seems as though I’m over-reaching here, look at the three women whose origin stories we know. Esme is changed after she loses her infant son, goes mad, and tries to kill herself. The entire Carlisle coven grows up around her desire to recreate her thwarted maternal instincts. Rosalie is changed after she is almost killed in a vicious sexual assault—horribly disturbing, even if it isn’t described in detail—and is almost crippled by her desire for a normal human life, centred on a desire for children. And Bella—who has no trouble with the change, at all, despite the emphasis on how difficult it is to stop newborn vampires from killing people—has already borne a child, in a magically accelerated pregnancy. In fact, her early hours as a vampire, the hours in which she demonstrates unusual self control, are centred on her child, who keeps her sane.

Suddenly, the “powerful women are prevented from achieving the one thing that all women really want; power is merely a second-best option” reading doesn’t look quite so unlikely.

4. On a lesser note, the typography is driving me completely insane. There’s something odd about the formatting of the letters: the apostrophe is too highly set, or takes up too little space, or something that I can’t put my finger on. Either way, I keep reading “I’m” as “Im” and “I’ve” as “Ive,” which forces me to go back and re-read the sentence.

The book is also artificially bloated. If you have a copy of this and either Twilight or The Host, put them next to one another. The 750 pages of this book aren’t all densely packed story: the font is enormous and the lines widely spaced, to make the book look longer than it is.

That’s just annoying, frankly: had it been formatted along ordinary lines, it would be easier to hold and read.

The cover is pretty, though—as always.

5. Finally, Renesmee? Really? No, I’m not talking about the impossibility of a half-human, half-vampire child. I’m talking about the daft name. If you want to honour your mother and your mother-in-law, Bella, why not call the child Renee Esme? Or Esme Renee?

After all, when you thought the child was a boy, you planned on calling him Edward Jacob. Not Edcob. Or Jacward. Both of which are just as silly names as Renesmee. Really, you can’t complain when people nickname her Nessie. I know you do complain. Endlessly. But, really, you have no grounds for complaint. Moxie Crimefighter would have been a more sensible name.

Really, I have enjoyed these books, on a certain level. I don’t mean I’ve enjoyed them in a “these are trash reading, but I’ll save my real enjoyment for books with Penguins on the spine” sense, because I don’t think like that—as those of you who’ve seen the contents of my bookshelves will probably agree.

I mean I’ve enjoyed them as page-turners; I’ve been dragged along with the narrative, especially in the action-packed final pages of each volume.

But once I started noticing the gender imbalances in the books—which took me long enough—I couldn’t stop noticing them.

And I think that’s what I’m going to take away from these books: a vaguely disquieting sense that, ultimately, these books suggests that, except in the unique case of Bella, women can only achieve power at the cost of what the world of Twilight thinks should be their natural, feminine, maternal purpose.

Speaking of Nazis . . .

Posted 1 August 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been reading Nancy Mitford.

I know I shouldn’t automatically associate Mitford with Nazis, but I can’t help it. When I read The Pursuit of Love or Love in a Cold Climate—and at the moment, I’m reading Highland Fling, which I have in an anthology with Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie. The anthology is, in a rather twee fashion, called Pudding and Pie—I can’t help but think of Diana Mitford and her irritating claim that, even in prison, it was lovely to wake up and think that one was lovely one, and her husband Oswald Moseley, and Unity Mitford, who shot herself (not fatally) when Germany lost the war and who, according to some British tabloid, probably The Daily Mail, may have had Hitler’s child.

Actually, looking at that list, that is rather a high number of instances in which the Mitfords are involved with the Nazis.

But, it’s odd: I love Wodehouse.

Perhaps I’m slightly influenced by the fact that we’re currently working our way through season two of Jeeves and Wooster, with Hugh Laurie and Steven Fry, and I’m enjoying it immensely.

I think, though, that a large part of my enjoyment is the set-dressing. All that gorgeous Art Deco furniture—beautiful walnut-veneer sideboards and lovely, lovely lamps. I have a weakness for lamps, especially Art Deco lamps. I do have one nice one, see?

But that’s beside the point.

I know Wodehouse is somewhat suspect, as far as his political leanings are concerned. But somehow, this doesn’t affect my enjoyment of his books (although the sad, nostalgic tint that creeps into the later ones, twenty or thirty years removed from their original milieu, do somewhat spoil my enjoyment).

But Mitford I find oddly irritating, and it’s not only because of the plethora of comma splices scattered through the novels.

There are some amusing moments: the one I’m reading now, Highland Fling, brings the old regime and the young fashionable people into direct conflict during grouse-hunting season in Scotland. And I did laugh when the central character, an artist, talks about how Scotland is a specifically Victorian landscape, clearly intended by the Almighty for the delectation of Victoria and Albert—although Hugh Trevor-Roper made the point more intelligently fifty-two years later in his essay “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland” (in Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition).

I think, ultimately, it’s the Bright Young Things that annoy me.

Bertie can be frustrating. Anyone who manages to fritter away his life purely on the basis of inherited wealth becomes a little irritating after a while. But he’s not annoying like Mitford’s Bright Young Things.

I suspect it’s their arrogance: their constant assumption that no one who isn’t not only of the leisured, moneyed classes but also of their own social grouping could possibly know anything about art or literature that really makes me start grinding my teeth.

If they contented themselves with buying ridiculous clothes, getting smashed on cocktails before the dinner hour, and joining inappropriate clubs—as Bertie does—then they probably wouldn’t irritate me so much.

But then, Bertie never came out and insisted, as Fanny does in Love in a Cold Climate, that women who raise their children without nannies gradually become morons while their children become barbarians.

If he had, he almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to win me over again.



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