Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Ides of April

Author:  Mary Ray

Illustrator:  Gino d'Achille (cover)

Era:  62 A.D.

Published: 1974 (first publisher unknown)

Award:  None known

Age Range:  12 years old and up

Review:  ★★★★

Senator Caius Pomponius Afer is murdered in his bed and the household slaves are taken into custody to face the sentence of death if even one has perpetrated this crime.  Aulus, Pomponius' valet and the first slave to happen upon his master after the assassination, is suspected, but when he dies in prison, who will prove his innocence?  Yet the slave list has been neglected and so, no one is aware that two of the slaves are missing. Where is Assinius, the Senator's steward, who had not been seen days before the murder?  And Hylas, the Senator's Greek secretary is not in the party.

Arch of Nero (completed 62 AD)
Thomas Cole - 1846
source Wikiart
Hylas, as it turns out, escaped detection in the house and is working steadfastly to find out who committed the dastardly deed.  He is certain that it was not one of the servants, but who could have had the opportunity and motive to commit such a vile execution.  Enlisting the help of Pomponius' son-in-law, Camillus Rufus, the nobleman and slave investigate, and unearth devious plots that could possibly rock the foundations of Rome's political body and cost them their lives.

Ray included various historical characters in her narrative including Thrasea Paetus, a Senator and former consul, who lived during the times of three Roman emperors, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.  We also have a glimpse of Seneca and Emperor Nero whom Ray portrays in a realistic fashion.

The Cascatelli (View of Rome from Tivoli)
Thoma Cole
source Wikiart
The real life of Publius Clodius Thraea Paetus is particularly compelling. By his actions in the Senate and in public life, he exemplified a man of honour and convictions, often going against the status quo in favour of principles.  Upon Nero's murder of his own mother and the Senate's obsequious behaviour towards the Emperor, Paetus walked out of the Senate meeting, refusing to be part of it.  His opposition to Nero continued and eventually his admirable ethics caught up with him.  Nero contrived charges against him, accusing him of neglecting his senatorial duties and he was sentenced to death by his choice.  At his suburban villa, he elected to have the veins in his arms opened and died with serene dignity.

While the mystery aspect of the story suffers from some contrived plot manipulation, this disappointment is balanced by the rich description of Rome and the historical detail painted within the pages of the book.  It's certainly a story by which any child would be captivated.

An extended summary of the book can be found at my children's blog, Children's Classic Book Carousel.

Deal Me In Challenge #8 - Four of Hearts

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

"The sovereignty and goodness of GOD, together with the faithfulness of his promises displayed, being a narrative of the captivity and restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, commended by her, to all that desires to know the Lord's doings to, and dealings with her."

On February 10, 1675 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Lancaster settlement was attacked by Indians and Mrs. Mary Rowlandson was taken captive along with a number of other settlers, including other members of her family.  This short book chronicles the events of her capture, her travels with her captors and finally her release after 11 weeks.

For almost 50 years, the colonists and Indians had lived in relative peace, but increasing settlement and demand for Native land caused tension that eventually exploded in attacks on American settlements by the Indians and resulting retaliations.  Indian raids were often violent and by the attack on Lancaster, the comfortable life that Mary had known with her husband and three children, was abruptly torn apart.

Mary turned to God in her fear and suffering and instead of lamenting her situation, she looked for lessons to learn from it.  Her Puritan faith was rather rigid and the narrative comes across as very unemotional at times, but the religious and historical weight of her experiences are a valuable tool in understanding the people of those times.  The book follows the traditional framework of the captive narrative, focusing on suffering, exile and redemption.

For more extensive information, Ruth at A Great Book Study has produced an excellent review of The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson.    I had plans to write an extensive review but in the end, I just couldn't.  Then I planned to answer the WEM questions as I did in my review of Saint Augustine's Confessions .... but when I looked at them, I just couldn't. I have only a basic knowledge of the Puritans and of conflicts between the Indians and colonists, so I hesitate to give even an uneducated judgement on Rowlandson's narrative.  When I finished, I hadn't really connected with Mary or her narrative.  Excepting what she communicated about her faith, there was an enormous gap in my understanding of her outlook and her judgements. This book left me feeling rather off-balance.  Normally I hate reading a book from a modern perspective and ALWAYS put myself, or attempt to put my mindset, into the times about which I'm reading.  For the first time, I had difficulty.

What I do know is that I need a "palate cleanser" with regard to Colonist-Indian relations, and so I've chosen to read The Journal of William Sturgis, a primary source document about a 17 year old boy who goes on his first voyage to trade furs with the Pacific Coast Indians.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Persuasion Read-Along Update #4

This read-along is hosted by Heidi at Literary Adventures Along the Brandywine.

Book II - Chapters 7 to 12

Wentworth arrives in Bath without any perceptible prodding and meets Anne. Later at a concert party, they are able to engage in deeper conversation, seemingly to the pleasure of both parties.  She tries to speak with him in depth again during the evening, yet Mr. Eliot, her cousin, interferes with her plans and Wentworth finally abruptly takes his leave.  Anne concludes that he is jealous of Mr. Eliot.

The next day Anne meets with Mrs. Smith who is curious as to her feelings towards Mr. Eliot, whereupon Anne reveals her complete disinterest in him. Mrs. Smith proceeds to label him a cad and a bounder and tells a damaging story of how he was instrumental in ruining her dear husband and driving him to his death.  Mr. Eliot had married only for money and had planned to sell Kellynch.  Yet upon hearing that Mrs. Clay has designs on Sir Walter, he rushed to the family's bosom in hopes of preventing the match and a possible future heir from stealing his inheritance.

Charles, Mary, Mrs. Musgrove, Henrietta and Captain Harville arrive in Bath and Anne spots Mr. Eliot, who should be out of town, speaking with Mrs. Clay. A mystery!  While visiting with the crowd of friends and relatives, including Captain Wentworth and Mrs. Croft, Anne spots Wentworth writing a letter. Imagine her shocked surprise when she is given the letter, a love letter to her confessing his enduring love in spite of the obstacles between them.  When she meets him in the street and he accompanies her home, he expresses all his passionate feelings which he has been keeping pent up.

They marry and everyone is either happy or resigned, except Mr. Eliot who runs off with Mrs. Clay and sets her up as his mistress, proving himself a despicable character.  Which, of course, we all knew, whether he be called Eliot, or Wickham, or Willoughby, or Mr. Elton, or ........?

Lady Dalrymple & Sir Walter Eliot
source Wikimedia Commons

Thoughts:  Hmm .......   Honestly, the way Austen writes, it's hard to find fault with her, but I think this novel was certainly one of her weaker ones.  I was left a little puzzled by Anne and Wentworth's romance.  Okay, so they haven't seen each other in eight years ........ shouldn't one at least have changed? Shouldn't they both have changed?  Does it seem wise then to brood at each other from a distance, throw out pointed comments on occasion, slyly observe and then, right at the end, have a gushing profession of undying, unchangeable love?  How will they know in which ways each other has changed if they don't talk, if they don't spend some time together in circumstances that aren't constrained and uncomfortable?  I realize that their observation of each other told something of their present characters and I realize the emphasis was that their love for each other hasn't changed but, honestly, is that realistic?

Mrs. Smith's sharing of her information about Mr. Eliot also made me uncomfortable.  Initially she seemed to be teasing or almost encouraging Anne to confess her favourable feelings towards him, but when Anne confesses her indifference, she lets loose with a torrent of accusations against him.  I would have expected her friend to be cautionary at the beginning, if she knew so much to hold against him, but instead she appeared coy.  I found Mrs. Smith's behaviour somewhat distasteful.

Now Austen had sickened with the disease that would eventually kill her when she was writing this novel, so one doesn't want to be too hard on her, but compared to her other novels, this one certainly didn't measure up, but understandably, I think.

The Royal Crescent in Bath
source Wikipedia

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Doctor Marigold by Charles Dickens

"I am Cheap Jack, and my own father's name was Willum Marigold."

And so we are introduced to Doctor Marigold, bestowed with such an unusual first name for a Cheap Jack in honour of the doctor who delivered him.  I did not imagine him in the appearance of the rather dandified peasant-gypsy looking gentleman on the cover to the left, but I suppose that's beside the point.  In any case, Doctor Marigold, as you know, is a Cheap Jack. For those who don't know what a Cheap Jack is (I raise my hand), it's a hawker who deals in bargain merchandise, anything from plates to frying pans to razors to watches to rolling pins and everything in between.  Marigold has followed his father's trade like a good son.

Doctor Marigold 1868
E.G. Dalziel
source Victoria Web
Soon Marigold marries a woman who is not a bad wife by his estimation, but whoa, does she have a temper!  She berates and torments her husband, and later beats their daughter, Sophy, while Marigold stands and watches.  Why doesn't he intervene?  Because it causes more of a ruckus than observing, and then people suspect that he is beating his wife.  Wimp.

Sophy grows up especially attached to her father and fearful of her mother -- no kidding.  Yet with their vagrant lifestyle, she becomes ill and passes away.  One fateful day, the now childless couple come across a mother beating her tearfully pleading daughter, and with a shrill scream his wife tears away and drowns herself in the river.  Good riddance.

Lonely Marigold now roams the country alone, until one day he comes across a deaf and dumb child whom he purchases and calls Sophy.  They are devoted to each other for years, until, when she reaches sixteen, he decides to have her educated and puts her in an institution for two years.  When he returns she is thrilled to see him, but as they resume their lives, he learns that she has acquired a suitor.  Old generous Marigold decides he cannot stand in the way of their love ---- although Sophy is willing to give it up to stay with her father ---- and allows them to marry.  The couple then move to China and five or so years later return with Marigold's granddaughter for a reunion.

E.A. Abbey
source Victoria Web
Again, Dickens is somewhat of a trial to read.  On one hand, his stories engage you for being overly maudlin and nauseatingly sentimental but I can never shake the feeling that he seems to think that as long as he uses affected emotional scenes and obscurely clever sentences, he can win adherents with such contrived effort.  I find it almost insulting. However, as much as the first part of the story really irritated me, I must admit, I somewhat fell for it in the end. Perhaps Dickens achieved his desired effect after all.

This short story, so far is my least favourite of my Deal Me In Challenges.  We'll see what next week brings.

Deal Me In Challenge #7 - Three of Clubs

Friday, 20 February 2015

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

"The Salinas Valley is in Northern California."

I usually don't worry about giving warning about spoilers but I've discovered that's because I normally read pre-1850-ish books and, while plot is important, there is much more from the book to be gained.  However, 20th century literature, seems to rely a great deal on the story, and so I'm issuing a warning that his review does contain a few spoilers, therefore, continue at your own risk.

Written in 1952, Steinbeck considered East of Eden his magnum opus.  At the time, Steinbeck was separated from his two young sons by divorce and he felt a need, not only to communicate with them through his creative medium, but to share family history in a manner that would make it a permanent record. Yet Steinbeck was also sensitive to his readers, aware that he would have to paint the well-known Salinas Valley of his youth with a vibrant brush of memories, in order to endow the people and the place with dynamic yet corporeal life. Writing in his journal on his first day of work on the novel, Steinbeck described his process: "But [I] try to relate the reader to the book, so while I am talking to the boys actually, I am relating every reader to the story as though he were reading about his own background ........ Everyone wants to have a family. Maybe I can create a universal family living next to a universal neighbor." 

Rural Youth, Monterey California 1940
source Wikimedia Commons
As in any good history, the historian wishes to imbue the characters with personality and, in this case, the Valley itself is a character, merging with the people to form a unique examination of this time in history. Steinbeck uses the Salinas Valley as a microcosm to examine human nature, both its strengths and its frailties, its goodness and its evil.  As you read through the novel, you almost feel as if all the characters have a little of Steinbeck in their make-up.  It's as if, through them, he was exploring not only family history, but also the history of man, the mutations caused by evil and the healing caused by goodness, set against the background of free will and choice.

With the use of the title East of Eden, Steinbeck brings in the biblical story of Cain and Abel, infusing both the relationship of the brothers, Adam and Charles Trask, and then Adam's two twin sons, Aron and Caleb, with the jealousy, impulses and sinful passions of the former.  Both sets of brothers contend against each other, while still being bound by their ties of family and a rather strange type of love.  The story of Steinbeck's own maternal family, the Hamiltons, parallels that of the Trask's, beginning with his grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, whom one could describe almost as a philosopher-farmer, down to the brief appearance of Steinbeck himself in the work.  On the Trask side, Adam is the main focus, as are his two sons and their Chinese servant, Lee, who is himself a philosopher.

Salinas Valley 1940
source Wikimedia Commons
For me, much of the embodiment of the novel was contained in the grave prophecy of Samuel Hamilton, just before Adam Trask purchases his land in the Salinas Valley: "There's a blackness on this valley.  I don't know what it is, but I can feel it.  Sometimes on a white blinding day I can feel it cutting off the sun and squeezing the light out of it like a sponge .......  There's a black violence on this valley.  I don't know ---- I don't know.  It's as though some old ghost haunted it with unhappiness.  It's as secret as hidden sorrow.  I don't know what it is, but I see it and feel it in the people here."  This  "black violence" hovers over the story like a pall, and the characters are perpetually struggling to rise above it.  Charles Trask battles against an inner hatred that nearly makes him murder his brother, Adam Trask contends against guilt and indifference, Caleb against a perceived inner badness which warps his actions and mars his character, Aron, the good and favoured son, becomes tormented by thoughts and events that are too evil to be conceived by his goodness, and Cathy, the mother of the twins, is pure evil, a psychopathic sociopath whose pathological desire for revenge drives her every action.  There is an echoing of sins passed down through generations, and behaviours that resist change. While Lee and Adam discuss the story of Cain and Abel, they decide, quite wisely, that even though sins may be persistent, there is always choice:
"Don't you see?" he cried.  "The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance.  The King James translation makes a promise in 'Thou shalt,' meaning that men will surely triumph over sin.  But the Hebrew word, the word timshel --- 'Thou mayest' --- that gives a choice.  It might be the most important word in the world.  That says the way is open.  That throws it right back on a man.  For if 'Thou mayest' ----- it is also true that 'Thous mayest not.'  Don't you see?"
"Choice" is unarguably one of the most important words, yet healthy choice does not seem attainable by these characters, and the black violence of Hamilton's perception clouds out the sun.  Throughout the novel, nearly every person, while occasionally getting a breath of fresh air, still appears to be drowning in it.

There were many parts of the book that were implausible.  A Chinese servant who can not only speak English and philosophize better than a university professor, can also turn into a Hebrew scholar when need be, and then later gain as much knowledge as a doctor specializing in diseases of the brain. The reader is introduced to the token crazy religious person, yet this person had appeared the most balance and grounded character of them all, up until his conversion.  And one of the main characters, while recognizing his sinful impulses, has absolutely no control over them, yet he is the hereditary son who remains to carry on the family name.  Lee's discovery of timshel, or "Thou mayst", at the end of the book perhaps has an affect on the father, yet the son is changeless throughout, merely experiencing a rollercoaster of undisciplined actions and regrets.

Watsonville, Salina Valley
source Wikimedia Commons

Yet in spite of the difficulties, Steinbeck attempted quite a feat with this novel and I can certainly appreciate his dream and his attempt to bring that dream to fruition.  Writing the novel was more of an outpouring of creative spirit for Steinbeck:  "I stay fascinated with East of Eden .... never has a book so intrigued me.  I only hope other people enjoy reading it as much as I am enjoying writing it."  Yet he did not exhibit any naiveté toward the reaction that his work was destined to elicit.  Writing to his editor, he admitted:  "You know as well as I do that this book is going to catch the same type of hell that all the others did and for the same reasons.  It will not be what anyone expects and so the expectors will not like it."   After publication, the critics remained curiously divided, the book being described as "one of Steinbeck's best novels" on one hand, and on the other drawing disparaging comments such as, "a huge grab bag in which pointlessness and preposterous melodrama pop up frequently as good storytelling and plausible conduct."  Yet in spite of sometimes vicious criticisms, many readers enjoyed what the critics discredited and the book has become an enduring classic in its own right.  As for me, I respect Steinbeck's effort and love for his work, and perhaps that is good enough.

Notable quotes:
"And this I believe:  that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.  And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direciton it wishes, undirected.  And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.  This is what I am and what I am about.  I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system.  Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts.  If the glory can be killed, we are lost."

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Little Women Read-Along

Well, I think that Hamlette from The Edge of the Precipice is planning a Little Women read-along for the beginning of March and if so, I am so in!  I thought I would post now, so for those of you who'd like to join us, you'll have a little bit of a heads up.

If you know Hamlette's read-along history, she sets such a nice pace and really delves into the reads, so I am very excited to be joining.  The last time I read this book was perhaps 10 years ago, so I'm certainly ready for a re-read. The March girls have kept a special place in my heart and I'm looking forward to visiting again and becoming part of their close-knit family.  

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Persuasion Read-Along Update #3

This read-along is hosted by Heidi at Literary Adventures Along the Brandywine.

Book II - Chapters 1 to 6

Well, well, well.  Wentworth appears frantic about Louisa's condition and will barely leave Lyme, where she is convalescing.  Anne, however, has returned home to meet Lady Russell who has arrived from Bath.  Charles and Mary finally return from Lyme and Charles announces that he believe Captain Benwick has a fondness for Anne and hints at the possibility of a visit, yet it does not materialize.  Lady Russell and Anne travel to Bath, though Anne's enthusiasm for the trip and new lodging is tepid.  A warm welcome from her father and sister, surprises her, and she learns that their cousin, Mr. Eliot has been introduced and is a frequent visitor to the house in Camden-place.  Mrs. Clay, daughter of the solicitor and Elizabeth's companion, worries Anne, in case her father is considering a new wife, yet she is pleased with the manners of Mr. Eliot, though eventually decides that he appears too proper and passionless for her tastes.  A renewed acquaintance with her old governess, once made wealthy by marriage and now poor by widowhood, is a pleasure to Anne but a horror to her family, though Lady Russell supports her visits.  An unexpected and astonishing letter arrives from Mary declaring that Louisa is engaged to Captain Benwick and Anne is pleased, although she muses as to their attraction to each other.  Mr. Croft declares that Captain Wentworth has been visiting friends too long and must come to Bath.  Will he?  And what delights or sorrows will his arrival bring?

Camden-place, Bath

Thoughts:  Okay, there are a number of loose ends in the narrative so far.  Louisa's impending marriage to Captain Benwick for one; what does it do, other than give us a possible suitor for Anne for a period of time, and allow musings on how suffering can improve one's character?  Interesting musings, but not particularly tied to the plot, or at least not obviously.  And what about her governess?  Again where are the threads joined to the plot?  It shows Anne's goodness, but as yet, nothing else.  And something must happen that involves Mrs. Clay or I'll be astonished.  So far she has hovered outside the action, yet Anne has suspicions towards her designs on her father.  Will Anne have to step in with some clever strategy to save her father from this devious woman?

I'm quite enjoying the examination of the different aspects of society, from the haves to the have-nots.  The perceptions of people and their treatment of others, depending on their social class, is particularly illuminating.

And I'm still fascinated by the way Austen handles Anne Elliot.  We continually see her, not necessarily through self-examination and personal actions, but through the perceptions of others and her actions towards them.  I'm still mulling over whether this unusual characterization is purposeful or not.  Does it add to her personality of retiring shyness and quiet nobility?  Or is it employed to make a commentary on the society of the time?  As English society grew and metamorphosed, were people seen less as individuals and more as a collective, almost wholly viewed and constructed through the eyes of others?

British Lighthouse - Chartmouth

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Friendship by Ralph Waldo Emerson

This essay is my sixth read for my Deal Me In Challenge 2015.

Oh, what flowery and majestic rhetoric flows from the pen of Ralph Waldo Emerson in this essay on friendship!  Emerson was a transcendentalist and his views colour nearly every sentence of this beautiful yet perhaps rather hyperbolic essay on friendship.

Wikipedia's definition of transcendentalism states:
Transcendentalism is a religious and philosophical movement that developed during the late 1820s and '30s[1] in the Eastern region of the United States as a protest against the general state of spirituality and, in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church as taught at Harvard Divinity School. 
Among the transcendentalists' core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both people and nature. They believe that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupt the purity of the individual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.
I knew almost nothing about Emerson before I read this essay.  I had the vague idea that he was a naturalist and perhaps a deist, and the only thing I knew for sure was that he was one of Pa Ingalls favourite authors.  I had expected his writing to be rather sparse and serious, so l was rather amazed at the waxing lyrical prose to which I was treated!

Good Friends (1927)
Norman Rockwell
source Wikiart

This essay on friendship, I believe, was written by Emerson in honour of his dear friend, Henry David Thoreau.  Emerson's rhapsodic sentences impact the reader right from the start, as he elevates friendship to the platform of one of the greatest gifts of life.   As soon as we're drawn into the bonds of deep friendship, our soul is engaged and we function almost on a different plane.

“Delicious is a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling.  How beautiful, on their approach to this beating heart, the steps and forms of the gifted and true!  The moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed: there is no winter, and no night: all tragedies, all ennuis vanish;  -- all duties even; nothing fills the proceeding eternity but the forms all radiant of beloved persons …”

While Emerson lauds the benefits of friends, he also is cognizant of the fluctuations in friendship, but rather than lamenting over the lows, we should see them as a natural rhythm of life.

“ …. Thou art not my soul, but a picture and effigy of that.  Thou hast come to me lately, and already thou art seizing thy hat and cloak.  Is it not that the soul pus forth friends, as the tree puts forth leaves, and presently, but the germination of new buds, extrudes the old leaf?  The law of nature is alternation forevermore …..  The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society ……”

Portrait of Two Friends (1522)
Jacobo Pontormo
source Wikipedia

Yet while one must treasure friendships and elevate them, one must not force their progression, as it would be an assault on their natural course.
“Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the trough of the human heart.”
We must be patient as friendship ripens or we may find the friendship brought to a sharp conclusion.  Let nature have free-reign, and it will not disappoint. 

While society pressures us to be social, true friendship is not cultivated in numbers but in a one-on-one companionship.  The bud will not flower without the correct nurturing.
"But I find this law of one to one, peremptory of conversation, which is the practice and consummation of friendship.  Do not mix waters too much.  The best mix as ill as good and bad.  You shall have very useful and cheering discourse at several times with two several men, but let all three of you come together, and you shall not have one new and hearty word.  Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searchng sort ........ Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one." 
Emerson rejects dissimulation and false pretences in an effort appear prestigious or more worldly, claiming that truth and sincerity in friendship is utmost.  You may look insane with this approach, but it will win you the friendship and respect that are your greatest desires.  Go against society and show your face to your fellow man, instead of your backside!  

Sorry, but I just couldn’t resist teasing Emerson a little in my review.  His language is so flowery, occasionally trite and often exaggerated that I found myself struggling sometimes to take the essay seriously.  Yet he does have some wonderful points and hits on the important qualities of friendship and its worth to mankind.  

Deal Me In Challenge #6 - Two of Spades

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan

"In this my relation of the merciful working of God upon my soul, it will not be amiss, if, in the first place, I do, in a few words, give you a hint of my pedigree, and manner or bringing up; that thereby the goodness and bounty of God towards me, may be the more advanced and magnified before the sons of men."

John Bunyan was born in Elstow, a village near Bedford in Bedfordshire, and was baptized on November 28, 1628, the first son of Thomas Bunyan and his second wife.  In 1644, he joined the Parliamentary army as a soldier and was active until 1647.  The year 1655 saw him joining the congregational church at Bedford and the following year he was actively disputing with the Quakers, out of which was born his first book, Some Gospel Truths Opened.  With the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and the restoration of the monarchy, the persecution of Non-Conformists began. Bunyan was given every opportunity to conform by the surprisingly tolerant Royalists, but he was staunchly resistant to a compromise of principles that could weaken the faith of his followers.  Prevented from preaching by various imprisonments, Bunyan turned to writing.  Grace Abounding is a record of his spiritual experiences from his first meaningful encounter with God to his life of preaching.

Bunyan admits to having a lack of religion in his upbringing and it was only later, with some the influence from his wife, that he came to entertain thoughts of spirituality:

"But I observe, though I was such a great sinner before conversion, yet God never much charged the guilt of the sins of my ignorance upon me; only he showed me I was lost if I had not Christ, because I had been a sinner; I saw that I wanted a perfect righteousness to present me without fault before God, and this righteousness was nowhere to be found, but in the person of Jesus Christ."

After hearing a sermon preached from the Song of Songs, Bunyan was struck by the love of God and came to the following conclusions:

That the church and so every saved soul, is:
  1. Christ's love, when loveless
  2. Christ's love without a cause
  3. Christ's love when hated to the world
  4. Christ's love when under temptation, and under desertion
  5. Christ's love from first to last

Birthplace of John Bunyan
source Wikipedia

Though Bunyan had moments of euphoric revelation and joyful epiphanies, his conversion was still fraught with doubts and fears.  Had he abused God too much for forgiveness?  Was forgiveness given to others but not to him?  Like Esau, had he sold his birthright and would never be able to regain it?  His agonies leapt off the page with a startling clarity:

"Yet I saw my sin most barbarous, and a filthy crime, and could not but conclude, and that with great shame and astonishment, that I had horribly abused the holy Son of God; wherefore, I felt my soul greatly to love and pity him, and my bowels to yearn toward him; for I saw he was still my Friend, and did reward me good for evil; yea, the love and affection that then did burn within to my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ did work, at this time, such a strong and hot desire for revengement upon myself for the abuse I had done unto him, that, to speak as then I thought, had I a thousand gallons of blood within my veins, I could freely then have split it all at the command and feet of this my Lord and Saviour."

Bunyan eventually is able to reason his way through his doubts and come to peace with his faith.  He realizes that while he prayed fervently when he was in the midst of troubles, he neglected to pray for himself to avoid the pitfalls and temptations.  The sense of being a sinner did not ever leave him completely, but as he grew, so did his understanding of the depth and breadth of the grace of God, and he was finally at peace.

Stained glass of Bunyan in prison
source Wikimedia Commons

At the end of the book, Bunyan explains the cause of his imprisonment, which appears to be directly related to his refusal to use the Book of Common Prayer.  When questioned by the justices, Bunyan stated that he would be pleased to use the Book, if the justices could so kindly point to him in Scripture where the particular book was referenced.  The justices, however, viewed the Book of Common Prayer as second only to the Bible.  Bunyan was stubborn, the justices unyielding, and so began Bunyan's time in the gaol. When released from prison in 1672, on a declaration of indulgence issued by the king under a new wave of religious tolerance, Bunyan returned to preaching, this time legally, and continue as the pastor of the Bedford Meeting, a position he had been given while languishing in prison a year before.  In 1688, while visiting London, he contracted a fever and passed away on August 31st.

The title Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners comes from two Biblical scripture references:

"Moreover the law entered that the offence might abound.  But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord"  Romans 5: 20-21

"This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief."  1 Timothy 1: 15

My absolute favourite part of this book was when Bunyan realized the impact of conversion.  His fellow men and women were suddenly lovely to his eyes and he viewed them "like a people that carried the broad seal of heaven about them."  What a transformative experience!  Instead of being irked, or disdainful, or petty, or indifferent toward our fellow man, if we could see them as beloved children of God, how differently we might treat them!

John Bunyan at the Gates of Heaven
William Blake
source Wikimedia Commons

I must say that while I liked this read, so far I'm finding the biography list rather quirky.  Taken separately, the books have been enjoyable, but when taken together, they don't strike me as a concise, chronological order of biographies that perhaps expand ideas or give insight into changes in societies or thought.  Ruth, I'd love to know what you thought of the novel list as a whole.  The other remaining lists (plays, history and poetry) look much better, but I'm not that impressed with this one.

This book counts towards my Reading England Challenge and since Cat at Tell Me A Story has been doing such a wonderful job with educating us as to the English counties along with her novels, I thought that I should add at least a few photos of Bedfordshire, where the narrative takes place.


Elstow Stream

Bridge and Promenade

Bedford Bridge

Friday, 6 February 2015

Persuasion Read-Along Update #2

This read-along is hosted by Heidi at Literary Adventures Along the Brandywine.

Book I - Chapters 6 - 12

Anne settles into living with Charles and her sister, Mary, and the Crofts settle into housekeeping at Kellynch-Hall.  At Captain Wentworth's arrival, Anne is nervous to confront him again, but their meeting is delayed by an accident that incapacites her nephew, and Mary, content to abandon her motherly duties, leaves him in Anne's care.  Charles' sisters, the Miss Musgroves named Henrietta and Louisa, vie for Wentworth's attentions, and the other young ladies of the area are taken with his soldierly bearing and, no doubt, his fortune made during the Napoleonic Wars.  When he and Anne finally meet, the exchange is cool and there appears to be no hope of a rekindled romance. The re-appearance of Henrietta's beau, Charles Hayter, appears to complicate matters, as Henrietta's interest has cooled towards him and warmed to Wentworth.  Yet with a visit to the Hayters, the tides turn again and Louisa is the favourite for winning Wentworth's hand in marriage.  There are glimmers of a returning regard in Wentworth's manner towards Anne, and as the party travels to Lyme for an outing, we are introduced to the characters of Captain and Mrs. Harville, and Captain Benwick, a man engaged to Mrs. Harville's sister, but with the death of the unfortunate young lady, he is left in mourning.  Yet a tragic accident on the waterfront of Lyme focuses Wentworth's attention on Louisa, who remains in a type of coma, while the drama swirls around her.  Once again, Anne is a strong nurturing force within the tumult and her strength of character shows her worth.

Well done, Miss Anne!
Chapter 6
source Wikimedia Commons

Thoughts:  Austen treats us to lively accounts of the characters.  She really gives equal attention to them all, and in keeping with Anne's retiring character, (in the first three chapters of this section at least) it sometimes felt that Anne was confined to the periphery of the story.  Yet as these final chapters wrap up, she is shown as having an ability at lively conversation and empathy, as evidenced by her chats with Captain Benwick and her sympathy towards him at the loss of his affianced.

I did find the situation of Louisa's tragic fall and the subsequent confusion of the men surprisingly obvious for plot development and somewhat forced, lacking the pacing and the insightful subtleties that I'm so used to experiencing with Austen's novels.  I could understand Charles being paralyzed by the situation, as he tends to avoid conflict in any case, but the fact that Captain Wentworth was in a dither rather diminished his character for me.  He is a captain, used to being in charge and commanding during critical situations. For him to need lean on Anne was rather implausible, unless he is head over heels in love with Louisa, which then could logically make his good sense fly out the window.  But we know that he's not, which makes the scene very un-Austenesque.

Otherwise, there is a mystery that crops up during the end of the last chapter ....... a vaguely familiar person passes them in Lyme and they determine that it is Mr. Eliot, their cousin and heir to Kellynch Hall.  Just what is he doing there and how will his presence affect further outcomes in the novel?

Anne & Wentworth
"Here is a nut," he said, to exemplify.
source Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Song II: The Dark Night by San Juan de la Cruz

St. John of the Cross (1656)
Francisco de Zurbarán
source Wikipedia

This poem is my fifth read for my Deal Me In Challenge 2015.

Canción II: La Noche Oscura

      De el alma que se goza de haber llegado
          Al alto estado de la perfección, que
          Es la union con Dios, por el camino
          De la negación espiritual.

1. En una noche escura,
con ansias, en amores inflamada,
¡o dichosa ventura!,
salí sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada:

2. a escuras y segura
por la secreta escala, disfrazada,
 ¡o dichosa ventura!,
a escuras y en celada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada;

3. en la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que nadie me veía,
 ni yo miraba cosa,
sin otra luz y guía
sino la que en el corazón ardía.

4. Aquésta me guïaba
más cierto que la luz del mediodía,
a donde me esperaba
quien yo bien me sabía,
en parte donde nadie parecía.

5. ¡O noche que guiaste!,
¡o noche, amable más que el alborada!,
 ¡o noche que juntaste
Amado con amada,
amada en el amado transformada!

6. En mi pecho florido,
que entero para él solo se guardaba,
allí quedó dormido,
y yo le regalaba;
y el ventalle de cedros aire daba.

7. El aire de la almena,
quando yo sus cabellos esparcía,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello hería,
y todos mis sentidos suspendía.

8. Quedéme y olvidéme,
el rostro recliné sobre el amado;
cesó todo y dejéme,
dejando mi cuidado
entre las azucenas olvidado.

Song II: The Dark Night
      Of the soul that rejoices at having reached
         The high state of perfection, which
          Is the union with God, by means of the path
          Of spiritual denial of self

1.  On a dark night, deep and black,
When I, on fire with the passions of love
---- what great good fortune was mine! ---
slipped out, hidden, unseen,
when my sleeping house was silent and still;

2. and protected in the dark,
concealed by the quiet, secret staircase
---- what great good fortune was mine! ---
in the ebon dark, well-hidden
when my sleeping house was silent and still;

3. and on the fortunate night,
in secret, when no one’s eyes could see me,
I saw nothing around me
And had no light or guide
But the one that was blazing in my heart.

4. This was the fire that led me,
more clear and certain than the light of noon,
to where he waited for me
--- I knew who he was, oh I knew ---
there where no one was seen, no one appeared.

5. O dark night who guided me!
O night, kinder by far than any dawn!
O night, you who have joined
lover with beloved,
beloved into lover here transformed!

6. On my flowering bosom,
meant only for him, kept for him alone,
he rested his head to sleep,
and I with love caressed him,
and the swaying cedars sent a breeze for him.

7. The wind from the battlements
when I loosed his hair and smoothed it, unbound,
with serene and tranquil hand,
struck my neck, pierced and wounded it,
dimming and suspending all my senses.

8. I stayed there, self forgotten,
lowered my face, leaning over my lover,
all things ceased, self abandoned,
abandoning all care
that lies, forgotten, there among the lilies.

I found this poem in the book The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance to which Amanda of Simpler Pastimes kindly introduced me.  It was a "close your eyes and point" choice, yet it has turned out to be quite a fascinating poem.

St. John of the Cross was a disciple of St. Teresa of Ávila, whose biography I had recently read.  He fought to reform the Spanish Carmelites and spent a number of years in prison where he compposed the Cántico espiritual, or Spiritual Canticle, without any writing tools, having to rely solely on his memory.  

Song II: The Dark Night is part of St. John's greater work, The Dark Night of the Soul, chronicling the spiritual journey of the soul and the stages of love that it must pass through to become more like God.  Taken out of context, this poem loses some meaning but the beauty of the words and the impact is spiritual by themselves.  Based on the biblical book, Songs of Songs, the sensual imagery St. John uses for the union of the soul and God is a stepping outside of religious tradition.  Mystic and beautiful, the poem marries the natural to the supernatural, to exemplify harmony with God.

Deal Me In Challenge #5 - Jack of Diamonds