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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Was Vincent the Villain?

Elisabetha Schmelzer, the adventurous daughter of Georg Schmelzer and Eva Kihm, went over to the “enemy” after the town was conquered by Napoleon’s armies, and in 1794 she married a Frenchman, Jean Pierre Julien. He was a soldier, and a few years later he was killed.

Elisabetha did not remain single for long. In February 1800 she married a widower, Vincent Meyer, after the requisite banns were published three times.

Imagine her sense of betrayal when she discovered that Vincent had concealed another marriage! She went before the town officials and made a proclamation to that effect in August 1801, declaring that by his action of having hidden this gross impediment to their own marriage, he had in effect prostituted her. She denied all knowledge of his actions and was granted a severing of their marriage.

Wait. I don’t know whether I translated those word endings correctly!

The other version is a bigger scandal to the Schmelzer family.

Imagine Vincent’s sense of betrayal when he found out and forced Elisabetha to go before the town officials and swear that she concealed an impediment to her marriage to Vincent in the form of another marriage (maybe Jean Pierre did not die after all; maybe he deserted), and that she prostituted herself by so doing!

In any case, the marriage officially ended, and Elisabetha and Vincent both disappeared from all other records of the town.

I’d have moved far away too, no matter which way the scandal went.

Photo adapted from: Benny Trapp - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

And now, you Latin scholars, help me out with the endings here! Who did what to whom?

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Overcoming Suicidal Thoughts

The high-profile suicides this past week of designer Kate Spade and chef-travel writer Anthony Bourdain have touched off an international conversation about mental health and suicide and the importance of not assuming your strong-appearing friends are fine. It has also made me reflect on my own darkest time and how I eventually got through it.

I come from a dysfunctional family that looks pretty good from the outside. My parents stayed married to each other all their lives and were devoted to each other. My siblings and I were always playing together as youngsters and have maintained some type of relationships throughout our adult lives.

But my mother was a broken person. Her parents had had serious problems despite their very long marriage, and my mother and her siblings produced families that were full of problems. There are sad situations in the histories of many members of my extended family, not just me.

My father suffered from his mother’s death when he was just 15, and his father abandoned him in the months following. My father never recovered completely from that trauma.

I grew up learning to think that I was no good. My mother was chief director of my thoughts about myself. She frankly didn’t like me and though she tried to keep it from me, children always know. In my early adulthood, she simply told me so. Now I can’t imagine why she thought that was an okay thing to do. Then, it was confirmation of what I’d always known.

I started thinking about suicide when I was eleven years old. I took a knife one night and cut my wrist, slicing the length of a vein I could see, not knowing anything about anatomy. It bled well, but I wrapped it up and for fear of punishment lied about the seriousness and kept it hidden until it healed.

When I was sixteen I had an hysterical fit at a summer camp. They took me back to the city where my mother had to come pick me up. They told my mother I needed to see a mental health professional. That made me feel hopeful; one of my brothers at university had come home the year before to report that he had been in counseling. (But the subject wasn’t discussed after his initial announcement.) Once my mother and I were alone in the car together, she let me have it but good. No daughter of hers was going to ever need mental health help, I learned. I was punished for weeks; I felt powerless, for I had always been the child who did everything I could to please my parents, but nothing succeeded with my mother.

By the time I was in my twenties, feeling despair was normal to me. Religion provided an antidote to or a respite from my feelings. I had internalized both the idea that I was worthless, yet my religion taught me that everyone was worth absolutely everything, and within my deepest core, I believed that about myself. My mother’s feeling about me was not shared by my father, but he never did anything to rile up my mother, and that meant that he didn’t stick up for me when she was harsh with me. I do remember him saying things to me that impressed me with the opposite idea I had gotten from my mother.

Deeper depression settled on me in my twenties. I went around losing friends and not understanding why. I had always had friends. I started and lost romantic relationships and didn’t understand why they all ended the way they did. I didn’t know I was driving everyone away. At work I began to have a lot of trouble. I was a supervisor and was not managing anybody well. My employees were complaining to upper management all the time.

Meanwhile, I had begun to compile suicide plans. I had decided I needed to figure out a way out of this world that would look like a pure accident, that could not possibly be attributed to suicide. I was deeply sure that I should not involve my parents in the kind of misery that they would (or should) feel if their daughter took her own life. I had nine different plans, and I worked on one or another every night after work to make sure it was foolproof and absolutely accidental looking.

The day came when several more things had happened that tipped me over the edge and I decided I had to use one of the plans. I couldn’t bear the pain of existence any longer. But as I put the plan into effect, something odd happened. I heard a voice in my head shouting at me. Shouting! “You have another choice!” I stopped just in time.

The voice seemed to continue. It reminded me of my brother’s choice to go to counseling. It reminded me that my best friend had been recently telling me about going to counseling. It told me what I should have known all along, that attempts at suicide are always a cry for help; that help was available in this world; that there was no need to leave this world to get help.

My first counselor was the best. She turned the world upside down and inside out within a couple of weeks. I drove away thinking, “This is not the same planet I thought I was living on all these years. Wow.” I learned that the worldview of my mother was not real. That the worldview of my father was adapted to my mother’s problems. That I was independent of them both.

It wasn’t easy to throw off decades of conditioning. It took me years to break the bad habits in my thought processes, but I was determined that if the real worldview held actual happiness, and it does, I would continue to try to make it normal for me. I learned what my depression triggers are, and I learned that my cycles of depression got shorter in duration and longer between times that they came, until sometimes it was ten years between bouts, and then the battle lasted sometimes only an hour or two until I was all right again.

I have had to battle more frequently after my father died and my mother has had to live with me. Having her become increasingly helpless and yet at the beginning still with her broken view of how I should behave was hard. Being consistently kind to her despite her sometimes cruel treatment of me was a challenge at first. I got through it though, because I simply decided to tell her directly what constituted healthy emotional reactions to things and how I would behave. She did not accept it for herself, but to her credit, she accepted what I said for me. A blessing has been her loss of memory. She no longer remembers what she did not like about me! She is actually a sweet person at her core, despite her pain that made her behave badly earlier in life. Now she remembers only a little, and she is easy to deal with (and I do realize how very, very fortunate I am that this is the case).

Obviously I’m describing a kind of depression that in my case isn’t chemical. I don’t have to take medicine. For people who need medicine, I say, Take it! It’s so worth it to feel good. If you need counseling, go! If you are suffering from mental and emotional pain, get help!

The real world isn’t free from pain, but it does have absolute happiness in it too, and it is worth every struggle to get to this place where you can feel good and you can endure times of pain and trial and struggle in the knowledge that joy will reappear and that love inside yourself is the truest and best thing you can feel, because you are worth everything.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Jane Austen as Sleuth

Mystery writer Stephanie Barron did a brilliant job of creating Jane Austen in the role of sleuth in her thirteen-book series spanning the years of Jane Austen’s life from her residence in Bath to nearly the end (the latest book is set at the close of the year before Jane Austen became ill and could do no more writing). Not only has Ms. Barron memorized every detail of Jane Austen’s life from 1801 to its untimely end, she apparently spent a great deal of time with every letter written by Jane Austen, every contemporary letter that mentions her, every account of her life by contemporaries (nieces and nephews who were contemporaries at least of her latest years and who would have had access to her sister’s and brothers’ memories). The level of attention to detail is simply amazing.

Ms. Barron’s attention to style, syntax, vocabulary and usage, and overall intelligence and wit in creating the character is spot on. It feels like reading about the real Jane Austen, mostly. Obviously the anachronism is the murder mystery, which admittedly can be a big distraction to maintaining the tone, but it does not overwhelm and throw the reader firmly back into reality. As a reader you feel you are in Austen’s world.

I’ve just reread the first three books this week and was struck again by how very good they are. I had read a take by another author who created a different story for the blank spaces in Jane Austen’s life between 1801 and 1811, and while overall it was a good story with a plausible romance even, there were problems that made it simply impossible to associate it with Jane Austen herself. But Stephanie Barron has not fallen into any mistakes that I can perceive, beyond that of making Jane a sleuth, a conceit which, once one has suspended disbelief, and if one is a confirmed murder mystery addict as I am, is perfectly fun.

It helps that Stephanie Barron is superb about constructing murder mystery plots, employing red herrings to terrific effect, and being creative about the use of typical genre elements so that the element of surprise is consistent.

If you haven’t read the books and don’t want to read spoilers, stop here and go read the books. You will enjoy yourself, I promise!

I found it interesting in the first mystery that although I knew the name and character of Lord Harold Trowbridge very well, his function as a major red herring in that book remained partly intact, as I did not remember over the twenty years between readings exactly what role he played in the solution. I had forgotten completely who was the murderer and only figured it out in the latter half, even knowing Lord Harold was not in the running, which I think is a testament to the author’s skill at hiding clues. (I refuse, of course, to entertain the idea that I’m stupid about these things!)

Lord Harold’s involvement in the second book was not necessary, of course, to the intrinsic story in that book, appearing on the beach at the very end as he does, but he has to be there because of the later books. The story arc that spans seven or eight of the books demands the presence of Lord Harold, as he turns out to be the tragic love of Jane’s life. One thing wrong with that other author’s Jane-Austen-romance was that it ended pathetically with a parting that had nothing of noble tragedy in it. Barron quite correctly gives Jane a high tragedy, almost Shakespearean. But in the second book there is no romance between the two. Instead, their relationship is forwarded by Lord Harold’s observation that Jane’s sleuthing skills are formidable enough that he jokes she will be right behind him in the next case and he’ll have to hire her. She retorts that he will more likely trip over her foot not looking for her to be in front of him. It’s a witty enough exchange, with just a whiff of feminist ideology, not enough to form an anachronism, but enough for piquancy.

In the third book the mystery is so complicated that I’m going to rehearse it so I don’t forget the details by next week and have to go back and look things up.

The painter Thomas Lawrence, who in real life was notorious for his affairs, in this book dallies with an actress named Maria Conyngham (a fictional character; not the real Maria Conyngham whom Lawrence painted in the 1820s—and here I’ll stop remarking on what is actual history and what isn’t, and who is fictional and who is real but acting fictionally).

In our story Maria Conyngham, with her actor brother Hugh, was brought up in the family of the famous actress Sarah Siddons. Sarah’s daughters Maria and Sally were both in love with Lawrence, and he dallied with each at different times. Maria was a fiery character, and Lawrence painted her eye portrait (literally, a small portrait of one eye only, a fashionable object in those days) and gave it to her mother when Maria died of consumption at the age of 18. Sally died of consumption not very long later, about a year before the action of the book.

So, when our story opens at a fancy-dress Christmas party held in the Dowager Duchess of Wilborough’s Bath residence at Laura Place, at which Jane Austen and her brother Henry and sister-in-law Eliza are present, the actor Hugh Conyngham provides an entertainment of one of MacBeth’s speeches. During the speech, a murder happens in the room behind, and the doors are thrown open to reveal the Dowager Duchess’s grandson, Simon, Lord Kinsfell, standing with a bloody knife over the corpse of the theater manager, Richard Portal. Maria Conyngham stages a grief-stricken scene over the body, and Jane notes everything, except what she hadn’t seen, which was that Kinny took the eye portrait, which had been lying on top of the body when he discovered it, and secreted it in his waistcoat. He thinks it might have been of his sister, Desdemona.

When Lord Harold Trowbridge, son of the Dowager Duchess, shows up and asks Jane to help him solve the crime and clear his nephew, of course she agrees, much to the growing consternation of her family, who cannot understand and cannot be told exactly why Jane is so much in the company of this man. Jane had actually been acting for him anyway, keeping an eye on his niece, Desdemona, who had fled London to avoid an unwelcome suitor, the Earl of Swithin.

Swithin provides a great red herring by playing the role of villainous suitor, but you realize pretty quickly that the lady doth protest too much and actually likes him, and in the end he turns out to have saved his family’s reputation and fortune and thus provides a good plot twist at an important point.

Swithin’s chief rival for Desdemona is Colonel Easton, a military man who has nothing military to do at the moment, so he pursues Desdemona to rile up Swithin, whom he had thought was attracted to Maria Conyngham, so they had had a duel and Swithin wounded Easton in the right arm. Easton goes about wearing a sling for most of the book, but at the end Lord Harold forces him to reveal that his right arm is just fine, thanks, and that he has been shamming. In fact, he was the murderer.

The victim was supposed to have been the painter, Lawrence, and the main motive for Easton, jealousy over Maria Conyngham (she was having an affair with Easton as well as having had an affair with Lawrence). Maria Conyngham and her brother Hugh were both in on the plot for their own revenge; Maria because Lawrence ended their affair when he heard about Sally Siddons’s death, and Hugh because he had been in love with Maria Siddons and Lawrence had taken her away from him. Maria C wrote a note to Lawrence to tell him to meet her in the anteroom at the exact time that Hugh was speaking his MacBeth lines. Easton was supposed to appear at that point and kill Lawrence.

The problem was that the ball was fancy dress, and both Lawrence and Richard Portal were dressed in Harlequin costumes, Lawrence in red and black diamonds, and Portal in white and black. Portal had got into the anteroom first by accident, and Maria, seeing him there, left, just at the moment Lawrence entered the room and saw both Portal on the sofa asleep and Maria leaving through the secret passageway. He assumed Maria no longer wanted to talk to him and left too. And when Easton arrived immediately after, he didn’t realize there were two Harlequin costumes and killed the man in the room.

Easton was trying to use the murder furthermore to implicate his enemy Swithin, whose family’s device of a snarling tiger on a brooch Easton had obtained and dropped in the passageway between rooms, and whose wounding of him had been the final straw in his dislike.

Complicating matters are the attempted murders of Jane herself and of Lawrence after the original murder, when nobody else yet knew the wrong person had been killed. These were somewhat inept attempts, I thought, though Lawrence did get badly beaten. Then the riding-accident death of Jane’s great friend Anna Lefroy near her home in Hampshire turns out to be a murder that was part of the whole cover-up for this plot too. She had to be killed because she knew too much about Maria and Hugh, having been a very good friend of their mother, and she had been at the party actually having a long conversation with the Red Harlequin (Lawrence). Jane learns from her older brother James that the brutish tumbler Smythe (an associate of Hugh Conyngham) was in the Hampshire area at the time of Madame Lefroy’s death, and Jane deduces that he was more than likely responsible for the gunshot that startled the horse into throwing Madame Lefroy.

Smythe, who tries to kill Jane and who beats up Lawrence, is a bungling sort of murderer. Madame Lefroy’s accident could easily have not ended in her death. She was a very accomplished rider, and her horse was reputedly a calm one. It might not have spooked much. She might not have been thrown. Even so, she might have landed differently and been only slightly injured instead of being killed. Jane’s attempted murder involves bribing the chairmen to set her down in a deserted alley and run away, but it is not deserted enough. People come and Smythe has to run away. Similarly, the attempted murder of Lawrence is stopped.

The author uses symbolism to good effect in the book, especially in the scene where Jane and Lord Harold walk into the Labyrinth in Sydney Gardens. That Jane knows the way yet allows Lord Harold to take the lead is interesting, and when they take a wrong turn, Jane knows how to direct them going the right way again. But she allows Lord Harold to get them to the heart of the Labyrinth after all. And that is where the author ends that scene, with them needing to get out again. This goes well beyond this book to the multiple book story arc. It prefigures what will happen to the pair next.

Eyes, and the ability to see or not, and disguises are motifs that come up frequently, particularly with reference to people’s feelings. The “stormy” eye portrait starts the issue, but the fact of most people at the initial party wearing eye masks as part of their costumes is used to good effect when it is Desdemona of all the party goers who wears no mask and yet is masking her true feelings through much of the story. Jane’s ability to “read” Lord Harold increases throughout the novel, even when he tries to keep his expression unreadable. That very attempt at blankness is transparent to Jane’s eyes by the end. She knows the ubiquitous Maria Conyngham has managed to hurt him in spite of his earlier assurances that he cannot be affected.

Speaking of Maria Conyngham, there are things about her I’m not sure I understand. Why did Lord Harold think he could get information out of her if he sweet-talked her? He was fairly cynical about her character before he ever pursued her. He seems to admit to Jane that he failed utterly with her. He is stricken by her suicide, as Jane can plainly see but he will not admit. All he will say to Jane is a philosophical comment on those who play sleuth successfully: “It is a dreadful presumption to serve in judgement on one’s fellow men. It is to play a little at God—and though I have been accused of such a score of times before, I only now admit to approaching it.”


As I have read each book in the series, I have added it here. These reviews are intended to be read only by people who have finished reading the books, unless you are willing to learn all the solutions now!

In the fourth mystery involving Jane Austen, Jane and the Genius of the Place, Stephanie Barron has written a novel of manners interspersed with episodes of murder mystery and detection efforts. The book has a lot to say about how to behave in polite society, with Françoise Grey, the murder victim, exhibiting outrageous behavior at the Canterbury Race meeting, to the entertainment of the party of Austen ladies. They discuss her behavior inside and out through the rest of the novel, with plenty of commentary on propriety and the lack thereof, and what it might mean about her life, and the implications for the younger Austens.

That opening scene constitutes all the clues the reader gets until more than halfway through the book. If the reader did not pick up on the clues at the outset, put them together with the title, and come up with the identity of the murderer (but not the name) right then, well, the reader would be out of luck until chapter 11, when the culprit reappears and is given a name at last, but he’s been away so long you probably have forgotten all about him and don’t connect him with the mysterious man at that opening scene.

The murder mystery is a tricky problem, the solution involving the Napoleonic wars, the money financing the war and specifically the proposed invasion of England, as well as gambling, blackmail, and the role of gossip in wartime in an area likely to be invaded by the enemy. This allows the author to unfold a few twists at the end, just to keep the inattentive reader guessing who actually did the foul murder.

But I have a few complaints to make about this entry in the series, as I think these problems make this story unnecessarily weak.

How thick was that veil? How could Henry Austen discern the color of the eyes of the wearer of the veil, and yet not realize it wasn’t a lady wearing it? How closely did the murderer resemble his victim? She was supposed to be beautiful. Very few men in a wig without makeup would be beautiful like a woman. Think of the pictures you’ve seen of Jackie Kennedy at the funeral of the late President. That’s what a beautiful woman looks like wearing a black veil. You could see her features pretty clearly. And this veil that the murderer wore was described as black illusion net, which makes seeing the features, even eye color, possible. Had it been a thicker kind to disguise his features, nobody could have see the eye color.

How could he have passed his form off as that of a shapely woman? Simply donning her riding habit over his own clothes does not change his shape to hers, and he was described as slender. He should have had to wear some padding to make the disguise effective. And a thicker veil.

After the race, he returns to Mrs Grey’s phaeton, which is nearly next to the Austens’ barouche, and they watch all the action, yet none of them realize this not Mrs Grey. In a Shakespeare play where you suspend disbelief for all the conventions of men and women disguising themselves as one another, this all works. But here it does not. Not for me.

Having the governess recognize his riding posture from a long distance when he was only a spot of red color seemed a reach, especially when later he was next to them, dismounting and climbing into Mrs Grey’s phaeton and driving away. That’s when the author should have had the governess recognize his disguise. And then she should have made a noise and fainted, or something. And then he could have murdered her next to keep her quiet. No, we can’t have that, because the historical Anne Sharpe wasn’t a murder victim. At the very least, she should have been looking carefully at him to make sure that her long-distance recognition was true. Maybe she did that; we don’t get a lot of information about her actions at this point, we only know that she faints when the dead body spills out of Collingforth’s carriage.

I’m not sure I believe the characterization of the governess, Anne Sharpe. It doesn’t seem consistent. Because Anne Sharpe had felt all the force of an intimate betrayal by Julian Sothey at the point when Mrs Grey hit him with her whip before the race, I’d have expected her to be unable to continue to attend to the needs of Fanny Austen just minutes later, as if nothing had happened. Anne Sharpe seems to have extraordinary strength of mind in her ability to act, based on the next few pieces of information about her. But when the race begins and the governess recognizes Sothey in disguise as Mrs Grey, she begins to go to pieces. Why should she, if she was able to exercise such self-command at the point of the betrayal? She doesn’t know yet that he’s done anything but have a relationship with Mrs Grey. His wearing the riding habit and riding her horse would be a puzzle, but not a further shock. Having Anne faint when the dead body of Mrs Grey appears is fitting, as then the shock of murder is added in her mind to the betrayal. But a few minutes later than this, she is back to behaving with extraordinary self-control, suggesting to Fanny that they read riddles together while waiting for the gentlemen to process the murder scene. Then she again goes to pieces, pleading headache and illness. Through the rest of the novel, she behaves as a weak sort of woman, under considerable strain and not holding up well. Jane is forever suggesting she rest more, until Anne Sharpe’s behavior finally suggests suspicion to Jane’s mind.

The history of the romance between Anne Sharpe and Julian Sothey would have been better had the author not introduced that scene at the end when he bursts upon them near the front door of the house at 2 a.m., and exclaims, “You see before you, Anne, a heart now more your own than when you nearly broke it a few days ago!” Really? I can barely forgive author Stephanie Barron for stealing and adapting this line from Jane Austen’s Persuasion character Captain Frederick Wentworth, whose use was both heartfelt and accurate, since the time period he and his beloved had been parted was more than eight years, and thus there was logic to acknowledging the strengthening of his feeling despite his initial heartbreak, whereas Sothey neither suffers heartbreak nor endures pain for any significant length of time. It’s farcical, and I hate the imputation that such a bitterly laughable scene led to such an elevated scene in Jane Austen’s mind.

Jane Austen as sleuth suffers from lack of insight in this story. She sees right through Emilius Finch-Hatton (she does not believe his assertion that he and Lord Harold Trowbridge are intimate friends, though they are obviously acquainted), but she completely believes everything Julian Sothey says. This is not like our Jane. But perhaps we have to give her some latitude. Finch-Hatton betrayed himself with an incongruous statement right off. Sothey was a superb actor and we can allow Jane to be human enough not to be able to see through everybody.

I was disappointed through much of the novel that we were not to see and enjoy the company of Lord Harold Trowbridge. But he appears at the very end, climbing the hill to the little temple where Jane has been writing. Jane had gone to Goodnestone Farm at the close of the climactic scene where all was revealed, and she is back at Godmersham after a week. Jane writes that she has refused the expected proposal from Edward Bridges, as did Cassandra before her, and thus we assume that like Cassandra, Jane had to leave Goodnestone as soon as that proposal was refused. Anyway, Lord Harold comes. He and Jane exchange two speeches and walk off arm in arm.

Not totally satisfying, but it will have to do until the next book.

In her fifth mystery, Jane and the Stillroom Maid, Jane Austen solves a wide-open bloodbath in the crags of Derbyshire, unlike the locked-room variations of her first, third, and fourth mysteries. Spoilers ahead, so beware!

Tess, the eponymous stillroom maid, has a penchant for learning secrets along with dispensing her medicines. She knows that Andrew Danforth wants his brother’s lands and position; she helps by murdering Charles Danforth’s three children and his wife and has begun to poison Charles himself with arsenic. She thinks Andrew will marry her and she will be the lady of the manor. She also has had ambitions of becoming a surgeon and had roped the local blacksmith-surgeon, Michael Tivey, into helping her by allowing her to share in his nocturnal anatomisations (autopsies) of recently-dead corpses. She’s used to wandering around in men’s clothing, as that way she can more safely meet Tivey wherever necessary. It helps her in her secret meetings with Andrew as well.

But Andrew realizes that she’s become a liability, and since he wants to marry the Duke of Devonshire’s daughter, Lady Harriet Cavendish, he summons Tess to meet him in the crags above Miller’s Dale, and there he lies in wait, and he shoots her when she arrives. Michael Tivey finds her body and cuts it up in a semi-ritualistic way to throw the blame on the Masons who have rejected his application to join.

The next day Jane Austen comes across the body while her cousin the Rev. Edward Cooper (who has brought Jane, her sister and her mother to Bakewell in Derbyshire) and his friend George Hemming are fishing, and she is taking a walk to pass the time.

The only fish running in this tale are the red herrings! Lots of people are suspected of parts of the crime, and the crime turns out to be a series of crimes, committed by several people. It’s a properly convoluted and satisfyingly surprising tale as it unfolds.

Solicitor George Hemming confesses to the crime to keep the Danforths (his clients) from suspicion, but they are suspected anyway. George Hemming, it turns out, is Andrew’s natural father, so Andrew, who was supposed to be Charles’s younger half brother by a second wife, is not blood kin to Charles after all and couldn’t inherit if it were known.

Charles, weighed down with grief for his children and wife, is so silent and morose as to make the common people think that he is the guilty party. He has no alibi for the time of Tess’s murder, and he is suspected of having done away with his children and wife himself so that he could inherit her fortune and be eligible to court and marry Lady Harriet Cavendish. Michael Tivey incites a mob to lynch him, and Charles is narrowly saved by Jane and Lord Harold Trowbridge, along with members of the Cavendish party from Chatsworth. But later, Charles confesses to killing Tess to save Andrew, whom he believes killed Tess in revenge for her killing his family. In the end, Andrew shoots Charles at the site where Tess was killed.

Over at Chatsworth, Jane meets Lady Harriet Cavendish’s younger brother, Lord Hartington, the heir to the Dukedom, a volatile-tempered boy of fifteen who suffers from partial deafness and is surly to all. He hates Tess. Since Hart rides around at all hours and is suffering greatly from grief over his mother’s death, he is a suspect, if not of the gunshot, then of the mutilation. It turns out that Tess had been dosing him to cure his deafness, and of course there was no change, and Hart discovered after a few months that Tess was selling all sorts of things to someone who dosed his mother before her death. Did his mother die from Tess’s potions?

Lady Elizabeth Foster, the late Duchess of Devonshire’s best friend (and the Duke’s mistress), has been buying potions from Tess for all sorts of problems, and all the potions seem to contain increasing amounts of morphia. Did she help the death of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire? Hart thinks so, and it is strongly hinted that this lady is ruthlessly ambitious to take over the late Duchess’s place at Chatsworth, even to the point of publicly usurping Lady Harriet’s place in the usual order of precedence in the household. Did she somehow do away with Tess as well, as Tess was by then well known for blackmail?

Meanwhile, a strong thread running through this novel is that of the gradual descent of Jane Austen into despair. She tips gently over the precipice from friendship into unrequited love for Lord Harold Trowbridge in the course of the novel, never admitting it outright but employing the contrast between her happiness at being with him as they cover the ground of the crimes for several hours one day, and her heartbreak in the closing scene as Jane enters the carriage to be borne away from him. Her devastation is skillfully and subtly expressed: “But it was a considerable period before I could utter a word, or appear sensible to my mother’s cries of delight as the carriage slipped south with the autumn leaves; and of Mr. Cooper’s voice lifted fulsomely in hymns of praise, I heard not a syllable. The image of a silver head and a whipcord form—of one last, serious parting look—were all that filled my sight.” The symbol of the autumn leaves is the dying of her hopes, and the idea of her being struck nearly deaf and dumb is poignant in the extreme.

But because this is a series, and because Lord Harold Trowbridge has so far been in every novel, we readers have not lost hope. He must appear again. Add to that, that he has traveled into his own heartbreak in this novel, and add still further that he has allowed Jane to know not only that he had been in love with Lady Harriet Cavendish himself, but that he had realized that he was simply substituting Lady Harriet for his real loss, that of Georgiana herself, over whom he had despaired many years before. That he takes Jane so far into his confidence, and that he and Jane undergo parallel journeys on this theme gives us further reason to hope. Lord Harold is going to be free to see Jane more clearly. It is a bittersweet hope, of course, knowing as we do that Jane never married. But we still want her to have her true romance, and this novel, with its nadir at the end, must be the clearing of a path leading upward.

I loved this novel. I think it was one of the very best of the series.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Truman by David McCullough

Yesterday I finished reading Truman by David McCullough.

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Not only does David McCullough take the time to know his subject as thoroughly as it is possible, he writes superbly, never bogging down in the details, and brings as closely to life as a biography can the character and humanity of Harry S. Truman. This is all clearest in his final page of summation of Truman:

“Born in the Gilded age, the age of steam and gingerbread Gothic, Truman had lived to see a time of lost certainties and rocket trips to the moon. The arc of his life spanned more change in the world than in any prior period in history. A man of nineteenth-century background, he had had to face many of the most difficult decisions of the unimaginably different twentieth century. A son of rural, inland America, raised only a generation removed from the frontier and imbued with the old Jeffersonian ideal of a rural democracy, he had had to assume command of the most powerful industrial nation on earth at the very moment when that power, in combination with stunning advances in science and technology, had become an unparalleled force in the world. The responsibilities he bore were like those of no other president before him, and he more than met the test.
“Ambitious by nature, he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. . . . He held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear. Yet he was not and had never been a simply, ordinary man. The homely attributes, the Missouri wit, the warmth of his friendship, the genuineness of Harry Truman, however appealing, were outweighed by the larger qualities that made him a figure of world stature, both a great and good man, and a great American president.” [p 991]

McCullough does not hide Truman’s flaws either. There were clumsy mistakes, wrong-headed decisions, misplaced loyalty in his stubborn refusal to condemn old friends who were shown to be crooks. He had outbursts of temper that belied his usual kindness and made him seem a “little” man, yet he was never really small-minded. His decisions could be extremely unpopular. At times his approval rating as President was truly dismal, down as low as 26%, and then only six months later it would be nearly 70%. He was a complicated man, and one of the most interesting traits that McCullough covers very clearly is Truman’s ability to grow under pressure to meet any crisis, of which he had many to handle, especially that first year of being President.

McCullough quotes historian Eric Sevareid on the last page, who said, “I am not sure he was right about the atomic bomb, or even Korea. But remembering him reminds people what a man in that office ought to be like. It’s character, just character. He stands like a rock in memory now.” [p 992] In this book, published in 1992, setting Truman’s character against the character of later presidents was McCullough’s unspoken lesson in caution during election years, a lesson the American people seem to need even more now than ever.

Finally, I love this quote: “He was the kind of president the founding fathers had in mind for the country. He came directly from the people. He was America. In his time, in his experience, from small town to farm to World War in far-0ff France in 1918; from financial failure after the war to the world of big-city machine politics to the revolutionary years of the New Deal in Washington to the surge of American power during still another terrible World War, he had taken part in the great chronicle of American life as might have a character in a novel. There was something almost allegorical about it all: The Man of Independence and His Odyssey.” [991-992]

Truman does seem to me to be a larger-than-life character now. I have gained appreciation and admiration for him. We need these fundamentally decent characters in public life, no matter what their politics.

A note about the negative critics: in response to the charge that McCullough too clearly liked Truman and wasn’t hard enough on him for his controversial decisions, I don’t want to read a long and detailed biography written by an author who doesn’t like his subject. As another reviewer said, McCullough’s attitude toward his subject made it more enjoyable to read. Leave it to the newspaper columnists to give us the unrelentingly negative viewpoint. McCullough does not shy away from the controversy at all. It’s there if you are reading with any attention.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Memorial Day Flower Show

About eight years ago I wrote about our usual Memorial Day flower show. Finally I am going to illustrate what we did then and still do, along with more flower photos, because hey, this is a flower show!

We always cut or pick some of whatever flowers we have blooming in our yard at the time. Over the years, the lilacs have been blooming earlier, so we rarely get those anymore. Sometimes we have had some roses bloom early enough, but not this year. We nearly always have iris and peonies and columbine.

The Cemeteries:

Checking in the cemetery office to get a current plot map . . .
Just Flowers:

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Make that California Trip

No, I’m not talking about Route 66, although I love that old song and I have driven on the old highway as it goes through Arizona and arrives over the Colorado River in Barstow, California. There’s a fun town on that highway called Oatman, a place where tourists can watch the sheriff have a center-street shoot-out with the outlaw gang, where burros have the right-of-way, and where one of the deserted hotels is definitely haunted.

This is nostalgia time now. We took a trip to California some years ago and Id like to share part of what we saw with you.

Nothing says California like the palm trees. You know you have arrived when you see them in rows like this.

California wildlife. Or high life? This cat counted my 100-year-old aunt as one of her belongings.

This is Pico, an African Grey parrot. He may outlive me; I just found out they can live 40 to 60 years in captivity! He ruled the dinner table when the cat was elsewhere.
Huntington Beach. Expect the dedicated and talented surfers as well as the amateurs if you go. The former are out there in every weather condition.
I developed an admiration of jacaranda trees on that trip. But my friends who live there told me later that they were horribly messy trees and they hated them. Sigh. I still admire the color!

We took the freeway through Long Beach, past Beverly Hills, through Thousand Oaks and Ventura on into Santa Barbara, and from there we turned inland on Highway 154 which you see here.
We were on the San Marcos Pass Road, past Lake Cachuma.
Here are the golden hills of California, dotted with oak trees.

And vineyards, of course.
El Camino Real

After we found the ocean again at Santa Maria, we passed through Pismo Beach and then back inland through San Luis Obispo where we picked up Highway 1 again and turned back to the coast, arriving in Morro Bay in time for dinner.

I wrote once about clam chowders I have tasted along the Pacific Coast. Well, I cant remember the name of this restaurant in Morro Bay, but if you see this guy (the one on the left!), this is where you should have the clam chowder. It is the best on the Coast!
We sat on the water’s edge eating homemade fudge 
bought in a little candy shop near that restaurant. So 
besides great chowder, Morro Bay boasts fantastic 
orange-flavored fudge.
Morro Rock throws off the foggy shroud at sunset 

The colors under the pier are beautiful, if oily . . .

Morro Bay sunset

Okay, seriously, you need to visit Hearst Castle on your trip north along Highway 1. You look up from the highway, and there is this very odd sight for the surrounding country: a construction unlike anything that you’d normally expect to see here, except that this is California, where anything can appear. And does.
William Randolph Hearst was seriously wealthy, and he used his fortune to -er- loot Europe and the Middle East of amazing treasures that were for sale after the devastation of the First World War. The result is one of the most astonishing and eclectic collections of art and architecture you’ll ever see.

The Neptune Pool, which was drained during California’s terrible drought

The Roman Pool. Anything gold you see IS gold!

I am a sucker for misericords. I love them anywhere I find them.

The view from the terrace toward the Pacific Ocean, swathed in morning fog.

We went down to the pier that Hearst had ordered put in during his heyday. Here is our view back up toward the castle.
That beautiful Pacific blue.

Back to Morro Bay in the evening. How amazing to see the Rock coming out of its ubiquitous mist!

The next day we drove northward again on Highway 1. We stopped off a little ways north of San Simeon at the Elephant Seal Vista Point.
Elephant seals are amazing in all their lovely fat clumsiness on land.

We saw more than just elephant seals.

These little Golden Mantle Ground Squirrels are inveterate beggars and sooo cute, but don’t be deceived. They are wild and they bite, so give them the distance all wildlife deserves. Don’t feed them. You think you should stop eating junk food because it’s poisoning your own body? Yeah.

Piedras Blancas Light Station
I love and hate this part of the drive. The views are stunningly beautiful, but then I look around me and think, this is incredibly fragile, this highway! It is literally falling off into the ocean all the time. I am not showing you the photographs I took of the places where highway crews were repairing the parts that had fallen off the mountainside. They were everywhere. Imagine if you were on this road when a really big earthquake struck! Yikes. This is how I scare myself into not taking this drive again!

I apologize for having no photographs of Big Sur. It is a place everybody should see once at least. But I was the driver through that section, and nobody in my car takes photos along the way except me. (Nobody else is this crazy about photos.)

And then you arrive at Mission Carmel, or Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo. It is a little gem.
At this place, you have to stop and think about how to reconcile your early California history lessons, taught back in the days before we realized that history needed to see multiple points of view, with the exploitation of the native peoples by the Spanish settlers and missionaries, and the eradication of the culture of the native Californians.

This calls for introspection and reflection on how I relate to the world at large, how sensitive I am to points of view that are very foreign to mine, how I can go about the world making a difference in favor of inclusiveness without surrendering values that make me who I am.

The ever-beautiful Monterey Bay
Practice your paddling form for competition or pleasure

This little denizen of Monterey Bay was extremely cute. Later on we saw him and a seagull, seemingly playing together.

Monterey Bay has a lot of things to do. Whale watching. The Aquarium. Cannery Row. Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk. Fishing. Diving. Boats of all kinds. The 17-Mile Drive. We didn’t do all of these things on this one trip; I have done them all at one time or another. Except scuba diving (one of my brothers did that a lot).

After this we drove inland to the Santa Clara Valley (aka Silicon Valley) and visited old friends. Then to the north Bay Area where we stayed with family members. After that we skirted the northern rim of San Francisco Bay to pick up Highway 101 and go see the Redwoods.

Looking southwest into San Francisco Bay

I think this was one of the crossings of the Umpqua River, but now I’m not sure. If my brother sees this, maybe he’ll tell me!

We came to the ocean again about McKinleyville.

Redwood trees need salt air to thrive, I learned on this trip.
We passed through forests and along the seashore intermittently.

And then we entered the National Park. The only way to enjoy redwoods properly is by getting a good crick in your neck by throwing your head back as far as it will go.

Or you can find a soft spot and just lie down on your back. That’s what I did. I swear, redwood trees have a soul. They approved of me lying there appreciating them with all my might. It was a downright spiritual experience.

Sorry. I’m gushing here. But I really like trees!

Yeah, I thought Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox, belonged east of here. But in my childhood we passed this place, the Trees of Mystery, with this giant pair to advertise it, every time we drove to Oregon to see my grandparents. I was surprised to find it’s still here all these years later. Now I have learned that this tourist place has been here over 70 years.

Next after Klamath you come to False Klamath. I have no idea why they say this is the false one. Anyway, it’s a beautiful cove with a dark sandy beach and lots of rocks jutting out of the water.

We arrived in Crescent City and went directly to where we could walk out past the lighthouse.
Here is the pier at Crescent City

And finally, the jetty, constructed of these huge Dolos armor units, complex geometrical concrete shapes specifically for building a jetty such as this for protecting the coast from normal storm surges. Crescent City was famously destroyed by a tsunami triggered by the 1964 Alaska earthquake. I read that the earthquake did less damage to Anchorage, Alaska than the tsunami did to Crescent City. The city was most recently hit by a big tsunami triggered by the 2011 Japan earthquake, sweeping five people out to sea, four of whom were rescued. Actually, I read that this city is prone to tsunami damage, suffering dozens over the past fifty years. Hence, the jetty, which helps, but the big ones get through anyway.

That ends my Pacific Coast tour of California. I hope you enjoyed it!