The Remains of the Day

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I was elated on hearing the news that the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am one of those ‘old school’ readers who bemoan the dying art of formal and elegant writing which has been replaced by a more casual and conversational style in modern times. Ishiguro’s books are written in impeccable English. It is a pleasure to read his exquisitely worded prose. The Remains of the Day, winner of the 1989 Man Booker Prize, was the first book I read by him. I saw the Merchant Ivory film based on the book starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson before I read it and although the film was excellent, the novel simply took my breath away. Imagine my surprise then on learning that he wrote this perfectly crafted masterpiece in a feverish rush in four weeks! I would like to pen my thoughts on this moving story as a humble congratulatory tribute to this fine author.

Written in first person narration, this is the story of Stevens, an English butler employed in Darlington Hall and among the last of a vanishing breed, who sets out on a motoring journey in the year 1956 to the West Country on the suggestion of his American employer, Mr. Farraday. Darlington House previously belonged to Stevens’ former employer, the now deceased Lord Darlington. The purpose of the journey is ostensibly to meet with Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, a former housekeeper who had left the manor house twenty years ago on getting married and to propose that she rejoin the understaffed establishment. Stevens had earlier received a letter from her that hinted of an estrangement from her husband and of her wish to return as an employee.

The journey is both an outward and inward one for it also becomes a journey into the past. As he travels, he reflects on his time of service at Darlington Hall and recalls the dinner parties and the distinguished guests who frequented the great house of the era. The narrative is recounted in a stream of consciousness style in flash back form interspersed with moments from the present. He reminisces about his father, the butlers in other prominent houses, his loyalty to Lord Darlington and his relationship with Miss Kenton with whom he had many childish skirmishes.

But the truth is that he harbored romantic feelings for the housekeeper which he was unable to express even to himself let alone to her. For Stevens was so devoted to duty and decorum that serving his master was the primary objective of his life. And in his extreme dedication to service and obsequious subservience to his master, he denied his own feelings and consequently lost his only chance at love. He prides himself on his stoic dignity but this dignity doesn’t allow him to show the slightest bit of vulnerability even on the death of his father to which he reacts impassively.

Stephens is an unreliable narrator. We learn a lot more from what he conceals than from what he reveals. It is through the reactions of the other characters that we get an insight into the events. For instance we learn that Lord Darlington was used as a pawn by the Nazis and was labeled a Nazi sympathizer after World War II. Stevens once went as far as dismissing two Jewish maids on the urging of his master. He is aware that what he did was morally wrong and Miss Kenton even called him out for it but he justified his action in the name of dignity. What does Stevens do when he realizes in retrospect that he may have unwittingly trusted a man who had made grave mistakes? His entire self-worth came from serving a ‘great gentleman’ and to question Lord Darlington’s motives would shatter his self-image and render the purpose of his life meaningless as it would be tantamount to admitting that he in some way participated in the bigotry. With the constant dissimulation and the rationalization that follows, he exhibits a classic case of what the French existentialist Sartre referred to as “la mauvaise foi’’ or bad faith.

There is an interesting passage where the narrator describes the English countryside: “What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to show it.” Stevens’ emotions are as controlled as the land around him and Ishiguro’s writing itself displays an understated elegance akin to the countryside. Stevens can barely understand himself but Ishiguro is able to peel the façade and make the readers discern the unfelt and the unsaid. An interesting device employed by Ishiguro is the use of the pronoun ‘one’ by Stevens which creates a distance as opposed to the more personal “I”.

“Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding.”

Although Stevens is a tragic character, the book starts off as a delightful comedy of manners- the fastidious anachronistic butler who was once entrusted with the task of talking about the birds and the bees to Lord Darlington’s godson is now disconcerted by his American employer who has a penchant for bantering- and it evolves gradually into a poignant story of loss and regret. As Stevens reminisces, here and there glimpses of truth emerge leading to the climax when the mask slips a little as he faces the truth that he has been trying to avoid and reflects on the remains of the day. And when Stevens remembers the moment when Miss Kenton confessed to him that she wanted to marry him, he cries out in a moment of lucidity: “ Indeed- why should I not admit it?- in that moment my heart was breaking.” And in that moment, my heart broke for Stevens and for what could have been and never was and never will be and I was reduced to tears. It broke for Miss Kenton too and her frustrated attempts to reach out to Stevens on several occasions.

Miss Kenton however lives with more authenticity and integrity than Stevens and has her family life to look forward to. But Stevens is the more pitiable character- a man so stunted emotionally that he doesn’t know who he is under the carefully cultivated layers of decorum and propriety – sort of like the silver he so meticulously polishes till it is shiny and sparkling with no trace of tarnish . Dignity may be a lofty ideal but it also encompasses sacrifice as he realizes in one heartbreaking moment of admission when his raw emotions come gushing out:

“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. . . . He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted that I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”

All along while reading, I had the urge to grab Stevens by his stiff collar and shake him out of his self-deception but when he finally showed his human and vulnerable side, I broke down along with him.

The clever title of the novel suggested by a friend of Ishiguro’s refers to the concept of Freud’s Tagesreste ( day’s residues)- memories awakening to bring to consciousness the residual debris or the repressed matter which would otherwise remain unconscious. The remains of the day could mean assessing what remains of your life after examining the past- the despair of a life not lived fully but it could also imply looking forward to the future to decide how you want to live the remainder of your life.

This story evokes a certain milieu in England with its class dynamics of the “upstairs” and the “downstairs” and it is as much the story of a changing England through the inter-war and post war years , the last days of Empire and the rise of America, as it of the private epiphany of Stevens. In fact through the quintessentially English butler, Ishiguro has captured the universal experience- who among us hasn’t wondered if the road not taken would have led to more happiness and fulfillment?

Congratulations to Mr. Ishiguro on this well-deserved award! Although I’m happy that such a prestigious honor has been bestowed on him, the award is secondary. Nobel Prize or not, I’ll always admire him for his amazing creativity and talent. He has been blessed with the gift of writing and his writing, in turn, is a gift to our world.

*Cover Photo: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4568066

 

 

 

 

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A Normal Paranormal

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I had settled myself comfortably on the couch, snuggled with a copy of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories and was looking forward to a quiet and peaceful evening engrossed in the soothing pleasure of reading. What was I thinking? After all, I was reading Daphne Du Maurier and I should have known better. I have read most of her novels and I should have been prepared to be shaken out of my comfort zone. The stories kept me on edge constantly and the evening ended with me feeling out of sorts and a little terrified too. Du Maurier is best known for her Gothic novel Rebecca, a gripping psychological thriller. Her short stories are less well known but they create the same suspenseful and unsettling atmosphere that can send chills down your spine or, at the least, leave a bad taste in your mouth. This collection has five stories, each distinct and different from the other, yet they create the same familiar feeling of foreboding. They are all page turners without exception.

Don’t Look Now, the eponymous first story which is almost the length of a novella, is the most famous of the collection as it was made into a successful film in 1973 by Nicolas Roeg starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. John and Laura Baxter who are grieving the death of their little daughter, make a trip to heal to Venice where they come across a pair of elderly twin sisters who claim they can see the ghost of the dead little girl near the couple. One of the sisters is blind and a clairvoyant psychic who can look into the future. She warns the couple that they are in danger and must leave Venice as soon as possible. They soon learn that their son in boarding school is hospitalized and may need surgery. Laura promptly leaves the city for England whereas John stays on for another day and starts seeing things. The blind sister thinks that he is a psychic too but is not aware of it. He is gradually overcome with confusion and paranoia and if things were not bizarre enough already, there is also a serial killer prowling in the area. The ending is frightening and unexpected. The setting is evocative and plays an important role as in all of du Maurier’s works. Who can forget Manderley’s imposing presence in Rebecca where the mysterious mansion stands out almost like a character itself? And who would have imagined that Venice, the idyllic tourist destination, a city we associate with beauty and romance would be a backdrop for this chilling supernatural story? The dark alleyways and labyrinthine canals create a sinister effect. One could say that the twists and turns in the plot are disorienting like the meandering alleys of Venice or like the mind of the narrator itself.

Not After Midnight is a story told in flashback of a man who is clearly suffering from a mysterious ailment or even a nervous breakdown. Timothy Grey, the teacher of a prep school, looks forward to his vacation in Crete to spend his time in solitude pursuing his hobby. He has a penchant for painting seascapes. He is determined to stay in a sea front chalet even when he finds out that just two weeks before his arrival, the previous occupant had drowned in the ocean, half eaten by octopuses. He is annoyed by the presence on the property of an obnoxious and boorish American named Mr. Stoll who drinks like a fish and brews his own beer. He and his wife hunt rare artefacts endowed with strange powers. Mrs. Stolls invites Mr. Grey to visit their chalet but curiously “not after midnight” and leaves him a peculiar gift, an ancient drinking horn decorated with “Silenos, drunken tutor to the God Dionysus”. He is seized with a morbid curiosity about what may have happened to the former guest and follows the Stolls around. The conclusion is abrupt and ambiguous and the words “not after midnight” are left unexplored. After building up an  atmosphere of great tension with a sense of impending doom, Du Maurier leaves us disappointed, longing for more. I thought the story had a lot of potential and I felt cheated by the ending. Or maybe I just need to brush up on my Greek mythology.

The Breakthrough is a strange sci-fi story combined with the occult. An engineer is sent to work at a research facility in the middle of the Norfolk marshes where the scientist in charge is conducting secret experiments. He and his team are working on a device called Charon ( Du Maurier seems to have a predilection for the symbolism of Greek legends) that has the ability to transmit psychic messages and control a dog and a mentally disabled little girl but the true purpose is something more ambitious and frightening. Their goal is to capture the living energy from a soul of a person at the time of death in order to examine the afterlife. A member of the team is a young man dying with leukemia who is ready to be their guinea pig. The premise of the story is interesting in spite of being dated but the conclusion is underwhelming and anti-climactic like the previous story.

A Borderline Case is the most risqué and disconcerting story of the collection with a compelling title that can be interpreted in many different ways. After her father dies suddenly , Shelagh, a nineteen year old actress, decides to look up his estranged colleague in Ireland. He was best man at her parents’ wedding but shortly thereafter vanished without a trace from their lives. She arrives in a village in Ireland and discovers that he lives in an island in the middle of a lake and is either crazy or a criminal. She is irresistibly drawn to this mysterious man and his ways. I enjoyed this story as the ending completely caught me unawares. Some readers may find the dark and disturbing denouement quite predictable but I did not see it coming. Du Maurier drops hints throughout the story but also distracts us enough with developments in the plot that we are completely taken by surprise or shock as in the case of this story.

The Way of the Cross has a different tone from the rest of the stories. It is more didactic in nature, almost like a parable. A young inexperienced clergyman, Rev. Edward Babcock, has to fill in for a vicar who has fallen sick and escort a group of parishoners on a tour of Jerusalem. The group includes a retired colonel, his snobbish wife and their energetic and precocious grandson, a business man with a roving eye and his tolerant wife, an elderly ‘spinster’ smitten with the absent vicar and a newly married couple on their honeymoon experiencing intimacy issues. Biblical analogies abound through the actions of the characters as they retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Land on the first day of Jewish Passover. A strained dinner is followed by a walk on the Mount of Olives where everyone scatters and gets separated. Miscommunications and betrayals take place. Numerous mishaps happen in the form of accidents or humiliations ending with each of the characters having an epiphany and learning a valuable lesson.

Du Maurier has a remarkable talent for describing the extraordinary in the ordinary. All the characters are regular people in everyday situations with everyday problems with whom you can relate well. You are lulled into a false sense of security while reading about them till you realize that something is off kilter. Nothing is as it seems when you peel the surface and layers. The characters go about their mundane lives but they have an insatiable curiosity that leads them into places and situations they are unfamiliar with and chaos ensues. The paranormal is treated as normal in a casual way and soon the boundaries between fantasy and reality are blurred. The endings often leave you  bewildered and baffled. You have to go back to the first few pages and piece together how it all fits together. You think the stories have ended but have they? They stay with you long after you place the book back on the bookshelf or return it to the library. I know I’ll be thinking about these stories for days, if not months or years.

Classic Love Poems For Valentine’s Day

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Love runs the entire gamut of emotions from a febrile infatuation and a fervent passion to a quiet and loving companionship. To celebrate Valentine’s Day, I have selected ten classic love poems written in the English language to share on my blog. I’ve chosen well-known poems and excerpts of poems that you’ve probably read in your English classes in high school or college. Isn’t there something comforting about reading familiar poems? You could even send them to your sweetie. Not everyone has the gift of gab and even if you’re eloquent, love can leave you tongue-tied. I hope one of these romantic poems will make your partner swoon.

Who can forget the experience of falling in love for the first time? John Clare’s poem, “First Love”describes the electrifying effect of love at first sight. The poet/speaker is so awestruck by the beauty of a woman that it leaves him physically weak and drained. Here’s the beginning of the poem:

I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet,
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.
My face turned pale as deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay.

 First Love, John Clare

And then follows the relentless pursuit of the beloved. The poet Robert Browning evokes the thrill of the chase in the beginning lines of “Life in a Love”. Robert Browning was successful in the pursuit of his beloved Elizabeth Barrett with whom he began a secret courtship, exchanged hundreds of love letters and eventually eloped. Their love story is one of the most romantic ones in literary history.

Escape me?
Never—
Beloved!
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both,
Me the loving and you the loth,
While the one eludes, must the other pursue.

Life in a Love, Robert Browning

There’s no joy as fulfilling as reciprocated love. Elizabeth Barrett Browning returned Robert Browning’s affection wholly and truly. In one of the most famous sonnets ever written and also one of my personal favorites, she expresses the depth and intensity of her love for her soon to be husband.The poem depicts an ideal love that’s powerful, all-encompassing, pure, passionate and enduring and that even transcends death.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Sonnets from the Portuguese 43, Elizabeth Barrett Browning 

When you are in love, you throw caution to the wind as you sail through unchartered territory. It’s not clear whether the speaker is male or female in the erotic poem “Wild Nights-Wild Nights!” by Emily Dickinson. It’s probably a male speaker based on the last line. Nevertheless, he or she expresses the desire to spend wild nights of unrestrained passion with the beloved. Enough said!

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

Wild Nights-Wild Nights! (269), Emily Dickinson

Alas, equal affection is not always possible. Sometimes one person is more invested in the relationship than the other. But to love is worthy in itself, even if unrequited.

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

The More Loving One, W.H. Auden

Another beautiful poem that deals with unrequited love and regret is “When you are old and grey” by W. B. Yeats, based on a sonnet written by Pierre de Ronsard. It is believed that Yeats penned the poem for Maud Gonne, the love of his life. The speaker is a spurned man who addresses his former love ( or ex in modern parlance) and explains how he loved her to the depths of his soul even when her beauty started fading with age. The lines”But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face..”are undoubtedly among the most romantic verses ever written, at least according to me. He hopes that one day when she reminisces about her life, she will regret that she chose not to be with the person who loved her unconditionally.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

When You are Old, W.B.Yeats

Even if the sentiments are reciprocated, the timing was not right or you may have been too shy to acknowledge your feelings for each other, or maybe you discovered too late that you like each other. You are only left wondering ‘what if’ with an immense feeling of regret. This succinct poem by Sara Teasdale conveys the wistfulness evoked by a haunting kiss that never was:

Strephon kissed me in the spring,
Robin in the fall,
But Colin only looked at me
And never kissed at all.

Strephon’s kiss was lost in jest,
Robin’s lost in play,
But the kiss in Colin’s eyes
Haunts me night and day.

The Look, Sara Teasdale

What bliss it is to feel loved and cherished by your soul mate! “To My Dear And Loving Husband” is a sweet and tender expression of married love written by Anne Bradstreet, one of the earliest settlers in Massachusetts in the 17th century. The speaker praises her husband who completes her. In fact, they complete each other and become one. She values his love more than earthly riches and is confident that their love will continue beyond the earthly realm in heaven. 

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more we may live ever.

To My Dear and Loving Husband, Anne Bradstreet

Love changes its form with the passage of time but never goes away. The intense passion of the first few years may decrease in a long term relationship but it is replaced by a caring and comforting companionship. The poem “Decade” was written by Amy Lowell to commemorate the ten year relationship with her same sex partner, Ada Russell. However there is no gender specified by the speaker in the poem when describing the transition from the early days of heady passion to a deep emotional bond. 

When you came, you were like red wine and honey, 
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness. 
Now you are like morning bread, 
Smooth and pleasant. 
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour, 
But I am completely nourished. 

Decade, Amy Lowell

Not everyone’s story ends happily ever after. Sometimes the world conspires to keep young people in love apart. But true love can never be destroyed, not even by death as portrayed in this haunting poem about the everlasting love of Edgar Allan Poe for Annabel Lee. I get goosebumps each and every time I read the ending of this poem about the young star-crossed lovers.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love 
   Of those who were older than we— 
   Of many far wiser than we— 
And neither the angels in Heaven above 
   Nor the demons down under the sea 
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul 
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; 

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams 
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; 
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes 
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; 
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side 
   Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride, 
   In her sepulchre there by the sea— 
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Annabel Lee, Edgar Allan Poe

I hope these romantic poems put you in an amorous mood for Valentine’s Day. If there are any poems you like that are not included in my list, please add them in your comments. If you are in love, or have ever been in love or hope to be in love someday… Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

 

To Edit Or Not To Edit, Enid?

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Enid Blyton, the immensely prolific and widely read children’s author who enthralled generations of children with her escapist fiction, has been in the news lately. Her popularity waned in later years as her works were not only considered outdated but also replete with racial , sexist and elitist undertones. Many versions had already been edited over the years to soften the racist implications. For instance, the golliwogs of the Noddy books were replaced with goblins. Six years ago the publishers decided to go one step further and made revisions to the books to cater to the vocabulary and mentality of modern children. Old-fashioned interjections like ‘jolly good’ and ‘golly gosh’ were eliminated. Dame Slap of The Magic Faraway Tree became Dame Snap as corporal punishment is now frowned upon and even viewed as abuse. ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ were replaced with ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad”, ‘You Bet’ became ‘Definitely ’and ‘frocks’ changed to ‘dresses’. The word ‘queer’ morphed into ‘strange’. Unsurprisingly, the revised versions were not popular with the public and in a welcome move, the publishers Hachette (yes, they have decided to spare the hatchet) are going to revert to the original language of the texts without revisions or edits.

I grew up immersed in the world of Enid Blyton and constructed my own little world around her world. I spent many happy hours of my childhood reading the delightful books which introduced me and countless other children in the Anglophone world to the joys of reading. I envied the children who discovered secret passages and solved mysteries, went on hiking and camping adventures without adult supervision and to posh boarding schools where they played hockey and lacrosse and had midnight feasts in the dorm. How can I forget the sumptuous summer picnics of The Famous Five who feasted on crusty loaves of bread, currant buns, scones and jam tarts, tomato sandwiches with ‘lashings’ of boiled eggs and guzzled home made lemonade and ginger beer? The descriptions made me so ravenously hungry that I salivated at the thought of eating a pot of shrimp paste even though I was a die- hard vegetarian. It was a world alien to my own but provided plenty of fodder for my imagination. I devoured The Famous Five, The Five Find-Outers and The Secret Seven series and even formed a club called “The Exciting Eight” with my neighborhood pals, which later, with the addition of more members, became “The Thrilling Ten”. We had our own secret password like the members of The Secret Seven. At home, my siblings and I enacted the boarding school stories envying the lucky girls at Malory Towers and St. Clare’s. I particularly longed to attend the fascinating Malory Towers to join the girls to make fun of the strict and inquisitive Nosey Parker, the second form mistress, and to play pranks on Mam’zelle Dupont, the gullible French teacher. We weren’t alone. Apparently Enid Blyton received scores of letters during her lifetime from wide- eyed girls asking if the schools were real and if they could enroll there.

I didn’t detect the inherent sexism and xenophobia in the books when I was reading them through the eyes of a child. But as an adult I can see where the criticism comes from. There’s no denying that there is a dismissive and derogatory attitude towards girls. Let’s take the example of The Famous Five series. George is a tomboy who not only wants to dress as a boy but think and act like one too. But the boys are condescending. In Five On A Hike Together”, Julian tells George : “You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.” The girls are the ones who wash and cook when they go on adventures. They are depicted as envying boys and as not being as good as them. Peter of The Secret Seven Series is bossy and domineering towards Janet, his brave and sensible sister. The stories abound in stereotypes. Gypsies are dirty creatures who steal and kidnap children. Foreigners are more likely to engage in criminal activities. The N word has also been used on occasion. Some of the stories featured golliwogs. In Here Comes Noddy Again, golliwogs attack Noddy in the woods and steal his car. A ‘golliwog ’had no pejorative connotation in the beginning and was just a nursery toy but over time it started representing negative racial stereotypes.

Is there a danger of children internalizing the messages they receive from the stories? How do you handle books that are anachronistically racist and sexist with your children? Do you think publishers should make changes in keeping with modern thoughts and sensibilities? In my opinion, if we re- examine every story through our politically correct lens, we wouldn’t be reading anything at all. We wouldn’t be reading other children’s classics like The Secret Garden or Tintin. We wouldn’t be reading Roald Dahl or Dr. Seuss. These stories were the product of their time and reflected the ideas and values of the society portrayed. Most children don’t pick up on the racism and misogyny but assuming they do, why change history? Let them know of the attitudes that existed at the time. I believe in reading the books without censorship as long as we have a conversation with our children about uncomfortable or offensive passages. Blyton herself stated she wasn’t interested in the views of any critic over the age of twelve. And as far as the outdated language is concerned, why should we assume that children will not understand or appreciate its charm? After all, we adults read Shakespeare.

Somehow Enid Blyton’s books haven’t been popular in the US even with past generations, let alone modern children. My children read a few of them and found them interesting but they were not captivated as I was. They couldn’t relate or retreat to her world with the same sense of excitement as I did. They prefer the fantasy world of Harry Potter. As for me, I’m grateful that I fell under the spell of this marvelous storyteller who turned me into a book addict. And golly gosh, I’m no more racist or sexist than I’m likely to dig into a pot of shrimp paste!

The Enchanted April: Wisteria and Sunshine

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I love books. I love flowers. I love travel. Put the three together and sprinkle with a generous dose of friendship and love and I have something tailor made to help me retreat into my own fantasy world. The Enchanted April, written in 1922 by Elizabeth von Arnim is as enchanting as the title implies and satisfies many of my literary longings. The story has an old-fashioned charm seldom found in modern books. It is as gentle and refreshing as the breeze that wafts on the Mediterranean coast where the plot is set. Reading the book is like doing what the characters are doing literally; sipping afternoon tea languidly in a sunny and lush garden with wisteria cascading down a pergola. You can almost smell the flowers.

Lottie Wilkins is a lonely and neglected married woman who comes across an advertisement in a newspaper at her local woman’s club:

To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.
Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let Furnished for the Month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

She convinces, Rose Arbuthnot, a woman whom she knows by sight in church, to accompany her on the trip. They find two other women to share the castle with them in order to defray the expenses of their stay. So the four English women who come from different walks of life and who are strangers to each other decide to leave rainy and miserable England to go on the month-long retreat in Italy. They each have their own idiosyncrasies and manage to get on each other’s nerves in the beginning. Lottie Wilkins is self-effacing, “the kind of person who is not noticed at parties.” She is married to an ambitious but thrifty solicitor who is finicky about the fish he eats but who scarcely pays any attention to her needs. When she gets nervous, she talks incessantly and has a tendency to blurt out absurdities. Rose Arbuthnot is a pious but unhappy woman whose life revolves around the four compasses: God, Husband, Home and Duty. The virtuous woman described as having “the face of a patient and disappointed Madonna” is scandalized by the lifestyle of her husband who makes a living by writing salacious memoirs of the mistresses of kings. Margaret Fisher is a stern and selfish old widow who just wants to spend her days reminiscing about the luncheons at her father’s house with eminent men like Tennyson, Carlyle, Browning and Ruskin. She prides herself on speaking the refined Italian of Dante which unfortunately is not the kind the cook understands. Lady Caroline Dester is a stunningly beautiful socialite who just wants to be left alone. She is tired of being pampered by her parents and of the advances made by men who fawn over her. Cynical and embittered on the inside, she cannot help being charming and gracious on the outside even if it is her intention to be rude.

San Salvatore is in Liguria on the Italian Riviera. Elizabeth Arnim herself lived some time in this place drenched with flowers and bathed in sunlight. As a floraphile, ( Is that even a word? ) I enjoyed reading the minute and exquisite descriptions of the flowers:

The wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them, and nastartiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce color.

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San Salvatore has a magical effect on its residents for along with the flowers, the characters start blooming too. Lottie is the first one to succumb to the spells of her surroundings. She becomes more confident and effusive and misses her husband so much that she writes a letter to him inviting him to join her in the castle. Rose begins to realize that she is beautiful and can win back her husband’s affection. She misses her husband too and after much deliberation, sends him a telegram inviting him to join her. Ironically, these two ladies first came to the castle to escape from their husbands. Mrs. Fisher becomes less stiff and self-centered and realizes that it is not enough living in the past. Lady Caroline realizes how empty her life is and starts reaching out to the others. Friendship and love start to unfold like the petals of the flowers around them. And then husbands and other men start arriving one after the other to disturb the equanimity of the women in their haven. Will the dispositions of the men change as well? Will love be rekindled and rediscovered in this captivating setting? Or will the characters fall in love with people other than their spouses?

The book reminded me a lot of E. M. Forster’s writing. Not only is it a witty comedy of English mores set in a foreign locale much like A Room With a View, it also exemplifies Forster’s maxim” Only Connect” which has become my own mantra for living my life. It is essentially a story about friendship, love and connection. Sometimes you have to reach out to love by accepting the people around you with all their quirks. The most delightful character is Lottie whose exuberance and optimism end up being infectious:

“She’s burst her cocoon,” thought Lotty; and swift as she was in all her movements, and impulsive, and also without any sense of propriety to worry and delay her, she bent over the back of Mrs. Fisher’s chair and kissed her.

“Good gracious!” cried Mrs. Fisher, starting violently, for such a thing had not happened to her since Mr. Fisher’s earlier days, and then only gingerly. This kiss was a real kiss, and rested on Mrs. Fisher’s cheek a moment with a strange, soft sweetness.

When she saw whose it was, a deep flush spread over her face. Mrs. Wilkins kissing her and the kiss feeling so affectionate. . . Even if she had wanted to she could not in the presence of the appreciative Mr. Briggs resume her cast-off severity and begin rebuking again; but she did not want to. Was it possible Mrs. Wilkins liked her– had liked her all this time, while she had been so much disliking her herself? A queer little trickle of warmth filtered through the frozen defences of Mrs. Fisher’s heart. Somebody young kissing her–somebody young wanting to kiss her. . .

Lottie believes that people can only be happy in pairs whether romantic or platonic and that she is the other half of Mrs. Fisher’s pair and that they will end up being close friends. Don’t you feel that you have stepped into a Forsterian universe? I was hardly surprised then to learn that E. M. Forster was a tutor to Elizabeth von Arnim’s children.

The book was also made into a charming but slow-paced film entitled Enchanted April and directed by Mike Newell. I hope I am not being a literary snob like Mrs. Fisher when I say that the book is better than the film. There are many funny passages in the book that made me chuckle, like the bathroom scene with Mr. Wilkins, and the tense interactions between Mrs. Fisher and Mrs. Arbuthnot vying with each other over who will preside as hostess at the table. Though the film retains a lot of the humor, some of the subtleties are lost in translation. Besides, the character development through the use of internal monologues made the transformation of the protagonists more compelling in the book.

The story made me realize that happiness is a choice. We can choose to be content with what we have; it is a question of perception and perspective. Happiness is about enjoying the present moment, about literally stopping to smell the roses. The fairy tale transformation brought on everyone by the place can seem implausible. I was quite sad to put this book down when it ended and to leave the enchantment like Cinderella forced to leave the castle by midnight. The characters themselves have to leave San Salvatore. Does the magic end there? I was wondering about the future of the protagonists. Will their love continue to blossom? Will they have children? Will they ever return to San Salvatore? It would be wonderful to write a sequel to this story. Sunny April will not go on forever but you hope in your imaginary afterworld of the fiction that the characters will continue basking in its afterglow even after they return to dreary England.

Now if only I had a vacation rental in Italy with interesting companions and a retinue of servants to ponder love and life, I would have my own epiphanies!

A Blind Date With A Book

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Have you ever been on a blind date with a book? I recently went on my first one thanks to an event my library had organized for Valentine’s Day. Many libraries and bookstores are playing Cupid with their patrons in the month of February by offering them the opportunity to go on a blind date with a book. Books are wrapped in brown paper to conceal their identity. You have to commit to reading a book without knowing its title or author. A genre or basic category could be marked or there could be a vague description or a few keywords pertaining to the theme to create mystery and suspense and pique your interest. Often we pick a book based on the cover but cover art can be distracting and even misleading by giving us the wrong impression of the content. As the old adage goes, never judge a book by its cover. Besides, who doesn’t like surprises? If you are someone who restricts yourself to certain genres, you could open up a new world by reading something you wouldn’t have read otherwise. You rate the date when you return the book after reading. You never know, you may meet your perfect match. And no hard feelings, if it doesn’t work out. Abandon the book and move on to the next one.

So, what book did I end up with? I was attracted to the cover that had the words ‘Storytelling and Fantasy’ on it. As I ripped off the brown paper, I saw a thin book entitled The Search after Hapiness ( I’ll get to the spelling mistake in a minute) and the author none other than the famous Charlotte Brontë. I have read, re-read and enjoyed the timeless classic Jane Eyre countless times. I can confidently say that it was one of the first books that made me a lifelong reader. If you take a random survey and ask people to name their hundred greatest books , I’m sure Jane Eyre would be included in many a list. I have also read The Professor and Villette by Brontë but I had never heard of this book before. For me, it was love at first sight as soon as I saw the name of the author. I was even more delighted to discover that the tale in front of my eyes was written by Charlotte Brontë in 1829 when she was just thirteen years old.

In the introduction to the American edition of the book, T. A. J. Burnett explains how the motherless Brontë children engaged in games of make believe to occupy their time in the remote moorland parsonage where they were raised. In June 1826, their father gave them a box of twelve wooden soldiers as a gift. The lonely and isolated children were very imaginative and they created a fictitious city called Glass Town that was conquered and colonized by their twelve heroes. The children themselves were the four genii who presided over the inhabitants of the city. Their games were inspired by the stories in The Arabian Nights which was part of their father’s library collection. Charlotte’s brother, Branwell Brontë, wrote a detailed account of these made up stories in a work entitled, The History of the Young Men from Their First Settlement to the Present Time. The Search after Hapiness is not part of the Glass Town stories but according to the preface to the tale by Brontë, the action is set in Glass Town and Charlotte’s favorite toy soldier named ‘The Duke of Wellington’ has an important role in the story. Brontë wrote the tale in her own hand and in minuscule letters in imitation of print. Her spelling and punctuation errors have been retained in the American edition of the book. The original manuscript has no illustrations but this edition has exquisite watercolors by artist Carolyn Dinan that add to the charm of the tale. When I started reading the book, I immediately noticed the glaring spelling mistakes and the long, winding sentences. I’m glad the editors decided to retain the errors as I think they help convey the youthfulness of the writing and enable us to understand the budding creativity of the author. I was also struck by Brontë’s impressive vocabulary and vivid imagination. The young girl couldn’t spell but she certainly had a way with words.

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The original manuscript of the book, written in miniature print by Charlotte Brontë.

As I started reading the tale, it seemed like I was flying on a magic carpet to the world of The Arabian Nights. I came across magnificent palaces, lush gardens, a subterraneous passage with a stone rolled to the entrance, globes of light and, of course, there was a magic genie thrown in for good measure. The plot itself is incongruous and implausible. Henry O Donell is a young man who leaves behind the city and the people he loves to go on a quest of happiness. During the course of his adventures, he meets Alexander de Lancy, a native of France, who is on a similar pursuit of happiness. They decide to travel together and come across a very old man who narrates his story of enslavement and release to them (the device of a tale framed within another tale is also reminiscent of The Arabian Nights). For some inexplicable reason or by a quirk of fate, Alexander gets separated from Henry. The latter, meanwhile, feels very nostalgic for the home he has left behind and bursts into tears. A mighty genie stands before him, ready to grant his wish and he is instantly transported back to his castle where he coincidentally bumps into Alexander who has become a rich merchant in Paris. And needless to say, they lived happily ever after in their separate cities. The search after happiness brings them back full circle to their own homes.

This book will not appeal to readers who are not familiar with the works of Brontë. In fact, they will probably dismiss the tale as puerile and absurd. It is replete with spelling errors and the rambling descriptions and the problematic syntax make it even more tedious to read. But for those who know Brontë and have enjoyed her oeuvre, it is a fascinating window into the mind of an imaginative and gifted child who would grow up to become one of the most celebrated authors of all time. It is also noteworthy that the story includes Charlotte’s earliest known poem, “In this fairy land of light.” The tale written through the eyes of a thirteen year old helps humanize an author whose reputation has grown to mythic proportions. The book made me wonder about the early writings of other famous authors and how reading juvenilia might help parents and teachers identify and encourage talent at a young age. As far as rating my date goes, I would say it was meant to be. I had no idea such a book existed and as I am a big fan of Charlotte Brontë, it was truly a match made in heaven!

The photos are from the public domain collection of the British Library.