Review 1572: Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light dealt with a relationship in the life of the playwright John Millington Synge. Shadowplay deals with a period in the life of another Irish literary figure, Bram Stoker.

In a novel that shifts back and forth over a 30-year time period, Stoker goes to work as general manager for the Lyceum Theater in London, having been hired by Henry Irving, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time. Stoker has taken what he believes is a part-time job that will allow him to work on his fiction, but he finds himself assuming responsibility for everything in the theater, an overwhelming position. Further, he has to cope with his employer’s extravagance and his occasional wild rages. Worse, Irving is dismissive of Stoker’s literary efforts. Nevertheless, they form a lasting friendship.

Also involved in the theater is the famous actress Ellen Terry. Shadowplay is primarily about the enduring relationship between these three. However, it reflects other events of its time, particularly Jack the Ripper and the trial of Oscar Wilde. It deals with Stoker’s struggles to earn a living as a writer, a feat he never accomplished. And it has a ghost.

Shadowplay, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was involving and interesting.

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Review 1428: The Children’s Book

I have an inconsistent reaction to Byatt. I find her novels either completely absorbing, as I did Possession, or perplexing, as I did A¬†Whistling Woman. The very long novel, The Children’s Book, nevertheless falls into the first category.

Byatt’s novel takes on the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods, a time when, she says, adults seemed to be trying to prolong childhood, when, for example,¬†Peter Pan made its appearance. Fittingly then, a major character is Olive Wellwood, a writer of children’s tales. She has many children, and aside from her authorly output, she writes a continuing story for each one of them. It’s her oldest son, Tom’s, misfortune that she confuses fiction with reality.

The novel begins when, on a visit to a museum with his mother, Tom notices a ragged boy and follows him to find he is living in a closet in the museum. This boy is Philip Warren, a worker in a pottery factory who has run away because he wants to make pottery, not feed fires and do other mundane tasks. Major Prosper Cain, the museum keeper Olive is visiting to consult, thinks he may be able to find a place for Philip, and Philip ends up working at Prospect House for the brilliant but disturbed potter Benedict Fludd.

But first we have the Wellwood’s elaborate Midsummer play, where we meet all of the important characters of the novel. The Wellwood’s guests are artists, anarchists, socialists, fellow Fabianists, and even a banker in the person of Basil Wellwood, the host Humphry’s brother. Of course, other guests are these people’s children, who eventually become important characters in their own right.

The novel covers the time from 1895 to the end of World War I, although the war is covered only briefly. Over this time period, Byatt not only tells us the stories of her many characters but also checks in to events in the lives of actual figures of the time, for example, Oscar Wilde, Emma Pankhurst, H. G. Wells, and Rupert Brooke.

This novel is interesting both on an intimate level, as the children discover their parents’ secrets and have their own, and on the broader, more ambitious level of a portrait of the age. There are casualties in this novel, and it is at times very dark, the way Olive likes her stories.

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Day 907: Victorian Fairy Tales

Cover for Victorian Fairy TalesApparently, in Victorian times there was a fashion for fairy tales. Not only did some writers, especially of children’s books, concentrate on them, but many writers of other types of works wrote them as well. Although Victorian Fairy Tales is published as a scholarly work with notes and essays, the tales are well worth reading by anyone, and many of them are by well-known writers.

My favorite tale was “The Rose and the Ring,” by William Makepeace Thackeray. It is about a couple of usurping kings and the confusion that results when an enchanted ring and a rose that each make the wearer irresistible to the opposite sex are traded around among the characters. The story is very funny, with different types of humor to appeal to both adults and children, as well as silly names and repetition, which children love. The pictures by Thackeray from the original are wonderful.

“Prince Prigio” by Andrew Lang is another funny tale, about a prince who is so smart that he annoys everyone. Another outstanding tale is by E. Nesbit, “Melisande,” about a princess who is cursed by a wicked fairy to be bald. Her father gives her a wish, and as happens in fairy tales, she doesn’t wish wisely.

Other favorite stories are “The Queen Who Flew” by Ford Madox Ford and “The Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame. “The Reluctant Dragon” and “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde are the only stories in the volume I have read before, although I vaguely remember there being a copy of “The Little Lame Prince” by Dinah Mulock Craik around our house.

There is much to enjoy in this book, both for children and adults. I thought a couple of the stories were a bit ethereal and symbolic to be enjoyed much by children (or by me), but most of them were fun to read.

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