Monday, October 29, 2018

Catherine Reef

Catherine Reef is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books, including Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life, Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse, Victoria: Portrait of a Queen, and other highly acclaimed biographies for young people. She lives in College Park, Maryland.

Reef's latest young adult biography is Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein's Creator.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently read Mark Ford’s Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner, which opens with an incident worthy of Mary Shelley. It seems that when Hardy died, in 1928, there was a tussle over his body. Hardy had requested burial in Stinsford Churchyard, alongside his rural Dorset family and his first wife, Emma Gifford Hardy. But his literary executor successfully lobbied for a resting place in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, a tribute that Florence Dugdale Hardy, the writer’s widow, was inclined to accept. To act in keeping with Hardy’s wishes yet allow the nation to honor him in its manner most fitting, a compromise was reached: the writer’s heart was removed from his chest and buried at Stinsford; the rest of his body was then cremated and deposited at Poets’ Corner.

Ford had my attention, and he held it to the end, as he used the lenses of biography and criticism to reveal a way of looking at Thomas Hardy. Ford’s Hardy was someone with rural, working-class roots who was changed by exposure to city life.

The son of a builder, Hardy left Dorset and went to London in 1862, at twenty-one, to be an architect’s apprentice. In his off hours he adhered to a rigorous program of self-education, visiting galleries and museums, reading demanding texts, attending concerts and the theater, and writing poetry. He had literary ambitions, but after failing to find success as a poet, in 1867 he returned to Dorset, determined to give up his dream and become the architect he had been trained to be. With Emma’s encouragement, however, he tried novel writing and began to make a name for himself. In future years he regularly stayed in London for months at a time, although Dorset remained his base. He wrote as a man not fully at home in either environment, who observed both settings with the eye of an outsider.

Ford pointed out instances of the city’s encroachment on country life in the novels for which Hardy is famous. An example that comes to mind is the growing presence in the rural landscape of the railroad in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Hardy described the rail line extending its “steam feeler to this point three or four times a day,” like some tentacled creature. The fictional rural Wessex was no longer untouched and unspoiled.

Ford devoted at least as much space to Hardy’s lesser-known novels as he did to the famous ones. These are books set partly in London, such as The Hand of Ethelberta, which follows the romantic fortunes of Ethelberta Chickering, who finds success as a storyteller in London while concealing her background as a Wessex girl and the daughter of a butler. In another, A Pair of Blue Eyes, Hardy created a character much like himself, an architect’s assistant recently arrived in London from the country.

Hardy returned to his poetry in old age. I am not as familiar with his poems as I would like to be, so I was happy that Ford looked closely at so many of them. One that has stayed with me is “Coming Up Oxford Street, Evening.” In this early poem Hardy presents an indifferent universe, one in which the sun shines impartially and beautifully on windows and their brass hardware, door panels, bottles in a chemist’s shop, and “the laughing eyes and teeth / Of ladies who rouge and whiten.” The same sun
dazzles the pupils of one who walks west,
A city-clerk, with eyesight not the best,
Who sees no escape to the very verge of his days
From the rut of Oxford Street into open ways.
The city-clerk may have mirrored the young Hardy, a lonely transplant in London.

Ford left me wanting to immerse myself in Hardy’s body of work—if only I had nothing else to do! Will I have the same feeling about Joyce when I finish Richard Ellmann’s book on him?

I have good reasons to reread Ellmann’s James Joyce, one of the great literary biographies of my lifetime. Since first reading it in the 1990s, I have stayed in Dublin and Paris, the cities that were most formative for Joyce the writer. I have become a literary biographer myself; my interests and views have evolved; and I hope I have learned from experience. I am bound to take different things away from Ellmann’s Joyce this time, as I would with any good book, because I am not the same reader.

Right now I am about 130 pages in, and Joyce is twenty-one (the age at which Hardy went to London), having grown up in a large family whose finances are precarious, and having done as well in school and college as he cared to. His plan to study medicine, first in Dublin and then in Paris, with the goal of pursuing the dual careers of physician and writer, has come to nothing. He is scraping by in Paris, economizing in every way that he can as he reads in the National Library and submits reviews to journals in England and Ireland.

It is fun to watch Joyce’s character take shape. Even on second reading, his youthful arrogance surprises: he has great respect for his own literary talent and potential, although he has written very little, and he thinks nothing of disparaging established writers such as Yeats and Lady Gregory, who have gone out of their way to help him. (It is interesting that they have spotted something unusual in him too.) I shake my head, though, as he mails self-pitying letters to his mother, worrying her to the point that she pawns her meager possessions to send him small amounts of cash. Of course, I know—and you know—that he will take his place among the greats, although to succeed he will need to distance himself from Ireland and his family.

Ellmann used a generous hand when adding footnotes to his book. They enrich the text with anecdotes that go beyond the scope of the narrative and references to Joyce’s oeuvre, pointing out occurrences in novels and stories that were inspired by real events. I savor these notes and think of them as the currants in this hefty loaf of Irish soda bread.
Visit Catherine Reef's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Catherine Reef & Nandi.

The Page 99 Test: Mary Shelley.

--Marshal Zeringue