Year of Important Books: A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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I’m not sure how I first stumbled across Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and began to eagerly devour the exploits of the famous private detective. Unlike the other books I have covered this year in my Year of Important Books series, this one was not a relic left behind from my older siblings’ childhood.

I must have got my first Sherlock Holmes tale from the library, whose hallowed spaces I visited once a week with my parents (the Edmonton downtown library) as well as numerous visits each week to our school library.

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I bought this just after I graduated University, so that I could have all the stories in one place. Now I have them all on my Kindle as well. No such thing as too much Sherlock here!

Needless to say, I quickly fell in love with these stories, and remain an avid consumer of all things Sherlock. I can’t tell you how many Sherlock books I have read – aside from the originals, I have read very many books based on the characters, some true to the characterizations as given to us by Conan Doyle and some way out in left field. I’ve read books about Sherlock as a child, and others about what happens after he retired. I’ve read books about Sherlock and Jack the Ripper, Sherlock AS Jack the Ripper, Sherlock and vampires, werewolves or other monsters, regular Sherlock stories set in the time and place the originals were set, Sherlock in America, modern-day takes on Sherlock…..etc etc etc.* A small hint as to my obsession with all things Sherlock is evidenced during the planning of the trip my husband and I took to Europe way back when. When  he asked me what was the one place I had to see on the Continent,  I answered, “Reichenbach Falls!”**

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One of the early illustrations by Sidney Paget of Holmes and Watson, found in The Strand Magazine. It was Paget who first introduced the deerstalker hat and Inverness cape to Holmes; these details were never mentioned by Doyle in the stories. Photo from Wikicommons. 

But it has been quite some time since I revisited the original stories, and so I was very happy indeed to open the first story, A Study in Scarlet, and begin to read again how Sherlock and Watson met and their first partnership in crime solving.

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One of the early illustration by Sidney Paget of Holmes and Watson, from The Strand Magazine. It was Paget who first introduced the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape to Holmes, these details were never mentioned by Doyle in the stories. Photo from Wikicommons. 

A Study in Scarlet was not Doyle’s first published work. A doctor by profession, he began writing stories as he waited for patients to arrive at his first independent practice which opened in Portsmouth in 1882. He struggled to find a publisher for his story at first, but eventually  A Study in Scarlet was published by Ward Lock and Co. and appeared in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1886. The sequel, The Sign of the Four, was published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890 under an arrangement with Ward Lock and Co, but Doyle grew disenchanted with this publisher and the remaining Sherlock stories were published in The Strand Magazine, in serial form.  A Study in Scarlet was only one of four novels in the original Holmes canon, the other three being The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear. The rest were short stories or novellas.

Doyle was a prolific author. Besides the Sherlock stories, of which he grew tired (he famously killed off his famous detective, only to have to resurrect him later because of public demand), he wrote many other short stories, other mystery novels,historical novels, and stage plays. He even collaborated with J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, to write the libretto of a comic opera called Jane Annie.

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Arthur Conan Doyle in 1914. Doyle was one of the best paid authors of his time. Aside from his literary fame, he is best known for his work to advance the cause of  spiritualism. Photo from Wikicommons.

But it is Sherlock who endures out of all of Doyle’s works. What is it about this character and these stories which fascinates so many people? I know there are reams of words written about this, and so I won’t go into too much depth here.

But I will tell you, generally, what the appeal is to me. First off, The Study in Scarlet begins with Watson, not Holmes, and I think this is a clue to one of the reason why these stories are so popular. This friendship between the two men is the heart of the stories, and it is ultimately what makes them work. This friendship is begun in this story, and it is a rudimentary one to begin with. Here Watson is more or less a foil to Holmes – a mirror in which to showcase Holmes’ intellect and skill. But Watson still has substance, even so. We learn of his back story, that he was wounded in the war, that he was a medical doctor, and that he enjoys a good mystery himself. After he is introduced to Holmes and they make arrangements to begin living together at 221B Baker Street, Watson and Stamford (the one who introduced the two) are walking back to Watson’s hotel, and are discussing Holmes and his “peculiarities”as Stamford calls them. In response to Watson’s question of how Holmes knew Watson had been in Afghanistan, Stamford replies,

“…A good many people have wanted to know how he finds things out.”

“Oh! A mystery is it?” I cried, rubbing my hands. “This is very piquant. I am much obliged to you for bringing us together. ‘The proper study of mankind is man,’ you know.” 

Throughout the stories we see Watson observing Holmes, trying to figure out what makes him tick. Watson, of course, stands in for all of us, and half of the enjoyment of the stories is getting a chance to do this observing along with Watson.

A Study in Scarlet is, of course, a murder mystery. Which is another reason why I and so many others enjoy these stories. People love puzzles, and these stories are full of bizarre details that make the murders impossible to figure out until Holmes throws the light on what happened. For example, in this story you have a man dead in a deserted building by mysterious means, a look of horror frozen upon his face; the word “RACHE” written in blood upon the wall; and few clues as to how this could have happened. It’s a great deal of fun to puzzle along with Watson as Holmes exposes both the incompetent nature of the Scotland Yard police force and the eventual identity of the murderer.

The story is split into two parts, both seven chapters each. The first part is the initial meeting of Holmes and Watson, the discovery of the dead man, and the eventual unmasking of the murderer. The second contains five chapters of back story, and it is an abrupt break both in time and place, as it mainly takes place in America several decades before. This is  the “why” it happened, and it is inserted into the story without explanation, which makes it a bit odd until you realize what is going on. I remember reading this the first time and being very confused as to why all of a sudden the story jumped to the tale of the exodus of the Mormons to Utah and the man and girl they rescued along the way, but Doyle’s writing is compelling enough that you soon forget all about London and Holmes and get absorbed in the story. Eventually, of course, you realize that this is all a set-up to the murder, and then in the last two chapters the novel catches up to where Holmes and Watson have captured the murderer, and it finishes up from there.

I believe, if I remember correctly, that this is the only story in which Doyle handles this telling of the “why” of the crime this way. In subsequent stories either Holmes or some other character gives the details or they are discovered naturally along the course of the investigation – Doyle relies heavily on Watson’s asking questions of Holmes in order to do this. I think he probably discovered this was an easier way to give the readers these important details, and therefore did not have to use this type of awkward story break again.

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Do I love the new BBC version of Sherlock? YES. There are not enough words to describe how much I love this clever modern  take on the great detective. I especially love how the show takes the original stories and re-tells them, with all sorts of tiny details that fans of the stories would recognize. Acting and writing are superb in this series. 

Sherlock Holmes was not the first detective in literature, that honour goes to Edgar Allen Poe’s C. August Dupin ( whose adventures began in  The Murders in the Rue Morgue), and Doyle himself acknowledged his debt to Poe’s character. But Doyle certainly struck a chord of unique genius when he created Holmes. Arrogant yet approachable, analytical yet passionate, intelligent yet flawed, Holmes himself is, of course, one of the main reasons why these stories are so popular. The great detective was modelled after someone Doyle knew, Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, whom Doyle worked under as a clerk. Bell was noted as a master at the observation of minute details which led to broad conclusions not immediately apparent to anyone else.

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The marvellous Hugh Laurie, the star of the TV series “House” .  The character of House was based on Holmes, and you will see many references to Holmes throughout the series, including his own “Watson” (Dr. James Wilson) and the fact that House lives at 221B Baker Street! I love that this show brought the character of Holmes full circle, back to his medical roots, so to speak. Photo by Chris HE, on flickr

 

Finally, the last great appeal to me of the Holmes stories is the setting. Victorian England, and in particular, London, with its gas-lit streets, pea-soup fog, opium dens, hansom cabs, squalor, and opulence, is a marvellous place to set crimes. Doyle’s details of London (as Watson describes it, “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”) bring you right into this fascinating time and place. It is a wonderful marriage of character and setting.

I loved Sherlock as a child, and I love him still! It was so much fun to rub shoulders with him again, and it’s got me itching to read the other stories again.


 

*We discovered that to get to Reichenbach Falls, you had to go to the Swiss town of Interlaken, which is a lovely ski-resort town. There is a funicular that takes you up to the falls, which are spectacular. The best part was the spot marked on the trail leading up to the falls which marks the spot where Holmes and Moriarty fell to their deaths (…or did they…) in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Ok, it was the spot where Jeremy Brett filmed that scene in the great 1984-1994 BBC Holmes series, but still….

**I can’t give you an exhaustive list of all the Sherlock and related books I have read (I couldn’t even if I tried, there’s been too many), but I have to recommend two which I think are the best of the lot. First up is the series by Laurie King, the first book is called The Bee Keepers Apprentice. This book introduces the intrepid Mary Russell, a teenaged girl who meets Holmes in his retirement years and pairs up with him to solve crimes. Which makes it sound much more YA-ish than it really is. Great writing, great characterizations – King gives us Holmes as we know him in the Doyle stories but with the added wisdom of some years behind him. The best non-Doyle Sherlock books ever, in my opinion. Secondly I highly recommend Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes. This is the fictionalized telling of a real-life murder case in which Arthur Conan Doyle became involved, and it not only gives you a marvellous portrait of Doyle himself, it also portrays Doyle using the same methodology as Sherlock himself to solve a crime. Loved it!

Review – Abomination, by Gary Whitta

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The year is 888 AD, and Alfred the Great is the king of the last remaining English kingdom of Wessex. He has made an uneasy peace with the fierce Norsemen and Wessex has enjoyed relief from the long years of war that the Danes brought to England’s shores. But rumours are beginning that a second wave of invasions are coming, and Guthrum, the Danish King Alfred had entered a truce with, is nearing death.

So when Aethelred, Archbishop of Canterbury, tells Alfred that he has found some ancient scrolls containing incantations and rites that could create horrible monsters from ordinary animals, Alfred is intrigued. Aethelred sees this as a way to create an invincible army against the Danes, and although Alfred is troubled by the occultish nature of the rites, he agrees to let Aethelred try to use this knowledge to defeat the Danes once and for all.

But of course things rarely go as planned and soon Alfred is faced with the problem of an army of abominations led by Aethelred, who has gone mad under the influence of the dark powers he has been dabbling with. Athelred sends his most trusted warrior, Wulfric, to deal with the problem, who soon discovers that Aethelred has one last incantation up his sleeve that results in terrible consequences for Wulfric and all he loves…..

Although Abomination is his first novel, Gary Whitta is not a new writer. He is a screenwriter with several impressive credentials to his name; in particular, he was the screenwriter for The Book of Eli, the blockbuster post apocalyptic thriller starring Denzel Washington. He was a co-recipient of  a BAFTA award for his work as story consultant and writer on Telltale Games’ interactive adaptation of The Walking Dead, and has also worked with Lucasfilm on Star Wars projects for both film and television.

So, needless to say,  Whitta knows how to tell a good story, and Abomination doesn’t disappoint. It is a historical fantasy thriller that sucks you in and keeps you reading. Be warned, there is some violence, suspense and dark fantasy here, but it’s all in moderation. I was surprised, however, to find a couple of places in the book where I noticed rapid point of view switches from one paragraph to another. This was the only fault I found in an otherwise well-constructed book.

Of course, seeing as one of my favourite kings, Alfred the Great, is one of the characters, and that the book takes place in Dark Ages England, I was inclined to like it right away. The history part of it is pretty light, though, Alfred has only a minor part at the beginning and then disappears from the book, and Whitta isn’t too concerned with making his setting too heavy on historical details. But that’s ok. It was a perfect summer reading book – a story that doesn’t tax your brain too much but is a fun ride with the appropriate twists and turns to keep you guessing.

The central character, Wulfric, is a sympathetic reluctant hero, who would rather be home with his wife and newborn babe than scouring the countryside in search of Aethelred and his abominations. I liked him right away, and when the first section of the book closed with the terrible event that sets the stage for the rest of the book which continues fifteen years later, I could hardly wait to find out what had happened to him. This section of the book introduces the second main character, Indra, a young woman on a quest to fulfill the requirements of becoming a member of the Order her father founded to hunt down and kill the remaining abominations. But they are few and far between now, and her quest brings her squarely into the path of Wulfric, who is harbouring a terrible secret.

Whitta’s Book of Eli had some definite spiritual themes in it, and I was interested to see some here as well, albeit not as overt. Bishop Aethelred is responsible for the abominations, but Whitta  includes the brave priest Cuthbert who opposes him and places where Indra quotes Scripture to explain why she comes to the rescue of the down-and-out Wulfric. The fact that I noticed this shows you just how rare it is to see Christianity depicted in anything but a negative fashion in most contemporary fiction.

All in all, I enjoyed this book and am looking forward to what else Gary Whitta might have next!

Interview: Graeme Young of The Bamburgh Research Project

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As I began researching 7th century Britain for my trilogy, The Traveller’s Path, I quickly came across a fascinating blog all about current archaeological digs going on at Bamburgh Castle, and through that  blog discovered the Bamburgh Resarch Project. I have always wanted to talk to the directors of the project to check out some of the details in my book to ask them if I had this or that detail right in my depictions of 7th century Northumbria but I was always a bit intimidated….I mean, I figured they had better things to do than to answer questions from a unpublished author. But when I started thinking about who I would like to interview in my blog they were definitely near the top of the list. I finally got in touch with them and discovered that Graeme Young, one of the founders of the project, was a gracious man who was willing to take time during their busy excavation season to answer my questions. 
So with out further ado, I present the Bamburgh Research Project! Enjoy! 



1. First of all, can you give us a brief history of the archeological digs that have gone on at Bamburgh previous to the BRP? 

 Despite the importance of Bamburgh as a focal place for Northumberland there have been only a handful of investigations preceding us. An antiquarian called Cadwallader Bates studied the medieval ruins at the time of the reconstruction of the castle by Lord Armstrong (1894 to 1903). He drew up a detailed plan of medieval fabric and foundations, many of which where later covered over, which means the Bates plan is sometimes our only lead in understanding the medieval castle. We also have some reports of the investigation of the Bowl Hole early medieval cemetery prior to our work there. These are rather scant though, indicating some excavation in the 1890s and again in the 1930s. Sadly so far we have failed to track down any records or skeletal material from this time. 

By far the most important excavation at Bamburgh preceding our work was undertaken by Dr Brian Hope-Taylor, the excavator of the important and related Yeavering early medieval site. Brian excavated at Bamburgh between 1960 and 1962 and again between 1970 and 1974. Sadly he was never able to publish the site due to illness in later life. It was the tantalizing knowledge that exciting finds had been made but not really knowing what they were that prompted the founding of the Bamburgh Research Project.

 

Aerial view of Bamburgh Castle, from the south

 

2. What prompted the creation of the Bamburgh Research Project? 

 It is all rather linked to why I became an archaeologist. Having an aunt from Seahouses, the village close to the castle, I knew Bamburgh from an early age and visiting this amazing site during school holidays is probably one of the main reasons I ended up as an archaeologist. As a result I think it was rather inevitable that once an archaeologist I would want to excavate here. It also helped that a friend and colleague, also from the region, and just as fascinated by the site, was equally as keen. So we wrote to the late Lady Armstrong and she was very supportive and happy to have archaeologists back at the castle. Luckily her son Francis is of the same opinion so we have the great privilege to work at this amazing site. 

3. Was there something specific you were looking for? 

We were particularly interested in early medieval Northumbria so the period during which the fortress was one of the principal palace sites of the Northumbrian royal house was definitely the time period that most intrigued us. Gaining a deeper understanding of the material culture, structures and fortifications that defended the site was at the heart of our original project design. Early medieval royal sites in England seem to rarely have physical defence as part of their architecture, but there was a tradition of promontory forts in the northern and western parts of the British Isles. How Bamburgh within an English kingdom fits into this tradition and how, as a result it compared to other un-defended sites such as Yeavering or Cheddar should be fascinating. 

4. Give us an idea of some of your important finds. What discovery have you been most excited about? 

We have a number of fascinating finds from the excavation. I know many people are particularly excited by the gold finds. Each is tiny but intricately worked and decorated and speaks to a sophisticated culture at Bamburgh. Although found by Brian Hope-Taylor in 1960 rather than ourselves the two pattern welded swords, on display at the castle, also fascinate. As an archaeologist its often what might seem more mundane that particularly excites us. Discovering a surface with high densities of hammerscale and fire waste may seem dull but when along with some crude timber structures and a concentration of iron and copper-based finds, it leads you to realise that you have an industrial area that is likely to have been a centre of production for arms and armour for the early medieval royal cour. It really does help to bring the past to life. Here we have evidence for one of the institutions that bound together aristocratic society at that time. The production of military equipment given out by a king to his followers in his royal hall, binding them to him and his fate. Straight out of the pages of Beowulf!  

BRP Excavations at the castle

5. As my trilogy begins in the year 642 AD, I am most interested in 7th century Bamburgh. What has the BRP found that relates specifically to that time period?

We know that metalworking activity is being undertaken to at least the mid/late 9th century and from test pits we know that it extends back in time a number of phases. This makes it pretty certain that it was being undertaken in the 8th century and perhaps as far back as the 7th. It would certainly fit into the culture of that time. In Trench 1, at St Oswald’s Gate, we have been investigating the early medieval entrance to the fortress and its defences. We now have at least two phases of timber rampart defences (probably box rampart) and its hard not to imagine at least one phase as being contemporary with Bede’s story of Penda trying to burn his way into the fortress. 

 The Bowl Hole cemetery dates from the 7th to 9th centuries and gives us a picture of an aristocratic culture with far reaching ties across the BritishIsles and even to the European continent. One individual in particular may be a close link to St Oswald. His radiocarbon date and the knife he was buried with is consistent with the right period and he has an isotope signature placing his childhood in Western Scotland. A possible warrior who cast his lot in with Oswald in his attempt to reclaim his ancestral crown. 

5. Wow. That is so fascinating! What are you working on this summer? And maybe you could explain a bit about the involvement of summer interns?  

This year we are trying to prove that our timber rampart defences, identified at St Oswald’s Gate, extend around the perimeter of the rock. The gate defences are clearly well built and intended to look impressive. Elsewhere it may have been more utilitarian and therefore harder to identify with certainty. This involves the excavation of a trench through re-deposited boulder clay to find a construction surface and, hopefully, evidence of posts or timbers. Hard work for our students volunteers and staff. In Trench 3 we are beneath the latest phase of metalworking evidence and looking to identify structures associated with the preceding phase of activity. Added to this we are getting close to reaching the same level of excavation that Hope-Taylor reached at the north end of his 1974 excavation. Lots of complex stratigraphy to identify and interpret and all key to understanding how the two periods of excavation can be linked together. At the same time our finds department is processing finds on a daily basis, floating soil samples and catalogues and assessing everything from previous seasons to make sure our records are up to date as we begin the slow process of interpretation and publication. I like to think that all who take part in the work leave with a better understanding of how archaeology works and for some inspiration for their own research.  

We do not really do official interns but we do have a tier of junior staff that perhaps fall into this category. Its a little nepotistic but we do like to encourage students who have been on the training excavation for a season or two and who showed a particular aptitude or dedication to return as junior staff. They then work closely with the finds supervisors; learning their trade and helping out with student training. It seems to work well and a number of our longer serving staff came to us through this arrangement.

We do not have the public dig at the castle as the site is not well suited to this but our parallel excavation at Bradford Kaims has open days every week when the public are welcome to take part in excavation and little experimental archaeology projects. We are hoping to do something similar with skills workshops at the castle next year.

 

The team at work in Trench 3 on the last day of the season. L-R Harry Francis, Trench 3 Assistant Supervisor), Graham Dixon (Trench 3 Supervisor), Constance Durgeat (Trench 1 Supervisor), and Isabelle Ryan (Trench 3 Assistant Supervisor).

 

6. I’ve heard a bit about an Anglo-Saxon sword found at Bamburgh. Can you fill us in on that? 
There were in fact two Anglo-Saxon swords found at Bamburgh by Brian Hope-Taylor in 1960. He recovered these in his first ever trial trench at the castle. They were found in his apartment at the time of his death in 2001 and when they were returned to the castle we worked with the Royal Armouries to investigate them. On x-ray they were revealed to be pattern welded and one was a rare example of a six strand core. We now know their find location from Hope-Taylor’s records and they are likely to fit in with a metal-working horizon of 8th to 9th century date.

7. I would love to see those!  I have about a million questions I could ask, but I guess we need to wrap it up. Is there anything else that you would like us to know about the Bamburgh Research Project?

 Running a research project on what always seems to be limited resources we are always on the look out for that millionaire who might want to sponsor us! More seriously all of us who run the project were inspired at some point to want to learn about the past and now work with a belief that it is really important to communicate our love of the past and what our work can tell us about the generations long ago who lived and worked her. We have a website (www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk), blog (www.bamburghresearchproject.wordpress.com/) and other social media accounts and are always glad to hear from people who follow our work. 

Here’s Graham, trading in the wet and wild environment of Bamburgh with the wet and wild environment of San Francisco!

Thank you so much, Graeme, for sharing with us on the blog today. I will continue to follow your work with interest, and I wish you much  success as you continue to discover the historical facts about this fascinating place

All photos (except feature photo) courtesy of Graeme Young. Aerial phot of Bamburgh courtesy of 

Year of Important Books: Little Women

Well, I suppose it had to happen eventually, but I have finally come to a beloved childhood book that I didn’t enjoy as much as I thought I would. And to say that it is Little Women, published in 1868 by Louisa M. Alcott  is a surprise to me!

First, some background. Little Women was apparently loosely based on the author’s own childhood, with her sisters the model for Meg, Amy, and Beth, and Louisa herself the model for Jo. The March sisters live in what could be described as genteel poverty, but the Alcotts were worse off, and Louisa, her sisters, and her mothers had to work at various jobs to help support the family.The book was instantly popular, and three months later Alcott published the sequel, Little Women Married, sometimes called Good Wives, or sometimes just bundled together under the original title.

I did not know anything about Louisa May Alcott before doing some research on her, and what I discovered was fascinating. Her parents were transcendentalists – a philosophical, literary and religious movement that sprang up in the eastern United States in the decades before the Civil War, headed by leading intellectuals of the day such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott. These men were all friends of the Alcotts and also became her teachers in the experimental school that her father founded.

Her family, and Louisa herself, were abolitionists, and were part of the Underground Railway. They hid an escaped slave in their home for a week in 1847. She also was an early proponent of women’s rights, and became the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts, in a school board election.

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Louisa May Alcott, in her early 20s, from Wikicommons. According to quotes attributed to her, she wrote Little Women “in record time, for money” at the urging of her publisher.

In doing my series this year I have read the book first and then done the research into the authors, just because I wanted to read the book as I did in childhood, with no preconceived notions about it. However, in this case, I wish I would have known some of Alcott’s background first, because I think I would have enjoyed it more, especially in the beginning.

In the end I did enjoy revisiting this tale of four sisters whose father is off fighting in the Civil War, but honestly I have to say if I was reading this for the first time ever I would have stopped somewhere around say, the first page. Gulp. To give you some idea of why, here’s the opening lines:

” Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. 

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress. 

“i don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have lots of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff. 

“We’ve got father and mother, and each other, anyhow,” said Beth, contentedly, from her corner. 

The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly,–

“We haven’t got father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say ‘perhaps never”, but each silently added it, thinking of father far away, where the fighting was. 

Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone – 

Blah. All that “grumbled” and “injured” and “contentedly” and “sadly” and “altered”…it’s a bit much, isn’t it? It shows the reason why writers are given the advice to simply use “said” when writing dialogue. Anything else verges into melodrama. As Stephen King famously said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” and in this opening scene we are marching pretty steadily down that road.

However, I do recognize that writing styles and standards have changed quite a bit in the nearly 150 years since the book was first published, so I ignored my inner critic and went on reading, getting absorbed in the tale of these sister’s lives, their small domestic dramas, and their “scrapes” as Jo calls misadventures.

The opening scene above is a fairly non-subtle introduction to the four sisters. Jo, who at 15 is the second-oldest girl, is the central character of the book, and she is given the opening line. And we are given a couple of clues about her right away. She “grumbles”, indicating her fiery personality, and she is lying on the rug, which hints at her unconventional nature.

Meg (16) and Amy (12) both are distressed at how their poverty is affecting them. Meg feels the lack of nice clothes keenly, and Amy compares herself to the “other girls” who have lots of pretty things while she makes do without.

And Beth (13) is the “saint” who brings them the proper perspective they should have on their troubles: to focus not on how much they don’t have, but, on what they do. Alcott also introduces the fact of the missing father nicely, setting the stage in which this domestic drama will be played.

After a couple of chapters I adjusted to Alcott’s style of writing and settled into the story, and some of the old enthusiasm for it came back. Of course I loved Jo all over again, as she is definitely the most interesting of the sisters. She struggles with her temper, she loves words and writing and eventually begins to publish some stories. Looking back, I believe that this is the first book I read about a girl who loved to write and eventually sent some stories out to be published, so I can see here the first prod in my writing journey, for which I am extremely grateful.

Interestingly enough, Jo mainly writes for financial gain, not artistic expression. At one point in the novel she begins to write “sensational” stories, with no morals in them, and she is chastised by her friend, Professor Bhaer, and eventually burns them all in shame. Alcott also wrote sensational stories for adults, but like Jo, eventually abandoned them after she discovered that writing wholesome stories for children brought a more positive reception.

And then there is Laurie, the grandson of the crotchedy rich gentleman next door. He becomes fast friends with the girls, especially Jo, to whom he is closest in age, and adds a nice masculine touch to the book.

The girls’ mother, Marmee (and I can never figure out if this is supposed to be her name or just the word they use for “mother”) is also presented as an ideal character, dispensing motherly wisdom here and there as the girls come to her with her various problems.

And speaking of dispensing wisdom…well, here I come to the second reason why this book struck an off-chord for me as I read it again. As an example, here’s a passage where Jo is discussing with her mother the difficulties she has in keeping her temper, and Marmee has just confessed to Jo that she, herself, has struggled in the past with this very thing.

“Poor mother! What helped you then?” 

“Your father, Jo. He never loses patience, never doubts or complains, but always hopes, and works, and waits so cheerfully that one is ashamed to do otherwise before him. he helped and comforted me, and showed me that I must try to practice all the virtues I would have my little girls possess, for I was their example. It was easier to try for your sakes than for my own; a startled or surprised look from one of you when I spoke sharply, rebuked me more than any words could have done; and the love, respect, and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward I could receive for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy.” 

“Oh mother! If I’m ever half as good as you, I shall be satisfied,” cried Jo, much touched. 

Well, yes. Wouldn’t we all. I mean, everyone in this book is just so darn good. And I hate to say that all this moralizing got on my nerves after awhile, but it really did.

However,  again, tolerating the sticky-sweet flavour of the book is easier when you take into account the era in which it was written and the audience it was intended for. And considering those things, this book is actually quite remarkable, I think.

There have been reams written about Little Women, and it’s place in literary history, and the ground-breaking nature of the work. When it was first published, it was given accolades for presenting the lives of women in a “realistic” setting, and also for throwing some of the fictional tropes of the day on their heads. [SPOILER ALERT] For example Jo refuses handsome Laurie’s proposal, in favour of the older, plain, Professor Bhaer, which was completely against what would be expected in the novels of the day.

And let’s face it, don’t we all hate this part of the book? I can remember how absolutely devastated I was that Jo refused Laurie. I mean, come on. He’s handsome, he professes his love for her in charming and passionate ways, he’s known her as a good friend for a long time….and she chooses some dumpy old Professor instead?

But…..reading it this time, it didn’t bug me as much. What? Go figure. Ok, I still understand the outrage. But I guess I warmed to good ol’ Fritz a bit more this time around. And I appreciated Jo’s arguments against her union with Laurie more, too. They were too much alike. She loved him as a brother, and she didn’t have that certain spark towards him. So, really….I get it. But not being completely outraged by this was a huge surprise to me, all the same!

So I have mixed feelings about this book. Despite my initial aversion I warmed to it, in the end. And I found the information about Alcott herself very interesting. It’s the first time during my re-visit of old childhood favourites that I wished I had done the reading of the author’s background first, as I think it would have added layers of understanding to the book that would have given me more appreciation of it then I had reading it “cold”.

if you haven’t read this classic, I would highly recommend it. But if you find yourself gritting your teeth here and there as you read, just keep going. It’s a treasure that requires a little digging to fully appreciate it.

 

 

 

 

Reblog: A Canon of Fantasy Literature (An Impossiblog)

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It’s the lazy days of summer, and I find that I am getting, well, lazy.

I got bogged down a bit and just couldn’t get a post up last week. This week I could have rushed something and put up a post that really wasn’t up to snuff, but instead I have chosen to borrow some words that are much better than mine would have been today!

Over at the ever-fascinating Pilgrim in Narnia blog, Brenton Dickieson put up this post a couple of days ago, and I’m sharing it with you today. It is both an interesting post on what “should” go on a canon of fantasy literature (in other words, the best/most influential works of the genre) and as well a good place to start if you are looking for some summer reading, as he includes a few different lists.

So, enjoy! And as a bonus, here’s a link to a follow-up post of his, in which he discusses how a canon of literature is basically the “cultural capital” of a civilization, and so, if the culture and values of a society change, should we just throw out the old canon and promote a new one, more “in tune” with our culture?

Fascinating discussion.

Next week I’m heading off on holidays for a couple of weeks, but I’m working on some posts ahead of time, so never fear, dear readers, we will be wandering along The Traveller’s Path without too many detours once again!

(In case you are wondering, my feature picture this week is from the walk I took with my dog last week, which is one of the things I did instead of working on the blog.)

 

Pantsing vs Plotting: A Primer

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Ah, pantsing vs plotting, the eternal dilemma for a writer!

There are two general ways that most writers write, and it depends on a whole bunch of factors as to which method a writer might choose. But a lot of it does come down to your basic personality. There is a way that just “works” for you.

Pantsing – this is very free-form writing. You start a story, and see where it goes. The writer discovers the story as he/she goes along. This is the type of writing where characters just “show up” and plots happen organically. Why “pantser”? It’s short for “writing by the seat of your pants”.

Plotting – a structured approach. You plan the story and most of the major plot points before you start. The writer has  a very good idea of where the story is going right from the get-go. An outline is a plotter’s best friend.

Now, to be fair, probably most writers will not write entirely as a pantser or a plotter. Most will have elements of both in their writing process. A pantser might have a general idea of where the story is going, and some plot points along the way. But he/she holds those very loosely, and is willing to veer off in a different direction if the story wants to go that way. But force a pantser to outline and he/she might break out in hives. And a plotter might be  open to making some of those course directions as well, but needs the security of having some kind of structure to start with.

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I am definitely a pantser. And I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I absolutely love to be able to dive right in to a story and just start getting the words flowing. I love being surprised by characters and situations. There is something fantastically writerly about the magic of pantsing. And I have found myself utterly amazed by this process a time or two, especially in the writing of my book.

Characters appeared that became integral to the plot, characters I couldn’t have imagined if I hadn’t been following the rabbit trail of “hmm, now what?” And even small details have connected to the larger story in incredible ways.

But there are definitely downsides to this method. First of all, you tend to do a lot more writing than you might have done if you had thought it through to start with. You do tend to write yourself into dead ends at times, and get forced to abandon thousands of words of progress that took you hours to write. This is not the best method for people who like quick results. It is not impossible to be a pantser and to write to deadline. But it gets harder to do that the longer the work you are writing.

Secondly, my Achilles heel when it comes to writing is endings. Oh, how I struggle with those. And that’s because I have a great idea to start with, and I start running with it. But sooner or later that idea fizzles out, and I just don’t know where to go from there. This is when I wish I was a plotter, and that I had a nice outline with the ending already fixed. Because once you know where you are going, it is so much easier to write towards that end goal.

Thirdly, you have to be careful as a pantser not to wait until inspiration strikes to write. There are lots of times I’ve had no idea of where to go, and have forced myself to keep going. Asking questions like “what is the worst thing that could happen now?” can at least get you going somewhere. Once you have words on the page you can fix it.

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And finally, as a pantser you have to embrace the revision process. Let’s face it – either you spend the time doing the outlining before you start and the writing itself doesn’t take too long, or you spend a lot of time writing and a lot of time revising.

For plotters, the downside is that you can get so stuck on your outline that you might lose a wonderful rabbit trail that might have made your story better than you had originally envisioned it. And I suppose (although I don’t know, as I’ve never actually done this), you can get so wrapped up in writing the outline that by the time you get to the writing of the  story your enthusiasm for it all has waned.

Awhile back I thought it might be a good exercise for me to try outlining a short story, just to give myself some practice as a plotter, and to see if it helped me with my problem of endings.

It was interesting. And really, really hard. But to tell you the truth it didn’t help with my ending problem because, well, I had just as hard a time coming up with an ending using this method as I did with pantsing. Blah. I got characters in place, with back stories; a setting, a little bit of world-building; an inciting incident for the plot….and then, it all fizzled. I finally decided to start with what I had to see what might happen. Heh.

I’m happy with the story that I wrote, and I definitely got an appreciation for the value of outlining. But I won’t be switching sides to #TeamPlotter any time soon. It kinda made my brain hurt. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing once in a while, but not they way I would necessarily want to write all the time.

It’s a fascinating process, and there is always so much to learn. If you are a beginning writer or a seasoned one, I would encourage you to try out both methods. You might be surprised at what you discover.

Canada and a 6th Century Monk

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In honour of Canada Day, I thought it might be fun to share with you one of my favourite stories from the Britain’s Early Middle Ages; that of the 6th century monk known as Brendan the Voyager. This story has a Canadian connection because it has been speculated that Brendan and some fellow monks, not the Vikings, were the first Europeans to set foot on North America, specifically Newfoundland.

Some 50 years after St. Patrick died in 461 A.D., Brendan and other Irish monks continued Patrick’s work of converting the pagan Irish Celts to Christianity. Brendan was born in 484 A.D. in County Karee in the south-west of Ireland, and was ordained as a priest at the age of 28. He frequently sailed the seas to bring the gospel to not only Ireland but also Scotland, Wales, and Brittany, the Gaulish outpost in the north of present-day France.

This method of travel was not unusual at this time. Overland journeys were dangerous. The roads themselves may or may not be in repair, and one could easily get stuck or delayed by bad weather. The impressive roads that the Romans engineered as a means of moving their legions easily around the country were slowly falling into disrepair, making travel difficult.  As they were the main highways they were often frequented by outlaws, which was another outcome of the absence of Roman government. The tribal kings were meant to keep their people safe in return for their tribute, but it wasn’t the same as having the might of Rome patrolling the roads.

The other small, rutted tracks that criss-crossed the country could be difficult to navigate, and what if you came across a bridge that hadn’t been kept up?

For all these reasons, plus speed of travel, people of the day often preferred travelling by boat along the rivers or in ships along the coastlines, and many were quite at ease handling their vessels on the open sea to get between Britain and the continent. It is astonishing to learn of the people who voyaged between Britain and Jerusalem, and to begin to understand the amount of trade that went on between Britain, the rest of Europe, and beyond to Asia, as shown by various archaeological finds.

For the Irish, the traditional vessel of choice was called the currach. This was a wooden-framed boat over which was stretched animal hides. The seams were sealed with tar, or animal fat and grease. This could be rowed, and for larger, sea-going vessels, a mast and sail would be attached.

There are two main sources of information about Brendan and his journey; The Life of Brendan, and The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot.  The second one, the Voyage is the more better-known of the two, and in fact became one of the most popular and enduring legends of the time. The earliest extant version of this dates from around 900 AD, but scholars feel that it was written sometime in the second half of the 8th century, due to references to it in other earlier manuscripts.

The Voyage is written as a type of immram, which was a genre of popular literature peculiar to Ireland at that time. These works were adventurous stories of seafaring heroes. The writer of the Voyage merged this type of story with that of the traditional stories of the aesthetic Irish monks who would travel alone in boats, just as the Desert Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd century used to isolate themselves in caves.

The Voyage is fantastical reading, and that’s what makes it so fun. According to the tale, sometime between AD 512-530 Brendan  became inspired by the stories of another monk called St. Barinthus who claimed to have sailed to an island found beyond the horizon. Brendan gathered some other monks and after the requisite prayers and fasting set off to find this island. They journeyed for seven years, during which time they encountered various mysterious islands and creatures, including an Ethiopian devil, birds that sing psalms, magical water that put them to sleep for a number of days, a huge sleeping whale they mistake for an island which is roused when they build a fire on it, gryphons, crystal pillars floating in the ocean, giants tossing fireballs, sea creatures, and my personal favourite – Judas, sitting on a rock in the middle of a cold, dark sea, on his weekly respite from Hell.

It is a religious work, meant to teach others about salvation,obedience, and faith. But there have been many scholars who have attempted to determine if Brendan actually took this voyage by trying to figure out the places mentioned in it. And this is where it gets interesting.

Trying to sift through the legends and myths in the story is difficult, but there are suggestions that make sense. The great crystal pillars could be icebergs. The giant demons tossing fireballs could be volcanic eruptions on Iceland. And when you look at a map, you can start to see that the journey from Ireland to present-day Canada actually might have been possible, for it is not just heading out in the open sea, but a series of navigations to the Faroe Isles, and then along the coasts of Iceland and Greenland, and finally to the shores of Labrador. This type of coastal navigation interspersed with short hops in-between would have been quite familiar to sailors of that time, as previously explained.

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The possible route Brendan could have taken to reach Canada in the 6th century. Map from irelandofmyheart

If you are still skeptical that such a small and fragile vessel could survive such a journey, consider that in 1976 explorer Tim Severin built a currach using traditional methods and materials such as would be common in Brendan’s time and successfully used it to travel from Ireland to Canada in an attempt to recreate Brendan’s journey.

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Model of the currach Tim Severin built to cross the Atlantic, displayed at Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. From Wikicommons.

There has also been arguments made that Christopher Columbus learned from the Voyage the directions of the prevailing winds and therefore the most favourable routes to take to and from North America on his famous journey of discovery.

It’s all fascinating stuff. So, today on Canada Day I’m hoisting my cup of tea to St. Brendan the Navigator, who possibly was the first European to set foot on our shores.

Here’s to you, Brendan, an honorary Canadian if there ever was one!


Featured picture is the marvellous bronze statue of St. Brendan crafted by Tighe O’Donaghue/Ross, found on Fenit Harbour on Great Samphire Island, in Ireland. He is depicted in traditional dress, clutching a Gospel book, leaning into a force 10 storm such as he might have faced on his travels, his cloak streaming out behind him. He points out to sea, urging us ever forward to spread the word of God. Picture from vanderkrogt.com