Tuesday, May 19, 2015
town and country
As I transition slowly from Volume II into Volume III, I can't help but think that reading Horace Walpole's Letters is a pastime that could keep me happily occupied for the entire summer. I don't recall ever attempting to read such a huge series at this time of year - for the last decade my long reading projects have all taken place during the winter months, when being indoors coincides with a need for increased concentration and perseverance. At that time a sustained reading project feels, in short, worthy. But I have jumped the fence somehow and find myself in the middle of this one, after an extra long winter spent in the company of ancient authors. And I must say it's a lovely place to be, like a wide field out in the open. The experience is certainly helping to alleviate some anxiety about personal events looming on my immediate horizon, including an upcoming solo exhibit of my paintings. Reading is, after all, my anti-anxiety medicine of choice! So calming! Keeps me busy (as does writing) so I don't worry as much! And besides, it's been fascinating in its own right to see Walpole's transition from town mouse to country mouse, as he settles in at Strawberry Hill, and works on his house, gardens, and prospects. Of course he goes back and forth between them constantly and his correspondence reflects that too. I love watching his life unfold, and I love his turns of phrase. More quotes from Volume II (before I set sail with Volume III):
"You deserve no charity, for you never write but to ask it. When you are tired of yourself and the country, you think over all London, and consider who will be proper to send you an account of it. Take notice, I won't be your gazetteer; nor is my time come for being a dowager, a maker of news, a day-labourer in scandal.... The town is empty, nothing in it but flabby mackerel, and wooden gooseberry tarts, and a hazy east wind." (p.283)
"The town is empty, dusty, and disagreeable; the country is cold and comfortless; consequently I daily run from one to t'other, as if both were so charming that I did not know which to prefer." (p.383)
"...the times produce nothing: there is neither party nor controversy, nor gallantry, nor fashion, nor literature - the whole proceeds like farmers regulating themselves, their business, their views, their diversions, by the almanac.... I, who love to ride in the whirlwind, cannot record the yawns of such an age! (p.384)
"Do you get my letters? or do I write only for the entertainment of the clerks of the post office?" (p.436)
His friends must have shouted with laughter as they read. I smile and take notes, which is more my style. One more letter I'd like to quote from at length describes his attempted capture of a robber, in the middle of the night. Again thanks to Yale, I will instead point interested parties to the entire letter. Just so good. He has great comic timing. Can you imagine being the recipient of such a letter! Well, I suppose we all are now, thanks to the publishing arts.
As I read along, I love to take note of how Walpole sees himself. He is a gazetteer, an almanac, historian, socialite, watcher; he describes himself to his friends often, usually in a comic mode. At one point he says:
"The present journal of the world and me stands thus: ..." (p.363)
One letter begins with the place and date written at the top, during an unusually cold May:
"May 4, as they call it, but the weather and the almanac of my feelings affirm it is December." (p.436)
The almanac of my feelings. How wonderful. That phrase reminds me of nothing so much as Frank O'Hara's long poem In Memory of My Feelings (one of my favorite titles of anything, anywhere), which begins:
"My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent
and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.
He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals."
And this in turn reminds me of Horace Walpole. Who we will be talking about again soon, I feel quite sure. Meanwhile this country mouse will continue to enjoy reading about his forays into town and back again.
Saturday, May 16, 2015
hiding in plain sight
What led me into this Horace Walpole madness, anyway... I found myself wondering this afternoon (nearly finished with Volume II of his Letters). Oh yeah, it was that charming David Cecil book I read many weeks ago, Two Quiet Lives. The second Life in the book describes Horace Walpole's friend, the poet Thomas Gray. My examination of Gray led to my reexamination of Walpole, which may continue indefinitely. But back to Gray for a moment. I would have sworn I had nothing else by or about Thomas Gray in this house, unless it was his most (his only?) famous poem, the oft-quoted and -misquoted Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, perhaps contained in some fat English poetry anthology. But I would have been wrong. For today I was rifling through some books I haven't looked at in ages, namely a section in my shelves devoted to printers, printing, and fine press books of interest. Many of these are thin, and once tucked into the shelves, near-invisible. I pulled out one such, a diminutive hardback, about forty pages long:
Isn't that a nice paper cover? The black cloth spine has the gently faded title spelled out in gilt, but inside, the title page is much more readable. In fact, it's a lovely piece of typography altogether, almost a hymn to legibility:
An Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard by Thomas Gray, printed at the Southworth Press in Portland, Maine, in 1930. Number 91 of 990 copies printed. The introduction by famed bookman John T. Winterich takes up half the book, and speaks much of Johnson and Boswell and briefly of Walpole, who loved this poem and first ushered it into print for his friend. Fred Anthoensen's fine presswork continues inside, with little block illustrations (woodcuts? they don't feel like engravings...) in varied colors throughout:
I see from my bookseller's code inside the back cover that I bought this book in 2006 for six dollars. And then promptly tucked it into my scant accumulation of admired books by Maine printers and promptly forgot about it. Well, tonight I'm going to do what this little book is me asking to do - set aside Walpole's Letters for a few moments - the book is so slender that's all the time it will take - and read it. Of course the other thing this book is asking me: What else on those bookshelves have you completely forgotten about...?
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
So much to talk about - painting, spring book sales, bookselling, family, food, gardening, home life, world events, and of course the cat, the cat! - lots happening on all fronts - and yet all I want to do is write out perfect sentences from Horace Walpole's letters, both into my diary and then, here. Nearly halfway through Volume II of The Letters of Horace Walpole, edited by Peter Cunningham. Walpole is in his early 30s and has bought the house and grounds that will become his little gothic masterpiece, Strawberry Hill. But more about that another day. Back to the aforementioned perfect sentences:
"I can't afford to hate people so much at such a distance: my aversions find employment within their own atmosphere." (p.67)
"I am going to tell you a long story, but you will please to remember that I don't intend to tell it well; therefore, if you discover any beauties in the relation where I never intended them, don't conclude, as you did in your last, that I know they are there." (p.127)
"You will be diverted with a story I am going to tell you; it is very long, and so is my letter already; but you perceive I am in the country and have nothing to hurry me." (p.141)
"I am come hither for a few days, to repose myself after a torrent of diversions, and am writing to you in my charming bow-window with a tranquillity and satisfaction which, I fear, I am grown old enough to prefer to the hurry of amusements, in which the whole world has lived for this last week. (p.150)
"I now jump to another topic; I find all this letter will be detached scraps; I can't at all contrive to hide the seams: but I don't care." (p.199)
"I have so little to say, that I don't care if I do tell you the same thing twice." (p.215)
His use of language continues to delight me. More words, from both Volumes I and II - some are repeats from an earlier post, I know, but see the quote directly above - a good writer could spin entire historical novels out of these little lists, it seems to me:
Should we start working these into daily conversation? Perhaps yes? I could go on, and in the future I'm sure I will. However before I call it a day, I will just mention one recent happening of note. While driving to the grocery store this weekend we passed a book sale in a local church. I said, Noooo, don't stop... but Ryan did stop, because he had seen the sign on the door. Which read, in part: 3$ PER BAG. Mercy. We bought and bought. Eight bags, 130 books. (You do the math.) Most are for resale, but I do have a small(ish) stack set aside for perusal. When that will be, on some post-Walpole day, I can only guess, but there they are, some of my up-nexts. Ryan caught me coming out of the church, with two of the bags: sheepish grin, really shouldn't be buying books, but...
I simply can't help myself - I never can, when it comes to books, especially buying books. Insolvent consternation! Voluminous calamities! Indolent diversions! Abominable prudence!
Friday, May 08, 2015
"...the chapter of myself."
I wonder how many posts I will end up writing about Horace Walpole. Shall we find out together? I just finished Volume I of his Letters. 400 pages of letters plus 150 pages of front-matter. At the end of this volume he is only 29 years old. It is January of 1746 and his letters are full of news of the Jacobite Rebellion. His father has recently died, and so has his beloved dog Patapan. On to Volume II shortly, and then perhaps on to the remaining six volumes after that. But first, a few notes about readability. I must say, for the hundredth time at least (forgive me), how much I love reading published diaries and collected letters, for their open-endedness and candor, their coverage of events both personal and historical as they arise, and their cumulative effect. Reading them feels voyeuristic and yet not too much, because these letters were preserved and valued during the lifetimes of the correspondents, and often returned to the senders after the death of the recipients, or vice versa. So, they were quite public, in a way, even at the time they were written. I don't know where I'm going with this, other than to mention that these letters feel so full. The opposite of edited. Like life. There is no paring down, in fact there is often padding, from not knowing what to say but wanting to write to a friend anyway, in spite of having no real news. My patience for fiction in general has been thin lately, so I'm not surprised to find myself a maximalist when it comes to reading choice. Life is so full and rich, even when nothing much is happening! I love writers whose prose reflects that, and in nonfiction I have come to love writers who write a lot, over long lifetimes. Among so many other things, they keep me from having to decide what to read next, because I can always just keep reading whatever it is I am reading right now. Which is Horace Walpole.
On my mind after finishing this first volume: when writing letters, does one say what one really wants to say? Walpole is so good at tailoring his letters to please the recipients, that I often wonder. But I do know, apropos of above - writing even when one has no news to share - that Walpole is a master at that (p.260):
"If I went by my last week's reason for not writing to you, I should miss this post too, for I have no more to tell you than I had then; but at that rate, there would be great vacuums in our correspondence."
"My letters are now at their ne plus ultra of nothingness; so you may hope they will grow better again."
And again (p.325):
"Does Decency insist upon one's writing within certain periods, when one has nothing to say? because, if she does, she is the most formal, ceremonious personage I know. I shall not enter into a dispute with her.... I had rather write than have a dispute about it.... it is merely to avoid scolding that I set about this letter: I don't mean your scolding, for you are all goodness to me; but my own scolding of myself.... One can scold other people again, or smile and jog one's foot, and affect not to mind it; but those airs won't do with oneself; one always comes by the worst in a dispute with one's own conviction."
These are the times I love him best, when he veers off into self-reflection. I wish he did it more often, but his main correspondent from this time period was living in Italy and so most of Walpole's writing to him encompasses politics and social tidbits he considered newsworthy or entertaining from afar. Walpole will describe himself and his feelings from time to time, but only for short passages, and then a disclaimer usually follows (p.320):
"...I think I have pretty well exhausted the chapter of myself."
However, Volume I of the Letters does contain some extraordinary exceptions. First, Walpole writes to his beloved cousin offering him a share of his worldly goods, if that is what it will take for the cousin to marry and be happy. A beautiful letter. Here it is, courtesy of Yale. I love the last paragraph especially. Second, two letters ably answer that question I mention above - He writes so well, but what was he really thinking? In this particular case, we know exactly. After the death of their father, one of Walpole's elder brothers sends him a terrible letter, about a parliamentary matter. Cursory, insulting, truly awful. Walpole writes a long reply, addressing his brother's statements one by one. And doesn't send it. In a masterful display of tact, he takes the high road and sends instead a single paragraph in reply. Condensed, lovingly bitter. Again, thanks to Yale, I point anyone interested to these very letters. The terrible letter from his brother (see page two! the last sentence is a killer!). The reply Walpole didn't send. The reply he did send. And not just the printed text, but also the handwritten letters themselves. These, more than anything, make me want to read on.
I wish my aversion to reading a lot of text online wasn't so strong - I'd be reading all of the Horace Walpole letters on the Yale website (thousands more! to and from!) instead of just the selection in the printed volumes I have on hand. But, as I found out last year with Samuel Clemens, when I read my way through his printed correspondence and gallantly tried to continue using the UC Mark Twain Project's online e-reader... I couldn't do it. My heart belongs to real books. No surprise there, I know.
Saturday, May 02, 2015
I've read nothing but Horace Walpole in weeks, it seems. Other authors are on my mind, however. One of the new books I would dearly like to buy and read, but am waiting on purchasing for now until I am back in funds (as one might say in the eighteenth century) is the recently-published memoir by Sarah Manguso entitled Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf 2015). Sarah, obsessive long-time diarist, stops keeping her diary. Imagine such a thing. I am fascinated and disturbed by the very thought and want to find out why and how she stopped, and what came next. So that's on my list. As is another book - my sister's best friend has just had a book of poetry published, and I can't wait to buy it and savor it. He is wonderful and the poems are luminous - Kevin McClellan, Tributary (Barrow Street 2015).
Meanwhile, however, I am settling down each evening to read a hundred pages or so from my set of The Letters of Horace Walpole. Nearly through with Volume I, which covers much of his 20s, in the 1730s and 40s, when his father was Prime Minister and he himself was an active member of Parliament. He lived for a time at his father's new country house, Houghton (I mean...!), but he preferred living in "town." His letters from this time period contain lots of political news, which I have a hard time following (lords and ladies and royalty and their intrigues and machinations and general comings and goings), but, as Peter Cunningham, the editor of this edition, reminds us in his preface (p.xvi):
"His letters (his best works) are absolute jests and story books, and the exact standard of easy engaging writing.... He has the art to interest us in very little matters, and to enliven subjects seemingly the most barren."
The recipients of his letters certainly valued him as a correspondent, for these very reasons. Richard West, a school-fellow and friend, writes back to Walpole, about his letters (p.21):
"...I know I had rather gather the crumbs that fall from under your table, than be a prime guest with most other people."
His friends valued him in person, too, but he thought himself more worthy on the page (p.111):
"...if I have any wit in my letters, which I do not at all take for granted, it is ten to one that I have none out of my letters. A thousand people can write, that cannot talk..."
And have I mentioned he is often funny? This (p.175):
"...I cannot say I am well; I am afraid I have a little fever upon my spirits, or at least have nerves, which, you know, everybody has in England."
He uses more great words that bring the eighteenth century to life:
I enjoy keeping a list of them in my diary, as I read along. I'm almost afraid to read Sarah Manguso's book, truth be told, because I do love my diaries! So much happens, everywhere, but I find I have nothing else to say today - in Walpole's phrase there is no news "...from the kingdom of the Dull..." (p.226), except that I must go dig over the vegetable garden and this is the perfect time to do it. The fog has just burned off and it's sunny and chilly out. Too cold for bugs and the grass isn't yet unmanageable. Walpole has the last word again (p.194):
"Adieu! I am at the end of my tell."
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
"...a gentleman cut out of paper..."
That's how Horace Walpole describes himself in a letter to an old friend in 1788 (Volume IX p.142). The phrase has come to embody Walpole to me as I read through what I happen to possess of his published letters. Which leave me, to quote him again:
"...extremely pleased. It is a most wonderful mass of information." (Volume IX p.126)
He writes that about reading Gibbon but it invokes my reading experience of his own words quite well.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. To explain my citations above: in short order I finished both volumes of A Selection of the Letters of Horace Walpole, edited by Wilmarth Lewis (Harper 1926), and what happened next is what always happens next. I wanted more. Luckily, I have more. I don't own the aforementioned comprehensive Yale set of his correspondence, but I do own another set - The Letters of Horace Walpole, edited by Peter Cunningham, in nine volumes. Originally published in 1858, my set is a reprint from 1906, published by John Grant in Edinburgh. Each sturdy hardcover volume is 400-500 pages long. The set contains nearly 2700 of his letters, from 1735 up to two months before his death in 1797. In a daring move, reading-wise, I followed my inclination and began reading in Volume IX. I did this since I wasn't sure if I really wanted to commit to reading the whole set, and I also wanted to immediately read more of his letters to certain correspondents from very late in his life, namely Hannah More and the Berry sisters. So Volume IX it is. Now, having finished Volume IX, I am doubling back and beginning afresh with Volume I, since I still haven't had enough, apparently. I could be here a while, please bear with me!
Reading him feels akin to following a single character in a Jane Austen novel throughout the course of a long and fascinating life - a character escaping the boundaries of a story held within just one novel. The language is similar, for one thing. His sentences remind me of Jane Austen's (and Patrick O'Brian's, for that matter). And certain words invoke the eighteenth century to me, and he uses them often:
His letters and the world view he espouses within them are so interesting - as a young man he goes on the Grand Tour, then sits in Parliament, middle age finds him in the literary salons in Paris, and writing and publishing at home, at a later age he is in favor of the American Revolution, and in old age he watches in horror the unfolding events of the French Revolution. He has so much to say about politics, literature and authors, social gossip, and personal inclinations, and the letters flow on like a river. Some correspondents he kept entertained for decades, up until their deaths, and, finally, until his own.
I've been taking tons of notes in my diary, as I read along. I scan them over and wonder why I do it. The same goes for writing here. I mean, I can't quite imagine anyone is finding this very interesting (although, you never know - for example in this charming pro-book article when the author mentions Leigh Hunt - and Rose Macaulay! - I feel ridiculously happy), and I often wish I could write more about new books and recent authors. The sad truth is that there are contemporary books I dearly want to buy and read - many! right now! - but I am staying away from bookshops and not buying online either, because after this long winter and its various expenditures foreseen and unforeseen, I have zero book-buying funds. And since I generally eschew libraries, my own home library must suffice. This is where my inclination is leading me anyway. Horace Walpole is who I'm reading, and I love him, and, as must be apparent by now, I like to take note of my reading experiences, unashamedly, whatever they are. So here we are, with hearts on sleeves once more. Walpole says it better than I ever could (Volume IX p.447):
"...every word was the truth of my heart; and why should not you see what is or was in it?"
Friday, April 10, 2015
revisiting old friends
I remember back in the 1990s when I tumbled into love, doubly, with Ryan and with antiquarian books. We started hunting for old books together, when we weren't working at our regular jobs. I had the author-knowledge, from obsessive reading and from working in a library and then a bookstore, and he had the spooky sixth sense, so we were (and remain) a good team. I would take my time going through every book on a table at a booksale, or along every shelf in a thrift shop, and he would case the whole place quickly and walk up to me with the one truly great book in the room. This happened again and again, for years. Not that I didn't find great things too, but I was the thorough plodding one while he had the quicksilver flashes of genius. This still happens from time to time today, but without the frequency it once did, since we no longer ransack the state for books the way we needed to when I had my shop, and (I have to say it) before the internet wrecking ball swooped in and changed the book business in so many essential ways.
All that is on my mind simply because it's a rainy spring day and I am thinking fondly back to the book sales of the past, the ones where, at this time of year, we would be in line early on Saturday mornings in the chill and drizzle of April, standing and shivering and chatting with the other local booksellers, waiting for the privilege of paying a fee to be allowed into the book sale early, so we could put our picking skills to work. A dollar a book, most often, and at a good sale I'd buy five or ten cartons. Ryan and I were double trouble. It was a great time in our lives and I'll never forget it.
Book sales and finds of the past are also on my mind because I've been revisiting some old bookish friends. In the meandering way of my reading, one book leads to another and then to another, ad infinitum. After putting away all my classics until next winter, when I might return to them, I wanted to continue reading in a post-Rose Macaulay kind of way (instead of reading the classics, reading about people who read the classics). I scanned my shelves of British memoirs and stopped when I came to David Cecil. I had several books by him and one about him, and read three in a row. First, an anthology: David Cecil: A Portrait by His Friends (Dovecote Press 1990), then Some Dorset Country Houses: A Personal Selection by David Cecil (his last book, Dovecote Press 1985), with photographs by David Burnett, and finally Two Quiet Lives by David Cecil (Bobbs-Merrill 1948), which contains two biographies, the first of seventeenth-century letter-writer Dorothy Osborne and the second of eighteenth-century poet Thomas Gray. I could write much about these delightful books, but I really only bring them up to reiterate how, for me, one book leads to the next. Because Cecil's highly sympathetic portrait of Thomas Gray led me back to some old friends, those authors I first came to love when I began to hunt for and buy secondhand books in the 1990s. To start with, Gray is famous for his poetry and also for being the particular friend of Horace Walpole, the eighteenth-century dilettante, author, publisher, collector, architect, busybody, socialite. And last but not least, letter-writer.
O the letters of Horace Walpole. My holy grail of books used to be - I no longer yearn for it but I wouldn't pass up an inexpensive set if I ever came across such a thing - The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence. Published by Yale University Press from 1937 through 1983, in massive lovely volumes, 48 of them all told, the last five being the index. The research library at the University of Maine has the set, and in the 1990s when I worked nearby I would go to the stacks and visit it from time to time, and take individual volumes out just to have them in hand, although I don't remember if I ever actually read them. The man behind the making of this giant set was the bibliophile Wilmarth "Lefty" Lewis, and after reading about Gray I revisited my stash of Lefty books. His memoir Collector's Progress (Knopf 1951) is one of the best books-about-books ever written. I thought so when I first read it in the 1990s, and I read it again last weekend and still think so. Lefty was an obsessed collector with the means to form a world-class collection, and so he did. Of all things Horace Walpole. Thousands of original letters to and from Walpole, books by Walpole, books from Walpole's well-catalogued library, books from his private press at Strawberry Hill, manuscripts, and artefacts. He spent his life in pursuit of Walpoliana, hand in hand with some of the greatest bookmen of the time, and while collecting it also wrote about it and funded publication about it. He and his wife Annie Burr Lewis left the collection to Yale when they died, and it remains where they housed it, in Farmington, Connecticut, at what is now the Lewis Walpole Library. It is on my bucket list to visit someday, but for now, in the modern way of things, I can peek at their doings on facebook instead.
After finishing Collector's Progress I started right in on one of Lefty's earliest forays into print, A Selection of the Letters of Horace Walpole, edited by him, in two volumes (Harper 1926). More delightful reading. About which I will return to David Cecil for a moment to mention what he says, regarding the reading of eighteenth-century literature and why we do it (from Two Quiet Lives pp. 108-109):
"...England had settled down to an epoch of prosperous stability in which, undisturbed alike by bloodshed or by spiritual yearnings, those, who liked, had been able to concentrate on the development of the private life and the cultivation of its modes of expression. Through the course of their long leisurely lifetimes, some people did little else but talk, write letters, pay visits, and keep journals. They learnt to do it with a fullness and elaborate perfection unsurpassed in history. The private papers of Gray and his friends compose a small library in themselves. All are accomplished, and some - Gray's own letters and those written to him by Horace Walpole - are glittering masterpieces.... We listen, charmed, to the well-bred voices flowing on in never-ending delightful discourse, now serious, now sparkling, glancing from gossip to antiquities, from literature to the political news; but never stiff, never at a loss, never boring. And then, when we shut the book, it strikes us that there is a great deal about these people we have not been allowed to know."
We do get tantalizing glimpses, though, and these keep us reading into the night. At least around here. Is anyone else reading Horace Walpole...? I wonder. Again from David Cecil (ibid p.123):
"Horace Walpole is not exactly lovable. But he is wonderful."
Book collecting for me in the 1990s was all about the eighteenth century, for the very reasons Cecil states, alongside my personal and intuitive inclinations as well, and I still have many of the books we found and bought back then. I'm glad to know that they still entice me. This bodes well for the future, and, god willing, old age. I will close for now with an apologia, since my blog posts seem to be much fewer and much longer, of late. I just can't seem to write more frequently (painting! life! everything!), and by the time I do the books have piled up mightily. So, I'm sorry for all this text, with no pictures even, to break it up a bit! Well, I hope we still love lots of text. I know I do. My old friends, in books, are nothing but. And yet, they still talk, and live, and so I hope we'll continue our visits together for years to come, both on the page and here. Thanks for reading, friends.